Meet John ‘Jack’ Slack, alias the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, alias the ‘Knight of the Cleaver’; a bare knuckle fighter, who was the champion of what is thought to be the first international Heavyweight fight which took place in 1754.
Jack Slack was said to have been born in Thorpe, Norwich, Norfolk, in 1721, where he ran a butchers shop (hence his nickname), Slack was reputedly the grandson of another famous fighter, James Figg, the first English bare knuckle boxing champion.
A contemporary description of Slack says that he was five foot eight inches and a half in height and weighed almost fourteen stone. His physique was ‘compact . . . superior to the generality of men in strength and of excellent bottom.’ He changed his style of fighting to suit his opponent and often came out the victor, punching his opponents with such force that the term ‘a slack’un’ came into general use, meaning a ‘smashing hit.’ In 1743 Slack became the Champion of Norfolk after defeating three local men in boxing matches and by 1748 his renown was such that he sold on his butchery business to his brother and moved to London where his reputation as a fighter continued to grow.
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, Slack threw down a challenge to the formerly invincible Jack Broughton (a man some years older than he and known as the ‘Father of Boxing’ who had been taught by Slack’s grandfather, James Figg). Slack, who possessed a talent for getting under other fighters’ skins had, according to the Derby Mercury of 6 April 1750, instigated a dispute with Broughton earlier in the month, during a controversial election campaign in Brentford, which was dogged by allegations of corruption. For reasons unknown, this altercation about the election had resulted in “personal abuse” being exchanged between the two pugilists.
Subsequently, so the Mercury claimed, during a bout at the amphitheatre, Slack “came upon the stage” and “offered to fight Mr Broughton immediately for 20 guineas”. Broughton declined the offer, arguing that he was “not immediately prepared” whereas Slack had been “in keeping some months”. However Broughton did agree to a contest the following month, and a bout was duly arranged for 11 April 1750. In fact, Broughton was eager for the fight – or for the money to be derived from it! He regarded Slack with the utmost contempt and made no sort of preparation; also, so afraid was he that the ‘butcher’ might not turn up at the last minute that he gave him ten guineas to make sure of him! The betting was 10-1 on Broughton when the men appeared in the ring. After all, as boxing went in those days, he did know something about defence, and he was master of two famous blows, one for the body and one under the ear, which were said to terrify his opponents. As for Slack, there was nothing elegant about him. His attitude was said to be ugly and awkward, he was strong and healthy but quite untrained in the true meaning of the word. Standing only 5 feet 8 inches he still weighed as much as 14 stone, nearly as much as his antagonist, who was a taller man.
The match duly taking place on the 11th April 1750, backed by one of Broughton’s patrons, the Duke of Cumberland – he himself to be known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising). This Duke was so enthusiastic at the prospect earning a considerable sum of money for this fight that, it was said, he bet 1,000 guineas on Broughton.
The match lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, a blow from Slack between the eyes blinded Broughton, and Slack had only to continue hitting him until he was unable to rise again. Slack, it seems, easily emerged as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself not less than 600 guineas. As for the Duke of Cumberland; well, he was quite upset by the loss of his money. At first he told everyone that he had been “sold,” though later on he appeared to have forgiven Broughton and pensioned him. But not so! He went to Parliament, where he was very influential, and had legislation passed that closed Broughton’s Amphitheatre. Thereafter, and to the end of his days, “he could never speak of this contest with any degree of temper.” As for Broughton, he never again raised his fists for money, except to instruct the young and hopeful with the mufflers. When he died, on 8 January 1789, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only boxer to be so honoured.
Four years later, on the 29th July 1754, Slack was back in his home county of Norfolk, challenging the Frenchman Monsieur Jean Petit (or Pettit) to a match. Pettit was a muscular giant of a man, reputed to have previously exhibited himself in a circus as a ‘strong man.’ This boxing match took place at Harleston. A letter reporting the fight appeared in the newspapers just days later. This one is taken from the London Evening Post and dated 3rd August 1754.
Extract of a Letter from Harleston in Norfolk, July 30.
‘Yesterday in the Afternoon Slack and Pettit met and fought. At the first Set-to, Pettit seized Slack by the Throat, and held him up against the Rails, and grain’d him so much as to make him turn extremely black. This continued for Half a Minute before Slack could break Pettit’s Hold; after which, for near ten Minutes, Pettit kept fighting and driving hard at Slack; when at length Slack clos’d with his Antagonist, and gave him a very severe Fall; after that, a second and third. But between these Falls, Pettit threw Slack twice off the Stage; and indeed, Pettit so much dreaded Slack’s Falls, that he ran directly at his Hams, and tumbled him down; and by that Means gave Slack an Opportunity of making the Falls very easy.
When they had been fighting eighteen Minutes, the Odds ran against Slack a Guinea to a Shilling; whereas, on first setting out, it was three or four to one on his Head. But after this Time Slack shorten’d Pettit so, as to disable him from running and throwing him down in the Manner he had done before, but obliged him to stand close fighting. Slack then closed one of his Eyes, and beat him very much about the Face. At twenty Minutes Pettit grew weaker, Slack stronger; this was occasion’d by Slack’s strait Way of fighting. At twenty-two Minutes, the best Judges allow’d Slack to have the Advantage over Pettit very considerably, as he was then recovering his Wind, which was owing to Game.
When they had boxed twenty-four Minutes, Pettit threw Slack again over the rails; this indeed Slack suffer’d him to do, as by that Means he fix’d a Blow under Pettit’s Ribs, that hurt him much; whilst Slack was again getting upon the Stage (it was not Half a Minute before he was remounted) Pettit had so much the Fear of his Antagonist before his Eyes, that he walked off without so much as civilly taking Leave of the Spectators, or saying any Thing to any Person, this the Cockers call Roguing of it; for it is generally thought that Pettit ran away full strong. The whole Time of their fighting was twenty-five Minutes, and this Morning the Battle was given to Slack, who drew the first Ten Guineas out of the Box. Thus ended this dreadful Combat. The Box was Sixty-six Pounds Ten Shillings’.
Although sometimes mentioned as a ‘dirty fighter’, victories continued for Jack Slack until 1760 when he finally lost to Bill Stevens (the Nailer) at a bout on a stage erected for the purpose of the fight in the Tennis Court, James Street, London on the 17th June 1760. The Duke of Cumberland, who ten years previously had been the patron of Broughton, found that he really did miss the sport despite the money that that earlier fight had cost him. This time he backed Jack Slack, by not only arranging for the bout to be held in London, with no interference from the law, but also placing a bet on him. However, this time the sum was 100 Guineas, but at least it showed that his heart was still in the game. Unfortunately, the Duke was again on the losing side on three counts; Slack lost the championship, the Duke lost his 100 guineas together with any further interest in boxing.
Feature Photo (Above): – “The Bruiser Bruisd; Or, The Knowing Ones Taken-in” is by an unknown artist in 1750. It depicts the boxing match between Jack Slack and John Broughton in the same year. Newspapers at the time noted how Broughton feared that Slack would not turn up to fight, and so offered him ten guineas ‘not to break his engagement’. It was also said that Broughton was the superior boxer at the beginning of the fight and that the odds were ten to one in his favour. However, confidence was short-lived as Slack ‘put in a desperate hit between Broughton’s eyes, which immediately closed them up’. The blood pouring from the left eye of Broughton is indicative of this wound and the faces of the audience reflect the disbelief that the British Champion had been beaten by Slack in just fourteen minutes. This unlikely result sparked rumours that the match had been fixed, although there does not appear to have been any evidence to confirm this. The spectator depicted directly behind Broughton in a state of disbelief is possibly the Duke of Cumberland, Broughton’s patron who ‘lost several thousand’ on a bet. The Gentleman on both sides of the gallery are pictured giving money to men by their sides, having lost their bets too. The Title implies that the ‘knowing’ spectators were ‘taken in’ by Broughton, however an attempt to incriminate Broughton by emphasising his larger frame in comparison to Slack, is overshadowed by the emphasis placed generally on the exchange of money. Money is presented as underpinning the sport; inviting the viewer to question the honesty of professional boxing. It is possible that the prospect of profiting was an incentive for boxers and patrons to conspire and fool others.
Slack, after this, mostly retired from boxing himself and instead concentrated on his butchery trade. Many sources say he possibly opened a shop on London’s Chandos Street in Covent Garden (he had appeared in the rate books for this street in 1750), but at the time of his fight with the Nailer in 1760, he was reported in the newspapers to be settled at Bristol. He still kept his hand in by training other fighters, possibly running a boxing school in Bristol (he was rumoured to occasionally fix fights for his protégées), and just occasionally was mentioned as fighting himself.
The London Chronicle newspaper, on the 5th January 1765, reported that:
“Slack, the famous Boxer, who has been for some time in Dublin, is under an engagement to fight one Weyburn, a noted bruiser there, for a considerable sum”.
Three years and six months after this fight John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
Jack Slack was still remembered some years after his death, the St. James’s Chronicle reporting on the 11th September 1781, and placing him alongside some very noteworthy personalities:
“Some Years ago the three most remarkable Personages of the Age were Kitty Fisher, Lord B__te, and Slack, the Bruiser. At the present Day, says a Correspondent, the three most remarkable Personages are, the Perdita, Doctor Adelphi, and Sir Jeffery Dunstan”.
Mentioned in the Domesday Book of AD 1080, Wolterton (near Calthorpe and Itteringham) was listed as both Ultertuna and Wivetuna, having 4 smallholders on the land with ½ a plough team on 16 acres. Land valued at 16 shillings (80p) was also held by the Abbot of St. Benedict at Holme before 1066 but at the survey it was valued at 20 shillings (£1). The main landholder was the Norman nobelman, William de Warenne. Always a small village, Wolterton’s Lay Subsidy records for 1332 and 1334 indicate it was well below average in size. The parish was subsequently consolidated with Wickmere.
In 1725, the estate was purchased by the first Baron Walpole. The original Hall burnt down and was rebuilt by Horatio Walpole (second Baron), who employed the Yorkshire-born architect Thomas Ripley and work began on the red-brick house in 1727. The interior featured state rooms containing Gobelins tapestries while the surrounding 150-acre parkland within the 500-acre private estate was landscaped to include a lake and avenue of oak and beech trees.
During the 1700’s, it became ‘fashionable’ for Lords of the Manor to remove any property on their estates, which they either considered an eyesore or which spoilt their view. Known as Emparkment, this ‘option’ was exercised on estates nationwide including Felbrigg, Holkham and Houghton amongst others in Norfolk. A similar fate also affected Wolterton which also gradually became abandoned, leaving only the church tower, north of the Hall. A local map of 1733 shows the deserted settlement lying slightly north of the church. This had previously contained several houses clustered around a village green. The remaining Wolterton inhabitants – located near St Margaret’s church – were removed as part of the redesigning programme. Their settlement was located around a rectangular green where today, a visible hollow way still remains. Field walkers and metal detectorists have discovered medieval and post-medieval pottery, coins and metalwork on the site.
Wolterton’s “demise” seems to have begun in 1722, when Horatio Walpole started buying land in the parish and began planning a new mansion, surrounded by an ornamental park. Neither church, village nor Tudor Manor-House (which burnt down in 1724 and remains demolished), were included in the new scheme. It then seems rapid progress followed within a decade for in 1737, the Rev. George England arrived in Wolterton, to become its last ever priest. Consolidation of the parish with nearby Wickmere soon followed the same year, before Wolterton’s last church marriage was held in 1740. Between 1742-46, cottages were demolished (except for the parsonage) and dispersed away from the church. The last recorded burial was in 1747 and the final baptism, in 1765. Records also indicate that by the mid 1700’s, the church aisle, porch and vestry had already been demolished and in 1797, a local contractor (William Ward) was paid to demolish both the nave and chancel, leaving almost nothing.
