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Don’t Take Up Farming, Old Chap!

When well-known Devon writer Henry Williamson (already famous for Tarka the Otter) announced in 1936 that he had bought a farm on the north coast of Norfolk and intended to farm it himself, the universal response was:

‘Don’t do it. Don’t take up farming, old chap. Farming is dead.’

Farming was in deep depression: and although that meant land was supposedly cheap Henry had no capital to draw on – everyone thought he was crazy! The farm he actually bought, Old Hall Farm in the coastal village of Stiffkey, was even more rundown than most and the current farmer, Mr Stratton (whom HW aptly called ’Sidney Strawless’ in subsequent books), was declared bankrupt before the sale was finalised. The over-riding impression is that the only crop grown there was thistles.

1_ early days_Loetitia and HW survey the thistles2
Early Days: Loetitia and Henry Williamson survey the thistles.

Henry had no experience of farming although he claimed farming ancestry. So why did he take this rather perverse step? He tended to say that he had written himself out of Devon, its animals, its characters, its countryside, and needed a new stimulus, and with twenty-one books on the area already published, this was no doubt to some extent true but it was not the full reason. Immediately after Christmas 1935 Henry drove up to London in his Alvis Silver Eagle sports car and went to see his publisher and great friend, Richard (Dick) de la Mare, son of the writer and poet Walter de la Mare. Henry was in a state of considerable turmoil. Dick invited him to spend the New Year with him and his wife at their home in East Runton on the North Norfolk coast.

It is obvious that Henry unburdened his troubled thoughts to his friends into the small hours. It tends to be taken for granted that this turmoil was about problems with a girlfriend. (Although married and with a family, Henry constantly fell for a succession of admiring young women.) But Dick’s suggestion that he should take up farming to solve things seems a little radical for the failure of a current love affair.

Henry had recently returned from a visit to Germany at the invitation of another close friend, John Heygate (heir to a baronetcy and an estate in Ireland), who worked for the German film company UFA. Heygate was far more involved with German politics than was apparent and he arranged with the authorities that Henry should be shown the best of the current achievements: the new autobahn roads, the fast Auto-Union cars, the ‘happy spirit’ of the extensive youth movement, and topping the list, tickets for that year’s Rally at Nürnberg, staged to impress and awe those present.

Henry was indeed impressed. Everything he was shown was efficient and prosperous. He actually had German ancestry through his paternal grandmother. But mainly he had fought throughout the 1914-18 war. His traumatic experiences, and his deep sympathy for soldiers of both sides, made him resolve to do all he could to prevent war ever happening again. He was convinced that Hitler – also an old soldier from the Great War – must surely think the same and so would never start another conflict. But despite that apparent naivety, he was also astute. A staunch patriot, he would have been aware that all was not as it should have been: that possibly the threat of war underlay the panoply. That was what was troubling him and surely what the two men discussed into the small hours. And that makes sense of Dick de la Mare’s suggestion to take up farming. It was an honourable occupation, and one that would be very necessary if war should break out. Henry would be doing his bit for his country. It would also be a haven for his family, especially his eldest son, as farming would be a ‘reserved occupation’ in time of war. Henry had seen far too many of the fine youth of Britain fall in battle.

The very next day they went to look at a nearby farm for sale – Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey. At first hesitant, a second viewing convinced Henry and he returned to Devon to put the project to his wife. The decision was made and a provisional agreement was signed on 6 March 1936. Henry then set about preparing himself for the new venture, reading books and magazines, The Farmer and Stockbreeder being prominent. Knowing he would need help he asked his brother-in-law, Robin Hibbert, who with his brothers had emigrated to Australia not long before, to return to this country and help manage the farm. Robin (‘Sam’ in The Story of a Norfolk Farm) duly arrived in December.

The legal side was far more complicated and frustrating than Henry had envisaged: valuations, dilapidations, tithes, schedules, and taxes all had to be dealt with. Meetings with the various officials went on for several months. However, the Deed of Conveyance and Mortgage was duly signed in mid-August 1936. The cost of 240 acres of farm land and its cottages (Walnut Tree Cottages) was £2,240, way beyond Henry’s means, but his wife Loetitia had recently inherited a little money on the death of her father, and this was used for the initial payments. He intended to subsidise the farm with earnings from writing articles and books, but this was to mean using a tremendous amount of energy and long hours, physical and mental, in meeting the deadlines of both demands.

2_map of the farm on the endpapers of The Story of a Norfolk Farm, drawn by C. F. Tunnicliffe.jpg2
A Map of Old Hall Farm as it appears on the endpapers of Henry Williamson’s book ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’. Drawn by C.F. Tunnicliffe.

Henry had only bought the land (not liking the huge Elizabethan manor house, Stiffkey Old Hall, which went with it – which was then sold separately) and, as the farm cottages were occupied, he needed somewhere to live with his family. On a visit in early December 1936 he found that three condemned cottages were for sale in the village, which he bought for £190, planning to do them up for the family home. These ‘Chapel Yard Cottages’ (called ‘Bugg Cottages’ after the previous owner) became Fox, Owl, and South Cottages (today these cottages are very expensive ‘des. res.’).

3_Bugg Cottages before renovation2
Bugg Cottages before renovation.

In January 1937 Henry attended the annual Agricultural Conference at Oxford, enjoying it very much and gaining some confidence that he would be able to cope. In March he resolved that he and Robin should go and camp on the farm and start some basic work on making up the farm roads and the cottages, so that all would be done by the time he actually took over the farm at Michaelmas. To this end he bought a caravan, lorry and trailer, having arranged to lease the use of a gravel pit for the raw material for making up the roads.

On 20 May, after a very difficult time loading the vehicles with all the necessary equipment the two men would need, a little convoy, Alvis Silver Eagle and caravan, lorry and trailer, set off from Devon for the Norfolk Coast. The Shallowford home was vacated: the family were to stay with their former housekeeper, Annie Rawle, until such time as the Norfolk accommodation was ready for them. The journey was as fraught as the packing had been: everything seemed to go wrong and Henry was in a state of extreme nervous tension. All the details can be found in The Story of A Norfolk Farm, published in 1941 and in the farming volumes of the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (see the Henry Williamson Society’s website). Henry’s fictional names for local places, and often people, are very easily worked out: ‘Whelk’ being Wells, for example.

As soon as they arrived and had set up the caravan and a tent at Pine Tree Copse (now known as Pine Tree Camp) they started work on the task of making up the farm roads. This was very hard manual labour, shifting gravel from the leased pit, spreading it and firming it all down (and eventually topping off with a chalk layer from their own quarry). The work was slow and exhausting but production increased when ‘One-eyed Jarvis’ (William Jarvis) offered his services and soon after ‘young red-haired [Norman] Jordan’ was also employed. Later Jimmy Sutton, who had worked for ‘Strawless’, was taken on, and his son Bob. Work also began on the rebuilding of the three condemned cottages, an undertaking beset with every difficulty one could imagine. Everything that could go wrong, did so, including Henry’s secretary/mistress Ann Thomas (daughter of the poet Edward Thomas) going down with mumps, causing Henry yet further angst. Two or three difficult journeys were made back to Devon to collect furniture and this was stored in the capacious Old Granary. When the weather got too cold for the caravan they moved down to camp in the Granary where they established a stove to keep the place warm. The main problem was that Henry and his brother-in-law did not get on. Robin was slow and not terribly methodical: Henry impatient, nervous, quick of mind and body. Inevitably, he blamed Robin for all the problems, and by the end of October Robin had left, to take up a job in electrical engineering.

Henry officially took over the farm on old Michaelmas Day – 11 October – recording in his diary:  ‘The farm is mine as occupier noon today.’ Bob Sutton was appointed ‘head-man’. Henry was by then attending all the local auctions in order to buy equipment. He also bought two horses, Blossom and Gilbert. But his pride and joy was a new Ferguson tractor, known as ‘the little grey donkey’.

It wasn’t long before problems arose over the way the men worked. They were all good local farm-workers, who had farmed in the same way all their lives. Henry was a newcomer and had new – to them very odd – ideas about how to do things. He had been a soldier in the 1914–18 war, and as a Transport Officer had particularly been trained how to deal with, and care for, horses and attendant machinery. He had had to be meticulously organised and efficient in his dealings with armaments, provisions, and the men under him. He was of course used to instant obedience to his commands. Taking on the farm seems to have thrown him back into that mode: fighting the difficulties on the farm was fighting a war. A diary entry states: ‘Here were the fruits of years of neglect. I felt like a soldier before zero hour.’ He had never (and never did) get over the trauma of his experiences in the First World War. He was always in a state of nervous energy – and exhaustion. None of this was understood by the local people. He was ‘hare’ to their ‘tortoise’. The men listened to what he had to say – then went off to do things their own old way.

In October 1937 Henry was visited on several occasions by Lady Downe, who had read his articles and heard his broadcasts. Lady Downe lived near King’s Lynn and her mission was to enlist him into the local group of the BUF of which she was organiser. A lot of nonsense has been written over the years about Henry and fascism. He was not a ‘fascist’ as interpreted in modern parlance. Henry was attracted by the agricultural policy proposed by Oswald Mosley. Mosley was also a soldier from the Great War (as it was still then called) who knew that another war would be disastrous.

The family duly arrived on 16 December and after a night or two camping in the Granary were in residence in the Chapel cottages in time for Christmas. After initial difficulties, alleviated by the kindness of the Cafferatas, new owners of the Old Hall, who invited them for Christmas lunch and baths, things settled down. Then with the New Year the hard work on the farm continued with no let up. Henry at the wheel of his ‘little grey donkey’ to prove its worth to the reluctant men, successfully plowed (he always used the old-fashioned spelling) Hilly Piece. He records Bob, finally won over, as saying: ‘Blast, I like that patent.’ But a visit to Norwich Corn Hall to buy barley seed was a sharp learning curve. Everyone had (conflicting) advice to give. Everyone knew Henry was a novice. Chickens had been bought in the autumn, and now he bought in a few turkeys as well – four hens and a stag. It was Loetitia’s task to look after them. Bullocks got sick. The horses were not looked after in the military way he adhered to. After plowing there was drilling, of barley and oats. Bob harrowed in the seed with Blossom and Gilbert. For once Henry felt things were going well – except he was constantly worried about his overdraft, which was mounting up, and had to write articles into the early hours to earn some money to counteract the situation.

In the summer of 1938 Army camps began to appear around the village and airfields began to be built. The local men had the opportunity to earn ‘good money’. The building standing in the western corner of the old chapel yard was a fish and chip shop and the soldiers and locals threw the used newspaper wrapping into Henry’s garden – to his great annoyance. Litter was always one of his greatest bugbears. He spent a great deal of time cleaning years of rubbish out of the little River Stiffkey, hoping it would once again be occupied by trout. He wanted everything to be clean, tidy, ordered. The farm buildings were done up and whitewashed, the yards, a muddy mire when he arrived, were concreted over and with great pride he set his initials in bricks within the concrete.

4_HW's owl and initials set in brick in the yard2
Henry’s owl and initials set in brick in the yard.

In August 1938 Henry garnered, with various difficulties, his first harvest. But the stacks got infested with rats and mice. At the end of his first year he made up the accounts: depressingly, liabilities seem to far outweigh assets. But considering all the complications that had arisen, there was actually evidence of a big improvement. Henry’s methods were working, although he did not realise that himself.

5_Bob & Jimmy Sutton examining head of barley2
Bob and Jimmy Sutton examining a head of barley.

He finally was able to persuade the occupiers of Walnut Tree Cottage (Mr Francis, whom Henry called ‘Napoleon’, and his rather hilariously mad wife) to move and so, once they had got rid of the swarms of fleas living there, the house could be done up and the family moved in, making that the farmhouse.

In optimistic mood, he decided to hold a celebratory party. This took place in the Granary on Saturday, 19 November 1938. The long family oak refectory table was polished, and packing cases put around for seating. Henry records setting out 51 candles around the room. His guests were Loetitia’s vivacious cousin Mary, who had been bridesmaid at their wedding, his friend John Heygate, John Raynor (Features Editor of the Daily Express), Robert Donat, the film actor, then in the middle of making Goodbye, Mr Chips, his most famous role, and another great friend, the artist best known for his horse paintings, Alfred Munnings, currently staying at Brancaster. John Coast, who came to work on the farm for a short while, was also present. Two of the children, John and Margaret, were allowed to stay up (the eldest boy, Bill, was at boarding school). It was a very jolly affair. Henry had a case of Algerian wine and food came from the farm produce, butter, pheasant, and hams being particularly noted. Everyone wore one of Henry’s large selection of what the children called ‘Horkey’ hats, several of which were ‘cotton-pickers’ that he had brought back from an extended visit to Georgia, USA, in 1934. Munnings was in great form as always, and sang a selection of his well-known bawdy songs.

Party over, farm work continued. The barley market crashed, mainly due to cheap imports, and there was a lot of unrest but little came of it. Business interests came first. The winter brought a great storm but the farm survived without anything untoward. Henry’s drainage system and various improvements saved the day. May 1939 brought the second anniversary of the commencement of the hard work on the farm. Things had greatly improved. But by autumn war was looming and Henry was greatly troubled. With his usual quixotic impulse he went to London to see Mosley to see if there was anything he could do to help prevent it; to be told that it was too late. The curtain was down. Henry was devastated by the advent of another war. He realised, as he was to write in the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, using the Morning Star as analogy, that Hitler was not the bringer of light he had hoped, but Lucifer, the fallen angel.

On his return to the farm he found Alfred Munnings by the barn painting a scene of the church and Old Hall. There had been an altercation between the artist and Henry’s son Bill, who had discovered Munnings had removed Henry’s trouser-press from the Granary to paint on! There are two versions of this painting currently housed at the Munnings Museum in Dedham.

With war declared, work on the farm continued apace. Henry’s diary records all the details of ploughing, muck-spreading, calves being born, buying of farm machinery etc. Bill did not return to school and began work on the farm (not yet fourteen years old but, as his headmaster stated, not interested in school learning).

6_Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor2
Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor.

New wartime regulations came into being and had to be strictly adhered to. The strain on Henry was immense and his relationship with his wife deteriorated. It was decided that she and the younger children should go and stay for a while with her brother, Robin, now working in Bedford. A couple known as the ‘Tranters’ – actually Freddy Tranter and Mrs Hurt – came to do farm-work and housekeep. They are portrayed as Teddy Pinnegar and Yipps Carfax in the Chronicle. They proved to be rather a disaster, and they left at the beginning of January 1940. There were others who came to work on the farm, usually at their own request; but these people were not prepared to do, neither were they suited for, the hard work necessary. Henry’s nerves being at breaking point, he had no patience with them. None of them stayed very long. Once the worst of the winter was over, his wife returned to the farm.

