Don’t Take Up Farming, Old Chap!

When well-known Devon writer Henry Williamson (already famous for Tarka the Otter) announced in 1936 that he had bought a farm on the north coast of Norfolk and intended to farm it himself, the universal response was:

‘Don’t do it. Don’t take up farming, old chap. Farming is dead.’

Farming was in deep depression: and although that meant land was supposedly cheap Henry had no capital to draw on – everyone thought he was crazy! The farm he actually bought, Old Hall Farm in the coastal village of Stiffkey, was even more rundown than most and the current farmer, Mr Stratton (whom HW aptly called ’Sidney Strawless’ in subsequent books), was declared bankrupt before the sale was finalised. The over-riding impression is that the only crop grown there was thistles.

1_ early days_Loetitia and HW survey the thistles2
Early Days: Loetitia and Henry Williamson survey the thistles.

Henry had no experience of farming although he claimed farming ancestry. So why did he take this rather perverse step? He tended to say that he had written himself out of Devon, its animals, its characters, its countryside, and needed a new stimulus, and with twenty-one books on the area already published, this was no doubt to some extent true but it was not the full reason. Immediately after Christmas 1935 Henry drove up to London in his Alvis Silver Eagle sports car and went to see his publisher and great friend, Richard (Dick) de la Mare, son of the writer and poet Walter de la Mare. Henry was in a state of considerable turmoil. Dick invited him to spend the New Year with him and his wife at their home in East Runton on the North Norfolk coast.

It is obvious that Henry unburdened his troubled thoughts to his friends into the small hours. It tends to be taken for granted that this turmoil was about problems with a girlfriend. (Although married and with a family, Henry constantly fell for a succession of admiring young women.) But Dick’s suggestion that he should take up farming to solve things seems a little radical for the failure of a current love affair.

Henry had recently returned from a visit to Germany at the invitation of another close friend, John Heygate (heir to a baronetcy and an estate in Ireland), who worked for the German film company UFA. Heygate was far more involved with German politics than was apparent and he arranged with the authorities that Henry should be shown the best of the current achievements: the new autobahn roads, the fast Auto-Union cars, the ‘happy spirit’ of the extensive youth movement, and topping the list, tickets for that year’s Rally at Nürnberg, staged to impress and awe those present.

Henry was indeed impressed. Everything he was shown was efficient and prosperous. He actually had German ancestry through his paternal grandmother. But mainly he had fought throughout the 1914-18 war. His traumatic experiences, and his deep sympathy for soldiers of both sides, made him resolve to do all he could to prevent war ever happening again. He was convinced that Hitler – also an old soldier from the Great War – must surely think the same and so would never start another conflict. But despite that apparent naivety, he was also astute. A staunch patriot, he would have been aware that all was not as it should have been: that possibly the threat of war underlay the panoply. That was what was troubling him and surely what the two men discussed into the small hours. And that makes sense of Dick de la Mare’s suggestion to take up farming. It was an honourable occupation, and one that would be very necessary if war should break out. Henry would be doing his bit for his country. It would also be a haven for his family, especially his eldest son, as farming would be a ‘reserved occupation’ in time of war. Henry had seen far too many of the fine youth of Britain fall in battle.

The very next day they went to look at a nearby farm for sale – Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey. At first hesitant, a second viewing convinced Henry and he returned to Devon to put the project to his wife. The decision was made and a provisional agreement was signed on 6 March 1936. Henry then set about preparing himself for the new venture, reading books and magazines, The Farmer and Stockbreeder being prominent. Knowing he would need help he asked his brother-in-law, Robin Hibbert, who with his brothers had emigrated to Australia not long before, to return to this country and help manage the farm. Robin (‘Sam’ in The Story of a Norfolk Farm) duly arrived in December.

The legal side was far more complicated and frustrating than Henry had envisaged: valuations, dilapidations, tithes, schedules, and taxes all had to be dealt with. Meetings with the various officials went on for several months. However, the Deed of Conveyance and Mortgage was duly signed in mid-August 1936. The cost of 240 acres of farm land and its cottages (Walnut Tree Cottages) was £2,240, way beyond Henry’s means, but his wife Loetitia had recently inherited a little money on the death of her father, and this was used for the initial payments. He intended to subsidise the farm with earnings from writing articles and books, but this was to mean using a tremendous amount of energy and long hours, physical and mental, in meeting the deadlines of both demands.

2_map of the farm on the endpapers of The Story of a Norfolk Farm, drawn by C. F. Tunnicliffe.jpg2
A Map of Old Hall Farm as it appears on the endpapers of Henry Williamson’s book ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’. Drawn by C.F. Tunnicliffe.

Henry had only bought the land (not liking the huge Elizabethan manor house, Stiffkey Old Hall, which went with it – which was then sold separately) and, as the farm cottages were occupied, he needed somewhere to live with his family. On a visit in early December 1936 he found that three condemned cottages were for sale in the village, which he bought for £190, planning to do them up for the family home. These ‘Chapel Yard Cottages’ (called ‘Bugg Cottages’ after the previous owner) became Fox, Owl, and South Cottages (today these cottages are very expensive ‘des. res.’).

3_Bugg Cottages before renovation2
Bugg Cottages before renovation.

In January 1937 Henry attended the annual Agricultural Conference at Oxford, enjoying it very much and gaining some confidence that he would be able to cope. In March he resolved that he and Robin should go and camp on the farm and start some basic work on making up the farm roads and the cottages, so that all would be done by the time he actually took over the farm at Michaelmas. To this end he bought a caravan, lorry and trailer, having arranged to lease the use of a gravel pit for the raw material for making up the roads.

On 20 May, after a very difficult time loading the vehicles with all the necessary equipment the two men would need, a little convoy, Alvis Silver Eagle and caravan, lorry and trailer, set off from Devon for the Norfolk Coast. The Shallowford home was vacated: the family were to stay with their former housekeeper, Annie Rawle, until such time as the Norfolk accommodation was ready for them. The journey was as fraught as the packing had been: everything seemed to go wrong and Henry was in a state of extreme nervous tension. All the details can be found in The Story of A Norfolk Farm, published in 1941 and in the farming volumes of the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (see the Henry Williamson Society’s website). Henry’s fictional names for local places, and often people, are very easily worked out: ‘Whelk’ being Wells, for example.

As soon as they arrived and had set up the caravan and a tent at Pine Tree Copse (now known as Pine Tree Camp) they started work on the task of making up the farm roads. This was very hard manual labour, shifting gravel from the leased pit, spreading it and firming it all down (and eventually topping off with a chalk layer from their own quarry). The work was slow and exhausting but production increased when ‘One-eyed Jarvis’ (William Jarvis) offered his services and soon after ‘young red-haired [Norman] Jordan’ was also employed. Later Jimmy Sutton, who had worked for ‘Strawless’, was taken on, and his son Bob. Work also began on the rebuilding of the three condemned cottages, an undertaking beset with every difficulty one could imagine. Everything that could go wrong, did so, including Henry’s secretary/mistress Ann Thomas (daughter of the poet Edward Thomas) going down with mumps, causing Henry yet further angst. Two or three difficult journeys were made back to Devon to collect furniture and this was stored in the capacious Old Granary. When the weather got too cold for the caravan they moved down to camp in the Granary where they established a stove to keep the place warm. The main problem was that Henry and his brother-in-law did not get on. Robin was slow and not terribly methodical: Henry impatient, nervous, quick of mind and body. Inevitably, he blamed Robin for all the problems, and by the end of October Robin had left, to take up a job in electrical engineering.

Henry officially took over the farm on old Michaelmas Day – 11 October – recording in his diary:  ‘The farm is mine as occupier noon today.’ Bob Sutton was appointed ‘head-man’. Henry was by then attending all the local auctions in order to buy equipment. He also bought two horses, Blossom and Gilbert. But his pride and joy was a new Ferguson tractor, known as ‘the little grey donkey’.

It wasn’t long before problems arose over the way the men worked. They were all good local farm-workers, who had farmed in the same way all their lives. Henry was a newcomer and had new – to them very odd – ideas about how to do things. He had been a soldier in the 1914–18 war, and as a Transport Officer had particularly been trained how to deal with, and care for, horses and attendant machinery. He had had to be meticulously organised and efficient in his dealings with armaments, provisions, and the men under him. He was of course used to instant obedience to his commands. Taking on the farm seems to have thrown him back into that mode: fighting the difficulties on the farm was fighting a war. A diary entry states: ‘Here were the fruits of years of neglect. I felt like a soldier before zero hour.’ He had never (and never did) get over the trauma of his experiences in the First World War. He was always in a state of nervous energy – and exhaustion. None of this was understood by the local people. He was ‘hare’ to their ‘tortoise’. The men listened to what he had to say – then went off to do things their own old way.

In October 1937 Henry was visited on several occasions by Lady Downe, who had read his articles and heard his broadcasts. Lady Downe lived near King’s Lynn and her mission was to enlist him into the local group of the BUF of which she was organiser. A lot of nonsense has been written over the years about Henry and fascism. He was not a ‘fascist’ as interpreted in modern parlance. Henry was attracted by the agricultural policy proposed by Oswald Mosley. Mosley was also a soldier from the Great War (as it was still then called) who knew that another war would be disastrous.

The family duly arrived on 16 December and after a night or two camping in the Granary were in residence in the Chapel cottages in time for Christmas. After initial difficulties, alleviated by the kindness of the Cafferatas, new owners of the Old Hall, who invited them for Christmas lunch and baths, things settled down. Then with the New Year the hard work on the farm continued with no let up. Henry at the wheel of his ‘little grey donkey’ to prove its worth to the reluctant men, successfully plowed (he always used the old-fashioned spelling) Hilly Piece. He records Bob, finally won over, as saying: ‘Blast, I like that patent.’ But a visit to Norwich Corn Hall to buy barley seed was a sharp learning curve. Everyone had (conflicting) advice to give. Everyone knew Henry was a novice. Chickens had been bought in the autumn, and now he bought in a few turkeys as well – four hens and a stag. It was Loetitia’s task to look after them. Bullocks got sick. The horses were not looked after in the military way he adhered to. After plowing there was drilling, of barley and oats. Bob harrowed in the seed with Blossom and Gilbert. For once Henry felt things were going well – except he was constantly worried about his overdraft, which was mounting up, and had to write articles into the early hours to earn some money to counteract the situation.

