Medieval Rows were unique

FOR centuries Yarmouth had 145 of them – our famous Rows, a gridiron of narrow passageways in which most of the population lived and worked.

Their homes ranged from the squalid to the palatial. Many survived until the 1939-45 war but German bombs and subsequent slum clearance programmes decimated their number.

Our medieval Rows were probably unique, but one fanciful advertising campaign a century ago declared that the principal shopping Rows - Broad and Market - “are to Yarmouth what the Pyramids are to Egypt”. Even those Mad Men – the advertising gurus of New York’s Madison Avenue, currently the subject of a wonderful television series – are unlikely to have devised such an extravagant campaign!

“This was a claim too far,” admits Caister-based historian and author Colin Tooke in his latest publication, The Broad Row, Great Yarmouth: its Buildings, Shops and People. Officially it is Broad Row on maps and signs, but for me it became Memory Lane, so many reminiscences being evoked as the pages examined every one of its 30 buildings, naming the businesses and characters trading there down the decades and detailing their wares and services.

There must be many folk for whom Broad Row holds a personal memory. In my case, we bought Mrs Peggotty’s engagement ring at Engledow & Gallant’s jewellery shop in the Sixties, and she worked in the Platten’s department store fashion shop for some years.

As usual with Colin Tooke, his book is written in simple, matter-of-fact style and is brimful of information, some of which makes the reader stop momentarily to admit silently, almost embarrassedly, “Well, I never knew that!” And immediately it makes you wonder why this or that fact had escaped your attention all your life.

When the Rows were officially numbered in 1804 to try to resolve the muddle created by some having several names, only Broad and Market Rows were omitted because both had become well-established shopping areas. Broad Row was unlike the other 144 Rows which ranged from narrow at best to almost claustrophobic at worst.

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“It was once a smart residential part of the town,” says the author. “As the ground floors of the private houses changed into retail shops in the 18th century, many of the buildings were re-fronted but retained their much older cellars, roof structures and internal walls. In the 19th century the small bay windows gave way to larger and more modern shop fronts (with bigger windows permitting the display of more wares).

“Over the years the type of shops has changed as customer requirements have changed, fancy goods, toys and luxury items replacing the earlier boot-makers, tailors and grocers. Many national chains had a shop in Broad Row.” Prominent local businesses also traded there.

Broad Row’s popularity began declining in the 1980s as difficult trading conditions began to affect shops in all parts of the town - “Charity shops replaced many old-established businesses and, when the anchor store of the Row, Plattens (founded in 1896), closed in 1998 the footfall was considerably reduced.

“The Row has been home to a great variety of the more unusual traders over the years, from the 19th century umbrella maker and straw bonnet maker to the 21st century tattoo artist, hydro-therapist and bespoke doll house furniture maker.

“This second decade of the century has seen a revival in the fortunes of the Row with the opening of many new businesses. Hopefully the Rows will once again become a popular shopping area with new specialised shops providing a service in this unique part of the town.”

Earliest mention of this Row was as long ago as 1295. Today no fewer than eight of the properties are officially listed as being of special historical or architectural significance. One wealthy merchant’s home included an octagonal lookout tower, originally five storeys high, to enable him to watch his trading vessels come and go from the quayside; that tower was reduced in height and is now part of the internal building to which a spiral staircase was added in the 19th century.

There is a wealth of nostalgia within this book’s pages, and plenty to interest younger Yarmouthians or newcomers to the borough hitherto unaware of the significance of Broad Row in our retail history. But how many folk old or new know about its eel-pie shop?

This was a highly-nutritional and popular part of the staple Victorian diet and, assuming the Yarmouth ones mirrored those in London, eels (some still alive) were sold stewed or jellied with mashed potato and a green parsley sauce known as “liquor”, reports Colin Tooke.

The Row was popular with fishermen who, when paid off, bought their clothing, boots and other supplies from tailors and specialist outfitters.

In Newark’s Passage opening off the Row was a clay pipe manufacturer who had a larger works nearby with a kiln capable of holding no fewer than 80,000 pipes for each ten-hour burning!

According to the author, there were many pipe makers in Yarmouth whose most prosperous time was autumn with the influx of Scots fisherfolk for the herring fishery. Pubs and tobacconists bought these short-life pipes by the gross; most pubs had a stand on their bars from which a free 4in or 10in pipe could be taken so the customer could enjoy his baccy.

I can remember having a clay pipe during the war...but it was for blowing bubbles out in the back yard!

The launch of cigarettes caused a drop in sales of tobacco in specialist outlets like Blyth’s and Norton Brothers, but the innovation offset lost income. The change came when Wills developed a mass-production cigarette-making machine, providing a cheap alternative to pipe-smoking; cigarettes were introduced to Britain by soldiers who saw Turkish and Russian troops smoking them in the Crimea campaign.

Every page, and most of his close examination of the 30 premises, made me raise a figurative eyebrow with another revelation. This is worthy addition to the Tooke catalogue, and is available at �4.99 from: WH Smith and all book shops, Cobholm Miniatures in Broad Row, and on line from .