Norfolk’s Public Enemy No.1!

There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – or as near as makes no difference! This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.

Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………

Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!

Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………! in fact, its roots went back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.

Coypu (with rat)

At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!

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Farming Coypu in 1938

The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire DisAbility), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.

 

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Coypu Pelts

Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.

Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.

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Spread of Coypu in Norfolk

Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.

Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.

Coypu

By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.

The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.

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Ted Ellis

Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.

Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!

The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!

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Searching for those critters!

After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.

In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.

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The war begins: Getting ready to set coypu traps in 1962. Placing the traps didnt stay a collar and tie job for long, as getting to the coypu haunts often meant a long slog through rushes, wading through mud, or setting them from boats.

The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:

“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”

In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.

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Now what do I do with it: Police kill a coypu in a Norwich churchyard in December 1959.

A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.

For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.

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By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!

This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.

 

Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.

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Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”

THE END

 

 

Repton: A celebration!

Humphry Repton was interred in a grave close by the south wall of Aylsham parish church following his death on the 24th March 1818. This year of 2018 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Repton’s death and there is little doubt that this year’s anniversary will celebrate him in style, a person who was “the last great English landscape designer”. Commemorative events are planned to take place throughout Norfolk’s spring and summer.

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Repton’s Memorial at Aylsham Parish Church, Norfolk

Repton’s Early Life

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Norwich Grammar School 1850

Humphry Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, son of John Repton, a successful collector of excise, and his wife, Martha (nee Fitch). Repton was, however, educated at Norwich Grammar School, where his father ran a transport business. In 1764 Repton was sent to the Netherlands to train as a merchant. Here he cultivated his skills as a sketcher and private gardener before entering a period of apprenticeship to a Norwich textile merchant. Following his marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773 Repton went into business on his own account, however, this venture was not successful.

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William Windham

Then, in 1778, his parents’ died which provided a small legacy for him to settle on a small country estate. There he became a minor squire with facilities to farm his own land; this was at Sustead near Aylsham in Norfolk. During this time, Repton remained restless and continued to cast his thoughts towards other suitable business opportunities. He had periods as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to William Windham of Felbrigg, when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. These ventures followed one after the other with little success; as was his involvement in a joint venture to reform the mail-coach system; that too lost him money.

The successor to Capability Brown

Following these early business setbacks, Repton was encouraged by a childhood friend, a James Smith, to develop his interests in gardening and sketching and it was at this point that his professional plans in landscape gardening grew. William Windham of Felbrigg lent his support to Repton by allowing him access to the botany books in Felbrigg’s library; it was a gesture that helped Repton to blossom.

Repton (Felbrigg Library)
The Felbrigg Library. National Trust

With his capital dwindling, Repton was to move his young family to Hare Street near Romford, Essex in 1788 where he first attempted a career as a playwright before deciding in 1788 to employ his artistic talents to become a ‘landscape gardener’. Repton was all too aware of the death of Capability Brown some five years earlier and the gap it had left in the landscape gardening world which he acknowledged and was keen to fill. He did so by eventually advertising and sending circulars to land owners, particularly those he had cultivated whilst in Norfolk.

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The view from Repton’s cottage at Hare Street from Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1816

His task, at first, would not be easy since he had a tendency to get on some people’s nerves from time to time, such was his sureness of the dreams he was selling. Maybe for the same reason, he was also thought to be a bit too cocky with a tendency towards a know-it-all air. Even Jane Austen lampooned him in her novel ‘Mansfield Park’ as a money-minded, cunning rogue who roamed the country, preying on the gullible wealthy and supplying them with fashionably picturesque vistas. Here is his very eye catching business card which sets out his stall pretty effectively.

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Repton’s Business Card by Thomas Medland

Thus he was able, tentatively at least, to commence his career as a ‘landscape gardener’ – this was a phrase that he was to coin.

Repton’s first landscape commissions relied upon his Norfolk connections: Jeremiah Ives, mayor and textile merchant and owner of Catton Park near Norwich, Norfolk and Thomas Coke, notable Norfolk farming improver of Holkham. Arguably, the most successful of his Norfolk projects was for the Sheringham Hall Estate, Norfolk some years later. Abbot Upcher commissioned Repton to work on Sheringham in 1812 and the Red Book he produced is now considered to be one of the most comprehensive, a mark of the affinity Repton felt with Abbot Upcher. This Red Book is owned by National Trust but kept at the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2013-14 it was selected to be part of the exhibition ‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Art. Today, there is a permanent ‘Repton Exhibition’ at Sheringham Park, including a displayed facsimile of his famous Red Book that he designed and produced when he received his commission to undertake the work.

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Sheringham Park Estate, Norfolk

Repton the Landscape Gardener

Most of Repton’s commissions involved the preparation of his ‘Red Book’, so called for the red morocco bindings he produced them in. They were designed to hold his plans, drawings and accompanying explanatory text for the work; they also included watercolours, many with hinged or sliding overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the same scene. An 18th century winner! – as the following illustration shows; the top image is ‘before’, the bottom is ‘after’, with the addition of a nice curvy hill fringed with new woodland.

Repton (before-and-after-sketches)

These Red Books were never published, they were simply elegant notebooks containing handwritten proposals for each commission he took on. A Red Book was presented to each client who was duly charged for the work and materials involved.

The Picturesque Controversy

Repton’s essentially practical, restrained style led him into to the very public ‘picturesque controversy’ with leading art critics, Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price. They regarded that landscape re-modelling should imitate contemporary approaches to landscape painting that showed more rugged and intricate landscapes, accompanied by classical motifs and references. Repton’s design solutions produced practical and often restrained designs for his clients. He particularly disliked attempts to impose the classical Italian style on the English climate and landscape. His aim always was to enhance nature and described landscape gardening in the following way:

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“The perfection of landscape gardening consists in the four following requisites. First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation. Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only; and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.”

The ‘Gardenesque’

Some of Repton’s designs foreshadowed later popular themed gardens, the laying out of gravel walks and of lawns for use as cricket, bowls and croquet pitches. He also helped popularise the use of terraces and re-introduced separate flower gardens and flower beds. He also replaced earlier classical ornamentation with romantic structures like grottoes and fake ruins. Existing buildings played an integral part in many of his schemes. They both provided reference points and informed his final design for a landscape. At one point in his career he worked, with the architect John Nash, whose early building design suited Repton’s garden style. His son, John Adey Repton, an architect, worked with him and in Nash’s office; continuing to do so after his father’s collaboration with Nash ended acrimoniously around 1800. A younger son, George Stanley Repton, also worked with Repton senior.

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Retirement and Beyond

Repton retired in 1814, three years after a carriage accident that forced him to use a wheelchair. In retirement he produced a book, with his son J. Adey Repton, detailing his approach to landscape gardening; Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). The book adopted the phrase “landscape gardening” to express his theory that the art requires “…the united powers of the landscape painter and the practical gardener…” He also discussed in detail the relationship between the landscape and the main estate house. To be able to provide visual representations of proposed improvements, he used a system of sliding panels depicting before and after views in his ‘Red Books’. He published two other major works on garden design: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803). He authored a number of other minor works. Taken together with his Red Books, these books are an important part of his legacy to landscape design today.

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An example of Repton’s Red Book

In total, Repton produced designs for the grounds of over four hundred of country houses in England, including Tatton Park, Woburn Abbey and here in Norfolk, notably at Catton Park and Sheringham Park where a replica of his famous ‘Red Book’ is displayed.

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Sheringham Park Estate

From March 2018, the Broadland District Council and the village of Aylsham, Norfolk will host the official launch of ‘Repton 200’ – a year of nationwide celebrations, coordinated by the Gardens Trust and marking the bicentenary of Humphry Repton’s death.

THE END

Lowestoft: Its Two Famous Witches

Just about 354 years ago, between the 10th and 13th March 1664, a trial took place at Bury St Edmunds Assizes, Suffolk. Two elderly women from Lowestoft, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were both widows, were tried before Magistrates on a charge of witchcraft. Thirteen indictments were brought against them, alleging that they had bewitched several people, including children, following quarrels. The trial lasted two days, during which time and apart from pleading ‘Not Guily’, the accused made no attempt to deny the charges made against them. On the afternoon of Thursday, 13th Match, the verdict of Guilty being returned, followed by the Judge Sir Matthew Hale, Kt, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, sentencing the two women to be hanged. The executions took place on Monday, 17th March 1664, with neither of the women confessing their guilt. This moment ended one of the most controversial of East Anglian witch trials.

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Unfortunately, all that is known about this Trial is contained in a 60-page pamphlet entitled ‘A Tryal of Witches, at the Assizes held at Bury St. Edmunds for the County of Suffolk; on the Tenth day of March 1664’ and published in London in 1682. It was written by a supposedly anonymous spectator; nevertheless, this pamphlet is the sole primary source of information for this particular ‘witch trial’. The written account does, apart from the subject of witchcraft, make for an interesting case, being free from political coercion, religious rivalries, and the ‘wicked’ schemes of some other trials of the time.

Though the trial occurred at Bury St. Edmunds, the events leading up to it occurred in Lowestoft, an isolated fishing town with a population of about fifteen hundred inhabitants, 112 miles northeast of London and 50 miles east of Bury St. Edmunds. At the time of this trial, Lowestoft town was involved with a lawsuit against the larger fishing town of Great Yarmouth over fishing rights. Interestingly, this lawsuit involved two principal members of the Lowestoft witches trial, namely Samuel Pacy and Sir Matthew Hale.

Lowestoft (Pacey's House)

The person responsible for bringing Amy Denny and Rose Cullender to trial was one Samuel Pacy, a wealthy fish merchant and property owner in Lowestoft, who had denied a request from a poorer member of that same community, namely a Amy Denny.  Samuel Pacy had rejected several requests from this Amy Denny for him to sell her some fish. As way of further information and possibly relevant to the eventual witch’s trial, Amy Denny was not only a widow but also had a reputation as being a witch.  According to Samuel Pacy, immediately after he had turned down Amy Denny’s request for a third time, his daughter, Deborah:

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“…was taken with most violent fits, feeling most extreme pain in her Stomach, like the pricking of Pins, and Shreeking out in a most dreadful manner like unto a Whelp, and not like unto a sensible Creature.”

