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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 Diaries of a Parson Woodforde.

By Haydn Brown.

 In the winter of 1932, Charles David Abbott observed that it is “Through the diaries of Parson Woodforde, that readers are given the opportunity to not only increase their knowledge of a departed age, but also to live among the fields and hedgerows and cottages of Georgian England.”

Woodforde (Portrait by Samuel Woodforde_Wikipedia)
Portrait of James Woodforde 1806 by Samuel Woodforde. Image: Wikipedia.

He does not say that his comment rings particularly true to those living in Norfolk where much of his diary was based. However, he does tell us that Woodforde’s 18th century was never poor in having literary memorials: London exists forever in the pages of Boswell; the upper circles will always gossip and there is much intrigue in Walpole’s letters; Cowper, would have succeeded in giving us the reality of country life, had he been able to keep his own too interesting personality and his poetic bent more in the background. But thanks to Parson Woodforde, we have ‘what Cowper was too great to produce’. The Parson paints a life as it actually was in hundreds of rural parishes throughout England.

Woodforde1

The Parson Woodforde Diaries begin on 21 July, 1759 – when, at the age of nineteen years, he records being made a Scholar of New College – readers immediately plunged into an Oxford of ‘unregenerate’ days.

“Hooke, Boteler and myself went to Welch’s of Wadham College, where we designed to sup and spend the evening, but our entertainment was thus, one Lobster of a Pound, a half-pennyworth of Bread, and the same of Cheese, half of an old Bottle of Ale, half a Bottle of Wine, and a Bottle of Lisbon, and then we were desired to retreat, which was immediately obeyed……”

Woodforde (Wadham College)
Wadham College, Oxford.

On another eventful occasion, the evidence was more lavish:

“Baker and Croucher both of Merton Coll: spent their evening in the B.C.R. [Bachelor’s Common Room]. Croucher was devilish drunk indeed, and made great noise there, but we carried him away to Peckham’s Bed in Triumph. Baker laid with me.”

Abbott, in his own words, goes on to say that James Woodforde was the normal undergraduate, by no means averse to the delights of collegiate existence but, at the same time, not unoccupied with the duty of preparing himself for the priesthood. His career was like that of the majority of university-bred men of his period – four years at Oxford, ten years of curacies in his native Somerset, followed by a year or two of residence as Fellow of New College and as University Proctor, all before he is finally presented to the college living of Weston Longeville in Norfolk. By the time he goes permanently to Weston in 1776, we are thoroughly acquainted with him.

Woodforde (All Saints Church)
All Saints at Weston Longeville, Norfolk where James ‘Parson’ Woodforde spent some twenty-six years as its incumbent. New College Oxford held the living for the church. Photo: Simon Knott.

He remains the same innocent fellow who in his first term at Oxford gave away his snuffbox “to a Particular Friend” and went “to see the man ride upon three Horses.” No breath of scepticism touched him. He has no doubt of Anglican doctrine, and he looks upon the church, in so far as he thinks about it at all, as the natural home for men of his sort. He questions none of the duties, dislikes none of them. They do not interfere with his simple pleasures, which consist largely of living comfortably in a rural retreat, where food is plentiful, the cellar spacious and well-stocked, and the neighbours sociable. He loves sport so long as it is not too strenuous—the coursing of a hare before dinner or the dragging of a pond. There is no chance of his ever growing bored with the life that he knows, from the carefully recorded daily breakfast to the evening rubbers of whist. He loves it all, and it is all a part of his simple nature. Everywhere he shows himself the wholesome, generous, affectionate, lovable gentleman who, we like to believe, is the typical country clergyman. We may therefore be amazed that so much good-nature never brought him a wife, but we soon grow accustomed to his continued state of bachelorhood.

Woodforde (Weston House)2
View of Weston House, home of John Custance (1749–1822) and friend of Woodforde. Photo: Courtesy of Picture Norfolk – taken about 1946.

It was on the question of Woodforde’s love life that Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had a particular view, as expressed in The Common Reader, Second Series:

“The Parson’s love affair, however, was nothing very tremendous. Once when he was a young man in Somerset, he liked to walk over to Shepton and to visit a certain “sweet tempered” Betsy White who lived there. He had a great mind “to make a bold stroke” and ask her to marry him. He went so far, indeed, as to propose marriage “when opportunity served”, and Betsy was willing. But he delayed; time passed; four years passed indeed, and Betsy went to Devonshire, met a Mr. Webster, who had five hundred pounds a year, and married him. When James Woodforde met them in the turnpike road, he could say little, “being shy”, but to his diary he remarked — and this no doubt was his private version of the affair ever after:

“she has proved herself to me a mere jilt”.

But he was a young man then, and as time went on, we cannot help suspecting that he was glad to consider the question of marriage shelved once and for all so that he might settle down with his niece Nancy at Weston Longeville, and give himself simply and solely, every day and all day, to the great business of living. Again, what else to call it we do not know.”

Such was the Parson’s disposition when he arrived at his parsonage of Weston Longeville in 1776, and remained there, in spite of the later irritations of poor health, during a twenty-six-year incumbency. At Weston Longeville, we come to know it intimately, as if we had been part of the Parson’s household. The local and domestic events are all chronicled, quite without any attempt to dramatise them:

“My great Pond full of large toads, I never saw such a quantity in my life and so large, was most of the morning in killing of them, I daresay I killed one hundred, which made no shew of being missed, in the evening more again than there were, I suppose there are thousands of them there, and no frogs…….”

Woodforde (John Custance 1749-1822 of Weston House_Norfolk Museum Service)
John Custance (1749–1822), of Weston House, by Henry Walton (1746–1813). Norfolk Museums Service

The neighbours begin to call, particularly the Custances from Weston House, the great family of the parish, and soon the Parson is happily involved in the social life of the community. Dinner succeeds dinner, each duly recorded as to partakers and menu.

“We had for dinner, the first Course, some Fish, Pike, a fine large piece of boiled Beef, Peas Soup, stewed Mutton, Goose Giblets, stewed, etc. Second Course, a brace of Partridges, a Turkey rosted, baked Pudding, Lobster, scalloped Oysters, and Tartlets. The desert black and white Grapes, Walnuts and small Nutts, Almonds and Raisins, Damson Cheese and Golden Pippins. Madeira, Lisbon, and Port Wines to drink…..”

It is small wonder that, after so many dinners of these proportions, the good parson was to suffer later with a variety of internal complaints.

Regularly every summer, for many years, the Parson returns for a long visit with his family in Somerset, where his daily routine is unaltered, except that there are no clerical duties. We renew acquaintance with the various members of the family, particularly with Brother John, whose conduct does not always conform to the Parson’s notions of propriety. The Woodforde family is exhibited without any restraint on truth – we see them with all their jealousies, their humorous conceits, their pride and their affections, completely unadulterated. Woodforde has an innocent way of quite unconsciously laying bare the characters of his relations:

“Sister Clarke and Nancy had a few words at breakfast. My sister can’t bear to hear anyone praised more than herself in anything, but that she does the best of all.”

In such entries we are presented with the real materials that lie behind the artistry of Jane Austen. Finally, in 1779, Nancy Woodforde, a niece, leaves Somerset and comes to live at Weston with her uncle, whose comforts and trials she continues to share until his death.

Life, of course, goes placidly on in the Weston Parsonage, amid the round of dinners and the unceasing charity to the poor. The tithe-audit regularly takes place, and the Parson regularly entertains the tithe-payers at his “Frolick.” There are mild winters and cold winters, “such Weather with so much Snow I never knew before.” Some springs are merely moist and hence productive, others “so wet that Farmers cannot plow their lands for their barley.” The world of great events seems more than a few miles away.

Distant rumblings, of course, are heard from America and the Parson is occasionally aghast at the lawlessness of French mobs. As England becomes more and more involved in continental entanglements, even the Parson feels the shock of increased taxes. But such matters do not seriously interfere with his ways – including those of Nancy. His appetite remains unimpaired, and he is far more vexed by his niece’s chronic sauciness than by any affairs of the outside world!

Woodforde (Smugglers)
Not all of Woodforde’s suppliers of brandy and gin were as happy to show their faces as those that he names in his diaries. On at least one occasion he describes how a knock took him to the front door, and he discovered a couple of kegs waiting there: by the time he peered out into the night, whoever delivered them had melted away! Image: Public Domain.

Abbott wonders why the Parson’s unflagging repetition of daily small beer does not grow tiresome, and perhaps we are hoodwinked into thinking that our hunger for knowledge of a remote time is insatiable; but this is not the real reason, for we read the Diaries and are disappointed that there is not more, because Parson Woodforde in his unthinking, artless way has reproduced real life. He never repeats a conversation, and yet each individual from mere reiteration emerges as a definite personality. We learn to know every guest at every dinner, so frequently do they reappear; and, though we hear none of the conversation, we know pretty well from a hundred previous clues what was said. We become inevitably absorbed in all the details, just as if they were details of our own lives.

Finally, Abbott concludes by saying that everything is put down in the parson’s quaint fashion, unconscious of grammar and consistency, fact after fact, never any feelings other than mere bodily ones. But we know the emotions well enough; they lie between the lines, and as for the Parson, we are devoted to him. He has become an old friend, and when in the course of the last volume he begins to fail, and the daily routine is interrupted by long illnesses and seasons in bed, we grow sad because we know that the diary will come to an end and that with Parson Woodforde, we shall have lost the whole of his company of friends. And when he is gone, we can only echo the words of his last entry in his diary, and the grief of the one entry from Nancy’s diary’:

“17 October 1802: We breakfasted, dined, Very weak this Morning, scarce able to put on my Cloaths and with great difficulty, get down Stairs with help – Mr. Dade read Prayers & Preached this Morning at Weston Church – Nancy at Church – Mr. and Mrs. Custance & Lady Bacon at Church – Dinner today Rost Beef & Lamb.”

“January 1, [1803]. Saturday. Weston. Norfolk. This morning about a quarter after Ten o’clock died my ever-dear Uncle James Woodforde whose loss I shall lament all the days of my life…….”

THE END

Reference Sources:
A full written text by Charles David Abbott, available at:
https://www.vqronline.org/woodforde-diary
Other Norfolk detail from:
https://colonelunthanksnorwich.com/2020/11/15/parson-woodforde-goes-to-market/
and
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91c2/chapter9.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 other people’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with that person or owner), contact can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim or suggest 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. If there is any violation of copyright or trademark material, it is unintentional.

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The Locker-Lampson’s and Cromer.

By Haydn Brown.

 This is a brief account of a family’s links, not only to numerous historical personalities, but also with the seaside resort of Cromer in Norfolk. It pays particular attention to two members of the family line who, despite leading different and extraordinary lives, both had a special and direct link with the town of Cromer.

But we begin by mentioning Sir Curtis Miranda Lampson, who was an American-born self-made millionaire who became a British citizen and was made a baronet in 1866. This reference to him is brief and refers only to his death, on his Sussex estate at Rowfant near Crawley Down in 1885, and the fact that he was succeeded, as a hereditary knight, by eldest son George – who, again, has no relevance to this particular story. Our real starting point is with Sir Curtis Lampson’s only daughter, Hannah Jane, and her husband, Frederick Locker; it was these two who kicked off a fascinating story of the ‘Locker-Lampson’s.

Rowfant-House
Rowfant House, formerly on the Locker-Lampson Sussex Estate.
After the Second World War, the Latvian Lutheran Church in London started to lease the empty Rowfant House from the Locker-Lampson family. Latvian people had fled their country before its occupation by the Soviet Union and were living in Germany as displaced persons. Volunteers revamped the property and then it was used for living in and community events. In 1962 the Latvian Church bought the property from the Locker-Lampson family and Rowfant House Ltd was set up.

Captain William Locker:
Things will become clearer; but at this point, mention must be made of Frederick Locker’s line and his paternal grandfather – Captain William Locker, He was somewhat famed for being in charge of HMS ‘Lowestoffe’ in the latter part of the 18th century which, on its 1777 voyage to the West Indies, included a very young and newly promoted Lieutenant Horatio Nelson – later to become Admiral Lord Nelson. It would appear that Locker’s influence on young Nelson was immense because, on 9 February 1799, the then Lord Nelson wrote the following to his old captain:

“I have been your scholar; it is you who taught me to board a Frenchman by your conduct when in the Experiment; it is you who always told me ‘Lay a Frenchman close and you will beat him’, and my only merit in my profession is being a good scholar. Our friendship will never end but with my life, but you have always been too partial to me.”

