The Victorian era is famous for its nostalgia and love of sentimental customs. Many Victorian traditions had their roots going back hundreds of years and often included veiled references to Medieval Celtic folklore and pagan deities. In the Victorian era, May Day, was May 1 and considered to be the middle of spring, and was marked with a fair, parade, dances, and lots of floral decorations. The traditional celebrations often began with “bringing in the May”, which involved getting up very early in the morning on May Day, and going into the country to pick flowers to decorate the town. This was as well as making preparations for the parade and other festivities. Women were also said to bathe their faces with dew from the grass and flowers on May morning, to preserve their beauty.
Flowers were woven into garlands and wreaths, posies for people to wear, and bouquets to fill May Baskets, which were heavily decorated and hung on doors around town. Making and filling these baskets and then secretly delivering them to friends’ and neighbours’, knocking on the door and running away without being seen, was a favourite May Day amusement. If the recipient caught the one delivering the basket, they could claim a kiss! During the Victorian era, it was also considered an exercise in true generosity, giving without expecting anything in return.
The parade was traditionally led by a May Queen, supposedly the most beautiful teenage girl in the village, who was crowned with flowers and attended by several other girls. The girls all wore white, with flowers in their hair and danced and sang as they followed the May Queen, who wwould opened the fair with a speech. According to folklore, the May Queen represented the Roman goddess Flora, or the Celtic Earth goddess, the personification of Spring, and it was considered an honour for a girl to be chosen.
Dances at the May Fair included traditional Morris dancing, which was performed by groups of men dressed in green and white with flowers on their hats, often with masks or painted faces; they tied bells to their legs which would ring as they danced with swords, sticks and handkerchiefs. The movements, costumes, and noise of Morris dancers symbolized scaring away evil from the community.
Dancing around a May pole was another type of dance for May Day; the Maypole was a tall pole erected in the middle of a clearing, decorated with flowers and long ribbons attached to the top. Different age groups – especially children and the young adults – danced in specific patterns, each holding the end of a ribbon, and wove the ribbons in a pattern around the pole as they danced round and round. The May pole dance celebrated youth, fertility, and the changing of the seasons.
Other May Day activities included riding hobby horses in races, having archery tournaments, and feasting. The May Day celebrations were often concluded with a bonfire and more alcohol, which led to more rowdy and less-proper entertainments like ribald songs and unrestrained sexual activity. In response, proper Victorians minimized the connection with pagan religious tradition, and instead enjoyed the sunshine, flowers, giving gifts, and dressing up, with secular, community-oriented festivals that enabled people to take a break for some music, dancing, feasting and games.
Well dressing, also known as well flowering, remains a tradition practised in some parts of rural England in which wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs created from flower petals. The custom is most closely associated with the Peak District of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The custom of well dressing in its present form probably began in the late 18th century, and evolved from “the more widespread, but less picturesque” decoration of wells with ribbons and simple floral garlands.
,The location identified most closely with well dressing is Tissington, Derbyshire, though the origins of the tradition are obscure. It has been speculated that it began as a pagan custom of offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply; other suggested explanations include villagers celebrating the purity of their water supply after surviving the Black Death in 1348, or alternatively celebrating their water’s constancy during a prolonged drought in 1615. The practice of well dressing using clay boards at Tissington is not recorded before 1818, however, and the earliest record for the wells being adorned by simple garlands occurs in 1758.
Well dressing was celebrated in at least 12 villages in Derbyshire by the late 19th century, and was introduced in Buxton in 1840, “to commemorate the beneficence of the Duke of Devonshire who, at his own expense, made arrangements for supplying the Upper Town, which had been much inconvenienced by the distance to St Anne’s well on the Wye, with a fountain of excellent water within easy reach of all”. Similarly, well dressing was revived at this time in Youlgreave, to celebrate the supplying of water to the village “from a hill at some distance, by means of pipes laid under the stream of an intervening valley.” With the arrival of piped water the tradition was adapted to include public taps, although the resulting creations were still described as well dressings.
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In 1485, the first Tudor king did something unusual: he invited a new wave of lowborn henchmen to England’s court. What they lacked in breeding, these men made up for in talent. Sir Thomas Lovell was one of them!……..
In 1497 Perkin Warbeck, the pretender to Henry VII’s throne, claimed that the Tudor king had “none in favour and trust about his person” but men “of simple birth”, whose advice led him into “misrule and mischief”. In some respects, Warbeck – who was hanged by the king after attempting to raise a rebellion – was wrong for Henry did, in fact, take counsel from great churchmen and trusted nobles. But, for all that, there was more than a kernel of truth to Warbeck’s allegations. Henry was increasingly relying on a group of ‘upstart’ advisers who had used their considerable skills to rise to the top of the political ladder from comparatively humble origins. In doing so, the King was transforming the way his nation was governed.
These ‘upstart’ advisors included:
Collectively these men, by their ideas and actions, gave Henry’s Government much of its distinctive tone as he sought to re-establish stability following a Civil War that had brought him – ‘a claimant with mere dribbles of royal blood’ – to the throne.
Many of these so called ‘upstarts’ were lawyers who stressed the need for the king to secure “good governance and rule” through “true justice”, thus imposing his power, through the law, on to even the greatest of his subjects. They met this aim by relentless work on local commissions of the peace and in the King’s Council. Many others had financial skills, which were useful in developing the machinery by which Henry more than doubled the crown’s income over the course of his reign. They raised money from crown lands, customs on trade and more efficient taxes. They helped Henry spend it in ways that enhanced his power: magnificent building and pageantry, diplomatic alliance-building and, when necessary, war. They also had the ruthless skill and the absolute loyalty to the king to enforce his control over those he did not trust. From gaol-keeping and treason trials to the network of financial penalties in which Henry tied up many of his subjects to ensure their obedience, these new men were the agents of the King’s control.
What was worse for some, however, was that these men prospered while others squirmed. When Henry died in 1509, resentment boiled over and two of his “henchmen”, Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson, were arrested and executed. But many of their colleagues were to remain at the heart of the new regime, working with Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey to build an ever stronger Tudor state – not least amongst them was Sir Thomas Lovell!
The multi-talented fixer: Sir Thomas Lovell
All the new men (above) were versatile, but few ranged as widely as Thomas Lovell (c1449–1524). He was a Lincoln’s Inn lawyer from a minor Norfolk gentry family. Throughout his career he was active in seeing that justice was done and travelling around a large part of England to oversee the activities of the justices of the peace. He co-ordinated royal income and expenditure as treasurer of the chamber and chancellor of the exchequer. He was a diplomat and a courtier, managing court finance as treasurer of the household and marshalling the crowds at the wedding of Henry VII’s son Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501. He took charge of state prisoners as lieutenant of the Tower of London. He even tidied up history for Henry, organising the building of Richard III’s tomb and Henry’s memorial almshouses at Westminster.
