So Tom Cox of The Guardian thought when he wrote the following article way back in 2011 – apparently, he enjoyed scaring himself so much at the time. Eight years have now passed and nothing in the County, we don’t suppose, has changed since then. Maybe it’s a good time to remind readers of the fruits of his efforts – unabridged, but without the advertisements and extraneous matter which can detract from the qualities of a good story. Take it away [again] Tom:
The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I’ve done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you’re there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I’d never quite had time to visit the castle itself.
On my previous attempt, I’d been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife’s cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.
The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were “self-serve” to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment’s specialty is ‘Robin Reliants’, of which a dozen or so are parked around the front of the garage. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case, you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.
I’d expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. “Is this confirmed?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “By me.”
I’m not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he’d lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.
It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn’t help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I’d not long since rewatched the film Don’t Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who’d died here. “This would be a great place for a Grand Design house,” I said. “Good transport links, too,” said Gemma.
As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone. I thought back to the previous week, when I’d walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I’d been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend’s black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.
During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I’m in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller’s phenomenal 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.
The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it’s not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area’s most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It’s a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.
Oddy, the ghost walks in Norfolk’s county seat didn’t start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired four years ago, and has now been replaced by the Man in Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called “Craig”. That said, The Man In Black’s blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for ‘Richard’s Driving School’ on its flipside!
I’ve been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can’t think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city’s Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man in Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening’s ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.
Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon’s 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.
We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting specter of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.
It was on the 4th February 1810 when John Fransham, known as Hornbutton Jack, was buried in the churchyard of St George Colgate, in the city of Norwich. He was born early in 1730 to parents Thomas and Isidora Fransham, and his father was sexton or parish clerk in the same parish of Colgate. Young John was baptised at St George’s on the 19th March 1730. Although clever, John was denied a proper early education when his patron died – but he was retain his love of classical antiquity.
John Fransham (1730–1810) was a freethinker who showed precocity at elementary school level. At a young age he wrote sermons, which the Rector of St. George’s thought good enough to submit to the Dean. With the aid of a relative and an Attorney, said to be Isaac Fransham (1660–1743), John was able to study for the church; however, with the death of this relative, John Fransham found himself apprenticed to a cooper at Wymondham ‘for a few weeks’, at the age of fifteen. By writing sermons for clergymen he made a little money, but could not support himself, and it was said that he went barefoot for nearly three years. John Taylor, D.D., the presbyterian theologian, gave him gratuitous instruction. A legacy allowed him to buy a pony – not to ride, but to ‘make a friend of’ as he told a physician who had been consulted by his father; he thought him to be ‘out of his wits’.
As long as the money lasted, Fransham took lessons from W. Hemingway, a land surveyor. He then wrote to an attorney named Marshall, but was never articled. One of Marshall’s clerks, a John Chambers later to be Recorder of Norwich, took great pains with Fransham who, at the same time, struck up the acquaintance of Joseph Clover the veterinary surgeon. He employed John Fransham to take horses to be shod, and taught him mathematics in return for the young man’s help in classics.
In 1748 John Fransham joined a company of strolling players where, it is said, he took the parts of Iago and Shylock. The players got no pay and lived on turnips; Fransham left them on finding that the turnips were stolen. He sailed from Great Yarmouth for North Shields, intending to study at the Scottish universities and visit the highlands. But at Newcastle-on-Tyne he enlisted in the Old Buffs, was soon discharged as bandy-legged, and made his way back to Norwich with three halfpence and a plaid. After this he worked with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. The two friends sat facing each other, so that they could carry on discussions amid the rattle of their looms.
After Wright’s death, about 1750, Fransham devoted himself to teaching. For two or three years he was tutor in the family of Leman, a farmer at Hellesdon, just a few miles north of Norwich. He then taught Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics to pupils in the City, when he only taught for two hours a day, giving him time to act as an ‘amanuensis’ – a literary or artistic assistant who takes dictation or copies manuscripts – to Samuel Bourn (1714–1796). He became a member of a society for philosophical experiment, founded by Peter Bilby. With his reputation growing as a successful preliminary tutor for the universities, he reluctantly took as many as twenty pupils, despite being of the opinion that no man could do justice to more than eight. His terms rose from a shilling a week to 15s. a quarter; out of this slender income he saved money and collected two hundred books towards a projected library. If he found a bargain at a bookstall he would insist on paying the full value as soon as he knew it.
In 1767 he spent nine months in London, carrying John Leedes, a former pupil, through his Latin examination at the College of Surgeons. In London he also formed a slight acquaintance with the Queen’s under-librarian, who introduced him to Foote in ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ (1768). By this time, Fransham had developed the habit of wearing a plaid, which suggested a green jacket with large horn buttons, a broad hat, drab shorts, coarse worsted stockings, and large shoes. His boys called him ‘Old Hornbuttoned Jack.’
The Chute family had two houses, one in the country at South Pickenham and one in Norwich. Whilst Fransham was back in Norwich, around 1771, the Chutes allowed him to sleep at their City house where his sister, Mrs. Bennett, was housekeeper; he was also at liberty to use their library. The following year Fransham taught the children of Samuel Cooper D.D. at Brooke Hall, Norfolk, on the terms of having board and lodging from Saturday till Monday. However, he soon gave up this engagement as the walk to and from Brooke, of over six miles there and back to Norwich, was too much for him. When Cooper obtained an improved position at Great Yarmouth, Fransham was advised by his friend. Thomas Robinson, a schoolmaster at St. Peter’s Hungate, to write and ask for a guinea. The difficulty was that Fransham had never written a letter in his life, and after he had copied Robinson’s draft, did not even know how to fold it. Cooper sent him 5 pence – About £9 in today’s terms.