By 1741, Wolterton Hall was being rebuilt by Horatio Walpole whose brother Sir Robert Walpole – then Britain’s first Prime Minister – was simultaneously building Houghton Hall. It’s also likely that Horatio removed much of the church stonework after St.Margaret’s had faithfully served local men and women of centuries past. But the last churchyard burials coincided with construction of the new estate, although records suggest some services were still held at Wolterton for a short time after Consolidation. The churches and buildings historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed the living was consolidated with Wickmere in 1737, hence construction of the Hall involved moving a village that was in the way. More houses were demolished with only the tower left as a ‘view’ from the house.
Since St Margaret’s demise, Walpole family members have been interred in a vault at St Andrew’s Church, in nearby Wickmere. So today, Wolterton’s medieval church of St Margaret’s is just a ruin with only its late Saxon round tower – refaced in brick during the 14th century – remaining. Made of knapped flint with brick and stone dressings, it became a Grade II listed building on 4th October 1960 and interestingly, the official Listing Schedule places the building in Wickmere, Norwich, NR11. William Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk marked it as a ruin. It’s tempting to think rubble from the church plus its foundations might still lie under remaining mounds. Archaeologically, they remain unexcavated but are protected, as an Ancient Monument.
In the 1830’s, the lake was enhanced by adding an island planted with cedar trees. The present Hall and estate had once been occupied by an earlier Manor House, owned by Sir Henry Spelman (1562 – 1641), born in Congham near Kings Lynn. He was an Englsh antiquarian, noted for detailed collections of medieval records, particularly of church councils. Whites Directory of Norfolk (1845) records Wolterton only had 43 souls.
It seems likely that some church contents still live on, after being moved to Wickmere which today, has a huge ‘Armada’ Chest and painted panel, attached to its pulpit. The font seems to have moved to Mannington Church. Two bells were still in Wolterton’s Tower in 1807 (says the Church Terrier). The Latin inscription on one bell – (‘Robert Plummer made me in honour of St Margaret’) – suggests it was of pre-Reformation date.
Former public lanes in the original parish were moved beyond its boundaries leaving the tower in isolation. Wolterton Park and gardens were laid out in grand manner around 1730, from plans made by the King’s Garden Designer and Royal Gardener, Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738). After Horatio Walpole became a Baron in 1756 the grounds were extended to form a North Park, where the tower still remains, its ruin retained as a romantic ‘eye-catcher’ in the landscape as was then fashionable. This may have preserved it from random demolition for its materials.
Remains of the churchyard were cleared in the early 1800s and the tombstones sold off in Norwich by Lord Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1752-1822) including the Scamler memorials. Local folklore however, tells us that the coffins of later Earls were firstly driven several times around the churchyard before being conveyed for burial in the family vault in Wickmere Church. This was to placate the disturbed spirits of the departed!!
The best ghost stories are often discovered by chance. So it was with a certain anonymous Catholic priest in Yorkshire who, in early 2014, happened to come across an old journal. In that journal was a reprint of a story, dated 1736 and titled ‘A Strange Occurrence’. That story, later retold in the book ‘Recollections of Norwich 50 Years Ago’, was written by a Frederick Higbane who, in 1736, had visited Norwich from London and had encountered a ‘ghost’ of a martyred priest at Norwich Cathedral’s mighty Erpingham Gate. It is indeed a curious tale and begins:
“Business chanced to take me many years ago to the ancient city of Norwich where I stayed at a very old Inn, situated in a street called, if my memory serves me right, Maudlin (Magdalen) Street. The room I occupied was a very old-fashioned one. Over the fireplace was a portrait, painted on the wall itself, of a very pale man with black hair, dressed in some sort of ecclesiastical garb and bearing the look of a Jesuit or Romish priest……There was something about this picture that affected me very strongly……Next morning I asked the landlord whose portrait it might be, and he could not enlighten me…..” In the evening the author, Frederick Higbane, then took a walk around Norwich Cathedral:
“I was walking near one of the great gates, which led to the Cathedral, when I suddenly observed a man clothed like a clergyman standing in the angle of a wall directly in front of me. Owing to the dusk I could not see him well until I was close up against him. Then I saw him perfectly clearly, and to my horror his face was terribly swelled, and a rope was drawn tight around his neck. Protruding from his breast was a knife, such as formerly used by executioners for dismembering the bodies of criminals. I could not think why his facial appearance seemed so familiar to me, and then there suddenly flashed across my mind – yes, the portrait in my bedchamber at the inn. For some moments I gazed with the utmost horror, not unmixed with fear, at this awful sight. For a while the figure spoke no words, then I heard a mournful sigh – or was it a groan? Then, as I withdrew, the figure vanished”.
Returning to the inn, believed to be The Maid’s Head which is very close to the Cathedral and Erpingham Gate, Frederick Higbane took another look at the portrait to reassure himself that the vision he had seen was the same man. Then, taking the evidence of the portrait, Higbane further enquired of the landlord if there was a Catholic priest in Norwich and he was directed to a priest in the city.
“To him, therefore I went…….. telling him my strange adventure, he took me into his house and showed me a portrait of the same man. On my inquiring who it might be, he replied “It is the Rev. Thomas Tunstall, a priest, who was executed for the Catholic Faith in 1616 at the gates of the very street in which your inn is situated.” “Why I should have apparently seen his apparition, neither he nor I could form any idea.”
Thomas Tunstall took the College oath at Douay on 24 May 1607 and received minor orders at Arras on 13 June 1609, and the subdiaconate at Douay on 24 June following. His subsequent ordination is not recorded but he left college as a priest on 17 August 1610. What ever he got up to from that date and when he moved to England is something of a mystery, but whatever it was came to the notice of the authorities and he was almost immediately arrested after landing on grounds of his faith. He spent four or five years in various prisons until he succeeded in escaping from Wisbech Castle by rope. However, he sustained injuries to his hands in the process and sought medical help from Lady Alice L’Estrange in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. Unfortunately, her husband, Sir Hamon, reported him to the authorities and he was recaptured and committed to Norwich Gaol.
At the next assizes in July 1616, he was tried and condemned on the 12th of that month. The following day, Thomas Tunstall was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body displayed at various points in the city before being taken down by Catholics and later placed in an altar at Bath. A contemporary report recounts:
“The on lookers, who were very numerous, and amongst them many persons of note, were all sensibly affected with the sight of his death; many shed tears, all spoke kindly and compassionately of him, and appeared edified with his saint-like behaviour. His head was placed on St Benedict’s gate, in Norwich, according to his request; his quarters on the walls of the city. The judge who condemned him died before he had finished his circuit, and most of the jury came to untimely ends, or great misfortunes.”
Now, there is a contemporary portrait of Fr Thomas Tunstall, the martyr, at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. It is not known if this painting is the same one as that which hung in Frederick Higbane’s room in the inn on Maudlin (Magdalene) Street, Norwich in 1736, but, as far as it is known, there are no other images of this martyr. Stonyhurst acquired the portrait in 1828. It is small; approximately 5 inches by 4 inches and is enclosed by a wooden frame. The image shows him as a man still young with abundant black hair and dark moustache. However, it is unlike most paintings of English martyrs which usually show them robed. This portrait presents Tunstall in just his shirt. All these facets do, indeed, indicate a contemporary, if not eye-witness representation of the Martyr – as he may have been at the execution?
Thomas Tunstall was martyred just outside the Erpingham Gate in 1616 and was beatified by Puis XI in 1929.
Old Luke Hansard was born on July 5th, 1752, in Norwich in the day of Wenman Coke. Today in 1952 was when the Spectator Newspaper celebrated Luke’s bicentenary birthday with an article, from the pen (and it probably was a pen in 1952) of Evelyn King. This year of 2018 marks Luke Hansard’s 266th birthday and its seems appropriate and timely to reproduce Evelyn’s contribution whilst taking the liberty to supplement the content with further detail.
Luke Hansard was born in 1752 in the parish of St Mary Coslany; his parents were Thomas and Sarah. In an account of his life, written in 1817 for the benefit of his sons, Luke described his father, Thomas, as a manufacturer, though of what was not revealed. His mother, Sarah, was a clergyman’s daughter from Spilsby in Lincolnshire, but at the time of Luke’s birth, the family fortunes had reached a low ebb and were never to recover.
Little has been said about Luke’s education, except that he was educated in Norwich and at the Free Grammar School in the village of Kirton which lies about four miles south of Boston in Lincolnshire. As someone once said, ‘he got a little but not much education in Lincolnshire’. It was as he approached his fourteenth birthday when his parents thought of apprenticing him to an apothecary, but his ‘gallipot’ Latin was inadequate; so he became apprentice to Stephen White in Cockey Lane, Norwich. Mr White was a printer, medicine-vendor, boat-builder, ballad-writer, general artist and a dab-hand at playing the violin. Young Luke was to describe his master as an “eccentric genius”, who was “very rarely in the office” ……….Personal instruction in the art of printing was given sparingly by White. He would, for instance, begin to set a line of type and then say, “So go on Luke boy,” and leave Luke to finish. However, within a few months, Luke had mastered every aspect of the printing trade. During this time, young Luke boarded with the proprietor, sleeping in the corner of the shop whilst another of Mr. White’s pastimes, his pigeons, occupied the opposite corner. Then, in 1769, his father died aged only 42; in the same year Luke’s apprenticeship came to an end and by the summer he had packed his bags and gone to London, with a downright manner, a Norwich burr, and with only a guinea in his pocket. After 10 weeks he found work as a compositor with the firm of John Hughes in Great Turnstile, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Much later, when he was Old Luke, he would enrich the English tongue with his surname—Hansard.
That was Young Luke as he once was, first an apprentice then later as proprietor of the firm of John Hughes, Printer to the House of Commons. But Old Luke only printed the journals, and those by order. Old Luke was a Tory to the bone, and his pride lay in the carrying out of an order punctually and exactly. He earned the appreciation and respect of Pitt and the intimacy of successive Speakers —Addington, Mitford, Abbott and Sutton—as well as the affection of Members of succeeding generations. His was the grain-of-oak candour which earns affection and respect. All literary London knew Hansard the printer. He was an intimate ‘of Charles Dilly and Edmund Burke. He published for Dr. Johnson and Richard Porson, and also for the prolific Dr. Hill. (” His farces are physic and his physic a ‘farce is,” wrote Garrick of Dr. Hill).
In 1771, John Hughs died and was succeeded by his son Henry with William Day as partner and manager, but as the workload increased both on the parliamentary and general side – Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke were among their literary customers – Hughs and Day realised that another part-ner was needed to supervise the operative section. In 1774 they offered 22 year-old Luke a partnership. With his future now secure, Luke’s thoughts turned to marriage. On 21 July 1775, he married Elizabeth Curson from Swanton Morley in Norfolk at St John’s Church, Clerkenwell. Their marriage was to last for 50 years and produce five children: Thomas Curson (1776), Elizabeth Susanna (1779), James (1781), Luke Graves (1783) and Hannah Mary (1785). Henry Hughs certainly admired the skills and character of Luke, his junior partner. He involved Luke more and more in the general running of the business until Hansard the printer became well known in the London literary circle and in the corridors of Parliament where he was becoming a familiar figure. In 1800 at the age of 43 Luke became sole proprietor of the firm. Henry Hughs had retired and William Day had been dead for six years. Thomas Curson, James and Luke Graves had followed their father into the business and the new century saw Luke Hansard and Sons as printers to the House.