Although Henry had some good local friends, a faction of the locals was very suspicious of him. From the beginning he was a ‘furriner’. They did not like his ways or his opinions. This intensified in 1940 as the war worsened. He had supposedly improved his farm and made the roads up ready for the German invasion, while the skylight on the landing could only have been designed for signalling to the enemy. Local worthy Major Hammond got the village rag-and-bone man, ‘Goitre’ Gidney, to spy on Henry, and filed an official complaint. But stories that Henry was sent to prison are totally without foundation. On the afternoon of Friday, 14 June 1940 police arrived to search the farm premises. Nothing untoward was found, but Henry was taken to the police station at Wells and put into a cell. He recorded how civil they were, allowing him paper and pencil so that he could continue with his writing (of the Norfolk Farm book). When his wife came to visit, he was allowed to sit out in the yard with her. He could only be released on the order of the Chief Constable at Norwich, who was away for the weekend. On Monday morning he was taken by car to Norwich – and duly released without any charge being made. A complaint had been made: the police had had to respond. The Chief Constable warned him to be careful as he had enemies. Henry returned to the farm and continued with the haymaking. Life on the farm continued to be as difficult as ever: always there was some problem or other. The men still tended to do things ‘their way’ and Henry was often absent. Young Bill did not really carry either the experience or the authority to take charge as his father expected.

Problems also arose over the large amount of military activity in the area. Aerodromes were built all around which meant many of the local men were able to earn far more money than doing farm work. Soldiers were camped locally, some on the farm itself. They careered around in army vehicles ruining Henry’s precious farm roads made with such care and hard work. They knocked down walls and gateposts. Someone even shot one of the cows in the udder. Henry was upset and furious. There was supposed to be adequate compensation for such incidents but all that happened was cursory investigation, time-consuming form-filling and miniscule remuneration.

The Story of a Norfolk Farm was published in January 1941, receiving very good reviews that gave rise to brief optimism, but life on the farm was as difficult as ever. After haymaking that summer, Henry had arranged to make a visit to Devon to cut down a small wood he leased, to sell as firewood. He enlisted the help of Eric Perkins, a lorry driver from Wells. Eric’s girlfriend, Polly, accompanied them when they left on 14 July. The hard work involved in cutting and preparing the wood was unrewarded, for despite advertising locally little of it was sold: most of it was left in Henry’s Field, the retreat he had bought with the prize money from Tarka. Henry later wrote up the episode in a charming book, In the Woods.

In the spring of 1942 Henry came across the well-known artist Edward Seago, on leave from his military work (as a camouflage expert), painting a scene from the farm, and invited him back for tea. This began a close friendship between them. Seago’s parents lived just south of Norwich on the Bungay road. Seago painted a portrait of Henry with fishing rod in hand. This was published, together with a very percipient essay in his book Peace in War, where he states:  ‘I have never met a man more so constantly sincere, nor so steadfast in his search for truth.’ The portrait is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Another friend was the farmer and writer Adrian Bell (father of the broadcaster & ex-MP Martin Bell), who lived near Beccles. Indeed, Mrs Bell and Loetitia (who eventually lived in near-by Bungay) remained friends throughout their lives. After a visit Henry noted how hard-pressed Adrian was – a fellow farmer and writer, with a tendency to dreadful migraines. Another farming friend was the pacifist critic and writer Middleton Murry, who lived near Diss and is perhaps best known for the book Community Farm based on his own farming activities. Henry visited the farm, finding it in a rather chaotic state, worked by conscientious objectors who did not really know (or care) what they were doing. Murry edited The Adelphi magazine, for which Henry wrote articles for many years and actually took over for a short time after the war was over.

When war broke out, farming had become of national importance. In order to optimise the potential an official National Farm Survey was set up, known with affectionate humour as ‘The Second Domesday Book’. When Henry took over Old Hall Farm it was of the lowest grade, ‘C’; by the time of the survey in 1941 it was given the top grade of ‘A’. Henry’s hard work and methods had paid off. Interestingly, the official recorder later added a more personal note to the report, and Henry’s whole entry was used as the example in the introductory explanation:

The author, Henry Williamson, farmed in Norfolk from 1937 and throughout the war years. He recounted his struggle to improve the condition of his farm in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in 1941. The farm and its inspection for the National Farm Survey is also described in his autobiographical novel ‘Lucifer Before Sunrise’. He was immensely proud of his “A” Classification accorded by “the New Domesday scribe”.

7_ Farm Survey, classed as 'A'
Farm Survey – classed as ‘A’.

It is obvious that Henry was held in considerable esteem. And yes, he was, after initial fears that he had failed, very relieved and pleased at his top placing. Although life continued to be hard and difficult the harvest of 1942 was good and Henry recorded in his diary on 12 September:

‘Today we finished a long harvest … we have gathered fine crops, and in all have 7 stacks. It has been hard work, and much worry and strain for me . . . but I would not have missed it.’

In his various farm writings there are some superb descriptions of the events that mark the farm year, especially threshing, which was a major event in those days with the huge noisy machines going from farm to farm. Here it was Guy Dappling’s outfit with its Burrell engine pulling a drum and elevator. Henry was a good photographer so there is also a picture record of these events. A large selection of these can be found on the Henry Williamson Society’s website – see the page for The Story of a Norfolk Farm.

8_Threshing time2
Threshing time.

In January 1943 Henry employed seventeen-year-old Douglas Jordan, nephew of Norman who had worked on the farm from the start, to be cow-man. Douglas (‘Ackers’ in the Chronicle farm volumes) was a good worker, and immediately cleaned out and white-washed the cowsheds. Henry was greatly relieved.

Shooting has always been an integral part of most farms. Henry did not want to run his own shoot, preferring to wander around on his own to bag a bird or two for family meals. But he arranged to combine with his neighbouring farmer, Cyril Case, who had better resources for organising that side of farm life. In the autumn of 1943 it was arranged that the Picture Post (the prestigious photo-journalistic weekly magazine) would run a feature on a shoot on the farm. Features writer Macdonald Hastings (father of historian & TV personality Max Hastings) was sent to cover the event. The result was a magnificent spread of photographs and text.

9_Picture Post cover, 4 November 19431
Picture Post cover for 4 November 1943.

Mr Cafferata died and his wife moved back to live with her sister in Yorkshire. The Old Hall was taken over by Father Bruno Scott James, who came to Norfolk to convalesce after a severe illness. His personality was almost as odd as that of an earlier rector of Stiffkey, the Reverend Harold Davidson, whose funeral in 1937 Henry had attended in the first months after buying the farm. He shot at, nearly always missing, everything he saw – including a doodle-bug, when out on the marsh. Henry wrote that story up in one of his weekly articles for the London Evening Standard – to the fury of Scott James and his London friends!

To relieve the shortage of labourers on the farm, Italian prisoners of war were used. Their contribution tended to be making a fire to cook up on and very cleverly setting hair snares for song-birds to provide themselves with a snack. Towards the end of the war, for the harvest of 1945 several soldiers were deployed as farm workers. Henry was rather at his wits’ end by then and (expecting otherwise) was very relieved to find they worked well and did a good job.

By the end of the war the strain of the years of constant struggle had taken its toll on his marriage and Henry and Loetitia decided to part; his raison d’être for farming had gone.  The farm was put up for sale and there was a flurry of preparation for the auction on 24 October 1945.

10_Auction catalogue, 19452
Auction Catalogue, 1945.

The family, including Henry to begin with, moved to Bank House in Botesdale near Diss. Here he wrote a novel based on the farm years centred around the fate of a Reeves pheasant, entitled The Phasian Bird. It has some amazing descriptive passages of the wildlife encountered on the farm, and ranks alongside Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon.

11_ cover of The Phasian Bird, 19482
Cover of The Phasian Bird, 1948.

Henry then returned to Devon where he lived for the rest of his life, where he continued writing, including his magnum opus, the 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, of which volumes 13 and 14 are based on the farm years. Interestingly, in a broadcast made soon after the end of the war in 1947 (which has only been discovered in February 2020), Henry stated, proving my own premise, that his reason for going into farming was because:

There was a slump in farming, which under conditions then prevailing, could only lead to war. . . . So I undertook, almost by instinct, a completely new life. . . .  I thought I’d do my little bit on a piece of English land that was in a state of decadence.

Years later, in January 1970, he was approached by the well-known film director David Cobham about making a film for the BBC to be entitled The Vanishing Hedgerows. This was to use, as its basis, Henry’s experiences during his farming years in Norfolk, combined with the problems that modern farm practices (of that era) were causing for wildlife and the environment. This involved filming on the Norfolk farm, and so Henry returned, after many years absence, and met up again with his one-time cowman Douglas Jordan. The film is acclaimed today as a flagship film for conservation.

Henry Williamson died in August 1977, while David Cobham was actually filming the death scene of Tarka for the Rank film of Tarka the Otter. That seemed poignantly appropriate.

POSTCRIPT:

In the 1970s Old Hall Farm was bought by Lord Buxton, who in 1961 was one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature), and was also a co-founder and later chief executive and chairman of Anglia Television, being responsible for the long-running ITV natural history series Survival. The water meadows, so painstakingly drained by Henry to grow crops during the war, were returned to wetlands, and they are now a nature reserve. On the formation of the ‘Henry Williamson Society’ in 1980 he was invited to become Patron, and hosted several visits by the Society to the farm. In the Granary, lit by a spotlight, hung C. F. Tunnicliffe’s portrait of Henry, painted in 1934. On his death in September 2009 his role of Patron was taken over by his son James.

Anne Williamson

THE END

Sources:
The above text is copyright © of Anne Williamson 2020 and all images copyright © of the Henry Williamson Literary Estate.

Anne Williamson is Henry’s daughter-in-law, married to his son Richard, and manages Henry Williamson’s Literary Estate.  Brought up in Bungay, Anne was a librarian – working in the north Suffolk area, and then in Norwich City Library (at first in the original ‘Old’ Library).

https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/
https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/bibliography/a-lifes-work/the-story-of-a-norfolk-farm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Williamson

 

The Brigatine Captain and a Pirate!

First, an Explanation:
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Pirate is the most general of the four terms. Originating with the Greek peiratēs, meaning brigand, it can be applied to a wide range of nautical misbehaviour, including coastal raiding and intercepting ships on high seas. Robbery, kidnapping, and murder all qualify as piratical activities, provided there’s some water and a boat involved. If there’s no water and no boat, you’re just a regular bandit. If there’s a boat but no water, you need to go back to pirate school.”

A privateer was a pirate with papers. As the name suggests, privateers were private individuals commissioned by governments to carry out quasi-military activities. They would sail in privately owned armed ships, robbing merchant vessels and pillaging settlements belonging to a rival country. The most famous of all privateers is probably English admiral Francis Drake, who made a fortune plundering Spanish settlements in the Americas after being granted a privateering commission by Elizabeth I in 1572. The use of privateers allowed states to project maritime power beyond the capabilities of their regular navies, but there were trade-offs. Because privateering was generally a more lucrative occupation than military service, it tended to divert manpower and resources away from regular navies.

Bartleman (Pirates)2

Privateering could be shady business, and this accounts for some of the lexical overlap with the word pirate. Privateers sometimes went beyond their commissions, attacking vessels that didn’t belong to the targeted country. This extracurricular raiding and pillaging were indistinguishable from piracy as defined above. At other times, outlaw pirates would operate with the tacit encouragement of a government but without the written legal authorization given to privateers. In historical settings where these practices were common, the line between privateer and pirate was blurred.

Our Story:
As youngsters we were brought up on romantic swashbuckling tales of pirates sailing in various exotic parts of the world; then there were movies such as “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. No one ever told us that being a pirate in the cold waters of the North Sea could be just as profitable, and just as violent, – as happened, for instance, on the morning of Wednesday, 31 January 1781 when a large brigantine, the “Alexander & Margaret” was heading for London laden with coals. David Bartleman was its captain with Daniel MacAulay as his mate.

Bartleman (Brigatine)1
A Two-Masted Brigatine – similar to Bartleman’s “Alexander & Margaret” . Image: ArtUK.

At about six o’clock on that January morning a Cutter, carrying eighteen 4-pounders plus a crew of upwards of 100 men commanded by the notorious English pirate Daniel (John?) Fall, emerged out of the mist and attacked the brigantine just off Cromer on the edge of the North Norfolk coast. Bartleman and his crew courageously defended their ship and did manage to beat off what was a first assault by Fall; it was an effort which no doubt raised the moral of the men – at least temporarily.

Bartleman (Cutter)1
An 18th century Cutter – similar to that employed by Fall.

This success did indeed turn out to be short lived for barely two hours later Fall’s Cutter attacked again. This second skirmish continued for a further two hours until the brigantine became totally disabled with Daniel MacAulay, the mate, dying from the loss of blood and Bartleman also seriously wounded, some of the remaining crew less so; two small boys, apparently, escaped injury. It was clear that there was no option other than for Bartleman to strike a ransom with Daniel Fall; a ransom reputed to have been around 400 guineas. This agreement allowed Bartleman to bring his proud but shattered vessel into Great Yarmouth, which lay approximately thirty miles south-east of the skirmish area. Two weeks later, on the 14th February 1781 and at an age of barely 25 years, David Bartleman died as a consequence of his wounds and was buried in the parish churchyard of St Nicholas Church, in Great Yarmouth. To commemorate the gallantry of his son’s death, plus the bravery of his faithful mate, and at the same time mark the infamy of Fall the pirate, his father Alexander Bartleman ordered a stone to be erected over his son’s grave. At the foot of this stone is the following epitaph:

“Twas great. His foe though strong was infamous – the foe of human kind
A manly indignation fired his breast
Thank God my son has done his duty”.

On Saturday, 3 February 1781 the Ipswich Journal recorded this and other similar incidents by Fall:

“Yesterday the noted pirate Fall made his appearance to the North of this coast, and has taken a number of colliers and coasters; amongst which are the following:

The ‘John Pearson’ of Shields, ransomed for 700 guineas.
‘Smelt Coxon’ of Shields, ransomed for 400 guineas.
‘Fanny Porter’ of Yarmouth ransomed for 300 guineas.
‘Alexander & Margaret’ from Shields, ransomed for 400 guineas.”

Almost simultaneously, another account emerged from Cromer, picking up on what could have been part of Daniel Fall’s raiding programme in the vacinity of the Norfolk coast during that period, reporting thus:

“On Monday last, 11 fellows, armed with pistols etc landed out of a large boat at Runton, near Cromer, and greatly terrified the inhabitants; but assistance being called from Cromer, [ensured] they were all secured. The account they give of themselves is, that they belonged to a large smuggling vessel, which they were obliged to quit in order to save their lives; but it is supposed they belonged to the noted Daniel FALL, two of them being lately wounded, one of whom is shot through the knee, and the boat they landed from being thirty feet long. It is thought they either came to plunder, or surprise some unarmed vessel. William Windham, Esq. of Felbrigg, sent for Captain Bracey, of the impress service in this city, who accompanied by his gang, safely conducted them to town, [where] they were examined before Roger Kerrison, Esq., who committed them to Norwich Castle. They all prove to be Englishmen. (February 1781).”

Bartleman (Privateering)
Image: Wikipedia.

