Humphry Repton was interred in a grave close by the south wall of Aylsham parish church, in Norfolk, following his death on the 24th March 1818. In 2018 the two-hundredth anniversary of his death was celebrated in Norfolk – to a person who was “the last great English landscape designer”.
Repton’s Early Life: Humphry Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, son of John Repton, a successful collector of excise, and his wife, Martha (nee Fitch). Repton was, however, educated at Norwich Grammar School, where his father ran a transport business. In 1764 Repton was sent to the Netherlands to train as a merchant. Here he cultivated his skills as a sketcher and private gardener before entering a period of apprenticeship to a Norwich textile merchant. Following his marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773 Repton went into business on his own account, however, this venture was not successful.
Then, in 1778, his parents’ died which provided a small legacy for him to settle on a small country estate. There he became a minor squire with facilities to farm his own land; this was at Sustead near Aylsham in Norfolk. During this time, Repton remained restless and continued to cast his thoughts towards other suitable business opportunities. He had periods as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to William Windham of Felbrigg, when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. These ventures followed one after the other with little success; as was his involvement in a joint venture to reform the mail-coach system; that too lost him money.
The Successor to Capability Brown: Following these early business setbacks, Repton was encouraged by a childhood friend, a James Smith, to develop his interests in gardening and sketching and it was at this point that his professional plans in landscape gardening grew. William Windham of Felbrigg lent his support to Repton by allowing him access to the botany books in Felbrigg’s library; it was a gesture that helped Repton to blossom.
With his capital dwindling, Repton was to move his young family to Hare Street near Romford, Essex in 1788 where he first attempted a career as a playwright before deciding in 1788 to employ his artistic talents to become a ‘landscape gardener’. Repton was all too aware of the death of Capability Brown some five years earlier and the gap it had left in the landscape gardening world which he acknowledged and was keen to fill. He did so by eventually advertising and sending circulars to land owners, particularly those he had cultivated whilst in Norfolk.
His task, at first, would not be easy since he had a tendency to get on some people’s nerves from time to time, such was his sureness of the dreams he was selling. Maybe for the same reason, he was also thought to be a bit too cocky with a tendency towards a know-it-all air. Even Jane Austen lampooned him in her novel ‘Mansfield Park’ as a money-minded, cunning rogue who roamed the country, preying on the gullible wealthy and supplying them with fashionably picturesque vistas. Here is his very eye catching business card which sets out his stall pretty effectively.
Thus he was able, tentatively at least, to commence his career as a ‘landscape gardener’ – this was a phrase that he was to coin.
Repton’s first landscape commissions relied upon his Norfolk connections: Jeremiah Ives, mayor and textile merchant and owner of Catton Park near Norwich, Norfolk and Thomas Coke, notable Norfolk farming improver of Holkham. Arguably, the most successful of his Norfolk projects was for the Sheringham Hall Estate, Norfolk some years later.
Abbot Upcher commissioned Repton to work on Sheringham in 1812 and the Red Book he produced is now considered to be one of the most comprehensive, a mark of the affinity Repton felt with Abbot Upcher. This Red Book is owned by National Trust but kept at the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2013-14 it was selected to be part of the exhibition ‘Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia’ at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Art. Today, there is a permanent ‘Repton Exhibition’ at Sheringham Park, including a displayed facsimile of his famous Red Book that he designed and produced when he received his commission to undertake the work.
Repton the Landscape Gardener: Most of Repton’s commissions involved the preparation of his ‘Red Book’, so called for the red morocco bindings he produced them in. They were designed to hold his plans, drawings and accompanying explanatory text for the work; they also included watercolours, many with hinged or sliding overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views of the same scene. An 18th century winner! – as the following illustration shows; the top image is ‘before’, the bottom is ‘after’, with the addition of a nice curvy hill fringed with new woodland.
These Red Books were never published, they were simply elegant notebooks containing handwritten proposals for each commission he took on. A Red Book was presented to each client who was duly charged for the work and materials involved.
The Picturesque Controversy: Repton’s essentially practical, restrained style led him into to the very public ‘picturesque controversy’ with leading art critics, Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price. They regarded that landscape re-modelling should imitate contemporary approaches to landscape painting that showed more rugged and intricate landscapes, accompanied by classical motifs and references. Repton’s design solutions produced practical and often restrained designs for his clients. He particularly disliked attempts to impose the classical Italian style on the English climate and landscape. His aim always was to enhance nature and described landscape gardening in the following way:
“The perfection of landscape gardening consists in the four following requisites. First, it must display the natural beauties and hide the defects of every situation. Secondly, it should give the appearance of extent and freedom by carefully disguising or hiding the boundary. Thirdly it must studiously conceal every interference of art. However expensive by which the natural scenery is improved; making the whole appear the production of nature only; and fourthly, all objects of mere convenience or comfort, if incapable of being made ornamental, or of becoming proper parts of the general scenery, must be removed or concealed.”
The ‘Gardenesque’: Some of Repton’s designs foreshadowed later popular themed gardens, the laying out of gravel walks and of lawns for use as cricket, bowls and croquet pitches. He also helped popularise the use of terraces and re-introduced separate flower gardens and flower beds. He also replaced earlier classical ornamentation with romantic structures like grottoes and fake ruins. Existing buildings played an integral part in many of his schemes. They both provided reference points and informed his final design for a landscape. At one point in his career he worked, with the architect John Nash, whose early building design suited Repton’s garden style. His son, John Adey Repton, an architect, worked with him and in Nash’s office; continuing to do so after his father’s collaboration with Nash ended acrimoniously around 1800. A younger son, George Stanley Repton, also worked with Repton senior.
Retirement and Beyond: Repton retired in 1814, three years after a carriage accident that forced him to use a wheelchair. In retirement he produced a book, with his son J. Adey Repton, detailing his approach to landscape gardening; Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). The book adopted the phrase “landscape gardening” to express his theory that the art requires “…the united powers of the landscape painter and the practical gardener…” He also discussed in detail the relationship between the landscape and the main estate house. To be able to provide visual representations of proposed improvements, he used a system of sliding panels depicting before and after views in his ‘Red Books’. He published two other major works on garden design: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803). He authored a number of other minor works. Taken together with his Red Books, these books are an important part of his legacy to landscape design today.
