Whilst the term “Christmas” first became part of the English language in the 11th century as an amalgamation of the Old English expression “Christes Maesse”, meaning “Festival of Christ”, the influences for this winter celebration pre-date this time significantly.
Winter festivals have been a popular fixture of many cultures throughout the centuries. A celebration in expectation of better weather and longer days as spring approached, coupled with more time to actually celebrate and take stock of the year because there was less agricultural work to be completed in the winter months, has made this time of year a popular party season for centuries.
Whilst mostly synonymous with Christians as the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus (the central figure of Christianity), celebrating on the 25th December was a tradition that was borrowed, rather than invented, by the Christian faith and is still celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike today. Indeed the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, in honour of Saturn the Harvest God, and the Scandinavian festival of Yule and other Pagan festivals centred on the Winter Solstice were celebrated on or around this date. As Northern Europe was the last part of the continent to embrace Christianity, the pagan traditions of old had a big influence on the Christian Christmas celebrations.
The official date of the birth of Christ is notably absent from the Bible and has always been hotly contested. Following the instigation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the 4th century, it was Pope Julius I who eventually settled on 25 December. Whilst this would tie in with the suggestions of the 3rd century historian Sextus Julius Africanus that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox of 25 March, the choice has also been seen as an effort to ‘Christianise’ the pagan winter festivals that also fell on this date. Early Christian writers suggested that the date of the solstice was chosen for the Christmas celebrations because this is the day that the sun reversed the direction of its cycle from south to north, connecting the birth of Jesus to the ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas was not as popular as Epiphany on 6 January, the celebration of the visit from the three kings or wise men, the Magi, to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, Christmas was not originally seen as a time for fun and frolics but an opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection during a special mass. But by the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) Christmas had become the most prominent religious celebration in Europe, signalling the beginning of Christmastide, or the Twelve Days of Christmas as they are more commonly known today.
The medieval calendar became dominated by Christmas events starting forty days prior to Christmas Day, the period we now know as Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “coming”) but which was originally know as the “forty days of St. Martin” because it began on 11 November, the feast day of St Martin of Tours.
Although gift giving at Christmas was temporarily banned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages due to its suspected pagan origins, it was soon popular again as the festive season in the Middle Ages became a time of excess dominated by a great feast, gifts for rich and poor and general indulgence in eating, drinking, dancing and singing.
Many monarchs chose this merry day for their coronation. This included William the Conqueror, whose coronation on Christmas Day in 1066 incited so much cheering and merriment inside Westminster Abbey that the guards stationed outside believed the King was under attack and rushed to assist him, culminating in a riot that saw many killed and houses destroyed by fire.
Some well known modern Christmas traditions have their roots in the Medieval celebrations:
Christmas or Xmas? Although many people frown upon the seemingly modern abbreviation of Xmas, X stands for the Greek letter chi, which was the early abbreviation for Christ or the Greek ‘Khristos’. The X also symbolises the cross on which Christ was crucified.
Mince Pies were originally baked in rectangular cases to represent the infant Jesus’ crib and the addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was meant to symbolise the gifts bestowed by the three wise men. Similarly to the more modern mince pies we see today, these pies were not very large and it was widely believed to be lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas. However, as the name suggests, mince pies were originally made of a variety of shredded meat along with spices and fruit. It was only as recently as the Victorian era that the recipe was amended to include only spices and fruit.
Carol singers. Some of us enjoy the sound of carollers on our doorsteps but the tradition for carol singers going door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times. Many carollers took the word carol literally (to sing and dance in a circle) which meant that the more serious Christmas masses were being ruined and so the Church decided to send the carol singers outside.
Anyone for humble pie? While the most popular choice for Christmas dinner today is undoubtedly turkey, the bird was not introduced to Europe until after the discovery of the Americas, its natural home, in the 15th century. In medieval times goose was the most common option. Venison was also a popular alternative in medieval Christmas celebrations, although the poor were not allowed to eat the best cuts of meat. However, the Christmas spirit might entice a Lord to donate the unwanted parts of the family’s Christmas deer, the offal, which was known as the ‘umbles’. To make the meat go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, in this case the poor would be eating ‘umble pie’, an expression we now use today to describe someone who has fallen from their pedestal to a more modest level.
Boxing Day has traditionally been seen as the reversal of fortunes, where the rich provide gifts for the poor. In medieval times, the gift was generally money and it was provided in a hollow clay pot with a slit in the top which had to be smashed for the money to be taken out. These small clay pots were nicknamed “piggies” and thus became the first version of the piggy banks we use today. Unfortunately Christmas Day was also traditionally a “quarter day”, one of the four days in the financial year on which payments such as ground rents were due, meaning many poor tenants had to pay their rent on Christmas Day!
Whilst the excitement and frivolities of Christmas make it easy to forget the more serious aspects of the festival, it can also be argued that the tradition started by the wise men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues today, although with perhaps slightly less exotic gifts!
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
It was on the 4th December 1830, some say it was a Saturday morning, when the Town Clerk of Norwich City Council issued a Proclamation from the Guildhall on behalf of the City’s Mayor and Magistrates. It announced that the lawbreaking ‘Swing’ Rioters would be suitably punished; a message that the authorities considered the public should be clearly told about:
“A paramount duty which they owe to their Sovereign and their Country at this moment of general disturbance, to declare that, whilst in common with the rest of their Fellow Citizens, they are on the one hand ready to do all which sympathy and benevolence can suggest for the relief of distressed operatives in this populous place, so on the other hand it is their full determination to act with the promptitude, decision, and vigour, which circumstances imperatively demand in prohibiting tumultuous assemblies, and suppressing riotous proceedings, in opposing every kind of open outrage, and actively endeavouring to detect secret attacks on either person or property……..”
The authorities were also anxious that their ‘Fellow Citizens’ should know and understand that:
“……. Persons who are guilty of these lawless proceedings, are liable on conviction to suffer Death, and that the loss incurred by individuals by the destruction of their property must be paid for by the Public, and will consequently tend to increase the County Rate”
The lawless proceedings that the authorities referred to broke out on the morning of the 27th of November 1830 at Lyng Mill, a few miles north of Norwich. Unrest amongst workers had been festering for some time and came to head when a group of some 200 rioters gathered there. Because the mill owners had received notice of pending trouble, but not its size, only a certain Richard Tolladay had been taken on at the mill to provide extra security. It was somewhat inevitable that being alone Tolladay would fail to protect the paper-making machinery from being destroyed once the mob had decided to break into the Lyng Mill.
No sooner had they completed their task, they proceeded towards their second objective, the paper-mill at Taverham, which they reached in the afternoon. Their intention this time was to destroy the highly productive ‘Fourdrinier’ paper-making machine. In the 1820s the principal paper maker at Taverham mill, John Burgess, was making a considerable amount of money from this revolutionary and highly productive machine. He was one of the few men in the country who knew how to use it to supply not only the local Norwich printers but also customers as far afield as Cambridge University Press. The paper mill was certainly doing well and so was Burgess who went on to buy property and cottages in Norwich and Costessey. He not only bought the White Hart in 1819, but by 1830 he had rebuilt it.
The ‘machine-breakers’ visit to Taverham was, again, not entirely unexpected. Some precautions had been taken by extra manpower being employed to guard the premises and machinery against attack. Doors were, of course, locked but this was totally ineffective against some 200 rioters who were mostly armed with hatchets and pick-axes. None of the workers at the Mill was hurt or even threatened, but the ‘Fourdrinier’ was put out of production when its breast-board was broken with an axe. Such a piece of the equipment supported the canvas apron along which the pulp was carried on to the wire belt at the beginning of the paper-making process.
