The Cedars North, Walsham, Norfolk
Investigating the journey of a building from Georgian residence to council offices.
The Cedars and the North Walsham High Street Heritage Action Zone
In 2020, North Walsham was awarded £975,000 by the government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zones project delivered by Historic England, with additional funding invested by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and North Norfolk District Council – a total package of £3.2 million.
The High Street Heritage Action Zone scheme for North Walsham, due to run until 2024, is focused on renewing and reviving the historic town centre, including public realm and building improvements.
As part of the programme, Historic England has begun a Historic Area Assessment: a research project looking at the history and development of the town centre’s buildings.
A key component of the High Street Heritage Action Zone is The Cedars, located just to the east of the Market Place, in the heart of North Walsham.
Constructed as a private residence in the late 18th century, this building was altered in the Victorian period and following the Second World War was converted as offices for North Walsham Urban District Council. The Cedars, listed Grade II in 1972, remained in use as council offices until 2016, when the building was vacated. Thanks to the High Street Heritage Action Zone scheme, works to fully restore The Cedars are well underway, and our partners at North Norfolk District Council are presently considering the best future use for the building, along with the former agricultural outbuildings on the adjacent plot.
Early History of The Cedars – Home to a Naval Hero
By 1824 The Cedars was home to a notable figure in naval history – Captain Thomas Withers.
Research into the history of The Cedars has shown that it was built around the 1790s and then formed one of a series of substantial houses on the fringes of North Walsham. Information about the building’s original occupants has not been uncovered, but by 1824 The Cedars was home to a notable figure in naval history – Captain Thomas Withers (1769-1843). Born in nearby Knapton, Withers was ‘the companion in arms and friend’ of Horatio, Lord Nelson, who attended Paston Grammar School in North Walsham in 1768-71. Withers served under Nelson on the HMS Agamemnon between 1793 and 1796 during the Napoleonic Wars. He went on to serve under the naval officer Sir Richard Bickerton and was promoted to Post Captain in 1809. It was later stated that ‘Such was the confidence reposed in’ Withers that he was at one point responsible for ships amounting to no less than 50,000 tons.
Withers retired from active service in 1816, settled in North Walsham and was certainly in residence as a tenant at The Cedars in 1824, by which year he had married and was expecting a child. The house at that time – described by a local newspaper as ‘fit for the residence of a genteel family’ – had three sitting rooms, five bedrooms, a detached stable building and a walled garden, with ‘choice fruit trees’. It can be imagined that, during his time at the house, Withers entertained friends and neighbours with stories of his naval exploits. On his death, the ‘Naval and Military Gazette’ stated that ‘few men were better versed in all the stirring events of that great contest in which he had borne a part’.
The Shipleys at The Cedars
William Shipley, veterinary surgeon, rented The Cedars from around the late 1830s, using the building both as a home and a workplace.
After Withers came the Shipleys. William Shipley (1799-1877), veterinary surgeon, rented The Cedars from around the late 1830s, using the building both as a home and a workplace: the surgery was probably located between the entrance hall and the kitchen. Shipley lived at The Cedars with his family, which included his wife Eliza and their sons William (1833-1904) and Joshua (1834-91), both of whom qualified as vets. The Shipleys also ran a branch of their veterinary practice in Great Yarmouth, and that became a permanent home after The Cedars was sold in September 1869. By that point, the building was described as a ‘spacious and decidedly valuable Brick and Tiled Dwelling-House’ which was in ‘excellent repair’, having been refurbished during that year.
Rebuilding by the Smiths
The purchaser of The Cedars in 1869 was George Smith (1812-86), who had lived and worked in adjacent Church Street since at least 1841. Smith was a grocer, draper, banker and insurance agent who became a well-known figure in the town. By the 1870s if not earlier, the area around Smith’s residence and workplace at 2-4 Church Street had become known as ‘Smith’s Corner’.
By 1879, Smith had moved into The Cedars, which he seems to have rebuilt fairly comprehensively and awarded it its current name.
Works undertaken during this period included the building of an east extension containing a new dining room and bedroom suite, as well as a rear hall and new staircase.
Smith, who lived at The Cedars with his wife Martha (1816-91) and their children, died at the property in 1886, a moment which must have represented the end of an era for the town.
Smith’s home and business were taken on by his son and namesake, George William Smith, continuing the family connection with The Cedars.
George junior worked at 2-4 Church Street from at least the 1870s, became the owner of The Cedars on his mother’s death in 1891, moving in with his wife Madeline (1860-1946), and transferred his workplace to the adjacent premises at 1 New Road around that time.
Interesting changes from George junior’s time at the house include the installation of a safe or strong room for the storage of ledgers and other valuable documents.
Madeline was a keen gardener, developing the walled garden. The Smiths’ daughter Gladys (1884-1962) subsequently took on the family business, working as manager of the savings bank until her retirement.
Conversion as Council Offices
In 1946, The Cedars was rented to North Walsham Council for use as offices and was subsequently sold to the council.
Following the death of Madeline Smith in 1946, The Cedars was rented to North Walsham Council for use as offices and was subsequently sold to the council, together with surrounding land. During these years – right up until 2016 – the building was in public use and therefore a focal point of North Walsham.
Naturally, this change of function affected the building’s interior and grounds. The former dining room became the council chamber, for instance, while the council’s health inspectors were accommodated in the former bedroom suite above. Outside, the walled garden was converted to a car park, and around 1986 the former stable building – probably dating from the late 18th century – was demolished.
The setting of The Cedars also changed. The year 1934 saw the demolition of The Oaks, a nearby house set in substantial grounds on the south side of New Road. From the mid-1960s, this site was redeveloped as a public services ‘hub’, including post office, library and fire station – changing forever the semi-rural character of this quarter of North Walsham.
Restoration and Reuse
The site’s future now looks positive – while the character of its architecture has been sensitively brought back to life.
In 2021, a programme of refurbishment was initiated at The Cedars, which had been vacated by North Norfolk District Council five years earlier and had lain unused since that time.
The restoration work, overseen by Kings & Dunne Architects, has helped to breathe new life into this historic house. A detailed Historic England Research Report on the building was issued in December 2022, with the aim of informing ongoing site works and plans for the building’s future, as well as promoting North Walsham and its heritage more generally.
The site’s future now looks bright – while the character of the architecture of The Cedars has been sensitively brought back to life. The restored building, which should be seen alongside the ongoing regeneration work in and around Market Place, will now form a more unified part of the town centre of North Walsham. It will create a landmark of the High Street Heritage Action Zone scheme at the east entrance to the town, and will contribute to the sense of pride in and ownership of North Walsham as a place to live, learn, work and visit.
About the author
- Name and role
Dr Emily Cole FSA
- Title and organisation
- Senior Architectural Investigator at Historic England
- Emily is a Senior Architectural Investigator in the Historic England East of England region and (joint) Lead Professional for Architectural Investigation. Recent work, alongside that on North Walsham, includes a book on Stevenage new town (Historic England/Liverpool University Press, 2021) and research into 20th-century pubs.
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