It is not clear when it finally faded away, but from 1971 to the early 1980’s, the Borderline Science Investigation Group (BSIG) claimed to be the premier organisation investigating unexplained phenomena in East Anglia. Its quarterly journal was called ‘Lantern’, in which about 40 issues were published between the Winters of 1971 and 1982.
One of the more interesting stories published by this group, and written by their Ivan Bunn, told of the experience of a Lowestoft man on the new (A12 now A47) Hopton Bypass, a mile or so north of Lowestoft, during late 1980. Apparently, so the story goes, at 5.15pm on the 23rd November of that year, PC Frank Colby, who had been 29 years in the British Transport police, was driving back to Lowestoft with his wife. As his car reached the southern section of the Bypass, he saw what he thought to be a man crossing the dual carriageway in front of him. Mr Colby described it at the time as being:
“……. About 5 foot 6” – or a little more, stocky in build and wearing a calf-length shapeless garment. Its head was hunched into its shoulders and it appeared to have What I thought was very spiky hair. There appears to be trousers or some sort of thing on its legs, but what caught my eye – I know it sounds daft – was its fantastically huge footwear. These boots were very big and he was lifting them up well as he plodded along.”
Mr Colby braked and remarked upon the figure to his wife, but she could not see it. The figure was just outside the range of his headlights, but as it crossed the central reservation barrier, Colby claimed that he saw it pass through it and disappear. He immediately stopped his car and examined the spot where the figure had vanished, but there was nothing there – as you might expect! He then returned to his car and made notes of what he claimed he had seen and drew a sketch of it. Mr Colby’s encounter was investigated by Ivan Bunn of the BSIG’s team and his report received press coverage both locally, in the Lowestoft Journal, and nationally on the eve of Christmas 1980. (See figure 2 on Map).
Approximately twelve months after Mr Colby saw the spectral figure in Hopton, on Monday, 2nd November 1981 to be exact, a Mr Andrew Cutajar was driving towards Great Yarmouth; it was very wet and very miserable. Somewhere near to Hopton he noticed what first appeared to be a grey mist in the middle of the carriageway ahead of him. As he drove closer, he could see the figure of a man:
“Tall and dressed in a long coat, or cap, coming well past his knees. He had on old-fashioned heavy laced up boots and his grey hair was long and straggly”.
The figure was unmoving as Mr Cutajar braked to avoid a collision but, in the wet conditions, the car began to skid, passing straight through the figure, ending up facing the other way on the grass verge. At that moment there was no trace of the ghostly figure! Apparently, a number of other single vehicle accidents had occurred at the same spot – and it was speculated at the time if any of these incidents had taken place in similar weather conditions!
These two instances of the 1980’s were not the first, or only, accounts of a spectral figure appearing along, or near, the village of Hopton. One of the earliest came from a Mr Roger Hammersley of Lowestoft who, at the beginning of 1957, was driving in convoy with a friend, Mr R Gardner from Yarmouth, to their home town. Just before midnight, on the old A12 (now the A47) just south of Hopton, both men separately saw what Mr Hammersley described as the figure of a man wearing very large boots, a large fawn overcoat and a hat, crossing the road in front of them. Mr Hammersley drove close to the tall figure before realising it was no longer there, although he did admit that he could not remember seeing the spectral actually disappear. During an interview with Ivan Bunn of the BSIG, Mr Hammersley admitted that many times prior to this encounter he had often felt distinctly “uneasy” driving along this particular stretch of road, and that after seeing the ‘ghost’ back in 1957 he avoided the Hopton stretch of the old A12 whenever he could. (See figure 3 on Map).
In the 1970’s there was yet another claimed sighting of what may have been ‘The Old Man of Hopton’; this story came to light following the Press coverage of PC Colby in 1980. It was said to have happened on 24 December, Christmas Eve, in 1977 when 24-year-old Mrs Rita Rose of Bradwell was driving along the old A12 through Hopton with her mother. It was about 5.30pm when they approached a road junction quite near to the Hopton Post Office – (marked ‘1’ on the map). Mrs Rose’s car was travelling north towards Great Yarmouth and just before they reached the junction, she saw the figure of a man in here headlights, standing on the edge of the nearside kerb. As she drew level with the figure, it stepped off the kerb and under the front wheels of the car. Mrs Rose instinctively did an emergency stop which resulted in her mother being flung against the windscreen; at the same time, Mrs Rose said she felt the impact as the car appeared to hit this man. Despite getting out and searching neither she, nor her mother, could find anyone one either in front or underneath the car.
Mrs Rose, who was a qualified nurse at the time, described both the incident and the ‘man’ to Ivan Bunn, the BSIG investigator. “………he was a bent-over old man wearing a trilby hat and a heavy overcoat……”. She was particularly struck by his “ashen face and cold look….. He was looking directly at the car as it approached him, but gave no indication that he was about to step off the kerb…..he had an odd expression, as if he knew what was about to happen”. Mrs Rose’s mother later confirmed to Ivan Bunn more or less what her daughter had said; saying that she herself never saw the ‘old man’ or felt the impact. In fact, she said that she was absolutely unaware that anything was amiss until she was, unceremoniously, thrown out of her seat when her daughter “stood on the brakes”. (See figure 1 on Map).
There have been other reported encounters with a ‘ghostly pedestrian’ and a few unsubstantiated ones. Another one which seems to have a ring of authenticity about it was one that occurred on a stretch of the old A12 road in March, 1974. At about 9.15pm one evening the driver of a car claimed to have seen a ‘sneering face’ illuminated by the headlights of his car. He braked hard to avoid what he thought was a person but, to his horror, “the car went though it!”. This witness also recalled that on other occasions before this incident, he felt “decidedly uneasy” on that stretch of the road “for no apparent reason”. (See figure 4 on Map).
It was also on the old A12, back in in December 1960 that a Mr Ernest Tuttle of Lowestoft was killed when the fish lorry which her was driving left the road for no apparent reason and hit a tree. Mr Tuttle, who had frequently driven along this road, had often told his daughter that it was “The worst road he had ever driven on….and there was something odd about it”. A month or so before his fatal crash, Mr Tuttle had told his daughter that he had seen “a grey shadow, a mist, going across the road.” At his inquest, an open verdict was returned; in his address, the Coroner said to the Jury:
“ The evidence, regarding the cause of the accident, did not amount to much, and most of it was negative……one naturally tries to find some explanation of something that would otherwise be a complete mystery”. (See figure 5 on Map)
As to the identity of this ghostly figure – well, no one knows. One theory suggested that it was a William Balls, Hopton’s postman who had worked himself to death in January of 1899, having spent 22 years serving the village. He was found in a field, close to where the hauntings occurred, at 10.30am on 2 January 1899, lying face down in a pool of blood after having succumbed to pneumonia which had developed from winter flu. It was said that he was buried at Hopton church, which must have been the present St Margaret’s since the St Margaret’s Church of old was burned down in 1865 – the remains of which still exist as a ruin.