In the summer of 1938 Army camps began to appear around the village and airfields began to be built. The local men had the opportunity to earn ‘good money’. The building standing in the western corner of the old chapel yard was a fish and chip shop and the soldiers and locals threw the used newspaper wrapping into Henry’s garden – to his great annoyance. Litter was always one of his greatest bugbears. He spent a great deal of time cleaning years of rubbish out of the little River Stiffkey, hoping it would once again be occupied by trout. He wanted everything to be clean, tidy, ordered. The farm buildings were done up and whitewashed, the yards, a muddy mire when he arrived, were concreted over and with great pride he set his initials in bricks within the concrete.

4_HW's owl and initials set in brick in the yard2
Henry’s owl and initials set in brick in the yard.

In August 1938 Henry garnered, with various difficulties, his first harvest. But the stacks got infested with rats and mice. At the end of his first year he made up the accounts: depressingly, liabilities seem to far outweigh assets. But considering all the complications that had arisen, there was actually evidence of a big improvement. Henry’s methods were working, although he did not realise that himself.

5_Bob & Jimmy Sutton examining head of barley2
Bob and Jimmy Sutton examining a head of barley.

He finally was able to persuade the occupiers of Walnut Tree Cottage (Mr Francis, whom Henry called ‘Napoleon’, and his rather hilariously mad wife) to move and so, once they had got rid of the swarms of fleas living there, the house could be done up and the family moved in, making that the farmhouse.

In optimistic mood, he decided to hold a celebratory party. This took place in the Granary on Saturday, 19 November 1938. The long family oak refectory table was polished, and packing cases put around for seating. Henry records setting out 51 candles around the room. His guests were Loetitia’s vivacious cousin Mary, who had been bridesmaid at their wedding, his friend John Heygate, John Raynor (Features Editor of the Daily Express), Robert Donat, the film actor, then in the middle of making Goodbye, Mr Chips, his most famous role, and another great friend, the artist best known for his horse paintings, Alfred Munnings, currently staying at Brancaster. John Coast, who came to work on the farm for a short while, was also present. Two of the children, John and Margaret, were allowed to stay up (the eldest boy, Bill, was at boarding school). It was a very jolly affair. Henry had a case of Algerian wine and food came from the farm produce, butter, pheasant, and hams being particularly noted. Everyone wore one of Henry’s large selection of what the children called ‘Horkey’ hats, several of which were ‘cotton-pickers’ that he had brought back from an extended visit to Georgia, USA, in 1934. Munnings was in great form as always, and sang a selection of his well-known bawdy songs.

Party over, farm work continued. The barley market crashed, mainly due to cheap imports, and there was a lot of unrest but little came of it. Business interests came first. The winter brought a great storm but the farm survived without anything untoward. Henry’s drainage system and various improvements saved the day. May 1939 brought the second anniversary of the commencement of the hard work on the farm. Things had greatly improved. But by autumn war was looming and Henry was greatly troubled. With his usual quixotic impulse he went to London to see Mosley to see if there was anything he could do to help prevent it; to be told that it was too late. The curtain was down. Henry was devastated by the advent of another war. He realised, as he was to write in the later Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, using the Morning Star as analogy, that Hitler was not the bringer of light he had hoped, but Lucifer, the fallen angel.

On his return to the farm he found Alfred Munnings by the barn painting a scene of the church and Old Hall. There had been an altercation between the artist and Henry’s son Bill, who had discovered Munnings had removed Henry’s trouser-press from the Granary to paint on! There are two versions of this painting currently housed at the Munnings Museum in Dedham.

With war declared, work on the farm continued apace. Henry’s diary records all the details of ploughing, muck-spreading, calves being born, buying of farm machinery etc. Bill did not return to school and began work on the farm (not yet fourteen years old but, as his headmaster stated, not interested in school learning).

6_Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor2
Young Bill driving the Ferguson tractor.

New wartime regulations came into being and had to be strictly adhered to. The strain on Henry was immense and his relationship with his wife deteriorated. It was decided that she and the younger children should go and stay for a while with her brother, Robin, now working in Bedford. A couple known as the ‘Tranters’ – actually Freddy Tranter and Mrs Hurt – came to do farm-work and housekeep. They are portrayed as Teddy Pinnegar and Yipps Carfax in the Chronicle. They proved to be rather a disaster, and they left at the beginning of January 1940. There were others who came to work on the farm, usually at their own request; but these people were not prepared to do, neither were they suited for, the hard work necessary. Henry’s nerves being at breaking point, he had no patience with them. None of them stayed very long. Once the worst of the winter was over, his wife returned to the farm.

Although Henry had some good local friends, a faction of the locals was very suspicious of him. From the beginning he was a ‘furriner’. They did not like his ways or his opinions. This intensified in 1940 as the war worsened. He had supposedly improved his farm and made the roads up ready for the German invasion, while the skylight on the landing could only have been designed for signalling to the enemy. Local worthy Major Hammond got the village rag-and-bone man, ‘Goitre’ Gidney, to spy on Henry, and filed an official complaint. But stories that Henry was sent to prison are totally without foundation. On the afternoon of Friday, 14 June 1940 police arrived to search the farm premises. Nothing untoward was found, but Henry was taken to the police station at Wells and put into a cell. He recorded how civil they were, allowing him paper and pencil so that he could continue with his writing (of the Norfolk Farm book). When his wife came to visit, he was allowed to sit out in the yard with her. He could only be released on the order of the Chief Constable at Norwich, who was away for the weekend. On Monday morning he was taken by car to Norwich – and duly released without any charge being made. A complaint had been made: the police had had to respond. The Chief Constable warned him to be careful as he had enemies. Henry returned to the farm and continued with the haymaking. Life on the farm continued to be as difficult as ever: always there was some problem or other. The men still tended to do things ‘their way’ and Henry was often absent. Young Bill did not really carry either the experience or the authority to take charge as his father expected.

Problems also arose over the large amount of military activity in the area. Aerodromes were built all around which meant many of the local men were able to earn far more money than doing farm work. Soldiers were camped locally, some on the farm itself. They careered around in army vehicles ruining Henry’s precious farm roads made with such care and hard work. They knocked down walls and gateposts. Someone even shot one of the cows in the udder. Henry was upset and furious. There was supposed to be adequate compensation for such incidents but all that happened was cursory investigation, time-consuming form-filling and miniscule remuneration.

The Story of a Norfolk Farm was published in January 1941, receiving very good reviews that gave rise to brief optimism, but life on the farm was as difficult as ever. After haymaking that summer, Henry had arranged to make a visit to Devon to cut down a small wood he leased, to sell as firewood. He enlisted the help of Eric Perkins, a lorry driver from Wells. Eric’s girlfriend, Polly, accompanied them when they left on 14 July. The hard work involved in cutting and preparing the wood was unrewarded, for despite advertising locally little of it was sold: most of it was left in Henry’s Field, the retreat he had bought with the prize money from Tarka. Henry later wrote up the episode in a charming book, In the Woods.

In the spring of 1942 Henry came across the well-known artist Edward Seago, on leave from his military work (as a camouflage expert), painting a scene from the farm, and invited him back for tea. This began a close friendship between them. Seago’s parents lived just south of Norwich on the Bungay road. Seago painted a portrait of Henry with fishing rod in hand. This was published, together with a very percipient essay in his book Peace in War, where he states:  ‘I have never met a man more so constantly sincere, nor so steadfast in his search for truth.’ The portrait is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Another friend was the farmer and writer Adrian Bell (father of the broadcaster & ex-MP Martin Bell), who lived near Beccles. Indeed, Mrs Bell and Loetitia (who eventually lived in near-by Bungay) remained friends throughout their lives. After a visit Henry noted how hard-pressed Adrian was – a fellow farmer and writer, with a tendency to dreadful migraines. Another farming friend was the pacifist critic and writer Middleton Murry, who lived near Diss and is perhaps best known for the book Community Farm based on his own farming activities. Henry visited the farm, finding it in a rather chaotic state, worked by conscientious objectors who did not really know (or care) what they were doing. Murry edited The Adelphi magazine, for which Henry wrote articles for many years and actually took over for a short time after the war was over.

When war broke out, farming had become of national importance. In order to optimise the potential an official National Farm Survey was set up, known with affectionate humour as ‘The Second Domesday Book’. When Henry took over Old Hall Farm it was of the lowest grade, ‘C’; by the time of the survey in 1941 it was given the top grade of ‘A’. Henry’s hard work and methods had paid off. Interestingly, the official recorder later added a more personal note to the report, and Henry’s whole entry was used as the example in the introductory explanation:

The author, Henry Williamson, farmed in Norfolk from 1937 and throughout the war years. He recounted his struggle to improve the condition of his farm in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in 1941. The farm and its inspection for the National Farm Survey is also described in his autobiographical novel ‘Lucifer Before Sunrise’. He was immensely proud of his “A” Classification accorded by “the New Domesday scribe”.

7_ Farm Survey, classed as 'A'
Farm Survey – classed as ‘A’.

It is obvious that Henry was held in considerable esteem. And yes, he was, after initial fears that he had failed, very relieved and pleased at his top placing. Although life continued to be hard and difficult the harvest of 1942 was good and Henry recorded in his diary on 12 September:

‘Today we finished a long harvest … we have gathered fine crops, and in all have 7 stacks. It has been hard work, and much worry and strain for me . . . but I would not have missed it.’

In his various farm writings there are some superb descriptions of the events that mark the farm year, especially threshing, which was a major event in those days with the huge noisy machines going from farm to farm. Here it was Guy Dappling’s outfit with its Burrell engine pulling a drum and elevator. Henry was a good photographer so there is also a picture record of these events. A large selection of these can be found on the Henry Williamson Society’s website – see the page for The Story of a Norfolk Farm.

8_Threshing time2
Threshing time.

In January 1943 Henry employed seventeen-year-old Douglas Jordan, nephew of Norman who had worked on the farm from the start, to be cow-man. Douglas (‘Ackers’ in the Chronicle farm volumes) was a good worker, and immediately cleaned out and white-washed the cowsheds. Henry was greatly relieved.

