The Elizabethan House Museum – found on South Quay in Great Yarmouth – isn’t exactly what you might expect from the name. The front rooms inside the house are certainly Elizabethan, with the original property having been built in 1596 by Benjamin Cooper (or Cowper), who was a wealthy merchant and local Member of Parliament; however, major changes have since been made to the building and as you move through the rooms, you also move through time, passing by Oliver Cromwell and into the Victorian era.
The Cromwellian story attached to the museum was the most interesting to me. It is said that a group of conspirators met in an upstairs room in 1648 to agree the execution of Charles I. John Carter, one of the richest and most powerful people in Yarmouth, owned the house at the time (having bought it from Cooper in 1635) and he was known to be a friend of Cromwell, who most likely visited the house on several occasions. In fact, his son Nathaniel Carter later married Oliver Cromwell’s grand-daughter. However, although Carter was certainly known to many of the conspirators – for example, Miles Corbet, a colleague of Carter and Member of Parliament for Yarmouth, is one of those who actually signed King Charles’ death warrant – this dastardly meeting is described as a legend or story rather than a fact. However, the Conspiracy Room on the first floor of the Elizabethan House Museum is kept dark and shuttered, which creates just the right atmosphere to spark your imagination and build a picture of the conspirators gathered by candlelight, plotting the death of a king.
Also housed in this room is a rare example of a linen doublet and breeches, dating from the early 17th century, and it is shown near to a portrait of John Carter from around the same time. The doublet is not linked to John Carter specifically but fits with his dates and is clearly one of the highlights of the museum’s collection. The Jacobean plasterwork ceiling in this room is also worth a look (and a bit of neck strain).
While I was drawn to the story of the Cromwellian plotters, I have to say there wasn’t a great deal more in the museum that really caught my fancy. There were some interesting Dutch stained glass windows in one corridor and a lovely wooden Noah’s Ark with its pairs of animals presented in a display cabinet next to the Victorian toy room, which was also home to something else that made an impression… although not a good one! This was a horrific display of Victorian taxidermy comprising a set of stuffed squirrels seated at a dining table. As a museum piece, it is a good example of what the Victorians were doing in the field of taxidermy, but it made me glad that times have changed (not always my default setting!)
Other rooms elsewhere in the house include: a bedroom and study/dining room in the Tudor style, and a parlour, kitchen (sometimes used for demonstrations of Victorian cookery) and scullery in the Victorian mould. All in all, it’s a bit of a hotch-potch and I found it a little disconcerting to be jumping from one era to another in the time it took to walk down a short corridor. If you have children, this museum could help to introduce them to different aspects of different time periods but for the more experienced Trust visitor, there are better examples of Tudor and Victorian houses to be found around the country, and besides John Carter and his scheming associates, there aren’t too many significant stories in the house’s domestic history.
Perhaps the best way to approach this museum is as part of a history walk around Great Yarmouth. There are several information boards located along the South Quay that pinpoint other locations nearby that are relevant to the town’s merchant and naval history, while just a short walk along the street is the Nelson Museum so you can pop in and explore the life and times of one of Norfolk’s most famous sons. After visiting a few National Trust properties related to Nelson and Emma Hamilton, I have read biographies of both over the past year, so I felt I had to call in and pay my respects. Again, it’s a fairly small museum and I was familiar with most of the stories it had to tell, but if you don’t know much about Nelson and his rather colourful life, it’s worth a quick look.