A Little Bit of Oak.


Summertime. Barbeque time. Pinotage time. Can't beat a good Pinotage with a barbie. A nice Hawksmoor from Stellenbosch. Cherries, a hint of black pepper and ever so lightly oaked. Sounds good, but I'll stick with a beer or two. My stomach seems happier with something slightly less acidic. However, there's a little bit of oak in this post. A little bit of Norwich's Oak Street.


I had wondered how this road in Norfolk's only city got its name. Before I elaborate on this point I'd just like to emphasise that whilst Norwich does happen to be the county's sole city it's still one more than Suffolk can muster.


Back to Oak Street. I had thought for a while that it might've been named after the Royal Oak which used to exist on this thoroughfare but this isn't so. It actually gets its name from the nearby church of Saint Martin at Oak. In fact, the 1885 Ordnance Survey Town Plan – yes I know, but it really IS a city – has the street labelled as St. Martin's Street however by the time they resurveyed in 1905, for the 25inch map published a couple of years later, it was called Oak Street.


A short section of Oak Street as surveyed in 1905.

I'm not going to deal with the whole of Oak Street, just a short stretch from St. Martin's church to the Inner Link Road, a distance which is probably less than a hundred yards. When the Ordnance Survey revised their 25inch map in 1905 there were five pubs in this short stretch. They're marked on the above extract with coloured dots. Let's take each one in turn, starting with the red one and working our way in a clockwise direction.


The red spot marks the former location of the Railway Arms at number 90. The pub was demolished in the late 1960s and the site now lies under the aforementioned Inner Link Road.



Railway Arms in Oak Street  Norwich
The Railway Arms, 10th April 1936, by George Plunkett.

Originally known as the Fellmonger's Arms it was operating on the site from at least 1810 changing its name in March 1883, six months after Norwich City railway station opened close by. Demolition in the 1960s wasn't the first event of this kind which the pub had experienced. The boozer in the above photograph was replaced by a modern structure in 1937 and the name reverted to the Fellmonger's.



Fellmonger's Arms Oak Street Norwich
George Plunkett's shot of the Fellmonger's Arms, 16th February 1939.

The pub then had a third incarnation, for in April 1942 it was badly damaged by fire when the city was visited by the Luftwaffe. Rebuilt under the auspices of Norwich brewers Bullard's it continued to serve until the last day of May 1967 shortly afterwards being flattened to allow for the road improvements that were promised by the Inner Link Road.


Moving round to the orange spot and we come to the pub that was the initial inspiration for this post. I'd had this image stored away for a bit in the 'Mystery' folder as I didn't know it's location but was pretty sure that it wouldn't take much of an effort to determine with a name like that.

Bess of Bedlam  Oak Street  Norwich

Before I got round to doing any directory delving a similar, albeit larger, image of the pub popped up in a couple of Facebook groups as having been in Norwich – at 80 Oak Street.


Bess of Bedlam, once a common term for a vagrant female lunatic, was likely preceded by her male equivalent, Tom of Bedlam, according to the Norfolk Pubs website which has a pub of that name on Oak Street from 1745. It seems that at various times it went by a couple of other names related to mental illness – Bedlam & Star of Bethlehem and Mad Bess. With all this madness around it is probably not too surprising to find a politician of two associated with the place. On election day 1784 the pub "was engaged for Freeholders, the Friends of Sir Edward Astley, Bart. and Thomas William Coke, Esq." These two upstanding gents were the sitting MPs for Norfolk but only the former would have been celebrating later in the Bess for Thomas Coke failed to be returned to parliament.


The Bess continued to operate into the twentieth century. Its last landlord was a contractor and carter called Robert Arthurton who had been there from 1884 when he was just 22 years old. At the 1906 Licensing Sessions Inspector Cooper said that this was an old house, structurally deficient for the requirements of the licensed trade. He added that the tenant was extensively engaged as a job master and did not give proper supervision.

There were 15 other (licensed) houses within 200 yards. A license was refused and the pub closed the following year.


George Plunkett caught the former pub in 1936 when the evidence of Robert's other occupations was still visible.


Bess of Bedlam  Oak Street  Norwich
The former Bess of Bedlam on 10th April 1936.

Plunkett said this of the building, 'At No 80 Oak St was what had been described (unavailingly) as "a modest little bit of Tudor work which should be preserved if possible". Somewhat similar to those houses higher up the street that were retained, it was plaster-faced and jettied at the front, with a dormer overlooking the yard to the south. Here was formerly a public house with the sign of the Bess o' Bedlam, making a twin with Tom o' Bedlam, also in St Martin-at-Oak, a reminder of the days when mentally deranged folk were largely uncared for and left to roam the streets.'


