By Haydn Brown.
In all probability, if the Queen had not visited the Strangers’ Club at 22-24 Elm Hill, Norwich in early May, 1935, Mrs Simmons, of Beckenham would never have attracted the attention of the local Eastern Daily Press. By picking up the ‘scent’ of a local-interest story and linking it with the Club to which Royalty was favouring a visit, the newspaper brought Mrs Simmons into the limelight and to the attention of its readers. The EDP also laid the basis of an unique window into a few small aspects of life in and around the city’s Elm Hill area between 1860 and 1870 which would never have seen the light of a future day had it not pursued the story and the Norfolk Record Office had not filed it for posterity.
Mrs Simmons, for we know nothing more of her identity, lived on Elm Hill from the time when she was a very young girl, through to when she was approaching her 21st birthday. During that time, she, her parents and siblings lived at 22-26 Elm Hill, the very house now occupied by the Stranger’s Club; also, once known as the Paston house, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1507. Mrs Simmons, therefore, probably knew more about what the area was like than anyone else living in those pre-WW2 days. These writings of hers were originally intended only for the amusement of her family as they grew up; however, since they had long flown the nest and the Queen was coming, maybe she was flattered by the attention of the local press – because, it was at that point, she consented to the publication of her personal reminiscences. The opening paragraph was as follows:
“Norwich was my birthplace and Elm Hill my cradle. My earliest home was an old house, there belonging to my grandfather, at least 300 years old [and] once the residence of Augustine Steward, Mayor of Norwich 1545, and now called the ‘Strangers’ Club’. In the lounge is a 20-light window frame of moulded oak from the adjacent building, occupied in the 15th century by the Norfolk family of Pastons and from here some of the Paston letters were written, headed “at Seynt Peter of Hungate” 1479. According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth I looked through this window when visiting the city in 1578……… Be that as it may, I loved the old house, where I spent a very happy childhood. I loved to look from the open window down upon the hill with its great elm tree in the middle of the plain and shading the parish pump (now gone). I can only picture it in bright sunshine, as there were to me few dark clouds in those early days.”
Maybe it was inevitable that Mrs Simmons would make an early reference to Father Ignatius O.S.B, since he was quite a controversial during her childhood; his real name was the Reverend Joseph Leicester Lyne. It was while she was living in Elm Hill that Father Ignatius and his Anglican monks first came to open his monastery in 1863. It seems that from the outset of his arrival, she painted a positive and rather charismatic image of Ignatius:
“Indeed, it was through my father, John Bishop, that Father Ignatius founded his monastery at Elm Hill. [The Reverend’s] aunt, Mrs [Julia] Utten Browne,[ wife of Edward Utten Browne of All Saints Besthorpe], called upon my father to ask if he knew of any premises to let suitable for a religious community, and he took her to Samson and Hercules House, then vacant, but as it did not suit he [her father] brought her back to Elm Hill and showed her a big old mansion, entered through an arched doorway into a paved courtyard with buildings around it, and it was here [at No.16 Elm Hill] that Ignatius soon founded his monastery.”
Thereafter, Mrs Simmons would recall that Elm Hill witnessed rare scenes during a period when often the street was crowded with sightseers; sometimes:
“Ignatius would come out and speak to the people, who were often more scoffers than hearers, and when the noise became too much for his voice to be heard he would lead his choir with his beautiful voice and sing a hymn and then retire through the arched gate behind him and the nail-studded door was shut and barred……on Easter morning, long before it was light, the monks came out in procession with banners and cross, dressed in their vestments and carrying lighted candles and censers, and would parade round the Parish singing hymns. I thought it “Beautiful”!
