Celia Fiennes: Rides Side Saddle To Norwich!

Celia Fiennes lived at roughly the same time as Daniel Defoe. She was born in 1662 at Newton Toney, Salisbury, the daughter of a Colonel in Cromwell’s army. She is remarkable for the journeys she made throughout nearly every county of England, and the accounts she wrote about each one. She rode side-saddle, accompanied only by two servants. She travelled to improve her health, but also for personal adventure. Her account of her travels seems to have been written after her travels had largely ended, in 1702. She described both the great houses she visited and the developing new industries. She died in 1741.

Celia Fiennes2
Guillaume Blaeu, Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1631), Wikimedia Commons.

As a 17th century English traveller, Celia Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost and being swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges and prejudices – as reflected in the popular English travel guides of the 16th and 17th centuries which asserted that “women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” Nevertheless, early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no “diminution of their moral fibre”. So we have the autonomous Fiennes, unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants; a woman who would certainly have stood out.

The original text of Fiennes is not divided into chapters and paragraphs are few. I have tried to separate her journey to Norwich into frequent separated paragraphs and brought some of her language and wording more into the modern era in order to assist the reader.

Celia Fiennes Writes:

“……..So to Norwich. Sometimes it was in view then lost again. To Beccles is 8 miles more which in all was 36 miles from Ipswich, but exceedingly long miles……… This is a little market town but it is the third biggest town in the County of Suffolk – Ipswich, Bury St Edmund and Beccles. Here was a good big meeting place of at least 400 hearers and they have a very good minister one Mr Killinghall; he is but a young man but seemed very serious. I was there on the Lords day. Sir Robert Rich is a great supporter of them and Contributed to building the meeting place which is very neat. He has a good house at the end of the town with fine gardens. There are no good buildings, the town being old timber and plaster work except his and one or two more. There is a pretty big market Cross and a great Market there. There is a handsome stone-built Church and a very good public minister whose name is Armstrong: he preaches very well, they say notwithstanding the town, it is a sad Jacobitish town.

Celia Fiennes (Beccles Church)
Beccles Church. Image: Public Domain

This [town]chooses no parliament men. At the town’s end one passes over the river Waveney on a wooden bridge railed with timber and so you enter into Norfolk: it is a low flat ground all here about, so that the least rain they are overflowed by the river and lie under water as they did when I was there, so that the road lay under water which is very unsafe for strangers to pass by reason of the holes and quick sands and loose bottom. The ordinary people both in Suffolk and Norfolk knit much and spin, some with the’ rock and fusoe’ as the French do, others at their wheels out in the street and lanes as one pass. It is from this town to Norwich 12 miles, and it is 10 to Yarmouth where they build some small ships, and is a harbour for them and where they victual them. Also, Harwich about 12 or 14 miles also, but the miles here as long again as about London and pretty deep way, especially after rain: these miles are much longer than most miles in Yorkshire.

Celia Fiennes (St Stephens Gate)
St Stephens Gate, Norwich: Henry Ninham engravings of 1864 copied John Kirkpatrick’s early 18th-century drawings of the outside of the gate. [NCM Todd Collection, vol. II, box 5, page 119]

Norwich opens to view a mile distance by the help of a hill whereon is a little village. As I observe most of the great towns and Cities have about them little villages as attendants or appendix’s to them which are a sort of suburbs, there being straggling houses for the most part all the way between the gates. You pass over a high bridge yet leads on over a high Causey [causeway] of a pretty length which looks somewhat dangerous being fenced with trenches from its banks (pretty deep) that’s on both sides to secure it from the water, and these trenches run in many places round the low grounds to drain them and which are employed to whiten and bleach their woollen stuff is the manufacture of the place. This long Causey brings you to the large stone bridge over the river into which those trenches empty themselves.

Celia Fiennes (City Walls)

Then you proceed to the City which is walled round full of towers Except on the river side which serves for the wall. They seemed the best in repair of any walled City I know though in some places there are little breaches, but the carving and battlements and towers look well. I entered the west gate. There are 12 gates in all and 36 Churches, which is to be seen on a clear day altogether from the Castle walls – I told myself 30 were there. They are built all of flints well headed or cut which makes them look blackish and shining. The streets are all well pitched with small stones and very clean, and many very broad streets: yet I entered in first [which] was very broad for 2 Coaches or carts to pass on either side, and in the middle was a great well house with a wheel to wind up the water for the good of the public. A Little further is a large pond walled up with brick as a man’s height with an entrance on one end. A Little further was a building on which they were at work, designed for a water house to supply ye town by pipes into their houses with water. At a Little distance was another such a pond walled in as I described before. These things fill up the middle of this spacious street which is for use and also ornament, ye spaces each side being so broad.

This brings you into a broad space called the Haymarket which is on a hill, a very steep descent all well pitched as before: this comes to another space for a market to sell hoggs in, and opens farther into divisions of buildings that begins several streets which runs off good lengths and are of a tolerable size. One runs along behind which is all for stalls for the County butchers that bring their meat for the supply of the town, which pay such a rent for them to the town. On the other side are houses of the town’s butchers, the inhabitants. By it is a Large market for fish, which are all at a little distance from the heart of the City, so it is not annoyed with them. There is a very large market place and hall and Cross for fruit and little things every day, and also a place under pillars for the Corn market.

Celia Fiennes (Fish Market)
The Old Fish Market, Norwich by Charles Hodgson (1769–1856) (attributed to) Image: Norfolk Museums Service

The building round here is esteemed, the best and here is the Town Hall, but all their buildings are of an old form, mostly in deep poynts and much tiling as has been observed before, and they plaster on laths which they strike out into squares like broad free stone on the outside, which makes their fronts look pretty well; and some they build high and contract the roofs resembling the London houses, but none of brick except some few beyond the river which are built of some of the rich factors like the London buildings. There is in the middle of the town the Duke of Norfolks house of Brick and stone, with several towers and turrets and balls yet looks well, with large gardens, but the inside is all demolished only the walls stand and a few rooms for offices, but nothing of state or tolerable for use.

Celia Fiennes (Dukes Palace)
The north side of Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, John Kirkpatrick 1710. Image: Courtesy of Norfolk County Council, at Picture Norfolk, and Reggie Unthank.

From the Castle Hill you see the whole City at once, being built round it: it is a vast place and takes up a large tract of ground, it is 6 miles in compass. Here is the County hall and Goal where the assizes are held and the Sessions. Nothing of the Castle remains but a green space, and under it is also a large space for the beast market, and 3 times in the year there is very great faire kept to which resort a vast concourse of people, and wares – a full trade. The whole City looks like what it is, a rich thriving industrious place; Saturday is their great market day. They have beside the town hall a hall distinct which is the scaling hall where their stuffs are all measured, and if they hold their breadths and lengths they are scaled, but if they are defective there is a fine laid on the owner and a private mark on the stuff which shows its deficiency.

There was also the mint which they coined, but since the old money is all new, coined into milled money, that ceases. Here there is a fine large Cathedral and very lofty, but nothing remarkable of monuments or else: by it is 3 hospitals for boys, girls and old people who spin yarn, as does all the town besides for the Crapes, Calamancos and damasks which is the whole business of the place. Indeed, they are arrived to a great perfection in work, so fine and thin and glossy; their pieces are 27 yards in Length and their price is from 30 shillings to 3 pound as they are in fineness. A man can weave 13 yards a day, I saw some weaving; they are all employed in spinning, knitting weaving, dying, scouring or bleaching stuffs. Their hospitals are well provided for; there are 32 women in one as many men in the other, there is also a good free school.

Celia Fiennes (Guild Day)
Guild Day, of which Celia Fiennes refers to below. Image: Courtesy of  Norfolk County Council at Picture Norfolk.

There are a great many ceremonies in the choice and swearing in of their mayor: they elect him the first day of May and prepare for his being sworn in on Holy Thursday. They newly wash and plaster their houses within and without which they strike out in squares like free stone. All the street in which is this mayor elect’s house, is very exact in beautifying themselves and hanging up flags of the Councillors’ companies, and dress up pageants and there are players and all sorts of show that day – there is little that is not done at the Lord mayor of London show. Then they have a great feast with fine flags and scenes hung out, music and dancing. I was in the hall where they keep [hold] their feast in and saw some of their preparations for that day; being about a fortnight to it.

The town is a mile and a half from the North to the South gate. Just by one of the Churches there is a wall made of flints that is headed very finely and cut so exactly square and even to shut in one to another that the whole wall is made without cement at all they say, and there appears to be very little, if any, mortar; it looks well, very smooth shining and black. A great many dissenters are in this City. The gentle-woman that was my acquaintance there died 10 days before I came here, so I made no great stay only to see about the town.

Thence I went to Windham [Wymondham], a little market town 5 miles, mostly on a Causey [causeway], the County being low and moorish, and the road on the Causey was in many places full of holes though it is secured by a bar at which passengers pay a penny a horse in order to the mending of the way, for all about is not to be ridden on unless it is a very dry summer. Thence we went mostly through lanes where you meet the ordinary people, knitting 4 or 5 in a company [group] under the hedges. To Attleborough, 5 mile more to a little village, still finding the County full of spinners and knitters: thence to Thetford 6 miles more, which was formerly a large place but now much decayed and the ruins only shows its dimensions. There is a very high hill quite round which stands up on one side of it and can scarcely be ascended so steep. Here I lay, which is still in Norfolk.

Celia Fiennes (Thetford Hill)
Thetford’s Castle Hill © Copyright Colin Park and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Next day I went to Euston Hall which was the Lord Arlington’s and by his only daughters’ marriage with the Duke of Grafton is his sons by her. Two miles from Thetford it stands in a large park, 6 miles about, the house is a Roman H of brick: 4 towers with balls on them; the windows are low and not sashes Else the rooms are of a good size and height, a good staircase full of good pictures, a long gallery hung with pictures at length, on the one side is the Royal family from King Henry 7th by the Scottish race, his Eldest daughter down to the present King William and his queen Mary. The other side are foreign princes from the Emperor of Morocco, the Northern and Southern princes and Emperor of Germany. There is a square in the middle where stands a billiard table, hung with outlandish pictures of Heroes; there is Count Egmont and Horn at the end of the room is the Duke and Duchess of Grafton’s picture at length.

