In the graveyard of All Saints Church in Horsford, Norfolk lies a very young person of mystery who clearly had received a heroes burial from those who thought highly of him. One may well ask what his qualities might have been in life and what had he done to deserve such a place in the memories of others. His gravestone, name and inscription raises so many questions but few answers. In this day and age one can only speculate!
All we have is the inscription on his headstone. It tells us clearly that his name was John Pirsins, he was 13 years old and he had died from wounds received at the Battle of Camperdown which took place on 11th October 1797. John Pirsins had survived, and presumably suffered, for five weeks before giving in to the inevitable. His gravestone states the following:
Where does one start in trying to identify this young lad and his circumstances. For a start, take his name – John Pirsins. In the 18th century, one in four seamen were apparently named ‘John’, this may have been their baptismal name or the one the authorities or mates would bestow in the absence of a known name. Then there is the surname which is a rare, so rare that one may well construe that it came about in error. How come is the obvious question? Well – John, let’s assume this to be correct, appears to have been a rural lad from the heart of the Norfolk countryside and he left home to join the British Navy. Literacy, at the time, was not a strong point in either area of occupation, so when it came to registering one’s name, the presence of illiteracy, local dialects and unclear pronunciation came into play: “Name”. “John Parsons (Pirsins) Sir” Who knows, but the surname stuck!
Did John Pirsins really come from the lower classes, or did he have connections with a higher status from where favours were often bestowed on family members and friends? Take the the quality of the gravestone as another faint clue. It is clear that the stone, and the skill required to inscribe it, would not have come cheap. Whilst it is commendable that more than a few of his mess-mates had, apparently, rallied round to find the money to erect such a monument in his honour, one wonders if they, in turn, were helped by a sponsor? Did this someone, as a possible favour to his parents, also have taken John on board ship as, maybe, an officer’s servant with intentions for him to be trained as an able seaman if not midshipman? – just like Horatio Nelson some 25 years earlier. But then, if all this was true then would not his surname and connections be better known today? Crucially, does any of this fit? Did John Pirsins enlist on his own volition because he wanted an adventure? Where did he join his first ship and at what level was he recruited? Two options stand out – did he become a Cabin Boy and/or a Powder Monkey?
As Cabin Boy, he just about fitted the criteria with regard to his age. In this role he would have been expected to undertake a variety of day-to-day duties; these would have included waiting on the officers and passengers of a ship and especially running errands for the captain. He would also have been expected to help the cook in the ship’s galley and carry buckets of food to the forecastle where the ordinary seamen ate. Then there was running from one end of the ship to the other carrying messages and becoming familiar with the sails, lines and ropes and the use of each in all sorts of weather – and that was not all. He would have had to be able to scramble up the rigging into the yards whenever the sails had to be trimmed and occasionally stand watch, like other crewmen, or act as helmsman in good weather and holding the wheel to keep the ship steady on her course. Then, in times of battle, he may well have been expected to undertake the role of ‘Powder Monkey’.
As a powder monkey, or powder boy, John Pirsins would not have held any official naval rank but would have been employed to man naval artillery guns as a member of a warship’s crew. His chief role would be to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges; this practice was designed to minimise the risk of fires and explosions. One can assume that he would have been selected for the job for his both his speed and height. If so, then John Pirsins was a short individual, in order for him to move more easily in the limited space between decks. As a powder monkey John would have had the comfort of knowing that being hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, kept him from being shot at by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. However, he would have been as vulnerable as the rest of the crew in situations where the ship was hit by heavy cannon fire. Is that what happen when he was mortally wounded?
If John Pirsins had, indeed, been a powder monkey then it is more than likely that he had come from the poor working classes. The Marine Society that encouraged youths to join the British Royal Navy did so by providing clothes, bedding, and a rudimentary education once they had enlisted. In the mid-1790’s it is estimated that the Society was sending five or six hundred boys a year to the fleet, although not all of these boys became powder monkeys. Of the boys who were recruited; most had no other option than to join the navy as their parents could not afford to raise them. However a significant number had familial ties to the sea by having cousins, fathers, and even grandfathers who were, or had been, sailors. These role models made youngsters want to continue family traditions and exploit their sense of adventure. So, does any of the foregoing detail fit with our John Pirsins? As things are, we know much more about the Battle of Camperdown of 1797 and HMS Triumph, on which John Pirsins enlisted and became a hero.
HMS Triumph was a Large Type, 74 gun, third rate ship of the line, built at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich. She, together with her sister-ship HMS Valiant were the prototypes, re-designed from the ground up for the Royal Navy. Their descendants would become by far the most numerous type of ship in the Royal Navy and would form the backbone of the Royal Navy’s battle-fleets until well into the 19th Century. But, what was significant about these two ships was not the long list of significant naval battles they fought in, or that they were commanded by any particularly famous or infamous naval officers, but the political machinations which led to their being ordered, designed and built.
During the Second Hundred Years War, and specifically in the 1730’s, the French began to introduce a new type of ship of the line, one carrying 74 guns on two gun decks. The British soon found that these new French ships were bigger, faster, more manoeuvrable and more heavily armed than their own. Something had to be done, but the British, were struggling with their own naval departmental problems which were rather more political than tactical or technological. Two departments existed with different aims and responsibilities which were the cause of much procrastination, delays and poor designs which, for several years, failed to produce anything that matched up to those of the French.
Then, on 14th May 1747 at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre, the British captured one of the finest of the French 74-gun ships, L’Invincible. On being taken into British service, L’Invincible was found to be capable of up to 16 knots in ideal sailing conditions; a good three knots faster than the best of her British counterparts. It was also found that in ideal sailing conditions, she could open her lower gun-ports, well clear of the water. As a direct result, the Admiralty began to pressure the Navy Board to do something about it, ideally, to produce a British 74-gun ship along the lines of the French ones. But habits die hard and it was not until the old guard in the Navy Board had either died or had been pensioned off that the situation began to improve. That did not begin until the mid-1750’s when more enlightened men were employed, led by a Thomas Slade. However, even under new management, nothing would be achieved until the Navy Board gave in to the Admiralty’s continuing pressure for two new ships which, essentially, had to be direct copies of L’Invincible but adapted for British use. The first , HMS Valiant was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and launched on 10th August 1759. On the other hand, HMS Triumph was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich where, despite its keel section being laid on 21st May 1757 was not launched into the great River Thames until Saturday 3rd March 1764 – long before our John Pirsins was even born.
On completion, HMS Triumph was an enormous ship for what she was. Very nearly as big as a first rate ship, HMS Triumph was 171ft 3in long on her upper gundeck and 138ft 8in long in her keel. She was 49ft 9in wide across her beams and her hold (between the orlop deck and the bottom of the ship) was 21ft 3in deep. Fully loaded, HMS Triumph was a ship of 1,825 tons. She was armed with twenty-eight 32-pounder long guns on her lower gun deck, thirty 24-pounder long guns on her upper gun deck, fourteen 9-pounder long guns on her quarterdeck and two 9-pounder long guns on her forecastle. She was manned by a crew of around 650 officers, men, boys and Royal Marines.
HMS Triumph had taken almost seven years to be built as opposed to the three years or so which the construction of a ship like her would be expected to take. This meant that by the time HMS Triumph was completed, the war for which she had been built was over and the Royal Navy rushed to pay off the great first and second rate ships of the line. It would fall to ships like HMS Triumph to provide the heavy firepower for the peacetime navy until May 1766 when the ship was commissioned into the Channel Fleet only to find that by the 11th December of the same year she was paid off and went into the ‘Ordinary’ at Chatham for the next five years.
Then in January 1771, HMS Triumph was recommissioned under Captain Hugh Pigot as part of Britains response to the Falklands Crisis of 1770 and went into the Royal Dockyard to be fitted for sea. Captain Pigot left the ship just three months later, having made sure that her Midshipmen’s berth was fully occupied and the ship was fully manned. This meant that when Captain Suckling took command of the ship, there were no vacancies for Midshipmen. In turn, this meant that his young nephew was forced to take up a position as his cabin servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. His young nephew had briefly served in Suckling’s previous command, HMS Raisonnable, as a midshipman because Suckling had been able to man that ship from scratch. The young boy, who was aged just 12 when he joined his uncle aboard HMS Triumph, was Horatio Nelson.
For clarification, it should be explained that Nelson’s role on HMS Triumph would have been as a ‘Midshipman in Ordinary’; for although the ship had her quota of Midshipmen aboard, and there was no room for the young Horatio aboard in an official role, the captain was entitled to have up to a dozen servants. For that reason, they often took boys of friends, family and anyone else they owed a favour to or were doing a favour for, aboard as Midshipmen-in-Ordinary.
The boys in this role were on the ships books as Captains` Servants, rated and paid as Able Seamen, but wore the uniform and did the job of a Midshipman proper, that is to assist a Lieutenant in his day-to-day duties. They also lived in the Midshipmen’s quarters, which was in the cockpit, located on the ships Orlop level. They would have continued in this role for two years until they gained two years sea service at which point the Admiralty would have appointed them as Midshipmen proper, enabling them to transfer (or be transferred) between ships in order to gain experience and to further their careers.
On 7th May 1773, Captain Suckling managed to find a vacancy for his nephew, Nelson, as Midshipman in the bomb-vessel HMS Carcass but this came to an end in October 1773, when the vessel was paid off at Sheerness and went into the Ordinary. Nelson returned to Portsmouth and to HMS Triumph, once more to take up the only position available to him, as the Captain’s Servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. This, however, was for a very short time because his uncle had found a vacancy for him as Midshipman proper aboard the 24-gun sixth rate post-ship HMS Seahorse. Nelson was never to return to HMS Triumph.
Over the next 20 years, or so, HMS Triumph was involved in many skirmishes and more than a few refits to maintain its battle readiness. In between, it undertook policing and peace keeping roles with reduced crew levels. Then in January1792, she was decommissioned and went into the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth for a ‘Great Repair’, which amounted to an almost complete rebuild. The work was completed in January 1795 and had cost £46,499, more than it had cost to build the ship in the first place. By now, HMS Triumph’s upper gun deck of 24-pounder long guns had been replaced with smaller 18-pounder long guns, while the rest of her armament remained as built. In this, HMS Triumph was unusual in that she was never fitted with carronades. HMS Triumph was recommissioned and joined the Channel Fleet.
The Battle of Camperdown:
The beginning of May of 1797 saw HMS Triumph lying at the Nore, as part of the North Sea Fleet under Admiral Sir Adam Duncan. By the 12th of the month it became caught up in the Great Mutiny which had spread from Spithead. Whilst Spithead, along with Plymouth, ended peacefully on the 15th, that of Yarmouth was put down forcibly with that of the Nore proving irritable to the authorities. Having started on 12th May in the 90 gun 2nd rate ship HMS Sandwich at 9:30am, it quickly spread to the other ships in the anchorage including HMS Triumph.
It was at this time that Captain Sir Erasmus Gower was replaced in command of HMS Triumph by Captain William Essington. In the meantime, while the mutiny at the Nore was continuing, the Dutch fleet was making preparations to break out and join the French fleet at Brest. Admiral Duncan was ordered to immediately blockade them and ordered his ships to set sail for the coast of Holland. All but two of his ships disobeyed the order and joined the mutiny. Nevertheless, Duncan set to his task with the handful of ships available to him and by a mixture of subterfuge and luck, kept the Dutch bottled up in Texel. However, while Duncan was at sea, the mutiny at the Nore fell apart and he was joined by more ships, including HMS Triumph. In October 1797, news reached the Admiralty that the Dutch had called off their plans to break out and the fleet was recalled to Yarmouth to refit and resupply; this included HMS Triumph.
On 8th October however, the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Winter did indeed break out. They were followed by ships Duncan had left behind to watch them, these included the hired armed cutter Black Joke. When the Dutch fleet, consisting of four 74-gun ships, seven 64-gun ships, four 50-gun ships and four frigates was seen putting to sea, it was the Black Joke (Other accounts say it was the hired cutter Active.) that was dispatched to Yarmouth to summon Admiral Duncan and the fleet. When the Black Joke was seen off Yarmouth in the early morning of 9th October flying the signal, all hell broke loose in Yarmouth as ships prepared to put to sea immediately – John Pirsins must have certainly been in the thick of thing! By noon, Admiral Duncan’s fleet was at sea and at 7am on 11th October, Duncan’s fleet sighted Captain Trollope’s squadron who were flying a signal ‘Enemy in Sight to Leeward’. At 08.30, the Dutch fleet was sighted.
