I have written a fair amount in various publications about the effect of Norfolk and its coast on our most illustrious writers. Possibly the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, was inspired by events at Cromer; Charles Dickens took to the area, enthusiastically featuring it in ‘David Copperfield’; Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was written in Norwich and has since sold over 50 million copies. Here is a peek at Rupert Brooke and his relationship with Cley Next the Sea.
‘He was a minor celebrity before he died and a monstrous one afterward, holding on, to this day, to his fame and a rather tattered glory’ The New Yorker, in an article dated April 23 2015, the hundredth anniversary of his death.
The poet Rupert Chawner Brooke was staying at Cley on the Norfolk coast when he heard of the outbreak of war. Frances Cornford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin, was with him at the time and wrote:
‘A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life’.
He reputedly did not speak for a day until Frances Cornford asked: ‘But Rupert, you won’t have to fight?’ to which he replied ‘We shall all have to fight’.
W.B. Yeats called him ‘the handsomest young man in England’ and he had an illustrious group of friends. He joined the navy and, following his death on April 23 1915 when his unit was sailing to Gallipoli, Winston Churchill wrote that he ‘was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable’. He died on 23 April on board a hospital ship moored off the Greek island of Skyros and was buried in an olive grove there later the same day as his unit was in a hurry to leave. He had been bitten by a mosquito and passed away from blood poisoning, although in his obituary Churchill claimed that he had died of sunstroke – an image to suit the times, one of a young English literary lion, dying in Greece like Byron. The well-known description by his friend, William Denis Browne, who sat with him to the last, of his end embellished the myth: Brooke passed away ‘with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door’.
Unlike his famous contemporaries Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke saw no fighting and he epitomized for many the youthful idealism and devotion to country felt during the first year of the war. In 1912 he had written The Old Vicarage, Granchester. He was in Berlin and longing for home and the poem presents a fervent, enchanted view of English rural life which caught the imagination of the period. It ends like this:
‘Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? And Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?’
His patriotic sonnet The Soldier was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral in April 1915.
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven’.
Legacy Divided: Few poets have polarized thought so much. George Woodbury, in his introduction to Brooke’s Collected Poems (1916) wrote:
‘There is a grave in Scyros, amid the white and pinkish marble of the isle, the wild thyme and the poppies, near the green and blue waters. There Rupert Brooke was buried. Thither have gone the thoughts of his countrymen, and the hearts of the young especially. It will long be so. For a new star shines in the English heavens’.
Woodbury’s contemporary, poet Charles Sorley who was killed in 1915, had a rather more cynical view of all war poetry:
‘The voice of our poets and men of letters is finely trained and sweet to hear; it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie’.
Recently a bundle of papers has been opened by the British Library that details his love affair with the poet Phyllis Gardner and other loves.
Cley Today: Cley today earns its living from tourism. Apart from the famous windmill and church, it is a bird watching site of international importance, all the year round. Here you can see Grey Plovers, Black-tailed Godwits, Spoonbills and several types of waders.
It is also well known for smoked fish and meats. These go particularly well with the designer ales you can find in the pubs around here. Of particular fame is the ‘red herring’. If you are wondering what this is, it is a kipper that has been smoked for at least three weeks giving it a very, very strong taste which is not for the faint-hearted. However, sliced very thinly it can be perfect to have with a pint of fine ale.
Last century, Victorian villains hit upon the idea of throwing a few ‘red herrings’ onto the trail of pursuing police dogs as this completely covered up their own scent. Hence the saying in detective stories of a red herring being a wrong path to go down.
THE END (Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning)
In today’s terms, John Bilby of Norwich did not live long; he was born in 1801 and died in 1839. He became a tradesman and as far removed from being an author as one would suppose. Nevertheless, he wrote an account of his life and career in an autobiography, supplemented with the regular ‘jottings’ that he entered in his personal journal that he had maintained from quite a young age. Such documents would be considered as the most personal and private forms of writing; fortunately, they have been preserved, thus allowing researchers to obtain fresh information on the period in which John Bilby lived.
John Bilby was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth and his family moved to Norwich within twelve months of his arrival. His jottings followed his life story from the time his family first took up residence in Norwich and included the addresses at which he lived, until marriage; these included Ber Street in the City, and then later in King Street. During this time, Bilby organised his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focused on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. Bilby’s father died when John was seven years old, so his mother had a struggle caring for John and her other three children, until she remarried in 1811. What follows is just a sketch of his writings.