Celia Fiennes (Euston Hall_Ashley Dace)2
Front Entrance of Euston Hall © Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Then I entered into the dining and drawing rooms and bed chambers of a very good size and good fret work on the ceiling: in one of the rooms was the Duchess of Cleveland’s picture in a sultaness dress, the Duke of Grafton being King Charles’s seconds base son by her. There was also another picture of ye Royal family. King Charles I’s five children altogether. I have often seen 3 which was King Charles II, King James and the Princess of Orange; but here was also the Lady Elizabeth and the Duke of Gloucester, a little Infant on a pillow. In another place there is the Queen Mother’s picture the Lady Henrietta drawn large.

Celia Fiennes (Euston Hall_Ashley Dace)
Rear View of Euston Hall © Copyright Ashley Dace and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There is a fine hall and parlour below, paved with free stone. There are good gardens with fountains and some stone statutes, a Canal by the side, a large court at the entrance with three Iron bar gates which open to the front, divided with stone pillars and balls. The outside Court is walled round and the wall is carried a great length round to the back yards. Within this is another Court with an iron spiked palisade divided every 2 or 3 yards by little stone pillars with balls. There are several rows of trees running the great length through the park; a visto to the front of the house, which looks nobly though, not just of the new modelled way of building. At the back gate I crossed over the river Waveney which is the division of the two County’s and entered Suffolk and passed over perfect downs; champion country, just like Salisbury Plain; and the winds have a pretty power here and blows strongly in the winter and not well to be endured.

Celia Fiennes5
A page from the diaries, with Celia’s signature.

With Celia’s journey over, have a look at the following BBC4’s little snippet at:

https://youtu.be/f32pAm_7Aik

Sources:
www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/Fiennes
https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496202260/
https://martinevanelk.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/the-intrepid-and-inquiring-celia-fiennes/
Banner Heading Image: Gesina ter Borch, Woman on Horseback in a Landscape (Vrouw te paard in een landschap, 1660). Rijksmuseum, BI-1887-1463-25

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Norfolk: A Hidden & Forgotten Railway.

Amongst the list of Victorian British railway pioneers you will not find the name of William Betts (1810-1885), principally because he was not a ‘major player’ – today’s terminology! But he was certainly important, around the mid-19th century, as far as the local community that lived and worked in the Scole Parish in Norfolk were concerned. Betts was also the diving force behind the development of his 400-acre market garden business there, together with the design and construction of his very own railway system which serviced that business. His railway, built very much to his design of its route and its waggons, has been referred to as either the ‘Frenze Farm Railway’ and ‘The Scole Railway’ – whichever one prefers perhaps! Either way, we have here a story of William Betts, along with some detail of the geographic structure and layout of the parish community in which he once conducted his business.

Scole Railway (Frenze Beck)
The Ford across the stream leading to Frenze Hall. Photo: © Copyright John Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The present-day Scole Parish is in the local government district of South Norfolk. To the south it is bordered by the River Waveney and the neighbouring County of Suffolk, with the town of Diss facing it from the west. This parish now contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billigford, Thelveton and Frenze – not forgetting the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in Betts’s time, the Parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, but reverted to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and were joined to Scole. The village of Frenze – in earlier times Frense, Frens or Frence and locally pronounced as ‘Fi-renze’ – stands in a picturesque spot on the banks of Frenze, a fast-flowing tributary of the larger river Waveney.

Scole Railway (St Andrews)
The ancient church of St Andrew at Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. More info here: www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/frenze/frenze.htm. Photo: Carol Gingell.

William Betts himself, was born in 1810 to parents Thomas Betts (1783-1847) and Sarah (nee’ Smith 1784-1855) who produced a total of eight children. William became a businessman and brick manufacturer and was married to Julia Wildman Sparling on 30 March 1843 at All Saints Church, Colchester. Then, in 1844, he became Lord of the Manor of Frenze, within the parish and patron of St Andrew’s Church and becoming, along with a Mr Browning, the chief landowners at Frenze. Betts also had extended family connections there – along with his dreams!

Scole Railway (Frenze Hall)
Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. Built in the early 17th century, the hall and it’s estate was purchased by William Betts in the 1860s and it’s 400 acres of land were converted into vast market gardens supplying London with fresh vegetables. To service the estate, Betts built a standard gauge railway which connected to the mainline at Diss and ran eastwards to Scole and north above Frenze hall, covering around 7 miles in total, with branches leading off in several directions to cover the whole estate. William Betts also owned two brick fields in the area and, in the 1880s, added the brick facade to Frenze Hall using his own wares. Photo: Carol Gingell.

By around 1861, Betts was in the position to buy the Frenze Hall Estate from his uncle Sheldrake Smith – but, apparently, did not live in the Hall itself. Instead, in 1863, he bought ‘The Court’ (see Map, bottom L/H corner) from a William Ellis and this became his home. The Court, once stood between Vince’s Lane and the railway line, but has long been demolished. Concurrent with his property acquisitions ran his ‘master plan’ of transforming the Estate’s 400 acres from agricultural fields into a vast market garden. Large barns and other ancillary buildings were to be built, in conjunction with the building of his railway, a system that would allow him to export his fresh vegetable produce direct to London by way of a connection to the Great Eastern Railway system at Diss station.

Scole Railway (lost-scole-railway-line)2
This track across the fields near Diss, in South Norfolk was once part of the Scole Railway, built by William Betts in the 1860s to service his vast market gardens at the Frenze Hall Estate. The standard gauge rail line ran between the main station at Diss and the Scole Inn to the east, and above Frenze hall to the north. This part of the track ran between Dark Lane, along Millers lane to towards Scole. Photo: Carol Gingell.

The railway would transport his produce to London daily, and to avoid empty runs back to Norfolk, the returning wagons would be filled with fresh manure from the City’s streets and stables; this would be spread on the land. But manure would not necessarily be the only commodity delivered back to the market garden; some train wagons returned filled with coal and delivered direct to the brickworks located just behind Diss station; these brickworks had been created by William Betts to both enhance the value of his line, but also to provide materials for the building of his workers’ houses in and around Scole. As owner of Frenze Hall, he also saw to it that his red bricks encased the 17th century timber-framed Hall with a façade, resulting in the present-day ‘late Victorian’ external appearance protecting its much older oak-framed structure more-or-less intact inside.

Scole Railway (Map_ Carol Gingell)
Map of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts to service the Frenze Estate in South Norfolk. Photo: Carol Gingell.

As for the railway track itself; this was of standard gauge, which allowed his trains to run straight on and off the Great Eastern line. In total, the length of the Frenze Farm/Scole Railway network reached approximately seven miles, including a number of sidings near the Great Barn on the Frenze Estate, where the produce was sorted and packed. According to Christopher Weston, the route of Betts’s railway began at Diss station, from behind the Jolly Porter’s Inn (closed 25th October, 1973) in Station Road. The line headed east to Dark Lane, where it branched east and north, via a turntable. Then the eastern branch continued to buffers behind the Scole Inn public house, with two more branches leading south to Betts’ brick fields, then north to Nab Barn and several sidings. Here, again was where the produce was sorted and packed. From Dark Lane, the northern branch went to Frenze Hall Farm, before crossing the river and ending at buffers near the Great Eastern line. Yet another branch below Frenze Hall continued to a field known as ‘Scotland’.

 

(Adove Photos) This girder rail bridge crosses the river at Frenze Hall. It was once part of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts. This northern branch of the railway, from Dark Lane, took the line up to Frenze Hall farm before crossing the river over this bridge and ending at buffers near to the GER line at Diss station. Photos: Carol Gingell.

William Betts owned the Frenze Hall Estate until his death in 1885 and, as his son had already pre-deceased him, the entire property was put under the management by the Court of Chancery while his affairs were sorted out. The manager was a Thomas W. Gaze, auctioneer and land agent who became the tenant of the Estate from 1886. Gaze not only took over the Frenze Estate but closed the market garden and railway, which was said to be under capitalised by then. He also arranged for the line to be pulled up before running the subsequent two-day auction of the entire estate’s equipment, horses, railway track and locomotives. The rail lines were sold for scrap to George Archer of Yarmouth, with some track syphoned off by thieves. The two locomotives, (one a 2-4-0 saddle tank, manufactured by Brotherhoods of Chippenham and the other, an 0-4-OT made by Hughes of Loughborough), raised £20 each and were shipped to India. In 1898 the Frenze Estate was eventually purchased by the neighbouring Thelveton Estate.

Scole Railway (Great Barn)
More evidence of the vast market gardens and the Scole railway established at Frenze Hall  in the 1860s by William Betts. This is marked on contemporary maps as being the “Great Barn” and the rail line ran directly behind it. Given the huge arched doorways, one wonders whether this could possibly have been used as an engine or maintenance shed for the locos? A large water storage tank was housed at the barn, fed by underground pipes which led from a pumping station that Betts built near to the river. Nearby stood the large Lay’s Barn, also built by Betts, and used for sorting and packing of produce from the market gardens. Lay’s Barn is no more, the site on which it stood is now occupied by a handful of 1960s built houses. The Great Barn has been renovated as small office units as Diss Business Centre, run by South Norfolk District Council.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Farm)
When William Betts purchased the Frenxe Hall estate in the 1860s, he expanded the farm at the hall. This range of barns looks to be contemporary with that expansion and are certainly marked on maps of the time. These were no doubt used in connection with the 400 acres of market gardens established here by Betts. In the background is the small church of St Andrew’s – no longer used regularly but still consecrated and under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Derelic Building)
Another legacy of William Betts ownership of the Frenze Hall Estate in the late 1800s. A sadly derelict barn on the farm. One map of the railway which Betts built to service his market gardens shows that a section of railtrack led directly into this building. The track certainly ran along the rear of the farm, over the river and on up to buffers near to the GER mainline above Diss. Photo: Carol Gingell.

