History of Magdalen Street, Norwich

Photo taken 1966 by George Plunkett


Shop with illegible sign with man cycling past. 29 Magdalen Street, Norwich. (Photo taken 1938 by George Plunkett)

Magdalen street and its surrounding areas may be one of the most deprived areas’ in Norwich nowadays, but the deprivation of the area is something that happened in the modern era, as until the 1960s, Magdalen street was its own “
self-contained medieval quarter” that contained much of the city’s industries.

The area would become popular with strangers (any person not native to Norwich) and refugees, which meant that more homes would be built, in densely populated; yards, courts and alleys. in the Tudor times, more wealthy residents (mainly successful merchants) would often live in homes that were contained in private courts.

Over time, the Magdalen Street area would go into long-term decline, with the yards of Magdalen Street becoming home to several slums before most of them were demolished in the slum clearances of the late 1930s.

Only for a lot of this progress to be destroyed by the construction of Anglia Square and the flyover. But Magdalen Street still has a lot of history behind many of its buildings, and hopefully, this timeline will help provide the required context in a semi-timeline layout.

Early History of Magdalen Street (up to 1900)

Magdalen street or as it was known for much of its history; Fybriggate, is an area that is known for its long and rich history, The exact date of when Fybriggate was built appears to have been lost to history, but It is most likely that the street came into existence between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon time periods, with Fybriggate becoming the main street of Norwich, during the Anglo-Scandinavian period.

Magdalen Street, Between the 1100s and the 1600s

Even though information about Magdalen street between the 1100s and 1600s is pretty patchy, we can still look into some history of the buildings and structures that made up Magdalen street at the time.

Church of St. Margaret

It should not be surprising that due to how long Norwich history goes back that the city has lost many a church. One church we lost was
St. Margaret of Fyebridge, which used to be the most northern church within the city walls, though the church was more likely have been known by locals, for being the place where “common criminals” who were executed, had the right to be buried.

Though it is hard to figure out what year that St. Margaret church existed until, but it could have been still standing in 1672. By 1806, a large house which was owned by Thomas Tawell occupied a portion of the site who would give it away to the “Hospital and School for the Indigent Blind”.

The collapse and rebuild of Fye Bridge
Brick bridge with two arches, over the river Wensum. Fye Bridge, Norwich. (Photo taken 2018 by Evelyn Simak)

Before 1573, the main bridge connecting the Fybriggate area to the centre of Norwich, Fye Bridge was made of wood which would have not been a terrible choice of material if it was well maintained. Fye Bridge would fall into disrepair and then would be
destroyed by flooding in 1570.

Fye Bridge would be
rebuilt with a stone structure in 1573, which would survive until 1829 when it was once again rebuilt, this time out of cast iron. Nowadays, the bridge is made out of brick, from its’ 1930’s reconstruction.

Magdalen Street, Between the 1600s and the 1900s

Between the mid-1600s and late 1800s, Magdalen Street would see several new pubs and factories being built. This would show that for just over two centuries, at least the businesses of Magdalen street were doing pretty well.

The many slums in the area by the early 1900s were likely a sign that would show that Magdalen Street already had a high poverty rate, even before that period in time.

Magdalen Street Slum-clearance during the late 1930s

Alleyway surrounding with derelict slum housing. Thoroughfare Yard, Norwich. (Photo taken 1936 by George Plunkett)

To many people, Norwich is a very nice city that is brimming with history but what is less well known is that the city has a
significant amount of people who live below the poverty line, in fact, it has one of the highest levels of child poverty in the UK. Nowadays many of the poorer people that live in Norwich, live in one of its council estates.

This was not always the case. As before, social housing came into existence, working-class people would often have to live in overcrowded slums. The areas around Magdalen Street contained several “slum yards”, such as;
Thoroughfare Yard or White Lion Yard.

The sight of horribly maintained Tudor houses would have not made the yards look good at all and well, by the 1930s “slum clearance” schemes were coming into fashion, many of these slum yards would be demolished with the ones around Magdalen Street being cleared in 1936. Even though the slum clearances displaced many people to the outskirts of Norwich, which some may see as an ancient form of gentrification, Magdalen Street would be luckier in this aspect as a number of
new flats were built nearby at Magdalen Court.

The 1959 Facelift of Magdalen Street

In 1959, a
project to “revitalise” Magdalen Street would begin that aimed to improve the appearance of the street by removing all ‘unnecessary clutter’ and making the buildings look more like each other, by painting them pastel colours and removing unsightly advertisement posters and signs from the facades.

The businesses of Magdalen Street bore a portion of the costs of the “revitalization”, with each of them paying £80, aka £6,000 shared between all the businesses. Though the changes where popular, some would see the pastel shades to come to “signal gentrification in progress in countless suburbs”.

The destruction of historic buildings during the construction of Anglia Square and the connecting flyover

The 1960s would bring about the ideals of “progress at any cost” which would sweep across much of the developed world, with many historic buildings being demolished to make way for “efficient” buildings built out of reinforced concrete.

As the areas within the “Norwich Over the Water” parts of Norwich were
heavily bombed in world war 2, and as the recovery and rebuilding work was being completed slowly, the area would become attractive for redevelopment by the 1960s.