Nelson was also staying with William Locker at Greenwich in 1797 when, at Locker’s behest, Lemuel Francis Abbott came down to make the oil study on which all his Nelson portraits were based. These eventually numbered over forty. William Locker was a noted patron of the arts, having a number of portraits painted. He was also the driving force behind the creation of a National Gallery of Maritime Art; he suggesting the Greenwich hospital:

“…should be appropriated to the service of a National Gallery of Marine Paintings, to commemorate the eminent services of the Royal Navy of England.”

He died before his vision could be realised, but it was subsequently put into effect by his son, Edward Hawke Locker.

Frederick Locker:
Frederick Locker was born in Greenwich Hospital in 1821, the son of Edward Hawke Locker. Frederick would always be poor in health, but he did mature into a distinguished man of letters and poetry. His first marriage, in 1850, was to Lady Charlotte Bruce, daughter of Lord Elgar, the man who famously brought the marbles to England from Athens. The couple had a single child, Eleanor, who later married Lionel Tennyson, a son of Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was Alfred, the poet laureate, who had been a good friend of Sir Curtis Lampson (see above) and it is likely that, through this connection, that Frederick Locker met Hannah Jane Lampson. In 1874 these two married and took on the family surname of ‘Locker-Lampson’. This double-barrelled appellation was the wish of Sir Curtis in his Will, and it enabled the couple to live at Rowfant and to be an integral part of the line’s inheritance. It was on the ‘Rowfant’ estate where Frederick Locker and Hannah Jane produced four children.

Frederick Locker-Lampson
Frederick Locker-Lampson

Frederick Locker-Lampson, as he now was, became somewhat of a minor figure in the Victorian literary field, but he did publish “London Lyrics” in 1857 – his first book of poetry. However, being well regarded as a convivial host and raconteur, he did become well acquainted with all the big literary names of the age, including Charles Dickens, the Brownings, Thackery and Trollope. One of his observations was: “The world is as ugly as sin – and almost as delightful.” In 1886 he produced “The Rowfant Library”, a catalogue of his much-lauded collection of rare books; then in 1892, this work inspired the founding of the Rowfant Club in Cleveland, USA, for people “interested in the critical study of books to please the mind of man”. Frederick Locker-Lampson died at Rowfant in 1895. Following his death, his youngest son, Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson inherited the likes of Newhaven Court in Cromer, Norfolk, and was to lead a quite different life from his father, but equally an extraordinary one. – here we come to the crux of this blog.

Newhaven Court, Cromer and Oliver Locker-Lampson:
Newhaven Court at Cromer was built in 1884 by Oliver’s father, Frederick as the family’s summer holiday home. In its time, under the Locker-Lampson’s ownership, Newhaven Court played host to many eminent visitors; they included Oscar Wilde, the King of Greece, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Prince Philip (who, as a boy, stayed in a chalet in the grounds) and, of course, Albert Einstein. It was to become an hotel later in the 20th century, but before it was destroyed by fire on 23 January 1963.

147258813_1057106121459603_9063225423363916165_n
Newhaven Court in Cromer, Norfolk

It was Oliver Stillingfleet Locker-Lampson who ended up as a Commander with the awards of CMG and a DSO to his name. But as a young man, he first became a journalist. Then in 1910, at the age of 30 years, he became a Conservative MP. War broke out in 1914 and in the December of that year he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a Lieutenant Commander; this was a post vouched for by Winston Churchill, the then First Lord of the Admiralty. It was Churchill who asked Locker-Lampson to establish an armoured car unit for the Royal Naval Air Service. Following training, Oliver’s No. 15 Squadron went to France but stalemate in the trenches negated the unit’s potential for mobile warfare. Then in 1916, in a show of support for Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his hard-pressed army, Locker-Lampson sailed with his squadron of armoured cars to the arctic port of Murmansk. From there his vehicles ranged as far south as the Caucasus Mountains skirmishing with the invading Germans.

Oliver Locker-Lampson
Lieutenant Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson (HU 124255) Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson MP CMG. Unit: Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Death: 8 October 1954. Copyright: © IWM.

Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson, always the self-promotional sort of figure, never denied talk of his involvement in the Russian court’s plots and schemes – and even of being implicated in the murder of the “mad monk” Rasputin who wielded a malign influence over the Tsarina. Apparently, he also proposed a plan to spirit the Royal Family out of Russia following the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917! Post-war, and as an MP, he warned of communist meddling in Britain’s home affairs – that still rings a bell in recent times! In 1931 he formed the Blue Shirts movement with the intention to “peacefully fight Bolshevism and clear out the Reds”. Their motto was his own family motto: “Fear God! Fear Naught!” In 1932 the Nazi Alfred Rosenberg visited Britain and was introduced to Oliver who was truly shocked to learn that Hitler believed the Blue Shirts to be fellow fascists.

The Locker-Lampson’s always had several houses but their principal home was still ’Rowfant’ in West Sussex; and it was following the death of Oliver’s mother, Hannah, in 1915 when Frederick’s eldest son, Godfrey Locker-Lampson, inherited Rowfant, whilst the younger Oliver, inherited Newhaven Court in Cromer. He married twice; his first wife was Californian Bianca Jacqueline Paget in 1923. Their wedding saw the couple dragged through the streets of Cromer in a car by members of his old armoured car squadron of World War 1 – only for her to die on Christmas day in 1929. His second wife was Barbara Goodall, whom he married in 1935 – it was she who was in his company, as one of the secretaries who guarded the physicist Albert Einstein when he was in residence on Roughton Heath in 1933. Oliver had given refuge to Einstein after the latter had received death threats while living in Belgium; he even took Einstein to meet Winston Churchill. In Norfolk, Oliver is probably only remembered as the person who gave refuge to Albert Einstein – and was the resident of Newhaven Court.

147502554_1057106544792894_4303430389101080251_n
Albert Einstein pictured with Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson’s party. In 1933, Lampson invited the German-born physicist to England to evade persecution by the Nazis.
Oliver Locker-Lampson (is left) with Albert Einstein (centre), then Barbara Goodall his future wife and the gamekeeper and guard (right). Image Credit EDP.

Overall, Oliver Locker-Lampson’s life in Cromer, between 1909 and 1936, was relatively genteel – if one ignores his exploits during the First World War, Russia in particular and his later ‘crusading’ as an MP. In Cromer, he helped to raise funds for an X-ray unit at the local Hospital, and opened a gymkhana to raise funds for lifeboat families who had lost crewmen at sea. It was in August 1925 when Oliver, ‘the commander’ and some of his ‘guests’, whom he used to collect into his ‘celebrity culture group’, organised a fete on Cromer Pier, with stalls, bunting, 500 lights and fancy dress – this was the forerunner of today’s annual carnival in the town.

During his time as an MP, Oliver Locker-Lampson assisted Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie find sanctuary in Sussex and evade the clutches of Mussolini. He also helped scores of ordinary Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany. Then in the Second World War he joined the Home Guard and gave his full parliamentary support to Prime Minister Churchill. He retired from politics at the 1945 General Election and died in 1954. He is buried along with his father and other family members in Worth churchyard, West Sussex. Unfortunately, he missed the boat to becoming famous himself; and, given his life-long efforts and achievements, he never did receive the recognition that he probably deserved.

Footnote:
On 23 January 1963 Cromer’s Newhaven Court Hotel, formerly ‘Newhaven Court’ was destroyed by fire; more than a century of Locker-Lampson holidays and heritage ended in fierce flames and billowing smoke. The fire was tackled by 40 firemen, who battled through the night, trying to confine the flames to the first floor, but:

‘Flames and sparks leapt high into the night from the roof, 50ft above the ground. Fire gained a good hold till the whole roof was ablaze.’

Gone also were its tennis courts, said to have been the best in England and used by some professional players of the time. Prior to the fire, the hotel was run by Mr and Mrs Donald Stevenson, who had leased it from local building firm A.G. Brown. It was said at the time that Donald Stevenson and his 15-year-old son, ran upstairs to fight the blaze, but were beaten back by smoke. The building was never restored, and was demolished to make way for homes and flats at Newhaven Close and Court Drive.

THE END

Sources: Various but includes:
https://www.sussexexpress.co.uk/news/opinion/familys-links-nelson-rasputin-and-king-farouk-1158565

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 other people’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with that person or owner), contact can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim or suggest 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. If there is any violation of copyright or trademark material, it is unintentional.

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A Champion of the Agricultural Labourer.

By Haydn Brown.

Joseph Arch was not born and bred in Norfolk, but he did play a key role in unionising agricultural workers of the County and championing their welfare, along with becoming the Liberal MP for the North West of the County in 1885.

Joseph Arch (Spy-cartoon)
Arch caricatured by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1886. Image: Public Domain.

Joseph Arch, in fact, came from the Warwickshire village of Barford where he was born on 10 November 1826. His ancestors were also Barford bred and for three generations, at least, had owned and lived in their own cottage there since the 18th century. After only three years of schooling, he started work as a labourer at the age of nine and his first job was as a bird-scarer, working 12 hours a day for a wage of 4d per day – so, he knew from bitter experience, the problems that faced the poorly-paid, ill-educated rural labourer of the time. From being a bird-scarer, he progressed to become a plough-boy, then a skilled hedge cutter before mastering just about any other farming skill one could find on the land. Such qualifications enabled him, in time at least, to move around the Midlands and South Wales, earning quite a reasonable wage in the process. At the same time, he could not fail to observe the terrible conditions in which the majority of his agricultural labouring colleagues lived. These were later described by the Countess of Warwick in the introduction she wrote to his eventual 1898 autobiography:

“Bread was dear, and wages down to starvation point; the labourers were uneducated, under-fed, underpaid; their cottages were often unfit for human habitation, the sleeping and sanitary arrangements were appalling …… In many a country village the condition of the labourer and his family was but little removed from that of the cattle they tended.”

Joseph Arch (Countess of Warwick)
Countess of Warwich

Following his return home to his Warwickshire village from his travels, Joseph Arch married in 1847 and, over time, had seven children. He also became a Primitive Methodist preacher which, apparently, did not go down well with the village parson and his wife who discriminated against the Arch’s’ as a result – there again, Joseph’s family had always been at odds with the parson. Nevertheless, during this period, Joseph also managed to educate himself politically by reading old newspapers and, in time, became a supporter of Liberalism.

Joseph Arch (Portrait_Elliott & Fry)
Joseph Arch (1826 – 1919) Agricultural Campaigner. Photo: Wikipedia.

It was therefore to him, as a well-respected and experienced agricultural worker, that his destitute fellow workers turned for help in their fight for a living wage. Called to address an initial meeting held on 7 February 1872, in the Stag’s Head public house in Wellesbourne, Joseph expected an attendance of fewer than thirty. Instead, he found on his arrival that over 2,000 agricultural labourers from all the surrounding area had arrived to hear him speak. The meeting was therefore held under a large chestnut tree opposite on a dark, wet, winter night, with the labourers holding flickering lanterns on bean poles to illuminate the proceedings.

Joseph Arch (The Square_Wellesbourne_chestnut,_1905)
The Wellesbourne  Chestnut Tree in 1905 (see below). Photo: Public Domain.

The right man in the right place at the right time:
From this initial gathering, further meetings were called and from one of these a committee was elected which met at John Lewis’s old farmhouse in Wellesbourne. Its endeavours eventually resulted in farm workers, from all parts of South Warwickshire, meeting in Leamington on Good Friday, 29 March 1872, to form the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers Union. From this, and in light of much agitation up and down the country, the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union was established, and Joseph Arch was elected as its President. The Union’s first action was to withdraw their labour, and farmers and landowners soon found out that the reprisals they tried to apply were ineffective; the result was, for a time, a temporary rise in the workers’ wages. This seemed to satisfy the Union members to the point where they ceased to organise themselves further. Inevitably, farm owners fought back and came to ‘locking-out’ union members, an action which became so widespread that the Union finally collapsed in 1896. It would, however, be replaced a decade later by the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in 1906.

Joseph Arch (Union Banner)
Image : Spartacas Educational.

But this was the time when Joseph Arch became identified with what was clearly a very popular cause.  He travelled all over England, speaking in stirring language at countless village meetings; inspired no doubt by his deep faith in his cause. Rural workers everywhere welcomed him as one of their own and from the walls of many small cottages’, portraits of his strong bearded face looked encouragingly down. He also became the subject of such rallying songs as:

Joe Arch he raised his voice,
’twas for the working men,
Then let us all rejoice and say,
We’ll all be union men.

Joseph Arch (Ham Hill demo)
Joseph Arch (standing centre) addressing the sixth annual demonstration of agriculural labourers at Ham Hill, Yeovil on, Whit Monday 1877. Photo: Public Domain.

