The subject of the gibbet has become a topic of correspondence of late. Amongst the names of those who were so called ‘gibbeted’ for a crime is a Eugene Aram of Knaresborough in the County of Yorkshire. He suffered this fate in 1759.
Here, it should first be said that Eugene Aram was born in 1704 in the village of Ramsgill, near Harrogate to a family of labourers, his father being a gardener. But Aram was bright; his intellectual energy and quick mind enabled him to gain an education and to discover and develop a particular gift for languages, especially ancient ones. He was therefore, not the typical eighteenth-century murderer, for he had become an educated professional, a published author of works of philology who, at the time of his arrest at the King’s Lynn Grammar School, was working on his comparative lexicon of Latin, Greek and Celtic.
But before then, and after spending some time without success in London, he returned to Knaresborough and became a teacher, marrying and fathering seven children whilst at the same time gradually running up debts. Matters became particularly sour when he made the acquaintance of a shoe-maker, Daniel Clark, whose wife was a woman of means. Clark was spending lavishly and running up debts with local traders. Then, on 7 February 1744 he vanished. This set tongues wagging and by April 1745, Aram was starting to feel insecure; he abandoned his wife and children, moving from town to town before he was appointment as an usher at King’s Lynn Grammar School in February 1758. At that time the school was housed above the 14th-century Charnel Chapel, alongside St Margaret’s Church on Saturday Market Place. Later it was to become a Workhouse.
At first it was thought Aram had run away to escape his debts; his friends assuming that he had also fled with a quantity of valuable goods he had acquired illegally. At the same time Daniel Clark remained unaccounted for, even a ‘no questions asked’ reward of £15 (more than £3,000 in today’s money) was offered for information, but there were no takers.
Thirteen years later, the discovery of bones in St Robert’s cave. just outside Knaresborough led to speculation that Aram and another man, Richard Houseman, had conspired to kill Clark and steal his possessions. Aram was traced and arrested; this came about when a visiting horse trader to King’s Lynn recognised him, and the wheels of justice began to turn. In the same year, a skeleton was discovered in St Robert’s Cave near Knaresborough which did not do any favours for Aram. At some point his property was searched and some of Clark’s booty was found in Aram’s Garden as well as those of other friends. Aram was later to say that Clarke had left the goods there. Also, Houseman, who seemed by some to be far more suspicious, was to turn King’s Evidence and testified that Aram had murdered Clark.
The saying “hell hath no fury……” seems to have been appropriate for Mrs Aram, Eugene’s abandoned wife; she was quick to accuse him of the murder of Daniel Clark. Added to this was the rumours going around of an affair between her and Clark, which added more fuel to the fire. Aram was taken back to Yorkshire and tried for murder.
At his trial, in August 1759, Aram decided, unwisely as it turned out, to conduct his own defence. He questioned the identification of the bones and asserted his own good character but did not challenge the shaky, inconsistent and unreliable evidence of his former friend, Houseman. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Aram was convicted and sentenced to death. Accordingly, Aram was executed at York Castle, after an unsuccessful attempt to end his own life in prison, and his body returned to Knaresborough, where his gibbet was erected close to the scene of crime, overlooking the river Nidd; his body remained there, gradually decomposing, for at least 25–30 years.
There was great public interest in Aram’s crime and trial. The association between the apparently gentle and scholarly man and violent murder for material gain was unusual and, combined with the instability of the evidence on which he was convicted, resulted in a widespread belief that the wrong man had been executed. His biographer, Norrison Scatcherd, even described the riots and threats with which Houseman was greeted on his own return to Knaresborough.
Historical image of Eugene Aram
Historical image of Eugene Aram and the incident.
Aram’s story was irresistible to cultural producers of the period. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel ‘Eugene Aram (1831)’, giving Aram a beautiful and brilliant lover, romanticised the story. Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, though involved in the death of Clark, was the victim of circumstances and no murderer. The novel was adapted for the stage and had a successful run with Henry Irving in the title role. Thomas Hood’s narrative poem “The Dream of Eugene Aram” (1829) was recited by generations of schoolchildren. PG Wodehouse even has Bertie Wooster quoting Hood’s poem in proper Wooster style – (something along these lines): Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum, I slew him, tum-tum tum! (PG Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge, 1916) Hood’s Aram, though guilty, was thoughtful, penitent and intelligent: a sympathetic hero. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel and Hood’s poem are the best known of Aram’s literary incarnations, but there were many more – forty-one, including a stage play and at least three films.
At some point, probably before the end of the eighteenth century, a doctor called Hutchinson, then practising in Knaresborough, decided to augment his private cabinet of curiosities with the skull of Eugene Aram and managed to remove it from its gibbet cage. But why was Hutchinson so keen to acquire Aram’s skull? Maybe it was simply that he wanted it as a curiosity because of its association with a significant local event—and one which had attracted national attention – who knows!
The skull resided in Hutchinson’s personal museum until he died, when it passed to his widow’s second husband, and his former assistant, Mr Richardson, a surgeon from Harrogate. When, in 1837, the young Dr James Inglis, burning with phrenological zeal, took up a post as physician at the public dispensary in neighbouring Ripon, it is probable that he found out about Aram’s skull from Richardson, as a fellow medical man working in a neighbouring town. It was Inglis who presented the skull to the Newcastle meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838.
The skull then passed from Dr Richardson to his step-grandson, John Walker, in whose private collection it remained, first at Malton in Yorkshire and then at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, when Walker moved house. He presented the skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1869, by which date it had become something of a strange embarrassment to its owner, an Anglican minister, who therefore sought to place it in a museum. The skull was included in Sir William Flower’s catalogues of the Royal College collections in 1879 and 1907 and remained in that museum until 1993 when it was given to King’s Lynn Borough Council and passed to the Old Gaol House Museum in the town.
Today, and for anyone who is interested, there are three last bits to this story. In the Stories of Lynn Museum there are exhibited in the old gaol cells: Aram’s skull, a fragment of Clark’s skull, and a small pill box made of the wood from the gallows on which Aram was hung.
England in Georgian times is remembered as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty. Imprisonment for debt was commonplace and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.
The Government of the day had no desire to to improve the life of ordinary people – and probably was not expected do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the 3% of the population with wealth; these were the lawmakers and the only ones who were permitted to vote in elections even though they were unlikely to be the victim of crime – unless it was the pickpocket on the street, the robber on the highway, or from poaching on the rich man’s estate. The true beneficiaries of the draconian laws were more often middle-class shop owners and tavern keepers who along with the poor were always more vulnerable to being the victims of crime; however, this was a by-product of, and not the intention of, those who made the law.
The man most responsible for the shaping of Georgian England was Robert Walpole. He was born near Houghton in Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a prominent Whig politician who upon his father’s death in January 1701, was elected as Member of Parliament for his old constituency of Castle Rising.
British politics in the eighteenth century reflected a society divided between the pro-Church and pro-Monarchy landed aristocracy and the rapidly expanding commercial class that sought the primacy of Parliament in all things (the vast majority had no say at all) and it was a fraught arena where tensions often ran high. The Tories and the Whigs were not political parties as we would understand them today but factions who formed alliances to best serve their own interests, and it was no friendly rivalry. They were in effect two warring camps with both willing to take up the cudgel if required. Their mutual enmity was reflected in the names they called one another – a Tory was an Irish bandit or thief – a Whig a Scottish rebel or Presbyterian fanatic.
The fact that elections were held every three years guaranteed a febrile atmosphere with members of the different factions meeting in their own coffee houses to conspire with one another and plot their opponents, downfall. Also, Political meetings were violent affairs, graft and corruption was commonplace, votes and constituency seats bought and sold and the behaviour on the hustings would often border on riotous assembly.
Yet this would be the world in which Robert Walpole, the great manipulator not to say enabler, would thrive and prosper. Walpole’s connections ensured that he soon gained political office and he proved himself an able administrator and earned a reputation for probity at a time when such a thing was transparently lacking in politics, this despite the fact that he had been briefly imprisoned for embezzlement in 1712. Having gained the favour of King George I, as he would later his son George II, he began to rise through Government ranks but his ambition was a secret to no one and he was hated by the Tories who time and again tried to discredit him and have him impeached. But, Walpole’s reputation was to soar following the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.
The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 as a joint-stock company which through the sale of bonds would purchase the national debt but in reality, it was a get rich quick scheme underpinned by promises of vast profits to be made from trade. After all, the Company had been granted a monopoly of trade with South America. The fact that Britain was at war with Spain meant that there was little real trade to be had – a fact that was seemingly overlooked by most investors. The rich flocked to buy shares but by 1720 it was apparent that the South Sea Company was an empty shell and the rush to sell shares caused it to crash spectacularly.
Though Walpole had also invested heavily he had earlier been advised to sell his shares. Even so, he tried to re-invest but his purchase of further shares was delayed in the mail and did not arrive in time. This was to prove a stroke of good fortune both financially and more significantly politically for coupled with a few minor criticisms he had made of the Company’s behaviour in the House of Commons it appeared to many that he’d had the foresight to see the crash coming. However, nothing could have been further from the truth but it provided him with a reputation for financial rectitude at a time when others who should have known better had allowed their greed to overwhelm their common sense.
The King now turned to Walpole to help the Government out of the financial mess it now found itself in, and he seized the opportunity with aplomb. Walpole was quick to smooth things over making a series of emollient and reassuring speeches in the House of Commons and confiscating the estates of the Company’s Directors to pay off those worst hit financially in the crisis. He also deflected criticism away from the King who as Governor of the Company was heavily implicated in its wrongdoings. For this both the King and his successor George II would be eternally grateful. Appointed to the position of First Lord of the Treasury alongside a number of other high offices Walpole was the King’s indispensable man and effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister and he would remain so for the next 15 years. It was to be the beginning of the Whig Supremacy and Walpole was to refashion Georgian England in his own image – a country of both conspicuous wealth and extreme poverty, of unapologetic self-interest and punitive laws.
First Walpole, or Cock Robin as he was known, not always with affection, secured his own position. He accumulated for himself a vast array of patronage, ensured that people who would be his men in Parliament were elected to Rotten Boroughs, and aware that he could break as well as make political careers where bribery didn’t serve his purposes, he wasn’t averse to a little intimidation. As a last resort he could always turn to the King for support. Walpole’s policy would be to maintain the status-quo by appealing to the naked self-interest of those who mattered. He adopted a peace policy avoiding ruinously expensive wars, kept taxes low especially those on land, and introduced laws that would protect property, game, and livestock. The rich could sit back and enjoy their wealth comfortable in the knowledge that they were safe from ideological dispute, revolution, robbery, or foreign invasion, and as long as the calm waters of conspicuous self-indulgence and display remained undisturbed then all was well in Georgian England. It would prove for the time being at least a winning formula.
