Architecture: The Classical Style in Norfolk Small Towns, 1720-1800

'Taste' to the educated Georgian involved an understanding of an unchanging set of rules - the neo-classical principles of order and harmony. A gentleman was supposed to assess a building's adherence to these rules when judging its design, rather than responding to it on a personal level. Such attitudes greatly influenced the design of elite housing in the countryside, and then filtered through to town architecture in a more diluted form.

bank_tn.jpgThis is a particularly attractive example of a Georgian doorway. The door itself is pannelled, and topped with a fanlight (an oblong or semi-circular window above a door) with a half sun motif. The whole is surrounded by a doric pediment and pilasters (flattened columns). doors_tn.gifTypical Georgian doorways

Even in the small towns of Norfolk of the eighteenth century there were efforts to re-build older constructions to up-date them in the 'correct' style, while at the same time new building types were being erected. As Aston and Bond (1987, p161) found in their study of town landscapes, such re-development in small towns was usually limited to a few streets, and this was also the case in Norfolk's small towns.

If these buildings were constructed in the Georgian style though, it was often manifested simply, by the use of recognisably fashionable components on the facade such as classically styled doorways with panelling and fanlights, sash windows, and decorative ironwork. Usually, as the focus of the attention in the elevation of a house was the entrance, this would be more modern than the design of the rest of the ornamentation.


The Georgian Classical Style in Norfolk

There were two significant branches to the Georgian classical architecture - Palladianism appeared just before 1720 and lasted roughly until 1750, and was then superseded by Neo-Classicism which ran until approximately 1800. Palladianism was a reaction to the baroque of the seventeenth century (in the second picture the two styles are compared, in favour of Palladianism), and can be traced to the publication of two influential books- the ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’ by Colen Campbell in 1717, which included engravings of classical buildings, and a discussion of the works of Palladio; and also the printing of a translation of Palladio’s 1570 ‘I Quatrro libri dell’ architettura’.

morris_tn.gifThis drawing is from Robert Morris's "Essay in Defence of Ancient Architecture" of 1728. The door on the left is in the baroque style, which he described as a, "monstrous lump of deformity", while the door on the right was considered to be tasteful as it was designed using the architectural rules of the ancients. palladio1_tn.gifThis drawing is from Isaac Ware's 1738 translation of Palladio's Quattro Libri - it depicts Palladio's Palazzo Iseppo Porto at Vicenza.

Palladianism was a national phenomenon, with its new forms usually radiating out from London, although there was normally a delay as it took time to reach the provinces.It was probably most cohesive in the years 1715-1740. After 1740 though, instead of concentrating purely upon the works of Palladio, English architects began to look to the Roman and Greek examples as these were more purely classical than their derivatives, due to the influence of men like Sir William Cambens and the brothers Robert and James Adam, who were dominant forces from 1760 to 1790. There was such a change in opinion that by the nineteenth century the style of Palladianism was thought to be too decorative and too free with the use of architectural elements such as columns and pilasters by architectural theorists.

The new brand of Georgian style was to be much more refined with flatter mouldings, and thinner glazing bars, and generally less emphasis on decoration. It was in this later period that architects realized that the ancient world had encompassed a greater variety of building styles, so this encouraged more plurality as architects sought to use these new sources. The wider Georgian style was also challenged by a new interest in the Gothic and a simultaneous attraction in Chinoiserie, but these never achieved the popularity of the former ‘polite’ style. Later still the Picturesque emerged in the late 1770s and this style was characterised by irregularity, variety, and a freer approach to decoration.

Appendix 1 looks at these topics in more detail:

  • Public Examples
  • Georgian Buildings in Small Towns
  • Andrea Palladio


How the Classical Style spread

The Classical Style spread to the provinces, including Norfolk, out from more fashionable areas such as London and Bath. It was often used to up-date town architecture to a more polite style. It was employed by wealthier landowners on their estates as an expression of status, and to reflect their knowledge of classical arts, and also by more prosperous merchants in the towns who aspired to 'polite society'.

Since the Elizabethan age taste had been influenced by illustrations, and in the eighteenth century these became more widely available as the number of Pattern Books increased. Lesser architects were able to make use of a profusion of pattern books to help them to understand the rules of classical style.

Appendix 2 looks at these topics in more detail:

  • Pattern Books
  • The Influence of Estate Architecture
  • The Influence of Architecture in Larger Towns and Cities


Urban Hierarchies, Industries and Building Traditions in Norfolk

Urban Hierarchies

The biggest settlement in Norfolk was the city of Norwich - by 1700 it had grown to be the largest provincial city in the country, although by 1730 it had been superseded by Bristol. The other important towns of Norfolk were Kings Lynn and Great Yarmouth, which were its only sea ports, and the large market town of Thetford. Below these larger settlements was a level of market towns which were fairly evenly distributed across the county, as can be seen from the map.

norfolk_map_tn.gifMap of Norfolk showing the widespread distribution of its small towns fakenham_tn.gifFakenham Market - one of the many market towns of Norfolk

Traditionally Norfolk had large numbers of market towns as these had developed to sell the agricultural produce of the region; however, their number declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due to increasing specialisation and rivalry. Thus small towns like Castle Rising and Litcham declined, to the benefit of others like Diss and Downham Market which prospered. The fortunes of these towns were always in a state of flux as a result of local forces.For example Watton, a market town specialising in butter, experienced an up-turn in its fortune when a turnpike road was built from Norwich by 1770 which facilitated trade. Indeed, transport does seem to have been an important factor in the varied fortunes of these towns, for although it is outside my period, the towns of Aylsham, Diss, Downham Market, Fakenham, Holt, North Walsham, Swaffham, and Wymondham were all prospering by the mid nineteenth century according to White’s Directory which was probably partly due to their proximity to the new railways. In contrast, the Directory listed the small towns of Acle, New Buckenham, Methwold, and Snettisham as obsolete.

