A ROOF TILE AT 29 SURREY STREET, NORWICH
WHO WAS JAMES MARTIN?
The roofs of the terrace of Georgian houses in Surrey Street were a concealed world of their own, but this article is not about the roofs, but single tile. This tile is an original Georgian one from the time the house it formed a part of was built – in 1761. It came from a substantial property at 29 Surrey Street, Norwich. First I must say a bit about the house. It was a terraced house, but a large one. From basement to attic it stretched to 6 floors, and the rooms were large. On the ground and first floors the ceilings were high, getting lower as you ascended the stairs. Up on the roof there was an internal valley. The attic rooms were given their daylight by dormer windows opening onto this valley. It is a secret place, or rather it was; I believe exterior dormers have now been added to the attics, and the valley may well have been filled in.
We can be sure that a James Martin was up there in the roof valley on 29th of May 1849, because he spent his leisure time carving his name and the date on a roof tile. It was a Tuesday. I imagine he was a domestic servant of the house, living with the other male servant in the attic. There were two men and a woman live-in servants. Lady Pleasance Smith moved to Lowestoft in that year so was he her manservant? Had he been left to look after the house? Or was he a more likely to have been a building labourer working on the roof who was taking a surreptitious break in the May sunshine?
Another graffiti artist left his name at the next door property, number 31, occupied in my time by Miss Boswell. A previous resident was Mr J. C. Tingey, an archaeologist of around the beginning of the 20th century. He was having the portico repaired and the workman found a piece of wood inside the column marked “Robert Forstor, March 1762”. This would have been when the carpenter was first building the porch. Buildings tend to pick up these reminders of the past. These people have a sense history, inscribing the date along with their name, which would be regarded as vandalism at the time. Imagine the outcry if some tried to scratch their name inside St Paul’s cathedral. Yet we are delighted by the Viking runes inside the ancient mosque in Istanbul (formerly the Christian basilica the Hagia Sophia). It is now a museum.
I do not know what happened to the piece of wood with Robert Forstor’s name on it, nor do I know where the tile has gone; do not expect to find it on the roof of the house any longer. In the 1990s I had the chimney repaired by a builder from a village south of Norwich. He was not a builder I had used before, giving him the job at the suggestion of my bank manager. In those days banks still had old-fashioned managers who took an interest in their customers. On this occasion he thought he was doing us a favour by bringing us together. The builder did an acceptable piece of work on the chimney but afterwards I noticed a number of articles were missing. One was an early transistor radio I had had since I was 12. I am not suggesting that the builder himself was a thief, but one of his employees was certainly light-fingered. Among the things which disappeared was James Martin’s roof tile.
So if you ever come across this tile you will be able to add to your knowledge about it and its original whereabouts. You will also know THAT IT WAS STOLEN.