The most potent symbol of Walpole’s England was to be the Debtor’s Prison. Every major city had at least one and there were seven in London alone, the most notorious of which were the Fleet Prison in Farringdon Street and the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. These prisons were Government owned but privately managed, and were run for profit. For example, in 1728, Thomas Bambridge purchased the Letters of Patent to run the Fleet Prison as its Warden for £5,000, and like most Warden’s he immediately divided the prisoners into those who could pay for their keep and those who could not. Indeed, Bambridge was to become particularly notorious for extorting money from his inmates even manacling them on occasions until his demands were met. It was possible to be imprisoned for a debt as little as £2 and incarceration would often come as the result of a request from the creditor.
Whilst in prison the interest on the debt would continue to accrue and release would only come after a financial arrangement had been made for repayment of the debt or the creditor himself relented, and with no specific time to be served a prisoner could be wrangling for his release ad nauseam. For those able to pay imprisonment would be less onerous and depending on how much money they had they might get a cell to themselves with a bed, they would also be able to purchase food, and beer that was often brewed on the premises. They could receive visits from their family, if they were not already imprisoned with the inmate which sometimes happened, and could even conduct business.
The Fleet Prison even permitted prisoners to live within a short distance of the confines of the prison itself, a practice known as the “Liberty of the Rules”. If you were unable to pay for your keep then you would be left to rot in the squalor of the common cells, the damp, windowless, rat-infested rooms situated on the ground floor where the petty criminals were confined. Forced to sleep on a bare floor strewn with straw, fed on gruel twice a day, and with nowhere to urinate or defecate disease was rife and life expectancy short.
The “Bloody Code” as it was to become known, saw offences ranging from poaching, the theft of a loaf of bread, and sheep stealing through to murder and treason carry the death penalty. It was harsh in the extreme, as also were the penalties for those crimes that did not carry the ultimate sanction such as being publicly whipped, branded with hot irons, and confined to the pillory for days on end. In the case of many women and children, and those men who could show themselves to have been of previously good character there was always the option of transportation to the colonies as an indentured slave.
Despite the many laws that now made up the statute book there were few formal structures in place with which to enforce them. There was no police force at this time and instead every parish was obliged to have at least a Constable but these were unpaid volunteers often concerned only with the status their position brought them and little concerned with the actual enforcement of the law. In London and other major cities there were paid Watchmen, these were often elderly ex-soldiers who patrolled the streets at night and at the top of every hour would ring a bell to declare the time and cry “All is well.” Though they were much-maligned at the time they did play a role in keeping the streets safe at night and provided reassurance if nothing else.
In 1749, the author Henry Fielding who had been appointed Chief Magistrate for London along with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners. They now largely replaced the “Thief Takers”, the men often recruited from amongst the criminal underworld itself who would investigate crimes and arrest people for a fee. This had always been an unsatisfactory arrangement to say the least for the Thief Takers were most likely involved in the crime itself and were merely turning in their associates for money. The Bow Street Runners did not serve as policemen as we would understand them, they did not patrol the streets at night or make themselves available for emergencies. They did however serve writs and make arrests on the authority of the Chief Magistrate, and they travelled the length and breadth of the country to do so.They were also paid for the first time by central Government.
Justice was administered by Local Magistrates who were invariably drawn from amongst the wealthiest of any parish. They were unpaid and often found their work burdensome and time consuming. Also, there was no oversight as to their activities and they were not necessarily disinclined to act maliciously or take a bribe. Indeed, the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, the son of Robert, remarked of the Magistrates in London: “The greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice.” More serious crimes such as burglary, murder, and treason would be tried before the Quarterly Assizes and in London at Newgate, later to become the Old Bailey.
Unlike the trials for petty crime more serious offences were tried before a jury of the accused person’s peers. Even so, it was commonplace for such cases to be dealt with quickly as it was rare for there to be a defence barrister as none was provided by the State. Also, the presumption on the part of the Magistrates was always one of guilty. Also, the fact that the Courtroom itself would be liberally sprinkled with fresh smelling herbs and flowers to mask the smell of the filthy and unwashed prisoners indicates the attitude of those dispensing justice.
A guilty verdict at the Quarterly Assizes would invariably carry the death penalty and such trials were popular events that would be well attended and raucous affairs. The crowd would heckle and jeer throughout but a silence would descend upon the courtroom as the Judge would place the black cap upon his head and speaking these words pass the sentence of death:
“Prisoner at the bar, it is now my painful duty to pronounce the awful sentence of the law which must follow the verdict that has just been recorded, that you be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul.”
Public executions in London were carried out at Tyburn and were occasions for a social gathering in an atmosphere that often resembled that of a fairground. Thousands of people would gather in the field where the gallows were located whilst others lined the streets of the three mile journey of the condemned man from his place of incarceration to his place of execution. Carried on a cart where he would be sat upon his own coffin and accompanied by the Sheriff, a Chaplain and an armed escort the condemned man was for a short period at least the centre of attraction and sometimes as the cart passed a tavern the landlord would offer him a last drink to which the Sheriff would invariably reply: “Not for him, he’s on the wagon.” There would be a celebratory feel to the day with music played, pies sold, and many people drunk. As in the Courtroom however once the condemned man mounted the gallows the crowd would fall silent to hear the Chaplain’s last words:
“You have been adjudged by the laws of this country unworthy any longer to live, unworthy to walk this earth, unworthy to breathe its air, and that no further good to mankind can be expected from you, only the example of your death to warn others in the future, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Popular Heroes of the Period: The common people knew full well that the justice system was not there to serve them as a popular saying of the time testifies: “The laws grind the poor, and the rich make the law”. As a result the more notorious a criminal, no matter how brutal, the more likely he was to be treated as a folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood, and Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, and Sixteen String Jack who intercepted and robbed the Stage Coaches ridden by the rich were particularly admired and became celebrities. In 1774, when the famous Highwayman John Rann was found not guilty of robbery thousands of people who had gathered outside cheered and carried him aloft from the Court.
Claude Duval: Claude Duval (or Du Vall) is credited with being one of the first great gentlemen highwaymen. Born in France in 1643, Duval emigrated to England after meeting a group of Royalist exiles, who were laying low in France during the Civil War. Once the war was over, Duval not only moved to England, but got an intimate look at the life of English nobility. Not content to live off a servant’s wage, he turned to the life of a highwayman, and he did it in style.
One of the most famous stories about him is his robbery of a carriage on Hampstead Heath. Here, upon meeting the beautiful young wife of the elderly knight he was robbing, Duval danced with the young woman on the side of the road. He then took only a portion of the money the knight was carrying as payment for the entertainment. He was well known but, by all reports, far from reviled. After fleeing to France for a short time to let the heat die down, he returned to England and was arrested during a drunken night out.
Once his death sentence was given, it was said that a number of his previous victims (mostly women that had been wooed by his courtly demeanor) tried to speak up on his behalf to get him a pardon. It didn’t work. He was executed in 1670, and his body was taken to lie in state at a local tavern. There were so many mourners present that the wake was cut short, as it was deemed rather unseemly.
John Rann: John Rann, also known as “Sixteen String Jack,” was one of the first highwaymen (and indeed, criminals) to make his occupation as much about his celebrity status as about his actual crimes or the spoils of his robberies. He was a larger-than-life, over-the-top figure whose nickname came from his extravagant dress. He was always perfectly groomed and gentlemanly in his appearance, always wearing silk breeches that had eight silver strings hanging from them. He encouraged all rumors that were spread about him, and consequently, there are a couple of different versions of his story.
He was born somewhere around 1752, and at some point, he entered life as a coachman. He was strongly associated with several different women. His apprenticeship didn’t give him enough income to support his lifestyle or his women, so he turned to highway robbery. Many of his crimes were of the flamboyant, drunk and disorderly type. It was ultimately an attempt by one of his mistresses (who quickly gave up his name) to sell a stolen watch that earned Rann his first arrest. When he got off, it only made him that much more confident. He boasted to full pubs of his highwayman lifestyle and predicted his own early death. He got off on minor charges of attempting to climb through windows into homes where the ladies always seemed to come to his defence.
It was a similar situation—his female associates trying to sell stolen property—that led to Rann’s final trial, after he and an associate robbed a clergyman riding through Ealing. His female associates got off, stating that they unknowingly traded clean clothes for the stolen property, but Rann himself was executed in December 1774.
Jack Sheppard: The most popular hero of his day however was the 22-year-old apprentice carpenter, Jack Sheppard. He had served five years of his apprenticeship and had been showing great promise at his chosen profession when encouraged by the other apprentices he began to frequent the Black Lion Tavern in Drury Lane, a popular haunt of the local criminal underworld and with his newly acquired taste for alcohol and having made the association of a local gang leader, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, he soon found that there was easier money to be made in crime than there was in having to work for a living and he quickly progressed from petty theft and pick-pocketing to burglary.
Arrested on numerous occasions it was to be his increasingly spectacular prison escapes that made him a popular hero. Arrested once again and sentenced to hang he promised to escape on the day of his execution but the pocket knife he was carrying to cut the ropes that bound him was discovered. Nonetheless, he had another plan and remained supremely confident that he would not hang and boasted of his forthcoming escape calling upon public to come and witness it. The people expected him to be as good as his word.
Jack Sheppard, a wide-eyed young man with a ready smile was only 5’2” and weighed barely 100 pounds and he firmly believed that as the cart was wheeled away to leave him hanging he would not be heavy enough for the noose to break his neck, and so he had arranged for his friends to cut him down and take him to a doctor to be revived. On 24 January 1724, more than 200,000 people turned out to see Jack Sheppard hang – or escape?
On his journey to the gallows Sheppard joined in the celebratory mood revelling in the banter and urging on the crowd. He even persuaded the Sheriff to stop off at the City of Oxford Tavern so he could down a pint of ale.