The Norfolk Chronicle also picked up on the theme of Fall in the following two reports; on one hand you have Fall, the pirate, and on the other hand, you have Captain Steward, the ‘good guy’ :

“Yarmouth, Feb 1, 1781. On Thursday, about twelve o’clock, the ‘Dreadnought’, with Privateer, Captain Timothy Steward, Commander of 14 carriage guns, and 50 men, went to sea………he saw a large brigantine from Shields (known now to be the ‘Alexander & Margaret……..which was taken this morning about six o’clock)………Within half an hour, another large vessel, laden with coals, passed our roads and which was also taken this morning……and ransomed for five hundred guineas. The Captains of the above vessels say, they were taken by that notorious villain FALL, who had on board his ship at that time thirteen Ransomers; they supposed that FALL has taken near thirty sail of ships from the North. It is surprising that this villain had not one Frenchman on board.”

“Captain STEWARD, his Officers……. sailed down to a Scotch privateer in the Roads, and would have had its Captain [join him in pursuit of] this audacious pirate, but the Captain refused; then Capt. Steward directly sailed down to the ‘Ranger’ privateer, but the crew refused, as their Captain was not on board and the ship [was] not in proper order for action. Captain STEWARD, had 20 Gentlemen friends on board,……….who volunteered to go in pursuit of FALL, [provided] the ships in view would join the chase; but all refused. The sloop of war, ‘Fly’, was in the Roads, but had fifteen ships under her convoy for Portsmouth. (February 1781)”

Our Ships are Privateers, YOURS are Pirates!:
It depended very much from which side you were looking. Generally speaking, the British ships which preyed on enemy vessels were described as privateers. The enemy’s ships, or those who attacked British vessels, regardless of their own origin, were described as pirates. It made little difference to the treatment given to their victims. Strickly speaking, a privateer had a government commission to carry out commerce raiding against the enemy — a kind of privatised naval warfare — whereas a pirate was simply in it for the money and would attack anyone. However, sometimes even Captain Fall was given the relative dignity of being called a privateer – and in this the profits likely to come to him from the value of his ‘catch’ were huge:

“The ‘Sans Pear’, a French privateer, Capt. FALL, is arrived at Helvoetfluys, with 100 English prisoners, and 14 ransomers, valued at 5,400 guineas. The same privateer has also taken the ‘Ranger’ privateer (formerly the Lady Washington and captained by Magnus Brightwell of Wells),  of 12 guns and 45 men; and on the third inst. she fell in with the ‘Eagle’ privateer of 16 guns and 160 men, which she sunk, after an obstinate engagement, that lasted with great fury on both sides for three hours and an half. (February 1781).”

At the beginning of June 1781, the Harwich packet, ‘Prince of Wales’ was captured by two cutters – The ‘Fearnought’, commanded by Fall, and the ‘Liberty’, which he had recently cut out from a Scottish port. The packet was taken into Flushing, where the ‘Liberty’ was wrecked as she approached the harbour and her company, including the British prisoners were rescued by Fall. It is interesting to note that although England was at war with Holland, the capture angered the Dutch, as they considered the packet-boats to be no more than neutral ships and the prisoners were soon repatriated.

Bartleman (American_Privateering)

Often FALL would sail under American colours. In February 1781 for instance, a Harwich packet sighted Fall who carried letters of marque from Holland, France and America and on this occasion hoisted the 13 stripes as the packet passed him. A short while later it was reported that Fall was off Orfordness with a squadron of privateers from Dunkirk. This demonstates that Fall, and many English sailors were happy to act as French (and American) privateers! – it would appear that a pirate was a pirate, regardless of the flag under which they happened to be sailing. However, although Captain Fall was active for quite a long time in the North Sea, it was reported in April 1782 that Fall had moved into the Irish Sea – and, apparently, Norfolk and the East Coast heard no more of him!

Today, tucked away in the old graveyard of the Great Yarmouth parish church of St Nicholas, is the headstone which was erected to the memory of David Bartleman, master of the brigantine “Alexander & Margaret” of North Shields.

Bartleman (Restored Gravestone_EDP)
The headstone in the St Nicholas Church graveyard, Gret Yarmouth, Norfolk. Photo: EDP.

In the early part of 2011, stonemason Colin Smith, spent many weeks restoring Bartleman’s faded relic of a headstone and transforming it into a legible icon for the St Nicholas Church Preservation Trust. This work was followed in the July of that same year by a special service, attended by more than 25 people; it was held in the St Nicholas churchyard, specifically for the purpose of the rededication and re-positioning of the restored stone at the West End of the Church. The stone was blessed by the Rev Chris Terry. Interestly, the funding for the restoration was said to have come from a family whose distant ancestors were themselves pirates!

Bartleman (Mason_Colin Smith_Yarmouth Mercury)
Stonemason, Colin Smith, restoring Bartleman’s faded relic of a headstone in 2011. Photo: Yarmouth Mercury.
Bartleman (Ceremony_EDP)
A special service was held in the St Nicholas churchyard in 2011 to rededicate the re-positioned headstone. Photo: EDP, James Bass.

THE END

Footnote:
Like most ship’s of the time, Bartleman’s ’Alexander’ and Margaret’ brigatine sported a figurehead, or ‘wooden dolly’ on its bow. Some three decades later, this same figurehead settled in Shields when, in 1814, the ship was in dock for repairs and the late Captain Bartleman’s father, Alexander, presented the figurehead to the quayside tradesmen. They, in turn, placed it at the entrance to Custom House Quay on Liddell Street, North Shields, and it stood there until 1850.

The curved female figure which today stands outside ‘The Prince of Wales Tavern’ in North Shields is the latest in a series of ‘wooden dollies’ which have stood at the entrance to Customs House Quay since 1814. This and all other ‘Dollies’ since then became famous the world over amongst sailors, who would cut pieces off to keep for good luck whilst voyaging at sea. Most Dollies became so defaced that they were regularly replaced.

 Sources:
https://www.gravestonephotos.com/public/namedetails.php?grave=317621&forenames=David&surname=Bartleman
https://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/yarmouth-gravestone-recounts-dire-sea-battle-with-pirates-1-977233
https://www.britannica.com/story/pirates-privateers-corsairs-buccaneers-whats-the-difference
Pirates of the … North Sea?
http://yardyyardyyardy.blogspot.com/2012/04/wooden-dollies-of-shields.html

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

A Feature of Spread Oak Wood.

It would not be incorrect to say that former forester Paul Hoda’c came to Britain the hard way – being chased by the Nazis more or less all the way from Czechoslovakia to England. It happened because of a blizzard of occurrences, all of them more or less out of his control – and it happened like this:

Paul was born in 1918 to a Catholic family in Czechoslovakia, enjoying a way of life which was utterly shattered in March, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Neighbouring Czechoslovakia immediately took fright and mobilised, and Paul was among the many hundreds of young men who signed up. Fate, however, intervened again when, a few months’ later, the Nazis invaded his country. Most of the local resistance was brushed aside, and he fled to Poland, being forced to make a highly dangerous border crossing, before finally joining the Czech Legion in that country.

121976458_978361372667412_1836466013923910614_n
 The Catholic shrine in Spread Oak Wood at Bittering, Norfolk. The shrine was built by Paul Hodác in thanks for him finding refuge from the Nazis after they invaded his native Czechoslovakia on 15 March, 1939. He discovered Norfolk whilst on holiday, spending time in Bittering from the early 1960s. The chapel was consecrated in 1974, but is gradually being lost to the woods. Photo: EDP.

But the fates had more in store. In September, 1939, Poland was also overrun, and this time the young Paul Hoda’c was forced to flee to Romania and then, eventually, to Beirut and France, where he again fought the advancing Germans. By the time France fell he was a Sergeant-Major, but he managed to escape to England.

By 1945 he was married to an English girl, and when the War was over they moved to Leamington Spa where he worked for many years at the Jaguar car factory. But two things always stayed with him – the love of his home country and the Czech forests where he had worked as a young man, and his religion, and both of them, some years’ later, finally came together in one place.

In the early 1970s – which is when I first met him – Paul had only just purchased for himself a 10-acre piece of Norfolk woodland known as Spread Oak Wood between Longham and Bittering, near Dereham. Here, at weekends and during his holidays, when he ‘camped’ in a caravan parked under the trees, he rediscovered his connection with the forests of his youth, and also found something else – an authentic Roman road.

Bittering (Salter's Lane_Evelyn Simak)
View east along Salters Lane
From here, in a sharp bend, the Devil’s Dyke extends northwards, with pastures adjoining in the west. This area once used to be part of the historical parish of Launditch. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak 

This, I presume, was one of the branches of the Fen Causeway which originally ran from Denver and may have continued east as far as Caister on Sea. Near Bittering, it went by Salter’s Lane and Stoney Lane towards Kempstone, and a short stretch of it ran along the base of Paul’s triangular-shaped block of woodland.

I visited him several times when he was living in his caravan and he showed me the distinctive line of the ancient road under the trees and covered by leaves, and another short section which he had cleared completely. For this was key to the next part of his plan – to built a chapel/shrine and erect a cross which, by dint of hard work during his free time, he duly did, by hand, using materials acquired by himself or donated by well-wishers. – And complete it he did, so successfully that the cross and the chapel, built on the Roman road, were officially consecrated in 1974. Since the shrine opened in 1983 there has been an annual Mass, and a plaque above the altar in the chapel was dedicated to Paul’s wife, Monica, who died in 1998.

122034427_978976812605868_5847754870341159517_n
Inside the Shrine. Photo: William Harrison

The last time I saw Paul Hoda’c, which is some years’ ago now, he was very much at ease among the trees, and utterly content with his lot.

By Bruce Robinson, 2014

THE END

 

Stiffkey Marsh: The Screaming Cockler!

Apart from an ‘Introduction’, The story contained herein is a Myth! – maybe based on a traditional story where ghosts emerge out of the sort of variable weather that one can find at Skiffkey! It is a story that may once have been widely believed – but possibly false or, at best, a misrepresentation of what may have happened sometime in the distant past. You decide!……..

Introduction;
The village of Stiffkey lies on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes. There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.

Stiffkey (Stewkey Blues)
‘Stewkey Blues’

The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature sometimes contributes to the occasional ‘incident’ caused by vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!

Stiffkey (Feature)

Our Story:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work as the tides race in, cruel and fast over these marshes. But the Cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles.

Stiffkey (Cockle Gatherers)2

Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’……

We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well, but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter.

It’s hard work cockling. You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you, or one of your children, might have to go hungry. We have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village; you can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.

But she wouldn’t listen……

Stiffkey ( Marsh Wreck)

We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack, your life and a night with an empty stomach is better than no life at all. So, we left the girl. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back; came back home to our families and to safety.

There was nothing we could have done, she wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad – and that quickly. Of course, when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. I don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.

Stiffkey (Scream)

Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her see! Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing; raging against the roke and the tide – even against God himself! Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So, they turned back – had to – too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.

She’s still out there of course! No, not her body; No!, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack, a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well, her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No, it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.

Stiffkey (screaming-faces)

No, it’s not ‘cause of the tide; the tide has already turned and it’s on its way back out…… But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea……It’s her, she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisier – probably ‘cause it was foggy when she drowned……No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her; with all that seaweed still in her hair. So, you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank!

Alice Cooper, November 6, 2006.

THE END

Source:
https://jongilbert.proboards.com/thread/288/screaming-cockler-stiffkey-marsh

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Awdry: The Steam-Train Enthusiast!

On 7 April 2020 the Wisbech Standard published the sale of Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s former home in Emneth, Norfolk. It was The Old Vicarage and it was there, between the years 1953 to 1965, where Awdry wrote around half of his much-loved and popular children’s stories; principally, the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends series of books which children, around the world, still enjoy today. The 8-bedroom detached house itself was built in 1858, using distinctive Victorian red bricks and set in 1.5 acres of grounds. This was where Awdry’s parishioners came on those occasions when they wanted to see their vicar. These visitors usually entered the house through the east side of the property, thus giving them access to his study. It was in this study where Awdry, not only attended to his day job of looking after his flock but also continued to write his famous books.

Rev Wilbert Awdry (Emneth Home 1953-62)
The Rev. Wilbert Awdry’s home in Emneth 1953 to 1963. Photo: Wisbech Standard.

Wilbert Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire on 15 June 1911. His father was the Reverend Vere Awdry, the Anglican vicar of Ampfield who was 56 years old at the time of Wilbert’s birth; his mother was Lucy Awdry (née Bury). More importantly perhaps is that the experiences upon which much of young Wilbert Awdry’s writings were to be based in later life began in 1917 when the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire when he was six years old. The family settled at “Journey’s End”, a house which was only 200 yards from the western end of Brunel’s 1841 Great Western Main Line ‘Box Tunnel’, through which the line passed on its way to Bath and Chippenham. Wilbert would lie in bed at night listening to the noise of the engines and he later described to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs how he and his father would engage in trainspotting the names of GWR engines, with a telescope aimed through his father’s dressing room window.

Rev W V Awdry (Box Tunnel_West Portal_Wisbech Society)
The western end of Brunel’s 1841 Great Western Main Line ‘Box Tunnel’. Photo: Wisbech Society.

Railway enthusiasts would know that it is at this point where the railway climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for some two miles. A banking engine used to be kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker, as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way eastwards up the incline.

Here was where young Awdry’s imagination began to believe that all steam engines had definite personalities and that in their ‘puffings’ and ‘pantings’ he could hear the conversation they were having with one another. From this point, Awdry quickly developed his passion for steam engines. As the son of a vicar, of whom he was very fond, Awdry also grew gradually towards a vocation as a priest and was ordained into the Church of England priesthood in 1936. It was these two lines passion – steam engines and religious devotion – that were to run throughout his life of 85 years; two lines that were straighter than most railway tracks and, together, were to be the inspiration for the story that Wilbert first told his own son Christopher.

The origin of that particular story happened in Birmingham, in 1942; Wilbert having taken the curacy at St Nicolas Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham in 1940. Christopher was confined to bed with measles. Wilbert set about amusing his son with a ‘germ’ of a story about a little old engine who was sad because he had not been out for a long time. When Christopher asked what the engine’s name was, his father said that it was Edward – the first name that came into his mind. It was Edward who, in Awdry’s subsequent first story book entitled “Edward’s Day Out”, helped Gordon’s train climb an incline – the inspiration for that act of charity clearly came from the time when Awdry listened to the sounds at Box Tunnel.

After Awdry wrote ‘The Three Railway Engine’, he built Christopher a model of Edward, together with some wagons and coaches, out of a wooden broomstick and scraps of wood. Children being children, Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, the wartime shortage of materials limited Awdry to just making a little 0-6-0 tank engine which he named Thomas because, according to Awdry, it was the most natural of names to give this particular engine – Thomas the Tank Engine was born! Christopher liked a train named Thomas and asked his father for more stories about Thomas; these duely followed. By the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, his Railway Series numbered 26 books. They all featured what became ‘established engines’ – the impish Thomas, industrious Edward, argumentative Henry and proud and pompous Gordon – as well as introducing new characters in such stories as Toby the Tram Engine, Percy the Small Engine and Duck & the Diesel Engine from the 1950’s.

In 1946 Awbry and family moved from Birmingham to Cambridgeshire to serve as Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Elsworth with Knapwell which was near Cambridge.