In 1873 the Canadian government invited him over to examined the suitability of the country for British emigration. Impressed by his report, his Union helped over 40,000 farm labourers and their families to emigrate both there and to Australia over the next few years.

Joseph Arch also turned to agitating for the widening of the voting franchise, which until then only included property owners, and this resulted in the passing of the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act. In the ensuing 1885 General Election, he was elected as the Liberal MP for North West Norfolk, the first agricultural labourer to enter the House of Commons. He did lose his seat when William Gladstone was defeated in June 1886; however, Arch was re-elected to the same constituency in Norfolk in 1892, when he was one of twelve working-class MPs in parliament. Though he was appointed as a member of the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor in 1893, he seldom spoke and his former supporters came to perceive him as pompous and out of touch. Now they sang about him

Joseph Arch he stole a march,
Upon a spotted cow.
He scampered off to Parliament,
But where is Joseph now?

Then, on 25 July 1894, the Norfolk Chronicle reported:

“Mr. Joseph Arch, M.P., at a meeting held at New Buckenham, delivered to the agricultural labourers his famous address which was quoted throughout the country for some time afterwards.  “You poor, craven milk-and-water fools,” said the hon. member for North-west Norfolk, “why, you button up your pockets at the thought of paying 2¼d. a week when you are told by a lot of lying scampery and scandalism that I have run away with your money. . . .  Professor Rogers once said when speaking of the tenant farmers, that their heads were as soft as the mangolds they grew.  I think some of the labourers’ heads are as soft as the mangolds they hoe.”

In 1898, Arch published what was considered to be ‘a pugnacious and opinionated autobiography’, upon which The Spectator newspaper commented at the start of its long review that:

“One cannot help wishing that this book was more of an autobiography, and less of a polemic against Mr. Arch’s adversaries, political and social.”

Joseph Arch (Signed Photo_1900)
Joseph Arch autographed photograph 1900 . Photo: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and Archive.

Retiring from Parliament before the 1900 General Election, Arch returned to spend the last years of his long life in his tiny cottage in Barford; the place where he had been born. He died there on 12 February 1919 at the age of 92 years.

Joseph Arch (outside-cottage)
Joseph Arch as an old man outside his cottage. Photo: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and Archive.

Footnote – The Legacy:

(1) The Wellesbourne Tree: This tree died in 1948 but the spot was marked by a commemorative stone at the old meeting place, now renamed Chestnut Square. In 1952, the National Union of Agricultural Workers erected a bus shelter there and set up inside it a commemorative plaque which still remains. A replacement tree was also planted where every year union representatives once gathered on 7 February and then went on to Barford to lay a wreath upon Arch’s grave. The unions do not, apparently, do this anymore, but the Wellesbourne Action Group organises a walk from Barford to Wellesbourne in June each year, along the footpath known as the Joseph Arch Way. There is now also a Joseph Arch Road in the village which runs off the A439 roundabout, while in Barford the old coaching inn has been renamed the Joseph Arch pub.

(2) The Joseph Arch Inn:

Joseph Arch (Pub_Barford)
The Joseph Arch Inn at Barford. The pub is named after Barford’s most famous son. Photo: © Philip Halling

(3) Plaster Casts:

Joseph Arch (Hands)

The Museum of English Rural Life has a Joseph archive; included in which are curious plaster casts of his hands and wrists. Unfortunately, nothing is known about these plaster casts, except that they were made during the last quarter of the 19th century when Joseph Arch was no longer a practising agricultural labourer – else, they would be heavy, calloused and weather-beaten. Also, the exact reason why the casts were made is unknown. Maybe they were part of a statue; even though no other parts of the statue have been found. Another possibility is that such plaster casts were created because, during the 19th century, they were used to improve art and for teaching and research purposes. However, there seems to be no written record which could explain exactly why these casts were created – only speculation remains.

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Arch
https://www.barfordheritage.org.uk/content/people/joseph-arch/joseph-arch-1826-1919

Banner Heading: ‘The Mowers’ by George Clausen, 1892. Painting: Usher Gallery, London

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 other people’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with that person or owner), contact can sometimes be difficult if not impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim or suggest 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. If there is any violation of copyright or trademark material, it is unintentional.

Further Note:

If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.

Also:

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Spitfire X4593

By Haydn Brown.

On 22 November, 1940 Spitfire X4593 of 266 Squadron crashed near Holme Lode Farm, Holme in Cambridgeshire. At the controls for what was intended to be a routine training flight was Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh. During a battle climb to a high altitude with two other Spitfires, he was seen to break formation entering a dive from which unfortunately he failed to fully recover. Witnesses stated that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2000ft but immediately re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically.

Spitfire X4593 2
Spitfire X4593. Photo: Public Domain.

Pilot Officer Penketh was not able to use his parachute and was killed in the resulting crash. Although he was a new pilot with 266 Squadron, based nearby at Wittering, with only some 13 hours experience on Spitfires, his Station Commanding Officer stated that he could fly it quite well and was fully conversant with the oxygen system. It was assumed that his oxygen system was working as he had reached 28,000ft without any apparent problem. Investigation concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or a physical failure had occurred.

Spitfire X4593 (Harold Penketh)
Pilot Officer Harold Penketh. Photo: Aviva Group archive

Harold Penketh’s body was recovered from the wreck of his Spitfire and returned to his home town of Brighton where he had previously worked for the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation. His obituary in the staff magazine ended: “He was of a charming disposition and his loss was keenly felt by his family and those who knew him.” His name is recorded on a memorial at Brighton’s Woodvale Crematorium and Cemetery; he died aged only 20.

Spitfire X4593 (Excavation Finds)

In 2016 the decision was taken to excavate Spitfire X4593. The dig was a collaboration between the Great Fen Project, Oxford Archaeology and Operation Nightingale. Personal items belonging to Mr Penketh, including his initialled cigarette case and watch, were found, along with some skeletal remains that had not been recovered in 1940.

Spitfire X4593 (Memorial)
Memorial

The Plane:
The Spitfire’s registration number was X4593; it was built at Eastleigh, Hants as a Mark 1A Spitfire with a Merlin III engine. The plane flew in the Battle of Britain and is credited with destroying at least one German plane, believed to be a Heinkel. It was a presentation Spitfire paid for/named by the Madras Mail (English language daily evening paper, published 1868-1981), the first in a trio of Mark 1s named by their readers. The plane was called ‘Kerala’ (after the SW Indian state) and allocated to 266 Squadron, a Rhodesian squadron. The other two planes were X4594 ANDHRADESA and X4595 TOMILAND.

Spitfire X4593 (266 Squadron)

No. 266 Squadron:
Number 266 Squadron had been formed on 27 September 1918 from Nos 437 and 438 Flights at the seaplane station at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos, for anti-submarine patrols over the Aegean. On 30 October 1939, the Squadron was reformed at Sutton Bridge Lincolnshire, intended to be a Blenheim squadron. None were received and after training with Battles, it began to receive Spitfires in January 1940. The Squadron became a Rhodesian fighter squadron within Fighter Command and went on to establish a fine reputation in the skies over Western Europe. The squadron moved to Martlesham Heath near Ipswich in March 1940, then to Wittering in May 1940, having been re-equipped with Spitfires. These planes went into action for the first time on 2 June over Dunkirk, and flew coastal patrols and convoy escorts until fighting in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940. During August they were based in south-east England and then returned to Wittering. Sqn 266 began an intensive operational training programme in September for the many new pilots, when patrols over the Thames Estuary permitted. The Squadron’s crest has a motto: Hlabezulu, meaning ‘The stabber of the sky’.

THE END

Principal Source:
https://www.greatfen.org.uk/about-great-fen/heritage/spitfire-excavation

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The Unfortunate Demise of Tomkins.

By Haydn Brown.

Oliver Fellows Tomkins, to give him his full name, was born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, the fourth son of the Daniel Tomkins.  His formal education began in his father’s school in the town before travelling to Switzerland for a short time to complete it. He then spent five years working in business in Norwich, during which time he joined Dr George Barrett’s Congregational Church in Princes Street. Later, Tomkins become a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Portrait_Wikipedia)
Oliver Fellows Tomkins (1873–1901). Image: Wikimedia.

The original Princes Street Congregational Church was opened in 1819 with John Alexander becoming its “Founder and First Pastor”, and one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church. Dr George Barrett took over the church reigns following the death of Revd John Alexander.

Princes Street Church_EDP
United Reformed Church in Princes Street, Norwich.
The site on which the original Princes Street Congregational Church was built used to be a yard of densely populated tenement houses grouped around a central courtyard. However, within a short time, the roof was found to be unsafe and alterations were made in 1828 with some buildings situated behind the church modified and incorporated into the subsequent Church Rooms. The church was further altered and partially rebuilt in 1881 by Edward Boardman, a Deacon of the Church, and its present facade dates from this time. The roof was raised and a plasterwork ceiling installed. In 1927 the traditional box pews were replaced by the present pine pews with umbrella racks. Photo: EDP.

Tomkins was clearly smitten with evangelism for during college holidays and half-terms, he would preach to the North Sea fishermen and volunteer for mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan, whilst camping at night. He was therefore delighted when, eventually he was appointed to work as a missionary in the Torres Straits of New Guinea. Half of his financial support for this mission was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped to pay enthusiastic bearers of ‘God’s word’ to go to many far-flung places in the world.

Tomkins sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse in December 1899; they were to join the Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea, the territory where Chalmers himself was to ignore calls from his friends to leave and return to England when his second wife died. His refusal, along with the arrival of Tomkins was to have consequences for both of them some sixteen months later.

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Portrait_James-Chalmers-1887)
James Chalmers. Photo: Public Domain.

But for the moment, Chalmers was pleased with the arrival of Tomkins, who would share the burden of his large district. According to Chalmers:

“Throughout Mrs. Chalmers’s last illness, Tomkins [was] “a great help and a great comfort.” No son could have treated me kindlier than he did.”

In his young colleague Tomkins, Chalmers saw reasons for hoping that he might have more time to return to his pioneer work. A few months after Tomkins’s arrival, Chalmers again sent a brief message to the Mission House regarding Tomkins: “He will do”; and that opinion was confirmed again, and again in the months that followed. Dr. William George Lawes  was to call them, “the intrepid Paul and the beloved Timothy.”

But we move on – to 7 April 1901 to be exact. This was when Tomkins and Chalmers were on board the ‘Niue’ and had arrived at the Aird River at Kisk Point on Goaribari Island. The last entry in Tomkins’ diary indicates what happened next:

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Portrait_EDP Library)
Oliver Fellows Tomkins (1873–1901). Image: Wikimedia.

“In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching ……. They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board. Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them …… On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”

Neither of the Niue two missionaries, nor the twelve native Christians who accompanied them were seen after this visit to the natives. What really happened was only ascertained a month later, when George Le Hunte, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, visited the Aird River with a punitive expedition, and heard the story from a captured prisoner. This was quoted from an account supplied by the Rev Archibald Ernest Hunt, who accompanied the Lieutenant-Governor:

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Native)2
Natives of New Guinea. Image: Public Domain.

“The Niue anchored off Kisk Point on 7 April and a crowd of natives came off. As it was near sunset, ‘Tamate’ [the native name for John Chalmers] gave them some presents, and made signs that they were to go away, and the next day he would visit them ashore. At daylight the next morning, a great crowd of natives came off and crowded the vessel in every part. They refused to leave, and in order to induce them to do so, Tamate gave Bob, the captain, orders to give them presents. Still, they refused to move, and then Tamate said he would go ashore with them, and he told Tomkins to remain on board. The latter declined, and went ashore with Tamate, followed by a large number of canoes. When they got ashore, the whole party were massacred and their heads cut off. The boat was smashed up, and the clothing etc. distributed. All the bodies were distributed and eaten, Tomkins being eaten at the village of Dopima, where they were all killed.”

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Memorial Plot_Jamie Honeywood)
Memorial to Oliver Fellows Tomkins at the Great Yarmouth Minster. Photo: Jamie Honeywood

But just like most stories aimed at a reading public; the writers kept to the old adage ‘don’t let the facts spoil a good story’! One suggested that the ships party was invited back to the native’s village and into a newly constructed ‘Dubu’ for refreshments; clearly, if this was true, the two did not recognise the significance of entering such a communal house – which was for fighting men and could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice! Tomkins and Chalmers were clearly ‘taken in’ by the welcome; neither could they have seen any meaning behind the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut, a picture of stark contrast!

True or false, it was the case that other fellow missionaries had already reported similar sights elsewhere; of smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community. So, some may have thought, what on earth were the two men thinking, when clearly it was common knowledge that there were cannibalistic traditions in the region, a place where the missionaries were trying to bring the word of God!