As he stood beneath the gallows with his neck in the noose, he continued to play to a crowd that truly expected him to escape once again. As the cart was pulled away from beneath his feet the raucous crowd descended into a hushed silence as they watched his body squirm and twitch. But there was to be no escape this time and this Sheppard was to dangle from the rope for a full 15 minutes as he endured the agonies of slow strangulation. When the body was at last cut down the crowd surged forward to grab their souvenirs, they pulled out tufts of his hair, cut off his fingers, and gouged out his eyes.
His friends who had planned to rescue him before death’s deadly embrace took hold never even got close to retrieving his lifeless corpse. Such had been the popularity of Jack Sheppard that newspapers were forbidden to write of his exploits and theatres were banned from using his name for the next forty years.
Dick Turpin: He was, perhaps, the best known English highwaymen, and he is possibly the worst example of what the idea of a gentleman robber was supposed to be. Born in 1705 in Essex, Turpin couldn’t be bothered to put in the hard work that would have allowed him to make a good, honest living as a butcher, following in his father’s footsteps. He joined a gang instead, raiding houses in the London area, stealing what he could, and outright destroying the rest. Turpin was one of the last members of the gang to be caught; he had since moved on from robbing houses to holding up carriages that were traveling to and from London.
The fictional stories that grew up around Turpin were largely just that: fiction. Turpin became a character in books that embellished the details of his life. Added to the story were dashing good looks, a beautiful, devoted black horse, and a family inheritance that Turpin was supposedly cheated out of. The historical Turpin was a cold-hearted murderer, whose egotistical boasting and a letter back home eventually led to his capture, trial, and execution. It was only after his death and the publishing of a book called Rockwood in 1834, that he was catapulted to fame as a gentleman robber. Perhaps more fitting to his memory was the fate of his corpse. The night that he was buried, Turpin was dug up by grave robbers, who sold his corpse to a doctor for dissection. His body was discovered missing, recovered, and reburied, while the doctor was fined.
Gin – or ‘Mother’s Ruin’: London was the largest city in the world with a population of over 800,000 and was growing all the time. It was a place like no other with more than 50,000 shops, taverns, restaurants, coffee houses, and brothels where every need and desire could be catered for; a place of both outlandish display and grim squalor, with beautiful parks and filthy streets; a place of hucksterism and gaudy self-indulgence. A city of vice, violence and disease its many iniquities were vividly captured in the paintings and lithographs of the artist William Hogarth, and no problem was more evident than that of public drunkenness.
By the 1720’s London was quite literally awash with gin, or “Mother’s Ruin,” as it was known. The craze for gin had caught on in the 1690’s following its cheap importation from the Netherlands and within a decade distillery producing it were cropping up not just in London but throughout the country. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone more than half were Gin Palaces. By 1743, it is estimated that the English were drinking up to 10 litres of gin per head of population a year.
Drunkenness had become a common feature on the streets of all England’s major cities and with it a corresponding rise in the crime rate, and the number of abandoned children that thronged the streets and dead babies that littered the gutters had become a national disgrace. Attempts to stamp out the craze for gin were easier said than done, however. The Gin Act of 1736 that priced it at 20 shillings a gallon and required a licence to sell it at a fee of £50 per annum provoked disturbances so violent that they lead to it being repealed in 1742. A further attempt to curtail its production and distribution the following year were to lead to the Gin Riots that were to leave many dead and cause widespread destruction throughout London. Learning the lessons of past mistakes, a series of more moderate measures were introduced which over time saw a decline in the consumption of gin and by 1757 it was perceived to be no longer a problem.
Back to Walpole: By this time Robert Walpole, the man who had done so much to forge Georgian England in his own image was long gone. He had by the early 1740’s ceased to be seen as the guardian of wealth but as an impediment to increased prosperity and people had tired of the widespread corruption that had so come to mark his time in power. His peace policy of placating Britain’s enemies abroad had come to be seen as a national humiliation and his increased taxes on commodities to ensure that the tax on land remained low was damaging the economy. Many amongst an aspiring and growing middle-class, and even many of his natural supporters amongst the nobility and gentry, now saw their futures in overseas trade and the expansion of Empire and so with his enemies, and he had always had many, gathering in Parliament and fearing impeachment on 11 February 1742 he resigned, returning to his palatial home at Houghton Hall a bitter and resentful man. There he died in great splendour three years later on 18 March 1745, aged 68, a bloated caricature of himself and the country he had created. The draconian laws that Walpole had introduced did not go with him, however.
Indeed, the number of capital offences on the statute book increased. It still remained possible to be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, going out at night with a blackened face, damaging a turnpike, and writing a threatening letter. Most of these offences would continue to carry the death penalty late into the Victorian era though as the decades passed they were rarely enforced. Even so, between 1791 and 1891, long after the Bloody Codes had first been introduced more than 10,000 people were hanged in England alone, and imprisonment for debt and Debtor’s Prisons were not abolished until the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The first professional police force wasn’t established until 1829 when the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police to maintain law and order on the streets of London.
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Quite often I pass by the road signs on the Fakenham Road in Norfolk that tell me where the villages of Lyng and Elsing are. Each time I do so the name ‘Fustyweed’ comes to mind – a name that had been curious to me in the past – but no longer; but it still does tempt me to delve into the realms of ‘fantasy’ from time to time!
For those who do not know, ‘Fustyweed’ is real, both as a word with a pedigree, and also the name of an actual hamlet that sits comfortably between the neighbouring villages of Lyng and Elsing; all blessed for being on a sheltered side of the valley, and with open meadows. This hamlet itself consists of a collection of five older, artisan sized, houses, one of which is a treehouse!
It seems that Fustyweed has always been a hamlet, remaining so because it never grew to warrant a church or a working mill as did its neighbours. So, there must have been another reason for it being where it is; and why was it so named? Was it simply that in the very distant past, not only did crops grow thereabouts, but also some unpleasant smelling plant – possibly offering medicinal benefits to the community? The reason I suggest this is the possible origin of the word itself, which may offer a clue.
Here, I had to go back to an 1822 publication by Robert Nares (1753 – 1829), titled ‘Nares’ Glossary’; this book was described in 1859, by Halliwell and Wright, as indispensable to readers of Elizabethan Literature. Within it I found the following information:
“Fusty” – Musty or mouldy:
Hector shall have a great catch if he knock out either out your brains: ‘a were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernal’. (Troilus and Cressida ii. 1.)
“Dirty, Musty, Ill Smelling”:
…. Where the dull tribunes,
That with the fusty plebeians [a commoner] hate thine honours,
Shall say, against their hearts, “We thank the gods
Our Rome hath such a soldier.” (Coriolanus. i. 9.)
Now, with the dry stuff out of the way – how about a little of that fantasy that I hinted to earlier. On that topic, I can do no better than recommend the following, by fellow blogger, Molly Potter in her November, 2009 blog, titled ‘Fustyweed’. Here it is:
A terrace of five small houses sits some distance back from the only road. Smoke from the five little chimneys zig zags into the sky. The doors and window frames are haphazardly painted orange, purple, red and green. The front gardens are brimming with stunningly beautiful flowers: mostly noddydil, fraf and craggleweed. Silver and gold fluttifol buzz around them collecting gliff to make their glittery crunnyplop (which is sold in jars from a table at the roadside).
All of the houses are kept perfectly maintained with the exception of number four. Minky Flupp who lives there says she spends far too much time granting wishes to bother with keeping her house shipshape. Her neighbours don’t mind, as long as she grants them a wish now and then.
Jiggy Paloozeville at number three keeps yickins. The yickins lay the most delicious eggs with a yoke so deeply purple few can resist. He willingly shares the produce with his neighbours and most mornings the fruity aroma of freshly poached yickin eggs wafts around the terrace.
People tend not to call round to number five because its resident: Professor Batty Baffookink conducts science experiments there. The one-time Minky knocked on the door, it was answered by a squealing green and brown slimey mass. It took Minky some time to recover even after she had learned that the sight was just Batty covered in Harpypoo Sulphate after a tuttyfragwill experiment had blown up. Even so, these days everyone prefers to wait for Batty to come to them.
The eldest Fustyweed occupant lives at number one. At four-hundred and forty-two, Neg Keg is filled with memories. So many, in fact, that he has to have them regularly removed by Chiffle Lacey-Trickle-Doot who conveniently lives next door. The removal process uses a bespoke machine that Chiffle invented. The machine has many cogs, several springs, a few sparking wires, two glass tubes and a large wooden memory vat. A wriggling hose-like attachment (tailored to Neg’s spikey head) sucks out twenty years’ worth of memories at a time. With the relief this provides, Neg can go back to filling his head up with new memories. These memories mostly come from his time on the wirrity field playing tuffball.”
Heading Image: The welcoming village (hamlet) sign. Credit Cameron Self, 2010.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K.
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The story of Miss May Savidge is not new; it has done its rounds on television via ‘Bygones’ and the Antiques Roadshow, YouTube, newspapers, social media and local history groups. But it does have an endearing theme which makes it readable with all who discover it for the first time. For that reason, I am ressurecting the detail in the hope that a fresh audience will find it. And, where better to start her story than where it reached its final conclusion – at Wells-Next-The-Sea in Norfolk. This was where the love of her life – Ware Hall House, ended up!
But first, let’s establish its actual location, which is not an easy task as the house, from one direction at least, is hidden down a pathway and behind a curved wall. It is, however, not too far from The Buttlands and if one exits that place by walking down the hill from its south-west corner, Ware Hall House come easily into sight. It is, in fact, a medieval house which was originally built some 100 miles from Wells-Next-The Sea, at Ware in Hertfordshire. Why, you may well ask, would a house of that vintage need to find an excuse to move its roots?
Well, this particular part of May’s story continued from the 1970’s when the house was brought, in many parts, to Wells by Miss May Savidge and rebuilt over a period of 23 years, first by her and then finished by her niece, Christine Adams, after May had died. What follows is very much about May and her determination to see off death-watch beetles, rats, developers, bureaucracy, planners who threatened to demolish her historic cottage under a road-building project – and even her eventual failing health – and accompanied only by her faithful dog, Sasha. But who was May, and why did she move her 15th-century Ware Hall House from one County to another!
Born in Streatham, South London, in 1911, May Savidge was just ten when her father died of heart failure, plunging the family into poverty. As soon as she was old enough to go out to work for a living, she found a job with the Ministry of Aircraft Production where she trained to become a draughts-woman; as thing were to work out, this skill was to hold her in good-stead years later.
