Norwich Entertainments – Part II: Pieces of plays and the spatial turn

Brodie Waddell

On October 17th, 1677, a month before Bartholomew Laskey arrived with his monstrous hairy child, the Norwich Mayor’s Court licenced Mr Robert Parker ‘to act pieces out of Playes &c for 14 daies at the Redd lion’ and John Argent ‘to make shew of such tricks as are mentioned in his patent at the Angell’.¹

Norwich Mayor’s Court Book, 17 Oct. 1677

Norwich Mayor’s Court Book, 17 Oct. 1677: Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 9 (Sorry about the poor reproduction. The documents were only available on microfilm.)

These are exactly the sort of tantalisingly vague references to popular entertainments that one expects to find in early modern legal records. The ‘pieces of plays’ and unspecified ‘tricks’ surely amused their audiences, and the title ‘Mr’ suggests that at least Parker earned a decent livelihood, so they probably represent typical examples of provincial urban popular culture in the late seventeenth century. However, whereas in London we have published plays and diarists to tell us about the content of these ‘entertainments’, here we are left with frustratingly little.  Norwich had no Pepys to record a trip ‘to Southwarke-Fair, very dirty, and there saw the puppet-show of Whittington, which was pretty to see; and how that idle thing do work upon people that see it, and even myself too!’

About a year later, in October 1678, the court clerk noted that

Oliver Batt hath leave to make shew of a Motion called Arte and Vertue until Newyear day next at the Blew Bell in the Hoggmarket.²

This seems much more promising. We’re given the name of the show and the place where it was performed. Sadly, my cursory search for plays called ‘Art and Virtue’ turned up nothing in the ESTC and the other obvious databases.

The venue, on the other hand, is a bit less cryptic. A pub called the Blue Bell, which claimed to date to the fifteenth century, was open in the city until 1965 and this might well be the one referred to here. We even have a photo.

The former bluebell inn (1985)

The former Blue Bell. View from Pottergate Street. Photograph by Ken Chapman, taken c. 1984.

It was at 21 Lower Goat Lane, a stone’s throw from the current marketplace, but someone with a better grasp of early modern Norwich will have to confirm if that was the same place as the hog market.

The Blue Bell on the Norfolk Ordnance Survey, 1:10,560 (1887), sheet 063/SE

The Blue Bell on the Norfolk Ordnance Survey, 1:10,560 (1887), sheet 063/SE

The nineteenth-century OS map and John Hoyle’s early eighteenth-century city map gives some idea of the pub’s place in the town, though obviously a high-res image would make it clearer. (If anyone has one, I’ll gladly update the image.)

The Blue Bell on John Hoyle’s ‘A New Mapp of the City of Norwich’ (1728)

Many other licencing entries in the mayor’s court books are similarly specific about location and it would be fascinating to map out the geography of popular ‘shews’ in the town. This could be combined with information from the Records of Early English Drama series (REED) to build a dataset that would stretch across the whole early modern period.³ Reconstructing this would, I think, be a great example of historiography’s ‘spatial turn’ in action.

There are several questions that we could ask:

  • Were popular entertainments ‘marginal’ or ‘central’? Were they pushed to the edge of the city like the Southwark theatres in Elizabethan London? Or were they welcomed into the heart of the city, the hub of commercial and administrative activity at its centre? (The single data point of the Blue Bell suggests the latter.)
  • Were they spatially segregated or integrated into a variety different types of neighbourhood? Confined to poorer districts? Or commercial areas? Or spread across the whole city?
  • Were performances associated with specific venues or did they regularly change? Were there only a few inns that hosted all the ‘shews’? Or could they be found at most large establishments?
  • How did their geography change (or not change) over time? Was their spatial configuration stable or did it shift over the course of the early modern period in response to changes in the city’s economy or government?

Perhaps an analysis of the geography of popular entertainments would be one way to give the ‘spatial turn’, which Katrina Navickas recently critiqued for being a bit too focused on the middle classes, a bit more social depth. Exploring the relationship between these ‘shews’ and Norwich’s cityscape might contribute to uncovering the nature of plebeian ‘space’ in early modern towns.

PS: I don’t plan to do any of this hard work myself, so if any readers are keen to give it a go, please do. Just be sure to report back with your findings.

