Grand Great Yarmouth's best buildings revisited

The Custom House by John Preston

The Custom House by John Preston - Credit: GYLHAS & D. Leak

Two centuries ago artist John Preston sketched some of the grandest buildings in Great Yarmouth. He drew the Town Hall, the Custom House, St George’s Chapel (now a theatre) and St Nicholas church (now the Minster). He also drew several buildings which no longer exist including High Mill, said to be the tallest in Europe and the town’s north and south gates. 

His drawings became an important historic record of a thriving town and were published as the book Picture of Yarmouth exactly 200 years ago. 

Now Yarmouth people have helped decide which of the town’s buildings and views should be part of a new book inspired by Preston’s pictures. 

The Children's Hospital by John Preston

The Children's Hospital by John Preston - Credit: GYLHAS & D. Leak


The Picture of Yarmouth, 500 years of built heritage

The Picture of Yarmouth, 500 years of built heritage - Credit: Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society

Customs officer John Preston was mayor of Yarmouth in 1828 and 1838, as well as being a talented artist. He originally planned a book devoted to the town’s public architecture - civic buildings, places of worship, schools and hospitals - but soon realised he could create a more complete picture of the town by including scenes of the river and seafront. There are also vignettes of day-to-day life in Yarmouth 200 years ago – children walking two-by-two to school, a couple enjoying a carriage ride, passengers on board the river steam boat to Norwich, a horse-drawn bathing machine by the jetty. 

He included a history of each building, but did not limit himself to historic architecture. He sketched some of the newest additions to Yarmouth including the monument to Nelson which he calls: “A structure which, for taste and execution, eclipses every other modern piece of architecture in the neighbourhood.”  


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For the 21st century project inspired by Preston's work local people were asked to vote on which buildings should be featured. 

The new Picture of Yarmouth, 200 years of built heritage was put together by members of the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeology Society as part of a community project with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. 

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Alongside Preston’s original drawings are photographs of the same streets today, plus new drawings by Yarmouth artist Philip Harvey of landmarks which have been added to the skyline since Preston’s time  – including the Hippodrome, Winter Gardens and Oasis Tower.  

The Winter Gardens in The Picture of Yarmouth

Drawing of the Winter Gardens by Philip Harvey in The Picture of Yarmouth - Credit: Philip Harvey

A chapter is devoted to each of the chosen buildings or scenes, researched and written by local volunteers and experts and packed with fascinating information and pictures. 

The 25 Great Yarmouth buildings and views featured are: 

Bath House and Jetty. In 1763 Yarmouth was called: “The great resort of the nobility and gentry during the bathing season.” 

Haven Bridge, Hall Quay and South Quay. Author Daniel Defoe called Yarmouth’s South Quay:” The finest in England, if not in Europe, only excepting Seville.” 

Britannia Pier. Rebuilt multiple times – including in 1914 after it was destroyed by an explosion set by two suffragettes. 

The Custom House. John Preston’s fine drawing is of his workplace as he was Comptroller of Customs for the port of Yarmouth. 

The Custom House by John Preston

The Custom House by John Preston - Credit: GYLHAS & D. Leak

The Custom House in Great Yarmouth today

The Custom House today - Credit: GHH Davies

Ecclestone public houses. The Art Deco 1940s pubs were designed by Lacons brewery architect Arthur Ecclestone and include The Iron Duke and The Clipper Schooner. 

Fishermen’s Hospital. Built in the 17th century for poor and elderly fisherman and still used today as social housing. 

The Hippodrome. Spectacular circus theatre built almost 120 years ago complete with a circus ring which transforms into a swimming pool. 

Lacons Brewery. In the late 19th century four trains a week took Lacons beer to London. 

Market Place. John Preston’s fascinating 1819 drawing includes the town stocks (last used in 1816.) 

Municipal School of Art. Built in 1912 and now restored as housing after a period on the Buildings at Risk Register. 

Nelson’s Monument. Preston calls his drawing of the then brand-new monument “Nelson’s Column.” It was built 20 years before its counterpart in Trafalgar Square, London. 

Oasis Tower. Opened as an observation tower for tourists to climb in the 1960s, above a ballroom, ice rink and hotel. 

Outer Harbour. Preston sketched sailing ships coming into the Yare from the sea. Today’s most recent harbour is a major base for wind farm development. 

Royal Barracks. Just eight years old when Preston drew the naval hospital, it later became a military mental asylum, then an NHS hospital and is now housing known as the Great Hospital. 

Smith’s Crisp Factory. Built in the 1930s to produce thousands of tins (not packets) of crisps.  

St George’s Theatre. Built as a chapel for a congregation of more than 1,000. 

St. George's Chapel now Theatre by John Preston

St. George's Chapel, now a theatre by John Preston - Credit: GYLHAS & D. Leak

Saul Humphrey from RG Carter hands over the keys to the newly renovated St George's Theatre in Yarmo

Saul Humphrey from RG Carter hands over the keys to the newly renovated St George's Theatre in Yarmouth to Trevor Wainwright, leader of the council. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Picture: Nick Butcher

The Hospital Schools. Children have been educated on the site beside the Market Place for 470 years. 

Great Yarmouth Minster. Founded in 1101 by the first Bishop of Norwich. 

The Tolhouse. A museum today, this was a prison in Preston’s time. 

The Two Bears. The hotel, built opposite Southtown Railway Station in 1859, was topped by two concrete bears. The station closed in 1970 and the hotel in 2007 but the bears remain, on top of the building which replaced it. 

Theatre Royal. Opened south of the Market Place in 1778 and demolished in 1933, only the street name Theatre Plain reveals there was once a theatre here. 

Town Hall. The 1715 building Preston pictured was replaced by a grander town hall with clock tower around 1880. 

Venetian Waterways. A 1920s job creation scheme gave Yarmouth this much-loved attraction which reopened in 2019 after a major restoration.  

Windmills. Preston’s fine drawing of the High Mill, which stood on what is now Gatacre Road, shows the lantern at the top which was used as a beacon for shipping. Demolished after a fire in 1850. 

 The High Mill by John Preston

The High Mill by John Preston - Credit: GYLHAS & D. Leak

The Winter Gardens. Built in Torquay in 1880 and (literally) shipped to Yarmouth in 1903 the town’s ‘crystal palace’ has been closed for more than a decade – but a restoration scheme has just been announced. 

The Picture of Yarmouth, 200 Years of Built Heritage, produced by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeology Society, will be launched at St George’s Theatre, Yarmouth, on August 14. An exhibition will run from 10am-3pm, with the launch itself around 1.15pm. Free tickets can be booked at greatyarmouthlocalhistoryandarchaeology.com Buy the book at the launch, from the website and in bookshops throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. 

A guided walk around some of the buildings pictured by Preston will begin at the Minster gates at 11am and finish at St George’s Theatre at 12.30pm. Tickets £4.50, or £2 for children, from visitgreatyarmouth.co.uk 


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