At a relatively young age of 16 years, May met an older man, his name was Denis Watson; he was a gifted Shakespearean actor and they had planned to marry; however, after they became engaged Denis died prematurely in 1938. It was said that May never completely recovered from this blow and continued to wear his signet ring on her wedding ring finger. She also retreated into herself for a time, that is, until she entered into a 17-year courtship with a man she believed would marry her. His name is not known, but from letters found amongst her many belongings discovered after her death many years later, he wrote a devastating letter to May in 1960. In it he revealed to her that he has simultaneously found God and fallen in love with his cousin, stating:
‘I have, thanks to God, seen my dear cousin Iris in a new and wonderful light……I know this will hurt you as I know only too well how you feel towards me. I pray to the Lord that you, too, may experience this most wonderful love…….I should like nothing better than for you to regard us as a new sister and brother. I would like to bring Iris to see you when you feel like it, I know you, too, will love her – everybody does!’
Clearly cut to the quick, May wrote back:
‘It surprises me that anyone so dear and lovable as your Cousin Iris should have thought it right to come between us, after 17 years. My heart is not made of stone. You often spoke of our marriage. Is it surprising that I thought you really cared? I hope you will be more faithful to Iris than you have been to me. Goodbye.’
Next to these letters was a photo of her former fiancée, Denis, playing Hamlet! From that moment on May wrapped her broken heart in a parcel, tied it with string and hid it at the back of her attic to be discovered years later. She became a loner, a spinster – but not through choice.
Then in 1947 she bought a house with the intention of restoring it. The address was No. 1 Monkey Row, Ware, Hertfordshire, a house built around 1450 for a wealthy monk as a ‘hall house’, a medieval arrangement in which the living space was attached to an open hall overlooked by a minstrel’s gallery. At the time of May’s purchase, the remainder of the house was still being used as a bakery. Encouraged by her wish to renovate it, the Local History Society launched their own research exercise into the property, soon finding they could date it even further back, to 1415, when Monkey Row was used daily by monks, and named Monke Road.
As a self-taught home improvement enthusiast, May set about exposing the heavy oak beams of the house, each bearing the marks of medieval carpenters, and she lifted crumbling lino to reveal wide, hand-cut floorboards which needed to be preserved. She employed a builder to repair the roof, but for all the rest of the work – including brick-laying, carpentry, re-glazing and stripping plaster from the ceilings and 20 layers of paper from the walls and re-plastering – she did with her own hands.
Then in 1953, having spent so much of her time renovating her house, the Council told May that they had planned for it to be demolished to make way for a road sometime in the future! In her eyes, that was nothing less than vandalism, forcing her to declare her form of outright war! May dug her heels in and resolved to save the building and for 15 years, she fought the Council’s plans, writing to them at one point:
‘If this little house is really in the way, I would rather move it and re-erect it than see it destroyed.’ She also separately commented: ‘I just won’t have such a marvellous old house bulldozed into the ground……. I’ve got nothing to do all day, so I might as well do the job myself.’
By 1969, when she was 58 years of age, but before the bulldozers were primed to advance, May effectively embarked on a 23-year labour of love and life of hardship. Dressed in a workman’s apron and her greying hair tucked beneath a headscarf, she single-handedly began first to number each beam, tile and pane of glass so that her home could be reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. She then organised the dismantling of the heavy oak timber frame, held together with tapered wooden pegs; this was both difficult and dangerous and a team of local demolition contractors offered to help. Thousands of hand-made Hertfordshire peg tiles from the roof were piled high on the ground and huge timbers were laid out in a set order and in various and appropriate sizes. She had no electricity and worked by the light of Victorian paraffin lamps. She used an alarm clock to set herself targets each day; even noting how many nails she had extracted from oak beams per hour, as she dismantled the house and prepared for rebuilding. May even traced over a sample of brickwork using greaseproof paper and crayons so that she would know which bond to use and how thick to lay the mortar. Eventually, all these materials would all be loaded on to a lorry alongside Tudor fireplaces, Elizabethan diamond leaded glass and more, for a rebuild she might not have already realised, could span the rest of her life.
But doggedly, she pressed on and continued to live in the house as it was being taken down, sleeping beneath the stairs – even in the freezing cold. All this time, charitable local reaction continued to build up and even leading to complete strangers offering help to May. Some sent her money to help with the inevitable expense and many became life-long friends. One was said to have commented: ‘Yours is the spirit that once made Britain great!’ May even woke up one morning with an idea which she considered to be a brainwave. On the basis that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ she hastily wrote to the R.A.F; she simply asked if they could possibly supply a helicopter and ‘lift and move the house for her’; they, unsurprisingly, sent a negative reply, saying unfortunately, the load was too big and they felt, much too risky. Even if they could, the journey would need to be painfully slow, given the age and structure of what they would be moving; it was a diplomatic way of saying No!
But this was the point when May already knew where she and her entire house would be going, and she had already found a site on which the house would sit; it happened to be in the seaside town of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Taking the next step, May had also secured the necessary planning permission to re-build, and went as far as to employ a Wells builder to lay the foundations. All it needed was for a lorry to make 11 round trips, between Ware in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, every part and section of May’s dismantled house.
Back in Hertfordshire, the dismantled parts had been stacked up and stored around the garden, ready for their long journey. Visibly, the scene resembled a builder’s yard, in which everything was arranged with strict military precision. All bricks were placed together as were roof tiles in neatly stacked rows and seemingly innumerable piles of wooden beams, roof joints and more. Screws, nails, hinges, door handles, hooks, door knobs, nuts & bolts; cabling, dozens more items and maybe a few other possessions as well all had their own place, box or container. This neat arrangement even suggested that May would immediately know if any single item had been the least bit disturbed!
And when the day came for the first load to leave for Wells, three men and a lorry made the first of eleven round trips to Norfolk, to ensure every single part of the house – regardless of size or type – was moved. With the completion of this manoeuvre, May’s 20-year reconstruction programme continued; her temporary home at Wells being a former holiday caravan. Conditions there would often be unbearably cold, but she remained doggedly determined to press on; her niece, Christine Adams told the Fakenham Ladies Circle Club in 1971:
“My mother brought us up to believe there’s no such word as can’t” and this possibly fuelled her determination to continue and succeed.”
Two years later, the main framework had been fixed to the foundations by a local carpenter and May had also started to infill the brickwork; her still somewhat limited experience of this skill had been honed during her previous repair of the same house at Ware, that skill would be honed further over the coming years; but she was determined to lay every single brick perfectly – and it might still be another eight years before the roof tiles were put in place and the property made watertight.
By her 70s, May had almost moved in as the house now stood proudly in its new surroundings. Each old oak beam had been correctly placed, the brickwork nearly completed and most walls plastered. Despite her age, she still continued to build, climbing the layers of scaffolding daily to reach the upper floors, top windows or whatever else required her attention. By 1986, the Queen had heard of May’s incredible project and immediately invited her to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. But now it seemed, May was running out of steam and in 1992 she installed a small wood-burner stove to heat the ‘new’ house, while already having difficulty climbing ladders. She also found cement work ‘a bit heavy’. Her failing health sometimes required home visits from the local doctor but reputedly, such conversations were only exchanged through the letterbox!
During 1993, May Savidge passed away peacefully, in the Wells Cottage Hospital just before her 82nd birthday, with the house still unfinished. The walls were up and the roof was on, but overall, it was still little more than a shell. However, in her Will the property had been left to members of her family and after May’s death, they subsequently finished it over the ensuing 15 years. Still standing not far from The Buttlands it is now the home of May niece, Christine Adams – and a B&B.
Footnote: But there’s still one more story to tell about Miss May Savidge; she was, on the side, a collector extraordinaire and perhaps even a hoarder. It was a fact that May had filled her home to possibly resemble an overstocked curiosity shop. In the garden, were nine side-saddles, as relics of a bygone age. Boxes of unworn wartime nurses’ bonnets and May’s Service Medals lay inside heavy trunks, stacked to ceiling height. She kept packets of old-fashioned soap powder, Omo and Oxydol, alongside bottles of J Collis Browne’s Mixture, the Victorian cure-all.
There were thousands of train, bus and trolley bus tickets, milk bottle tops and notes left by the milkman. She reputedly kept old matchboxes, confectionery wrappers and still more which today, might be items eagerly sought by collectors or dealers. And in 440 diaries, she had listed every daily action carried out, revealing life in a Britain now lost – e.g., the use of farthings, florins, half-pennies, half-crowns, shillings, three-penny pieces, milk churns, chains, furlongs, yards, ounces, telegrams and typewriters on a much longer list. It was much of these memorabilia that was sold in order to raise funds to complete the renovation project left by May after she died.
She clearly had much dogged determination to pursue a passion that existed long before conservation became fashionable. May Savidge had decided to move her home lock, stock and barrel across Britain from the busy Ware High Street in Hertfordshire to peaceful Norfolk around 100 miles away. What a remarkable lady and such an incredible task she undertook!
A Lifetime in the Building: The Extraordinary Story of May Savidge and the House She Moved, by Christine Adams with Michael McMahon, published by Aurum.
Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archive 2021. Images: Courtesy of Christine Adams.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
My other hobby is oil painting – landscape painting. Having ‘cut my teeth’ with those of John Constable many years ago. I later discovered John ‘Old’ Crome and, apart from his paintings, I soon became interested in the man’s background; for, apart from some 200 years between us, we share certain aspects: such as same county, city, locations of work, home, painting, church – and public houses! So why shouldn’t I follow his trail, and maybe dream; and, hopefully, with you in tow:
Riding on the backs of sheep and cloth, Norfolk was once rich; it was also at the forefront of the Agricultural Revolution which brought further wealth. Norwich’s mercantile class also blossomed and comfortably melded in with the surrounding country gentry. Between them, privileged society provided a cultured patronage on which aspiring local artists could emerge.
John Crome, (1768 – 1821) was one such artist. He, as many art enthusiasts would know, was a principal English landscape painter of the Romantic era, and one of the founding members of the ‘Norwich School of Painters’. It was he who, in later life, was better known as ‘Old’ Crome; this to distinguish him from his son, John Berney Crome, who painted in his father’s manner but who, in the opinion of some at least, had an inferior talent – but no matter!