Shooting has always been an integral part of most farms. Henry did not want to run his own shoot, preferring to wander around on his own to bag a bird or two for family meals. But he arranged to combine with his neighbouring farmer, Cyril Case, who had better resources for organising that side of farm life. In the autumn of 1943 it was arranged that the Picture Post (the prestigious photo-journalistic weekly magazine) would run a feature on a shoot on the farm. Features writer Macdonald Hastings (father of historian & TV personality Max Hastings) was sent to cover the event. The result was a magnificent spread of photographs and text.

9_Picture Post cover, 4 November 19431
Picture Post cover for 4 November 1943.

Mr Cafferata died and his wife moved back to live with her sister in Yorkshire. The Old Hall was taken over by Father Bruno Scott James, who came to Norfolk to convalesce after a severe illness. His personality was almost as odd as that of an earlier rector of Stiffkey, the Reverend Harold Davidson, whose funeral in 1937 Henry had attended in the first months after buying the farm. He shot at, nearly always missing, everything he saw – including a doodle-bug, when out on the marsh. Henry wrote that story up in one of his weekly articles for the London Evening Standard – to the fury of Scott James and his London friends!

To relieve the shortage of labourers on the farm, Italian prisoners of war were used. Their contribution tended to be making a fire to cook up on and very cleverly setting hair snares for song-birds to provide themselves with a snack. Towards the end of the war, for the harvest of 1945 several soldiers were deployed as farm workers. Henry was rather at his wits’ end by then and (expecting otherwise) was very relieved to find they worked well and did a good job.

By the end of the war the strain of the years of constant struggle had taken its toll on his marriage and Henry and Loetitia decided to part; his raison d’être for farming had gone.  The farm was put up for sale and there was a flurry of preparation for the auction on 24 October 1945.

10_Auction catalogue, 19452
Auction Catalogue, 1945.

The family, including Henry to begin with, moved to Bank House in Botesdale near Diss. Here he wrote a novel based on the farm years centred around the fate of a Reeves pheasant, entitled The Phasian Bird. It has some amazing descriptive passages of the wildlife encountered on the farm, and ranks alongside Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon.

11_ cover of The Phasian Bird, 19482
Cover of The Phasian Bird, 1948.

Henry then returned to Devon where he lived for the rest of his life, where he continued writing, including his magnum opus, the 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, of which volumes 13 and 14 are based on the farm years. Interestingly, in a broadcast made soon after the end of the war in 1947 (which has only been discovered in February 2020), Henry stated, proving my own premise, that his reason for going into farming was because:

There was a slump in farming, which under conditions then prevailing, could only lead to war. . . . So I undertook, almost by instinct, a completely new life. . . .  I thought I’d do my little bit on a piece of English land that was in a state of decadence.

Years later, in January 1970, he was approached by the well-known film director David Cobham about making a film for the BBC to be entitled The Vanishing Hedgerows. This was to use, as its basis, Henry’s experiences during his farming years in Norfolk, combined with the problems that modern farm practices (of that era) were causing for wildlife and the environment. This involved filming on the Norfolk farm, and so Henry returned, after many years absence, and met up again with his one-time cowman Douglas Jordan. The film is acclaimed today as a flagship film for conservation.

Henry Williamson died in August 1977, while David Cobham was actually filming the death scene of Tarka for the Rank film of Tarka the Otter. That seemed poignantly appropriate.

POSTCRIPT:

In the 1970s Old Hall Farm was bought by Lord Buxton, who in 1961 was one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife Fund (now the World Wide Fund for Nature), and was also a co-founder and later chief executive and chairman of Anglia Television, being responsible for the long-running ITV natural history series Survival. The water meadows, so painstakingly drained by Henry to grow crops during the war, were returned to wetlands, and they are now a nature reserve. On the formation of the ‘Henry Williamson Society’ in 1980 he was invited to become Patron, and hosted several visits by the Society to the farm. In the Granary, lit by a spotlight, hung C. F. Tunnicliffe’s portrait of Henry, painted in 1934. On his death in September 2009 his role of Patron was taken over by his son James.

Anne Williamson

THE END

Sources:
The above text is copyright © of Anne Williamson 2020 and all images copyright © of the Henry Williamson Literary Estate.

Anne Williamson is Henry’s daughter-in-law, married to his son Richard, and manages Henry Williamson’s Literary Estate.  Brought up in Bungay, Anne was a librarian – working in the north Suffolk area, and then in Norwich City Library (at first in the original ‘Old’ Library).

https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/
https://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/bibliography/a-lifes-work/the-story-of-a-norfolk-farm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Williamson

 

The Fate of HMS Invincible – 1801

Before we proceed with what happened to the Royal Naval ship HMS Invincible some 219 years ago take particular note of Hammond’s Knoll, a 6-mile (9.7 km) long sandbank off the coast of Norfolk, England, just off Happisburgh. This is an innocent sandbank below high water when the sea behaves itself; but when the weather is foul and the tide is low, it is best to stay alert and be on guard – it can be dangerous. At low water, the sandbank has only a depth of about 6 fathoms at each end, and 3 fathoms in the centre. Nowadays, the Hammond’s Knoll is marked by lighted buoys at its north and east ends – this was not the case on the 16th March in the year of our Lord 1801.

Invincible (Hammonds Knoll)
The East Anglian coast is recognised as dangerous when the weather and sea choose to be foul. Many ships have been lost to gales over the centuries – some say the number runs into thousands. Storms in this part of the world seem frequent and ferocious either side of Autumn and Spring, wrecking and shifting the many sandbanks and shoals as they rage. In winter months particularly, the prevailing off-shore westerly wind would, more than likely, become a north-easterly, thrashing down from Scandinavia and the Artic. battering the lee shoreline. Ships which managed to sail a safe course through those ever shifting sands would still risk being smashed by the wave’s force, overwhelmed or driven ashore.

In the days of sail, the sea lanes up and down the eastern coast were far busier than they are today. Any storm would, as likely as not, have created a havoc of torn canvas, tangled ropes, broken masts and dead bodies. No ship, whether they be on Government business or commercial trading, were immune from possible disaster. Even the large fishing fleets that once thrived on herring could be lost; in fact, in 1789 around 130 fishing smacks and coasters were wrecked between Southwold and Cromer – one of more than a few such instances. With so many storms over the years the losses have been many, with coastal churchyards well used with graves and memorials for those who did not come home safely. These included resting places for members of the Royal Navy.

Britain once prided itself on having the greatest navy in the world and her sea battles were renowned, but East Anglian seas were even a challenge to military ships. Amongst those who did fall foul of the seas off Happisburgh, two stand out; the first was HMS Peggy which, in short, was wrecked on 19th December 1770 with thirty-two of its men losing their lives. They were buried in Happisburgh churchyard while their ship, the Peggy, was to remain on the beach for many years thereafter.

Invincible (HMS Peggy)
The wreck of the HMS Peggy

The HMS Invincible disaster was the other instance of a Royal Naval ship going down. She was a 74-gun, Ramilles Class third-rate ship, thirty-six years old in the spring of 1801 and battle-wearied, but nevertheless a stirring sight when fully rigged.

 

Invincible 1
HMS Invincible

Launched at Deptford in March 1765, the HMS Invincible had served in the American War of Independence. Her battle honours included Cape St Vincent 1780, Chesapeake 1781, St Kitts 1782 and the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she was badly damaged and lost fourteen men. In 1797, she took part in the invasion of Trinidad which captured that island from the Spanish. So by 1801, HMS Invincible, which had a proud record of service, was back in British waters. By March of that year, and with the war against France in a protracted state, fear remained that the French would seize the powerful Danish navy and use it against Britain. Therefore the British Baltic fleet, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and with Nelson as his second-in-command, was directed to sail to Copenhagen and make sure the Danish fleet could not fall into French hands.

 

Invincible (Hyde Parker)
Admiral Sir Hyde Parker (1739–1807) after the painting by Romney

HMS Invincible was to be part of this fleet so it was ordered to sail from Chatham, with its crew of around 600, and meet up with the fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker which was already in the Sound preparing for the planned attack on the Danish fleet – to be known later as the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. HMS Invincible sailed on its journey under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty.

Invincible (Copenhagan)
Painting of the Battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. National Maritime Museum

During its way north, Invincible, with the ship’s newly appointed, thirty-fout year old, Captain John Rennie, put into Yarmouth to collect final orders and stock up with ordnance, stores and ammunition. She was by then a 1,631 ton war ship, as prepared as she could be for the battle ahead. Her state of readiness meant that on the 16th March she was able to leave Yarmouth Roads and, with a master and pilot aboard, set a course towards the notorious area of shifting sandbars off Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk.

The Master and Pilot clearly thought that they could navigate through the shoals safely, but a rising wind and the strong tide forced the ship off course. Within an very short time, at 2.30pm to be precise, she struck the sandbank of Hammond’s Knoll where the effect of wind and waves tore down the masts and began to break up the ship. The crew did all they could to save the ship. They jettisoned provisions and when the mizzen mast went they cut away the mast, hoping that the ship would float off the sands at high water. Whilst all this was going on, Invincible repeatedly fired a distress signal with its guns. For a while, it looked as if the crew’s efforts of jettisoning every they could would work for the Invincible moved slightly into deeper water. But, as she did so an even heavier swell and stronger wind caused the ship to lose its rudder. Unmanageable, she was driven back on to the sandbank. There she remained whilst the only thing left for the crew to usefully do was to man the pumps and try to keep as much of the ship as possible above water.

Invincible (Ship in Storm)

The wreck was only a few miles offshore and its distress signal, by way of frequent firing of the guns, was eventually answered by the collier Hunter, on her way into Yarmouth – but unfortunately she, for one reason or another, ignored the Invincible’s plight. Only the Yarmouth smack The Nancy, fishing for cod under its skipper, Daniel Grigson, came to Invincible’s aid. He offered whatever assistance he could. However, by midnight, it was clear to all on the royal naval ship that nothing could be done to save it and the order was for two of her boats to be lowered with Totty, the Purser, four midshipmen and some seamen in one and seamen in the other. They made it safely to The Nancy and then made a second run only for one of the boats to capsize as it approached The Nancy for the second time. Those men who had been thrown into the water were, fortunately, picked up by a Collier which had also answered the distress signal from the Invincible.

Invincible (Rescue)2
To the Rescue!

Both The Nancy and the Collier remained on rescue watch throughout that Monday night to pick up survivors, although neither were able to offer any assistance to Invincible herself. Then, after dawn had broken, the final act of this tragedy was played out. Those on the rescue ships were nothing more than spectators to the death throes of the Invincible as she shifted gradually into deeper water before slowly sinking. As she lowered herself below the surface waves, those on its forecastle made a last desperate attempt to survive by leaping into the sea before trying to get on board the last of the ship’s launches. Some made it but others were beaten back by those safely on board who feared that the launch itself would also capsize if overloaded. The weapons they used to repel greater numbers were the launche’s oars.

When the Invincible finally disappered into the depths, it took with her about 400 crew. Out of a full complement of 600 and, bizarrely, 50 passengers despite the fact that the ship was scheduled to go to war, one hundred and ninety persons were saved. Not included in this number of survivors was Captain Rennie who, duty bound, was the last man to leave his post; when he did so he was not only wet and extremy cold but suffering from exhaustion. He tried to swim to a launch but gave up. At that final moment before he drowned he seemingly had accepted his fate when he lifted his hands and place them over his face before sinking calmly beneath the water. Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty reported Rennie’s loss in his Report for the Court-martial which was to follow, calling him ‘a truly zealous and intelligent Officer’. That same Report also described the last moments of the HMS Invincible :

“At daylight on Tuesday morning, I observed that the Invincible had not a single Boat, either alongside or astern of her, and the tide ran so strong that it was impossible to get the fishing Smack to her, but the moment the tide slacked … she stretched under the Invincible’s stern, endeavouring by all possible means to work up and get alongside of her; but before that could be accomplished the Ship went down in thirteen fathoms Water, and out of 600 persons that belonged to the Invincible they have not been above 190 saved and now living; several who were picked up by the launch died very soon afterwards. I am extremely grieved to inform you that Captain Rennie was among the number of those drowned; by his death the service has lost a truly zealous and intelligent Officer … The horror of the scene at the Moment the Ship went down far exceeds all power of description.”

Amongst those who had reached The Nancy, and were later landed at Great Yarmouth, were those who were still to die as a result of the experience. In total, more than 400 were lost, compared to the 256 who were to die at the Battle of Copenhagen. On his way home from his triumph, Nelson still made time to visit “his men” from the Invincible lying injured in Great Yarmouth hospital.

For days after the wreck, bodies were washed up all along the coast. Most were brought on carts to Happisburgh churchyard, where they were buried in a huge, unmarked communal mound grave in unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. Of all those lost only six received a proper burial in the Holy Trinity & All Saints churchyard at Winterton the 20th day of March, 1801. Their names unknown

Invincible (St Marys Church)
St Mary’s Church, Happisborough.

But the story of the Invincible did not end there because an attempt was made by a Mary Cator in 1913 to erect a memorial as a reminder to the lives lost. She raised money by subscription but when it was found that there was no official record that proved that bodies from the Invincible were buried in the mound, she returned the money raised. Then in 1924, Mary Cator’s persistence to ensure that an appropriate memorial existed in St Mary’s churchyard paid off. This was the year when the church bells were re-hung and Mary gave a treble bell on which was inscribed ‘In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisboro in 1801‘. A memorial at last! – but the story did not even end there.

Invincible (Dedication)
The unconsecrated land where the dead were buried was later incorporated into Happisburgh churchyard, then in 1988, the remains of many of the Invincible’s crew were located by chance in their original mass grave during the digging of a new drainage channel. There was found a disordered mass of bones less than three feet below the surface. These remains were reburied with proper rites; then, ten years later, in 1998, a memorial stone was erected to their memory by the Ship’s Company of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, together with members of the Nelson Society,, the Happisburgh parochial church council and a descendant of Captain John Rennie. This was a final recognition of all those who had died on HMS Invincible in 1801, summed up by St Mary’s Rector, Reverend Doctor Richard Hines as being: “interpreted as a gesture of Christian faith that even in their most desperate moments those who perished out in the cold North sea did not perish beyond the love and presence of Almighty God” The Memorial’s inscription came from Revelation and reads ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it’.

Invincible (Memorial)
HMS Invincible Memorial at St Mary’s Churchyard at Happisburgh, Norfolk Photo: © Lynda Smith – 2004

Transcript of Memorial Lettering:

On 16 March 1801, HMS INVINCIBLE
was wrecked of Happisburgh when
on her way to join the fleet with
Admiral Nelson at Copenhagen.
The day following, the Ship sank with
the loss of some four hundred lives.
One hundred and nineteen members
of the Ship’s Company lie buried here.
“And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it…..”
Revelation 26:13

This memorial stone was given jointly
by the Parochial Church Council and
The Officers and Ship’s Company of
HMS Invincible. 1998.

FOOTNOTE:
The compulsory court martial that followed Invincible’s sinking was held on the HMS Ruby at Sheerness. It absolved the Amiral and the Captain (posthumously) of culpability in the disaster, but posthumously blamed the harbour pilot and the ship’s master, both of whom had been engaged to steer the ship through the reefs and shoals of the dangerous region – they should have known the location of Hammond Knoll, especially since it was daytime and in sight of land.

The only amusing side to this story concerns the many casks that were seen floating on the sea after the HMS Invincible went down. Some 150 were brought ashore by the customs officers and were found to contain brandy. Others casks escaped and were to be picked up by delighted villagers; many of whom drank themselves into oblivion – one even died from his excesses!

THE END

Sources:
The Loss of HMS Invincible in 1801

http://www.axfordsabode.org.uk/pdf-docs/invinc01.pdf


http://www.happisburgh.org/history/sea/losses-at-sea
https://rna-norwich.org.uk/2017/03/hms-invincible-memorial-service-2017/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

Suicide at Taverham Paper Mill

On Monday 10 March 1862, the Norfolk Chronicle reported a suicide at Taverham Paper Mill. Its opening lines stated:

“A millwright by the name of Walter Cudbard, who had been for some years in the employ of Mr. Smithdale, of King-street, Norwich, and had lately been at work at Messrs. Delane and Magnay’s paper-mills at Taverham, committed suicide on Friday last in a most horrible manner, and without any apparent motive……. The deceased, who was 40 years of age, was unmarried, but he leaves four children by a woman with whom he lived.”

Taverham Suicide (Painting_Norfolk Museum_Service)
Taverham Mill in the days before it became a fully mechanised paper enterprise. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

It should be explained at the outset that Taverham Paper Mill in 1862 was at its zenith with a full order book. To produce the demand for paper the mill employed three water-wheels, two of which were of 4 metre diameter and the other of 2 meters; in addition, eleven steam engines and two wells of clean water to produce the paper, plus three sluice gates. The number workers employed totalled 150 workers, the majority of whom were women; only men staffed the night shift. The company’s millwrights were kept busy!

One of those millwrights was 40 year-old Walter Cudbard who, in the opinion of most people who knew him, a very steady and trustworthy person, very attentive to detail, but with a reserved and silent manner in his dealings with all except his common-law wife, his four children and Mr. Smithdale his employer of some eight years past. With him, Cudbard would regularly describe the work he had been engaged on at Taverham Mill during those periods when he had been subcontracted to Messrs. Delane and Magnay, which amounted to weeks or even months at a time; in fact, whenever the Mill wanted him. During the time when Cudbard was employed at the Mill, he would lodge at the Red Lion public house in Drayton.

Taverham Suicide (Red Lion)
The Red Lion 54 years after Walter Cudbard lodged there with Fredrick Randall as the publican. Photo: Public Domain.

Unknown to those around him, Walter Cudbard was a troubled man; indeed, if anyone had been curious about what his problem was, they would never have been able to put their finger on it. Certainly, nothing would be plainly evident in the weeks and days leading up to his demise because he revealed little – the only clues may have lain in a few comments he did let slip; but these comments would only have come to the hearers’ mind with hindsight. Like the moment when Cudbard was back at his employers in Kings Street, Norwich, reporting on his activities at the mill, and maybe his concerns, with Mr. Smithdale, someone he had known for over thirty-years. Maybe, with such a long association, Cudbard would open up if anything personal was on his mind, as it did on one particular Saturday in February 1862 when Cudbard asked his employer if he could return permanently to his old job as he “was uncomfortable”. Without any further clarification of this comment Smithdale simply understood it to mean that Cudbard was unhappy about his being away from his family. That being the case, Smithdale advised Cudbard to “stay at the Mill for as long as the owners wanted him.”

Taverham Suicide 4
Taverham Paper Mill. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

Then there was the time when Fredrick Randall, the publican at the Red Lion, was chatting with Cudbard; that being only a few evenings before the latter’s death. He noticed that Cudbard was decidedly ‘down in the dumps’ about something or other, and heard him say that he would like to have the position of millwright at Taverham Mill, formerly held by the late Mr. Lumsden. When Randall, quite naturally, asked Cudbard if he had applied for it, Cudbard replied that he did not like to, in case he failed to get it. His other concern was the thought that his boss, Mr. Smithdale, might be angry and think that he, Cudbard, was unhappy with his present position back at King’s Street. Whatever else was exchanged during their chat that evening will never be known, but by the Wednesday of the same week, some 36 hours or so before Cudbard’s death on the Friday, the casualty arrived in the Red Lion saying – “Randall – they have taken on a Scotsman down at the mill to take my place.”

Taverham Suicide 2
Taverham Paper Mill. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

On the fateful day, John Wallace, a fellow millwright at Taverham Paper Mill, thought it strange when Walter Cudbard walked straight past him on his way to start the early morning shift at five o’clock. He could not fail to notice that Cudbard’s head was bowed – and he pointedly failed to exchange even a ‘good morning’ with Wallace who he would be working alongside in a short while; Cudbard “seemed to be full of thought.” It, therefore, may not have been a surprise when Cudbard failed to turn up for the breakfast break at 8 o’clock for, apart from ‘bottling things up’ and generally keeping himself to himself most times, he seemed always to be wandering around the mill on the lookout for possible ‘engineering’ problems; if found, he would set about resolving them at the earliest opportunity and at less cost to the company – ‘a stitch in time save nine’ so to speak – which showed that Cudbard was ‘scrupulously attentive’ and could be anywhere in the building working away!

Taverham Suicide (Millwright) 2
A Millwright at work.