Believing his two daughters bewitched his suspicions fell first upon Amy Denny and requested that she be placed in the Stocks in the hope that this may break the spell; this took place on the previous October 28th. Apparently, this did not ease the condition of his children and their symptoms continued for another three weeks before Pacy asked a neighbour, Dr. Feavor, for his opinion. Feavor could not diagnose a natural cause of the illness. Then Pacy consulted a doctor but, it appears, the he did not seek the help of the clergy, which usually presented a unique absence from demonic trials.  Neither, during the trial, did Pacy’s deposition mention him employing any religious methods of dispossession. Samuel Pacy’s deposition did, however, state that his daughter, Deborah Pacy:

“… in her fits would cry out of Amy Duny as the cause of her Malady, and that she did affright her with Apparitions of her Person.”

Two days later, on the 30th October,

the eldest Daughter Elizabeth, fell into extream fits, insomuch, that they could not open her Mouth to give her breath, to preserve her Life without the help of a Tap which they were enforced to use…”

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Apparently, for the next two months, the two sisters suffered other symptoms, including lameness and soreness, loss of their sense of speech, sight, and hearing, sometimes for days.  Fits ensued upon hearing the words “Lord,” “Jesus” and “Christ.”  They also claimed that a Rose Cullender, another reputed witch, along with Amy Denny, would appear

“ before them, holding their Fists at them, threatening, that if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than ever they did before.” ……the sisters also coughed up pins, “…and one time a Two-penny Nail with a very broad head, which Pins (amounting to Forty or more) together with the Two-penny Nail were produced in Court, with the affirmation of the said Deponent, that he was present when the said Nail was Vomited up, and also most of the Pins.”  Allotriophagy, the vomiting of extraordinary objects, would provide an observable proof of possession.

Once arrested, the suspects were searched for ‘Witch’s’ or ‘Devil’s Marks’ by a team of six matrons. These marks, any spot or blemish of an uncommon sort, were believed to be either a brand made by the devil at the signing of the pact, or a spot which an evil spirit in animal form, had sucked blood. Such marks were found on Rose Cullender and this information was considered evidence of being a witch and would be presented to a court. After an oral examination, the two women were committed for trial and duly appeared before the Circuit Judge, Sir Matthew Hale, at the next Bury St Edmunds Assizes.

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Sir Matthew Hale

The legal system of the 17th century was far removed from that of today; no laws of evidence existed and testimony was therefore accepted from all, even children. Also at this time, there existed no provision for a Council for the Defence, in consequence, those brought to trial were largely unrepresented. It was in this situation that Amy Denny and Rose Cullender found themselves when they were brought into the crowded courtroom.

The trial itself started on 10th March 1664.  By then, the afflictions of Samuel Pacy’s daughters had spread to three other girls, neighbours of the Pacy’s. They were Ann Durrant (probably between the age of 16-21), Jane Bocking (14 years old), and Susan Chandler (18 years old).  Deborah Pacy and Jane Bocking were too ill to attend the trial.  Though Elizabeth, Ann, and Susan did not testify (family members spoke for them), they were present and affected the courtroom atmosphere.  The three arrived…

“…..in reasonable good condition:  But that Morning they came into the Hall to give Instructions for the drawing of their Bills of Indictments, the Three Persons fell into strange and violent fits, screeking out in a most sad manner, so that they could not in any wise give any Instructions in the Court who were the Cause of their Distemper.  And although they did after some certain space recover out of their fits, yet they were every one of them struck Dumb, so that none of them could speak, neither at that time, nor during the Assizes until the Conviction of the supposed Witches.”

The trial opened with the deposition of Dorothy Durrant.  Her statement chronicled old and improvable events.  Durrant did not explain why she had waited several years to accuse Denny.  She alleged Amy Denny of bewitching and eventually murdering her ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, four years earlier.  She also testified that although her infant son, William, suffered similar afflictions, Dr. Jacobs, a physician from Yarmouth, rescued him by recommending the use of counter-magic.  Dr. Jacobs told Dorothy to hang William’s blanket over the fireplace and to burn anything found in it.  When she took it down at night, a large toad fell out, which a boy in the house quickly caught.  As he held it over the fire with tongs, the toad exploded with a flash of light.

Durrant also testified that the next day, a relative of Amy Denny told her that Denny had recently suffered serious burns all over her body.  According to Durrant’s deposition, when she visited Denny, the burned woman cursed her and predicted that Durrant would outlive some of her children and be forced to live on crutches.

Her predictions soon proved accurate.  Durrant’s daughter, Elizabeth, soon fell seriously ill, and after seeing Amy Denny’s spectre, died.  After Elizabeth’s death, Dorothy Durrant became crippled in both her legs.  Judge Hale, attempting to find a natural explanation for the affliction, asked her if the lameness was due to “… the Custom of Women.”  Durrant rejected this possibility.  Forced to use a crutches for over three years, she threw these away, supposedly cured, when she heard Denny and Cullender were pronounced guilty!

The most dramatic evidence at the trial was the presence and actions of the children.  Elizabeth Pacy, in particular, created quite a scene, as she:

“…..could not speak one Word all the time, and for the most part she remained as one wholly senseless as one in a deep Sleep, and could move no part of her body, and all the Motion of Life that appeared in her was, that as she lay upon Cushions in the Court upon her back, her stomach and belly by the drawing of her breath, would arise to a great height: and after the said Elizabeth had lain a long time on the Table in the Court, she came a little to her self and sate up, but could neither see nor speak…, by the direction of the Judge, Amy Duny was privately brought to Elizabeth Pacy, and she touched her hand; whereupon the Child without so much as seeing her, for her Eyes were closed all the while, suddenly leaped up, and catched Amy Duny by the hand, and afterwards by the face; and with her nails scratched her till blood came, and would by no means leave her till she was taken from her, and afterwards the Child would still be pressing towards her, and making signs of anger conceived against her.”

After these dramatic events, parents of afflicted children outside the Pacy home testified.  They were Edmund Durrant, father of Ann, apparently no relation to Dorothy; Diane Bocking, mother of Jane; and Robert and Mary Chandler, parents of Susan.  They swore that their children suffered afflictions similar as to those of the Pacy children, specifically, fit, seeing spectral images, and vomiting crooked pins.  They brought to the court several pins as evidence.  In a deposition strikingly similar to that of Samuel Pacy, Edmund Durrant, about who nothing is known other than his deposition, described the afflictions of his daughter, Ann:

Lowestoft (Rose Cullender House)

“……That he also lived in the said, Town of Leystoff, and that the said Rose Cullender, about the latter end of November last, came into this Deponents House to buy some Herrings of his Wife, but being denied by her, the said Rose returned in a discontented manner; and upon the first of December after, his Daughter Ann Durrant was very sorely Afflicted in her Stomach, and felt great pain, like the pricking of Pins, and then fell into swooning fitts, and after the Recovery from her Fits, she declared, That she had seen the Apparition of the said Rose, who threatened to Torment her. In this manner she continued from the first of December, until this present time of Tryal; having likewise vomited up divers Pins (produced here in Court).  This Maid was present in Court, but could not speak to declare her knowledge, but fell into most violent fits when she was brought before Rose Cullender.”

The evidence presented so far would be considered ludicrous by today’s standards and indeed was not accepted unquestionable at that time. Indeed, a Mr Sargeant Keeling protested to this effect and was privately asked by the Judge, together with Lord Cornwallis and Sir Edmund Bacon, to repeat the experiments outside the courtroom using other people. The result was to suggest that the charges so far made were groundless and, as a result, the court proceedings were stopped for a considerable time whilst a course of action was decided upon. Eventually, it was agreed to seek the advice of an impartial observer, one Doctor Brown, a knowledgeable physician of Norwich.

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Sit Thomas Browne

Dr. Thomas Browne, a respected physician, was brought forward to testify.  He affirmed that witchcraft did exist, specifically mentioning similar events that had occurred in Denmark.  Despite mentioning possible medical explanations for the girls’ afflictions, namely “the mother,” Browne noted that the Devil could intensify symptoms.  Though he believed that the girls were bewitched, he did not specifically state that Denny and Cullender had afflicted them.  Browne testified:

“….. That the Devil in such cases did work upon the bodies of men and women, upon a natural foundation, [that is] to stir up and excite such humors, super-abounding in their Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner afflict them with such distempers as their bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these children; for he conceived, that these swooning fits were natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil, cooperating with the malice of these which we term witches, at whose instance he doth these villanies.”

After Browne’s testimony, the court did carry out several experiments to test the accused witches and their accusers.  In contrast to the Mary Glover case, no burning occurred to test the hands for insensibility.  Here, the fists of the girls, while afflicted, remained tightly closed,

“…as yet the strongest Man in the Court could not force them open; yet by the least touch of one of the supposed Witches, Rose Cullender by Name, they would suddenly shriek out opening their hands, which accident would not happen by the touch of any other person.”

The three respected members of the aristocracy present in court were Lord Charles Cornwallis, a member of Parliament, Sir Edmund Bacon, a justice of the peace for the county, and Sir John Keeling (who became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench three years after the trial); they tested Elizabeth next.  While they looked on, a blindfolded Elizabeth Pacy touched Amy Denny and another woman.  When Elizabeth “reacted similarly to both women,“…the three Gentlemen openly protested, that “they did believe the whole transaction of this business was a mere Imposture.”  Samuel Pacy replied “…That possibly the Maid might be deceived by a suspicion that the Witch touched her when she did not.” Though Pacy’s explanation for the test result helped convince the jury of Denny’s guilt, other factors also played a role.  As the author of “A Tryal of Witches” acknowledged, many people believed that these girls were not capable of “counterfeiting”:

It is not possible that any should counterfeit such Distempers, being accompanied with such various Circumstances, much less Children; and for so long time, and yet undiscovered by their Parents and Relations: For no man can suppose that they should all Conspire together, (being out of several families, and as they Affirm, no way related one to the other, and scarce of familiar acquaintance) to do an Act of this nature whereby no benefit or advantage could redound to any of the Parties, but a guilty Conscience for Perjuring themselves in taking the Lives of two poor simple Women away, and there appears no Malice in the Case.  For the Prisoners did scarce so much as Object it.

Depositions by John Soam, a Lowestoft Yeoman, Robert Sherringham and Nicholas Pacy (Samuel’s father or brother), followed.  Significantly, all had civil suits against a John Denny during the 1640’s and 1650’s.  By the time of the trial, Ann Denny’s husband, John, was deceased.  As there were two John Dennys in Lowestoft at this time, with dozens of civil cases against one or both men, it is impossible to prove that this was the same John Denny.

John Soam accused Rose Cullender of bewitching his three carts, making them unusable for a day.  Robert Sherringham blamed her for the loss of four horses and several cows and pigs, as well as his lameness and his suffering a “…great Number of Lice of extraordinary bigness.”  Following their testimony, the wife of Amy Denny’s landlord, Ann Sandeswell, deposed that Denny complained that her chimney might collapse, which it did a short time later.  Additional testimony by Ann concerning the loss of geese and fish ended the depositions.