Soon after his mother remarried, when John was ten years of age, he made his first reference to becoming an errand-boy, and his later transition to becoming an apprentice hairdresser:
“I was engaged as Errand boy to Mr Willement, master weaver of St George’s. Lived with Mr Willement for 12 months, then for a short time at Mr [Houth’s], an Appraiser of London Street in Norwich, left Mr [Houth’s] to go and live with Mr Leeds, a brush maker of St Andrew’s – at this shop I was two years when my master was made a Bankrupt of, and I left. I was also with Mr Ling, a tailor in St Michael at Plea until, on the 20th day of August 1815 I was bound out Apprentice to Mr Mason, tailor and hair-dresser of King Street in Norwich.”………I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed……I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser”.
So, like many young men in every generation, John tried a number of jobs before he settled down to train; in his case, to be a ‘hair cutter and dresser’ [hairdresser] – it was the career that he followed for the rest of his life. In addition to his early experiences of life, Bilby was to include in his diary, and his later autobiography, details on the techniques and skills which had aided him in his apprenticeship as a hairdresser. For instance, there were remedies for both cuts and bruises, along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. Then there was his serious approach towards his job title but, at the same time, there were instances when he was able to find humour in most situations. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich’ humorously described how women often denied that they wore false hair, even though Bilby often knew ‘where she bought It’!
In 1821, when he had qualified as a hairdresser and gained the necessary experience, he was given the opportunity to run his own barber’s shop:
“I agreed to conduct the Business for Mr Lofty, the Hair Dresser of St Giles, Norwich, 3rd Feb. 1821, he being at the time very ill and not able to attend to it himself……..”
However, Bilby did not remain with that business for long, after joining a musical Group called the ‘Musical Sons of Good Humours’, and was given a job offer by Samuel True, who was the Group’s treasurer. True provided Bilby with a hairdressing parlour in his own house, and had it painted and equipped for a hairdressing business which started trading on 9th March 1822. In his spare time, Bilby continued performing with the musical group, and eventually received a ‘Star Medal’ for serving as its secretary and later as president. In 1822, he was also part of the Norwich Company of Comedian’s appearance at the Theatre Royal in a special show to celebrate the Coronation of King George IV. Bilby took the part of a Knight of the Garter. The Norfolk Chronicle reported:
“In consequence of extensive preparations, the opening of the opening of the Theatre is necessarily postponed until Thursday, 31st January when will be represented the Coronation of His Majesty George IV, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The dresses and regalia and every decoration are copied from the models of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by permission of the Proprietor. The whole of the Company, with numerous *Additional Aid, both vocal and instrumental will be employed to give every possible effect to this splendid ceremony.”
*Bilby was part of the ‘Additional Aid’.
During this same period, Bilby courted a ‘Miss Payne’. It was said that during their courtship ‘they enjoyed a pleasure cruise together on the ‘Nelson’ steam packet to Yarmouth’. Clearly their relationship flourished, both on water and land, for in the same year they married; he writes in his journal:
“I was married to Miss Payne on the 25th November, 1822 by the Rev. Whittingham at St Saviour’s Parish Church – spent the day very comfortably and had a large supper party in the evening at Mr Payne’s house in St Paul’s parish…….”
Thereafter, very little is said in Bilby’s diary about his wife – certainly he was never to mention her forename. He did, however, include her in his entry about their first child:
“My wife was delivered of a fine boy on the 11th of June, 1823, at a quarter before eleven at night. The boy was named John Bilby on the 15th. Mrs Bilby came downstairs on the 22nd, this was the 11th day after her being delivered of a son.”
Two years into his marriage, he was picked to serve five years with the militia as a private; this was in April 1824. He was clearly very reluctant to comply for:
“I found a young man who was willing to serve for me – for a sum of money – this sum I paid him and he was sworn in on the 20th of the same month – his name was Daniel Orford of St Martin’s parish.”
In 1827 the Bilby family moved to his father-in-law’s parish of St Paul’s where John was soon to be appointed as an ‘Overseer for the Poor’; a positioned which he was to fill for a number of years thereafter. We find that the winter of 1837 was a particularly severe one and Bilby, together with other parish helpers, raised several hundreds of pounds to provide food and fuel for the poor. John personally helped to deliver these around the houses of the parish. There was thick snow in the streets, and John writes: “Five officers from the Horse Barracks [in the Pocock parish] amused the public by driving through the streets in a large sledge.” The following winter the weather conditions were identical, and he again writes: “Mr Berry, Mr Dring and myself relieved 2000 poor persons in the St Paul’s parish with bread and coals.”
Bilby’s diary, journal or notebook, whatever one chooses to prefer, was not only of a personal and autobiographical nature throughout, but also functioned as a travel diary in which he described, in detail, the journeys he undertook. His excursions, and the activities which he participated in, are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip, discussed in detail, was Bilby’s trip to Lincoln. He described the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Similar observations were also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.
