The finest quay in Europe

Guided walk through Great Yarmouth by Blue Badge Guide Janet Edwards

20 August 2019

It was a breezy day when a group of MLHG members gathered to begin our walk along the South Quay in Yarmouth. I talked of how grand our Quay used to be, of Nelson who visited and was given the freedom of the Borough.  We wandered to the Tollhouse to look at the oldest civic building in the country, dating to 1261, although there is evidence to suggest there was a building on the site dating to c1150. The word Toll is a Saxon word and the building may have been used for the receipt of dues paid by the merchants attending the Free Fair in Herring once held on the beach. There was a strange noise as I chatted my way through the history, a gardener with his hoe in a bucket pushing it along made us smile.  

Walking to the Quay, my competition now was the noise of the traffic, huge lorries and cars going about their business completely oblivious to the buildings and their history.  I told stories of rich Merchants, of Emma Pearson our first British Red Cross nurse.   

Crossing Yarmouth Way, making sure all were present at Greyfriars Cloisters, the site of the Franciscan Friars who arrived in 1270, we paused to admire the 13th Century ruin.

Back on the Quay we crossed the road and pondered for a while on the Fishing Industry which had made this town the 4th wealthiest in the country during medieval times. 

We finished the walk in the Town Hall.  When I looked in the glass unit displaying our civic regalia - shock horror - the two maces and ceremonial sword were missing.  As we entered the Falcon gallery two porters were carrying the missing items back.  They had been used for the official opening of the newly restored Venetian Waterways.  

The realisation that I had agreed to do the walk again encouraged me to find somewhere to sit and have lunch before I met my second group of MLHG members. As the clouds gathered I hoped for a dry afternoon. I explained how Yarmouth was built on a sandspit which by 1086 supported a small, thriving community.  Again at the Tollhouse I told the story of Sarah Martin, a dressmaker born in 1791 in Caister.  Sarah became a devout Christian visiting the Tollhouse working to improve prisoner’s lives through literacy and religion. 

We made our way to the site of Custom house built in 1593. No trace of it now due to WW2 bombing.  We were the most bombed coastal town during those years.  Having lost so much, we pressed on - focusing on history still to tell. I told of previous navigable havens cut to make way for shipping all of which chocked with sand before commencing the 7th haven in 1595 under the supervision of Dutch engineer Joas Johnson to whom we owe so much. It was written that 600 vessels sheltered here on one night which otherwise may have been lost in the storm. 

We marvelled at the heyday of the Herring catch in 1913 when over 124 thousand tons of fish were landed, and sadness at the decline by the 1950’s. 

Across the river we looked at the one remaining ice house built in 1840, thatched and incredible to imagine that ice cut from Norway and from our Broads were kept here for use during the Herring season.

Daniel Defoe visited Yarmouth in 1724 and was impressed with our Quay, the fishing industry, the fine buildings ahead of their time in this area, he wrote ‘This is the finest quay in England if not in Europe’ reflecting the wealth of the town, Yarmouth had been for centuries  the finest town on the Eastern seaboard.  Daniel Defoe author of Robinson Crusoe, took inspiration from here as it begins’ Yes, it was just off the shores of this town that Crusoe’s wonderful adventures began.’

The day came to a close in the Town Hall.  We viewed the Supper room used for small weddings, the Courtroom for council meetings, on the landing the Hutch box first recorded in 1542.  Historical documents were kept in this iron bound oak box.  For me it’s a symbol of keeping safe our history. 

Thank you to those who strolled through time with me, telling your stories of Yarmouth too. The history of Yarmouth never ceases to amaze me and I hope those who joined this historical and somewhat at times noisy walk enjoyed the day!

Janet Edwards




(Above: Tollhouse museum)
(Below: Sarah Martin at prison door)

Sarah Martin
Emma M Pearson

(Above: Emma M Pearson)
(Below: Herring girls, Great Yarmouth, 194

Herring girls, Yarmouth 1947

Below: Great Yarmouth ice house)

              Yarmouth Ice House
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