East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, magistrates and government

An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11. Originally published by W Miller, London, 1810.

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Francis Blomefield, 'East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, magistrates and government', in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810) pp. 296-299. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp296-299 [accessed 20 May 2024].

Francis Blomefield. "East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, magistrates and government", in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810) 296-299. British History Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp296-299.

Blomefield, Francis. "East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, magistrates and government", An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11, (London, 1810). 296-299. British History Online. Web. 20 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp296-299.

Of The Magistrates and Government of Great Yarmouth.

Having in the first chapter endeavoured to convey some idea of the origin and ancient situation of Tarmouth, in which some account of the havens was necessarily introduced, we have been ordinarily impelled to treat more at large on that subject, in the succeeding chapters. We shall, therefore, in this, recur back to that period from which we set out, and endeavour to trace the government of the town, from its first formation down to its present state.

To do this we must recall to mind what has been before insinuated, that the site of Great Yarmouth was originally a sand in the sea; that some time before the landing of Cerdick, in the year 495, it began by degrees to lift its head above water, and was at length out of the reach of the tides.

At this time the fishermen of the Cinque Ports, who were the principal fishermen of the kingdom, resorted hither, with others from France, Flanders, and the Netherlands, annually, from about Michaelmas to Martinmas, in order to catch herrings, with which the sea at that season generally abounds. The inducements for their making use of this particular spot were many. It was a place newly emerged, as it were, from the sea; and as nobody thought it worth claiming, it was consequently unoccupied; finding it, therefore, so convenient a situation both for the landing and preparing the fish, the drying of their nets, and the enjoying of a temporary residence, they erected booths or tents to suit their present occasions, in defending them from the weather, and exposing their fish to sale; whither they were soon resorted to by the merchants of London, Norwich, and other places, and as soon as their business was done, they struck their tents and returned to their several habitations. But finding it at length a place very commodious for a longer residence than the fishing season required, they began to form themselves into societies, and to build houses, which, in process of time, increasing in number, and being formed into regular streets, acquired a respectable aspect, and grew into a flourishing town. Here, then, we are to look for the origin of the government of Yarmouth.

As the herring fishery had drawn hither such numbers of natives and foreigners, for the purposes of catching and selling of fish, as well as others who came to purchase, and all limited, by the nature of things, to about six weeks time, it may naturally be supposed the concourse of people must have been considerable. Such a mixed multitude, too, could not be supposed to preserve any order or regularity, without some chief, or superintendant, nor would it have been prudent to have made the experiment. The barons of the Cinque ports, therefore, wisely considering these circumstances, deputed several officers, called bailiffs, to superintend and govern this fair or mart, from Michaelmas to Martinmas day. In these bailiffs, then, we are to view the first magistrates, and thence derive the idea of the first mode of government of Yarmouth.

The precise time of these commissioned officers being first sent to their temporary government, does not appear; but it is generally believed to have been long before the Conquest: for it is certain, that, as soon as the fishery was so firmly established, and the situation found to be so convenient for its several purposes, as to induce them to build houses, an association was immediately formed, for their mutual defence and support, and a burgh founded, in consequence, agreeable to the custom of those days. This burgh was at first governed by Reves, then by Provosts, elected by the King, afterwards by Bailiffs, and at last by Mayors, as at present; and was so increased at the grand survey of the Conqueror, that it appears then to have contained 70 burgesses, as we have before observed in Chap. I.

Hence it is evident that the inhabitants of the Cinque Ports were the principal founders and first magistrates of Yarmouth; and it appears that they continued their prerogative, during the annual free fair, long after the founding of the burgh, their bailiffs being admitted into court, to hear and determine causes, in conjunction with the magistrates of Yarmouth.

The reason of their founding a burgh here, seems to have been this: the situation they had made choice of, though convenient for the purposes of trade. was too much exposed to the depredations of pirates and other free booters, to admit of certain security of their property, without some kind of fortification or defence, which the word burgh, according to Sir Henry Spelman, seems to imply; for he says, Nusquam occurrit appellatio burgi, nihil innuens antiqui muniminis, &c. Whenever the term burgh occurs, it signifies an ancient fortress; such as a city, castle, tower, trench, or rampire; but most commonly, as we apprehend it, a castle, town, or city." And it is most probable that Yarmouth was at first fortified with a trench, perhaps with a wall, as the old wall is frequently mentioned at the building of the new one, and is said to have furnished part of the materials of the new wall.

The first buildings are supposed to have been on or near a place called Fuller's Hill, so called from one Fuller, as is reported, who was principally concerned in founding them. These buildings afterwards extended northerly, for the convenience of being near the north haven, then their principal haven, which seems to account for Bishop Herbert's having built the chapel so far north of the present town, then probably the most populous part; as Sir Henry Spelman says, Capellam in hâc arenâ condidit, pro salute animarum illic appellentium; "he built a chapel on this sand, for the salvation of souls arriving there." But about the Conquest, the southern channel becoming the principal, the town began to stretch to the south, and the northern buildings were deserted, and fell into decay. Bishop Herbert then, being enjoined to build a church here, and considering the ease and advantage of the inhabitants, founded one near Fuller's Hill, which he dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron of fishermen; ecclesiam perillustrem (says Sir Henry) S. Nicolao dicatam, piscatorum vero ditatam oblationibus et dotatam; i. e. " A very famous church, dedicated to St. Nicholas, enriched and endowed with the offerings of the fishermen.

However, the north channel being at last entirely stopped up, the inhabitants kept building so fast to the south, that had not the town been walled in, when they thought proper just to include the church, it is more than probable that St. Nicholas's church had been left standing alone, as well as the chapel. But to return to the magistrates.

We have before mentioned the government of Yarmouth by Reves, who seem to have been only a kind of vice-governors; for it appears that the Kings of England had usually granted this burgh to some Earl, who constantly deputed a Reve, or Portreve, to collect the customs, determine controversies, and administer justice to the burgesses, agreeable to the enstom of ancient burghs. But these reves, from the nature of their office, had but limited prerogatives in comparison of the officers appointed immediately by the King. The first of these that we meet with is in the 9th of Henry I. when, on account of the vast increase of the inhabitants, in fishermen, merchants, and traders, as well from Flanders and Normandy, as from many parts of this kingdom, that King was pleased to make a formal appointment of a proper magistrate, to reside in and govern the town, by the title of Præpositus, as they termed him in Latin; Le Provost, according to the Norman dialect, at that time much used; and called at present, from the latter language, The Provost.

The office, and probably the residence, of this magistrate, was in or near the Conge, which at that time was the principal place of trade, and so continued as long as Grub's Haven was navigable to the sea. And the key opposite to the Conge, sometimes called the King's Conge, was denominated the Lord's Conge, which title it first acquired when the burgh was under the Earl, and retained it for many centuries after.

This mode of government continued for a hundred years, when King John, amongst other towns incorporated by him, granted the burgesses a charter, in his 9th year, (as has been already observed) by which this was created a free burgh, and many liberties and immunities invested in the burgesses, who were to hold the town in fee-farm for ever, paying to him and his heirs an annual rent of 55l. which they were to raise by the customs arising out of the port, and not by any goods sold on shore, in their market, as appears by the subjoined translation of the charter; the original of which (in Latin) is still carefully preserved in the Guildhall, and is for the most part yet legible.