There were some beautiful hot summer days in 1786. The squire of Taverham, Miles Branthwayt, had recently taken over the running of the Taverham Paper Mill with a former tenant, John Anstead, as his manager. Anstead had two grown-up sons, John junior and Thomas, and a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, aged 21. In truth we cannot be sure that she was beautiful, but she was always very dear to her mother, and she had recently become very close to a young man called John Burgess. By harvest time that year she was expecting his baby!
Elizabeth’s father was not best pleased with this news and refused consent to a marriage between the two. The child, Richard, was born early the following year in February and when it became apparent that the infant was healthy and likely to survive, Anstead agreed to a church wedding for the two and Elizabeth became Mrs Burgess; that was in March 1787. Elizabeth’s father, had given his blessing but he still needed convincing that John Burgess would prove a ‘worthy’ catch. It may seem hard-hearted to us but, as Elizabeth’s father saw things when he first turned down John Burgess – if his daughter were forced to marry an unsuitable lad merely to legitimate an unborn child, who later died or indeed if the father turned out to be a professional failure, Elizabeth would have missed her chance to make a better match – and all for nothing! Of course, had John Anstead known just how successful young John Burgess was to become, he would not have objected to his daughter’s choice in the first place.
Maybe with all this in mind, and not having the ability to see into the future, Anstead gave John Burgess a position at Taverham Mill, at least to give him a start in furthering his prospects. At the same time, John and Elizabeth Burgess, who now had been made ‘honest’, christened their former ‘out of wedlock’ baby Richard. Thereafter they went on to have three further children. Charles who was a healthy boy like his elder brother; he was to survive and follow his father into milling at Bungay. However, George the next son died in infancy- which was not uncommon. Indeed, infant mortality was high in those days, and old John Anstead’s cautious delay in giving his consent to his daughter’s marriage had made sense from his point of view. Then a third son was born to Elizabeth and John, who was again christened George. The boy flourished and was followed in 1795 by a daughter, Sophia Ann. She also survived birth but sadly her mother did not. Elizabeth Burgess, nee Anstead, died; never to share the baby, her children, nor her John’s future success. She was buried in St Edmund’s Church churchyard in Taverham on the 7th of March 1795; she aged 30. That cold spring day marked the end of a love affair that had begun in that hot summer, nine years earlier – John would never forget her.
After this sad episode in John Burgess’s marriage and an inauspicious start to his career, he finally settle down to his being a one parent family and building a future at Taverham Mill. Such was his clear determination that his paper making skills went from strength to strength within a very short time. His father-in-law, John Anstead, died early in the next century aged 77 years, followed by the Mill’s Squire co-owner, Miles Branthwayt who died at a comparatively young of 52. As a consequence, the Mill was next leased by a partnership led by the ambitious editor of the Norwich Mercury, Richard Mackenzie Bacon, under whom it was among the first in the world to install one of the new paper making machines. Burgess quickly became expert in operating this new equipment. After Bacon and his partner were made bankrupt in 1816, Burgess continued to operate the mill on behalf of the creditors, and when the business was acquired by Robert Hawkes, a wealthy Norwich merchant, Burgess became his partner – which constituted another step upwards. By 1820 he was wealthy enough to start buying property in Norwich and Costessey, where he bought several cottages and the White Hart pub. This he rebuilt ten years later.
At the time there was probably no one alive who knew more about making paper by machine than John Burgess, and during these years Taverham Mill supplied paper to printers across East Anglia and as far away as Cambridge, where the University Press was a demanding customer. This prosperous period was dented 1830 when the Mill was attacked one Saturday afternoon in December by machine-breakers who caused hundreds of pounds’ worth of damage. One rioter was identified as having been present at Taverham on that afternoon, and was brought to trial, but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
This turn of events seems to have discouraged Robert Hawkes. Although his company was compensated for the damage, he decided to sell his share in the business and retire. The new partners with whom Burgess now found himself saddled were two young men from wealthy local families. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they had no other business interests, and no doubt they tried to meddle at the mill, where Burgess had previously been free to manage alone. Whatever the reason, in the summer of 1833 he left the partnership, and took the vacant lease of the paper mill in Bungay.
With his sons he moved to Bungay and reopened the paper mill there. He was already 71 years old, and the work was probably mainly in the hands of his son Charles. Having been pioneers in the technique of modern machine-made paper they had taken a step back into the past to hand-made paper. This was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper that he was experienced in. But, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss and, maybe, he was in a better state of mind to enjoy the memories he once shared with his former wife, Elizabeth.
The principal user of paper in Bungay, when John Burgess took over Bungay Mill, was a John Childs, a printer whose business would become Richard Clay which is still in existence today as part of the St Ives Group. In the 1830’s, Child was the owner of a large business, employing over 100 people and he specialised in large editions of substantial books such as annotated Bibles. These were not restricted to the printers at Oxford, Cambridge and London as the standard, non-annotated Authorised Version of the Bible was. These substantial works required a lot of paper, but his suppliers were not local. His account books showed that he was buying paper from Spicer’s in Cambridgeshire, and in 1834 from Dickinson, whose paper mill was at Apsley in Hertfordshire. Both Dickinson and Spicer were making paper by machine, and the mill at Sawston in Cambridgeshire was one of the first to use a Fourdrinier paper making machine in 1809. It was high quality and high volume paper, quite different from the ‘hand made’ paper being produced at Bungay by John Burgess.
However there is evidence that the Burgesses, father and son, did supply paper to Childs. In 1833-36 there are entries for the buying of both brown paper and drab from Charles Burgess, and in 1836 and 1837 for brown paper from John Burgess. Brown paper would have been used merely for packing, but drab was used in the bookbinding process. Although there was also a printing industry in nearby Beccles, it is clear that the majority of Burgess’s custom would have been for wrapping paper, and it would not have been economic to transport it very far. This was not a particularly good position to be in, particularly when all Burgess’s success had been based on the modern paper-making process, and the Mill’s enterprise did not last for many years after John Burgess’s death on the 21 May 1838 – 52 years and 10 weeks after Elizabeth!
Bungay Paper Mill passed out of the Burgess family’s hands sometime in the 1840s after John Burgess’s Will had been proved. In it he had listed his properties – the White Hart public house and a double cottage in Costessey, together with three more cottages in Norwich. Thereafter, his reference to his business is short and rather downbeat. He instructed his Executors to continue his business ‘until such at time as it shall be beneficial to discontinue it.’ The most affectionate mention is for his daughter, Sophia Ann, who was to take her pick of his furniture to the value of £24 (about £4,000 in today’s money), ‘in regard to her kindness & attention toward me’ – somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth, Sophia’s mother and John’s long lost wife for whom he grieved until his end. That moment brought final closure to the ‘love affair that had begun in that hot summer of 1786.
This is a Tale not so much about the village of Weybourne but more about a grand Edwardian hotel that was built there to entice the wealthy – but was destroyed by changing times and the fear of invasion.
Visitors who come to Weybourne in the hope of seeing where this once-elegant Hotel once stood in the schemes of things would see nothing. Indeed, few would know that it had its beginnings during a period towards the end of the 19th century when there was a spirit of optimism in the area founded on the tourism boom of the 1890s. But it seemed that the building, and its intended purpose, was damned from its inception.
Given Weybourne’s current geography, it might seem hard to believe that in 1900, plans were considered for what later became a large building, variously known as either the ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ or the ‘Weybourne Court’, Hotel. It would be located next to Weybourne railway station but on the opposite side of the road. The building project was financed by a Mr Crundle, owner of the nearby gravel pits; he hoped that guests staying in the five-storey upmarket establishment would come from the upper classes.