The death of young Chute, of which Fransham thought he had had a warning in a dream, threw him on his own resources once again. He reduced his allowance to a farthing’s worth of potatoes a day; however, the experiment of him sleeping on Mousehold Heath in his plaid brought on a violent cold and was not repeated. For nearly three years, from about 1780, Fransham dined every Sunday with Counsellor Cooper, a relative of the clergyman who had introduced him to Dr. Parr. From about 1784 to about 1794 he lodged with his friend, Thomas Robinson but eventually to lodge with Jay, a baker in St. Clement’s. Whilst living there, Fransham would never allow the floor of his room to be wetted or the walls whitewashed for fear of damp; and to have his bed made more than once a week was something that he considered to be ‘the height of effeminacy.’ In 1805 Fransham was asked for assistance by a distant relative, a Mrs. Smith. He took her as his housekeeper, hiring a room and a garret, which was a small top-floor and somewhat small dismal room, in St. George’s Colegate. When she left him in 1806 he seems to have resided for about three years with his sister, who had become a widow. Then leaving her, Fransham made his last move to a garret in Elm Hill. In 1807 or 1808 he made the acquaintance of Michael Stark (d. 1831), a Norwich dyer, and became tutor to his sons, of whom the youngest was James Stark, the artist.
Fransham has been called a pagan and a polytheist, chiefly on the strength of his hymns to the ancient gods, his designation of chicken-broth as a sacrifice to Æsculapius, and his describing a change in the weather as Juno’s response to supplication. His love for classical antiquity led him to prefer the Greek mathematicians to any of the moderns, to reject the doctrine of ‘fluxions’, and to despise algebra. Convinced of the legendary origin of all theology, he esteemed the legends of paganism as the most venerable, and put upon them a construction of his own. He thought that Taylor, the platonist, took them in a sense ‘intended for the vulgar alone.’ Hume was to him the ‘prince of philosophers;’ he read Plato with admiration, but among the speculations of antiquity the arguments of Cicero, author of ‘De Natura Deorum,’ were high in his thinking. He annotated a copy of Chubb’s posthumous works, apparently for republication as a vehicle of his own ideas. In a note to Chubb’s ‘Author’s Farewell,’ he put forward the hypothesis of a multiplicity of ‘artists’ as explaining the ‘infinitely various parts of nature.’ In his manuscript ‘Metaphysicorum Elementa’ he defines God as – wait for it!
‘ens non dependens, quod etiam causa est omnium cæterorum existentium.’ He thinks it obvious that space fulfils the terms of this definition, and hence concludes ‘spatium solum esse Deum,’ adding ‘Deus, vel spatium, est solidum.’
His chief quarrel with the preachers of his time was that they allowed vicious and cruel customs to go unreproved. Asked at an election time for whom he would be inclined to vote, he replied, ‘I would vote for that man who had humanity enough to drive long-tailed horses.’ He was fond of most animals, but disliked dogs, as ‘noisy, mobbish, and vulgar,’ and in his ‘Aristopia, or ideal state,’ he provided for their extermination.
Fransham brought under complete control a temper which in his early years was ungovernable. He rose at five in summer, at six in winter; a strict teetotaller, he ate little animal food, living chiefly on tea and bread-and-butter. To assure himself of the value of health, he would eat tarts till he got a headache, which he cured with strong tea. For his amusement he played a ‘hautboy’ [an archaic form of oboe], but burned the instrument to make tea. Replacing this with a ‘bilbocatch’ he persevered until he had caught the ball on the spike 666,666 times – but not in succession you understand; he could never exceed a sequence of two hundred. His dread of fire led him constantly to practise the experiment of letting himself down from an upper story by a ladder. In money matters he was extremely exact, but could bear losses with equanimity. He had saved up 100 libra, which he was induced to lodge with a merchant, who became bankrupt just after Fransham had withdrawn three-quarters of its value to buy books. In response to his friends’ expressions of condolence, he replied that he had been lucky enough to gain three-quarters of the total lodged with the unfortunate merchant.
At the latter end of 1809 he was attacked by a cough; then in January 1810 he took to his bed and was carefully nursed, but declined medical aid. When dying he said that if he could live his days again he would go more into female society. He had a fear of being buried alive and gave some odd instructions as to what was to be done to prove him ‘dead indeed.’ On 1 Feb. 1810 he expired and was buried on 4 Feb. in the churchyard of St. George of Colegate; his gravestone bears a Latin inscription. A caricature likeness of him has been published; his features have been thought to resemble those of Erasmus, while his double-tipped nose reminded his friends of the busts of Plato. He left ninety-six guineas to his sister; his books and manuscripts were left to Edward Rigby, M.D. (d. 1821); some of them passed into the possession of William Stark, and a portion of these is believed to have perished in a fire; William Saint, his pupil and biographer, seems to have obtained his mathematical books and most of his mathematical manuscripts.
Jewson, C. B., Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich 1788 – 1802, Blackie & Sons, 1975.
We are in the centre of Norwich, in that part of St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard that sits on the north side the Church. This half the whole churchyard, which extends on both sides of the church, is the larger and does not seem to suffer the unfavourable associations that the northern side of church graveyards usually have to put up with. It is the side which is the nearest to the market place and divided by a path which allows visitors to enter the church through the northern side door.