However, it was Old Luke’s son, Thomas Curzon Hansard, who was a problem – he was a ‘fly-by-night’. He, at a very early age, wanted to enact the gentleman. He wanted to be in business on his own account, which was bad; he was a Radical which was even worse, and he was a friend of William Cobbett, which brought him to prison. He had printed Cobbett’s flaming condemnation of an administration which allowed German mercenaries to be used to compel British soldiers in Ely to submit to 500 lashes for mutiny, and he shared with Cobbett the trial and punishment with which that “seditious libel” was rewarded. Yet it was Thomas who published in his maturity that massive work Typographia and became, within his own province, the foremost scholar of his day. But he was not immortalised for his scholarship. He was immortalised because, in a little magazine of small circulation and dubious legality, which ran at a loss, he published, from a site on which now stand the offices of the Daily Telegraph, the Debates of the day—an offence for which more than one of his predecessors had been reprimanded on their knees.
It was in 1732 that Cave had started his reports in his Gentleman’s Magazine, and from 1740 Dr. Johnson had written them, though his rounded essays had in them little enough of the speech he purported to report. There had been many other efforts, but in the end it was Cobbett’s, later Hansard’s Parliamentary, Debates, which caught and held the attention of the public. It was not until 1855 that Cornwallis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, a learned and dull man, plunged rashly and ordered the Controller of the Stationery Office to subscribe for a hundred annual sets of Parliamentary debates to be circulated in Government Departments in Whitehall, London and throughout the Colonies.
Appetite grew by what it was fed on, and in three years the order rose to 120 sets at five guineas each. This meant decorous enthusiasm at 12, Paternoster Row, and well over £600 a year for the second Thomas Curzon Hansard. But Old Luke’s other more favoured son, and successor, Luke Graves, came within an ace of prison too; a shattering thought to that tower of rectitude. In avoiding it he was instrumental in establishing a constitutional principle of vital consequence to our liberties. William Crawford and the Reverend Whitworth Russell were two of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons. They reported that a certain book circulating among prisoners in Newgate Gaol, and published by Stockdale, was “of a most disgusting nature” and its plates “indecent in the extreme.” By order of Parliament the report of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons was published, and Hansard published it. Stockdale sued Luke Graves for publishing a libel.
Here was a question of supreme constitutional importance. Could Parliament protect its servants who carried out its instructions. Was the voice of Parliament to be heard freely? The case came before Lord Denman, who enquired coldly why, if a subject of the Queen were libelled, the printer should not be sued for libel, by whomsoever the libel was authorised. He found Hansard guilty. Parliament came a little slowly to Luke Graves’ defence, and the battle .between Parliament and the Courts was fairly joined.
Nor was it confined to words. Our Parliamentary and judicial ancestors had fire in their bellies. Under the authority of the High Court the High Sheriffs of Middlesex took forceful possession of poor Hansard’s eleven printing presses. Stirred to wrath, the Commons directed their Sergeant at Arms to arrest the High Sheriffs. These grave men passed a dolorous weekend in Newgate Gaol, in which they had hitherto had only a professional interest. Scarlet-robed and mute of tongue they were brought to the Bar of the House. Their sins had been as scarlet as their robes. They were guilty, they were told, of “a contemptible breach of the privilege of the House of Commons.” But the Court of Queen’s Bench also had weapons and used them. They issued a Writ of Habeas Corpus on the Sergeant at Arms, and in the centre of it all stood poor Hansard, wide open to every blizzard, his locks visibly greying, bemoaning man’s ingratitude in the spirit of King Lear as the tumult beat about his head. Ultimately common-sense prevailed, and after a three-and- a-half years’ battle the law was amended. Lord Denman deserves his place in history, if only for this single sentence:
“I infer . . . that the House of Commons disapproves our judgement, and I deeply lament it, but the opinion of the House on a legal point in whatsoever manner communicated is no ground for arresting the course of Law or preventing the operation of the Queen’s Writs on behalf of every one of her subjects who sues in her Courts.”
It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the Hansards had their day. But, though they were constantly harried by H.M. Stationery Office anxious for a larger sphere of usefulness, Tory Ministers of the nineteenth century seemed avid, in this case, for nationalisation – their influence in and around the House did not cease until 1890.
H. L. T. Hansard, great-grandson of Old Luke, sold his interest to the new Hansard Publishing Union for £90,000, in which the principal was Horatio Bottomley. Mr. Bottomley, unlike the Hansards, required no Parliamentary grants. He would print the journals. As to the debates, which he also acquired from T. C. Hansard, they would be nourished and sustained by income derived from tasteful advertisement. Mr. Bottomley’s enterprise was private and original, but its end was public and commonplace. It expired in a fog of litigation and bankruptcy, and a charge of conspiracy and fraud.
It was not until 1920 that H.M. Stationery Office won its Hundred Years’ War, and lifted the printing from the hands of private enterprise. Old Luke, who had, multiplied his guinea by 80,000 before he died, had been followed by Luke Graves, Luke James, who went mad by the way, Henry and Henry Luke – so it went from father to son. And as Luke and his seed published the journals, so in parallel Thomas and his seed, even better known, published the debates.
It is strange how nouns and verbs, once renowned, may sink into oblivion. This might well have happened to Hansard but for the activity of Stephen King-Hall, then Independent Member for Ormskirk. In 1943, after much prompting by him and by Sir Francis Freemantle, the Speaker directed that the name Hansard “should be restored to the cover of the official reports of the debates. And so on July 5th each year we celebrate the birthday of Old Luke. It is right that he should be remembered. He powerfully affected Parliamentary history. There are “Hansards” not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Australia, in Canada, and in many other parts of the Commonwealth. All this would have seemed strange indeed to Stephen White’s apprentice—the small boy who laboured long ago at the press in a Norwich attic to the sound of his master’s violin.
By a remarkable coincidence, when the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office was moved from London to its present site in St Crispins, Duke Street, Norwich, it was only ‘yards’ from the parish church of St Mary, Coslany, within the boundaries of which Luke had been born over two centuries before. Hansard had returned to the city where a 14 year-old apprentice printer had first set a line of type. The Region’s Caesar never knew his posterity had swayed. However, his memory, like his portrait, lives in the House he venerated, and Parliament must speak for ever in his name. – Happy Birthday Luke lad!
In Part 1 I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.
Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells Next the Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved. Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.
Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.
The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.
Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frarey, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frarey, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frarey, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.
In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.
During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frarey to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frarey, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.
Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frarey’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frarey, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.
Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:
“If I were you, Mrs Frarey, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”
“Yes, Mrs Frarey, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”
Barely a week after Robert Frarey was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.
With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frarey. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frarey bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire. Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frarey summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence.
A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic.
The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.
Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frarey then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frarey shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.
Kate Frarey and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frarey’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.
In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frarey and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle.
Kate Frarey, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.
The women’s execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”. 2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frarey dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frarey was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold. The executioner William Calcraft was in attendance.
After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped. Frarey was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.
The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:
It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved.
FULL TEXT: October 17, 1835 – This day the sentence of the law was carried into execution upon the two women, Frances Billing and Catherine Frarey, who were found guilty of having poisoned Mary Taylor and Robert Frarey. Billing ascended the scaffold with the greatest firmness, but Frarey was obliged to be supported from the jail to the platform, and the two miserable wretches, the one 48, and the other 46 years of age, were launched into eternity amidst an immense concourse of spectators, (20,000 or 30,000), above one-half of whom were women.
Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frarey and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.
Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frarey (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.
Billing and Frarey were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.
Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison “was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”
There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frarey and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.
Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.
Much of the detail of the case is given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.
The following is an abridged report from Norwich Mercury dated April 4 1835:
The town of Burnham Market, in Norfolk, and the vicinity for some miles around have for the last week been in the most dreadful state of excitement caused by the discovery of three diabolical murders, which have already been committed, and a plan laid for taking away the lives of several other people.
The circumstance that led to the discovery was as follows; — A woman named Mary Taylor, the wife of Peter Taylor, a journeyman shoemaker, was taken with a violent retching after dinner on Thursday, the 12th instant, and though medical assistance was procured, she died at five o’clock the same afternoon. Mr. Cremer, the surgeon, as soon as he saw her, pronounced her to have been poisoned. An inquest was held on the body on the following Saturday, when the jury after sitting till eleven at night, adjourned the inquest till Monday, and then having no evidence as to how the deceased came by the arsenic which had been found in the stomach, returned a verdict to the effect that she died by taking arsenic, but that it was unknown by what means it was administered.
There were certain rumours that the husband of the deceased had been connected with a married woman named Fanny Billing, who lived next door, and this connexion seemed to have been a great cause of uneasiness between Taylor and his wife, and a week or two before the deceased had, it seems, taxed Billing with it, and they had had a quarrel. It was also discovered that Billing had a short time before bought three-pennyworth of arsenic of a druggist. Some flour that was in Taylor house was also found to contain a quantity of arsenic, and from this the deceased had made dumplings on the day she died. These facts coming out, the magistrates thought proper to hold a special meeting on the Wednesday for the further investigation of the matter, and Taylor and Billing were brought before them, examined, and remanded for further examination. As Billing, however, was going away, a woman living next door, named Mary, who was frequently in and out of Mrs. Taylor’s, was heard to say to her, “Maw, hold your own, and they can’t hurt us.” This led to further suspicion, and Frarey was apprehended. It was then recollected that Frarey’s husband, and a child they kept, died about a fortnight before very suddenly. Orders were then given to have them disinterred; their stomachs were sent to Norwich to be analysed, and they also were found to contain arsenic.
On Tuesday Billing was fully committed to take her trial for the murder at the forthcoming assizes. She is nearly 60 years old, has had 14 children, and nine are now alive. She has confessed the whole, but says that Frary gave the poison to Mrs. Taylor. She has also confessed to other acts of the same kind with Frary, and that there were several other persons they had marked out for their victims.
She had made an attempt to poison her husband about the same time, but he did not take a sufficient quantity, and recovered. Taylor is still remanded, and Frary has been taken speechless since Tuesday, and cannot be recovered. The wife of her brother, who lived at Burnham Overy, died about the same time suddenly, but has not yet been taken up. Taylor says he was taken sick on the Thursday with his wife, but that he threw up and got better. Mrs. [Catherine] Frarey was sent for to attend on Mrs. Taylor, and a witness by the name of Rowley says, when he was in at Taylor’s to be shaved, he saw Frarey, in making her some gruel, put something into it from a paper on the point of a knife, white, almost like flour, so that in all probability, to make assurance doubly sure, she poisoned also her gruel. It was, too, the merest wonder in the world that the poisoned flour (for it had not then been found to be poisoned) was not taken to provide for the funeral – indeed this seems to have been anticipated by the wretches, and then the whole family would have been their victims; but the management was fortunately taken out of Frarey’s hands, and the flour providentially unused. Taylor has borne a good character for many years until he got connected with this woman. His wife was a very industrious person, and although they had no family they lived very comfortably together. She was 47 years of age, and he is about the same.
Recommended reading where a full account of the case can be found:
Maurice Morson, Norfolk Mayhem and Murder: Classic Cases Revisited, Chapter 3, “The Burnham Poisoners,” (pp. 38-55), Barnsley, 2008, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, South Yorkshire
Neil Storey, Norfolk Murders, 2006, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.
We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright, who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (Note 1). Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor and illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else. The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.
It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, aged 3, (Note 2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.
Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (Note 3)
It is likely that Mary’s threats, and even her efforts to kill, William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies traditionally preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her guidance, is not known.
Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you 3 ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.
Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (Note 4)
A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone except Mary, of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (Note 5)
When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (Note 6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at All Saints Church, Wighton on 4 December 1832.
It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.
Mary was arrested at Oulton, 16 miles from Wighton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.
A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (Note 7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that:
…child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.
Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.
Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she said she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (Note 8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (Note 9). However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (Note 10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.
Mary was buried at the Church of St Michael at Thorn in central Norwich, Norfolk. This church, formerly in Thorn Lane and off Ber Street, was destroyed during the 1941 Blitz of World War II.
In Part 2 I’ll explore the extraordinary events of 1835 in Burnham Market, less than 10 miles from Wighton. Hannah Shorten features again.
1. “Teamerman” is a specifically Norfolk term, referring to the ploughman who ran a system of alternating horses to plough fields and to the waggoner who used a team of five horses to pull carts of grain. Naomi Riches, in her book The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk (Routledge, 1937), has a detailed explanation.
2. Samuel was buried at Wighton Church.
3. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832
4. Plum cake contained raisins rather than plums.
5. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 183
6. Hereford Times, 29 December 1832, quoting Suffolk Chronicle 7. 30 March 1833
8. Norfolk Chronicle, 20 July 1833
9. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 10 August 1833
10. London Evening Standard, 6 November 1833
It was Simon Knott, way back in 2009, who referred to All Saints Church in the village of Horsford as being “an oasis of calm” – and so it still is.
For those travelling from afar, Horsford lies to the north of Norwich and close by the City’s new Broadland Northway, formerly the Northern Distributor Road. Although close to the orbit of Norwich and the busy A140 Cromer Road, All Saints Church sits quietly amidst an equally silent graveyard. The church is set comfortably back from Church Street, with the southern side of its churchyard resting in between. Quite close to the south facing walls of the church runs a side entrance path to the building’s front porch; this same path is also, unbeknown to some, a public footpath which runs right through the grounds of All Saints and seems to disappear beyond.
Turning up on one of the hottest days in July was not the best of choices for walking round the churchyard. But, everywhere was bathed in strong light and, together with equally dark shadows, enabled a few striking photograph to be taken – who would want to miss such an opportunity? However, relief came with entry into the church itself, through a porch which is not the oldest part of the church, having been first built in 1493, the year when an Appeal for funds went out to not only complete the reconstruction of the Tower but also to include a south facing porch which would face directly towards the Church Street entrance gate. Reconstruction of the Tower itself had first begun in 1456, but it seems that immediately from this date the work had been frequently been interrupted for long periods, which included necessary ‘repairs’ – one can only imagine of what.
The 1493 Appeal did, however, ensure that both the Porch and Tower were completed within a sensible time thereafter; this work may also have coincided with alterations made to the roof height of the Nave. The Tower was certainly ready to have bells hung in it by 1506. as witnessed by a bequest for the provision of a bell. Today, the Tower has one remaining bell which is still rung to herald the beginning of Sunday services; it is inscribed: Anno Domini 1565 I.B – which stands for John Brend. Rather unusual for a tower of this date is that it appears to have been designed without a door in its west side and that its West window had previously been raised in the early 14th century; one may guess that the reason for doing so was probably to bring more light into the rear of the Nave.
Inside the Porch are some 16th century capitals with angels on either side of the entrance arch and its roof was, like the rest of the church at that time, a thatched one. I later discovered that, in the Victorian era, the Porch was in such a sorry state that, in 1884, the Rev. Josiah Ballance had it rebuilt and re-roofed with tiles as a memorial to his deceased wife, Margaret.
On entering through a modest but still attractive door and into the rear end of the Nave, the coolness there was a welcome friend and the light streaming though the south windows showed that this church is certainly not a gloomy place.
A walk around the inside of the Church, together with a few enquiries, told me that the building of the Nave was started soon after 1100 and was made of well-coursed flint work. From outside it is possible to see, particularly at the east end of the Nave (not the Chancel), a number of the low courses in the south wall where there are regularly banded unknapped flints. This, I was told, was evidence of a building technique commonly used in the 11th and 12th Centuries that was generally abandoned later in the middle-ages for less-coursed flint-rubble construction. Just inside the South Door, by the Chancel, is the 13th Century Trefoil Piscina with its ‘Holy Water’ Stoup, a stone basin which would be used in the Mass – in use until the 16th Century Reformation.
Outside, on the south wall, the height of the original Norman Nave is shown by a a line of knapped flint work, just below the later brick and flint courses which were laid so that the pitch and height of the Nave’s thatched roof matched that of the Chancel. In the late 14th Century, the earlier headed windows were heightened and the roof again raised by adding the brick and flint courses. When, in the 19th Century, the Nave’s thatched roof was removed, the walls had to be raised by a further 50cm in order to support the timbers for a new slate roof. More recently, in 1980 to be exact, these slates were replaced by re-cycled tiles.
As for the Chancel, this was probably built at the same time as the Nave; an example of an early English rustic structure, with a thatched roof and once neatly plastered walls but now flaking in places and requiring some loving care. Outside, the date of 1703, picked out in a naive style with red tiles in the flint of the gable, indicates that repairs were done that year to the East Gable and to the coping of the Chancel. Past speculation suggested that these repairs were necessary as a result of the 1703 storm, one of the two great storms of that century which destroyed much of the fishing fleet along the Norfolk coast and much inland.
There is still a hint of a curve in the Chancel’s sanctuary area which may be the remnants of a pre-Norman, early 11th Century Apse. On the south side there is a ‘low-side window’. This is the term for a small window or opening always built in the south wall of a chancel that is positioned lower than other windows in the church, usually at eye level or lower. I was told that these were not originally glazed, but shuttered. There is also scholastic conjecture over their original function, some thinking that they were intended to allow those outside the church to get a glimpse of the altar, or even of the Eucharist, as they walked past; others thinking that they were simple ventilation devices; and others reckoning that they would have been used for the distribution of a dole. Where they do appear, some say in about 100 churches in Norfolk, they are always in the same position.
During renovation work in 1956, a vault was discovered by the then Vicar and Churchwardens. It was beneath the floor directly in front of the south side kneeling rail. Apparently, in the Vault were several lead coffins of the Day family; it was decided that these should be left undisturbed, the Vault being resealed and the floor reinstated. The positions of the Altar in the Sanctuary and its Communion Rail were also altered in 1956, following the discovery of the Day Vault. The step was extended westwards, thereby creating a second higher dais for the Altar. The original Altar table was placed in the east end of the North Aisle to create a Lady Chapel and, because its top had been badly worm-eaten, a new top (all be it a second-hand one) was attached to its legs. A new main Altar was made by All Saint’s devoted Churchwarden, Harry Sole who was a highly skilled joiner employed by R. G. Carter Ltd. He also made a frontal cupboard, which stands on the left-hand side of the Chancel. In addition, he made the Bishop’s Chair and the Oak Credence Table and the Vicar’s Prayer Desk, which stands before the Screen in the Nave of the Church.
Probably the star of the Church is set into the south wall of the Nave, close to and at right-angle to the Screen. It must be East Anglia’s best example of a 19th Century window by the grandly named Royal Bavarian Institute for Stained Glass and made by the famous F. X. Zettler workshop of Munich. The window depicts and remembers three sisters, Edith, Dorothea and Nona Day, who died of consumption in 1891, 1892 and 1893 in Davos and Cairo. One sister stands on the far shore of the Jordan, welcoming her sisters across to an imaginary paradise, which is clearly more Bavarian than Middle Eastern. This is a wonderful stain-glass window, despite the sisters’ halos being rather unconvincing .
The memorials in various parts of the Church, mainly commemorate the Barrett-Lennard families of Horsford Manor and the Day Families. The Barrett-Lennards first arrived in the area at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 – with Sir Richard Barrett-Lennard being the last of the line.
The North Aisle of All Saints Church existed in 1458, for it is mentioned as having been provided with donations for its construction in Wills of that year. Then, in the 1860’s, because the aisle wall and the pillars were leaning northwards, drastic remedial work had to be done under the guidance of the Rev. Josiah Ballance. The core of the arcades, made of brick with plaster over, is of the 15th Century but the present appearance of the aisle and its pillars is due to this timely restoration. The East window of the aisle contains the only medieval glass in the Church. In 1986/7 this window was re-glazed, with the addition of the medieval glass, and dedicated as a memorial to Harry Sole by his widow, Rosetta.
Looking around All Saints, it is clear that over the years and certainly during recent post-war years, this Church has never lost its nerve or its confidence to get things done. A feature at the west end of the Nave is yet another example. Here, there is a relatively new gallery with a metal spiral stairway, built in 1993 to house an organ which had been acquired from Horsham St Faith. The previous organ had been at the East end of the North Aisle until 1956: when the Lady Chapel Altar was installed there, the organ was moved to the the west end of that Aisle before being replaced by the one now in the west end Gallery of the Nave. A gallery, by the way, which is in a thoroughly modern asymmetrical style but mindful of church tradition. It is a style which should take All Saints confidently into the future. A heartening thought!
The Font, which I found at the back right-hand corner of the Nave, is of Purbeck stone from Dorset. It is distinctly early Norman, the style being similar to those of the early 12th Century by being square with simple, unlaced, arcading with a plain support pillar at each corner. Again, my informant told me that the central drain and its column could have been added towards the end of that century. Apparently, medieval fonts were made in three sections: base, support and bowl, so alterations posed no problem. This one in All Saints was possibly damaged during the Reformation and may have been removed from its church – which may not have been this one at that time. Then, after it had been rescued, it was placed in All Saints, possibly during its 19th Century repair and restoration work. The arcading did show signs of having been repaired with cement, when meant that the lead lining had to be re-inserted.
During medieval times, Holy Water was kept in the Font, being renewed each Sunday. Its purpose was not only for use at Baptisms, which usually took place before the baby was three days old (the mother would not attend this ceremony), but also for blessing ‘bewitched’ premises or animals, for giving comfort to the sick, or for those who were dying. For the sick and dying it was the priest who would use the holy water when administrating the last rites after their confession and witnessing their ‘last well and testament‘.
However, so I was informed, anyone could use the water if it was agreed that the need was urgent. Unfortunately, for the church at least, pagan habits lingered on and the water would often be ‘stolen‘ for use in magic and other sorcery. Consequently, in the 13th Century, the church ordered all Fonts to be secured by a cover and, after 1287, a strong lock had to be added. The usual method was to cover the entire top of the Font with a wooden disc, fastened in place by means of an iron bar which was locked to staples driven into the rim. It was those iron staples which may have caused the initial damage to All Saint’s Font. The present wooden cover, though, was made in 1934! Until 1956, this Church’s Font stood on the west side of the most westerly pillar between the Nave and the North Aisle. There is a radiator in that position now, but the mark of where the Font once rested against the pillar can still be seen.
The Church Chest sits besides the Font. On its lid are the initials H.S. and R.C. along with C.Ws., presumably indicating they were once the ‘Churchwardens’. Its date is, apparently, unknown but it still has two padlock. In the past it had three: one for the incumbent and one for each Churchwarden; this was a simple security measure necessary in earlier times when money collected for the Poor Rate would be kept in the Chest ready for distribution to the ‘deserving poor of the Horsford Parish’.
Where do fairies come from? Folklorists, philosophers, historians, mystics and others have debated this question for centuries. No one really knows how fairies originated — unless it’s the fairies themselves, and they’re not telling. What we do know is that tales of the fairies can be found on every continent around the globe, and that belief in the existence of the “Hidden People” is surprisingly widespread today.
Some scholars see the vestiges of pagan religions in tales about the fairies — who are, they say, the diminished remnants of once powerful gods and goddesses. Other scholars insist that fairies are really just the early, indigenous peoples of each land, who may have been viewed as magical and otherworldly by conquering tribes. Many people once thought that fairies were fallen angels who’d been ejected from Heaven but weren’t quite wicked enough for Hell, or else that they were the wandering souls of children who’d died unbaptized. Some read the following words from the Bible as proof that God had created the fairy race in addition to mankind: “And other sheep have I that are not of this fold.” (John 10:16). The most widespread belief, still prevalent today, is that fairies are simply nature spirits and thus as ancient as wind and rain. In this view, they’re the manifestations of the living spirit in all organic matter.
