Whifflers and Snap Dragons are still about – but not in the rolls that they once had! Nowadays, the ‘whiffler’ name is confined to one public house on the Norwich Ring Road at Hellesdon, to a road opposite the pub and to an open air theatre in the shadows of Norwich Castle. This is not to overlook its use with the present-day enthusiasts who keep the character alive in the public’s consciousness by appearing in public processions and local events from time to time.
‘Whifflers’ went out of use in much of England long ago, but survived in East Anglia, thriving particularly in Norwich. It was the Whifflers, supported by Snap, who played such a major role in past Norwich Civic Ceremonies.
The origin of the word ‘Whiffler’ is 16th century and comes from the word ‘wifle’ for battle-axe and came from the Old English ‘wifel’ of Germanic origin: it was applied to attendants at processions who carried weapons to clear the way through crowds. It was a word which was once in general use and appeared in Shakespeare’s play Henry V;
“The deep-mouth’d Sea, /Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King, / Seems to prepare his way”.
The Norwich Dragon, known affectionately as ‘Snap’, is preserved in a remarkable present-day collection at Norwich Castle Museum. This collection totals three old snapdragons which are more or less complete; one is the last of the Civic Snaps with the other two being later copies.
Snap was designed and constructed to be carried by one man, using straps over his shoulders. The form of the body is barrel-shaped, formed around a horizontal pole (head at one end, tail at the other) and two small wings concealing the man’s face. His hands are left free to operate the head and hinged lower jaw (this makes a loud click when it shuts, hence ‘Snap’.
In an old and long established Civic ceremonial, which persisted until the mid 19th century, included Snap who acted as the herald for the grand annual Guild Day procession which was held at the inauguration of a new Mayor. This cavorting dragon was a source of amusement and entertainment for the crowds who watched these processions. However, in earlier times, Snap took on a more religious significance as part of a pageant performed by the Guild of St. George in Norwich.
St. George riding on horse-back and fighting the dragon was the centre-piece of these Processions, with a third figure representing the maiden who was, supposingly, rescued by St. George. She was recorded as ‘The Lady’, ‘The Maid’ or ‘The Margaret’ – “the lady of the Gild“ and believed to be based on Saint Margaret of Antioch. A Sword bearer, carrying the Guild sword led the procession with priests, the City Waits, Cantors from the Cathedral and the City and Guild officials following.
In Norwich’s Great Hospital, St Helen’s Church, has a fine example of the devil depicted as a dragon. It is said the a dragon swallowed St Margaret of Antioch but her cross irritated the dragon, allowing her to break free.
The Guild of St. George 1385-1731
The history of the Snap was inextricably linked to that of The Guild of St George, founded in 1385; its aims were religious, charitable and social: to honour St. George, to keep his feast day, to pray for its members past and present and to offer alms to the poor and needy within the Guild. The principal event for the Guild was the feast day ceremony held annually on 23 April which began as a simple religious celebration of the feast day of St. George. The event grew steadily in size and importance as the Guild’s relationship with the City Corporation deepened. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the event was no longer a civic religious ceremony but a civic secular ceremony which celebrated the coming to office of the new Mayor. For this no expense was spared.
Although the form of the procession changed over the centuries, Snap the dragon remained as part of the pageantry for over 400 years. The earliest reference to him comes from the minutes of the Guild Assembly of 1408 at which it was agreed:
‘to furnish priests with copes, and the George shall go in procession and make a conflict with the Dragon, and keep his estate both days’.
In 1585 the two separate celebrations, that of Guild Day in April and that of the swearing in of the new Mayor of Norwich in June, were combined to create one grand event on the Tuesday before Midsummer’s Eve. Over the next 150 years the pattern of the Guild Day celebrations remained the same but the scale and splendour of the occasion increased, gradually reaching its height at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The three pictures above are copies of postcards published by the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage trust which are taken from glass roundels in the Dragon Hall, Norwich – http://www.dragonhall.org/
Then came 1645 and a setback which interrupted Snap Dragon’s progress: the Puritan government ordered that at the next procession there must be ‘no beating of drums or sounds of trumpets, no Snap-Dragon or fellows dressed up in Fools Coats and Caps; no standard with the George thereon, nor no hanging of Tapestry Cloth and Pictures in any of the streets’. However, in 1660, the monarchy was restored and all the old ways returned – including Snap and Whifflers. Their appearances continued and, in time, Norwich became quite famous for the scale and spectacle of its processions. However, the Guild found it expedient to make certain modifications to the form of the ceremony. They agreed that on the following feast day ‘. . .
“there shall be neither George nor Margaret; but for pastime, the Dragon to come and shew himself as in other years”.
A local historian, Benjamin Mackerell, has left us a description of the Guild Day festivities in the early years of the 18th century,
“On Guild Day the old Mayor, Sheriffs, Aldermen, the St George’s Company and Common Councillors met at eight o’clock in the morning at the house of the newly elected Mayor where they enjoyed sugar rolls and wine. The whole street (formerly the whole parish) where the new Mayor lived was decorated. The street was strewn with green sashes and planted with trees. The outsides of the houses were hung with tapestries and pictures, particularly the new Mayor’s house. From here the dignitaries then paraded on horseback to the house of the retiring Mayor where a substantial breakfast of pasties, roast beef, boiled legs of mutton and wine were provided. The procession then set out for the cathedral. The way was cleared by six Whifflers and two Dick Fools accompanied by the Dragon. The Dragon, carried by a Man in the body of it, gave great diversion to the common People: they always seemed very much to fear it when it was near them, but always looked upon it with pleasure when it was a little distance from them’.
As for the Whifflers, they were dressed in a distinctive costume of scarlet satin breeches, white satin jerkin and a hat decorated with a cockade of feathers and ribbons. They carried swords which they brandished and tossed in the air. Helping them were the Dick Fools, who wore painted canvas coats with red and yellow cloth caps adorned with fox or cats’ tails and small bells”.
With the demise of the St. George’s Company (formerly the Guild) in 1731, Guild Day continued, but on a much more modest scale. Although the Company was disbanded Snap the dragon, Dick Fools and Whifflers were kept on and their wages paid by the Corporation. Pagan Snap became Civic Snap, the property of the local authority and appeared on Guild Day when the Lord Mayor was inaugurated. Then, with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835 much pageantry of corporate boroughs disappeared and that year saw the last Guild Day Ceremony.
It was George Borrow, writing in 1857 in his book ‘The Romany Rye’ who lamented their passing in these words:
“The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago ….. from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art…….since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets”.
There was, however, one final outing of the Whifflers and Snap in 1846. It was during the ‘crowning’ of Jeremiah Colman, the mustard manufacturer, when two Whifflers met a royal Duke off the train at Trowse Station and led him and the procession up Bracondale Hill into the city. The two of them taking it in turns to run ahead, leaping and twirling their two handed swords.
It was fortuitous that the Whifflers lasted into the age of photography so it is still possible to see the costume that they wore with breeches and white socks tied with fancy garters, a bowler styled hat with a cockade to the left hand. The whole uniform was completed by a white jacket. Maybe it was on the 1846 occasion that the following Whiffler photograph was taken?
As for Snap, he continued to appear occasionally up to around 1850 after which he was adopted by the Pockthorpe Guild, more as a publicity gimmick than anything else. By the 1880’s much of the mock pomp of the past had gone and the appearance of the Snap had degenerated into just a boisterous money-raising stunt for the Guild which used it alongside members carrying collection boxes. Even so, Snap continued to cause much hilarity when used to chase people with the intention of grabbing their hats or caps between its jaws and returning them only after a penny ransom had been paid. Young boys would taunt the Snap by running close by and chanting
‘Snap, Snap, steal a boy’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back’.
Although much of the pageantry disappeared after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835, a defiant tradition emerged: the people of Pockthorpe, a part of Norwich outside its walls and over the water, created their own dragon and their own mocking, subversive imitation of the Lord Mayor’s street procession. So the tradition of faux Snap terrorizing the people of Norwich continued in the district of Pockthorpe and in the nearby village of Costessey. This 1887 photograph of the Costessey Guild Day suggests the fun that accompanied the election of the ‘mayor’.
These annual revelries continued until early in the twentieth century, according to oral history, up to the First World War, but Snap lived on. In the 1930s, ‘Snapdragon’, was a magazine aimed at raising money in aid of hospitals. Then, the Festival of Britain in 1951 saw the Pockthorpe dragon come to life again for a procession of ‘Norwich Through the Ages’. Co-incidently, it was around this time that another very dilapidated dragon was found, this time in the Backs Bar in Norwich.
These Snap Dragons are the remnants of a medieval pageant play banned at the reformation (saints being denigrated as icons of papism). Snap meant something, for though its official role ceased in 1835 it persisted in a community based in both city and outskirts. Since the mid 1980s Snap occasionally accompanies the Lord Mayor, and at least three have materialised from the community, so the dragons clearly do still have significance for Norwich.
It was publicity that led to curiosity and from that the dragons found themselves conserved and are now on proud display in Norwich Castle. The publication of an important book about ‘Snap The Norwich Dragon’ by Richard Lane in 1976 led to Snap’s reappearance in the Lord Mayor’s Procession in the early 1980s and since that time the dragon has become well loved again, very visible in the culture of the city – and joined by newcomers.
For those who want to know more: Click on the following links:
The cold fact of the case is that George Granville Barker was born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England in 1913; he was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. George was raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London and was educated at an L.C.C. school and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Having left school at an early age he pursued several odd jobs before settling on a career in writing.
Having said that – George Barker’s birthplace is not a place of pilgrimage, simply because Barker is one of those forgotten poets – well at least for the last decade or so. During all that time and possibly to the present day, hardly anyone has read him, most of his work is out of print, and has been barely mentioned in literary histories. Yet he was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. T.S. Eliot declared him a genius and Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation.
Apparently, many critics thought the young Barker a better poet than the young Dylan Thomas, who had called Barker’s poems “masturbatory monologues”, a term which may have been a clue to the possibility that Thomas was madly jealous. Barker’s output never flagged for he regarded poetry as a full-time occupation and, save for a few visiting university lectureships, never had anything resembling a full-time job. He composed poetry until the day he died.
If you like your poets to be wild, irresponsible and dangerous then Barker would make you feel ecstatic! He was a prodigious drinker, womaniser and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings – and he scarcely had a fixed address. As a young man, he accidentally stabbed his brother’s eye out while they were fencing, an episode that haunted him all his life. Also, for years, he was at the heart of the bohemian crowd in London’s Soho. He fathered 15 children by four different women. One of them, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, determined to marry him and bear his children when she discovered his poetry in a London bookshop in the 1930’s – long before she met him.
He quarrelled bitterly and sometimes violently with friends as well as lovers and once threw one of his works on the fire – because, he said, his then partner had read it with a sneer. When a visitor tried to rescue it, he hit him over the head with a shovel. The same partner threw an ashtray at him and broke his teeth. Another bit his upper lip so firmly he required 40 stitches. A third partner, who left him for his nephew, was so terrified of the consequences that she settled and married in Birmingham. In America Barker wrote pornography with Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. His poems, read on the BBC Third Programme, were criticised for obscenity, and he never lost the capacity to cause outrage. Brought up a Catholic by his Irish mother, he took confession not long before he died, for the first time in 30 years. He had broken every commandment, he told the priest, except the sixth, “thou shalt not kill”.
So why did he fall so out of fashion. Why, despite settling for the last 24 years of his life in the idylic hamlet of Itteringham, Norfolk, just 15 miles or so miles from Norwich, the University of East Anglia and pioneer of creative writing courses, never invited him to take a single class? His second wife Elspeth once said:
“he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”. He was, she said, “a very perverse poet who would often bugger up a perfectly good poem with a pun in the last line”.
By the mid-1950s, he was out of tune with the age. “He remained “mystical and mythical” when the new mood among poets stressed common sense,” wrote his biographer, Robert Fraser. Despite his neglect of church attendance, and frequent assertions that he didn’t believe in God, Barker feared hellfire and damnation; he was “a very superstitious Catholic,” observed Elspeth. Even at the age of nine and inspired by Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, he first resolved to be a poet: “While other urchins were blowing up toads with pipes of straw stuck in the arse, So was I, but I also wrote odes.”