But for Tomkins and Chalmers it would be too late; no sooner had they taken their places, seated at ground level along one side of the large laid-out spread, when each was clubbed from behind and killed. It was also said that their bodies were prepared and cooked with a variety of sago dishes, cooked with shell-fish, boiled with bananas, roasted on stones, baked in the ashes and tied up in leaves, – to be served as the main course, a feast that had been promised to the victims! Afterwards, their bones were kept on display and seemingly, the native’s ‘Dubu’ house had been suitably blessed by their preferred Gods!

Oliver Fellow Tomkins(Plaque)
Memorial Plaque in Princes Street URC. Photo: Simon Knott.

Back home, relatives and friends undoubtedly mourned the loss of Oliver Tomkins and the church he once worshiped in, the Princes Street Congregational Church, held a memorial service for Tomkins. Members afterwards subscribed to a plaque which they placed inside the church building in his memory; it remains there to this day.

THE END

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Three Good Men of Scole: Part 3.

By Haydn Brown.

Part 1 and 2 dealt with William Gooderham Senior and his son, William Gooderham Junior, respectively; they belonged to a prominent family line which had been well established in the Scole area of Norfolk throughout the 18th century, and probably much earlier. This final Part 3, is about George Gooderham, William Senior’s third son.

George Gooderham, destined to be both businessman and yachtsman, was born on 14 March 1830 in, or certainly near, Scole, Norfolk, England. He was William Gooderham Senior and Harriet Tovell Herring’s third son and brother of William Junior. George was fortunate to have been born into relative prosperity on the family estate, which his father worked as a gentleman farmer. At age two he was among a group of 54 people, led by his father, who emigrated to Upper Canada, arriving at York, Toronto on 25 July 1832. There the Gooderham’s joined James Worts, George’s uncle through marriage to his father’s sister, Elizabeth. James Wort had arrived in York the previous year and established, for himself and Gooderham, a wind-powered flour-mill at the mouth of the Don River.

George Gooderham (CurlingonDonRiver_1836_Wikipedia)
An 1836 watercolour depicting people curling on the Don River. Photo: Wikipedia

After the founding of York in 1793, several mills were constructed along the lower River Don, James Wort’s mill was just one; his was amongst a variety of other mills which, initially at least, turned out cut timber, flour and paper products. By the 1850s, there were more than 50 mills along the Don and its tributaries. In the case of Wort’s mill, the founder, together with his partner, William Gooderham Senior, soon realised that water power was not enough and changed to steam driven engines. This was a shrewd move for their business expanded to a point when, in 1837, a distillery was added to the business. This was the catalyst of the Gooderham future fortune in Canada. James Worts died in 1834 and in 1845 his son James Gooderham Worts became a partner in the enterprise, which took the name Gooderham and Worts.

In his youth, and whilst the family concentrated on building an empire, young George attended Sunday school in accordance to the wishes of his evangelical Anglican father. George later became librarian at the Little Trinity Church, which was just north of the family home, close to the mill-distillery complex. This church also became the centre of his early social life, and it was where he met Harriet Dean, whom he married on 14 March 1851, his 21st birthday. During their marriage, the couple had four sons and eight daughters – all but one daughter survived infancy. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his father happened to be a warden of Little Trinity, and held this post for many years. George himself, was a frequent participant in vestry meetings and was vestry clerk in 1854. He rented a pew from 1852 to the 1880s, but in later years he attended St James’ Cathedral.

George entered Gooderham and Worts while young, to learn the trade, and on 1 Aug. 1856 he was made a full partner in the distillery, alongside his father and his cousin James. The Monetary Times attributed to his acumen and drive the major expansion of the business, which begun three years later:

“He offered, if permitted a larger share in the concern, to manage the enlargement he had recommended and to take the risk of its success.”

The risk of the expansion, completed in 1861 and estimated to have cost $200,000, was reduced through a price-fixing agreement reached sometime before 1861 with rival distiller John H. R. Molson and Brothers of Montreal. By at least 1863 George was superintendent of the Toronto factory.

George’s rapid rise was partly the result of his elder brothers’ decision to spurn the family’s distilling business. William had moved to Rochester, New York, in 1842 to become a merchant. James, the second-born, joined him at Norval, Upper Canada, in about 1850 to run a general store. In addition to being loyal to the distillery business, George was clearly technically proficient and a perfectionist:

“He knew the chemistry of his subject as well as its economy, and was accustomed to make minute tests of grain and of yeast under the microscope,” said the Monetary Times.

The 1859–61 expansion of the business included installation of automatic milling and distilling machinery; this came along when the mechanisation methods of making barrels for the oil industry were adopted by the large distilleries. The impact on some 40 coopers at Gooderham and Worts was dramatic; wages and hours at its barrel shops had, in 1870, been controlled by the Coopers International Union, but within two years the union’s grip had been broken by the new machinery. By the mid-1870s the mill’s 150 workers were producing one of every three gallons of proof spirits manufactured in Canada. George Gooderham played a large role in the growing efficiency of the distillery throughout this period.

As George’s father expanded into banking and railways, George followed. In September 1870 he was made a director of the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, which, along with the Toronto and Nipissing Railway, was controlled by Gooderham and Worts and hauled freight for the company. Three years later he was made a Director of the Bank of Toronto, also controlled by Gooderham and Worts with his father as President.

George Gooderham (Bank of Toronto)
Bank of Toronto, 1880.

William Gooderham Snr. died on 20 Aug. 1881 and his two Gooderham and Worts partnerships of the mercantile business and the distillery were merged, James Gooderham Worts and George becoming sole partners. Most of his father’s estate passed to George and William Gooderham Jr, their brother, James, having died in 1879. Worts was elected president of the Bank of Toronto with George as vice-president; however, Worts died on 20 June 1882. The following day George was elected to the presidency, which he held until his death. He also gained control of Gooderham and Worts, and soon applied to parliament to have it transformed into a joint-stock corporation. George also became president of Gooderham and Worts Limited.

George then spent much of the remainder of his life broadening the base of his wealth by investing in real estate, mines, and financial services. In 1887 he, together with other Toronto backers founded twin firms, Manufacturers’ Accident Insurance Company and Manufacturers’ Life Insurance Company, and succeeded in securing Canada’s prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, as president of both. George became president of this company, on 22 June 1891, after Macdonald’s death. He then oversaw a steady expansion abroad throughout the 1890s and went on to head many more Companies.

In both distilling and finance, George’s cautious temperament and attention to detail helped bring success. His greatest talent lay in identifying and exploiting economic linkages. At the distillery, the company controlled more and more stages of production, from the field to the barrel, and profited from such industrial by-products as waste mash, which was fed to the company cattle. In financial services, George’s directorships linked a bank, a trust company, a mortgage company, a life-insurance company, and accident-insurance companies. This horizontal integration spread his personal investment risk but, more important, it helped to identify opportunities for profit. George’s companies thus remained relatively stable during periods of economic turmoil.

George Gooderam (Mansion_1892-Toronto Archives)
George Gooderham residence, northeast corner of St. George and Bloor streets, 1892. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Between 1889 and 1892 George Gooderham built an enormous Romanesque-style mansion at the northeast corner of Bloor and St George streets, in Toronto’s newly fashionable Annex neighbourhood. The chief designer was David Roberts Jr, whose father had been architect for the 1859–61 expansion of the mill-distillery complex. George christened the house ‘Waveney’, after the river that flowed past his birthplace in Norfolk. This imposing mansion, now housing the York Club, was a rare display of wealth from a man who otherwise preferred to stay out of the public eye.

George indulged a passion for yachting in his later years. In about 1880 he bought the racing schooner Oriole, which he moored at the east end of Toronto Bay by the distillery. It was replaced in 1886 by Oriole II, which won the Royal Canadian Yacht Club’s Prince of Wales Cup in six of the next seven years. He was vice-commodore of the club from 1884 to 1887 and commodore in 1888. He was also one of six investors in the cutter Canada, which won the first challenge for the Canada Cup, on Lake Erie on 25 Aug. 1896.

George Gooderham (HMCS Oriole_Photo ©2012 DND-MND CANADA)
Similar to George Goodrham’s ‘Oriol’ Photo: ©2012 DND-MND CANADA

Gooderham held a number of exclusive posts in which he associated with other members of Toronto’s élite. He was at times master of the Toronto Hunt Club, a director of the Ontario Jockey Club, and a captain in the reserve militia. He was also a senator at the University of Toronto and a trustee of the Toronto General Hospital. In the field of music, he joined impresario Frederick Herbert Torrington in organizing two ventures: the Toronto Music Festival (1886), of which he was honorary president, and the Toronto College of Music, which he served as president. As a Conservative, he donated to the party but never stood for political office.

Chronic bronchitis forced an ageing George to flee Canada each winter for warmer climates. His condition prompted trips to the Mediterranean and the southern United States. Several weeks after his return from Florida in 1905, he developed pneumonia and died at his Toronto home at age 75.

George Gooderham1
George Gooderham (1830-1905).

He left an estate estimated to have been worth more than $15 million. “The accumulation of such a fortune in one man’s hands marks an epoch in the development of Canada,” a eulogist wrote in Saturday Night. “His Will, made public in August 1905, declared the value of his holdings to be at least $10,000,000; he was thus one of the richest men in the country. The composition of the estate showed how effectively George Gooderham had diversified. Almost 90 per cent of his father’s wealth in 1881 had been invested in the distillery; When George died, on 1 May 1905, his distillery investment represented only about a third of his fortune.

Though he had accumulated seven times the wealth of his father and though his financial and real-estate investments touched the lives of thousands, George Gooderham remained broadly unknown. His funeral was small and his legacy was soon dispersed. His Will placed the distillery in the hands of his four sons. The two eldest sons, William and Albert, were to manage the operation and, at the end of ten years, were to be given the right to purchase the business outright. The presidency of Gooderham and Worts passed to William, who held the position until the family’s sale of the distillery in 1923. George’s father would have been proud of him!

THE END

Source:
Dean Beeby, “GOODERHAM, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 4, 2021, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gooderham_george_13E.html.

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Three Good Men of Scole: Part 2

By Haydn Brown.

Part 1 dealt with William Gooderham, senior of three prominent members of the same family line – a line which had been well established in the Scole area of Norfolk throughout the 18th century, and probably much earlier. Part 2, here, is about William Gooderham Junior – a son who fell short of his father’s expectations!

William Gooderham Junior was born on 14 April 1824 at Scole, Norfolk, England, eldest son of William Gooderham Senior and Harriet Tovell Herring. Very little is known about William Junior, except that at the tender age of eight years he accompanied his father when the family sailed to York, Upper Canada in 1832. After receiving a grammar school education in Toronto, he refused, in 1842, to join his father’s milling and distilling firm and instead moved to Rochester, New York where he took up a mercantile career. Born into an evangelical Church of England family, William Jnr was converted to Methodism while at Rochester and became a strong temperance advocate. Then on 14 April 1847 he married Margaret Bright whose sister, Sarah, had married his cousin, James Gooderham Worts, in 1840. There were no children.

About 1850, William Gooderham, and his younger brother James, opened a general store at Norval in Halton County, West Canada. The business was not profitable and closed in 1859. William then became the Toronto-based partner in the Boston grain firm of Taylor Brothers, but when his misjudgements proved costly, the partnership was ended. Other ventures were equally unsuccessful and several times Gooderham had to be rescued by friends and relatives.

Wm Gooderham (Toronto_and_Nipissing_Railway)2
Toronto and Nipissing Fairlie 0-6-6-0 No. 9 Shedden built by the Avonside Engine Company, Bristol, England, 1871. Image: Wikipedia.

In the 1870s Gooderham was, however, named vice-president and managing director, and in 1873 became president and managing director, of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway Company, then controlled by Gooderham and Worts. He remained head of the railway until its heavy losses forced an absorption in 1882 into the group of lines consolidated as the Midland Railway of Canada. In 1871 he was an incorporator of the Confederation Life Association and represented family interests on its board of directors until 1872. Failing health and his wife’s illness caused him to withdraw gradually from active business management in the early 1880s. This was probably a sound move for as his obituary in the ‘Toronto World’ was to point out “His record as a business man tells of confidence placed in talents he did not possess.”