Ivan Bunn was told about William Balls by Gwen Balls – the postman was her husband’s grandfather who died aged just 40 and who had been warned by his doctor just days beforehand that he would die without rest. “What am I to do? I must do my duty,” he replied. On the day of his death, as usual, he set out on his 16-mile round at 6am and worked until 9.30am at which point he started for home and a rest before restarting work at 4.20pm. He was found in his father’s field by a farm worker and left behind a pregnant wife, Angelina.
William Alfred Dutt was born at Ditchingham, Norfolk, on 17 November 1870. Later in life he became well known as an author and journalist, writing about wildlife in East Anglia and many other East Anglian topographical works. His 1901 book “Highways and Byways in East Anglia” is particularly interesting for it refers to local myths and legends, but it also highlights the following which provides a fascinating insight into the Norfolk Broads of the early 20th century: its people, their environment and their distinctive way of life, particularly of the wherrymen (river sailors) and the marsh men who made their living by farming, hunting and fishing on the swampy land:
“Then, too, there are the wherrymen and marshmen whom you meet in the evenings at the marshland staithes and ferry inns. Approach them without displaying that ridiculous condescension which is characteristic of too many visitors and amateur yachtsmen and you will find them able and willing to impart much curious information concerning the river life and wild life of Broadland. For these men are not simply fair-weather voyagers; they are afloat on the rivers from January to December, and see the broads and marshes under all aspects and in all seasons. Many of them have known no other life than that which is spent in cruising between the East coast ports and the inland towns; but it has taught them many things of which the world that lies beyond the borders of the marshes has little knowledge.
Join a group of them some summer night when they are gathered in the low-ceiled bar-room of a riverside inn, or lounging about a lock or staithe in the midst of the marshes. Hear them talk of the voyages they have made when the ” roke ” (fog) was so dense as to hide even the windmills on the river banks; of the days when their wherries were icebound and the snowdrifts rose higher than the river-walls; of the marsh-fires (Will O’ the Wisp) which used to flicker over the festering swamps; and of the mist wraiths and phantom fishermen of the meres and marshes. Watch how their faces assume a fixed expression and their pipes are allowed to go out while some old man among them tells of a strange sight he saw one autumn night when his wherry was moored near the ruins of St. Benet’s Abbey”:
Behind all this is the Norfolk accent, which was and remains very distinctive, not one which many outsiders will often hear. The passage from Dutt’s book will allow you to get a taste of the accent, but only if you pronounce the words as you see them written. Do that a few times over and you will have an idea how it sounds. It really does work:
“There wor a full mune, an’ you could see th’ mills an’ mashes as clear as day. There worn’t a breath of wind, not even enow to set th’ reeds a-rustlin’; an’ for over an hour arter sunset you couldn’t hear a livin’ thing a-movin’ either by th’ river or on th’ mashes. I wor a-settin’ in my cabin along wi’ my mate Jimmy Steggles (him as used to hev th’ owd Bittern), an’ we wor a-talkin’ about one thing an’ another for a while afore turnin’ in for th’ night. All of a suddent we heered th’ quarest kind o’ screechin’ a man ever heerd, an’ lookin’ out o’ th’ cabin I seed a man a-runnin’ towards th’ wherry as hard as he could put foot to th’ ground. He soon got alongside on us, and I axed him what he wor a-screechi-n’ about. `It worn’t me, bor,’ he say ; ‘it wor suffin’ what come outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd abbey. I wor a-goin’ home to Ludham, arter lookin’ arter some bullocks what are on a mash yonder, an’ I thowt I heard suffin a-movin’ about agin th’ ruins.”
“Thinks I, that must be one o’ them there cows what wor browt down here from Acle yesterday forenoon. So I went outer my way a bit to see if anything wor amiss. When I got within about twenty yards o’ th’ walls suffin come a-wamblin’ outer th’ shadder o’ th’ owd mill,’ (you know there wor a mill built on th’ owd abbey years agone) ` an’ started screechin’ like a stuck pig. I never stopped to see what it wor, but jist come for yar wherry like hell in highlows ! “
“He wor a chap I knew well-his father had an eel-sett up th’ Thurne River-an’ he wor a-tremblin’ all over like a man wi’ th’ ayger. Both I an’ my mate went ashore, an’ I took my gun chance I’d wantin’ it; but all we seed wor an owd harnsee (heron) go a-flappin’ away acrost the mashes. An’ it worn’t a harnsee what made that screechin’, I’ll stake my life; though what it wor I never knowed. Whatever it wor it give that Ludham chap a funny fright, an’ he wouldn’t hear o’ goin’ home that night. So we had to find a berth for him aboard th’ wherry, an’ he went on to Wroxham Bridge wi’ us in th’ mornin.”
For centuries, folk have told tales of a large black dog with malevolent flaming eyes (or in some variants of the legend a single eye) that are red or alternatively green – take your pick – and they are described as being ‘like saucers’. Not only that but according to some, the beast varies in size and stature from that of simply a large dog to being the size of a calf or even a horse. Sometimes Black Shuck, or Old Shuck is recorded as having appeared headless, and at other times as floating on a carpet of mist!
According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, but particularly in and around Norfolk. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia described the creature thus:
He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So, you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Shuck you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.
That enigmatic, legendary creature, in the form of a large black dog, crops up over and over again in the annals of East Anglian Folklore. From Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast, down through Broadland and the heart of Norfolk, through the Waveney Valley and down further along the Suffolk coast and into Essex – this creature has, from time immemorial, struck fear and terror into the hearts of our forebears. His name may vary between “Old Shuck”, “Black Shuck”, “Owd Snarley-how”, “Hateful-Thing”, “Galley-Trot” or “Shug-monkey”, but this infamous creature is indeed well known. Norfolk in particular, can justifiably claim to have the strongest connections with such an animal. Whilst the towns of Bungay and Blythburgh are very closely linked with stories of Black Shuck, or Old Shuck – or even Shuck, there are other places such as Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Salthouse, on the north Norfolk coast, that have also staked their claim. Today, it is this latter place which will have pride of place with the following Tale:
Back in the 1970’s a certain Walter H Barrett wrote that some sixty years previously (shall we say around 1910) he was passing through the village of Salthouse, which lies on the North Norfolk coast road, between Cromer to the east and Cley-Next-The -Sea to the west. There he came across the Dun Cow public house which happened to be conveniently placed to afford him some liquid refreshment at a moment when he really needed it. As he entered, he noticed an aged man sunning himself near the door and feeling rather hospitable bought him a drink and joined him on his seat “Nice and warm in the sun” he enquired. “Tis today, but you want to be here in the winter when a Nor’ Easter is blowing in from the sea – that’s the time when this place is known as the Icehouse, he replied. Walter Barrett gathered that this chap’s name was Sam Rudd and that he had lived in the village all his life; also, he still got a fair living digging lug worms for bait.
