Dragon Hall, Norwich
|The Old Barge|
|Built||14th century with 15th century rebuilding and additions|
|Designated||26 February 1954|
Dragon Hall is a Grade-1 listed medieval merchant's trading hall located in King Street, Norwich, Norfolk, close to the River Wensum, and since 2018 home to the National Centre for Writing. It is thought to be unique in being the only such trading hall in Northern Europe to be owned by one man. The building stands on what was the main road through the city in the 15th century, with river transport links via Great Yarmouth to the Low Countries. Dragon Hall is now acknowledged as one of Norwich's medieval architectural gems and an iconic building in the city.
The Great Hall on the first floor was built in the 15th century, but some parts of the site are older. Archaeological research shows evidence of an Anglo-Saxon hut c.1000 beneath the Hall. On the northern part of the site, in the late 13th century, the abbey at Woburn, Bedfordshire, had a fish processing operation with various outbuildings and a track to a staithe or quay. There was also a boundary wall with a large brick arch to give access to King Street. In about 1330 an L-shaped domestic 'hall house' owned by John Page was built on the southern part of the site with an undercroft and an entrance on the south side from Old Barge Yard.
In about 1427 Robert Toppes, a Norwich merchant, re-developed the site as a commercial complex. He built his first floor trading hall on top of part of the 14th century domestic hall house and on top of the existing boundary wall and brick arch. He retained the 14th century entrance to the hall house for his customers. From the entrance passage his customers went up a new staircase to the first floor trading hall. This was a timber construction of seven bays with a crown post roof, decorated with carvings in the spandrels of 14 dragons. The hall was constructed with English oak, using some 1,000 trees. At the rear of the building he created a yard space with access to the river for his imports and exports, a warehouse area under the hall and a new stairway down to the extended undercroft from the yard. Part of the hall house was retained as a ground floor reception area.
Little is known of Robert Toppes, who during the 1420s bought the land where Dragon Hall now stands. He was an exporter of worsted and an importer of finished textiles, iron goods, wine and spices. He rose to become an important figure in the politics of the city of Norwich, becoming the city's Treasurer before he was 30, and later becoming Sheriff. He became mayor on four separate occasions and represented the city as its member of parliament four times. He was involved a disputed election which resulted in him exiled to Bristol. and was indicted in the aftermath of the 'Gladman's Insurrection'.
Toppes' second wife, Joan Knyvett, was related to the Pastons, who were linked with the Paston Letters. He owned numerous properties throughout East Anglia. He paid for a large stained-glass window in the church of St Peter Mancroft, panels of which have survived. When he died in 1467, he provided priests to pray for his soul, paying for this by the sale of his property on King Street.
1467 to 1960s
After being sold in 1467, the hall was gradually divided into smaller and smaller houses, and the original bay windows were replaced with doors and sash windows. The internal structure was redesigned, with the insertion of new floors and cellars. The building became known as the Old Barge Building, named after the nearby pub. Poor quality housing built up around the spaces adjoining the building. By the 19th century some 150 people were known be living there.
In 1937 a Slum Clearance programme was implemented, which removed most of the slum housing at the back of the site. By the 1950s the front of the hall building looking onto King Street had been adapted for use as a butcher's shop, with a rectory situated behind it, and the Old Barge pub at the southern end. In 1954 the building it was warded Listed Building status: Grade 1.
Restoration 1970s to 2006
Following deeper examination by the Norwich Survey, based at the University of East Anglia, architectural historians and other interested people realised that the building was of great historical importance and a committee was set up to restore the hall. In 1979 Norwich City Council bought the building which was by then uninhabited and a major programme of fund raising, restoration and research began. The Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust was formed to run the hall; partition walls, attic floors, chimneys and fireplaces were removed and the hall was restored to something like its original state. In 1986 it was renamed as 'Dragon Hall' and became a heritage attraction, a resource for the local community and an educational centre. In 1997/98 there was a major archaeological investigation of the area behind the Hall. Following a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2005/06, further improvements were made, including the addition of a north wing with displays, a lift, offices, a kitchen and a meeting room.
The National Centre for Writing
In 2015 the lease of the premises was taken over by the Writers’ Centre Norwich, and in 2016 the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust was wound up. In 2018 the Writers Centre Norwich became the National Centre for Writing, and they added a new North Wing with extensive office and meeting spaces. An existing 19th century cottage on the site was also converted as a residential facility for visiting writers and translators. The Dragon Hall Volunteers were re-constituted as the Dragon Hall Heritage Volunteers and they continue to act as tour guides, to give external talks to local clubs and societies and to act as guardians and promoters of the heritage of Dragon Hall by the creation of an on-line archive of documents and photographs. They also have a Local History Study Group and a Mummers group.
Bookable, guided tours of Dragon Hall are normally available twice a month. On the Heritage Open Days in September, additional tours have in previous years been organised, and special tours and bookings by groups can also be arranged.
- Richardson, Everingham & Faris 2011, p. 91.
- Knights, Emma (9 October 2017). "New chapter for Dragon Hall as building work to begin on National Centre for Writing". Eastern Daily Press. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- "Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust Limited (The)". Companies House. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- "National Centre for Writing Launches in Norwich, Launching New Chapter in Literary City". FMcM. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- "Tours of Dragon Hall". National Centre for Writing. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- Baldwin, Louisa (6 July 2020). "Heritage Open Days to return to Norfolk for 2020". Eastern Daily Press. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- "Dragon Hall". National Centre for Writing. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- Richardson, Douglas; Everingham, Kimball G.; Faris, David (2011). Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study In Colonial And Medieval Families (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City: Douglas Richardson. p. 91. ISBN 9-781-44996-631-7.
- Matthew, Richard (2013). Robert Toppes: Medieval Mercer of Norwich. Norwich: Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust. ISBN 9-780-95178-783-0.
- Shelley, Andy (2005). "Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich: Excavation and Survey of a Late Medieval Merchant's Trading Complex". East Anglian Archaeology. EAA 112. Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust. doi:10.5284/1042744. ISSN 0307-2460.