The smaller towns had an important role to play both politically and economically, for Wymondham, Holt, and Swaffham were bases for Quarter Sessions, while the Assizes were based at Thetford, as well as Norwich and Kings Lynn. As well as providing a market function some towns served as ports thus Cromer, Blakeney, and Wells exported grain to Holland, and around the eastern coast to London. Even some of these smaller towns developed as centres for leisure as Thetford in became a minor spa town in this century, while Cromer also became very fashionable from the 1780s as a seaside resort.

There was agricultural and industrial success in Norfolk in the earlier eighteenth century which provided capital not only for the re-stlying or re-building of larger properties in Norfolk, such as Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall in the countryside, but also for extensive rebuilding in many market towns in Norfolk.



In this period the association between a town and its hinterland was usually more pronounced as towns were more isolated due to transport limitations. Agriculture was the most significant industry, and this underwent profound changes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One important figure in Norfolk was Thomas Coke who experimented with farming techniques at his Holkham estate. Similar pioneers, with available resources, helped to influence others through example and this led to significant changes in farming practice. For example there were great advances in sheep and pig husbandry, while west Norfolk changed from a predominantly rye growing area to one of wheat growing. Other improvements came as a result of enclosure, although local acts for enclosure were not common in Norfolk until after 1740.

coke_tn.gifThomas Coke of Norfolk standing in front of Holkham Hall.

The other major industry was cloth production and Wade-Martins (1984, p74) suggests that as much as half the population of Norfolk were involved in this. Much of the weaving was done in Norwich, but the spinning of the yarn was carried out in the surrounding areas. The textiles industry in Norwich reached its heights in the mid-nineteenth century, and the prosperity that it brought Norwich is reflected by the number of Georgian buildings that were constructed there. However the industry underwent decline in the later eighteenth century due to increased competition from Northern counties, which were able to make use of their faster flowing streams for water power, and then local coal resources when steam power mechanised the production of textiles.


Building Traditions

Inevitably the extent to which the Classical style of architecture was employed was limited by its cost, as it was often, although not always, liable to be more expensive than traditional methods of construction which made use of locally occurring materials.

stones_tn.gifMap showing the distribution of stones in England.


Classical Architecture Bibliography



  • D Arnold: The Georgian Townhouse; 1996; The Georgian Society; London
  • M Aston and J Bond: The Landscape of Towns; 1986; Alan Sutton; Gloucester
  • P Blake: The Norfolk we Live in; 1988; George Nobbs Publishing; Norwich
  • P Borsay: The Eighteenth Century Town; 1990; Longman; London
  • R Brunskill and A Clifton- Taylor: English Brickwork; 1977; Hyperion Books; London
  • D Cruikshank: A Guide to the Georgian Buildings of Britain and Ireland; 1985; Weidenfeld and Nicolson; London
  • D Dymond: A Historical Atlas of Norfolk; 1985; Hodder and Stoughton; London
  • B Gardiner: Hunt and Company's Directory of East Norfolk; 1850; E.Hunt and Co;London
  • J Harris: The Palladians; 1981; Trefoil Books; London
  • R Mason: The History of Norfolk; 1884; Wertheimer, Lea and Co; London
  • S Parissien: Palladian Style; 1994; Phaidon Press Limited; London
  • N Pevsner: North East Norwich and Norfolk; 1962; Penguin Books; London
  • M Reed: The Georgian Triumph; 1983; Paladin Books and Granada Publishing Limited; London
  • J Sapwell: A History of Aylsham; 1960; Rigby Printing Company Ltd; Norwich
  • S Wade-Martins: A History of Norfolk; 1984; Philimore and Co Ltd; Oxford
  • G Winkley: The Country Houses of Norfolk; 1986; Tyndale and Panda; Lowestoft


  • A Baggs: Norfolk Architects, 1660-1840; 1961; volume 32; Norfolk Archaeology; Soman-Wherry Press; Norwich
  • R Ellis: Shaped Gables in Norfolk and Suffolk 1570-1741; 1984; in Association for Studies in the Conservation of Historic Buildings; London
  • V Herbison: Burnham Market; 1961/2; volume 21; East Anglian Magazine; East Anglian Magazine Limited; Ipswich
  • N Jennings: House Coats; 1989; in Traditional Homes; London
  • T Smith: Refacing With Brick Tiles; in Vernacular Architecture; Vernacular Architecture Group; York


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