As an aside, the Frenze Hall estate was a RAF Bomber Command ‘Splasher Six’ site during World War II; its transmissions guiding aircraft missions. Radio equipment was installed inside a collection of single-deck buses and huts in one of the fields. The transmissions frequently interfered with local BBC radio, resulting in complaints from the populace. During the war bombs did fall at Frenze but the Hall and St Andrew’s Church were undamaged. Finally, ‘Splashers’, operated by the RAF in the East Anglia area during this period were: Splasher 4 – Louth; Splasher 5 – Mundesley (near Cromer); Splasher 6 – Scole (S of Norwich); Splasher 7 – Braintree; Splasher 10 – Windlesham and Splasher 16 – Brampton Grange.

Scole Railway (Splasher Six)
A derelict building in the grounds of Frenze Hall which is believed to have been one of those built during WW2 when the hall was used as a Splasher Six Beacon site. Frenze Hall was one of a series of transmitting bases along the east coast which helped to guide returning aircraft back to base. The Thorpe Abbots airbase was just up the road. Photo: Carol Gingell.

Today, you would be hard pushed to trace the once busy Scole Railway – unless, of course, you were an archaeologist! Again, according to Christopher Weston, it was back in 2015, that work was scheduled to begin on the construction of a new care home in Diss; however, ahead of this an archaeological dig was permitted, with unbelievable results. As digging progressed, floors, ovens, brick kilns and even traces of railways sidings were found. Then, not too far from today’s Diss mainline station, hidden railway sidings were located. These did not, initially, seem unusual but opinion soon changed when further research revealed that this was only part of something much bigger and it was just the brick kilns, which were thought to have been used for the 19th century’s housing in Diss. The railway sidings discovered were eventually confirmed as being part of the 7-mile private railway network built by William Betts.

Scole Railway (Betts Grave)
The memorial stone over the grave of the Betts family at St Andrew’s Church at Frenze, Diss, in Norfolk. William Betts, born December 1810, died June 1885. Sadly, the memorial shows that William’s wife Julia Wildman Betts, and his two eldest sons, William and Edward, predeceased him. Census returns show that William and Julia also had six daughters and another son. Photo: Carol Gingell.

So, Dr Beeching of the 20th century could not be blamed for the closure of the Scole Railway; although he was certainly responsible for Norfolk losing numerous miles of its railway track and dozens of stations during the early 1960’s. Neither did he have his hand in the closure of numerous ’Light’ or ‘Narrow-Gauge” railways in Norfolk, built to commercially transport goods across estates, through private land, for RAF use and for other industrial purposes. Finding these could be a project for someone interested in discovering evidence of pioneering engineering some of which, like the Scole railway, have long been hidden in the Norfolk landscape.

THE END

Sources:
‘The Scole Railway’ by N.A. Brundell and K.J. Whittaker, published in The Railway Magazine April 1955; ‘Waveney Valley Studies’ by Eric Pursehouse, published by the Diss Publishing Company in 1969. Also, ‘Branches & Byways of East Anglia’ by John Brodribb.
Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/28466597@N04/albums/72157637874175125/
https://www.flickriver.com/photos/28466597@N04/sets/72157637874175125/
www.blennerhassettfamilytree.com/Frenze-Hall,-Norfolk.php

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

1381: The Peasants’ Final Battle!

This article originates via the Wikipedia, free encyclopaedia site and Wikiwand. The original Article, Notes, References and Sources can be accessed (Here) and from the ‘Source’ below. It is reproduced here in mainly unamended form, but without any of the advertising and extraneous content, which detracts from an interesting read. See also the ‘NOTICE’ at the foot of this page:

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The Battle of North Walsham was a medieval battle fought on 25 or 26 June 1381, near the town of North Walsham in the English county of Norfolk, in which a large group of rebellious local peasants was confronted by the heavily armed forces of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich. The battle is significant for being the last occurrence of any major resistance during the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (The Fighting Bishop)4
14th-century carving of Henry le Despenser, misericord in a chancel stall in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn

Despenser succeeded in suppressing the rebellion that broke out throughout East Anglia that summer. His force at first consisted of his own retinue, but numbers swelled as aristocrats saw both his victories and the harsh retribution meted out to the rebels. He moved across East Anglia towards Norwich and then onwards to North Walsham to deal with the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, the so-called ‘King of the Commons’. At North Walsham the rebels were decisively defeated by Despenser’s men. Medieval chroniclers differ in their accounts of exactly what happened at North Walsham. After the battle, Litster was captured and executed by Despenser, but the records of the time and subsequent histories disagree on the fate of his rebel army.

Background:

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a major rebellion that spread throughout medieval England during the summer of that year. Its causes are complex. The drop-in population caused by the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348, resulted in an acute labour shortage and consequently, higher wages. The Statute of Labourers (1351) was a law enacted during the first parliament of Edward III, to make labour laws and their intended enforcement more precise and detailed, and also to allow the government to control wages. It had the effect of making life more difficult for peasants, but more profitable for the wealthy landowners. Further discontent erupted from the behaviour of those nobles who ruled on behalf of the boy-king Richard II, and also from the position of the church; as many priests were ill-educated, and the bishops and abbots themselves were landowners, it was generally hated by the common people. Feelings were stirred up by rebellious priests such as John Ball, who criticised the church wherever the common people flocked to him to listen to his words.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Peasant's Revolt)3
The Black Death played a key part in producing the conditions for the Peasants’ Revolt. Fragment of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (Bibliothèque royale de Belgique).

The Revolt began in Essex, following the introduction of a succession of highly unpopular poll taxes levied against the English population. In 1377 the expense of the Hundred Years’ War had caused the government to introduce a poll tax of four pence. By 1380 this had tripled, but as many refused to pay, revenues dropped. The imposition of a third poll tax in 1381 prompted unrest in Essex and Kent, which then spread all over England. According to the Anonimalle Chronicle, the ‘evil actions’ of the commons in both Essex and Kent were ‘because of the exceptionally severe tenths and fifteenths and other subsidies lightly conceded in parliaments and extortionately levied from the poor people’. Most serious of all were events that occurred in London on 13–15 June. During the summer, rebels from Kent and Essex marched to London and, once admitted to the city, managed to capture the Tower of London. King Richard, who had promised to agree to all the demands of the peasants, met the rebels outside the city, where the peasants’ leader, Wat Tyler, was killed and the rebellion was ended. Once they were defeated it became clear to the rebels that they had failed to gain Richard’s support. Whilst the king was at Waltham, in Essex, a proclamation was issued condemning the rebels and denying that he had ever approved of their actions. At Waltham, Richard refused to ratify the promises he made, as he believed they had been extorted by force, adding, “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain”, and threatening vengeance upon those who had rebelled.

The rebellions in Essex, Kent and London spread to many other English counties. In Norfolk, the rebellion started on 14 June, when a group of rebels from Suffolk reached the county, and spread westwards towards the Fens and north-eastwards towards Norwich and Yarmouth. As in other parts of the country there was widespread unrest, during which property and official documents were destroyed and several individuals were summarily executed.

The Leaders:

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Blason)2
Arms of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich: Quarterly 1st & 4th: Argent; 2nd & 3rd: Gules, a fret or, over all a bend sable (Despencer, paternal arms) a bordure argent of bishop’s mitres or (for difference)

Henry le Despenser (c. 1341–1406) was an English nobleman who in his early life had been a soldier in Italy, and who in 1370 became Bishop of Norwich. He obtained a reputation as the ‘Fighting Bishop’ after playing his part in suppressing the Norfolk rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, and later embarking on an ill-fated enterprise for Pope Urban VI, who in 1382 employed him to lead a crusade in Flanders against the supporters of the anti-pope Clement VII. For his defeat at the siege of Ypres (1383), Despenser was impeached in Parliament, attainted and deprived of his lands. He later regained his lands and favour with King Richard II of England. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire and the military campaign that followed resulted in Richard’s abdication. Despenser remained true to Richard: he was subsequently imprisoned, but was afterwards reconciled with the new king. Henry le Despenser died in his diocese at North Elmham on 23 August 1406.

Little is known of Geoffrey Litster (also named by medieval chroniclers as Iohanne Lyttestere and Jekke Litster), a moderately wealthy dyer from the village of Felmingham in Norfolk. He is first recorded in the returns made by the collectors of the 1379 poll tax in Norfolk. As peasants, he and his men would have been both untrained and unequipped to fight Despenser’s fully armed and trained force. Geoffrey Litster was captured after the battle and executed soon afterwards at North Walsham.

Events in Norfolk Before the Battle:
During the summer of 1381, insurrection spread from the south-east of the country to other parts of England, including the diocese of Norwich, where the rebellion lasted less than a fortnight. On 14 June a group of rebels reached Thetford, and from there the revolt spread over south-western Norfolk towards the Fens. At the same time the rebels, led by Geoffrey Litster, moved across the north-eastern part of the county and tried to raise support throughout the local area. Over the next few days, the rebels converged on Norwich, Lynn and Swaffham. Norwich, then one of the largest and most important cities in the realm, was taken and occupied by Litster and his followers, who caused considerable damage to the property and possessions of anyone they perceived as an enemy (such as poll tax collectors and important officials) once they managed to enter the city. The Norwich rebels then travelled to Yarmouth, destroying legal records and landowners’ possessions, while other insurgents moving across north-east Norfolk destroyed court rolls and taxation documents. There were numerous incidents of pillage and extortion across the whole county.