Because of the widely differing sailing qualities of the British ships, Duncan’s force was in a very loose order when the enemy was sighted. In order for his ships to take their allotted stations, Duncan’s first signal was for his vanguard, or leading ships, to shorten sail. This was followed, at about 11:10, by signals ordering each ship to engage their opposite number on the enemy’s line of battle and then for the British vanguard to attack the rear of the enemy fleet. De Winter the Dutch commander, for his part and on sighting the British, ordered his ships to go about and head closer to the shore, where his smaller, flatter bottomed ships would have the advantage in shallower waters than their larger round-bilged British opponents. Seeing the Dutch heading into shallower waters where he knew they would have the advantage, Duncan gave up trying to get his fleet into their proper order and instead issued signals to the effect that his fleet was to form into two rough divisions and sail towards the enemy line as best they could and engage the enemy in close action. The fleet formed into two uneven divisions with Duncan leading the Starboard division in his flagship HMS Venerable and his Second-in-Command, Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Onslow leading the other division in his flagship, HMS Monarch.
HMS Triumph was part of Duncan’s Starboard Division, second in line behind the flagship. Because of the lack of time, the British ships were all jockeying for position to get into the thickest part of the action, which soon became intense. At one point in the battle, Captain Essington could see that both HMS Ardent and HMS Venerable were surrounded and immediately took HMS Triumph into the thick of things by engaging the Dutch ship Wassenaer with everything it had. Wassenaer eventually surrendered to HMS Triumph which then moved on to directly support the damaged HMS Ardent in her action against the Dutch flagship, Vrijheid. The Vrijheid was eventually forced to surrender by HMS Director after having been dismasted and left helpless, crippled and alone. The British had won a spectacular victory. They had defeated a Dutch fleet within sight of their own coastline. In the Battle of Camperdown, HMS Triumph had suffered casualties of 12 men dead with 55, including Captain Essington and John Pirsins, being wounded. She had suffered damage to her hull and masts and had had ten of her heavy 32-pounder guns knocked off their carriages.
By fast clipper, the news of this victory spread fast with the nation already celebrating by the time the ships returned to Great Yarmouth. The grateful nation breathed a sigh of relief that their ‘rebellious’ navy had, once again, restored its authority on the high seas, along with the strong and blatant patriotism, unashamedly renewed among the British people. The dead were buried and those of the wounded that could not function normally were cared for in the town. John Pirsins was amongst them, suffering from extensive injuries incurred in the heat of battle. Only his closest mates would have witnessed the circumstances of his heroism; it would have been they who visited him as he lay in the hospital in Great Yarmouth; and it would have been they who hoped he would recover. As it turned out, John Pirsins did not, but it was these same mates who dipped into their pockets and paid for his headstone back at his home village of Horsford and its All Saints Church.
For almost 200 years, The Goat Inn had been an integral part of village life in Strumpshaw, a bustling public house whose name was an acknowledgement of its rural location rather than the haunted head of a goat which had, for many years, refused to leave the place where it had been slaughtered.
For this tale, however, we need only to go back to 1908. That was the year when Mrs Newton, the landlord’s wife, took a fancy to a magnificent white goat which was brought to the inn by an itinerant pedlar. She decided, for reasons best known to herself, to buy the goat and paid a whole half-crown for him. In later years, this creature was to be known as ‘Old Capricorn’; this was, of course, a long time after it had been slaughtered.
In a newspaper interview in 1958, a local regular at the Inn by the name of Harry Thompson, who was 82 at the time, remembered personally slaughtering the creature. The reason given was not stated, but this act of despatch was followed by a suggestion that the creature should be preserved for perpetuity and hung behind the bar of the Goat Inn. With its long horns, beard and glaring balefully with black and hazel eyes, it could survey all who came into the pub whilst being a centre of attraction itself! In fact, it hung above the bar for 60 years, during which time there were reports of illness, discord and misfortune attributed to the goat’s head. Added to all this, was the fact that from time to time someone or other contrived to get the creature to disappear from the Inn – but then it always found ways and means to keep coming back to haunt the place – this went on for decades.
Landlord Frank Walpole, who came to the pub in 1967, appeared to be the least fond of this goat’s head than previous landlords; he was the eleventh since Newton in 1904 when the live version of ‘Old Capricorn’ was purchased for a half-crown. It was Walpole who was the first to remove it from the bar after a series of mysterious events which seemed to upset him more than the pub’s regulars. He cited things like mirrors flying off walls, the pub piano playing by itself while the top was down; water pouring through the ceiling and his wife Lily and daughter Jane, 16 seeing figures walk about the Inn at night. Most worryingly of all, was the occasion when a 17-year-old boy was killed in a car crash the day after he had touched the goat’s head.The newspaper of the time reported that Mr Walpole said “That made me think seriously about taking the head down. Now I’ve done it – Some of the regulars don’t like it, but it’s for the best.”
Mr and Mrs Walpole’s theory was that the Goat’s Head was nothing less than a ghost; what’s more, it was Mrs Walpole’s cousin Alfred, who died on the British destroyer HMS Harvester on March 11 1943 – but that’s another tale, for another day. She had also spoken to both a medium and a priest about a possible exorcism.
These were serious misgivings of the Walpole’s, but the fact of the matter was that the goat was being missed by their customers. So, two years later, the creature was found and reinstated on the wall behind the bar. However, with the its return came renewed misfortune. This time it was the family pets who suffered: a minah bird dropped dead, a monkey died from a head injury, one of the family’s three dogs ran away while another died giving birth and its companion passed away the next day.
On Valentine’s Day 1972 the newspaper again noted that Mr Walpole “……..once again removed Old Capricorn, weighted the shaggy head and threw it in the river. He had been told he must ‘drown’ the evil spell. Only Mr Walpole was to know just where the goat’s head was hidden. He did hope at the time that the place would not bode ill for any Broads visitors that summer.”!
But, within a month, a reed-cutter by the name of Alfred Stone caught sight of the head in Rockland Dyke, “looking more malevolent than ever” after its five-mile journey along the River Yare. Alfred Stone passed it to a Mr A Loades of Broad Hall Farm in Rockland St Mary, whose son Dennis, 24, hung it in the barn saying he’d “start his own museum”. But, you guessed it – within days, the dogs on the farm started behaving aggressively and Dennis’ grandmother, who was staying on the farm, had such a prolonged attack of nose bleeding that she had to go to hospital. Consequently, the head was hurriedly given back to The Goat Inn, but by August of the same year, ‘Old Capricorn’ was discovered in a shallow grave at Strumpshaw gravel pit where the creepy cranium was found “in the ground, as if it was alive”.
As ever, spooky coincidences followed the discovery: tyres deflated, a driver was shot in the arm, dogs were filled with fear – then the trail went cold. It was not until 1984, when the Goat Inn was bought by Paul Cornwall who renamed it The Huntsman, that interest was rekindled. The new proprietor was keen to bring the goat back to his rightful home and, once again, the newspaper renewed its interest in, what to them, must have been a news-worthy story. They quoted Mt Cornwall “I’m all for local superstitions, and I am interested in the whole history of the place; I’m not a believer, but, having said that, we have all got to go some time and you might as well die through touching a goat’s head. Of course I’d like it back – I am a glutton for punishment”!
Further to this, it was never said if Mr Cornwall, proprietor of the Huntsman at Strumpshaw, was ever successful. As for the local newspaper, which made such play on the topic at the time, appeared to have been conspicuous by its silence on the matter ever since. So, it is not known if Mr Cornwall ever brought ‘Old Capricorn’ home, which means that this tale must end abruptly – unless, and until, someone comes forward to confirm that the Goat’s Head of Strumpshaw is ‘alive’ and well and still, possibly, spreading panic and mayhem!
Just the other side of Acle, on the old road leading to Thurne, Caister and beyond, there is a single-span bridge over the River Bure; naturally, as one would suspect, it is called Acle Bridge.
This single-span bridge is just the latest of several bridges which have been on the site since 1101; it was only built in 1997. Our tale is not concerned with this version, nor with its immediate predecessor, built in 1931 which had two piers supported on oak piles driven into the river bed. This wooden structure replaced a hundred year old three-arch stone bridge built in the 1830s. This tale is only concerned with the three-arched stone bridge, however, please do not dismiss the 1931 or the 1997 bridges that followed this one!
It used to be said that if you found yourself on the stone Acle bridge on 7th of April, you would discover a pool of blood, which would not have been there the night before. That was so true then, when the tragedy happened – and it remains true today on the present bridge – remember, you have been warned not to dismiss it lightly! Now for our tale:
John, or it might have been Joshua, Burge was a corn chandler. For those not from these parts, a corn chandler was a person who dealt in corn and meal. Burge lived with his wife and children in a house close to the three-arched stone bridge at Acle and was known as a man who cheated on his customers, beat his wife and starved his children. So it will come as no surprise that, eventually, he went too far when he killed his long suffering wife. His subsequent arrest was a straightforward affair, such was his track record regarding his business affairs and relationships; plus the fact that too much evidence existed about his assaults and the killing for which he was taken to gaol in Norwich.
It followed that the legal profession brought Burge to trial for his wife’s murder but, such was his wickedness and cunning that he managed to secure himself an acquittal. You see, he had managed, somehow, to bribe the local doctor to say that his wife had died of a heart attack. It would seem that a doctor’s evidence in court at that time carried more weight than the evidence of bruising and contusions to a body. Discolourations as would have been made by a length of pipe that was discovered behind the cabinet in Burge’s kitchen. But, whatever the state of his wife’s body Burge was, in short, declared innocent of her murder and released – yes, quite unbelievable isn’t it!
However, this tale does not end there. The wife had a brother who on hearing of Burge’s acquittal, decided to plan for and hand out his own form of justice on his brother-in-law for the death of his poor sister. So, on the 7th of April as it turned out, he lay in wait on the bridge at Acle for Burge, having concealed a butcher’s knife, his chosen weapon, inside his jacket; he had also planned for his subsequent escape from the scene. The position of the brother-in-law on the bridge was over its central arch and he knew that Burge, who was in Great Yarmouth that day on business, would pass by on his return late that same evening. In the event, everything turned out as anticipated and planned for. Burge did indeed walk across the bridge at a late hour and towards his assailant who leapt up and wrestled Burge to the ground. There, having pinned him firmly to the bridge’s flagstones and taken out his huge butchers knife from inside his jacket, cut Burge’s throat from ear to ear – no half measures!
Burge’s blood gushed out spraying the brother and the stonework of the bridge, before finally coming to rest in a pool around what was then a dead body. Realising that the police would probably suspect him of the deed, the brother-in-law carried out the next stage of his plan by making his way to Great Yarmouth and boarding a ship that would take him away from Norfolk’s shores. Whilst all this turned out fortunate for the murderer – it was not so for a Jack Ketch who, following the discovery of Burge’s body, was accused by the police of the murder. This man had been cheated by Burge in a business deal and had been overheard threatening to get even. Mainly on this evidence, Ketch was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.
Some years later, Burge’s real killer returned to England and pretended surprise upon hearing of his brother-in-law’s (Burge) death; no one was the wiser to this deception. Then, as the anniversary of his killing of Burge arrived, his deceptor and brother-in-law, had an irresistible urge to visit Acle Bridge again – the scene of his dastardly deed. This was on the very night where, exactly 12 months previously, he had sliced through the sinews of Burge’s throat. It was this image that began to haunt him as he stood above the bridge’s central arch, peering over its side into the murky waters below. As he did so, a ghostly figure materialised from of nowhere it seemed, a figure that was more of mist and marsh fog than flesh and bones. It drifted silently towards him!
The next morning the townsfolk found a body dangling over the side of the bridge with a rope around what remained of his neck which had been severed as if by a large butchers knife. Some say the shadowy spectre was that of Burge, others that it belonged to the innocent man, Ketch, who had been hung for Burge’s murder. Either way, on the anniversary of the original murder, a pool of blood from one or other of these two victims appeared, and continues to appear each 7th April since – for it never did confine its appearance to the old three-arched bridge long gone. So, if you choose to go there on the 7th inst, by all means look out for the pool of blood but, just be alert if you are ever tempted to glance over the bridge rail to the murky waters below – you could possibly find yourself in a very precarious situation!
The crime that has attracted the attention of historians more than any other in early modern England is witchcraft. It is a complex subject, not least because early modern beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic were obviously very different from those of today. However, it is not my intention to carry out an extensive investigation into early modern witchcraft beliefs here; that area has already received much coverage elsewhere. My interest here is to look at what the records reveal about those charged with witchcraft in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts and how these findings compare with current theories. In particular, I look at how complaints arose and developed, and the involvement of the neighbours of the accused in that process.
Prior to the mid-sixteenth century witchcraft cases were normally tried in ecclesiastical courts. Punishments were rarely severe and some form of public penance was the most likely sentence. Witchcraft became a secular crime in England for the first time with the passing of a short-lived act of 1542. Elizabethan legislation in 1563 resurrected the crime and provided for the death penalty when “any p[er]son shall happen to be killed or destroyed”. However, this was repealed in 1604 and replaced by “An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits”. This provided for even harsher punishments, extending the list of offences to which the death penalty applied to wasting, consuming or laming persons as well as causing their death. Where the “goods of any p[er]son shall be destroyed” the sentence was a year in prison for a first offence and death for a second offence. However, the major difference between this and the earlier Acts was that it also made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”. For the first time a hint appears in the legislation of the fear of a diabolical compact, which was a major element in European legislation where practitioners of witchcraft were thought of as being members of an organised heretical sect.