In total, Repton produced designs for the grounds of over four hundred of country houses in England, including Tatton Park, Woburn Abbey and here in Norfolk, notably at Catton Park and Sheringham Park where a replica of his famous ‘Red Book’ is displayed.
There was a time when Norwich had, along with Bristol, the honour of having a Mint. There even was a time when Norwich had an importance which was second only to that of London. There was also a time when this City had its best forgotten days, when it lost its famous old weavers and saw the break-up of textile trade. There was also a time when its transport links to the capital city were poor and stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous. That once famous ‘Punch’ magazine, in a sarcastic thrust at the slow methods of reaching East Anglia from the Metropolis, wrote at the time: “ On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.”
On one hand, there was that glorious year of 1815 when Napoleon was finally beaten at Waterloo; then, on the other hand that same year had its’ drawbacks. There were no railways, penny postage, morning papers, matches or gas, to say nothing of electric light; without a thousand and one inventions that were to give comforts to the masses, it was a time ripe for enterprise and progress. It was a time when a certain Henry Chamberlin, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, opened a business on Guildhall Hill which was to become known by the diserning as “ Chamberlin’s of Norwich,” a title that signified the hall-mark of excellence.
Henry Chamberlin (born 1777 and died 1848) never was one to entertain the selling of low quality goods; he went for the best, and the firm which he founded in 1815 never swerved from the principles of “value and reliability,” during perplexing years which saw, just like today, the rise and fall of the craze for cheapness. On this basis the Store became firmly established and grew. Then, in 1823, Henry the founder was joined by his son, Robert Chamberlin and continued to prosper. Some years later became known as Chamberlin, Sons & Co. and then quoted as a Limited Company under the title of Chamberlin & Sons, Limited. On 4 March Henry Died and was buried at the Rosery Cemetery at Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich.
Robert took over the Company’s reigns and just like his father, not only oversaw the business, but was to occupy a variety of civic office rolls during his life. On the domestic front, he found time to have seventeen children from two marriages. Then, following his death in 1876, his son, George Chamberlin, became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have a large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons were to serve in the First World War. Throughout his life, George, just like his father and grandfather, also occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, as well as having a very active personal life – his favourate sport was shooting. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.
The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in the community at large. While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk they also help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city. Their story is told in the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’ in which members of the present Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the Chamberlin Store and factory were in their prime. The two authors had a wonderful way with words when describing the scene before them when they walked into the shop on Guildhall Hill some 114 years ago, when it had been rebuilt following the fire of 1898 which was reported in the Norwich ‘Evening News’ at the time describing the blaze as “an irreparable loss.” It went on to say:
“The blaze had started at Hurn’s ropemaking business and spread to the library. Sixty thousand volumes, many rare and valuable, were lost including the important Norton collection of foreign dictionaries. Chamberlins – the big, upmarket department store on Guildhall Hill – was also damaged in the blaze.
If the wind had been blowing in a different direction much of Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane could have gone. It was also said later that if the fire brigade – the Carrow and the Anchor brigades also helped – had had longer ladders, they would have more chance of saving the building and many of the books.
The library reopened a year later at a cost of £1.719.
But back to Edward and Wilfred Burgess’s dissertation of 1904:
“Spacious and elaborate as were the premises of Messrs. Chamberlin, Sons, & Co., prior to the year 1898, an event then occurred which was regarded at the time as most disastrous to the city but which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we refer to the destruction of the premises by fire. The fire was of a most serious character, devastating the whole of one side of Dove Street, and part of the other side. From the ashes of the old premises arose — phoenix-like — a building, compared with which, the previous establishment — extensive as it was — was quite a modest affair. The disastrous experience of the fire has resulted in elaborate preparations being made for fighting or preventing a fire in future. At the end of each floor hydrants are fixed, giving a copious supply of water, while in the immediate vicinity of each hydrant lengths of hose are placed within easy reach. The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness. From the ne entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world’s drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand. The ground floor saloon is devoted to the various retail departments under the management of Mr. George Waite, and they are the admiration of every visitor. So and agreeable tints pervade the whole place, and the lighting of the spacious area, from concave lights on either side, is perfect. Comfort and luxury are conspicuous features of the saloon, yet the space allowed to the display of goods appears to be almost unlimited. e further end of the saloon is artistically furnished with ladies waiting and reception rooms, while close by are the Fitting and costume departments. The upper floors are occupied by the counting houses and the wholesale departments; and the extensive basement, which is nothing less than a huge warehouse itself, is also utilised for the latter, especially for heavy goods.
The area of the establishment is enormous, extending as it does from Dove Street — one entire side of which it occupies — up Guildhall Hill to the other side of the square facing the public library. Bearing in mind the numerous departments, the elegance of the appointments, the care devoted to ensuring the comfort of customers, the large and varied stock, and the unremitting attention given by assistants, it is no exaggeration to say that few establishments, either in or out of London, equal “Chamberlins,” and none surpass it. The Furnishing Department is of comparatively recent origin, but it is already a very extensive business of itself. The building appropriated to this branch is the last one of the series up Guildhall Hill, and the entrance is at the corner of the Public Library Square, almost exactly facing the entrance to the ancient Guildhall. Here is to be seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths, and furniture of every description, to be found in the Eastern Counties. The managements in the capable hands of Mr. T. Morpeth, a gentleman of wide experience in carrying out furnishing contracts. The comprehensive range of this department may be judged from the fact that it embraces the manufacture of bedding, all kinds of cabinet making and upholstering — in fact everything which goes to constitute a full equipment of complete house furnishers.
Even this latter does not exhaust the variations of Chamberlins, for in Botolph Street the firm runs a modern clothing factory of large dimensions, which, has quite recently been rebuilt, and now provides cubic space of over 300,000 feet, with ample accommodation and motive power for about 1000 workers. On these premises are manufactured various kinds of clothing and shirts, but judging from appearances the main output is in uniforms and waterproof clothing for the Army, Navy, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Colonial Service, Postal Departments, Railway Companies, Police, etc. The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country, while the variety of military uniforms indicates that the clothing supply of a considerable branch of the Army is catered for here. In the pressing room, the temperature is decidedly high, but here, as in every other department of the works, the ventilating arrangements are as perfect as modern science can make them. In the cutting room are to be seen some really wonderful machines, viz., the machine cutters. Driven at a terrific speed each of these cutters, by means of a rotary knife apparently as sharp as a razor, must do more work than any dozen hand cutters. Garments are cut and shaped by the one, two, or three dozen — according to the resisting qualities of the material – at a surprising rate. In one case layers of cloth, to a thickness of three inches, are cut to a pattern drawn on the top layer, as easy as a lady would cut muslin with scissors. In another cutting and trimming room, a numbers of hand cutters are engaged shaping garments which probably were not required in such large numbers as the uniforms are.