Sam Rudd sat quiet for a short spell, and then asked Walter “Ever heard of Old Shuck, the ghost dog? “Yes I have,” said Walter “but several places around this county claim they have an Old Shuck. “Huh! They may do” was Sam’s reply “ but there is only one ghost dog – and he is only seen between here and Cley……. Now, sit you down quiet and I will tell you: I have not only seen him, but I have had to run like hell when he chased me home one night when I was very much younger” ….. Sam eventually continued, having composed himself for the task in front of him: –
“That night, I had been bait-digging as usual, but just as dark was falling I had to give up because the tide was rising fast. I started on my four miles’ walk back home along the beach, keeping a sharp eye on the high-water mark to see what had been washed up. That was in the days of sailing ships, and often drowned sailors from wrecks would be left high and dry when the tide turned. Sometimes I would find one. Sailors in those days wore gold rings on one finger. This I would remove; turn out his pockets. Anything there was mine. If he had come ashore in the parish of Salthouse, I would, after relieving him of anything worthwhile, drag him back into the water where the ebbing tide would carry him out to sea; there, the current would carry him along the coast, until he came ashore near Cromer. Now – the reason for me doing this was because all washed-up dead sailors were buried by the parish in whose boundary they were found. That was all right for the parson, undertaker and grave-digger, who each took their cut, but it was hard luck on us folks who had to find the poor rate levied by the churchwardens to pay for the burial, – and beside this, Salthouse had only one churchyard. Cromer, on the other hand, had a large cemetery with plenty of room to plant those men. As it was, I did not find anything that evening and having reached the beach road which led to the village, I clambered over the shingle bank and was no sooner on the road when a heavy sea mist came swirling down – then a pitch-black darkness set in.”
“I then heard a dog howling some distance behind me. It was so loud it drowned the roar of the sea pounding the shingle bank. I was wearing a pair of heavy thigh boots and after kicking them off I ran like a greyhound in my stockings. The faster I went, the nearer came the howling. When, at last, I reached my home, I opened the door; entered and bolted it as quickly as I could. When my father asked me where my thigh boots were, I told him not to worry about those but to listen to that big dog howling outside.”
“Father heard and got up out of his chair right quick like; took his fowling gun off its hooks on the wall; put in the barrel a double charge of gunpowder; rammed it down with a wad of paper. He then put about half a pound of heavy lead shot on top, and having put a firing cap on the gun nipple, went upstairs; opened the window; saw the dog squatting on its haunches; took aim and fired – but that did not stop the dog howling. When father came downstairs, he said that he had pumped swan shot into that dog but it did not fall over nor stop its howling. That was Old Shuck right enough! In the morning we went outside. There was no sign of the dog but the ‘privy’ door, some distance away, was riddled with shot holes, which proved to my father that the heavy shot had gone right through this ghost dog of ours – just as water would run through a sieve.” With these words, Sam Rudd suddenly stood up, thanked Walter Barrett for the drink and left.
Shortly afterwards, this Walter Barrett also took leave of the Dun Cow and retraced his steps back to Cley-Next-The-Sea to call on the Rector there, the Reverend Everett James Bishop, who informed him that the story he had heard at Salhouse was nonsense; the telling of such tales is the usual ruse that Cley and Salthouse fishermen use to ensure that the locals kept indoors whilst they, the fishermen, were making a smuggling run. This comment further increased Barrett’s interest and he thought he would get a second opinion from a local old fisherman, who was also a wild-fowler; his name was Pinchen. Pinchen scoffed and told Barrett, in no uncertain terms, to pay no regard to what the Rector had said – because he had not been in the parish very long; one had to have his roots in Cley for many years to really understand folk, their traditions and folk tales. Pinchen then remarked, “I can tell you the ‘true’ story of our Old Shuck – from its very beginning. Listen carefully because I have to take you back some 200 years!”:
“The night of 28th January 1709 was one of those which seafarers dreaded when they tried to sail their boats through the unpredictable waters which still keep these shores in check – particularly between nearby Blakeney and as far as Mundesley just south east of Cromer. The waves that night were twenty-feet high, rising foaming white and threatening as the result of a howling gale that tore at the sea surface and land like a screaming spoilt child. Almost in unison, these foaming waves flayed everything in their path before crashing on to these raised shingled beaches; beaches that are here to protect the marshes and villages hereabout. The inevitable rush of water breached the shingle on that occasion and rush headlong over the marshes to cause havoc among the trees and undergrowth and close to houses and churches which nestled on a slight rise in the land at the edge of the marshes. I can tell you – local folk prayed for God’s deliverance whilst some more hard-headed individuals anticipated the pickings from an unfortunate wreck……”
“And there was such a shipwreck at Salthouse that night and it was a Brigantine – some did say afterwards that it was the ‘Ever Hopeful’ but I tend to think that its name, if indeed it did survive, did not register with those who were there for the salvage only; the ship’s name that crept into the original tale may well have reflected someone’s sense of humour. Be that as it may, that Brig., registered in Whitby, had been caught by that storm whilst returning to Yorkshire from London and carrying a cargo of fruit, spices and other foodstuffs. Apparently, the Captain and crew tried hopelessly to control their small craft but were carried towards the shallow shoals just off the coast; a coast which was in almost total darkness, save for a couple of flickering beacons at Cromer and Blakeney. Inevitably, the ship was driven on to the shingle bank at Salthouse, followed by wave after wave which shattered her timbers and breaking up, spars, doors and rails, throwing everything aloft and into the waters.”
“The screams of the doomed crew added to what must have been a nightmare and they, together with the Captain had abandoned ship, collectively making a desperate bid for life. Seizing his large wolf-hound pet by the collar, the Captain followed the crew and, like them, was swallowed up by the sea and drowned – every last one of them. Their bodies were washed ashore and in the calm of the morning the villagers came amongst them and the scattered remains of the once proud ship, its cargo and crew. Whilst salvaging the valuable wood and flotsam they saw the dead, but particularly the Captain who still had a firm hold on the dog’s collar – and the dog’s jaws still clamped tightly to the Captain’s reefer jacket in their desperate attempt for survival. Those of Salthouse’s folk who were present debated the fate of the wreckage and the crew in a hushed tone as if they did not want the dead to hear. One thing that was certain, they decided to bury master and pet separately. A hole was dug in a rare patch of sand that lay amongst the shingle and the wolf hound was thrown in – such was the treatment of animals, as for the Captain, he was taken to Salthouse Church, on the hill overlooking the village, and buried in an unmarked grave. One wonders what say the rector had in the matter! However, and more importantly in this tale, no one thought of any possible consequences of disregarding the latent thoughts and feelings of an animal who must have loved his master to the point of never wanting to leave him.”
“Within a very short time, people hereabouts had claimed to have seen a very large black dog sniffing about and howling as if calling for his master. As the years passed, they say its appearance became more grotesque as if in increased frustration, grief and anger! He now has large red eyes; his coat as black as ebony; shaggy and the size of a calf. Many have sensed a hound padding silently behind them as if in two minds as to whether or not to vent its perceived anger. But I can tell you that over the years there has never been a story of anyone who has escaped the jaws of Old Black Shuck when that apparition had chosen its victim. Apparently, our Shuck is most active on those nights around the 28th January and whenever the sea is stormy. Then, his terrible howl rises above the wind and crashing waves. It is at that particular time when those who disbelieve should look over their shoulder!
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? If there there is no witness around, does Shuck still walk regardless?