At court and in the counties Lovell was also the supreme networker and leading noblemen and bishops valued his friendship. His wife was close to the queen, Elizabeth of York. The king stayed regularly at his palatial home, Elsings in Enfield, where his 89 servants in their light tawny orange livery coats served up well over a thousand gallons of wine each year. Sir Thomas was also the acknowledged patron of those who governed a string of Midlands towns.
Three Lord Mayors of London attended Lovell’s funeral and the grocers’ company was to keep his portrait in their Hall decades after his death. Lovell was also a thoughtful promoter of university-educated clergy.
His connections equipped him to serve the king. A list survives from 1508 of those sworn to fight in Lovell’s retinue, a force 1,365 strong. They were the leaders of small town and village society, yeoman clothiers from Halifax, mayors and churchwardens from Walsall, rich farmers from Oxfordshire. Lovell’s links with them gave him and the king the grip on local affairs they needed, not just to raise an army, but to build a stronger regime.
Lovell had no children, but his masterful marriage-broking and the careful division of the lands he had bought ensured that his nephews and nieces remained entrenched in the Norfolk gentry and also the Peerage.
Lovell in History
With the exception of his involvement in Lincoln’s Inn from 1464 to around 1482, little is known of the early life of Thomas Lovell. He played a part in the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham against King Richard III (1483), most likely with the Marquis of Dorset, stepson of the late King Edward IV (hinting that Lovell once loyally served the house of York but, like many others, did not approve of Richard III’s usurpation of the throne from Edward IV’s young son). When Henry Tudor invaded England in 1485 with intentions of deposing Richard III and putting himself on the throne, Lovell threw his support behind the obscure Welsh claimant and fought for him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed and Tudor was subsequently crowned as King Henry VII. During the new regime, Lovell was one of Henry’s most trusted and competent advisers, serving in political, financial and military affairs. He was speaker of the House of Commons; successively treasurer of the king’s chamber and household; and he fought at the Battle of Stoke (1487) and at Blackheath (1497). As a reward, Lovell was created a Knight of the Garter (1500). During this time period Lovell was also able to build up a fairly vast fortune through salaries from his many offices and brought economic and political stability to the realm through his work with numerous other councillors. Lovell remained a highly influential figure into the reign of Henry VIII, where he continued to serve as a councillor, financial reformer and military strategist (playing a part in the French expeditions). By this point, Lovell was slowly retiring from public service but still sporadically participated in governmental affairs right up to his death in 1524 as a man of over seventy.
Lovell in Shakespeare (Appears in: Henry VIII):
Sir Thomas Lovell is a minor character within Henry VIII. He is present at Buckingham’s trial and execution and at the festivities at Wolsey’s palace. Later in the play, Lovell is accosted by Bishop Gardiner while he is on his way to inform the king that Queen Anne is in labour but may not survive the birthing process. Gardiner, in turn, claims that he wishes the child well but hopes Anne perishes; he also condemns two of the king’s primary advisers, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. In reality, Lovell died in 1524, nine years prior to Anne Boleyn giving birth to Princess Elizabeth and most certainly before either Cromwell or Cranmer came to anything close to a place of power. It is unclear why Shakespeare chooses to use a dead man in this situation when any other living person could have easily been substituted.
Sir Thomas Lovell’s More Formal C.V:
Sir Thomas was second son to Sir Ralf Lovell of Barton Bendish, Norfolk, and had joined Henry Tudor as an esquire during his exile in France. He fought at Bosworth (1485), when Henry landed on the south coast with a couple of thousand French mercenaries and a few Lancastrian knights, gathering more support on their way north. Richard III was slain, and the battle was ended amidst Yorkist treachery and desertion. Lovell also fought at the battle of Stoke in 1487, when the pretender Lambert Simnel, already crowned King of England in Dublin by his supporters, was finally routed, and the Tudor dynasty was safely assured. Lambert Simnel is said to have attended Sir Thomas’s funeral in 1525, as he was the last survivor of Stoke, although they fought on opposite sides. Lovell was knighted by Henry VII for his prowess. His elder brother Sir Gregory was made bannerette at Stoke as well.
He entered Parliament as M.P. for Northamptonshire in 1485, presumably with a great reputation already, for he became Speaker of the House of Commons from 1485-88. He was still a plain esquire, not being knighted until 1487. In 1485 he was also appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer for life, with an annuity . Later he had many court appointments – among them as President of the Council in 1502, and Constable of the Tower in 1509. During his lifetime he was one of the most powerful men in the country, a confidant of and advisor to the king. Sir Thomas was made K.G. in 1498, (his stall plate is on the north side, Stall No. – Henry preferred to use the Garter to reward his closest associates and advisors, creating 37 new Garter Knights.
Lovell built the gatehouse at Lincoln’s Inn, placing his own and Henry VIII’s arms on it; and also built East Harling manor, with his arms on that. He endowed a nunnery at Halliwell, near Enfield, and he was buried there in 1524 with his wife, Isabel, daughter and co-heiress of Lord Roos of Hamlake.
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St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.
On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.
Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!
Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:
In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:
“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”
Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:
“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”
Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:
“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”
When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.
Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!
There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.
The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:
“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”
But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:
“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”
Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”
Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:
“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”
All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.
Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:
“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”
As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.
After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.
Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.
The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:
“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”
The “few” mentioned above were Lucy Lady Boileau and her husband, Sir Maurice Boileau BT (of Ketteringham Hall, 3rd Baronet of Tacolneston); Lady Dorothy Nevill (an English writer, hostess, horticulturist and plant collector and the daughter of the third Earl of Orford); Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (of Elvedon Hall, the son of the deposed and exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab); the Earl of Orford (Robert Horace Walpole, 5th Earl of Orford); Sir Spencer Walpole (English historian and civil servant) and James Nevill.
FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!
The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.
For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.
About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.
In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.
If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.
The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.
Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.
As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.
The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.
The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.
The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:
‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.
The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.
The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.
Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?
At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.
Myths associated with Binham Priory:
Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own – not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.
1.The Hooded Monk:
The stranger, choosing nightime to stand amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory, would not find it difficult to visualise such eerie surroundings as a perfect setting for a mythical ghost story. The same is true for those who venture inside. Take the inhabitants of Binham for instance who have, in the past, discussed a report of the appearance of the “ghostly” black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.