Barker was also conscious that “I had been cast a little low in the social register.” and, after he left school at 15, was never very comfortable with better-educated writers. Writing of Auden he said “behind the poetry I discern a clumsy interrogatory finger questioning me about my matriculation certificate, my antecedents and my annual income”.
Discovering his girlfriend Jessica was pregnant, he married at 20. Since she, too, was from a Catholic family, the child was born in secret and given up for adoption, another source of lifelong guilt. Though they lived apart from the mid-1940s, she and Barker never divorced. Only when Jessica died, two years before Barker’s own death, did he marry Elspeth, his last love.
Barker had little time for politics and was apparently only dimly aware that Japan was allied with the fascist powers when he agreed to take a university lectureship there, starting in March 1940. His lectures were attended by only three students.
Then, when receiving fan mail from the affluent and well-connected Elizabeth Smart, Barker appealed to her for financial help in escaping to America. She readily agreed and so came about their first meeting, which forms the celebrated opening passage of “By Grand Central Station”, a fictional re-creation of their turbulent and passionate affair. Barker’s account of it was less nuanced: “I stepped down into your lap, just as truly as I stepped down from my mother, and I have loved you completely and perfectly from that moment.” Cynics would say Barker really fell in love with the freedom of classless America and that Smart was an infatuated groupie. But their on-off affair ranged over four countries and 18 years, and produced four children.
Barker didn’t formally leave most of his women. Rather, he drifted off, seeming to believe they should wait patiently in the kitchen while his absences grew longer. “Poets are terrifying people to live with,” wrote one daughter, then 15. “They rush off at odd moments and are neither seen nor heard of for months. Then . . . they suddenly appear on the threshold as if nothing had ever happened.”
From 1959, Barker lived in Italy with Dede Farrelly, estranged wife of his friend John Farrelly. Then he met Elspeth Langlands, a 22-year-old from the Scottish Highlands, on a visit to London in 1963. “He asked me what I thought of his most recent volume,” she recalled, “and I said I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as some of his earlier ones. He flew into a rage.” But his relationship with Dede was deteriorating and, when Elspeth arrived in Italy with a young painter called Tony Kingsmill, Barker prised her away.
From 1967 he settled with Elspeth at Bintree House in Itteringham, Norfolk, a flint and brick house which lies just off the main street – close to the River Bure. The couple were able to acquire the house with financial support from the novelist Graham Greene who was a long-term admirer of Barker’s poetry. In her essay ‘Thoughts in a Garden’, Elspeth Barker describes the watery location of the house.
‘Mine is a riverine garden, and even indoors one is aware of this, not just by gazing through the window but by simply sitting still, committing words to paper in the intense cold, while a great numbness seeps up through feet and lower limbs. Hemlock and the death of Socrates come forward in the mind. The tiled floor is laid straight on the earth in the manner of 17th century folk, and beneath this floor and a thin layer of earth lie the black sullen waters of an underground lake.’
They had five children and, for the first time, Barker lived with a family more or less uninterruptedly. According to Elspeth he became disciplined enough to stay off drink and rise at six to start work. She flushed the drugs down the lavatory; only on Saturday nights, when it was open house for friends and relatives, did he indulge and fight as of old. “People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth recalled. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.” It seemed that he prided himself on being an outsider.”
It seems the Barker was a notoriously uneven writer and in describing the difficulties in writing his own biography, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ……. It simply can’t be done.” In 1969 his visit to All Saints Church, in the village in Thurgarton and only a short distance from Itteringham, inspired George Barker to write one of his finest later poems “At Thurgarton Church” (see below). The poem concerned Barker’s sense of sin and his fear of Judgement day.
On his grave at St Mary’s Church in Itteringham, Norfolk, a stone book – erected by a young bank robber whom Barker had befriended – states: “No Compromise”. It was a phrase Barker often used, and it is a good epitaph for both his extraordinary life and his attitude to poetry.
At Thurgarton Church
by George Barker
To the memory of my father:
At Thurgarton Church the sun
burns the winter clouds over
the gaunt Danish stone
and thatched reeds that cover
the barest chapel I know.
I could compare it with
the Norse longboats that bore
burning the body forth
in honour from the shore
of great fjords long ago.
The sky is red and cold
overhead, and three small
sturdy trees keep a hold
on the world and the stone wall
that encloses the dead below.
I enter and find I stand
in a great barn, bleak and bare.
Like ice the winter ghosts and
the white walls gleam and flare
and flame as the sun drops low.
And I see, then, that slowly
the December day has gone.
I stand in the silence, not wholly
believing I am alone.
Somehow I cannot go.
Then a small wind rose, and the trees
began to crackle and stir
and I watched the moon by degrees
ascend in the window till her
light cut a wing in the shadow.
I thought: the House of the Dead.
The dead moon inherits it.
And I seem in a sense to have died
as I rise from where I sit
and out into darkness go.
I know as I leave I shall pass
where Thurgarton’s dead lie
at those old stones in the grass
under the cold moon’s eye.
I see the old bones glow.
No, they do not sleep here
in the long holy night of
the serene soul, but keep here
a dark tenancy and the right of
rising up to go.
Here the owl and soul shriek with
the voice of the dead as they turn
on the polar spit and burn
without hope and seek with
out hope the holy home below.
Yet to them the mole and
mouse bring a wreath and a breath
of the flowering leaves of the soul, and
it is from the Tree of Death
the leaves of life grow.
The rain, the sometime summer
rain on a memory of roses
will fall lightly and come
among them as it erases
summers so long ago.
And the voices of those
once so much loved will flitter
over the nettled rows
of graves, and the holly tree twitter
like friends they used to know.
And not far away the
icy and paralysed stream
has found it also, that day the
flesh became glass and a dream
with no where to go.
Haunting the December
fields their bitter lives
entreat us to remember
the lost spirit that grieves
over these fields like a scarecrow.
That grieves over all it ever
did and all, all not
done, that grieves over
its cross-purposed lot:
to know and not to know.
The masterless dog sits
outside the church door
with dereliction haunting its
heart that hankers for
the hand that loved it so.
Not in a small grave
outside the stone wall
will the love that it gave
ever be returned, not for all
time or tracks in the snow.