Rev Wilbert Awdry (Elsworth Holy Trinity_Cambs)
Ben Colburn & Mark Ynys-Mon wrote of Elsworth church itself: Holy Trinity is placed for best advantage in the village – the church stands high above the houses looking benignly down upon it all. Even if it didn’t have the advantage of the high ground the church would be impressive. The west tower is one of the grandest I’ve seen in western Cambridgeshire. It’s not particularly tall, but it is massive: broad and square, with thick angle-buttresses. The buttresses are carved with decoration, and above the parapet they turn into big pinnacles. It’s all very dramatic…… It reminded [us] of a stately (but slightly past-her-prime) old tabby cat, sitting on her haunches, looking down the hill with ears pricked up – waiting for food to arrive perhaps. PHOTO: Elsworth Holy Trinity. Photo:  Elsworth Chronicle
Rev Wilbert Awdry (Elsworth Stole)
The embroidered stole at Elsworth church commemorates the links the church had with the creator of Thomas the tank engine. Revd Wilbert Awdry, creator of the characters and author was rector at Elsworth with Knapwell 1946-1953.

Thomas the Tank Engine – in the Flesh!:
In 1947 a 0-6-0T steam engine, No.1800 was built by Hudswell Clarke for the British Sugar Corporation (BSC) to work at Woodston at Peterborough. It remained at Woodston for all of its working life where it was in daily use, in the sugar beet season, pushing wagons of beet from the farms up the steeply graded line to be uploaded at the factory. It also marshalled lengthy trains in the extensive siding that BSC had near the Fletton Loop just east of Orton Mere Station. It was in the late 1960s when diesel traction took over the duties from this steam locomotive; fortunately, however, the pensioner was maintained in good condition.

Rev W V Awdry (BSC Engine No 1800_Thomas_Gordon Edgar)
Pre-Thomas Engine (No.1800) at work with the British Sugar Corporation works in Peterborough Sept 1972. . Photo: Courtesy of Gordon Edgar,

Then in 1970 the newly formed Peterborough Railway Society (later to become the Nene Valley Railway) appeared on the scene, setting up their working base in a compound within the BSC sidings.  The company then sold its steam locomotive No.1800 to the Society for a nominal £100, and it was sometime around this point when the engine acquired the nickname of ‘Thomas’ – because of its blue livery! Almost twelve months later, in 1971, the retired Rev Wilbert Awdry returned to Cambridgeshire to officially name the locomotive ‘Thomas’, thereafter to become the star of what is now the Nene Valley Railway.

Rev W V Awdry (Engine No 1800_Thomas_NIck Cottam)
Thomas (No.1800) on the Nene Valley Railway in June 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Mick Cottam.

Of Thomas’s lasting popularity, Wilbert Awdry wrote:

“Thomas is the eternal child! Thomas is given a prohibition; naturally, as all children do when they’re told not to do something, they want to know why and they find out why by doing it.”

As for Awdry, he served seven years at Elsworth with Knapwell before moving to Bourn in 1950 as Rural Dean and then, in 1953, as Vicar of Emneth, Norfolk, near Wisbech. According to the Wisbech Society:

“It seems that concerns about his daughters’ future schooling drew Awdry from Elsworth to the Wisbech area and St. Edmund’s Church at Emneth. Both daughters attended Wisbech High School, three miles from Emneth Vicarage, and his wife Margaret taught in Wisbech at the Queen’s Girls School for 10 years.”

Rev (Church of St Edmund, Emneth, Norfolk._James P MIller)
St Edmund’s Church, Emneth, Norfolk. Photo: Courtesy of James P. Miller

‘Gordon the Big Engine’ was the first book published after Awdry moved to Emneth and 12 more were to follow during his incumbancy. Whilst there, he also maintained his enthusiasm for railways and was very much involved in railway preservation, building model railways, which he took to exhibitions around the country. At Emneth he created an extensive model railway network in his loft – it was based on Barrow-in-Furness layout. Fuelling his enthusiasm, Awdry’s Emneth home was also close to three Wisbech railway stations. The former Emneth railway station itself was on the EAR line from Watlington (formerly Magdalen Road Station) to Wisbech East. The GER Wisbech and Upwell Tramway tram engines, coaches and rolling stock were similar to ‘Toby the Tram Engine and ‘Henriett’ on the Ely to King’s Lynn mainline with Wisbech East (Victoria Rd) station. The M&GN Peterborough to Sutton Bridge via Wisbech North (Harecroft Rd) station. There were also harbour lines either side of the River Nene – M&GN Harbour West branch and GER Harbour East branch.

Time, inevitably, slipped away and in 1965, Wilbert Awdry “went into private practice” – retiring in other words. He moved to a smaller red-brick house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his study there became “an agreeable jumble of railway books, maps and timetables”, and was denoted by a “STATION MASTER” sign on the door. During these years, Awdry continued writing books for children, published a new Railway Series title each year until his last ‘Tramway Engines’ in 1972.

According to Awdry’s biographer, Brian Sibley:

“All these stories harnessed Awdry’s knowledge and love of railway engineering and history, which had to be “true-to-life”. Although the fictional engines had human personalities and voices, their activities always followed the rules of the railroad and virtually all the exploits described were based on something that had happened, somewhere at some time, to a real railway engine. Those adventures – mostly mishaps – included common derailments as well as more surprising disasters such as an engine running off the end of a jetty into a harbour or an unexpected disappearance down a disused mine. As often as not, however, these crises were brought about by the arrogance, stubbornness, jealousy or ambition of the engine involved. The morality of the stories was clear and Christian: misbehaviour led to suffering and retribution; however, provided the culprit showed repentance, restoration always followed. “The important thing,” Awdry said, “is that the engines are punished and forgiven – but never scrapped.

The analogies between the Christian faith and the ways of the railway are obvious: the engines are meant to follow the straight and narrow way and pay the price if they go off the rails. No wonder Awdry enjoyed drawing the parallels between railways and the Church: ” Both had their heyday in the mid-19th century; both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain; both are regularly assailed by critics; and both are firmly convinced that they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination.”

Rev W V Awdry (Familt_Emneth_Wisbech Society)
Awdry and family in 1996 at the time of his OBE Award. Photo: Wishbech Society.

In 1983, Wilbert made his final visit to Wisbech when he opened the Tramway Centenary Exhibition at Wisbech Museum. In 1996 Awdry was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in his sleep in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85.

Rev W V Awdry (Memorial Window_James P MIller)
The stained-glass window at St Edmund’s Church, Emneth. Photo: Courtest of James P. Miller

In Emneth, a stained-glass window was commissioned by the Awdry family and unveiled at St Edmund’s church in 2003; and in 2011 a blue plaque was unveiled by his daughter Veronica Chambers at The Old Vicarage where he had lived from 1953 and until 1965. Finally, in 2020, the Old Vicarage was placed on the market with an asking price of £895,000.

Rev Wilbert Awdry (Plaque 2011_Ian Burt)
Photo: Ian Burt.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilbert_Awdry
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-the-rev-w-awdry-1274321.html
https://lowlandrambler.com/2018/11/12/the-king-of-east-anglia-and-a-tenuous-connection-to-ringo-star/
https://preservedbritishsteamlocomotives.com/hudswell-clarke-works-no-1800-1-thomas-0-6-0t/
https://www.wisbech-society.co.uk/wilbert-vere-awdry-obe
https://preservedbritishsteamlocomotives.com/hudswell-clarke-works-no-1800-1-thomas-0-6-0t/

Banner Heading Photo: This shows Wilbert Awdry in May 1988, with ‘Edward Thomas’ dressed up as “Peter Sam” on the Talyllyn Railway, Wales. Photo: Wikipedia.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Blakeney’s Sunken Wreck.

The first 3 weeks of February 1916 were very unsettled, and often windy and wet; but it was very mild for that time of the year so it was confidently predicted by the weather forecasters of the time that ‘there was no chance of snow’ – sounds familiar! By 16 and 17 February, the temperature did settle close to 12°C in many places and there was heavy rain. However, on the east coast of England conditions were to be far worse – with gale-force winds and snow!

It was on Thursday 17 February 1916 when newspapers gave accounts of the ‘violent weather conditions which beset Britain’ and the ‘extensive damage to property and the loss of life as a result’. The “windstorm”, as it was called also resulted in ships being lost at sea, as did the Lowestoft trawler, ‘Narcissus’, which went aground and sank. The “Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal” of Friday 18th February gave a local report of ‘a violent gale, a hurricane and snow across Norfolk and Suffolk and described the damage which was caused by the extreme weather conditions and the ensuing floods.

SS Hjørdis 1a
The SS Hjørdis began life as the SS Strassburg, before her name was changed to SS Gimle and only later to the SS Hjørdis. Her name is of Ancient Scandinavian/ Icelandic origin and means “sword goddess”. Photo: Is when she was the SS Gimle (TBG142189603) – DnV, Lloyds, Starke – Steinar Norheim

But it was on the morning of Wednesday 16 February 1916 when, amid those strong gale force winds and very rough weather, the “the large steamer SS Hjørdis” set off from the Alexandra Dock in Hull bound for Calais; it was fairly fully laden with a cargo of 495 tons of coal. In charge, as skipper, was Captain Jensen; his crew amounted to ten men, made up of nine Norwegians and one Dane. Of the Norwegians, Thor Halnessen was the Chief Mate, Peter Hammer the second engineer, Eugenen Andersen an ordinary seaman, and Nilsen the steward. Ralf Petersen, from Denmark, was the boatswain.

The SS Hjørdis seemed to have had very competent skippers throughout its forty-three years of battling the North Sea, skippers who had managed to survive the sort of extreme weather conditions of 1916, conditions that were forcing some ships to run into harbour to avoid being sunk or run aground. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to see the Hjørdis leaving port that Wednesday morning, and the best that could be said about Captain Jensen’s decision was that it reflected his feeling that his ship had an obligation to fulfil her charter as it headed due south along the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire shoreline. In due course, the ship passed the Wash and prepared to round the Norfolk coast towards the North Sea; she was, after all, sailing during wartime when movements may well have been restricted. It was a direct route which would have taken her north of Sheringham to arrive off Cromer, before continuing to follow the coast, to Great Yarmouth and then south to Calais.

Captain Jensen’s planned route for the Hjørdis would suggest that he intended to hug the shore, coming in to the lee of the land to take advantage of the shelter which the North Norfolk coast can offer from south-westerly gales; the plan and the worsening conditions left little room for error. The weather was expected to hinder the ship’s progress but, surprisingly perhaps – and based on the 75-nautical mile distance travelled between Hull and Blakeney and the twelve hours it took her to reach the North Norfolk coast – the Hjørdis had travelled at close to her normal cruising speed of 6 knots. However, the added loss of visibility seriously impeded the Captain’s knowledge of the ship’s true location.

About twelve hours later, shortly after seven o’clock in the evening, the ship did go aground at the west end of Blakeney Bar and was wrecked; only one of the eleven-man crew survived despite the Captain and crew managing to launch and take to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, the boat was swamped within minutes by a large wave; it was a matter of speculation whether the ten men were drowned in the lifeboat or when they might have taken to the water in an attempt to swim ashore. Ralf Petersen, the boatswain from Denmark, had the presence of mind to take off his boots and most of his clothes before striking for the shore.

SS Hjørdis (Watch House)
The Blakeney Watch House.

Against immeasurable odds it would seem, he reached the beach and struggled along it for nearly two miles – apparently by following the telegraph poles which were positioned along the beach – before reaching the Blakeney Watch House. From there, a Mr Strangroom, a 45-year-old Auctioneer and Draper of Cley who was acting on behalf of the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, arranged for Petersen to have new clothing and be taken to the “King’s Head” public house in Cley’s High Street. There, he was cared for by Frederick Baines, the 40-year-old Licensed Victualler. The “King’s Head” was the place to which bodies of those lost at sea were traditionally taken to be coffined before burial.

The Rescue Attempt:
The newspaper reports which followed gave no information as to how emergency assistance was summoned, or the sequence of events which cause it to be instigated. The men in the Watch House may have seen the Hjørdis from their upstairs “look-out” room or it may not have been until Ralf Petersen reached the Watch House that the men there raised the alarm. What is known is that the Cley ‘Rocket Brigade’ was hastily assembled and hurried to the beach with five horses; under the supervision of Henry Parker, a 58-year-old Journeyman Butcher from Cley, and the rocket apparatus which was carried on a cart lent by John Everett of Hall Farm nearby. Battling against the gale, the Brigade’s progress along the shingle would have been slow, but they did manage to get to within 300 yards or so of the SS Hjørdis, but there was no response to signals sent up and the Brigade returned to their base.

SS Hjørdis (Breeches Buoy)
The Life Line, by Winslow Homer, 1884, shows a breeches buoy in use during a rescue operation. Photo: Wikipedia.

Explanation of the Cley ‘rocket apparatus’: The system was simple but effective for the rescuing of shipwrecked mariners from the safety of the shore – lifeboats themselves would ground in shallows or be beaten back by crashing breakers. The system was invented by Captain George Manby, barrack master, of Bauleah House on St Nicholas Road in Great Yarmouth. In 1807 he witnessed scores of ships and crews being lost in appalling weather. One in particular was the gun-boat ‘Snipe’ which ran aground at Gorleston. Manby galloped there on horseback, seeing “entreating men clinging to her rigging and women thronging the forecastle with the most piercing shrieks, imploring our succour and assistance.” As he watched, helpless and frustrated, exhausted men were falling from the rigging into the cauldron of a sea which was sweeping women overboard to their deaths. That night 147 souls perished… all within 50 yards of safety!

SS Hjørdis (Rocket Launcher)

Manby set to work. After much frustrating trial and error, he devised a system under which those being rescued were hauled ashore in a breeches buoy which hung beneath a pulley on an aerial line fired across the stricken vessel by mortar or rocket. He demonstrated it with himself as “the endangered mariner”, and also created a star shot for work in darkness. It was put into use for real in 1808 when the brig ‘Elizabeth’ grounded 150 yards offshore in a blizzard. The line was successfully fired across the brig and secured, and seven relieved seamen were hauled to safety by pulley-on-line through snow, sleet and rollers.

SS Hjørdis (Manby_Plaque)
This plaque, acknowledging the breeches buoy rescue achievements, was once on a pedestal in Manby’s own Gorleston garden – but now in the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth. His system was adopted by the ‘Rocket Brigades’. Photo: EDP.

It would seem that, during the interval between the SS Hjørdis faltering on to the beach and the Rocket Brigade being summoned, the ship’s crew – possibly thinking that rescue from the shore was hopeless or would be slow to execute – took to their own lifeboat. They may well have been clear of the ship for a short time before the huge fateful wave overwhelmed them; some may have tried to swim to shore, others may have chosen to remain in the lifeboat – who knows?

While the Rocket Brigade was returning from the beach, which would have been about 11.30pm, a body was found by Corporal Bertie Hale of the 67th Provisional Battalion, approximately 150 yards east of the Watch House. An hour later, a second body was found about 2½ miles east of the wreck by a James White, Naval pensioner of Church Loke, Cley. Both bodies were recovered from the water and taken by the Rocket Brigade’s cart to Cley. They were examined the following morning by Police Constable Hewett, a retired (possibly because it was wartime) 56-year-old police officer from Norwich; he had them removed to Blakeney. Two more bodies were discovered soon afterwards at Salthouse.

