THE CURAT HOUSE
I took this photograph when I heard that Back’s Winebar was closing. It had been a part of the Norwich scene for seven generations. I was an occasional visitor to the Winebar since 1967 (when I was 18). The ground floor held the off-licence but downstairs in the cellar you could sit with your lunchtime tipple. This took you back centuries to before 1501 when John Curat built the part above ground. The vaults are reputed to belong to an even older house inhabited by Norwich’s Jews in the middle ages. Since the Jews were expelled in 1290 this must be a structure of considerable antiquity. Looking at the bland glass shop front of JD Sports you would never guess what a wealth of history lies within.
Although he was not involved with the bars at Backs, Captain P. G. Back was a member of the well-known Norwich family behind them. Something in my memory stirs and suggests his first name was Philip. I remember him as an old man; he must have been nearly 90, because his Commission for Service (it must have been in the Royal Navy) dated back to the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign. It was said to have her signature on it, but did she really sign every officer’s commission? She must have done. He was president of the Norfolk Nautical Research Society in about 1970. Other members included Mr Gould (who deserves an article all to himself) and Robert Maltster. Robert Malster lived in Ipswich where he worked as a journalist for the East Anglian Daily Times, so he wasn’t frequently present, and I knew his father (who was a regular) rather better. There was also Rex Stevens who worked for Mann Egerton selling Rolls Royces. Rex lived in Wroxham.
We met in a room that was reserved for private functions at the Cock Tavern in King Street. I am talking about the late 1960s and early 70s when I was old enough to attend, although the society had been going since 1959. Captain Back was a jolly old man, not very tall but with quite a presence. One episode I remember clearly; electronic aids to navigation were then just becoming available to the boating amateur, and one of our number brought along a depth sounding transponder. When immersed in liquid it would beep, getting quicker the shallower the water it detected. As we were in a pub the only liquid we had was the beer in our glasses, and the minute draught made the machine sound very excited indeed. “Ha,” said Captain Back, beaming all over his face, “it wants a drink!”
Back’s wine and spirit business had been taken over by Henekeys in 1948 but it retained the name. Another branch of the Back family was our solicitor Daynes Chittock and Back whose offices were in Opie House on the Corner of Opie Street. This firm became Daynes Keefe before becoming a part of the national organisation Eversheds. Eventually they closed their Norwich office which was in Princes Street; the nearest branch then being in Cambridge. I transferred my business to another solicitor in Norwich: I wonder where the copy of my will went? Never mind, I have written another one since then.
In the 1950s the Curat House was much better known because the oak lined room on the upper floor was open to the public, and used as a restaurant. The ground floor had a positive maze of Wine Room and bars. But even then a lot of the building was hidden from view, rooms where the wines were stored and the Guinness (at one time) was bottled. There are the remains of the family chapel from the days long ago when families had such things and a number of fine fireplaces with ornate carved oak overmantles or Delft tiles. The latter are to be found in the Queen Anne’s Room. The Curat House has a rebus, a punning representation of the syllables of its name in pictures, in this case the letter ‘Q’ and a rat carved on an interior wall.
[p.s. It is a long way from Norfolk to Armenia, but in researching this essay I discovered that Rex Stevens’s father-in-law was Armin Wegner, the man who first recorded photographic evidence of the Armenian genocide during World War I. He was in the German Army and they wished for no publicity for the atrocities by their Ottoman allies, but against orders he smuggled the pictures back. I had known that Rex had met his wife Sibyl in Italy during WWII when he was in the British army, but I had thought she was Italian, and I had not known she was born in Berlin. Her father had escaped to Italy in the 1930s after being interned in a concentration camp for protesting to Hitler at his treatment of the Jews. He was a remarkable man. He was uniquely placed in speaking up for these persecuted peoples of the 20th century, and he bravely stood up for their human rights. He died aged 92 in 1978. His life is remembered by the Armin T. Wegner Society of the U.S.A. Click on the underlined names to open pages with additional information.]