History and Artefacts


The Friends of the Norwich Museums was founded by John Henry Walter, of Drayton Hall and a Director at Norwich Union, in December 1920, originally under the name of The Friends of The Castle Museum.  He was concerned that art of local and national importance was being lost to the people of Norwich and Norfolk as there were no funds available to purchase them.  He used his connections to enrol 35 subscribers who came from the aristocracy, gentry, local businessmen, politicians and antiquarians.

The first year saw the purchase of a Tudor door for £100 and a William Absolom jug for £12 which left a balance of £39 8s.

The early Friends expertise was key to establishing the Friends organisation.  Members donated money, gave advice and bequeathed their personal collections.  John Walter showed his leadership and commitment by donating Nelsonia (his particular interest), ceramics, etchings and silver.

As Museum Buildings were acquired, the Friends formulated a policy to collect objects relevant to their individual characteristics.  Early collections had strong representation in archaeology, natural history, ethnography, geology and curiosities.  The Friends decided they would focus on under-represented artefacts such as fine art, porcelain, silver, furniture and items of local interest such as paintings by Norwich School artists, Lowestoft porcelain and Norwich silver.

Artefacts bought or contributed to with Friends donations include:

Supper at Emmaus by Cornelis Engelsz 1612

Widely regarded as the Dutch Golden Age painter's masterpiece, the Friends helped to acquire the painting for Norwich Castle in 2004. It was originally thought to have been acquired by Sir Nathaniel Bacon during his European Tour in 1613

16th C Door from 18th C Norwich House

The Friends first acquisition in 1921 for £100 (approx £5000 today). The door came from the Norwich home of William Louth, Prior of Walsingham

William Absolom Jug 1790

A trinket from Gt Yarmouth c 1790. An early Friends purchase, bought for £12 in 1921

Glass Bowl entitled 'Journey 1' by contemporary artist Clare Henshaw

The Friends are delighted to support the Museums with acquisition of contemporary art as well as the historic. Clare Henshaw is known for glass art and more recently for textiles and painting.

Pottery Model Cradle 1700's

Its thought these small cradles sometimes filled with coins would be given to mark a Christening

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The Friends and Norwich Museums Buildings

Norwich Museum Buildings

The first established Museum was founded in 1825 in small rooms in the Haymarket. This was the domain of the rich and leisured and these rooms provided a ‘gentleman’s club’ exclusively for paying members and a place where personal collections could be displayed and information exchanged.

The second Museum was designed by County Surveyor, John Brown and was in Exchange Street on the site that is now Jarrolds Stationery.  This was used for 5 years and then expansion dictated a move to St Andrew’s Street on the site that had been part of the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace.  A new building was constructed to house the collections and the decision was made to open the doors to the public free of charge on Queen Victoria’s wedding day in 1840; it was a success and from that time the public were allowed in free of charge.

In 1884 the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, announced the amalgamation of the City gaol on Earlham Road and the County gaol a Norwich Castle into a purpose-built establishment on Mousehold Heath.  The Castle was therefore offered for sale and, being no interest shown, the decision had been made to allow it to become a ruin.  At this point a Quaker banker and philanthropist, John Henry Gurney, outlined proposals to convert the Keep and prison into a public museum.

John Henry Gurney had consulted with members of the Norfolk and Museum Committee, one of whom was a prominent Norwich architect, Edward Boardman.  They carried out wide research before putting their proposal forward to the City Committee.  Funding was acquired to secure the Keep and Mound but excluded the Shirehall and County Police Station which have subsequently been absorbed into the complex.

The building work was completed in 1892 and the interior fit out started.  The collections from the Norfolk and Norwich Museums and gifts of money and objects were used and many donors joined the Friends of the Castle Museum.  When other Norwich Museums opened they became the Friends of the Norwich Museums.

Norwich Castle was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) in 1894.

As a result of the Foundation of the Friends of the Norwich Museums, two more buildings were given to the City and they became Strangers Hall Museum and the Bridewell Museum.

Strangers Hall was donated by a local solicitor, Leonard Bolingbroke, in 1922 who had rescued the building from dilapidation.  The gift included most of the contents and, as a result, Strangers Hall became England’s first Museum of domestic life.

In 1925 Sir Henry Holmes donated the Bridewell as an Industrial Museum, illustrating the rich industrial heritage of Norwich and Norfolk.

The Friends Today

Today, as the oldest independent Museum support group in the country, the Friends continue their loyalty and commitment to the three Norwich Museums. As a thriving group of around 900 members, the Friends help to secure major funding from national, regional and local organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and many more funding bodies.

We are very pleased to be supported in our work by both our Patron, Lord Cholmondeley, and the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk.

The Friends' contribution supports and enhances the work of the City's Museums who strive to bring wider access to collections of national and even international importance.

From fine art and costume, archaeology to social history, decorative arts to natural history, the Norwich Museums are home to some of the best regional collections in the UK.

Among many contributions and purchases in recent years, the Friends have contributed to the funding of the floodlighting on the Castle Keep, helped to purchase the Winfarthing Pendant and provided crucial initial funding to allow further fundraising for the restoration of Samson.

The Friends have contributed to support the purchase of other archaeological hoards assisting the Castle Museums with their collections of Roman, Iron and Bronze Age archaeology. These have been regarded as second only in importance to those of the British Museum.

The Friends continue to support the Museums in augmenting their collections of both the old and the new; modern fine and decorative art, including glassware, ceramics, paintings, jewellery and textiles. 

The Friends have worked closely with the Costume and Textile Association to fund purchases for the textile collections and with the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum for whom the Friends purchased a stair lift for disabled access.

The Friends give tens of thousands a year in support of the Norwich Museums, a far cry from the modest £151.40p, which the Friends were able to give to the Norwich museums in 1921.

Financial grants are considered at quarterly meetings and the Friends committee of Trustees are able to respond rapidly to urgent funding requests to acquire objects of importance to the Norwich Museums.

If you'd like to support the work of the Friends,  please click the link to Join Us. Alternatively, if you would like to donate, please click on the link on this website.

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