When the idea of building a railway line from Sheringham to Melton Constable via Holt was first announced there was much opposition from local landowners along the route, but it eventually went ahead and opened in 1887. However, between Sheringham and the next station of Holt there were no further stations originally planned, but this changed as a result of the late 1890’s tourist boom when the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN) decided they would develop Weybourne as a holiday resort. So, in early 1900 work began on a new station, the site of which would be a mile from the village of Weybourne; the station opened to passengers on July 1 the following year. The position of the station, some 1760 yards from Weybourne may seem a bit odd, but not when it is understood that the Station was built to serve the nearby “Weybourne Springs Hotel”, not the village and local community! Had the hotel not been built then, maybe, Weybourne might never have had a station at all?
However that aside, the hotel’s arrival was seen by the M & GN as a chance to increase revenue on their line; and it did want to impress, given that the ‘Springs’ was located nearby and both properties would “grow” together. Work to build the Hotel began on what turned out to be a large building with its three reception rooms, billiards room, hotel office, manager’s rooms, guest bathrooms, kitchen, serving rooms, domestic offices, staff bedrooms and outbuildings including stables. In all there were 36 guest bedrooms and due to its size, records suggest the hotel, reputedly named after nearby springs with medical properties, didn’t open for business until 1902. Interestly, included in the hotel’s facilities was indeed a local ‘Springhead Plantation’s spring-fed pool, which flowed under the adjacent railway. At one end was a pumping station and at the other end was a hydraulic ram. This equipment served the hotel.
Whilst popular at first, and with a belief of management in possible further development later, the hotel was to fail to reach its full potential. Certainly in its shortlived ‘heyday’, the Weybourne Springs Hotel was an impressive building with verandas, gables, corner towers and a first floor main entrance which, during the early years of the 20th century, welcomed visitors. Its appearance partly resembled that of the current Links Hotel at West Runton.
Ironically, when it did open, one of its earliest and largest booking was not by elegant tourists at all. This ‘booking’ was made in May 1903 when the increasing numbers attending Gresham’s School in Holt had outstripped the space for them at the school’s boarding accommodation. So, from May to July that year, boys were boarded at the Weybourne Springs Hotel. From there they would travel daily, by train, to Holt for their lessons until the end of the school’s summer holidays when extra accommodation was provided at the school.
Thereafter, there were various occupants for the Hotel, including a holiday centre with chalets in the grounds and a private club. Brewery records reveal that on October 19 1908, Percy Newton Mayhew was the third and possibly final registered licensee. No licence application renewal was made either in or after February 1910, suggesting the Springs only remained a hotel for a short time. The Norfolk Pubs Register claims closure was “around 1909”, and two years earlier on June 7 1907, the London Gazette (the official Government journal) had already published Notice that the Springs Hotel would shortly be sold by auction.
First listed by Kelly’s in their 1904 Norfolk Directory, the hotel had been owned by the North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd with its company secretary, Mr S E Harris, as licensee. However, in 1908 the London Gazette announced that North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd would be dissolved in the November but the property still retained its name.
In 1910 the “Springs” hotel was the chosen venue for a Theosophical Society Summer School. An international group of like-minded souls searching for divine wisdom in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The school ran from 4th to the 18th July and guests were charged 35s per week for those sharing rooms with an extra premium of 5s per week for those who were fortunate enough occupy a room on their own. Up to four people occupied some of the rooms, however there is no record to state if the occupants were of mixed gender or not. There was an overflow of attendees and these were accommodated in tents pitched in the grounds of the hotel and in lodgings at Holt and Sheringham. Some of the folks who attended the summer school travelled from Europe. This, plus all the activity generated by so many must have provoked a great deal of interest among the locals who themselves had, in all probability, never set foot outside Norfolk.
Then came the First World War which rekindled worries for the authorities who were to heavily defend the whole of the north Norfolk coastline. For centuries Weybourne had been seen as particularly vulnerable to foreign invaders going back to pre-Tudor years when the Spanish planned to invade, followed by threats to invade from the French and later by the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars, One of the reasons for this is that Weybourne has very deep water making it very easy to bring boats in and unload directly from the boats to the shore. That had been a particular big advantage to the Romans when they first came and then the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. The Vikings landed and lived here. There was a 16th century saying:
‘He who would Old England win must at Weybourne Hoop [harbour] begin’.
So during the Great War, when coastal lookout stations between Hunstanton and Sheringham were manned by members of the Cyclist Brigade, two of their companies (2nd & 25th County of London Cyclist Brigade) were billeted in the Springs Hotel, whose corridors now echoed to the sounds of army boots rather than those of hotel guests. But even during wartime there was time to relax: on May 24, 1915 (Whit Monday), the hotel hosted the military’s Cycle Battalion Sports Day. Soldiers from Brancaster, Hunstanton, Snettisham and Wells also attended, camping under canvas in fields around the railway station.
After the war the Hotel must have reopened, as the 1922 Kelly’s Norfolk Directory listed Frederick George Emms as ‘Proprietor of the Weybourne Court Hotel’ but by 1929, it was unlisted, evidence of its end following a gradual fall-off in trade over the previous twenty years or so. At the time it was suggested that the Hotel’s demise was partly due to subsidence of the light sandy soil on which the Hotel was built. But nearby, and not to be entirely forgotten of ‘The Springs’ was to be the ‘Weybourne Court Holiday Camp Ltd’ complex, built on some of the former hotel’s site. However, in August 1931, the London Gazette advised this too would be dissolved within the following three months – the Company was only finally wound up in 1942. As for the former Weybourne Springs Hotel, this became a home for disabled people in the 1930’s but would experience its end at the outbreak of Second World War. The demise of the former Hotel came in 1940 when it was demolished after being considered a conspicuous landmark which might be advantageous to the Luftwaffe. The building went through many guises in its relatively short history but all that remained would be a few photographs and fast-fading memories to remind later historians of a hotel which was launched to serve upper-class tourists but which succumbed in the end to the tides of war.
FOOTNOTE: In the leadup to the Second World War a local bylaw came into effect in 1937; this allowed for anti-aircraft guns to be fired in the peaceful village of Weybourne as part of the County’s wartime defences. The order, made under the Military Lands Acts and signed by His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the War Department, Duff Cooper, and the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, restricted access around the secret training camp at Weybourne while warning flags were flying. Anyone found to be in breach of the bylaw could be removed from the area and fined up to £5. Although the War ended in 1945, it took until 2016, more than 70 years, for the Order to be ended.
During the Second World War, Weybourne Camp was a highly secret site and was an Anti-Aircraft Artillery range not too far from the site of the former Weybourne Springs Hotel. The camp, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command in World War II. Here the Norfolk coastline became a controlled zone by the British forces. This controlled zone extended 10 km deep into the North Sea around Norfolk. Weybourne Camp was a vital part of this zone and, as well as firing in anger, it was also to be used as the principal training camp for all the Royal Artillery who were defending the Midlands and London with their anti-aircraft guns. Gunners would come up to Weybourne for two weeks, they would be trained on firing their guns and then they would deploy back to the cities to defend the cities. They were trained by women of the Royal Auiliary Corps, the ATS, who were responsible for training the artillery gunners. It proved to be a popular place to be posted because it was where the lads could meet the ladies; there are a number of records of soldiers who married their loved ones who they had met there. But all that also came to an end when the Anti-aircraft guns themselves became obsolete in favour of missiles. The Camp at Weybourne closed in 1958.
However, while the guns have long since fallen silent at the anti-aircraft artillery range, they can still be seen in position at the Muckleburgh Collection, on the site of the former camp, part of the UK’s largest private display of guns and military vehicles.
As for Weybourne village and the railway, these would go on to benefit from the general holiday rail traffic as folk came to visit the Norfolk coast for their annual holidays after hostilities ended. But, in 1959, the axe also fell on both the railway line and Weybourne station. But, in time, the M&GN Joint Railway Society was formed and secured the Sheringham to Holt section, enabling Weybourne station to remain open today as the North Norfolk Railway.
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the VINA would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
Do fishermen sing nowadays? They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’ So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”, but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying
“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”
Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners. All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.
Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen. He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.” Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men. You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.
Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.
Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring. This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire. Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:
“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’. And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song. They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song. That was in 1907. These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories. And I got the first prize.”
Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives. One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:
“That’s my old dad’s song. I heard him sing it when I was a little boy. Used to sing all them songs, my old father did. Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him. Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone. Big man, he was. Oh, and he could do the step dance.”
Sam’s father was George Larner, born in 1847, and another fisherman. From this song obviously heard as a young child at home, there were others learned at sea, again from a close relative. Of The Robber or The Rambling Young Blade, Sam recalled that “My Uncle Jimmy used to sing that when I was cook along of him at sea. That’s about nigh seventy year ago, and he used to sing that on deck.” Uncle Jimmy was James Sutton, (born 1858), a renowned singer in the village who seems to have passed many songs onto Sam Larner. His nickname was ‘Old Larpin’ and his grandson Ronnie Haylett remembers that this was a shortened version of ‘Loping Lugs’ as he had rather prominent ears. As can be seen, nicknames were very common indeed in the community, perhaps rather vital as surnames were relatively few and many families favoured the same first name for many family members. Sam Larner’s nickname was ‘Funky’ on account of his sometimes unpredictable moods. As regards learning songs from community or family members, Sam remarked when talking of King William and the Keeper, “I can recollect them a-singin’ on it. Oh, we all picked them songs up.”
If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as “The Dogger Bank”:
Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.
An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:
“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock. Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?” Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister? No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”
Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time. We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”
Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston. In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper. He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War. He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of Australia, Cruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat. The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.
Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.” All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars. As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings
In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer. With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing. Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George. As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that. They all had pints of two. Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they? So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table. Beer’d all spilt!”
Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance. I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.” Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed. And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing. In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty. He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’
Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956. Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information. He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958. Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’. It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0. These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.
Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry. Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring, which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk. What a wonderful person he was! Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life. His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’
McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca. He never forgot it.’ “They liked them old songs, they did.” Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All. The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship. Peggy and Ewan. 1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.
This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961. This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger. The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer. A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.
In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song. As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover. It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.
By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six. He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course. He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six. This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.
About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area. There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them. This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition. Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.
In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam. About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.
Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958. There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London. Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so. The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’) “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather? Your grandfather Larpin. Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.” I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.” “You can. You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’. Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?” Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence. The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”
By Victoria Draper (Norfolk Record Office) 2 January 2018
Marriage licences were often favoured by families of high social class since they allowed the couple privacy, ability to choose their parish of marriage and were faster to arrange than banns. The marriage licence could also be a status symbol in itself, showing that the couple could afford to purchase it and although the cost of a licence was not exceptionally high, many people could not afford one. As a result, the names of several prominent Norfolk families are included in the bonds.
One bond relates to the marriage of Philip Meadows Martineau (1872-1829) to Ann Dorothy Clarke in 1811. The Martineau family were of Huguenot descent and Philip Meadows was a prominent member of the local French community. He was a distinguished surgeon specialising in lithotomy, the surgical method for removing kidney, bladder and gallbladder stones which were common medical complaints in Norfolk. Martineau was a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and also served as a hospital governor.
The Martineau family were Unitarians and Philip Meadows Martineau attended the Octagon Chapel in Norwich. Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, 1753 (which attempted to curb secret and irregular marriages) Nonconformists had to marry in an Anglican church. There were exemptions for Jews and Quakers but Catholics and other protestant Nonconformists, including Unitarians, were not exempt until later. Sadly, the marriage licence bond does not tell us which church Philip and Ann Dorothy married in, which is quite common.
Martineau owned a large estate at Bracondale (the Norfolk Record Office and County Hall now occupy part of the site) and this marriage licence bond is dated around the time that he also purchased the adjacent property of Carrow Abbey.
Another bond relates to the marriage of Ann Margaret Coke of Holkham, aged 15 years, to Thomas Anson in 1794. Ann Margaret, born at Holkham Hall, became a painter and may have been taught by Thomas Gainsborough in Norfolk and London. Her husband, Thomas Anson, was a wealthy politician and heir to the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire. Since Ann Margaret was only fifteen at the time of her wedding, her father Thomas William Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, made a sworn oath of consent to her marriage which is noted on the marriage licence bond.
A.M.W. Stirling recounts in his two volume work, Coke of Norfolk and his Friends, that Ann looked very young at her wedding:
‘At the wedding breakfast she looked such a child that Dean Anson said mischievously to her: “Ann, if you will run round the table, I will give you a sovereign!” Scarcely had the words left his lips, then away went the delighted bride and, racing round the table, triumphantly claimed her reward.’
Stirling also notes that Thomas Anson, concerned about his wife’s young age, insisted that Ann sat at cards with the dowagers when attending dances which unfortunately gave her a taste for gambling!
Marriage licence bonds were not the preserve of the gentry and even those of more modest social status such as tenant farmers, trades people and military occupations are well represented in them. This particularly became the case as the cost of marriage licences fell relative to wages. For some couples they may even have been an aspirational choice to emulate the higher social classes and add some sparkle to their wedding day!
Obtaining a marriage licence bond was no guarantee of social standing and character. One bond relates to the marriage of James Blomfield Rush (who later became the notorious Stanfield Hall murderer) to Susannah Soames (named in the bond as Susan Soame) in May 1828. Rush, a tenant farmer who had got himself into debt, murdered estate owner Isaac Jermy and his son at Stanfield Hall on 28 November 1848. After a dramatic legal trial, Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle on 21 April 1849. A crowd of over 12,000 people gathered to witness the event and the Eastern County Railway Company even ran a special train from London to Norwich for the execution.
Rush was no stranger to trouble. In 1835, despite being married to Susannah Soames, a woman, named either Dank or Dack, brought an action against him for breach of promise of marriage. She claimed that she had been forced into the workhouse after Rush made her pregnant. When the case came to court at the Norfolk Assizes in the summer of 1839, the court convicted Rush and ordered him to pay costs of over £26.
Hidden from the busy roads around Holt is a hint of a prosperous past; a past that comes in the form of a ruin of a once-magnificent manor house which was originally the home to the Heydon family. This ruin is a hidden gem, now owned by English Heritage; the guardians of not only what remains of brick, stone, flint and mortar, but of a place that boasts a very curious caretaker – that of a spectral sentry!
It is Baconsthorpe Castle of which I speak, a peaceful place standing proud in the middle of open meadows and farmland with an impressive moat and lake offering an image of its lost grandeur which once was lent to this gentle corner of Norfolk. What meets the eye is also a stony reminder of how far one can fall from grace.
The Heydons began building work on the fortified manor house in 1450, adding extensions as their wealth grew. The person who started the whole project was lawyer, Sir John Heydon who was born the son of William Baxter, a peasant in Heydon. It is thought that Sir John changed his family surname to his village name to disguise his humble beginnings. In time, Sir John Heydon was appointed Recorder of Norwich in 1431, but soon became so unpopular with townsmen that he was dismissed as Recorder by May 1437; he was also accused of giving the City’s documents to Norwich Cathedral priory during a dispute. It was clear that John was, by nature and profession, an unscrupulous lawyer, hard man and opportunist; as an old Norfolk rhyme states: “There never was a Paston poor, or a Heydon a coward.” It also seemed to matter not to John that there was always a possibility that he may need those around him to help him see off enemies! One of these was Lord Moleynes whom John was to incite when he laid claim to the Paston Estate at Gresham, a claim that resulted in Margaret Paston and a dozen retainers being attacked by a mob of around 1,000. John also clashed with the Paston’s patron, Sir John Fastoff in disputes of property.
If turbulent relationships was not enough, John Heydon, during the intensive Wars of the Roses, often switched political allegiances to serve his own means. However and despite being also linked to extortion, duplicity and underhand tactics, John Heydon proved to be an astute survivor. At least two of those close to him were beheaded but John managed to not only stay alive but managed to retain his seat in Baconsthorpe, his property portfolio and his wealth.
