In Search of the Liberty of Norton Folgate

Wot No Norton?

I’m finding it an increasingly familiar occurrence to stumble upon areas of London that present a fresh historical angle to me. It’s not just the huge gaps in local history that fifteen years of London living has failed to provide me with; my general lack of knowledge of our capital city has come about through average education, crappy BIG media and general aloofness upon my part.

Up until the start of the summer, Norton Folgate meant nothing to me. If you had asked me back in April what legacy Norton Folgate has left upon London, I would have guessed that he was a notorious Evening Standard seller in the West End from some romantic 50’s London period piece.

And then along came the Madness concept album of the same name. I have often doubted the London lineage of the Nutty Boys, happy to cash in on their cheeky chappy cockney heritage, but not really contributing anything of significance to London after a career of capital exploitation.

How wrong I was. I have learnt more about a particular patch of London through listening o the Liberty album than I have after fifteen years of taking an active interest in London centric mainstream media output.

I’m assuming that any readers are as London illiterate as I am. Shameful, but here comes the history lesson, as brought to you by our ever-reliable friends at Wikipedia:

The Liberty of Norton Folgate was a distinct administrative unit between the Bishopsgate ward of the City to the south and the parish of St Leonard, Shoreditch to the north. Its origin was as the area of land occupied by the inner precinct of the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital. This was dissolved during the Reformation, but the land, reverting to the Crown, retained its status as an extra-parochial liberty.

The liberty was abolished in 1900 and was divided between the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney and the Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch. A civil parish of Norton Folgate in the County of London existed between 1889 until it was absorbed by the parish of Whitechapel in 1921.

In 2008, in opposition to a plan to demolish the trendy Light Bar (built as a power station for the Great Eastern Railway) in order to build an office block, local activists claimed that documents in the council archives showed that the abolition of the Liberty of Norton Folgate in 1900 was technically invalid and that it still existed.

One thing that I have learnt about London after my time passing though here is to believe in the power of coincidence. This isn’t a random city with individual events being played out in isolation. There is a very strong spiritual feel to the city, drawing in seemingly unconnected events, and then presenting you with some form of narrative in which to make sense of your confused world.

And so in the week when I learnt more about Norton Folgate, I found myself landing a freelance project around the area. But coincidences don’t come in pairs – you need a third encounter to confirm the pattern.

Step forward Mr. WWSI and his weekly dispatch of photographic instructions to follow around the city. It just had to be Norton Folgate, didn’t it?

And so I cycled off to the forgotten part of town, hidden away behind Bishopsgate, full of enthusiasm for an area that I feel I know through music and online mythology, seeking out the truth. The persona of Norton Folgate has almost become a character in itself, thanks to the human face that Madness portray in their concept album classic.

Did I find the streets of the East End paved with more myths to perpetuate the legend of Norton Folgate?

Find out in the photo dialogue piece below…

Full flickr set over here.


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