The activities that witches were accused of were a clear inversion both of community norms and gender roles. However, Keith Thomas has argued that “the idea that witch-prosecutions reflected a war between the sexes must be discounted, not least because the victims and witnesses were themselves as likely to be women as men”. Whilst it has been well established that the majority of people charged with witchcraft in England were women, and the Norfolk records support this, the situation regarding witnesses is more contentious.Based on his findings from Yorkshire witchcraft depositions, James Sharpe has concluded that “the whole business of deciding if an individual was a witch or if an individual act constituted witchcraft, of how witchcraft should be coped with, of how suspicions should be handled, was seen as being fundamentally in the female sphere”. He argued that witchcraft accusations were frequently one of the ways in which disputes between women were resolved. This view has however, been disputed by Clive Holmes. He argued that whilst the gossip and suspicions of women may have been instrumental in bringing the accused to more general notice, it was men who were responsible for organising the process that took the case from suspicion to formal accusation. Holmes claimed that, despite their numerical involvement, women played a largely passive role in the legal process against witches. He noted that in Home Circuit indictments between 1596 and 1642 men acted alone as witnesses in 27.7 per cent of cases and together with women in a further 67.7 per cent. In contrast, in only 4.6 per cent of cases did women testify against an accused witch alone.
Feminist historians such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have seen witch trials as “a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population”. Their argument is partly based on the premise that old women, often known as ‘cunning women’, who dispensed folk healing were deliberately eradicated when a male-dominated medical profession came into existence. It is also known that some of these cunning women kept small animals such as cats and toads for use in their medical work and this is one explanation for the appearance of familiars in English witchcraft. Other feminists have seen witchcraft prosecutions as symptomatic of a misogynist social structure. Marianne Hester contends that the witch-hunts provided a “means of controlling women socially within a male supremacist society” and were “an instance of male sexual violence against women”. She claimed that men gained from the linking of women with witchcraft as “it provided them with a greater moral and social status than women”.
Sharpe has argued that the involvement of women in witchcraft prosecutions allowed them to carve out a role for themselves in the male dominated legal world. Not only did they appear as witnesses, they were also involved in the search for what was often a crucial piece of evidence in proving guilt – witch’s marks on the body. The large number of references in the records to women searching for marks suggests that this practice was widely used. Sometimes teams of up to twelve women were appointed to search the accused, a midwife often included in the number. Clearly women did have a vital involvement in the witch trials, not least because, as has already been stated, it was women who were most likely to be charged. Some contemporary commentators recognised the disproportionate number of women accused, the well-quoted sceptic John Gaule complaining that every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr[owe]d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side; is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.
As can be seen from this description, witches were not only seen as women, but often as old women. One of the main reasons put forward for witches being elderly is that often they were only eventually prosecuted after suspicion of them had grown over the years. It has also been suggested that older, vulnerable women, unable to defend themselves in any other way, were forced to rely on their alleged occult powers.
The witch stereotype established by Alan Macfarlane’s Essex findings presents the accused as an economically marginal, elderly female, rarely living with a husband. He argued that, between 1560 and 1680, social and economic pressures led to increasing tensions within communities and to a lessening emphasis on the bonds of neighbourliness. One way in which these pressures manifested themselves was in villagers withholding alms that they had traditionally given to the poor. The fear of counter actions from those refused alms and the guilt produced by the abdication of responsibility then led to accusations of witchcraft, usually after the party withholding charity had suffered some sort of misfortune. However, as Cynthia Herrup found in Sussex, this stereotype was not always matched. Although she found only few examples of the crime they stood out “because of the prominence of male defendants and because of the economic and social parity of the accused and the accuser”. Here there appeared to be no gap in social status and conflict is seen as reflecting ongoing competition rather than guilt produced by a failure to provide alms.
The earliest known references to witches being condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 act date from 1583, when Mother Gabley was probably hanged at King’s Lynn, and 1584, when Elizabeth Butcher and Joan Lingwood were condemned to be hanged at Great Yarmouth. The forty years that followed the 1604 act saw an increase in the number of witchcraft trials in many areas of England, yet during this period there were very few in Norfolk, the only trial of note being that of Mary Smith, hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616. However, after being notable for having so few trials in the first part of the century, the county suddenly saw an eruption of cases in 1645 and 1646, especially in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn – towns visited by the self-proclaimed
Nearly half of all seventeenth-century Norfolk witchcraft trials for which records have survived were prosecuted in the 1640s; prior to that there were under five per annum on average and, in common with other parts of the country, by the end of the century there were hardly any at all. A combination of reasons explains the circumstances under which such an increase in numbers of cases could take place. Firstly, England was in the middle of a civil war, and whilst it cannot be said that East Anglia was in the midst of the fighting, as it was a parliamentary stronghold, there were still threats of Royalist uprisings. Secondly, it has been claimed that, mainly because of the upheaval created by the war, there was a breakdown of authority during this period. The uncertainty created by the civil war and a less effective than usual local government permitted the witch-hunting activities of Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne, who operated among the towns and villages of East Anglia for over two years from 1645. There has been some debate about the typicality of the cases resulting from these activities and I will return to this later.
Of the sixty-nine people charged, fifty-nine or 85.5 per cent were women, so from a simple mathematical point of view the Norfolk evidence supports the view that the crime was gendered. This picture is strengthened by an analysis of the outcome of the trials. Ten cases resulted in the guilty party being sentenced to be hanged and there were four other guilty verdicts for which the sentences were not recorded. All fourteen of those known to have been found guilty were women. (Of the other accused, forty-two were found not guilty, verdicts are not known in twelve cases, and one was found to be non compos mentis.)
Of the women whose marital status is detailed in the court records, thirty-two per cent were described as ‘spinsters’, the same proportion were married and thirty-six per cent were widows. It is possible, of course, that some of those described as spinsters were not, although there is no clue as to this in the records. As ages were not recorded it is impossible to be precise, however, this profile does not seem to suggest that most were elderly women, as often popularly described. Whilst it is difficult to deduce from this whether women on their own were more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, the fact that only one of those found guilty was married suggests that they were possibly not in such a good position to defend themselves without the protection of a man.
Bewitching people 26 37.7 %
Bewitching animals 3 4.3 %
Bewitching property 3 4.3 %
Entertaining the devil 14 20.3 %
Consulting with spirits 11 15.9 %
Using witchcraft to find property 5 7.2 %
Non-specific witchcraft 7 10.1 %
Table 1. Norfolk witchcraft cases by category
Table 1 shows, in general terms, just what these people were being accused of. By far the biggest category is the bewitching of people and over half of these cases claimed to involve the death of an infant or child. Whilst two other categories combined, entertaining the devil and consulting with spirits, account for an almost equal proportion, these charges, traditionally not associated with the majority of English witchcraft cases, were all brought in trials that Matthew Hopkins and his associates were involved in. A surprisingly small percentage of cases involved bewitching animals or property, acts of maleficium normally found in English witchcraft cases.
Analysing the surviving records for some of these cases allows us to examine the circumstances that led to these charges and how that compares with interpretations developed from other studies. In Norfolk the best surviving sources for background information are the witness statements gathered by the local justices to whom the complaints were made. It is clear from the numbers of witnesses in some of these cases and the stories that they tell, that neighbours must have talked together about their allegations or suspicions. Often there was one recent complaint that started the process off and others then added their stories from the past, sometimes the distant past. Allegations were frequently founded on the reputation that the accused had in the locality.
Thomas Cutting of Runhall, Norfolk, complained in 1679 that Anne Diver of the same town had made his cow sick and bewitched him so that he fell over a stile and broke his leg. He also recalled that on a previous occasion, after he had refused to give her some herbs from his garden, his wife and daughter fell ill and they also suspected that Diver had bewitched them. The collection of back-up stories then followed. John Calfe told how, when he fell ill over a year before, a cunning man showed him the face of Anne Diver in a glass. Seven years previously, Elizabeth Pitts bought a goose from Diver and fell ill for four months after eating it. Ten years earlier, Frances Beales refused to give Diver some beer on a hot day, but when she drank some herself she was ill for three weeks. Susan Major claimed that as much as twenty years before, Diver went to the house of her master to beg some meat for her father, but left before receiving any, saying that she was too proud to accept it. A week later she fell ill, losing her speech and sight and suffering strange fits.
According to Holmes, when women became involved in the accusation process they often retailed older grievances that had not previously been brought to the attention of the authorities, leaving the lead to men, and this case supports that view. However, it is the only one that does. In all other Norfolk cases for which witness information survives women took the lead in making the complaint. On occasions men also voiced older suspicions, but many accusations came from women alone, providing a very different picture from that Holmes found in the Home Circuit indictments. This is much closer to Sharpe’s position that “the background to a witchcraft accusation was something to which women were thought to have privileged access”. Of the surviving witness statements relating to Norfolk witchcraft accusations, exactly fifty per cent were made by female witnesses, a larger proportion than has been reported elsewhere. Of course, we cannot know the extent to which women may have been encouraged to make their statements by men. It is also difficult to assess the extent to which depositions were the product of leading questions from a justice or a clerk’s written interpretation of verbal answers. Care must therefore be taken in the use of these documents.
One aspect of the accusations involving Anne Diver that does conform to the stereotype developed by Macfarlane is the refusal of alms or charity from neighbours; Thomas Cutting had refused herbs from his garden and Frances Beales refused beer on a hot day. Furthermore, John Calfe informed
that when “John Castleton … haveing the disposall of some money given to the poore of the … parish yearely gave to the said Anne Diver a lesse p[ro]portion then had bene given her in former yeares”, she said that he should “take heed lest some mischeife came to him or his”. Other cases also contained this element, for example, Elizabeth Scandell informed that her daughter was bewitched after Elizabeth Blade threatened her when she refused to let her have a chicken. Both Cutting and Scandell made the point themselves that their misfortunes came about because they had refused requests for charity, indicating that there was a popular belief in a connection between refusal of alms and acts of witchcraft.
Some of the depositions give the impression that someone who had suffered misfortune was looking for something to blame it on. Sometimes they made an accusation against a neighbour who had not even uttered any curse or threat, but who was simply “taken for a witch” or had maybe fallen out with them recently. When William Tasborowe suffered a series of misfortunes, including the death of his son and a fire at his house, he remembered an argument with widow Betteris. After he made a complaint to the justices other neighbours suddenly remembered similar arguments. “When the s[ai]d Betteris did fall out wth the wif of John Dennys … his child did sicken & dyed wthin three dayes”. “At another tyme after the s[ai]d Betteris had fallen out wth Edmund White the next day was the s[ai]d Edmund taken lame”. Anthony Leland of Saxlingham, Norfolk, did not even mention having seen William Chestney’s wife when, in 1614, he blamed her for the death of a cow and a calf. He could only testify that when he had moved to the area four or five years earlier, “he heard amongst his neighbors that shee was taken for a witch” and so was “persuaded in his conscience” that it must have been her doing.
Witness statements also provide evidence of other early modern popular beliefs about witchcraft and magic. Whilst these informers were ready to complain about their neighbours for their use of supernatural powers, they were also prepared to use such powers themselves as counteractions. In 1670 Margaret Kempe of Great Yarmouth complained that when she had been ill fourteen years previously her friends suspected Margaret Ward of bewitching her. Their response was to make a heart with a piece of red cloth and to put it into a bottle together with some nails and pins. This was then put on the fire for two hours. Within a fortnight she was well again. When Thomas Cutting believed that Anne Diver had bewitched one of his master’s cows he threw a horseshoe with seven nail holes into the fire. Elizabeth Pitts made an almost instant recovery from her bewitchment when she threw thatch from above the door of Anne Diver’s house into the fire. Thomas Burke of Northwold, Norfolk, also recovered from his extreme leg pains when he burned thatch from the house of Alice Lyster. Another remedy often described was that of ‘scratching’ the witch to destroy their power. When Elizabeth Scandell’s child saw Elizabeth Blade, who she believed had bewitched her, she “flew at her & desired to scratch her but was hindered by her mother”. Mary Crispe later testified that the child told her that “if she had scratched … Blade … she should not have had so much power over her”.
Daniel Jecks, another of Diver’s ‘victims’, chose another popular measure and went to a cunning man to seek help. Cunning men and women were believed to have powers to discover who had bewitched someone, to provide folk medicine cures, and to discover the whereabouts of lost property. On occasions they would find themselves prosecuted under the witchcraft legislation for using their supposed magic powers in these ways. Christopher Hall of Harpley found himself before Norfolk quarter sessions after Goodwife Smithbourne of neighbouring Hillington consulted him regarding a lump in her breast. Hall, who admitted to the local justices in his examination that he practiced as a cunning man, told Smithbourne that a Hillington witch had caused her harm. He gave her some powder and wrote out a charm, which, he claimed, would help her.