After these witnesses spoke, Hale had the opportunity to verbally review the evidence for the jury, which he had done in past cases.  He did not recapitulate in this case, “… least by so doing he should wrong the Evidence on the one side or on the other.”  Instead, according to the writer of ‘A Tryal of Witches’, Hale instructed the jury: ……”That they had Two things to enquire after.  First, Whether or no these Children were Bewitched?  Secondly, Whether the Prisoners at the Bar were Guilty of it?” That there were such Creatures as Witches he made no doubt at all; for First the scriptures had affirmed so much.  Secondly, the wisdom of all Nations had provided Laws against such Persons, which is an Argument of their confidence of such a Crime……For to condemn the innocent and to let the guilty go were both an abomination to the Lord.

The jury took half an hour to convict both women. The spectacle of a tormented eleven-year-old girl fiercely scratching a stereotypical witch, coupled with a great deal of circumstantial evidence, appears to have convinced the jury.  The men of the jury, none of whose identity is known, condemned the women to their deaths. The following morning, the previously possessed children and their parents visited Hale.  The children appeared cured, “And Mr. Pacy did Affirm, that within less than half an hour after the Witches were Convicted, they were all of them Restored, and slept well that Night, feeling no pain; only Susan Chandler felt a pain like pricking of Pins in her Stomach.”  Denny and Cullender “were urged to confess, but would not.” The two hanged on March 17, 1662.

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From the evidence of the trial it would seem as though Amy Denny and Rose Cullender were the victims of superstition and parochial vindictiveness. Much of the evidence brought against them was due to coincidence, for example, a farmer who hit a house with his cart seems likely to be an incompetent driver and it is not really surprising to hear that it turned over or get stuck in a gateway! Equally, one does not have a witch to say that a chimney in an obviously bad state of repair is likely to fall if left unattended. Much of the rest could be a fabrication. The accused did seem to have something of a bad reputation in Lowestoft, and Pacy’s attitude in not selling them fish was obviously unfriendly. This, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender died having committed no crime save that they were unpopular, at a time when a scolding tongue and witchcraft so often went hand in hand.

FOOTNOTE (1): What is particularly interesting and significant about the 1662 trial at Bury St. Edmunds is the supposed personal integrity, obvious intellectual acumen, and the clear professional achievements of some of the main participants running the show.

At the top was Sir Matthew Hale, (1 November 1609 – 25 December 1676), Chief Baron of the Exchequer who was an influential English barrister, judge and lawyer. He presided over the trial;. Then there was Dr. Thomas Browne, (19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682), knighted 1671, a celebrated author and physician, who testified at the trial.  Both were known at the time for their incorruptibility and tolerance, qualities that undoubtedly helped them to not only survive, but also to prosper during those turbulent and uncertain times in English history.

At the time of the Lowestoft Witches Trial Browne was a resident of Norwich in Norfolk and at the height of his career. He was the author of a half dozen major works, his interests ranging from his candid personal views on religion as a physician (Religio Medici, 1643), to natural history (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646) to ancient funeral rites (Hydriotaphia, 1658). Quite a mixture! He was, at times, sceptical, anti-dogmatic, mystical, erudite, witty, moderate, and curious, but his works had many admirers.  Though he dabbled with some scientific experimentation (both he and Hale wrote about magnetism, for instance), Browne, like Hale, also firmly believed in Satan and witchcraft which should not go unnoticed with respect to this trial.  Brown, for instance, believed evil was a part of God’s universe, and to doubt the existence of witchcraft opened the door to atheism.  Two decades before the trial, in probably his greatest work, Religio Medici (1643), Browne had written:

“It is a riddle to me, how this story of oracles hath not wormed out of the world that doubtful conceit of spirits and witches; how so many learned heads should so far forget their metaphysics, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of spirits.  For my part, I have ever believed, and do now know, that there are witches: they that doubt of these, do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely, and upon consequence a sort not of infidels, but atheists.” 

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Sir Thomas Browne’s Statute in Norwich

Dr. Thomas Browne of Norwich appears in only one paragraph of the ‘A Tryal of Witches’, pamphlet about the Witchs’ trial at the Bury St. Edmonds Assizes.  Unfortunately, neither Browne nor Hale was alive at the time of the pamphlet’s publication to review and possibly refute its content. Also, since neither man mentioned the experience at Bury St. Edmunds in any of their subsequent works or personal correspondence, it is impossible to know what their views were towards that event.

Sir Matthew Hale, was four years Browne’s junior, but also wrote prodigiously.  Unlike Browne though, Hale chiefly wrote for his own enjoyment and, presumably, to satisfy his desire to grow intellectually.  Although he published only a few works, his posthumous ‘History of the Common Law of England (1713)’ and ‘Histroia placitorum coronae (1726)’ were highly regarded for centuries.  Principally interested in religion and the law, Hale, like Browne, commented on natural history and the relationship between Christianity and reason.  Both men seemed to be examples of the typical Oxford-educated, successful, well read, and well-respected Englishman at the top of his chosen profession.

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Sir Matthew Hale

Sir Matthew Hale and Sir Thomas Browne were clearly highly intelligent people, at the top of their respected professions, who sincerely believed in witchcraft.  It is understood that Hale presided over at least one other witchcraft case – and that ended with an execution!  In England, however, the era in which it was possible to prosecute and execute witches was coming to an end.  Educated justices found executing poor, elderly, and “outcast” women based on the testimony of children problematical.  As the belief in witches slowly died out, the ability to prosecute them died out even more quickly.

The real grievance against both Hale and Browne is that they were to be judged by later legal, medical, and scientific standards, not those of their own era.  Edmund Gosse, a biographer of Browne, characterized his participation in the trial, “..…the most culpable and the most stupid action of this life..…Among the most appalling stories of witch-trials, none was more shocking, none more inexcusable than that which resulted in the hanging of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.”  Hale’s biographer, Edmund Heward, found the omitting the summary of evidence at the end of the trial a “sign of weakness” and alleged that Hale’s behaviour “……indicates the credulity and superstition which mingled with his religious beliefs.”

FOOTNOTE (2): Another consequence of the Lowestoft Witches Trial was its influence upon the events at Salem, Massachusetts, USA.  Several features of the Lowestoft Witches Trial bear a remarkable resemblance to the Salem trials three decades later.  The crisis originated with the afflictions of Deborah and Elizabeth Pacy, whose ages, nine and eleven, were identical to those of two girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, who played a key role in the Salem witchcraft trials.  The symptoms of the girls and reports of witches’ spectres were similar in Bury St. Edmunds and Salem.  In both cases, the afflictions spread to other girls, and adults contributed testimony about previous confrontations with the accused.  Finally, the conclusion was the same- hangings.

In 1693, when Reverend Cotton Mather published his ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’, he enclosed a chapter entitled “A Modern Instance of Witches: Discovered and Condemned in a Trial Before That Celebrated Judge, Sir Mathew Hale.”  Mather begins, “It may cast some Light upon the Dark things now in America, if we just give a glance upon the like things happening in Europe.  We may see the Witchcrafts here most exactly resemble the Witchcrafts there.”  After stating that the trial was “……much considered by the Judges of New England,” Mather summarized Lowestoft’s ‘A Tryal of Witches’ in the next nine pages of his book.

Cotton Mather, like Browne in his testimony at Bury St. Edmunds, believed that the Devil could “stir up and excite humours,” especially in children and females.  Describing the afflictions of Mercy Short, whose possession occurred within a year after the Salem trials, Cotton Mather wrote ‘Another Brand Plucked Out of the Burning’.  Emulating Browne’s testimony, Cotton Mather wrote:

“That the Evil Angels do often take Advantage from Natural Distempers in the Children of Men to annoy them with such further Mischiefs as we call preternatural.  The Malignant Vapours and Humours of our Diseased Bodies may be used by Devils, there into insinuating as engine of the Execution of their Malice upon those Bodies; and perhaps for this reason one Sex may suffer more Troubles of the kinds from the Invisible World than the other, as well as for that reason for which the Old Serpent made where he did his first Address.”

Unfortunately, in terms of what soon would unfold at Salem, Hale’s judgment and Browne’s opinions continued to influence events even after their deaths.  Though witchcraft beliefs were dying out, the impact of Bury St. Edmunds remained.  As historian James Sharpe has written, “The Bury St Edmunds trial of 1664 demonstrated how, even in the face of a court willing to entertain the possibility of deception, and anxious to subject a witchcraft accusation to as many of the known tests and methods of proving witchcraft as possible, the accepted standards of proofs in witchcraft trials were still difficult to reject.” 

THE END

A Monk’s betrayal at St Benets

Norfolk Tales & Myths

It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish. Mostly these tales have been linked to political intrigues and double-crossings which were part and parcel of powerful establishments.

St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin…

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The Brunton’s of Norwich: Soap to Stage!

The head of this Norwich branch of the Brunton family was John Brunton who was born in 1741 and died in 1822. His birth was within the confines of this city, one of the largest by population in the country. John arrived the son of a prominent soap-maker in the City who saw to it that John was educated at the local grammar school, followed by an apprenticeship with a local wholesale grocer. Once John had completed his seven-year apprenticeship, he married a Miss Friend, the daughter of a Norwich mercer. Shortly after his marriage, John Brunton moved his family to London where he set up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.

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18th Century Theatre Prompter

In London, John Brunton made friends with a Mr. J. Younger, who was at the time the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship helped nurture and encourage Brunton’s interested in acting. It was in April 1774 when Brunton was given the part of Cyrus in a benefit performance for Mr. Younger before he played the part of Hamlet in a similar benefit performance of the play for a Mr. Kniveton. Bitten now by the acting bug, Brunton gave up his tea and grocery shop and became a full time actor. He soon became considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles and as such returned to live in Norwich from where he travelled around a number of provincial theatres to perform. In time, John Brunton gave up acting and took the position as manager of the theatre in Bath for about three years before becoming manager of the theatre in Brighton where the Prince of Wales became his patron. Brunton eventually returned to Norwich to become the manager of the city’s theatre, acting from time to time when needed.

John Brunton and his wife were blessed with fourteen children but he did not, initially, intend that any of them should enter the acting profession. At the time when the family lived in Bath, Brunton’s wife had taken on the responsibility of educating their children with John also spending many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a governess. It was whilst doing this that he identified her talent for acting and arranged for her to go on stage at the tender age of fifteen years.