The Heydons lived at Baconsthorpe for 200 years, their fortune built on the wool industry. But the family were poor estate managers and Christopher Heydon, who died in 1579, left his son William with growing debts. It was him and his eldest son Christopher who were the ones who wrought the family’s downfall; both were hot-tempered and clashed badly. Christopher lived at Saxlingham Hall with his wife Lady Mirabel. William was forced to sell off parts of the manor house.
In the late 16th or early 17th century, an ornamental mere was created to the east of the moat and formal gardens were created, but by the mid-17th century, the insolvency of successive Heydons forced them to demolish most of the castle and sell the stone, some of which ended up at Felbrigg Hall. The remains of the castle was sold to merchant Daniel Bridges in 1673. The gatehouse was eventually converted into a private dwelling and occupied until 1920 when it collapsed and the building left to decay.
There is so much more to the history of the Heydons and all of it would be very interesting but, unfortunately, there is not enough space here to document it. However, there is another side to Baconsthorpe that not many know about; it may surprise and intrigue you. It is that when visitors come to the castle and wander through the shattered remains to the moat, some will witness the silence broken by the unmistakeable sound of stones breaking the still waters – stones clearly thrown from some height! This and the sight of ripples spreading to either side and along the moat may well cause confusion with a few, but on turning inward to the ruin they will see clearly from where the stones were thrown. Not only that, but they would not fail to catch sight of a ghostly sentry or medieval soldier standing on the castle walls, throwing these stones – as if to pass the time maybe? A few visitors may well be startled but, always remember, no one has ever reported feeling threatened by this stone-throwing spirit!
So be at ease, for this experience is only a further reminder that a spectral sentry was, at one moment in the distant past, detailed to be on guard at Baconsthorpe. There is every possibility, as things stand, that this lone soul may well stay there until such time as a counter order is issued from the appropriate authority for him to stand down. Until then……………….!
It is not uncommon for tales of apparitions to have grown up around the sites of former monestries. In the turbulent years of the Middle Ages, and either side, monks were thought to have had supernatural powers and were associated with mysticism and superstition in people’s minds. It is not surprising therefore that several tales about villainous monks at St Benets Abbey have circulated over these years – and indeed, still flourish.
Mostly these tales have been linked to political and religious intrigues and double-crossings; many of which were simply part and parcel of powerful establishments. One example relating to St Benets is when, in an attempt to transform the Abbey into a pilgrimage centre to rival Walsingham and Bromholm, the monks there invented the cult of St Margaret of Holm who, according to a medieval chronicler, was strangled nearby in Little Wood at Hoveton St John in 1170. This barbarous act recalls to mind the crucifixion of the boy saint William of Norwich in 1144 (see here for separate Blog), which was within living memory of those monks at St Benets!
St Benets, or to give it its full name of St Benedict’s-at-Holm (or Hulm) Abbey, has been a Norfolk Broad’s landmark for almost 1000 years. Situated on the banks of the river Bure, the Abbey has long been reduced to just the ruins of the former gatehouse, into which an 18th century farmer built a windmill. This strange ruin, as small as it is, holds many stories and hides more than a few mysteries.
The tales which have survived the test of time include attacks by the Normans then, 300 year’s later, the Peasants Uprising when the Abbey was stormed and its deeds and charters destroyed. There are also those mythical stories and legends relating to images and sometimes terrible things that had once been a part of this once sacred place and have since been periodically returned by what may well be magical means! They include the recurring story of a monk from St Benets who, on quiet evenings, can still be seen rowing between the Abbey and Ranworth in a little boat, accompanied by a dog. It is said that he is quite harmless and concentrates only on his regular task of maintaining the rood screen in Ranworth church. Then there is the Dragon which once terrorised the village of Ludham and ended its life at the Abbey. The Legend of the Seal is another tale dating back to the days of King Henry I when a legacy of ancient carvings depicting the story were built into either side of gatehouse entrance and can still to be seen today. However, let us not be carried away in directions that would take us away from the following Tale – an apparition which has its roots firmly at St Benets. Just Remember! in common with all orthodox ruined abbeys and priories, St Benets and its surviving gatehouse is still believed to be haunted!
This tale is known as ‘The Shrieking Monk‘ and it is believed to be that of Ethelwold (some say Essric?), the young bailiff monk who basely betrayed the Abbey in the hope of becoming its Abbot. This spectre has a fearful significance – and it screams! Like many, it has an anniversary date for appearances, but it is just as likely to be seen at other times of the year when ‘conditions are just right’. They say that it is possible to experience this particular spectre in the late autumn, on All Hallows Eve, or winter on dark nights between midnight and early dawn, particularly if the dawn is shrouded in a heavy mist and there is a distinct chill in the air. Even today, few would care to pass the old ruin when such conditions are abroad – particularly when they hear the tale of a certain Ludham marshman who perished one night near the ruined gatehouse of St Benets. Apparantly, according to William Dutt’s ‘Highways and Byways in East Anglia’ (1901) – this marshman was on his way home from his bullocks. As he draws near the gatehouse and sees something in the shadows that ‘started screeching like a stuck pig’. Some years later this story was further elaborated when retold by the Stalham folklorist, W H Cooke; he call it ‘The Shrieking Monk’. It tells how this monk terrified a local wherryman one foggy night – All Hallows Eve and he rushes away to seek the safety of his wherry which is moored nearby; he slips in the early morning mud and falls into the Bure and is drowned!
Following in the tradition of gilding each ghost story in its re-telling; here, we again go back to those Norman times and to the moment when William the Conqueror was, apparently, experiencing great difficulty with taking St Benet’s Abbey. This version of the story again surrounds William’s difficulty and the monk Ethelwold who falls to temptation , opens the Abbey gates to the Normans – but subsequently is executed. Imagine now the Abbey materialising out of thin air, along with the obligitory mist; the present ruinous Mill transforming itself into a stone tower from where the execution referred to took place.
We are told that the Monks of St Benedict’s successfully withstood attacks from King William’s men for months on end and could have held out for much longer had it not been for the act of treachery by Ethelwold, the young bailiff monk. The strong walls of the Abbey had proved impregnable and there was enough food to feed those inside for at least twelve months; some also believed that a trust in God by the Abbot and the rest of the Abbey’s monks also played an important part in staving off the enemy. Unfortunately for all concerned, the young monk held aspirations which did not match his low position in the church. His aspirations, if legend and myth are to be believed, also made him a prime candidate to be bribed.
The Norman army deployed around the Abbey had been on the verge of giving up on their task but the general in charge decided that maybe a different tactic might work, having identified the monk as a possible solution. What was needed was for a messenger to be sent to the Abbey with a letter urging the Abbot to surrender, but at the same time to, surreptitiously, slip a tempting offer to this particular monk. This plan was put into operation and a messenger was despatched on horse back, carrying a white flag to guarantee entry. Once inside and before meeting the Great Abbot to hand over the general’s letter, the messenger managed to hand a separate note to Ethelwold, asking him at the same time to, somehow, return with him to meet with the General; a safe audience would be guaranteed.
On receiving the general’s letter, the Abbot bluntly refused to contemplate his demand and quickly sought a volunteer to convey his decision back to the other side. Unsurprisingly, Ethelwold, the highly flatterable monk, stepped forward and offered his services; he by then being totally intrigued by the general’s attention in him. This monk’s ego and aspirations were further enhanced when on arrival he was told by the general that he, Ethelwold, was obviously destined for a better career than that of a humble bailiff monk. Now, if only he would help the general’s soldiers take over the Abbey he, the humble monk, would be elavated to Abbot of St Benedict’s Abbey – for LIFE – a gift that would be far beyond the menial’s wildest dreams! The general added that the young brother had absolutely nothing to lose, for if the Abbey held out, despite impressive defensive walls and generous stocks of provisions, the army would attack in even greater force and inflict a terrible result on the religeous order. But, if this “Abbot Elect” would just open the gatehouse doors that same night, everyone would be spared.