Here is an ‘altar’ styled tomb – in fact the only tomb in the whole of the Church’s churchyard still standing upright and proud; most other headstones have long been laid flat at ground level. This particular tomb is a finely carved family sort of tomb, one of those big box-shaped ones now, in the present-day, being slowly destroyed by moss and the constant weathering from the trees that overhang it. At one end, facing full on to the path that takes visitors into the church, is an inscription which refers to the main family member, that of John Harrison Yallop. At the other end of the tomb, facing the Forum, is an oval cartouche, within which is the following inscription:
is dedicated to the
Talents and Virtues of
Sophia Ann Goddard
15th March 1801 aged 25
The Former shone with superior
Lustre and Effect
in the great School of Morals,
while the Latter
inform’d the private Circle of Life
with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners
that still live in the memory
Of Friendship and
(Photos above: Haydn Brown 2019.)
This inscription is intriguing, it suggests that there is a real story hereabouts; maybe there are several stories, all interlinked one would assume. In the absence of any facts to the contrary, it must be assumed that Miss Goddard’s remains found their way into this Yallop family tomb shortly after her funeral in 1801; John Yallop followed thirty-four years later when it might have been previously arranged that he would rejoin Sophia there. As to answering the question as to why she, a Goddard, would join these family members; well, at the time of her death she had been betrothed to John Harrison Yallop.
One thing needs to be agreed between writers on the subject of whether this is a Yallop or Bolingbroke tomb! This article favours it being a Yallop family tomb, despite references to the Bolingbroke name. Mary Yallop, John’s sister married Nathaniel Bolingbroke and both are there – John does speak of ‘his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ at some later date. The other references to the Bolingbroke name are two older members – so, the matter is debateable! The other point is, that with the exception of John Yallop, nowhere does it say that the others are ‘buried’ in the tomb; the inscriptions are headed simply ‘In Memory’; the exception to this heading is, of course, the notable inscription dedicated to the young actress with whom John Harrison Yallop fell in love.
Strange therefore that there is no reference on the tomb to John Yallop’s wife of some fourteen years, Mary Ann Yallop (nee’ Watts) who died in 1833 – two years before her husband. Not so strange when we discover that, their marriage, in 1819, became an empty relationship. In 1820 John completed building his fine house at Eaton Grange but he did not live much there. More oddly still, his wife did not live there either. In the words of R.H. Mottram, in his book The Speaking Likeness:
“He bought a neighbouring property and installed her in it, either from some deep emptiness that she, good if ordinary woman as she must have been – or why did he marry her? – could never fill. She died while he was in his sixties, so that her separate establishment cannot have been a mere provision made for her widowhood. He himself migrated to Brighton where he died in June 1835……”
From this, we could reach the understandable assumption that the information detailed on her husband’s grave, in St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard, shows that John Harrison Yallop never lost the love he had for Sophia Ann Goddard. Also, it would seem to indicate that he preferred to be accompanied in the afterlife with those he felt the most closest to on earth. Sophia Ann Goddard was the strongest contender for this distinction since the inscription dedicated to her is an affectionate reminder of his love for this actress – the wording would clearly suggest so!
Sophia Ann Goddard was born in 1776, her parents were Florimond and Sophia Goddard, of whom nothing more is known. It may not be safe to suggest that Miss Goddard was educated and brought up in south eastern area of England but she did make her first stage appearance at Margate, Kent in July 1797 at twenty-one years of age. Within a month of her debut, the Monthly Mirror reported from Margate that:
“A Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, has played several characters with some promise; but her friends have certainly over-rated here talents”
By the 10th November 1797 it had been announced from Margate that Miss Goddard had made her first appearance in London as Laetitia Hardy in Mrs Centlivre’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ at Dury Lane Theatre, a role which she was to repeat with much success in Norwich in a later year. London was enthusiastic, the critics less so according to the Monthly Mirror of November of that year, declaring:
“This young lady has fallen sacrifice to the art of puffing. She has been placed at the head of the school before she has imbibed the rudiments of knowledge………….[her talents were] “not of a primary nature”
Evidently, the Dury Lane Theatre management agreed with the newspaper, for her next performance of Letitia Hardy, on the 14th November 1797, was her last appearance in a London theatre. Undaunted, according to a much later provincial newspaper, Sophia Ann returned to Margate to continue her desire for success with determination. She appeared to be nothing, if not, a trier and was soon making progress – all be it the hard way:
“Puppy teeth were cut, experience gained while her talents pointed for the first tune, with certainty, at a capability that extended far beyond mere good looks and a pleasing personality”.
Within the year, the Monthly Mirror itself was forced to admit that “Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, played several characters with promise”. By December 1798 she had chosen Norwich where she first secured lodgings with a Mrs Curtis of St Gregory’s parish; the same lodgings which had been used by another famous actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons (nee’ Kemble) in 1788. Sophia Ann then joined the ‘stock company’ of actors and actresses at the Theatre Royal; and it was here where she soon became a popular and favourite actress, particulary amongst the County’s gentry. It was also said at the time that she was ‘a particularly graceful dancer’ as well. But it was for her acting that Miss Goddard received most admiration. Her acting of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ was particularly well received, whilst it was reported of her performance in Jane Shore by the Norwich Mercury on 12th January, 1799:
“Miss Goddard to greater advantage that we ever remember to have seen her. The last scene was given to such effect that she loses nothing by comparison with Mrs Siddons, whom we recollect in the same character.”
For the next sixteen months, or so, life appeared to be full for Sophia Ann. She the leading feminine ‘box-office draw’ and playing all the stock leads of the day, often opposite John Brunton, the celebrated actor-manager who, incidently, was a Norwich born man who was to create a family acting dynasty of his own. Sophia Ann also combined her career at the Norwich Theatre Royal with other theatres included on the East Anglia Circuit; all this along with socialising with her many friends and admirers, one of whom was the 38 year-old John Harrison Yallop.
