Featured Building

Strangers Hall Norwich visited by NHBG July 2015. 

In medieval times ‘Strangers’ Hall’ was the residence of men of some influence including mayors and aldermen of the city. It consists of a rambling series of buildings, of several phases, which makes a clear chronology difficult to establish. Open today as a museum of domestic life, the main entrance is off a courtyard- a feature characteristic of this area. 

  

Strangers Hall, Charing Cross, entrance and NHBG group in garden. 

Norwich’s textile trade

On arrival we were greeted with refreshments in the beautiful walled gardens which were filled with the scent of roses and lavender. NHBG member Jan Bensley, who works for Norfolk Museums Service, was our guide. Considerable research of documentary sources has been undertaken to establish the Hall’s past owners and the alterations they made, but many mysteries remain. Jan began by putting the building into context, explaining that this area had been the centre of the city’s textile trade. Hence the name of the road it is on ‘Charing Cross’ which is thought to derive from ‘Sheargate’. Many of the owners who lived there are thought to have been involved in the textile trade, including Nicolas & Agnes Sotherton (Nicolas was Mayor of Norwich in 1539). In 1565 his son Thomas Sotherton, in his capacity as Mayor, invited weavers from the Low-Country (referred to as ‘Strangers’) to move to Norwich. The name of the building may come from this period, when some of these families may have lodged at Strangers’ Hall. Both Nicolas and Thomas Sotherton have fine monuments in St John Maddermarket. 

The front façade  

We began in the courtyard with the service rooms along Charing Cross at our back. The wall on the east (left) side of the courtyard had been cut back to accommodate the stairs and first floor porch, built in C16. At the base of the steps, on the corner of the main south façade stone quoins to the height of a single storey building has been retained. Was this once the height of the building, with additional floors added later or perhaps the remains of a stone and flint ground floor with timbering above, as commonly seen at Walsingham? Jan said there was a painting showing a fourth storey in the past. Photographs show the ground floor windows on the south façade (with stone undercroft behind) and west crosswing (on the right with the room laid out as a kitchen) were changed in the 1920s just after the building was given to the city by local solicitor Leonard Bolingbroke. 

  

C16 stairs and porch, south side and crosswing, stone quoins

The undercroft  

On the south side of the courtyard, to the west of the stairs, is the stone undercroft. This is the earliest surviving evidence for a building on the site. The undercroft  is on a north-south alignment with its narrow side opening onto the courtyard, providing access for business visitors. The octagonal piers and simple capital mouldings are believed to be of early C14 date when Ralph de Middleton was the owner. The sections of stone between the springing of the vaulting looked rather awkward as they do not entirely match up with the line of the octagonal piers. 

  

The undercroft and springing of the vault

 

The Great Hall. 

The stairs leading up from the courtyard and the stone porch may have been the work of Nicolas Somerton and his wife Agnes. The stairs lead into the Great Hall, probably providing access for the family. The Great Hall is positioned above the stone undercroft, but at an east-west alignment, parallel to the street. Dominic Summers pointed out that the undercroft at Wensum Lodge is also at right angles to the street whereas the room above it is parallel to the street. 
There was some debate about when the Great Hall was built. Jan suggested a mid C15 date perhaps when the Hall was owned by William Barley, a cloth merchant.  Sue and Michael Brown agreed that the crown post and brattishing on the wall plate was consistent with the middle of the C15. Nicolas Sotherton’s initial and merchant mark can be sound in the spandrels supporting the tie beam, pointing to the possibility of alterations in C16. These changes may have included the addition of the stone oriel window at the upper end of the hall. 

  

 
The Great Hall, with NHBG Group, spandrel and tie beam, stone oriel window


The Parlour. 

The parlour is next to the Great Hall and would have been entered through doorways with arched heads. On the mantel of the fireplace are the initials of Joseph Paine who lived in Strangers Hall in the middle of the C17. The remnants of an inglenook can be seen in a cupboard to the side of the fireplace, suggesting that this wing existed before the changes made to the fireplace in C17. There is little else in the room to indicate its history. The furnishings commemorate one set of Strangers’ Hall residents, the Boseleys. They had several babies in the 1690s who died only a month after being baptised. 

  

Door to parlour, fireplace, Payne initials and panel revealing inglenook 

Crosswing 

The ground floor room in the west crosswing is now set out as a kitchen, but Jan suggested this was probably an area used for business transactions and that the kitchen had been in a separate building. 

Georgian dining room. 

This is built above brick vaulting and with knapped and galleted external flint wall. The room is thought to have had an Elizabethan ceiling: the flint external wall could be consistent with this. Any ceiling, however, is concealed above the late plaster decoration of the Georgian ceiling by William Wicks. 

  

kitchen in crosswing, Georgian dining room and ceiling

Past owners include: 

Early C14 Ralph de Middleton

C15 William Barley or cloth merchant. 

1525-1610 The Sothertons. Nicolas Sotherton , Grocer (Mayor 1539) and his wife Agnes followed by their son Thomas (Major 1565) and then John and Mary Sotherton. 

1610-1629 Francis Cock (Mayor 1627). 

1659-68 Joseph Paine, a hosier, (and Mayor 1660) with his wife Emma nee Bensly. 

In 1690s John and Abigail Boseley, a dancing master. 

C18 John Boseley’s daughter Abigail and her husband before 1739, when his granddaughter Abigail. Abigail and her husband, William Wicks acquire the house. 

C18 Assize judges lodgings

1794-1880 Roman Catholic Committee of Priests Presbytery

1896-1922 Leonard Bolingbrooke, solicitor. 

Text by Karen Mackie, photos Richard Ball, Paul Hodge & Anne Woollett