The basements of the two buildings are very extensive and in one of them a powerful dynamo, by Laurence, Scott and Co., provides the electric light for the establishment. In the other basement, long rows of bales of material — probably scores of tons — are awaiting the handling in the dissecting and cutting rooms, and for the purpose of more easily moving these bales from floor to floor, a new lift has been erected which runs from the basement to the topmost floor. Here the preparations against fire are most complete, including an outside re-proof iron staircase, which has an outlet from every floor. Of course in works of this description the management is divided and sub divided, but the sole responsible manager for the entire Clothing Works is Mr. G. S. Barnard.
It is worthy of observation, in a review of this nature, that in re-opening the Market Place premises, a new departure was made in giving a musical treat to the public. The Blue Hungarian Band was engaged on that occasion, and the experiment proved to be so eminently successful and so generally appreciated that the precedent has since been followed on several occasions.
In closing and appreciation in which we have clearly established the right of Chamberlins, Limited to be bracketed with the “Men Who Have Made Norwich” it is interesting to note that the enormous number of persons attending a recent sale was quite unprecedented. In the first few days the rush was so great that it became absolutely necessary to keep the doors closed and customers were admitted in batches, as they could be dealt with; an authority on crowds estimating that there were at least 1,200 customers in the shop at a given’ hour on one afternoon.”
When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.
Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company’s output during the whole period of the war.
Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments. At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities’ official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.
One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.
In 1935 the post-war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men’s sports clothing under their registered brand ‘Sartella’. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.
It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They would instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers. Unfortunately, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand modernisation, different shopping habits and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.
From the days of ‘Value and Reliability’ to the present day ‘Every Little Helps‘! This says much about the seismic shift in marketing, business provision and consumer demands.
The ‘Norwich: History & Guide’ makes reference to the 25th February 1643 when the Conesford Gate in the City was blocked, as were the St Giles, Pockthorpe and St Agustine’s Gates. It was simply a precaution.
Norwich’s role during the English Civil War, (22 August 1642 to 3 September 1651), was principally to supply troops and money to the Parliamentary forces operating elsewhere in the Eastern Region. However, discussions were held about constructing several bastions against the river. The intention was probably to create a star-shaped defence on the contemporary Dutch model. There was no direct threat to the City but 150 Dragoons (mounted musketeers) were raised for Oliver Cromwell at Cambridge. The horses were at least partly seized from the properties of Royalist sympathisers in the City.
During March, more volunteers were raised for Parliament and the young men and girls of Norwich raised £240 to equip the ‘Maiden Troop’ of Cromwell’s cavalry under Captain Robert Swallow, who became the eleventh troop of Ironsides. He served in that capacity down to the absorption of the troop into Edward Whalley’s regiment of horse in the New Model Army in spring 1645, when he initially became a captain in Fairfax’s regiment of horse, but in summer 1645 he moved as captain to Whalley’s New Model regiment of horse, becoming its Major by the end of 1646. In 1659-60 Swallow briefly commanded the regiment but was removed at the Restoration.
By July all threats seemed to be lessening and the Gates were re-opened. Norwich was by no means united in its opposition to Charles I and at the end of 1643 a list was made of 432 Royalists suspects amongst the principal citizens because the City feared a subsequent attack by loyal Royalist gentry.
The Model Regiment:
Cromwell first mustered a troop of cavalry (then referred to as “horse”) at Huntingdon in Huntingdonshire, on 29 August 1642, early in the Civil War. John Desborough was quartermaster. The troop was late in being organised, and arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Edgehill, the first pitched-battle of the war. Cromwell however did witness the defeat of the Parliamentarian horse at the battle and wrote to fellow Parliamentarian leader John Hampden,
“Your troopers are most of them old decayed servingmen and tapsters; and their [the Royalists’] troopers are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons and persons of quality; do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows [as ours] will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honour and courage and resolution in them?”
It is evident that Cromwell’s answer to his own question lay in religious conviction. Early in 1643, he was given a commission as colonel and expanded his troop into a full regiment in the newly formed Army of the Eastern Association, under the command of Lord Grey of Warke and then the Earl of Manchester. By 11 September that year, he referred to them in a letter to his cousin Oliver St. John as a “lovely company”. A champion of the “godly”, Cromwell became notorious for appointing men of comparatively humble origins but stoutly-held v Puritan beliefs as officers, who would then attract men of similar background and leanings to the regiment. He wrote to the Earl of Manchester, who disagreed with this policy,
“I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a gentleman that is so indeed.”
On 28 July 1643, the regiment took part in the Battle of Gainsborough, where Royalist cavalry were defeated. One of the troop captains, James Berry, is stated to have killed the Royalist commander, Sir Charles Cavendish, a relation of the Marquess of Newcastle (Commander-in-Chief of the Royalist forces in the North). By April, 1644, after two years of war, Cromwell’s unit had grown into a “double” regiment of no less than 14 troops. (A regiment normally had only 6 troops). Cromwell by this time was Lieutenant General of the Horse in the Parliamentarian Army of the Eastern Association, and the regiment would be routinely commanded by its Lieutenant Colonel, Cromwell’s cousin Edward Whalley. The regiment played a major part in the victory over the Royalists at the Battle of Marston Moor, where the discipline of Cromwell’s wing of horse was decisive. Where a victorious wing of Royalist cavalry scattered in search of plunder, Cromwell’s men rallied after defeating their immediate opponents, and then swept the disordered Royalist armies from the field. Captain Valentine Walton, Cromwell’s nephew, died of wounds after a cannon shot smashed his leg during the battle.
It was a different story by the time of the Second Battle of Newbury later that year. The Parliamentarian high command of Sir William Waller, the Earl of Manchester, Sir William Balfour and Cromwell decided to split their large force into two. Cromwell, the Eastern and London Association Cavalry and the Southern Association headed across the river and toward Donnington Castle in the West. The regiment was part of the first attack on the King’s western forces under Goring and Astley, but was beaten back and had to be relieved by Cromwell’s fellow commander, Sir William Balfour, and his London horse.