Another possible source for a cure was the accused him or herself. Some of those who believed that they or members of their family had been bewitched by a neighbour still allowed the accused to have access to them or their property after the event, probably believing that whoever imposed the curse also had the power to lift it. This is evident from the information of Margaret Kemp of Great Yarmouth who, in 1670, believed herself bewitched by Margaret Ward. Not only did she still allow Ward access to her house, but also to her infant son. When Kemp believed that Ward had also bewitched her son causing him to have fits, her husband “forced the said Margarett Ward to take the child into her armes and hold it some tym” in an attempt to stop the condition.
In virtually all of these instances the person accused had been suspected of being a witch over a period of time, sometimes over a very long period. Often the events that led to the accusation were also part of a long-running disagreement and in some cases the charge of witchcraft appears to have been a tactic in such a dispute. A typical example of such a long-term dispute between neighbours, which involved accusations of witchcraft, is found in the Norfolk quarter sessions order books. In 1652 Mary Childerhouse petitioned that a group of her neighbours “plotted her ruin and the destruction of her body by witchcraft”. This was, however, only one of a series of complaints she made against her neighbours, with whom she was clearly unpopular. “Idle boys and rude people disturbed her in her trading”, and a “lusty young woman dressed as a man beat down her windows and threatened her”. When she complained, “they imprisoned her unjustly and took her goods”. Two local justices were requested to look into the matter, but no further action appears to have been taken at the time.
Two years later, in 1654, Mary Childerhouse was again petitioning the court regarding further disputes. Here the order book described her as “impoverished … aged and unable to prosecute law”. It is interesting to reflect on whether the response to the complaints would have been the same if it had been a group accusing the aged Childerhouse of witchcraft rather than the other way round. Clearly in this case the complaints of one aged woman against a number of neighbours brought no action, as three years later, in January 1657, Childerhouse was still complaining that six of her neighbours “endeavoured her destruction by poison, and to spoil her estate by witchcraft, fire and knives”. However, it is interesting to note that Childerhouse, a woman so poor that she was “unable to prosecute law”, was still able to take her complaint before the justices. She was another example of someone from the poorest social class who was able to take advantage of the flexible nature of the early modern judicial system to ensure that her complaint was heard, even if she did not get the result she wanted.
The episode that resulted in more witchcraft accusations in East Anglia than at any other time was of course that involving Matthew Hopkins and his associates. However, an interpretation of the Norfolk cases involved is problematic, not least because a lack of surviving documents does not allow for any in-depth analysis. For cases heard at Bury St. Edmunds, in neighbouring Suffolk, there is at least some material that details what those brought to trial were accused of and what they were purported to have confessed to. In Norfolk, however, all we have are the indictments recorded in the quarter sessions books. These are characteristically formulaic and in many cases state only that the accused consulted with spirits, or fed and entertained the devil. Occasionally more specific allegations were made. Maria Vervy of Great Yarmouth was said to have been responsible for the deaths of three children, but was found not guilty; Elizabeth Bradwell, also of Great Yarmouth, was accused of the death of another child, found guilty and hanged. There is no detail that might allow us to know why one was found guilty and the other not. Five others were found guilty at Great Yarmouth, but we are only told that they practiced witchcraft and consulted and compacted with the devil. At King’s Lynn there is even less detail, the sessions books recording only that nine people were charged with consulting with the devil. Again there is nothing to tell us why six were found not guilty, two guilty and one found to be non compus mentis.
Sharpe has claimed that although the context in which the Hopkins and Stearne cases took place was unusual – a country in the midst of a civil war, the involvement of witch-hunters and the interrogation techniques used – the charges against the accused were not – most were women, most were about cases of harm typical of other prosecutions, and the harm followed some kind of falling out. Unfortunately, the lack of surviving documents means that little can be added from Norfolk to that debate. Eighty-four per cent of those charged were women, typical of the English pattern, and, where the charge is given, it is for harm against children, not uncommon in witchcraft cases.
I would, however, point out an additional unusual circumstance. Hopkins was invited to find witches and was paid for that activity. An entry in the Great Yarmouth assembly book dated 15 August 1645 states that “it is agreed that the gentleman Mr. Hopkins imployed in the countie for discovering & finding out of witches shall be sent for hither to come to Towne; to make search for such wicked p[er]sons if any be here”. The following May the King’s Lynn hall book records that “Aldr Revitt be requested to sende for Mr. Hopkins the witch discoverer to come to Lynne and his charges & Recompence to be borne by the Towne”.
However, whilst Hopkins’ appointment may have been a catalyst for the formal accusations, it was still the neighbours of the accused that brought the complaints. Although the law and the teachings of the church may have provided a framework within which accusations of witchcraft could be made, as other historians of the subject also acknowledge, this was not simply a process being imposed from above – accusers, witnesses and accused all normally lived in the same village, town or district and had often known each other over long periods.
Given the high proportion of women involved in making accusations, neither does the Norfolk evidence support the view that this was some means of imposing patriarchal authority; although this does not rule out the possibility that women accusers and accused were not playing out some sort of power battle within a patriarchal society. In many ways the Norfolk evidence supports the stereotype of an early modern English witchcraft prosecution, if not the stereotypical English witch. Nearly all cases arose from disagreement between neighbours and a good proportion of these involving a refusal of charity.
Apart from some aspects of the Hopkins cases there is little to support the view proposed by Robin Briggs that English witchcraft was not very unlike its European counterpart, as has been traditionally maintained. In Europe witches were part of a circle that attended sabbats. In contrast, virtually all of the Norfolk examples concerned accusations against individuals. Although Briggs points out that in English cases the familiars performed the role of the devil, in only two examinations in Norfolk trials is there any mention of a familiar; in most cases words, in the form of threats, seem to have been the medium by which the maleficium was carried out. The European stereotype also emphasises the demonic pact, yet again, outside of Hopkins, there is little mention of this. Even in the Norfolk cases involving the Witchfinder there seems to be an obvious reason why the association with spirits and the devil should be cited, particularly in such formulaic indictments. It was important for the process of law that the indictment was worded correctly and made clear that the act under which the charge had been brought had been breached, and the 1604 act made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feed or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”.
Ideas about witchcraft would have entered early modern popular culture in a number of ways. It is certainly likely that people would have heard about the evils of the devil in church sermons and they would also have been brought up learning about a range of popular beliefs concerning witchcraft and magic. Even those who had no direct access to pamphlet accounts of trials are likely to have heard about them in alehouses, particularly the more sensational trials. The most sensational local case to have been written about in early seventeenth-century Norfolk was that of Mary Smith, who was hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616.
Details of the Mary Smith case appeared in a pamphlet published in 1616 by a King’s Lynn clergyman, Alexander Roberts, entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft. After “sundry propositions … plainely discovering the wickedness of that damnable Art”, in which he considers theoretical points, Roberts moves on to describe Mary Smith’s “contract vocally made [with] the Devill … by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied”. The devil is said to have “appeared unto her … in the shape of a blacke man”. This is an interesting early appearance of the devil in this form in one of these narratives. According to Macfarlane the devil never appeared as a man in Essex before 1645, so this may well be an example of a pamphlet that influenced later stories, particularly those that emerged during interrogations by Hopkins and Stearne. The devil is said to have taken advantage of the fact that Mary Smith was “possessed with a wrathful indignation against some of her neighbours, in regard that they made gaine of their buying and selling cheese, which she (using the same trade) could not do, or they better (at the least in her opinion) then she did”.
Roberts goes on to describe the “wicked practise” of Smith against each of her enemies. “The first who tasted the gall of her bitternes was John Orkton a Sailer”, who had hit her son after he had committed some misdemeanours. She “came foorth into the streete, cursing … and wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Of course when he grew ill “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as his toes putrified & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”. Another argument, this time over an accusation of stealing hens, led to Smith wishing the pox to light upon Elizabeth Hancocke. Within three or four hours of the curse being made “she felt a sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body”. The illness went on for several weeks, during which, one night “the bed upon which she lay, was so tossed, and lifted up and downe, both in her owne feeling, and in the sight of others”. Eventually Hancocke’s father consulted a cunning man who, after showing him Mary Smith’s face in a mirror, gave him a recipe for a ‘witch cake’, which cured her. However, unfortunately for her, her husband became annoyed with Mary Smith’s cat and “thrust it twice through with his sword … and stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staffe”. Not surprisingly, his wife’s condition returned.
The stories continued: she picked a quarrel with Cicely Balye, a neighbouring servant, and the next night a cat sat upon Balye’s breast so that she could not breathe properly and she “fell sicke, languished, and grew exceeding leane”. The illness continued for six months until she moved away, then she recovered. Edmund Newton, who was also a cheese seller, was able to do a better deal than Mary Smith when buying cheese. However, every time he bought cheese he became grievously afflicted. When he lay suffering in bed Smith appeared to him “and whisked about his face … a wet cloath of very loathsome savour”, after which someone with a “little bush beard” appeared telling him that he had come to heal his sore leg, which by now had cloven feet. Later, imps appeared in the form of a toad and some crabs and crawled about the house until one of the servants caught the toad and put it on the fire, which caused Mary Smith to endure “tortured pains testified by her outcries”. However, Newton’s illness continued, despite his attempts to break the curse by scratching the witch, as whenever he tried “his nailes turned like feathers”.
These narratives are interesting for several reasons. Not only do they tell us something about early modern popular beliefs regarding witchcraft, but it is also likely that ideas from them were passed on to others at the time, for several of the features of earlier pamphlets such as this recur in later trials. As I have already mentioned the devil in the form of a black man reappears in the 1645 Hopkins trials at Bury St. Edmunds. So do the imps or familiars that Edmund Newton claims appeared to him. Throwing a toad or frog into the fire to cause distress to the witch is another feature that reappears in seventeenth century Norfolk cases. When Amea Winter of Grimston was accused of bewitching Alexander Turner in 1627 “two thinges like unto a frogg & a toade”, presumably Winter’s familiars, appeared, but one was caught by John Piper who “held it in the fire untill such tyme as it was burnt”, causing Amea Winter to become lame. Witch cakes provided by cunning men and scratching the witches face to counter their power both also commonly recur.
However, these narratives leave many more questions to be asked than they answer. The behaviour of Mary Smith is again similar to that which might have seen her charged with scolding – if it hadn’t been for the illnesses that were claimed to have followed. So what was the truth about these claimed illnesses? Presumably at least some of the facts could be checked when complaints were made to the justices. If John Orkton’s fingers had really rotted and been cut off then this would have been apparent. Did Mary Smith perhaps know that he already had a problem with his fingers and made a nasty comment about it that eventually came true, or was Orkton just lying and she never even made such a curse? Elizabeth Hancocke’s bed couldn’t lift up and down on its own, so clearly she and the claimed witnesses to it were lying. And what are we to make of Edmund Newton’s claims that his feet had become cloven? We can, of course, never really know the truth; the main thing was that the justices believed them and the courts believed them. But how much did they question the evidence? The complaints against Mary Smith must have been over a period of time – so why didn’t they complain earlier, or if they did then why wasn’t she charged earlier? Unfortunately the assize records haven’t survived that might have provided some of the answers.
Whilst there has been debate about the usefulness of witchcraft pamphlets as a reflection of what actually happened up to and during the trial, there is no doubt that they are a useful source regarding early modern popular beliefs. They are also interesting because in some ways they stand between elite and popular attitudes towards witchcraft, in that they would have had an educated authorship, often members of the clergy or legal profession who usually had some agenda in writing them, but would have also had to appeal to the tastes of a popular readership. This reflects to an extent the “complex series of transactions between various elite and popular elements” that Clive Holmes has claimed brought about witchcraft prosecutions.
Witchcraft pamphlets would, of course, only have continued to be written whilst there were still witchcraft trials to write about. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there were fewer trials as the authorities became more and more sceptical about the whole issue of witchcraft and courts became much less likely to convict. Although this meant the death of the witchcraft pamphlet it didn’t mean the sudden death of a popular belief in witchcraft. Even in the later seventeenth century people were still making accusations that their misfortunes were the result of witchcraft, and some of the accused still believed that they had the power to carry out the acts. When Mary Neale of Wissenset, Norfolk, confessed in 1678 that she was the cause of the deaths of three local people she also told that two other women were involved with her. Both of these, however, denied the charge. But Neale was only too ready to admit to her witchcraft, signing a confession and crying out, “O wicked wretch that I am, I have destroyed two poore soules”. She was one of the few accused in Norfolk for whom evidence survives who admitted to using familiars in her craft. She claimed to have “sent a mouse” to Alice Atkins “wch did soone dispatch her in five dayes”. She also said that one of her accused accomplices “did send a Duck to John Willis … who soon died”. She also claimed to keep two imps, John and Robert, though did not expand on what form they took. Popular beliefs clearly did not change overnight.
In many respects this analysis of seventeenth-century Norfolk trials supports the models already developed around early modern witchcraft. The gender breakdown of those accused – about eighty-five per cent female, fifteen per cent male – is similar to that found in other English counties. The pattern of prosecutions was obviously affected by the outbreak of cases in the 1640s brought about by the influence of Matthew Hopkins and his associates, but apart from that aberration we see the decline in prosecutions towards the end of the century that was experienced elsewhere. Even the context in which many of the disputes took place fits the stereotype developed by Alan Macfarlane; many cases involved refusal of charity and acts of maleficium occurring after a falling out.