It could well be assumed, from the inscription that ultimately appeared on John Yallop’s grave, that he became besotted with Miss Goddard. One can imagine him rushing round to the stage door after one particular and early performance by Sophia Ann, in an attempt to persuade the person in charge of the Stage Door to allow him admission so that he could ‘introduce’ himself. The ploy must have worked because the two were soon engaged with plans to marry. Unfortunately, time would reveal all too soon that Miss Goddard was not only ill, but her health was deteriorating fast. She died of consumption on the 15th March 1801 at the age of only 25 years. This brought an abrupt end to the couple’s relationship and she would miss out on a marriage to someone who was an ‘up and coming’ man of distinction in Norwich; someone who would become rich and, in some ways, a powerful influence in local and national politics.
Unlike Miss Goddard, John Harrison Yallop had been born in the City of Norwich, the son of William Yallop who was a ‘Glover’. It is unclear, whether it was before or after Miss Goddard’s death, when John Yallop became a partner in the firm of Dunham & Yallop, goldsmiths which was situated on the corner of Davey Place and The Walk. Sir John had a house in Willow Lane, just off St Giles and a short walk from the shop opposite the market place where the business traded in jewellery, precious metals and stones. Having been appointed an agent for the Government Lottery of that day, the shop also sold its tickets to subscribers. On one occasion, so the story goes, John Yallop had two tickets left, one he returned, the other he bought – and won! With the proceeds, which was considerable, he built himself the fine country house, Eaton Grange, on the Newmaket Road in 1820 – the same house mentioned above and where he seldom lived. It is now a Girl’s High School.
John Yallop and his partner were to branch out into selling tea, coffee and cocoa and advertised these and every other commodity which they held on their premises – they called them ‘comestibles’. From their well positioned shop, on the Gentleman’s Walk, they formed a good connection with the public that purchased for the household. It was also on the ‘Walk’ where the gentlemen would rather pass up and down on the shop side so as to avoid the clamour and soiled pavements of the market stalls. JohnYallop also became an important money lender in Norwich; one of his debtors included his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the very one who married Mary, his sister. It is interesting to note that when debtors were imprisoned at the suit of a money lender, that creditor was responsible for paying for the upkeep of the debtor. Records show that John Yallop paid for the upkeep of an unnamed imprisoned debtor. One wonders who that was?
Four years after Miss Goddard’s death, John Yallop was elected to the position of Sheriff of Norwich in 1805 and again in 1809, so he was on his way up both socially and professionally and politically. Then in 1815 he attained the public office of Mayor; it was also around this time that he met a Mary Ann Watts and married her in 1819 before he was again elected as Mayor in 1831. While he was Mayor, back in 1815, he travelled to London with his ‘brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ to present the City’s petition in favour of Parliamentary Reform to King William IV; this resulted in John Yallop being awarded a Knighthood. At the time it was said to have been quite an event which resulted in an amusing ditty being written which began:
“To the King, the Blues wished to present an address
By the Mayor – and their sense of reform to express”
The ditty goes on to describe how the Mayor and “Old Natty” coached to London, each hoping for a knighthood – but only one received it!
As for Sophia Ann Goddard, she died on the 15th March 1801 and was buried on 20th in the churchyard of St Peter Mancroft Church, which was very close to the theatre. in Norwich. The burial register identified her as a single woman from the Parish of St Stephens. Her Obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1801 reported that:
“15th March: Died in St Stephen’s Parish, Norwich, Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, who came forward with so much success at Dury Lane Theatre a few years ago. This lady obtained a considerable reputation on the Norwich stage, and was so much improved in theatrical merit that her talents would doubless have soon made their way to a secure establishment on the London boards. Her figure was elegant, her understanding excellent, her manners were amiable and her character in all respects was highly meritorious. She was in the prime of life, and promised more than any other performer now on the stage to suceed to that line of character which was so admirably sustained by the present Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Farren]“. “
The officiating Vicar of Miss Goddard’s funeral was the Reverend Peele who, pronounced the last sad but dignified sentences of her burial service before the slow, muted procession emerged on its short journey to the chosen plot on the northern edge of the church where she would be put to rest. There doesn’t appear to have been any definite mention of John Harrison Yallop being present at the time, but surely, as the main mourner it would have been inconceivable that he would be absent. It could also be imagined that he would have walked in procession alongside Mr Hindes, the theatre manager now that John Brunton was no longer in charge. They would have been joined by the actors of the day, such as Mr and Mrs Chestnut, Mrs Rivett, Mr George Bennett and his wife Harriet Morland, the daughter of an ancient family in Westmorland (parents: Jacob Morland of Killington, Dorothy Brisco of Kendal, and sister, Lady Shackerley of Somerford Hall). Both were actors in the Norwich Company of Comedians. Then there may have been Mr Lindoe.
FOOTNOTE: The small portrait of Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, said to be by John Thirtle, was reproduced in a St Peter Mancroft publication in the 1950’s, namely the St Peter Mancroft Celebratory Programme for 1455 to 1955. The present location of that portrait, which perhaps at one time belonged John Harrison Yallop, and the Bolingbroke family, is unknown.
The final words here are left to R H Mottram, a great nephew of John Harrison Yallop. He wrote in his book ‘The Speaking Likeness’:
“But there is something else which has made me want to tell this true story, with such filling-in of the gaps that local history does not scruple to leave in a local record. The story of John Harrison Yallop and his Sophia might well be dismissed as an ordinary, pretty tragedy making its limited appeal, too usual in its features to be noteworthy. But, it is not like that at all, and Sophia’s very pathetic demise happens to make all the difference”.
