Arcade History


Architecture and the Skipper family

George Skipper the second son of a Dereham building contractor, was Norwich's best known and most original architect.  According to Sir John Betjamin 'he was to Norwich what Gaudi was to Barcelona'.  He was responsible for the designs of the city's most notable commercial buildings as well as hotels, country residences and public buildings throughout East Anglia, in Somerset and in London.  His work is generally held by authorities on Victorian and Edwardian architecture to have been of national importance, yet Skipper's original intention was to have been a painter rather than an architect and his early training was at the Norwich School of Art.

Skipper's father persuaded him to train, with a London architect John T. Lee, and he qualified after 3 years as a pupil at the age of 23. A year later he set up his own practice in Norwich by painting 'architect' over the door of his Opie Street office.  He apparently passed his time whilst waiting for customers by preparing designs for architectural competitions.  This was his first winning entry.  It secured him several commissions in Somerset, including work for the shoe magnates Clarke's of Street.

The Influence of Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was so-called from Samuel Bing's art-shop 'Maison l'Art Nouveau', this international movement aimed at bringing together the finest designers and craftsmen to unify the designs of buildings, furnishings and the decorative arts within. New methods and materials were combined to integrate the useful with the beautiful.  Influenced both by Japanese art and by the earlier Arts and Craft styles, the English Art Nouveau used flowing lines and symbols taken from nature.  The peacock, used in the Arcade frieze, was a particular favourite.  Stained glass was also used widely.

The original design of the Arcade, and its decorative features in particular showed that Skipper was experimenting with ideas drawn from Art Nouveau.  He was clearly aware of the work of the leading architects of the day.  Victor Horta in Belgium and Hector Gimard in Paris.

George Skipper went on to provide the City with some of its finest buildings.  Some may still be seen -   The Daily Standard offices on St Giles, Jarrolds, the Commercial Chambers in Red Lion Street and the Norwich Union offices in Surrey Street.

In the post-war years Skipper worked on a prestigious rebuilding scheme in London's fashionable Sackville Street. His son Edward has maintained the families architectural tradition and won acclaim for prize-winning schemes such as the Carlton Terrace restoration, whilst grandson Jonathan uses the influences of the Arcade to create his wrought-iron furniture.

The opening of the Royal Arcade

On May 24th 1899 city dignitaries celebrated the opening of its new, prestigious, purpose-built shopping arcade - The Royal Arcade. 

Arcade shopping was very much in vogue and the Royal brought the fashionable, exotic and continentally influenced architecture of Art Nouveau for the first time.  It was therefore appropriately hailed as 'a fragment from the Arabian Nights dropped into the heart of the old City'.

A multitude of traders in Norwich

During the seventeenth century the appearance of new types of manufactured goods and the growth of foreign trade gave rise to the development of the first specialist retail shops; tobacconists, tea and coffee merchants, booksellers.

As Norwich grew as a provincial centre, county gentry began to linger in towns in search of social events, luxury goods and professional services.  They stayed at the large market place inns, they patronised all the small businesses in the heart of the city.  

By the nineteenth century, the number of shops had multiplied to cater for the needs of both county customers and the growing number of Norwich residents who had money to spend over and above the most basic household needs.

Norwich trade directories of the year 1877 include the mention of seven toy dealers, 64 milliners and dressmakers, 31 chemists, 17 china, glass and earthenware dealers and no less than 101 bakers! 

The City of Norwich c. 1899

In 1800 Norwich was prosperous and important.  It was famed for its worsted weaving industry, and it's most successful product, 'Norwich shawls' were in demand all over the world.  But decline and difficulties in the years that followed resulted in the loss of status for the city and hardships for its inhabitants.

By 1900 recovery was well underway.  The economic base was broader, with brewing, leather craft, iron founding, engineering and food processing industries all thriving.  The city's commercial avenues were being explored to the full, especially in banking and insurance.  The inter-dependence of town and country helped establish agricultural services such as corn dealing, and land agency and a weekly cattle market brought customers of all sorts into the city.

The Norwich residents had to be clothed, fed, housed, watered and amused and the photographs shown here clearly reflect the commercial bustle that meeting their needs created.