Two events shaped the last decade of Gooderham’s life. First, his own illness and that of his wife (who had become an invalid in 1875) brought about a reconversion to Methodism and, with it, William was to enter upon a career of evangelism which lasted to the day he died on 12 September 1889 at Toronto, Ontario. The second event which shaped matters was that, in 1881, he received some $300,000 from his father’s estate. With this money William launched himself into careers in finance and philanthropy. He invested large sums in the shares of several corporations and was elected to their boards. Of his investments, only the Central Bank of Canada proved to be a serious misjudgement, for when that institution failed in 1888, he was named ‘a liquidator’, probably because of his known rectitude and the fact that he owned a large number of shares. With double liability, his losses exceeded $40,000. Nevertheless, his estate was valued at approximately $450,000 at his death – (approx. $11,000,000 in today’s terms?).

In spite of his eccentric behaviour, which included importuning strangers in public places to proclaim the Word of God, his generosity to religious organisations was admired. He personally supported missionaries in India, the Canadian northwest, and in the South Sea islands; assembled a quartet of young people with whom he paid regular preaching visits to hospital wards; gave sermons in various Protestant churches; and financially supported numerous charities. He was a director of the Toronto Willard Tract Depository, a member of the Toronto General Hospital Trust, and chairman of the executive of the China Inland Mission. In 1888 he gave $25,000 to erect the Toronto Christian Institute. He died the next year preaching to destitute men at a Salvation Army haven.

Gooderham’s Will created a sensation. It was instrumental in ending the delay in the implementation of the Act of 1887, with the amalgamation of the federation of Victoria University at Cobourg with the University of Toronto; the move provided, in addition to a $75,000 permanent endowment, for $125,000 to be paid to Victoria on the condition that it moved to Toronto. Federation with the University of Toronto was proclaimed on 12 Nov. 1890 and the transfer was completed in October 1892. In addition, William bequeathed $150,000 to organisations such as the Upper Canada Bible Society, the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations, the Boy’s Home, Girl’s Home, and homes for infants, the Toronto Home for Incurables, the House of Industry, and the Salvation Army.

THE END, PART 3 TO FOLLOW.

Source:
Leo A. Johnson, “GOODERHAM, WILLIAM (1824-89),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 4, 2021, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gooderham_william_1824_89_11E.html.

Three Good Men of Scole: Part 1

By Haydn Brown.

   Ultimately, this is intended to be the story of three particular members of the same family line – a prominent line and one which had been well established in the Scole area of Norfolk throughout the 18th century, and probably much earlier – they were the Gooderham’s. It is a story which is long, hence the need to split it into three parts. This is Part 1 – about William Gooderham, the evangelical patriarch!

Wm Godderham (East-India-House-London-Leadenhall-Street-Thomas-1817)
The East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, c. 1817.

William Gooderham was born on 29 August 1790 in, or certainly near Scole in Norfolk, the second son of James and Sarah Gooderham. Very little is known about William’s childhood, except to say that when he was 12 years old, he left his father’s farm in Norfolk to work in the London office of his mother’s brother, an East Indies trader. Then, during the Napoleonic Wars, he joined the Royal York Rangers and saw action in the capture of Martinique in 1809 and Guadeloupe in 1810.

Wm Gooderham (Martinique_1809_Wikimedia)
The Taking of the French Island of Martinique in the French West Indies on 24 February 1809. Image: Wikipedia.

William survived the actual conflict, however, at the age of 21 years, he was invalided home after contracting yellow fever on the island. After he had recovered, he continued with the force as a recruiting officer for the remainder of the war, which lasted until 1815. During this period, he was said to have ‘acquired’ the means by which to pay off an £800 mortgage on his father’s farm at Scole, which he was to later inherit in 1820 when his father died. This initiative of his also secured a modest income for himself; it was also the first sign of his in-built ‘business acumen’ which was to hold him in good stead in future years. For the moment, however, he simply became a gentleman farmer, although his estate at Scole at the time was to suffer from the general decline in values of British agricultural produce, brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) when food imports recovered and there was a resumption of American trade following their own Civil War of 1812–1815.

Gooderham (FARMING)

This economic downturn for land owners, plus the rural rioting during that period, must have been an influencing factor in William’s decision, eleven years later, to emigrate. However, before then and shortly after his father had died in 1820, William married Harriet Tovell Herring and began the process of rearing their family of thirteen children, of which at least five were born at Scole. During the whole process of rearing a family, William went from ‘gentleman farmer’ in Norfolk to becoming a very successful and wealthy distiller, businessman, and banker in far off Canada.

Wm Gooderham (Immigration)
Arrival by sea in Canada.

In 1831 Gooderham’s brother-in-law, James Worts, (1792 – 1834) instigated a large immigration of their two families to Upper Canada. Worts, being the first to emigrate, established himself as a flour miller at the mouth of the Don River near York, Toronto, and began construction of a windmill. The following year of 1832, William Gooderham followed in Worts wake, bringing over to York a company of some 54 persons: members of his own and of Worts’s family, as well as servants and 11 orphans. Once settled in York, William invested the substantial sum of £3,000 in Worts’s milling business and the two brothers-in-law formed the partnership of Worts and Gooderham. The partnership abruptly ended when in February 1834, several weeks after Worts wife, Elizabeth Gooderham, died during childbirth, James Worts committed suicide; he drowned himself in a well on his own company’s property. William, ever the businessman, not only continued running the company, but also changed its name to William Gooderham, Company.

GooderhamAndWorts1800s
Gooderham & Worts, Ltd., Toronto., 1896. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In 1837 he then added a distillery to his business so that he could make efficient use of surplus and second-grade grain. Four years later he introduced gas for illumination and converted the entire plant from wind-to steam-power. Shipment of consignments to Montreal in the early 1840s illustrated Williams growing interests in the harbourfront area and in distant markets. Six years later he built his own wharf there and by the 1860s owned schooners on the Great Lakes. During this period of expansion, William took on his nephew, James Gooderham Worts the son of the drowned James, as a trainee. In 1845, this same  young nephew joined William as a full partner; the firm’s name was changed to Gooderham and Worts. During the 1860s and 1870s the company enjoyed a pre-eminence in Toronto’s industry, transportation, and finance, as well as on the stock exchange.

The complex of buildings owned by Gooderham and Worts, and designated the Toronto City Steam Mills and Distillery in 1845, grew to become an industrial showpiece and made its owners the city’s largest taxpayers. A major expansion was begun in 1859 with a new, five-storey distillery built; it was acknowledged as the largest distillery in Canada West and had begun exporting to the English market. In early 1862 the costs of new buildings, which included storehouses and an engine house, and of equipping the old windmill with modern machinery were estimated at over $200,000 – (apprx. $5,000,000 (£3,676,925) in today’s terms?). A brick malthouse was later added. After 1862 the windmill was used for further distilling of the company’s premium brands, “Toddy” and “Old Rye,” which enjoyed both an English market and large sales in Canada.

Gooderham (Whiskey)
Canadian Old Rye Whiskey

On 26 October 1869, a spectacular fire destroyed a storehouse and a lumber pile and gutted the interior of the main milling and distillery building, causing considerable damage; unfortunately, the company was not covered by insurance. However undeterred, William Gooderham and James Worts rebuilt, and their business continued to grow further. In 1874–75 the company produced over 2,000,000 gallons, or one-third the total amount of proof spirits distilled in the country. By the late 1870s, Gooderham and Worts, in common with other Canadian distillers, had withdrawn from the English market and had turned increasingly to selling grain alcohol for the manufacture of such products as vinegar and methylated spirits, as well as the scent “Florida Water.” Although Gooderham and Worts delegated direct management and some degree of ownership in the 1860s and 1870s, they were primarily responsible for the success of the firm.

Gooderham3
Commercial crest of Gooderham & Worts by  John Henry Walker 1850-1885. Image: McCord Museum.

Visitors to the Gooderham and Worts establishments after 1861 were said to bestruck by their massive size, by their cleanliness, by the fully automatic milling machinery which further distinguished the operation from most others in the province, and by the shelters for the livestock alongside the distillery. Just as the distillery had grown out of the mill, a livestock operation, begun in the 1840s, was an offshoot of the distillery business. William first raised pigs and then cattle, fattened on the nutritious swill that was a by-product of distilling. A dairy herd numbering 22 in 1843 grew into a dairy and beef operation which by 1861 was fattening about 1,000 animals a year, but at that time the herd was probably no longer owned by Gooderham and Worts. When improved transportation opened an English market, only beef was produced and by the end of the decade there were sheds for 3,000 animals near the distillery.

In the expansion of their facilities after 1859, Gooderham and Worts included a siding to the Grand Trunk Railway, large enough to hold 14 carriages; they were to be prominent among Toronto businessmen interested in the narrow-gauge railways promoted by George Laidlaw, a former employee. The partners’ interest in railways grew naturally out of the needs of their mills and of the Toronto flour-mill and distillery complex. In 1870, on terms favourable to themselves, they advanced a loan large enough to give the bonds of both the Toronto, Grey & Bruce and the Toronto and Nipissing railways a market value.

Wm Gooderham (Toronto_and_Nipissing_Railway)
Toronto and Nipissing Railway – Fairlie-patent double-boilered locomotive.

Thereafter their influence increased in the operation of the two lines, especially the Toronto and Nipissing railway of which William Gooderham Senior had become a provisional director upon its incorporation in 1868. Even before William Gooderham Jr became President of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway Company in 1873, the Gooderham interests were the railway’s main customer, and the Toronto terminal of this line was established conveniently near the distillery and cattle sheds. Although family control of a railway, built with much public funding, did not escape criticism, defenders of the line pointed to the need for Gooderham’s capital to launch the enterprise and to finance its chief activity, which involved buying cordwood in the north and storing it to season before transporting it for sale in the city.

When William Gooderham became President of the Bank of Toronto in 1864, a post he held until his death, he embarked on the last of several careers, leaving James Worts to look after their joint interests in the Bank. The Bank’s combination of conservative investment policy with internal efficiency and innovative management bore the mark of William Gooderham. Under him the Bank achieved an enviable reputation for stability which brought it a growing share of business. Its stocks remained at a relatively high price, even during the recession in the 1870s.

Wm Gooderham (little_trinity_toronto)
Little Trinity Church.

On a personal front William Gooderham, ever the ‘conservative’, avoided the public eye and shied away from exposure as a member on the first publicly elected school board in 1850; his only real venture into politics was as City Alderman in 1853 and 1855. At the same time, he was staunch evangelical Anglican, and a leading member of Little Trinity Church (which was near his distillery) and its warden from 1853 to 1881. William was also a lifelong freemason, and served as President of the York Pioneer Society from 1878 to 1880. His charitable activities were both personal (he took a growing number of orphans under his protection) and institutional. He represented the board of trade on the trust of the Toronto General Hospital, and along with Worts and William Cawthra he contributed the $113,500 (possibly valued around $3 million today?) needed to build a new wing for patients with infectious diseases.

Wm Gooderham (Toronto General Hospital)
Toronto General Hospital.

William died on 20 August 1881 in Toronto, Ontario, having taken the opportunity during the last three or four years of his life to turn much of his business over to his third son, George, who had already become a full partner in Gooderham and Worts. It seems that William’s eldest son, William Junior, President and Managing Director of the Toronto and Nipissing Railway from 1873 had an inglorious career in other businesses and was to die in 1889. William’s second son, James, had already been killed in an accident on the Credit Valley Railway in 1879. Three other sons of William, Henry, Alfred Lee, and Charles Horace, were to be employed in branches of the family concern. The Reverend Alexander Sanson of Little Trinity Church eulogized William as a type of patriarch.

William Gooderham1
William Gooderham (1790-1881). Image: Wikipedia.

Even after providing for his children, William Gooderham left an estate which amounted to approximately $1,550,000 at first valuation (possibly valued around $40 million today?). Obituaries stressed the breadth of his influence in the business community and his contribution to the city’s growth from a town of “three or four thousand inhabitants, and little wealth” to the ‘metropolis’ in 1881. Gooderham built his Empire by combining the principle of dealing in articles of widespread consumption with a sensitivity, which he retained as he grew older, to the opportunities offered by new techniques and new markets. Not bad for this man from Scole, Norfolk, England.

THE END OF PART ONE -PARTS 2 AND 3 TO FOLLOW.

Source:
Dianne Newell, “GOODERHAM, WILLIAM (1790-1881),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed January 4, 2021, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gooderham_william_1790_1881_11E.html.

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A Norwich Murderer & Legend!

By Haydn Brown.

 It was a vicious murder that worked its way into 19th century national imagination and also crept into later fiction. Many authors wrote about the crime and the man who perpetrated it. Sir Walter Scott became fascinated by him and even visited the scene of his crime. George Burrows was said to have been at his execution, but certainly wrote about him afterwards as editor of ‘Notable Trials’ when he wrote his personal account of the man’s execution. Scholarly crime studies also made a feature of the man, his background and the reasons for what was a murder, and a gruesome one at that! These studies began to filter through long after the actual gallows, on which the man swung, had long become an exhibit at Madame Tussauds. The murderer’s name was John Thurtell.