What was it that took place, once the brief [burial] ceremony just outside the porch of the Church of St Peter Mancroft was concluded? John Harrison Yallop turned away, sorrowful enough, heartbroken one may well believe, when one gazes at the miniature of a beautiful young woman, her appearance enhanced by the training in presentation she had received. Some friend, or member of the family that surrounded him, one hopes took his arm and led him home”.
When next you are near St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, go to that tomb on the northern side of the church. Pause, look and imagine as to what really transpired during the all too brief relationship between a provincial businessman come politician and a young, beautiful actress.
John Brunton was born in Norwich, Norfolk on the 10th Norwich 1741. He was the son of John Brunton, a soap maker said to have come from a Scottish family which claimed to have descended from James II of Scotland!
The baby joined 30,000 other inhabitants, the number of which contributed to making Norwich of that time England’s largest inland town and, after London, its second city. Some people in the City were prospering from the relatively new textile industry which was expanding, only to reach its zenith of prosperity before the end of the 18th century, at which point it increasingly declined. Before then, however, the vast majority of Norwich’s population continued to be housed inside Norwich’s medieval walls, despite this prosperity and that of other supporting industries and trades. This meant that a great deal of renovation of old properties was going on around John’s unfamiliar home, his father’s business and Norwich at large.
The number of wealthy merchants with the finances to do this, and particularly to build their grand homes, was continuing to grow in tandum with the ready money available; other industries emerged and developed on the back of this wealth. Examples were the well-established quarries in the areas of Ber Street, Rosary Road and Earlham prospered in support of the building boom. Several breweries were established to satisfy demand; one such name was to be the Anchor Brewery in Coslany Square. Norwich society also embarked upon a programme of civic building. This included the construction of everything from Bethel Hospital, founded in 1713, to pleasure gardens like ‘The Wilderness’ which was just inside the city walls east of Bracondale and overlooking King Street. The Gardens was said to have had a ‘grand piece of machinery’…….splendid clockwork sheep! As one local historian reported proudly about the textile industry:
“By their Industry and ready Invention, the Norwich Manufacturers have acquired prodigious Wealth in the Art of Weaving, by making such variety of Worsted Stuffs, in which they have excelled all other Parts of the Kingdom; which Trade is now in a flourishing Condition.”
But the Brunton family were only to be involved on the fringes of the textile industry, supplying soap. John (junior) less so, but he came from strong stock and was able to withstand the City’s smallpox plague of 1747. He was also fortunate enough to be born into a home supported by income from a soap-making business, making for at least a comfortable existence – thanks to the numerous wealthy families in and around Norwich who own the textile businesses and could afford to wash and bathe using Mr John Brunton’s product. In providing this valuable service to the rich it would be incumbent on him to be an ‘upright citizen’, one who would pay his taxes, taxes which probably had been legislated for or supported by Norfolk’s aristocracy and landed gentry – the very people served by Mr John Brunton!
John Brunton (senior), like all the other soap makers in Norwich, of which there were several, paid a very high tax levy on the soap they manufactured for the silk, woollen, linen, and cotton manufacturers, as well as for domestic purposes, and the way in which the law was worded effectively meant that soap production had to be in batches of no less than one ton. The annals say that the pans used to make soap had to be locked at night by the tax collector to ensure that no illegal production could take place ‘after hours’. Soap was, apart from servicing other types of manufacturing, regarded as a luxury item and wasn’t in common use until the mid-1800’s, long after John Brunton junior had himself died!
Young Brunton’s formative years were not documented, but it is known that when he was ‘of age’ he attended a grammar school – which one, we can only guess! However, given the family’s apparent situation and its location within Norwich, it is reasonable to suppose that young John Brunton received his early schooling at the Norwich Grammar School ( as it was known at the time); this school was situated next to Norwich Cathedral. It was the one school, at that time, which offered free places to ‘Norwich citizens’. The only other schools which offered similar standards, some with boarding facilities, were outside the city walls, at Hingham and Wymondham; much further away were schools at Holt, Swaffam and North Walsham – all probably too far to travel to. Yet, the Norwich Grammar School had connections with the Cathedral and we are told that, as time went on and as part of his education, John was placed into the care of a Reverend James Wilton, Prebendary of Bristol Cathedral until his formal education was completed. Importantly, in the context of this story, nothing is known about Brunton’s personal interests outside of family and education, certainly nothing specific about any interest he may have had in acting. Well, it seems a safe bet that, given the path that he did take from the moment he completed an apprenticeship and set up a business in London’s Dury Lane thereafter, his thoughts and heart may well have been in the theatre whilst he was growing up in Norwich.
The seeds of this interest could well have been planted during the course of his formal education and if so, would have been strengthen by him visiting whatever theatrical venues and events took place in Norwich at the time. Venues such as the White Swan Inn, known as the White Swan Playhouse since 1731 and refurbished in 1747 due to its popularity. There was the Norwich Company of Comedians who were based at the White Swan, but also toured other towns in East Anglia. The Assembly Rooms opened in 1755 and the City’s ‘New Theatre’, near Chapel Field in 1757/58. In the same year, the Norwich Company of Comedians moved into the New Theatre from The White Swan Playhouse and made it new headquarters from where they continued touring. The New Theatre’s opening play in 1758 was “The Way of the World” (by William Congreve) which young Brunton could well have seen. Surely, all that was on offer in Norwich at that time would have been enough to ‘wet the appetite’ of any aspiring actor?
As it was, no sooner had John Brunton completed his formal education at Norwich, than his father directed him into a seven-year apprenticeship with a wholesale grocer; some say this was in Norwich, others suggest that it was with a wholesale grocer based in Drury Lane, London! Whatever was the case, given the possiblity that he already held an interest in acting, then the lure of the theatre on his future London doorstep would have been the real turning point in his ambitions. Once his apprenticeship was finished, he did set himself up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane, London.