Template for the New Model Army: Cromwell’s double regiment was later split into two regiments, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s and Edward Whalley’s, which became the nucleus of the New Model Army‘s cavalry. Shortly before the Battle of Naseby, Cromwell was reappointed Lieutenant General of Horse in the army, and later became its commander. “Ironsides” seems to have become the term for all cavalry in the army, regardless of their origin.
Two “divisions” i.e. half-regiments of three troops each, one from each of Fairfax’s and Whalley’s regiments, under Major Christopher Bethel and Major John Desborough, mounted a remarkable charge at the Battle of Langport, where they galloped up a narrow lane and attacked the Royalist Army of Lord Goring in front, putting the entire army to flight.
Although the phrase “Ironside” suggests heavily armoured men, Cromwell’s troops were equipped in the common cavalry style of the day, termed the harquebusier, with armour limited to back- and breastplate and “pot” helmet. It does seem that they presented a uniform appearance which contrasted with that of the Cavalier horse, which became increasingly individual during the war through shortage of equipment or personal choice.
As Puritans, the Ironsides often attributed their glory in battle to God. Their religious beliefs extended to the field where they adhered to strict ethical codes. In quarters, they did not drink or gamble. They did not partake in the traditional spoils of war and did not rape, or pillage defeated opponents (although their religious zeal sometimes led them to be merciless to Catholic enemies).
The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”
Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.
So Tom Cox of The Guardian thought when he wrote the following article way back in 2011 – apparently, he enjoyed scaring himself so much at the time. Eight years have now passed and nothing in the County, we don’t suppose, has changed since then. Maybe it’s a good time to remind readers of the fruits of his efforts – unabridged, but without the advertisements and extraneous matter which can detract from the qualities of a good story. Take it away [again] Tom:
The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I’ve done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you’re there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I’d never quite had time to visit the castle itself.
On my previous attempt, I’d been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife’s cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.
The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were “self-serve” to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment’s specialty is ‘Robin Reliants’, of which a dozen or so are parked around the front of the garage. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case, you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.
I’d expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. “Is this confirmed?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “By me.”
I’m not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he’d lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.
It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn’t help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I’d not long since rewatched the film Don’t Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who’d died here. “This would be a great place for a Grand Design house,” I said. “Good transport links, too,” said Gemma.
As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone. I thought back to the previous week, when I’d walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I’d been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend’s black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.
During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I’m in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller’s phenomenal 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.
The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it’s not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area’s most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It’s a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.
Oddy, the ghost walks in Norfolk’s county seat didn’t start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired four years ago, and has now been replaced by the Man in Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called “Craig”. That said, The Man In Black’s blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for ‘Richard’s Driving School’ on its flipside!
I’ve been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can’t think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city’s Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man in Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening’s ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.
Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon’s 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.
We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting specter of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.
Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.
Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.
The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”
When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.
Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.
When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.
Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.
In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.
Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.
It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.
It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.
With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.
The first fact to reveal about Pablo Fanque is that he was born in Norwich in the County of Norfolk. The second, and probably the more important, is the fact that he not only became a brilliant equestrian performer, but famous as the first non-white British circus owner in Britain and the most popular circus proprietor in Victorian Britain during a 30-year golden period of circus entertainment. His life’s story starts in Norwich, and it is this beginning on which the City lays its own claim to this showman’s name and fame.
Norwich boasts the fact that Pablo Fanque, baptised William Darby, was born in the City; the date of his birth was 30th March 1810. He died on 4th May 1871 in Stockport, Lancashire, having left Norwich as a teenager, never to return.
Fast forward to 2010; this was the year when Norwich first expressed its pride in being associated with the gentleman in the form of a commemorative blue plaque placed on the wall of the John Lewis department store on All Saints Green. Its position was the nearest the authorities could get to the house in Ber Street where Fanque lived his earlier years. Then, in 2018 a student accommodation block was opened in the Norwich, opposite the John Lewis Store and named ‘Pablo Fanque House’.
Much of Pablo Fanque’s early life in Norwich is unknown and speculative. What is known comes from the City’s church records which state, quite clearly, that he was born in 1810. He was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) in Norwich. When Fanque married in 1848, he entered on his marriage certificate “butler” for his late father’s occupation. A Dr. John Turner, in a biography, speculated that Fanque’s father “was Indian-born and had been brought to Norwich and trained as a house servant.” Other accounts have also speculated that Fanque was orphaned at a young age, and even born in a workhouse to a family with seven children.
Over the years, biographers have also disputed Fanque’s date of birth and it was Dr John Turner, again, who popularised the belief that Fanque was born in 1796, presumably based on the 14 May 1871 ‘Era’ newspaper which recorded that Fanque’s coffin bore the inscription; “AGED 75 YEARS”. Dr Turner may also have been influenced by the detail on Fanque’s gravestone, located at the base of his late wife Susannah Darby’s grave in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds (now St George’s Field) which reads; “Also the above named William Darby Pablo Fanque who died May 4th 1871 Aged 75 Years“.
But those who support the belief that Fanque was born earlier than 1810 should maybe take note of certain facts. Firstly, his age was recorded in the 1841, 1851 and 1871 Census’s of England as being born in 1810 – surely, not all three would be incorrect! Then, a birth register at St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich also records the birth of a ‘William’ to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. This is the same birth year as that on Norwich’s blue plaque (above).
It is particularly worth noting the marriage record of a John Darby to Mary Stamp on 27 March 1791 at St. Stephen’s, Norwich, and the records of their children; these include a John Richard on 4 Jul 1792, Robert on 27 Jul 1794, William on 28 Feb 1796, Mary Elizabeth on 18 Mar 1798, and William (again!) on 30 March 1810. Crucially, the family also had two burial records, a William on 30 April 1797 and Mary Elizabeth on 10 Feb 1801. Now, Genealogists worth their salt would know that it was quite common in families that suffered infant mortalities in the past for a later child to be given the same name as a sibling who had previously died. This was particularly true where parents wished to maintain a family name in perpetuity. These facts strongly indicate that our subject, William, (Pablo Fanque) was indeed born in 1810 – following the earlier William who had died in 1797.