John Crome was born on 22 December 1768 in an alehouse named the ‘Griffen’ (Griffin)’ which, according to Hocksetters Map of 1789 used to be in the Castle Meadow/ Tombland area of the city, near the corner of Tombland and Upper King Street, on what was then called Conisford Street in the quarter known as the Castle Ditches. Records show that the building itself dated back to at least 1603, but it completely disappeared when the Prince of Wales Road was constructed in 1860. Here, John Crome’s father, despite being an active weaver by trade, ran the Griffin; it would appear that being in more than one occupation was not an uncommon practice at the time!
On Christmas Day 1768, in St George’s church in Tombland, Crome was baptised. By then, this church had already accumulated a long history, which dated back to at least the 14th century (some say as far back as the late Anglo-Saxon period) – its tower dating from 1445 and then having major repairs in 1645. The font from which John received his baptism was, and remains, of Purbeck marble, not uncommon in many rural East Anglian churches; in 1768 it had yet to be ‘urbanised by enthusiastic Victorians who would place it on grand marble pillars.
The young boy Crome was later to be described as ‘very likeable’ with a ‘charming character’; even, a ‘loveable rascal’ – with these attributes it may be no surprise to learn that he grew up and lived in Norwich for the whole of his life! However, it was a life which only slowly emerged in any sort of recorded detail when the boy had reached 12 years of age. At that point, in 1781, young Crome had become an errand boy for the eminent city doctor Edward Rigby. Dr Edward Rigby owned an apothecary’s shop, at 54 Giles Street, and it was there where the 12-year-old lived and worked for about three years.
Dr. Rigby was to have an initial influential effect on Crome’s life for he appears to have been the first person to recognise Crome’s potential as an artist. As time went on, he introduced him to some of the influential people of that period whom Rigby knew and who were interested in art. In particular, the weaver-turned-banker Gurney family – although of equal importance was to be Thomas Harvey (1748-1819), of Catton House in the village of Old Catton, who would also make an early appearance in Crome’s development.
Of course, Crome’s personal responsibilities and interests were not expected to be solely directed towards art; there was also the matter of work that he was employed to do for the doctor who, in his own field of skill, was already someone of eminence. But the doctor, it seems, had to handle a sometimes ‘mischievous’ lad in Crome – for the lad had a propensity for pranks, with several stories surviving through time. An example was the occasion when young Crome changed the labels on the medicines that he was delivering on behalf of the doctor! Another, which may have been one which had rebounded on to him, was when he threw the doctor’s medical skeleton out of his bedroom window; it was said that medical students had placed it in his bed for a joke – Boys, it seems, will always be Boys!
Nevertheless, young Crome survived a full three years of employment with Dr Rigby before his employer, having given him lodgings, paid him and nurtured his desire to paint, decided that it was time for Crome to move on – and here, we may have to thank the doctor for what followed. Just around the corner from the apothecary’s shop, stood Francis Whisler’s, Coach and Sign painting business – in Bethel Street. It was there, in August 1783, where Crome began his seven-year apprenticeship, learning first-hand how to mix colours and to appreciate what these substances could produce in the right hands. Clearly a precocious lad, with an ability to apply paint to canvas, board and paper with effect, he had taken the first steps in establishing his preferred career path.
Fast forward now to today; and surviving in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is believed to be the earliest known example of Crome’s work, produced during the time of his apprenticeship, which was between 1783 and no later than 1790. The painting is known as ‘The Wherryman’; it was a sign which must have formerly hung outside a public house – and it would be interesting to know where? In 1906, an auction in Norwich first brought this signboard back into the light and, at that time, it was sold for the price of twelve guineas. The V & A Museum’s description of the work is as follows:
It was also during the early years of his apprenticeship when Crome became firm friends with an apprenticed printer named Robert Ladbrooke, who was employed by Whites of Norwich. The two boys had serious compatible interests in art and went out together to sketch the streets and lanes around Norwich, and particularly to Mousehold Heath on the outskirts of the city. For a time, they shared a garret studio and between them, sold some of their art-work to a local print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich. At that time Ladbrooke concentrated of portraits whilst Crome on landscapes, which both sold for very small sums. Subsequently, Ladbrooke turned to Landscape painting, in which he was said to have ‘become highly successful’.
It has also been said that it was through the print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich, that Crome met Thomas Harvey of Catton; but here it should be remembered that Harvey and Dr Rigby, mentioned earlier, were already friends; and young Crome had been in the employ of the doctor and through ‘introductions’ probably already knew Harvey. That apart, the little extra money that Crome and Ladbroke earned during their excursions went on buying prints of Dutch masters to copy – and Ladbroke was much inspired by Crome’s undoubted superior skills; skills which included the ability to make his own paintbrushes from cat’s hairs, whilst using oyster shells as palettes!
When Crome’s apprenticeship ended, in 1790, he began to take up commissions and to give drawing lessons to children of the wealthy. This was also the moment when Crome’s earlier introduction to Thomas Harvey, the wealthy weaver from Old Catton – who also, by the way, had a house in Colgate (see above), really began to pay off.
Thomas Harvey was a rich master weaver who had come from a line of wealthy merchants, ten of whom had been mayors of Norwich. Harvey had married a Ann Twiss, the daughter of an English merchant living in Rotterdam who had an important collections of paintings, which included Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Cottage Door’ (see below), plus several of the Dutch School. These eventually passed into the Harvey family and to Thomas who was something of an artist himself, but very much of the amateur kind. His wealth also allowed him to build up his collection of Dutch masters, some of which had come from Antwerp dealers; these were supplemented by paintings from other artists, including those of Richard Wilson and Miendert Hobbema.
When Harvey became Crome’s patron, both his own studio at Catton House and his art collection became available to the young artist and he, it seems, became particularly influenced by the Wilson and Hobbema paintings – and their ‘ability to give landscape paintings a sense of space and breadth’. Given this patronage, Crome certainly visited Catton House frequently; and it is probably quite true that, for a time at least, Crome may have lived there. This would have been of real benefit when it came to Crome actually copying these paintings as part of his further development, thus ensuring that the qualities and colour aspects of these two masters would feature in Crome’s future works and teachings.
Catton House was also the place where young Crome met other artists, such as Sir William Beechey R.A. and later, John Opie. Then there was Sara Siddons the famous actress who was related by marriage to Harvey’s wife, Anne; as a consequence, Siddons was reputed to have given ‘a Reading’ before an invited audience at Catton House in October 1793. But it was Sir William Beechey who saw Crome’s promise as an artist and gave him some lessons – all be it in London. Beechey was also the one who described Crome as:
‘…. an awkward country lad when I first met him, but shrewd in all his remarks on art, although he wanted words to express them’.
This post-apprenticeship period was certainly a busy one for Crome one way or another; included in which was an activity that had little to do with painting – romance! He had met Phoebe Berney and in the October of 1792, they married at St Mary’s Church, Coslany; just in time, for by the 30th of that same month, their first child, Amelia, arrived! Quite a relationship one would suppose since the couple were to go on to produce eleven children in total during their marriage. However, four were to die in infancy and Amelia died shortly before her second birthday. Two of their surviving sons, John Berney Crome and William Henry Crome (1806–67). were to follow in their father’s footsteps to become well-known artists in their own right.
Robert Ladbrooke who, unsurprisingly, had been present at Crome’s wedding in 1792 followed his close friend one year later when he married Phoebe Berney’s sister, Mary.
Either side of his domestic life, Crome continued to paint and, increasingly, to build up his contacts and clients. By 1796 he was teaching sketching to Master Sparshall, the son of the Quaker wine merchant who lived in St Clements Alley which, incidentally, was quite near to Thomas Harvey’s town house in Colgate. The Sparshall house itself had previously been the residence of Alexander Thurston, the 17th century Mayor and MP for Norwich.
Then in 1798, Crome accepted a post as drawing master to the three daughters of Quaker and business-man, Joseph Gurney of Earlham Hall. It was also the year when John Opie painted Crome’s portrait. This may have been during the time leading up to May of 1798 when Opie married Amelia Alderson, a gifted poet and authoress, whom he had met at a party in Norwich. Also, in that same year, John Opie was not only in Norfolk visiting Thomas Harvey in his home at Catton House but, principally, carrying out some commissions for Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall.
By this time, Crome had become a Freemason, joined the Philosophical Society and the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’, which met in the Rifleman’s Arms in Calvert Street, across from Cross Lane which in turn led to St George’s Street. There, a group of like-minded characters, smoked ‘churchwarden’ pipes and enjoyed a drink or two with other members of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’ – the origins of which were said to be as follows:
“The Rifleman was located in an industrial area of shoe and weaving industry workers. And through this, came an unusual if not ingenious idea to attract more customers to the pub. The normal working week in such trades was then six days during which their workers clothing unavoidably became dirty. So, one Master Weaver arranged with the Rifleman for him to ‘set up shop’ in the bar on Saturday afternoons so that he could pay his out-workers when they came in to have a drink to end the week.
Not only were they paid, but naturally arriving dirty, the distribution of wages was accompanied by a change of shirt with a clean one provided for the following week. The number of people “enjoying” this opportunity, led to the formation of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’. While enjoying a drink or two and a gossip, members also smoked their own churchwarden clay pipes, given to them on entry. Each member’s initials were inscribed on the bowl and pipes were kept aside for them by the publican, between visits. Any new members had honour of smoking from a silver pipe. From the early 1800s, ‘Old’ Crome was a regular visitor, and had his own special chair – witnessing everything.”
By 1801, Crome had established a school of art in his house at 17 Gildencroft, possibly Green Lane (now demolished) and later took up a post as drawing master at the King Edward Grammar School which lay within the shadows of the Cathedral in Norwich. At the Grammar School he helped the sons and daughters of the Norfolk gentry and middle-class, as well as private pupils to learn to paint and draw. Amongst these pupils were notable artists of the future, such as James Stark and Edward Thomas Daniel. There was also George Borrow’s brother, John – who was to paint George Borrow’s portrait in 1821, whilst the latter was working as a solicitor’s clerk in London
In 1802, and by way of an extension to the business of tutoring the Gurney’s three daughters in art, Crome was invited to join the whole Gurney family on a tour of the Lake District. Sometime after their return to Norwich, on 19 February 1803 to be precise, Crome, together with his long-standing friend, artist and printer Robert Ladbrooke, became the principal movers in the foundation of the ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; this was later to become famously known as the ‘Norwich School of Painters’ — the first art movement in England to be formed outside London. The term ‘Norwich School’ was coined because its style reflected landscape painting which had moved away from European influences, which favoured warm, burnt-brown palettes. The Norwich School replaced these with the verdant greens actually seen in the Norfolk landscape. It was Old Crome himself, through the Society, who had advocated that paintings should look ‘only to nature’, a statement that regularly appeared in the Society’s exhibitions catalogues at the time.
It is not known whether it was Crome or Ladbrooke who first raised the idea of forming this debating/exhibiting society in Norwich, but the two’s growing involvement with local art patrons and fellow artists probably made it inevitable that such a body would emerge – to be added to the many other clubs and societies that were flourishing in Norwich at the time? The purpose of the Crome/Ladbroke version was, from the outset to be:
“An Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present State of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of Study to attain to Great Perfection in these Arts”
Also, the Norwich Society of Artists promoted, from the outset, an ‘open-door’ policy whereby no one was turned away who had a genuine interest in art. The only criteria to joining was for each to submit a piece of their own and to secure a place via a ballot of existing members. These members consisted of active painters in oils and watercolours, and included such people as John Sell Cotman, Joseph Stannard and ‘Old’ Crome’s artist son John Berney Crome, Robert Dixon, Charles Hodgson, Daniel Coppin, James Stark, George Vincent and of course others. Some would have seemingly worked under Crome’s influence, with a bias in favour of Norfolk scenery – the slow-flowing rivers and gnarled trees, the people and places of their home city and the Norfolk coast.
Throughout, the Society’s meetings were held fortnightly at the ‘Hole in the Wall’ tavern, which was destined to be demolished by 1838. Its actual location of this tavern is not clear today; time and changes to street layout etc. have seen to that. However, it has been said by the likes of George Plunkett that it was once near the St Andrews Street end of the Hole in the Wall Lane, and built into a part of the east wall of the chancel of the Church of St. Crowche, most of which had itself been demolished as far back as the 16th century. The tavern must have also stood very near to what is now the lower section of Exchange St. It was said that at the time pedestrians had to walk round the old churchyard to get into St Andrew’s. Today, all that remains of both the tavern, and St Crowche, is a mediaeval stone corbel set in a flint wall off the north side of St Andrew’s Street.
As for the Norwich Society of Artists, its evenings at the tavern were taken up with ‘taking supper listening to the presentations of papers’; for this, there was a yearly subscription of 4 Guineas to maintain membership.
By 1805, the Society had enough paintings to present their first exhibition, hosted at Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, which was off Little Cockey Lane and not far from Little London Street; Crome contributed twenty-two works. This venue was later to became the home of the Society. From that point onwards, and until 1825, these exhibitions were held annually and coinciding with the city’s Summer Assizes Week when many people from the surrounding area visited the city and where amusements took place. Norwich became the first English city to establish regular art exhibitions outside London.
John ‘Old’ Crome was to become the president of the Society on several occasions up until his death in 1821, but when he was again elected in 1808, his long-standing friend, Robert Ladbrooke was elected as Vice-President. However, in 1816 Ladbrooke, Stannard, Thirtle and a few other members – Ladbroke having also fallen out with Crome – broke away from the Society to set up and run rival exhibitions; but these proved a failure and were ended after three years. Ladbroke and Crome were reconciled at just about the same time; maybe simply because theirs had been a long-standing friendship; it was a friendship between entirely different characters though:
“Crome was found of company, a ‘dashing fellow’ and with great ideas; whereas, Ladbroke was ‘plodding, prudent and took great care of what cash came his way; he taught his family likewise”.
Finally, on 14 April 1821 and after a few days’ illness, John ‘Old’ Crome died at his house in Green Lane, Gildengate, and his death certificate recorded that he had died of ‘an inflammatory malady induced by early labours as a house painter’! On the 27th of that same month, his remains were interred in St George’s church Colegate – a mere stones-throw away from his home and his local, ‘The Rifleman’. The local paper reported that ‘an immense concourse of people’ attended his funeral at St Georges, which had been his church and where, in later life, he became its churchwarden. It was an appropriate place in which to mount a memorial tablet to him.
When ‘Old’ Crome died in 1821, John Sell Cotman became President of ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; its activities continuing until his own departure for London in 1834. It was at that point when Cotman actually closed the Society and many former members and their pupils went off elsewhere to continue painting and exhibiting.
Surprisingly perhaps, Crome and what was known as the ‘Norwich School’ had been little known outside Norfolk; that is, until the late twentieth century. This was due mainly to the fact that many of Crome’s paintings, together with paintings of other ‘Norwich School’ members, were bought privately by the J.J. Colman family. It was in 1946 when Russell James Colman donated these to the city’s Castle Museum. He also gave money in order for the museum to build a gallery to house them in a permanent display.
Following the death of ‘Old’ Crome, during the November of 1821, the Norwich Society of Artists held a memorial exhibition of more than 100 of Crome’s works in the city. During his life, however, he had exhibited an estimated number of 307 pictures, 16 of which had been exhibited in London – and none of which had been signed. It appears somewhat strange that Crome, above all, never signed any of his paintings. Bearing in mind that his pupils and sons had been trained by Crome on the basis of copying his works, meant that it has always been difficult, or impossible indeed, to verify which are ‘Old’ Crome’s paintings and which are replicas!
It is also a sad fact that when Old Crome died, he was in debt – to the sum of £145 owed to the Gurney’s Bank. Nevertheless, John ‘Old’ Crome was and remains, in my eyes at least, as an artist of considerable repute.
An incident in Crome’s life was the subject of the one-act opera ‘Twice in a Blue Moon’ by Phyllis Tate, to a libretto by Christopher Hassall: it was first performed in 1969. In the story Crome and his wife split one of his paintings, depicting Mousehold Heath, in two to sell each half at the Norwich Fair.
Part of the front of Stranger’s Hall was once the home of sculptor Pellegrino Mazzotti; it was he who produced a bust of John Crome; today, a ‘blue plaque’ on Its wall refers to this.
Heading Image: John Crome by Denis Brownell Murphy, watercolour and pencil, exhibited 1821. National Portrait Gallery.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.
The village of Bale can be found just off the A148, which runs from Fakenham towards Cromer. There is some history here, not so much for being mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but for it’s famous ‘Bale Oak’, once an enormous tree with a trunk 36 feet in circumference. The Bale Oak is said to have been a gathering place for pagan worship before the coming of Christianity. Indeed, it is said the 14th century church of All Saints was built beside the oak, in a place already considered sacred. By the early 18th century, the oak was hollow and it was said that ten men could stand inside its trunk. The then Norfolk historian, Rev. Blomfield, added to the information by recording:
“A great oak at bathele near the church, its hollow so large that ten or twelve men may stand within it and a cobbler had his shop and lodge there of late and it is or was used for a swinestry.”
However, in 1795, the oak was severely damaged and was heavily pollarded, with the removed bark and some of the wood sold to the Hardy’s of Letheringsett for tanning. The tree never recovered and was deemed dangerous by the local populace; it was also subjected to abuse and this led to its removal in 1860 on the orders of the Lord of the Manor, Sir Willoughby Jones. There was said to have been much local mourning as the remains of the oak was taken in a cart to Cranmer Hall at Fakenham.
The site was replanted with a grove of 12 Holm Oaks (Quercus Ilex) and may have been planted to commemorate the Bale Oak, although there is a record of oaks being planted there in 1617. The trees have been National Trust property since 1919, and are now ‘listed’ by that body as a ‘Place of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. A wooden sculpture now marks the approximate position of the original Bale Oak tree, and the trees that surround it have now grown to maturity and form a screen between the church and the road.
The Windhams—the real Windhams that is—ended with William Windham; later versions were merely Lukins who assumed the name on inheriting the Felbrigg Estate.
William Windham, the statesman, who, having played a patriotic part as Secretary for War under Pitt from 1794 to 1801, and as Secretary for War and the Colonies in Lord Grenville’s Administration of 1806, died on 4 June 1810, ‘a sad loss to society’. Thomas Grenville voted him ‘a model of an English gentleman’, and Canning ‘the best-bred man in England’. A reflection of William Windham’s younger days was that he had all the outward advantages imaginable: To quote Fanny Burney, who had met him frequently in his capacity as a manager of Warren Hastings’s trial, he was, on first impression:
“one of the most agreeable, spirited, well-bred and brilliant conversers I have ever spoken with ….. a man of family and fortune, with a very pleasing though not handsome face, a very elegant figure, and an air of fashion and vivacity.”
However, his death signalled the end of the high reputation of the Windham’s; what followed was little more than a romance; but a romance which was peculiar. It arrived speedily and, whilst it certainly made the family name of Windham far better known than ever before, it also brought with it a huge chunk of notoriety – rather than enviable fame!
It remains true that the story is sordid, but what it lacks in good feelings, it fully makes up for in human interest – hence the retelling here. This story of Felbrigg and of “Mad Windham” in particular, was the talk of England in the early 1860’s; and, for a long time afterwards, was vividly remembered in Norfolk for it reeked with foulness far beyond the washing of dirty linen in public. It was a tale of family degeneracy, in which the honoured name of Windham should have had no part.
The Lukins – Come Windhams:
When the famous statesman died, the historic property went to his nephew, William Howe Lukin, who assumed the name of Windham, and he married Lady Sophia Hervey, sister of the Marquis of Bristol.
In November, 1854, this self-styled William Howe “Windham” died, leaving a widow and an only son, William Frederick, at that time fourteen years of age. At that tender age he was already, at Eton and elsewhere, an “ill-disposed and uncontrollable buffoon and vicious idiot”. His guardians were his mother and his uncle, General Windham, whose actions and motives were so severely criticised during the notorious “Windham Trial.”
William Frederick Windham would, in the ordinary course of events, have come of age and succeeded to his inheritance in 1861 without question; but his conduct as a boy and as a growing man was so outrageous that it was reluctantly decided by General Windham and others to petition for a judicial inquiry into the state of mind of this heir, who, they claimed – to be fully supported by future events by the way – could not be trusted with the management of his own affairs.
The Essential Details of the ‘Windham Trial’:
The “Windham Trial,” began on 16 December 1861, lasted thirty-four days and attracted hugh interest amongst the public; so much so that pamphlets were printed at the time, detailing the dreadful evidence, and selling by thousands.