John Thurtell 1
John (or Jack) Thurtell. Photo: Public Domain

John Thurtell is a well-documented person of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with numerous biographies and studies about him in various forms of print which were published in both the United Kingdom and abroad. His was a short and wretched life where many of the opportunities that were offered to him, or came to him by chance, were wasted and he was best known for his personal brand of criminality.  Unfortunately, and despite Thurtell being an intelligent ‘hard’ man, he quickly became a compulsive gambler and seemed to have had no trouble in thriving on the trappings of shady deals and illegal prize-fights which he promoted – and in which he sometimes took part.

Born on 21st December, 1794, Thurtell had every opportunity to make the most of his life in times when to be poor probably meant hardship and deprivation. His parents were financially quite well off in their home at Harford Bridges, which is still just a handful of miles south of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk. It was there where his father Alderman Thomas Thurtell, a prominent merchant and city councellor – who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828, celebrated the birth of baby John, his first son and the first in an ultimate line of several other children. As thrilled as the father must have been with the baby’s arrival, young John was to become his mother’s favourite child. This may have been one of the reasons why, as a child, John was not sent away for his schooling. A second reason may have been that young John, being an unruly child, had to be kept well within sight at all times when awake and active. Apparently, as John grew older, he became ‘not averse to tying canisters to dog’s tails’ – as George Burrow once put it.

Thurtell was certainly not a scholar and when he eventually went to school in Norwich, he remained permanently poor at both spelling and English Grammar. However, he must have shared the family’s social asperations at least, for he lacked the skills for much else. The truth was that he never applied himself to his studies and always seemed pre-occupied with competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). It was only after too many tussles for his family’s liking that his father decided that maybe a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good. So, at the age of 15 years, and with a freshly purchased commission by way of his father, John Thurtell joined Company 99 of the Marines as a second lieutenant and set out on 8 May 1809 to Chatham where he undertook a period of training before joining the HMS Adamant, a 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate warship which had just completed its final voyage after a thirty-year career as a fighting ship in the Royal Navy; it had served in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars.

Thurtell (HMS Adamant)
HMS Adamant in its prime fighting days – long before John Thurtell boarded her as a marine. Photo: Public Domain.

During the month that Thurtell joined HMS Adamant, the ship was in the process of being fitted out as a ‘receiving ship’ which would be used, in harbour, to house newly recruited (also ‘impressed’) sailors before they were assigned to a ship’s crew. In the Royal Navy, the use of impressment to collect sailors resulted in the problem of preventing escapees. A receiving ship was part of the solution, for it was difficult to get off such a ship without being detected, and most seamen of the era did not know how to swim! Receiving ships, such as Adamant, were typically older vessels that could still be kept afloat, but were obsolete or no longer battle-worthy.

At the same time as Thurtell was being indoctrinated into his naval role, HMS Adamant was recommissioned under Captain John Sykes and in August 1809, presumably with Thurtell as part of its crew, took part in the ‘Scheldt Operation’ which was aimed at sealing the mouth of the Scheldt to prevent the port of Antwerp from being used as a base against the British Fleet. The primary aim of the whole campaign was to destroy the French fleet thought to be in Flushing whilst providing a diversion for the hard-pressed Austrians. Captain Matthew Buckle took command of HMS Adamant for this operation and was still in post two years later when Rear-Admiral William Albany Otway (not Robert Waller Otway as mentioned in other works – he came to Leith later) adopted the ship as his flagship.

It was on 16 July 1811 when Thurtell was disciplined and discharged from HMS Adamant by Rear Admiral William Albany Otway for misconduct. Beyond this point, real evidence of Thurtell’s immediate life and naval career is non-existent, and therefore some assumptions must be made. For instance, it can be assumed that his discharge was not absolute, for he went on to find another berth with HMS Bellona (another aging ship of the line) on 11 November 1811; just in time to be involved with the ship’s blockade of Dutch ports before a convoy trip to St Helena and back by September 1813 when she returned to the Basque Roads, but was back on blockade duty off Cherbourg by October of that year. From all this, it is clear that Thurtell’s service in the Navy was confined to two old ships which were fit only for blockading duties and not for any degree of real action.

Thurtell (HMS Bellona)
HMS Bellona and Courageux arriving at Spithead by Geoff Hunt.
Thurtell (HMS Bellona off Brest)
HMS Bellona off Brest by Geoff Hunt.

But Thurtell was prone to boasting to his friends and family about his involvement in sea battles; how he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain for instance. However, Naval records indicate that this and other stories of action on the HMS Bellona were untrue; Bellona was docked at the Isle of Wight on 1 August 1813 when San Sebastian fell and the ship merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had ended. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war; it was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. By June 1814 there were no further opportunities for his ‘heroism’; this was the month when he resigned his commission and returned to Norwich. Being permanently ashore from this point did not, apparently, curtail his story-telling; and he always seemed to have a good audience around him, particularly in and around the Haymarket public houses in Norwich. It is said that folks there were greatly impressed with his tales of derring-do.

This growing attraction of his to frequent public house brought further interest in the world of boxing, and this was to be fuelled in 1818 by the landlord of ‘The Anchor’ in Lobster Lane, who was none other than Ned ‘Flatnose’ Painter who famously defeated Tom Spring in the August of that year. But three years before all this happened, in fact shortly after Thurtell’s 21st birthday on 21 December, Thomas Thurtell had set his son up in a bombazine business, alongside a designated partner by the name of John Giddons – or was it Giddings? – some accounts refer to the partner being John’s Brother, Thomas Thurtell; maybe it was all three?. No matter; the situation of being backed and supported by his wealthy and respectable parents was a wonderful opportunity for John Thurtell; also having been placed in the booming bombazine manufacturing and selling trade and with a young Quaker girl on his arm – what could possibly go wrong with his life? Plenty it would seem!

John Thurtell (boxing)
18th century boxing.

Inherent weaknesses with the partnership included the fact that John Thurtell did not like hard work, or show any trace of faithful endeavour towards the business; instead, he preferred frequenting Norwich taverns, and participating in or promoting boxing matches, even making numerous journeys to London in pursuit of the sport – and, inevitably, falling in with the ‘underworld’ fraternity who frequented such pastimes; maybe even, falling foul of ‘The Fancy’ – those professional crooks and gamblers who, seemingly, merged effectively into the the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing at the time. Frequently, underworld elements and gentlemen of so-called genteel society mixed in a sport that during the early 19th century was officially illegal; however, it was widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, boxing — with its brutality, fatalities and associations with unsavoury characters, had ample  potential for morals to be expressed. ‘The Fancy’, said a judge in 1803,

“draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.”

It would seem the these ‘gentlemen’ were far better at the game than the likes of John Thurtell, who was seen by them as a country ‘yokel’, despite being the son of an Alderman and having successfully promoted a big fight at North Walsham on the 17 July 1820. That one event was probably the only moment when Thurtell’s standing with ‘The Fancy’, as a backer and partial promoter, was at its highest.

At least anecdotal evidence suggested that Thurtell’s behaviour after this fight remained as bad as ever, and he even caused a fight at another sporting event when he assaulted someone who he accused of being a pickpocket. Maybe his failing business was beginning to play on his mind at moments when he behaved so badly in public. Certainly, within six years of indulging himself elsewhere and not paying due attention to his bombazine business the partnership was swiftly heading towards bankruptcy. By 23 January 1821 Thurtell, it seems, was in an utter mess, but had already planned to go to London to collect a considerable amount of money owed to the bombazine partnership. Much of this money was owed to his creditors, but that was not what was on Thurtell’s mind when he collected it and returned to Norwich, where events took a very ‘mysterious’ turn. He put it about that he had received a note asking him to call on a Mr Bolingbroke who live near Chapelfield. Whilst on his way, an unidentified woman approached him and as they walked along Thurtell was violently attacked and relieved of the £1508. Afterwards he could neither identify the woman or his assailants! It followed that he immediately placed an advertisement in the local Norfolk newspapers; it read:

“£100 Reward: Whereas at about 9 o’clock on the evening of the 22nd inst, Mr John Thurtell was attacked in Chapel Field, Norwich, by three men, knocked down and robbed of a pocket book containing £1,508 in notes, thirteen of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each, and the name of John Thurtell is endorsed on them. Notice is hereby given that whoever will give information which might lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery, shall be paid the above reward on applying to Mr Thurtell; and any person concerned in the robbery who will give information of his accomplices will receive the reward and a free pardon.”

The total sum involved would seem to be an incredible amount of money to be carrying, and it was quickly established that this little episode was a complete scam and that the so-called wounds he received during the ‘assault’ had been self-inflicted. It became all too clear that Thurtell’s motive was to enjoy a public subscription from the publicity. However, his creditors were never to be impressed or taken in by what had been the latest of Thurtell’s antics and notices of bankruptcy against his and Gidden’s partnership duly appeared, stating that J Giddens and J Thurtell, bombazine manufacturers, dealers and chapmen of Norwich were listed as insolvent, and that Ides, Poole & Greenfield of Gray’s Inn Square had been appointed solicitors. A creditors meeting took place on 15th to 17th March 1821 at the Norfolk Hotel.

Norwich (Norfolk Hotel1)
A later photograph of the hotel where the creditors meeting of 15th to 17th March 1821 took place. Photo: Norfolk Library Service.

Within days of this meeting Thurtell fled to London with a woman named Mary Dobson, whose looks were proving more interesting to him than those of his Quaker girl-friend. They left Norwich, leaving his apparent naïve father as his biggest creditor. By this time John Thurtell was being better known as ‘Jack’ Thurtell, and over the next twelve months or so Jack managed to obtain a licence to run a public house; get his brother, Thomas, imprisoned for a claimed debt of £17 which Jack thought would help discharge his own bankruptcy – that failed but left a bad taste in the mouths of at least his family. Jack also continued with any scam which he thought would bring him money; one involved buying a consignment of bombazine and storing it in a warehouse which he and Thomas had previously had insured for £1900. Jack then made some internal alterations to the warehouse which effectively concealed the inside. He then sold his entire stock for cash, but before it was delivered the warehouse was gutted by fire on the night of 26 January 1823.

The inevitable insurance claim was lodged but when investigators found that there were no traces of bombazine the County Fire Officer refused to settle the claim. Thomas Thurtell, who was clearly a partner in this fraud, not only sued the insurance company but won the case; however, such was the level of suspicion that the insurance company’s Managing Director not only confirmed its refusal to pay out, but threatened to pursue a case of conspiracy to defraud. Jack and Thomas where effectively broke and literally went into hiding, wandering from inn to inn and mixing with the rogues of London. Individuals like William Probert who had married a woman described as ‘physically repellent but financially attractive’, and was thus able to purchase a cottage in Gills Hill Lane, Radlett. Here he lived with his wife, her sister, two children of Thomas Thurtell and a couple of servants. Probert also put his wife’s money to other use, by setting himself up as a wine merchant, a venture that failed around the same time as John Thurtell’s own business ventures collapsed. The two were well matched.

John Thurtell (Three Accomplinces)2

Another rogue was Joseph Hunt, 26 years of age and an illiterate whose only talent was that he could sing. Doubtless there were other such characters in Jack Thurtell’s world of dubious deals and gambling. Then there was 43-year-old William Weare, a gang member and a ‘notorious blackleg’, card sharp, gambler at billiard tables and race horse meetings. He trusted no-one, and kept his considerable fortune about his person, strapped to his chest or secreted within his clothing. He lived in lodgings at Lyons Inn, off the Strand. This had previously been the address of reputable solicitors, which would have made Weare appear ‘respectable’, an image borne out by his appearance, for he was always smartly dressed. He could, and did, fleece many an easy prey and Jack Thurtell, who was considered a novice amongst such ‘sporting people’, was to be Weare’s next victim.

In October 1883, Weare, who had been to Doncaster races, returned to town having had a very successful day. He was approached by one of London gang-leaders who further tempted Weare with more ‘easy pickings’. The victim would be Jack Thurtell who had already lost heavily but was given the opportunity to make up his losses by playing a certain person who was considered poor at playing cards. Jack Thurtell thus met William Weare, who duly lost early rounds, conning Jack to play ‘just one more round’ – Weare took Thurtell for £300, and the loser was not pleased at all and conspired to exact revenge on Weare.