William Darby became apprenticed to the circus proprietor, William Batty, around 1820, when he was about ten years old and in circumstances that biographers can only dream up. Certainly, Darby picked up the ‘bug’ of being a circus entertainer in Norwich and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring there on December 26, 1821. He was billed as “Young Darby”; his acts including equestrian stunts and rope walking. Then, as soon as he had grown and developed into a young adult with the full range of skills that he was to became famous for, William Darby left Norwich for good and toured extensively.
It was around this period when he changed his name to his professional “Pablo Fanque” identity, and in 1841, he began business on his own account, with two horses, and has assembled a fine stud of horses and ponies at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire…. “in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” Thus started the 30 year period when Fanque ran his own successful circus, only sometimes involving partnerships with others where these were necessary. During this time he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now “Greater Manchester.”
Families flocked to his shows in their thousands, lured by exciting poster and newspaper advertisements, street parades and the stories told by those who had been held spellbound by what they had experienced. Fanque was extremely adept at conjuring together new ‘exotic’ names, acts and historical extravaganzas, which could transport poor people out of what many experienced as drab, hardworking lives into a world of imagination, colour, dangerous feats of courage, expertise and sheer fun! His shows appealed equally to those of the higher classes.
One reason for Fanque’s success, one that often goes unremarked in circus histories, was his keen appreciation of the importance of advertising. Among the advantages that his circus enjoyed over its numerous rivals was that it enjoyed the services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900. Fanque seems to have been among the first to recognise Sheldon’s genius, hiring him when he was just 17. Sheldon spent the next three years as Fanque’s advance man, advertising the imminent arrival of the circus as it moved from town to town.
In addition to such advertising, Fanque would organise a spectacular parade to announce his arrival in town. In some towns he would drive ‘Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’. He was also known to drive fourteen horses in hand through the streets in some places.
Even serious churchgoers sought enjoyment from a Fanque circus, whilst risking chastisement from some quarters. It was in 1843, when clergy in Burnley were criticised in the Blackburn Mercury for attending performances of Fanque’s circus. This prompted one reader to respond thus:
“Ministers of religion, of all denominations, in other towns, have attended Mr. Pablo Fanque’s circus. Such is his character for probity and respectability, that wherever he has been once he can go again; aye and receive the countenance and support of the wise and virtuous of all classes of society. I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness.”
It was 1847 when William Darby made his highly successful London debut under his professional name “Pablo Fanque”.
Describing Fanque and his performance at that debut, The Illustrated London News wrote:
“Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed … we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled … Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”
This same edition of The Illustrated London News also provided an example of how contemporaries regarded Fanque’s performance:
“This extraordinary feat of the manège has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” –
Fanque was also described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian. It was the same newspaper, reporting on another performance at London’s Astleys Amphitheater, that filled in many more biographical details of Fanque:
“… Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astleys Amphitheater” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling etc; and is also considered a very good equestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time before rejoining Mr. Batty.”
The Beneficial Nature of Mr Fanque: The “Benefit for Mr. Kite”, a title later to be immortalised by the 20th century’s musical Group ‘The Beatles’, was one of many benefit shows that Pablo Fanque held for performers in his own circus, for others in the profession who had no regular retirement or health benefits, and for community organisations. Fanque was, in fact, a member of the Order of Ancient Shepherds, a fraternal organisation affiliated with the Freemasons. The Order assisted families in times of illness or death with burial costs and other expenses. For example, an 1845 show in Blackburn benefitted the Blackburn Mechanics Institution and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, offering a bonus to the Widows and Orphans Fund. Fanque held a similar benefit in Bury the following year.
Then in 1857 and 1858, Fanque was again active, holding at least two benefits among other performances. In 1857, in Bradford, he held a benefit for the family of the late Tom Barry, a clown. Brenda Assael, in The Circus and Victorian Society, writes that in March 1857:
“Pablo Fanque extended the hand of friendship to Barry’s widow and held a benefit in her husband’s name at his Allied Circus in Bradford. Using the Era offices to transmit the money he earned from this event, Fanque enclosed 10 pounds worth of ‘post office orders…being the profits of the benefit. I should have been better pleased had it been more, but this was the close of a very dull season.” On 24 October 1858, The Herald of Scotland reported: “IN GLASGOW, ‘Pablo Fanque’s Cirrque Nationale’ offered ‘A Masonic Benefit.”
An 1846 a Bolton newspaper story epitomised the public’s high regard for Fanque in the communities he visited on account of his beneficence:
“Several of the members of the “Widows and Orphans Fund” presented to Mr. Pablo Fanque a written testimonial, mounted in an elegant gilt frame……..Mr. Pablo on entering the room was received with due respect. Mr. Fletcher presented an address……..which concluded:……..’and when the hoary hand of age should cease to wave over your head, at a good old age, may you sink into the grave regretted, and your name and acts of benevolence be remembered by future generations.”
Fanque’s Partnership with W. F. Wallett: During the 1840s and 1850s, Fanque was close friends with the clown W. F. Wallett, who performed in his circus. Wallett also managed Fanque’s circus for a time. Wallett frequently promoted himself as “the Queen’s Jester”, having performed once before Queen Victoria in 1844 at Windsor Castle. He appeared regularly with Fanque’s circus and many towns throughout the north. It was during a ‘benefit’ being held for Wallett in the amphitheatre, Leeds when a balcony collapsed, killing Fanque’s wife; see below.
Throughout his 1870 autobiography, Wallett shares several amusing anecdotes about his work and friendship with Fanque, including the following about their 1859 engagement in Glasgow:
“ The season was a succession of triumphs. One of the principal attractions was a little Irishman whom I engaged in Dublin, who rejoiced in the name of Vilderini, one of the best posture masters the theatrical world ever produced. I engaged him for three months at a liberal salary, on the express understanding that I should shave his head, and convert him into a Chinaman. For which nationality his small eyes, pug nose, high cheek bones, and heavy mouth admirably adapted him. So his head was shaved, all but a small tuft on the top, to which a saddler with waxed twine firmly attached his celestial pig-tail. His eyebrows were shaved off, and his face, neck, and head dyed after the most admired Chinese complexion. Thus metamorphosed, he was announced on the walls as KI HI CHIN FAN FOO (Man-Spider-leg mortal).”