It should be said that these rioters had been inspired by the ‘Swing’ riots that had started in Kent but very soon spread through several counties, particularly in southern England. Farm life was far from easy in the 19th Century, but it really began to deteriorate from the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815. From then, machinery was gradually introduced into farming and factories, and this meant that less workers were needed and this, in turn, led to unemployment and increased poverty. At that time, Labourers did not have the vote or any way of protesting lawfully. Frustrations grew. The final straw came with the introduction of the threshing machine (used to separate grain from stalks and husks) which labourers knew would deprive them of their winter work. In August 1830 farm workers set fire to a threshing machine, in Kent, in a desperate bid to highlight their plight and need for fairer wages. This was the first reported incident of the Swing Riots – the aim was to destroy machines.
The name “Swing Riots” had been derived from ‘Captain Swing’, the fictitious name often signed on threatening letters which were sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. ‘Swing’ was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement; apparently, the word was a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing. The Swing letters were first mentioned by The Times newspaper on 21 October 1830. In Norfolk, many agricultural and factory labourers caught the mood that had spread from the south and formed themselves into their form of ‘machine-breakers’, the sort who assembled at Lyng and Taverham. They too were involved in the destruction of threshing machines, and in this they had targeted Taverham’s Squire Micklethwait and farmer Joby at Weston Longville.
Richard Tolladay of Lyng Mill, anxious to make amends for his failure that morning, followed the rioters at a safe distance and concealed himself amongst some trees and bushes. From the shadows he recognised who he thought was the ring leader from that morning – Robert West and duely seized him with the help of a handful of accomplices. It was a move that was impulsive and with little regard to the fact that Tolladay’s group were badly outnumbered. Before West could be spirited away, he managed to wrestle free and escape, much to the delight of the rioters, whose cry of “There goes old Bob” was clear and unmistakable. Although he might well have congratulated himself on making what had been a lucky escape, West was to be at large long enough to miss the January 1831 Quarter Sessions in Norwich where he would have been more leniently treated.
As it was at the time, when the riots were taking place, an urgent message had already been sent to Norwich requesting help from the military. In response, a detachment of the 1st Dragoon Guards was dispatched to Taverham. It was almost dark by the time they arrived, and the rioters had already moved on – with the exception of one man, named Richard Dawson. He was found and arrested on the Fakenham Road; the rest of the rioters had made their way back towards the Lyng area where, probably thinking they were safe, lit a fire; however, unbeknown to them, they were being watched!
One must mention that, apart from the County’s landed gentry and business owners, there was a great amount of sympathy for the rioters from among the poor and working-class people of Norfolk. It was only a few days before the riot at Taverham when the Justices of North Walsham put out proclamations begging employers to accede to the machine-breakers’ demands. Much to the annoyance of the Government, particularly the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, this sympathy extended to the jurors at the subsequent trials of the rioters. The only person to be charged with offences connected with the event in Taverham was the lone Richard Dawson, the young man arrested on the Fakenham road. As it turned out, he could not be implicated in the attack on the Mills, but was charged with destroying Squire Micklethwait’s threshing machine in Taverham Hall’s bullock yard. The only witness against Dawson was one of the Squire’s employees, a Mr. D. Rose!
It followed that, at the January 1831 Assizes, the jury acquitted Dawson on the grounds that there was only one witness; this, apparently, caused the Chairman to rather forcible informed them that ‘one witness was as good as a hundred’ – and directed the jury to reconsider their verdict. Such was the sympathy towards the rioters that, despite this official direction which came to almost an order for the jurors to convict, they returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict to what was said to be ‘great applause from the public gallery’. From this, the Home Office concluded that local people could not be trusted to take a firm line; they also were well aware that they could do nothing about those already acquitted or those who had received light sentences. Unlike today, there was no process of appeal against a ‘not guilty’ verdict and there was no such thing as double jeopardy.
Robert West was formerly arrested on the 6th June 1831 which, unfortunately for him, meant that he had missed the earlier court of January. By summer time the Norfolk Circuit Judges had also ‘got the message’ from the Home Office, which meant that the forthcoming Summer Assize would be quite a different affair. Far from being acquitted as Richard Dawson had been in January, West was, at first, condemned to death but later spared the noose when he was sentenced to be transported to New South Wale. He was never to see his wife and family again
Robert West found himself on board the Portland, along with 177 other convicts from throughout England, parts of Scotland, Jamaica and Gibraltar. Their crimes included various forms of stealing, house robbery, forgery, passing base coin, embezzlement, poaching, picking pockets etc…. There were few if any violent criminals amongst them. Most of the ‘Swing’ rioters sentenced to exile in New South Wales had been transported on the Eleanor in 1831, however at least three prisoners on the Portland had also been involved in Swing Riots……Robert West was one of them.
Prior to the 178 prisoners embarking at Spithead on 14 November 1831, they had been held in the prison hulks ‘Captivity’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘York’ where the men had worked in the Dock-yard from seven o’clock until, twelve, in the mornings, and from a quarter past one o’clock until half past five, in the afternoons. Most of these prisoners were young men in a good state of health with the exception of a few who suffered chronic leg ulcers. The Portland’s prison guards consisted of two non-commissioned Officers, 27 Privates of the 4th and 39th regiments who were commanded by Lieutenant Archer of the 16th regiment. He travelled as a cabin passenger whilst two women and four children travelled in steerage.
Joseph Cook, the Portland’s surgeon, kept a Journal from 21st October 1831 to 11 April 1832. In it, he stated that:
“the Portland did not depart Spithead until 27 November 1832; after when, the winds and weather were variable. Catarrh appeared as an epidemic during these days and continued to recur during the whole of the voyage, almost all on board having been affected with it more or less, but in the greater number of instances so slight as not to require confinement or medical treatment. The prisoners were also much affected with costiveness induced by sea sickness and change of diet but the general state of health on board during the voyage was good. The leg ulcers they had suffered with on arrival on the Portland speedily recovered under the surgeon’s treatment of adhesive straps and a change of air and better diet”.
During the voyage the convicts were admitted on deck daily as much as the state of weather and other circumstances permitted, one half taking their meals on deck alternatively. Attention was paid to cleanliness and the between decks kept as dry as possible. The Portland was off the coast of Brazil on 14th January 1832 and no heavy rain was reported until the Portland was off the coast of Australia when they also experienced strong westerly winds. The temperature occasionally reached 89° in the prison at nights while passing through the tropics. The Portland arrived in Port Jackson on 26th March 1832 and a Muster was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29th March. There had been no deaths during the voyage and the 178 male convicts were landed at Sydney on 6th April 1832. All except one, William Toll who had suffered scurvy, were fit for immediate employment.
Tocal (meaning ‘plenty’ in the local Aboriginal language) is located in the lower Hunter Valley, of New South Wales, Australia, approximately 7 miles north of Maitland and about 110 miles north of Sydney at the junction of the Paterson River and Webbers Creek. It was there that Robert West was set to work on a farm until failing health caused him to be removed to Port Macquarie. He died in 1837 and today, his name is recorded on a memorial in the town which also has a reference to Lyng in Norfolk.
Postscript: By a strange coincidence one of the partners who operated Taverham mill after the riots also ended up in New South Wales. It would appear that the experience of Norfolk’s version of the Swing Riots had discouraged the then Mill’s owner, Robert Hawkes; and despite the fact that his company was compensated for the damage he still decided to sell his share of the business and retire. The new partners with whom John Burgess found himself saddled with were two young men from wealthy local families, Henry Robberds and Starling Day. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they seemed not to have many business interests and they may have tried to ‘meddle’ at the Mill. This would not have pleased Burgess who was used to having a free hand to run the business and, whatever was ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, Burgess left the partnership in 1832 to take the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper in which he was so experienced. However, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss again, and he continued to make money. But back at Taverham Mill things went from bad to worse. Firstly, Henry Robberds and Starling Day had lost John Burgess, the one partner who was an experienced paper-maker and instrumental in making a lot of money for the company. Then in 1839 two employees were killed when part of the mill collapsed and by 1842 both Henry Robberds and Starling Day were declared bankrupt. It was Robberds who emigrated from Liverpool with his family and no sooner was he settled in Sydney when, it was said, he became very involved in raising money for the construction of the new St James Cathedral there. A scan of the present-day directories seems to show that the Robberds name is still prominent in the life of Sydney.
