Skip to content

The Relics Of The Liberty Of Norton Folgate

July 8, 2014
by the gentle author

On the final day of British Land’s public exhibition for their controversial redevelopment of Norton Folgate, I publish the story of James Frankcom and his quest to find the relics of this ancient Liberty, which British Land are seeking to rebrand as ‘Blossom St.’ The exhibition is open today from 4pm until 8pm. This could be your last chance to visit these fine old buildings, and readers are encouraged to go and record their comments in writing – further details below.

James Frankcom holds the Beadle’s staff of Norton Folgate from 1672

For years, Spitalfields resident James Frankcom was on a quest to find the lost relics of the Liberty of Norton Folgate and – when he found them – with true magnanimous spirit, he invited me and Contributing Photographer Alex Pink to share in his glorious moment of discovery.

First recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, the nine acres north of Spitalfields known today as Norton Folgate were once the manor of Nortune Foldweg – ‘Nortune’ meaning ‘northern estate’ and “Folweig’ meaning ‘highway,’ referring to Ermine St, the Roman road north from the City of London that passed through the territory. Irrigated by the spring in Holywell St, this fertile land was within the precincts of the Priory of St Mary Spital until 1547 when, after the Reformation, it achieved autonomy as the Liberty of Norton Folgate, ruled by a court of ten officers described as the “Ancient Inhabitants.”

These elected representatives – including women – took their authority from the people and they asserted their right to self-government without connection to any church, maintaining the poor, performing marriages and burials, and superintending their own watchmen and street lighting. The officers of the Liberty were the Head Borough, the Constable who supervised the Beadles, the Scavenger who dealt with night soil, and Overseers of the Poor. And thus were the essentials of social organisation and waste disposal effectively accomplished for centuries in Norton Folgate.

When James Frankcom discovered that he lived within the former Liberty, he began to explore the history and found an article in Home Counties Magazine of 1905 which illustrated the relics of Norton Folgate including a beadle’s staff, a sixteenth century muniment chest and an almsbox, held at that time in Stepney Central Library.

James contacted Malcolm Barr-Hamilton, the Archivist, at Tower Hamlets Local History Library in Bancroft Rd which houses artifacts transferred from the Whitechapel Library in 2010. There he found the minute books of Norton Folgate from 1729 until 1900, detailing the activities of the court and nightly reports by the watchmen. Curiously, in spite of the rowdy reputation that this particular neighbourhood of theatres and alehouses enjoyed through the centuries, including the famous arrest of Christopher Marlowe in 1589, the nightwatchmen recorded an unbroken sequence of  “All’s well.”

In the penultimate entry of the minute book, dated October 1900, when the Liberty was abolished at the time of the foundation of the London County Council, James found mention of “certain relics of the Liberty of no use to the new Metropolitan Borough of Stepney” which the board of trustees gave to Whitechapel Museum for safe keeping. Searching among hundreds of index cards recording material transferred from Whitechapel to the archive, he found three beadle’s rods and an almsbox from Norton Folgate. Disappointingly, the muniment box had gone missing at some point in the last century, possibly when the collection was moved for safety to an unknown location during World War II.

When James put in a request to see the almsbox and the beadles’ rods, they could not be found at first but eventually they were located and, a year later, I met James outside the Bancroft Library, where the local history collection is held and we went inside together to see the relics. Upon a table in the vast library chamber was the battered seven-sided alms box cut from a single piece of oak in 1600 and secured by four separate locks. It was a relic from another world, the world of Shakespeare’s London, and three centuries of “alms for oblivion” had once been contained in this casket.

Yet equally remarkable was the staff of Norton Folgate with a tiny sculpture upon the top of a realistic four-bar gate complete with the pegs that held it together – an heraldic pun upon the name of Norton Folgate. Since the photograph of 1901, it had suffered some damage but the inscription “Norton Folgate 1672” was still visible. Bearing the distinction of being London’s oldest staff of office, it represents the authority of the people.

James Frankcom could not resist wielding this staff that was once of such significance in the place where he lives and and savouring the sense of power it imparted. It was as if James were embodying the spirit of one of the “Ancient Inhabitants” and not difficult to imagine that, if he had dwelt in Norton Folgate in an earlier century, he might have brandished it for real – apparelled in a suitably dignified coat and hat of office, of course.

Dating from 1672, this is the oldest Beadle’s staff in London and it represents the authority of the people in opposition to the power of the church. The gate is an heraldic pun upon the name of Norton Folgate.

The painted Beadles’ staffs date from  the coronation of George IV in 1820.

Hewn from single piece of oak, the seven-sided almsbox of Norton Folgate made in 1600.

“This box was divised bi Frances Candell for THE pore 1600” is inscribed upon the top and upon the lid is this text – “My sonne defrayde not the pore of hys allmes and turne not awaie they eies from him that hath nede. Lete not they hande be strecched owte to relaue and shut when thou sholdest gewe.”

Title page of the earliest minute book of Norton Folgate 1729

In Norton Folgate, the watchmen recorded an unbroken sequence of “all’s well” night after night.

In the last minute book, on 24th October 1900, the Liberty of Norton Folgate was abolished with the establishment of the London County Council.

The relics of the Liberty of Norton Folgate as illustrated in Home Counties Magazine, 1905 – including the lost sixteenth century muniment chest and the former courthouse in Folgate St.

Photographs copyright © Alex Pink

Readers are encouraged to attend and record your comments in writing at the exhibition

You may also like to read about

The Return of British Land

The East London  Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Works

Neville Turner of Elder St

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2014

    I hope enough people will protest to stop the actions of British Land. Valerie

  2. Ros permalink
    July 8, 2014

    So interesting. I didn’t know any of that. Hope to get to the British Land window of opportunity before it closes, to look at what sound like horrible plans. But I fear the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of the developers, with central and local government going to them cap in hand, among other things to make up the shortfall caused by the banking crisis, with public funding being a no-no and private development a yes-yes-yes please. Nevertheless, we have to continue the struggle with as much might as we can!

  3. July 10, 2014

    Hope you attracted lots of support. How many ‘Blossom” Streets there must be all over the world – and how many Norton Folgates! Typical of unimaginative corporate planning.

  4. Sambal permalink
    July 25, 2014

    Grim news. Historical heart ripped out once again. 🙁

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS