An Indefatigable Ghost Hunter!

Peter Underwood was considered by some to have been that ‘indefatigable ghost-hunter’…… Dame Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of the great author and a keen student of the supernatural, once described him as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of psychical research’. Underwood also carried the labels of being an immaculate, urbane, gentlemanly and quite sophisticated sort of person. He was, for many years, a link with the distant past, outliving those investigators and writers who conducted the drama of the Borley Rectory, considered for a time as “Britain’s most haunted house”; he lived to tell the tales right up to 2014.

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Peter Underwood

Underwood wrote over 50 books about his pursuit of spooks; many of them gazetteers, collections from around the country of oral history on supposed hauntings. In his book ‘No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter’ (1983), he suggested that ninety-eight per cent of these reports had a rational explanation, and were generally put to one side; it was the other two per cent that intrigued him and being worthy of pursuit. Nevertheless, he discarded nothing, allowing readers the option of deciding what was, or was not, a likely story.

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Peter Underwood was born on 16 May 1923 into a family of Plymouth Brethren; his home on arrival was at Westholm, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. He claimed much later in life that he had his first paranormal experience at the age of nine, apparently seeing an apparition of his father who had died earlier the same day standing at the bottom of his bed. Thereafter, his interest in hauntings was further stimulated by his maternal grandparents, who lived for a time at Rosehall, a 17th century Hertfordshire house in Sarratt, a village considered “a good locality for ghosts – they have more ghosts there than ratepayers!” Rosehall had a haunted reputation, having a particular bedroom in which guests reported seeing the figure of a headless man. Underwood’s interest in hauntings and ghostly phenomena began to take root at this time, and it was said that whenever curious tourists knocked, young Peter would assume the role of tour guide and would regale visitors with tales; he became so fascinated when many shared their own experiences of the paranormal in return that he began to scribble them down.

Rushbrooke Hall (Demolished)
Rushbrooke Hall, Suffolk, where Peter Underwood stayed during his convalescence. The Hall was demolished in 1961. Photo: Public Domain.

At the beginning of World War Two and after a private education, part of which was with a personal tutor, Underwood joined the publishing firm of J M Dent & Sons in Letchworth, working at their printing and binding works at Dunham’s Lane in Letchworth. Later he would move to Dent’s publishing office before being called up for active service with the Suffolk Regiment in 1942. However, his military service was short-lived – after collapsing on a rifle range at Bury St Edmunds with a serious chest ailment which rendered him unfit for active service. Following several months of convalescence at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, Underwood was discharged from the army and returned to Dent’s. During this time Underwood became friendly with Harry Price and wrote to him in connection with his own investigations into the hauntings of Borley Rectory with permission of the owner, James Turner the poet. Price gave Underwood considerable advice on the topic and in 1947 invited him to join Price’s ‘Ghost Club’. Barely a few months later, Harry Price died suddenly from a massive heart attack; that was on Sunday 29 March 1948.

Harry Price
Harry Price

Two particular hauntings spoke the loudest to Underwood during his career. The first was of Borley Rectory; a pitiful building on the barren edge on the Essex/Suffolk. Borley became a media circus in the 1930s, when celebrity ghost hunter Harry Price set out to prove its reputation as a site for scary apparitions. The large Gothic-style house was said to have been haunted since it was built in the 1860s, but things took a more sinister turn in 1928 when the wife of a new rector who was cleaning out a cupboard came across a brown paper package containing the skull of a young woman. Subsequently the family reported strange happenings, including the ringing of servant bells which had been disconnected, lights appearing in windows and unexplained footsteps. As a result, the family fled Borley, but things only seemed to get worse after the arrival of the Reverend Lionel Foyster, his wife Marianne and daughter Adelaide in 1930. In addition to bell-ringing, there were windows shattering, the throwing of stones and bottles, and mysterious messages on the walls. On one occasion Marianne claimed to have been physically thrown from her bed; on another, Adelaide was attacked by “something horrible” and locked in a room with no key.

BorleyRectory1892
Borley Rectory in 1892. Photo: Wikipedia

The building became known as “the most haunted house in England” after the celebrated psychic researcher Harry Price (who had lived at the rectory for a year in 1937-38) published a book about it in 1940. After Price’s death in 1948, however, members of the Society for Psychical Research investigated his claims and concluded that many of the phenomena he described had been faked, either by Price himself, or by Marianne Foyster (who later admitted, apparently, that she had been having an affair with the lodger and had used paranormal excuses to cover up their trysts).

In the years since Price’s death most of the Borley legend has been debunked, but Underwood, Price’s executor as well as his protégé, remained fiercely loyal to him. He claimed to have traced and personally interviewed almost every living person connected with the rectory, and had concluded that at least some of the phenomena were genuine and fiercely defended Price against accusations of fraud. He even went as far as to dedicate his book on the subject, the 1973 ‘Ghosts of Borley’, which he produced in collaboration with Paul Tabori, to his old friend; it was a gesture that straight away rendered the book as useless according to sceptics.

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The Queen’s House Museum, Greenwich.
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The Circular Stairs within the Queen’s House Museum, Greenwich.

The second story was known as ‘The Greenwich Ghost’; apparently photographed, by a visiting clergyman in 1967, running up a circular staircase at The Queen’s House Museum. Such a tempting and wonderful image is far too good to be true, particularly when it has never been satisfactorily explained. This was Underwood’s favourite tale, but one where even he would go no further than to call it “puzzling”.

ghostclubseance
Séance held at night by members of The Ghost Club at the Queen’s House on 24th June 1967. Clockwise from the left: Hector McQueen, Margery McQueen, Peter Underwood, Dr Peter Hilton-Rowe, Richard Howard. Back to camera: the sound engineer.

By 1955, Dent’s publishing arm had moved to London and Peter Underwood was living in Twickenham. Through his employers, Underwood was to meet many authors of the day, including Dylan Thomas, and also managed to carry out his own investigations of allegedly haunted places, including the ruins of Minsden Chapel near Stevenage and a house where the owner had requested a reduction in the rates due to it being haunted.

Minsden_Chapel_Hitchin_2016
The ruins of Minsden Chapel

Underwood was to identify nine different varieties of ghost during a life dedicated to investigating ghouls and spooks of all shapes and sizes; these came as elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. He had a talent for categorisation; for example, ‘Where the Ghosts Walk’, published in 2013, was described as a “definitive guide to the haunted places of Britain”, providing a digest of ghosts grouped by location – including Napoleon searching for somewhere to land his invasion along Lulworth Cove.