Come the end of the break at 9 o’clock and moods began to change to that of concern, triggered by the fact that Cudbard was, at that moment, due to work with Wallace on the No.2 Fourdrinier paper making machine, one of the mainstays of the mill’s production and profits. A serious search was put in place and had been in progress for several hours when the pit wheel suddenly stopped, immediately affecting production! The problem was clearly at the waterwheel end of the mill and probably the pin wheel. One of the other millwrights was despatched in haste to establish the cause of the stoppage. Concerns had clearly switched from a search for a possible missing person to one which had commercial implications; in fact, both were one of the same; the millwright had found Walter Cudbard – or what was left of him! The details would come out at the Inquest.

Taverham Suicide (Inquest)
The Inquest. Image: Josh Nathan-Kazis.

On Saturday morning on 8 March 1862, the inevitable inquest took place. It was held in a room adjoining the mills before Mr. E. Press, Esq, the Norfolk County Coroner. His duty was to establish the facts of this case, as best he could from the evidence submitted from six principal deposed witnesses: Robert Beales, carpenter, John Wallace, millwright, Thomas Smithdale, Cudbard’s employer, Frederick Randall, proprietor of the Red Lion public house, William Avery, foreman to Messrs. Delane and Magnay, plus a unnamed juror. Their evidence is taken from the Norfolk Chronicle’s press report of the Inquest, which appeared on the following Monday, 10 March 1862:

Robert Beales, carpenter, employed at the Taverham Mills: “The deceased had been employed at the mills for the last five or six months. He had been at work at the mill on previous occasions and was well acquainted with all the parts of the machinery. It was his business to attend to any part of the machinery which required looking to. the machinery is very extensive and complicated. the deceased was missed yesterday a little after nine o’clock. I had not seen him at work at all in the morning. Enquiries were made of the workmen whether they had seen him, and he was looked for in every part of the mill, where it was thought he might probably be at work. It was his habit, if anything was wrong, to go about the mill and find out where it was and put it right without waiting for orders.”

Taverham Suicide (Carpenter)
Painting of a 19th century carpenter.

“The pit wheel where the deceased was found is fenced off by a shutter, but there is an open space at one side with an iron bar round it. It is large enough for a man to get in. A person who wanted to see the wheels at work could do so if he stood outside the bar, which is three feet from the wheels. The passage is lighted by gas, and lamps are used when any one has occasion to examine this part of the machinery. I have known the deceased about four years. He appeared to be a very steady man, and very attentive to his work. I saw him on Thursday night, and he spoke to me of some work he was on, but I did not observe anything peculiar in his manner. I was the first man who found the deceased. The wheel had stopped, and I was told to go and see what was the reason. The shutter was not in its proper position. I had passed the place about an hour before, and the shutter was then up, and the wheel going all right. I saw the body of the deceased lying under the wheel. No lamp has been found in the pit. If I had been sent there to do anything, I should have got a lamp, and should have previously gone to the engineer and asked him to stop the wheels. No one has any business to do anything to that part of the machinery without first going to the engineer, and getting him to shut off the wheels.”

John Wallace, millwright and engineer employed by Messrs. Delane and Magnay: “I have been in Messrs. Delane and Magnay’s employment eight or ten days as a millwright and engineer. I was working with deceased on Friday morning. We worked together from about five o’clock at the paper machine No.2 till half-past seven o’clock, when I was ordered to go to the beating engines. I left the deceased at work. I saw him at his breakfast when I left at twenty minutes past eight. On returning at nine o’clock, he was not there, and at ten o’clock not having seen him at his work at No.2 machine, where I had gone myself to work, I made some enquiries about him of the other workmen. He had been working under my instructions, and as it was a very pressing job, I was surprised at his absence. I asked the manager whether he had sent him to any other job, and he said not. After some time, as he did not make his appearance, some alarm was felt, and nothing having been seen of him in any part of the mill, some began to look about the river, and there was some talk of dragging it. I felt apprehensive that something might have happened to him as he left so urgent a job without saying anything about it. He was very reserved and silent in his manner, and was not like other men. I noticed when he was at breakfast that morning that he was very flushed in the face, as if he had been at a hard job, which was not the fact. I do not think that the deceased could have had any business with the pit wheel. I have examined the wheel since this occurrence, and find that the brackets which carry the wheel and the water-pumps are broken.”

Taverham Suicide (Millwright) 1
Millwrights at work.

“The stoppage of the wheel led me to examine that part of the machinery. It was supposed that some foreign substance had got in between the wheels – that perhaps a belt and fallen in between, and thus stopped the wheels. The discovery of the deceased’s body at once accounted for the stoppage. The feet were upwards, and the head away from the body, and the latter then dropped down below the wheel. The brains and part of the skull were on the floor. There was some of the deceased’s hair on the cogs of the wheel. I have no doubt that his death was immediate, and that his head was the first part that came in contact with the wheel, and that then the wheel stopped at once. The only way that I can account for the occurrence is that the deceased actually went and put his head between the wheels. I do not think that he could have fallen in, or that he could have been drawn it at that part. The place is too high up for that. If a man fell in, he would fall between the wheels and not on the cogs, and the nature of the accident would have been very different. The shutter was fast at the bottom, but the top part had sprung through the breakage of the machinery. It struck me when I first met him on Friday morning, about five o’clock, that there was something on his mind, for he crossed me, ongoing towards the mill, and merely bowed, without saying “good morning,” and passed on. I thought it very strange that he should not wait for me as he was within a few yards, and we were both on the same work. His mind appeared to be occupied with something; he seemed to be full of thought.”

Thomas Smithdale, millwright and employer, of King-street, Norwich: “The deceased has been in my employ about eight years, and at different periods he has been lent to Messrs. Delane and Magnay for weeks or months together, whenever they wanted him. He still remained in my employment and was paid by me. I considered him to be one of the most trustworthy men I had in my employ. He was a sober and steady man, and was thoroughly to be depended upon. I saw him last Saturday evening in Norwich, when he came for his wages. He would often stop on occasions for nearly half an hour, describing the work he had been engaged in at the mill during the week. He made particular mention to me of this very spot where he was killed. He considered that the water-wheel wanted some trifling repair, and he said that he had occasionally gone there to listen if he could learn what was the matter with that part of the machinery. I asked him if he had been sent there to examine the wheels, and he said no, but that he had frequently gone over the mill on his own account to see if there was anything wanted doing which might save a great deal of expense if done in time. He was that sort of man that if he thought there was anything wrong, he would not rest until he found out what it was. He was not the sort of man to leave his work. If I were going to examine the wheels myself, I should prefer going around at the back of the pumps to going through the door or shutter, as I should not consider it so dangerous while the wheels were at work. He never expressed and dissatisfaction at his employment; on the contrary, I have heard him speak in the highest terms of many of his workmen, and especially of the principals. Last Saturday night he asked my leave to come home to his old work, as he said he was uncomfortable. I understood him to refer to his being away from his family. I told him I though he had better stop as long as Messrs. Delane and Magnay had anything for him to do. I have never observed the least deviation in his temper all the time I have known him, which is nearly thirty years. His general habits were not indicative of the least mental unsoundness; he was a peculiarly even-tempered man, and not at all excitable.”

Frederick Randall, Publican: “I keep the Red Lion at Drayton, and the deceased has Taverham Suicide (Publican)lodged with me for the last three or four months. He was a very honest and sober man. For a few days before his death, I noticed that he looked very weary and out of spirits, particularly on Thursday evening. He used to read to me in the evening, but the last few evenings he had not done so. I asked him whether he was not well, and whether I could get him anything, but he merely replied that he was not as well as usual. He seemed full of thought and study. I have heard him say that he should like to have the position of millwright at the mill, formerly held by Mr. Lumsden, who died lately. I never heard him say that it was promised to him. I asked him why he did not apply for it, and he said he did not like to, lest he should not get it, and his master might be angry and think he was dissatisfied with his present place. Last Wednesday night, when he came in, he said to me – “Randall, they have got another Scotchman down at the mill to take my place.”

William Avery, foreman to Messrs. Delane and Magnay: “I have known the deceased for about four years. He had always found him to be a very steady, sober, and honest man, and never knew him to absent himself from work. He never expressed any dissatisfaction to witness.”

By a Juror: “I do not think that he felt any jealousy towards me. He never showed the slightest signs of unfriendliness – merely reserve. As he was a borrowed man, I do not think he could have considered himself superseded by me.”

THE CORONER: In summing up, Mr. E. Press, Esq observed that the jury had seen from the situation of the wheels that there could not be the slightest reflection upon the proprietors for not having their machinery not properly protected and fenced off. The questions for the consideration of the jury were – first, whether the fatality was the result of an accident or was a deliberate act on the part of the deceased; and secondly, if they came to the conclusion that he had committed suicide, what was the state of his mind at the time.

The Jury, after a short deliberation, returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased committed suicide, but that there was no evidence as to the state of his mind at the time.

THE END

The Adventures of the Old Catton Village Sign!

On 11 December 1895 the journalist, James Hooper, wrote “Our way to Catton, which is some two miles nearer the North Pole than Norwich is, we are told ‘a delightful suburban village’. He went on to recount numerous theories on the origins of ‘Catton’ but in the end concluded that ‘there is little doubt that Catton was so named from the common cat.’ This, he believed, was substantiated by ‘many more cat observations and a visit to the church.’

Some one hundred years or so later, Ray Jones of the Old Catton Society placed far more substance on the village’s feline friend and its origins. His approach was to unravel and document the mysteries of the origins of this cat and how it became celebrated as part of the village sign. His investigations established the many lives that this sign subsequently had – which included the cat itself, the barrel on which the cat sits; plus every other part of the village sign in fact. However, the author has not, as yet, established where the cat disappeared to at various times throughout its history – especially during the Second World War! Neither has he yet discovered how many ‘Catton Cats’ have disappeared and not been seen ever again; or, which parts of the country (or world) the cat has been seen in his travels. One thing is certain; the Old Catton village sign, with a cat atop a barrel, is a symbol which must be familiar to many people of Norfolk, and indeed further afield. Its beginnings, however, pre-date the village sign by some 400 years. From a variety of Old Catton Council minutes, press reports and parish talk, Ray went on to compile what must be a better than excellent account of the cat’s history as one could reasonably expect. Here is a resume’ of his endeavours.

Catton Cat (2013)
The Village Sign in 2013

The rebus of a wild cat on a barrel was first recorded as the sign of Prior Robert Bronde (also known as Robert de Catton), the penultimate Prior of Catton before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. Historical sources record that his heraldic arms included “an ounce or cat of mountain.” and were included in stained glass placed in the windows of St Margaret’s church by Bronde himself. In addition, the Cat and Barrel rebus is also found in a beautiful section of stained glass situated in the south window of St Margaret’s church; this particular glass was installed by its then Vicar the Revd. Richard Hart in 1850.

Catton Cat2

There is also the original Tudor doorway on the east front of the Manor House in Church Street, Catton, which is also surmounted by a carving of a ‘cat’ and a ‘tun’ (barrel) rebus in the spandrels of its moulded bridging beams which by the early 17th century were already old fashioned. But, the most obvious and well-known manifestation of the device is to be found in the ‘cat’ and ‘tun’ reliefs which were carved in the door frame over the south door of the Manor House in 1891. This work is a well-executed copy of the Tudor carving situated over the Manor’s east door mentioned above; the person responsible is considered to be James Minns, a well-known Norwich wood carver often associated with works by Norwich architects George Skipper (1856-1948) and Edward Boardman. A footnote on plans for Boardman’s remodelling of the Manor House in 1891 names the Minns family as carvers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Then in 1902, to celebrate the Coronation of King Edward VII, the Buxton family of Catton Hall gave a commemorative mug, made by the famous Doulton pottery, to every household in the village: the jug featured a cat in relief on one side and a barrel on the other. Several are still held in private ownership in the village. All the instances of the cat’s past existence are the forerunners of the present well-known village sign; the originals are a happy mix of intent and coincidence.

Catton Cat (Mug)
The commemorative mug.

It was in March 1936 when the Parish Council first asked parishioners for their suggestions for commemorating the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, which would be held later that year. None were received immediately, and it was not until later in 1936 when a Mr Fred Gough of Crome House, Catton entered the scene; he owned the Norwich Paper and Cardboard Co. Mr Gough wrote to the Parish Council offering to erect a village sign which would represent the “Cat” and the “Tun”. The sign, similar to that erected at Swaffham, would stand on the ‘Village Green’ at the junction of Church Street and St Faiths Road; it was thought that this would preserve the small island there. Mr Gough’s offer was, in principle, accepted by the Council, along with a statement that the matter would be passed up to the St Faiths RDC.

It was the case that certainly by the November of 1936 no suggestions had been forthcoming from parishioners as to commemorating the forthcoming coronation; this being the case, the village’s deliberations on the matter were postponed a further three months, to February 1937; this to allow time to see what celebrations other Norfolk villages were planning. Eventually, the two interests of village sign and a suitable commemoration to celebrate King George VI’s Coronation merged. A new village sign was duly unveiled in 1937 by Mr Gough’s son in the presence of the Vicar, the Revd McCready, and formally handed over to the Chairman of Old Catton Parish Council. A large crowd of councillors and parishioners gathered for the occasion.

At the time of the 1937 unveiling, the identity of the designer and maker of the sign was not known – seventy-nine years later it was! Early in 2016, an email was received from a John Hennings of Droitwich in which it said:

“It is told to me that the sign was designed by Bernard Nicholson (my Grandfather) he was the Architect for Bullard’s Brewery and I was always told that his idea was to place a cat on to a model of a “tun”. I have, what I was told as being the original Alabaster cat used to model the carved version.”

From this message it became obvious that John Henning’s grandfather was none other than the Catton Parish Council Chairman present at the 1937 unveiling ceremony.  One further delight to emerge from John Henning’s email was that he had in his possession an alabaster cat which was said to have been the model for the cat on the barrel. A commercial post-card published in 1938 illustrates the sign perfectly, showing scrolled iron-work under the top pedestal, and a vertical in inscription which read, “G.R.- TO COMMEMORATE THE CORONATION OF KING GEORGE VI ON 18TH MAY 1937”. Neither of these two features appear to have survived beyond the 1940s.

Catton Cat9
This commercial post-card, published in 1938, shows the sign perfectly.

In Oct 1937 it was noted in the Parish Council minutes that under Section 268 (I) of the Local Govt. Act 1933, the Council were empowered to have reasonable expenses for the upkeep of the Village Sign presented by Mr F Gough and who, surprisingly enough, arranged for the sign to be renovated in 1938. No reason was given for the ‘remedial’ work on such a new feature, but the varnish was hardly dry before a remarkable series of feline adventures began. World War II intervened and across the nation signposts were taken down to confuse the enemy. It was in this way that the Officer’s Mess at RAF Horsham St Faiths, nearby, became the home of the sign for the duration of hostilities. The council minutes for August 1940 recorded: –

“The sign having been removed by request of the local police officer and temporarily placed in front of the Officers’ Mess R.A.F. Fifers Lane by request of the C.O. It was resolved on proposition of Mr Sabberton seconded by Mr Booty that the Commanding Officer should give the Council a written receipt for the sign on the understanding that it should be returned in good order to the former site on conclusion of hostilities.”

It seemed unclear to most in the parish what benefit the minor relocation of the sign would have in deceiving the enemy should they ever arrive, but clearly the move was very popular with the RAF as the following letter of 17 August 1940 (on R/H side) to the Parish Clerk demonstrated: –

Catton Cat (Cat Loan)

In the final years of the war American Liberator aircraft were based at RAF Horsham St Faiths and US servicemen were clearly taken by the ‘cute’ sign on their doorstep. The following photograph shows Capt. Maurice Speer standing beside the sign in front of the Officers’ Mess.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Captain Maurice Speer, United Sates Airforce, circa 1944.

Events during the war are shrouded in mystery but rumour had it at the time that the cat took part in a bombing raid over Germany. As the threat of German invasion waned the calls for the sign to be returned to its original home began. The Parish minutes for April 1944 recorded that the sign be brought back to its old position in the village, but it was not until the following April of 1945 that the Clerk approached the Air Ministry regarding the restoration of the sign. On 14 June 1945 the RAF responded:-

“Old Catton Village Sign

Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of the 11th inst., regarding the collection of the Old Catton village sign which is at present situated on front of the Officers’ Mess.

The Senior Works Officer raises no objection to the removal of the sign, provided no expense is incurred by the Air Ministry, but I regret to inform you that the cat is missing.

The matter has been taken up with the Unit Executive Officer, who assures me that no effort will be spared in endeavouring to trace the cat, and it is hoped that steps already taken will result in its location and return.

This matter is sincerely regretted, both by myself and the Unit.

Yours faithfully

Clerk of Works”

Four days later another letter was received: –

“Old Catton Village Sign

With reference to my letter of the 14th inst., I have pleasure in informing you that the cat has been traced and is now held in safe custody.

I should be glad if your representative would call at this office when he comes to remove the sign from the Officers’ Mess; the cat will then be handed over to him.

Yours faithfully

Clerk of Works”

In June 1946 the Council accepted Mr Southgate’s tender for re-erection of the sign. Materials were evidently difficult to obtain in the post-war economy, but the work was finally completed by the end of the year, and the sign stood again at its original home. There then began a long period of mixed fortunes.

In February 1949 the parish clerk reported the removal of the cat by RAF auxiliary merrymakers. Two months later, thanks to the local and RAF Constabulary, it was returned from Stockton-on Tees. The re-installation was undertaken by an RAF NCO but the sign was cleaned up at Parish expense. A charge of 25 shillings was made and councillor Mr English took steps to obtain restitution from the Commanding Officer of the auxiliary unit at Stockton on Tees; whilst in a separate letter, expressed the appreciation of the Parish Council to the Station Commander at Horsham St Faiths. Then in September 1952 the cat again vanished – apparently without trace! Fishponds appeared to be a popular choice for searching, and Bristol was mentioned as a possible fruitful ground of enquiry. Mr English of the Council promised to convey this information to the police.

Coincidently and quite out of the blue it seems, an offer to the Parish Council was received in 1953 from a Mr Wolfgang Klinge who was Danish. Despite having returned to his native Denmark, he offered to replace the cat in recognition of the happy years he had spent in Old Catton, having worked for Bush Builders at Hellesdon. His offer was ‘enthusiastically accepted on behalf of the Council’ and the Clerk was instructed to write to Mr Klinge ‘expressing the warm appreciation of the Council.’ However, the matter thereafter was far from being as straightforward as one would want.

Catton Cat (Wolfgang Klinge)
Wolfgang Klinge and wife – Greyfriars, May 1952.

Throughout the following year there were various reports which indicated ‘that there were frustrating delays in the making of a new cat.’; and Mr Klinge was expressing disappointment that nothing was being done, particularly as he had paid for the work before leaving Norwich. Then, in February 1954 Mr Klinge informed the Parish Council that he proposed to get the cat made in Denmark. In response, the Clerk was instructed to investigate the cost of a plaque pending the arrival of the cat. This plaque would note the gift of the original sign by Fred Gough in 1936, correctly reflecting the year when the idea of a cat on a barrel sign was born. A second plaque would acknowledge the generous gift of a restored version by Wolfgang Klinge. Keen to publicise the replacement, the Clerk of the Council undertook to supply a paragraph to the Press and Parish Magazine when the job was completed. In the meantime, in the June of 1954 to be exact, RAF personnel were seen trying, but failing, to remove the barrel. The new cat was finally posted to England and erected in September 1954.

Catton Cat (Plaque)1

Two months later, in November, a very interesting development took place in which the Parish Clerk received a letter from the Commanding Officer of RAF Horsham St Faiths with intelligence that the ‘cat’ might be found adorning a street sign in Chicago. A letter to the mayor of Chicago produced an inscrutable reply, thanking the village for their hospitality to the USAF during the war, but made no mention of the sign. This was followed in April 1955 with a suggestion that the cat had also been sighted in Orkney – or was it Shetland!

Catton Cat (1954 Sign)
The Cat and Tun in 1954.

Back in Old Catton the life of Klinge’s cat was very short-lived for, on 19 April 1955, The Eastern Evening News reported that both the cat and barrel had been wrenched off the post the previous night. A Melvyn Johnson reported that the barrel had been found on farmland (now Ives Road), next to the vicarage garden, which was then at the junction of Fifer’s Lane with St Faiths Road – there was no sign of the cat. A further cat was generously donated by Wolfgang Klinge, and the Parish minutes for January 1956 duly record the arrival of a new teak cat from Denmark.