There is little to support the radical feminist view that witchcraft accusations were used as some sort of patriarchal technique to keep women under control. In fact, the main aspect of the Norfolk cases that seems to be somewhat out of line with other studies is that women were in the majority in making the lead, or most recent, complaint; in Norfolk it was often men who backed this up with older stories. As I have already mentioned, one of the main conclusions to come from the surviving evidence, and this agrees with what Macfarlane found in Essex, is that people were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours. Most historians now accept the view that witchcraft accusations were not simply imposed ‘from above’, but that a complex set of relationships existed between local elites and the poor that provided a framework within which these accusations could be made and pursued through to their legal conclusion.
We can now only speculate as to why neighbours made these complaints. Given the contemporary belief in the powers of witches, it is perhaps not surprising that when they needed an explanation for why things had gone inexplicably wrong they should blame someone they thought capable of witchcraft. This might well lead us to ask the question, originally posed by Robin Briggs, why were there not even more prosecutions than there were? Some of the Norfolk depositions give the impression that there may also have been strategic accusations, either to gain some sort of revenge for a past wrong or to enable the accusers to rid themselves of someone who they did not like or with whom they had been involved in some sort of interpersonal dispute. The very fact that witches were often only accused after a long period of suspicion means that there had been time for disagreements to develop and fester until an opportunity to solve it once and for all presented itself.
 Over the last thirty years or so witchcraft has been the subject of an enormous amount of research and a wealth of literature has been produced. Amongst the most accessible works on witchcraft in early modern England are James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (London, 1996) and Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996) and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours. The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (London, 1996) draw on both the English and continental European experience.
 33 Henry VIII, cap. 8.
 5 Eliz I, cap. 16.
 1 James I, cap. 12.
 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 568.
 J.A. Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women in seventeenth-century England: some Northern evidence”, Continuity and Change volume 6, no. 2 (1991), p. 192.
 Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, Past and Present 140 (1993), pp. 56 – 8.
 B. Ehrenreich and D. English, Witches, Midwives and Healers: A History of Women Healers (London, 1974), p. 6.
 Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches, pp. 108, 199.
 Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in early modern Europe, p. 296.
 J.A. Sharpe, “Women, Witchcraft and the Legal Process”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts, p. 120.
 John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts (London, 1646), pp. 4 – 5.
 B.P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London, 1987), p. 143.
 Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 161.
 Herrup, Common Peace, p. 33.
 Norfolk Record Office. Wells Parish Register. PD 679/1, fol. 43, records the burials of four men “whose deaths were brought to pass by the detestable working of an Excerable Witch of King’s Lynn whose name was Mother Gabley, by the Boiling or rather labouring of Certain Eggs in a pail full of cold water. Afterwards approv’d sufficiently at the arraignment of the said witch”; Palmer, History of Great Yarmouth, volume 1, p. 273.
 Due to the lack of surviving assize records for this period, the most detailed account of the alleged activities and the trial of Mary Smith is a pamphlet written by Alexander Roberts entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft (London, 1616).
 See especially Underdown Revel, Riot and Rebellion, chapter 2.
 For a discussion of the circumstances surrounding these cases, see J.A. Sharpe, “The devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins trials reconsidered”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, pp. 237 – 254.
 This compares with ninety-two per cent in the 1645 Essex trials. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 160.
 This compares with Kent assizes where widows accounted for twenty-six per cent of prosecuted witches between 1565 and 1635 and thirty-seven per cent during the Interregnum. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 49.
 Sharpe has claimed that “English witches … were rarely accused of … consorting with evil spirits”. J.A. Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Harlow, 2001), p. 40. Whilst it is true that the depositions do not contain this allegation, the formulaic Norfolk indictments often do.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting, John Calfe, Elizabeth Pitts, Frances Beales, Susan Major, 22.5.1679.
 Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, pp. 54 – 5.
 Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women”, p. 191 – 2.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of John Calfe, 22.5.1679.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, February 1678.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/15 part 1, articles against [blank] Betteris, undated.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/19, examination of Anthony Leland, 28.5.1614.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe, 30.9.1670.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting; information of Elizabeth Pitts, 22.5.1679.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/13a, information of Thomas Burke, 2.3.1602.
 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 634; Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, p. 53.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, Mary Crispe, February 1678.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Daniel Jecks, 22.5.1679.
 Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, chapter 8; Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, chapter 5.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/41a, examination of Christopher Hall, 26.8.1654. See also NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/3, fol. 122: Thomas Wolterton prosecuted for using enchantments and charms to find lost property; Y/S1/2, fol. 196: Marcus Prynne prosecuted for using witchcraft to discover the whereabouts of lost money.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe 30.9.1670.
 See Annabel Gregory, “Witchcraft, Politics and ‘Good Neighbourhood’ in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye”, Past and Present 133 (1991), pp. 31 – 66, regarding the argument that some witchcraft accusations may have been strategic.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions order book, C/S2/1, petitions of Mary Childerhouse 13.1.1652, 10.1.1654, 13.1.1657.
 British Library, Add. MSS. 27402, fols. 104 – 21.
 NRO, Great Yarmouth assembly book 1642 – 1662, Y/C19/7, fol. 71v.
 NRO, King’s Lynn hall book 8, 1637 – 1658, KL/C7/10, fol. 187.
 For this view see Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze. A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco, 1994) and Hester, Lewd women and wicked witches.
 Willis, Malevolent Nurture.
 Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, pp. 28 – 53.
 Although, as I have pointed out, there are a large number of cases where details of events leading up to a trial have not survived.
 1 James I, cap. 12.
 Interestingly, John Stearne claimed that sermons drawing attention to the power of the devil and his ability to torment the wicked had actually attracted some people to him. See John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 59.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 46.
 Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 189. Although this may be an early reference to the devil appearing in this form, the fact that witchcraft was carried out in the devil’s name was popularly believed in early modern England. According to William Perkins “a witch is a magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders”. William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608), p. 3. The devil appeared in other forms in other early witchcraft pamphlets. The Apprehension and Confession of three notorious Witches, concerning the trial and execution of three women condemned at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1589, tells that Joan Cunny, one of the three, learned her art from one “Mother Humphrey … who told her that she must kneel down on her knees, and make a circle on the ground, and pray unto Satan the chief of the devils”. One of the other accused, Joan Prentiss, told that “the Devil appeared unto her … in the shape and proportion of a dunnish-colored ferret” who then carried out her evil work. The other two also admitted to having familiars to do their work, two black frogs, a mole and two toads. Reprinted in Joseph H. Marshburn and Alan R. Velie, Blood and Knavery. A Collection of English Renaissance Pamphlets and Ballads of Crime and Sin (Cranbury, NJ, 1973), pp. 80 – 8.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 45.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 48.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 50 – 4.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 55 – 6.
 Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 57 – 8.
 The devil appeared in this form to Mary Bush of Bacton, Suffolk. He promised her that she would never want and “us’d to have the use of her body two or three times a weeke”. Stearne, Confirmation and Discovery, p. 29.
 NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/26, articles against Amea Winter, dated 23.5 1627.
 Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 85; Walker, “Demons in female form”, p.124.
 Clive Holmes “Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates, and Divines in Early Modern England”, in S.L. Kaplan, ed., Understanding Popular Culture. Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Berlin, 1984), p. 87. See also Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, p. 179.
 Freely given confessions such as Neale’s illustrate that accused witches were not always the victims of malicious prosecution. See also Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 71.
 PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, Information of Mary Neale, 25.2.1678.
 For a case of a mentally disturbed woman who confessed that she had the power to use imps to carry out acts of maleficium, see Malcolm Gaskill, “Witchcraft and power in early modern England: the case of Margaret Moore”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts.
 Robin Briggs, Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tensions in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1989), p. 22.
Every summer, Queen Elizabeth I would leave her great palaces, which were all in or around London, and embark on a tour of her country. These tours were called ‘Progresses’ and, apparently, the Queen enjoyed them very much – who wouldn’t when the hosts would feel ‘obliged’ to lavish small fortunes on providing, accommodation, banquets and entertainment. These ‘soirees’ were a kind of fun holiday for her, a refreshing change from all the tensions of court life, and were a wonderful way for her to meet her ordinary subjects. The official line at the time was that her people enjoyed these Progresses too, as it was a chance for them to see their beloved Queen. Over the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth visited many cities, towns and villages in England.
A Royal Progress took a lot of preparation and money the Queen’s ministers, courtiers, and servants did not share her enthusiasm for them. In fact, all the work involved, and all the dangers public travel constituted for the Queen, caused them a lot of headaches! But for others. all the work entailed was worth it for they always felt that these Progresses were great successes. The Queen would leave in procession from one of her palaces, seated on a horse or in a litter or coach, and her courtiers would accompany her, followed by hundreds of carts carrying their goods. So it was when Queen Elizabeth I decreed that she wished to visit Norwich – but only after pursuing her Royal Progress to ‘various houses of standing throughout Suffolk’. This journey was termed her ‘Eastern Progress’. The following is just a brief glimpse of her final destination – Norwich:
On the 16th August in the year of 1578, the Queen, having departed Suffolk, began her ‘Royal Progress’ in Norwich. Arrangements had been made in the City for Her Majesty and her London train of followers to stay for five days with the Queen lodging at the Bishop’s Palace. The Mayor of Norwich greeted the royal party at Hartford Bridge and escorted the Queen and her entourage into the City.
Preparations for this visit had started in June when St Stephen’s Gate was refurbished, streets were repaired and tidied, and the wall of St John’s Maddermarket churchyard was rebuilt (see above). Pageants, shows and feasts had been planned for her entertainment, principally allied to the trade and manufacturing of the City. In the Cathedral, a series of eleven large coats of arms were painted on the north wall of the cloister and a magnificent throne was prepared for her opposite the tomb of her great-grandfather, Sir William Boleyn. His tomb bears the Boleyn arms which could well have been a poignant reminder to the Queen – her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed on the orders of her father, Henry VIII!
After five exhausting days of being feted, entertained and lectured, Queen Elizabeth I departed the City on the 22nd August, 1578. It was said that ‘the Norwich orators, unquestionably to the last, sought to inflict yet another endless oration – what one commentator called “grovelling rubbish” – on the Queen’, as her Norwich visit came to an end. Anxious to avoid another long speech, she instructed her Lord Chamberlain to tell the Mayor, politely but firmly, that Her Majesty would prefer to have the manuscript of the speech in order that she might enjoy it at her leisure! The manuscript was handed over and ‘was no doubt put to some laudable culinary, or other, use later in the day’.
Wherever she had gone, the streets had been packed so densely that the onlookers could barely move. On one occasion, a ‘comely bachelor’, dressed as King Gurguntius, the mythical founder of Norwich and builder of the earliest Norwich Castle, had addressed her for some considerable time. Then a boy in a silk turban, who stood on a platform along the route, delivered yet more orations which was followed by ‘delicate music’.
The following account of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Norwich in 1578 comes from Agnes Strickland’s 1844 Book titled ” Lives of Queens of England from the Norman Conquest…Volume 6″:
Her Majesty spent ten days at various seats in Suffolk, and having been received on the borders of Norfolk by the Cavaliers of the County of Norfolk, approached Norwich, as near as Braken Ash, on the 16th of August. At the western boundary of the City of Norwich, at Harford Bridge, the Mayor of Norwich welcomed the Queen with a long Latin speech, which he recited in a manner that did great credit to mayors in general. The purpose of it was to offer a cup of silver, with a cover, containing 100 pounds in gold. Lifting the cover, the Mayor said to Her Majesty, “Here is one hundred pounds of pure gold. It is said that as one of the Queen’s footmen advanced to take it, the Queen said to him, thinking he might not have understood the learned Mayor’s Latin, “Look to it, there is a hundred pound.”
When the Royal procession had advanced “within a flight-shot of the metropolis of the east of England, and in a spot commanding a good view of the Castle of Blancheflower (now Norwich Castle), which stands like a mural crown above the city of Norwich, a pageant arrested the attention of the Queen”. Here, a person representing King Gurgunt who, traditionally, was said to have built Norwich Castle and the founding of Cambridge University, explained in verse his ancient doings in Norwich. Then another Pageant met her at St. Stephen’s Gates, “from whence, says the annals of the City, “an enormous muck-hill had been recently removed for the occasion.” There followed a series of “allegories which bestowed their tediousness on the Queen”, before the Queen arrived at the only Pageant of real interest to her – some elements of which are said to still be displayed at Norwich elections, and other grand occasions, to this day. This particular Pageant was called “The Stranger’s Pageant,” a show depicting Queen Philippa’s industrious Flemish Colony,- “ a separate and peculiar people in Norwich”. This was performed on a stage, where seven looms were actively at work with their separate weavers. Over the first loom was written the “Weaving of Worsted;” over the second, the “Weaving of Russels,” a sort of Norwich crape. Among the other looms were “the weaving of lace and of fringe, and several other manufactures which it would be vain to seek as Norwich produced”.