Jack Thurtell invited Weare to accompany him and his few friends out into the country around Radlett for a spot of hunting; Weare gladly accepted. In the meantime, Jack Thurtell and Hunt had bought a pair of pistols, a rope and a large sack; also hiring a gig, which would have been ideal for making the trip to Radlett, except that it would be pulled by two greys which were to prove to be a ‘give-away’ when the planned crime had been committed.

John Thurtell (Illustration - Robert-Cruikshank)1

On the appointed day, Weare appeared, complete with a gun and a change of clothing; he accompanied John Thurtell in the gig, whilst Probert and Hunt followed in a second gig. Together, the party raced along the Edgware Road, calling into taverns along the way as they settled into their boozy, sporty and ultimately murderous weekend. Entering Radlett, Thurtell went on ahead whilst, it seems, Probert dropped Hunt off, before heading off along Gills Hill Lane after him. What really happened near Probert’s cottage really depends on which story is believed; people’s accounts varied between the inquest and the trial that was to follow. However, one thing was certain; Jack Thurtell was still aboard the gig when he shot Weare in the face before striking him several times with his pistol. If that was not enough, which it wasn’t because his was a ‘grudge’ assassination in which he demanded full revenge; he cut Weare’s throat.

The Sequell:
The deed done, Thurtell must have felt that the score was settled – short of disposing of Weare’s body of course. Now, whether or not Probert helped in this matter is not really clear, so speculation must be that Thurtell carried out this task alone; placing Weare’s body into a sack and dumping it under bushes. This was during the early 19th century when Gills Hill Lane was little more than a track, with wild bushes, tree and hedgerows; at approximately three-quarters of a mile long, this overgrown lane was, in those days, referred to as a ‘dismal ravine’. However, Weare’s corpse was not to lay hidden for long by that lane; Probert and Hunt joined Thurtell at the cottage, which lay east of the lane, before all three went to the hidden site and rifled Weare’s pockets. Then, later that evening, after darkness had well and truly fallen, they carried the body to a nearby field, on horseback, where they threw it into a pond. Thurtell, obviously panicking, then went back to the scene of his crime and searched for the two murder weapons, the pistol and the knife – but with no success. Strange therefore that during the very next day two workmen, who were employed to clear the lane, passed the very same spot and not only noticed blood on the ground, but also discovered the bloodstained pistol and knife. These they passed on to their employer, a Mr Nicholls, who later presented them to the Petty Sessions of the Watford Branch which happened to be sitting, in session, at the Essex Arms Inn; it was on Tuesday, 28 October 1823.

According to Pete Goodrum, in his book ‘Five Norwich Lives’ what followed next was that:

“The Magistrate did not praise or thank Nicholls but unsurprisingly admonished him for taking so long to report his story. On seeing that the pistol was covered in blood, human hair and brains, they were galvanised into action. Constable Simmonds of Watford was given the weapons, along with instructions to go straight to London to request a Bow Street Runner to come down immediately. [After 1815, the Runners’ most regular employment was to respond to help requests from prosecutors outside London. These were likely cases in which their skill and experience was thought to be useful in investigating offences in the provinces.”

Thurtell (Bow Street)
Bow Street and its Runners.

At the same time as the police were being alerted, rumours were spreading. Firstly, a gunshot was heard by a Mr P. Smith, at nearby Battlers Green. Secondly, a man named Freeman had noticed a gig in Gills Hill Lane with two men on board; and thirdly, it became established that on the day of the murder, Joseph Hunt had sported a beard and moustache – at the time of his arrest just days later he was to be found clean shaven and wearing Weare’s clothes! Then a chanced remark from a farmer that he had ‘heard a shot’ about the time of the killing forced Probert to waste no time in telling his companions; this resulted in all three men racing back to the pond which held Weare’s corpse, retrieving it, placing it into the gig and driving to another pond near Elstree to drown it once more!

John Thurtell (Three Accomplinces)3
From a Sketch taken in Court. (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

But time and events were against Hunt, Thurtell, Thomas (Thurtell’s brother) and Probert, the latter displaying his extreme uneasiness to such an extent that soon the police authorities became interested in him. Magistrate Clutterbuck visited Probert’s cottage, which stood just north of Elstree and found that Probert had packed his bags and was clearly in the process of making his escape. Probert was questioned and revealed that his weekend guests had been Hunt and Thurtell. A subsequent warrant authorised, at first, the arrest of Thurtell’s brother, Thomas, together with Probert; then the investigation was passed over to the London Detective, George Ruthven, apparently a well-known and minor celebrity.

Again, according to Pete Goodrum:

“Events then moved quickly. One of the magistrates, Clutterbuck, having returned home exhausted, was woken by two visitors. They introduced themselves as John Noel, a London solicitor, and a billiard saloon owner called William Rexworthy. Noel claimed that on his way to the theatre in London he had heard from a patrol on the Edgware Road that there had been a murder of an unknown victim in Hertfordshire. Putting two and two together, he had become anxious that the victim might be his client, William Weare. He had heard from Rexworthy that Weare had planned a trip to Hertfordshire to go shooting with somebody called Jack Thurtell. However, Weare had apparently not returned to London. His lodgings were locked and he’d not been seen in any of his regular haunts. Clutterbuck took his visitors straight to the Essex Arms where the hearing was about to commence and where Noel quickly took legal control.”

Meanwhile, Detective Ruthven arrested Hunt at his lodgings in London before finding Thurtell in the Coach and Horses in Conduit Street, again in the city. Finding some items of Thurtell’s clothing blood stained, some exposed parts of his body covered with cuts and bruises and significantly, a pistol in one of his pockets, he too was arrested. Both Hunt and Thurtell were then taken back to the Essex Arms to join Probert and Thomas; from this point onwards the principle of ‘Honour among criminals’ fell by the wayside as Probert and Hunt turned King’s Evidence and pointed the finger at Thurtell, and also revealed the location of Weare’s body. The inquest had been held at the Artichoke public house in Elstree, whose licensee was foreman of the jury. Dr. Ward and Dr. Kendall, of Watford had examined Weare’s corpse and concluded that the cause of death was as a result of severe blows to the skull by a gun, causing pieces of bone to lodge in the brain.

Joseph Hunt, clearly setting out to save his own skin, gave evidence against Thurtell and spun out a story which included a statement saying that Thurtell had bought the pistols for £1 17s 6d., and that he had also enquired about hiring a gig. Incredulously perhaps, Hunt also revealed that the party under suspicion had called at the Artichoke for a drink on the way to Radlett prior to the murder! He then added that, after the murder, Thurtell had admitted killing the man “who robbed me of £300 at Blind Hookey (cards)”, and that he had taken a gold watch from Weare’s body. Hunt then gave an account of the episode of dumping Weare’s body. Concluding his evidence, Hunt gave more damning details which included him previously passing on to his solicitor the fact that he (Hunt) had received Weare’s clothes and had also shaved off his whiskers. Unintentionally amusing was when a juror asked Hunt: “What has become of your whiskers and moustache?” Hunt apparently replied: “You must be able to see I have cut them off!”

It was the court custom at the time to question each person separately, and without them knowing the submissions of others; these submissions were to vary widely. Probert’s version matched Hunt’s, but only in absolving himself of murder; other than that, he frequently contradicted Hunt’s version. He told the court that Thurtell had gone ahead and killed Weare, and that he (Probert) had not been party to it. He agreed he had helped to dispose of the body and that he, together with Hunt, had shared some of the money stolen from Weare by Thurtell.

As for poor Jack Thurtell, he simply dug a hole from which he failed to extricate himself; particularly on the question of the pistol found on his person when he was arrested. He had, at first denied that he ever owned a pistol, until he was reminded that such a weapon had been found on him; also, that the second of the matching pair had been found ‘within yards’ of the murder spot. Thurtell must have realised that the game was up for him and that it was clear that the three men had obviously lured Weare to Probert’s cottage because Jack intended to murder him. Events at the Hearing was progressing irrevocably to wards a proper Trial. The court returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ and committed the prisoners to Hertford gaol to await such a trial, that was set for 6 January 1824 at Hertford.

Languishing in prison for over three months, the three men continued to protest their innocence. Plenty of accusations and counter-accusations were voiced, all designed to set the blame elsewhere. Outside, most of the country who were interested in following the case were fed by Newspapers and broadsheets which peddled the grisliest details of what was becoming a sensational case; and no report failed to mention Jack Thurtell’s fall from grace as a ‘son of Alderman Thurtell of Norwich.’

When the trial commenced on 6 January 1824 it quickly became clear that it was a complicated case, requiring a considerable amount of legal talent to enable a conclusion. To assist in this, legal trickery was employed and this included granting immunity to Probert on condition that he appeared as a witness against Thurtell. Neither he nor Hunt, whose neck was on the line, did Thurtell any favours. It was Thurtell who was allowed to conduct his own defence and appeared to be doing quite well, until he made a big mistake by talking too long and in the process did himself no favours. At the end, the judge summed up, the jury retired only to return with a guilty verdict for both Hunt and Thurtell. The inevitable sentence was that the two men would hang; however, on the eve of their executions, Hunt’s sentence was commuted to transportation. As for Probert, he was only to remain alive and well for barely a year and a half; he died on the gallows in June 1825.

John Thurtell (Execution)2
The Execution

 When Thurtell took the short walk to the rope, on 9 January 1824, he was in chains but dressed smart, as was his nature. Soldiers, armed with staves separated him and his execution party from the estimated 15,000 spectators who were there to see the spectacle; many removed their hats. Now, the last words describing this scene are left to those of Richard Clarke:

Execution:
“James Foxen, the hangman, arrived from London on the Thursday and made the usual preparations. Thurtell dressed for the occasion and was described as being “elegantly attired in a brown great coat with a black velvet collar, light breeches and gaiters, and a fashionable waistcoat with gilt buttons.”  A little before 12 noon on Friday, the 9th of January 1824, Foxen pinioned Thurtell’s hands in front of him with handcuffs and he was then led from his cell to the accompaniment of the tolling prison bell and the prison chaplain reading the burial service. A few moments earlier he had confessed his guilt to the chaplain. He mounted the 5 steps slowly but steadily and positioned himself on the trap. Here Foxen removed his cravat and loosened his collar. When Thurtell had finished praying, Foxen drew the white cotton cap over his head and placed the noose around his neck.  The Governor of Hertford Gaol and the Chief Warder both shook hands with him before Foxen adjusted the noose. Wilson said, “Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you” to which Thurtell replied, “God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you.” At two minutes past midday on the signal from Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, Foxen drew the bolts and Thurtell dropped into the box like structure with a crash…….by the standards of the day, Thurtell died easily and was not seen to struggle. After hanging the customary hour, his body was taken down and sent to London for dissection in Surgeon’s Hall in accordance with his sentence.”

Postscript:
Great sensation was caused in Norwich by the trial and execution of John Thurtell, at Hertford.  The execution took place on 9 January 1824, and on the 24th the Norfolk Chronicle published a letter received by Mr. Alderman Thomas Thurtell, of Norwich, the father of the deceased; it came from Mr. Robert Sutton, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which the writer commiserated with Thomas Thurtell in his great affliction.  In the same paper was another letter addressed by Mr. N. Bolingbroke, of Norwich, to the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which he wrote:

“It may appear to some that he (the father) has not acted with sufficient kindness of feeling towards his unhappy son; but you may be assured, Sir, that there was no part of his conduct which could not be satisfactorily explained.  He has generally acted under the advice of Mr. Unthank, a respectable solicitor in this city, my own, and others.  There are many actions in a man’s life of which no correct opinion can be formed without a knowledge of the motives by which such have been influenced.”

THE END

Sources:
https://www.stalbansreview.co.uk/nostalgia/crimelibrary/johnthurtell/
https://morethannelson.com/officer/william-albany-otway/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow_Street_Runners
http://seann-mcanally.blogspot.com/2015/03/jackasses-of-history-john-thurtell.html
https://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/thurtell.html
www.murderpedia.org/male.T/t/thurtell-john.htm
http://www.executedtoday.com/2017/01/09/1824-john-thurtell-the-radlett-murderer/

Goodrum, P., ‘Five Norwich Lives’, Published by Mousehold Press 2014.

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East Anglian Agricultural Gangs of the Past.

By Haydn Brown.

During the first half of the nineteenth century many acres of waste land throughout Norfolk and East Anglia were brought into cultivation as part of a national development which followed in the aftermath of the French wars when the price of grain was high. This was a time of need land owners of light uplands cleared them of gorse, thistles and coarse grass and ploughed them to plant such crops as wheat and barley. Later in the century Fen landowners did something similar by using steam pumping engines to drain hitherto intractable marshlands, such as Deeping Fen a few miles north of Peterborough, and made them fit for cultivation.