The story goes that a newspaper reporter once interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter and the story told to him was offered ‘in the strictest confidence’ by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.
“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.
“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”
After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the “Porter” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!
2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory:
Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.
Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people thought so and their tale goes, broadly, along the following lines – bearing in mind that one can come across more than a few variants of the same tale (see below):
A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, again, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.
So it was that with this in mind the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers followed listening to his jigs and reels, the strains of which were clearly audible. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound which easily vibrates through the layers of soil. So they were able to follow, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors and interested onlookers – some with their own dogs which were, possibly, sensing a ‘hunt’.
However, when the fiddler reached a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – being on the surface. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.
Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. The spectre, in the form of a monk dressed in a black habit of the Benedictine Order that had founded Binham Priory in 1091, continued to wander the tunnel thereafter. It was believed that it was this Black Monk which spirited the fiddler away……..Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and always remember the final twist in this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!…..They do say that still, during dark nights, you can sometimes hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory..
A further story goes that a tunnel also ran between Blakeney Guildhall and Binham Priory; again, a fiddler was the only person brave enough to enter. Along with his dog, he too once set off while the Mayor and Corporation of Blakeney followed above ground, guided by the sound of the fiddle. When the fiddle music stopped they too believed that the Devil had taken him and the dog.
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
On the 31 March, 2018, The Field magazine published an article titled ‘Hare Mythology: Why We’re All Mad For Hares’. In it, Matthew Dennison explored and attempted to explode the mythology surrounding this iconic lagomorph. Those of our readers who do not take The Field would, probably, have missed this interesting article – an article that deserves repeating and given wider coverage, if only because we have long been fascinated by the hare – Britain’s fastest land mammal which is surrounded by myth and infamous for their ‘mad’ March courtship rituals. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the original article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from the article’s interesting content. Read on:
Hares have never failed to fascinate. Hare mythology has had an important role in our legends, stories and history ever since the Roman first introduced them to Britain, from the otherworldly White Hare of Cornish legend to the time Alice attended the Mad Hatter’s tea party courtesy of Lewis Carroll. And yet, hares are not confined to the pages of legend, myth and history. To see a pair boxing is to witness a spring rite of passage, but did you know that hares remain mad long after March?
In her bestselling novel of 1930, The Edwardians, the writer Vita Sackville-West evoked essentially unchanging English country life. Around the house at the centre of the novel – a loosely fictionalised version of her ancestral home, Knole – she imagined a parkland setting unchanged over many centuries: “The background was the same: the grey walls, the flag on the tower, the verdure of the trees, the hares and the deer feeding on the glades.” Like a vignette from a medieval hunting tapestry, the creatures that animate Sackville-West’s vision of timeless pastoralism are the quarry of the chase: deer and hare.
The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal. Propelled by those powerful hind legs which define its shape as surely as its long, black-tipped ears, the hare has been known to run at speeds exceeding 40mph. Added to its shyness, this astonishing turn of speed accounts for the apparent elusiveness of the hare. Sighted only rarely in some areas for much of the year, it retains a mystique long forfeited by rabbits.
In hare mythology, the hare is a creature with pagan, sacred and mystic associations, by turns benign, cunning, romantic or, most famously, in its March courtship rituals, mad. It is largely silent, preferring to feed at night or, in summer, as the last light fades from the day, a shadowy existence which adds to its mysteriousness in hare mythology. In Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories the character of Hare is superior and strutting, occasionally pernickety, always aloof – a rendering for children of the animal’s natural reserve as well his appropriateness as a denizen of that world of aristocratic entitlement evoked by Sackville-West. For example, it is Hare who keeps Grey Rabbit up to scratch in the matter of housekeeping: “Where’s the milk, Grey Rabbit?” asked Hare. “We can’t drink tea without milk.”
In hare mythology and folklore, hares are invested with a similar remoteness. The otherworldly White Hare, which in Cornish legend wove a path between the fishing smacks of the county’s harbours at sundown, was thought to be either a warning of imminent tempest or the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden determined to haunt her faithless lover (a tempest of a different variety) and, in both cases, a sight to inspire foreboding and trepidation. In 1883, in the Folk-Lore Journal, William Black wrote that, “From India we learn that it is as unlucky to meet a hare as it is to meet a one-eyed man, an empty water-pot, a carrier without a load, a fox, a jackal, a crow, a widow, or a funeral.”
Such superstition surrounding hare mythology appears not to have been confined to India. A book on British folklore published in 1875 recognised the status of the hare as an associate of disaster, and recommended repeating, “Hare before, Trouble behind: Change ye, Cross, and free me.” In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, published in 1920, Lady Gregory recorded one of the most famous legends from hare mythology, despite its origins being not in Ireland but in Somerset. It concerned the trial for witchcraft in 1663 of an old woman called Julian Cox. A witness at the trial stated: “A huntsman swore that he went out with a pack of hounds to hunt a hare, and not far from Julian Cox’s house he at last started a hare: the dogs hunted her very close… till at last the huntsman perceiving the hare almost spent and making towards a great bush, he ran on the other side of the bush to take her up and preserve her from the dogs; but as soon as he laid hands on her it proved to be Julian Cox, who had her head grovelling on the ground and her globes (as he expressed it) upward. He knowing her, was so affrighted that his hair on his head stood on end; and yet he spake to her and ask’d her what brought her there; but she was so far out of breath that she could not make him any answer; his dogs also came up full cry to recover the game and smelled at her and so left off hunting any further. And the huntsman and his dogs went home presently sadly affrighted.”
Hares In Britain:
The Romans are credited with introducing brown hares to Britain more than 2,000 years ago. If we are to believe the story of the Iceni queen Boudica consulting the entrails of a hare as an augury of victory in her uprising against the Romans in AD61, the animals had established themselves quickly. Their preference then as now was for open country and grassland, downs and flat marshlands. In succeeding centuries, farmland, particularly arable land, also proved popular with hares. Their chosen habitat is one that offers shelter in the form of long grass or heather; food in the form of herbs, grasses and cereal crops; and the broad expanses which afford a canvas for hares’ remarkable speed. Before the advent of hare coursing and beagling, that speed was exercised principally in escaping foxes, the hare’s principal natural predator. More recently, despite the greater speed of the sighthounds used for coursing, hares frequently outwitted their pursuers by their ability to turn and corner with unrivalled agility.