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Anne Brunton (1769 – 1808) Actress

Anne Brunton made her debut in Bath, in February 1785. After seeing her performances in Bath that summer, Thomas Harris, manager of the Covent Garden theatre in London, engaged her to help his theatre compete with the Drury Lane theatre. Anne’s manager was her father, who also helped her perfect her acting skills. Then in August of 1791, Miss Anne Brunton, married the prominent playwright and poet, Robert Merry.

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Robert Merry, (1755–1798)    Playwright & Poet

As Mrs. Merry, she was eventually pressured to retire from the stage by her husband’s family but soon afterwards, Robert Merry found that he had used up most of his substantial inheritance and considered it necessary for the couple to move to Paris; that is until the outbreak of the French Revolution when they were forced to return to London. Thereafter, the Merry’s began to live a very unsettled existence and, after three years, rumours began to circulate that Anne Merry would be returning to the stage in a private theatre in Scarborough. Nothing, in fact, came of this and a few months later there were reports that Anne Brunton Merry would soon appear at Covent Garden as the leading lady in a play written by her husband ; that too came to nothing!

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Thomas Wignell (1753 – 1803) Actor & Theatre Manager

By the spring of 1796, Thomas Wignell, the manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia, was in London seeking talent for his new theatre. Between Merry’s liberal political leanings, his dwindling financial resources and his family’s objections regarding his wife’s work in the theatre, the Merry’s could see no secure position for themselves in London. Anne Merry, therefore, accepted Wignell’s offer to perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre and she and her husband sailed for America.

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Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, USA

Anne Brunton Merry was a great success on the American stage and, in addition to Philadelphia, She played in all of the large cities in the United States. Then in 1798, Robert Merry died, and in January 1803, Anne married Thomas Wignell, only for him to die the following month due to an infection. As Mrs. Wignell, Anne performed in Baltimore in the April before going into seclusion to await the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, that autumn. The following year, Anne Wignell returned to the stage performing in a number of Shakespearean roles.

By now, the actor, William Warren had taken over management of the Chestnut Street Theatre and, in August of 1806, Anne Wignell married him. She continued to act until May of 1808, when she again left the state to await the birth of a child. The Warrens then retired to a house in Alexandria, Virginia where Anne experienced a violent illness which left her delusional and reciting some of her favourite speeches from characters she had played over the years. On 24 June 1806, she gave birth to a stillborn son, and though she initially seemed to be recovering from her ordeal, she died on 28 June 1806.

John Brunton’s son, also named John (1775 – 1849), was intended for the law by his father, though he had had a few small acting roles, while a child, at his father’s theatre. Despite his parent’s hopes, the young man was bitten by the same acting bug as had bitten his father years previously. At the age of eighteen and unbeknown to his family, John Junior joined a theatre company in Lincoln. After experiencing some success, young John returned home to his family, who were then living in Norwich. Though his father was disappointed that his son had chosen not to follow the law, he Well understood his son’s love of the stage and hired him as an actor and assistant manager.

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John Brunton Jr. (1775 – 1849)                Brunton in the role of Zadi, from a scene in ‘The Anaconda, the Terrific Serpent of Ceylon’ based on a tale by G. M. Lewis. Published December 4, 1822. Brunton portrays Zadi, “a Cingalese restored to freedom”.

John Brunton Junior. was to become a very successful actor in the Norwich theatre which was managed by his father, and in 1800, young John travelled to London where he made his debut in the same Covent Garden theatre as did his father more than twenty-five years before.

John Jr. played a number of Shakespearean roles over the course of the next five years, but he did not achieve the success of some of the other leading actors in London of that period. In 1804, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the manager of the West London Theatre, though he did still perform character parts from time to time, when needed. Over the course of his career, John Brunton, Jr. would go on to manage theatres at Brighton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Lynn and Norwich.

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Covent Garden Theatre, 18th century.

Another daughter of John Brunton, Senior was Elizabeth (c. 1772 – 1799); she would be introduced to the London stage by her successful older sister, Anne, before she departed for America. This Eliza, as she was known in the family, made her stage debut at the Covent Garden theatre in a benefit for her older sister, Anne, in 1788. It was Anne who personally introduced Eliza to the audience that night with an elegant and poetical address which was well-received by those in attendance. That first night, Eliza had such a case of stage fright that she could barely speak her lines. However, the audience showed her sympathy and encouragement by which she was able to collect herself and get through her first performance with increasing confidence. Eliza went on to develop her acting skills further and continued to act for several years, but she never achieved the success of Anne, her eldest sister or Louisa, her youngest. She eventually married a Mr. Colombine.

John Brunton, Senior’s youngest daughter, Louisa (c. 1780 – 1860), was considered a great beauty and a very talented actress, who made her debut in October of 1803, at the Covent Garden theatre, as leading lady to the famous actor John Kemble. Critics wrote of her beauty and her gifted performance, predicting a glowing future for her. Louisa Brunton played a variety of roles, from contemporary plays to Shakespeare over the next four years. She also had many gentlemen admirers. However, it was well-known that she came from a respectable and professional theatrical family. There was never any suggestion in society or in the newspapers that she was anything less that a very proper young lady. Certainly, she was never considered to be a courtesan or a loose woman as were some actresses.

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Louisa Brunton (1780 – 1860)

Sometime in 1805, Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825), became one of Louisa’s most ardent admirers. Lord Craven had been the first patron of the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, when Harriette was only fifteen. However, it does not appear he ever made any attempt to offer Louisa Brunton the carte blanche he had offered Harriette Wilson. Rather, he asked for Louisa’s hand and, on 12 December 1807, the couple was married in Lord Craven’s London townhouse in Berkeley Square. Though Louisa may have expected to have been welcomed into aristocratic society, such was not the case. Though she was not a loose woman, Louisa had been born into the middle class, and there were many high-sticklers among the beau monde who shunned her. Nevertheless, she and her husband did maintain a circle of friends whose company they enjoyed.

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Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825)

After her marriage, Louisa gave up the stage and devoted much of her time to her family. She and Lord Craven took up their primary residence at the earl’s estate of Hamstead Marshall Park in Berkshire, where the earl had recently built a fine mansion. The earl never lost his wandering eye, and he is known to have had relationships with other women during their marriage. It seems his countess turned a blind eye to these extra-curricular activities in order to maintain peace in the marriage. Louisa took up garden design, a pursuit she would enjoy at Hamstead Marshall Park for most of her life. The Earl and Countess of Craven had four children, three boys, including the next earl, and a daughter.

In 1811, when her father, John Brunton, retired as the manager of the Norwich theatre, he and his wife, Louisa’s mother, moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa. When her husband died in July of 1825, Louisa remained at Hamstead Marshall, while her eldest son, the new earl, took up residence at Ashdown House, also situated in Berkshire. Louisa, Dowager Countess of Craven lived a quiet and retired life at Hamstead Marshall, her fame on the stage all but forgotten when she died there on 27 August 1860.

It transpired that Louisa was not the last of the Bruntons to take to the stage. Two of her older brother John’s daughters, the third generation of the Brunton family, both became actresses. In March of 1815, Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860), made her debut at the theatre in Lynn, which was managed by her father. Elizabeth’s first role was that of Desdemona in Othello, opposite Charles Kemble, of the famous acting family. Though she did well enough, her father concluded that ‘Bess’ was more suited to comedy and it was in these roles that Miss Elizabeth Brunton was to perform at theatres in Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury and Leicester over the next two years.

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Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860)

In 1817, Thomas Harris, the manager of London’s Covent Garden theatre, engaged Elizabeth Brunton, just as he had engaged her Aunt Anne many years before. It was in the September of that year when Miss Elizabeth Brunton made her London debut at Covent Garden as Letitia Hardy in the comedy, Belle’s Stratagem. She also was to perform in a number of other plays at Covent Garden that year; all of the to mixed reviews. The following year, Elizabeth Brunton appeared on stage in Edinburgh and at Drury Lane, but was back at Covent Garden for the 1818 – 1819 season taking a couple of years off from acting to spend some time in the country.

Shortly after her return to the stage, Elizabeth performed in Norwich, her ancestral home city; that was in 1820. On one particular evening of her tour, the performace did not run as it should due to a riot, a report of which found its way on to the pages of the 16th March edition of The Times:

“…. a theatrical riot took place at the Norwich Theatre. On the Monday Miss Brunton had appeared in the character of Rosalind without incident. On the Tuesday, she appeared as Maria Dorillon in Elizabeth Inchbald’s controversial play “Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are”, which had been attacked as subversive for its portrayal of women. Notwithstanding the excellence of her performance, the house was very thinly attended. As if this was not enough for poor Miss Brunton on her final performance:…….much confusion arose in consequence of part of the audience calling for ‘God Save The King’, which was sung, while others vociferated ‘God Save The Queen’. At length, two regular battles took place……[but] at the commencement of the farce, on Miss Brunton’s appearance, loud applause superseded the tones displeasure.

But as the battle raged among the audience, Miss Brunton was led off the stage. The manager tried to reason with the audience but he and the remaining actors were driven from the stage, which was occupied by some of the rioters while ‘the respectable part of the audience immediately left the house'”.

In 1822, Elizabeth Brunton resumed her career on the London stage, at the West Theatre, where her father was manager. Unfortunately, the season did not go well, and Bess once again retired to the country. It was whilst she was there that she became reacquainted with Frederick Henry Yates, an actor with whom she had performed at Drury Lane. In November of 1823, the couple were married in Bath. Mrs. Yates, still billed as Miss Brunton, appeared in a number of plays in Bath that season. The following season, she played at Cheltenham and Drury Lane, often with her husband. The couple played several theatres, sometimes together, and sometimes separately, over the course of the next decade. About 1835, Frederick Yates became the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in London. When he retired from the Adelphi in 1842, Mr. and Mrs. Yates traveled to Ireland, with their son, to perform in Dublin. Sadly, Mr. Yates became ill during rehearsals and the family decided to return to England. Frederick Yates died not long after his return, in June of 1842.

In 1843, Mrs. Yates took over as co-manager of the Adelphi theatre for about a year, but found her health was not up to it. She came back to the stage as an actress at the Lyceum for the 1848 – 1849 season. However, her health continued to deteriorate and she was forced to retire permanently from the stage by 1850. After a long illness, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates died on 30 August 1860, just three days after the passing of her Aunt Louisa. Though both Mr. and Mrs. Yates had enjoyed long theatrical careers, they had always discouraged their son, Edmond Yates, from seeking a career in the theatre; instead, he became a novelist and playwright and never performed on stage.