The sign again suffered damage in 1971. On Sunday, 12 June at 1.30 a.m. two men were seen trying to remove the cat; they were seen off but not before leaving three saw cuts. The barrel was damaged beyond repair and a new one had to be made.

Then a major change took place in 1972 when, for traffic reasons, the whole sign was moved from the busy Church Street junction. It had originally been intended to place it by the new school extension in Church Street, but the wide grass verge created by the development of Parkside Drive was finally chosen and the sign became a dramatic village centre feature opposite the church.

Catton Cat (Sign Valdilised)

In June 1976, vandals struck again when the whole sign was laid flat. This prompted a complete renovation which was carried out in the workshops of Johnsons Joinery of Hellesdon at their expense, and unveiled by [Yorkshire born] parish council chairman Bill Catton at a ceremony on 13 November 1976. A wooden shield presented to Johnsons employees records their part in the restoration.

Catton Cat (Shield)

The latter quarter of the 20th century seems to have been incident free, and the only reference to the cat during this period was that it had not been forgotten in the USA; a fact established by village resident, Colin Green, in the early 1990s. He was on a visit to the ship Queen Mary, at her final resting place in Long Beach, when he saw a photograph and reference to St Faiths displayed on the wall of one of the great liner’s public corridors. Beyond that snippet nothing, except that by the end of the 20th century the village sign’s timber post was deemed to have decayed beyond the point of repair by the Parish Council and a new steel upright was commissioned.

It was in March 2001 when the wooden post was sawn down and later renovated, along with the cat and barrel, again by Melvyn Johnson who had worked on an earlier restoration as a young man place. By curious coincidence Drayton resident Peter Klinge, the son of Wolfgang, happened to drive past as the sign was being dismantled and stopped to see and reminisce. At a formal ceremony on 7 May 2001 the new sign was unveiled by Peter’s son Martin, the grandson of Wolfgang Klinge, along with Lucy Dingle.

In another nice touch a model of the sign was made from the old upright by Barry Leggett and presented to the Mayor of Lavare during the visit of the French Exchange to our twinned village in 2003. Another part was used to make a gavel for Old Catton Society. The remaining half of the decaying wooden upright was saved by Barry Leggett where it, with a freshly carved small cat and barrel, can be found on the wall beneath his car port in Garrick Green.

By an interesting development, village representatives made payed a visited to Zell-am-Zee in the Moselle valley and, apparently, they were amazed to discover a fountain in the town square with a large cat and barrel statue at its centre. As a keepsake, and no doubt to refresh this memory from time to time, a few wine bottles were brought back; their labels illustrating the feature.

In July 2009, being in need of further renovation, the sign was repainted. During the course of the work the cat fell sideways, no doubt due to decay. It was removed, renovated and replaced.

More recently, on Sunday 26 August 2012, Becky Betts and the the BBC Radio Norfolk Treasure Quest team arrived to find a clue secreted by the Society archivist in the leaf scroll work around the top of the column. The easily solved clue bringing the radio car to Church Street was:

“The rugby man who has aged a bit is changed from being on standby. The signs are they are not scraping it, not whisky in, but something galore over!”

Unfortunately, history repeated itself on 11 October 2012, when the cat and barrel were found missing. However, it was soon discovered – it had been briefly removed by the Parish Council for repair! By 2017 the barrel had decayed beyond repair and a new one was made and installed by Barry Legget and his son Graham. Now, and in retrospect, it has to be accepted that no-one is absolutely clear as to how many cats there have been over the years; but it is believed that the present incarnation is probably the fourth – sitting on what is barrel number two.

Catton Cat (2011)2

So, some 84 years on, the cat of many lives still stands and watches the villagers go about their business, and often seen sporting a Father Christmas bobble hat during the festive season.

THE END

Source: Most of the information and photographs included in this blog are by kind permission of  Ray Jones and the Old Catton Society at https://oldcattonsociety.org.uk/village-sign

 

Norfolk: Angels & Demons Looming!

The church of St Clement, Outwell,  was started in the 13th century and expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries when the roof was raised and its carvings installed.  The church was built of limestone from the Lincolnshire Wold and mostly likely came to site by the river. The church stands amid the fens and dykes below the Wash, between the rivers Nene and Great Ouse, close to the Cambridgeshire border. It was a prosperous place in the second quarter of the 15th century from when it remains a somewhat curious church that demands attention.

St Clements (Inner Roof)

St Clements is a church thick with angels. They flock about the roof beams, more than 100 of them, some bearing musical instruments, others the instruments of the Passion. If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see what is now known as the “unknown” glories, the carved buttresses, while in between and over head are the angels, with more angels in the south aisle and the Lynn Chapel off the north aisle. Then there are the demons which are very difficult to see for the roof is so dark that the visitor may miss these and even the large dark angels. The following two demons are exceptions:

St Clements (Carving)2There are 12 demons carvings and they were, in a sense, ‘lost’….but not really….in fact, they have been there all the time but, because of the poor light entering the roof area, the carvings are almost impossible to see. However, on one particular day in 2012 they were indeed ‘found’ by an historian who was studying the medieval glass…… so now they are famous!….having been safely ‘in situ’ for nye on 600 years. Apparently. they are carved the wrong way round, with the demon overcoming each of the smaller apostles, when it should be the other way round. Pevsner’s guide to Norfolk says they stand below canopies, but it’s more interesting than that. What has been revealed is that figures of Apostles, delicately carved with emblematic detail, stand under larger looming heads-and-shoulders of semi-human and demonic figures, bearing the weight of the roof. What does this juxtaposing of holiness and the infernal mean?

img_2440The placing of the figures was planned. The Apostles stand in pairs. Time and death-watch beetle have done away with most of the identifying symbols once held by the Apostles. But one pair, on opposite sides of the nave, are still easy to name: St John, holding a chalice, and St James, with his pilgrim satchel and staff. The horn-headdressed lady looms over the more sensitively carved sculpture of St James with staff and satchel. Leaning over St John is a furry-chested, beak-faced devil of the kind you might see in a manuscript illumination (or, at the time, perhaps in drama). Over St James  leans another unsettling figure: a large-featured woman with an exaggerated horned headdress and, in place of hands, taloned paws.

Why put such things together in a church? – but why not, for the aspect in play can be found in creation itself. Commenting on the Book of Proverbs, the 13th‑century spiritual writer John of Forde wrote that: “The Wisdom of God played before the Father’s face over the whole expanse of the earth.” God played with the monster Leviathan too, the Psalm says. There was indeed a medieval fondness for monsters which presupposed the reliance of humanity’s creativity on the primary creation by God. As St Anselm, the philosopher (Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109) saw it, men could mentally rearrange elements of God’s creation and so make an artistic image such as the horn-headdressed woman with clawed paws!

St Clements (Carved Demon)

At Outwell, then, the dignity of the Apostles is pointed up by the mirror‑image ludicrous figures grinning above them. But, as already been stated, the carved figures are hard to see. When they were made, the brightest light was from distant candles or reflected daylight, and their details could seldom have been clear. Yet, no doubt, the local yeomen, newly prosperous, the Beaupres and the Haultofts, would have been proud to pay for carved figures of the Apostles to join the angels aloft, and not have thought it out of place to have a few demons and chimeras thrown in.

Some other images of St Clements Church, Outwell, Norfolk

Sources:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2017/08/05/sacred-mysteriesmonsters-looming-norfolk-roof-timbers/
https://blosslynspage.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/demons-apostles-and-angels-at-st-clements-church/
https://roofangels2.format.com/gallery-5
https://www.geograph.org.uk/
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/outwell/outwell.htm

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

The Walpoles: Two of a Kind!

Certain members of Norfolk’s Walpole family of the past, if not born insane became so at some point in their lives. George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, was one – and his mother Margaret (nee Rolle) was another. As with both his parents, George also indulged in life’s little vices, not that the aristocracy of the time considered them to be so.

George Walpole (Robert_Walpole,_1st_Earl_of_Orford_by_Arthur_Pond)
Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, KG, PC (1676 – 1745), was a British politician who is generally regarded as the ‘de facto’ first Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was George Walpole’s grandfather.

These two paintings are of Robert Walpole, (2nd Earl of Orford, KB (1701 – 1751), and Margaret Rolle, 15th Baroness Clinton, (1709 – 1781), wife of Robert. Both portraits are by John Theodore Heins and produced as a matching pair. Photos: Wikipedia.

George Walpole, (3rd_Earl_of_Orford,_by_Jean-Etienne_Liotard)
George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730 – 1791) was a British administrator, politician, and peer. He was the only child of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford and his wife Margaret Rolle (above) and became known as the ‘Mad Earl’. Image: Wikipedia.

George’s father, Robert Walpole, was born in 1701 and finally succumbed on 31 March 1751. He was, at the very least, a British Peer and married the rich heiress, Margaret Rolle – neither loved the other. In 1736, six years after George was born, Robert separated from Margaret in favour of a mistress by the name of Hannah Norsa; she was a leading singer and actress at Covent Garden.

George Walpole (Hannah-Norsa)
Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794. Image: Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, writer, George’s uncle and brother of Robert, described Norsa as “my brother’s concubine” when she went to live with him. Then at the point when Robert succeeded to the peerage as Earl of Orford, in 1745, Norsa moved to Houghton Hall in Norfolk. A local clergyman’s wife wrote of her at the time:

“She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, she has every body’s good word, and bears great Sway at Houghton, she is everything but Lady, she came here in a landau and six horses & …… a young Clergyman with her.”

In 1740, Norsa had a son with Orford, but who died young. Forever loyal, Norsa stayed with Robert until his death in 1751, having apparently financed his extensive debts – but not really enough to make any difference! Robert, in his Will, asked that his successor:

“take care that Mrs Norsa have her judgment well served to her.”