News of the Disaster:
Early, brief reports of the SS Hjørdis appeared in regional newspapers in the days following the ship going ashore. The extent of the loss of lives was feared but not confirmed:

“Lloyd’s Blakeney (Norfolk) message to-day says the Norwegian steamer SS Hjørdis, from Hull for Calais, went ashore on Blakeney Point last night. The crew left in a boat, which was swamped. It is feared that ten lives have been lost. One man swam ashore.”

Ralf Petersen’s own account of his courageous attempts to save his fellow crew members and of his own survival was recorded in the “Eastern Daily Press” of 18th February, two days after the disaster. According to the newspaper, Captain Jensen had said “Hard a starboard” (this was incorrectly recorded in the press report; it should have read “Hard a port”) in order to get into deeper water but the ship struck twice more and then a fourth time, so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. Ralf Petersen’s account suggested that Captain Jensen had been overwhelmed by events and that it was Thor Halnessen, the Chief Mate, who took control.

Within a few days of the SS Hjørdis being wrecked, the scale of the disaster quickly became clear, and the newspapers reported accordingly. However, no mention was made of a lifeboat being launched from the shore which prompted a Mrs Susie Long to write to the “Eastern Daily Press” two days after the Hjørdis was wrecked to state that a boat did in fact go out to offer assistance:

“Sir – In your report in the “Eastern Daily Press” I see no mention is made of the lifeboat crew of this parish, who went out at 8pm and arrived home at 4am in the old lifeboat “Hettie”, belonging to Mr Holliday. They went up to the steamer, where all the lights were still burning both inside and out, and could and would have saved all the crew if they had not previously left. The steamer is ashore on East Point, (later corrected to say ‘West Point’). I may say that the men went on their own initiative, having had no orders. I think it is only fair to mention this. – Yours faithfully”,

Mrs Long’s husband, Charles Long, and her father-in-law, George Long, were both crew members of the RNLI Blakeney lifeboat ‘Caroline’. The “Mr Holliday” referred to was Richard Holliday, a Fisherman, aged 50, of High Street, Blakeney, also a crew member of the ‘Caroline’. At the time, the ‘Caroline’ had a crew of mainly fishermen who were too old for active war service; of eighteen crew members, the majority were over the age of fifty.

SS Hjørdis (Caroline)
Blakeney Lifeboat crew pictured in 1918 on the lifeboat Caroline. Photo: Anthony Kelly.

Plaques in Blakeney Church commemorate the Blakeney lifeboats and their rescues, up to 1924, but none refer to either the ‘Hettie’. or the ‘Caroline’ going to the aid of the Hjørdis, and it remains a matter of speculation as to how the fishermen of the ‘Hettie’ were alerted to the disaster; perhaps it was by communication from the Watch House or from the Rocket Brigade – and why did the “old lifeboat”, rather than the RNLI lifeboat ‘Caroline’, go out to the SS Hjørdis rather than the ‘Caroline’; was it because the latter was probably in the Lifeboat House and would have taken longer to launch?

The Lost Crew – Inquest and Burials:
Of the ten men who drowned, the bodies of only four crew members were recovered and taken to the Guildhall in the High Street, Blakeney and where the sole survivor, Ralf Petersen would identify them. The bodies of the remaining six sailors would, probably, never found. On the Saturday following the disaster,19 February 1916, the inquest into the deaths of the sailors was held at the ‘Ship Inn’ in the High Street, Blakeney. It was conducted by the Coroner of East Dereham, Mr Walter Barton.

SS Hjørdis (Ship Inn_Postcard)
The Ship Inn in Blakeney where the Inquest was held. Postcard Photo: Public Domain.

The ‘Thetford & Watton Times” of 26th February reported on the inquest:

“……. Ralf Petersen, boatswain on the Hjørdis, and the sole survivor of the crew of eleven, said …… When she first struck the captain said, “Hard a starboard”, to get her into deep water. The order was obeyed, but she struck twice more, and then she struck so hard that the compass fell off the wheel. The chief mate came up from below and said, “The only thing to do is to get the lifeboat out before it is smashed.” But the captain did not give the order as he was on the bridge crying like a little boy. They got the lifeboat out, and all got into her, but as soon as they had got clear of the bow of the steamer the sea half-filled the boat. Then another went right over her, almost filling her, and most of them were washed into the sea………He identified the bodies washed up at Blakeney as Thor Halnessen, aged 34, chief mate, and Eugenen Andersen, aged 20, ordinary seaman. Witness had also seen two bodies that came ashore at Salthouse; they were Peter Hammer, second engineer, and Nilsen, the steward.”

Following further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of “Death by drowning through misadventure at sea” and on their behalf the Rev. Gordon Rowe – Rector of Blakeney and Glandford who expressed great regret at the sad occurrence, and deep sympathy with the bereaved parents. The affair, he said, was “all the more deplorable in that if the men had kept on their ship for an hour or so after she struck all their lives might have been saved.”

 Burials:
At the time of the SS Hjørdis disaster, legislation – in the form of the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 (also known as Grylls’ Act) and the subsequent Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 – ensured that the bodies of those lost at sea were decently, appropriately buried. The 1808 Act provided for “suitable interment in Churchyards or Parochial Burying Grounds in England for such dead Human Bodies as may be cast on Shore from the Sea, in cases or Wreck or otherwise”. It required that unclaimed bodies of dead persons washed ashore from the sea should be removed by the churchwardens and overseers of the parish and decently interred in unconsecrated ground. This act was amended by the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1886 to extend its applicability to bodies found in, or cast on shore from, all tidal or navigable waters.

Historically, fishing and merchant seafaring were the most dangerous of all professions and each year many fishermen, mariners and ships’ passengers lost their lives at sea. Prior to the 1808 legislation, it was customary to unceremoniously bury drowned seamen, without shroud or coffin, and in unconsecrated ground. Uncertainty about the religious faith of those washed ashore, the considerable financial burden which burials placed on the parishes, and the pragmatic local response to these losses, resulted in the widespread practice of shoreline burials in all coastal communities.

The Parish Registers for Blakeney recorded that Eugenen Andersen and Thor Halmersen/Halnessen, whose bodies were recovered by the Rocket Brigade, were buried on 21st February; the Parish Registers for Salthouse recorded that Peter Hammer and (name) Nelsen/Nilsen, whose bodies were found on the beach at Salthouse, were buried in Salthouse churchyard on the same day. It is believed that the men were all buried “with a minimum of ceremony” in probably the equivalent of a pauper’s funeral – in a grave marked, if at all, with just a wooden cross.

The Cause of the Disaster?
With only the one first-hand, contemporary account of the disaster, conjecture still remains about what caused the ship to go aground in 1916. Other ships had been sunk during that particular gale so, the disaster could have been caused by weather conditions alone. However, in his statements at the time, Ralf Petersen made no mention of any panic or efforts to prevent the ship floundering on a lee shore; he also stated that the ship’s position was not known when she went aground and that, on leaving the ship, the crew did not know which direction to strike for. Does this confirm that it was a navigational error which was to blame?

According to Sue Gresham of the Blakeney Harbour Association:

“The two – East and West – towers of Blakeney Church were used to guide ships into the navigable channel between the inlet’s sandbanks, the light on the top of the East tower serving as a leading light to guide vessels into the harbour (the “leading light” practice later achieved by using pairs of lighthouses at different levels). When viewed from the sea, in daylight and in darkness, Blakeney Church is the only prominent point on a barren stretch of coastline and a visual aid for mariners to easily identify their position for many miles. If the Hjørdis was closer to the shore than Captain Jensen thought, it is possible that he mistook the light on the smaller, East tower of Blakeney Church for the Cromer lighthouse, further along the coast. This would explain why the Hjordis was so close inshore; the water is very deep close in to Cromer, but not close in at Blakeney.”

Petersen had also described the Hjørdis bumping over a sand bank, then of having only a few moments to alter course and attempt to get seaward into deeper water before the ship struck for the last time. The press reports, based on Petersen’s remarks, referred to “the tide carrying her in… … she struck the west side of the bar and came over it”.

The press reports of the time were somewhat misleading. Reported high water that day was at approximately 5.00pm so, at the time of the grounding, the tide would have been flowing from west to east along the coast and flowing out of Blakeney Harbour. It is more likely, therefore, that the Hjørdis struck one of the many sand bars in that area and then bounced over the first bar into deeper water and pushed on by the east setting tide. This would have made it more difficult for Captain Jensen to have altered course in order to save the situation before Hjørdis grounded on the next sand bar.

There also appeared to be an anomaly in Ralf Petersen’s account of Captain Jensen having given the order, “Hard a starboard” to get the ship into deep water; this would have put the ship further on to the shore! The words might, of course, have been either a reporting error by the newspaper – for the assumed order would be “Hard a port” – or an early indication of the Captain’s confusion or panic in the unfolding disaster. Then there was Peterson’s account of the lifeboat being carried out to sea after the crew had abandoned the Hjørdis; this would further support the fact that the wind direction was south-west and not west-north-west as local newspapers had reported. Therefore, the greater likelihood of the Hjørdis grounding as the result of navigational error was indeed borne out by the lifeboat being carried out to sea. This too would further support the belief that the gale was south-westerly, rather than west-north-westerly.

A Different Outcome Maybe:
Mrs Susie Long’s letter to the “Eastern Daily Press” suggested that the crew of the old lifeboat Hettie “could and would have saved all the crew” of the Hjørdis. When the ship struck, the tide was ebbing; therefore, could the crew have remained on the ship and awaited rescue, or simply waded ashore at low tide?

Ralf Petersen’s accounts conveyed the desperate situation which the crew encountered, where events were happening quickly, in uncertain circumstances: one of their lifeboats had been smashed before she grounded; there was no time to send up flares; the ship was taking in water; the crew did not know where they were; the skipper had lost control; and the ship was showing signs of breaking up. With the benefit of hindsight and with clearer heads at the time, there would have been little doubt that if the crew had remained on the Hjørdis, they would probably have survived – either by being rescued by the “Hettie” or by remaining on the Hjørdis until low tide.

The SS Hjørdis Now:

SS Hjørdis 6
A view of the wreck when it was not so exposed. Photo: © Julian Dowse

The wreck of the SS Hjørdis still lies off Blakeney Point. Gradually, over the years, it sank beneath the sand, with more local sand regularly moving in to almost completely covered it. Eventually, in September 1960, a survey from an unknown source produced a report which is held by the Blakeney Harbour Association; it gives the following information about the wreck:

“Iron Norse steamship 200 ft long 30 ft beam lying in a deep pool on dry bank heading 20 deg true with a list to port and one mast standing at the fore end. The hull, which is broken in two amidships, is about 9ft out of water………The boiler and engines are showing, also a cat davit is standing near the stern…… The wreck extends approximately 40 ft North West and 130 ft South East of pole carrying a light erected on wreck position…….(Trinity Superintendent Great Yarmouth 13.11.58).”

Apparently, the position of the wreck was checked again by Trinity House on 2 October 1969 when the SS Hjørdis’s position was found to lie 259 degrees 1.75 cables from position 525902N 005825E in position 525858N 005812E. Then in October 1993, Trinity House – in whose possession the wreck then was – carried out another survey which showed that the wreck was lying in a NNW/SSE direction in depths of between 2.0 to 2.5 metres at low water springs.

A further observation made by Trinity House in 1995 – referred to a suspicion that Hjørdis had been ice strengthened for the Baltic winter trade – suggesting that this would account for the fact that her low section had lasted for so long. In August 1995, a proposal was submitted to Trinity House by a local company, offering three options to remove the wreck between the “fair weather months” of April to October 1996. In the event, the Hjørdis was not removed and the wreck has remained in situ off Blakeney, always marked with a buoy, which was continually destroyed by the strong tides. It was removed but continues to serve a useful purpose – more than 420 miles away in a Cornish coastal village. It is now securely fastened on dry land and put to use as an honesty box at a car park in Porthallow on the Lizard peninsula. As for our Norfolk wreck, it is marked with a Trinity House beacon.

SS Hjørdis (Honesty Box)
The former Trinity House buoy, which marked the wreck of the SS Hjordis at Blakeney in the late 1950s, is now used as a honesty box for a car park in the Cornish village of Porthallow. Picture: ALAN MARTIN

Aerial photographs commissioned by the Harbour Association in 2016 showed that much of the ship’s structure still remains, despite the fact that the Blakeney Harbour mouth regularly changes position. Currents push the mouth towards the east, producing a lengthening peninsula of sand between the entrance channel and the sea. Tidal currents then break through towards the west and the eastern mouth fills up again.

SS Hjørdis 4

In recent years, the harbour entrance channel has been moving towards the east, bringing it nearer to the wreck. In April 2016, this movement reached the wreck, scouring through it, so that SS Hjørdis lay in the middle of the channel at the entrance to the harbour; by December of the same year, the channel was moving east of the wreck and beginning to bury Hjørdis in the sand once again. The movements in the sand peninsula and the changing position of the harbour mouth determine whether Hjørdis is either almost completely covered by sand and lost to view – or is still a visible reminder of the lost ship jutting from the sea.

SS Hjørdis 3
The wreck of the former SS Hjørdis can be seen bottom centre.

The Hjørdis has lain off Blakeney Point since 1916 and, as the local sand moved in, the wreck became almost completely covered. Between 2015 and 2016, the channel moved half a mile to the east and the flow of water over the wreck scoured her out. Large sections of the vessel’s hull and deck were uncovered. It would appear poignant that, in 2016, one hundred years after the ship went down, the SS Hjørdis showed herself once again.

THE END

Source:
This blog is based almost exclusively on Sue Gresham’s research and subsequent report written for the Blakeney Harbour Association in 2016/18. The full report can be viewed via the following link:

http://blakeneyharbourassociation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/HJORDIS-REVISION-10.12.18.docx.pdf

Banner Heading Photo: An Aerial photo of Blakeney Point, Norfolk – by Mike Page

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

The Pedlar of Swaffham.

Our thanks to Jim Moon of ‘Hypnogoria’ who, somewhere amongst his many blogs, wrote the following – it is his take on a very famous and popular Norfolk myth – whoops! – tale.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Village Sign)
The Swaffham Village Sign.

In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However, while the town and its market have been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled ‘An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’ by Francis Blomefield (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following Tale:

Pedlar of Swaffham (Essay)

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.”

Pedlar of Swaffham 3
The Pedlar of Swaffham
The oak benches in the nave of The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Swaffham date from the middle of the nineteenth century. The carved finials on the front pew ends in this church represent John Chapman, otherwise known as the Pedlar of Swaffham. Photo: Copyright David Dixon.

“After a time, it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”

Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name, in the past, to the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign (above) for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘The Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:

“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –

“Look lower where this stood
Is another twice as good”

The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”

This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins. Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In ‘The Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:

Pedlar of Swaffham (Scotland)
‘The Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826).