In the 15th century, an alchemist named Paracelus divided fairies into four elemental groups: sylphs (air), gnomes (earth), undines (water), and salamanders (fire). They are made of flesh and blood, he said, and procreate like human beings but are longer lived than man and do not possess immortal souls. In the 17th century, Scottish minister and scholar Robert Kirk wrote that fairies “are of a middle nature betwixt man and angel,” with “light changeable bodies, like those called astral, somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen at twilight.”(1)
In the 19th century, the physiology of fairies was of great interest to spiritualists (2), who divided them into two basic types: nature spirits tied to features of the landscape (a river, a pool, a copse of trees), and higher spirits who lived on an astral plane between flesh and thought. In the early 20th century, Theosophist (3) Charles W. Leadbeater developed an elaborate system of fairy classification inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Leadbeater maintained that fairies live on an astral plane divided into seven levels. He believed the fairy race to be the original inhabitants of England, driven to its margins by the invasion of mankind; and he drew elaborate diagrams showing how the fairies had evolved. His chart began with mineral life and then rose upward through water and earth, and through seaweed, fungi, and bacteria. Further up the evolutionary ladder he showed how fairies developed through grasses and cereals, reptiles and birds, sea flora and fauna, until they matured into nature spirits linked to each of the four elements. But evolution didn’t stop there; these nature spirits would in turn evolve into sylphs, then devas, and then into angels. On the top rung of the ladder the fairies would become what he called “solar spirits,” where they’d join with evolved humans in a more enlightened age. (4)
Another Theosophist, Edward Garner, argued that fairies are allied to the butterfly genus, and are made of a substance lighter than gas which renders them invisible to human beings (except clairvoyants). The function of fairies in nature, he said, is to provide a link between plants and the energy of the sun. He wrote that the “growth of a plant which we regard as the customary and inevitable result of associating the three factors of sun, seed, and soil would never take place if the fairy builders were absent.” (5) Franz Hartmann, a medical doctor, believed that fairies have a role in human psychology, explaining that “the spirits of nature have their dwellings within us as well as outside of us, and no man is perfectly master of himself unless he thoroughly knows his own nature and its inhabitants.” (6)
While spiritualists, in their journals and lectures, argued how many fairies could fit on the head of a pin or swim through the higher astral plane, unlettered country people were taking great pains to avoid the fairies’ notice. Charms, talismans, and spells were used to keep troublesome fairies at bay — to chase them away from the house, the livestock, newborn children, and unmarried girls. Although fairies had been known to give aid to mortals, more often they were seen as irksome creatures, quick to take offense and dangerous when riled. Fairy bargains were notoriously tricky things and fairy treasure was often cursed. Mortals who stumbled into Fairyland could end up trapped in that realm forever, or emerge from it aged and withered, even though it had seemed like little time had passed. Fairies were blamed for soured milk, blighted crops, and barren cows; for illness, madness, birth defects and other mysterious ills. Even good fairies followed rules and taboos that could be unfathomable to humans — thus it was wise to be scrupulously polite and to treat all fairies with great caution. Folklore is filled with cautionary tales outlining the perils of fairy encounters. Do not eat fairy food, they say, for it will trap you in Fairyland. Avoid using a fairy’s name, and don’t ever tell them your own. Don’t bargain with the fairies, or join their dances, or spy on their courtly revels. Wear your shirt inside out and carry iron to avoid abduction.
There are numerous stories of human beings abducted into Fairyland — particularly newborn babies, attractive young children, midwives, and musicians. When human babies are snatched from the cradle, a fairy changeling is left behind. Sometimes this creature is merely a piece of wood enchanted to look like a child; other times it is a sickly fairy baby, or an old and peevish fairy. The stolen human children are petted and cosseted for a while — until they grow big and lumpish, or until the fairy court grows bored with them — whereupon they are turned into household slaves for the rest of their mortal lives, or banished from the Realm (for which they’ll pine from that day forward). Some say the fairies are required to pay a blood-tithe to Hell every seven years, and that they steal mortals for this purpose so as not to sacrifice one of their own. A human knight named Tam Lin was destined to be the tithe in one famous old tale, until his true love tricked the Fairy Queen into releasing him on All Hallows Eve.
Some fairy lore makes a clear division between good and wicked types of fairies — between those who are friendly to mankind, and those who seek to cause us harm. In Scottish tales, good fairies make up the Seelie Court, which means the Blessed Court, while bad fairies congregate in the Unseelie Court, ruled by the dark queen Nicnivin. In old Norse myth, the Liosálfar (Light Elves) are regal, compassionate creatures who live in the sky in the realm of Alfheim, while the Döckálfar (the Dark Elves) live underground and are greatly feared. Yet in other traditions, a fairy can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance or on the fairy’s whim. They are often portrayed as amoral beings, rather than as immoral ones, who simply have little comprehension of human notions of right and wrong.
The great English folklorist Katherine Briggs tended to avoid the “good” and “bad” division, preferring the categorizations of Solitary and Trooping Fairies instead. She noted that the fairies in either group “may be evil, dealing death or sickness to every man and creature they pass on their way, like the Sluagh of the Highlands; they may steal unchurched wives from child-bed, or snatch away unchristened babes leaving animated stocks [pieces of wood] or sickly children of their own in their place, or they may be harmless and even beneficial — fertility spirits watching over the growth of flowers or bringing good luck to herds or children.” Solitary Fairies are generally those associated with a certain location: a bog, a lake, the roots of a tree, a particular hill or household. The Trooping Fairies, by contrast, are gregarious creatures fond of hunting, feasting, dancing, and holding court. “This is perhaps particularly true of the British Isles,” writes Briggs, “though in France, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany there are the same tales of dancing, revelry and processions.” (7)
Other folklorists divide the fairies by their elemental, rather than their temperament, harking back to Paracelus’ classification system of earth, air, water, and fire. Fairies associated with the earth are the most numerous group. Earth elementals include those who live in caves, barrows, and deep underground, and who often have a special facility for working with precious metals. This group includes the Coblynau in the hills of Wales, the Gandharvas of India, the Erdluitle of northern Italy, the Maanväki of Finland, the Thrussers of Norway, the Karzalek of Poland, the Illes of Iceland, the various Dwarves of Old Norse legends, and the Gans of the Apache tribe. Forest fairies are also earth elementals, and are the most numerous type of fairy around the world. Fairies of this type include the shy Aziza in the forests of West Africa, the Mu of Papua New Guinea, the Shinseen of China, the Silvanni of Italy, the Oakmen of the British Isles, the Skogsra of Sweden, the Kulaks of Burma, the Hantu Hutan of the Malay Peninsula, the Bela of Indonesia, the Patu–Paiarehe of the Maori, and the Manitou of the Algonquin tribe. Other earth fairies are those who guard standing stones, such as the web–footed Couril of Brittany, and sand fairies in desert environments, such as the Ahl Al-trab found in Arabic lands.
Fairies associated with water include all the magical merfolk of the sea, such as the Merrows of Ireland, the Daoine Mara of Scotland, the Mal-de-Mer of Brittany, the Nereides of Greece, and the selkies (seal people) who haunt the coasts of Scandinavia and the British Isles. Rivers, lakes, pools, and other fresh water sources are also home to water fairies both gentle and malign, including the nixies and kelpies of English rivers, the Rhinemaidens of Germany, the Kludde of Belgium, the Draks of France, the Laminak of the Basque region, the Hotots of Armenia, the Judi of Macedonia, the Cacce-Halde of Lapland, the sweet-voiced Nakk of Estonia, and the bashful Nokke who appeared only at dusk and dawn in Sweden.
Fairies associated with air include the various winged fairies and sylphs that are so numerous in modern picture books, popularized by Tinkerbell and Victorian-era fairy paintings. Examples of air fairies include the luminous Soulth of Irish fairy lore, the Star Folk of the Algonquin tribe, the Atua of Fairies bearing lanterns by Arthur RackhamPolynesia, and the Peri, the “good fairies” of Persian legends, who are said to dine exclusively on perfume and other delicate scents. Fairies who account for weather phenomena, such as mistral winds, whirlwinds, and storms, are associated with the air element, including the Spriggans of Cornwall, the Vily of Slavonia, the Vintoasele of Serbia and Crotia, the Rusali of Romania, and the mischievous Folletti of Italy.
The most common type of fire fairy is the salamander, an elemental spirit much prized by Renaissance alchemists. Also associated with fire are the Djinn, who are the “bad fairies” of Persian lore, and the Drakes (or Drachen), fire fairies found across the British Isles and western Europe who resemble streaking balls of fire and smell like rotten eggs. Luminous, will-o’-the-wisp type fire fairies are famous for leading travelers astray — including the Ellylldan of Welsh marshland, the Teine Sith of the Scottish Hebrides, the Spunkies of southwest England, Le Faeu Boulanger of the Channel Islands, the Candelas of Sardinia, and the Fouchi Fatui of northern Italy. The various fairies who guard hearth fires are also associated with this element, such as the Gabija of Lithuania and Natrou-Monsieur of France. The Muzayyara are fiery, seductive fairies in old Egyptian tales; and the Akamu is a particularly dangerous fire fairy found in Japan.
Although (as the brief list above indicates) fairies are known all around the world, nowhere are they quite so varied and populous as they are in the British Isles — which is probably why we find so many of them in English literature. Fairies can be found in many of the courtly Romances of the medieval period, although they’re rarely named as such, “fairy” being a relatively late term. These ancient stories are filled with fairy-like men and women who wield magic, live in enchanted palaces, forge magical weaponry, and bewitch or beguile innocent mortals — such as the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur. The tales of King Arthur and his court are particular rife with fairy-like beings, especially in the Welsh and Breton traditions — as are the splendid Lays of Marie de France, written for the English court sometime around the 12th century. The Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales speaks wistfully of an elf queen and her merry court in the old days of King Arthur, when “al was this land fulfild of fayerye” — as opposed to the Wife of Bath’s own time (the 14th century), when fairies were rarely seen.
A 13th century French Romance called Huon of Bordeaux was popular among English readers. This sprightly story of King Oberon, Queen Mab, and assorted knights of the fairy court is notable for providing inspiration for the fairy plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare seems to have been well versed in traditional English fairy lore, for he borrowed liberally from this tradition to create the fairies who quarrel, scheme, and cavort in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Along with Queen Mab from Mercutio’s famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, these are the best known and most influential fairies in all English literature — which is why diminutive fairies “no bigger than an agate-stone on the fore-finger of an alderman” are better known today than their human-sized cousins found in many older stories. Fairies are also the subject, of course, in Edmund Spenser’s extraordinary poem, The Faerie Queene, written in the late 16th century — although Spenser’s fairy court owes more to Italian Romance than to homegrown English fairy legends.
In the 17th century, fairies inspired Michael Drayton’s Nymphidia, the Court of Fayre, a satirical work featuring King Oberon, Queen Mab and a hapless knight named Pigwiggen. A series of poems in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides also feature King Oberon, and also have a satirical edge, but this is a darker, more sensual look at Fairyland than Drayton’s. In the 18th century, the fairies appeared in Alexander Pope’s arch tale, The Rape of the Lock; and also, covertly, in Gulliver’s Travels, the great satire by Jonathan Swift, for Swift used many elements of fairy lore to create his tiny Lilliputians.