The Anonimalle Chronicle gives a clear account of the unrest in East Anglia. On hearing of the rebellion, Henry le Despenser acted swiftly, moving through Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk from his home in Burley, Rutland. His armed force initially consisted of his personal retinue, but ultimately became a much larger force consisting of many knights and other men who had previously not dared to confront the rebels. According to the historian Edgar Powell, Henry Dispenser undertook the task of dealing with the revolt in his diocese and punishing the rebels. He was involved in crushing rebellions at Peterborough and elsewhere, before moving on to suppress the revolts in Cambridge. The authorities were alerted to the call in Norfolk for men to join the revolt in the name of Litster. On 17 June the rebels from the north and east of the county assembled on Mousehold Heath, outside Norwich: shortly afterwards, Sir Robert Salle, who had come out of the city to speak with the commons, was killed. According to Thomas Walsingham, the knight died soon after he was ‘knocked on the head by a rustic who was one of his own serfs’. The rebels then entered Norwich and wreaked havoc, destroying property and killing several prominent citizens. Other houses and church properties within the county (such as at Yarmouth) were attacked by the rebels at this time.

Geoffrey Litster was at Thorpe Market on 21 June and by the next day Despenser had reached nearby Felmingham. Hearing that the rebels were close, Despenser travelled the short distance from Felmingham to North Walsham Heath, where he encountered Litster and his men.

The Battle of North Walsham and its aftermath (1381):
There are no eyewitness accounts of the battle that was fought at North Walsham on 25 or 26 June 1381. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham related that there was a fierce engagement at North Walsham Heath, south of the town, in which “the warlike Bishop” led a successful attack on the rebels’ entrenched position. The Escheators’ Inquisitions for the period that name Litster also included the names of rebels from North Walsham who were killed, giving strong evidence that the rebels suffered a severe defeat.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Site)1
The site of the Battle, near the town of North Walsham.

According to Thomas Walsingham, the rebels were routed as they fled through woodland and cut down as they were found. Writing in the 19th century, Walter Rye quoted a local man, “They dew say a’mazin’ lot of men are buried in that pightle.” The local belief that the parish church at North Walsham was the scene of a bloodbath after the battle cannot be substantiated using historical documents. According to The Book of Illustrious Henries, written by the 15th-century historian John Capgrave, very little fighting took place. The chronicler related that:

“But by the good management of the Bishop, and of other men who had assembled there, the whole people surrendered, rejoicing that they might withdraw in peace. Jack Litster himself, leaping over a wall, hid himself in a corn-field”.

Inevitably the rebels’ ‘king’ was found. Walsingham and Capgrave agree that after Geoffrey Litster’s capture, he was taken to North Walsham and was there hung, drawn and quartered. According to Capgrave’s chronicle:

“The traitor was sought and found; he was captured and beheaded; and, divided into four parts, he was sent through the country to Norwich, Yarmouth, and Lynn, and to the site of his mansion; that rebels and insurgents against the peace might learn by what end they will finish their career”.

Walsingham wrote an account of the mercy shown by the bishop to Litster during his execution:

“After hearing his confession and absolving him by virtue of his office, he followed him to the gallows, showing, although he had overcome him, a deed of kindness and piety, for he supported his head lest it should be bruised by the ground when he was being drawn to the hanging”.

Litster’s widow Agnes was later pursued by the authorities and was made to settle his outstanding debts (for the sum of 33 shillings and nine pence).[29]

Commemoration of the Battle:

Battle_of_North_Walsham (ancient_cross)6
One of three medieval crosses near the site of the battle.
Battle_of_North_Walsham (modern_sculptue)7
A modern sculpture in the Memorial Park, North Walsham, carved in 1999 by Mark Goldsworthy from the trunk of a 120-year-old oak tree. It commemorates the 1381 Battle of North Walsham and the end of Peasants’ Revolt. Photo: Wikiwand.

The site of the battle is one of only five battlefields in Norfolk that are recognised by Norfolk County Council. The battle was commemorated by three medieval stone crosses: one is on private land; another (now a stump) was relocated by North Walsham Urban District Council in 1932 and can be found near the roadside by the town’s water towers; the third cross was moved and used as a parish boundary marker. It is situated on Toff’s Loke, off Norwich Road.

Battle_of_North_Walsham (Sign)8
North Walsham’s town sign contains a mosaic depicting the Peasants’ Revolt.

THE END

Source:
https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Battle_of_North_Walsham

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Elizabeth Fry – Prison Reformer 

by Rachel Knowles
(reproduced here by kind permission of the author)

Elizabeth Fry1
Elizabeth Fry from Elizabeth Fry, the angel of the prisons
by LE Richards (1916)

Profile:
Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) (21 May 1780 – 13 October 1845) was a Quaker minister famous for her pioneering work in prison reform. She was featured on the British £5 note from 2001-2016.

An unhappy childhood:
Elizabeth Gurney was born in Norwich, Norfolk, on 21 May 1780, one of the 12 children of John Gurney and Catherine Bell. Both her parents were from families that belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly referred to as the Quakers. John Gurney was a wealthy businessman operating in the woollen cloth and banking industries.

Elizabeth, known as Betsy, was moody, often unwell and tormented by numerous fears. She was dubbed stupid by her siblings for being slow to learn, but was most probably dyslexic. In 1792, Betsy was devastated when her mother died.

Conversion:
Betsy’s family were ‘gay’ Quakers as opposed to ‘plain’ Quakers. Though they attended the weekly Quaker meetings, they did not abstain from worldly pleasures like the theatre and dancing or wear simple clothes as ‘plain’ Quakers did.

In 1798, an American Quaker named William Savery visited the Friends’ Meeting House in Goat Lane where the Gurneys worshipped. Betsy had a spiritual experience which was strengthened later that year when she met Deborah Darby, a Quaker minister, who prophesied that Betsy would become “a light to the blind, speech to the dumb and feet to the lame”. (1)

Betsy gradually adopted the ways of a plain Quaker, wearing the simple dress and Quaker cap in which she is depicted on the British £5 note. In 1811, Betsy became a minister for the Religious Society of Friends and started to travel around the country to talk at Quaker meetings.

Elizabeth Fry2
Elizabeth Gurney from ‘Elizabeth Fry, the angel of the prisons by LE Richards (1916)

Marriage and family:
On 19 August 1800, Betsy married Joseph Fry, a plain Quaker whose business was tea and banking. They went to live in Mildred’s Court in Poultry, Cheapside, London, which was also the headquarters for Joseph’s business. In 1808, Joseph inherited the family estate at Plashet in East Ham, further out of London.

It was a fruitful marriage though not always a harmonious one. Joseph and Betsy had 11 children: Katherine (1801), Rachel (1803), John (1804), William (1806), Richenda (1808), Joseph (1809), Elizabeth (1811), who died young, Hannah (1812), Louisa (1814), Samuel Gurney (1816) and Daniel Henry (1822).

Betsy’s prison ministry:
Throughout her life, Betsy was active in helping others. At Plashet, she established a school for poor girls, ran a soup kitchen for the poor in cold weather and was the driving force behind the programme for smallpox inoculation in the parish.

In 1813, while living at Mildred’s Court, she visited the women’s wing of nearby Newgate Prison for the first time. Betsy was filled with compassion for the awful state of the women and took flannel clothes with her to dress their naked children.

Elizabeth Fry3
The front of Newgate Prison
from Old and New London Vol II by Walter Thornbury (1872)

Over the next few years, Betsy’s life was absorbed by family issues, but in 1816, she resumed her visits to the women in Newgate Prison. With the support of the female prisoners, she set up the first ever school inside an English prison and appointed a schoolmistress from among the inmates.

Encouraged by her success, Betsy set out to help the women themselves. She read the bible to them and set up a workroom where the women could make stockings. All the female prisoners agreed to abide by Betsy’s rules. Against all odds, the scheme was successful. The women became more manageable and the atmosphere of the prison was transformed.

Elizabeth Fry4
Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison from Elizabeth Fry, the angel of the
prisons
by LE Richards (1916)

Fame and influence:
News of Betsy’s success spread and she was inundated with requests for advice from prison authorities and ladies who wanted to set up prison visiting. Over the years that followed, Betsy visited prisons up and down the country, in Scotland, Ireland and on the continent. She became one of the foremost authorities on prison conditions and twice spoke as an expert witness on the subject to Parliamentary Select Committees – in 1818 and again in 1835.

Many of Betsy’s recommendations were included in the Prison Act of 1823 and in 1827 she published Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners which became a manual for good management of prisons and prison visiting.

Family problems:
Betsy found it hard to balance family life with her extensive ministry. She was plagued continuously with ill health and oscillated between periods of intense activity and times of nervous exhaustion and depression. She often had to delegate her domestic responsibilities to her husband and other family members whilst she devoted herself to good works. Although Joseph always supported his wife, he sometimes complained that she neglected him.

The Frys were often forced to economise because of financial problems with Joseph’s business. Betsy’s brothers repeatedly came to their rescue, but in 1828, Joseph was declared bankrupt. They had to move permanently to a much smaller house in Upton Lane, Essex, and Joseph was expelled from the Society of Friends in disgrace.

Other areas of ministry:
As well as her prison work, Betsy was able to improve the lot of women being transported to Australia for their crimes, providing them with a bundle of belongings to help each woman make a fresh start after their long voyage.

She instigated a project to provide libraries of books for the coastguards whose chief role of preventing smuggling made them isolated and unpopular. This was so successful that the government took over the project and extended it to the navy. Betsy also set up the first nursing academy, to train nurses who could go into private homes and provide care for those who could not normally afford it.

A fitting end:
Betsy died on 13 October 1845 whilst on a holiday in Ramsgate. Her funeral was held at the Friends’ Meeting House in Barking on 20 October. The funeral procession from her house to Barking was over half a mile long. Even more mourners waited in Barking to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman.

In 1914, a marble statue of Elizabeth Fry was erected inside the Old Bailey in London, on the site of the Newgate Prison where her prison ministry had begun.

THE END

Notes:
(1) From the journal of Elizabeth Fry, 4 September 1798, as recorded in Life of Elizabeth Fry: compiled from her journal, as edited by her daughters, and from various other sources by Susanna Corder (1853).
(2) Corder, De Haan, Hatton and Isba all record Elizabeth Fry’s death as the 13 October 1845, but some sources state the 12th.