The brief details of the case were that the alleged lunatic, William Frederick, was in line to inherit Felbrigg Hall and the rents that with it. In all, he would enjoy a considerable income which, in today’s terms would be around £700,000 per annum – according to one estimate. The petitioners sought to have their ward adjudged ‘incapable’ and for them to be made guardians of the property during his lifetime. To support that contention, they made a long series of allegations, showing that William Frederick had exhibited simple imbecility in childhood, and that with his physical growth his mental powers had declined.
The petitioners further recounted Windham’s idiosyncrasies. At Eton he was a buffoon and commonly known as “Mad Windham.” His indescribable habits led to his being early removed and placed under the care of a long succession of tutors, none of whom could make anything of him. Many testified that he was incapable of reasoning, addicted to low associates, filthy and profane language, and wanton and capricious cruelty to animals. He would gorge his food without using a knife and fork; eating until he was sick!
His violent temper had led to extraordinary scenes. For instance, at an evening party he had rushed at a gentleman whom he had never seen or spoken to before and, shrieking ‘like a wild Indian, had pinned him to the wall by his whiskers’. He was consistently exceptionally rude and offensive to ladies, and delighted to tear their clothes and make grimaces at them. He could not follow out any train of thought, and acted from one minute to another without reference to previous actions, becoming the laughing-stock of servants. He would also throw money away in the streets, and laugh when saner people scrambled for it. He would fondle a horse one moment and thrash it unmercifully the next. These actions, said Counsel, could not be those of a person enjoying reasonable use of his faculties, but there was worse to come.
It was only with apparent reluctance that General Windham was obliged to publicise these painful affairs of his unhappy nephew ……. there was no other course:
“for his nephew’s vile associates had persuaded him that all the efforts being made to prevent his moral, physical, and financial ruin were only part of a scheme by his uncle to deprive him of his liberty and property”.
But it was explained further in a statement that this was not the case because, whichever way the inquiry went – or whatever happened to his nephew, General Windham would not be the heir.
Witnesses were then called who bore out the opening statement, and added a great deal more. Some told how Windham would at times pretend to be a fireman, and, dressing in character, go about in a devastating manner with an axe and chop down doors and smash windows. At other times he would act the part of a railway guard. With uniform made for the character, he would frequent railway platforms, blow a whistle, and wave a flag. Once, performing these pranks, he nearly caused a railway disaster. At other times he would make off with passengers’ luggage. Altogether, from the family’s point of view and that of the public, William Frederick Windham should have been put under restraint. But it seems that the real compelling reason for bringing legal action was the connection young Windham had recently formed with a woman whom he had picked up in London, during Ascot week.
Agnes Willoughby, alias Rogers, in the words of Counsel:
“was not the chastest of the chaste; her favours in love-affairs were not few; she was known to the police.”
On 30 August 1861, having come of age on the 9th, he married her and settled £800 a year on her, to be increased in 1869 to £1,500. She had been, up to that time, living with a man named Roberts – after the marriage the three lived together!
The action was defended by Windham and his associates, who, in the event of his being declared a lunatic, would have lost “the rich harvest of plunder they were reaping.” A pitiful feature of the case, and one tending to prejudice the public against the petitioners, was that Windham’s mother, naturally unwilling to see her son branded as a madman, gave evidence in favour of him. Then, of the more than 150 witnesses called during the progress of the case, a number declared they had never noticed any peculiarity about young Windham, apart from:
“perhaps he was exceedingly high-spirited. He always behaved like a gentleman.”
It did not take the special jury of twenty-four “good men and true” very long to deliberate upon the concluding speeches of counsel. In half an hour they returned, with the astonishing verdict:
“That Mr. Windham is of sound mind and capable of taking care of himself and his affairs.”
This announcement was received with cheers!
Footnote: On 2 February 1866 the Norfolk Chronicle published the following:
“Mr. F. W. Windham, who for five or six years had enjoyed unenviable notoriety, died suddenly at the Norfolk Hotel, Norwich. He had been unwell for several days, and was seen by his medical attendant, Mr. F. C. Bailey, on 31 January. Mr. Windham became better on 1 February, and still further improvement was manifested on the following day; but later in the same day his symptoms were completely altered, and became so alarming that Mr. Bailey called in Dr. Bateman and Dr. Eade. Every effort was made to restore animation, but without avail; this victim of an ill-spent life gradually sank, and in a few hours expired, in the presence of the medical men and of some of the servants of the hotel. Death was due to the obstruction of the circulation by a clot of blood in the pulmonary artery. On the 7 February the body was removed to Tucker’s Hotel, Cromer, and the interment took place on the 8th, in the family vault at Felbrigg.
Mr. Windham had completely dissipated the residue of the extensive property which he inherited, after payment of the law expenses contingent on the great suit, Windham v. Windham (q.v. November 22 1861), and became dependent for a livelihood on the little income he made as driver of the Cromer coach. His uncle, General Windham, had made arrangements by which he was supplied with the means of living respectably. He had rooms at the Norfolk Hotel, but generally spent his time in one or other of the low public-houses in the city. The effect of his death was to deprive Mrs. Windham of the annuity granted on Mr. Windham’s life, and of any interest whatever in the Hanworth estate.
His name was Allison Davie and it was said that he was born on 4 May 1796; presumably at Great Yarmouth because, as one biography stated, he was “baptised privately the next day at Great Yarmouth, England”. Confusingly however, another source stated that he was born in Scotland! Solely on the basis that it would not have been possible for a barely one-day old baby to be carried from 18th century Scotland to Norfolk in one day, this blog will continue with the following:
Allison Davie was the son of a Captain Allison Davie who, by the way, was buried at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth in 1818; his mother was Elizabeth Cock. Apparently, young Allison Davie came from an old English family line that can be traced back to 1603 when an ancestor, William Davie lived in Stanfield, in Norfolk. Allison was to be the eldest of eight children, four boys and four girls.
It was during the Napoleonic Wars (18 May 1803 to 20 November 1815 – some 12 years, 5 months and 4 weeks) and while still young, Davie entered the service of the East India Company and took part in transporting British troops in the Mediterranean before transferring to the Atlantic route; he had gradually risen in rank. It was whilst he was on a trip to Quebec as a Captain, in early 1825, when he met Elizabeth Johnson Taylor; she was the only daughter of George Taylor, a shipbuilder, and Elizabeth his wife.
Daughter Elizabeth had been born at North Shields, England in 1803 and had left her native land aboard the clipper, Three Brothers – “The largest sailing ship in the world” – with her parents on 27 May 1811, reaching Quebec on 9 August that year. There, her father had immediately opened a shipyard on the southwest shore of Île d’Orléans at a place known as St Patrick’s Hole. Just over twelve months later, in December 1812, the war with the United States caused George Taylor to suspend his activities at St Patrick’s Hole and go with other sailors and carpenters to build ships in Upper Canada. On returning to Île d’Orléans after hostilities had ended, he resumed his original business operations.
Taylor’s yard prospered, and was still doing so in 1825 when Allison Davie from Norfolk, England, by then a 300-pound “giant” of a man and with an excellent reputation as a sea captain, landed at Quebec. He immediately fell in love with young Elizabeth Taylor – how and when exactly we do not know but events with this relationship flowered at pace. Her father, George, very soon agreed to his daughter’s marriage with Davie – but on two conditions: (1) that he abandon sailing and settle down as heir to the Taylor business and, (2) that he would give his future children the Taylor name. Davie agreed, and the marriage was performed by the Reverend James Harkness on 16 April 1825; this is according to the records of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at Quebec – which made the formalisation of the couple’s marriage swift indeed!
Two years later, on 14 May 1827, the Taylor enterprise, in which Davie was now an established partner, launched the King Fisher, a 221-ton, 16-gun, brigantine which was built for the Colonial Government. This launching turned out to be a major event with the Governor, Lord Dalhousie Ramsay and many other notable guests in attendance. It was Dalhousie himself who presented George Taylor with a silver cup, engraved with the Governor’s Coat of Arms surmounted by a unicorn, the ship’s figurehead which had been produced by the silversmith Laurent Amiot, a man conscious of his standing as a creative artist. As for the boatyard, it may appear strange that shortly after this even, it was shut down.
On 2 December 1829 Davie bought a waterfront property at the foot of the cliff at Pointe-Lévy on the south shore of the St Lawrence with a view to setting up his enterprise there. He purchased another site on 28 December the following year. On these lots he put up the facilities needed for repairing ships. But, as the Quebec Gazette reported on 5 March 1832, during the violent spring break-up “the large wharf” of his shipyard, “after being thrown over by the ice, was carried down the river.” At the same time, the shipbuilding market was weak but, undaunted by both the disaster and the market situation, Davie re- started from scratch, with such energy that by the autumn he had moved the family across the St Lawrence River to Pointe-Lévy where he had also bought a beach property and had set up his own ship repair yard, equipped with a “Patent Slip” or marine railway. Since there was only one other dry-docking facility in the port of Quebec at the time, the Canada Floating Dock at Cape Cove, Davie’s business prospered further.
Of all the qualities that contemporaries recognised in Davie, ingenuity was the one most stressed. For example, according to the Quebec Gazette of 29 Oct. 1832, he was the first person in the Canadas to employ a system invented in England that allowed ships to be repaired without being put into dry dock. For this purpose, he had an inclined marine railway built. The vessels, taken at high water, were hauled out of the river on a cradle which moved on iron rollers and drawn up by an iron chain. “We believe this is the first establishment of the kind formed in British America,” the newspaper added.
The ingenious Captain Davie was not destined, however, to live long after this achievement. Joseph-Edmond Roy, editor, notary, politician and historian, recounts:
“One evening in the month of June 1836, as he was moving in a rowboat past a ship anchored in mid-stream, the captain of the ship threw him a package, which fell into the sea instead of into the rowboat. In leaning overboard to catch the package, Davie fell in himself. He went under and did not come up.”
On 20 June the Le Canadien reported that Davie’s body, with:
“his gold watch, some money, and the keys he had on him, had been found at Saint-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, the preceding afternoon…. a few days after the accident in the roads.”
Twelve days after the accident, Allison Davie was buried at Quebec.
Elizabeth Davie, widowed at age 33 with seven children and pregnant with an eighth, took charge of the business in order to safeguard the family’s inheritance. The first woman to head a shipbuilding firm in Canada, she ran the yard and soon made a reputation for herself as a talented builder with a keen eye for which trees to cut down. On occasion she sought help from her father, who had retired but lived until 1861.