“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”

Pedlar of Swaffham (London Bridge)
London Bridge

Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed, not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:

“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)

Pedlar of Swaffham (Grimm)

However, the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:

“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque, they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.

“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus, Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.

Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However, what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad’.

So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.

However, the first European edition of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, and was first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However, if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the ‘Arabian Nights’ theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s.

Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European versions by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Chapman & Dog)
John Chapman and his dog

Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known as the’Swaffham Black Book’, and in it we discover that in the mid-15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore, local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Church)
The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Swaffham
This is one of the finest medieval churches in East Anglia. It was built between the years of 1454-1465 on the remains of the previous church which had partly collapsed. The tower was added between 1507 and 1510.
The church, which is built of Barnack stone, brick and flint, is in the Perpendicular style. It has the traditional cruciform plan of chancel, nave and transepts with north and south aisles and a square tower. Its total length is 173 feet from west to east. The church is a grade I listed building (English Heritage Building).

 Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the ‘Swaffham Black Book’ does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously, Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.

Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…

THE END.

Sources:
https://plus.google.com/+JimMoonHypnogoria
https://thehistoryanorak.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-pedlar-of-swaffham.html
https://calumimaclean.blogspot.com/2014/12/dreaming-of-fortune-at-london-bridge.html
Feature Image: Is an illustration by John D. Batten

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James Stays at the ‘Maid’s Head’

The year is 1906. The age of the car has arrived and James Edmund Vincent, Welsh barrister, journalist and author, has been asked by his publishers to help put together a motoring guide for sale to touring motorists. The feeling is that there exists a potential need amongst car owners for information which would allow them to take full advantage of the open roads of this country. James’s brief, on this occasion, is to write about East Anglia. He is asked, as the very minimum, to concentrate on detailing the conditions of the region’s roads, outlining the topography and history of notable towns and other places en route; and give an impartial account of the hotels and inns visited with regards to their standards of service, cleanliness etc. Being an established writer, James’s is given a free hand to plan his own itinerary, with the only stipulation being that a completed copy of a draft guide should be completed and with the publishers within twelve months of starting out on his first journey. Payment, including reimbursement of expenses for the work are agreed but remain confidential.

Because James intends to make several forays into the region, he has arranged to use his 6-cylinder Lanchester on all journeys except this one, the inaugural trip to Norwich – a city he is familiar with, having been there before. James has planned most meticulously, with the enthusiastic collaboration of his friend, Claude Johnson, a somewhat large broad-shouldered extrovert who is someone of importance with the Roll-Royce Company. Claude will remain characteristically keen on the arrangements, mainly because he sees them as part of his early promotion to the company of his ideas for a new model car, which will eventually become Rolls Royce’s ‘Silver Ghost’. He particularly wants to prove that this unique car is smooth, silent and solid – and the best car that money can buy! Beyond this, he also wants to demonstrate the car’s reliability to the buying public. What better way would there be than to be part of James’s journey; a ‘trial run’ as it were, for his own anticipated 15,000 mile ‘non-stop’ promotional journey around Britain. Claude will of course drive the company car – who else!

James Vincent (Silver Ghost_TT_Getty)
Charles Rolls co-founded the company with Henry Royce in a forerunner of the company’s ‘Silver Ghost’ model. The car and driver took part in the first ever TT race in 1906; the race was won by Charles Rolls. Photo: Getty.

James is nevertheless, and unquestionably, in charge of all other aspects of the trip to Norwich – and beyond. It will take his party of Claude the driver, James’s wife and youngest daughter – both of whom will occupy the back seats of the Rolls; James will ride ‘shotgun’ next to Claude in the front. Arrangements looked perfect; everyone loves travelling, and what better than to ride in real comfort to what will be the ‘far end of the region’– perfect! The city of Norwich, indeed most of East Anglia, is still almost unexplored territory to most of the party – and there are no impossible hills of any length to worry about. So, with no worrys worth mentioning – they set off.

We next catch up with the James’s party and Claude’s car as it crawls through the narrow and crooked streets of Norwich, having successfully negotiated those ‘questionable’ roads en route, from Cambridge through Newmarket, Ipswich, Woodbridge, Beccles, Lowestoft and Yarmouth. However, the journey has not been completely without incident for the car; which confidently displayed its engine’s smoothness, reliability and power throughout, but did suffer two punctures – through no fault of its own according to Claude! Fortunately, and maybe by some sort of miracle, a garage appeared closeby on both occasions!

James Vincent (Norwich Market)
Norwich Market Place during the early part of the 20th century. Photo: Public Domain.

The still proud Silver Ghost, under the nurturing of Claude, now passes close to the city’s central Market Place before winding its way towards and around the Castle Mound before swinging left, around the Royal Hotel, into Tombland. This is a wide and open space opposite the west end of the Cathedral. James continues to take note of the city’s features which will be included in his eventual ‘tome’. But for the moment, he ponders on the meaning of Tombland’s name, but remains uncertain. Later, he is to write:

“We had seen the Cathedral spire rising against the clear sky, glanced through two great archways leading to the Cathedral Church itself, had passed on our left the “Stranger’s House”, though the quaint fact that the faces of the figures of Hercules and Samson, supporting the arch of its door, are adorned with “Imperial” beardlets.”

James Vincent (Samson & Hercules_Tombland)
To the left is “Stranger’s House” – as referred to by James – along with the figures of Hercules and Samson. Photo: Public Domain.

At the end of Tombland the car finds itself in Wensum Street with the Maid’s Head Hotel, where they are to stay, immediately on the right. Claude steers into the hotel by way of an archway some little way further down the street. Immediately the party finds itself in a covered courtyard. Here, there is such a contrast between the old and the new and James feels that the surviving surroundings are thanks to no other than Walter Rye who had once bought this ancient building and saved it from destruction; thereby winning the gratitude of every traveller of taste who would also witness features as near identical with those of the 15th-century when the Pastons used the “Mayde’s Hedde” and spoke well of its accommodation.

James Vincent (Maid's Head)1
The side entrance to the Maid’s Head Hotel in 1904; it led into a covered ‘reception’ courtyard. Photo; The Maid’s Head Hotel.

The Bar Parlour on the left, from which an attentive hostess appears to take instructions from the new arrivals, seems also to be of almost immemorial age. Yet in the centre is the most modern thing in this world, Claude’s six-cylinder motor-car. However, staring him in the face is a notice requesting all motorists, to make no unnecessary noise, but to deposit their passengers, or pick them up, as rapidly as possible and then go! He clearly quips that he almost feels inclined to push the car, instead of compelling it to propel itself, onwards through the covered courtyard and into the carriage yard and garage beyond. Claude truly believes that his Silver Ghost is, a beautiful car—and cars can be beautiful he feels. Half the assertions that they are ugly are due to the fact that his generation is not sufficiently educated in relation to cars, have not grown familiar enough with them to know what the lines of beauty in them are. Still, in the courtyard of the “Maid’s Head,” any car is an anachronism, a jarring note and the sooner this one is moved out of sight the better!

James Vincent (Maid's Head Courtyard)
A postcard showing what used to be the ‘reception’ courtyard. Image: Public Domain.

Probably taking advantage of this distraction, James’s wife and daughter quietly break away to explore the hotel. They soon ascend a very ancient and charming staircase of real oak, really black with real age and found someone who was delighted to show the two around “Queen Elizabeth’s Chamber”. James, downstairs, is soon handed a message telling him to visit them there and on arrival sees that the visit is, in his words, “more than worth paying for”. It is a spacious room, if one considers the floor area alone; but of course, the ceiling is very low and the dark beams supporting it still lower. He sees that one great bed is of carved oak, relieved with gilding, whilst another makes no impression on him at all. But not so the long and low windows, the shining planks of the ancient floor, which boasts its own hills and valleys, slopes and hollows, along with the cleanliness and brightness of everything; these make a very vivid and pleasant impression on James.

James Vincent (Maid's Head)2
“Queen Elizabeth’s Chamber” bedroom, circa 1904. Photo; The Maid’s Head Hotel.

Nevertheless, he understands that Queen Elizabeth I never did sleep in this chamber, or indeed in the Maid’s Head itself when she visited Norwich in 1578 – he had heard that she had stayed nearby in the Bishop’s Palace, at a time when weird pageants were displayed in her honour. No, the “Maid’s Head” was an old inn even in 1578. Edward the Black Prince entertained here after a jousting competition at Gildencroft and Queen Catherine of Aragon (King Henry VIII’s first wife) was entertained here. So, it is reasonably certain that the chamber named after Queen Elizabeth was also there. James then thought the room to be ideal for those who hanker after the old world, but do not yearn for that dirt which seems to have been an all-pervading characteristic of the lives of his forefathers. But this room, together with the hotel is certainly spotlessly clean!

James Vincent (15th Duke of Norfolk_ArtUK)
Henry Fitzalan-Howard (1847–1917), 15th Duke of Norfolk by Hester M. Walker. Portrait: St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. Image: ArtUK)

After this small interlude, the rest of the party disperses elsewhere whilst James sets off for a half hour stroll into the city before dinner. But at the foot of the stairs he sees quite an imposing person, whose presence is a happy coincidence for him. James remembers his first visit and the “Royal,” where Lord Kimberley was found to be a guest. Now, at the foot of the stairs of the “Maid’s Head,” is none other than the 15th Duke of Norfolk and his wife, the Duchess; both were about to become guests of this ancient hotel. Heavens! he thought; what a contrast to a similar visit some two centuries ago in 1685, on which Macaulay quoted:

James Vincent (Dukes Palace)
Image: Norfolk County Council Library & Information Service.

“In the heart of the city stood an old palace of the Dukes of Norfolk, said to be the largest town house in the kingdom out of London. In this mansion, to which were annexed a tennis court, a bowling-green and a wilderness, stretching along the banks of the Wensum, the noble family of Howard frequently resided, and kept a state resembling that of petty sovereigns. Drink was served to guests in goblets of pure gold. The very tongs and shovels were of silver. Pictures by Italian masters adorned the walls. The cabinets were filled with a fine collection of gems purchased by that Earl of Arundel whose marbles are now among the ornaments of Oxford. Here, in the year 1671, Charles and his court were sumptuously entertained. Here, too, all comers were annually welcomed, from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Ale flowed in oceans for the populace. Three coaches, one of which had been built at a cost of five hundred pounds to contain fourteen persons, were sent every afternoon to bring ladies to the festivities; and the dances were always followed by a luxurious banquet. When the Duke of Norfolk came to Norwich, he was greeted like a king returning to his capital. The bells of the Cathedral and of St. Peter Mancroft were rung; the guns of the Castle were fired; and the Mayor and Aldermen waited on their illustrious fellow citizen with complimentary addresses. In the year 1693 the population of Norwich was found, by actual enumeration, to be between twenty-eight and twenty-nine thousand souls.”

James Vincent (Dukes Palace)2
Image: Norfolk County Council Library & Information Service.

What a contrast James felt! Now, on the 9th of March, 1906, the present Duke of Norfolk enters a city of approximately one hundred and thirteen thousand souls; the bells of the cathedral and St. Peter’s Mancroft are not ringing. No guns are being fired. No mayor and aldermen waiting upon the Duke in his Palace, because there is no Palace. All that is happening is that this quiet, bearded English gentleman walks, limping slightly, with a lady into the courtyard of the Maid’s Head Hotel and, after a parley with the hostess, vanishes up the stairs, to be seen no more. It is pure luck that James sees him, and that he is able to recognise this Premier Duke and Earl, the Hereditary Earl Marshal and Chief Butler of England. He was received with precisely the same courtesy of attention that had been shown to James and his party, but without servility. The Duke received all that he wanted, and in a manner which, James thought, really did him credit.

No more is left of the pomp and dignity of the 17th-century Palace than that of the city’s clothing trade. The Duke of Norfolk has become, in the interval, an Englishman first and a great power in Sussex next, and the clothing trade of Norwich is no more. The city of 113,000 souls is now subsisted, as James is told during his walk-about, on the proceeds of boots and mustard, the latter industry founded by one of whom a correspondent of the Norfolk and Norwich Notes and Queries wrote:

“The original Colman [the name means “free man”] was a jolly old fellow who used to give me sixpence and direct me to the house for refreshment”; it subsisted also, as I learned for myself next morning……. as one of the largest agricultural and pastoral centres it has ever been my good fortune to witness. Times were indeed changed; but he would be a rash man who should say that they were changed for the worse in all respects.”

James Vincent (Maid's Head)3
The Hotel’s Lounge and Writing Room, circa 1904. Photo; The Maid’s Head Hotel.

James writes up his notes after Dinner, which has been taken in the coffee-room of the hotel, and everyone in his party thinks it is very pleasant there.  James includes a further thought that the room also has an air of antiquity, and its deep fireplace certainly charms the eye. The ‘cookery’ is, in his opinion, distinctly good and the attendance quiet and prompt ‘as that in any well-ordered private house’. The Dinner was also the time for him to reflect on some of the other famous associations with the hotel. For instance, the Pastons had used and commended it, and their words of praise, blazoned on the outer door, seems right and proper; but it was a pity, James thought, to have placed newspapers near to them! He also thought that sitting in this same hostelry on the morning of his last fight with Kett and his rebels, Warwick had breakfasted, and had then led his men, who were camped on the market-place, to victory. It is also certain to him that Margaret Paston’s horses were seized here. Then, in the time of the rebellion, the Royalists stayed, despite being scarce in the eastern counties. But Royalists were also Freemasons and held their lodges in the “Maid’s Head” as early as 1724; James understands that on one occasion a Mrs. Beatson hid behind the wainscot of the lodge-room and heard all their mysteries!

James Vincent (Maid's Head)4
A passage way in the Hotel, circa 1904. Photo; The Maid’s Head Hotel.

As James writes, he is pleased that all this information is decidedly enhanced by the fact that this visit had provided further insight and confirmation. Undoubtedly, its value will also be fully appreciated once ‘his’ Motoring Guide is published – next year?. But his pleasure does not end there. James is also proud to be able to say that the Maids Head, this very building in which he sits, was built on the site of Herbert de Losinga’s first Palace, which once stood on Gothic arches; also, that an Assembly Room was built over the courtyard to become a minstrel’s gallery. The carving in the smoking-room represents a fish – possibly a ray? If this is correct, it probably accounts for the title of the hotel; for it was certainly mentioned in the 1287 Norwich Court Records as the ‘Myrtle Fish Tavern’ where “Robert the fowler stole goods from the said innkeeper at Cook Rowe.” Again, if this fish is a ray, then another difficulty vanishes, for the sea-fishermen of Norfolk call, or once called, the ray, “Old Maid.”

Certainly, the hotel did not take its new title on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth I’s 1578 visit, for John Paston had, in 1472 confirmed the hotel’s name change to ‘Maids Head’ in a letter, recommending the inn as a good place to stable horses:

“if he tery at norwyche ther whyls, it were best to sette hys horse at the Maydes Hedde.”