We had about twenty supernumeraries and the whole equestrian company in Chinese costume. Variegated lanterns, gongs, drums, and cymbals ushered the distinguished Chinaman into the ring, to give his wonderful entertainment. The effect was astonishing, and its success extraordinary. In fact the entire get-up was so well carried out that it occasioned us some annoyance. For there were two rival tea merchants in Glasgow at the time, and each of them had engaged a genuine Chinaman as touter at his door. Every night, as soon as they could escape from their groceries, they came to the circus to solicit an interview with their compatriot. After being denied many nights in succession, they peremptorily demanded to see him. Being again refused, they determined to move for the writ of habeas corpus. That is to say, they applied to the magistrate stating they believed their countryman to be deprived of his liberty except during the time of his performance. We were then compelled to produce our celestial actor, who proved to the satisfaction of the worthy magistrate that he was a free Irishman from Tipperary.”
Marriage and Family: Fanque married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of whom was named Lionel. It was on 18th March 1848 when his wife died in Leeds at a ‘Benefit’ performance for Fanque’s friend, W F Wallett, clown. Their son was performing a tightrope act before a large crowd at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft. The 600 people seated in the gallery fell with its collapse, but Susannah Darby was the only fatality when heavy planks hit her on the back of the head. Reportedly, Fanque sought medical attention for his wife at the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead. Years later a 4 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Intelligencer recalled the incident, while announcing the return of Pablo Fanque’s Circus to the town:
“His last visit, preceding the present one, was unfortunately attended by a very melancholy accident. On that occasion he occupied a circus in King Charles’s Croft and part of the building gave way during the time it was occupied by a crowded audience. Several persons were more or less injured by the fall of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak, and Mrs Darby, the wife of the proprietor, was killed. This event, which occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848, excited much sympathy throughout the borough. A neat monument with an impressive inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby, in the Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.”
It is clear that widower Fanque did not waste any time in finding another wife for in June 1848, he married an Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Elizabeth was 22 years old and was to deliver two more sons to Fanque, George (1854) and Edward Charles “Ted” (1855). Both sons were to join the circus with Ted Pablo achieving acclaim as a boxer, and would tour Australia in that profession. A daughter, Caroline died at the age of 1 year and 4 months and was buried in the same plot as was for Susannah and William.
In Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh there also stands a tombstone dedicated to the memory of two others of Elizabeth and Fanque’s children —William Batty Patrick Darby (13 months) and Elizabeth Darby (3 years). Both died in 1852 but Elizabeth, the younger, died in Tuam, Ireland. This was at a time, in the early 1850’s, when Fanque was performing regularly in Edinburgh. The inscription on the children’s tombstone is thus:
“Sacred to the Memory of
William Batty Patrick Darby son of
William and Elizabeth Darby
Professionally known as Pablo Fanque
who died 1st February 1852, Aged 13 Months
Also of Elizabeth, their Daughter
who died at Tuam Ireland 30th Oct. 1852,
Aged 3 years and 4 months”
It is left to the 1861 census records to reveal that Fanque was living with a woman named Sarah, aged 25, who was described as his wife! But there again, the 1871 census records show him living again with his wife Elizabeth and his two sons, in Stockport.
The successful performance years and the money enjoyed by Fanque were destined not to last beyond the 1860’s. Certainly within a couple of years of his death, Fanque was ‘insolvent’, living in a room in the Britannia Inn, 22 Churchgate, Stockport, with his wife and two sons – George and Ted Pablo. There Fanque died of bronchitis on 4 May 1871. It was a sad end for such an extraordinary man, who rose from humble beginnings in Norwich to reach the top of his profession and in a career that lasted fifty years.
Despite the apparent poor financial circumstances of his last few years, Pablo Fanque’s funeral was a spectacular occasion. One may think that, having been a member of a charitable ‘Order’ and someone who often raised money for others, help came forward to see him on his way. Certainly, his body was brought from Stockport by train and a great procession accompanied him to his resting place, watched by several thousand people. The hearse was preceded by a band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul and was followed by Pablo’s favourite horse, ‘Wallett, – partially draped in mourning trappings and led by a groom’, four mourning coaches, and several cabs and private vehicles. Pablo was buried with his first wife in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, Leeds. Ahead of the funeral procession to the cemetery was a band playing the “Dead March”. Fanque’s favourite horse followed, along with four coaches and mourners. Fanque was buried next to his first wife Susannah Darby. The Cemetery is now named St. George’s Field and part of the University of Leeds campus. While the remains of many of the 100,000 graves and monuments have been relocated, the monument that Fanque erected in his wife’s memory, and a smaller modest monument in his memory still stands.
While some contemporary reports did not refer to Fanque’s African ancestry, other reports noted that he was “a man of colour“, or “a coloured gentleman”, or “an artiste of colour.” These suggest he was of mixed race with partial European ancestry as well. Thirty years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Reverend Thomas Horne, wrote:
“In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”
Thomas Horne was commenting on Fanque’s success in Victorian England despite being of mixed race.
For all the charitable qualities possessed by Fanque, he was far from perfect. Apart from the apparent eye he seemed to have for the ladies, there was a less savoury side to him that should not be forgotten if a sense of balance is to be maintained.
Fanque, at best, seemed to have also been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked a James Henderson, not the J. Henderson on the playbill by the way! James Henderson was an employee who, although taking Fanque to court, the matter was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).
Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28. Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)
However, a chronic problem with Fanque was that he was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court but by October 1858 Fanque had been made bankrupt and in June 1859 was refused protection from bankruptcy, owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that
“the transactions with Battye……..were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion………nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”.
However, a charge of perjury was more serious for it was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)
Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”. – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.) In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.
There you have it! – the ‘not so complete tale’ of Pablo Fanque’s life. However, like with most lives and events legacies remain. In Pablo Fanque’s case, his name was almost forgotten, that is until it became immortalised in the mid part of the 20th century, on the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’. The words of that song had been lifted by John Lennon from an advertising poster for Fanque’s Royal Circus in Rochdale, in 1843, which Lennon had spotted in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent:
“For the benefit of Mr. Kite/There will be a show tonight on trampoline/ The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair – what a scene/ Over men and horses, hoops and garters/ Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!/ In this way Mr. K will challenge the world!”
Lennon bought the poster while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple Records employee, recalled:
“There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!”
The title “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken verbatim from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845. As for “Mr. J. Henderson”, he was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of “Hendersons” plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s.