Whilst today the Norwich branch of the Brunton family is largely unknown, that was not the case from the late eighteenth century and well into the middle of the nineteenth when they were very well-known throughout the theatrical world of Britain.

THE END

A Victorian Circus Star from Norwich!

The first fact to reveal about Pablo Fanque is that he was born in Norwich in the fair County of Norfolk. The second, and probably the more important, is the fact that he not only became a brilliant equestrian performer, but famous as the first non-white British circus owner in Britain and the most popular circus proprietor in Victorian Britain during a 30-year golden period of circus entertainment. His life’s story starts where all life stories begin; it is this beginning on which the City of Norwich lays its own claim to this showman’s name and fame.

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Norwich boasts the fact that Pablo Fanque, baptised William Darby, was born in the City; the date of his birth was 30th March 1810. He was to die on 4th May 1871 in Stockport, Lancashire, having left Norwich as a teenager, never to return. Fast forward to 2010; this was the year when Norwich first expressed its pride in being associated with the gentleman in the form of a commemorative blue plaque placed on the wall of the John Lewis department store on All Saints Green. Its position was the nearest the authorities could get to the house in Ber Street where Fanque lived his earlier years. Then, in 2018 a student accommodation block was opened in the Norwich, opposite the John Lewis Store and named ‘Pablo Fanque House’.

Pablo Fanque (Block)2
A view of the new flats, built on the former Mecca Bingo site. Pic: Alumno Developments.

Much of Pablo Fanque’s early life in Norwich is unknown and speculative. What is known comes from the City’s church records which state, quite clearly, that he was born in 1810. He was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) in Norwich. When Fanque married in 1848, he entered on his marriage certificate “butler” for his late father’s occupation. A Dr. John Turner, in a biography, speculated that Fanque’s father “was Indian-born and had been brought to Norwich and trained as a house servant.” Other accounts have also speculated that Fanque was orphaned at a young age, and even born in a workhouse to a family with seven children.

Over the years, biographers have also disputed Fanque’s date of birth and it was Dr John Turner, again, who popularised the belief that Fanque was born in 1796, presumably based on the 14 May 1871 ‘Era’ newspaper which recorded that Fanque’s coffin bore the inscription; “AGED 75 YEARS”. Dr Turner may also have been influenced by the detail on Fanque’s gravestone, located at the base of his late wife Susannah Darby’s grave in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds (now St George’s Field) which reads; “Also the above named William Darby Pablo Fanque who died May 4th 1871 Aged 75 Years“.

But those who support the belief that Fanque was born earlier than 1810 should maybe take note of certain facts. Firstly, his age was recorded in the 1841, 1851 and 1871 Census’s of England as being born in 1810 – surely, not all three would be incorrect! Then, a birth register at St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich also records the birth of a ‘William’ to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. This is the same birth year as that on Norwich’s blue plaque. There also follows the marriage record of a John Darby to Mary Stamp on 27 March 1791 at St. Stephen’s, Norwich, by records of their children; these include a John Richard on 4 Jul 1792, Robert on 27 Jul 1794, William on 28 Feb 1796, Mary Elizabeth on 18 Mar 1798, and William on 30 March 1810. Crucially, the family also had two burial records, a William on 30 April 1797 and Mary Elizabeth on 10 Feb 1801. Genealogists worth their salt would know that it was quite common in families that suffered infant mortalities in the past for a later child to be given the same name as a sibling who had previously died. This was particularly true where parents wished to maintain a family name in perpetuity. These facts strongly indicate that William, our subject was born in 1810, following the earlier William who had died in 1797.

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William Darby became apprenticed to the circus proprietor, William Batty, around 1820, when he was about ten years old and in circumstances that biographers can only dream up. Certainly, Darby picked up the ‘bug’ of being a circus entertainer in Norwich and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring there on December 26, 1821. He was billed as “Young Darby”; his acts including equestrian stunts and rope walking. Then, as soon as he had grown and developed into a young adult with the full range of skills that he was to became famous for, William Darby left Norwich for good and toured extensively. It was also around this period when he changed his name to his professional “Pablo Fanque” identity. Eventually, and maybe inevitably, Fanque was to make a highly successful London debut; that was in 1847 under his professional name. Describing Fanque and his performance at that debut, The Illustrated London News wrote:

“Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed … we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled … Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”

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This same edition of The Illustrated London News also provided an example of how contemporaries regarded Fanque’s performance:

“This extraordinary feat of the manège has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” – Fanque was also described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian. It was the same newspaper, reporting on another performance at London’s Astleys Amphitheater, that filled in many more biographical details of Fanque:

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“… Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astleys Amphitheater” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling etc; and is also considered a very good equestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time before rejoining Mr. Batty.”

In 1841, he began business on his own account, with two horses, and has assembled a fine stud of horses and ponies at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire…. “in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” Thus started the 30 year period when Fanque ran his own successful circus, only sometimes involving partnerships with others where these were necessary. During this time he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now “Greater Manchester.”

Families flocked to his shows in their thousands, lured by exciting poster and newspaper advertisements, street parades and the stories told by those who had been held spellbound by what they had experienced. Fanque was extremely adept at conjuring together new ‘exotic’ names, acts and historical extravaganzas, which could transport poor people out of what many experienced as drab, hardworking lives into a world of imagination, colour, dangerous feats of courage, expertise and sheer fun!  His shows appealed equally to those of the higher classes.

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One reason for Fanque’s success, one that often goes unremarked in circus histories, was his keen appreciation of the importance of  advertising. Among the advantages that his circus enjoyed over its numerous rivals was that it enjoyed the services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900. Fanque seems to have been among the first to recognise Sheldon’s genius, hiring him when he was just 17.  Sheldon spent the next three years as Fanque’s advance man, advertising the imminent arrival of the circus as it moved from town to town.

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In addition to such advertising, Fanque would organise a spectacular parade to announce his arrival in town.  In some towns he would drive ‘Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’.  He was also known to drive fourteen horses in hand through the streets in some places.

Even serious churchgoers sought enjoyment from a Fanque circus, whilst risking chastisement from some quarters. It was in1843, when clergy in Burnley were criticised in the Blackburn Mercury for attending performances of Fanque’s circus. This prompted one reader to respond thus:

“Ministers of religion, of all denominations, in other towns, have attended Mr. Pablo Fanque’s circus. Such is his character for probity and respectability, that wherever he has been once he can go again; aye and receive the countenance and support of the wise and virtuous of all classes of society. I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness.”

THE BENEFICIAL NATURE OF MR FANQUE

The “Benefit for Mr. Kite”, a title later to be immortalised by the 20th century’s musical Group ‘The Beatles’, was one of many benefit shows that Pablo Fanque held for performers in his own circus, for others in the profession who had no regular retirement or health benefits, and for community organisations. Fanque was, in fact, a member of the Order of Ancient Shepherds, a fraternal organisation affiliated with the Freemasons. The Order assisted families in times of illness or death with burial costs and other expenses. For example, an 1845 show in Blackburn benefitted the Blackburn Mechanics Institution and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, offering a bonus to the Widows and Orphans Fund. Fanque held a similar benefit in Bury the following year.

Pablo Fanque (Friendly Soc.)

Then in 1857 and 1858, Fanque was again active, holding at least two benefits among other performances. In 1857, in Bradford, he held a benefit for the family of the late Tom Barry, a clown. Brenda Assael, in The Circus and Victorian Society, writes that in March 1857, “Pablo Fanque extended the hand of friendship to Barry’s widow and held a benefit in her husband’s name at his Allied Circus in Bradford. Using the Era offices to transmit the money he earned from this event, Fanque enclosed 10 pounds worth of ‘post office orders…being the profits of the benefit. I should have been better pleased had it been more, but this was the close of a very dull season.” On 24 October 1858, The Herald of Scotland reported: “IN GLASGOW, ‘Pablo Fanque’s Cirrque Nationale’ offered ‘A Masonic Benefit.”

An 1846 a Bolton newspaper story epitomised the public’s high regard for Fanque in the communities he visited on account of his beneficence:

“Several of the members of the “Widows and Orphans Fund” presented to Mr. Pablo Fanque a written testimonial, mounted in an elegant gilt frame…Mr. Pablo on entering the room was received with due respect. Mr. Fletcher presented an address…which concluded:…’and when the hoary hand of age should cease to wave over your head, at a good old age, may you sink into the grave regretted, and your name and acts of benevolence be remembered by future generations.”

PARTNERSHIP WITH W F WALLETT

During the 1840s and 1850s, Fanque was close friends with the clown W. F. Wallett, who performed in his circus. Wallett also managed Fanque’s circus for a time. Wallett frequently promoted himself as “the Queen’s Jester,” having performed once before Queen Victoria in 1844 at Windsor Castle. He appeared regularly with Fanque’s circus and many towns throughout the north. It was during a ‘benefit’ being held for Wallett in the amphitheatre, Leeds when a balcony collapsed, killing Fanque’s wife; see below.

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W.F. Wallett

Throughout his 1870 autobiography, Wallett shares several amusing anecdotes about his work and friendship with Fanque, including the following about their 1859 engagement in Glasgow:

“ The season was a succession of triumphs. One of the principal attractions was a little Irishman whom I engaged in Dublin, who rejoiced in the name of Vilderini, one of the best posture masters the theatrical world ever produced. I engaged him for three months at a liberal salary, on the express understanding that I should shave his head, and convert him into a Chinaman. For which nationality his small eyes, pug nose, high cheek bones, and heavy mouth admirably adapted him. So his head was shaved, all but a small tuft on the top, to which a saddler with waxed twine firmly attached his celestial pig-tail. His eyebrows were shaved off, and his face, neck, and head dyed after the most admired Chinese complexion. Thus metamorphosed, he was announced on the walls as KI HI CHIN FAN FOO (Man-Spider-leg mortal).

We had about twenty supernumeraries and the whole equestrian company in Chinese costume. Variegated lanterns, gongs, drums, and cymbals ushered the distinguished Chinaman into the ring, to give his wonderful entertainment. The effect was astonishing, and its success extraordinary. In fact the entire get-up was so well carried out that it occasioned us some annoyance. For there were two rival tea merchants in Glasgow at the time, and each of them had engaged a genuine Chinaman as touter at his door. Every night, as soon as they could escape from their groceries, they came to the circus to solicit an interview with their compatriot. After being denied many nights in succession, they peremptorily demanded to see him. Being again refused, they determined to move for the writ of habeas corpus. That is to say, they applied to the magistrate stating they believed their countryman to be deprived of his liberty except during the time of his performance. We were then compelled to produce our celestial actor, who proved to the satisfaction of the worthy magistrate that he was a free Irishman from Tipperary.”