Around 1850 Elizabeth handed over the running of the company to her eldest son, George Taylor Davie, who had been apprenticed in John Munn’s shipyards in the faubourg Saint-Roch at Quebec. It was clear that training under Munn was a privilege, and several of his apprentices made their mark, George Taylor Davie was amongst them; his inherited business becoming the sole 19th century shipbuilder to survive to the present day.
Allison Davie’s son, George Taylor Davie, gradually bought up his sibling’s shares, with the result that on 28 May 1885 all of his father’s heirs declared him sole owner of the family business. His mother, Elizabeth Davie had died in 1860, at the age of 57 years. Thanks to George’s business sense and professional skill, the operation prospered and grew through the purchase of a site at Saint-Joseph (Lévis), where he founded the Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Company Limited. Despite his short and modest career Allison Davie, a ship’s captain from Norfolk, England, had laid the foundation of an enterprise which, through his successors and name changes, won an enviable place in the shipbuilding and ship repairfield. It finally closed in 1989.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review
Now, every old Norfolk Hall seems to have a good story to tell – if only their walls could speak!
At Fishley Hall there is such a story; firstly, it is of a tunnel having once existed which ran from the cellars (which still exist and have brick barrel vaulted ceilings) under the north wing and then to a boat dyke that directly connected the user to the River Bure – and to the sea beyond. By 1812 the boat dyke, and no doubt the tunnel had long since been disused; however, there exists an estate map of the same year which provides such evidence. But one may well wonder who, and for what purpose would cargo be transported to and from the Hall during that period – smuggling maybe, or just bringing provisions for the Hall, farm and the estate?
A clue may lie with William Luson himself – pure speculation of course! He was indeed a wealthy merchant who came from a staunchly non-conformist family and had lived in Great Yarmouth; he had made his money, legitimately one must suppose, from trading with Holland. He could, therefore, well afford to purchase Fishley Hall; which he did in 1712, from the previous owners who were the Pepys family of Impington near Cambridge. They were distant cousins of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepy, and had created their own wealth as lawyers in London.
By 1724, William Luson, was also the owner of the much larger Gunton Hall and its estate near Lowestoft, making him the lord of the manor of Gunton. This ancient title also gave salvage rights to the owner to anything washed ashore from sea wrecks which, over the centuries, were numerous. Is there a link here with the then William Luson and his Fishley Hall mooring facility?
In his Will of 1731, William Luson bequeathed everything, including both estates to his second son, Hewling Luson. Again, none of the Luson family came to live at Fishley Hall. Instead, Hewling continued to live at Gunton Hall in Suffolk, with the same entitlements. It was during his period there when he is credited with the discovery of a seam of clay on his land which was said to have been used later in the making of the famous Lowestoft Porcelain.
The story goes, according to the Suffolk historian Gillingwater, that the Lowestoft factory that was later established, came about under remarkable and somewhat romantic circumstances. It began when, around 1756, Hewling Luson befriended a shipwrecked Dutch mariner and provided him with accommodation at Gunton Hall until such time as the sailor was able to return to his own country.
On walking over his estate one day with the sailor, the latter noticed some clay which had been newly turned up, and remarked to his host:
“They make Delft-ware of that in my country.”
Acting upon this comment, Hewling was said to have taken the first steps towards experimenting with actually making porcelain. Gillingwater’s account also stated that Hewling’s pottery experiment seemed to have been reasonably accurate, but there was no actual indication of the whereabouts of the clay deposit used, or indeed whether this was the source actually used later by the Lowestoft Porcelain factory. Nevertheless, the account forms the basis of our knowledge of events today.
A year later, around 1757, the Lowestoft Porcelain Factory was founded by the partnership of Messrs. Walker, Aldred, Richman, and Brown; it did not include Hewling Luson, although he clearly knew his tenant, the above Philip Walker, who became the principal of the new company. As for Hewling thereafter; by the October of 1761 he became bankrupt and his Gunton Hall estate and the Fishley estate in Norfolk was sold to Sir Charles Saunders.
Hewling Luson remained in Lowestoft until at least 1765 when the Manor Roll records that:
“Robert Luson was admitted to the Fish Houses in the occupation of Hewling Luson, late of Gunton and now of Lowestoft” and, according to Gillingwater was “one of the town’s herring boat owners.” By 1777 Hewling had moved to Bethnal Green in London and died there.
Crossing the River Waveney from the south, through a flat landscape, the old Norwich Road entered Norfolk at Scole, or “Schoale,” as the name was often spelled in old times. To the west, Scole was bordered by the parish and town of Diss. This parish nowadays contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billingford, Thelveton, Frenze, and the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in the 19th century the parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, before reverting to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and joined to Scole. Scole was also recorded as Osmondeston in the Domesday Book. The name ‘Osmodeston’ derives from the Old English for Osmond’s enclosure or farm.
In years past, when coming over the little bridge which once straddled the Waveney, the village could be seen huddled together on either side of a very narrow road, which rose as it continued north. Both the village and its church were dominated by a large building of mellow red brick, its panelled chimney-stacks and long row of beautiful gables giving the impression of an historic mansion having, by some mysterious chance, been lifted from a nobleman’s estate and placed beside the highway. This is the White Hart which, at no time, was a private residence, but built as an inn; and an inn it remained for well over two-and-a-half centuries.
Scole itself, was quite a celebrated place in the days when the Inn flourished. Then, every traveller in Eastern England had either seen or heard of the “Scole White Hart” and its famous sign that stretched completely across the road. Because a great many coaches halted at the inn for teams to be changed, passengers had plenty of time to examine what Sir Thomas Browne thought to be:
“the noblest sighne-post in England.”
Both Inn and sign were built in 1655, for James Peck, described as a “Norwich merchant,” whose initials, together with the date, were seldom noticeable on the centre gable. The elaborate sign alone cost £1057 to make and erect. It was of gigantic size and loaded in excess of twenty-five carved figures of classic deities. As explained by a Charles Harper, in 1901, there was:
“Chaste Diana, with bow and arrow and two hounds; she had a place on the cross-beam, in company with Time in the act of devouring an infant; there was also Actæon and his dogs, a huntsman, and a White Hart couchant. On a pediment above the White Hart, supported by Justice and Temperance, was the effigy of an astronomer ‘Seated on a Circumferenter,’ who by some Chymical Preparation is so affected that in fine weather he faces the north and against bad weather he faces that quarter from whence it is about to come.
On either side of the astronomer were figures of ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Prudence’, a position hardly suitable for the first-named of those two virtues, but certainly too perilous for the second. Further suggestions of Olympus, with references to Hades and Biblical history, adorned the other portions of this extraordinary sign. Cerberus clawed one side of the supporting post, while Charon dragged a witch to Hell on the other; and Neptune bestriding a dolphin, and Bacchic figures seated across casks alternated with the arms of twelve East Anglian noble and landed families.
Two angels supported respectively the arms of Mr Peck, his lady and two lions – those of Norwich and Yarmouth. On the side nearest the inn appeared a huge carving of Jonah coming out of the whale’s mouth, while, suspended in mid-air, and surrounded by a wreath, was another White Hart.”
Although Sir Thomas Browne had been impressed with this work, an early 19th-century tourist, apparently, dismissed it as “a pompous sign, with ridiculous ornaments”. Shortly afterwards, the sign was taken down, for no other reason than “it cost the landlord more to keep it in repair than the trade of the house permitted.”
Together with this, the once celebrated ‘Great Bed of the White Hart’ also disappeared. It was a round bed and said to be capable of holding twenty couples and, therefore, a good deal larger than the famous Great Bed of Ware [see below]. Perhaps it was because guests did not relish this co-operative method of sleeping together, or maybe because sheets, blankets and coverlets of sufficient size were not easily available, that the Scole Great Bed was chopped up for firewood. Why on earth did anyone suppose that beds of this size and capacity would ever be desirable?
The “Scole White Hart” must have been among the very finest of inns and posting-houses in its day. Its wide staircases, its large rooms and fine panelled doors, its great stone-flagged kitchen, all proclaiming how great its old prosperity must have been. Even the wide-spreading yard at the rear of the Inn, together with its outbuildings, would have given some hint of how heavy the traffic must have once been, positioned as the Inn was, at the junction of the Lowestoft, Bungay, Diss and Thetford Road with that from London to Norwich. However, a gradual shrinking trade was to cause parts of the inn to be let; whilst the stone and wooden porches, seen in the old print, disappeared. The coach entrance was blocked up to become the bar, and the window mullions gave way to sashes. Nevertheless, the building still retained a noble architectural character which, perhaps, appears more interesting today.
Little or nothing is found in contemporary records of “Scole White Hart”; only that of its later years, when indignant would-be coach passengers stood at the door on a day in October 1822 and saw the drivers of the “Norwich Times” and “Gurney’s Original Day Coach,” fired by rivalry, and recklessness in their long race from Whitechapel, came pounding furiously up the road and over the bridge, passing the White Hart without stopping, and disappearing in clouds of dust in the direction of Norwich. It was said that Thorogood was driving the “Times” and both coaches started from London at 5.30 a.m. The “Day” coach reached Norwich at 5.20 p.m., and the “Times” ten minutes later, neither having stopped for changing horses during the last twenty-five miles. This was a “record” for that period, the usual time being fourteen hours.
Probably these ‘disappointed’ passengers stayed the night; a prospect which surely no one would have complained about? Guests at the “White Hart,” seem to enjoy being ‘coaxed’ into a feeling that they were living in another era; a feeling that would have grown as each wandered upstairs to bed, almost lost along the roomy corridors. After they had closed the nail-studded doors of their bedrooms and crept into the generous embrace of a damask-hung four-poster bed and gazed reflectively around their panelled room and up to the curiously coffered ceilings, they would have dropped soundly off to sleep. Old times would live again, faded flowers blossoming once more, forgotten footsteps echoing along the passages of time, post-chaises clattering up to the door, its noise consciously telling the sleeper that the sound is only that of a jolting rustic tumbril going down the road in the early morning. However, this is the twenty-first century, and the “White Hart” survives – from the back edges of life.
Besides the “White Hart,” there remains little else at Scole. The plain flint tower of the church still stands by the roadside, on the ascent that leads from the village. Two or three inns, a few rustic shops, cottages, and a private residence of the past also helped make up this tale. Scole, in fact, has not grown greatly since it was a Roman station, and when the Roman soldiers whose remains have been found near the river occupied the military post on the long road to Venta Icenorum.