Although clearly naive, Ethelwold was not without a degree of intelligence. Surely, he questioned himself, the other brethren would punish him if he was ever found out; they would certainly not accept him as their Abbot? He was not even an ordained priest – for heaven’s sake! Even here, the general had anticipated such doubts but seemed to have no difficulty in convincing the monk that by using his new elevated rank of ‘conqueror of the Abbey’ the brethren would accept their new Abbot, in pain of losing the present incumbent and anyone else of a rebellious nature. With this assurance, the now traitor returned to St Benet’s in both excitement and with not a little fear. Ethelwold was naturally welcomed back and praised for his bravery in delivering the Abbot’s letter of refusal; whilst he held a burdensome secret.
The final days of May that year were full of sunshine, bridging the final days of spring to the start of summer; the evenings were however deceptive with one culminating in a sudden dissolved dusk displaced by a very chilly, dark and eerie night. The bell in the Abbey tower rang out eleven times, each ring echoing across the night ladened marches whilst Ethelwold’s heart pounded at an ever increasing pace as he waited for the final chord. This was followed by the sound of three knocks on the gatehouse door; the expected visitors had arrived! The nervous bailiff slowly withdrew the well lubricated bolts and was about to slowly release the door quietly when it was flung open and the monk was brushed aside as soldiers burst through and set about their task. Very quickly the monks realised a betrayal and offered no resistence because shedding blood was abhorrent to their beliefs; any arms were put aside and a truce quickly agreed, followed by an order that all must essemble in the Abbey Church the following morning.
There, on a morning that reflected the prevailing mood of the defeated, the young ‘Abbot Elect’ was paraded in with great ceremony and in front of the assembly was anointed and then dressed in cope and mitre. The Abbot’s crovier was placed in his hand, followed by a pronouncement that the once monk was now the Abbot of St Benedict’s-at-Holm – for LIFE! To complete the ceremony, the new Abbot was escorted the length of the Abbey by Normans in ceremonial armoured attire and banners flying – but with no applause except for that coming from the Normans. The defeated audience watched in total silence. The new Abbot was, however, full of himself and he ignored a part of the spectacle that was clearly of no importance to him. That changed all too quickly; the Abbot’s face, so flushed with utter pride one moment, turned deathly white as his hands were suddenly thrust behind his back and tied unceremoniously. Still dressed in his glittering robes, this ‘newly annointed abbot’ was dragged off – Norman’s abhor treachery!
Ethelwold, shrouded by a realisation that he had been completely fooled and foolish, cried for mercy but his cries were ignored. His march from the throne to an open window in the bell tower was further ignominious. There, he was hoisted up on to a makeshift gibbet made of a simple stout pole protruding out from the widow that faced a still misty river and marsh beyond. Then, no sooner had the noose been placed around the unfortunate’s head, when he was pushed to swing in full view of those who had gathered below. Those who were further away and out of sight of this summary execution would have their chance to witness the result. They would understand the stark message that was directed to everyone under to authority of Norman rule; all who dared to be treacherous for personal and selfish gain would meet the same fate! The church authority may also have considered the outcome appropriate and that the individual who had fallen from both window sill and grace, was now in the process of being judged by his Maker.
This story makes you wonder! – How many of us today, would choose to manouver their boats along the river Bure in early morning mist or walk the same path past the ruined Abbey, and concern themselves with apparitions? – particularly if the morning, from midnight onwards, happens to be misty? How many out on the 25th May would quicken their stride or increase water speed – just in case! Maybe all it takes is to be alone in the dark or in an early mist, a mist that was thought to be rising, but drops again suddenly at the same moment as the temperature takes on a deeper chill……! One thing is certain; all that is needed beyond these conditions is for a lone lapwing to swoop close by and send forth its pre-emptive cry of what might follow!
Sources: Dutt, W., Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901
Cooke, W.H., The Shrieking Monk, 1911
Tolhurst, P., This Hollow Land, Black Dog Books, 2018
Photos: Wikipedia, Google, Spinney Abbey.
“On the morning of the 20th November, 1848, the City of Norwich was aroused from its usual state of general calmness and tranquillity by a rumour that terrific deeds of blood had been committed in the vicinity; and many were the shapes which the tale of horror took in travelling from mouth to mouth. But, however distorted, it was unfortunately true”……………
The Background to the Tragedy:
James Blomfield Rush was a farmer with inflated pretensions of being a country squire, but he held a very long record of suspect dealings and financial problems. He always seemed to be trying to crawl through legal loopholes to dispose of his debts and badly arranged financial commitments. He also fell foul of suits brought against him for seduction and bastardy – by more than one woman. He met his match in Isaac Jermy though – formerly Preston if you remember! He was the Recorder of Norwich and a member of the Norwich Union Board who knew the law, finance and was not backward in using both to his advantage.
The mortgage for Rush’s Potash Farm was due to be settled on the 30th November 1848, but Rush had no way of paying it. Two evenings prior to this deadline Rush, disguised with a mask, wig and whiskers, walked the short distance from his farm to Stanfield Hall and hid in the bushes until IsaacJermy Snr. stepped out after dinner for his spot air and possibly a smoke. Rush immediately came forward and shot him at point blank range before striding into the Hall where he shot dead Isaac’s son; a further round hit Mrs Sophia Jermy’s upper arm, while a second wounded Eliza Chestney in the groin and thigh as they attempted to flee. The murderer then went out through a side door. After medical examination by a doctor it was thought that Eliza had suffered a compound fracture of her bone. The wound to Mrs Jermy’s arm resulted in an amputation. Despite wearing a disguise, the size and gait of Rush was recognised by the staff of Stanfield Hall and he was quickly arrested the following morning after police had surrounded Potash Farm.
The Trial of James Blomfield Rush:
The circumstances surrounding the murders at Stanfield hall and the subsequent trial of the accused, James Blomfield Rush was an occasion which had all the hallmarks of a classical Victorian melodrama. The story had a large country mansion as the backdrop and plenty of blood; a villain who was cast perfectly with the right physical appearance of hard looks, bad behaviour, brusque manners, dubious morals and sinister scheming. If that was not enough then it had a riveting plot, all wrapped in a readymade story. This was the answer to a writer’s dream. No wonder the lurid details of the murders helped sell millions of copies of local and national newspapers, their column pages and supplements given over to the case. Queen Victoria was rumoured to have taken an interest, along with the great Victorian author, Charles Dickens who visited the scene and recorded his impression that the Hall “had a murderous look that seemed to invite such a crime”.
Everything was exposed at Rush’s trial which opened on Thursday morning, 29 March 1849 at the Norfolk Assizes before Judge Baron Rolfe. Every available seat was taken and no one was allowed to enter without a ticket of admission. On the opening of the doors, shortly after 8 0’Clock, there was a rush for the seats and the Court was quickly filled “in every part by gentlemen and ladies of the highest respectability, including several noblemen” Precisely at 9 o’clock, Judge Baron Rolf entered, there was an immediate solemn silence and the prisoner James Blomfierld Rush was called. Every eye was directed towards the Box when Rush entered, dressed in black and, apparently, in good health. He was informed of the indictment charging him with the murders of Isaac Jermy, Esq and his son, to which he pleaded NOT GUILTY!
Rush had previously turned down offers of a legal representation, opting, quite arrogantly, to conduct his own defence which, because of his own incompetence, belligerence and blatant intimidation of the prosecution witnesses, was to simply hastened his downfall. he was to present his defence over fourteen hours of rambling without making any impression in his favour. His address was full of repetitions and the witnesses that he called, one way or another, damned him; he also damned himself, not least when he was to ask one witness, a Maria Blanchflower who had passed within feet of him on the night, “Did you pass me quickly”! – a very unfortunate slip of tongue in open court and was to do his defence no good..