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Background: The late 18th century was a problem period for the British Government insofar as industrialisation was fanning the growth of city-slums and there was much unemployment of soldiers and sailors following the American War of Independence. The crime rate was high, the prisons were overcrowded and there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.
In response the government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. It was a time when many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women; certainly between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts by six to one. But also included in Government policy was a wish to see that women convicts being sent to Australia were of “marriageable” age; a policy aimed at promoting family development for emancipated convicts, free settlers and to develop the penal outpost of New South Wales into a viable colony.
A myth that prevailed at the time was that convict women were all prostitutes; no they were not! The fact was that the majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences – such as petty theft and most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Of course, many women were driven to prostitution following their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding of their own. These women indeed faced extreme difficulty in achieving freedom, solvency and respectability. They would go on to be employed in ‘factories’ (equivalent of the English workhouse) but often had to find their own accommodation, and would be under great pressure to pay for it with sexual services. This was why women convicts tended to be regarded as prostitutes. But it is a popular misconception that they had originally been convicted of prostitution, for this was not a transportable offence.
Amongst the women convicts who would be subjected to many of the problems associated with transportation into exile was a Mary Ann Adams, aged 23, a dairymaid from Norfolk who in later Australian records described as being 5ft 1in in height, of pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes and with a scar over her left eyebrow. Mary had been committed to the 1834 Spring Norwich Assizes to face a charge of stealing a purse containing four sovereigns. She was found guilty of that charge on the 22 March of that year and, at first, was sentenced to death; but this was later commuted to life in the colonies – an alternative particularly favoured by the Norwich courts at that time. Was this also a reflection of the Government wish to increase the number of ‘marriageable’ women needed for the Australian colony? – Mary, for one, would never have known.
Following her sentence, Mary Adams spent approximately 3 months in Nowich Gaol, which, at that time, was located at the end of St Giles’ Street by the Earlham Road & Unthank Road junctions on a site now accupied by St John the Baptist Cathedral and built 1882-1910. While in Norwich Goal, Mary made a keepsake token from a worn-down two-pence coin. On it she inscribed:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
This keepsake still remains on display at the Norwich Castle Museum to serve as a reminder as intended. Mary was transported to Woolwich, along with a Sarah Sharrods, servant, who had received a similar life sentence and a Ann Burke who had been sentenced to 14 years of exile at the previous December Assizes in Norwich. How and in what conditions these three travelled is unknown but, generally, prisoners destined to be transported for exile would have been secured in heavy chains and riding in open coaches, irrespective of weather conditions. It is unknown whether, on the way, the coach that carried them also picked up a further five prisoners in Suffolk – all of whom had been sentenced to 7 years each to exile. It may have been of some comfort that they travelled during the summer, at the same time when 136 other female convicts were travelling from cities and counties throughout England, Scotland and Wales to board the 1804 built George Hibbert at Woolwich.– all were chained for that journey. The ship, controlled by the Master, Captain George N. Livesay and ship’s Surgeon Superintendent, John Tarn, was scheduled to sail on 27 July 1834.
This would be John Tarn’s second voyage as surgeon superintendent on a convict ship. As was his normal practice, he would keep a Medical Journal – this time between 7 June and 18 December 1834. It was for the 3rd to 17th of July 1834, that he would place on record the following general remarks, throwing light on the general health situation on board the George Hibbert, both prior to sailing and for the voyage:
“……. There were 144 female convicts, 11 free women and 64 children who were received on board at Woolwich, having been forwarded in parties from the different counties of Great Britain’. Most of the women were below middle age and in sufficient good health to make the journey without much risk of disease. The vessel was very crowded but the usual precautions to reduce risk of disease made for a healthy voyage. The convicts and children were on deck whenever possible and stoves were used to reduce dampness. Most complaints were affections of the bowels, catarrhal and dyspeptic attacks and diseases of the uterine system and were generally not severe. Bowel complaints appeared during the close, sultry weather and were mostly connected with hepatic secretions. Calomel and purgatives removed the symptoms. The voyage was longer than usual, taking 130 days, and there were numerous slight symptoms of scurvy for some weeks before arriving in Sydney. Lemon juice had been regularly issued and when it ran out it was replaced with [concrete] citric acid and a solution of nitre in vinegar. These remedies produced good effects particularly in the dysenteric cases. Among the children, only 11 were subjects for vaccination, 10 successfully and the other unsuccessful although the virus was taken from the arm of a healthy subject. –
Signed, John Tarn
It was during both the period when the ship was preparing to sail and also during the voyage that Mary Ann Adams was placed on a sick list on two occasions; the first being on the 14 July 1834 when her condition was recorded as “Convict; disease or hurt, amenorrhoea. Discharged, 25 July 1834. Had suffered suppression of the menses for several months and had dyspeptic symptoms, debility and languor.” As things turned out, many women were treated for illnesses whilst the George Hibbert was in port, and no less than 60 were treated for illnesses during the voyage; again, Mary Ann Adams was amongst these.
The George Hibbert was the first convict ship to have a Matron on board and credit here must be given to Norfolk’s Elizabeth Fry. Amongst many other things associated with Mrs Fry, she was the one who actively campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journeys. She also was to arrange for each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell when they reached their destination. Being religious, she gave bibles and useful items, such as string, knives and forks. During her time when she pushed for reforms, Elizabeth Fry visited over 106 transport ships and saw some 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation which was to come about in 1837; however, Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships up to 1843. Throughout, she saw the need to communicate with Lord Melbourne on matters connected with the Ladies’ British Society; these chiefly covered that of transportation, female convicts on board ship and their treatment when they arrive in the colony. It also covered the need for matrons for convict ships……
The first Matron who undertook the office, sanctioned by both the Government and the Ladies’ British Society, was Mrs. Saunders, the wife of a missionary named John Saunders. Both were on board the George Hibbert; their passages paid for by the Government on condition that Mr Saunders administered his religious responsibilities amongst the ship’s convicts and passengers. In this he was almost alone since his wife was to suffer so much sickness which impeded her support for her husband during the voyage. Nevertheless, the authorities seemed well pleased with their efforts. Of the position of Mrs Saunders as Matron, Elizabeth Fry said “This is the only one we have sent out as a Matron. The British Society aided in the Expense and so did the Government; they allowed them the food of the ship”.
Another consequence of Elizabeth Fry’s and The British Society’s deliberations was the creation of a ‘Convict Ship Committee’, which was to visit the George Hibbert on no less than four occasions, prior to its sailing, to investigate conditions. Its conclusion was that:
”The ship was found to be much crowded, and serious inconveniences were felt, and were to be apprehended, during the voyage, from this circumstance. It is however to be noticed, with thankfulness, that both the captain and surgeon superintendent appeared to be peculiarly well qualified for the offices to which they were appointed.”
The Reverend John Saunders was to compile his own notes about both the voyage to New South Wales and his religious efforts during that voyage – understandably since that was a condition of a free passage for both him and his wife and he, no doubt, felt obliged to present a positive picture of his efforts. His Notes were dated 10 December 1834 :
“Divine Providence opened the way for service that evening; and I went down into the prisons, and had a pleasant season to my soul; and so of the succeeding days, till Sunday, when I envied the tranquillity of the Isle of Thanet: however, we had services between decks, and I trust they were not without their influence upon my own and the prisoners’ souls.
On Sunday or Monday night we had a smart breeze, and I felt myself a coward. It was then I discovered how the busy time of the last few months had eaten away faith and fortitude; it led me to prayer— which I trust was progressively answered during the voyage……We skirted the Bay of Biscay very pleasantly; and when we had got within the latitude of Africa, I felt myself away from Europe and my old world;—yet neither the expanse of ocean, nor the fact of absence, at all proved desolate. I was happy in my duties, and had a sufficiency of business in attending to a sick wife……
“Disappointed in not being able to touch at Madeira, we made for the Canaries, a beautiful group of islands. They are of volcanic origin; and seemed to be so many sweet spots to remind man of the presence of God in the midst of the deep; and as if placed there to refresh his eye, wearied with the unvarying sight of the blue wave. Here we were favoured with a glimpse of the highest cone of Tenerife: the next day we anchored off Palma, so named, I believe, from its palms……..
