The Customs House, Kings Lynn.

The Customs House, Kings Lynn.

THE CUSTOMS HOUSE in Kings Lynn is well known, being a favourite subject for photographers; and rightly so, for it is a fine building. Its architect, Henry Bell, was a Lynn man, and those buildings of his which remain still do much to give that town its unique flavour. He was a member of an important merchant family. His father had been mayor, and Henry himself was mayor in1692 and again in 1703. It seems however that he got tired of the honour, for when he was elected for a third term he refused to serve and incurred a fine. Bell was not only a merchant and alderman, but something of an artist too. He made competent engravings of some of his own architectural designs, and wrote a treatise on painting which was published after his death. His main importance, however, is as an architect.

He was born in about 1653. In the 17th century, as now, Lynn was a thriving port, and it had strong connections with the continent. We may imagine the young Henry Bell sailing to the Netherlands, there to absorb those characteristics of Dutch architecture which his work shows. Perhaps he travelled further too, for a short account of his life states, rather mysteriously, that he had been to the ‘politer’ parts of Europe. Apart from what he saw abroad, another influence on Bell, which can be seen in his two churches, was that of Wren. We do not know if Bell ever met Wren, but in the diary of the inventor and architect Robert Hooke (who was a close friend and associate of Wren) it is recorded that an “ingenious architect” called Mr Bell met Hooke on two occasions to discuss architecture.

The Duke's Head Hotel, Tuesday Market Place, Kings Lynn.

The Duke’s Head Hotel, Tuesday Market Place, Kings Lynn.

The Customs House was originally built in 1683, as an exchange for merchandise. In its early days the ground floor was arcaded and open to the street and quay. There were other differences too; it was intended to have an obelisk on top instead of the existing blind lantern. Beside the Exchange Bell was also the designer of the Duke’s Head Hotel which stands in the Tuesday Market. These two buildings make a pair; both were paid for by a merchant called John Turner and the hotel was intended to accommodate the merchants, corn factors and middlemen who came to do business at the Exchange.

A third building, a Market Cross, also by Bell and probably the most Baroque of his works used to stand in the Tuesday Market, until it was demolished in the 19th century. This completed the trio of mercantile buildings designed by Bell. It was a monumental and ambitious building, being surmounted by a large dome.

Other buildings in Lynn have been attributed to Henry Bell, but on slender evidence. He did not quite confine himself to working in that town for, when the town of Northampton was burnt down, we read it was ‘Rebuilt agreeable to his plan, and pursuant to his Direction’. If this can be taken to mean that he designed the buildings, then the church, All Saints, and the Sessions House must be added to the list of his works.

This seems likely, for the church is built to much the same plan as Bell’s other church, that of North Runcton in Norfolk. In both the central interior feature is the shallow dome, supported on columns which form the major part of the nave. Similar features can be seen in Wren’s London churches, whence Bell undoubtedly got his inspiration.

North Runcton Church.

Henry Bell certainly did not live on the proceeds of his architectural work. He was probably paid for most of his designing, but his output was relatively small. And at North Runcton church it is definitely known that, far from being paid, he actually paid £15 towards the cost of the building. Fortunately therefore, he did not need to earn a living from architecture; to him it was an agreeable hobby and, like many other minor architects of his time, he was a learned amateur. He was also (and in this he was rather more unusual) a complete townsman, and almost all his architectural works are to be seen in an urban setting. Moreover he was at his best when building the sort of structure (like the Customs House and Market Cross) that would most interest a merchant and mayor. He had a fine appreciation of what a municipality like Lynn needed, and he designed accordingly.

This article was the first of mine on local history to be published, by the East Anglian  Magazine forty years ago in May 1972. I wouldn’t change very much; the date of Henry Bell’s birth should have been six years earlier (1647), and I would no longer describe the Port of Lynn as ‘thriving’. Otherwise  I would stand by it as a fair description of Bell’s work. I was paid  £2.10 for the article, a rather strange sum which makes sense when you realise it is two guineas in “new money”! I haven’t travelled very far in a lifetime’s writing; it is still all about East Anglia. The major development is that I now write for free.




One response

  1. I found this a most interesting story of King’s Lynn


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