This account of the Alley tells you about the shops that existed in the 1960s and 70s. It has been a pedestrian street for as long as I can remember, and its narrowness suggests that even in the days of the horse and cart it was reserved for foot traffic. Perhaps a pony sometimes used it.h  

HOVELLS stood on the corner of Bridewell Alley and Bedford Street at the upper end of the hill that slopes down towards the river. When I first remember it the shop was not a large  one.  It was a simple room with a counter and the and the baskets hung on the walls. These were not then anything special, just the everyday wares that were needed to hold logs for the fire or shopping. Hovells also sold brooms and brushes. You went in and asked for what you wanted and it was passed to you. In later years you walked round two floors and selected your wares yourself.  By then they had become speciality items. The had also started sell items of small woven furniture as you can see in the picture above. Utilitarian brushes and brooms had disappeared.

When the shop first opened in the 19th century the baskets were all produced locally, mostly by Mr Hovell himself.  W.E. Hovell, as the business was officially called, was still described as a basket maker in 1969 although the firm had long ceased to make the stock it sold. By then the existence of the village basket maker wasn’t even a distant memory, though in the 19th century almost every village had its basket maker. The days of withies being gathered from the local osier carr and willow wands being fashioned into baskets in Norfolk villages are lost in the mists of the past. Some baskets may still have been produced in this country after the Great War, but by the time Hovell’s finally closed its doors for the last time the entire stock came from the Far East. It ended in 2012, when according to the owners the increasing cost of goods from Asia made its continuation uneconomic.

As well as the source of the goods changing, the nature of the customers changed too. Instead of catering for the man or woman who merely needed a shopping basket to carry home their purchases from the shops it became a tourist attraction, where the customers wanted ‘rustic’ goods to decorate their homes. When your shopping went home in a plastic bag you didn’t need a shopping basket for practical purposes. After Hovells moved out of Bridewell Alley early in the 21st century it diversified into all kinds of fancy goods and lost much of its distinctive flavour.

Further down BRIDEWELL ALLEY in the 1970s was the COLMAN’S MUSTARD Shop. If you look closely you can see part of the yellow sign hanging outside the shop. This was not a large shop either, but besides selling all their brands of mustard it also had a display from Colman’s archive collection of silver mustard pots. This collection should have remained together, as those Colmans who assembled it obviously intend; the company even produced a booklet detailing the items (a copy of which I possess). But once the company had become a national brand and the Colman family no longer had any connection with the Norwich factory, the pots were sold by the new owners.  They only had an eye for the fast buck. The Mustard Shop itself was also due to be closed by the international management, who had no sense of civic pride; indeed the factory itself is shortly to disappear. When the Mustard Shop in Bridewell Alley closed a new shop was opened in the Royal Arcade, which has no association with the multi-national Unilever, who market brands of all sorts from Dove shampoo to Knorr soups.

Opposite, and a few years before the mustard shop opened, was BRISTOW’S alternative bookshop that was a frequent place of resort for me, from about 1966 until it closed. This shop sold all sorts of advanced novels and modern poetry; I can’t tell you what else filled its shelves because poetry was my overriding passion at the time and nothing else entered my head. Once a month in the afternoon the basement of the shop was taken over by all us budding poets from the local scene and we would read each other our latest efforts. It must have been a dreadful experience in hindsight but we thought we were doing something meaningful. The shop was very much a product of the Hippie 1960s and did not survive long into the 70s (if at all).

WILLSON and RAMSHAW, the music shop, was at 10/12 Bridewell Alley. They sold sheet music, instruments and vinyl records. Violins, guitars and recorders filled the shop window. Mr Ramshaw had previously had his shop near my father’s shop in Orford Place and was known to the family. He regularly came out to Poringland to tune our piano. On one occasion he was discussing with me my school of Gresham’s. He was convinced that the house Tallis (newly opened in 1963 and a quite talking point around the county) was named after the 16th century composer of that name. In fact it was named after a 17th century headmaster, but I did not have the heart to disabuse him.

Bridewell Alley in the early 1980s.

Bridewell Alley

I do not know the origin of the pike sign in Bridewell alley. It ought to hang over a pub, but I can find no record of a public house called the Anglers Arms in Bridewell Alley; can anybody help me in this?  It hangs over a bakers shop in this picture taken in the 1970s. There was a fishing tackle shop at 18 Bridewell Alley, and JOHN WILSON took it over just about at the time that the bookshop was closing down. He had begun his career as a hairdresser, but by 1971 he was firmly into fishing. His television series ran on Channel Four for decades and his shop was quite a feature in Bridewell Alley. He moved from Great Witchingham some years ago, where he had a lake on the river Wensum. He had moved to Thailand, where he also had a lake, but this one is filled with what are to us exotic fish. He was due to move back to England to be near his grandchildren when he died in November, 2018.

On the same side as John Wilson’s shop was a cafe I sometimes called into for a cup of coffee. If you wished you could also have your lunch there if your tastes were simple – sausage rolls for example. It later became the TAJ MAHAL Indian Restaurant. This was opposite the west end of St Andrew’s Church. The church takes up all the east side of Bridewell Alley from the Bridewell Museum itself down the hill to St Andrew’s Street. The bottom shop in Bridewell Alley was GIBSON, a tobacconist and sweetshop.

St Andrew's church, Norwich

St Andrew’s church, Norwich


4 responses

  1. […] I could go on; there was Hovells on the corner of Bridewell Alley that only closed in the 2000s, although it left its city centre location some years ago, and had moved upmarket from the plain goods it had originally sold. When I first used to go there it was a real old-fashioned shop selling brooms and wicker baskets. For more on this shop and other in Bridewell Alley see my blog on Norwich Shops (7). […]


  2. Worthy of mention is Billy Cooper who owned the fishing tackle shop before John Wilson took over about 1970. Billy was a family friend and Norwich character and I bought all my gear from him at the time. I know he suffered a number of break-ins which made business difficult and partly why he finished. I last saw Billy at Stalham Market in the late 1980s (before it sadly closed) cheerful as ever.


  3. When did the Mecca coffee shop close


    1. Do you mean the shop in the Haymarket? The Mecca transferred to Timberhill for a few years, but I don’t think a coffee shop ever opened there. I can’t tell you exactly when it closed in the Haymarket but It was in the late sixties. If you want to find out a more precise date Kelly’s Director will give you the year, but for that you will have to wait until the library reopens.


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