Simon Farquhar of the Independent wrote in February 2015:

“Underwood never pedalled mumbo-jumbo, but he was drawn to the idea of a ghost being an “atmospheric photograph”, pondering that all of our actions are perhaps recorded on some sort of eternal tape, and under certain conditions, maybe climactic, occasionally they reappear. I don’t honestly think the figures that are seen represent an afterlife. I think it’s much more likely that it’s some kind of echo of a previous life.”

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Peter Underwood once claimed that he also had a nose for charlatanry and according to The Telegraph of 2014:

“…… the writer Dennis Wheatley gave a graphic description of a “psychometry” session hosted by Joan Grant, a writer famed for her “far memory” books. During these sessions she would go into a trance and dictate scenes from her past lives. Wheatley described how a stark-naked Joan began to talk in the person of an ancient Egyptian, “glistening and quivering in ecstasy……… writhing and contorting her body sensually in tune with the administration of his hands”. It was said that Wheatley was convinced by her performances – Underwood was not”

Unfortunately, perhaps, Underwood became caught up in some genuinely mysterious goings-on in 1994. Police arrived to question William (Bill) Bellars, a 75-year-old retired naval officer, Loch Ness monster expert and honorary treasurer of the Ghost Club of Britain, founded in 1862, of which Underwood had been president. They were following an anonymous tip-off that club members were really part of an IRA cell. In fact, Bellars had been planning to lead an all-night investigation at a haunted abbey in Hampshire; it took him an afternoon to convince the police that he was up to nothing more sinister than looking for 16th-century Cistercian monks. Eventually, the ghost hunt did go ahead as planned, but the mystery of the tipster’s identity was never solved. Nor did Bellars ever discover the source of abusive calls he claimed he had been receiving. However, it was noted that the previous year Underwood had been ousted from the presidency after 33 years in the post by members who had allegedly become fed up with his “autocratic” ways and who accused him of using the club’s name to help sell his books. “He really ran it to suit his own commercial interests,” Bellars was quoted as saying. Underwood denied any connection to the phone calls or the IRA incident, but Bellars’s description of the final showdown struck an appropriately supernatural note: “I said my piece, then he went purple in the face, just blew a top. Then he vanished.”

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Peter Underwood’s ghost hunting kit.

Sadly, towards the end of his own life, internal squabbles shattered the gentlemanly mood of the Ghost Club. The departure of Underwood from the Club caused it to split in two. According to Underwood, Bellars led a rump “Ghost Club” with about 80 per cent of the membership leaving to form a Ghost Club Society with Underwood as life president.

Peter Underwood, author, broadcaster and ghost-hunter died in Bentley, Hampshire on 26 November 2014. Again, according to Simon Farquhar writing in the Independent in February 2015:

“He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a leisurely author, thoughtful rather than gullible; Underwood’s work was “no common task”, as he called his 1983 autobiography; but after a lifetime spent chasing shadows, what he leaves behind is a solid treasury of legends and superstitions which make fine fireside reading, and here and there tell us something about the situations and ideas that perpetually disquiet us: stories that certainly would appear to be immortal.”

THE END

Inspirational Sources:
www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Bibliography/bibliography_into.htm
www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Profiles/peterunderwood.htm
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11310318/Peter-Underwood-obituary.html
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/peter-underwood-urbane-and-gentlemanly-author-and-ghost-hunter-who-wrote-more-than-50-books-about-10030051.html
https://realparanormalexperiences.com/harry-price-the-ghost-hunter
Banner Heading Image: Copyright Jonathan Stroud 2014

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Tittleshall: A Gruesome Case of Murder!

Location:
In 1853, Tittleshall-cum-Godwick, to give the parish its correct name, still remained in Central Norfolk, about 5 miles south of the market town of Fakenham and about the same north-west of East Dereham. Godwick itself was once a separate and ancient parish, standing north-east of Tittleshall, but way back in 1630, both Godwick and Wellingham were consolidated with that of Tittleshall. By 1853 the joint benefices were valued at around £871 per annum, with the Earl of Leicester its patron and the Reverend Kenelam Hy Digby B.A, the Rector, supported by the Reverend Robert Sayers, the curate. The parish tithes were set at £681 and it held a Glebe, the size of which was 58 acres, 3 roods, and 8 perch.

Tittleshall Murder (St Mary's)
St Mary the Virgin, at Tittleshall. Photo: Ian Burt

Tittleshall itself was, and still is, compact and set around a three-way junction of lanes leading to Fakenham, Stanfield and Litcham. In 1853 it was considered “a well-built village” of some 615 inhabitants, 124 houses and 3360 acres of land, which included 300 acres of “woods and waste”, nearly all owned by the Earl of Leicester. Those who lived and worked in Tittleshall included every skill that one would expect in a mid-19th Century rural village – from a blacksmith, miller, bricklayer, wheelwright, cooper, baker, saddler and tailor. There were three butchers, eight farmers, two shoemakers, two shopkeepers, plus James Best, a Carrier who plied his services to and from Norwich on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and between Lynn on Mondays and Thursdays.

Tittleshall Murder (Post Mill)
Tittleshall post windmill onced stood to the southwest of the village.  James  Cooper was both a miller and baker with  the baking being done from the mill site.
Tittleshall Murder (Street Scene_late 19th C)
One of the main streets through Tittleshall. Photo: Public Domain.

In 1853, Tittleshall was not the place where anyone would expect a murder to be committed!

Central Characters:
William Thompson (convicted murderer)
: lived and worked in the parish; he was around 21 years of age and a labourer, chiefly employed as a tree-feller. It would appear that neither he not his father, with whom William lived, were what might be termed up-right members of the community. There is no record of the son being baptised in the church of St Marys, although there were a number of ‘Thompsons’ living around who had been baptised there in the past; the menfolk were all, except one, labourers. Whatever, William got up to did included owing money to others – and this must have been a problem for him.

Tittleshall Murder (Watchmaker)
A watchmaker at work. Image: Public Domain.

Lorenz Beha (victim): was, at an earlier time a German Catholic immigrant from Baden-Baden who had settled in St Stephen’s Plain, Norwich, opening a business there and building up to employing two assistants. He was a watchmaker and dealer in jewellery by profession who occasionally travelled throughout Norfolk selling his goods and taking orders for future deliveries. Whenever he travelled, he usually carried his goods in a bag which was tied to the end of a stick that rested on his shoulders. When he was away from his business, he trusted his two assistants to take care of everything back in Norwich.