Soon after leaving Faeroe, we got into the North East Trade winds, and nothing could be more beautiful than our sailing a good regular breeze, with clear weather. We maintained regular services both daily and weekly—the Sabbath services being conducted on the poop. Soon afterwards, we were on the verge of the Line: and here we lost a man named Davis, overboard: he had committed a flagrant breach of propriety, and seemed determined to drown his soul in perdition; accordingly, he got tipsy, vented most horrid blasphemies, and, unseen by others, fell overboard: when missed, most diligent search was made, but the boat returned without any trace of him…….
Our passage between the Trades was most merciful: instead of being scorched by the heat and lying rolling under calms, we had a pleasant wind, although contrary, which kept us cool, and was the messenger of health to our relaxed frames. After we entered the South East Trade winds, we ran on with great celerity; and sometimes, as I preached on the poop, I was obliged to hold on, while the water ever and anon rushed over the lee-gunwale, and the spray came splashing over the weather-bow………
When off Tristan D’Cunha we had a gale which much alarmed me. I was not well: we had again commenced services between decks, which amounted in the whole to six……… but shuddered at the prospective calamities which might arise to the passengers and crew……… before Monday night we had moderate weather; and Tuesday the 7th, my birthday, was most splendid, the air serene, cool, and clear. This was a happy commencement of my new year. I thought Heaven smiled upon me………We now ran pleasantly on, with very variable weather, until 24th November, when we had the happiness of seeing land, after having lost it for ninety-nine days. I felt it now my duty to redouble my exertions; and in addition to the services I have previously mentioned, I gave a lecture every evening, on some point of morality, such as Truth, Charity etc. Our hearts were all exultation: we were, however, kept both humble and patient; so that when we had baffling or fight winds, we took it gratefully, as part of all things.
Sunday 30th November, the last Sabbath at sea…….and I trust the service had a beneficial effect. Monday, we arrived (at Port Jackson), to deplore the sin and vileness everywhere manifest around. I preached on board, to the women who were not yet landed”.
The George Hibbert arrived in Port Jackson on 1 December 1834 with the 144 female prisoners being mustered on board on 5th December for the purpose of compiling indents which would include the name, age, religion, education, marital status, family, native place, trade, offence, when and where tried, sentence, prior convictions and physical description. No information was included in the indents as to where the women were to be assigned. According to the Rev. Saunders, the women disembarked on 15th December 1834. Those with children were probably taken by water directly to the Female Factory at Parramatta. Some may have been assigned to family members. Those with relatives already in the colony or about to arrive included Sarah Sharrod from Norfolk whose brother, Edward Sharwood, had arrived 18 months previously.
On the 16th December 1834, Captain G.N. Livesay of the George Hibbert wrote to the owners of the George Hibbert in London.
“I have been very highly favoured in having an excellent Surgeon, and likewise a most excellent and worthy Man who has come over as a Baptist Missionary, Mr. John Saunders; he has proved a very great Acquisition; his kind attentions to the unfortunate Criminals has been unceasing, and many of them I hope will retain the grateful Remembrance of his Kindness to them; some of them who when they came into the ship could neither read nor write have left her well capable of doing both. His wife, a most amiable young woman was also very attentive and kind to them. The whole of them will have to acknowledge to the End of their Days that the George Hibbert has been a comfortable home to them; there were some few very bad spirits among them, but I am happy to say they made a small part of the whole……”
It was John Saunders who wrote to the Colonist in January 1835:
“His Majesty’s Government was pleased to grant myself and wife a free passage in order that I might exercise the ministration of the gospel on board: but such free passage consisted in an allowance to enter on the vessel – the necessary pecuniary arrangements having to be made with the captain. In common with yourself, I deplore the unfortunate circumstances attendant upon the female emigration vessels, and perceived the salutary influence which the regular performance of Divine worship had upon the prisoners on board the George Hibbert. I cannot but hope that government in future will grant free passages (in the full sense of the phrase) to sincere men of every denomination. It is a wise economy in any nation to expend her wealth on the religious advancement of her children. And here, I desire to acknowledge the zealous and efficient co-operation of the surgeon, superintendent and commander, gentlemen to whom not only I, but the members of the Ladies Prison Association in Britain and all friends to the diminution of crime, the reformation of the profane and the amelioration of human misery stand deeply indebted.”
Those who found themselves residing in the Hunter Valley region thereafter were Mary Ann Adams, and Sarah Sharrod……. As early as January 1835 some of the prisoners from the George Hibbert were already in trouble. The Sydney Herald reported:
” The female prisoners who lately arrived on the George Hibbert, seem fully equal to the task of rivalling in bad conduct those renowned damsels who arrived in the Colony a few years ago by the ‘Roslin Castle’ and ‘Lucy Davidson’, and who were so noted at the time for their bad behaviour. Scarce a day passes without a batch from George Hibbert being placed at the bar of the Sydney Police.”
As for our two Norfolk women, it is worth noting their early records for a taste of what they went through:
Mary Ann Adams: A dairymaid from Norfolk age 24. Tried 22 March 1834 and sentenced to transportation for life for man robbery. She was 5ft 1in pale freckled complexion, brown hair, grey eyes. Scar over left eyebrow.
1837, Parramatta Application from Thomas Richardson per Florentia, ticket of leave holder, to marry Mary Ann Adams per George Hibbert
1 June 1842: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. No offence. Returned to government service. Thomas Richardson admitted to the gaol on the same day on suspicion of theft.
7 February 1843: Richardson (Adams), Mary, late of George Hibbert 1834, Admitted to Newcastle gaol. Sentenced to 1 month hard labour for disorderly conduct
25 January 1845: Richardson (Adams) Mary Ann, Wollombi. Obtained Ticket of Leave.
Sarah Sharrod: Maid of All work (Servant). Aged 26 from Norfolk
15 July1835: Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Patrick Plains. Returned to government service. Re-assigned to Rev. Wilton at Newcastle 12 August.
29 December 1835: Newcastle. Assigned to Rev. Wilton. Accused Harrison, Earl, Johnson, Armstrong and Andrews of robbing her while in Church
October 1836. Newcastle. Register Book of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. p. 66. Marriage of Sarah Sharrod aged 31 and Dennis Whythe (White) aged 38. Witnesses Anne and Benjamin Cox of Maitland.
1837.Newcastle. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Age 28. Assigned to the gaol at Newcastle.
27 June 1840 Newcastle Gaol Entrance Book. Sharrod) (Whythe) Sarah Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sentenced to 3rd class female factory. Returned to her husband 24 August 1840.
25 March 1846. Newcastle Gaol Entrance Books. Sharrod (White) Sarah, Laundress from Norfolk. Admitted to Newcastle gaol from Maitland. Sent to Hyde Park Barracks.
27 May 1846. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Ticket of leave cancelled for being a prostitute.
6 November 1850. Sharrod (White) Sarah. Granted conditional pardon.
Thereafter, we lose touch with both the former Mary Ann Adams and Sarah Sharrods, both of whom married and maybe thereafter settled down, having experienced a ‘colourful existence’ during their early years in the colony. One, nowadays, would like to think that both had been victims of the circumstances of the time. A clue to Mary’s true nature may well still lay hidden behind the words she inscribed on that coin which resides in Norwich Castle Museum:
“When you see this, remember me when I am far away”
 Sydney Herald 4 December 1834
 Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry: By Thomas Timpson.