As with so many forms of British wildlife, today’s hares are threatened by changing agricultural practice. Larger fields with a single cereal crop a year curtail hares’ year-round food supply while offering them diminished cover, and their forms – shallow depressions in the ground – offer limited shelter and, potentially, a degree of exposure and vulnerability. A survey in 2008 estimated current brown hare numbers in Britain in the region of 800,000, a figure which represents a consistent if gradual decline since the Sixties. Unlike rabbits, hares are resistant to myxomatosis and have suffered no equivalent cull.
Merchandising The Hare:
If few town-based people are fortunate enough to see a hare in the wild, there can be no Britons unfamiliar with its appearance. Today hare mythology has extended and the hare motif is to be found on fabric, wallpaper, cushions, lampshades and ties; it has been used as a letterhead, a heraldic device and in the design of stock pins, cuff-links, brooches and charms for bracelets.
Hare mythology and particularly the ubiquity of hares in children’s fiction and television programmes ensures a continual stream of merchandising. Hares remain a popular subject with sculptors and visual artists. Their spring-time “boxing”, a mating ritual in which unreceptive females fend off amorous males, lends itself to a degree of anthropomorphism which appeals to an art-buying public largely ignorant of the truth behind this “mad” March ritual, once thought to be a fight between males. Ceramic and porcelain hares have been made by the Munich-based Nymphenburg factory, the Lomonosov factory in St Petersburg and by Meissen. Contemporary animaliers, such as sculptors Rupert Till and Sophie Ryder and ceramicist Elaine Peto, explore a continuing fascination with these enigmatic creatures.
For an earlier arts audience hare mythology and the hare itself possessed a similar magnetism. An image of three running hares formed into a circle has been found in medieval churches, cathedrals and even inns across Britain. A floor tile dated to around 1400, found in the nave of Chester Cathedral, depicts a trio of hares separated by trefoil-shaped vegetation. Joined at their tips, their ears form a triangle, each hare apparently with two ears, though the tile artist has drawn only three in total.
Varying in sophistication and elaboration, this icononography characterises all the “three hares” of church architecture in Britain, from a late-15th-century carved wooden boss in the chapel at Cotehele in Cornwall to a stained glass roundel at Holy Trinity church, Long Melford in Suffolk, and a painted stone boss in the Lady Chapel of St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
Research has failed to unearth any contemporary account of the symbolism of this recurring image, formerly dismissed as a popular signature among masons and carpenters. It is more likely that the intertwined imagery was intended to suggest the indivisibility of the Trinity. Another possible explanation is an association with the Virgin Mary, since hares were believed to possess hermaphrodite powers and therefore the ability to reproduce without loss of virginity. It is a far cry from the Romans’ perception of hares as symbolic of lust, abundance and fecundity: Pliny the Elder advocated a diet of hare as a means of increasing sexual attractiveness and also claimed that hare meat had the power to cure sterility.
The Current Outlook:
If Pliny is right, the outlook for Britain’s birth rate is dim. Jugged hare, in which hare is stewed in wine and juniper berries and served with the last-minute addition of its own blood, has virtually disappeared from our tables. A recent survey conducted by a television cookery programme found that virtually no British youngsters recognised the dish and just as few would be willing to try it. The recipe is attributed to Hannah Glasse, who included it in The Art of Cookery, published in 1747: today it is chiefly confined to the ultra-traditional menus of London’s clubland.
With hare coursing banned in England and Wales in 2004, and fewer hares on British tables than at any point over the past three centuries, the chances of spotting boxing hares have never been so good. Here’s a tip for the tardy: the mating season of the hare is not confined to March; this “mad March” ritual is actually played out over a period of seven months from February to August, a treat for the sharp of eye. But, Lewis Carroll aside, none of the participants has been known to follow courtship with a tea party.
‘Persons unacquainted with country affairs are apt to associate everything that is rustic and even vulgar with the vocation of a drover; but there was never a greater mistake.
From ‘Obituary of Robert Hope’ 1826
As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet, for centuries, the trade of driving cattle to English markets did not flourish, Why? Well, the main reason was the wars between Scotland and England that lasted centuries; any trade with England was actively prevented as it was seen as giving aid to the enemy. However, in 1603, James the Sixth ascended the English throne as James the First of England, uniting the two countries; by 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two.
This free trade agreement launched cattle droving to almost unimaginable heights, helped in no small way by the active discouragement of cattle rustling, or ‘reiving’. This unlawful practice had once been the scourge Scotland and if continued, would have been a threat to any meaningful movement of cattle. With rustling reduced significantly – for it was never completely eradicated, neither was the nice little earner for a few enterprising tough individuals who offered to ‘protect your cattle’ – some with a less romantic view would term it simply as a ‘protection racket’. Most, however, conducted the business honestly and there was no doubt that droving would not have grown into a huge operation, which it did by the middle of the 17th century, without complete trust in those who took your cattle to market and returned with the money, whether it be honouring ‘bills’ or handing over cash.
In the lawless days of Scotland, cattle were the main source of a man’s wealth, obtained either by raiding or trading. The beasts were small and thrived on the hills, moorland and the intemperate climate which no doubt conditioned them for the future long drives to the English markets. Daniel Defoe noted that “in the South West of Scotland the gentlemen took their rents in cattle. Some of them acquired such large numbers that they took their own droves to England; a Galloway nobleman would often send upwards of 4,000 head of black cattle a year”. In the North of Scotland he found that “the people lived dispersed among the hills. They hunted, chiefly for food and, again, bred large quantities of black cattle with which they paid their rent to the Laird”. These cattle, which came from the remotest parts, were driven south, “especially into the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex”. The burial of two Scottish drovers in Thrandeston, Suffolk —William Brown on 6 February 1682 and John Deek on 21 November 1688 —provides evidence of the traffic in cattle from Scotland to East Anglia in the 17th century.
For the most part, however, the drovers handling these cattle would have been local Scottish men who, in May of each year, would visit farms bargaining for cattle, often for only one or two at a time because many of the Highlands farming tenants were very poor. Gradually as summer advanced, the Drovers would gather together a herd before heading south across the border and into England. For example, in 1663 the border town of Carlisle recorded 18,574 cattle passing through during that year. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south. These totals would have been made up of herds of at least 100 strong and often up to 2,000 strong; many, if not all, on their way to markets in Norfolk and London. This movement was a clear indication that the economy was balanced between the Scottish cattle breeder and the East Anglian farmer. The former, until improved methods of farming were developed in Scotland in the early 19th century, was unable to bring his cattle to a condition suitable for a wholesale butcher. The East Anglian farmer, on the other hand, was within reach of the London markets and had grazing, straw and, later, root crops, enabling him to fatten and finish the beasts; the resulting manure provided a valuable by-product.