More mourned the death of the dog
than our bones ever shall
receive from the hand of god
this bone again, or all
that high hand could bestow.
As I stand by the porch
I believe that no one has heard
here in Thurgarton Church
a single veritable word
save the unspoken No.
The godfathered negative
that responds to our mistaken
incredulous and heartbroken
desire above all to live
as though things were not so.
Desire to live as though the
two-footed clay stood up
proud never to know the
tempests that rage in the cup
under a rainbow.
Desire above all to live
as though the soul was stone,
believing we cannot give
or love since we are alone
and always will be so.
That heartbroken desire
to live as though no light
ever set the seas on fire
and no sun burned at night
or Mercy walked to and fro.
The proud flesh cries: I am not
caught up in the great cloud
of my unknowing. But that
proud flesh had endowed
us with the cloud we know.
To this the unspoken No
of the dead god responds
and then the whirlwinds blow
over all the things and beyond
and the dead mop and mow.
And there in the livid dust
and bones of death we search
until we find as we must
outside Thurgarton Church
only wild grasses blow.
I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.
For now in a wild way we
know that justice is served
and that we die in the clay we
dread, desired, and deserved,
awaiting no Judgement Day.
Shipdham lies approximately 3 miles south-west of East Dereham, Norfolk. The name derives from the Old English word for sheep – ‘sceap’ – hence ‘homestead with a flock of sheep’. Shipdham is sometimes confused with Shipden – the drowned village off the North Norfolk coast near Cromer. Shipdham was the first US heavy bomber base in Norfolk during World War II and was home to the famous B-24 Liberator bombers.
Hyam Plutzik was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1911, the son of recent immigrants from what is now Belarus. He spoke only Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian until the age of seven, when he enrolled in grammar school near Southbury, Connecticut, where his parents owned a farm. Plutzik graduated from Trinity College in 1932, where he studied under Professor Odell Shepard. He continued graduate studies at Yale University, becoming one of the first Jewish students there. His poem “The Three” won the Cooke Prize at Yale in 1933.
After working briefly in Brooklyn, where he wrote features for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Plutzik spent a Thoreauvian year in the Connecticut countryside, writing his long poem, “Death at The Purple Rim”, which earned him another Cooke Prize in 1941, the only student to have won the award twice. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Force throughout the Amerian South and in Norwich, England, experiences that inspired many of his poems.
In 1942, Hyam Plutzik enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming first a drill sergeant then first and second lieutenant. During the war, he married Tanya Roth, who worked for the War Information Bureau in New York City. Numerous moves—twelve different cities and twenty different houses before going overseas—and the lack of private time in army life made it difficult for Plutzik to continue to write poetry. The only poem he was able to complete was “Elegy.” But he did create an outline for and composed the first twenty lines of the long poem, Horatio, that was finally published to much acclaim in 1961.
Before going abroad, he was stationed at many bases throughout the American South, where he witnessed first-hand the institutional racism of segregation and Jim Crow. His experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi inspired him to write a number of poems that expressed his disgust for the way the Negro was being treated, such as “To Abraham Lincoln, That He Walk By Day,” and “The Road.” After his deployment in the South, he was stationed at Shipdham c.1944-5 and became the Ordinance, Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. Even in wartime Britain, Plutzik found time to attend Shakespearean plays and visit literary landmarks. He also collected impressions that later led to the composition of some of his notable “war poems” such as “Bomber Base,” “The Airfield at Shipdham,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England.” Like many servicemen, he wrote letters to his wife, parents, siblings and friends nearly every day, in which he described the experiences of wartime and the lives of ordinary soldiers. He also kept a journal; an entry dated June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, describes the uncertainty felt by men who were fighting a war as the English tried to carry on their everyday activities:
“The invasion of France began after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hand of the evil one…How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France…On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.”
Plutzik continued his tour of duty in England for several months after the cessation of hostilities in the summer of 1945. He helped establish a library in Norwich and regularly gave informal lectures on American life and culture to local residents. Though his superiors encouraged him to re-enlist, Plutzik, like millions of other G.I.’s, was eager to resume his stateside life and career that had been interrupted by World War II. He rejoined his wife, Tanya, in New York. Soon afterwards, he was hired by the University of Rochester to teach in its English department.
Plutzik wrote two poems which were directly inspired by Shipdham – the first is ‘On the Airfield at Shipdham’ which concerns a skylark that he saw above the runway and which he connects to the bombers:
There is the lark, you said. And for the first time
I saw, far up in the fast darkening air,
The small lonely singer beating its wings
Against the pull of the old and evil earth.
It is too late, I said, to praise its song ….
Praise instead (because they bring our deaths
And thus another cycle of this bird’s praises)
The beasts with guts of metal groaning on the line
This poem was dedicated to R.H. Mottram, the Norwich-based novelist, best known for his Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927). Plutzik met Mottram after he invited him to give a lecture at the Shipdham air base. In fact, Plutzik records the event in a fascinating letter to his wife:
This evening Mr Mottram, well-known resident of the nearby city, came & lectured on our base, and I have just come back from taking him & his wife back to their home. Riding in the dark along the wet roads, with the forlorn landscape illuminated occasionally by the dimmed-out lights, I thought of you my wife, and I felt very lonely for you.
(Printed by permission of Rochester University archive.)
On the Sunday evening in question, Mottram and his wife were entertained in the officer’s mess and after the lecture were driven back to 4, Poplar Drive – just off the Newmarket Road in Norwich.
The second poem inspired by Shipdham is ‘Bomber Base’ which appeared in Plutzik’s 1949 collection Aspects of Proteus. In this longer poem, the poet contemplates the bombers spread out on the airfield prior to take off but then shifts his attention to the surrounding East Anglian landscape where he notes the ‘thatched farmhouse sleeps in the dark’ or how the ‘bomb trucks move down the deserted perimeter/ Where the cold North wind stifles all.’
Norfolk also features in his famous poem The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’ s England where ‘pilgrims along the holy roads/To Walsingham’ are mentioned. There is also a lesser known poem called The Old War which appeared in Apples of Shinar (1959) which was also set in the county. Plutzik’s long dramatic poem Horatio, although not set in the Norfolk, was drafted during his time here. The poem wasn’t published until 1961 – one year before Plutzik’s premature death from cancer. Plutzik was only 50 years old when he died.