Sources used include:
Corder, Susanna, Life of Elizabeth Fry: compiled from her journal, as edited by her daughters, and from various other sources (1853)
De Haan, Franciscas, Fry (née Gurney) Elizabeth (1780-1845), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn May 2007, accessed 24 Aug 2015)
Hatton, Jean, Betsy – the dramatic biography of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (2005)
Isba, Anne, The Excellent Mrs Fry – unlikely heroine (2010)

Banner Heading Photo: NEN Gallery.

*This article (originally published Here) has been reproduced
by kind permission of the author.

 

 

A Norfolk Couple Who Made It Down-Under!

On the 10th February 1788 Henry Keable/Cable/Kable (the surname has varied over time) and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; theirs was the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. In 2018, their descendants in Austalia celebrated not only the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival, but also the couple’s Wedding, and Susannah Holmes birth around late February in the year of 1764 – now some 255 years ago. Here is their story:

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church)1
St Mary’s Church, Surlingham where Susannah Holmes was baptised.
The round tower of St Mary’s dates from Norman times. The north aisle was added in the late 15th century and the church was extensively restored during Victorian times – the chancel was completely rebuilt in the 19th century. The original box pews were replaced by the present seating in 1888. The organ in the gallery was built by Norman and Beard around 1898. A couple of old brass memorials can be seen on the chancel floor. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Maybe, with enough imagination, one could visualise a low March sun quietly painting tones of chilled colour on Surlingham Church’s ancient round tower. Everything would be quiet, except maybe, the sound of rooks gossiping as they left their late winter’s roost nearby. That almost perfect silence would remain as long as the visitor stayed still, but any movement forward towards the grounds of the church to enquire further would bring a possible soft crunch of frosted grass, or a squelch waterlogged soil as footsteps left a silent trail of prints.

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church Font)1
The Font in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham at which Susannah Holmes was baptised.
The church was extensively restored during Victorian times but several medieval relics survived inside such as this 14th century font (as above) which is supported on a stem surrounded by four lions. The oak font cover is a recent addition. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak

Just over 255 years ago, on the 6th March 1764, a baby girl was baptised in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham, a village that still sits near the River Yare and Norwich in Norfolk. Present must have been her parents, Joshua Holmes and Eunice, (nee’ Brooks) and probably siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, all tidily dressed and adourned as befitted such a special moment. To everyone outside the family that child may not have been particularly special; but, after she had grown into a woman, married and brought up her own children years later in a far off British Colony – she would be! This baby would leave her own footprints in history and from the other side of the world. Norfolk would forget her and she would remain so until her story, and that of her husband Henry Keable was written, passed on to future generations and eventually finding its way back to the County of her birth. The events surrounding this couple’s story could possibly be described as stranger than fiction.

All Saints (Laxfield)
All Saints Church, Laxfield, Suffolk where Henry Keable was baptised.
The first impression on entering this great church is its sheer size. There is no aisle, no clerestory, just a vast roof spanning 36 feet across the mighty space, one of the widest in Suffolk. Photo: Wikipedia.

Thirty-three miles due south of Surlingham, Norfolk lay Laxfield in the county of Suffolk the birthplace of a Henry Keable. The first record we have is that Henry was baptised at Laxfirld’s All Saints Church on the 26th August 1764. Present were his parents, Henry Keable Senior and Dinah, (nee’ Fuller), and just like at Susannah Holme’s  baptism in March of the same year, Henry junior was also probably blessed by having siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins present. We can reasonably assumed that both the Holmes and Keable families were poor and that both children helped their respective families to scratch a living and live on the margins of the law until both children fell foul of it. 

Susannah Holmes (Laxfield Font)1
The ‘Seven-Sacrement’ font at All Saints Church, Suffolk used for the baptism of Henry Keable in 1764. Photo: Suffolk Churches.

Whilst Susannah’s story started in Surlingham, her early life remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded that in November 1783, Susannah Holmes had been committed to Norwich Castle Gaol, accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, to the value of £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor of Thurlton, which was nine miles away. Then, on the 19th March 1784 at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. For reasons unknown, this death sentence was commuted to fourteen years transportation, first to the plantations of America before being switched to that of the British colony of Australia. But first, Susannah Holmes was committed to Norwich Castle gaol to await deportation and would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.

Susannah Holmes (Norwich Castle Prison)1
Inside Norwich Castle Goal. Photo: Public Domain.

In the claustrophobic squalor of Norwich Castle cells Susannah Holmes met Henry Keable, now a convict himself. also sentenced to death at Thetford Assizes and later reprieved. His story was darker still. The Norfolk Chronicle reported that Henry [now Cabell] from Laxfield in Suffolk had joined his father and uncle Abraham Carman in robbing a house at nearby Alburgh. According to the Chronicle:

“they stripped it of everything moveable, took the hangings from the bedsteads and even the meat out of the pickle jars. They also regaled themselves with wine having left several empty bottles behind them.”

The Norwich Mercury also reported how the local Constable Mr Triggs and three assistants went to Carman’s house and discovered the gang trying to burn the evidence. When they broke down the door they were attacked by the three men:

“A severe combat took place in which Mr. Triggs received a terrible cut to the head and was otherwise much hurt.”

Susannah Holmes (Lord North)1
Home Secretary, Lord North.

Sentenced to death, all three awaited their fates – that was until young Henry was reprieved on the orders of the Home Secretary Lord North, probably because of his age, and sentenced instead to seven years transportation. These were the days of ‘the Bloody Code’ when more than 150 offences carried the death penalty. What became of Henry’s father and uncle is recorded by the Chronicle in one chilling seventeen word sentence:

“On Saturday last Carman and Cabell were executed on the Norwich Castle Hill in pursuant to their crimes.”

Susannah Holmes (Prison Cell)1
A typical prisoner’s cell at Norwich Castle Goal. Photo: Norwich Museum Service.

Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both fortunate to be reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. Circumstances of the time were that The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. The couple had to wait until the authorities came to a decision; until then Susannah and Henry had to survive in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden – stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter and in cells that often were under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were allowed to mix, providing the opportunity for Henry and Susannah to meet, fall in love and produce a baby son who was named Henry, after both his father and grandfather.

Prison Ship (Dunkirk)
The prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’. Photo: Public Domain.

In 1786 Susannah gave birth in her Norwich Castle cell to Henry. That same year mother and baby were sent on the long journey to the stinking prison hulk ‘Dunkirk’ at Plymouth to await transportation. They went alone. Agonisingly, the order from London forbade father Henry from going with them. He must have thought that he would never see his family again – but this story was about to get worse, much worse, before it got better. Mother and baby were also cruelly separated. Captain Bradley who was in charge of the ‘Dunkirk’ had orders only to receive Susannah and turned her baby away. The Norfolk Chronicle made reference to the plight of the girl from Surlingham:

“The frantic mother was led to her cell execrating (cursing) the cruelty of the man and vowing to put an end to her own life.”

What happened next became a ray of hope when John Simpson, the Norwich prison Turnkey (warder) who had escorted mother and child to Plymouth, gathered up baby Henry and made haste to London where, in an age governed by almost unbridgeable class conventions, the humble turnkey did something truly astonishing. He went to the palatial offices of the new Home Secretary Lord Sydney who was finalising plans for the first convict fleet to sail for Australia. Refused entry, Simpson slipped in a side door only to be told that he would have to wait several days to see the man whose name would soon be bestowed on a new city on the other side of the world. The Norfolk Chronicle again tells the story much better:

“Not long after, he saw Lord Sydney descend the stairs and he instantly ran to him. His Lordship shewed an unwillingness to attend to an application made in such a strange and abrupt manner. But Mr. Simpson described the exquisite misery he had been witness to and expressed his fears that the unhappy woman in the wildness of her despair should deprive herself of existence.”

Susannah Holmes (Lord Sydney)1
Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. Photo: Public Domain.

It worked. Lord Sydney not only ordered that mother and child be reunited but gave instructions that the father should be allowed to join them as well. So Simpson set off wearily for Norwich to collect Henry Cabell. Together with the baby, they made the final journey to Plymouth and a remarkable reunion.

The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket for both Susannah and Henry. There was no coming back, despite having deportation sentences that were far short of being for life……….On a different note, it is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name changed more than once over the years. Parish records show that he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. Later, the newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. From here on – Kable it is.

Susannah Holmes (The First Fleet leaving Portsmouth)1
The First Fleet sets sail from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787. Photo: Public Domain.

On 11th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships slipped anchor and edged out of Portsmouth into a stiff westerly breeze. Amongst them was HMS ‘Friendship’ with sails trimmed to meet the stiff breeze. The ship sat deep in the water with a course set to take its crew and passengers to the other end of the world. On board was this Susannah Holmes, a young Norfolk girl, her lover from Suffolk and their recently born son. They were just three amongst a total of some 800 convicts being carried by the First Fleet – to be hailed ever after by their Australian descendants as ‘the reluctant pioneers.’ Ahead lay one of the greatest sea voyages in history and an adventure for the young Norfolk family which is well beyond the wildest imagination of any story-teller.

Susannah Holmes (Friendship)2
HMS ‘Friendship’ – 278 Tons (a) 274 (k) 75 ft. (22.9m.) long, 23 ft. (7.0m.) beam, carried 73 people + 76 male and 21 female convicts. (170) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 25 Seamen, 40 Marines, 76 and 21 Female Convicts (162).  Possibly skippered by Master Francis Walton.

That ‘First Fleet’ of eleven sailing ships set out on a voyage of epic proportions and into the unknown and into the history books. Altogether, the fleet was carrying almost 800 male and female convicts and a similar number of crew and marines. The ships were overcrowded. The ‘Friendship’ carried 72 unwilling prisoners, many of them originally sentenced to death and now sentenced to ever-lasting exile in the British Empire’s newest colony. All must have cursed their vessel’s ironic name.