The hotel is also mentioned in a curious petition to Wolsey, again unearthed by that man Walter Rye. James again blesses Mr Rye for having bought the lease of the Maid’s Head in the 1890’s – and saving it! James also remembers him acquiring property next door on Tombland and building the frontage with the ‘Mock Tudor’ look, but keeping the Jacobean snug and bar. This was the moment when Rye quoted:

“I had been myself a customer of the house for 20 years and more and some of the most pleasant parts of my life had been sent in and about it. It was rumoured that when Mr Webster left the Maids Head, the whole scope of the old Tory house – the nearest approach to the typical old hostel that I ever saw – was going to be spoiled and no longer to be a refuge for those who like peace and quiet and old surroundings. I heard what the new rent was to be and took upon myself the burden…..I will try and keep on trying to make people as comfortable as I was myself.”

James Vincent (Maids head_Front_Agoda)
The present-day Maid’s Head Hotel, Norwich. Photo: Agoda.

The next day James, his wife, daughter and Claude the driver, complete packing in anticipation of an early departure soon after breakfast. James gathers up his notes of all he had witnessed and heard during what had been a short stay; but he knows that he will return. His final accolade is saved for the hotel itself; after settling the account he is very pleased that the final bill is ‘quite moderate—for England’ The party eventually departs Norwich for Cromer and James took that moment to note some further useful information which will eventually be passed to the readers of the proposed Motoring Guide Book:

“As with arriving in this city, great care should always be observed when leaving Norwich, for the streets are narrow, crooked and full of risk, and directions difficult to work out…… Roads here are gerally fair, some good – especially to Cromer”.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.gutenberg.org/
www.gutenberg.org/files/38938/38938-h/38938-h.htm
https://www.maidsheadhotel.co.uk/

The ‘Jermys’ of Stanfield & Bayfield Halls

The Jermy’s of Stanfield Hall were an ancient family who arrived in England from Normandy soon after William the Conqueror – sometime around 1100. They were of the knighted class, holding their estates from various Earls and Barons by ‘knight’s fees’ – mostly in East Anglia. By the 1500s, however, they had acquired freehold ownership of their own properties. One branch of the family settled in North Norfolk and a later son of this line, John Jermy, Esq, became a successful lawyer in London before returning to Norfolk to take up the position of chief counsellor to the Bishop of Norwich – sometime around 1600. He did well in this post and was soon in a position to purchase two estates in north Norfolk for his sons. The elder son, Francis, settled at Gunton Hall, near Aylsham, while the younger one, Robert, did so at Bayfield Hall, near Holt. Each Jermy is outlined in turn:

Jermy (Bayfield Hall)3

The Senior Jermy Line at Gunton Hall:
This line of the Jermy family continued at Gunton for several generations, until about 1700 – when the Estate had to be sold to cover mortgage debts accrued years before during the English Civil War. By the late 1680s, the elder son, Francis, did at least attend Cambridge although he did not go on to a career in either the law or the church. After the estate was sold, he settled for a time in Hainford, near Norwich, where he married and had two surviving daughters before abandoning them and their mother for London where he seems to have lived ‘on his wits’. He then had three sons there in an irregular 2nd marriage but no later Jermys descended from them.

Jermy (Gunton Hall)
Gunton Hall, designed by Matthew Brettingham

Francis Jermy did have a younger brother back at Gunton Hall but he received even less from the estate and very little education which meant the he had to settle for a working class apprenticeship – in Great Yarmouth. He did, however, later obtain a slightly better position in the Custom’s Service there through the influence of earlier family contacts. This younger brother of Francis was thereby in a position to afford to give his eldest, of two sons, at least, training as a Shipwright, but that son died quite young, without leaving an heir. The younger of the two sons obtained neither education nor training and was later referred to as ‘an illiterate day-labourer’. His name was John Jermy, the same John Jermy who was allegedly bought off for a mere £20 by Isaac Preston, the lawyer to William Jermy. It is not known if  this John Jermy ever married or had children but he died in 1768 in Yarmouth. John’s death brought to an end the Gunton Hall branch of the ancient Jermy family.

The Junior Jermy line at Bayfield:
The junor line continued at Bayfield a little longer – until about 1750 that is. By 1735, the senior survivor on the estate, after 5 generations, was a respected Norfolk lawyer and landowner whose only son, William Jermy, Esq, was ready to marry that year. A union was arranged with the Hon. Elizabeth Richardson, only daughter of a wealthy landowner of south and west Norfolk – not the Jermys’ usual area of influence – She was soon to be the heir to her family’s large estate, including Stanfield Hall. In those times, a husband became effective owner of his wife’s property and, as William’s father had recently died, he was now in control of both Bayfield Hall and Stanfield Hall Estates. Unlike his father, however, he wasn’t very good at husbanding his resources and spent most of his time enjoying the lively social, partying scene amongst the landed gentry of Norfolk and in London. They never resided at either Hall but at their homes in Norwich and Aylsham, which were more convenient for their active social life. But he and his wife quarrelled and were soon divorced, she then dying before 1750. They had no children.

Jermy (Bayfield Hall)2

William Jermy was now free to marry again and would of course be quite a catch with all his wealth. But he too was now quite ill and apparently not very capable of handling his own affairs. It was at this point that a shrewd local lawyer – an Isaac Preston  ‘befriended’ him  on the basis of having worked with William’s father previously. He soon convinced William to marry his sister Frances Preston – in 1751. Conveniently for Isaac Preston, William Jermy died very soon afterwards and, having never co-habited with Frances, there were no children. As William was the last of his family, and with no close relatives, his Estate passed into the hands of the Prestonsbut what would happen as a consequence of this and who would legally end up with William’s vast Estate following the wording of his Will? Needless to say, the Will had been drawn up by this earlier Isaac Preston, the clever lawyer who advised for the property to go to William’s new widow, Frances, for her lifetime and then to one or other of two named Preston relatives, and their sons, if any. But these two men both died before Frances’s death in 1791 and without issue. In that case, said the Will, the property should go

“to the male person with the name Jermy nearest related to me (ie to William) in blood, and to his heirs forever”.

The ‘property’ by the time Frances died was, however, now lacking Bayfield Hall estate as the Will had also stated that Frances was to receive £5000 from the entire estate during her lifetime. This was much too much to raise from annual rental income so it was decided by Frances’s brother Isaac Preston to sell Bayfield! This was almost criminal by destroying the capital value of the estate; this certainly smacked of Isaac Preston’s influence in composing William’s Will. Bayfield Hall was sold in 1765 to the Jodrell family for £7600.

Some years later, in 1817, a Norwich weaver named Jonathan Jermy made a claim for the Bayfield estate through the courts based upon a pedigree that appeared to indicate he was a descendent of the Bayfield Jermys and thus William Jermy’s nearest heir-at-law. His apparent Jermy forebears over the 4 previous generations did have the very same christian names as did William’s, and in the same order, but his claim was made just after the relevant Statute of Limitations had expired and his pedigree was thus never examined in court. This was however later pursued and it was discovered that way back in 1640, Jonathan Jermy’s family’s name had actually been Jermyn, an unrelated family, but altered to Jermy after the civil war by church Vicars who were more familiar with the name Jermy. This family had actually settled near Stanfield Hall which turned out to be simply a remarkable coincidence!

A later member of the Jodrell family left Bayfield to the youngest son of the Earl of Leicester, Roger Coke; in more recent times the Hall came to the distantly related Combe family, of which Roger and Caroline Combe have resided there in recent years:

Jermy (Bayfield Hall)
Bayfield Hall in 2016

At least Stanfield Hall was still intact back in 1791 when William Jermy died. But who was ‘the nearest blood relative’ of William Jermy – with the surname Jermy at that point in time? There were no Jermys left in the Bayfield Hall line. What about the Gunton Hall Jermy family who previously had dispersed to London and Great Yarmouth? By 1791, none of the London members of that branch were still alive and in Yarmouth, the last of that family, a John Jermy the day-labourer described above, he had also died in 1768 and seemingly without issue.

What would happen now? Well, a short time after Frances died, another member of the Preston family, also a lawyer but not mentioned in the Will, quietly walked into possession of Stanfield Hall and instructed the estate’s Steward to forward the considerable rental income in future to him in Kings Lynn, claiming that he was now the new owner – “being the nearest relative to Frances”. In support of his claim he produced some apparently forged documents. The possibility of such an occurrence had been foreseen by the earlier Isaac Preston, namely that any future rights to William Jermy’s Estate could be claimed by anyone else . Frances death in 1791 was over 40 years since William’s death and his Will was published. Who else in 1791 would have any knowledge or interest in such a Will? No one apparently. There wasn’t it seemed ‘anyone else’ – to even question the suspicious justification produced by the member of the Preston family who walked into Stanfield Hall and staked his claim. No one else, seemingly, came forward to complain which meant that Stanfield Hall was to remain with the Prestons.

A contemporary account of the Jermy family and a murder that occurred in the 19th century can be read HERE; plus further accounts at many other websites – such as  the following:

https://norfolktalesmyths.com/2017/11/03/the-stanfield-hall-murders-revisited/
https://norfolktalesmyths.com/2017/11/10/the-stanfield-tragedy-trial-execution/

THE END

Sources:
http://www.jermy.org/index.html
www.jermy.org/baynebk.html
https://www.jermy.org/valdar.html
https://www.jermy.org/StewartValdar.html

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Two Writers’ Encounter with Norfolk.

In May 1933 Sylvia Townsend Warner and her female partner, Valentine Ackland, were driving around Norfolk when they discovered what used to be called Frankfort Manor, but now known as Sloley Old Hall; it lay up a quiet lane in the northwest of the county of Norfolk  and about 5 miles south of the town of North Walsham. According to Warner:

Sylvia Warner (Sloley Village Sign)
The village sign. Photo: Cameron Self.

“It was a beautifully proportioned house, with a Dutch Gable and a reed-thatch roof – filled with the noise of trees. Valentine found it, exploring inland, but only because her quick eye caught sight of it behind its rampart of trees: backing to have another look, she saw it was to let. It stood in that stretch of Norfolk where the soil is deep and fertile; a soil for oak and chestnuts to plunge their roots into.”

 

Sylvia Warner (Old Sloley Hall)
Sloley Old Hall: Formerly Frankfort Manor, the temporary home of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland in 1933/4. Photo: William H Brown Archive.

The Manor, as then, was for rent and the two somewhat strange literary ladies leased it until November 1934. They believed that the house and its gardens would provide them with the perfect rural location in which to potter about and write – particularly about a family of cats that lived in the Hall’s outbuildings. These feline creatures inspired Warner’s ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’ (1940), which is a collection of short stories seen from a cat’s point of view.

Sylvia Warner (Valentine at Sloley Manor_Norfolk)
Ackland and the Frankfort Manor cats.

In her autobiography, Valentine Ackland described the attraction of Frankfort Manor thus:

“At Frankfort Manor, then, we lived in a kind of solemn, fairy story splendour. The first spring and summer brought nothing but miraculous days. Every day a fresh discovery; one day I found white currents….another day we met a hedgehog walking up the drive, another day I was picking green peas into a colander and saw the earth near my feet heaving and a mole emerged and I caught it instantly in the colander and carried it in to Sylvia and set it down beside her typewriter on her table.”

Clearly, Frankfort Manor was where they enjoyed one of the happiest times of their lives together. But they were not to know, when they took out the lease on the property that within twelve months they would be forced to leave because their money was being drained by heavy legal costs resulting from a libel case involving them and the Chaldon Vicarage back in Dorset. In short, they successfully sued after standing up for the rights of a badly treated servant girl there; it was huge financial blow. Nevertheless, whilst they were at the Manor Warner herself described their days there as follows:

“Throughout the autumn, we worked hard and honestly in the kitchen garden. There was about an acre of it, four square plots with flower-borders smothered in bindweed, two asparagus beds and a fruit wall. When we arrived, the ground was under potatoes. These we sold to a fish and chip shop on the Wroxham Road. ……… We made jam and conserves and pickles and sold them. We needed every penny we could raise if we were to stay on in this kind paradise where we were so happy, so hard-working, so good. Goodness is like a flower of the locality. We were never again so unimpededly good as we were at Frankfort Manor.”

It was also during this time at Frankfort Manor that their first and only collaborative work, a book of poetry titled ‘Whether a Dove or a Seagull’, was published. It was truly a time of happiness and productivity, a time that was to be deeply cherished by Warner.

“There was a Victorian wire arch over a path in the kitchen garden, and I remember hanging grey kittens among its lolloping pink roses to get them out of my way as I thinned carrots, and thinking as I heard Valentine whistling nearby…..It would not be possible to know greater happiness……It did not occur to me that such happiness might be too good to last.”

For the Record:
Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner was born on 6 December 1893 at Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, the only child of George Townsend Warner and his wife Eleanor “Nora” Mary (née Hudleston). Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize following his death in 1916. As a child, Warner was home-schooled by her father after being kicked out of kindergarten for mimicking the teachers. She was musically inclined, and, before World War I, planned to study in Vienna under Schoenberg. She enjoyed a seemingly idyllic childhood in rural Devonshire, but was strongly affected by her father’s death.

Sylvia Warner (Portrait_National Portrait Gallery_© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby's London)
Sylvia Townsend Warner. Photo: National Portrait Gallery. (c) Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotherby’s, London.

On the other hand, Valentine Ackland’s upbringing was quite different. She was born Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland on 20 May 1906 in London, to Robert Craig Ackland and Ruth Kathleen (née Macrory). Nicknamed “Molly” by her family, she was the younger of two sisters. With no sons born to the family, her father, a West End London dentist, worked at making a symbolic son of Molly, teaching her to shoot rifles and to box. This attention to Molly made her sister Joan Alice Elizabeth immensely jealous. Older by eight years, Joan psychologically tormented and physically abused Molly.

Sylvia Warner (Valentine Ackland at Winterton 1928_© The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society 2020)
Valentine ‘Molly’ Ackland. Photo: (c) The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Molly began wearing men’s clothing, and cut her hair in a short style called the Eton crop, and was at times mistaken for a handsome young boy. This was the time, in the late 1920’s, when she changed her name to the androgynous Valentine Ackland; it was when she decided to become a serious poet. Her poetry appeared in British and American literary journals during the 1920s to the 1940s, but Ackland deeply regretted that she never became a more widely read poet. Indeed, much of her poetry was published posthumously, and she received little attention from critics until a revival of interest in her work in the 1970s.

But it was back in 1927 when Sylvia Townsend Warner first met the aspiring writer named Valentine Ackland. In 1930, they became life partners, eventually settling permanently in the village of Frome Vauchurch, Dorset in 1937. In the same year, American heiress, Elizabeth Wade White (1908–1994), moved to Dorset, England, ostensibly to conduct her research on Anne Bradstreet, an early American poet and the first American writer to be published in the Thirteen Colonies. This was actually an excuse; her real intent was to meet Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Valentine Ackland with whom White was to have an affair sometime later.

Sylvia Warner (Elizabeth Wade White at age 18 in 1924 at Westover School_Wikipedia)
Elizabeth Wade White at age 18 in 1924. Photo: Wikipedia.

