Strangers’ Hall in Norwich gained a new lease of life when it became one of England's first social history museums
Empty and neglected at the end of the 19th century, Strangers’ Hall’s illustrious history appeared all but forgotten. Constructed by Ralph de Middilton in 1320 and rebuilt in the 15th century by William Barley, it had been home to an eclectic mix of people including mayors, merchants, judges, Roman Catholic priests and a dancing master.
Leonard Bolingbroke, a local solicitor and treasurer of the Norfolk Archaeological Society, realised its importance and saved it from demolition. As an enthusiastic collector he furnished the house with antiques, appointed a caretaker and opened it to the public in 1900. Several years later he presented it to the city of Norwich as a museum of domestic life.
The rooms reflect different periods during the house’s history. The Great Chamber is laid out as it was in the 1600s when owned by hosier Sir Joseph Paine, with a high table at one end and service rooms beyond a screen at the other. The Walnut Room is styled as a 17th-century sitting room and one of the bedrooms is decorated as it might have been for his wife, Lady Emma Paine. Other rooms include a Georgian dining room, a 17th-century oak bedroom and a Victorian nursery, parlour and dining room.
One of the largest rooms is the Sotherton Room, which may once have been a counting-house. As mayor, Nicholas Sotherton boosted the textile industry by encouraging skilled Dutch and Flemish weavers to settle in Norwich. Called Strangers by the locals, it’s the presence of these refugees that may have given the building its name.
While the interiors are interesting, the architecture also deserves investigation, from the magnificent, vaulted, 14th-century cellar via the crown-post roof, stone-mullioned bay window and porch of the 16th century to the imposing staircase of the 17th. Take your children with you – the hall is great as a historical teaching resource.
Don’t miss: the beaded christening basket in Lady Paine’s chamber. Worked in tiny glass beads on a wire frame, it held gifts such as money, jewellery, spoons, rattles and silver items.
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Strangers’ Hall Museum, Charing Cross, Norwich, Norfolk NR2 4AL
Open Wed & Sat 10.30am–4.30pm. From 1 Apr 2009: Wed–Sat 10.30am– 4.30pm.
Adults £3.30, concs £2.70, children £1.80
Norwich tourist information: 01603 213999