But perhaps Susannah, from Surlingham, and her Suffolk-born Henry may have felt differently. At least they and Henry Jr were together and, remarkably, they did not travel with empty-handed thoughts. The separation of mother and baby prior to departure had caused such an outcry that the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, had been compelled to reunite them. Their plight had captured the public imagination and an appeal raised money to buy them clothing and a few possessions; but even here there is yet another twist in the story – but more of that later.

How extraordinary that this simple and uncomplicated couple, together with their companions were to have more than a future for themselves; One day, sometime after being shuffled away from our shores, they would be feted as the founders of modern Australia. Extraordinary, too, that whilst it appears that so much is known about Henry and Susannah, the available contemporary documents reveal scant personal details. It is  known that Henry Kable was the first of nine children and that Susannah Holmes had a brother and sister, but there are no images of what either looked like. There is only one description of Henry as being a “fine, healthy young fellow” and a suggestion that he might have been red-haired. That’s it! Much more is known about the ships; two naval vessels, six convict transports and three supply ships. The itineraries survive and include lists of handcuffs, leg irons, livestock, coal, tools, food and water of course, as well as 5,000 bricks and a ‘piano’ belonging to the naval surgeon.

At Cape Town, Susannah and the other women on board HMS Friendship were transferred to the Charlotte to make way for 30 sheep. One of the marines wrote in his diary: “I think we will find them more agreeable than the women.”

Susannah Holmes (Charlotte)1
HMS ‘Charlotte’: – 346 Tons (a) 335 (k), 105-ft. (32m.) long and 28-ft. (8.5m.) beam. When surveyed at Deptford Yard on 3 November 1786 measured 6’6′ afore, amid and aft and weighed 345 tons. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 45 others + 88 male and 20 female convicts. (183) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 30 Seamen, 42 Marines, 86 Male and 20 Female Convicts. (178) Skippered by: Master Thomas Gilbert (qv). Built in 1784, A three masted fully square rigged with neither galleries or figurehead. After her return to England she was sold to a Quebec merchant in 1818 and was lost off the coast of Newfoundlands in Nov. 1818.

The 13,000 mile voyage through often uncharted and turbulent seas took 252 days and almost unbelievably not a single ship was lost. Sadly the same cannot be said of the convicts. Forty three either died en route or, as the manifest puts it, ‘left our vessels.’ Twenty two babies were born to prisoners or marines’ wives. Remarkably, only two died. Henry Kable Jr. also survived.

Susannah Holmes (Capt Philips)2
Captain Arthur Phillip – Captain of the First Fleet
Painting: Museum of Sydney Collection.

Enter another hero in this strange story. If the first was John Simpson, the Norwich prison turnkey whose efforts had reunited Susannah and Henry, the second was the Commander of the First Fleet Expedition, a Captain Arthur Phillip. Clearly a competant sailor, his navigational skills were to take the Fleet safely through the iceberg-strewn Southern Ocean to arrived in Botany Bay on the 18th January 1788. A week later the Fleet sailed into what they called Port Jackson at the time. A strong belief endures to this day in Australia that the ‘fine, healthy young fellow’ Henry Kable carried the Captain, later to become Govenor Phillip, through the surf and on to the beach where he dedicated the new settlement to the Home Secretary Lord Sydney who had ordered the establishment of this far-off penal colony.

Two weeks after arrival the the colony,  Susannah and Henry (together with three other couples) were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in the new land. A happy affair no doubt; however, it must have been somewhat tarnished by the fact that the couple’s only possessions, ones which had been purchased from that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared – presumed stolen from the ‘Alexander’. In an effort to secure justice, they sued the ship’s Captain, Duncan Sinclair. 

Susannah Holmes (Alexander)2
HMS ‘Alexander’: Barque-built – Convict Transport – 453 Tons ,114 ft. (34.75m.) long and 31 ft.(9.5m) at the beam. Deptford survey in October 1786 recorded her measurements of 7’3″ between decks afore, 6’11” midships and abaft. Carried: Crew ± 30 + 20 others + 195 male convicts. (245) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states there was 30 Seamen, 35 Marines and 194 Convicts (259) 14? Skippered by: Master Duncan Sinclair – Owner: William Walton & Co. Built as a 3 master-square rig, 1 quarter deck ± 114 x 31ft and 2 decks without galleries or figurehead, and was registered at Hull in 1783. Little is known of this ship, the largest ship of the fleet, after her return to England in 1789, and it disappeared from the records by 1808.

Before mentioning what followed, it would be worth mentioning a little about Captain, Duncan Sinclair:

It would appear that this Captain had faced a series of problems throughout the First Fleet’s voyage to the new colony. On 12 May 1787, as the fleet got underway, ten sailors on board the Alexander mutinied because they had not been paid. On 18 July 1787, when illness was rife, Sinclair had to be ordered to pump out the bilgewater. Then, in the October he was faced with a more serious mutiny amongst the crew and the convicts; surgeon Bowes surmised that it was caused by Sinclair “not exerting a proper spirit over them”. After Susannah and Henry’s case against Sinclair had been concluded, and Sinclair had set off on a return voyage of the Alexander in September 1788, the crews of both his ship and those on board the Friendship went down with scurvy. They all became so weak that the Friendship had to be scuttled. In addition to this, Sinclair allowed the remaining crews a half-share in the Alexander’s cargo. Sinclair sighted the Isle of Wight on 28 May 1789 – without further mishap!

As for Susannah and Henry Kable, they not only won their case against Captain Sinclair, but two and half centuries later that Court ruling remains an historic legal precedent. Governor Phillip had obtained Royal assent to establish a court of civil jurisdiction with a judge advocate; the writ issued by the Kables was the new Court’s inaugaural hearing. This would have been impossible in England where convicts were regarded as ‘dead’ in law with no rights whatsoever. Blackstones’ criminal law bible had put it rather more bluntly about convicts:

“A felon is no longer fit to live upon the earth…to be exterminated as monster and a bane to society…he is already dead in law.”

Well, on the other side of the world, the young Norfolk born Susannah and her Suffolk born husband, Henry who were considered ‘felons’ and once condemned to death, were well and truly alive – both in person and in young Australia’s law book. The Court that day, ordered the Captain to pay Susannah and Henry £15 in compensation. It was a wise decision of course for how else would convicts ever reform and develop in a civilised way without any legal rights, especially as 80,000 more convicts would arrive in the years ahead.

So it was that in the years that followed, the Kables thrived. At first, conditions were harsh, trying to survive in the primitive hovels that sprung up round the Bay. Famine was ever-present but it became clear that the Colony remained undaunted. Henry was made an overseer of a convict gang, then a constable and finally Governor Phillip appointed him as the first Chief Constable of New South Wales. Susannah laboured in a different way by way of not only feeding her growing family, giving birth to ten more children of which all but one survived. The family grew rich and even powerful. For a while Henry ran a public house called the Ramping Horse, named it is believed after Rampant Horse Street in Norwich. Its drunken revellers conveniently carted off to the nearby gaol which was also run by Chief Constable Kable.

At the last we are still not quite done with the firsts. The first ship of any size in the new colony was named after the Kable’s eldest daughter Diana. It was built by her father as part of a fleet that traded across the Pacific. And the same daughter of convict parents married brilliantly to a senior civil servant who had come to help establish the colony. It was Australia’s first ‘society’ wedding. By now her father had served his sentence and grown ever more wealthy with several estates and trading partnerships as well as just one more first on this vast continent, a stage coach service.

Susannah Holmes (The Kable Grave)1
The Kable Grave, Australia

Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded appears to be thriving and has been known to meet-up at the appropriately named Kable’s restaurant in Sydney; no doubt to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the ‘First Fleeters’.

The 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes) – the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters, was celebrated in 2018. It took place on 10 February 2018 when a ‘Kable Family’ reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to also celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for those activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. A few years previously to all this, Susannah was also voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures. Strange, and how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered – except maybe by parish historians!

Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons and a house robbery, Henry Kable and Susannah Kable may have eventually been laid to rest in Norfolk, beneath a Broadland sky – instead of in another country far away?

Footnote:On  30 January 1813 the “Norfolk Chronicle” reported:

“A small farmer, who a few years since resided in the neighbourhood of Norwich, has written from Botany Bay to his former landlord, stating that Cabel, who about 25 years since was sent from Norwich Castle, is now become a very great merchant and the owner of twenty-five ships.”

The newspaper then went on to present a resume’ of past circumstances surrounding the couple, and which confirms some of the essential substances of this story:

“In the year 1786 Cabel and a female prisoner were in Norwich Castle under sentence of transportation.  During the two years that elapsed between the trial and the departure of the first batch of convicts, the woman gave birth to a child.  Cabel, the father, was passionately fond of the infant, and appealed to the authorities to allow him to marry the mother.  This was refused.  The female and her infant were sent with the first contingent of convicts, and after a wearisome journey by coach in the depth of winter arrived at Plymouth in charge of Simpson, the turnkey of the prison.  When Simpson handed over his prisoners to the captain of the transport that officer refused to take the child on board, alleging that he had no authority to do so.  The mother was distracted by the separation.  Simpson acted with great humanity.  Taking with him the six weeks old child he proceeded to London by coach, and with much difficulty obtained an interview with the Secretary of State, to whom he related the story.  The result was that not only was an order issued for the restoration of the child to its mother, but Cabel was permitted to sail by the same transport to the land of their exile.”

(Taken from the Norfolk Annals, A Chronological Record of Remarkable Events in the Nineteeth Century, Vol. 1 , Charles Mackie 1901)

THE END

Sources:
https://australianroyalty.net.au/individual.php?pid=I49754&ged=purnellmccord.ged
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Kable
http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kable-henry-2285
http://www.fellowshipfirstfleeters.org.au/henry_kable.htm
https://convictrecords.com.au/convicts/holmes/susannah/129238
http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/w/h/i/Arlene-White/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-1168.html
http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kable-henry-2285
http://www.geniaus.net/getperson.php?personID=I3913&tree=geniaus001
http://www.fellowshipfirstfleeters.org.au/henry_kable.htm
Eastern Daily Press: Article by Dick Meadows dated 26 January 2013
https://surlingham.org/susannah-holmes/

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Notable 19th Century Norfolk Murders, Part 2.