Tittleshall Murder (Pocket Watch_Lorenz Beha_Norwich 1849
One of Lorenz Beha’s watches made in 1849.

Unfortunate Circumstances:
For an account of what happened, both on Friday, 25 November 1853 and subsequently, we have to rely on the many newspapers accounts which were published in both local and national broadsheets at the time, such was the interest whipped up by the Press. For this account, we take The Leader Newspaper, 26th November 1853, Page 8 and The Household Narrative of 1853 – both almost identical:

It would seem that on that particular Friday in November, Lorenz Beha set out on another of his regular visits to the Tittleshall area; maybe this time to deliver the product of a previous order, probably to collect money owed either as a full payment, or as a further instalment on a watch or piece of jewellery then in the hands of the customer. His trusted account book would be tucked into an inside pocket as he gave instructions to his assistant; then a last-minute check on the contents of his bag and a glance at the weather to judge what it was likely to do over the next few hours or so. When he left, he would not have known that he would not return to his shop in St Stephens.

His means of transport to his first call at Wellingham is not known, but the weather must have been kind for he decided to walk from there to Tittleshall, which was barely two miles distance and not far from Fakenham. This need to walk may have been a habit of his and, undoubtedly, he was a familiar sight in the area with his stick and suspended bag over his shoulder with its contents of jewellery, plus gold and silver watches secured inside. At about one o ‘ clock in the day, he was about mid-way and approaching a plantation; we know this because he was seen by two labourers, the Roper brothers, who were ploughing in an adjoining field. Maybe neither acknowledged the other for both parties could well have been preoccupied with the job in hand; they toiled and he kept walking. From later information obtained from Beha’s assistants back in Norwich, their employer would have been carrying about £30 in cash at the time, usually carried in a double purse which accompanied a few more watches which he was accustomed to carry in his jacket pockets. At this point the story cuts out and for a time we know nothing.

The plantation mentioned above stretched across both sides of the road with one side of the plantation ending at Tittleshall Common. It was certainly after one o’clock, but before three when several persons passed along the road at this spot on their way to Dereham Market; all of them, it seems, observed a quantity of blood in the middle of the road. However, having no suspicion of a murder having been committed, certainly in the middle of the day and on a spot so frequently used, they continued their journey without stopping. It was left to John Robinson, a butcher living in Tittleshall, who at 3.30pm, and having walked from Wellingham, reached the same spot where his attention was directed to the same quantity of blood on the road. He noticed that some portion of the blood had been partially covered by dirt and sand scraped from the road as if to conceal its presence.

Just at that moment of deliberation, the sons of the Reverend Digby of St Mary’s, came riding up on ponies along with two ladies in a gig, they being Mrs Digby and Miss Sheppard. The whole party struck up a conversation as their collective attention was fix on the patches of blood. One of the young gentlemen was sharp enough to notice that there was also a small trail of blood leading from the road to the hedge that separated one side of the planation from the road. This triggered John Robinson to also notice that the trail continued through the fence into a ditch where “a horrible spectacle was presented”.

The body of Mr Lorenz Beha was found with his legs towards the hedge and the coat-collar up, as if the corpse had been dragged by his coat-collar through-the fence. Beside the body lay Mr Beha’s box of jewellery unopened, but taken out of the bag; his stick and umbrella and also a large hatchet, such as is used for felling timber. The blade of the hatchet was covered with blood and hair, and it was evidently the weapon by which the unfortunate man had been murdered. The pockets of his trousers had been turned inside out, and rifled; but the account-book was still to be found in Beha’s pocket, along with his waistcoat pocket-watch, still ticking away:

“His head had been nearly severed from his body by a blow at the back of the neck, and there were four deeply-cut wounds across the temples and face, any one of which would have caused death. The right eye was driven inwards to the depth of nearly an inch; indeed, the poor man appeared to have been felled like an ox, and dragged into the ditch.”

The party of ladies and gentlemen returned to Tittleshall, and gave information of the murder to the Rector, who sent a cart to the spot and, with the assistance of the butcher, John Robinson, and two ploughmen who, apparently, were the same as those seeing Beha walk passed earlier, carried the body to the Griffin Inn, in Tittleshall. At no time then, or well into the evening did anyone suspect who the perpetrator of such a crime may have been. It was not until late into the evening, when another of the village butchers, named William Webster, said that when he was driving in his cart to Wellingham, at about one o ‘ clock earlier in the day, he noticed a man in the plantation adjoining the ditch where the body was found. He added that when he passed by the man stooped down as if to hide himself. Webster mentioned all this at Wellingham and as soon as he had heard of the murder; at the time he did not say who he thought the man may have been. However, at ten o’clock that same night, Webster decided to visit the house of John Hooks, a parish constable, and pass on his belief that the man he had seen in the plantation was William Thompson, a labourer, living with his father at Tittleshall, and who was frequently employed in felling timber.

Tittleshall Murder (Arrest)
An arrest.

Constables Hooks, together with Constable Moore went immediately to Thompson’s house where they found him in bed; they ordered him to get up rise and dress himself. He did so, but putting on different and ‘sloppy’ [dress in an untidy or casual manner] clothing from those he had worn during the day. The constables found on the bed a pair of trousers, the legs of which, together with the left pocket, were soaked with blood. In the lower room they found a pair of ‘highlows’ [boots], with blood on the lace holes. They asked Thompson for his hatchet, but he could not produce it, and he made no statement as an explanation.

Further evidence came to light as a result of police enquiries. A Mr S. Hermann of Lynn and a friend and former partner of Lorenz Beha went to Tittleshall on the Sunday morning knowing that the latter, in the course of his journey that weekend, intended to take a watch to a person in the village. At first, no watch was found during the initial search of the Thompson’s premises, but in view of the evidence received, a more thorough search was made. During the course of that search the police officers opened the oven door to find several pairs of boots. “Oh, that have been searched before.” said the father of William Thompson. However, the officers persisted and a watch was indeed found behind those boots; this watch had the name L. Beha as watchmaker engraved on its back. Then, in the chimney they found another watch by the same maker. In the water closet they found a canvas bag, or purse, containing a Geneva watch, two £5 notes of the Lynn & Lincolnshire Bank, two sovereigns, four half sovereigns and £1 in silver. In the house were found a bunch of watch keys. As a result of all this evidence, William Thompson was arrested and, because there was no police station nearer than Fakenham, was taken to the Griffin Inn [previously the Golden Wyvern], at Tittleshall, the licensee of which was Elizabeth Bacon.

On the following day Webster identified the prisoner as the same man that he had seen in the plantation just before the murder was committed. Then the Roper brothers, who had been working near the plantation and had seen Lorenz Beha earlier, stated that they also met the prisoner coming from the direction of where the body was found – “he seemed to be in great haste, and perspired profusely.” They had asked that person “what o’clock it was. He pulled out, a hunting-watch from his trousers’ pocket, and he said it was half-past one o’clock.” Further damming evidence which tended to confirm the strong suspicion of Thompson’s guilt was also discovered at his house.

Tittleshall Murder 2

There followed the Trial, Sentence, Confession and Execution of William Thompson, the proceedings of which were summarised and printed by Gifford, Printer & Publisher of St Benedicts, Norwich for distribution amongst the public, such was its interest. It went along the following lines:

William Thompson, 21, was charged with wilful murdering Lorenz Beha of Tittleshall on the 18th of November and stealing from him two £5 bank notes, two sovereigns, twenty shillings, a six pence, a four-penny piece, 3 silver watches of the value of £15, twelve watch-keys, sixteen box keys of the value of 3s and one purse, value 6p. [All the property of Lorenz Beha.]

Tittleshall Murder (Court)2

Mr Evans and Mr Bulver appeared for the prosecution, and Mr Cooper for the defence.

The prisoner appeared, on the whole, to be careless and indifferent as to the result of the result of the proceedings against him. The following evidence was then adduced.

Harriet Ewing said: I am the wife of Robert Ewing and live in Wellingham. On November 18th I saw Lorenz Beha, he had a carpet-bag with him. He was in the habit of coming to my house once a month. He generally came at noon on Friday’s. He stayed at my house for about five minutes; on leaving my house he went on Tittleshall road; that road led him past Mr Norton’s plantation.

John Robertson: I live at Tittleshall and am a butcher by trade. Tittleshall is about a mile from Wellingham. When near Mr Norton’s Plantation I observe some blood in the road; this was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I was the right-side of the road. In the ditch I observed a body and saw more blood I procured the assistance of four persons and soon after this the clergyman, Mr Digby, came up. We examined the body; the face was very much cut. The trousers were turned inside out. There was a box lying by and a bag, the box was locked. A stich lain on the right side of the body, and also an umbrella; we also found a hatchet in the ditch, there was a great deal of blood on it, the body was the body of Mr Lorenz Beha. It was removed to the Griffin public house in Tittleshall.

Tittleshall Murder (Court Scene)
A typical 19th century court scene. Image: Public Domain.

Mr J Jump, Surgeon: I am a surgeon and live at Litcham. I was shown the body on the evening of the murder. It was shown me as the body of Belia. On the following Monday I examined it minutely.

William Webster: I am a butcher, residing at Tittleshall. I left my home about half-past eleven on the morning of the day of the murder. I passed the place about a quarter to twelve. I saw Thompson near the plantation. He had a slop and a cap on.

Mr Cooper, counsel for the prisoner, then made a very able defence. The jury, after a very brief deliberation, returned a verdict of GUILTY.

The Clerk of the Arraigns: William Thompson you have been found guilty of the wilful murder of Lorenza Belia. What have you to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon you –

The Prisoner’s Defence:
I left my father’s house, Tittleshall, on Friday, November 18th at about half past eleven o’clock in the forenoon and went for a walk up the Wellingham road. When I got up to Mr Riches’ Plantation it was about twelve. I saw a man get up from the bushes in the plantation. He asked me if I knew what time it was; I told him that I thought it was about twelve. I then walked on and saw him either lying or sitting down in the same place. When I got around the corner to Mr Norton’s plantation, which was about one hundred yards from the place where I first saw the man, I got over the fence to ease myself. While I was doing so, William Webster, the butcher, came past, there was a man standing in the ditch by the side of the dead body, he was bent over it. I saw his hand was wet and daubed with blood. I asked him what he was after, ho immediately got out of the ditch and got hold of me round my legs and daubed my trousers with blood; he begged of me not to tell anyone, he said if I did, he would chop me down. I see him take out the purse some money, he then put his hands into his waistcoat pocket he pulled 5 watches, 3 he gave me, I said I would not have them, he said I should, he is a dark person. I never saw him no more till I got to Roper, that is all I can say about it.

Tittleshall Murder (Lord Baron Parke)
The Judge – ‘The Right Honourable Sir James Parke’. Image: Public Domain.

 

The Judge’s Address:
At the time of this trial in 1854 the judge would have been addresses as ‘The Right Honourable Sir James Parke’ As such, he assumed the black cap and proceeded to pass sentence of death:

“Prisoner at the bar, you have been found guilty of wilful murder, upon evidence as clear as conclusive, and decisive as I ever heard in a court of justice – It is now my painful duty to pass the sentence of the court upon you. That you be taken to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body shall be buried in the precincts of the prison.”

Execution:
(Aged 21, William Thompson was executed at Norwich on Saturday, 8 April 1854 for the wilful murder of Lorenz Beha at Tittleshall, Norfolk.)

Tittleshall Murder (hanging)

At an early hour, the space before the Prison was crowded to excess by persons of both sects anxious to witness the execution of the wretched prisoner, which increased to such a degree that a number of people suffered from the pressure. The Sheriff, with their attendants arrived at the prison, they then proceeded to the condemned cell, where they found the Rev Ordinary engaged in prayer with the wretched culprit. After the usual formalities had been observed of demanding the delivery of the body of the prisoner into their custody, he was conducted to the press room where the executioner with his assistants then commenced pinioning his arms. During these awful preparations the unhappy man appeared mentally to suffer severely. All the arrangements having been completed, the prisoner, who then, trembled violently walked with the melancholy procession, preceded by the Rev Ordinary who read aloud and in a distinct tone, the burial service for the dead. Whilst the executioner was adjusting the fatal apparatus of death, the prisoner was deeply absorbed in prayer, the executioner, having drawn the cap over his face, retired from the scaffold and the signal having been given, the bolt was withdrawn and the unhappy man was launched into eternity. He was seen to struggle for a few moments, after which he ceased to exist.

Footnotes:
There have been many murders and villainous exploits in this large County over the years and many of them have become internationally renowned. This event is less well known.

William Thompson made a full confession while lying under the sentence of death.

There was once a story that went around to the effect that Lorenz Beha owed William Thompson some money, Hmm?

There is said to be a tree in Wellingham woods, between Wellingham and Tittleshall that has an axe mark on it with a ‘T’ above it and a ‘B’ underneath = ‘T axed B’!