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W.F. Wallett

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY

Fanque married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of whom was named Lionel. It was on 18th March 1848 when his wife died in Leeds at a ‘Benefit’ performance for Fanque’s friend, W F Wallett, clown. Their son was performing a tightrope act before a large crowd at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft. The 600 people seated in the gallery fell with its collapse, but Susannah Darby was the only fatality when heavy planks hit her on the back of the head. Reportedly, Fanque sought medical attention for his wife at the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead. Years later a 4 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Intelligencer recalled the incident, while announcing the return of Pablo Fanque’s Circus to the town:

“His last visit, preceding the present one, was unfortunately attended by a very melancholy accident. On that occasion he occupied a circus in King Charles’s Croft and part of the building gave way during the time it was occupied by a crowded audience. Several persons were more or less injured by the fall of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak, and Mrs Darby, the wife of the proprietor, was killed. This event, which occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848, excited much sympathy throughout the borough. A neat monument with an impressive inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby, in the Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.”

It is clear that widower Fanque did not waste any time in finding another wife for in June 1848, he married an Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Elizabeth was 22 years old and was to deliver two more sons to Fanque, George (1854) and Edward Charles “Ted” (1855). Both sons were to join the circus with Ted Pablo achieving acclaim as a boxer, and would tour Australia in that profession. A daughter, Caroline died at the age of 1 year and 4 months and was buried in the same plot as was for Susannah and William.

In Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh there also stands a tombstone dedicated to the memory of two others of Elizabeth and Fanque’s children —William Batty Patrick Darby (13 months) and Elizabeth Darby (3 years). Both died in 1852 but Elizabeth, the younger, died in Tuam, Ireland. This was at a time, in the early 1850’s, when Fanque was performing regularly in Edinburgh. The inscription on the children’s tombstone is thus:

“Sacred to the Memory of
William Batty Patrick Darby
son of
William and Elizabeth Darby
Professionally known as Pablo Fanque
who died 1st February 1852, Aged 13 Months
Also of 
Elizabeth, their Daughter
who died at Tuam Ireland 30th Oct. 1852,
Aged 3 years and 4 months”

 

It is left to the 1861 census records to reveal that Fanque was living with a woman named Sarah, aged 25, who was described as his wife! But there again, the 1871 census records show him living again with his wife Elizabeth and his two sons, in Stockport.

DEATH

The successful performance years and the money enjoyed by Fanque were destined not to last beyond the 1860’s. Certainly within a couple of years of his death, Fanque was ‘insolvent’, living in a room in the Britannia Inn, 22 Churchgate, Stockport, with his wife and two sons – George and Ted Pablo. There Fanque died of bronchitis on 4 May 1871. It was a sad end for such an extraordinary man, who rose from humble beginnings in Norwich to reach the top of his profession and in a career that lasted fifty years.

Despite the apparent poor financial circumstances of his last few years, Pablo Fanque’s funeral was a spectacular occasion. One may think that, having been a member of a charitable ‘Order’ and someone who often raised money for others, help came forward to see him on his way. Certainly, his body was brought from Stockport by train and a great procession accompanied him to his resting place, watched by several thousand people.  The hearse was preceded by a band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul and was followed by Pablo’s favourite horse, Wallett, ‘partially draped in mourning trappings and led by a groom’, four mourning coaches, and several cabs and private vehicles.  Pablo was buried with his first wife in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, Leeds. Ahead of the funeral procession to the cemetery was a band playing the “Dead March”. Fanque’s favourite horse followed, along with four coaches and mourners. Fanque was buried next to his first wife Susannah Darby. The Cemetery is now named St. George’s Field and part of the University of Leeds campus. While the remains of many of the 100,000 graves and monuments have been relocated, the monument that Fanque erected in his wife’s memory, and a smaller modest monument in his memory still stands.

While some contemporary reports did not refer to Fanque’s African ancestry, other reports noted that he was “a man of colour,” or “a coloured gentleman,” or “an artiste of colour.” These suggest he was of mixed race with partial European ancestry as well. Thirty years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Reverend Thomas Horne, wrote: “In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.” He was commenting on Fanque’s success in Victorian England despite being of mixed race.

For all the charitable qualities possessed by Fanque, he was far from perfect. Apart from the apparent eye he seemed to have for the ladies, there was a less savoury side to him that should not be forgotten if a sense of balance is to be maintained.

Fanque, at best, seemed to have also been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked a James Henderson, not the J. Henderson on the playbill by the way! James Henderson was an employee who, although taking Fanque to court, the matter was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).

Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28. Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)

However, a chronic problem with Fanque was that he was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court but by October 1858 Fanque had been made bankrupt and in June 1859 was refused protection from bankruptcy, owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that “the transactions with Battye … were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion … nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”.

However, a charge of perjury was more serious for it was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)

Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”.  – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.) In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.

LEGACY

There you have it! – the ‘not so complete tale’ of Pablo Fanque’s life. However, like with most lives and events legacies remain. In Pablo Fanque’s case, his name was almost forgotten, that is until it became immortalised in the mid part of the 20th century, on the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’.  The words of that song had been lifted by John Lennon from an advertising poster for Fanque’s Royal Circus in Rochdale, in 1843, which Lennon had spotted in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent:

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John Lennon with that Poster!

“For the benefit of Mr. Kite/There will be a show tonight on trampoline/ The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair – what a scene/ Over men and horses, hoops and garters/ Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!/ In this way Mr. K will challenge the world!”

Lennon bought the poster while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple Records employee, recalled, “There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!”

The title “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken verbatim from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845. As for “Mr. J. Henderson”, he was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of “Hendersons” plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s.

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The Beatles. Pic: AP Photo/Robert Freeman- Copyright Apple Corps Ltd

 THE END

Chamberlin’s of Norwich: “Value and Reliability!”

There was a time when Norwich had, along with Bristol, the honour of having a Mint. There even was a time when Norwich had an importance which was second only to that of London. There was also a time when this City had its best forgotten days, when it lost its famous old weavers and saw the break-up of textile trade. There was also a time when its transport links to the capital city were poor and stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous. That once famous ‘Punch’ magazine, in a sarcastic thrust at the slow methods of reaching East Anglia from the Metropolis, wrote at the time: “ On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.”

On one hand, there was that glorious year of 1815 when Napoleon was finally beaten at Waterloo; then, on the other hand that same year had its’ drawbacks. There were no railways, penny postage, morning papers, matches or gas, to say nothing of electric light; without a thousand and one inventions that were to give comforts to the masses, it was a time ripe for enterprise and progress. It was a time when a certain Henry Chamberlin, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, opened a business on Guildhall Hill which was to become known by the diserning as “ Chamberlin’s of Norwich,” a title that signified the hall-mark of excellence.

Henry Chamberlin (born 1777 and died 1848) never was one to entertain the selling of low quality goods; he went for the best, and the firm which he founded in 1815 never swerved from the principles of “value and reliability,” during perplexing years which saw, just like today, the rise and fall of the craze for cheapness. On this basis the Store became firmly established and grew. Then, in 1823, Henry the founder was joined by his son, Robert Chamberlin and continued to prosper. Some years later became known as Chamberlin, Sons & Co. and then quoted as a Limited Company under the title of Chamberlin & Sons, Limited. On 4 March Henry Died and was buried at Thorpe St Andrew Cemetery.

Chamberlins (Henry's Grave)1

Robert took over the Company’s reigns and just like his father, not only oversaw the business, but was to occupy a variety of civic office rolls during his life. On the domestic front, he found time to have seventeen children from two marriages. Then, following his death in 1876, his son, George Chamberlin, became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have a large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons were to serve in the First World War. Throughout his life, George, just like his father and grandfather, also occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, as well as having a very active personal life – his favourate sport was shooting. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.

 

Chamberlins (Portrait Notes)

The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in the community at large. While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk they also help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city. Their story is told in the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’ in which members of the present Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the Chamberlin Store and factory were in their prime. The two authors had a wonderful way with words when describing the scene before them when they walked into the shop on Guildhall Hill some 114 years ago, when it had been rebuilt following the fire of 1898 which was reported in the Norwich ‘Evening News’ at the time describing the blaze as “an irreparable loss.” It went on to say:

“The blaze had started at Hurn’s ropemaking business and spread to the library. Sixty thousand volumes, many rare and valuable, were lost including the important Norton collection of foreign dictionaries. Chamberlins – the big, upmarket department store on Guildhall Hill – was also damaged in the blaze.

Chamberlins (Fire 1898)1

If the wind had been blowing in a different direction much of Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane could have gone. It was also said later that if the fire brigade – the Carrow and the Anchor brigades also helped – had had longer ladders, they would have more chance of saving the building and many of the books.

The library reopened a year later at a cost of £1.719.

But back to Edward and Wilfred Burgess’s dissertation of 1904:

“Spacious and elaborate as were the premises of Messrs. Chamberlin, Sons, & Co., prior to the year 1898, an event then occurred which was regarded at the time as most disastrous to the city but which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we refer to the destruction of the premises by fire. The fire was of a most serious character, devastating the whole of one side of Dove Street, and part of the other side. From the ashes of the old premises arose — phoenix-like — a building, compared with which, the previous establishment — extensive as it was — was quite a modest affair. The disastrous experience of the fire has resulted in elaborate preparations being made for fighting or preventing a fire in future. At the end of each floor hydrants are fixed, giving a copious supply of water, while in the immediate vicinity of each hydrant lengths of hose are placed within easy reach. The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness. From the ne entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world’s drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand. The ground floor saloon is devoted to the various retail departments under the management of Mr. George Waite, and they are the admiration of every visitor. So and agreeable tints pervade the whole place, and the lighting of the spacious area, from concave lights on either side, is perfect. Comfort and luxury are conspicuous features of the saloon, yet the space allowed to the display of goods appears to be almost unlimited. e further end of the saloon is artistically furnished with ladies waiting and reception rooms, while close by are the Fitting and costume departments. The upper floors are occupied by the counting houses and the wholesale departments; and the extensive basement, which is nothing less than a huge warehouse itself, is also utilised for the latter, especially for heavy goods.