By Naomi Clifford.
(Reproduced here by kind permission of the author)

Naomi1
Naomi Clifford writes about the forgotten stories of women in history. Her book ‘Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches’ looks at the lives and fortunes of 131 women hanged in England and Wales.

Part 2: Catherine Frary and Frances Billing.

In my last blogpost, I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.

Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells-Next-the-Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved.

Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.

Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.

The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.

Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frary, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frary, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frary, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.

In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.

During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frary to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frary, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.

Frarey and Billing (Poison)
Massive native arsenic with quartz and calcite, from Ste. Marie-aux-mines, Alsace, France. Photo by Aram Dulyan taken at the Natural History Museum, London.

Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frary’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frary, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.

Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:

“If I were you, Mrs Frary, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”

“Yes, Mrs Frary, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”

Frarey and Billing (Burnham Market Parish Church)
Burnham Market Parish Church Westgate St Mary at the west end of the long and wide market place.© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Barely a week after Robert Frary was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.

With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frary. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frary bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire.

Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frary summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence. A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic. The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.

Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frary then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frary shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.

Kate Frary and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frary’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.1

In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frary and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle. Kate Frary, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.

The womens’ execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”.2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frary dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frary was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold.

Frarey and Billing (William Calcraft)
The executioner William Calcraft was in attendance.

The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:

“It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved”.

After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped and were “launched into eternity”. Frary was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.

Frarey and Billing (Death Masks)
Image courtesy of unknownmisandry.blogspot.co.uk

Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frary and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.

Frarey and Billing (Peter Taylor)
The Life, Trial and Execution of Peter Taylor broadsheet. Public Domain.

Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frary (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.

Billing and Frary were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.

Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison;

“was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”

There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frary and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.

Stuff of Dreams theatre company toured with a play, written by Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane,  based on Frary and Billing. Watch the trailer: nice and atmospheric.

THE END

Postscript:
Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.

Much of the detail of the case was given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.

Sources:
https://www.naomiclifford.com/norfolk-murders-catherine-frarey-frances-billing/#easy-footnote-2-2113
Links to: https://naomiclifford.com for her website.
https://www.facebook.com/naomicliffordauthor/ for her Facebook page.
https://twitter.com/naomiclifford for her Twitter account.

Notable 19th Century Norfolk Murders, Part 1.

By Naomi Clifford.
(Reproduced here by kind permission of the author)

Naomi1
Naomi Clifford writes about the forgotten stories of women in history. Her book ‘Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches’ looks at the lives and fortunes of 131 women hanged in England and Wales.

This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.

Part 1: Mary Ann Wright

We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright (née Darby), who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (1)

Naomi3

Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor, illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else.

The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.

It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, at the age of three, (2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.

Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (3)

Mary’s threats, and even her efforts, to kill William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One of Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her advice, is not known.

Naomi4 (Wighton Church)
Wighton All Saints Church © Copyright Adrian S Pye and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you three ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.

Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (4)

A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone, except Mary of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (5)

When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at Wighton Church on 4 December 1832.

It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.

Naomi5 (House of Correction)
Walsingham House of Correction © Copyright Elliott Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Mary was arrested 16 miles from Wighton, at Oulton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.

A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.

……child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.

Naomi6 (Bolland)
Justice William Bolland, by Thomas Bridgford. Lithograph, 1840 NPG D31931 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she declared she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (9) However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply that a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.

Naomi7 (St Michaels)

THE END

Reference Book Sources:

  1. “Teamerman” is a specifically Norfolk term, referring to the ploughman who ran a system of alternating horses to plough fields and to the waggoner who used a team of five horses to pull carts of grain. Naomi Riches, in her book The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk (Routledge, 1937), has a detailed explanation.
  2. Samuel was buried at Wighton Church. I could not find records for any other child born to the couple.
  3. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832.
  4. Plum cake contained raisins rather than plums.
  5. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832
  6. Hereford Times, 29 December 1832, quoting Suffolk Chronicle.
  7. 30 March 1833.
  8. Norfolk Chronicle, 20 July 1833.
  9. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 10 August 1833.
  10. London Evening Standard, 6 November 1833.
  11. The church, in central Norwich, was destroyed in the Blitz.

Sources:
https://www.naomiclifford.com/norfolk-murders-mary-wright/
Links to: https://naomiclifford.com for her website.
https://www.facebook.com/naomicliffordauthor/ for her Facebook page.
https://twitter.com/naomiclifford for her Twitter account.

SS White Swan: Gorleston’s Wreck!

From the southern end of the old Yarmouth harbour it is an unhindered route past Gorleston and down to Lowestoft, and indeed beyond. If, instead, you prefer to remain near rougher water then turn inshore and walk along the line of the concrete pier, towards the breakwater and the confusion of shallow water that performs there, known locally as the cauldron. Here, the waves rebound from both the pier structure and breakwaters and, dependant on wind and current direction, waves can come from at least three directions almost simultaneously, often forming a quite spectacular ‘clapotis’ (the lapping of water – French). Of course, if you choose to head further southwards from the cauldron, you are more than likely to see surfers, swimmers, kite surfers and wooden groynes. Then, a little further beyond, and a little offshore, a red buoy bobs above the surface movement of the water. It is there for a reason; it is there to mark the wreck of the once proud north country collier, the SS White Swan, which sank at that spot in 1916.

White Swan2
The Cauldron, between the old Yarmouth harbour and  Gorleston beach. Photo: EDP.

It was on the 30 September 2018 when Peggotty, of the Eastern Daily Press, set his own imagination to work as he passed this spot at an approaching low tide:

“At the south end of our sands, midway between the water’s edge and the warning buoy marking the remains of the wrecked collier White Swan from 1916, two heads appeared to be bobbing in the gentle sea, apparently without anybody on the shore nearby keeping an eye on them. As we drew closer, my concern increased because the number of swimmers now had risen to four, then six. Safety in numbers is reassuring, but I made sure my mobile phone was switched on, just in case…… Happily, my apprehension was groundless. There were no swimmers! The “black heads” on which I had kept a watchful [eye] were, in fact, the tops of some skeletal remains of the White Swan, the numbers increasing because the ebbing tide was revealing them.”

White Swan4
A remaining small section of the former SS White Swan. Photo: Unknown at present.

The SS White Swan was once a collier, owned by J. A. Dixon and T. N. Sample of Newcastle and built in April 1903 by the Blyth SB Company Ltd. She was a single screw ship, measuring 287.3 ft long with a 43.2 ft beam and weighing 2,173 gross tons. During the early part of November 1916, the White Swan, the only ship owned by the company at that time, was loaded with coal at West Hartlepool before leaving en-route to Greenwich, London. It was during this voyage, on the 17th November 1916 to be precise, that a violent storm erupted off the east coast of Norfolk and the ship’s Master, in his wisdom, decided to ride out the storm by sheltering off Scroby Sands. However, the ferocity of wind and waves had other ideas, causing the ship to drag her anchor and be driven relentlessly on to Gorleston beach – despite the frantic efforts of the crew to secure her.

White Swan3
The SS White Swan beached on Gorleston sands.

The collier’s eventual grave was to be on the low water mark of the beach, side on to the waves where her back was broken. The combination of the furious weather and the position of the ship, so close inshore, meant that it was impossible for the Gorleston lifeboat to come to the rescue of either ship or crew and it was left to the local lifesaving ‘rocket brigade’, together with their Breeches Buoy, to attempt to save the 22 seamen. For some thirteen hours the atrocious conditions frustrated their attempts to deliver the vital ropes across to the White Swan. Eventually, after several attempts, a total of four ropes did find their target and the ship’s crew were able to secure them. From that point, the ‘hand over hand’ rescue of all the seamen on to the beach took place and, whilst there were no casualties at Gorleston, the loss of the SS White Swan, the only vessel operated by the Swan Line, caused the company into liquidation. According to a newspaper of the time, there was:

“a great gale which raged with a violence, the equal of which could scarcely be recalled by some of the oldest helpers in the work of rescue from wrecks at sea along the coast.”

What remains of the former SS White Swan is still part of the Gorleston beach scene, exactly as witnessed by Peggotty; and after over a century of withstanding many subsequent storms and flood surges. For the presence, this answers any question as to the fate of the SS White Swan following the storm of 17th November 1916. It is still in the sand on which it was driven, worst for wear and broken down into much smaller pieces, some timbers still showing above low water. At one time, fishermen would tell unsuspecting anglers that the wreck’s position was a rich spot to cast a long line without getting it snagged by the skeleton.

White Swan6 (Tony Ramsay)
Some timbers. Photo: Tony Ramsay)

From other unsuspecting visitors, alarmed to see someone in apparent distress offshore, would come the occasional alert. This would trigger the usual efficient response from the emergency services who would rush to the scene – whether they suspected a false alarm or not. In 2016 for instance, the wreck’s centenary year, the local coastguard was alerted to an unknown object in the water thereabouts. In response, a seven-man team was sent to check out the report and found it was just part of the wreck; on that occasion, they logged the incident as “a false alarm with good intent.” Later, a spokesman said that whilst false alarms were quite common, “calls which turned out to relate to a 100-year-old shipwreck are rare occurrences.”

White Swan1
The buoy at high tide. Photo: EDP.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/white-swan-sank-in-north-sea-at-gorleston-1-5709159
https://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?70222
https://www.wrecksite.eu/ownerBuilderView.aspx?302
https://swscroby.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/the-white-swan/
Banner Heading Photo: By Campbell A. Mellon Wreck of the “White Swan”

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

The Disfunctional Thurtell’s!