THE END

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

A Church Living on the Edge!

The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!

Hellesdon (St Mary's)2
St Mary’s Church, Lower Hellesdon, Norwich. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.

St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:

Hellesdon (St Edmund)1
A medieval illumination depicting the death of Edmund the Martyr on 20 November 869 by the Vikings. Photo: Wikipedia.

In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!

Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historians. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”

Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.

Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.

Hellesdon (Village Sign)1
Hellesdon Village Sign
The sign is located in front of the Hellesdon Parish Hall. It depicts St Mary’s church and the body of the martyred King Edmund, guarded by a wolf.
© Copyright Evelyn Simak – – geograph.org.uk/p/850757

It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.

Hellesdon (St Mary's)2a
St Mary’s from a more south-easterly direction. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.

The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.

St Marys (Christopher Codling)
The rear of St Mary’s from a north easterly direction. Photo: Christopher Codling 2018

According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased  at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:

“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”

Hellesdon (St Mary's_brass)
St Mary’s church – brass
Brass to a former rector, Richard de Thaseburgh (1389), mounted on the north wall having formerly been situated on the floor. The brass lettering is in Latin. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.

Hellesdon (St Mary's)4
A view of St Mary’s showing the west side of the porch on the right, through to the older nave with its bell-tower, then the 14th century north aisle and finally the new 2012 addition on the left. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.

Hellesdon (St Mary's)8b
The porch entrance © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.

Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”

Hellesdon (St Mary's)8a
Inside the porch © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.

Hellesdon (St Mary's)106
Today, the window looks like this. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.
Hellesdon (St Mary's)102
A view from the nave towards the chancel, and a place for quiet contemplation and a read either side of church services! Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.

Hellesdon (St Mary's)104
A View along the north aisle towards the Benedicite screen which hides the organ and vestry beyond. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French. 

Hellesdon (St Mary's)111 (2)
The above Brass, depicting Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice, is written in Norman French. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.
Hellesdon (St Mary's)112
The above Brass, depicting John de Heylesdon and Joan, is written in Latin. Photo: © Copyright Haydn Brown 2019.

Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.

Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!

THE END

Sources:
Wilkins-Jones, F.M. ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ – highly recommended to anyone who would like to read a much fuller explanation of St Mary’s history.
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/hellesdonmary/hellesdonmary.htm
Plus a personal visit and a quick session of note-taking before the expected ‘graffiti hunting’ visitors turned up.
Banner Heading Photo: A Fine Day in February (Hellesdon) (undated) by John Middleton (Norfolk Museums Collections).

 

 

 

 

 

Celia Fiennes: Rides Side Saddle To Norwich!

Celia Fiennes lived at roughly the same time as Daniel Defoe. She was born in 1662 at Newton Toney, Salisbury, the daughter of a Colonel in Cromwell’s army. She is remarkable for the journeys she made throughout nearly every county of England, and the accounts she wrote about each one. She rode side-saddle, accompanied only by two servants. She travelled to improve her health, but also for personal adventure. Her account of her travels seems to have been written after her travels had largely ended, in 1702. She described both the great houses she visited and the developing new industries. She died in 1741.

Celia Fiennes2
Guillaume Blaeu, Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1631), Wikimedia Commons.

As a 17th century English traveller, Celia Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost and being swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges and prejudices – as reflected in the popular English travel guides of the 16th and 17th centuries which asserted that “women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” Nevertheless, early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no “diminution of their moral fibre”. So we have the autonomous Fiennes, unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants; a woman who would certainly have stood out.

The original text of Fiennes is not divided into chapters and paragraphs are few. I have tried to separate her journey to Norwich into frequent separated paragraphs and brought some of her language and wording more into the modern era in order to assist the reader.

Celia Fiennes Writes:

“……..So to Norwich. Sometimes it was in view then lost again. To Beccles is 8 miles more which in all was 36 miles from Ipswich, but exceedingly long miles……… This is a little market town but it is the third biggest town in the County of Suffolk – Ipswich, Bury St Edmund and Beccles. Here was a good big meeting place of at least 400 hearers and they have a very good minister one Mr Killinghall; he is but a young man but seemed very serious. I was there on the Lords day. Sir Robert Rich is a great supporter of them and Contributed to building the meeting place which is very neat. He has a good house at the end of the town with fine gardens. There are no good buildings, the town being old timber and plaster work except his and one or two more. There is a pretty big market Cross and a great Market there. There is a handsome stone-built Church and a very good public minister whose name is Armstrong: he preaches very well, they say notwithstanding the town, it is a sad Jacobitish town.

Celia Fiennes (Beccles Church)
Beccles Church. Image: Public Domain

This [town]chooses no parliament men. At the town’s end one passes over the river Waveney on a wooden bridge railed with timber and so you enter into Norfolk: it is a low flat ground all here about, so that the least rain they are overflowed by the river and lie under water as they did when I was there, so that the road lay under water which is very unsafe for strangers to pass by reason of the holes and quick sands and loose bottom. The ordinary people both in Suffolk and Norfolk knit much and spin, some with the’ rock and fusoe’ as the French do, others at their wheels out in the street and lanes as one pass. It is from this town to Norwich 12 miles, and it is 10 to Yarmouth where they build some small ships, and is a harbour for them and where they victual them. Also, Harwich about 12 or 14 miles also, but the miles here as long again as about London and pretty deep way, especially after rain: these miles are much longer than most miles in Yorkshire.

Celia Fiennes (St Stephens Gate)
St Stephens Gate, Norwich: Henry Ninham engravings of 1864 copied John Kirkpatrick’s early 18th-century drawings of the outside of the gate. [NCM Todd Collection, vol. II, box 5, page 119]

Norwich opens to view a mile distance by the help of a hill whereon is a little village. As I observe most of the great towns and Cities have about them little villages as attendants or appendix’s to them which are a sort of suburbs, there being straggling houses for the most part all the way between the gates. You pass over a high bridge yet leads on over a high Causey [causeway] of a pretty length which looks somewhat dangerous being fenced with trenches from its banks (pretty deep) that’s on both sides to secure it from the water, and these trenches run in many places round the low grounds to drain them and which are employed to whiten and bleach their woollen stuff is the manufacture of the place. This long Causey brings you to the large stone bridge over the river into which those trenches empty themselves.

