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The curious background of Tombland Alley

4 min read

Once known as the central marketplace of Norwich, England, the name of this historic alley, Tombland, is a bit misleading, as it has nothing to do with the burying of the dead. Actually, it is the combination of two Old English words meaning something like “open ground” or “empty space”, and indicate an area which was once the main market place before the Normans arrived in 1066.

The most curious feature of Tombland Alley is the often-photographed Augustine Steward House, built in the early part of the 16th century for Steward, a former mayor of the city.
It was used as the headquarters for the Earl of Warwick’s army during the Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 even though it gets its eerie reputation for an event that took place some years later.
During the latter part of the 16th century, Norwich experienced in fact an outbreak of the plague and, not by chance, many of the victims are buried in St. George Tombland churchyard adjacent to the alley.
But the story which gives this area its eerie atmosphere is of the family that are said to have been boarded into the Augustine Steward House and who were the victims of the aforementioned plague, which cast its shadow over the city in 1578.

Reports of the time described the illness thus: “Such was its violence that all other distempers gave way to it or ran into it…They experienced a most intolerable pain from the heat of the head; the eyes were swelled and fiery; the tongue bloody; respiration difficult and breath fetid; vomitings of bilious matters frequent; finally the body became livid, with pimples here and there scattered over it, which bred worms. Death took place the second or third day.

Some credit the terrible plague which ravaged the city to the visit of Queen Elizabeth I, who spent five days in Norwich in August of the same year, staying at the nearby Bishop’s Palace, believing the Queen’s London train of followers had brought the disease with them.
But, regardless of how the disease came to Norwich, its consequences were horrific: for almost two years, the plague swept through the city killing thousands of people, with dead piled up high in carts and graveyards raised to cram in the corpses. There is also a long-held rumour that a plague pit lies just beneath Tombland, but no evidences exist to give this theory credence.

In any case, when the plague cut through the city, an order was sent to seal up the buildings. Sick or infected people would be moved from houses and the house itself shut up and locked for 40 days with a red cross and “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us” in capital letters written on the door. Thus, after the 40-day period, a white cross would be fixed on the door for another 20 days during which time the house would have to be fumigated, cleaned and painted with lime. Clothes and household items had to stay in the house for a further three months.
It is said that this procedure really happened in Norwich, but that one family was accidentally boarded into their home, the Augustine Steward House. Maybe they were too ill to shout or let anyone know they were still there, or maybe they were all, except one, dead. In any case, weeks later, the bailiffs returned to discover a grisly sight.
In one room, the bodies of two adults were found, mother and father, but when the bodies were examined, it was found that they had unusual marks on their legs: human teeth marks. Next to the bodies was the corpse of a young girl who, apparently, she had not been consumed by the plague, but choked to death on the flesh of her parents, having been forced to eat them.
Or maybe yes, she was still alive but, in a less macabre version, she subsequently starved to death.

In any case, her ghost is said to haunt the area, and there have been reports of her apparition around the alley, literally with her legs fading away below the knees. It seems she always appears in ragged grey clothes and many of those who have lived or worked in this area have either seen the girl or felt her presence, especially when she moves objects around in the night or opens and closes doors….

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