Reference Sources: East Anglian Folklore and other tales, by W H Barrett and R P Garrod, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
Folktales & Legends of Norfolk, by G M Dixon,Minimax Books Ltd, 1980.
Photo: (Feature Heading): Royal Museum Greenwich
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
Do fishermen sing nowadays? They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’ So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”, but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying
“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”
Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners. All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.
Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen. He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.” Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men. You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.
Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.
Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring. This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire. Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:
“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’. And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song. They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song. That was in 1907. These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories. And I got the first prize.”
Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives. One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:
“That’s my old dad’s song. I heard him sing it when I was a little boy. Used to sing all them songs, my old father did. Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him. Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone. Big man, he was. Oh, and he could do the step dance.”
Sam’s father was George Larner, born in 1847, and another fisherman. From this song obviously heard as a young child at home, there were others learned at sea, again from a close relative. Of The Robber or The Rambling Young Blade, Sam recalled that “My Uncle Jimmy used to sing that when I was cook along of him at sea. That’s about nigh seventy year ago, and he used to sing that on deck.” Uncle Jimmy was James Sutton, (born 1858), a renowned singer in the village who seems to have passed many songs onto Sam Larner. His nickname was ‘Old Larpin’ and his grandson Ronnie Haylett remembers that this was a shortened version of ‘Loping Lugs’ as he had rather prominent ears. As can be seen, nicknames were very common indeed in the community, perhaps rather vital as surnames were relatively few and many families favoured the same first name for many family members. Sam Larner’s nickname was ‘Funky’ on account of his sometimes unpredictable moods. As regards learning songs from community or family members, Sam remarked when talking of King William and the Keeper, “I can recollect them a-singin’ on it. Oh, we all picked them songs up.”
If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as “The Dogger Bank”:
Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.
An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:
“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock. Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?” Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister? No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”
Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time. We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”
Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston. In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper. He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat. The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.
Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.” All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars. As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings
In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer. With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing. Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George. As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that. They all had pints of two. Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they? So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table. Beer’d all spilt!”
Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance. I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.” Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed. And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing. In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty. He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’
Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956. Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information. He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958. Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’. It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0. These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.
Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry. Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. What a wonderful person he was! Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life. His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’
McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca. He never forgot it.’ “They liked them old songs, they did.” Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All. The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship. Peggy and Ewan. 1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.
This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961. This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger. The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer. A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.
In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song. As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover. It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.
By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six. He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course. He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six. This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.
About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area. There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them. This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition. Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.
In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam. About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.
Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958. There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London. Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so. The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’) “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather? Your grandfather Larpin. Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.” I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.” “You can. You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’. Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?” Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence. The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”
John Craske was a fisherman from a family who had been fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The sea was in his blood, he felt at home there, both when it was calm and breathing like a great beast resting, and also when it was wild and holding his life by a thread. But Craske was never a well man, and so he had to learn how to go to sea in his mind so he could paint and stitch pictures of maritime elements that mattered to him and that he understood.
John Craske was born in the town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast on 6th July 1881 where he joined a North Norfolk family with a long tradition of being associated with sea. John was the Grandson of Nathaniel and Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Craske, a staunch salvationist who lived to be 100 years of age and during her time she produced 12 children. Her eleventh child, Edward married Hannah Sare Dennis from North Walsham, Norfolk, in 1875. It was these two who were to be John Craske’s parents.
But times were indeed hard for fishing in and around Norfolk towards the latter part of the 19th century and presumably prospects were better further north; that was the direction taken by Edward and Hannah in 1876 when they moved to Grimsby. Their first son, Edward was born there soon after their arrival, followed by Robert Nathaniel in 1879. A further two years then passed before the family decided to return to Norfolk to live at Lower Sheringham. It was here where John Craske made his entrance, followed by a sister in 1883. Later the family moved yet again to Grimsby. where two more sons were born, between 1889 and 1896.
John Craske eventually put his schooling behind him when left his Board School in Grimsby to follow family tradition; he went to sea to become a deep sea fisherman. So commenced a period in his life which was to make a lasting impression on him; it was, in fact, to become almost a passion which was to dominate his artistic talent and output of paintings and embroideries in later years. But for the moment he fished alonside his two older brothers until their parents decided, in 1900, to return, with most of their children, to Sheringham. But times were still tough; tough enough to eventually convince John’s family to distance themselves from the sea altogether and move inland to East Dereham where, in 1905, his father opened a fishmonger’s shop. Father Edward ran the shop with his two sons, John and Edward, buying a daily supply of fresh fish from Lowestoft.
The Craske family tolled with its fishmongering business whilst the local fishing industry continued in its decline. Inperceptably, tourists began to take over, gradually moving in to enjoy the air, the newly built promenades and the more frequent train connections within Norfolk and to and from London. Tourists, by definition, did not have to work, instead they delighted in taking photographs of the fishermen who, to most outsiders, looked like becalmed wild tribesmen as they lolled against their boats, dressed with their high Cossack hats, tight Guernsey sweaters, heavy thigh boots with metal cleats and each with a distant gaze in their eyes that hoped for a better catch next time. None, it would seem, had enough money in their pockets to live on.
Then there was the Craske family’s strict Christian upbringing which saw them attending services at Dereham’s Salvation Army Citadel where in summer months John, in particular, took part in outdoor services held in the Market Place. On one particular occasion, a certain Miss Laura Augusta Eke came along and her attention was drawn to a tall young man standing on a soap box in the centre of the ring of Bandsmen and worshipers. He was dressed in a fisherman’s blue jersey, his black hair ruffled by a stiff summer breeze. Laura watched and listened as a noticeably nervous John Craske began to sing ‘Since Christ my soul from sin set free…………….’
John and Laura married on 22 July 1908, at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dereham, after which they went to live at Swanton Morley where John started a fish hawking round, serving the surrounding villages. He obtained two ponies which carried pannier baskets full of fish which were slung over their backs. It was a precarious existence which forced John to lead a very vigorius life, often working sixteen or seventeen hours a day. It was extremely rare for him to even take a half day off. On top of this, Swanton Morley lacked a railway station so, in order to make things easier for him to obtain daily supplies of fish from Lowestoft, he and Laura moved to North Elmham in 1909. From there, John continued to collect fish for his father’s shop and carried out all their fish curing and smoking. Then, in 1914, John and Laura moved back to Dereham and continued to carry out fish hawking business. Shortly afterwards, the First World War broke out.
John Craske was never strong and it is not certain whether, in 1916, he volunteered or was called up when conscription began. There was certainly doubts about his health for on two occasions when he attended medicals, he was classified as being C2 during his first visit then C3 subsequently. John gained exemption, however, some local people was said to have appealed to the authorities against exemptions and John received his call-up papers. It was also said at the time that the authorities were so desperate for men that they were taking on practically anyone. John formally joined the Army on 9 March 1917. That was fine as far as it went but the training process was to become John’s nemesis, from the point when reference was made to his “relapse”.