Celia Fiennes (City Walls)

Then you proceed to the City which is walled round full of towers Except on the river side which serves for the wall. They seemed the best in repair of any walled City I know though in some places there are little breaches, but the carving and battlements and towers look well. I entered the west gate. There are 12 gates in all and 36 Churches, which is to be seen on a clear day altogether from the Castle walls – I told myself 30 were there. They are built all of flints well headed or cut which makes them look blackish and shining. The streets are all well pitched with small stones and very clean, and many very broad streets: yet I entered in first [which] was very broad for 2 Coaches or carts to pass on either side, and in the middle was a great well house with a wheel to wind up the water for the good of the public. A Little further is a large pond walled up with brick as a man’s height with an entrance on one end. A Little further was a building on which they were at work, designed for a water house to supply ye town by pipes into their houses with water. At a Little distance was another such a pond walled in as I described before. These things fill up the middle of this spacious street which is for use and also ornament, ye spaces each side being so broad.

This brings you into a broad space called the Haymarket which is on a hill, a very steep descent all well pitched as before: this comes to another space for a market to sell hoggs in, and opens farther into divisions of buildings that begins several streets which runs off good lengths and are of a tolerable size. One runs along behind which is all for stalls for the County butchers that bring their meat for the supply of the town, which pay such a rent for them to the town. On the other side are houses of the town’s butchers, the inhabitants. By it is a Large market for fish, which are all at a little distance from the heart of the City, so it is not annoyed with them. There is a very large market place and hall and Cross for fruit and little things every day, and also a place under pillars for the Corn market.

Celia Fiennes (Fish Market)
The Old Fish Market, Norwich by Charles Hodgson (1769–1856) (attributed to) Image: Norfolk Museums Service

The building round here is esteemed, the best and here is the Town Hall, but all their buildings are of an old form, mostly in deep poynts and much tiling as has been observed before, and they plaster on laths which they strike out into squares like broad free stone on the outside, which makes their fronts look pretty well; and some they build high and contract the roofs resembling the London houses, but none of brick except some few beyond the river which are built of some of the rich factors like the London buildings. There is in the middle of the town the Duke of Norfolks house of Brick and stone, with several towers and turrets and balls yet looks well, with large gardens, but the inside is all demolished only the walls stand and a few rooms for offices, but nothing of state or tolerable for use.

Celia Fiennes (Dukes Palace)
The north side of Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, John Kirkpatrick 1710. Image: Courtesy of Norfolk County Council, at Picture Norfolk, and Reggie Unthank.

From the Castle Hill you see the whole City at once, being built round it: it is a vast place and takes up a large tract of ground, it is 6 miles in compass. Here is the County hall and Goal where the assizes are held and the Sessions. Nothing of the Castle remains but a green space, and under it is also a large space for the beast market, and 3 times in the year there is very great faire kept to which resort a vast concourse of people, and wares – a full trade. The whole City looks like what it is, a rich thriving industrious place; Saturday is their great market day. They have beside the town hall a hall distinct which is the scaling hall where their stuffs are all measured, and if they hold their breadths and lengths they are scaled, but if they are defective there is a fine laid on the owner and a private mark on the stuff which shows its deficiency.

There was also the mint which they coined, but since the old money is all new, coined into milled money, that ceases. Here there is a fine large Cathedral and very lofty, but nothing remarkable of monuments or else: by it is 3 hospitals for boys, girls and old people who spin yarn, as does all the town besides for the Crapes, Calamancos and damasks which is the whole business of the place. Indeed, they are arrived to a great perfection in work, so fine and thin and glossy; their pieces are 27 yards in Length and their price is from 30 shillings to 3 pound as they are in fineness. A man can weave 13 yards a day, I saw some weaving; they are all employed in spinning, knitting weaving, dying, scouring or bleaching stuffs. Their hospitals are well provided for; there are 32 women in one as many men in the other, there is also a good free school.

Celia Fiennes (Guild Day)
Guild Day, of which Celia Fiennes refers to below. Image: Courtesy of  Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk.

There are a great many ceremonies in the choice and swearing in of their mayor: they elect him the first day of May and prepare for his being sworn in on Holy Thursday. They newly wash and plaster their houses within and without which they strike out in squares like free stone. All the street in which is this mayor elect’s house, is very exact in beautifying themselves and hanging up flags of the Councillors’ companies, and dress up pageants and there are players and all sorts of show that day – there is little that is not done at the Lord mayor of London show. Then they have a great feast with fine flags and scenes hung out, music and dancing. I was in the hall where they keep [hold] their feast in and saw some of their preparations for that day; being about a fortnight to it.

The town is a mile and a half from the North to the South gate. Just by one of the Churches there is a wall made of flints that is headed very finely and cut so exactly square and even to shut in one to another that the whole wall is made without cement at all they say, and there appears to be very little, if any, mortar; it looks well, very smooth shining and black. A great many dissenters are in this City. The gentle-woman that was my acquaintance there died 10 days before I came here, so I made no great stay only to see about the town.

Thence I went to Windham [Wymondham], a little market town 5 miles, mostly on a Causey [causeway], the County being low and moorish, and the road on the Causey was in many places full of holes though it is secured by a bar at which passengers pay a penny a horse in order to the mending of the way, for all about is not to be ridden on unless it is a very dry summer. Thence we went mostly through lanes where you meet the ordinary people, knitting 4 or 5 in a company [group] under the hedges. To Attleborough, 5 mile more to a little village, still finding the County full of spinners and knitters: thence to Thetford 6 miles more, which was formerly a large place but now much decayed and the ruins only shows its dimensions. There is a very high hill quite round which stands up on one side of it and can scarcely be ascended so steep. Here I lay, which is still in Norfolk.

Celia Fiennes (Thetford Hill)
Thetford’s Castle Hill © Copyright Colin Park and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Next day I went to Euston Hall which was the Lord Arlington’s and by his only daughters’ marriage with the Duke of Grafton is his sons by her. Two miles from Thetford it stands in a large park, 6 miles about, the house is a Roman H of brick: 4 towers with balls on them; the windows are low and not sashes Else the rooms are of a good size and height, a good staircase full of good pictures, a long gallery hung with pictures at length, on the one side is the Royal family from King Henry 7th by the Scottish race, his Eldest daughter down to the present King William and his queen Mary. The other side are foreign princes from the Emperor of Morocco, the Northern and Southern princes and Emperor of Germany. There is a square in the middle where stands a billiard table, hung with outlandish pictures of Heroes; there is Count Egmont and Horn at the end of the room is the Duke and Duchess of Grafton’s picture at length.