It was in the same century that Bishop Thomas Percy began to collect old British folk ballads, which he published in an influential volume called Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Without Percy’s labors, many traditional ballads might have been lost forever — he rescued one old manuscript from kitchen maids who were using it to light the fire. Percy’s work had a notable influence on the writers of the German Romantic movement, who in turn influenced such English Romantics as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and John Keats. All three of these writers wrote fairy poems, but the ones that are best known and loved today are Keats’ evocative “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Other writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were much beloved by the fairies, and vice versa, were Tom Moore, Thomas Hood, Allan Cunningham, and especially James Hogg. Known as The Ettrick Shepherd, Hogg was a working shepherd for most of his life as well as a writer of popular tales that drew upon old Scottish legends.
James Hogg’s good friend Sir Walter Scott was another writer who found inspiration in Bishop Thomas Percy’s efforts to preserve the folk heritage of Britain. Scott’s fiction is permeated with the fairy lore of his native Scotland, and he was an enormously influential figure in the 19th century folklore movement. As a collector of tales and ballads himself, Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border preserved important fairy ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and did much to educate readers about the value of Scotland’s rich folk history. In addition, Scott gathered around him a group of poets and antiquarians who were likewise interested in preserving the old country tales of a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. Scott was fond of fairy lore in particular — for he’d believed in fairies in his youth, and never entirely lost faith in “things invisible to mortal sight.”
Partially due to Scott’s influence, two extensive volumes of fairy lore appeared in the early 19th century: Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology and Thomas Crofton Crocker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. They proved to be enormously popular and kicked off an explosion of folklore books by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. These books are important when looking at English literature and art of the 19th century, for they were avidly read by a wide variety of Victorian writers and artists. Folklore was still a new field back then — the name itself wasn’t coined until 1846 — and these groundbreaking publications generated talk and excitement among the intellectuals of London. At the same time, the magical tales and poems of the folklore-loving German Romantic writers (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, etc.) frequently appeared in English magazines of the period. One German story, in particular, captivated Victorian readers: “Undine” by Baron de la Motte Fouqué, about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight and her attempt to gain an immortal soul. “Undine” inspired a large number of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions about doomed fairy lovers of various kinds (including, over in Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”). Such stories were particularly appealing to readers who were interested in matters of the occult and in psychic phenomena — which was a substantial segment of the reading public once the spiritualist movement crossed the sea from America and took England by storm. These various influences came together to create a wide-spread interest in the fairy race that was unprecedented. At no other time in British history have the fairies been so popular among all types of people, from the working class to the aristocracy.
In visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake, artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale, and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art. These were paintings intended or adults, not children. John Anster Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines (9) ; and Richard Dadd’s obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he went mad and killed his father. Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society. Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.
The passion for fairies among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past toward the mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul-less new world created by modern forms of mass production. (“For every locomotive they build,” vowed artist Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”) The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors). Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, Laurence Housman, Jessie M. King and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes. (Jessie King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies. Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her “third eye.”)
In the pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theatre, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of popular entertainment than they enjoy today — as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (as opposed to formal, classical ballet) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and fairy spirits. Aided by innovations in “point work” (dancing on the points of one’s toes), and improvements in
theatre gas-lighting techniques, sumptuous fairylands were created in hit productions such as La Sylphide, the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last.
Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany — such as Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Undine (based on Fouqué’s novella), Wagner’s Die Feen (The Fairies), and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm. The popularity of his fairy tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public’s love of all things magical and fey.
In literature (as in art, theater, and ballet) the fairies made their presence known, turning up in numerous books written and published during the Victorian era. Some of these works were for adult readers, such as Anne Thackaray Ritchie’s Fairy Tales for Grown-ups, the Arthurian poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of Celtic Twilight writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod) and William Butler Yeats. But one of the major shifts we see in fairy literature from the 19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended for small children.
There were two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and fairies had rarely been so high. First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of “childhood” to a degree never seen before; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, this belief was changing to one in which children were inherently innocent, rather than inherently sinful — and childhood became a special Golden Age, a time of fanciful play and exploration before the burdens of adulthood were assumed. Mothers were encouraged to have a more doting attitude toward their little ones (following the example of Queen Victoria herself), and this, combined with the rising wealth of the Victorian middle class, led to an explosion in the market for children’s books.
Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary, consisting primarily of pious, tedious books of moral instruction. But in the 19th century, new European fairy tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were proving enormously popular with English children. Publishers and writers took note of this and soon began producing volumes of magical tales set in the British Isles — including tales inspired by English fairy lore, toned down and de-sexed for younger readers. A lot of these fairy tale volumes, marred by these heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today — but some retained enough of the magic of their source material to have stood the test of time, such as the famous series co-edited by Andrew & Jane Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.
In addition to re-telling traditional tales, Victorian writers created original fairy stories for children using the tropes of folklore in charming and innovative ways — including John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Charlotte Yonge’s The History of Tom Thumb, Christina Rossetti’s extraordinary Goblin Market, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, to name just a few.
In his excellent book Victorian Fairy Tales, folklorist Jack Zipes divides the magical children’s fiction published from 1860 onward into two basic types: conventional stories, and stories written in a utopian mode. Although there were some good fantasy tales of the conventional type, such as the fairy stories of Jean Ingelow and the ghost stories of Mary Louisa Molesworth, many others were forgettable confections full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, Zipes notes, demonstrated “a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force” to change English society, and these books were written by some of the very finest authors of the day. George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Laurence Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, E. Nesbit (in her later works), and many other writers created magical tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of utopian fantasy is explained by looking at the context of the culture which produced it — a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs, and clapped to bring Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether. Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superseded by the fearsome creatures of the still-living oral tradition. Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a Fairy Doctor. He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget’s husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his “real” wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn’t until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.
The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten year old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden. Elsie’s mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). (10) Although the pictures are distinctly unconvincing by today’s standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. Championed by Gardner and Conan Doyle, the photos caused an absolute sensation. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies did they finally admit that the Cottingley fairies were paper cut-outs held in place by hat-pins. Despite this admission, their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the Golden Age of fairy art and literature. “Ironically,” she says, “the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature….The
theories that Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani Gardner formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects.”
In addition to this, the massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they’d be branded old-fashioned by the generations that followed. Those who’d survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux-medievalism and fairies of their grandparents’ day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies. This was “The Piper of Dreams,” a painting by the Anglo-Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. Canziani’s gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
During the middle years of the 20th century, the fairies seemed to go underground, rarely leaving the Twilight Realm to interact with the world of men — except to appear in sugar-sweet guise in children’s books and Disney cartoons. One could find them if one looked hard enough — in Ireland, for instance, in the fiction of James Stephens and Lord Dunsany; or in Lud-in-the-Mist, the early fantasy classic by English author Hope Mirrlees. But in general, it was not until an Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about elves in a place called Middle-Earth that fairies came back to popular art in any numbers. And then they came with a vengeance.
Professor Tolkien was a scholar of folklore, myth, and Old English literature, so when he created the elves of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he knew what he was doing. Although written and published some years earlier, it was not until the 1970s that Tolkien’s books dominated the bestsellers lists and became part of British and American popular culture. This in turn created an enormous interest in all things magical, wondrous, and fey. Suddenly there were fairies, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and wizards everywhere. People started seeking out folklore texts, and teaching themselves to speak Elvish. “What is the reason for this preoccupation?” asked Alison Lurie in an article for the New York Review of Books. “Possibly it is a bi-product of the overly material and commercial world we live in: the result of an imaginatively deprived childhood.” (11)
Lurie believed that the reason college students were embracing Tolkien and folklore with such passion was that they’d been raised on the thin gruel on television and Disney films, instead of the great classics of children’s literature. Having been imaginatively deprived in youth, she argued, they had taken now “possession of a fantasy world that should have been theirs at eight or ten, with the intellectual enthusiasm, the romantic eagerness — and the purchasing power — of eighteen and twenty.” While this was undoubtedly true of some readers, I find it an unsatisfactory explanation overall, for there were many other readers (and I was among them) who had read classic children’s literature when young and had embraced classic fantasy worlds at ages eight and ten. What Tolkien did was to prove to us that we needn’t give up these worlds at age eighteen – or at twenty-eight or forty-eight, for that matter. Back in the 1970s, this was a radical notion. Tolkien dismissed the post-Victorian idea that fantasy was fit only for children, and reached back to an older adult fantasy tradition running from Beowulf to William Morris. He opened a door to Fäerie, and readers discovered this door was not child-sized after all, but tall and wide, leading to lands one could spend a lifetime wandering in.
In the mid-70s, another book lured adult readers into the Twilight Realm. This was Faeries, an international bestseller by the British artists Alan Lee and Brian Froud — a sequel, of sorts, to a book called Gnomes by the Dutch artist Wil Huygen. But whereas Gnomes depicted cheerful little creatures who had little in common with the dour, clever, metal-working gnomes of the European folk tradition, Faeries was deeply rooted in traditional fairy lore. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the fairies of old British legends: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak, and stone, born out of the British landscape, as potent and wild as a force of nature. Lee and Froud had taken inspiration from Victorian Fairy Art and updated the tradition for a new generation. Faeries, in turn, would go on to inspire young artists in the years ahead — indeed, it’s rare to find fairy art today (or fairies in film, or fairy fiction) that doesn’t owe a debt, to some degree, to this influential book.
From the mid-70s onward, numerous other books on fairy lore appeared, including several “field guides” and the peerless folklore studies of Katherine Briggs. In fiction, the great success of The Lord of the Rings helped to establish an entire new publishing genre of fantasy fiction for adult readers; and as a result, a new generation of writers turned to folklore and myth for inspiration — in North America as well as in England. (12) Fairies found their way into a number of their books, some of which were set in days gone past or in the land of Fäerie, and some of which were urban tales of fairies in the modern world.
John Crowley, for example, in his brilliant novel Little, Big, draws on a host of Victorian ideas about the fairies to create a modern fairy tale set in rural and urban New York. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a fairy story that could have been penned by Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen; it’s a wonderful tale of a magical English history that never was. Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer follows a figure from a
classic Scottish border ballad into the halls of the Fairy Queen, and Patricia A. McKillip’s Winter Rose took a slant-wise look at the fairy ballad of Tam Lin. Fairies haunt the woodlands of Leicestershire in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and roam the streets of contemporary London in Lisa Tuttle’s The Mysteries. Lisa Goldstein goes back to in Elizabethan London in Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon, while Poul Andersen (A Midsummer Tempest) and Sara A. Hoyt (Ill Met by Moonlight) revisit the fairies of William Shakespeare. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks brings fairies to the 1980s Minneapolis music scene; Midori Snyder’s Hannah’s Garden plants a fairy fiddler in an Irish bar in the American Midwest; and Charles de Lint’s Widdershins pits immigrant fairies against the native spirits of the Canadian wilderness. Holly Black’s Tithe tells the story of a fairy changeling living on the Jersey shore; while Delia Sherman’s Changeling conjurs an entire fairy realm in the shadows of New York City. British fairy lore provides inspiration for Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia, Alice Thomas Ellis’ A Fairy Tale, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin. See the Further Reading list below for more fiction recommendations.
In visual art, the English painter Brian Froud has been exploring Fäerie for over twenty-five years, beginning with the publication of Faeries and continuing on with Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Brian Froud’s World of Faerie, the “Lady Cottington” series, and many other fine books. As a result, he is arguably the best known and most authoritative fairy artist in the world today. His wife, Wendy Froud, creates Fäerie sculptures and fine art dolls with a Pre-Raphaelite touch. Her distinctive work has been photographed and published in the “Old Oak Wood” series of children’s books, in The Art of Wendy Froud, and in sumptuous collaborations with her husband, including Trolls and Faeries’ Tales. Charles Vess has depicted fairy imagery in illustrated books and comics, most notably in Stardust, created in collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman, in The Book of Ballads, and in his illustrations for Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Yoshitaka Amano gives a unique interpretation of British and Japanese folklore in his beautiful art collection Fairies, which includes an essay by Kimie Imura expoloring differences between the Western and Eastern traditions. Tony DiTerlizzi, creates a vast fairy realm in his much-loved children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles, created in collaboration with writer Holly Black. Suza Scalora, Ashley Lebedev, and Kristy Mitchell have conjured fairies and the Twilight Realm in their magical photography.