 The Pilot, or Sailors’ magazine – Notes of the Labours of Rev. John Saunders on his Voyage to New South Wales
 The Colonist 15 January 1835
 Sydney Gazette 15 January 1835
 Perth Gazette 21 March 1835
 Sydney Herald 29 February 1836
 Journal of John Tarn. Ancestry.com. UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857 Original data: The National Archives. Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
 Bateson, Charles & Library of Australian History (1983). The Convict Ships, 1787-1868 (Australian ed). Library of Australian History, Sydney : pp.352-53.
 Convict Indents. Ancestry.com. State Archives NSW; Series: NRS 12188; Item: [4/4019]; Microfiche: 693.
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
The Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth was the home-port of HMS Lutine, a 32-gun frigate that had been captured from the French in 1793 and incorporated into the British Fleet. For the rest of 1790’s, she served with the North Sea Fleet and was responsible for keeping an eye on the Dutch coast and the French, ever since they invaded the Netherland in 1795. It was in the springtime 1799 the Britons and Russians began to make preparations for their own invasion of the Netherlands; this was to finally take place in the August. During the planning and implementation stages of this invasion, HMS Lutine was active in the North Sea and at the Waddenzee; her duties at first was to watch the Dutch coast, look out for French ships, and guide friendly ships through the dangerous waters of the Waddenzee and the Zuiderzee. During the invasion and afterwards, her duties also included the ferrying of supplies, troops, messages and instructions to other British ships in the area. The Lutine must have known the area like the back of its hand – you might think!
In late September of 1799, HMS Lutine was again back in Great Yarmouth and lay at anchor waiting, along with her Captain Lancelot Skynner, to receive further orders; normal practice of course. The Captain knew it would be a short respite but, in all honesty, expected the next voyage to be one of helping to relieve the backlog of passengers, mail and supplies that had stacked high as a direct result of the bad weather that had persisted during the summer, placing the British trade with the continent at a standstill. The regular packet boats had failed to arrive in Yarmouth for such a long time. This situation was compounded by the Government’s own blocking policy against some continental ports, leaving Cuxhaven, the only harbour reachable for the British. All this had enormous economic consequences for both the British and the Hanoverian traders who were deprived of profits and caused the Hanover and London Exchanges to close down on several occasions whilst hostilities were in progress. Many Hamburg trade houses were, in fact, threatened with bankruptcy and the Bank of England felt obliged to support the Hamburg trade whilst ensuring that the British troops who were now on Dutch soil were payed. The Bank of Englan decided to send loads of money as a matter of urgency! This decision had a direct influence on the orders that were communicated to HMS Lutine. She would not be transporting troops and provisions, but gold bullion and coinage of considerable value! This also meant that the Lutine would not be pursuing any form of hostile action.
The destination for this valuable cargo was Hamburg, via the port of Cuxhaven, where the Lutine would drop anchor, unload and routinely return to Great Yarmouth to await yet further orders. Compared with the hectic battle-actions during the proceeding months, this voyage was expected to be more like a holiday cruise now that 30 passengers had also been booked on board, despite the Lutine being a ship of war and, supposedly, still required to be on active readiness. Clearly, normal procedure was being dispensed with, and bear in mind that these passengers were not common steerage class; most were, in fact of high standing including, as has been rumoured since, an element of European nobility in the mix. It was this concoction which guaranteed that, once everyone had settled comfortably aboard, spirits would rise and a pleasant party would ensue, safe in the knowledge that they would be cruising in comfort and not likely to be hostages of war.
On the other side of the social class system that existed at the time were those who were expected to work and know their place in the scheme of things. Amongst these were the Yarmouth fishermen who happened to be in close proximity to HMS Lutine and later expressed their surprise of what they had seen aboard and around the ship that night of the 8th of October – a ship of war no less which was fully lit and with an animated party going on in the Captain’s cabin; their view was that it was absolutely unacceptable in times of war. They were also around to witness the final touches being made to loading the Lutine with ‘unidentifiable’ cargo which, unseen to their eyes, would be secured below as best it could, bearing in mind that the gold was apparently stored in flimsy casks bound with weak iron hoops and the silver in casks with wooden hoops.
If common sense prevailed during the planning and loading of this valuable cargo then, surely, it would not have been stowed amidships in the shot lockers, adjacent to the main-cable room, with cannon balls being placed on top for an element of security. Yes, the midship section with its cable-room and shot lockers did occupy a large space, but this was freely open to the crew by reason of the exigencies of service. It would have been difficult to justify the placing of such riches in such an exposed place. On the other hand, the after Magazine of a frigate was a carefully guarded room; so one must assume nowadays that either than compartment, or one of the divisions lying in the same after section of the ship would have been the likeliest place to hold valuables that called for continual surveillance.
In the early hours of the 9th of October 1799 HMS Lutine set sail from Great Yarmouth, taking a north-easterly course to the Northern islands of The Netherlands with the intention of changing course from there in a more easterly direction towards the Elbemouth. During the day the weather began to change for the worst and, in the evening, as the ship approached the Dutch islands, the wind turned into a strong gale that blew from a north-westerly direction. At about 11 PM, in complete darkness, the Lutine sailed under considerable speed on a half-wind course on to the outer banks west of Terschelling. The damage to the ship was considerable and the crew understood immediately that it was lost. The heavy breakers that develop on these banks in stormy weather, particular with Northerly winds, were known to be notorious. In just a few hours the HMS Lutine was totally wrecked, but within this time the crew managed to fire a few cannons and launch emergency rockets. These signals were noticed on the islands but such things were not really a surprise to the population – this was just another shipwreck in a long line of tragedies in the area between Terschelling and Vlieland. As it was, the difficult position of the ship, about 4 miles from the beach, together with the gale made immediate rescue impossible. The inevitable outcome was that all the crewmembers and passengers, totalling 270 souls, were drowned – except for one crewmember. He was found alive the next morning when the wind had eased off and rescue-ships had been able to approach the area of the wreck.
Captain Portlock, commander of the English squadron at Vlieland wrote the Admiralty in London:
”Sir, It is with extreme pain that I have to state to you the melancholy fate of his majesty’s Ship Lutine, which ship ran onto the outer banks of the Fly Island Passage on the night of the 9th. Instant heavy gale of wind from the NNW and I am much afraid the crew except one man, which was saved from the wreck, have perished……This man when taken up was almost exhausted. He is of present tolerably recovered, and relates that the Lutine left Yarmouth Roads on the Morning of the 9th instant, bound to Texel, and she had on board Considerable quantity of Money…..”
Both the media of the day and the official conclusion of the British was that a heavy storm had caused the loss of the ship and, on that basis, Lloyd’s paid out a huge sum of insurance money. The case was closed, however, in the case of HMS Lutine, things were not as simple as they looked.
In 1997, during the planning stage for a 200 year commemoration event on Terschelling and Vlieland the organisers revisited the subject of what really caused the Lutine tragedy; they did this by analysing past records and publications. It soon became evident that the story was far from complete. In fact, the relevant details about the shipwreck itself and the official enquiry that followed were remarkably limited in what was revealed; so much so that suspicions were inevitably raised. These suspicions were followed by the conclusion that the storm alone could not have caused the HMS Lutine to sink. The facts were these: – The ship herself was in a perfect state of maintenance, following a complete overall twelve months previously when even the rigging was renewed. Also, the crew was highly experienced, both in handling of the ship and in the navigation in the coastal waters of the Dutch and German islands. In fact, the area of the North Sea just off the Dutch coast had been a primary patrol-area for HMS Lutine before she became involved in the British and Russian invasion of the Netherlands. A storm such as the one which hit this ship, when sailing half-wind, was certainly not a problem for a large frigate; handling it would have been a routine procedure. The conclusion was that the cause of the accident was human failure.