The farmers in the Highlands and Islands needed to reduce their stock in the autumn owing to the difficulties of winter feeding. Dealers would visit the Highlands to attend the local markets, and notices would be posted on church doors informing the farmers when they would be in the District so that cattle could be brought from the glens. The business revolved on credit: a price was agreed and, if the cattle fetched more within a certain period, the seller received more; but the reverse also applied and farmers suffered many a loss. The cattle might change hands again before reaching Crieff Tryst which, until the middle of the 18th century, was the largest cattle market in Scotland and considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and convenient to both buyers and sellers.
Before the Rising of 1745 the trade had been in the hands of the Scots, but later, English dealers in greater numbers were visiting the Scottish markets and Falkirk, further south, replaced Crieff in importance. The Falkirk Trysts were held in August, September and October and lasted several days, during which time endless droves arrived from the North. They spread over a large area of the surrounding country which was enlivened by many tents selling refreshments and interspersed with banks for the financial transactions. When an agreement was reached, the tar dishes were brought out and the cattle marked and taken from the field. Small jobbers would send their purchases to a common trysting place where they were consigned to a drover who collected cattle from several grazings. The topsman could, without scruple, reject any beast he considered unfit for travel, as his remuneration was a small sum per head for every beast safely delivered to a market. These men were entrusted with the management of other people’s property worth thousands of pounds.
The term ‘drover’ covered a wide range of men, from the cattle dealer who turned over thousands of pounds a year to the hired hand who helped to drive the beasts. By an Act of Parliament of 1562, drovers had to be registered: they also had to be married householders and at least thirty years old. This was obligatory until 1772. They came to enjoy a professional reputation which enabled them to assume the role of travelling bankers. It is probable that only the topsman was required to register.
The Galloways were bred in the South West districts of Scotland, and were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk as they were easily fattened. A similar pattern of sale occurred: a number of local cattle markets, a large weekly market and three autumn markets on the Whitesands of Dumfries. The droves heading for England from both Dumfries and Falkirk passed through Carlisle. The cattle were shod for the journey and accounts vary as to whether the shoes were fitted at the outset of the drive or when rough roads were reached. The ‘cues’ were made of thin, crescent-shaped metal plates and, to be fully shod, a beast needed two to a hoof, but often only the outer hoof was covered. To accomplish the operation, its front and back legs were tied together and the animal thrown on its back. An experienced man could shoe seventy beasts a day.
From Carlisle, the path to East Anglia lay across the Pennines to what is now the Great North Road, turning eastwards south of the Wash. In the autumn, when the industry was at its peak, the roads south were thronged with cattle: 2,000 a day passed through Boroughbridge and there were many times when from dawn to sunset Wetherby was never free from beasts. The route chosen depended on the decision of the topsman, the head drover. If the weather had been wet the rivers might be impassable; if dry, certain paths would be devoid of wayside grazing. A drove would consist of 200 or more beasts with one man to every fifty or sixty cattle. They went to Norwich, Long Stratton and Hoxne at a steady pace, averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day. The topsman, usually the only man mounted, would ride ahead to warn oncoming traffic and secure overnight pasture for the beasts and shelter for the men. If neither was available they slept in their plaids alongside the cattle.
The men reputedly often travelled barefoot and carried their own food, a mixture of oatmeal and water called ‘crowdie’, in a leather bag. In the early 19th century they received between three and four shillings a day, twice that of a farm labourer, and ten shillings for the return journey. They had to pay their own expenses —at one time, nine pence a night for lodgings in the winter and five pence in the summer.
Norfolk’s St Faiths Fairstead:
For hundreds of years the village of Horsham St Faiths was famous for its annual cattle market, traditionally named the St Faith’s Fairstead, held there from October 17th for three weeks each year. This fair was granted a Charter in 1100 and the last cattle fair was held there in 1872. Whilst the Fairstead itself ran from October 17th each year, the so-called ‘Norfolk Season’ began at Candlemas, on 2 February. Drovers taking cattle from the Fair, made weekly journeys during February and March, twice weekly during April, May and June, with possibly one or two journeys in August and September. The season appears to have been approximately the same in Suffolk.
The site on which the St Faiths Fairstead was held was situated just outside Horsham St Faiths, to the north of Norwich. It occupied at least 50 acres along the present Spixworth Road, between Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, two legacies of the old Fair. In those far off days, the Fairstead consisted of many small fields which Drovers would hire to hold their cattle for the duration of the sales. Then, alongside these fields, there were a further three acres called ‘The Lond’ which held the market stalls. Whilst the St Faiths Fairstead attracted sellers and their livestock from around Britain, it was particularly favoured by Scottish Drovers who brought with them Norfolk’s favoured beast – the Galloway.
“The purchase of Scotch in the district is chiefly at the Fair of St. Faiths, to which Scots drovers bring annually great numbers. The most common age is 4 years old. Some have been worked in the collieries.” –
Norwich Mercury circa 1800
Invariably perhaps, and because of the good business links between Norfolk and the markets at Dumfries and Falkirk, the largest droves that came into Norfolk probably headed for the St Faith’s Fair. There were, of course others of which the Hempton Fair, near Fakenham, was used, not only to sell cattle in their own right, but to also assist the selling of those heads which failed to find buyers at St Faiths. The date for the Hempton Fair was usually on, or around, the 22nd November.
As for the St Faith’s droves, they usually left Dumfriesshire around the 14 September, the 340 miles taking twenty-eight days, at an approximate twelve miles a day. Before reaching St Faith’s, each drover would have hired a field for his beasts, the majority being bullocks, four to five years old, mainly black or brindled, some dun and a few red. To accommodate each herd, the host farmer would have ensured that his fields would offer ‘a full bite of grass’ for the cattle. However, before arrival and employing the usual practice of ‘showing off’ his cattle to attract buyers, the ‘topsman’ drover would have assessed likely demand and price. As long as sales continued he would stay, up to a fortnight, before moving any unsold stock to another market.
As with all markets and sales, there was an art to selling lean cattle and much could be gained by choosing a favourable stand. The cattle looked best on a gentle slope with a minimum of forty beasts, especially the polled variety which stood closer together. Sixty were better and eighty better still. Ten beasts, matched for quality, would be segregated in one corner in the hope of persuading a grazier to buy all ten, in which case a discount would be given. The grazier had to know at a glance how much a beast would improve on good, bad or indifferent land as well as on turnips, in three, six or twelve months.