But maybe because Mrs Simmons was writing for her children, she never mentioned the more contentious aspects of Brother Ignatius’s activities, such as the community hostility towards him and his monks, and the fact that opinion was greatly divided towards the principle of accommodating a monk community in Norfolk. Specifically, she did not mention that he had caused outrage in the November of 1863 when it was reported that here was;
“a clergyman of the English Church, who has the temerity to come before a public audience attired as a Benedictine monk, with bare head and bare feet, carrying a rosary and crucifix, which in this country are regarded as symbolic only of the Romish Church, and calling himself by a name not accorded to him by his godfathers and godmother,”
On 13 February 1864, after Brother Ignatius had purchased No.16 Elm Hill as part of his attempt to revive a form of monasticism by forming a religious order, or brotherhood in the city, he was labelled as “notorious” in the press. This preceded his actions of 24 February when he dedicated the building as the “Benedictine Chapel of the Priory of St Mary and St Dunstan,” From this date scenes of disorder and riot were a frequent occurrence in the neighbourhood and the monastery. Directly, or indirectly the existence of the confraternity gave rise to several remarkable incidents; such as the daily procession by the brethren to and from St Lawrence’ church to celebrate Communion – this was met by a mob assailing and insulting them. The protection of the police was demanded by Ignatius, and the magistrates were frequently engaged in the hearing of cases of riot and assault arising out of the proceedings at Elm Hill and St. Lawrence’
Four months later, on 28 June 1864, the wide-spread public outrage at the activities of Father Ignatius and his Third Order on Elm Hill spilled over into actual violence. According to the Baroness de Bertouch, in her book ‘The Life of Father Ignatius’, 1904, it was triggered by the previous day’s pilgrimage of ‘over four hundred enthusiasts’ to St Walstan’s Well at nearby Bawburgh – as a challenge to the Bishop’s authority. The crowd had ‘moved as one long flexible column through the town’ and services were held at the Well, vials and vessels being filled with its holy well water. On their return to Norwich cries of ‘No Popery’ were heard and Ignatius received an anonymous letter telling him that his priory would be set on fire, together with anyone who happened to be within its precincts. A mob of many thousands gathered and detachments of police began to arrive. The brothers barricaded themselves in and some of the sisters arrived to lend support. The authoress lent a degree of humour to the incident when she stated that the sister’s armoury was mixed: “Sister Faith brought her rosary; Sister Hope carried a magnificent rolling pin; but Sister Charity was made of sterner stuff – she brought a kettle filled with vitriol (sulphuric acid).” In the event, the Elm Hill monastery was closed in May, 1866, and the building work of a proposed new chapel to be erected by Father Ignatius was suspended and he left Norwich.
St Peter Hungate Church:
Today, at the top of Elm Hill, stands the church of St Peter Hungate. It is not the original church you understand, that was demolished way back in 1458; but the one that was there in the mid-19th century and to which Mrs Simmons attended as a youngster; this was in fact a rebuild by John Paston and Margaret his wife by 1460. Fast forward to 2011 when Simon Knott wrote of it:
“Although St Peter Hungate is right in the heart of the urban area, its setting is idyllic; 16th and 17th century cottages flank the north and east sides, and then beautiful Elm Hill drops away below it. To the west is the magnificent chancel window of the Blackfriars church………. Hungate itself no longer exists, but was formerly ‘houndsgate’ – the street of dogs. In this conservation area the roads are cobbled, and it is an oasis of charm in the middle of East Anglia’s biggest city.”
As a child, Mrs Simmons remembered her father discovering a rude (sic) carving on the stone shaft in the north porch; it was of an acorn with an oak tree growing from it and he thought it probably was to indicate that the present church was built on the site of an older one. St Peter Hungate then, as now, was built of black flint, cruciform in shape and having a nave, chancel, transepts, and square tower with two bells. The roof of the nave was ornamented with figures of angels and with ‘a fine east window filled with ancient glass’; the church also had squints, spy-holes.
In 1861 the interior of St Peter Hungate was much improved and we find that the church also retained what may have been a unique three-tiered pulpit. According to Mrs Simmons:
“the clerk’s desk at the base, and above this the reading desk, equivalent to our lectern, and still above this the pulpit and over all a big sounding-board.”
The church’s Rector at the time was the Rev. Samuel Titlow M.A. who was first appointed to the post in 1839. He was, according to Mrs Simmons: “a confirmed old bachelor who, was very pompous and stern”. She also remembered how the Reverend would preach in his college gown – after taking off his surplice in the vestry! Always, around his neck he wore white ‘Geneva’ bands; these were two bands or pendent stripes made usually of white lawn and worn at the throat as part of the clerical garb, originally worn by Swiss Calvinist clergy. Then there was her father, John Bishop, who was a churchwarden at St Peter Hungate and he, together with his fellow wardens would sit in special high pews at the west end of the church. Whilst all pews were square with high board screens around them, a warden’s pew had a padded arm-rest, just like an armchair and above the pew door was a green curtain, which the clerk drew after everyone had entered and before the service begun. According to Mrs Simmons:
“We, my brother, sister and I, sat opposite to our parents. I could not see over the pew, even [when] standing, so father used to lift me on to the seat, and I well remember an old chap in front who used to lay his wool glove on the top of his bald head to keep off the draughts. I used to hope it would fall off, but it never did.”