Already there is no one to call to.
The body of Edward is not Edward,
Nor the ashes of Gregory Gregory.
Alexander is no longer Alexander in the earth.
Nothing can be done but something can be said at least.
(From Requiem for Edward Carrigh)
Copyright by the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved
Ted Hughes was a big fan of Plutzik’s work and said: ‘Plutzik’s poems have haunted me for twenty-five years. His visions are authentic and piercing, and the song in them is strange – dense and harrowing, with unforgettable tones.’
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
On the 15th April 1912 the RMS Titanic, billed as ‘unsinkable’, sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, killing 1,517 people. The United Kingdom’s White Star Line built the Titanic as the most luxurious cruise ship in the world. It was nearly 900 feet long and more than 100 feet high. The liner could reach speeds of 30 knots and was thought to be the world’s fastest ship. With its individualised watertight compartments, it was seen as virtually unsinkable. On its first voyage, from Southampton to New York with stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, the Titanic was carrying 2,206 people, including a crew of 898. A relatively mild winter had produced a bumper crop of icebergs in the North Atlantic, but the crew, believing their ship was unsinkable, paid scant attention to warnings.
On the night of Sunday, April 14, other ships in the area reported icebergs by radio, but their messages were not delivered to the bridge or the captain of the Titanic. The iceberg that struck the ship was spotted at 11:40 p.m. Although a dead-on collision was avoided, the Titanic‘s starboard side violently scraped the iceberg, ripping open six compartments. The ship’s design could withstand only four compartments flooding. Minutes later, the crew radioed for help, sending out an SOS signal, the first time the new type of help signal was used. Ten minutes after midnight, the order for passengers to head for the lifeboats was given. Unfortunately, there were only lifeboats for about half of the people on board. Additionally, there had been no instruction or drills regarding such a procedure and general panic broke out on deck.
The survivors, those who successfully made it onto the lifeboats, were mostly women who were traveling first class. In fact, the third-class passengers were not even allowed on to the deck until the first-class female passengers had abandoned the ship. White Star President Bruce Ismay jumped on to the last lifeboat though there were women and children still waiting to board. At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic finally sank. Breaking in half, it plunged downward to the sea floor, taking Captain Edward Smith down with it. The Carpathia arrived about an hour later and rescued the 705 people who made it into the lifeboats. The people who were forced into the cold waters all perished.
Official blame for the tragedy was placed on the captain and bridge crew, all of whom had died. In the wake of the accident, significant safety-improvement measures were established, including a requirement that the number of lifeboats on board a ship reflect the entire number of passengers.
The sinking of the Titanic has become a legendary story and 1985, after many attempts over many years, divers were finally able to locate the wreckage of the Titanic on the floor of the North Atlantic.
Our Norwich Couple:
Today, the 15 April, is the 106th Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Much has been written since with facts – such as were known, fiction, dreamed up novels, short stories, myths and movies, most with a profit motive in mind. This blog is not about the whole gambit, but only about a Norwich couple, who possibly would never had hit the history books if they had not bought tickets to emigrate aboard that ill-fated ship.
Edward Beane was born in Hoveton, Norfolk, England on 19 November 1879. He was the son of George Beane, a brewery worker who worked for the large Bullard Brewery in Norwich, and Mary Ann Cox; both had been Norfolk born and bred, marrying on 29 November 1877. Edward, our subject, was one of ten children, his siblings being: Sarah, George Herbert, William, Charles Archie, Caroline Augusta, Ernest Christmas, May Christine, Robert and Bertie Stanley.
Edward first appears on the 1881 census living with his family at Armes Street in Heigham, Norwich, Norfolk but they then moved to 231 Northumberland Street, Norwich by the time of the 1891 census. Between then and the next census in 1901 the family had moved further down the same street to Number 188 where Edward was described as a bricklayer. It was a trade that was to stay with him beyond the time when the family lived at 43 Bond Street in Norwich.
Ethel Louisa Clarke was born on 15 November 1889 in Norwich, Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of Boaz Clarke, a boot factory warehouseman, and Louisa Webb, both natives of Norwich who had married in early 1881. Ethel was one of their five surviving children from a total of eleven, her known siblings being: Flora May, William Webb, Sydney Charles p, Gladys Lilian, Reginald Boaz, Dorothy and Ellen.
Ethel first appears on the 1891 census, living at 172 Northumberland Street, Heigham, Norwich and was still at this address for the 1901 census. So for this period of her life she knew the ten year older Edward Beane. By the time of the 1911 Census, Ethel was still living with her family but at 21 Churchill Road, Norwich where she was described as a single dressmaker and furrier.
At 17 years of age, Ethel Louise Clarke was not ready for either marriage or emigration when Edward Beane raised the topics prior to his first departure to New York in 1907. However, both proposals appealed to her when he asked her to wait until he had saved enough money. Ethel, of course, said yes.
On the 13 April 1907, Edward, a bricklayer aged almost 28, crossed the Atlantic to New York on the Philadelphia with his two brothers, all travelling in steerage to save money. This was their maiden voyage and they sailed in the knowledge that each one of them would earn better wages than at their old construction jobs in Norfolk. Edward, at least, was to share his time between New York and Norwich, writing to Ethel in between and right up to the time when he returned home aboard the Adriatic, arriving in Southampton on 22 December 1910. It is not known if he continued commuting thereafter but it was at this point in his life, at the age of 29 years, that he intended to finally ‘tie the knot’ with his chosen bride Ethel Louisa Clarke. However, that did not happen until March 1912 when, by this time, the couple had saved something in the order of 500 dollars plus, plus enough for two second class tickets on the Titanic. A day or so before the 10th April when this ‘unsinkable’ ship would set sail on its maiden voyage, Edward and Ethel said goodbye to their families and left for Southampton. At the Terminal they bought two second class tickets for the sum of £26 (ticket number 2908), boarding the Titanic on the 10th, not only as emigants but also ‘honeymooners’
Edward and Ethel were one of 13 honeymoon couples and were in their cabin when the ship struck the iceberg at about 2.00am on the 15 April 1912. They did not think much of the jolt they felt until a woman in a nearby cabin came to tell them about the order to go to the boat deck with lifebelts and to wear warm clothes. Subsequent reports say that Edward urged Ethel to hurry and not to worry about bringing any of their few valuables; most of their savings were locked in the Purser’s office.
