Jack and the city of love
They called him Jack Valentine – and each February 13 he had the freedom of Norwich. Now this wonderful Norfolk family custom is in for a revival.
The Norwich tradition of Saint Valentine’s Eve was rediscovered last July by The Bridewell museum when it re-opened following a three-year closure and a £1.5 million facelift. Visitors to the museum can view Victorian Valentine’s cards and a selection of opulent gifts purchased in the run-up to Saint Valentine’s and anonymously given on February 13, Saint Valentine’s Eve.
The museum, now vibrant, light and inviting with a restored courtyard and redisplayed galleries, will be open for Valentine’s in 2013. Hannah Henderson, Curator of Community History at The Bridewell, said: “We are delighted to offer the unique story of Saint Valentine’s Eve. The beautiful displayed cards are works of art and it is rare to get a glimpse into the celebration of Valentine’s at a time when it was a little more sincere and tasteful.”
Saint Valentine’s Eve was a Victorian tradition particular to Norwich and parts of Norfolk – which always like to “do different”. Visitors to the city were puzzled to find shop windows crammed with gifts in early February. For weeks beforehand newspapers were full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.
‘We do not here content ourselves with lace-cut papers, but everybody sends everybody real presents anonymously; and, as on all gift-bestowing occasions, the children come in for the lion-share’ Valentine’s Eve in Norwich by Helen Downes, 1862
Shops took on extra staff and London Street bustled with people making secret purchases. Clocks, umbrellas and workboxes, vases, tea caddies and albums, shawls, jigsaw puzzles and writing desks were all bought as Valentine gifts. Young and old were included in the festivities – it was a real family occasion, not just for lovers.
As soon as it got dark on Saint Valentine’s Eve, people began knocking on doors and leaving presents on doorsteps. Gifts were presented anonymously, labelled only ‘Good Morrow Valentine’. Practical jokers rang doorbells and ran off, or left mock parcels which were whisked away by invisible strings when someone tried to pick them up. Indoors there were excited shrieks, flushed faces and much laughter as parcels were examined for clues to the giver’s identity.
Then there was the enigmatic figure of Jack Valentine. Hannah sees him as a cross between “the Artful Dodger and Peter Pan”. Despite searches, no pictures seem to survive of Jack. There was a hint of mischief to ‘Jack’s’ fun. Did it go too far? Hannah’s researches so far indicate it was a much-loved custom.
Its origins are a little hazy, but the heyday of Valentine’s Eve was undoubtedly the reign of Queen Victoria. The new postal service helped people send more gifts. It was still widespread 50 years ago – and, of course, many people still continue the practice.
Additional reporting by Peter Sargent.
‘I am inclined to believe that this mode of keeping Saint Valentine is confined to this city’ Notes and Queries, March 9, 1850
Do you remember Saint Valentine’s Eve? Do you still send gifts in your family? Write to us at Let’s Talk.
Spread the love
The Bridewell will be offering Saint Valentine’s Eve themed children’s activities during February half term, independent shops in the Norwich Lanes and The Norwich Cathedral Quarter are being encouraged to creatively decorate their shop windows and the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library located at The Forum will offer an exhibition of photographs, letters and other documents from their archive relating to the wartime romantic relationships between Norfolk residents and American Air Force personnel during the Second World War.
The library is also asking people to come along and share their wartime romantic memories of the American GIs in Norfolk.”
The Bridewell is a fascinating old building. Once the home of a city mayor from the later Middle Ages, It later became a prison and shoe factory. The modern museum reflects Norwich life and work down the years, and is packed with fascinating detail.
Bridewell Museum, Bridewell Alley, Norwich NR2 1AQ.
Open Tues-Sat 10am-4.30pm
Tel: 01603 629127