Agricultural Gangs (Farmers on a Hillside_STRAFFORD NEWMARCH_Public Domain)2
Painting of an Agricultural gang on a hillside by Strafford Newmarch. Image: Public Domain

However, most of this ‘new’ land was some distance from existing settlements, and farmers working it found themselves short of labour. They were reluctant to build permanent houses for their farm workers, because they feared that the inhabitants might later qualify for poor relief, and so become a burden on the rates. In similar circumstances in the 18th-century, farmers might well have found room in their own homes to accommodate their labourers, but by the middle of the 19th century the social gap between master and worker was far too wide for this to be an acceptable solution. Feelings on the subject were, in 1865, expressed more fully by one particular farmer’s wife whose husband was employing four young labourers:

“It is very objectionable having these men in one’s own house…. it is so bad for the female servants.”

The Establishment of Gangs:
Apparently, this particular wife overcame the problem by making the foreman take in the labourers – but many farmers favoured a more radical solution. They, in fact, dispensed with full time labourers as far as they could, and relied instead on the labour of agricultural ‘gangs’ which were established to satisfy the demand for labour.

Agricultural Gangs (Hoeing Turnips Painting by George Clausen_Public Domain)
Hoeing turnips by George Clausen. Image: Public Domain.

Where local population numbers allowed, some farmers organised their own private gangs by recruiting women and children from the nearest village to be employed at busy times to work for a few days at a time. Others employed so-called ‘gangs’ which were organised by ‘gang-masters’. In many instances these ‘masters’ were usually unemployed farm labourers who recruited between ten and maybe forty women and children to work for them at a fixed rate of pay, after which they contracted with local farmers for their gangs to tackle specific jobs. The gang master had to be able to accurately estimate how long a given job would take. If he overestimated, then he would probably be too expensive to get the contract. On the other hand, if he underestimated, then he would charge too little and he would lose money on the deal.

It was the seasons which dictated the type of work done by the gangs. In winter, when there were few of them, they were employed to clear stones or sort potatoes. In spring, their work became more varied; some cleared such growth as couch grass by hand, whilst others spread muck, hoed, or planted potatoes. In early summer their work increased to include clearing fallow fields, hand-weeding grain and root crops, and helping with the hay harvest. Strangely perhaps, gangs generally disbanded for the main grain harvest in August and September, in favour of whole families coming out to work together. Then, by October, gangs re-formed for the potato harvest. In 1866, it was calculated that some 6,400 people worked in gangs in Norfolk, East Anglia and the East Midlands at some time during the year.

However, agricultural gangs had a bad reputation. Some of the masters were said to be unscrupulous by accepting contracts at rock-bottom prices, and then forcing their gangs to work for long hours to fulfil them. Some were considered immoral by taking, according to many, advantage of their status by demanding sexual favours from the girls and women in their gangs. Many gangs were noisy, unruly and regularly disturbed the peace on their way to and from work. It was also said that they tempted children away from school into what seemed too many to be a totally unsuitable environment.

Legislation:
It was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury KG, who persuaded the Government, in 1865, to order an investigation into agricultural gangs. The Children’s Employment Commission was subsequently formed to take evidence from about 500 witnesses before presenting its report in 1867. In it they condemned the gangs and maintained that most of the masters were ‘men of violent and drinking habits’ whose influence was ‘very pernicious to the moral principles and conduct of the children and young persons of both sexes under their management’. It concluded that the manners of older members of the gangs were ‘coarse and irregular’, and that young people brought into contact with them were ‘hardened by early association with vice’.

Agriculural Gangs (Anthony_Ashley-Cooper,_7th_Earl_of_Shaftesbury)
Anthony Ashley-Cooper (1801–1885), 7th Earl of Shaftesbury by Francis Grant (1803–1878). Painting with the Parliamentary Art Collection.

The Commission also found that gangs usually worked about eight hours a day – perhaps an hour more in summer and less in early spring and late autumn. But these hours did not include travelling time and the commissioners quoted the two children, aged eleven and thirteen, who had to walk eight miles to work, labour for eight hours and then walk eight miles back home – all for 7d. a day. At the end of six weeks work they were said to be ‘good for nothing’.

The commissioners’ report also concluded that working in gangs seriously damaged both the physical health and the moral well-being of the children and young people involved, and they proposed various regulations to deal with the situation. A bill based on their recommendations was introduced into Parliament on July 29th, 1867, and given the royal asset on August 20th.

The ‘Agricultural Gangs Act’ sought to eliminate unsuitable gang-masters by setting up a licensing system. It also forbade the employment of all children under the age of eight, prohibited men and women working in the same gang, and made it illegal for even a licensed gang-master to take charge of a female gang unless he was accompanied by a woman license holder.

Agricultural Gangs (Child_labour,_c1885_Science Photo Library)
Gang system of child labour, c1885. Teams of children were formed by a contractor or ‘ganger’ and hired out to farmers as agricultural labour for tasks such as sowing and hoeing. They would be made to worked for 8 or 9 hours a day and often had to walk 3 or 4 miles to and from work. The practice was particularly widespread in East Anglia. In this wood engraving a girl tries to revive a boy who has collapsed, probably from exhaustion, while the rest of the gang continue hoeing around them. (Coloured black and white print). Child Labour. Image: Science Photo Library

However, it may be somewhat surprising that the commissioners had, in some respects, painted a much blacker picture of gang work than was justified by the evidence they had collected, and on which their report was based. Though they were able to point to some cases of brutal or inconsiderate treatment, few witnesses seemed to agree with its assertion that gang work adversely affected the physical health of those involved. The scepticism of the witnesses was backed up by the evidence taken from boys and girls who themselves worked in gangs. For instance: one commissioner interviewed a sixteen-year-old Georgiana Rowan from Great Gressingham in Norfolk; she said that on her return from a day’s work near her home:

“We topped and tailed this morning for one farmer, she said, and forked docks this afternoon for another. We left the ground this afternoon at 5. Tomorrow morning, we shall start at 7. I take dinner with me to work, bread or bread with cheese or butter, but take no drink at this time of the year. [It was autumn] ……I don’t know what kind of work was hardest but we’re used to it now, and don’t mind it”

A Norfolk villager at the time felt that many young workers agreed with such a view, along with others:

“The children often come home wet,’……. but I believe they are fond of the work. They reckon to have some fun.”

Even a local magistrate, who believed that the gang system was ‘attended with much evil’, had to admit that children in gangs usually looked ‘happy and cheerful both in going to and coming from their work’. This positive attitude of many gang children was probably due to the fact that it was usually temporary and they welcomed outdoor gang work as a change from the classroom. Hannah Staff of Downham Market also gave a parent’s view. ‘My girl aged fifteen works in the gang. It is a deal healthier than the flax factory.’

Agricultural Gangs (Child_labour,_c1885_Science Photo Library)2
Gang system of child labour, c1885 from The Sunday at Home, London, 1869. Image: Public Domain.

But when the commissioners asserted that gangs damaged the morale of those who worked in them, they were faithfully reflecting the opinion of the majority of their witnesses. A Norfolk doctor came down to basics by saying:

“It is most indecent with boys and girls of that age out all day always together, and with no hedges or concealment of any kind. Nature must be relieved, and the workers drop out for this, and then the boys laugh at the girls.”

Another witness had reported that during their dinner time girls would take off ‘their petticoats etc’ and hang them up to dry, while a third had seen boys ‘bathing in a pond, while the girls were sitting round on the bank.’ Certainly, the sexual morals of the rural poor seemed unconventional when judged by respectable middle-class standards. One vicar said:

“I seldom marry any of them without being obliged to see the bride to be of larger dimensions than she ought to be.”

Agricultural Gangs (labourer-with-scythe-1900_Public Domain)
Labourer with scythe 1900. Photo: Public Domain.

A more moderate, and perhaps more realistic view, came from several clergymen who probably knew more about the living conditions of the rural poor than did many other witnesses. They felt it was easy to exaggerate the pernicious influence of the gangs compared with other aspects of rural life. For instance, a vicar of Terrington in Norfolk painted a detailed picture of most cottages in his parish having only two or three rooms; where there were three, one was frequently let to a lodger, so that the family had to squeeze into the other two. Some cottages only had one room, and the vicar mentioned a case where one family, consisting of a father, mother, three sons and a grown-up daughter, all living in just a single room. He concluded:

“I fear that much immorality, and certainly much want of a sense of decency among the agricultural labouring classes, are owing to the nature of their homes, and the want of proper room: more so probably to this than to gang or field work.”

Many witnesses were particularly vehement about the bad effect of gang labour on the attitude of the girls involved. ‘They get so bold and know too much’, said one farmer. People seemed to take it for granted that the daughters of the rural poor ought to go into service in some respectable household where they would do useful work, be imbued with a proper sense of respect for their betters, and learn enough domestic skills to be able to keep house for their future husbands. Gang labour did not fit into this scheme of things. Indeed, it disrupted it.

Agricultural Gangs (Farmers on a Hillside_STRAFFORD NEWMARCH_Public Domain)
Painting of an Agricultural gang on a hillside by Strafford Newmarch. Image: Public Domain

The Rector of Stilton certainly had no doubts; he thought gang work was ‘most objectionable’ for girls. ‘It makes them rude, rough and lawless, and consequently makes them unsuitable for domestic duties; this, consequently would disqualify them for a future position as a wife and mother’. A prosperous farmer agreed. ‘Field work renders them unfit for service’, while another remarked that:

“A love for unhealthy liberty sets in, untidy habits arise, they turn aside from service in farm or other houses, know little or nothing of sewing, washing, making or mending, and entering upon marriage are generally untidy, slovenly and bad-managing housekeepers.”

 Overall, it seems that the commissioner’s report did not represent the views of everyone, and certainly not those witnesses who thought gangs were subversive, teaching girls ‘independent habits’, and giving them ‘a love for unhealthy liberty’. Instead, the commissioners preferred to base their case against gangs on the damage they inflicted on the health and welfare of those who worked in them. Thus, their report highlighted parts of the evidence and played down the rest.Most gang workers interviewed did, in fact, present evidence in fact, calm and matter-of-fact manner. Ellen Collishaw of Metheringham, in Lincolnshire, was typical. She told a commissioner:

“I am going on 13. I have worked at weeding. I worked all the year to gleaning (harvest). I have been working since harvest too. I have been singling turnips and weeding turnips. I went with Mr Hutchinson. He is a labourer. I was all the time with him. There were twenty besides me, girls as well as boys. There were many girls younger than me… We worked on Mr Greenham’s on the heath, we weeded wheat and barley. We picked up twitch after harvest. The corn was high when we weeded it. We used to get wet. Our dresses got wet as well as our feet. We got them dry by next morning. We got home about 6. We left the field at 5. When we got home, we washed and changed our clothes. I never caught cold.”

Elizabeth Wilson, a labourer’s wife from Exning, near Newmarket in Norfolk, gave much the same impression:

“Both my girls, now at service, worked in a gang. Sometimes they would be wet from rain or dew, and some girls, I believe, take a great deal of cold from this, but mine didn’t go a deal. There was nothing I minded as to language or anything in the gang for girls, though I would sooner have kept them at school if I had not been obliged to let them go out.”

This is not to say that agricultural gangs needed no regulation. There were abuses, and perhaps the commissioners had to paint a uniformly black picture if Parliament was to be persuaded to do anything to control gangs. Certainly, there is no indication that interested MPs looked beyond the evidence quoted in the report itself – they had left the commissioners to carry out the burdensome task of sifting and assessing the bulk of the evidence. Historians could not afford to be so trusting.

As it was, Gangs gradually faded out towards the end of the 19th century, with two developments hastening their demise. The first was the increasing use of machinery, particularly on light soils, and the other was the spread of compulsory education after 1870 which hit the gangs even harder. In 1870 school boards were given the right to make education compulsory for all children under the age of thirteen in their areas. In 1880 Mundella’s Act made it compulsory to enforce attendance without naming a leaving age. In 1893, however, the minimum leaving age was fixed at eleven, and in 1899 it was raised to twelve, thus bringing the whole country into line with the practice adopted by some boards as early as 1870.

Though many country children still took time off school to work on farms from time to time, compulsory schooling made it impossible for masters to recruit them into gangs without falling foul of the law – as they would say “the game was not worth the candle” and they gave it up. It was then only during school holidays, usually considerately fixed to coincide with busy times on farms, that gangs of women and children went to work in the fields – a tradition which survived almost to the present day.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.historytoday.com/archive/agricultural-gangs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_gang
http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/the-return-of-the-gangmaster

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