On the boat deck, Ethel was quickly ushered to Lifeboat 13 and had no time for more than a quick kiss from Edward. Three or four more passengers were loaded before it was launched, but Ethel lost sight of her husband and hoped that he would surely take another lifeboat. Edward was indeed rescued, but the stories conflict of how it happened. The problem was that both he and Ethel were to tell different versions of that night to reporters. In one, Edward stated he kept an eye on his wife’s lifeboat from the deck of the Titanic. Then, as the ship sank, he jumped and swam “for hours” until he reached it and was pulled aboard. The problem with this version is that no one would have survived that long in icy waters. Also, a passenger in Lifeboat 13, Lawrence Beesley, wrote a detailed account of the entire night shortly afterward and never mentioned rescuing anyone from the water. Because Lifeboat 13 was, apparently, only half full, some passengers did want to return to help those in the water, but most refused because they felt that their boat would be swamped.
In another version that the Beane’s gave to the press stated that Edward was picked up by lifeboat 9 and he didn’t find Ethel on the Carpathia until after it docked in New York. This, again, seems unlikely because great care had been taken to compile accurate passenger lists and roll calls were also taken to help passengers find each other. It is possible, however, that Edward did jump aboard Lifeboat 13 at the last minute before launch, when no other women or children were available or willing to board. No one knows, but if he was like some other male survivors who panicked and ‘smuggled’ themselves into lifeboats, he probably would have met with public ridicule for not being “a gentleman” and going down with the ship – if indeed this was the case? Maybe, he and Ethel made up their stories to ease any guilt on his part? These questions and any viewpoints here are, however, purely speculative! However, bear in mind that another statement from an independent source said, perhaps in their defence: “They (the Beanes) were one of a few honeymooners who were not parted by the rule “women and children first”. Both were rescued in lifeboat 13”. As it is, Edward Beane is also listed as being a Lifeboat 13 passenger by Encyclopedia Titanica, the main source for all things Titanic and the principal aid in compiling this account.
Edward and Ethel settled in Rochester, New York where Ethel gave birth to a stillborn baby on 13 January 1913, making it likely that she was pregnant whilst on board the Titanic. The couple settled at 44 Michigan Street for the rest of their lives, never to return to England. Edward continued to work as a bricklayer and was a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. Ethel, for her part, delivered two children, both sons: Edward (1913-1982) and George (1916-1998) and during the rest of their lives seldom spoke about the Titanic, giving only the odd newspaper interview. Ethel was widowed in 1948 when Edward Beane died in the Rochester State Hospital on 24 October, just shy of his 69th birthday. A local newspaper reported: “Mrs. Beane is survived by her son, George Beane of Rochester, four granddaughters and six great-grandchildren”.
Ethel continued to live at the family home in Rochester before entering a nursing home in the last two years of her life. She died on 17 September 1983 aged 93 (although she had convinced everyone she was only 90) and was buried with her husband in White Haven Memorial Park.
There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”
For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).
Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?
You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!
They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.
A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.
Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.
So who was the real Jack Dawson?:
A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.
Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.
And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.
But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.
It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.
A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.
How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.
Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.
If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.
MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”
Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.
Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.
The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.
Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.
Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.
By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.
Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.
It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.
Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.
Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”
There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.
It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.
John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.
There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:
Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.
Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “
…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.
Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.
The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.
Generations of marshmen:
My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.
My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.
My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.
My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.
Childhood by the river:
I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.
Winter of ‘63:
I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.
And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.
Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!
Life after school:
When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.
We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.
We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.
It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.
It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.
Travelling around the marshes:
They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.
Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:
After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.
These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.
We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.
The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.
I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.
There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.
Future of the marshes:
I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.
From coypu to mink:
My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.
The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.
It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.
The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:
I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.
When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.
I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…
Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.
Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’
I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.
We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…
I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.
So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.
Reggie Mace, a Marshman:
One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.
His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.
Slubbing the Dykes Out:
There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.
He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.
He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…
There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.
The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:
There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.
I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…
On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.
Spinning for pike:
When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.
‘Babbing’ in the river:
We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…
The 1953 floods:
When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.
That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.
The mill dykes:
The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…
When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.
When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.
Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:
My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.
I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.
People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.
“The River Yare Commissioner’:
Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…
He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.
We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.
The Wherry Albion:
One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…
It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…
There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.
The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:
Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…
He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…
At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…
There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.
The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:
We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.
Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…
Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:
There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…
We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.
They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.
I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.
We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.
Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.
Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.
At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.
Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:
There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…
At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…
Getting out and about:
There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.
Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.
Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:
On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.
In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.
Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.
Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:
There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.
There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.
We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.
Cantley Sugar Factory:
My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.
When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.
They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.
My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.
I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…
I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.
One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.
I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.
There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.
The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.
I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.
During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.
I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.
A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers coming back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across those flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers. These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War.
To this airfield came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.
It was from Kimbolton that a certain B-17F Bomber – nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” – took off on December 20, 1943 to target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. It was a cold, overcast winter day when 2nd Lt. Charles L. Brown took the controls; it was his first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group.
The bombers began their 10-minute bomb run at 27,300ft with a temperature of minus 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate as “Ye Olde Pub” was to find out. Even before they had dropped their payload under the instructions of “bombs away” Brown’s B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four, which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent over speeding and avoid damage to the controls. These initial hits forced Brown to drop out of formation with his fellow bombers and become a straggler. Almost immediately, the solitary, struggling B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12 to 15 German Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes.
In that time the number three engine was hit and oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were damaged and the plane’s controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun. The tail gunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Charlie Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Charlie Brown figured out that the only chance of surviving this pitiful, unequal fight was to go on the offensive; each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted and looking up at the ground! When he regained fill consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less than 1,000 feet. Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously wounded on board, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the British mainland.
