Desolation Row: the bulldozing of Great Yarmouth’s ancient heart

Mourning the loss of the Rows to postwar planning policy, Peter Barber calls for a return to their denser, more intimate and convivial way of living

Celebratory street party in 1935 in Row 116. A bit wider than some.
Celebratory street party in 1935 in Row 116. A bit wider than some.

'Between the windows of the sea, Where lovely mermaids flow, And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row’ Bob Dylan, Desolation Row.

Nowhere has the barbarism and philistinism of postwar authoritarian functionalist planning been felt more keenly than by the people who lived in the Rows, an ultra-compact quarter of the 1,000 year old town of Great Yarmouth which was bulldozed by its own town council between 1950 and 1955.

Settled, it’s thought, at the end of the first millennium, Great Yarmouth sits on an elongated teardrop-shaped sand bar which lies between the River Yar and the North Sea, on the north Norfolk coastline, and was the home of 18,000 people in 5,000 houses which edged a filigree stretched grid of 180 one metre wide alleyways known as the Rows. The numerous Rows – mostly houses, but with some factories, shops, pubs – ran east-west in straight lines between the town wall and the quay. The Rows were interlaced with and connected at right angles by three slightly wider streets, a little more commercial in character, which ran in a series of lazy arcs roughly parallel to the river the full length of the town, terminating in the west with the wharfs, smokehouses and herring fisheries where most people worked.

Close to, we can imagine how this magnificent arrangement structured and crystallised complex social, cultural, human, commercial and political relationships. Pan out and its geometries are almost indistinguishable from and continuous with the topography and geometries of its riverside and coastal landscape setting… a perfect synthesis of urban form, culture and landscape.

So dense are the Rows that they appear as a dark smudge in the centre of this 1904 OS Map.
So dense are the Rows that they appear as a dark smudge in the centre of this 1904 OS Map.

Great Yarmouth is a kind of ‘inside-out’ town, the streets at its centre made by thousands of tiny houses, shops, factories – the preserve of ordinary people, the citizens. Its public institutions (churches, town hall, the Theatre Royal) were pushed rather unceremoniously to the edges.

That is until the 1830s when a new road, wide by Great Yarmouth’s standards, a boulevard really, was driven north south through the Rows at about the middle of the town, ostensibly to facilitate vehicular movement between the new train terminus and the town quay. But one suspects a Haussmanish motive, the assertion of mayoral authority. Only this was Haussman in miniature, truncated. A kind of tiny Avenue de l’Opera but without the opera.

Until the 19th century the Rows had no fixed names, just pretty nicknames: Spotted Cow Row, Mariner’s Compass Row, Pot-in-Hand Row, Mr Paget’s Row, Fighting Cock Row; each with a resonance for the people who lived there, an in-joke, a local character, the pub on the corner. Some names stuck, many changed with fashion, circumstances, the habit of the people. Sometimes they had more than one name. Such was the frustration of the town corporation that in 1804 it numbered the Rows off 1-170. Of course nobody used the numbers, the old names stuck!… the people defiant, fighting the power you might say. As EJ Lupson put it in his late 19th century visitors’ guide The Rows of Great Yarmouth: ‘In these degenerated days of scientific classification flesh and blood has triumphed over arithmetic.’

In 1843 Charles Dickens dropped in. He thought the place was a gas and he greatly admired the fine medieval architecture. However towards the end of the 19th century the authorities once again began to get the jitters about what they said were overcrowded and insanitary conditions and – perhaps more sinisterly – their inability to control and regulate the town, its residents and their way of living. Reports were submitted, statistics were tabulated, concern was expressed. The man from the ministry came down and in the 1930s, to the horror of the townspeople, a programme of compulsory purchase and ‘clearance’ was set in motion.

 ‘An insanitary and utterly unsatisfactory form of development which could not possibly be retained,’ they said.

The ‘slum clearance’, which began in the early 1930s, was suspended just before the Second World War. Ironically, though, Luftwaffe bombers used the town as a convenient spot to jettison excess ordinance to lighten their load as they flew home.

Though only 237 houses out of a total of 5,000 were destroyed by the bombing, the town corporation, intent on seeing through its plans to bulldoze the Rows and disperse their residents, said that a further 1,300 houses were beyond repair (a euphemism familiar to council households in contemporary land-grab London) and the city fathers and their thuggish hatchet men in the planning and housing departments finished the job with glee.

Zooming in the extreme compactness of the Rows starts to emerge.
Zooming in the extreme compactness of the Rows starts to emerge.

All over Europe, in the war’s aftermath, other bomb ravaged towns were being pieced back together with love, rebuilt stone on stone from rubble. Old town Warsaw, large areas of Berlin, Paris and London, Dresden’s great imperial centre, were pieced back together like gigantic jigsaws.

But Great Yarmouth’s eight miles of Rows – 35 acres of them, the homes of 18,000 people – were deemed wrecking-ball ready and crushed to rubble, swept away in an act of savage vandalism, the townsfolk scattered in the ensuing decade to bungalow oblivion. Their town was turned into a necklace of out-of-towner car parks serving the day tripper economy which it was hoped would sustain the town’s economy given the post-war decline of the herring industry.

The ghosts of Great Yarmouth are tiny fragments of the old town, a little museum, an archway Row entrance, an ancient sign for Kitti Witch’s Row, though the Row itself has vanished… these are now all that remains visible of this unique place and the lives of tens of thousands of people, their culture, their memories, the relationships of what Lupson had called ‘a jolly neighbourly race who like, out of good fellowship, to be always at talking and handshaking distance of each other’.

A closer zoom shows more. How the mapmakers must have cursed.
A closer zoom shows more. How the mapmakers must have cursed.

There are, however, internet memories from across the globe, the testament of a few hundred still-living former residents of the Rows. ‘Does anybody remember Mr and Mrs Turner… Mrs Turner took in washing behind the Rose Tavern… you remember the Rose… kept by Mr Otteridge’. This pub, that family, Old Mr Whatsit on Wheel of Fortune Row, yellowing photos fading as memories fade, captioned with despair, melancholy, sadness.

This process was echoed in the destruction of vast quantities of back-to-back and terraced housing in the Midlands and the North of England in the 1950s, the sweeping away of serviceable and popular tenement housing in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the bulldozing of great swathes of street-based housing from Brighton to Newcastle.

This destruction was thanks to a functionalist planning and political culture which prevails to this day and continues to favour a dispersed, suburban anti-social spatiality. This is tick-box policy enforced through generic design standards, overlooking distances, car parking minimums, idiotic daylight sunlight and air quality indicators – urbanism measured in habitable rooms per hectare, decibels, square metres, lux.

I would like to see a radical new planning policy designed to encourage compact, continuous, urban form. A densely packed, convivial, congested city of intimately scaled streets and alleys where, like the Rows of Great Yarmouth, people from different backgrounds, socio-economic and racial groups could live in close proximity. Where narrow streets compress and intensify the urban and human experience. Socially and ecologically sustainable urbanism structured by idealism rather than net-curtain-twitch neuroses.