But that was to come later for the Prosecution were the first to present its case, calling on several witnesses, the first of which set the tone for Rush’s ultimate conviction. Thomas Jermy aged 67, then a gardening labourer living in south London was simply asked: “Can you write?” and he answered even more briefly “No Sir”. From his reply it was obvious that he could not have signed the Notes, dropped by Rush at the time of the murders, allegedly claiming the Stanfield Hall Estate by Larner and Jermy:
It was established that Rush was behind this deception with the intention of casting suspision for the murders on to Larner and Jermy, who could not possibly have committed them since at the time of the crime both were in London.
Other witnesses followed, including the injured victim Eliza Chestney and the principal witness, Emily Sandford. Both of whom were to be cross examined by Rush, again with a mixture of charm, religious fervour, rudeness and intimidation. Finally, his Lordship, in the most patient of manners simply requested the Jury to give the words of the accused “the degree of weight they deserved”. Then, having been told to consider their verdict, the Jury retired. After barely 6 minutes, they returned to deliver the verdict – GUILTY!
The Judge then put on the black cap and to a profoundly silent Court he sentence Rush to death, his penultimate words being:
“It remains only that I pronounce the awful sentence of the law upon you; and it is, that you be taken back to the place from which you came, and from thence to the place of execution and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that after death your body be buried within the precincts of the gaol and may the Almighty have mercy on your soul”
Finally adding a few exceptionally severe words:
“It is a matter of perfect indifference to society at large what your conduct maybe during the few days remaining to you”, being as you are “an object of unmitigated abhorrence to everyone”
Rush remained still for a brief moment after the Judge had finished, but when the gaoler touched to remove him Rush smiled in a slightly demonic manner and uttered what sounded like a few joking words. His escort, whilst not responding to the prisoner, took great precautions to see that there was no communication between him and anyone in the Court as they left. The Judge then retired and the Court was quickly cleared.
For the several days between the trial and the time of execution, Rush was confined to his cell still imagining that he could persuade those around him that he was innocent. Several members of the clergy attempted to bring him to his senses and to see the awful and unhappy position he was in, but with no success. One person expressed the hope that Rush would at least realise the old aphorism that the man who begins by deceiving others often ends by deceiving himself; but Rush continued to adopt airs and graces and offer phrases of a deeply religious man, but no one was fooled.
On the morning of his execution, Rush asked for some hot water to wash himself and a clean shirt in which to be buried. The solemnest of his cell as he passed his final hours was in stark contrast to the hive of activity already in evidence outside in the streets of Norwich where thousands of pedestrians were beginning to gather, mingling with the trades people that were there to sell their wares. One reporter observed:
“ If such be the usual state of the city on an ordinary market day, one may form some slight conception of what was likely to take place when, in addition to the attraction of the Market, there was to be witnessed the execution of so atrocious a criminal as James Blomfield Rush” – and then on observing the mass of people assembling said “the Cry was, still they come!”
The universal theme of conversation since early that morning was noisily about Rush and the Stanfield Murders. Then from about 10 o’clock the sounds of the bustle and hum of preparation for business ceased, to be replaced by anxious expectation of everyone, whether selling or buying. Perhaps more offensive to some was the conduct of a handful of ‘ballad-mongers’ who continuously bawled out doggerel rhymes of the person to be hanged later while a large black flag floated over the entrance to the Castle and a large section of those nearest gazed upon the gibbet perched over the bridge spanning the dry moat and from which Rush would hang.
Between 11 and 12 o’clock the bell of St Peters Mancroft tolled the death knell for the criminal; at some moment within this hour Rush was escorted from his cell to the turnkey’s ‘receiving-room’ to be pinioned; there he met with William Calcraft, executioner, of whom he asked Mr Penson, the Governor “Is this the man that is to do the business?” The affirmative reply pre-empted Calcraft’s task of pinioning Rush who, at that moment, shrugged his shoulders saying “ This don’t go easy” then “not too tight”.
Just after 12 noon with the preliminaries completed, a procession formed and made its way to the scaffold with the Chaplain leading. The distance between the Castle door and the gallows was about sixty yards, along which the Chaplain read aloud.
“ I am the resurrection ……………… blessed be the name of the Lord”.
Rush, on the other hand, presented an assumed dejected pose of someone who had ‘avenged a great injury’ and was satisfied with what he had done. He then raised his pinioned hands to his face and violently trembled before removing his hands from his face and, turning his eyes to heaven, assumed the attitude of prayer. When both he and the Chaplain had finished the ritual, Rush beckoned to the Governor of the Castle to his side and the following brief conversation took place:
Rush: “Mr Penson, I have a last request to make to you; it is, that the bolt be withdrawn while the Chaplain is reading the Benediction – “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore”.
Mr Penson: “I will immediately communicate your wish to the Chaplain and I have no doubt it will be attended to”.
However, the Governor was economical with the truth for the general impression of the officials there in the ‘receiving room’ was that they feared that Rush intended to carry out ‘some vain and fruitless feat’, as indicated by both his behaviour overnight, during the early hours and, particularly, his last request for the drop to happened when certain words of the Chaplains were spoken. Mr Penson, fearing that something was afoot, intended to give Calcraft the signal in advance of any chosen words – and whilst it was not his intention, the moment chosen by Penson would come as quite a shock to Rush! – if indeed he ever had plans for a final grand performance in front of the authorities and public.
Rush, accompanied by the officials and the executioner ascended the gallows which had been erected over the bridge that spanned the Castle’s dry moat. An observer’s comment was that the structure was “a clumsy and inconvenient structure, as badly arranged and as unsightly in appearance as anyone could conceive. It seemed to be the work of a most unskilful designer”. Rush, for his part, looked ghastly pale as if conscience or fear had at last done its work. For a few moments he looked at the huge crowd then, seemingly recollecting that it had been arranged that he should suffer death with his back to the people, he turned around. One eye witness recorded:
“The poor creature looked for an instant on the vast mass of spectators, whose earnest gaze was upon him and on every movement he made, and then turned himself round and face the castle – his back being towards the populace.”
Rush then shook hands with the Governor just before William Calcraft, the hangman, placed him under the beam on which he was to hang and then began placing the noose around his neck. Even at this moment Rush could not resist being theatrical, saying to Calcraft:
“For God’s sake, give me rope enough. Don’t be in a hurry; take your time” Then, moving his head about, Rush added,”! Put the knot a little higher up – don’t hurry”.
This done, the white hood was drawn over Rush’s head and the Chaplain proceeded with the prayers. It was at this point that the Governor’s intentions became clear; his signal to Calcraft triggered. Before the Chaplain arrived at the words “The Grace of our Lord ………………..etc the Executioner had withdrawn the bolt, the platform had fallen and Rush was at the bottom of his one-way descent; a descent that was with such force that his body had shaken the whole gallows and the snap of the rope under extreme tension had been audible to everyone. Rush’s body remained perfectly still for about two minutes before there was a short convulsive struggle – then all was completely over. Rush’s death was greeted with loud applause then, at one o’clock he was cut down, removed to the prison on a wheeled litter and during the afternoon, his head was shaved and a cast was taken for phrenological study. Later, the remains of James Blomfield Rush was buried, as decreed by the Judge, in the precincts of Norwich Prison; the timing was 8 o’clock in the evening in a deep grave next to the remains of Yarman who was executed some three years earlier for the Yarmouth murders.
In the end Rush’s wax image was ‘taken from life’ at Norwich by Madame Tussauds and placed on display in her Chamber of Horrors in London for over 120 years.
The Executioner, William Calcraft, lodged in Hay Hill.
Emily Sandford emigrated to Australia – paid for by public subscription – and married a German merchant two years later and moved, with her husband, to Berlin.
Stanfield Hall was finally sold out of the Jermy family in 1920.
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Following their introduction into the British Isles by the Normans, rabbits were farmed in manmade warrens call “Coneygarths”, whose so-called “pillow mounds” encouraged the species to burrow and facilitate their capture. The construction of pillow mounds represents a remarkable long-lived form of animal husbandry, which in some places remained in use until the early 20th century. The vast majority of known pillow mounds are thought to be post-medieval and consequently the landscapes of extant rabbit warrens are a reflection of post-medieval warrening experience rather than that preceeded it.