Whilst nursing the battered bomber towards England, Brown looked out of his right window and saw a German Bf-109 flying on his wing, so close that the pilot was looking him directly into the eyes and making big gestures with his hands that only scared Brown more. The German pilot was motioning Brown to land in Germany which the B-17 commander refused to do. His bombing mission targeting a German munitions factory had been a success, his B-17F bomber had been attacked by no fewer than 15 planes and so far had survived; now, Charlie Brown’s attempts to get home safely seemed doomed to failure. The Bf-109 and its pilot was between him, the remnants of his crew and his almost crippled plane and safety. It was at that moment when the German pilot decided not to shoot at his ‘enemy’ because he ‘fought by the rules of humanity’
Second Lt. Charles L. Brown (left). Oberleutnant Franz Stigler (right).
The pilot of the Bf-109 was Franz Stigler and he had remembered the words of his commanding officer, Lt Gustav Roedel. “Honour is everything here,” he had told a young Stigler before his first mission, adding: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler’s moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. “For me, Shooting down that B-17 would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,” Stigler was to say later.
The New York Post detailed Brown’s ensuing 40-year struggle to come to terms with why that German pilot decided to go against orders and spare the Americans – allowing him to fly and land his battered plane safely and go on to live a happy and full life after the war. The pilot in question was, as we now know, Franz Stigler, a 26-year-old ace who had 22 victories to his name. Earlier that day, he had downed two 4-engine bombers and needed only one more to be awarded the Knight’s Cross. But on that day, as his Bf-109 closed in on the US plane he had to consider the consequences for not finishing off an enemy plane – a court martial and certain execution. But, he sensed something was wrong – the enemy plane was not engaging with him; in fact, unbeknown even to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail-gun compartment and one wing was badly damaged. As Stigler drew closer he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. And he saw the wounded, terrified US airmen inside, trying to help one another tend to their injuries. However, he was still fearful that with other German guns likely to come into view at any time and he needed to make a quick decision. Stigler ended up, not shoot the B-17 down but escorting it for several miles out over the North Sea, still fearing that if he was seen flying so close to the enemy without engaging, he would be accused – and doubtless found guilty – of treason. But, as he flew in formation with the B-17 “….the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying……I thought, I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute”. Meanwhile, the B-17 crew had begun to train their guns on Stigler’s Bf-109.
Without further ado, the German pilot saluted his counterpart, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away. The moment had been fleeting and it would take many years before answers to so many questions would be answered. The only thing that was known that day was that following the disappearance of the Bf-109 into the clouds, the B-17 did make it acrross the 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the coast of Norfolk, the home of the USAAF 448th Bomb Broup which had not yet flown its first mission.
The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified as “Secret” and was to remain so for many years, Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, serve in the Office of the Special Investigations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Air Force and State Departments until his retirement. Throughout all that time and into retirement, the image of his strange encounter with that German Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in Charlie Brown’s mind and in 1986, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown – who was still traumatised by the events of that fateful day – began searching for the man who saved his life even though he had no idea whether his saviour was alive, let alone where the man in question was living.
In 1990 Brown bought an ad in a newsletter aimed at former German fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ The former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler saw the ad. in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada – where he had moved after the war, unable ever to feel at home in Germany. By comparing time, place and aircraft markings, it was established that Stigler was the chivalrous pilot who had allowed Brown and his crew to live. Charlie and Franz got in touch. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler revealed how he had been trying to escort the B-17 to safety and had pulled away when he feared he had come under fire. He told Brown that his hand gestures were an attempt to tell him to fly to Sweden.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry was justly, though belatedly, honoured by several military organisations in the US of A and elsewhere. On the other hand,Charles Brown was not decorated for his heroism that fateful day over Germany, for no other reason than the fact that the 448th Bomb Group at Seething, Norfolk never reported the incident – such was the secrecy perhaps! However, in 2007, Charlie submitted a request to the American Air Force for the ‘Silver Star Medal’ to be awarded to his nine former crew members of “Ye Olde Pub” for their part in the mission over Bremen, Germany on December 20, 1943. The citations were awarded in early 2008 and Charlie received the ‘Air Force Cross’ for his part as commander of that B-17. No other former WW2 aircrew has this distinction.
Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Franz Stigler in March, aged 92 and Charlie Brown in November, aged 87. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other’s ‘special brother’.
All that remains of the former runway from which Charlie Brown took off.
Fearless, ruthless and uncommonly lucky, Norwich schoolboy Philip Fletcher Fullard DSO, MC, AFC was one of the greatest fighter aces of the First World War. Relatively unknown and overshadowed by the likes of Ball, Bishop and McCudden, Philip Fullard was one of the highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1 being credited with a final score of 46. Many would have considered this score on it’s own a remarkable achievement, but what made it even more so was the fact that he achieved it in just six months, a period which included leave and a bout of sick leave. However his run of victories was finally brought to an end, not by an enemy bullet, but by a football injury acquired during a match just three days before the start of the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
Fullard was born on the 27th May 1897 at Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, Surrey to parents Annie and Thomas Fletcher. The family moved to Norwich sometime after 1901 where Philip Fullard was educated at the Norwich Grammar School – later to be renamed Norwich School. Fullard developed an active enthusiasm for sport while at school, captaining both the hockey and football teams. It has been rumoured that whilst at school, or shortly afterwards, he played for the Norwich City Football Club reserve team; subsequent enquiries indicated that the Club have no record of Fullard playing for them.
He enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and, initially, served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. As with many other ultimately successful airmen Fullard sought and received a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916, receiving training at the School of Aeronautics at Oxford and then at Netheravon and Upavon. He received his pilot’s certificate in the December of that year and went on to initially serve with the RFC in the capacity of flight instructor at Upavon. Fullard finally, in April 1917, achieved his desire for active combat with a posting to 1 Squadron on the Western Front in , the month of the highly successful Allied attack at Vimy Ridge.
At 20 and just two years out of school, he was already a combat veteran whose lethal record of success belied his boyish features. In a whirlwind five months tour on the Western Front, the prize-winning Norfolk scholar was becoming one of the rising stars of the Royal Flying Corps with 28 victories to his name and a Military Cross and Bar to add to his academic and sporting achievements.