Interest then fell on what the only survivor had to tell; surely this crown-witness would have been interviewed? But, not even his name could be found in the files. The only item that was found was just a brief note in the Logbook of Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow, the ship where the man was subsequently placed. It stated that the man had recovered with the help of the ships-surgeon and gave some information about the Lutine and her destination. But then the information stops, not even his name was mentioned. The relevant files of the Admiralty archives did indicate that a period of intensive correspondence started directly after the accident, this was between the Admiralty in London, Captain Portlock of HMS Arrow and the commander of the invasion-fleet Vice-Admiral Mitchell who was aboard the HMS Isis. But all their correspondence had been subsequently removed from the archives and no records of any further investigation, such as a court-martial, even existed. It seemed self-evident that the absence of such documents, which may have proved exactly what had happened aboard the Lutine leading up to its sinking, pointed to another cause which the authorities chose to hide? Did the only survivor have had an unpleasant story to tell, and could his account have shown that human error had caused the accident?
However, all was not lost in the 1997 investigation into the possible real cause which led to the sinking of HMS Lutine. A small, but valuable, piece of evidence came to light in the form of a Muster List of the HMS Isis no less; this list had recorded the names of newly arrived crewmembers. It also showed that on the 18th of October, nine days after the wreck of the HMS Lutine, a certain Able Seaman John Rogers, came aboard the Isis where the ships-clerk wrote a small note near his name: “from the Arrow, the late Lutine”. When compared with the last existing Muster List of HMS Lutine, it confirmed that not only had John Rogers sailed on the ship, but that he was also, up to that point, the only survivor of the Lutine’s sinking. Although this man’s legs had been seriously wounded, he had been kept on HMS Isis for an exorbitant length of time. Then, when the invasion-campaign was over and the Isis had returned to British waters, in January 1800, this man was sent to the Hospital ship Spanker. However, after treatment he was still not allowed to go ashore but was placed on HMS Grana, moored near Sheerness. Thereafter he disappeared silently from the records and was never heard of again! Someone, or other, seemed to have kept him out of sight and far away from the media of the day. Was it possible that his story would have embarrass the Admiralty and proved negligence for which they would have been responsible. If that had been the case, Lloyd’s would have refused to pay out the insurance money. Then, there were the drowned passengers! Among them was the group of high-standing civilians and nobility from England, France and Luxembourg. One would think that, had the Admiralty been to blame, the relatives of those drowned would have demanded some degree of satisfaction for their losses.
Immediately after the wreckage salvage actions were organised by the Captains of the nearby moored British warships, the Arrow, Swinger and Pelter. They were not the alone. Dutch fisherman also showed much interest, considering the note in the Logbook of the Swinger on the 11th of October: “Sent the Cutter manned and armed with Lieut. Braddel to the wreck to Prevent the Dutch from Robbing Her”. During the few weeks that the English ships stayed near the islands all kind of objects was salvaged from the wreck, like weapons and food. Remarkably however was that nothing is said about the gold or silver.
What happened next was an exercise in salvage and sophisticated reclamation of assets – or, if you like, wrecking – which still attracts scholars to this day. To think that all this started as soon as the vessel hit the seabed and the bed began to eat her up, piling sand up around her and for the coming decades that remained the pattern – the ship being revealed and reburied, revealed and reburied as the sands moved around her. Several companies and groups have made attempts to salvage the cargo. Some have been lucky and some have failed. They were all after a treasure which some have estimated as being as much as ₤10.000.000. If true, then there must still be a huge fortune at the bottom of the IJzergat.
But what then is the difficulty? In such a place, wind, tide and everlasting currents can play freely with everything. In no time at all following the sinking, the Lutine’s remains had been covered with sand and nothing in the Waddenzee ever keeps its position, so the ship was really lost – for a long long time. Modern archaeological research has showed that, within a few hours after the ship ran aground, the rear part of the hull broke off and drifted away, with wind and currents in south-easterly direction, crossed the Ijzergat channel and ran aground again on the banks on the south side. The attention of the first salvers was directed to the main-section of the ship and so the rear-end of the ship was left alone and forgotten. The fact that all the gold and silver bars and most of the coinage so far recovered have been found buried about the remains of the Lutine’s stern, bearing out the belief that the its treasure had, indeed, been originally housed in the Magazine – or nearby. Maybe, at this very moment, new excavations are under way? If so then those undertaking the most recent salvage will be armed with the knowledge that ‘special‘ cargoes were usually stored in the rear section of these old sailing ships. It should not come as a surprise when some shiny bars eventually surface in the not too distant future. Perhaps then, we will finally witness the end of this story.
FOOTNOTE: Anyone familiar with Lloyd’s of London, the insurance underwriting exchange, may also be familiar with this chap, or more specifically the thing he is ringing:
That is the Lutine Bell, in the Underwriting Room. Traditionally, it was rung to announce the fate of a ship which had been late at its destination port. If the ship had arrived safely, the bell was rung twice; if it was sunk, it was rung once, to immediately stop the sale of any further reinsurance on the downed vessel by unscrupulous insiders. These days, the two rings mean there is a distinguished visitor to Lloyd’s. One ring is used to note events or anniversaries, such as Remembrance Day.
This waterway forms the boundary between the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk for most of its length. Before the county boundary changes of 1974, it formed the boundary along its whole length, but in that year Gorleston and a few other North Suffolk parishes on the Suffolk side of the river were transferred to Norfolk. The Waveney flows into Breydon Water at Burgh Castle and there the river ends; the villages of Belton, Fritton and Blundeston were once in Suffolk and now are in Norfolk. The river Waveney flows past these villages and this is where it ceases to be the county boundary. Like the conurbation of Yarmouth and Gorleston, Thetford is another town that straddles the river, but in that case, it is the Little Ouse so we will not be considering that here.
The river Waveney rises in the Redgrave Marshes, near South Lopham in Norfolk. This is also where the source of the Little Ouse is and the two rivers rise only a matter of metres away from each other. When the glaciers of the last ice age melted a lake formed in this part of East Anglia and the Redgrave Marshes are what remains of this lake.
The river passes the towns of Diss and Harleston, both in Norfolk, before reaching Bungay and Beccles in Suffolk. In the 17th century Geldeston Lock was built between these two towns and keels (later wherries) were then able to take their commercial loads upstream to Bungay. The town flourished with the lock providing access via the river Waveney to the sea. This was supplemented by coming of the railway in 1860 and this took much of the traffic from the river. Geldeston lock closed in 1934 and since then the head of navigation has been at Geldeston Locks Inn. This remote pub gets much of its trade from its proximity to the river Waveney and its motor cruisers. Beccles has a large marina and it is the major inland port on the river Waveney. The town of Lowestoft can be accessed from the river but this requires passage through Oulton Broad.
From Breydon Water you can pass up the river Yare, but another watercourse between the two rivers is the New Cut which was constructed in 1832. Being a canal through marshland it is very straight and so quite dull but there is swing bridge where the railway crosses the New Cut at Haddiscoe. It is near where it joins the river Waveney. This was intended to be a commercial venture, allowing shipping to avoid Yarmouth where the harbour authorities imposed heavy dues. Mutford Lock was built to allow passage from Oulton Broad to Lake Lothing. The New Cut cost over £150,000 to dig. As soon as it was opened Yarmouth reduced its charges and shipping from Norwich took the more direct route to the sea. The New Cut was never a financial success and after it was damaged by the 1953 Flood it was proposed to abandon it. Luckily this did not happen. (My daughter works for the Environment Agency in Flood Control for Norfolk and it is proposed that she is given responsibility for the river Waveney. She is quite enthusiastic about the prospect – as I would be too!) The New Cut is now used far more by holidaymakers than it ever was by commercial shipping.
There is an interesting structure across the river at South Elmham St Mary between Harleston and Bungay. Homersfield Bridge was built of wrought iron, cast iron and concrete in 1869. This makes it one of the oldest concrete bridges in the world. The road bridge was in use for 101 years. It is no longer used by road traffic being replaced by a new bridge in 1970. It was restored by the Norfolk Historic Building Trust in 1990.
The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
Strange how some people keep things to themselves? William Sheward way back in the mid 19th century was like that……..kept things very much to himself. In fact, this William never, ever breathed a word during those eighteen years about murdering his wife!……….He never even thought to mention that, after he had cut her throat, he chopped her up into small pieces!………..and would you believe it – he finally scattered her bits around the streets of Norwich!