As an aside: White was coincidentally, a supporter of Sheringham’s John Craske who, in turn, was a painter friend of Ackland. It would appear that for this reason, White became in contact with another East Anglian, Peter Pears, who was collecting Craske’s works; White was to donate her papers about Craske to the Aldeburgh Festival Archive.

Matters were to become difficult for Warner around this time, for she was marked by her mother’s increasing senility. This situation was not helped when Valentine had her ongoing affair with White. Warner was tolerant of her younger lover’s dalliances, but the seriousness and length of Ackland’s relationship with White was distressing and pushed Warner’s relationship with Ackland to the edge. Eventually, in 1949 to be exact (see ‘Warren Farm’ below), Valentine returned to Warner and the next fifteen years were relatively tranquil for them both. This does not hide the fact that Valentine struggled with alcohol addiction for many years of their life together.  Valentine’s lack of success  as a poet and her financial  reliance on Sylvia Warner  meant that  her self-esteem took a battering and she was often wracked by self-loathing.

Winterton:
After eventually leaving the blissful days of Frankfort Manor behind, Warner and Valentine resumed living back at their cottage in West Chaldon, Dorset. It would be seventeen years before the couple again stayed any appreciable length of time in Norfolk, although there were those moments when Warner, one of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, frequently stayed with Ackland at her childhood family home of Hill House in Winterton. Its grounds have long since been a holiday centre with those bizarre African inspired thatched holiday chalets. Before then, the house was more recognisable, without the present-day huge bay windows, and from where the two frequented the Fisherman’s Return in Winterton, one of the two pubs in the village; the second was the Mariners, which has since become a private house.

Sylvia Warner (Fishermans Return)

It was also at Hill House that the two wrote poetry inspired by the Winterton beach and dunes; with Warner writing, after one visit in 1930:

“It was the severe presence of the sea which made the rather ugly house romantic. Below the plateau the dunes stretched far as the eye could travel, harshly mossed to the landward (it was impossible to think of them as land), prickled with marram grass as they rose into sandhills and subsided into the beach: a grey pebble beach till the tide went out and left a belt of sand streaked with watery light where the sea lay caught in pits and furrows.”

Sylvia Warner (The Hill House_Winterton)
The present Hill House, Winterton, Norfolk. Photo: Cameron Self

As a postscript to Hill House; it became an upmarket hotel when it was acquired by ex-RAF pilot Ken Temple. He had spent time living in Africa and it was he who had the roundhouses built as bedrooms for guests. Thatched cottages were also built as holiday lets during the 1950s and 60s in The Lane, which is opposite the Fisherman’s Return public house; at one point the lighthouse itself was part of the holiday centre. The hotel was rather exclusive and among its high-profile guests were film stars. Apparently, Honor Blackman and Richard Burton were at one glittering event there and the young actor, who went on to play Antony to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, happily chatted up a local girl – nothing new there then!

Warren Farm, Horsey: 

In October 1949, Sylvia and Valentine returned again briefly to Norfolk and stayed at Warren Farm, Horsey; it happened to be during the crisis of Valentine’s affair with Elizabeth Wade White. Today, the Farm is somewhat different, situated at the south eastern edge of Waxham Sands Holiday Park and forming part of it. It also adjoins a Nature Reserve and Bird Sanctuary.

Sylvia Warner (Warren Farm_Evelyn Simak)
An impression of Warren Farm; try and imagine it without all those caravans. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Salthouse:
Salthouse lies on the North Norfolk coast between Weybourne and Cley-next-the-Sea. At one time, salt was manufactured in the village and exported to Europe. In fact, its name derives directly from ‘house for storing salt’ – a term recorded in the Domesday Book. Above Salthouse is the village church, which provides a spectacular view across the marshes to the North Sea. Mary Mings, the daughter of the famous admiral Sir Christopher Mings, is buried beneath the nave.

It was one year on from their stay at Warren Farm when, in 1950, Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover, Valentine Ackland, came once more to Norfolk and rented the Great Eye Folly in Salthouse, that was until 1951 whilst Warner worked on her last novel ‘The Flint Anchor’ (1954). The Folly – a former coastguard building – was originally built by Onesiphorus Randall in the 19th Century and for a long time was called Randall’s Folly. It stood on the beach in an exposed and windswept location and would always be vulnerable to the sea. In 1950, when the two writers first set eyes on the Folly, it made a profound impression, particularly with Warner who, in a letter to Alyse Gregory in 1950, described her own impressions of the building:

 “…. I think Valentine will have told you about the Great Eye Folly. I have the oddest impressions of it, since we were only there for about fifteen minutes, and conversing all the time with its owners. But the first five of those minutes were enough to enchant me. It is the sort of house one tells oneself to sleep with, and sometimes I almost suppose that it is really one of my dream-houses, and no such solid little assertion of the rectangle breaks the long sky-line of salt-marsh and sea.”

Sylvia Warner (Randall's Folly)
The once ‘Great Eye Folly’ in Salthouse where Warner and Ackland stayed in 1950/51. Photo: Courtesy of the Salthouse History Group.

So, the two women stayed, and again potted about and wrote until the moment arrived when it was time to depart and return finally to Dorset. Two years later, the great storm of 1953 broke the Folly’s back and its complete demise was nigh. Nothing remains of it today.

Randall's Folly_Salthouse (Birkin Haward)3
Birkin Haward’s painting of  the former Great Eye Folly (Randall’s Folly). Image: Courtesy of Birkin Haward Jnr.
Sylvia Warner (Great Eye Folly)2
Immediately prior to the 1953 flood this was known as the ‘Great Eye Folly’s. Its whole seaward front was torn off by the great storm in January of that year. The ruin remained like this for a couple of years, but had to be demolished finally in June 1956. Photo: Birkin Haward (Courtesy of Birkin Haward Jnr).

In 1967, Valentine Ackland was told that she had breast cancer that had metastasised to her lungs; after a long struggle with the disease, she died in 1969 at her home in Maiden Newton, Dorset. Warner, then in her mid-70s, continued to mourn her for the remainder of her life, though she found some solace in her garden and her much-loved cats. In her last years, she also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in her work, especially among feminist scholars. Increasingly troubled by arthritis and deafness, Warner became bedridden early in 1978. She died on May 1 of that year, aged 84 years and her ashes were buried with Ackland’s at St Nicholas, Chaldon Herring, Dorset with the inscription from Horace Non omnis moriar (Ode III.30, “I shall not wholly die”) on their gravestone.

Sylvia Warner (Headstone)
Photo:(c) The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Townsend_Warner
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine_Ackland
https://myancestors.wordpress.com/2007/12/23/sylvia-townsend-warner-1893-1978/
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/sloley.htm#:~:text=In%20May%201933%20Sylvia%20Townsend,leased%20it%20until%20November%201934.
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/salthouse.htm
https://www.townsendwarner.com/data/201406_stws_we.php
https://inkyfoot.wordpress.com/tag/valentine-ackland/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

Past Holiday Adventures Afloat!

The pleasure steamers our grandparents and great grandparents enjoyed are long gone. All we have are the memories of the tales they once told; along with the sepia and poorly coloured postcards that, having been posted from resort to family and friends during those far-off years, now lie cocooned in collectors’ albums, boxes and draws.

Belle Steamers (Britannia Pier 1895)
Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier 1895. Image Five Minute History.

It is also certain that the likes of Great Yarmouth, along with every other seaside resort along the east coast and elsewhere, will ever again see these floating super-charged paddle-driven charabancs moor up and unload and re-load holidaymakers and trippers from London and other stopping places en route. Nice now to recall the era when they were commonplace, operating as they once did between our eastern resorts and often using specially-built piers where there was neither river nor adequate harbour.

Belle Steamers (Yarmouth Promenade 1895)
Yarmouth’s Promenade 1895. Image Five Minute History.

The heyday of pleasure steamers coincided with that of the punctual railways, but the two clearly complemented each other for, like today, many folks enjoyed the spice of adventure for their holidays and chose pleasure steamers to provide this. An example was when, on August Bank Holiday Monday in 1889, thirteen special trains arrived at Yarmouth’s South Town Station packed with visitors – and five paddle steamers sailed into the Yare, each full to capacity. As usual, Hall Quay was crowded with sightseers welcoming the steamers, crews and passengers. Also waiting would have been those boarding-house proprietors offering accommodation in the town. But even then, it was more than likely that, in the thronged resort, some distressed and homeless visitors still desperately sought rooms in the early hours of the following morning.

Belle Steamers (Yarmouth Belle)4
The Ps Yarmouth Belle arriving from London.

That great pleasure steamer period began in the 1820s and endured until the Great War of 1914-18, unquestionably making a massive contribution to Yarmouth’s holiday industry. Some ships sailed directly from the Thames in London to Yarmouth, while others made “bus stop” calls at other resorts en route. Then, on the River Yare, some tied up on Brush Quay at Gorleston to let passengers off before continuing up-river to Yarmouth – an indication of the importance of Gorleston as a holiday destination. Occasionally, adverse weather conditions did cause delays in boat arrival, resulting in day-trippers having only a few hours ashore before they had to re-board for the voyage home.

Belle Steamers (Yarmouth Belle)2

The pleasure steamer line that provided this service to and from Great Yarmouth was the Belle Steamer fleet, which was a comparative late-comer to the business. ‘Belle Steamers’, as they were referred to, was nothing more that the marketing name used by the steamer company which had been created by various interests connected with the development of the east coast resorts of Clacton, Walton, Southwold, Felixstowe, Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. Belle Steamers was the actual name of the parent company for about one year only, in 1897. The principal number of vessels operated by this company north of London totalled six; they were:

PS Clacton Belle (1890-1915), PS Woolwich Belle (1891-1924), PS London Belle (1893-1929), PS Southend Belle (1896-1929), PS Walton Belle (1897-1925), PS Yarmouth Belle (1898-1929) and PS Southwold Belle (1900-1913) – as below:

It was in June 1897 when the PS Walton Belle arrived in Yarmouth, after her maiden voyage from London; flags fluttering as cheering onlookers welcomed her and her 150 passengers. Her arrival was the inauguration of the London to Yarmouth (and vice versa) Belle Steamer service in the town, although the previous year the PS Southend Belle had sailed into the port and proved that safe berthing was possible, despite the Yare’s notorious currents. It also convinced the line that, provided the right vessel was used on the Thames-Yarmouth voyage, profits were assured. The PS Walton was, in fact, the sixth company vessel – and the fifth ‘Belle’. She was finished to the highest specifications, ensuring that her passengers were safe and well provided for. Her hull was divided into nine separate watertight compartments, a specification which rendered it very unlikely that the vessel would founder in any extreme weather conditions. As for her accommodation, first-class saloons were provided in oak and sycamore finishing, and the chairs and settees were upholstered in velvet and arranged to give a home-like appearance; windows guaranteed fine sea views and were curtained in blue and gold tapestry. The vessel was fully lit by electricity.

Belle Steamers (Walton Belle)
The PS Walton Belle about to enter the Yare.

Soon after the PS Walton Belle’s inaugural visit to Yarmouth the great and the good from the area were invited on board for a voyage to savour the quality of the services the vessel had to offer. It was just as she was passing Corton, when Abel Penfold, the company chairman at the time, addressed the dignitaries. It was a well-timed intervention, being that his guests had been mare than adequately fed on a sumptuous lunch. No one questioned his statement that there was good mutually-beneficial business to be gained from a regular service between the capital and Yarmouth. Neither did they appear to doubt that the Belle steamers were far superior to the company’s rivals, but then it must have been a distinct possibility that few, in any, of the softened-up guests would ever make such a comparison.

Nevertheless, Abel Penfold seemed determined to make the point that his company would not be beaten on service and standards – and he kept his promise; within three years the Belle fleet numbered at least six vessels covering the east coast up to Yarmouth. Within seven years it had the monopoly on not only the Yarmouth service but also the landing piers of Lowestoft, Southwold, Clacton and Felixstowe. They used to say that on bank holiday weekends it was not unusual to see three Belle steamers berthed in the Yare. All would have arrived crowded with trippers eager to enjoy the pleasures of Great Yarmouth. This continued throughout the Victorian and Edwardian period when the Belles served the town; the Belles being principally the PS Walton Belle, PS Yarmouth Belle and PS Southwold Belle, proving that they all were indeed strong and reliable, a credit to their designers and builders. But what about Belle Steamers Ltd itself? (1896-1897)

Belle Steamers (Clacton Pier 1895)2
Clacton Pier 1895. Image Five Minute History.

The company was formed in 1896 when the London, Woolwich and Clacton-on-Sea Steamboat Company was renamed – using the title which applied to its steamers. However, the company was wound up at the end of 1897 and a new company named The Coast Development Company was formed, with interests outside the vessels themselves, particularly with further speculative development of the coastal resorts of East Anglia, but still retaining the ‘Belle Steamers’ identity. The company had pier and land interests in Clacton and also Walton-on-the-Naze. Importantly, a newly extended pier at Walton, then owned by the Belle Steamers parent company, became an important steamer call and from 1900 – 1904. The steamers would call at the more northerly pier before the more treacherous and tide-bound Clacton pier; this gave Walton “first call” for London excursionists and a new role as the interchange point for onward passengers to the more northerly resorts such as Yarmouth. The company also purchased land at Southwold in 1898 and set about the development of the small resort there, with new roads, a large hotel, a pier and a new steamer, to be called PS Southwold Belle, which entered service in the mid-summer of 1900. A pier was also built at Lowestoft (Claremont Pier) and opened in 1903 and a further pier at Felixstowe in 1905.

Then came the outbreak of war in 1914 and this meant that the whole steamer service was terminated. The vessels were requisitioned and put into service as minesweepers. Two of them went to Russia as hospital tenders. With peace came a decline, almost inevitable in the light of competition from motor coaches and changing ideas about excursions by sea. The steamers were gradually disposed of and the last call to Southwold was made in 1928. In 1934 a severe storm washed away the pier’s ‘hammer-head’ there and any chance of steamers being able to call was lost.

Belle Steamers (Southwold Pier P057 c1900)
Paddle steamer about to berth at Southwold Pier in the early years of the 20th Century. Bathing machines are drawn up to the water’s edge. Image: Southwold Museum.

An almost ‘last throw of the dice’ by Belle Steamers was when three of its pleasure steamers, ‘Queen of the Channel’, ‘Golden Eagle’ and ‘Royal Eagle’ were used to evacuate thousands of schoolchildren from Yarmouth and Lowestoft when the 1939-45 war broke out.  However, this exodus was briefly counterbalanced by the arrival in Yarmouth of 4300 London mothers and children ferried to Yarmouth by the same three pleasure steamers

THE END

Sources:
Images: Unless otherwise stated, images are Courtesy of Ian Boyle of Simplon Postcards
Banner Heading: Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier 1895.
http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/BelleSteamers.html
https://www.southwoldmuseum.org/Transport%20popups/Steamers_popup.htm
http://www.ourgreatyarmouth.org.uk/page/belle_steamers
http://paddlesteamers.info/BelleSteamers.htm
https://www.tendringcoastalheritage.org.uk/content/places/clacton-on-sea/photo-gallery
https://fiveminutehistory.com/18-victorian-seaside-pleasure-piers/