This article is, by way of a change, intended to be a short ‘Guide’ to some of the churches in Norfolk which are reputed to be haunted. This list is by no means complete, but contains a cross-section of types and locations from the four corners of the County. Some of the hauntings referred to are of the ‘legendary’ kind, that is to say, although belief in them is probably common in the area, the ghost itself has not been seen for many a long year. This is not the case with all the stories where some of them have been claimed to have been ‘substantiated’ in recent years.
Perhaps this article will prompt some readers to visit the churches mentioned and, regardless of whether or not they meet with the ghost in question, they will nevertheless find the church interesting and well worth a visit. Please remember, however, that all of the churches mentioned in this article are still used, so please treat them and the surrounding churchyards with the respect that such places demand and deserve.
St Michael, Geldeston, Norfolk: Although the ghost here does not exactly haunt the church itself, it does figure in and around the churchyard so is certainly worth including. This story is recorded in the book ‘In the footsteps of Borrow and Fitzgerald’ by M. Adams, which recalls “A shall pond which often over-flowed and made the road impassable, was widened and in the mud was found a skeleton, around the neck of which was chained a circular piece of millstone. The Rector of Geldeston decreed that the millstone should be removed and the skeleton buried in the churchyard. Alas! the removal of the stone was a fateful decision; the ghost, relieved of this spiritual anchor, arose from its grave and now may be seen wandering about the area of glebe between the churchyard and Lover Lane. It is,apparantly, never seen in the churchyard itself or, by anyone in the churchyard, that being consecrated ground, but on and about the unhallowed glebe it walks with a clanking of ghostly chains”.
Another phantom which is said to haunt the vincinity of the Church, is a large black ‘Shuck’ dog, known locally as the “Hateful Thing”. It certainly used to be said, if not now, that the dog do come down Lovers Lane and disappear through the churchyard wall.
St Peter, Spixworth, Norfolk: Traditionally, the ghosts of William Peek and his wife are said to rise from their tomb in the church at midnight and wander about the church and its grounds.
St Nicholas, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk: The apparition of a monk, dressed in grey robes, is said to appear when walking through the front wall of Anna Sewell’s house, which stands close to the church. It then walks the short distance to the church and disappears through the churchyard wall. In the early hours of the morning on December 31st, 1961, Mr R E Simmett, a milkman, saw a very similar ghost around the corner of the church in Priory Plain. According to some sources, this is a ghost of a nun and not a monk.
St Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk: This beautiful old church is said to be haunted by the ghost of a 15th century monk by the name of Pacificus – see our previous article: “Ranworth: Its History & Myths”. Tradition has it that he was from nearby St Benet’s Abbey which across the other side of the river. Every day, Pacificus would row over to St Helens to restore and re-paint its famous Rood Screen. Not only is his ghost seen in the church, but also rowing down the river with his little dog sitting at the boat’s bow.
St Edmund, Thurne, Norfolk: Local legend asserts that, on very dark nights, a ghostly light appears in the tower of this church. It is said to be the light which was lit by the villagers in times of need, to signal for help from the monks of St Benet’s Abbey across the river and marches. There is a Curious ‘squint hole’ at eye level in the church tower which points directly to the Abbey; traditionally, this is linked with signalling the Abbey and does help to add weight to the story of the ghostly light.
St Peter & St Paul, Cromer, Norfolk: For many years, up until 1889 this church, which boasts the highest towere in Norfolk, lay ruined and sadly neglected. In his book ‘Cromer, Past and Present’, published in that same year, Walter Rye gives an interesting account of a rather grisly spectre which was seen in the ruined chancel. He says (referring to a path which had been made across the chancel): ” This path, now happily closed, was not much used after sunset, for the old ruins are an eerie place after dark and there are more than one ghost story lingering about them. An old man I employed some years ago to clear away some of the rubbish, told me that not long ago, as he was crossing the chancel at night, a little child-like figure, dressed in white, arose from the ground within an arms length of him and gradually increased in height till its face was level with his and that then, all of a sudden, a great gash appeared across its throat, the blood poured down in a great torrent over its white clothes, and it vanished in a flash – leaving a sighing sound in his ears”.
All saints, Weybourne, Norfolk: Here we find yet another ghost that finishes off its journey in the local churchyard! A phantom coach, pulled by four black horses and driven by a headless coachman, is said to hurtle through the village (traffic permitting !) and to finally disappear through the churchyard wall.
St Mary, Burgh St Peter, Norfolk: An interesting and unusual legend is recounted by Charles Sampson in his ‘Ghosts of the Broads’. It would appear that in the year 1101 AD, a a man named Adam Morland sold his soul to the Devil for a substantial sum of money, after which he left the country. Upon his return many years later, he erected a church at Burgh St Peter, on the foundations of which the present church was built.A few days after the church had been consecrated, Adam died and was buried in the churchyard with full religious rites.
Now, for some time prior the Adam’s death, an old man had been seen around the village, clutching in his hand a roll of parchment, speaking to no-one. On the day of Adam’s funeral, this old man was seen to become very excited and followed the cortege to the church, but would not enter. As Adam’s body was lowered into its final resting place, the old man was heard to swear that he would wait until the day of resurrection to collect Adam’s soul. That night, when the sexton went to lock up the church, he saw that the old man was still there and so asked if he could help him. The old man slowly lifted his head and the sexton saw, to his horror, that within the hood which the old man was wearing, a hideous grinning skull, glowing from within! Terror stricken, the sexton fled to the village to find the priest; both of them returned to the church armed with crucifixes and Holy Water. As they approached, the hooded skeleton stood uo and vanished in a flash of flame, leaving behind terrible brimstone vapours. Every year after this incident, on the annisversary of Adam’s death, that terrible hooded figure was seen outside the church. When the old church was rebuilt in the 16th century,it was assumed that the apparition would no longer appear. However, this was not to be, for now not only did the hooded skeleton appear, but so did a host of others all around the churchyard wall! It is said that the awful apparition can still be seen on 2nd May each year, the annisversary of Adam’s death.
St Mary, Worstead, Norfolk: There is a very old tradition which says that a ‘white lady’ appears at this church each year as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1830 a local man, out of bravado, went into the bell chamber of the church that Christmas Eve to “give the white lady a kiss” When he failed to return, his friends plucked up courage and went to look for him. They found him, crouched in the corner of the bell chamber, his features contorted with fear, eyes rolling and lips gibbering, completely insane. He screamed, “I’ve seen her – There! – There!!, pointing wildly about. Then he lapsed into unconciousness and shortly afterwards he died with ever re-gaining conciousness again.