Celia Fiennes (Euston Hall_Ashley Dace)2
Front Entrance of Euston Hall © Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Then I entered into the dining and drawing rooms and bed chambers of a very good size and good fret work on the ceiling: in one of the rooms was the Duchess of Cleveland’s picture in a sultaness dress, the Duke of Grafton being King Charles’s seconds base son by her. There was also another picture of ye Royal family. King Charles I’s five children altogether. I have often seen 3 which was King Charles II, King James and the Princess of Orange; but here was also the Lady Elizabeth and the Duke of Gloucester, a little Infant on a pillow. In another place there is the Queen Mother’s picture the Lady Henrietta drawn large.

Celia Fiennes (Euston Hall_Ashley Dace)
Rear View of Euston Hall © Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There is a fine hall and parlour below, paved with free stone. There are good gardens with fountains and some stone statutes, a Canal by the side, a large court at the entrance with three Iron bar gates which open to the front, divided with stone pillars and balls. The outside Court is walled round and the wall is carried a great length round to the back yards. Within this is another Court with an iron spiked palisade divided every 2 or 3 yards by little stone pillars with balls. There are several rows of trees running the great length through the park; a visto to the front of the house, which looks nobly though, not just of the new modelled way of building. At the back gate I crossed over the river Waveney which is the division of the two County’s and entered Suffolk and passed over perfect downs; champion country, just like Salisbury Plain; and the winds have a pretty power here and blows strongly in the winter and not well to be endured.

Celia Fiennes5
A page from the diaries, with Celia’s signature.

With Celia’s journey over, have a look at the following BBC4’s little snippet at:

https://youtu.be/f32pAm_7Aik

Sources:
www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/Fiennes
https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496202260/
https://martinevanelk.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/the-intrepid-and-inquiring-celia-fiennes/
Banner Heading Image: Gesina ter Borch, Woman on Horseback in a Landscape (Vrouw te paard in een landschap, 1660). Rijksmuseum, BI-1887-1463-25

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Norfolk: A Hidden & Forgotten Railway.

Amongst the list of Victorian British railway pioneers you will not find the name of William Betts (1810-1885), principally because he was not a ‘major player’ – today’s terminology! But he was certainly important, around the mid-19th century, as far as the local community that lived and worked in the Scole Parish in Norfolk were concerned. Betts was also the diving force behind the development of his 400-acre market garden business there, together with the design and construction of his very own railway system which serviced that business. His railway, built very much to his design of its route and its waggons, has been referred to as either the ‘Frenze Farm Railway’ and ‘The Scole Railway’ – whichever one prefers perhaps! Either way, we have here a story of William Betts, along with some detail of the geographic structure and layout of the parish community in which he once conducted his business.

Scole Railway (Frenze Beck)
The Ford across the stream leading to Frenze Hall. Photo: © Copyright John Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The present-day Scole Parish is in the local government district of South Norfolk. To the south it is bordered by the River Waveney and the neighbouring County of Suffolk, with the town of Diss facing it from the west. This parish now contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billigford, Thelveton and Frenze – not forgetting the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in Betts’s time, the Parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, but reverted to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and were joined to Scole. The village of Frenze – in earlier times Frense, Frens or Frence and locally pronounced as ‘Fi-renze’ – stands in a picturesque spot on the banks of Frenze, a fast-flowing tributary of the larger river Waveney.

Scole Railway (St Andrews)
The ancient church of St Andrew at Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. More info here: www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/frenze/frenze.htm. Photo: Carol Gingell.

William Betts himself, was born in 1810 to parents Thomas Betts (1783-1847) and Sarah (nee’ Smith 1784-1855) who produced a total of eight children. William became a businessman and brick manufacturer and was married to Julia Wildman Sparling on 30 March 1843 at All Saints Church, Colchester. Then, in 1844, he became Lord of the Manor of Frenze, within the parish and patron of St Andrew’s Church and becoming, along with a Mr Browning, the chief landowners at Frenze. Betts also had extended family connections there – along with his dreams!

Scole Railway (Frenze Hall)
Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. Built in the early 17th century, the hall and it’s estate was purchased by William Betts in the 1860s and it’s 400 acres of land were converted into vast market gardens supplying London with fresh vegetables. To service the estate, Betts built a standard gauge railway which connected to the mainline at Diss and ran eastwards to Scole and north above Frenze hall, covering around 7 miles in total, with branches leading off in several directions to cover the whole estate. William Betts also owned two brick fields in the area and, in the 1880s, added the brick facade to Frenze Hall using his own wares. Photo: Carol Gingell.

By around 1861, Betts was in the position to buy the Frenze Hall Estate from his uncle Sheldrake Smith – but, apparently, did not live in the Hall itself. Instead, in 1863, he bought ‘The Court’ (see Map, bottom L/H corner) from a William Ellis and this became his home. The Court, once stood between Vince’s Lane and the railway line, but has long been demolished. Concurrent with his property acquisitions ran his ‘master plan’ of transforming the Estate’s 400 acres from agricultural fields into a vast market garden. Large barns and other ancillary buildings were to be built, in conjunction with the building of his railway, a system that would allow him to export his fresh vegetable produce direct to London by way of a connection to the Great Eastern Railway system at Diss station.

Scole Railway (lost-scole-railway-line)2
This track across the fields near Diss, in South Norfolk was once part of the Scole Railway, built by William Betts in the 1860s to service his vast market gardens at the Frenze Hall Estate. The standard gauge rail line ran between the main station at Diss and the Scole Inn to the east, and above Frenze hall to the north. This part of the track ran between Dark Lane, along Millers lane to towards Scole. Photo: Carol Gingell.

The railway would transport his produce to London daily, and to avoid empty runs back to Norfolk, the returning wagons would be filled with fresh manure from the City’s streets and stables; this would be spread on the land. But manure would not necessarily be the only commodity delivered back to the market garden; some train wagons returned filled with coal and delivered direct to the brickworks located just behind Diss station; these brickworks had been created by William Betts to both enhance the value of his line, but also to provide materials for the building of his workers’ houses in and around Scole. As owner of Frenze Hall, he also saw to it that his red bricks encased the 17th century timber-framed Hall with a façade, resulting in the present-day ‘late Victorian’ external appearance protecting its much older oak-framed structure more-or-less intact inside.

Scole Railway (Map_ Carol Gingell)
Map of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts to service the Frenze Estate in South Norfolk. Photo: Carol Gingell.

