by Robert Lancaster
This is the earliest known photograph of, what was then, the sleepy rural village of Norton. It shows part of Norton Road, and Church Lane with St Nicholas’ Church behind. The photograph dates somewhere between 1880 and 1900 and is part of the collections of The First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth Garden City.
At first glance the scene is very similar to that of today but a closer look shows how many changes have taken place over the past 120-140 years. Norton Road is very narrow and remained this width until it was widened to accommodate increasing traffic, including buses that found the narrow road difficult to negotiate, in the mid 1930s and again in the 1970s.
At the far right of the photograph, behind the hedge and to the right of the tree, can just be seen the pan tiled roof of a building. The site is now part of the school car park.
The photograph also shows that, at the end of Church Lane, there were two cottages shown by the two doors, the one on the right being ledged and boarded. Subsequently they became one cottage with the right hand door replaced by a window. There appears to be a small, single storey thatched outbuilding immediately to the left of the left hand cottage although it is possible that it is attached to the building described below.
However, the most intriguing feature is seen at the end of Church Lane where, to the left of the row of cottages, there is seen the gable end of a building facing Norton Road, where the allotments are today. The building is constructed of timber weather boarding that may have been lime washed and has a thatched roof, which was typical of a number of Norton cottages of 18th or early 19th century date. Also a single brick chimney stack can be seen, that may also have been lime washed.
This building may be the almshouses that are referred to from the early 18th century. Five houses are mentioned and in 1719 there is a reference to repairs so the buildings must date from before then. Further repairs took place in 1833 when the houses were occupied by five people.
It is difficult to reconcile the reference to five houses with the building shown in the photograph which, although it does not clearly show the front elevation, appears to be a modest single dwelling.
The 1880 Ordnance Survey map shows a building on this site but by 1900 the site had been cleared. Recent cultivation of one of the allotments has revealed fragments of clay tobacco pipe stem of the 18th and 19th centuries and pieces of broken pottery of the same period as well as a few pieces of medieval and Roman pottery.
So a moment of time recorded on a summer’s day over a hundred years ago has become an important historical document.
Grateful thanks are due to Deborah Giles who has discussed this photograph with me.
Former Curator Letchworth Garden City Heritage Museum