Upon the stage stood, at one end, “eight small women-children” spinning worsted yarn; at the other end, as many knitting of worsted hose; – and in the midst a ‘pretty boy’ stood forth, and stayed Her Majesty’s Progress with an address in verse, declaring, that in this small show, the city’s wealth was seen.”
“From combed wool we draw this slender thread,
(Showing the spinners.)
From thence the looms have dealing with the same;
(Showing the weaving in progress.)
And thence again, in order do proceed
These several works, which skilful art doth frame;
And all to drive dame Need into her cave,
Our heads and hands together laboured have.
We bought before, the things that now we sell,
These slender imps, their work doth pass the waves.
(Showing the women-children, spinners, and knitters.)
God’s peace and thine we hold, and prosper well,
Of every mouth, the hands, the charges saves.
Thus, through thy help and aid of power Divine,
Doth Norwich live, whose hearts and goods are thine.”
Elizabeth had the good sense to be particularly pleased with this Pageant; “she desired to examine the knitting and yarn of the ‘small women-children’. “She perused the looms attentively and returned great thanks for this show”.
A grand pageant thwarted the entrance of the marketplace from St Stephen’s-street.” Here the Queen was addressed by seven female worthies, among which were Debora, Judith, Esther, the City of Norwich and Queen Martia who described herself thus:
“I am that Martia bright, who sometime ruled this land,
As queen, for thirty-three years space, gat licence at the hand
Of that Gurguntius king, my husband’s father dear,
Who built this town and castle, both, to make our homage here;
Which homage, mighty queen, accept,—the realm and right are thine;
The crown, the sceptre, and the sword, to thee we do resign.”
Thus Elizabeth was welcomed at various stations in Norwich till she reached the Cathedral, where she attended ‘Te Deum’ and, finally, arrived at the Bishop’s Palace; where she sojourned during her stay at Norwich.
On the Monday morning, “a very excellent boy,” representing Mercury, was driven at full speed through the city in a fantastic car, painted with birds and clouds, the horses being dressed out with wings; and Mercury himself appeared in an azure satin jerkin, and a mantle of gold cloth. He was driven into the “preaching green,” on the north side of the Bishop’s Palace, where the queen, looking out of her bed-chamber window, beheld him jump off his car and approach the window in such a sort, that Her Majesty “was seen to smile at the boldness of the boy.” He looked at the Queen with courage and audacity, then bowed down his head, “shaked his rod,” and commenced an unmercifully long string of verses; but the gist of his message was, “that if Her Highness pleased to take the air that day, there were shows and devices to be seen abroad.” Unfortunately, it rained hard, and the Queen did not venture out.
The next day, Her Majesty was engaged to hunt in Sir Henry Jerningham’s park at Costessey. As she passed out of St. Bennet’s Gates, master Mercury and all the heathen deities were stationed there with speeches, and presents of small value. Among others, Jupiter gave her a riding rod made of whale’s fin. Venus presented her with a white dove. The little creature was so tame, that, when cast off, it made directly to the Queen, and sat before her all the time as quietly as if it listened to the speeches.
The Queen, and the French ambassadors who were in her train, dined on Wednesday with the young Earl of Surrey, heir of her victim the beheaded Duke of Norfolk. His residence was not at the famous Duke’s Palace, in Norwich (now utterly destroyed), but at a conventual structure by the water-side, at present in good preservation; not very large, but suitable to the altered fortunes of the young Heir of Howard.
The queen left Norwich on the Friday, and as she bade an affectionate farewell to Norwich; she Knighted the Mayor, and told him “she would never forget his city.” When on her departure, she looked back, and with water in her eyes and shaking her riding whip, said, “Farewell, Norwich!”
Two days later, on the 24th August, the joy and festivity of the Queen’s visit to the City of Norwich was succeeded by the most severe of afflictions. Her Majesty’s London train of followers had brought disease with them. The Norwich Roll recorded ‘her majesty’s carriage being many of then infected, left the plague behind them, which afterwards so increased and continued, as it raged above a year and three-quarters after’ Some 2,335 natives, including ten Aldermen and ‘alien strangers’, died of it between the August and February of the following year.
During the infection, it was ordered that anyone coming from an infected house should carry, in his hand, a small white wand, 2 feet in length: no such person should appear at any Court, or public place, or be present at any Sermon. The following inscription should be put over the door of every infected house: ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us’ and there it must remain until the house has been clear of the infection for one month at least. No person who had been afflicted should appear abroad until it had been entirely healed for the space of twenty days.
Meet John ‘Jack’ Slack, alias the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, alias the ‘Knight of the Cleaver’; a bare knuckle fighter, who was the champion of what is thought to be the first international Heavyweight fight which took place in 1754.
Jack Slack was said to have been born in Thorpe, Norwich, Norfolk, in 1721, where he ran a butchers shop (hence his nickname), Slack was reputedly the grandson of another famous fighter, James Figg, the first English bare knuckle boxing champion.
A contemporary description of Slack says that he was five foot eight inches and a half in height and weighed almost fourteen stone. His physique was ‘compact . . . superior to the generality of men in strength and of excellent bottom.’ He changed his style of fighting to suit his opponent and often came out the victor, punching his opponents with such force that the term ‘a slack’un’ came into general use, meaning a ‘smashing hit.’ In 1743 Slack became the Champion of Norfolk after defeating three local men in boxing matches and by 1748 his renown was such that he sold on his butchery business to his brother and moved to London where his reputation as a fighter continued to grow.
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, Slack threw down a challenge to the formerly invincible Jack Broughton (a man some years older than he and known as the ‘Father of Boxing’ who had been taught by Slack’s grandfather, James Figg). Slack, who possessed a talent for getting under other fighters’ skins had, according to the Derby Mercury of 6 April 1750, instigated a dispute with Broughton earlier in the month, during a controversial election campaign in Brentford, which was dogged by allegations of corruption. For reasons unknown, this altercation about the election had resulted in “personal abuse” being exchanged between the two pugilists.
Subsequently, so the Mercury claimed, during a bout at the amphitheatre, Slack “came upon the stage” and “offered to fight Mr Broughton immediately for 20 guineas”. Broughton declined the offer, arguing that he was “not immediately prepared” whereas Slack had been “in keeping some months”. However Broughton did agree to a contest the following month, and a bout was duly arranged for 11 April 1750. In fact, Broughton was eager for the fight – or for the money to be derived from it! He regarded Slack with the utmost contempt and made no sort of preparation; also, so afraid was he that the ‘butcher’ might not turn up at the last minute that he gave him ten guineas to make sure of him! The betting was 10-1 on Broughton when the men appeared in the ring. After all, as boxing went in those days, he did know something about defence, and he was master of two famous blows, one for the body and one under the ear, which were said to terrify his opponents. As for Slack, there was nothing elegant about him. His attitude was said to be ugly and awkward, he was strong and healthy but quite untrained in the true meaning of the word. Standing only 5 feet 8 inches he still weighed as much as 14 stone, nearly as much as his antagonist, who was a taller man.
The match duly taking place on the 11th April 1750, backed by one of Broughton’s patrons, the Duke of Cumberland – he himself to be known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising). This Duke was so enthusiastic at the prospect earning a considerable sum of money for this fight that, it was said, he bet 1,000 guineas on Broughton.
The match lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, a blow from Slack between the eyes blinded Broughton, and Slack had only to continue hitting him until he was unable to rise again. Slack, it seems, easily emerged as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself not less than 600 guineas. As for the Duke of Cumberland; well, he was quite upset by the loss of his money. At first he told everyone that he had been “sold,” though later on he appeared to have forgiven Broughton and pensioned him. But not so! He went to Parliament, where he was very influential, and had legislation passed that closed Broughton’s Amphitheatre. Thereafter, and to the end of his days, “he could never speak of this contest with any degree of temper.” As for Broughton, he never again raised his fists for money, except to instruct the young and hopeful with the mufflers. When he died, on 8 January 1789, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only boxer to be so honoured.
Four years later, on the 29th July 1754, Slack was back in his home county of Norfolk, challenging the Frenchman Monsieur Jean Petit (or Pettit) to a match. Pettit was a muscular giant of a man, reputed to have previously exhibited himself in a circus as a ‘strong man.’ This boxing match took place at Harleston. A letter reporting the fight appeared in the newspapers just days later. This one is taken from the London Evening Post and dated 3rd August 1754.
Extract of a Letter from Harleston in Norfolk, July 30.
‘Yesterday in the Afternoon Slack and Pettit met and fought. At the first Set-to, Pettit seized Slack by the Throat, and held him up against the Rails, and grain’d him so much as to make him turn extremely black. This continued for Half a Minute before Slack could break Pettit’s Hold; after which, for near ten Minutes, Pettit kept fighting and driving hard at Slack; when at length Slack clos’d with his Antagonist, and gave him a very severe Fall; after that, a second and third. But between these Falls, Pettit threw Slack twice off the Stage; and indeed, Pettit so much dreaded Slack’s Falls, that he ran directly at his Hams, and tumbled him down; and by that Means gave Slack an Opportunity of making the Falls very easy.
When they had been fighting eighteen Minutes, the Odds ran against Slack a Guinea to a Shilling; whereas, on first setting out, it was three or four to one on his Head. But after this Time Slack shorten’d Pettit so, as to disable him from running and throwing him down in the Manner he had done before, but obliged him to stand close fighting. Slack then closed one of his Eyes, and beat him very much about the Face. At twenty Minutes Pettit grew weaker, Slack stronger; this was occasion’d by Slack’s strait Way of fighting. At twenty-two Minutes, the best Judges allow’d Slack to have the Advantage over Pettit very considerably, as he was then recovering his Wind, which was owing to Game.
When they had boxed twenty-four Minutes, Pettit threw Slack again over the rails; this indeed Slack suffer’d him to do, as by that Means he fix’d a Blow under Pettit’s Ribs, that hurt him much; whilst Slack was again getting upon the Stage (it was not Half a Minute before he was remounted) Pettit had so much the Fear of his Antagonist before his Eyes, that he walked off without so much as civilly taking Leave of the Spectators, or saying any Thing to any Person, this the Cockers call Roguing of it; for it is generally thought that Pettit ran away full strong. The whole Time of their fighting was twenty-five Minutes, and this Morning the Battle was given to Slack, who drew the first Ten Guineas out of the Box. Thus ended this dreadful Combat. The Box was Sixty-six Pounds Ten Shillings’.
Although sometimes mentioned as a ‘dirty fighter’, victories continued for Jack Slack until 1760 when he finally lost to Bill Stevens (the Nailer) at a bout on a stage erected for the purpose of the fight in the Tennis Court, James Street, London on the 17th June 1760. The Duke of Cumberland, who ten years previously had been the patron of Broughton, found that he really did miss the sport despite the money that that earlier fight had cost him. This time he backed Jack Slack, by not only arranging for the bout to be held in London, with no interference from the law, but also placing a bet on him. However, this time the sum was 100 Guineas, but at least it showed that his heart was still in the game. Unfortunately, the Duke was again on the losing side on three counts; Slack lost the championship, the Duke lost his 100 guineas together with any further interest in boxing.
Feature Photo (Above): – “The Bruiser Bruisd; Or, The Knowing Ones Taken-in” is by an unknown artist in 1750. It depicts the boxing match between Jack Slack and John Broughton in the same year. Newspapers at the time noted how Broughton feared that Slack would not turn up to fight, and so offered him ten guineas ‘not to break his engagement’. It was also said that Broughton was the superior boxer at the beginning of the fight and that the odds were ten to one in his favour. However, confidence was short-lived as Slack ‘put in a desperate hit between Broughton’s eyes, which immediately closed them up’. The blood pouring from the left eye of Broughton is indicative of this wound and the faces of the audience reflect the disbelief that the British Champion had been beaten by Slack in just fourteen minutes. This unlikely result sparked rumours that the match had been fixed, although there does not appear to have been any evidence to confirm this. The spectator depicted directly behind Broughton in a state of disbelief is possibly the Duke of Cumberland, Broughton’s patron who ‘lost several thousand’ on a bet. The Gentleman on both sides of the gallery are pictured giving money to men by their sides, having lost their bets too. The Title implies that the ‘knowing’ spectators were ‘taken in’ by Broughton, however an attempt to incriminate Broughton by emphasising his larger frame in comparison to Slack, is overshadowed by the emphasis placed generally on the exchange of money. Money is presented as underpinning the sport; inviting the viewer to question the honesty of professional boxing. It is possible that the prospect of profiting was an incentive for boxers and patrons to conspire and fool others.
Slack, after this, mostly retired from boxing himself and instead concentrated on his butchery trade. Many sources say he possibly opened a shop on London’s Chandos Street in Covent Garden (he had appeared in the rate books for this street in 1750), but at the time of his fight with the Nailer in 1760, he was reported in the newspapers to be settled at Bristol. He still kept his hand in by training other fighters, possibly running a boxing school in Bristol (he was rumoured to occasionally fix fights for his protégées), and just occasionally was mentioned as fighting himself.