She also noticed that on the wall, at the end of the pews, were pegs for the men to hang their hats on. She also witnessed the ritual these men went through before entering their pews; still standing, they would hold their hats before their faces to pray into; only then did they hang them up and then proceed to their seats:
“How queer we should think it now to see a collection of tall hats hanging round a church during a service………[then] Once a month, on the first Sunday, there was Holy Communion after morning service. The bell would be rung on Saturday afternoon to announce the fact. Then, when the service had ended, father and the other warden stepped out of their pews and, armed with big brass bowls, would stand on either side of the porch to receive the alms of the departing congregation.”
It is sometimes amazing how the smallest of memories can be permanently locked into one’s mind. This seems to have happened with Mrs Simmons who, from her recollections of St Peter Hungate, remembered one little incident between the old Rector, Samuel Titlow, and Father Ignatius, who attended one particular service, along with his band of monks:
“The Rector did not approve, but they were parishioners and he could not exclude them – and our father liked Ignatius and showed them into pews in front of the pulpit. All went well until the Creed. The Rector began in his severe style, reading “I believe”. The monks took it up and intoned it. [There was] a pause, the Rector started again and read it deliberately by himself. I do not remember anything else during the service and do not think the monks ever came again.”
Father Ignatius, instead, had a chapel fitted up in his ‘monastery’ and continued to have regular services there. These drew crowds of people; so much so that not all could be accommodated. The solution was for admission tickets to be issued. We are told that Mrs Simmons’s father, John Bishop, did ‘business with Ignatius’, and presumably on that basis he was given a family ticket for any service.
“By the way”, quoted Mrs Simmons at one point, “a funny thing happened one day: Ignatius wanted to see my father and, as he could never appear without a crowd mobbing him, he opened our private door and walked into the house. Our maid was on her knees at her work and, hearing a sound, turned her head and saw (to her) ‘an awful figure clad in black with a cowl over his head’. She fled in fright to my mother, exclaiming: “Oh! Mam, I believe it is the Devil now come in.””
Mr and Mrs Trory:
Mrs Simmons’s reminisces were not, however, confined to the controversial figure of Father Ignatius and his activities. She remembered her music master, Mr Trory who was “a dear old man with a stately wife”, both of whom lived at the top of Elm Hill; he played the violin and his wife sang at the Triennial Festivals. Mrs Simmons recalled that this couple use to recall ‘earlier days when several neighbours owned horses and carriages.’ But Mrs Simmons could only recall one, a Mr Able Towler, of the firm of Towler, Rolland & Allen; manufactures, specialising in crepes, bombazines and Paramattas – and earlier than this in producing the noted Norwich Shawls. Their factory was next to Mrs Simmons’s parent’s home in what is known as Paston House behind which was Crown Court.
She had a very vivid memory of one large room in Paston House which had a beautiful moulded ceiling, from the centre of which hung “a wonderful wrought-iron snake to support the original oil lamp”. It has been said that when Queen Elizabeth I stayed at the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace nearby, she and her courtiers walked through the gardens by the riverside and held court in that very room. On what would have been the same occasion, the Queen was said to have also watched a pageant from the existing first-floor window of the same building – now known as the Strangers Club. Hence the origin of the name “The Crown Court” since applied.
Mrs Simmons eventually brought her newspaper reminisces to an end with a late reference to the Rev. Samuel Titlow and Mrs Trory. The readers are told that Mrs Trory met the Reverend out walking one day and respectably smiled at him and bowed. However, he, looking his grimmest and taking no notice passed her by:
“Soon afterwards he called upon her [Mrs Trory] for a subscription and, before the bell could be answered, he opened the door and met her in the hall. He began in his pompous manner: “Excuse me, Mrs Trory ——,” She took him by the arm, turned him round, saying: “You do not know me in the street and I do not know you in my house,” and she showed him out! The old man was very indignant and afterwards told my father how he had been treated…. When we heard the tale, we were much amused as we could picture the scene and the performers”.
Newspaper cutting: ‘Life on Elm Hill in the 1860s, Eastern Daily Press, 1935. Norfolk Record Office, MC 2716 L10/1-10.
A Glimpse into The History of Elm Hill: The 1860s and Father Ignatius