Chamberlins (Shop)4

The area of the establishment is enormous, extending as it does from Dove Street — one entire side of which it occupies — up Guildhall Hill to the other side of the square facing the public library. Bearing in mind the numerous departments, the elegance of the appointments, the care devoted to ensuring the comfort of customers, the large and varied stock, and the unremitting attention given by assistants, it is no exaggeration to say that few establishments, either in or out of London, equal “Chamberlins,” and none surpass it. The Furnishing Department is of comparatively recent origin, but it is already a very extensive business of itself. The building appropriated to this branch is the last one of the series up Guildhall Hill, and the entrance is at the corner of the Public Library Square, almost exactly facing the entrance to the ancient Guildhall. Here is to be seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths, and furniture of every description, to be found in the Eastern Counties. The managements in the capable hands of Mr. T. Morpeth, a gentleman of wide experience in carrying out furnishing contracts. The comprehensive range of this department may be judged from the fact that it embraces the manufacture of bedding, all kinds of cabinet making and upholstering — in fact everything which goes to constitute a full equipment of complete house furnishers.

 

Chamberlins (Shop)1

Even this latter does not exhaust the variations of Chamberlins, for in Botolph Street the firm runs a modern clothing factory of large dimensions, which, has quite recently been rebuilt, and now provides cubic space of over 300,000 feet, with ample accommodation and motive power for about 1000 workers. On these premises are manufactured various kinds of clothing and shirts, but judging from appearances the main output is in uniforms and waterproof clothing for the Army, Navy, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Colonial Service, Postal Departments, Railway Companies, Police, etc. The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country, while the variety of military uniforms indicates that the clothing supply of a considerable branch of the Army is catered for here. In the pressing room, the temperature is decidedly high, but here, as in every other department of the works, the ventilating arrangements are as perfect as modern science can make them. In the cutting room are to be seen some really wonderful machines, viz., the machine cutters. Driven at a terrific speed each of these cutters, by means of a rotary knife apparently as sharp as a razor, must do more work than any dozen hand cutters. Garments are cut and shaped by the one, two, or three dozen — according to the resisting qualities of the material – at a surprising rate. In one case layers of cloth, to a thickness of three inches, are cut to a pattern drawn on the top layer, as easy as a lady would cut muslin with scissors. In another cutting and trimming room, a numbers of hand cutters are engaged shaping garments which probably were not required in such large numbers as the uniforms are.

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The basements of the two buildings are very extensive and in one of them a powerful dynamo, by Laurence, Scott and Co., provides the electric light for the establishment. In the other basement, long rows of bales of material — probably scores of tons — are awaiting the handling in the dissecting and cutting rooms, and for the purpose of more easily moving these bales from floor to floor, a new lift has been erected which runs from the basement to the topmost floor. Here the preparations against fire are most complete, including an outside re-proof iron staircase, which has an outlet from every floor. Of course in works of this description the management is divided and sub divided, but the sole responsible manager for the entire Clothing Works is Mr. G. S. Barnard.

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It is worthy of observation, in a review of this nature, that in re-opening the Market Place premises, a new departure was made in giving a musical treat to the public. The Blue Hungarian Band was engaged on that occasion, and the experiment proved to be so eminently successful and so generally appreciated that the precedent has since been followed on several occasions.

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In closing and appreciation in which we have clearly established the right of Chamberlins, Limited to be bracketed with the “Men Who Have Made Norwich” it is interesting to note that the enormous number of persons attending a recent sale was quite unprecedented. In the first few days the rush was so great that it became absolutely necessary to keep the doors closed and customers were admitted in batches, as they could be dealt with; an authority on crowds estimating that there were at least 1,200 customers in the shop at a given’ hour on one afternoon.”

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George Chamberlin in his uniform as Deputy Lieutenant, 1911

When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.

Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company’s output during the whole period of the war.

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Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments. At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities’ official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.

One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.

Chamberlins (Shop)2

In 1935 the post-war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men’s sports clothing under their registered brand ‘Sartella’. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.

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Some of Chamberlin’s Staff (undated) Do you recognise any of these ladies – and Gentleman?

It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They would instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers. Unfortunately, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand modernisation, different shopping habits and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.

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From the days of ‘Value and Reliability’ to the present day ‘Every Little Helps’! This says much about the seismic shift in marketing, business provision and consumer demands

THE END

The S T Sheraton: Hunstanton’s Mystery Wreck.

Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.

Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.

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The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.

The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”

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Not the Sheraton but an example of a similar steam trawler converted for wartime duties with 6pdr gun at the bow.

When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.

Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.

When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.

“Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.”

In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.

 

Sheraton (with gun)
No photographic record of the
Sheraton in war-time has been found but
this is another image showing the location of the gun
mounting in a steam trawler in WWII
service.

Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.

It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.

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It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.

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The stranded ‘Sheraton’ whale.

By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.

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The Sheraton wreck as it used to be at low tide

The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.

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The Sheraton wreck as it is now at low tide

With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.

THE END

Celebration for Norwich’s Jailed Couple!

On the 10th February 1788 Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. Celebrations are afoot this year in Austalia to celebrate both the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival and the couple’s Wedding; also Susannah Holmes birth some 250 years ago. Here is their story as a tribute:

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church)1
Surlingham Church of St Mary’s where Susannah Holmes was baptised

Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low February sun here, quietly painting tones of cold colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their winter roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain so long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the church door to enquire further, there would be heared the soft crunch of the frosted grass as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church Font)1
The Font in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham. Its waters baptised Susannah Holmes

Almost 250 years ago and amongst a score of baptisms, a special baby girl was annointed from the church’s font. She would leave her own footprints, not in the frost or snow of Norfolk, but in the margins of history on the other side of the world. Yet regretably, she would remain strangely anonymous in the county but maybe not so now in the village of her birth. That child’s name was Susannah Holmes. Her story, and that of her lover and later husband Henry Cabell (now Kable) still has a strength of line that not only defies true description but, on the face of it, is stranger than fiction.

Susannah’s story started in Surlingham and remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that in November 1783, she had been committed to Norwich Castle Gao,l accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, valued £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor at Thurlton which was nine miles away. On the 19th March 1784, at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. But her life was later spared and she was sentenced instead to fourteen years transportation to the plantations of America. Susannah Holmes would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.

Susannah Holmes (Norwich Castle Prison)1
Norwich Castle Goal

In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met another young convict also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry Cabell from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle,

they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars.They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”

The Norwich Mercury also reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men.

“A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”

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Home Secretary, Lord North

Sentenced to death, young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced to seven years transportation. These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence:

“On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill pursuant to their crimes.”

Susannah Holmes (Hanging)1

Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. Whilst the couple also waited, they did so in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden, stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter with cells often under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were also allowed to mix. So it was that Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes first met and fell in love, simple unfettered villagers awaiting shipment to they knew not where.

Susannah Holmes (Prison Cell)1
A typical prisoner’s cell at Norwich Castle Goal

In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Castle cell to a baby boy. They called him Henry Jnr. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought that he would never see his family again – but this story was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the ‘Dunkirk’ had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. The Norfolk Chronicle made reference to the plight of the girl from Surlingham:

“The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”

What happened next became a ray of hope when John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth, gathered up baby Henry and made haste to London where, in an age governed by unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city at the world’s end. The Norfolk Chronicle again tells the story much better:

Susannah Holmes (Lord Sydney)1
Home Secretary, Lord Sydney

“Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”

It worked. Lord Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Cabell. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.

The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket. There was no coming back.

It is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name, like his life-story, was unpredictable. The parish records show he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. The newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. rom here Kable it is.

On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. Amongst them was HMS ‘Friendship’ with sails trimmed to meet the stiff breeze. The ship sat deep in the water with a course set to take its crew and passengers to the other end of the world. On board was this Susannah Holmes, a young Norfolk girl, her lover from Suffolk and their recently born son. They were just three amongst a total of some 800 convicts being carried by the First Fleet – to be hailed ever after by their Australian descendants as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and an adventure for the young Norfolk family which is well beyond the wildest imagination of any story-teller.

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‘Friendship’

 

Friendship – 278 Tons (a) 274 (k) 75 ft. (22.9m.) long, 23 ft. (7.0m.) beam, carried 73 people + 76 male and 21 female convicts. (170) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 25 Seamen, 40 Marines, 76 and 21 Female Convicts (162). Skippered by: Master Francis Walton. Little is known about where and when the Scarborough was built c. 1784 During her return voyage to England her crew came down with scurvy and with insufficient crew to man her she was scuttled and sunk in the Straits of Macassar 28 Oct 1788.


That ‘First Fleet’ of eleven sailing ships set out on a voyage of epic proportions and into the unknown and into the history books. Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The ‘Friendship’ carried 72 unwilling prisoners, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.

But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and her Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together and, remarkably, they did not travel with empty-handed thoughts. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had been compelled to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions; but even here there is yet another twist in the story – but more of that later.

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The First Fleet sets sail from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787

How extraordinary that this simple and uncomplicated couple, together with their companions were to have more than a future for themselves; One day, sometime after being shuffled away from our shores, they would be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that whilst it appears that so much is known about Henry and Susannah, the available contemporary documents reveal scant personal details. It is  known that Henry Kable was the first of nine children and that Susannah Holmes had a brother and sister, but there are no images of what either looked like. There is only one description of Henry as being a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it! Much more is known about the ships; two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and a ‘piano’ belonging to the naval surgeon.

At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board the Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”

Susannah Holmes (Charlotte)1
‘Charlotte’

Charlotte: – 346 Tons (a) 335 (k), 105-ft. (32m.) long and 28-ft. (8.5m.) beam. When surveyed at Deptford Yard on 3 November 1786 measured 6’6′ afore, amid and aft and weighed 345 tons. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 45 others + 88 male and 20 female convicts. (183) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 30 Seamen, 42 Marines, 86 Male and 20 Female Convicts. (178) Skippered by: Master Thomas Gilbert (qv). Built in 1784, A three masted fully square rigged with neither galleries or figurehead. After her return to England she was sold to a Quebec merchant in 1818 and was lost off the coast of Newfoundlands in Nov. 1818.

The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or, as the manifest puts it, ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Henry Kable Jr. also survived.

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Captain Arthur Philip, Commander of the First Fleet

Enter another hero in this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the First Fleet Expedition, a Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a competant sailor, his navigational skills were to take the Fleet safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean to arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. A week later the Fleet sailed into what they called Port Jackson at the time. A strong belief endures to this day in Australia that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried the Captain, later to become Govenor Phillip, through the surf and on to the beach where he dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.