The third, green, spot on the map extract was the Arabian Horse. I have been unable to track down an image of this middle-eastern equine but it was certainly in existence in 1782 as the Norfolk Chronicle of 18th October of that year contained the following announcement:


John Lowl begs to inform the Public, that he has taken the House late in the Occupation of Mr William Laws, in St Martin's at Oak, in the said City, known as the sign of the Arabian Horse, and has laid in a fresh Stock of Spirituous Liquors. All those Country Gentlemen and others who favoured Mr Laws with their Custom, and will please to continue their Favours on me, may depend on the most grateful Acknowledgements, and steady care to merit their esteem.


From Gentlemen, your Humble Servant,


John Lowl


N.B. A Dinner provided Wednesdays and Saturdays. Good Stable Room for Horses.


On election day 1784, just like the Bess of Bedlam and a further fifty-one other hostelries, the Arabian Horse "was engaged for Freeholders, the Friends of Sir Edward Astley, Bart. and Thomas William Coke, Esq." It was also one of three dozen licensed houses in the city which opened "for the reception of Voters in the interest of Mr. Windham and Mr. Coke" on election day in 1806. Thomas Coke had regained the seat he had lost in 1784 at the following election, six years later. Why the reduction in houses? Had their supporters become less thirsty or perhaps the Whigs' number of supporters had reduced? Who knows? Or who really cares?


The Arabian Horse finally shut up shop in December 1908. At some point the building went to the knacker's yard, either a result of the pre-war slum clearance programme, the blitz or the post-war tidying up. Whenever it went, it's gone. Where it once stood I believe is the gateway to, and the car park of, the Matthew Project. A pub site now occupied by a charity working with, amongst other things, folks suffering with alcohol misuse.


Site of Arabian Horse  Norwich
Site of the former Arabian Horse. © 2021 Google

Across the road from the Arabian Horse, marked by the blue spot, used to stand the Queen Caroline. An old house, in 1757 it may well have been called the Queen of Hungary which would raise the question – why? Another question could be which Queen Caroline? Caroline of Ansbach – wife of George II – or her namesake of Brunswick, consort of her great grandson George IV? With Caroline of A dying in 1737 of her daily bout of surgical intestinal interventions was she around too early?


Was it Caroline of B who was only queen for a couple of years, from 1820 to her death the following year, whilst estranged from her husband? Despite the attempt to strip her of the title of Queen in the Pain and Penalties Bill of 1820 she had been very popular with the masses and reformist politicians in the years before her husband ascended to the throne. The pub had been yet another of the houses used "for the reception of Voters in the interest of Mr. Windham and Mr. Coke" both of whom were Whigs. Perhaps it was named in memory of her after her death. So, which queen? Who knows? I don't, but would probably plump for Queen B. And by all accounts she was pretty plump – but not pretty!


Whichever queen it was she's long gone and so too is the pub. Its licence was surrendered in April 1925 and brewers Steward & Patteson subsequently sold the property. Its physical remains were lost at some point, probably to the pre-war clearances or the Luftwaffe, and in its place now stands modern housing.


Site of Queen Caroline Oak Street  Norwich
The Queen Caroline used to stand where the left-hand pale house now does. © 2021 Google

The final, purple, spot marks the location of the White Lion. George Plunkett took this photograph in 1986. The original building, like many others that stood on Oak Street before WW2, is of Tudor origin. It dates from 1558 and was a pub from at least 1760 when clothier John Gapp was its licensee. Like the Fellmonger's it was damaged by enemy action in April 1942 but rose again with the addition of a single storey extension.


The White Lion, 73 Oak Street, on 12th June 1986. © George Plunkett

As you may have deduced from the pair of Google images a little higher up the page, the White Lion has crept into this post as an imposter for it still exists, and has a reputation for serving a wide range of real ciders and perries, but I thought I'd mention it simply for the sake of completeness.


Well, that's this post over. Time to open a bottle. An Innis & Gunn, I think. After all, it does feature a little bit of oak.


Thanks to Jonathan Plunkett for the use of his late father's material. There's a wealth of images and material about Norwich, and even elsewhere, on www.georgeplunkett.co.uk.


The colour photograph of the White Lion is copyright of Evelyn Simak and is reproduced under this licence. The Ordnance Survey map extract is reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under this one.


The Norfolk Pubs website proved to be very useful in filling in some massive gaps in my knowledge.


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