Whilst the Scottish drovers would eventually leave and return with business done, those cattle not retained for breading purposes would have further to go before their travels ended. There would be those sold on to Suffolk & Essex graziers who would further fatten these cattle on the luxuriant grass of coastal marshes before, in turn, selling them on to London buyers. The remainder would be fattened by local Norfolk farmers themselves, before returning to the St. Faiths Fairstead at some future date to sell their cattle direct to their own London customers. Local drovers would undertake the task of taking the animals to London and their final destination of Smithfield Market and the wholesale butcher – there to help feed a large and hungry city. It was a fact that Suppliers to London relied heavily on the Scottish Drovers who brought cattle south, together with the English (particularly East Anglian) farmers who fattened the beasts. The London meat market of Smithfield recorded in 1794, 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter, at least 80% of which came from Scotland along the extensive network of Drove Roads.
Back at Horsham St Faiths, as elsewhere, local drovers would advertise their services to those attending the Fair. The advertisements for the times and places for drawing in the stock for Smithfield invariably began with the drover thanking the graziers, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and friends for past favours and the hope that he would continue to merit their future custom. When each beast had had the owner’s mark clipped from its coat, preparations for the journey (approximately a week) were complete.
One such 1826 advertisement from a John Mald at St Faiths is an example:
“John Mald, drover from Norwich to London, returns his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for that liberal share of patronage which he received last year, and begs respectfully to assure them that the same unremitting attention will be paid to the punctual delivery of all cattle etc. with which he may be entrusted, to any salesman whom they may appoint.”
Once a contract had been agreed with farmers at the Fair, John Mald would issue a Notice of time and place for collection of each consignment:
“J.M. Will start on Saturday 2nd December 1826 and stop at Homesfield Swan on Sunday night; Wortwell Bull Monday morning; Cap Inn, Harleston, at 12 o’clock; Needham Fishmonger’s Arms; Brockdish Greyhound and Scole Inn that night. Also at the Queen’s Head, Long Stratton at nine o’clock; Tivetshall Ram at twelve; Dickleburgh Kings Head at three in the afternoon, and meet at Scole Inn the same night. On Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock at Wortham Dolphin; Botesdale Greyhound till two; Pakenham Woolpack that night; Bury Market every Wednesday; and at Alpheton Lion that night.”
It is clear from this Notice that J.M’s drove would set out on a Weekend, arriving in London the following Sunday, ready for the Monday market. Smithfield Market was held weekly on Mondays and Fridays, with the latter day being favoured by Suffolk farmers. At Mile-End, salesmen would meet John Mald, as too other drovers, taking charge of their lots and handing over payment. It was Mald’s responsibility to take the money back to the Norfolk farmers. It was clear that the East Anglian drover, like his Scottish counterpart, had to be a man of integrity, financing the overheads of the journey and returning with his clients’ profit in cash or short-date bills on a local bank, which he would dispense on settlement day. A typical settlement day is described by William Marshall at the ‘Angel’ Inn at Walsham, Norfolk in 1780.
“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market”…. “What a trust, no security but his honesBeyond
Beyond Norfolk and nearer to London:
Similarly, Suffolk drovers followed same practice and would place notices in the local press advertising where they would be collecting cattle stock. James Howlett of Brome, a drover and salesman was one:
A postscript to his advertisement assured ‘those gentlemen who may be pleased to confer their favours’ on him that every attention would be paid to their stock, and every care taken ‘to obtain the best price the market will afford to the benefit of his employers’ 2 January 1819). The advertisement ends ‘Please to direct, 60 West Smithfield, London’, which suggests that he was commissioned by a Smithfield salesman.
Inevitably misfortunes occurred. The drovers Benjamin Bell and his son Thomas farmed near Canobie in Dumfriesshire and brought droves to East Anglian fairs. They left home in mid October 1746 with a drove which contained 500 particularly good beasts which Thomas had bought at a favourable price after bargaining for twenty-four hours. On reaching Hoxne, on this occasion, in December they met with disaster – Distemper! Thomas wrote to their backer on Christmas Day to say that the illness was raging in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and there was no way for them to escape. The cattle in the area were dying at an alarming rate, and one hand at Hoxne had already lost 300. An Act of Parliament had been passed which obliged them to insure any cattle sold; they had sold forty beasts to a Mr Wilson of Colchester and had heard that they were all dead. On 7 January Thomas wrote again saying that he had found twenty-nine dead in one pasture, and twenty-five in other pastures; the rest were all infected. They were expected to dig pits and bury the infected beasts within three hours. The Bells had charges to pay and no money. He added that they would be home by Candlemas and people could do what they would with them. Apparently, the Bells’ fortunes recovered during the ensuing years!
In June or July 1766 there was an increased demand for Scottish beasts owing to a shortage resulting from a series of past cattle plagues. Many of the dealers in East Anglia went to Scotland for the first time and bought direct, depriving Scottish drovers of custom; this deprivation of trade stimulated a number of ‘drovers’ to become dealers in their own right. There developed a class of professional cattle dealer, referred to as ‘drover dealers’, whose reputation for honesty and fair-dealing became recognised throughout the country. They were highly organised, hard-headed businessmen who rode thousands of miles to cattle markets; they therefore needed a stud of horses, and rented thousands of acres of grazing. Many of them dealt with the English markets and sent their own droves south, where they employed a salesman or used the services of another firm.
These droves would start travelling down in January February and March, when the usual venues were either the Tie’ Nagpie] or the ‘Cardinal’s Cap’, both at Harleston. George Campbell was one of the first men to sell in this manner; his notice in the local newspaper for 2 January 1779 advised the gentlemen, farmers and graziers in Norfolk and Suffolk that he had on the road, on its way to Harleston and Hoxne, ‘a capital drove of Galloway Scots and heifers which he is determined to sell upon the most reasonable terms at the above places’. The date of sale was to appear in a future issue. The advertisement was repeated in the editions of 9, 16 and 23 January. On 30 January a further notice announced that the sale would begin on the following Monday, 1 February, and continue until all the cattle were sold. The First three days’ sale would be at Harleston, the next three at Hoxne, ‘and to change alternately’. The drove was said to be ‘very capital’ and would be ‘sold cheap’. The sale was evidently successful, for Campbell inserted a further notice on 20 February, intimating that he would be at Harleston with yet another capital drove by the end of March.