On the 7 April, Laura received news from Davidson Road War Hospital in Croydon that John has relapsed whilst recoving from influenza; three days later she received the news that he had an ‘abscess on the brain’ which left him prone to attacks of nervous collapse from which he would not recover. He no longer knew his own name or who he was, just that he missed his family, his brothers and he just wanted to go home. He could not even remember his age. Initially, John was diagnosed as being an imbecile and admitted to seven different hospitals before finally being transferred, in August, to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. Laura visited him on alternate days; then on 31 October 1918 he was discharged into her care; his health verdict being that he was ‘subject to harmless mental stupours’. Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed. It was Laura, who came to collect him, having signed a declaration form saying that she would care for him – and care for him is what she did ever after.
It was Laura who first suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. It was said that she took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months, or even years at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”. Craske would regularly slip in and out of “a stuporous state” but still managed to eat and drink. Theories were inevitably expounded as to what was wrong with him, from diabetes to pituitary trouble; however, the most popular opinion was that he had depression with a “psychic neurotic basis”.
Then in 1920, John’s father died. This affected John so badly that he relapsed through shock and became confined to a wheelchair for a while; certainly until his GP, Dr Duigan, suggested a spell of recuperation by the sea, because “only the sea can save him”. Apparently, this was endorsed by an endocrinologist who, on hearing about this recommendation, said “Wise man, – the movement of the sea acts as a very good calmative for mental instability.” John and Laura rented a cottage, ‘The Pightle’ near the Blakeney estuary and were lent a boat, for which Craske, duely motivated, soon cut the sails for Laura to stitch them. Whenever the weather was kind the two would set off on the tide’s ebb and return with its flow. It would be three hours each way, drifting within the safe confines of an estuary rich with terns diving for sand eels, abundant dab being caught on hooks and where mud banks surrounded marsh wort, sea poppy and sea campion. Everything and everyone enjoying big skies and quiet days.
Craske gradually improved and more aware of his surroundings; he had become aware that the cottage was unsuitable as the living room floor was below street level and all he could see were the legs of people walking by. They returned to Dereham after 5 months but it was the moment when John said to Laura that he would like to paint a picture on the lid of an old bait box. It turned out to be a red-sailed lugger leaning precipitously to one side in a storm where the wind appeared to be scudding through the crests of the waves and creating an imaginary roar. From the bait box he went on to paint on anything he could find: cardboard, brown wrapping paper, mantelpieces and doors, jugs and teacups. Even when he and Laura had another spell by the sea, this time in the village of Hemsby further down the east coast, he still went on painting.
It was whilst the two were in Hemsby that Craske began to also make toy boats to sell to passersby, and that was how the poet Valentine Ackland first came across him and persuaded him to sell her one of his works which she showed to her lover, Dorothy Warren, who had a new gallery in Maddox Street in London. Valentine was keen to add Craske to her list of artists; so much so that she returned to Norfolk to find him. By then, Craske had left Hemsby and returned to Dereham. She eventually tracked him down there and found him in bed in a coma and close to death. Laura thought this tall lady in trousers had come to ask for her money back, but when she was told that more of the same was wanted, Laura brought out all of her husband’s paintings and, in return for £20 in £5 notes, gave them to Ackland who took a good few away with her. A few months later she and Warren returned to Dereham to find Craske much improved. He had produced his first embroideries and was more business-like than his wife, selling pieces according to the time he had spent on them.
He had taken up embroidery because he could stitch while lying down. He used deck chair frames as stretchers for the cloth and old gramophone needles to hammer it in place. Craske was very meticulous about getting the precise tilt of a boat according to the pull of a current or the direction of the wind. It was said that when a photocopy of an embroidery, called Rescue from Breeches Buoy, was shown to a Cromer fisherman, he looked at it and said: “See, she’s foundered and she’s going to get smashed. That main line there is to get the people off …….. they’ll be alright soon enough.”
The first exhibition of John Craske’s work opened at the Warren Gallery in August 1929 where it was a success: “the ship pictures by Mr. John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,” said the Times. The Daily Mail declared: “the work, though childishly naive, has extraordinary charm and decorative effectiveness”, adding, “The hero of the hour himself, a humble and God-fearing man, was not present as he is seriously ill.”
A second exhibition followed but this did not go so well. The principal reason was that Ackland had fallen out with Warren having started a love affair with the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. In a strange and curious way, Craske became part of their romance when Townsend Warner was taken to meet him. She was immediately impressed by his speechlessness, his simple poverty and by what she saw as the integrity of his vision. Both Ackland and Warner became his patrons and bought his work whenever they could, persuading their friends to do the same; with the Norfolk preservationist Billa Harrod acquiring a number of pieces. For the two women, together with Ackland’s wealthy American lover Elizabeth Wade White who appeared on the scene a few years later, Craske encapsulated not only the beauty of the north Norfolk coast and the North Sea, but also of happier times. The three had numerous examples of Craske’s work on the walls of their houses, although the embroideries yellowed by cigarette smoke and bleached by the sun. But it is mostly thanks to Ackland and Warner that Craske’s work has survived, especially when in the early 1970s, Townsend Warner presented her collection, along with whatever biographical material she had, to Peter Pears and the Snape Maltings, believing that:
“Craske is an artist whose work should be on view in east Anglia ……. enhanced in the sharpened light of a seaboard sky”.
Craske continued being mostly silent and often ill, making pictures whenever he could. He must have produced hundreds of images, but most have been casually mislaid, and although his work did receive a certain amount of praise when it was shown in the US in the early 1940s, his reputation was never established beyond a small circle of admirers. When the Norwich Castle Museum was approached in 1947, with a request to borrow a large embroidery which they had in storage, the curator agreed on condition that her name was not mentioned, “because, quite frankly, I do not think work of this type comes under the heading of art”.
Craske explained that some of his ideas came from memory and some from imagination, which was often inspired when friends told him of shipwrecks or lucky escapes at sea. He spent an increasing amount of time listening to the wireless and in 1940, he heard how the English soldiers had been pushed back to the Normandy coast. The unfolding account of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired his most ambitious embroidery: a sort of modern-day Bayeux tapestry, 13 feet long, which told the story of men in boats being saved by the sea. He worked on it until his death, leaving a raggedy patch of unstitched sky that still needed to be filled in.
In his lifetime Craske, a self-taught artist, was briefly welcomed by the arts world, championed by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friends who bought and sold his works, and exhibited in London and in the US. Craske died on 26 August 1943 but within a few years of his death he was almost completely forgotten. Many of his works were destroyed, thrown away, burned, faded in sunlight on parlour walls, or left decaying in damp museum stores. Craske’s widow, Laura, gave the Dunkirk embroidery, which she regarded as his masterpiece, despite the poignant patch of bare unfinished canvas in the sky, to the Norwich Castle Museum. Craske would have been proud to know his work was in the museum, she once said – but it has never been exhibited there!