All this is true – and we are not the first to have uttered words on the subject…… and we will not be the last. Versions of this tale have gripped the imagination of people for the last 150 years, ever since the court case and the moment the newspapers-of-the-day sensationalised events. This tale is certainly gruesome in its content, and for that reason it comes with a serious ‘Health Warning’, particularly for anyone with a sensitive disposition – don’t even begin to read it!
For everyone else, what follows is based on reports of the case and such other sources as have been unearthed. The end result will be a reminder to those who may have already come across this tale, but have forgotten at least some of the details. For those who are completely unaware of William Sheward, turn the page and read on.
Where it all started:
During the early 1830’s, William Sheward lived east of London towards Greenwich, although he had some connection with Richmond Place Walworth. He was aged 24 years, of small stature and employed either as a pawnbroker’s assistant or a tailor of some unknown description – no one seems to be quite certain; but, employed he certainly was.
Whilst in Walworth he met Martha Francis who was much older than he, she being 38 years of age and said to be ‘small with golden curls’ and having been born and brought up in the small Norfolk town of Wymondham. Martha became Sheward’s housekeeper somewhere near Greenwich and was to marry him in London on the 28th October, 1836. For reasons that have never been explained, neither were settled in the great metropolis and within two years of their wedding, in 1838 to be exact, the two uprooted and returned to Wymondham, lodging with Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn. Work appeared not to be easy to find for William who was a restless type to say the least; some would say that he was also ‘a quiet and inoffensive man’!
Inevitably this meant that he and Martha would move house and job quite frequently. Their first was from Wymondham to Norwich where there were better choices of employment and one would suppose – better prospects. It was said that, on moving to Norwich, Sheward did find a job as a tailor and lived in Ber Street. Certainly in 1842 he appeared to be well settled there – but not for long however. In fact, it was within a short time afterwards that the couple moved to White Lion Street. It was from there that Sheward tried setting up his own tailoring business but, unsurprisingly perhaps, it failed in 1849 and he was declared bankrupt. From the position of insolvency, he went to work for a Norwich pawnbroker by the name of a Mr Christie with whom he was also to deposit a healthy sum of £400; the presumption here must be that he wanted to keep the money out of the hands of his creditors – and Martha, his wife. Later Sheward was to say:
“In November, 1849, I placed a box of money containing £400 in Mr Christie’s possession, for him to take care of it for me. In the year 1850 and to June, 1851, I drew from that box £150, during which time my wife wanted me to bring the box home. Mr Christie asked me if he might make use of the money. My wife seemed determined to fetch the box herself. I knew he (Mr Christie) could not give it to me”
Martha, was none too pleased and the couple’s long-established pattern of rows were set to continue apace; clearly their marriage was an unhappy affair. Money was certainly one aspect of their problems, but not the only one. The age difference between the two of fourteen years, plus, was clearly another, as seen by Sheward’s constant search for love affairs with younger women. There was also his track record in the employment field which was nothing short of abysmal – but on all fronts he kept trying.
Breaking Point – Then it Happened!
Two further house moves followed, first to Richmond Hill, near to the Southgate Church Alley and then to No.7 Tabernacle Street, which used to be at the western end of Bishopsgate – note this address! Even there, the pattern of their quarrelling continued at seemingly ever-increasing pace; be it about money, William’s multifarious dalliances or jobs. Inevitably, everything came to a head at Tabernacle Street and that was on Sunday, 15th June 1851. Martha could not have picked a worst moment to be involved in yet another confrontation with her husband for the circumstances were all wrong – if only she had realised!
The previous day, Saturday 14th, Sheward was preparing to travel to Great Yarmouth; again, in his own words:
“On the 14th June. Mr Christie asked me to go to Yarmouth to pay £1000 to a Captain of a vessel laden with salt, to enable him to unload on the Monday morning. On the Sunday morning, the 15th, I was going to Yarmouth on the above errand. She (his wife) said “You shall not go, I will go to Mr Christie and get the box of money myself and bring it home”.
It was at this point when William Sheward clearly lost it – and Martha was foolish enough to be standing too close to William as he shaved in preparation for his journey to Yarmouth:
“An altercation occurred when I ran the razor into her throat” (some say it was a pair of sissors – either way) “she never spoke after. I then covered an apron over her head and went to Yarmouth. I came home at night and slept on the sofa downstairs.”
By the next Sunday evening, Sheward had cleaned the house and burned all the blood-stained clothes, both his and those worn on the Saturday morning before. On the Monday he went to work as normal, as a pawnbroker’s assistant, but left off at four o’clock and returned home because in his words “the house began to smell”. He lit a fire in the bedroom and commenced to cut up Martha’s body. This went on until “half-past nine when I took some portions and threw them away, arriving home at half-past ten”. This pattern of activity continued throughout the week during when, and in order to prevent the possibility of neighbours picking up on strange odours, he boiled the parts. Through future common consent, these parts would be judged as crudely cut up, hacked and sawed into small pieces; the head, hands and feet being the only ‘difficult’ parts to find their way into a pot which was kept boiling on the open fire until the job was done. Everything thereafter was cooled, placed in a bucket and, over numerous trips over several days, Martha’s bits were distributed around the streets of Norwich.
The discovery of the first of Martha’s body parts was on the following Saturday, 21 June 1851. Charles Johnson, a thirty-four-year-old wood-dealer and son of a church minister, was walking his dog from Trowse to Lakenham when his dog picked up what he thought was a bone or a piece of carrion on Martineau Lane. On closer inspection back home he saw that it was part of a hand with two fingers clenched over a thumb. Some 200 yards from the spot where the hand was discovered a foot was picked up. Both items found their way to the Police and a further ‘random’ search of the area took place. Back in those days there was no thought of ‘securing the area’ and carrying out a systematic search. The following day, Thomas Dent and his dog came across a piece of pelvis further down the same lane. More body pieces were found over the next five days, including a fibula in a field near Hellesdon Road by a Samuel Moore and a few pieces of flesh by PC John Flaxman. More were found in the same area by a Mr Carter and Mr Cory, also in a field along what is now Heigham Road and at Alder Carr at Trowse Eye, Bull Close and even as close as 300 yards from No7 Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived. When further body parts turned up at places that had already been covered, it was clear that the killer was still making his deliveries around the City!
A John Sales was employed in clearing out the three open sewers, called ‘Cockeys’, in Bishopsgate, which is a continuation of Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived in an area named St Martins-at-Palace in Norwich. A ‘cockey’, by way of explanation, is Norfolk colloquialism for a stream over which (in this case) would have been a large iron grate and provision below for a sink. It was in one of the three sinks along Bishopsgate where John Sales discovered blood and deposits. Mr Charles Walter Sales, senior, “a scavenger of Norwich” helped his son to load the contents on to his cart and deposited the same in Bull Close where, refuse was thrown. Next day Constable John Sturges inspected the waste soil and found yet more bits and pieces, principally a woman’s breast and entrails; he took them away. Back at the station, it was Police Sergeant Edward Peck’s grim task to construct his own jigsaw by trying to put together as many of the discovered parts as was possible.
The search for further remains was continued after the 26th June 1851 when a piece of skin and muscle was discovered on Saturday, 28th, followed by some intestines on the 29th and a hard substance thought to be a thigh-bone and part of a female breast on Monday, 30th. The last discovery was made on Wednesday the 2nd July 1851 when some bones were found. Later, three surgeons examined the remains and seemed to have got everything correct, such as sex and that the perpetrator was neither a surgeon nor butcher. However they did not, at that stage at least, get the age right, opining that the female was between 16 and 26 years. This information was included on a poster issued to the public:
Whilst the inevitable few applications were received about females missing, they were all influenced by the mis-information from the medical profession of an age between 16 and 26 years. No one thought that they would be so far out in their estimations – poor Martha was 54 years of age! On top of all this, a great many theories were expressed in an attempt to explain the macabre discoveries, and the Press created further confusion by making sensational mis-statements in their newspapers. The Times and the local Norwich Mercury did their utmost to sensationalise everything and even ‘pointed the finger’ (please excuse the pun!) at medical students for playing pranks. The medical authorities rose to the bait all too easily and complained bitterly to the newspapers about ‘bringing the medical profession into disrepute’.