The London Chronicle newspaper, on the 5th January 1765, reported that:
“Slack, the famous Boxer, who has been for some time in Dublin, is under an engagement to fight one Weyburn, a noted bruiser there, for a considerable sum”.
Three years and six months after this fight John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
Jack Slack was still remembered some years after his death, the St. James’s Chronicle reporting on the 11th September 1781, and placing him alongside some very noteworthy personalities:
“Some Years ago the three most remarkable Personages of the Age were Kitty Fisher, Lord B__te, and Slack, the Bruiser. At the present Day, says a Correspondent, the three most remarkable Personages are, the Perdita, Doctor Adelphi, and Sir Jeffery Dunstan”.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book of AD 1080, Wolterton (near Calthorpe and Itteringham) was listed as both Ultertuna and Wivetuna, having 4 smallholders on the land with ½ a plough team on 16 acres. Land valued at 16 shillings (80p) was also held by the Abbot of St. Benedict at Holme before 1066 but at the survey it was valued at 20 shillings (£1). The main landholder was the Norman nobelman, William de Warenne. Always a small village, Wolterton’s Lay Subsidy records for 1332 and 1334 indicate it was well below average in size. The parish was subsequently consolidated with Wickmere.
In 1725, the estate was purchased by the first Baron Walpole. The original Hall burnt down and was rebuilt by Horatio Walpole (second Baron), who employed the Yorkshire-born architect Thomas Ripley and work began on the red-brick house in 1727. The interior featured state rooms containing Gobelins tapestries while the surrounding 150-acre parkland within the 500-acre private estate was landscaped to include a lake and avenue of oak and beech trees.
During the 1700’s, it became ‘fashionable’ for Lords of the Manor to remove any property on their estates, which they either considered an eyesore or which spoilt their view. Known as Emparkment, this ‘option’ was exercised on estates nationwide including Felbrigg, Holkham and Houghton amongst others in Norfolk. A similar fate also affected Wolterton which also gradually became abandoned, leaving only the church tower, north of the Hall. A local map of 1733 shows the deserted settlement lying slightly north of the church. This had previously contained several houses clustered around a village green. The remaining Wolterton inhabitants – located near St Margaret’s church – were removed as part of the redesigning programme. Their settlement was located around a rectangular green where today, a visible hollow way still remains. Field walkers and metal detectorists have discovered medieval and post-medieval pottery, coins and metalwork on the site.
Wolterton’s “demise” seems to have begun in 1722, when Horatio Walpole started buying land in the parish and began planning a new mansion, surrounded by an ornamental park. Neither church, village nor Tudor Manor-House (which burnt down in 1724 and remains demolished), were included in the new scheme. It then seems rapid progress followed within a decade for in 1737, the Rev. George England arrived in Wolterton, to become its last ever priest. Consolidation of the parish with nearby Wickmere soon followed the same year, before Wolterton’s last church marriage was held in 1740. Between 1742-46, cottages were demolished (except for the parsonage) and dispersed away from the church. The last recorded burial was in 1747 and the final baptism, in 1765. Records also indicate that by the mid 1700’s, the church aisle, porch and vestry had already been demolished and in 1797, a local contractor (William Ward) was paid to demolish both the nave and chancel, leaving almost nothing.
By 1741, Wolterton Hall was being rebuilt by Horatio Walpole whose brother Sir Robert Walpole – then Britain’s first Prime Minister – was simultaneously building Houghton Hall. It’s also likely that Horatio removed much of the church stonework after St.Margaret’s had faithfully served local men and women of centuries past. But the last churchyard burials coincided with construction of the new estate, although records suggest some services were still held at Wolterton for a short time after Consolidation. The churches and buildings historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed the living was consolidated with Wickmere in 1737, hence construction of the Hall involved moving a village that was in the way. More houses were demolished with only the tower left as a ‘view’ from the house.
Since St Margaret’s demise, Walpole family members have been interred in a vault at St Andrew’s Church, in nearby Wickmere. So today, Wolterton’s medieval church of St Margaret’s is just a ruin with only its late Saxon round tower – refaced in brick during the 14th century – remaining. Made of knapped flint with brick and stone dressings, it became a Grade II listed building on 4th October 1960 and interestingly, the official Listing Schedule places the building in Wickmere, Norwich, NR11. William Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk marked it as a ruin. It’s tempting to think rubble from the church plus its foundations might still lie under remaining mounds. Archaeologically, they remain unexcavated but are protected, as an Ancient Monument.
In the 1830’s, the lake was enhanced by adding an island planted with cedar trees. The present Hall and estate had once been occupied by an earlier Manor House, owned by Sir Henry Spelman (1562 – 1641), born in Congham near Kings Lynn. He was an Englsh antiquarian, noted for detailed collections of medieval records, particularly of church councils. Whites Directory of Norfolk (1845) records Wolterton only had 43 souls.
It seems likely that some church contents still live on, after being moved to Wickmere which today, has a huge ‘Armada’ Chest and painted panel, attached to its pulpit. The font seems to have moved to Mannington Church. Two bells were still in Wolterton’s Tower in 1807 (says the Church Terrier). The Latin inscription on one bell – (‘Robert Plummer made me in honour of St Margaret’) – suggests it was of pre-Reformation date.
Former public lanes in the original parish were moved beyond its boundaries leaving the tower in isolation. Wolterton Park and gardens were laid out in grand manner around 1730, from plans made by the King’s Garden Designer and Royal Gardener, Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738). After Horatio Walpole became a Baron in 1756 the grounds were extended to form a North Park, where the tower still remains, its ruin retained as a romantic ‘eye-catcher’ in the landscape as was then fashionable. This may have preserved it from random demolition for its materials.
Remains of the churchyard were cleared in the early 1800s and the tombstones sold off in Norwich by Lord Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1752-1822) including the Scamler memorials. Local folklore however, tells us that the coffins of later Earls were firstly driven several times around the churchyard before being conveyed for burial in the family vault in Wickmere Church. This was to placate the disturbed spirits of the departed!!
The best ghost stories are often discovered by chance. So it was with a certain anonymous Catholic priest in Yorkshire who, in early 2014, happened to come across an old journal. In that journal was a reprint of a story, dated 1736 and titled ‘A Strange Occurrence’. That story, later retold in the book ‘Recollections of Norwich 50 Years Ago’, was written by a Frederick Higbane who, in 1736, had visited Norwich from London and had encountered a ‘ghost’ of a martyred priest at Norwich Cathedral’s mighty Erpingham Gate. It is indeed a curious tale and begins:
“Business chanced to take me many years ago to the ancient city of Norwich where I stayed at a very old Inn, situated in a street called, if my memory serves me right, Maudlin (Magdalen) Street. The room I occupied was a very old-fashioned one. Over the fireplace was a portrait, painted on the wall itself, of a very pale man with black hair, dressed in some sort of ecclesiastical garb and bearing the look of a Jesuit or Romish priest……There was something about this picture that affected me very strongly……Next morning I asked the landlord whose portrait it might be, and he could not enlighten me…..” In the evening the author, Frederick Higbane, then took a walk around Norwich Cathedral:
“I was walking near one of the great gates, which led to the Cathedral, when I suddenly observed a man clothed like a clergyman standing in the angle of a wall directly in front of me. Owing to the dusk I could not see him well until I was close up against him. Then I saw him perfectly clearly, and to my horror his face was terribly swelled, and a rope was drawn tight around his neck. Protruding from his breast was a knife, such as formerly used by executioners for dismembering the bodies of criminals. I could not think why his facial appearance seemed so familiar to me, and then there suddenly flashed across my mind – yes, the portrait in my bedchamber at the inn. For some moments I gazed with the utmost horror, not unmixed with fear, at this awful sight. For a while the figure spoke no words, then I heard a mournful sigh – or was it a groan? Then, as I withdrew, the figure vanished”.
Returning to the inn, believed to be The Maid’s Head which is very close to the Cathedral and Erpingham Gate, Frederick Higbane took another look at the portrait to reassure himself that the vision he had seen was the same man. Then, taking the evidence of the portrait, Higbane further enquired of the landlord if there was a Catholic priest in Norwich and he was directed to a priest in the city.
“To him, therefore I went…….. telling him my strange adventure, he took me into his house and showed me a portrait of the same man. On my inquiring who it might be, he replied “It is the Rev. Thomas Tunstall, a priest, who was executed for the Catholic Faith in 1616 at the gates of the very street in which your inn is situated.” “Why I should have apparently seen his apparition, neither he nor I could form any idea.”
Thomas Tunstall took the College oath at Douay on 24 May 1607 and received minor orders at Arras on 13 June 1609, and the subdiaconate at Douay on 24 June following. His subsequent ordination is not recorded but he left college as a priest on 17 August 1610. What ever he got up to from that date and when he moved to England is something of a mystery, but whatever it was came to the notice of the authorities and he was almost immediately arrested after landing on grounds of his faith. He spent four or five years in various prisons until he succeeded in escaping from Wisbech Castle by rope. However, he sustained injuries to his hands in the process and sought medical help from Lady Alice L’Estrange in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. Unfortunately, her husband, Sir Hamon, reported him to the authorities and he was recaptured and committed to Norwich Gaol.
At the next assizes in July 1616, he was tried and condemned on the 12th of that month. The following day, Thomas Tunstall was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body displayed at various points in the city before being taken down by Catholics and later placed in an altar at Bath. A contemporary report recounts:
“The on lookers, who were very numerous, and amongst them many persons of note, were all sensibly affected with the sight of his death; many shed tears, all spoke kindly and compassionately of him, and appeared edified with his saint-like behaviour. His head was placed on St Benedict’s gate, in Norwich, according to his request; his quarters on the walls of the city. The judge who condemned him died before he had finished his circuit, and most of the jury came to untimely ends, or great misfortunes.”
Now, there is a contemporary portrait of Fr Thomas Tunstall, the martyr, at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. It is not known if this painting is the same one as that which hung in Frederick Higbane’s room in the inn on Maudlin (Magdalene) Street, Norwich in 1736, but, as far as it is known, there are no other images of this martyr. Stonyhurst acquired the portrait in 1828. It is small; approximately 5 inches by 4 inches and is enclosed by a wooden frame. The image shows him as a man still young with abundant black hair and dark moustache. However, it is unlike most paintings of English martyrs which usually show them robed. This portrait presents Tunstall in just his shirt. All these facets do, indeed, indicate a contemporary, if not eye-witness representation of the Martyr – as he may have been at the execution?
Thomas Tunstall was martyred just outside the Erpingham Gate in 1616 and was beatified by Puis XI in 1929.
Old Luke Hansard was born on July 5th, 1752, in Norwich in the day of Wenman Coke. Today in 1952 was when the Spectator Newspaper celebrated Luke’s bicentenary birthday with an article, from the pen (and it probably was a pen in 1952) of Evelyn King. This year of 2018 marks Luke Hansard’s 266th birthday and its seems appropriate and timely to reproduce Evelyn’s contribution whilst taking the liberty to supplement the content with further detail.
Luke Hansard was born in 1752 in the parish of St Mary Coslany; his parents were Thomas and Sarah. In an account of his life, written in 1817 for the benefit of his sons, Luke described his father, Thomas, as a manufacturer, though of what was not revealed. His mother, Sarah, was a clergyman’s daughter from Spilsby in Lincolnshire, but at the time of Luke’s birth, the family fortunes had reached a low ebb and were never to recover.
Little has been said about Luke’s education, except that he was educated in Norwich and at the Free Grammar School in the village of Kirton which lies about four miles south of Boston in Lincolnshire. As someone once said, ‘he got a little but not much education in Lincolnshire’. It was as he approached his fourteenth birthday when his parents thought of apprenticing him to an apothecary, but his ‘gallipot’ Latin was inadequate; so he became apprentice to Stephen White in Cockey Lane, Norwich. Mr White was a printer, medicine-vendor, boat-builder, ballad-writer, general artist and a dab-hand at playing the violin. Young Luke was to describe his master as an “eccentric genius”, who was “very rarely in the office” ……….Personal instruction in the art of printing was given sparingly by White. He would, for instance, begin to set a line of type and then say, “So go on Luke boy,” and leave Luke to finish. However, within a few months, Luke had mastered every aspect of the printing trade. During this time, young Luke boarded with the proprietor, sleeping in the corner of the shop whilst another of Mr. White’s pastimes, his pigeons, occupied the opposite corner. Then, in 1769, his father died aged only 42; in the same year Luke’s apprenticeship came to an end and by the summer he had packed his bags and gone to London, with a downright manner, a Norwich burr, and with only a guinea in his pocket. After 10 weeks he found work as a compositor with the firm of John Hughes in Great Turnstile, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Much later, when he was Old Luke, he would enrich the English tongue with his surname—Hansard.