Numerous children’s book illustrators have wandered into Fäerie (following the footsteps of Rackham and Dulac), such as Angela Barrett (The Night Fairy), Michael Hague (Good Night, Fairies), Stephen Mackey (The Fairies’ Ring), and Lauren Mills (The Book of Little Folk). Other artists who have spent time with the fairy folk include Anna Brahams, Alice Dufeu, Erlé Ferronnière, Julia Jeffrey, Virginia Lee, Yoann Lossel, Iain McCaig, Ed Org, Séverine Pineaux, Linda Ravenscroft, Virginia Ropars, David Thiérrée, Olivier Villoingt, Josephine Wall, David Wyatt, and Lisbeth Zwerger. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you’ll find more fairy art in two magazines devoted to the subject: Faerie (US) and Fae (UK).
The revival of interest in Victorian fairy art led to an important traveling exhibition curated by The University of Iowa and the Royal Academy of London in 1997. In 2002, Abbaye Daoulas in Brittany presented an extensive exhibition of fairy art, beginning with 12th century manuscripts right up to the present day. I recommend the following related art books: Victorian Fairy Painting, with text by Jeremy Maas and others; Fairies in Victorian Art by Christopher Wood; and Fées, elfes, dragons, and autres créatures des royaumes de féerie (Fairies, elves, dragons, and other creatures of the fairy realm), edited by Michel Le Bris and Claudine Glot.
In film, fairies are the subject of two movies inspired by the Cottingley photographs: A Fairy Tale and Photographing Fairies (based on the novel of that name by Steven Szilagyi). Fairies are also at the heart of Stardust, based on the illustrated book by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; and goblins (and a fairy or two) can be found Labyrinth, the children’s classic directed by Jim Henson and designed by Brian Froud.
“Fairy fashions” have appear in New York shop windows, on Paris runways, at British music festivals (where pixie ears and Amy Brown-style fashions are ubiquitous these days), and in an illustrated book: Fairie-ality: The Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand by David Ellwand, Eugenie Bird, and David Downton. Fairy ballads from the British Isles, Brittany, and Scandinavia have been recorded by many folk bands and musicians such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, Robin Williamson, Kate Rusby, Cécile Corbel, Loreena McKennitt, and Anaïs Mitchell. Elizabeth Jane Baldry has recorded Victorian fairy music for the harp on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain, and Aine Minogue’s The Twilight Realm is a lovely CD of music inspired by traditional fairy lore. The fairies have also appeared in pop music, in songs by musicians and bands as diverse as Donovan, Queen, The Waterboys, and Tori Amos.
In his famous poem “Blow, Bugle, Blow,” Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfland’s horns are growing faint and dying away as the fairies disappear from the woods and fields, chased away by modern life. This was a favorite theme of the Victorians, who believed that the fairies were taking their leave of us and that magic would soon vanish from the world forever….
But as far as I can see, the Victorians were dead wrong. The British Isles, and other parts of the world, are still thickly populated by the elfin tribes, if the present abundance of fairies in popular culture is any indication. Fairies are everywhere: in books and paintings, on t-shirts and teacups, in children’s toyshops and in grown-up art museums, as well as flying through cyberspace. If Tennyson’s elfin bugles have dimmed…well, never mind. The fairies play electric bagpipes now.
Instead of Tennyson, I’m more inclined to listen to the poet William Butler Yeats, who knew a thing or two about the fairies for he believed in them all his life. He said that “you can not lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hordes of them.”
There’s a famous story of a Scottish house fairy who proved to be so terribly annoying that the family in the house tried and tried to make him leave, to no avail. Finally there was no help for it. The family packed to go themselves. But as they drove down the road,
their worldly goods strapped to the old farm cart, they noticed the fairy perched on top, saying, “Ah, but it’s a fine day to be moving!” And so they sighed and went back home, knowing they were stuck with him for good. The fairy haunts that cottage and their descendants to this day.
So it is with fairies in literature and art. Fairy stories go in and out of fashion. But just when you think they’re gone for good, cast out by book and art critics who insist we move on to weightier matters, the fairies are still there, grinning, saying, “Ah, it’s a fine day to be moving!” — determined to move along with us, and be a part of whatever the future has in store.
Quoted from The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk, 1893.
Spiritualism was a practice in which “spirit mediums” provided contact with the spirits of the dead and with supernatural creatures. The movement was started in America by the Fox sisters in 1848, who claimed to communicate with the dead through mysterious knocks upon a table. Soon “table–turning” parties were all the rage in all levels of English society, right up to the Royal Court. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms and published newspapers, and popular spirit mediums developed huge followings.
Theosophy was a Spiritualist and philosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky at the end of the 19th century. Many prominent Theosophists believed in fairies.
Quoted from The Hidden Side of Things by Charles W. Leadbeater, 1913.
Quoted from The Coming of the Faires by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1922.
Quoted from “Some Remarks About the Spirits of Nature,” published in The Occult Review, 1911.
Quoted from The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs, 1978.
Painter and poet William Blake firmly believed in faeries, and once wrote about witnessing a fairy funeral.
Opium derivatives like laudanum, called “the aspirin of the 19th century,” were available without prescription in Victorian England, and were commonly used for insomnia, headaches and “women’s troubles.” It may be no accident that the Victorian’s obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same span of years when casual opium use was widespread.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle who, like Richard Dadd, had been confined to an insane asylum and whose imagery came from his personal visions. The fairy painter Richard Doyle (by all accounts a sane, sweet–tempered man) was Arthur Conan Doyle’s uncle.
Quoted from Alison Lurie’s “Braking for Elves,” first published in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in her excellent book Don’t Tell the Grown–ups: Why Kids Love the Books They Do.
Some claim that North America has no fairies, which is stuff and nonsense. What it has is a melting pot of fairies and stories carried over by numerous immigrant groups, transplanted to new soil and bearing fruit both familiar and strange. Mixed into this pot are Native American tales from a variety of tribal traditions — including tales about magical little people who live under the hills or deep in the woods, and are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and who tend to play tricks on human beings — fairies, in other words, in everything but name.
Artists are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
The text above is from The Journal of Mythic Arts, copyright c 2004 by Terri Windling. A version of this article appeared in The Faery Reel, edited by Datlow & Windling (Viking, 2004). It may not be reproduced without the author’s permission. For information on obtaining permission, please go to: http://www.terriwindling.com/
God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!
The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.
For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.
About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.
In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.
If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.
The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.
Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.
As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.
The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.
The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.
The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:
‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.
The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.
The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.
Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?
At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years
after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.
Myths associated with Binham Priory:
Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own – not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.
1.The Hooded Monk:
The stranger, choosing nightime to stand amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory, would not find it difficult to visualise such eerie surroundings as a perfect setting for a mythical ghost story. The same is true for those who venture inside. Take the inhabitants of Binham for instance who have, in the past, discussed a report of the appearance of the “ghostly” black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.
The story goes that a newspaper reporter once interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter and the story told to him was offered ‘in the strictest confidence’ by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.
“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.
“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”
After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the ” Porter ” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!
The Fiddler of Binham Priory:
Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales about Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.
Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away – but not ‘as the crow flies’. Certainly, local people fell for the tale which goes broadly along the following lines – bearing in mind that one can come across more than a few variants of the same tale (see below):
A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that they could follow his progress. Now bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.
So, with this in mind, the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers followed listening to his jigs and reels, the strains of which were clearly audible. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound which easily vibrates through the layers of soil. So they were able to follow, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors and interested onlookers – some with their own dogs which were, possibly, sensing a ‘hunt’.
However, when the fiddler reached a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.
Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. The spectre, in the form of a monk dressed in a black habit of the Benedictine Order that had founded Binham Priory in 1091, continued to wander the tunnel thereafter. It was believed that it was this Black Monk which spirited the fiddler away……..Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and always remember the final twist in this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!…..They do say that still, during dark nights, you can sometimes hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory!
A further story goes that a tunnel also ran between Blakeney Guildhall and Binham Priory; again, a fiddler was the only person brave enough to enter the tunnel. Along with his dog, he too set off while (in this version) the Mayor and Corporation of Blakeney followed above ground, guided by the sound of the fiddle. When the fiddle music stopped they too believed that the Devil had taken him – and the dog escaped!
On Thursday, September 10th, 1874, Norfolk experience both stormy weather and a rail tragedy. Two trains collided head-on near Norwich, in what became known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster. Passengers were killed and rescuers were faced with scenes of carnage as they struggled to help the injured and dying.
The evening of that Thursday, 144 years ago, was cold, dark and wet as the 8.45pm mail train left Great Yarmouth station for Norwich; it would pick up its Lowestoft connection at Reedham before heading on to its destination at Norwich. In the cab was 49 years old and experienced train driver, John Prior; beside him was 25 year old fireman, James Light of King Street, Norwich. As their train drew away from the station, there was nothing to suggest that this journey would be any different from any other.
At Reedham, John Prior’s train waited whilst the carriages from the Lowestoft train were coupled on to the mail train before it continued on to Norwich. Behind the engine was mixture of first, second and third class carriages, a truck laden with fresh fish from the docks and two brake vans; totalling thirteen carriages in all. The carriages from Lowestoft were especially crowded with visitors, that day, to the town’s flower show. Amongst the crowd were the Reverend Henry Stacey and his wife who were returning home. Sergeant Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward who were serving members of the West Norfolk Militia had been away on the fishing trip on the Norfolk Broads. Also amongst the train passengers were Robert Ward, who had been in the Coldsteam Guards before joining the West Norfolk Militia, together with his wife Elizabeth and their four children. Then there was John Betts, a 29 year old employee of the Great Eastern Railway Company who had been given a half day off to take his wife, Elizabeth, and two sons to the seaside. Passengers and train proceeded along the double track to Brundall, where the train normally waited on a loop to the single line to allow the scheduled express train through before carrying on its final stretch of its journey.
Back at Thorpe Station, Alfred Cooper, night duty inspector for the last 15 years and of blameless character, arrived for duty at 9pm; by 9.15pm he noted that the express train from London was seventeen minutes late. In such cases, it was usual practice for a telegraph message to be sent from Wymondham station to alert Norwich of any train delays of at least fifteen minutes; none had been received. Punctuality was known to be poor and the London Express was more often late than on time. The night inspector, Alfred Cooper was, again, not a happy man.