” The Drama had long floated in his imagination, superior to the produce of the East and West Indies”
(Annonymous – ‘Green Room Book)
It was during his early years as a grocer in Drury Lane when he met and soon married a young lady by the name of Miss Elizabeth Friend. Whilst some have said that she was the daughter of a Norwich mercer, or cloth merchant another, by the name of William Dunlap, was quoted as saying that Miss Friend came from Bristol! No matter, this story is about young John Brunton who, after his marriage, continued nurturing his plan to enter the acting professtion; this ran alongside the arrival of his children, the first of whom was William, born in 1767 at his parent’s home in Dury Lane.
The next arrival was daughter Anne in 1769, also at Drury Lane; a time when John was regulary visiting the London theatres with the aim, not only to enjoy the performances, but probably to promote his acting talents in the hope that eventually he would be given the opportunity to enter the profession. Certainly, within a very short time, he had made friends with a Mr. J. Younger who was the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship encouraged Brunton to present to Younger a ‘specimen of his skills’ which resulted in the prompter also encouraging him to grab the first opportunity. Brunton, undoubtedly took note and had to work hard but in April 1774, he was persuaded to appear in a performance of Cyrus for Younger’s ‘Benefit’, Brunton taking the title role for which he was announced only as “A Gentleman”. Several weeks later, on the 3rd May 1774, he played ‘Hamlet’ at the same theatre for a ‘Benefit’ performance for Mr and Mrs Kniverton; on that occasion, Brunton was announced as “the young gentleman who played Cyrus”. It was at this point in his life, when he had achieved his first taste of real success, that he gave up his business as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.
Further children came along at the time when Brunton was being considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles. They were Elizabeth in 1771, Sophia in 1773 and John Robert in 1775 – all born at the Brunton’s new address at St Martins-in-the- Fields, Westminster. But, no sooner had the most recent baby John arrived when, in 1775, father decided to return to to his home city of Norwich to live and to perform. Here, Harriet was born – on the 23rd December 1778. By 1780 John Brunton was the father of six children and established as one of Richard Griffith’s (the manager) leading actors; also, a popular man with his fellow actors. John Bernard said of him “our leading tragedian and one of the best Shylocks I have ever seen” . Then, at the pinacle of his Norwich acting career in 1780, Brunton and his family decided to pack their posessions and move to Bath for the next five years. It was at Bath where Louisa was born in the February of 1785.
It was also whilst the Brunton family was living in Bath that another story found its roots – the beginings to Anne Brunton’s own acting career. She, as the reader will remember, was John Brunton’s first daughter and made her 1785 stage debut at Bristol, at the tender age of 16 years. According to “The Secret History of the Green Room (1790)”, Anne Brunton was regarded “as a slutish, indolent girl” by members of the Bath Theatre who thought that she, at her stage debut in Bristol in Febuary 1785, would be “humbled“. Instead, she acted with “unqualified success”. Soon after, on the 17th February 1785, she made her Bath debut where John Brunton went on before her to speak. He expressed his “trepidation at offering his daughter to the stage” and promised:
“If your applause give sanction to my aim
And this night’s effort promise future fame,
She shall proceed – but if some bar you find,
And that my fondness made my judgement blind,
Discern no voice, no feeling, she possess,
Nor fire that can the passion well express;
Then, then for ever, shall she quit this scene,
Be the plain housewife, not the Tragic Queen.”
Anne Brunton must have been somewhat burdened with those words and the fact that ‘gossip’ had circulated beforehand regarding what some at Bath thought were Anne’s shortcomings. Her response was to perform with a show of “self-confidence and grace that one would expect from a more experienced performer”. Anne drew “thunderous applause” – and was to go on to greater things in both London and later in America.
The following year, the Brunton family returned to Norwich and in 1788, John Brunton took over the Norwich Company of Comedians, leading it through its most stable and profitable years. The reason for his appointment was that his predecessor, Giles Barrett, approached the Theatre Royal’s proprietors in 1788, asking for the remaining five years of the lease to be transferred to Brunton. Apparently, the formal hand-over of the Norwich, Colchester, Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Yarmouth theatre’s took place on the 1st November – on the road between Colchester and Ipswich. Brunton then returned to Norwich and when he addressed the audience, at the opening of his first season as the theatre’s manager on News Year’s day 1789, he received almost raptuous applause.
This marked the start of the most succesful decade in the history of the East Anglian theatre, when Brunton’s personal standing was high. He was also fortunate in having good quality actors and he, in return, had their interests at heart. He instituted the Norwich Theatrical Fund in 1791 “for the relief of sick and decayed actors who have been members of the Norwich Company” and gave them an annual benefit. This scheme replaced a similar one which was set up by the previous manager, Richard Griffin, in 1772. By 1799, Brunton’s company, included Sophia Ann Goddard, Joseph Inchbald, Blanchard, Bennett, Beachem, Dwyer, Wordsworth, Taylor, Lindoe and Seymour. It was a prosperous time and benefits were paid out to his actors. It was also Brunton’s last year as manager; having decided not to renew his lease.