That was Young Luke as he once was, first an apprentice then later as proprietor of the firm of John Hughes, Printer to the House of Commons. But Old Luke only printed the journals, and those by order. Old Luke was a Tory to the bone, and his pride lay in the carrying out of an order punctually and exactly. He earned the appreciation and respect of Pitt and the intimacy of successive Speakers —Addington, Mitford, Abbott and Sutton—as well as the affection of Members of succeeding generations. His was the grain-of-oak candour which earns affection and respect. All literary London knew Hansard the printer. He was an intimate ‘of Charles Dilly and Edmund Burke. He published for Dr. Johnson and Richard Porson, and also for the prolific Dr. Hill. (” His farces are physic and his physic a ‘farce is,” wrote Garrick of Dr. Hill).
In 1771, John Hughs died and was succeeded by his son Henry with William Day as partner and manager, but as the workload increased both on the parliamentary and general side – Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke were among their literary customers – Hughs and Day realised that another part-ner was needed to supervise the operative section. In 1774 they offered 22 year-old Luke a partnership. With his future now secure, Luke’s thoughts turned to marriage. On 21 July 1775, he married Elizabeth Curson from Swanton Morley in Norfolk at St John’s Church, Clerkenwell. Their marriage was to last for 50 years and produce five children: Thomas Curson (1776), Elizabeth Susanna (1779), James (1781), Luke Graves (1783) and Hannah Mary (1785). Henry Hughs certainly admired the skills and character of Luke, his junior partner. He involved Luke more and more in the general running of the business until Hansard the printer became well known in the London literary circle and in the corridors of Parliament where he was becoming a familiar figure. In 1800 at the age of 43 Luke became sole proprietor of the firm. Henry Hughs had retired and William Day had been dead for six years. Thomas Curson, James and Luke Graves had followed their father into the business and the new century saw Luke Hansard and Sons as printers to the House.
However, it was Old Luke’s son, Thomas Curzon Hansard, who was a problem – he was a ‘fly-by-night’. He, at a very early age, wanted to enact the gentleman. He wanted to be in business on his own account, which was bad; he was a Radical which was even worse, and he was a friend of William Cobbett, which brought him to prison. He had printed Cobbett’s flaming condemnation of an administration which allowed German mercenaries to be used to compel British soldiers in Ely to submit to 500 lashes for mutiny, and he shared with Cobbett the trial and punishment with which that “seditious libel” was rewarded. Yet it was Thomas who published in his maturity that massive work Typographia and became, within his own province, the foremost scholar of his day. But he was not immortalised for his scholarship. He was immortalised because, in a little magazine of small circulation and dubious legality, which ran at a loss, he published, from a site on which now stand the offices of the Daily Telegraph, the Debates of the day—an offence for which more than one of his predecessors had been reprimanded on their knees.
It was in 1732 that Cave had started his reports in his Gentleman’s Magazine, and from 1740 Dr. Johnson had written them, though his rounded essays had in them little enough of the speech he purported to report. There had been many other efforts, but in the end it was Cobbett’s, later Hansard’s Parliamentary, Debates, which caught and held the attention of the public. It was not until 1855 that Cornwallis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, a learned and dull man, plunged rashly and ordered the Controller of the Stationery Office to subscribe for a hundred annual sets of Parliamentary debates to be circulated in Government Departments in Whitehall, London and throughout the Colonies.
Appetite grew by what it was fed on, and in three years the order rose to 120 sets at five guineas each. This meant decorous enthusiasm at 12, Paternoster Row, and well over £600 a year for the second Thomas Curzon Hansard. But Old Luke’s other more favoured son, and successor, Luke Graves, came within an ace of prison too; a shattering thought to that tower of rectitude. In avoiding it he was instrumental in establishing a constitutional principle of vital consequence to our liberties. William Crawford and the Reverend Whitworth Russell were two of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons. They reported that a certain book circulating among prisoners in Newgate Gaol, and published by Stockdale, was “of a most disgusting nature” and its plates “indecent in the extreme.” By order of Parliament the report of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons was published, and Hansard published it. Stockdale sued Luke Graves for publishing a libel.
Here was a question of supreme constitutional importance. Could Parliament protect its servants who carried out its instructions. Was the voice of Parliament to be heard freely? The case came before Lord Denman, who enquired coldly why, if a subject of the Queen were libelled, the printer should not be sued for libel, by whomsoever the libel was authorised. He found Hansard guilty. Parliament came a little slowly to Luke Graves’ defence, and the battle .between Parliament and the Courts was fairly joined.
Nor was it confined to words. Our Parliamentary and judicial ancestors had fire in their bellies. Under the authority of the High Court the High Sheriffs of Middlesex took forceful possession of poor Hansard’s eleven printing presses. Stirred to wrath, the Commons directed their Sergeant at Arms to arrest the High Sheriffs. These grave men passed a dolorous weekend in Newgate Gaol, in which they had hitherto had only a professional interest. Scarlet-robed and mute of tongue they were brought to the Bar of the House. Their sins had been as scarlet as their robes. They were guilty, they were told, of “a contemptible breach of the privilege of the House of Commons.” But the Court of Queen’s Bench also had weapons and used them. They issued a Writ of Habeas Corpus on the Sergeant at Arms, and in the centre of it all stood poor Hansard, wide open to every blizzard, his locks visibly greying, bemoaning man’s ingratitude in the spirit of King Lear as the tumult beat about his head. Ultimately common-sense prevailed, and after a three-and- a-half years’ battle the law was amended. Lord Denman deserves his place in history, if only for this single sentence:
“I infer . . . that the House of Commons disapproves our judgement, and I deeply lament it, but the opinion of the House on a legal point in whatsoever manner communicated is no ground for arresting the course of Law or preventing the operation of the Queen’s Writs on behalf of every one of her subjects who sues in her Courts.”
It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the Hansards had their day. But, though they were constantly harried by H.M. Stationery Office anxious for a larger sphere of usefulness, Tory Ministers of the nineteenth century seemed avid, in this case, for nationalisation – their influence in and around the House did not cease until 1890.
H. L. T. Hansard, great-grandson of Old Luke, sold his interest to the new Hansard Publishing Union for £90,000, in which the principal was Horatio Bottomley. Mr. Bottomley, unlike the Hansards, required no Parliamentary grants. He would print the journals. As to the debates, which he also acquired from T. C. Hansard, they would be nourished and sustained by income derived from tasteful advertisement. Mr. Bottomley’s enterprise was private and original, but its end was public and commonplace. It expired in a fog of litigation and bankruptcy, and a charge of conspiracy and fraud.
It was not until 1920 that H.M. Stationery Office won its Hundred Years’ War, and lifted the printing from the hands of private enterprise. Old Luke, who had, multiplied his guinea by 80,000 before he died, had been followed by Luke Graves, Luke James, who went mad by the way, Henry and Henry Luke – so it went from father to son. And as Luke and his seed published the journals, so in parallel Thomas and his seed, even better known, published the debates.
It is strange how nouns and verbs, once renowned, may sink into oblivion. This might well have happened to Hansard but for the activity of Stephen King-Hall, then Independent Member for Ormskirk. In 1943, after much prompting by him and by Sir Francis Freemantle, the Speaker directed that the name Hansard “should be restored to the cover of the official reports of the debates. And so on July 5th each year we celebrate the birthday of Old Luke. It is right that he should be remembered. He powerfully affected Parliamentary history. There are “Hansards” not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Australia, in Canada, and in many other parts of the Commonwealth. All this would have seemed strange indeed to Stephen White’s apprentice—the small boy who laboured long ago at the press in a Norwich attic to the sound of his master’s violin.
By a remarkable coincidence, when the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office was moved from London to its present site in St Crispins, Duke Street, Norwich, it was only ‘yards’ from the parish church of St Mary, Coslany, within the boundaries of which Luke had been born over two centuries before. Hansard had returned to the city where a 14 year-old apprentice printer had first set a line of type. The Region’s Caesar never knew his posterity had swayed. However, his memory, like his portrait, lives in the House he venerated, and Parliament must speak for ever in his name. – Happy Birthday Luke lad!
In Part 1 I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.
Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells Next the Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved. Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.
Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.
The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.
Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frarey, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frarey, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frarey, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.
In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.
During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frarey to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frarey, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.
Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frarey’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frarey, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.
Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:
“If I were you, Mrs Frarey, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”
“Yes, Mrs Frarey, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”
Barely a week after Robert Frarey was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.
With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frarey. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frarey bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire. Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frarey summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence.
A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic.
The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.
Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frarey then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frarey shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.
Kate Frarey and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frarey’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.
In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frarey and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle.
Kate Frarey, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.
The women’s execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”. 2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frarey dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frarey was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold. The executioner William Calcraft was in attendance.
After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped. Frarey was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.
The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:
It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved.
FULL TEXT: October 17, 1835 – This day the sentence of the law was carried into execution upon the two women, Frances Billing and Catherine Frarey, who were found guilty of having poisoned Mary Taylor and Robert Frarey. Billing ascended the scaffold with the greatest firmness, but Frarey was obliged to be supported from the jail to the platform, and the two miserable wretches, the one 48, and the other 46 years of age, were launched into eternity amidst an immense concourse of spectators, (20,000 or 30,000), above one-half of whom were women.
Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frarey and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.
Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frarey (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.
Billing and Frarey were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.
Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison “was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”
There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frarey and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.
Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.
Much of the detail of the case is given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.
The following is an abridged report from Norwich Mercury dated April 4 1835:
The town of Burnham Market, in Norfolk, and the vicinity for some miles around have for the last week been in the most dreadful state of excitement caused by the discovery of three diabolical murders, which have already been committed, and a plan laid for taking away the lives of several other people.
The circumstance that led to the discovery was as follows; — A woman named Mary Taylor, the wife of Peter Taylor, a journeyman shoemaker, was taken with a violent retching after dinner on Thursday, the 12th instant, and though medical assistance was procured, she died at five o’clock the same afternoon. Mr. Cremer, the surgeon, as soon as he saw her, pronounced her to have been poisoned. An inquest was held on the body on the following Saturday, when the jury after sitting till eleven at night, adjourned the inquest till Monday, and then having no evidence as to how the deceased came by the arsenic which had been found in the stomach, returned a verdict to the effect that she died by taking arsenic, but that it was unknown by what means it was administered.
There were certain rumours that the husband of the deceased had been connected with a married woman named Fanny Billing, who lived next door, and this connexion seemed to have been a great cause of uneasiness between Taylor and his wife, and a week or two before the deceased had, it seems, taxed Billing with it, and they had had a quarrel. It was also discovered that Billing had a short time before bought three-pennyworth of arsenic of a druggist. Some flour that was in Taylor house was also found to contain a quantity of arsenic, and from this the deceased had made dumplings on the day she died. These facts coming out, the magistrates thought proper to hold a special meeting on the Wednesday for the further investigation of the matter, and Taylor and Billing were brought before them, examined, and remanded for further examination. As Billing, however, was going away, a woman living next door, named Mary, who was frequently in and out of Mrs. Taylor’s, was heard to say to her, “Maw, hold your own, and they can’t hurt us.” This led to further suspicion, and Frarey was apprehended. It was then recollected that Frarey’s husband, and a child they kept, died about a fortnight before very suddenly. Orders were then given to have them disinterred; their stomachs were sent to Norwich to be analysed, and they also were found to contain arsenic.
On Tuesday Billing was fully committed to take her trial for the murder at the forthcoming assizes. She is nearly 60 years old, has had 14 children, and nine are now alive. She has confessed the whole, but says that Frary gave the poison to Mrs. Taylor. She has also confessed to other acts of the same kind with Frary, and that there were several other persons they had marked out for their victims.
She had made an attempt to poison her husband about the same time, but he did not take a sufficient quantity, and recovered. Taylor is still remanded, and Frary has been taken speechless since Tuesday, and cannot be recovered. The wife of her brother, who lived at Burnham Overy, died about the same time suddenly, but has not yet been taken up. Taylor says he was taken sick on the Thursday with his wife, but that he threw up and got better. Mrs. [Catherine] Frarey was sent for to attend on Mrs. Taylor, and a witness by the name of Rowley says, when he was in at Taylor’s to be shaved, he saw Frarey, in making her some gruel, put something into it from a paper on the point of a knife, white, almost like flour, so that in all probability, to make assurance doubly sure, she poisoned also her gruel. It was, too, the merest wonder in the world that the poisoned flour (for it had not then been found to be poisoned) was not taken to provide for the funeral – indeed this seems to have been anticipated by the wretches, and then the whole family would have been their victims; but the management was fortunately taken out of Frarey’s hands, and the flour providentially unused. Taylor has borne a good character for many years until he got connected with this woman. His wife was a very industrious person, and although they had no family they lived very comfortably together. She was 47 years of age, and he is about the same.
Recommended reading where a full account of the case can be found:
Maurice Morson, Norfolk Mayhem and Murder: Classic Cases Revisited, Chapter 3, “The Burnham Poisoners,” (pp. 38-55), Barnsley, 2008, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, South Yorkshire
Neil Storey, Norfolk Murders, 2006, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire.