Norwich Re-Visited

Following up on a trip to Norwich last Spring (and blogged on in March 2014), Nicola Whyte and myself returned to Norfolk recently to pay a visit to the County Record Office. Part of the Past in its Place project (http://pastplace.exeter.ac.uk/), this research visit followed up some of the conflicting narratives of Mousehold Heath; the large area of ‘common’ just to the north east of the city centre.

Mousehold Heath played a significant role in the events of Kett’s Rebellion in the 16th century. It has been a public park since the nineteenth century, administered by the Mousehold Heath Conservators. The City Council website notes that ‘The Mousehold Heath Conservators was created in 1884 after Norwich City Council took responsibility for Mousehold Heath in 1880’. Behind this slightly bland statement, however, lies an interesting story; which opens up some hidden narratives of our park spaces, as well as some interesting debates about the heritage of ‘the commons’.

The fore-runner of the Mousehold Heath Conservators was the Norwich City ‘Recreation Grounds Committee’. The 103rd provision of The City of Norwich Act (1867) allowed the City Council to enclose the “diverse wastelands and common called Mousehold Heath”, but when the Commissioners started to enforce the enclosure, they found themselves served with a notice “by the inhabitants of the hamlet of Pockthorpe”, who claimed to be the exclusive owners of Mousehold. The inhabitants of Pockthorpe claimed that the Heath was not actually ‘common land’, and so was not subject to be dealt with under the 1867 Act. There then ensued a long-running court case, effectively between Norwich City Council and the ‘Pockthorpe Committee’ over whether Mousehold Heath was Common land, or owned by the inhabitants of Pockthorpe. From the perspective of exploring how notions of the past were used in the past, this court case is fascinating in the way that it largely revolves around competing versions of memory, and alternative strands of heritage.

Each side’s case in the dispute is built upon the reliability of the oldest and most trustworthy evidence that they can muster: for Norwich Council, their case opens with the presentation of a Charter from the reign of Henry I in 1101AD, building layer upon layer of historical evidence to ‘prove’ that the Heath is common land, and so available for the Commons Commissioners to enclose in favour of a park to be managed on behalf of the people of Norwich. For the inhabitants of Pockthorpe, Mousehold Heath is the area of ground in which they administer the extraction of gravel and brick earth. Both sides have certain documentation, and both seek to draw on contemporary oral histories of older inhabitants in order to support their case. The eventual outcome (declared in 1884) is that the City Council win the case (at great expense), and the ‘Mousehold Heath Conservators’ are established to govern and manage the newly enclosed park.

Within these competing memories, however, are alternative strands of ‘commons heritage’; about what this area of land was used for, and what it should be used for. Having enclosed the Heath, the managers of the newly established park are often pre-occupied by the maintenance of fences and the exercise of ‘proper’ recreational pursuits. They spend a lot of money on an ‘unclimable iron fence’, a shelter and club house and recreational tea rooms, and allow the nearby cavalry barracks to use the park for military exercises. The Heath, therefore, becomes a space that is parcelled up, and subject to the moral codes of ‘sober recreation’ – of playing cricket and drinking tea. For the Pockthorpe Committee, the Heath is a space of industry and open access. The Committee regulate the extraction of gravel and brick earth, and rather than building fences, are concerned about the maintenance of roadways; the ease of access and thoroughfare.

For the people of Pockthorpe, the Heath was an economic resource, but also a space for more unregulated activity; a public space with less concern over high Victorian moral and social codes. The ‘Conservators’, on the other hand, were so concerned about people using the Heath to play cards on a Sunday, that they instigated plain clothes officers to patrol the spaces and stop the ‘nuisance’. More regular ranger patrols were also needed to control the number of carts and hand barrows – the hawkers and peddlers should be regulated. While both versions of the Heath proclaim a ‘public’ space, a fundamental divergence in heritage narratives seems to be reflected: is this a space of industrial activity and non-elite experiences and happenings? Or is this a space of regulation and of organised (elite) recreation?

By the 1970s, a new heritage narrative entered the agenda, as a concern for bio-diversity and untrammelled development took hold. Established in 1972, the Mousehold Heath Defenders sought to protect the Heath from all sorts of encroachment and development. Dominated now by semi-natural broadleaf woodland, the heritage of the Heath seems to overlook both the sober Victorian recreational pursuits, and the history of gravel working, brick making and marginal activity.

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