Brunton relinquished his position in 1800, the same year when the Theatre Royal was remodelled by William Wilkins, a local builder and architect who entirely rebuilt the theatre’s interior, leaving only the outer walls unchanged. The refurbished theatre reopened barely seven months before its Sophia Ann Goddard, an apparently charming lady and a most promising actress, died on 15th March 1801, at the age of 25 years. Her body was buried in a tomb in the St. Peter Mancroft graveyard. At the time of her death she was betrothed to a relative of the Bolingbrokes – John Harrison Yallop of Norwich. The inscription on the tomb still reads, “The former shone with superior lustre and effect in the Great School of Morals, the Theatre, while the latter inform’d the private circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection.” No mention was made of John Brunton being at her funeral, but his replacement manager John Clayton Hindes was, along with members of the Theatre Royal. It was in 1811, when John Brunton and his wife moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa their daughter. John Brunton died in July of 1825 at the age of eighty-four years.
FOOTNOTE: So far, we have told as much as we know about the theatre actor and manager John Brunton. All that is now left to do is to round off his story by giving a particular mention to his wife, Elizabeth, who seems not to have acted and was blessed with fourteen children – her last child, Richard, was born on the 26th June 1789. Some of her children evidently died young. Certainly, William the first child died and was buried at St Pauls Church, Covent Garden on 17th November 1778. From those that did survive, six had stage careers of varying success and lengths. Initially, John Brunton did not intend for any of them to perform on the stage. Then, at the time when the family lived in Bath, his wife took on the responsibility of educating their children with John also spending many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a Governess. It was whilst doing this that he identified her talent for acting and arranged for her to go on stage at the tender age of fifteen years.
Hopefully, more can be said later about the acting dynasty nurtured by John Burton, a dynasty which graced the stage in the 18th and 19th centuries in both England and also the United State of America.
JOHN BALE (1495-1563), was born in the little village of Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk, on 21 Nov. 1495. The village was so named after the deCove family who had held land there in the 13th century – today, the place is named Covehithe) because the village once had a hithe, or quay, for loading and unloading small vessels.
Covehithe’s nearby beach and ruined, St Andrew’s Church.
Photos: (c) Paul Dobraszczyk
Bale’s parents were of humble rank and at the age of twelve he was sent to the Carmelite Whitefriars Monastery at Norwich, where he was educated, and thence he passed to Jesus College, Cambridge. He was at first an opponent of the new learning, and was a zealous Roman catholic, but was converted to protestantism by the teaching of Lord Wentworth. He then laid aside his monastic habit, renounced his vows, and caused great scandal by taking a wife, of whom nothing is known save that her name Dorothy. This step exposed him to the hostility of the clergy, and he only escaped punishment by the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.
Bales held the living of Thornden in Suffolk, and in 1534 was convened before the archbishop of York to answer for a sermon, denouncing Romish uses, which he had preached at Doncaster. Bale is said to have attracted Cromwell’s attention by his dramas, which were moralities, or scriptural plays setting forth the reformed opinions and attacking the Roman party. The earliest of Bale’s plays was written in 1538, and its title is sufficiently significant of its general purport. It is called ‘A Brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes Preachynge in the Wyldernesse; openynge the craftye Assaults of the Hypocrytes (i.e. the friars) with the glorious Baptyme of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. i.). Bale wrote several plays of a similar character. They are not remarkable for their poetical merits, but are vigorous attempts to convey his own ideas of religion to the popular mind. When Bale was bishop of Ossory, he had some of his plays acted by boys at the market-cross of Kilkenny on Sunday afternoons.
Cromwell recognised in Bale a man who could strike hard, and Bale continued to make enemies by his unscrupulous outspokenness. The fall of Cromwell brought a religious reaction, and Bale had too many enemies to stay unprotected in England. He fled in 1540 with his wife and children to Germany, and there he continued his controversial writings. Chief amongst them in importance were the collections of Wycliffite martyrologies, ‘A brief Chronicle concerning the Examination and Death of Sir John Oldcastle, collected by John Bale out of the books and writings of those Popish Prelates which were present,’ London, 1544; at the end of which was ‘The Examination of William Thorpe,’ which Foxe attributes to Tyndale. In 1547 Bale published at Marburg ‘The Examination of Anne Askewe.’ Another work which was the fruit of his exile was an exposure of the monastic system entitled ‘ The Actes of Englyshe Votaryes,’ 1546.
On the accession of Edward VI in 1547 Bale returned to England and shared in the triumph of the more advanced reformers. He was appointed to the rectory of Bishopstoke in Hampshire, and published in London a work which he had composed during his exile, ‘The Image of bothe Churches after the most wonderfull and heavenlie Revelacion of Sainct John’ (1550). This work may be taken as the best example of Bale’s polemical power, showing his learning, his rude vigour of expression, and his want of good taste and moderation.
In 1551 Bale was promoted to the vicarage of Swaffham in Norfolk, but he does not appear to have resided there. In August 1552 Edward VI came to Southampton and met Bale, whom he presented to the vacant see of Ossory. In December Bale set out for Ireland, and was consecrated at Dublin on 2 Feb. 1553. From the beginning Bale showed himself an uncompromising upholder of the reformation doctrines. His consecration gave rise to a controversy. The Irish bishops had not yet accepted the new ritual. The ‘Form of Consecrating Bishops,’ adopted by the English parliament, had not received the sanction of the Irish parliament, and was not binding in Ireland. Bale refused to be ordained by the Roman ritual, and at length succeeded in carrying his point, though a protest was made by the Dean of Dublin during the ceremony.
Bale has left an account of his proceedings in his diocese in his ‘Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. vi.). His own account shows that his zeal for the reformation was not tempered by discretion. At Kilkenny he tried to remove ‘idolatries,’ and thereon followed ‘angers, slaunders, conspiracies, and in the end slaughters of men.’ He angered the priests by denouncing their superstitions and advising them to marry. His extreme measures everywhere aroused opposition. When Edward VI’s death was known, Bale doubted about recognising Lady Jane Grey, and on the proclamation of Queen Mary he preached at Kilkenny on the duty of obedience.