UPDATE (25/07/12): I’ve just realized that this post was almost certainly subconsciously inspired by a wonderful talk/post by Tim Hitchcock that I read a couple of weeks ago. He reconstructs the ‘spatial’ role of a fascinating individual:

a man named Charles McGee or Mckay, who stood just here for over forty years, from at least 1809, until his death in 1854; making a living as a one-eyed crossing sweeper – a black Jamaican refugee from Britain’s wars of colonial expansion

Hitchcock shows how ‘some people stand in the same place longer than many buildings; and have a greater right to appear on a map, than many landmarks’. For more on Mckay, and a discussion of the possibilities opened up by Locating London’s Past (the latest in Hitchcock’s endless stream of gigantic digital projects), see the post.

[See also Part I and Part III]


¹ Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 9
² Ibid., f. 37. f. A ‘motion’ was ‘a show, an entertainment; spec. a puppet-show’ according to the OED.
³ David Galloway (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Norwich 1540-1642 (Toronto, 1984). This article, which I have not read, also seems like it would be useful: Phillip V. Thomas, ‘Itinerant, roguish entertainers in Elizabethan and early Stuart Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology, 43:3 (2000), pp. 485-92.

[Update (19/01/13): Be sure to read Fiona Williamson’s contribution in the comment section below on the social profile and geography of these venues. She’s currently a senior lecturer at the National University of Malaysia with much more knowledge of seventeenth-century Norwich than I have, and recently edited and contributed to Locating Agency: Space, Power and Popular Politics (2010), focusing primarily on these sorts of issues in early modern England.]

11 thoughts on “Norwich Entertainments – Part II: Pieces of plays and the spatial turn

  1. Pingback: Norwich entertainments – Part I: A monstrous hairy child and a boneless girl | the many-headed monster

  2. Mark Hailwood

    There is a pub in Exeter, just off the cathedral yard, called the Ship Inn, that displays a sign supposedly written by Sir Francis Drake in 1587, which reads as follows:

    “Next to my own shippe I do most love that old Shippe in Exon, a tavern in Fyshe Street, as the people call it, or as the clergy will have it, St. Martin’s Lane”.

    Now, this is probably not genuine, but it seems possible that the street did have different names. Could it be that there were differing ‘elite’ (or in this case ‘clerical’) and ‘popular’ street names, or indeed names for other features on the city landscape? This is just a throwaway thought, but it may be something else that an approach to the ‘spatial turn’ ‘from below’ could consider.

  3. Pingback: Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Norwich Entertainments – Part IV: Surgeons on stage | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: Norwich Entertainments – Part V: Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee | the many-headed monster

  6. Hi Brodie, In response to your questions about the spatial specificity of ‘shews’ and entertainments, I have just been looking at something along these lines for Norwich. Although there were pubs in Norwich that attracted a better sort (and of course meaner establishments that catered for the poorer sorts) most pubs that hosted entertainments seemed to cater for a wide range of social backgrounds. Most of these places were spatially distinct in that they were connected to the city’s marketplaces and main roads. I guess there is a practical reason for this, as these would have been areas with the highest footfall. The Bluebell comes up often (and I’m sorry I don’t have a higher res picture), as does the White Horse, Angel, and Red Lion. Interestingly, many of the places that hosted entertainments can also be linked to Norwich’s popular politics….

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Fiona. It’s delightful to have some feedback from an actual expert on early modern Norwich, rather than a dabbler like me.

      The fact that these pubs drew on a socially-mixed clientele is certainly interesting, running contrary to the traditional historiography of drinking establishments that emphasised a socially distinct hierarchy (inns vs. taverns vs. alehouses). It also reinforces my own suspicion that these ‘entertainments’ were (at least trying to be) genuinely ‘popular’ entertainments, rather than targeting the poor or the rich exclusively.

      As for their geography, I suppose sites on main city arteries are very sensible and this too fits with the notion of ‘popularity’ rather than ‘marginality’ mentioned above.

      I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing more about their links with popular politics as your research progresses. Do keep us updated …

  7. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

  8. The Red Lion is recorded as a venue for performance in the REED volume for Norwich in 1583 in connection with skuffling involving players from the Queen’s Men inc. Tarleton, running off stage with rapiers drawn and still with stage beards on which resulted in a death (p.74) . The map shows it south of the castle roughly at the northern end of the pentagonal block on your map; a secondary location near the market place similar to the Blue Bell.

    • Thanks for looking into this and passing it along, Neil. That’s good to know. As I said in the original post, I don’t think I’m going to have time to do a wider spatial reconstruction of these ‘entertainments’ for the foreseeable future, but I hope that you, or Fiona, or someone else entirely gives it a go.

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