A lot of this redevelopment would take place around the Magdalen Street area, between the 1960s and 1970s. There would be two major projects that would, unfortunately, come to define Magdalen Street into the modern day, those where;

Anglia Square Shopping Precinct (1966-1971)

HMSO Sovereign House. HMSO Sovereign House from Anglia Square Pavilion. (Photo taken 2018 by Evelyn Simak)

September 1964, it was announced the HMSO headquarters would be moved from London to a new office building in Norwich, but the project would not only end up being for one office block, it would be for a whole complex for which the whole of Botolph Street and a significant portion of Magdalen Street would be forcefully bought from home and business owners through compulsory purchase orders.

Between 1968 and 1970, Construction work on the first phase of the Anglia Square shopping centre itself would take place, with the main shopping precinct opening in 1970 and the new
Odeon cinema opening a year later in 1971.

Even though, Anglia Square opened to the public in 1970, it was never fully completed, with the following areas meant to have seen construction:

Phase 1: The second floor was never fully completed, with another building meant to have been placed on top of where the newsagents were based.

Phase 2 and 3?: Buildings were meant to be placed where the on-ground car parks are currently based, with rumours of some plans to use the dead space around the flyover. Though, it is not fully known what was meant to be built during the other phases of the Anglia Square construction, as it appears that the plans for those phases of Anglia Square were destroyed in the 1994 fire which destroyed Norwich library.

You can read more about what happened during the
history of Anglia Square here.

Magdalen Street Flyover

Road bridge (Flyover) with bus driving on the road below. Bus under Magdalen Street Flyover. (Photo taken 2016 by Michael Dibb)

A big part of the post World War 2 ideals of “regeneration” was that of making cities more accommodating to the increasing number of cars, Norwich would be no exception to this trend. The 1960s would see the construction of an inner ring road (or as it was called; “inner link”), as part of the plans for this new ring road, Magdalen Street would have a flyover built, for which
Norwich City Council approved plans in April 1962, with thirty councillors voting for its approval.

Even after the approval of the flyover, campaigners against the project attempted to get the council and government to change their minds, with the Magdalen Street Traders Association even going out and
collecting two-thousand names on its petition against the flyover.

Any hopes that the campaigners had for getting the flyover project canceled would be heavily dashed when the government inquiry that was started, because of the negative feedback from locals, would find in favour of the plans to build the flyover.

Even with such a setback, in early 1970, locals and campaigners would launch more objections in an attempt to get Norwich City Council to reconsider their plans for the flyover.

Even though they had the fact that Norwich was becoming more residential and less industrial, thus making the inner link ring road less necessary in their favour, the council had the fact that the Sovereign House and Anglia Square development, had already had their planning permission approved, with Sovereign House already having its construction completed. So it should surprise no one that the plans to build the flyover would proceed.

Construction on the flyover would begin on the 1st January 1971. By the time this section of the inner ring road opened to the public in early June 1972, it had cost the public over £700k (£9m in 2018) and was hailed by some as a “traffic planner’s dream”. Even though the Magdalen Street flyover has taken a lot of traffic off smaller roads, it is extremely unpopular with locals who see it as being a hideous flyover that splits Magdalen Street into two, which in turns leaves “the northern section somewhat isolated and abandoned”.

Because of that dislike of the flyover, there have been plenty of calls from people and newspapers around Norwich,
calling for the flyover to be demolished, but so-far it is seemingly very unlikely for this to happen as the current redevelopment plans for Anglia Square keeps the flyover.

Throckmorton Yard

The Norwich Institution For The Blind which was set up to help the poor blind people, would have its building be one target of the haphazard planning of the late 1900s, as after the site was excavated in 1988, the Victorian era building was demolished to make way for Throckmorton Yard.

Throckmorton Yard would become a mixture of flats, terraced houses, two shops and YMCA shared living spaces. The biggest problem really is that the whole development is so void of architectural features, that the yard just comes off like any other generic development, so if the area goes into a large downfall it could end up becoming “slums” like a lot of developments since the 1960s.

Modern Day Magdalen Street

Magdalen Street has been almost in a state of limbo since the early 2000s, with several attempts to redevelop the Anglia Square site being planned, with none of the plans so far, coming to fruition.

The lack of progress on the Anglia Square redevelopment has left the area with two massive abandoned buildings (sovereign house and the multi-story car park), which is a massive problem as abandoned buildings are a
magnet for crime, with Sovereign house being heavily vandalised by criminals.

Then we get onto the flyover, which is an ugly bridge that effectively splits Magdalen Street in half and has created loads of dead space that is really hard to use.

Of course with the boom in people using shipping containers as a cheap way of making buildings, it should not be too surprising that Columbia Threadneedle currently has plans to turn some of that 
disused land into a trendy shipping container square type thing, with the containers being available to rent out by shops and eateries, aka a bit like Boxpark, in Shoreditch, London.

In the last couple of years, it has been noticed that several shops have closed, with even charity shops moving out of the area. This is a massive sign that unless things change around Magdalen Street to bring more people to the area, the decline could put people off from shopping in Magdalen Street, permanently, aka regeneration of the area is vital.