Campbell’s journeys emphasise the organisation required of the drovers, who had to work to a tight schedule to arrive at their destination on time. January, February and March were not the best months to be travelling on foot from Scotland to East Anglia. Grazing would have been at a premium, while paths could be water-logged, frozen, or obliterated by snow Overnight stops with fodder had to be reached and occasionally the weather did defeat them. James Campbell intended selling a capital drove at the Tye’ Inn, Harleston, on Wednesday 15 January 1794 which he advertised in the Local newspaper on 4 January. A week later a further notice informed the graziers that ‘owing to the badness of the roads’ the drove would be a day late and shown on 16 January.
Another name of note was William McTurk, possibly a relative of Robert McTurk who, in his day, was a dealer of consequence. A bystander recalled seeing one of his droves, numbering seventy-five score of Galloways, passing through Carlisle on its way to Norfolk. McTurk would buy between one and two thousand large cattle at Falkirk, sweeping the fair of the best lots before the other dealers had made up their minds to begin. He was a stout man with a calm, composed demeanour, who would sit on his pony and buy seventy score without even dismounting. He rented large grazings in Dumfriesshire, where he wintered his highlanders ready for the southern markets.
With a workforce of one man to fifty or sixty beasts there could be a number of Scotsmen at the fairs and sometimes tempers flared. A violent fight took place between the Scotsmen and the locals at the `Bell’ in Hempton, Norfolk, in August 1791. Several people were injured, two seriously. The drovers then broke into a neighbouring public house where they attacked people and swore they would defend themselves against the Civil powers to the last drop of their blood. The next morning Lord Townshend armed his servants and tenants, surrounded the house and ordered them to surrender. The few who refused broke through the roof as evening approached and were caught nearby.
On the outskirts of London, such as Mile End, there were ‘layers’. These were areas outside the City’s jurisdiction where the beasts could be fed, watered and rested before they were collected by the licensed London drovers in the early hours of market day. Such ‘layers’ possessed great advantages as the stock went into the market less fatigued and in better condition than is possible in the usual method of droving. Early morning departure for Smithfield appears to have been at 3 o’clock when it would just be possible to see the beasts; the implication here is that salesmen came to the ‘layers’ and found advantages there.
As the droves funnelled towards the Capital they caused much inconvenience to the local inhabitants. When it was proposed to close one ancient footpath in Hornchurch Lane the tenants of Havering Enclosure wrote in alarm to the Commissioners to say that the path ‘enabled the women and children of the industrious tradesmen to enjoy the benefit of the air free from the dread and danger of the numerous droves of cattle and from the greater dread of insults from the drovers’. It is not difficult to imagine the disturbance caused by jostling cattle being driven through the narrow London streets. In 1839 regulations were enforced as to the number of beasts and the hours in which they could be driven. No dogs were to be used. On their left, upper arm, the London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number. Further regulations in 1850 stipulated the routes the cattle had to follow; those from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge were met at ‘layers’ in Stratford or Mile End and were to be driven via Shoreditch, Worship Street, Barbican and Long Lane. Tolls were paid at the City gates and to the City of London for the beasts sold in the market. On reaching Smithfield the beasts were tied individually to long lines of oak rails where the salesmen negotiated sales with the carcase butchers. Although the cattle had their prescribed routes through the City they caused much disruption and the public voiced their distress at the cruelty suffered by the beasts which, alarmed and frantic from pain, would rush in any direction but that which was intended.
By the early 19th century, droving as a major industry was nearing the end of its days. The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were being established from the 1850’s, an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market was being offered. By then, cattle had been more carefully bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road anyway.
In East Anglia few traces of the long trails south now remain. ‘Bullock Hill’, ‘Calf Lane’ or ‘Fair’ incorporated in the name of a road suggests a one-time involvement, while the Inns, where farmers brought their cattle to be taken to London, now have large car parks. Was this where the men congregated with their cattle? – and, did the rivers nearby provide water for the drinking troughs?
Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.
Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.
The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.
These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.
Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.
It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.
Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:
“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).
Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.
‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.
But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.
In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.
It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!
Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.
It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.
Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.
It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.
On the 15th April 1912 the RMS Titanic, billed as ‘unsinkable’, sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, killing 1,517 people. The United Kingdom’s White Star Line built the Titanic as the most luxurious cruise ship in the world. It was nearly 900 feet long and more than 100 feet high. The liner could reach speeds of 30 knots and was thought to be the world’s fastest ship. With its individualised watertight compartments, it was seen as virtually unsinkable. On its first voyage, from Southampton to New York with stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, the Titanic was carrying 2,206 people, including a crew of 898. A relatively mild winter had produced a bumper crop of icebergs in the North Atlantic, but the crew, believing their ship was unsinkable, paid scant attention to warnings.
On the night of Sunday, April 14, other ships in the area reported icebergs by radio, but their messages were not delivered to the bridge or the captain of the Titanic. The iceberg that struck the ship was spotted at 11:40 p.m. Although a dead-on collision was avoided, the Titanic‘s starboard side violently scraped the iceberg, ripping open six compartments. The ship’s design could withstand only four compartments flooding. Minutes later, the crew radioed for help, sending out an SOS signal, the first time the new type of help signal was used. Ten minutes after midnight, the order for passengers to head for the lifeboats was given. Unfortunately, there were only lifeboats for about half of the people on board. Additionally, there had been no instruction or drills regarding such a procedure and general panic broke out on deck.
The survivors, those who successfully made it onto the lifeboats, were mostly women who were traveling first class. In fact, the third-class passengers were not even allowed on to the deck until the first-class female passengers had abandoned the ship. White Star President Bruce Ismay jumped on to the last lifeboat though there were women and children still waiting to board. At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic finally sank. Breaking in half, it plunged downward to the sea floor, taking Captain Edward Smith down with it. The Carpathia arrived about an hour later and rescued the 705 people who made it into the lifeboats. The people who were forced into the cold waters all perished.
Official blame for the tragedy was placed on the captain and bridge crew, all of whom had died. In the wake of the accident, significant safety-improvement measures were established, including a requirement that the number of lifeboats on board a ship reflect the entire number of passengers.
The sinking of the Titanic has become a legendary story and 1985, after many attempts over many years, divers were finally able to locate the wreckage of the Titanic on the floor of the North Atlantic.
Our Norwich Couple:
Today, the 15 April, is the 106th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Much has been written since with facts – such as were known, fiction, dreamed up novels, short stories, myths and movies, most with a profit motive in mind. This blog is not about the whole gambit, but only about a Norwich couple, who possibly would never had hit the history books if they had not bought tickets to emigrate aboard that ill-fated ship.