He mentioned the delay to the Norwich Thorpe stationmaster, William Sproule, who replied: “All right, we’ll get her off.” Cooper hurried off thinking Mr Sproule meant him to send up the Brundall train. But the stationmaster intended no such thing – he wanted to send the express to Yarmouth. Cooper rushed to the station telegraph booth where he asked the clerk, 18-year-old John Robson, to prepare a message for Brundall. Railway rules dictated that such messages must be signed before despatch; however, Cooper’s usual ‘custom and practice was to leave some messages unsigned and let the telegraph clerk send them. The young clerk, Robson, assumed this was such an occasion and tapped out and sent the wire at 9.26pm. It read:
“Send the mail train up before the 9.10pm down passenger train leaves Norwich – A Cooper”
The stationmaster at Brundall was William Platford who had been in charge there for eight years. On that particular evening he was assisted by his twelve year old son, who regularly sent and received telegraph messages for his father. When the telegraph from clerk Robson at Norwich arrived, apparently signed by Alfred Cooper. Two minutes later the train pulled out of Brundall station and three minutes after that, at around 9.31pm the London express left Norwich on the instructions of Mr Sproule. A fatal minute elapsed before Cooper saw the express steam out. A witness at the time stated:
“Cooper then left his office. He could not have been there for more than two minutes. A few minutes afterwards, at 9.23, the witness heard the down express run in under the arcade. In 8 minutes, at 9.31, he saw the train start again while standing at the door of his office. He went in there again and heard, some few minutes after, a sharp click of the wicket opening at the telegraph-window. He wondered and listened, and heard something about the mail. He rushed out and said, “What about mail?” Cooper was then standing against the telegraph-window………. he had the appearance of a man paralysed and said “I have ordered it up,” or “the mail up”, the witness was not sure which; he was so unstrung that he hardly knew what took place. He felt for Cooper so much that he could hardly speak to him……..”
It was also reported at the time that the Inspector’s reaction to such a shock was for him to shout at Robson, “Have you ordered up the Brundall train?”, to which the clerk replied that he had. Cooper immediately ordered him to send another wire to Brundall to stop the train. Both he and Robson waited anxiously while Brundall took the message and replied. That reply starkly stated “Mail gone!”
Apparantly, Cooper had also demanded of the clerk as to why he had sent the first telegraph requesting for the mail train to proceed when he had expressly told Robson not to. The clerk claimed that he had reminded Cooper that he had told him (the clerk) to send the message – if Cooper hadn’t, then why had he asked the clerk to cancel it!
No one will ever know how the fatal misunderstanding between Inspector Cooper and the telegraphist Robson arose and a further explanation, set out in an old letter that came to light many years later, would have muddied the water even more. It was from a Mr H O L Francis, a railwayman working on the Yarmouth section of the Great Eastern Railway network in 1874. In 1931 he wrote to a railway inspector, Oswald Cook of Cromer and his letter put the blame for the accident squarely on the clerk, Robson.
“I had been on the Yarmouth section a few days before the mishap. I knew the guards concerned, with the Norwich inspector Cooper and Parker – also the telegraphist Robson. This latter person caused the accident by sending on to Brundall the unsigned message handed him by Inspector Cooper – ‘send the mail train up’ which Mr Cooper told him not to send till he came to him again. When Cooper saw Inspector Parker start the down express he went to tell Robson to send the message after an interval to allow down express to reach Brundall. To his horror he found the unsigned message gone. Robson saying he did not hear him say: ‘Wait till I come and sign it’.”
Whatever the facts and actual sequence of events, the end result was the same and there was nothing that the drivers, John Prior and Thomas Clarke, could do to avoid the crash. Its inevitability within minutes caused panic at Norwich Station where everyone had realised that they were powerless and there was no way of communicating with either driver or stopping the trains beforehand. According to eye witnesses, Cooper had frozen with fear, realising the consequences of his actions.
Thomas Clarke was driving the London Express train that evening, alongside him was fireman Frederick Sewell. Thomas, who was keen to make up lost time and believing that the Yarmouth mail train was waiting at Brundall, opened up the steam regulator. Coming the other way was the mail train with it’s diver, John Prior, also eager not to delay the Norwich train any further than necessary, building up considerable momentum. It was unlikely that Prior would have seen the approaching lights of the express train for there was a slight bend on the track at Postwick and there would not have been enough time to apply the brakes. The outcome was catastrophic. In the darkness and pouring rain both trains collided head at 9.45pm, just east of the bridge over the river Wensum and within 100 yards of the Thorpe Gardens public house, now the ‘Rushcutters’. Local people described the noise as being like a ‘thunderclap’ and ‘a massive peal of thunder’ with one eye witness saying:
“The engines reared up into an almost perpendicular position , and the carriages mounted one upon the top of another, and gradually sunk down into an altogether inconceivable mass of rubbish and ruins. Carriages were piled one on top of the other; others had been thrown on their sides and had rolled some half dozen yards away from the line”.
In fact, the first few carriages of both trains were ripped apart as they ploughed into the twisted wrecks of the locomotives; the momentum forcing the other carriages to rear up on top of one another. Some carriages split in two and some had the roofs torn off. Further witnesses stated that the highest most carriage was some 20 or 30 feet above the ground, teetering precariously. The drivers and firemen of both trains, John Prior, James Light, Thomas Clarke and Frederick Sewell had been killed instantly.
Darkness descended when the impact extinguished all the carriage lamps. One national newspaper described the scene as a “ghastly pyramid formed of hissing locomotives, shattered carriages and moaning, in some cases dying, passengers”. There had not been time for the drivers to turn off the regulators with the result that the steam was still emerging for some time afterwards. Those who could, scrambled out of the wreckage with many suffering from head wounds, having been catapulted across the carriages. All around was a scene of devastation, people were dead or dying. Villagers who had heard the crash rushed down to help. Dr Peter Eade, who had been in the first class carriage on the Lowestoft section of the mail train managed to crawl through the opening and out onto the marshland. Although he was cut about the face, he immediately rushed to assist those who were injured.
Black, one of the brake van guards, was thrown across the carriage but picked himself up, grabbed a lantern and clambered out. Although hurt, he insisted on carrying out his duty and made his way to the wooden rail bridge, which crossed the River Yare and where five or six of the Norwich carriages had come to a stop. Inside the carriages there was panic and confusion with terrified passengers screaming and crying, unable to get out because there were no guard rails alongside the narrow bridge. Cautiously, Black edged his way along the rails with his lantern, holding on to the steps of the carriages to prevent himself falling into the water below. He did his best to calm the occupants and urged them to stay where they were until rescued. Another of the van guards, a man named Read, staggered back along the line to alert Thorpe station of the disaster.
Back in Norwich, emergency procedures were already underway, supervised by the Station Master. A train was prepared to take men and equipment to the accident and cabs sent out to fetch every available doctor. The job of extricating the injured from amongst the wreckage was a difficult one as many needed to be cut free. The steam and the heat from the boiler complicated matters further. Light was provided by huge bonfires which were built beside the track, fuelled by the remains of the shattered wooden carriages. Makeshift mortuaries were set up in a boat shed beside the track belonging to Steven Field and in a room at the Three Tuns pub across the river at Thorpe Gardens. These were soon occupied by 15 bodies. The wounded were taken back to Norwich by train from where the most severe cases were sent to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Some comments from witnesses appeared in the local Press:
“In a corner lay the corpses of a man, a woman and a pretty little child, not more than four or five years old. On the opposite side were the mortal remains of a woman who appeared to be nothing but a chaotic mess of clothing.”
“Between these bodies lay the wounded, and the smile that continually overspread the features of one poor young woman as she looked up into the face of her nurse was a thing never to be forgotten. She seemed to be dying.”
“Another young woman next to her was evidently suffering acutely, her piteous groans giving ample testimony of this fact.”
A girl’s leg was amputated at the scene of the tangled wreckage!
The men worked long and hard throughout the night and by mid morning most of the wreckage had been cleared. The death toll had risen to 18. Surprisingly, there was little damage to the track itself. Two of the rails were slightly bent, but none of the sleepers had been dislodged. By 2.30 that afternoon, the track had been opened up to rail traffic once more. News of the accident spread quickly and it was the subject of some very graphic and sensationalistic reporting for several weeks. It prompted much discussion in both national and provincial newspapers over safety on the railways. The reports make for a harrowing read.
Over the next couple of weeks, the final death toll rose to 27, with over 70 suffering varying degrees of injury. It was estimated that there had been around 220 passengers in total on the two trains. Amongst those who died were GER stoker John Betts, his wife and their youngest son who was just six weeks old and hadn’t yet been named. He had been found lying in his mothers arms. Their three year old son Charles suffered a head wound but survived. Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sergeant Robert Ward also lost their lives and were buried with full military honours. The Rev. Henry Stacey and his wife Ann were killed along with Mr George Womack, a clothier from Norwich, Mrs Sarah Gilding from London and her four year old daughter Laura, Mr Stanley Slade, a London auctioneer, Miss Susan Lincoln a servant from Thorpe Hamlet and Mr J Hupton, a 45 year old harness maker from Great Yarmouth. The eminent Bungay botanist, Dr Bransby Francis, was another victim. They were people from all walks of life.
Surprisingly perhaps, there were some lucky escapes. One young couple had moved from the lead carriage, as they didn’t like the company in the front carriage and one young woman was thrown clear through trees into a nearby garden and suffered only a few cuts and bruises. Another was a young man sitting in one of the other carriages who escaped without a scratch or bruise, although his carriage had been pulled up into the air as the engines collided. The mail guard, who was in his van at the time of the crash, despite being bruised and shaken and the van smashed like a matchbox, picked himself and his bags up and succeeded in getting them to the post office in a cart. Refusing to go to hospital he was persuaded to return to his home in Yarmouth in a carriage.
Alfred Cooper and John Robson were arrested and immediate investigations conducted. The Coronors inquest, held before a jury by Mr E. S. Bignold, considered the evidence and decided that both men were guilty of gross negligence and carelessness and should be tried for manslaughter. However, it was felt that Cooper was the more culpable of the two. At a separate inquest held by Captain Tyler of the Board of Trade, the jury concluded that both should be charged with manslaughter but that Robson, having sent the telegraph message to send the mail train up from Brundall was the guilty party. In giving evidence, both men tried to shift the blame on to one another. When the case reached trial in April 1875, John Robson was acquitted and released and Alfred Cooper was found guilty and sentenced to eight months imprisonment with hard labour. The Great Eastern railway Company paid out over £40,000 in compensation to the victims and their families, an unprecedented sum at the time. It was noted that the Thorpe accident could have been far more serious had it occurred just a hundred feet closer to Norwich the line. The engines and carriages would probably have ended up in the river and many passengers would have been drowned. The fact that there were three empty carriages and a horsebox directly behind the Norwich engine, and a cargo truck carrying fish behind the Yarmouth engine, also limited the number of fatalities as it was these which bore the brunt of the collision.
Nothing seems to be known of Alfred Cooper after he had been sent to prison. From facts brought up during his trial it would appear that he was a man who had a history of mental health problems, although he was judged to have been of sound mind and sober at the time of the accident. Was it a momentary lapse in concentration or a serious error of judgement? Whatever the reason, the outcome was one of the worst railway accidents in Britain.
It seems right that this tale should end at the graves of the driver and fireman of the Great Yarmouth mail train, John Prior and James Light. They were buried side by side in a corner of the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich.
Footnote: Ironically, the company back then had recognised that the single line between Norwich and Brundall needed doubling and had laid a second line beside it which was awaiting Board of Trade approval – and surprise, surprise, it was duly approved a few weeks after the Thorpe crash and brought into use. There is a plaque commemorating this crash in Girlings Lane, off Yarmouth Road, which is very close to the site of the accident.
This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster, along with two further rail accidents in the following months led to new safety measures being implemented to prevent similar incidents happening in the future. In particular, it led to the introduction of the Tablet System, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track:
Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system is a form of railway signalling for single line railways used in several countries; it was first devised in Great Britain by engineer Edward Tyer after the Thorpe rail accident of 1874, which left 21 people dead. It was used in New Zealand for close to 100 years until June 1994. The system used a hard disk called a tablet, a form of token.
The purpose of the system was to use the tablet as a physical guarantee to the traincrew that their train had exclusive right of way on the single line section. Without this they could not proceed beyond the section signal which protected entry to the single line. With advances in electrical locking of the lever frame within the signal box, the tablet instrument also electrically locked the section signal lever. This was marked with a white stripe on the red background.
The Tablet System is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed. The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.