I have always been fascinated by urban history, particularly those towns where continuity and change co-exist, or where new communities spring up alongside historic ones. The first chapter in my book ‘Lost King’s Lynn’ is titled ‘The Lost North End’ which was its fisherfolk quarter. Around 1870 these Northenders were fishing in the Wash in traditional wooden sailing smacks as they had done for centuries. At this time two enclosed docks were built connected to the national railway network with new factories and mills erected nearby in this very same North End. Here was an intriguing example of the co-existence of ancient and modern societies. The North End fisherfolk survived into the 1950s as a distinct community. 

In 2022 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of that great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams whose music was profoundly influenced by East Anglian folk songs. In just a week in January 1905 he collected at least 61 folk songs in Lynn and most from the North End fisherfolk.

North End Folk Singers, c. 1906 (c. Lost King's Lynn, Amberley Publishing)

Lynn’s (as in local parlance) maritime economy and society dependent on coastal and overseas commerce since 1100 was eclipsed by the coming of the railways in the 1840s. Railways robbed the Norfolk haven of its coastal shipping and iron steamships slowly but surely replaced timber sailing vessels which had required big crews. The closure of many riverside taverns by 1914 reflected the significant decline in the number of home and foreign sailors who had once crowded Lynn’s quays and streets. We live in one of these former public houses called ‘The Three Crowns’ which was a favourite rendezvous of master mariners but closed in 1914.

With the onset of Lynn’s First Industrial Revolution a consumer society emerged which impacted on a traditional High Street of small shops run by local families. Before 1914 big city firms investing in nationwide chain stores established retail outlets here where they built much larger premises in the 20th century. Both Marks and Spencer and Boots the Chemist are notable. Yet it was a Norfolk man named Alfred Jermyn who opened the first department store in the High Street in 1872 (later Debenhams). 

King’s Lynn
Jermyn & Sons, High Street, 1906 (c. Lost King's Lynn, Amberley Publishing)

A high percentage of Lynn’s labouring population lived in insanitary courts or yards off the main streets. In ‘Lost King’s Lynn’ the case study is Norfolk Street. Not until the 1930s were the numerous town centre yards demolished and families moved to the new suburban council housing estates.

For centuries Lynn industries were clustered around four small fleets or rivers that traversed the town and emptied into the Great Ouse. The Fisherfleet excavated in 1868 remains though the original waterway was lost to dock construction. In South Lynn the Friars Fleet or River Nar was the location of shipbuilding yards and the home of the whaling fleet but both had disappeared by 1870. The banks of the Purfleet were hugged by breweries and granaries as well as the tenements of the working classes. This fleet was regarded by the local authority as the town’s greatest health hazards by 1850 but improvement schemes were delayed by public affection for such ancient waterways and political procrastination. The Millfleet with its large brewery was regarded as another danger to public health and covered over in 1898 following typhus epidemics.

Victorian and Edwardian economic growth was not sustained into the 1920s and 1930s and the Council searched for a much-needed pathway to regenerate Lynn. This led to an ‘overspill agreement with the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1962 whereby manufacturing firms and newcomers settled in the Norfolk town. This was tantamount to a Second Industrial Revolution which was to be even more transformative than the first. Through new housing and industrial estates were built in the suburbs of the Norfolk borough, parts of the historic town were redeveloped for big stores and carparks.

Lynn retains an exceptional historic built environment to connect us with what was for centuries a premier English seaport and market town. But its character and identity have been reshaped since 1870 for better or worse as ‘Lost King’s Lynn’ shows.

For Sir John Betjeman the walk from north to south through the Old Town was one of the best in England for historic and architectural interest. I have been a town guide since 1983 and can not recall one group from home or abroad being disappointed by what they have seen and heard – so Discover King’s Lynn!

Paul Richards's book Lost King's Lynn is available for purchase now.