Edward Beane was born in Hoveton, Norfolk, England on 19 November 1879. He was the son of George Beane, a brewery worker who worked for the large Bullard Brewery in Norwich, and Mary Ann Cox; both had been Norfolk born and bred, marrying on 29 November 1877. Edward, our subject, was one of ten children, his siblings being: Sarah, George Herbert, William, Charles Archie, Caroline Augusta, Ernest Christmas, May Christine, Robert and Bertie Stanley.
Edward first appears on the 1881 census living with his family at Armes Street in Heigham, Norwich, Norfolk but they then moved to 231 Northumberland Street, Norwich by the time of the 1891 census. Between then and the next census in 1901 the family had moved further down the same street to Number 188 where Edward was described as a bricklayer. It was a trade that was to stay with him beyond the time when the family lived at 43 Bond Street in Norwich.
Ethel Louisa Clarke was born on 15 November 1889 in Norwich, Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of Boaz Clarke, a boot factory warehouseman, and Louisa Webb, both natives of Norwich who had married in early 1881. Ethel was one of their five surviving children from a total of eleven, her known siblings being: Flora May, William Webb, Sydney Charles p, Gladys Lilian, Reginald Boaz, Dorothy and Ellen.
Ethel first appears on the 1891 census, living at 172 Northumberland Street, Heigham, Norwich and was still at this address for the 1901 census. So for this period of her life she knew the ten year older Edward Beane. By the time of the 1911 Census, Ethel was still living with her family but at 21 Churchill Road, Norwich where she was described as a single dressmaker and furrier.
At 17 years of age, Ethel Louise Clarke was not ready for either marriage or emigration when Edward Beane raised the topics prior to his first departure to New York in 1907. However, both proposals appealed to her when he asked her to wait until he had saved enough money. Ethel, of course, said yes.
On the 13 April 1907, Edward, a bricklayer aged almost 28, crossed the Atlantic to New York on the Philadelphia with his two brothers, all travelling in steerage to save money. This was their maiden voyage and they sailed in the knowledge that each one of them would earn better wages than at their old construction jobs in Norfolk. Edward, at least, was to share his time between New York and Norwich, writing to Ethel in between and right up to the time when he returned home aboard the Adriatic, arriving in Southampton on 22 December 1910. It is not known if he continued commuting thereafter but it was at this point in his life, at the age of 29 years, that he intended to finally ‘tie the knot’ with his chosen bride Ethel Louisa Clarke. However, that did not happen until March 1912 when, by this time, the couple had saved something in the order of 500 dollars plus, plus enough for two second class tickets on the Titanic. A day or so before the 10th April when this ‘unsinkable’ ship would set sail on its maiden voyage, Edward and Ethel said goodbye to their families and left for Southampton. At the Terminal they bought two second class tickets for the sum of £26 (ticket number 2908), boarding the Titanic on the 10th, not only as emigants but also ‘honeymooners’
Edward and Ethel were one of 13 honeymoon couples and were in their cabin when the ship struck the iceberg at about 2.00am on the 15 April 1912. They did not think much of the jolt they felt until a woman in a nearby cabin came to tell them about the order to go to the boat deck with lifebelts and to wear warm clothes. Subsequent reports say that Edward urged Ethel to hurry and not to worry about bringing any of their few valuables; most of their savings were locked in the Purser’s office.
On the boat deck, Ethel was quickly ushered to Lifeboat 13 and had no time for more than a quick kiss from Edward. Three or four more passengers were loaded before it was launched, but Ethel lost sight of her husband and hoped that he would surely take another lifeboat. Edward was indeed rescued, but the stories conflict of how it happened. The problem was that both he and Ethel were to tell different versions of that night to reporters. In one, Edward stated he kept an eye on his wife’s lifeboat from the deck of the Titanic. Then, as the ship sank, he jumped and swam “for hours” until he reached it and was pulled aboard. The problem with this version is that no one would have survived that long in icy waters. Also, a passenger in Lifeboat 13, Lawrence Beesley, wrote a detailed account of the entire night shortly afterward and never mentioned rescuing anyone from the water. Because Lifeboat 13 was, apparently, only half full, some passengers did want to return to help those in the water, but most refused because they felt that their boat would be swamped.
In another version that the Beane’s gave to the press stated that Edward was picked up by lifeboat 9 and he didn’t find Ethel on the Carpathia until after it docked in New York. This, again, seems unlikely because great care had been taken to compile accurate passenger lists and roll calls were also taken to help passengers find each other. It is possible, however, that Edward did jump aboard Lifeboat 13 at the last minute before launch, when no other women or children were available or willing to board. No one knows, but if he was like some other male survivors who panicked and ‘smuggled’ themselves into lifeboats, he probably would have met with public ridicule for not being “a gentleman” and going down with the ship – if indeed this was the case? Maybe, he and Ethel made up their stories to ease any guilt on his part? These questions and any viewpoints here are, however, purely speculative! However, bear in mind that another statement from an independent source said, perhaps in their defence: “They (the Beanes) were one of a few honeymooners who were not parted by the rule “women and children first”. Both were rescued in lifeboat 13”. As it is, Edward Beane is also listed as being a Lifeboat 13 passenger by Encyclopedia Titanica, the main source for all things Titanic and the principal aid in compiling this account.
Edward and Ethel settled in Rochester, New York where Ethel gave birth to a stillborn baby on 13 January 1913, making it likely that she was pregnant whilst on board the Titanic. The couple settled at 44 Michigan Street for the rest of their lives, never to return to England. Edward continued to work as a bricklayer and was a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. Ethel, for her part, delivered two children, both sons: Edward (1913-1982) and George (1916-1998) and during the rest of their lives seldom spoke about the Titanic, giving only the odd newspaper interview. Ethel was widowed in 1948 when Edward Beane died in the Rochester State Hospital on 24 October, just shy of his 69th birthday. A local newspaper reported: “Mrs. Beane is survived by her son, George Beane of Rochester, four granddaughters and six great-grandchildren”.
Ethel continued to live at the family home in Rochester before entering a nursing home in the last two years of her life. She died on 17 September 1983 aged 93 (although she had convinced everyone she was only 90) and was buried with her husband in White Haven Memorial Park.
There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”
For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).
Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?
You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!
They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.
A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.
Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.
So who was the real Jack Dawson?:
A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.
Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.
And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.
But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.
It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.
A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.
How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.
Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.
If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.
MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”
Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.
Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.
The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.
Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.
Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.
By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.
Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.
It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.
Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.
Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”
There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.
It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.
John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.
There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:
Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.
Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “
…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.
Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.