Arguably, the largest exhibition ever of John Craske’s works, rescued from museum stores or borrowed from private collectors, was as recent as 2015 in Norwich; it was displayed at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, where he is regarded not as a forgotten eccentric but as a neglected genius. It was Prof Neil Powell, curator of the exhibition along with Craske’s biographer Julia Blackburn (see below), who quoted at the time:
“I don’t believe Craske should be viewed either as an outsider artist, or as naïve. In any other country he would be properly viewed as a serious artist. He had a highly sophisticated sense of colour and form, and a truly extraordinary ability to convey the three-dimensional world in the medium of needlework.” Julia Blackburn added: “He was poor, he was sick, and he was a man who did embroidery – of course he was forgotten.”
It was purely by chance when Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn learned that they had been separately on the trail of Craske; Powell had been hunting for surviving works, including some given by Townsend Warner to the Aldeburgh Music centre, whilst Julia Blackburn had been gathering scraps of biographical information including a hand-coloured studio photograph of him as a young fisherman, self-consciously holding what she thought was a photographer’s prop, a length of fake paper rope. “You get more old photographs of fishermen than any other workers – they had them done to leave some record in case they drowned,” she once said.
It was the hope that the NUA Gallery exhibition would revive Craske’s reputation and uncover more of his work. Previously unknown postcard-sized paintings still cherished by his doctor’s family turned up weeks before that exhibition. Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn also found that many of the owners expressed surprised when the experts thought them worth exhibiting.
Julia Blackburn also recalled that during the preparation for her biography on Craske, she visited Sheringham and looked up old people who might have remembered John Craske. In her own words:
“Eliza, who had had 12 children and at the age of 92 could still dance, thought John was her uncle “Ninny” Craske, but she wasn’t sure. She told me of “Little Dick” Craske, her grandfather, who learned to tap dance on a wooden chest when he was sent to Icelandic waters at the age of nine, and who would dance for the ladies and their clients in the ‘Two Lifeboats’ whorehouse. “Where’s my little Dick?” asked his mother when she came looking for him, and that was how he got his name. The only Craske that Old Bennet knew was Jack, drowned in 1931; they saved his friend Sparrow by grabbing hold of his hair. Old Bennet had lobster pots instead of flowers in his front garden and he giggled like a schoolboy when I asked him how to catch whelks: “They’ll eat anything, whelks … they travel about the sea looking for dead meat …… a boat turned over and three men drowned, they was full o’ whelks.”
The Norwich Electric Tramway Company was a subsidiary of the New General Traction Company and its construction work started in Norwich in June 1898 with its first routes opened in July 1900. In conjunction with the laying of rail track and all else that is required to establish a tramway system, an electricity generating station was built on Duke Street in Norwich to supply power for the scheme. The Company’s tram depot was also built on Silver Road in the City. The whole network was essentially complete and fully operational by the end of 1901, but there were minor additions and changes in 1918 and 1919 – see below.
The above Diagram shows a tramway system which operated seven main routes throughout the central areas of the City; each route ‘colour-coded’ using White, Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Red & Blue and Yellow & Red. This article is concerned only with the Green route which transversed the City from the junction of the Unthank and Newmarket Roads to Castle Meadow, then onwards to Prince of Wales Road, Norwich Thorpe (GER) Railway Station, Riverside Road, Bishopbridge Road ; then generally terminating at the Cavalry Barracks. However, during the summer months there was an ‘extended summer service’ route which ran from Riverside Road, up and along Gurney Road to the elevated spot on Mousehold Heath at the Pavilion (now Zaks) where the trams would terminate and make ready for the return trip.
Towards the end of World War I (1914-1918) a temporary extension to the ‘Green’ route was laid down to transport armaments, munitions and aircraft parts between the then Mousehold Aerodrome, on which a munitions factory was situated, and Norwich Thorpe (GER) station. This extension was named the ‘Mousehold Light Railway’, and to operate its movements, the Light Railway used part of the existing Newmarket Road to Cavalry Barracks ‘Green’ tram route belonging to the Norwich Electric Tramway – namely, the section that ran between Norwich Thorpe Station and the Gurney Road Pavilion on Mousehold Heath. Beyond this point, one end of the new ‘extended’ light railway then cut through the valley woods to pass south-east of the ruined St William’s Chapel site, before entering the ‘Mousehold Aerodrome’ site itself, with its munition’s factory. The entrance to this airfield was on the other side of what is now termed the Norwich Ring Road and along what now is Roundtree Way.
The other end of the Mousehold Light Railway separated itself from the existing ‘Green’ passenger tram route at the southern end of Riverside Road; from there, it crossed the Thorpe Road junction east of Foundry Bridge and entered the Thorpe Station forecourt. From there, a spur line was laid to run parallel to the northern side of the rail Terminus to a siding which effectively served as Platform 7; here, the goods were off-loaded on to suitable main line rolling stock for onward main line trains journeys. The wagons used along the whole length Light Railway were hauled by two Government owned electric tractors, with BTH controllers and 38hp motors, powerful enough to pull the heavy loads up into and across Mousehold Heath. At the end of the War the line was discontinued and the tractors passed into the possession of Norwich Electric Tramcar Company who converted them for tram use. They were known as ‘Dreadnoughts’ due to their wartime role.
As for the rail line extensions, these were recycled from the disused King Street tram-route but differed in re-construction with the use of wooden sleepers. These rails and sleepers remained in- situ for about twelve years before being taken up in the 1930’s. Today, there still remains some evidence of the course of the light railway; a short length of former tramway survives as a cutting close to the south-east corner of the earthworks associated with St William’s Chapel.
MOUSEHOLD AERODROME SITE
During much of the 19th century, the area outside of the present outer ring road, between the present-day Salhouse and Plumstead roads, used to be the Norfolk Regiment’s Cavalry Drilling Ground. During World War I (1914 and 1918), the area became a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) airfield and was sometimes referred to as ‘Norwich Aerodrome’. In April 1918 it became the ‘Royal Air Force Station Mousehold Heath’; its size covering 263 acres and containing a domestic and technical site. The technical site was equipped with a number of hangars including a coupled General Service shed. The first unit based at Mousehold Heath was Number 9 Training Squadron which stayed there until January 1918. A number of other squadrons stayed at the airfield including 18, 37, 85 and 117 Squadrons. From 1916 Mousehold Heath was the headquarters of the RFC Number 7 Wing.
No. 3 Group Headquarters was located at Mousehold Heath between July and November 1919.
The airfield also became an important repair and maintenance depot in 1917 which subsequently became the Number 3 Acceptance park. This was formed on 22 March 1917 originally as the Norwich Aircraft Acceptance Park later designated as the No. 3 (Norwich) Aircraft Acceptance Park and on 26 July 1919 became the Norwich Storage Park. The park was to accept aircraft into service from local manufacturers Boulton & Paul, Mann Egerton, Portholme and Ransome Simms & Jeffries until 1930.
The Norwich & Norfolk Aero Club was formed at the airfield in 1927 and the airfield operated as Norwich Municipal Airport between 1933 and 1939. During this period, the airfield was also used by the military as a Motor Transport Storage site and as an Elementary (and Refresher) Flying Training School (Number 40 E & RFTS) between 1937 and 1939. Then, during the Second World War, the airfield came to be used as a bombing decoy with dummy aircraft stragetically place throughout the area. The airfield also had an anti-aircraft battery and radio beacon; further to this, it has been suggested that part of the area may have been used as a Prisoner of War camp. Flying from the airfield finished in the early 1950s and the hangars were subsequently converted into light industrial use as part of Roundtree industrial estate. The whole area is now the Heartsease Housing Estate.
The following article appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on 2 February 1908:-
“A luminous owl (for there may be more than one!) was captured on Wednesday morning by Mr Edward Cannell at Lower Hellesdon and died from purely natural causes a few minutes afterwards.
A “John Knowlittle”, wrote “A Daily Press reporter, who has enquired into the circumstances, may be relied upon to weep for the luminous fowl. I have only to do with the facts, which are these”:-
“Mr Edward S Cannell is the engineer at the Norwich City Asylum (John Knowlittle will chuckle at that, I have no doubt) but Mr Cannell does not live at the Asylum – he is a trained and highly responsible man and is known to nearly everybody). I asked Mr Cannell to tell me how he came to find the owl.
“Yesterday morning” said Mr Cannell, between 6.00 and 6.30 when it was still dark, I went out into my garden. I had my dog with me. There is a grass bank about 2.5 feet high on one side and a grape vine on a wall on the other. I saw something shining on the grass bank, which for a moment startled me. It fluttered down, crossed the path and got up against the grape vine. I had no trouble in catching it and I did not hurt it in any way. It was an owl and it was bright and luminous. I should say that it was an ordinary owl, but the taxidermist will tell you all about that.
I carried it indoors and put it on a stool, then went out into the garden again. I do not think the dog saw the bird at all. When I came back into the house the bird was dying. It was still luminous, but perhaps the glow was not so strong as when I first saw it.
When I came into breakfast the bird was quite dead. Of course it was daylight then and I could see no luminosity in the bird; it’s light had gone out. I have no doubt at all that the bird was luminous when I saw it first. It was the diffused light which first attracted my attention. The luminosity appeared to me to be phosphorescent in its nature”. – “There are a number of owls that fly about among the trees at the Asylum every night but I have never seen a luminous one before”!
Eight years ago, on the 25 November 2010 to be exact, Bernard Matthews of Great Witchingham Hall and turkey fame died. That November date is otherwise of no significance here, but in the USA it denotes ‘Thanksgiving Day’ – which is often dubbed “Turkey Day”!
In 2010, Bernard Matthews had reached 80 years of age and his death ended a remarkable business career that started just after the World War II when he purchased a clutch of eggs and an incubator. He went on to make his fortune by cultivating the British taste for turkeys, whether they be plucked and oven-ready, tumbled, extruded, lubricated, breaded or shaped. All these choices were packaged into 120 assorted products, all produced within a multinational business that, by 2010, produced seven million turkeys a year, employed more than 2,000 people and had an annual turnover of more than £330m.
Bernard Trevor Matthews was born at Brooke, near Norwich, on 24 January 1930, the youngest of four children of a motor mechanic. He was a bright child and won a scholarship to Norwich Grammar School, but his early life was not an easy one. His father was regularly out of work and his mother worked as a cleaner to supplement the small amount of money that her husband did manage to bring home. When Bernard was 11, he and his sister had to move in with an aunt after their parents suddenly disappeared. They eventually returned, but divorced when Bernard was 16. After leaving school and then completing two years national service as an RAF clerk, Matthews found clerical work at a livestock auctioneers at 35 shillings a week. It was barely enough to live on, and he began casting around for a moneymaking hobby to supplement his income.
That lucrative hobby began, or so he thought, on the 8th May 1950 when he bid at auction for 20 turkey eggs and a paraffin oil incubator. They were knocked down to him for £2.50. Twelve of the eggs hatched but, as he had not built into his costs the money needed to feed those birds, the venture netted him far less than he had hoped; needless to say, he sold the chicks – to a neighbouring farmer for the equivalent of £9 today. Then, after resigning his position at the auction house in 1951 he became an insurance clerk with Commercial Union where the salary was appreciably better. He now had more money to spare and with that money he bought a second batch of turkeys and sold them on as day-old poults – baby turkeys. This may have been a touch fortutitous at the time since a gale force wind blew the turkey shelter away and the rest escaped. But, Bernard being Bernard, refused to give in and tried again. By 1952 he was selling over 3,000 turkeys a year and within 12 months thereafter he left his insurance role to become a full-time turkey farmer on a grand scale.
In 1955, backed by a £2,500 loan, he bought Great Witchingham Hall and 36 acres for £3000. The Hall was a dilapidated 80-roomed Elizabethan manor outside Norwich, near Lenwade, which had once been the home of Oliver Le Neve and John Norris, man of letters. He and his wife Joyce moved in, despite its broken walls and leaky ceilings and soon nicknamed it ‘Turkey Hall’. Several hundred turkeys also joined the young couple and apart from the bedroom in which he and his wife Joyce were to live, he put most of the turkeys in the grand reception rooms, turned the bedrooms into massive incubators and transformed the huge kitchen into a makeshift slaughterhouse. Matthews said at the time:
“People said I was crazy. The place was almost derelict, but it was the cheapest turkey house I could find. So it became the only stately home in England occupied by turkeys.”
He reckoned that, at 5p a square foot, it was considerably cheaper than the 30p a square foot he would have had to invest to build his own turkey sheds.
When Matthews began his business in the 1950s, turkey was a luxury item, seen exclusively as a Christmas treat for the better-off. The average turkey, a huge beast, cost two weeks’ average wages. By the 1970s, Bernard Matthews had turned the turkey into the cheapest meat product on the market and available all-year-round. He then went on to become a household name in the 1980’s when he, all be it reluctantly, agreed to front an advertising campaign to promote his products. Standing in a Norfolk jacket and plus fours in front of Great Witchingham Hall, he extolled the virtues of his turkeys in a broad Norfolk accent: “Bootiful, really bootiful”. Those three words increased sales a massive 17-fold, breaking all previous records for an advertising campaign and propelling Matthews into the rank of a multimillionaire.
A powerfully built man who stood 6ft 4in tall, Matthews came across on television as a ruddy-cheeked, chubby, jovial Norfolk poulterer. But the bluff image was deceptive. In fact, Matthews was a rather solitary, reticent man who took himself and his turkeys extremely seriously. He was defensive with journalists and disliked personal publicity. His direct, brusque style did not endear him to some of the more traditional members of Norfolk society and his intensive factory farming techniques made him the bête noire of environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and foodies. Yet there were many people in Norfolk who admired him, not least for the jobs he had brought to the County and his generosity to local causes. And even his rivals had to admit that he was no fool. When supermarkets and rival manufacturers tried to duplicate his success with spin-off products in the early 1980s, they found both the products and the processes involved protected by impenetrable patents, an unusual thing in the food industry at that time. Matthews was always happiest when running his business and talking turkey. As chairman of his company, he would regularly spend two hours in the food laboratories, testing out new lines. Sometimes he would taste 30 products in one session: “You really have to like turkey to do this job,” he declared.
The new squire of Great Witchingham soon established himself as the leading player in the industry, which until then had been a small if profitable sideline for only a few farmers. After filling his house, Matthews moved out into the surrounding acres and, in 1958, bought the former United States Airforce airfield at Weston Longville, the first of six redundant airfields across Norfolk and Suffolk. It was a shrewd move. Aerodromes were secure and isolated, and their concrete runways ideally suited for turkey houses. He built the first big turkey slaughterhouse and went into large-scale production.
Matthews quickly realised that the normal-sized turkey was too large for most modern families – even at Christmas – so he began breeding smaller birds at weights of between five and seven pounds. That led to higher turnover and more efficient methods of producing them in quantity, which helped keep prices down. Matthews’s frozen turkeys took the oven-ready market by storm. Eventually his empire would run to 500 vast turkey houses, most of them in Norfolk, which, if laid end to end, would stretch for 40 miles. In 1964 he presented a 55lb turkey to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a Moscow trade fair. Soon afterwards he began developing food production plants for the governments of communist countries such as Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and Bulgaria.
But his domestic market remained stubbornly seasonal, and by the mid-1970s was showing signs of stagnation. So he set about making turkey a year-round, non-luxury item by deboning it, chopping it up and repackaging it in smaller portions. In 1975 he developed a revolutionary new “co-extrusion” technique in which meat is taken off the bone and pumped into a long casing like a sausage. This enabled him to move into mass production of spin-off lines, but he did not build up a really big market for his turkey rolls and turkey roasts until the 1980 advertising campaign.
The effect of the campaign was to turn Matthews PLC – the company went public in 1971- from an agricultural business into an advanced food processor, and Matthews patented the extrusion technology, not just for turkeys but for all meat. He diversified into red meat, chicken, fish and pork products, moved into North America, New Zealand and Europe, and sought royalties through international deals for his technology. He even launched a range of vegetarian products, though this did not prove successful. By the 1990s, nine tenths of his earnings came from spin-off products. The festive season, by comparison, was something of a sideshow.
However, the brand once advertised as “bootiful” also came to embody everything that food campaigners believed was wrong with factory farming. On the quality front, Matthews’s turkey products featured in reports that claimed that water was added to increase weight. “Chicken breast” sold under the brand, for instance, consisted of 80% chicken, the other 20% being water and chemical additives. When the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set about his mission to improve school meals, he identified the ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler – made with only 34% turkey meat – as an example of the lowest common legal denominator of poultry products, precisely the sort of food that children should not be fed. The product was withdrawn in 2005.
The following year, two employees admitted ill-treating birds at a Bernard Matthews unit in Haveringland, Norfolk, by playing “baseball” with live turkeys. On 19 June 2007, the Daily Mail reported the incident and went on to state that:
“Poultry tycoon Bernard Matthews faces more criticism after animal rights supporters released a video showing one of his workers repeatedly kicking turkeys. The footage was secretly taken last week by an undercover investigator for an animal welfare charity who sneaked on to one of the multi-millionaire’s farms. The same investigator last year filmed two other Bernard Matthews staff appearing to play baseball with live turkeys on another farm.
The confidence of consumers with Bernard Matthews products was also shaken in February (of 2007) by an outbreak of bird flu at his biggest farm in Holton near Halesworth., Suffolk. Production at the farm and its adjoining factory was halted as more than 160,000 birds were culled after the discovery of the virulent H5N1 strain of the disease. The latest video is another embarrassment to Matthews managers who had claimed they did not tolerate workers abusing poultry.
The new film shows a balding worker in overalls delivering eight separate kicks to turkeys in a shed on a farm at Wreningham near Wymondham, Norfolk. The incident was filmed prior to two different workers being shown loading live turkeys into crates which were delivered to the shed by a forklift. The video is said to have been filmed through an open door in the giant shed by an investigator who sneaked on to the farm at around 1.30 am last Thursday………”A spokesman for Bernard Matthews said he could not comment until he had seen the video, despite being shown still pictures of the alleged abuse.”
Their lawyer told the court that the men were influenced by “peer pressure” at the factory, but the company took out full-page newspaper advertisements reassuring shoppers that its employees were “conscientious people”.
Bird experts had long argued that intensive poultry operations were magnets for disease. They must have felt fully vindicated when the H5N1 strain of bird flu surfaced in the UK for the first time in 2007. This was at Bernard Matthew’s plant at Holton, Suffolk, which called into question the much-vaunted “bio-security” of such state-of-the-art units. Certainly, Matthew’s products appeared to regularly ruffle feathers, but the appeal of ‘instant’ bite sized pieces bland white meat, coated in a deep-fried breadcrumb crust continued to prove more potent with consumers.
Matthews’s no-frills factory farming techniques attracted the opprobrium of environmentalists and animal rights and health campaigners. He was twice prosecuted for polluting Norfolk rivers with effluent and once fined for failing to admit on a label that some of his products contained “mechanically recovered meat” (MRM). Though sensitive to criticism, he was always robust in defending himself and was to reject criticism of the conditions in his turkey houses. He said, probably more than once, that:
“Turkeys have a very low IQ. All they need is food and warmth. They don’t need to be taken to the cinema twice a week!”
Matthew’s Private Life:
Bernard Matthews once described his private life as ‘complicated’! All that needs to be said here is that he married his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, in 1952 and they adopted two girls, Kathleen and Victoria, and a boy, Jason. They separated in 1975 but remained married, despite having lived apart from her for 35 years. He then fell in love with Cornelia Elgershuizen, a Dutch aristocrat, and they lived together for eight years in his 80-room Norfolk country house, Great Witchingham Hall, where their son, Frederick, was born in 1981. However, that relationship ended when Matthews fell for U.S. model Natalie McCray, and the devastated Cornelia returned to Holland with their son. She died there in 2004. He also was reputed to have had a ‘long-term partner’, Odile Marteyn. If all this had been a play then the cast could well be publicised as follows:
Leading man: BERNARD MATTHEWS (January 24, 1930 – November 25, 2010)
Wife: JOYCE REID (married 1952. Lived apart from 1970s but never divorced)
Adopted daughter 1: KATHLEEN MATTHEWS
Adopted daughter 2: VICTORIA MATTHEWS
Adopted son: JASON MATTHEWS
Lovechild: GEORGE FREDERICK ELGERSHUIZEN
Mother of the lovechild: CORNELIA ELGERSHUIZEN
American lover: NATALIE McCRAY
French mistress: ODILE MARTEYN
Matthews did not flaunt his wealth. His two big concessions to multimillionaire status were a Rolls-Royce and a 158ft yacht, the ‘Bellissima’, which he eventually sold to “an Arab who wanted it more than I did”. In addition, he restored and furnished Great Witchingham Hall with antiques, and where he lived a careful, modest life, preferring to spend his evenings at home to going out and socialising.
On the plus side, along with the fortune he made, he did support a number of charities and had a positive effect on the local economy. In 2007 he was appointed CVO for services to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
One of the very few people who appeared not to have heard of the brand name Bernard Matthews was the Queen who asked him, during the CBE ceremony, which branch of the poultry business he was in. Apparently, when he told her, she observed that “a lot of turkeys come from Norfolk” – to which he more than likely replied “Yes, Maam!”.