Since joining No 1 Squadron at Bailleul in May 1917 as an already accomplished pilot with a penchant for performing stunts his career trajectory had been upward all the way until one day in September 1917 an act of folly very nearly proved fatal. It resulted in Fullard damaging blood vessels in one eye while out flying, brought on by his frustration of experiencing a fruitless chase above the war-torn battlefield in his Nieuport Scout, At that moment, he decided to make up for the lack of adrenalin-charged excitement with a little test of his own – as he explained:
“……..I thought that for an experiment I would see what would happen if a Nieuport was put out of control with the engine full on, so, letting go the controls, I waited. The machine fell 12,000 feet in a diving spin at great speed, when suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and found I could see nothing at all. I thought I had been shot, and, managing to make the machine fly level at a slow speed and, after what seemed a long time, I began to see very indistinctly with one eye the blurred outline of white objects. I picked out the white cross on the aerodrome and landed safely, still in great pain in the eyeballs and quite blind in one eye………”
The resulting temporary blindness kept him away from the fray for much of the next month and it was this self-inflicted near-disaster which accounted for the presence, for the first time among his flying kit, of a pair of goggles. Until that spectacular brush with catastrophe, he had preferred to fly his wind-buffeted, open cockpit fighter, without any protection for his eyes and preferring nothing to hinder his sight of the enemy.
Though not of his choosing, the change to his flying face attire made no difference to his run of success in the warring skies above the embattled troops slogging their way across the Flanders bog below. The bitter fighting around Passchendaele showed no sign of letting up as Philip Fletcher Fullard made his way back to his fighter squadron after a month’s enforced rest.
He lost no time in continuing his amassing of a highly impressive aerial victory tally. During the four weeks following his return at the end of September 1917 he was as consistent and courageous as ever, equalling his best monthly return of his short combat career with five enemy aircraft destroyed, six shot down ‘out of control’ and an observation balloon ‘deflated’. All 40 of his overall total score of successes were achieved between May and November 1917. It was a performance which confirmed his status as one of the leading ‘aces’ of the British air services and would help to make him the highest-scoring Englishman to survive the First World War – flying Nieuport aircraft to great effect.
Such was his prowess that he briefly gained celebrity status when a reluctant high command bowed to media pressure and identified him, together with the legendary James McCudden, as one of the nation’s ‘Air Stars’.
That much was certainly true, along with his character traits which went unmentioned at the time but contributed to Fullard’s remarkable record as a fighter pilot, namely his: fearlessness, ruthlessness and self-confidence bordering on arrogance which, when allied to his supreme mastery of his flying machine, made him the most formidable of adversaries. Interviewed years later when he was in his 80s, his past self confidence, and probable arrogance showed through once more when he scoffed at the romanticised image of the first war in the air as a courtly joust between devil-may-care aviators portrayed as latter-day knights.
“I don’t think it existed,” he declared. “You couldn’t have operated like that……”. Clearly, his approach to aerial combat was also decidedly unsentimental. “I just felt I wanted to survive,” he said, “and the best way of doing that was to kill the other fellow.” By way of an example he recalled an early morning clash that took place some 2,000 feet above the shell-churned wilderness in October 1917 and at the height of the Passchendaele offensive. Having manoeuvred close beneath the tail of an enemy two-seater, he proceeded to shoot it up “properly”, as he put it. With the rear gunner seemingly silenced and the aircraft at his mercy, he then decided to change the ‘drum’ on his machine-gun which entailed him having to hold the joystick with his knees while he fumbled to replenish his ammunition. “Suddenly, the observer in the machine that I thought I had dealt with………came to life again and fairly shot me up properly”…….”The burst of fire ripped through my flying coat, punctured the oil tank, ignited a supply of Verey lights and, as I turned to look, tore off my goggles *#!”. Fullard’s reaction was anything but chivalrous. “I had no qualms about going down again and shooting him to pieces,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way……..I shot him down and he was seen to fall in flames quite close to the lines.”
The combat over Moorslede which resulted in his 37th aerial victory also illustrated another – arguably the most valuable if intangible of all – of his many virtues as a fighter pilot – it was his extraordinary good fortune. He was not one to carry a “good luck token” on any of his sorties and it was his enviable claim to fame within the squadron that he never lost anybody “who was flying with me in any formation, whether it was six, 12 or two aircraft”……..“As to my own machines,” he recalled, “I changed……two or three times because they were shot up but I was never shot down. Including the eye thing, I had to come down five times for one reason or another…….twice just behind the lines. Once, upside down and once, in a shell-hole…… and I don’t think I ruined machines except on one or two of these occasions.”
However, his greatest stroke of luck came not in the air but on the ground. On November 17, 1917 he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg while playing football for his squadron against a team from an army battalion resting nearby. The 20-year-old patrol leader, who had escaped serious injury in countless combats during 250 hours of flying over the battle zone, was carried off to hospital never to return to front-line action.
“This happened immediately before the Cambrai offensive,” he later wrote, “so that I was very hurriedly evacuated to England to make room for the expected casualties…….Perhaps owing to this hasty move, my leg refused to set properly and, after seven attempts had been made, it was eventually plated more than a month after the fracture.”
The injury denied him the opportunity to add to his score of 46 victories, all of them achieved with No 1 Squadron within the space of a little under five months, but in all probability saved his life. Whereas many another great aces fell victim to the unrelenting strain of combat in the final year of the war, Philip Fullard recovered, albeit slowly, to take on the less glamorous but less hazardous role of an area flying examining officer. His venturesome war ended in Yorkshire as a 21-year-old major with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and Bar and just one big regret – that he had not been awarded the Victoria Cross for which he had been cited in the autumn of 1917 when his flying career was at its zenith. Though other awards came his way during a distinguished career spanning more than three decades the absence of the VC was to rankle with Fullard for many years after the First World war was over. Speaking about it in the late 1970s, Norfolk’s most successful fighter ace, still remembered being shown a copy of the rejected recommendation after it had been returned to the squadron adjutant. Scrawled across it in crayon was the brigade commander’s comment:
“Make him get some more.”
Despite Fullard’s disappointment at the time, he still elected to remain with the Royal Air Force, eventually reaching Air Commodore rank and serving once again during the Second World War (including a period as Duty Air Commodore at HQ Fighter Command); he eventually retired on 20 November 1946 at the age of 49.