Further, although former warrens are geographically widespread across England and Wales, their remains are more prevalent in western upland areas because the growth of arable practices in Eastern England during post-medieval period removed many of that regions former warrens. Despite this, chancery records reveals numerous references to rabbits and rabbit warrens in Eastern England compared to elsewhere. They also imply that the warrens in Eastern England were able to produce a surplus of rabbits that suported an export trade and supplied the Royal Court at Westminister, something that warrens in the remainder of England were less able to do.
The rabbit was rare in medieval England and much sought after for both its meat and its fur by landlord and poacher alike. Today the rabbit is regarded as prolific, destructive and of little value but this modern reputation belies historical experience where or much of its history the rabbit was a rare and highly prized commodity. The animal, believed to be indigenous during a previous interglacial period, was considered extinct until deliberately (re)introduced via France in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its value lay both in its meat and fur and, as someone noted in the 17th century:
‘no host could be deemed a good housekeeper that hath not plenty of these at all times to furnish his table’.
The rabbit’s fur was used as clothing as well as on clothing and, although neither the most fashionable nor valuable, rabbit fur became very popular in the 13th century. Yet in the beginning when first introduced, the rabbit found the English climate inhospitable and needed careful rearing and cosseting inside specially created warrens such as ‘pillow mounds’. For the next five centuries the vast majority of England’s rabbit population lived protected within these confines, and it was not until the 18th century that it successfully broke out and colonised a much wider area and through numbers devalued its worth.
Back in the 17th century the rabbit was still regarded as an important cash crop. In the Middle Ages rabbit warrens represented almost the sole source of supply for rabbits and their scarcity made them a valuable and fiercely guarded commodity. Indeed, the collapse of the grain market in the later 14th and 15th centuries encouraged some landlords to develop their warrens as an alternative source of income, to the extent that rabbiting can be classed as an unlikely but successful late medieval growth industry.
Throughout the Middle Ages the right to hunt and kill any beast or game was a special privilege granted by the king, so that all hunting was carefully controlled and restricted. Hunting in the extensive royal forests was the privilege of the king alone, but outside these areas the Crown was prepared to sell exclusive hunting rights by means of a charter of free-warren. In effect, the recipient of this charter was granted the sole right to kill the beasts of warren, which basically consisted of the pheasant, partridge, hare and rabbit, within a specified area. Hence the right to keep and kill rabbits was the exclusive privilege of the owner of free-warren and it was therefore illegal for anybody else to attempt to do so. Free-warren was consequently a valuable privilege, jealously guarded by its owner.
Whereas the modern rabbit has developed a resilience to the damp British climate, its medieval predecessor felt this aversion more keenly so areas of dry and sandy soil were chosen; also, gradients were preferred so as to facilitated both drainage and the dispersal of burrowed soil. Significantly the largest concentration of warrens in East Anglia was in Breckland, a region of undulating heathland, low rainfall and deep, porous sands, in other words an ideal habitat for the rabbit.
Most warrens in East Anglia had been founded by the late 13th century, many by church landlords. The Bishoprics of Ely created warrens at Brandon and Freckenham respectively; Bury St Edmunds Abbey did likewise at Mildenhall and so did West Acre Priory at Wicken and Custhorpe in Norfolk. The Prior and Convent of Ely were granted free-warren in Lakenheath. It is believed that the rabbit was a particularly favoured delicacy of the Abbot of St Edmunds who had a warren created at his country retreat in Elmswell and at Long Melford, whilst both West Acre and West Dereham Priories also established their own warrens nearby. Various lay landlords were also prominent in this new experiment, notably at Methwold, Thetford, Tunstead and Gimingham. It is difficult to ascertain the exact area of these early warrens, although the largest swept down the western edge of Breckland from Thetford through Wangford to Eriswell. By the end of the Middle Ages such warrens had probably grown to occupy the 1000 acres plus they were to reach at their zeniths.
The distinctive clustering of warrens indicates that the rabbit did not colonize a wide geographical area and even in central parts of East Anglia it remained a rare beast. This might surprise a modern reader familiar with the animal’s ubiquity and sex drive, but the medieval rabbit was fragile and uncomfortable in its new, cold environment and under constant threat from predators and harsh winter conditions. Consequently, low fertility and high mortality rates restricted natural increase, even within the relative safety of the warren. This placed severe restrictions on long distance migrations, although undoubtedly some fledgling warrens were spawned in the vicinity of the early warrens, and these were then exploited by eager landlords.
The exploitation of warrens was a highly skilled business and most warreners were full-time manorial officials, paying them handsome wages but often stipulating their exact duties and reserving the right of dismissal if their work was unsatisfactory. Besides financial remuneration, most warreners enjoyed other perks such as extra pasture rights and flee accommodation within the warren lodge. The pressures of their work were largely seasonal and peaked with cullings in the autumn when the rabbit’s fur was thickest. Extra help was often required in this busy period, as at Lakenheath in I384 when seven men were hired for twenty weeks.
The most common method of trapping was with ferrets and nets, the ferrets being released into specific burrows to drive the rabbits above ground and into nets tended by trappers. Most warreners reared their own ferrets, although sometimes a ferreter was hired at considerable expense. For much of the year, however, the warrener worked alone to guard his rabbits against hunger and predators and even to seek ways to encourage breeding. Surprisingly perhaps, the early rabbits were reluctant burrowers, which prompted some warreners to construct artificial burrows or ‘pillow mounds’. Over time, rabbits got the message!
Pillow mounds were designed to provide dry, well-ventilated burrows in which the rabbit could breed comfortably; the very existence of these ‘aids’ just emphasize both the animal’s unease in the damp climate and the need to mother the animal carefully. Warreners needed to take positive steps to curtail rabbit’s high mortality rates, particularly with any shortage of winter food, although on the heathlands gorse provided a cheap and convenient source. Other than that, oats were regularly fed to rabbits. Warreners also waged a perpetual war against the rabbit’s natural predators and poachers. The fox, stoat, weasel, wildcat and polecat stalked with ruthless efficiency, so that Brandon, Lakenheath and Kennett warrens were set with numerous traps and snares ‘for nocturnal predators’.
The real threat from both predators and poachers eventually resulted in the construction of a wooden watchtower at Lakenheath warren in I365 and a stone lodge in Methwold by I413, followed by Thetford. These lodges were features of medieval Breckland and the one at Thetford still stands. Most date from the late 14th century and reflected the threat posed by poachers and the determination of landlords to protect increasingly valuable assets. These remarkable buildings also absorbed much of the capital invested in warrens for they were expensive to build and maintain. Brandon lodge was completed in the I380’s and stood at two storeys high and was protected by slit windows and flint walls three feet thick. At Elmswell in the early 16th century, the warren lessee was allowed over one-sixth the value of the lease each year to spend on upkeep. Rabbit rearing was otherwise a relatively inexpensive business, with the major expenditure on labour.
Output from most warrens remained low until the later 14th century. Cullings varied wildly from year to year, but seldom exceeded a couple of hundred. The sale price of the rabbit reflected its scarcity and for a century after its introduction to East Anglia it cost at least 3d each, which was equivalent to the wage of almost two days’ unskilled labour. Rabbits proved most acceptable gifts to friends, favourites and eminents and the Prior of Ely sent sixty to Edward III in I345.
Prior to the Black Death of 1348-9, rabbit production was a distinctly low output concern geared primarily towards household consumption. It presented some commercial opportunities in the luxury goods market, but its mass marketing potential was restricted by its high price and the low incomes of most Englishmen. The early warrens often represented a net financial loss in many years, emphasizing that rabbits were essentially an indulgence enjoyed only by the very wealthy. However, the drastic reduction in the human population after the mid-14th century Black Death heralded a remarkable change in fortunes for commercial rabbiting. This was brought about by rapid gains in living standards and the purchasing power for many people. This increased purchasing power induced changes in taste and fashion and opened up a new market for goods previously considered as nonessential. Hence in the late 14th century there was considerable growth in output of goods with relatively high value, such as woollen cloth, cutlery, leather goods, pewter and wine.