Holy Trinity, Ingham, Norfolk: Traditionally, on the night of 2nd August each year, the effigies of Sir Oliver d’Ingham and Sir Roger de Bois come aliveand leave their respective alter tombs in the church. Taking on flesh and blood appearance, the two knights leave the church and make their way down to Stalham Broad where they battle with an eastern looking soldier. After he has been disposed of, the two return to the church to resume their stony recumbent positions for anoth twelve months. The pit, adjoining the churchyard here, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a ‘woman in white’.
St Peter & St Pauls Church, Honing, Norfolk
St Peter & St Paul, Honing, Norfolk: A phantom white donkey haunts the road leading to the church. One witness described it as having smoke issuing from its nostrils and a strong smell of sulphur. It galloped down the road to the church and disappeared through the churchyard wall. As it passed the astonished witness, he noticed that he could see right through it to the hedge beyond!
The Reedham Ferry is a vehicular chain ferry which was hand operated until 1949. It continues to operate on the River Yare in Norfolk, crossing the river near the village of Reedham and forming the only crossing point between the city of Norwich and Great Yarmouth and saving users a journey of more than 30 miles. The ferry carries up to 3 cars at a time with a maximum total weight of 12 tonnes. This contrasts to the original ferry which was called the Norfolk Horse Ferries which, unsurprisingly, carried horse drawn wagons – the main users of the ferry boat at the time. The current ferry was built in 1984 and was designed and built at Oulton Broad by the late Fred Newson & the present owner David Archer.
The Reedham Ferry has been operating this service since the 17th century, supported by the nearby Reedham Ferry Inn whose licensees have been responsible for running the river Ferry to present day. Since the 1770’s the Inn’s licensees have been:
JOHN SHEPHERD pre 1773
JOHN HOGGETT 1773 – 1803
MARY HOGGETT 1803 – 1829
JOHN HOGGETT 1829 – 1831
JEREMIAH HOGGETT 1831 – 1843
MARSON MANTHORPE (marsh man) 1861 – 1865
JOHN BENNS 1865 – 1881
GEORGE FOWLER HALL 1881 – 1884
GEORGE FORDER 1884 – 1917
CHARLES EDWARD STONE 1917 – 1944
ARTHUR JOHN BENNS 1944 – 1949
NORMAN ARCHER 1949 – 1969
DAVID ARCHER 1969 – Present
Norman and Hal Archer took over the Reedham Ferry Inn, then a small ale house, in 1949. They came from London, along with David their son soon after the Second World War. Right from the beginning the family were to demonstrate a true commitment to the task of operating a ferry which required Norman to winch it across the river by hand. However, within 12 months, in 1950, he had the ferry fitted with a diesel engine. At that time, he had no way of knowing that this would be the start of the family pioneering the last working chain ferry in the East of England. Keith Patterson, a past ferryman at Reedham Ferry spoke to WISEArchive at Acle on 18th December 2017
“……Then in October 1958, I started at Reedham Ferry and was there permanently until 1963 as the ferryman. After that I did the job part-time right through until I retired last year in 2016……… I used to work from eight until five and David Archer, his father and I used to share the shift between us. Now there are several ferrymen, because most of them are quite happy to be part-time, so they all fit into the pattern of the week. “
There had been numerous other ferries over the river Yare in those days, principally at Whitlingham, Bramerton, Surlingham, Coldham Hall and Buckenham, but these disappeared.
David Archer took over the business in 1969 at a time when the pub was showing true sustainability and making waves in the hospitality world; it won the ‘Broads Pub of the Year’ in 1973. With the Reedham Ferry Inn flourishing and a small campsite for holiday makers planned, the ‘old ferry’ under the Archers, was now nearly 60 years old; it was getting tired with the amount of traffic on the roads and David knew that it was time for a new ferry. In 1983 boat builders from Lowestoft were given the task of creating a new vessel which started operating in May 1983. This was followed by touring park, and the transformation of the pub from a small 1940’s ale house into the large bar and restaurant it is today.
Normally, the Ferry operates from about 6.30 until 10 at night. It only closes every third or fourth year, when it gets towed down to Newson’s Yard, at Oulton Broad, where it was originally built, for a refit, or whatever needs doing. The Reedham Ferry Inn remains a destination for drivers and holiday makers alike with mooring also available, along with a carp lake for holiday makers to enjoy some fishing as well. As for David Archer, he also worked alongside the Broads Authority managing the surrounding marshes, waterways and farm land.
Operating the only working chain ferry in the East Anglia does, however, have some drawbacks. Being so unique means that everything surrounding the ferry maintenance is more challenging and costly. The ferry has to be lifted out of the water every 4-5 years to check the hull is sound and secure whilst also going through thorough testing. Whilst all this goes on, those who use the ferry have to drive the 30 miles or more detour. That apart, it would appear that David Archer has kept true to an old way of life, barely seen in any other parts of the country. When travellers board the Reedham Ferry they are transported back to a time when that was the only mode of transport for crossing the river Yare. It is a much quicker trip now than back in the days of winching by hand but there is always enough time to get out of the cars and look around and down the river to experience a feeling ‘of the past.
FOOTNOTE: When the rivers were the main arteries of communication within the country Reedham was once a much more important place. It was known to the Romans, when the estuary of the river Yare was much wider and Reedham was almost a sea port. Fragments of Roman brick still turn up in the village and appear in quantity in the church walls. Reedham is mentioned in a story by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) about St Edmund and although the legend may be pure invention the place was obviously well known to these medieval times. Even before the time of Edmund it is said that Reedham possessed a church that was founded by St Felix around the year 640. Felix was the first Bishop of East Anglia and gave his name to Felixstowe. This church at Redham survived until it was destroyed by the invading Danes on their way to murder Edmund in the year 869 – this information comes from the Liber Eliensis or the History of Ely Abbey, written in the 12th century.
In January 2017 a Land Rover ‘Defender’ was reported stolen and later found submerged under the chains of Reedham Ferry. The ferry was forced to close for safety reasons and the fact that it couldn’t moor on the Reedham side of the river. The car was removed from the river by a local resident’s JCB machine and the Reedham Ferry was back in business within one day – during which time travellers had to find an alternative or wait!