But the catholic party at once raised its head. The mass was restored in the cathedral, and Bale thought it best to withdraw to Dublin, whence he set sail for Holland. He was taken prisoner by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war, which was storm driven into St. Ives in Cornwall. There Bale was apprehended on a charge of high treason, but was released. The same fortune befell him at Dover. When he arrived in Holland he was again imprisoned, and only escaped by paying £300 – about £80,000 in today’s terms. From Holland he made his way to Basel, where he remained in quiet till the accession of Elizabeth in 1559. He again returned to England an old and worn-out man. He did not feel himself equal to the task of returning to his turbulent diocese of Ossory, but accepted the post of prebendary of Canterbury, and died in Canterbury in 1563.
Bale was a man of great theological and historical learning, and of an active mind. But he was a coarse and bitter controversialist and awakened equal bitterness amongst his opponents. None of the writers of the reformation time in England equalled Bale’s sharpness and forthrightness. He was known as ‘Bilious Bale’. His controversial spirit was a hindrance to his learning, as he was led away by his prejudices into frequent mis-statements. The most important work of Bale was a history of English literature, which first appeared in 1548 under the title ‘Illustrium Majoris Britanniae Scriptorum Summarium in quinque centurias divisum.’ It is a valuable catalogue of the writings of the authors of Great Britain chronologically arranged. Bale’s second exile gave him time to carry on his work till his own day, and two editions were issued in Basel, 1557-1559. This work owes much to the ‘Collectanea’ and ‘Commentarii’ of John Leland, and is disfigured by misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Still its learning is considerable, and it deserves independent consideration, as it was founded on an examination of manuscripts in monastic libraries, many of which have since been lost.
The plays of Bale are doggerel, and are totally wanting in decorum. A few of them are printed in Dodsley’s ‘Old Plays,’ vol. i., and in the ‘Harleian Miscellany,’ vol. i. The most interesting of his plays, ‘Kynge Johan’, was printed by the Camden Society in 1838. It is a singular mixture of history and allegory, the events of the reign of John being transferred to the struggle between protestantism and popery in the writer’s own day. His controversial writings were very numerous, and many of them were published under assumed names. Tanner (Bibl. Brit.) gives a catalogue of eighty-five printed and manuscript works attributed to Bale, and Cooper (Athenae Cantabrigienses) extends the number to ninety.
Creighton, Mandell. “John Bale.”
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol III. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885. 41-42.
Some 500 years ago, Christmas was the time where communities outside of politics came together to celebrate; in the Tudor court, greater emphasis was placed on what we call today – networking! Generally however, it was a time to be with the family, visit neighbours and entertain your tenants or social equals. It was also a time for fasting and on Christmas Eve you were not permitted to eat meat, cheese or eggs. On Christmas day, after three masses were said, the genealogy of Christ was sung and all present would hold lighted tapers before departing for home and enjoying “their first unrestricted meal since Advent Sunday, which was four weeks earlier”. It was also a time for rest when all work on the land stopped, with the only exception being to look after the animals. Spinning, the prime occupation for women at the time, was banned and ceremonial flowers were placed on the wheels to prevent their use. All Work recommenced on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.
However, the root of this particular midwinter ritual go back long before the birth of Christ for midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. We have to go back to the shortest day, which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’.
For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in the sixth century by Dionysius, an ‘innumerate’ Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.
Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice appears both logical and shrewd – blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.
One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.
The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the period starting with St Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop’s regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII abolished Boy Bishops, however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.
The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word ‘Yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative term for Christmas. Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.
Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same – a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories, normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the Boars Head Carol.
Carols became very popular during Tudor time and were seen as a way of celebrating Christmas and spreading the word of the nativity. Winken de Worde’s ‘Christmasse Carolles’, published in 1521, is the earliest recorded published collection and includes the Boars Head Carol describing the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and presenting its head at a yuletide feast; the head being garnished with rosemary and bay before being presented to diners. However, celebrations came to an abrupt end in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits – Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem – to mention but a few.
Twelve Days of Christmas:
The twelve days of Christmas themselves (25th December- 6th January) were all celebrated but not equally. The main three days of celebration being Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Epiphany or Twelfth Night. Nevertheless, these twelve days would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels to prevent their use. During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional ‘minced pye’. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds.
Serious feasting would have been the reserve of royalty and the gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.
A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.
Wassailing: This popular Christmas tradition was practiced throughout all levels of society and derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. Essentially it involved a wassail bowl and a communal drink.
Although most of the descriptions of how wassail was performed date from post Tudor times, there is one surviving description from the reign of Henry VII. It paints a very formal picture; the steward and treasurer were present with their staves of office and then the steward enters with the wassail bowl, calling out “wassell, wassell, wassell” and the court responds with a song. The bowl was a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples with a crust of bread at the bottom. The most important person in the household would take a drink and then pass it on. The crust of bread at the bottom of the wassail bowl was reserved for the most important person in the room, the origin of a modern day ‘toast’ when celebrating. Some believe that most wassails of the time were probably more fun and less grand. Today, communal drinking may sound alien, but it was very common in Tudor times.
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
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!
Back in July 2013 the author Ian Sansom, writing in the Guardian Newspaper, asked the question: “Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strangest literary County?” On the basis that little would have changed in five years, it seems a good idea to repeat his rhetorical question and to present it to what might well be a different group of readers; it is equally of benefit if the response he gave at the time is also repeated. Here it is:
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact –and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, eco-criticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Literature. This is my big idea!
If we were to apply some of the quantitative methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. Last year (2012) Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and the late Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransoms‘s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith‘s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald‘s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.
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.”