As for Margaret (George’s mother), she was the 15th Baroness Clinton in her own right and a wealthy Devonshire aristocratic, known both for her eccentricity – bordering on madness – and also extramarital affairs. Horace Walpole frequently alluded to Margaret as “his sister-in-law and her profligate habits”. Not to put too finer a point on her ‘comings and goings’ she did make the point, shortly after the birth of George in 1730: “not to let her husband lie with her and at last stipulated for only twice a week”! We know this because Horace Walpole, mentioned it in a letter to Sir Horace Mann on 17 June 1746. – the Horace’s exchanged many snippets of family gossip! It was also common knowledge between the two Horace’s that Margaret habitually quarrelled with the entire Walpole family; consequently, Robert and her lived apart from each other. Later Margaret obtained a legal separation from him and also departed for the continent, first going to Naples and afterwards to Rome and Florence. When she was about to leave England, the wits of the ‘Beef Club’ showed their antipathy towards Sir Robert Walpole by addressing her in the following ‘Toast’:

“Go, sprightly Rolle, go, traverse earth and sea
And fly the land where beauty is not free.
By your own wealth enslaved to one you hate,
Mourne not your own, but think of Britain’s fate.
Life may be welcome on some happy shore,
Where not a W [Walpole] shall approach thee more.”

We find that by 1734 Margaret had taken Thomas Sturgess {Sturgis] as a lover plus a second husband, he being the Honourable Sewallis Shirley. How many dalliance relationships Margaret had both before her separation from Robert Walpole and thereafter is best left. Suffice to say that in 1781 Margaret died at Italy’s Pisa, in Tuscany and was buried at Leghorn there. Selina, Countess of Huntingdon said of Margaret: “a woman of very singular character and considered half mad”. 

Georga Walpole (Horace_Walpole)
Horace – real name Horatio – Walpole , 4th Earl of Orford (1717 – 1797) was an English writer, art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician. He was the son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Image: Wikipedia.

It is Horace Walpole we have to thank for providing ‘pen sketches’ of his nephew, George Walpole; other than the snippets that he revealed, very little is known about George’s early years. We do know, through Horace, that in 1739 his friend, John Chute, said that he was ‘quite astonished at [George’s] sense and cleverness’; but within the year Horace worried about the ‘wild boy’. He also thought that George’s friends were leading him into bad ways and was to ask his friend and a minister in Florence, the same Sir Horace Mann, to make friends with young George while he was on a Grand Tour. In 1742, Horace then threw the cat amongst the pigeons by referring to George as “a most charming boy, but grown excessively like his mother in the face”. This comment would not have gone down well with the Walpole’s at a time when the parent’s unhappy relationship was a sore point.

Following the death of his father in 1751, George became the 3rd Earl Orford at the age of 21 years; he also inherited the family home at Houghton Hall, along with a family debt of £50,000. His father had made sparse efforts to, at least, reduce the total amount of the debt around the Walpole’s neck; he did so by selling off his own father’s London paintings and Houghton silver. However, he found out that the sum received barely dented the family’s total debt. Young George would do no better; in fact he would add further to the family’s woes!

Georga Walpole (Houghton Hall)

George moved into Houghton Hall and during his time there he served as High Steward of King’s Lynn, High Steward of Yarmouth, Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and Colonel of the Norfolk Militia. He also served as a ‘Lord of the Bedchamber’ to King George II until the latter’s death, and then to King George III until 1782. On the death of his mother in 1781 he became the sixteenth Baron Clinton.  Amongst all these formal duties placed on the Earl, we still hear Horace Walpole speaking about George’s personal traits and experiences – like the time when friends of George tried, apparently, to persuade him to marry the Heiress, Margaret Nicholl. The thought was that the Nicholl’s wealth would save the debt-ridden Walpole Estate; but here, Horace stepped in once again and stopped such a move, leaving Margaret to go off and marry someone else. Later Horace referred to George as “charming”, with “the easy, genuine air of a man of quality and……his address and manner are the most engaging imaginable” However, George never answered letters or kept engagements, instead, he spent most of his time drinking, enjoying women and gaming. In April of 1751 George’s uncle, Horace, again wrote to his friend Horace Mann to say that his nephew was “the most ruined young man in England”.

Georga Walpole (Houghton Hall)2
This illustration is from ‘The Comprehensive History of England’ by Charles Macfarlance et al (Gresham Publishing, 1902). Image: Public Domain.

As an ardent falconer, George spent £100 a year on each of his birds of prey, sending them to the continent during moulting season. In addition to gambling, he indulged his mistress, Mrs Patty Turk, a former Houghton maid. To pay his growing debts, George sold Houghton’s exterior stone staircases. By 1773, Horace Walpole found Houghton:

“half ruin, though the pictures, the glorious pictures and furniture are in general admirably well preserved. All the rest is destruction and devastation. The two steps exposed to all weathers, every room in the wings rotting with wet; the ceiling of the gallery in danger…… the park half covered with nettles and weeds……a debt of above £40,000, heaped on those of my father and brother…”

But the worst was yet to come, by what Horace again described as the “shipwreck of my family” (see Footnote below).

George Walpole (Houghton Hall_Copyright @ Donna Simpson.)3
Houghton Hall. Image: Copyright Donna Simpson.

Whatever other time George had at his disposal, he included sport, particularly hare coursing. He founded the Swaffham Coursing Club in 1776, initially with twenty-six members who each named their greyhounds after a different alphabet letter. For some years Swaffham was the leading coursing club in England, holding several meetings a year. He also organised coursing for neighbouring farmers and provided prizes. Throughout all this, he displayed all the extravagance shown by his late father. Then, just like his mother before him, he became increasingly eccentric and, eventually, insane – as indeed was his mother. Two of a Kind indeed!

By then, George Walpole was generally regarded as the “Mad Earl”, someone having periodic bouts of madness and having “toad-eaters” around him and spending “by the handfuls and pocketful’s”, again according to Horace. But even he couldn’t put an end to either George’s recurring illness, or his antics and so-called ‘escapades’. It would seem that in 1756 George challenged his friend, Lord Rockingham, to race five turkeys against five geese from Norwich to London; the winner would be the one with the most birds at the finishing line at Mile End. George, who clearly had something going for him, won; he won because he knew turkeys did not roost – but geese did; one up on the Lord one would think! Then there were the occasions when he would use four deers to drive his open four-wheeled carriage, normally referred to as a ‘phaeton’ and pulled by horses. On one occasion at Newmarket when he used these deers, he was chased by a pack of hounds and only just made it into the Yard of an inn. It was Horace who, in 1777, had George moved to a house near London during one of his bouts while he, Horace, dealt with the stewards…… and so, it went on and on…..

In November 1791 Patty Turk, George’s mistress, died. It was said that George refused to accept the fact and hid her body under a pile of boots in a cupboard, not wanting to be parted from her. In his grief, he developed a fever and died at Houghton on 5 December 1791 at the age of 61. His titles — except the title of Baron Clinton, which passed into the Trefusis family who were descendants of George’s great-aunt Bridget Rolle (1648–1721), passed on to his uncle Horace Walpole; he also took the still heavily encumbered Houghton Estate. Because George never married, he left no legitimate heirs. However, there is documentary evidence that he had an illegitimate daughter, named Georgina Walpole, whose mother was Mary Sparrow of Eriswell

Within the story of George Walpole, it should not be forgotten that, certainly within the County of Norfolk, he was very popular; everyone liked his manners and the way he was passionately absorbed in things around him. In 1791, the year in which he died, Dr. Charles Burney visited him and “found his Lordship’s head as clear, his heart as kind and his converse as pleasing as it has always been.”  In 1792, Rochester Lane (the main entrance to the Castle Ditches in Norwich was widened. The work was financed by public subscription, and our George had been one of the biggest subscribers. The new road, Orford Street in the city, was named after him and Hog Hill became Orford Hill.

Footnote: Above everything else, George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford will be particularly remembered for his 1778 sale of his grandfather’s magnificent art collection, the “shipwreck of my family”, the phrase coined by Horace Walpole. This episode started in the autumn of that year when George hired James Christie, founder of the ‘eponymous’ auction house, to value his grandfather’s paintings in “the most profound secrecy” – a wish that didn’t really work! Alexey Musin-Pushkin, Russia’s ambassador to the Court of St James, was to quickly inform Catherine the Great of the impending auction:

George Walpole (Catherine_II_by_J.B.Lampi_(1780s,)
Portrait of Catherine II in her 50s, by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder. Image: Wikipedia.

“Your Majesty has perhaps heard of the collection of paintings of the celebrated Robert Walpole…… His grandson, Lord Orford [our George] is taking the liberty of placing everything, or part of it, at Your Imperial Majesty’s feet. It is worthy, in the opinion of all connoisseurs, of belonging to one of the greatest sovereigns.”

Wasting no time, Catherine instructed the diplomat to make an ‘en bloc’ offer of £40,550 [1778 value] for 204 of Walpole’s best paintings. Catherine’s apparent talent for clandestine negotiations paid off. By July 1779, the Empress and George Walpole had struct a deal. News of that deal unleashed a firestorm of protest. The trustees of the British Museum petitioned parliament for their purchase and the erection of a new building in the grounds of the British Museum, but to no avail – the King was pre-occupied with the American Revolution. Fast forward to the 1930’s which saw the sale of some of the collection, leaving 126 pictures which now forms the collection at The Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2013 seventy paintings from the “magnificent” art collection built up by Britain’s first Prime Minister temporarily returned home to Houghton Hall in Norfolk; the first time in over 230 years. The collection included Rembrandt, Velasquez and Rubens.

For those interested in such things – here is the Walpole’s Family Tree, from the first person mentioned in this blog, to the present incumbents:

Georga Walpole (Family Tree)

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Walpole,_3rd_Earl_of_Orford

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=K8bY-u9uveAC&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=Thomas+Sturgess+Margaret+Walpole+1734&source=bl&ots=aOa6T-2FDB&sig=ACfU3U1Mtd1Ixf582OQLxE-5NLWphYRRFg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwir2bC98ZnmAhVgSBUIHf_uDTUQ6AEwEnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Thomas%20Sturgess%20Margaret%20Walpole%201734&f=false

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Mary_Wortley_Montagu

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=BA_CCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT168&lpg=PT168&dq=patty+mrs+turk+houghton+hall+1773&source=bl&ots=hA-4GLoKra&sig=ACfU3U1HI_yVvwGEMVto6sZbLu5I1AA3Hg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjc5-TX45vmAhXPTsAKHVRYBi8Q6AEwDXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=patty%20mrs%20turk%20houghton%20hall%201773&f=false

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.