On Sunday, October 21, 2018, Seann McAnally posted on his blog site, seann-mcanally.blogspot.com, the following:

“Goodnight Blog: I haven’t posted here in a very long time. I’d say the life of this blog (as in, my desire to attend to it) has run its course. A fresh start is in order. Eventually, I’m going to pull this down and archive the interesting bits somewhere. This gave me joy when it needed to. For that I’m glad. But I don’t need it anymore. Thank you.”

This is a pity, for without knowing where ‘the interesting bits’ will go, much may well be lost – despite good intentions. The following blog of Seann’s is a case in point and, because it has a connection with Norfolk, it has been rescued before it is too late and the body text re-published here. Full credit remains with Seann McAnally and is confirmed in this Blog.

Seann’s own blog is the first contribution below, followed by further information on the principal named ‘Thurtells’ who played such a part in the defunctional nature of this 19th century family and the problems that this ‘defunctionality’ – [extinct] brought about.

1. History’s Jackass: John Thurtell.

John Thurtell (rhymes with “turtle”) was known to his friends and family as “Jack.” That’s appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery John Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you’re going to be one of those, make sure you’re good at it, or, like Thurtell, you’ll end up at the end of a rope.

john thurtell 1
“Now where did I hide that gun?”. Photo: Public Domain.

Thurtell was born on 21 December 1794 into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father, Thomas Thurtell, was a prominent merchant and city councellor who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828. Thurtell shared his father’s ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant – which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don’t know what he did, but they didn’t kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell’s service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.

john thurtell (hms bellona)1
HMS Bellona

Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war. It was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor’s son.

Thurtell’s father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who’d moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as “a man of integrity.”

Thurtell’s jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell’s father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds(£), a huge sum at the time, worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold!, he returned without the money, saying he’d been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father’s influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821 – see *Footnote below.

It was a bad year for the Thurtell family – his brother Thomas had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell’s). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.

The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom’s name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King’s Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom’s original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn’t stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother’s name.

Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom’s name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom’s name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he’d mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down – Thurtell’s remodeling job ensured the night watch didn’t see the fire until it was too late.

But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom’s name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom, although Thurtell, as we’ll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.

Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he’d racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell “suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality.” He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he’d imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumours that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, it he’d become a laughing-stock.

john thurtell (three accomplinces)2
Taken from the book ‘Account of the Murder of the Late Mr William Weare – publishers J Nichols & Sons 1824. Photo: via Hordern House.

In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we’ll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne’er-do-wells – think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman’s carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.

Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he’d already killed Weare – and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert’s cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare’s throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare’s brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert’s property – after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert’s cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he’d taken off Weare’s corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.

The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons – but he couldn’t find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare’s body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn’t long before they showed up looking for Thurtell – whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare’s friends knew he’d planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn’t show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration – all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.

At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King’s Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn’t work. He was convicted of Weare’s murder and hanged on 9 January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: “I forgive the world!” His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.

Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.

Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell’s jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.

  • This Footnote to Seann’s story (above) comes from Meeres, F., ‘A History of Norwich, Phillimore, 1998: “On the 22nd January 1821, John Thurtell advertised that he had been in Chapel Field, Norwich at 9pm when three men had knocked him down and robbed him of £1,508. The cash was in his pocket-book “In notes, 13 of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each and the name “John Thurtell” is endorsed on them”. A reward of £100 was offered to whoever might give information “which may lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery”. It sounded an incredible sum of money to be carrying and before long it was discovered to be a scam. Thurtell’s bombazine firm had been declared bankrupt and he was hoping to enjoy a public subscription.”

2. Others Of The Thurtell Family.

The following is based on the reseach done by Susan T. Miller, plus information received by her from the Norwich Public Library on the records of the Thurtell family. According to her research, Thomas Thurtell (father and later Mayor of Norwich) was born to John and Anne Thurtell (below) in 1765, baptised on July 21, 1765, at St. Julians Church, Norwich, and died April 8, 1846, aged 81. He married, in Blundeston, Suffolk, on September 25, 1787 to Susannah Browne, who was born in 1764 and died in 1848.

Purely as an aside – Susannah’s sister, Anne Browne, married Thomas’ brother, John Thurtell and Anne’s brother, Robert Browne, married Thomas’s sister, Sarah Thurtell, in a triple wedding ceremony at the Church of St. Mary in Blundeston, Suffolk in 1787.

Thomas Thurtell (our notorious killer’s father), Susannah his wife, and a daughter are buried in the new church at Lakenham with two of their other children buried in the churchyard of Lakenham Old Church. Thomas’s residence was Harford Hall farm, Ipswich Road by Harford Bridge in Lakenham Parish. We are told that he farmed this property under Southwell, landlord, and died there. However, property records for the farm apparently show that Thomas, described as ‘Esquire’, only occupied it as leassee between 1811 and 1819, so perhaps the rest of the time there was some other arrangement?

According to the family’s researchers, the convicted killer John Thurtell’s father, Thomas Thurtell, was an extremely tempetuous, violent, and unforgiving character. His treatment of his family was often tyrannical, and it was felt that much of the son’s criminal behaviour was his responsibility. However, he refused to pay the lawyer’s expenses in connection with John’s trial for murder; he also deprived another son of his promised marriage settlement and legacy. Thomas Thurtell’s mayoralty was said to be ‘extremely tempestuous and his critics vocal’. Nevertheless, he was a “highly respected and opulent merchant of Norwich” and three times Mayor of Norwich. He was also a prominent member of the Whig party in Norwich and became a member of the Common Council in 1812, Alderman in 1815, Sheriff in 1815, and Mayor in 1828 (elected by the Court of Aldermen after two inconclusive popular votes). He was again Mayor in 1829 when the Old Fye Bridge was built – as indicated on a brass tablet which was uncovered in 1932 when the bridge was widened.

It must be noteworthy that Thomas Thurtell was chosen as Mayor even after the trial and execution of his son John Thurtell on 9 January 1824, whom his father disowned. Thomas senior had done his best to set his two sons, Thomas and John, up in business in 1814 and, with his help, the two boys purchased and manufactured silks and bombasin for him. Later they became involved in something underhanded that Thomas senior knew nothing about. Nevertheless, he appears to have survived this and other scandals, related to his sons, with an undiminished reputation; and the dreadful legal troubles of his sons must have caused much grief. However, in the obituary on his death it is stated that he was universally esteemed as an honest and upright man.

THE END

Sources:
http://seann-mcanally.blogspot.com/2015/03/jackasses-of-history-john-thurtell.html
http://www.thurtellfamily.net/geotf/gp/nti00035.html
http://www.thurtellfamily.net/geofvm/uk/johnandannebrownethurtell.html
https://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/thurtell.html
http://www.murderpedia.org/male.T/t/thurtell-john.htm
Photos:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radlett_murder
https://www.hordern.com/pages/books/3812957/transportation-george-henry-jones/account-of-the-murder-of-the-late-mr-william-weare-of-lyons-inn-and-portraits-of-the-prisoners-john
Feature Heading (Credit.Robert-Cruikshank) : https://www.onlinecasinoground.nl/gokhuizen-rond-1800-in-londen-en-een-moord/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

 

Kings Lynn, Cordite and Conkers!

In another post, we talked about ‘Hunstanton’s Great Secret’ which was pivotal in changing our fortunes in the Great War. Yet other towns also played a vital role in the conflict and no story is more fascinating than that of Kings Lynn: although experts still debate the exact impact of the facts given below on the outcome of the war, it is a remarkable story in several ways, not least as an example of ‘thinking outside the box’ when faced with a problem that at first appeared to defy resolution. It is all about cordite, conkers and the future inaugural President of Israel.

What is cordite?:

Cordite had been used by the British Army as a propellant for shells and bullets since 1889 – previously, black gunpowder had been used. A vital ingredient of this was acetone, along with nitro-glycerine and gun cotton. Pre-war production involved huge quantities of birch, beech and maple which, through a process of dry distillation known as pyrolysis, produced the cordite. As demands increased manifold at the beginning of the war, Britain was forced to seek imports from America, a state of affairs clearly unsustainable given the success of the U-boat campaign. By 1915 there occurred a ‘shell crisis’ when British guns were limited to firing only a few times each day.

Kings Lynn (Custom House)1
Kings Lynn. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Browning.

Enter Lloyd George, Chaim Weizmann, the Queen and lots of boy scouts:

It was at this time that the Ministry of Munitions was set up under future Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who asked renowned Manchester University chemist Chaim Weizmann to look for alternative ways to produce acetone. He set to work and came up with a new anaerobic fermentation process that used a bacterium, which came to be called ‘Weizmann Organism’, to produce large amounts of acetone from various foodstuffs including grain, maize and rice. Two new factories were built to build upon this success, one at Holton Heath in Dorset and the other at Kings Lynn. They were very successful, producing between them enough gallons of acetone – about 90,000 a year – for the British armed forces.

Kings Lynn1
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Browning.

Problems occurred in 1917 as grain and potatoes became scarce because of German U-boat operations. Weizmann was asked to perform yet another miracle and he began experimenting with the common conker. As this looked very promising, the government launched a nationwide scheme to encourage youngsters and adults alike to gather as many tons as possible. Kept keen by the payments of 7s 6d (37.5p) for every hundred weight, 3000 tons were collected for the Kings Lynn factory. It is part of folklore that even the Queen joined in at her Sandringham gardens. Much was sadly left to rot as school children proved too adept at this task.

Kings Lynn2
Photo : Courtesy of Stephen Browning.

Production began in April 1918 but there were many teething problems and not as much acetone was produced as hoped for. Production ended after about three months but by then the war was clearly being won.

First President of Israel:

Chaim Weizmann’s contribution to the world continued after the war: he became the first President of the state of Israel which was established in 1948. He died in 1952.

Kings Lynn3
Chaim Weizmann. Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

THE END

Sources:
Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:

Kings Lynn, cordite and conkers


Photos: By Daniel Tink, except where otherwise acknowledged.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.