Inquiries got nowhere and no one linked Mrs Sheward’s unexpected disappearance with the horrific finds. William Sheward said that his wife had ran off to New Zealand to find a former lover and his plausible story was believed because the couple’s rows were well known amongst their few friends, coupled with the knowledge that apparently, according some unconfirmed comments, Martha too had quite a chequered past – one would suppose that murder was not included! There were also two other more important reasons why nothing was suspected. The police did not link the body parts with Mrs. Sheward, the head was never recovered and the police had no idea that Mrs. Sheward had been murdered.
The year of 1851 continued on its inevitable way – beyond the murder, the continued enquiries, and the Press speculation. To say that Sheward was calm during this time must have been wrong. Being the sort of person he was, as taken from descriptions, other people’s opinions and his own behaviour, he would have been on an extreme edge. Not least when his brother-in-law wanted to tell Martha about an inheritance, but Sheward abruptly brushed him off. Also when Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn, died in November 1851, Sheward refused to attend the funeral, adding that ‘he was sure Martha couldn’t either’. Sometime later, he moved out of No 7 Tabernacle Street (now the western end of Bishopsgate) and rented three unfurnished rooms from a John Bird in St Georges, Middle-Street, but within 12 months was thrown out when he was caught with more than one woman in his rooms. One of these women was to become the second Mrs Sheward a few years later. But, for the moment and from the pavement of his former lodgings in St Georges, William Sheward temporarily moved to the Shakespeare Tavern further along St Georges before finding another set of rented rooms in Lower King Street (St Peter Permountergate). It was from here where he carried on in business as a pawnbroker, lending money on goods and plate. It was while he was living in this neighbourhood that Sheward’s drinking was first observed.
Sheward’s restlessness, together with whatever misguided aspirations he may have held, meant that he was destined never to be successful in business. A bankruptcy notice in The Jurist of 4 June 1853 described him as ‘a pawnbroker of Norwich’. True to character, it would seem, Sheward took increased solace in drink and in his quest to cultivate a string of lady friends around Norwich, while keeping up his relationship with the girl found in his previous rooms in John Bird’s house in St Georges. Her name was Charlotte Maria Buck with whom he eventually lived and sired two children, one in 1856 and the other in 1859. It was not until the 13th February 1862 that William Sheward eventually married Charlotte at the Norwich Registry Office in King Street. From then on Charlotte witnessed first-hand Sheward’s journey further downhill, not just with his heavy drinking but also his tendency to talk in his sleep – but, apparently, never to reveal the time in 1851 when he had disposed of his first wife.
Sheward also aged prematurely following his second marriage and began to show early signs of rheumatism and of becoming increasingly consumed with guilt. Almost 18 years passed, during which time Sheward said absolutely nothing then, in 1868, he changed his employment to become the landlord of the Key and Castle tavern at 105 Oak Street, Norwich where he also lived with his family – but not for long however. Over the Christmas of 1868 and towards the New Year Sheward’s depression became so bad that he said he needed to go to London to see his sister; Charlotte thought that would cheer him up. But, then he wrote to her to say that he was ‘in trouble of which you will soon learn’
The Beginning of the End:
On the 1st January 1869 Sheward, apparently the worst for drink, went to Walworth Police Station to confess to the murder and disappearance of Martha Sheward in 1851. He was met by Inspector Davis to whom he said “I want to speak to you; I have a charge to make against myself……It is for the wilful murder of my first wife at Norwich”. When asked if he had given due consideration to the very serious nature of the charge, Sheward added. “I have…. I have kept it for years, but can keep it no longer. I left home on the 29th December intending to destroy my life with the razor I have in my pocket.” He further explained, as he handed the razor to Inspector Davis, that he had intended to commit suicide at the Steamboat, near Chelsea; but, ‘the Almighty would not let me do it’. At that point Sheward broke down sobbing and continued to speak in broken sentences at the end of which he said that the Inspector could take his charge in writing. Inspector Davis noted that Sheward was ‘quite sober‘ as he dictated his confession which he willingly signed before being placed in a cell for the night.
“I, William Sheward of Norwich, charge myself with the wilful murder of my first wife. (Signed) W.S.”
The following morning Sheward said that he stood by his statement, then confirmed that he had killed his wife on the 15th June 1851, then cut up her body – parts of which was still preserved with spirits of wine and stored at the Guildhall, in Norwich. When asked where the body parts had been found, Sheward pleaded:
‘Oh, don’t say any more; it is too horrible to talk about’……I went last night to a house in Richmond Place (Street), Walworth, where I first saw my first wife; that brought it so forcibly to my mind that I was obliged to come to you and give myself up……. they know all about it at Norwich”.
Two days later, Sheward tried to retract his confession but most of the detail submitted seemed to tally with facts obtained from Norwich and he was remanded in custody and placed in Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.
Then on 7 January 1869, the London magistrates decided to return Sheward to Norwich to face trial. The prisoner and escort party travelled by train and were met at Thorpe Station by a large crown. There Sheward was transferred to a shuttered cab and taken to give a deposition to the magistrates at the City’s Guildhall. After following advice to reserve his defence, he was further charged with murder and committed to the Assizes. Between then and his trial, the police had the difficult task of gathering all the available evidence together. Forensic and medical methods were far more limited than they are today and, because of the time span, many witnesses had either died or had forgotten the circumstances. The police even ripped up the floorboards of No.7 Tabernacle Street but found nothing, and had to pay the owners £3 compensation for the privilege.
Between the 13th and 26th January 1869, Sheward was re-examined by the magistrates followed by his indictment for murder at the Assizes on the 29 March – the day when Martha would have been 72 years of age had she lived and kept herself together! Understandably, the history and publicity surrounding this case ensured that the Court was packed with spectators. It was said at the time that many seemed surprised that such a little old man, crippled with rheumatism, would be capable of committing such a horrible crime. When proceedings began, there were no shortage of tales from witnesses who remembered that they had found bits of flesh and bone; that Martha was controlled by her husband and secluded from the rest of the extended family; and when she vanished he was 39 and she was 54 ‘he being in the prime of life and in the zenith of his passions, she past the heyday of life and passion’. At the end of a two-day trial, it took just one hour and 15 minutes for the Jury to find Sheward Guilty! – to which he responded ‘I have nothing to say’. Following the pronouncement of the death sentence, Sheward was taken to Norwich City Gaol where he spent his remaining days in the infirmary because of his rheumatism in both ankles, there he composed his final confession. On 19th April he saw Charlotte for the last time, prompting him to write a letter to her and their children, asking for forgiveness and apologising for ‘drawing you into all this trouble and affliction’.
His was the first ‘private’ execution in Norwich, to be held behind prison walls and with no members of the public present except for members of the Press. The stipulated execution date was 20th April 1869 when Sheward prayed with Reverend R Wade for an hour before being carried, in fear and agonising rheumatic pain, by Chief Warder Hall and Warder Base to an anti-room to be pinioned by the executioner, William Calcraft. The execution party then continued on to the scaffold where the Executioner carried out his duties – the way he normally carried them out. Calcraft was known for his ‘short drops’ which normally resulted in the majority of his ‘clients’ strangling to death rather than having their necks broken. That day, the Press reported that ‘his struggles were slight and brief’ so, maybe, Calcraft had measured out a little longer rope and Sheward’s neck snapped cleanly. Outside the Prison gates the crowd of 2,000 were there to see the black flag raised, signalling that the execution was done.
William Sheward dropped from life to follow his wife, Martha Sheward into history. One could imagine the impossibility of the two ever being reconciled since she left this earth ‘in little pieces and all over Norwich’ and, without a head! William would never have recognised her. In any case, it is unlikely that he would have said anything!