Susannah Holmes (Alexander)2
Alexander

 

Alexander: Barque-built – Convict Transport – 453 Tons ,114 ft. (34.75m.) long and 31 ft.(9.5m) at the beam. Deptford survey in October 1786 recorded her measurements of 7’3″ between decks afore, 6’11” midships and abaft. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 20 others + 195 male convicts. (245) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states there was 30 Seamen, 35 Marines and 194 Convicts (259) 14? Skippered by: Master Duncan Sinclair – Owner: William Walton & Co. Built as a 3 master-square rig, 1 quarter deck ± 114 x 31ft and 2 decks without galleries or figurehead, and was registered at Hull in 1783. The largest ship of the fleet, and little is known after her return to England and disappeared from records in 1808.

Two weeks later the lovers, together with three other couples were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in this new land. Then, our couple discovered that their possessions, which had been purchased after that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared from the above ship, ‘Alexander’.


So, in an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain Duncan Sinclair. They not only won their case but two and half centuries later that court ruling remains an historic legal precedent. Governor Phillip had obtained Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate; the writ issued by the Kables was the new Court’s inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever. Blackstones’ criminal law bible had put it rather more bluntly:

“A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.” 

Well, on the other side of the world the young Norfolk felon and her Suffolk born husband, once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in the young Australia’s law. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for for how else would this group of convicts ever reform and develop in a civilised way without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more convicts would arrive in the years ahead.

So it was that in the years that followed, the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh, trying to survive in the primitive hovels that sprung up round the Bay. Famine was ever-present but it became clear that the Colony remained undaunted. Henry was made an overseer of a convict gang, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. Susannah laboured in a different way by way of not only feeding her growing family, giving birth to ten more children of which all but one survived. The family grew rich and even powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Its drunken revellers conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol which was also run by Chief Constable Kable.

At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts.The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.

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The Kable Grave, Australia

Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded is thriving and meets appropriately enough at Kable’s restaurant in Sydney to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the First Fleeters.

This year of 2018 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes), the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters. A few years ago she was voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures.

Susannah Holmes (2018 Celebrations)

On 10th February 2018 a Kable Family reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for the activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. See Activities here for the full details.

Strange, how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered and maybe only by parish historians

Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons, Susannah Kable (Holmes) may, as likely as not, been laid to rest here beneath a Broadland sky instead of elsewhere far away. Who knows?

 

THE END

Sources:

Haunted Churches of Norfolk

This article is, by way of a change, intended to be a short ‘Guide’ to some of the churches in Norfolk which are reputed to be haunted. This list is by no means complete, but contains a cross-section of types and locations from the four corners of the County. Some of the hauntings referred to are of the ‘legendary’ kind, that is to say, although belief in them is probably common in the area, the ghost itself has not been seen for many a long year. This is not the case with all the stories where some of them have been claimed to have been ‘substantiated’ in recent years.

Perhaps this article will prompt some readers to visit the churches mentioned and, regardless of whether or not they meet with the ghost in question, they will nevertheless find the church interesting and well worth a visit. Please remember, however, that all of the churches mentioned in this article are still used, so please treat them and the surrounding churchyards with the respect that such places demand and deserve.

Haunted Churches (St Michael, Geldeston)
St Michaels Church, Geldeston, Norfolk

St Michael, Geldeston, Norfolk: Although the ghost here does not exactly haunt the church itself, it does figure in and around the churchyard so is certainly worth including. This story is recorded in the book ‘In the footsteps of Borrow and Fitzgerald’ by M. Adams, which recalls “A shall pond which often over-flowed and made the road impassable, was widened and in the mud was found a skeleton, around the neck of which was chained a circular piece of millstone. The Rector of Geldeston decreed that the millstone should be removed and the skeleton buried in the churchyard. Alas! the removal of the stone was a fateful decision; the ghost, relieved of this spiritual anchor, arose from its grave and now may be seen wandering about the area of glebe between the churchyard and Lover Lane. It is,apparantly, never seen in the churchyard itself or, by anyone in the churchyard, that being consecrated ground, but on and about the unhallowed glebe it walks with a clanking of ghostly chains”.

Another phantom which is said to haunt the vincinity of the Church, is a large black ‘Shuck’ dog, known locally as the “Hateful Thing”. It certainly used to be said, if not now, that the dog do come down Lovers Lane and disappear through the churchyard wall.

St Peter, Spixworth, Norfolk: Traditionally, the ghosts of William Peek and his wife are said to rise from their tomb in the church at midnight and wander about the church and its grounds.

Haunted Churches (St Peter Spixsworth)
St Peters Church, Spixsworth.

St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: The apparition of a monk, dressed in grey robes, is said to appear when walking through the front wall of Anna Sewell’s house, which stands close to the church. It then walks the short distance to the church and disappears through the churchyard wall. In the early hours of the morning on December 31st, 1961, Mr R E Simmett, a milkman, saw a very similar ghost around the corner of the church in Priory Plain. According to some sources, this is a ghost of a nun and not a monk.

Haunted Churches (St NIcholas Yarmouth)
St Nicholas Minster, Great Yarmouth

St Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk: This beautiful old church is said to be haunted by the ghost of a 15th century monk by the name of Pacificus – see our previous article:  “Ranworth: Its History & Myths”. Tradition has it that he was from nearby St Benet’s Abbey which across the other side of the river. Every day, Pacificus would row over to St Helens to restore and re-paint its famous Rood Screen. Not only is his ghost seen in the church, but also rowing down the river with his little dog sitting at the boat’s bow.

Haunted Churches (St Helen Ranwoth)
St Helens Church, Ranworth, Norfolk

St Edmund, Thurne, Norfolk: Local legend asserts that, on very dark nights, a ghostly light appears in the tower of this church. It is said to be the light which was lit by the villagers in times of need, to signal for help from the monks of St Benet’s Abbey across the river and marches. There is a Curious ‘squint hole’ at eye level in the church tower which points directly to the Abbey; traditionally, this is linked with signalling the Abbey and does help to add weight to the story of the ghostly light.

 

St Peter & St Paul, Cromer, Norfolk: For many years, up until 1889 this church, which boasts the highest towere in Norfolk, lay ruined and sadly neglected. In his book ‘Cromer, Past and Present’, published in that same year, Walter Rye gives an interesting account of a rather grisly spectre which was seen in the ruined chancel. He says (referring to a path which had been made across the chancel): ” This path, now happily closed, was not much used after sunset, for the old ruins are an eerie place after dark and there are more than one ghost story lingering about them. An old man I employed some years ago to clear away some of the rubbish, told me that not long ago, as he was crossing the chancel at night, a little child-like figure, dressed in white, arose from the ground within an arms length of him and gradually increased in height till its face was level with his and that then, all of a sudden, a great gash appeared across its throat, the blood poured down in a great torrent over its white clothes, and it vanished in a flash – leaving a sighing sound in his ears”.

Haunted Churches (St Peter & St Paul Cromer)
St Peter & St Paul Church, Cromer, Norfolk

All saints, Weybourne, Norfolk: Here we find yet another ghost that finishes off its journey in the local churchyard! A phantom coach, pulled by four black horses and driven by a headless coachman, is said to hurtle through the village (traffic permitting !) and to finally disappear through the churchyard wall.

Haunted Churches (All Saints Church Weybourne)
All Saints Church, Weybourne, Norfolk

St Mary, Burgh St Peter, Norfolk: An interesting and unusual legend is recounted by Charles Sampson in his ‘Ghosts of the Broads’. It would appear that in the year 1101 AD, a a man named Adam Morland sold his soul to the Devil for a substantial sum of money, after which he left the country. Upon his return many years later, he erected a church at Burgh St Peter, on the foundations of which the present church was built.A few days after the church had been consecrated, Adam died and was buried in the churchyard with full religious rites.

Haunted Churches (St Marys Burgh St Peter)
St Marys Church, Burgh St Peter, Norfolk

Now, for some time prior the Adam’s death, an old man had been seen around the village, clutching in his hand a roll of parchment, speaking to no-one. On the day of Adam’s funeral, this old man was seen to become very excited and followed the cortege to the church, but would not enter. As Adam’s body was lowered into its final resting place, the old man was heard to swear that he would wait until the day of resurrection to collect Adam’s soul. That night, when the sexton went to lock up the church, he saw that the old man was still there and so asked if he could help him. The old man slowly lifted his head and the sexton saw, to his horror, that within the hood which the old man was wearing, a hideous grinning skull, glowing from within! Terror stricken, the sexton fled to the village to find the priest; both of them returned to the church armed with crucifixes and Holy Water.  As they approached, the hooded skeleton stood uo and vanished in a flash of flame, leaving behind terrible brimstone vapours. Every year after this incident, on the annisversary of Adam’s death, that terrible hooded figure was seen outside the church. When the old church was rebuilt in the 16th century,it was assumed that the apparition would no longer appear. However, this was not to be, for now not only did the hooded skeleton appear, but so did a host of others all around the churchyard wall! It is said that the awful apparition can still be seen on 2nd May each year, the annisversary of Adam’s death.

St Mary, Worstead, Norfolk: There is a very old tradition which says that a ‘white lady’ appears at this church each year as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1830 a local man, out of bravado, went into the bell chamber of the church that Christmas Eve to “give the white lady a kiss” When he failed to return, his friends plucked up courage and went to look for him. They found him, crouched in the corner of the bell chamber, his features contorted with fear, eyes rolling and lips gibbering, completely insane. He screamed, “I’ve seen her – There! – There!!, pointing wildly about. Then he lapsed into unconciousness and shortly afterwards he died with ever re-gaining conciousness again.

Haunted Churches (St Marys Worstead)
St Marys Church, Worstead, Norfolk

Holy Trinity, Ingham, Norfolk: Traditionally, on the night of 2nd August each year, the effigies of Sir Oliver d’Ingham and Sir Roger de Bois come aliveand leave their respective alter tombs in the church. Taking on flesh and blood appearance, the two knights leave the church and make their way down to Stalham Broad where they battle with an eastern looking soldier. After he has been disposed of, the two return to the church to resume their stony recumbent positions for anoth twelve months. The pit, adjoining the churchyard here, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a ‘woman in white’.

Haunted Churches (Holy Trinity Ingham)
Holy Trinity, Ingham, Norfolk

St Peter & St Paul, Honing, Norfolk: A phantom white donkey haunts the road leading to the church. One witness described it as having smoke issuing from its nostrils and a strong smell of sulphur. It galloped down the road to the church and disappeared through the churchyard wall. As it passed the astonished witness, he noticed that he could see right through it to the hedge beyond!

Haunted Churches (St Peter & St Paul Honing)
St Peter & St Pauls Church, Honing, Norfolk

THE END

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