Commercial rabbit rearing benefited from the changing economic conditions in a number of ways. First, the labour costs of rabbit keeping were low compared to grain farming and this enhanced its attractiveness to landlords in a period of rising wages. Furthermore, cullings could be sharply increased without a big rise in labour inputs, so that unit costs in rabbit production fell appreciably in the 14th century. Secondly, the demand for meat rose, and although there are no grounds for supposing that the rabbit suddenly became the meat of the masses, it certainly descended the social scale. Lastly, demand for better clothing increased and chroniclers commented on the rising standard of dress amongst the masses. Being a low-value fur, rabbit was most likely to benefit from any expansion in the mass clothing market. The common grey rabbit was most numerous in East Anglian warrens and was used for warmth rather than for display. On the other hand, Methwold, Wretham and some coastal warrens specialised in the rarer silver- grey and black rabbits. These were much more fashionable as an adornment on clothing and, apparently, Henry VII possessed night attire tailored with black rabbit fur which bore a close resemblance to the more expensive ermine and was much in demand as an imitation. By mid-century the rabbit had replaced the Russian squirrel as the basic fur of north-west Europe, and the growth of exports from London points to England’s role as a major supplier. London was not the only port to benefit, for at Blakeney in the 16th century rabbit skins were the fourth-largest export commodity. The Low Countries remained an important market, but Norfolk ports also sent furs to Danzig and the Baltic.
The rabbit trade between East Anglia and London also remained prosperous for some considerable time. Methwold warren was a regular supplier to the London market and a London merchant was fined for importing East Anglian rabbits during the close season imposed by the Poulters. Throughout the Middle Ages this Guild had fixed the price of rabbits on the London market and in the 15th century one would fetch between 3d and 4d. Even after the relatively high costs of transport and labour, the net profit on one trip was still considerable.
The rabbit undoubtedly made a significant impact upon those areas to which it was introduced. East Anglian soils display a wide variety of type and composition, from fertile clays to thin, acidic sands, and in the Middle Ages these sands presented a formidable obstacle to cultivation. Rabbits were valuable precisely because they provided an opportunity to make productive use of the poorest soils, and indeed some warrens were founded on soils described as fit only for rabbits. Furthermore, as areas of poor soil were most likely to suffer the brunt of the declining grain market in the later Middle Ages, then rabbiting offered a welcome source of alternative income in a difficult period. The industry presented a range of employment opportunities, not all of them legal, and as output increased so did the occupational spin-offs. The position of warrener was itself financially rewarding, whilst helping with the trapping or guarding of rabbits could provide a useful source of supplementary income at the very least.
The preparation of furs was a skilled and specialized task, and towns and villages near the warren areas harboured a number of skinners and barkers dependent on the local rabbit and sheep trades. They were prominent in medieval Thetford and Bury St Edmunds. The rabbit industry also encouraged other specialists in the clothing trades, such as listers and glove-makers . It is also probable that the fur was sometimes shorn from the skin and then felted, again for use in clothing. Of course, the amount of specialist craftwork generated by the rabbit industry locally should not be overstated, for the largest warrens tended to send their produce directly to London, and so some of the benefit accrued to London skinners and poulters. However, this trade, though largely seasonal, did then provide much needed stimulus to the boatmen and carriers of the region. As the mass of the peasantry was legally excluded from taking the rabbit, any benefit to them from the growth of the industry would appear negligible. However, it is suspected that many peasants living in the vicinity of warrens secured a reasonable supply of rabbits illegally, either for domestic consumption or for distribution through the black market. The incidence of poaching increases rapidly from the mid-fourteenth century, reflecting both the growth in rabbits and of poaching itself.
The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but they fought a losing battle.
Many of the peasants who lived in the rabbit-producing regions must have poached at some stage during their lives and most of the reported cases involved one-off offenders. However, the countless references to the use of nets, ferrets and dogs largely indicated planned operations within the rabbit-warren itself, and often the perpetrators of these deeds are common or habitual poachers. It is also apparent that no-one was beyond reproach, judging by the number of petty clerics involved in poaching. In 1435 the parson of Cressingham was fined for poaching at Swaffham and Augustinian canons from Blythburgh Priory were regular unwanted visitors to Westwood warren. In 1425 one of their number, Thomas Sherman, was described in the court roll as ‘a poaching canon’. ”
Most of these regular poachers reared their own ferrets and dogs, and made their own nets. Greyhounds were popular, and were certainly favoured by the Blythburgh canons. However, rough heathland terrain proved demanding and other poachers preferred the more hardy lurcher, a cross between the greyhound and the collie. Court officials kept a watchful eye over these men, and John Brette of Flempton (Surf) was fined because ‘he kept a certain dog in order to kill the lord’s rabbits’. Some poachers, such as Geoffrey Sewale of Walberswick, preferred to set traps in the warrens but for many, ferreting remained the most popular. Indeed, they were in such demand on the Suffolk Sandlings in the 15th century that one Blythburgh canon ran a profitable business in leasing his well-trained ferrets to other poachers, presumably for a suitable fee.
By the later Middle Ages poaching had become a sufficiently serious and lucrative business for poachers to organize themselves into gangs. These were not merely some haphazard extension of individual operations, but represented a deliberate and carefully planned pooling of knowledge and resources. Their activities were characterized by efficiency and ruthlessness and they entered warrens heavily armed and equipped with a comprehensive range of poaching accessories. Their success undoubtedly prompted manorial officials to try and catch them with incriminating evidence even before they entered the warrens. The homes of an East Suffolk gang were scrutinized by court officials from Walberswick, who allegedly found four men keeping lurchers ‘in their tenements’, one man keeping ferrets and a net in his house’, and another with a supply of ‘haypenne’ nets. A Thetford gang of the 1440s, equally well equipped but more elusive, was reportedly operating in Downham warren attired with ‘soldiers tunics, steel helmets, bows and arrows’, whilst others were armed ‘with cudgels and staffs’. In September I444 this formidable bunch attacked and wounded three members of a rival gang from Elveden and without licence abducted and unjustly imprisoned them in the town of Thetford’.
Many of these Breckland gangs were comprised of skilled craftsmen, notably bakers, weavers, fishermen, and hostelers, and with their wide range of contacts hostelers may have been particularly important in co-ordinating activities. It is also possible that some warreners played a double game, for their expertise and local knowledge would have been invaluable. A Robert Fisher, a warrener living in Thetford, certainly poached in nearby Downham warren in 1446. With or without inside help, most poaching gangs included a number of men drafted from outside the locality. Court rolls always listed those culprits known to them, but often complained that these were joined by many other unknown men’. Such anonymity reduced the courts’ chances of breaking up gangs, and provided the gangs themselves with a wider range of dispersal points for their illicit gains.
It is possible that the rise in poaching was motivated by a sense of social grievance as much as by economic necessity. Resistance to the feudal order was endemic in late medieval East Anglia and court rolls repeatedly record refusals to perform manorial offices, labour services and the like. Occasionally this flared into violent protest, and most commentators have noted the vehemence of the I381 revolt in the region. The criminal activities of the poaching gangs were primarily directed against the ‘privilege of feudal order’ and so might have been championed and condoned by other peasants.
The rabbit was undoubtedly a very tangible embodiment of feudal privilege and status and therefore an ideal medium for social protest. The Smithfield rebels of I38I explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt hares in the field. The physical damage caused by maurauding rabbits was certainly a source of friction and was amongst the grievances cited in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. Unfortunately, conclusive proof that poaching was a major form of social protest is elusive. Its increase in the later 14th century certainly corresponded with a rise in social tensions, but also with a rise in the demand for the rabbit. Indeed, there was little sense of camaraderie or social unity between those Thetford and Elveden gangs in the I440s.