As for the railway track itself; this was of standard gauge, which allowed his trains to run straight on and off the Great Eastern line. In total, the length of the Frenze Farm/Scole Railway network reached approximately seven miles, including a number of sidings near the Great Barn on the Frenze Estate, where the produce was sorted and packed. According to Christopher Weston, the route of Betts’s railway began at Diss station, from behind the Jolly Porter’s Inn (closed 25th October, 1973) in Station Road. The line headed east to Dark Lane, where it branched east and north, via a turntable. Then the eastern branch continued to buffers behind the Scole Inn public house, with two more branches leading south to Betts’ brick fields, then north to Nab Barn and several sidings. Here, again was where the produce was sorted and packed. From Dark Lane, the northern branch went to Frenze Hall Farm, before crossing the river and ending at buffers near the Great Eastern line. Yet another branch below Frenze Hall continued to a field known as ‘Scotland’.

 

(Adove Photos) This girder rail bridge crosses the river at Frenze Hall. It was once part of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts. This northern branch of the railway, from Dark Lane, took the line up to Frenze Hall farm before crossing the river over this bridge and ending at buffers near to the GER line at Diss station. Photos: Carol Gingell.

William Betts owned the Frenze Hall Estate until his death in 1885 and, as his son had already pre-deceased him, the entire property was put under the management by the Court of Chancery while his affairs were sorted out. The manager was a Thomas W. Gaze, auctioneer and land agent who became the tenant of the Estate from 1886. Gaze not only took over the Frenze Estate but closed the market garden and railway, which was said to be under capitalised by then. He also arranged for the line to be pulled up before running the subsequent two-day auction of the entire estate’s equipment, horses, railway track and locomotives. The rail lines were sold for scrap to George Archer of Yarmouth, with some track syphoned off by thieves. The two locomotives, (one a 2-4-0 saddle tank, manufactured by Brotherhoods of Chippenham and the other, an 0-4-OT made by Hughes of Loughborough), raised £20 each and were shipped to India. In 1898 the Frenze Estate was eventually purchased by the neighbouring Thelveton Estate.

Scole Railway (Great Barn)
More evidence of the vast market gardens and the Scole railway established at Frenze Hall  in the 1860s by William Betts. This is marked on contemporary maps as being the “Great Barn” and the rail line ran directly behind it. Given the huge arched doorways, one wonders whether this could possibly have been used as an engine or maintenance shed for the locos? A large water storage tank was housed at the barn, fed by underground pipes which led from a pumping station that Betts built near to the river. Nearby stood the large Lay’s Barn, also built by Betts, and used for sorting and packing of produce from the market gardens. Lay’s Barn is no more, the site on which it stood is now occupied by a handful of 1960s built houses. The Great Barn has been renovated as small office units as Diss Business Centre, run by South Norfolk District Council.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Farm)
When William Betts purchased the Frenxe Hall estate in the 1860s, he expanded the farm at the hall. This range of barns looks to be contemporary with that expansion and are certainly marked on maps of the time. These were no doubt used in connection with the 400 acres of market gardens established here by Betts. In the background is the small church of St Andrew’s – no longer used regularly but still consecrated and under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Derelic Building)
Another legacy of William Betts ownership of the Frenze Hall Estate in the late 1800s. A sadly derelict barn on the farm. One map of the railway which Betts built to service his market gardens shows that a section of railtrack led directly into this building. The track certainly ran along the rear of the farm, over the river and on up to buffers near to the GER mainline above Diss. Photo: Carol Gingell.

As an aside, the Frenze Hall estate was a RAF Bomber Command ‘Splasher Six’ site during World War II; its transmissions guiding aircraft missions. Radio equipment was installed inside a collection of single-deck buses and huts in one of the fields. The transmissions frequently interfered with local BBC radio, resulting in complaints from the populace. During the war bombs did fall at Frenze but the Hall and St Andrew’s Church were undamaged. Finally, ‘Splashers’, operated by the RAF in the East Anglia area during this period were: Splasher 4 – Louth; Splasher 5 – Mundesley (near Cromer); Splasher 6 – Scole (S of Norwich); Splasher 7 – Braintree; Splasher 10 – Windlesham and Splasher 16 – Brampton Grange.

Scole Railway (Splasher Six)
A derelict building in the grounds of Frenze Hall which is believed to have been one of those built during WW2 when the hall was used as a Splasher Six Beacon site. Frenze Hall was one of a series of transmitting bases along the east coast which helped to guide returning aircraft back to base. The Thorpe Abbots airbase was just up the road. Photo: Carol Gingell.

Today, you would be hard pushed to trace the once busy Scole Railway – unless, of course, you were an archaeologist! Again, according to Christopher Weston, it was back in 2015, that work was scheduled to begin on the construction of a new care home in Diss; however, ahead of this an archaeological dig was permitted, with unbelievable results. As digging progressed, floors, ovens, brick kilns and even traces of railways sidings were found. Then, not too far from today’s Diss mainline station, hidden railway sidings were located. These did not, initially, seem unusual but opinion soon changed when further research revealed that this was only part of something much bigger and it was just the brick kilns, which were thought to have been used for the 19th century’s housing in Diss. The railway sidings discovered were eventually confirmed as being part of the 7-mile private railway network built by William Betts.

Scole Railway (Betts Grave)
The memorial stone over the grave of the Betts family at St Andrew’s Church at Frenze, Diss, in Norfolk. William Betts, born December 1810, died June 1885. Sadly, the memorial shows that William’s wife Julia Wildman Betts, and his two eldest sons, William and Edward, predeceased him. Census returns show that William and Julia also had six daughters and another son. Photo: Carol Gingell.

So, Dr Beeching of the 20th century could not be blamed for the closure of the Scole Railway; although he was certainly responsible for Norfolk losing numerous miles of its railway track and dozens of stations during the early 1960’s. Neither did he have his hand in the closure of numerous ’Light’ or ‘Narrow-Gauge” railways in Norfolk, built to commercially transport goods across estates, through private land, for RAF use and for other industrial purposes. Finding these could be a project for someone interested in discovering evidence of pioneering engineering some of which, like the Scole railway, have long been hidden in the Norfolk landscape.

THE END

Sources:
‘The Scole Railway’ by N.A. Brundell and K.J. Whittaker, published in The Railway Magazine April 1955; ‘Waveney Valley Studies’ by Eric Pursehouse, published by the Diss Publishing Company in 1969. Also, ‘Branches & Byways of East Anglia’ by John Brodribb.
Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/28466597@N04/albums/72157637874175125/
https://www.flickriver.com/photos/28466597@N04/sets/72157637874175125/
www.blennerhassettfamilytree.com/Frenze-Hall,-Norfolk.php

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