Beyond this date Bilby’s jottings tail off and eventually we learn the last about ‘the virtuous and vigorous Mr Bilby’. Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This seems to signify John Bilby’s passing, as described by the subsequent writer remarks:
“Mr John Bilby died on Sunday the 15th of July at half-past 8 o’clock in the morning, after a long illness which he bore with Christian fortitude, aged 37 years, in 1839, and he was interred in St Giles’ churchyard on the 18th. His funeral was attended by his wife and three children, his two brothers and his sister – Peter, William and Charlotte, and Mr Payne also, his bearers were as follows: Mr Fox, Mr Hart, Mr Whiting, Mr Poll, Mr Alborough and Mr Right.”
The cause of John Bilby’s death was not given, so it is left to pure speculation to suppose that his illness had been particularly virulent and this had led to the death of a comparatively young man. From where, and how, he had picked it up – would again be speculative!
Mr Marten, who chose not to reveal his forename in his Diary of 1825, came to Norwich for the very first time in early September of that year. His, was not so much a visit to the City, but a tour of a sizable part of Norfolk; he came with his wife, daughter and a servant. They were what could be better described today as tourists, and because Mr Marten was something as a diarist, we benefit from a unique and fresh impression of their destinations as they were at the time.
The diary describes how he began his tour from London Docks on the Thames built steam packet ‘Hero’, bound for Norfolk. They reached the port of Great Yarmouth a little over a day later, their mini-cruise probably more comfortable and enjoyable than any stage-coach journey. We are told that they stayed in Yarmouth and visited the more fashionable Gorleston. On Saturday, 10 September, Mr Marten’s party boarded yet another, but smaller, steam vessel to make their way along the river Yare, some 27 miles and a journey time of approximately 5 hours, to Norwich.
The boat arrived in the city near the Ranelagh Gardens entertainment centre, formerly the Quantrell’s Gardens; the area had been renamed after the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, London by Samuel Neech when the Norwich site had come into his hands sometime near the end of the 18th century. This area was just one part of Norwich’s Pleasure Gardens. It was a spot on the river which was also associated with a circus and, later, its future association with Pablo Fanque.
External view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens
Internal view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens. (c) British Library
(Views of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens; the inspiration for Norwich’s ‘pleasure’ garden of the same name)
Immediately following disembarcation it was probably likely that Marten and his party would have been picked up by a hotel employed vehicle and conveyed, in this instance, to the Norfolk Hotel at 25 St Giles in the city centre near the Market, and where they had been booked in for a several-day stay. The thought that the party would have been picked up made good business sense to the hotels of Norwich; certainly fourteen years later, when trains operated to and from Norwich at Thorpe (incidentally, at the very site of the once Ranelagh Gardens), the Norfolk and Bell hotels had an arrangement whereby visiting customers were conveyed to and from terminous points.
Mr Marten and his party were to take the opportunity of their stay to explore the City and all its facets, but high on their list was to attend various places of worship. The first opportunity to do this was during their first full day in Norwich, which was a Sunday. They attended morning service at the old St Mary’s Baptist Chapel near Duke Street. It seems that they were a very devout family for during the evening they attended yet another service at the Princes Street Chapel.
Clearly, two visits to a religous establishment in a week was not enough for Mr Marten, for he and his party headed for Norwich Cathedral on the Monday morning to attend the 9.45am Matins. Marten described the service as “the same as in other Cathedrals” – this comment may well suggest that he was an Anglian, but one who enjoyed visiting different places of worship. He went on to say in his diary:
“There were scarcely a dozen persons besides the ecclesiastics who officiated. The building is in fair preservation considering that it has been [in use] since the year 1096. The interior is very clean and from the magnitude and architecture presents to the eye a solemn grandeur. The Courts & inclosure and ancient houses around it are also kept in that order & have that still and quiet aspect & that appearance of retirement & comfort which is usually found around Country Cathedrals.”
Mr Marten also took a a particular interest in Meeting House buildings and attended a sermon by Mr Joseph Kinghorn, although:
“His preaching was not to us so satisfactory…….He appeared to be more the preacher than the minister or pastor. His pronounciation is very broad…….Mr Kinghorn is a thin tall old gentleman, very plain in his attire, simple in appearance, of acknowledged talents and has entered the lists in controversy with Robert Hall of Leicester on the subject of open communion which is advocated by the latter and opposed by the former.”
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1981
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
(The Old Meeting House, Colgate, Norwich. Photos: (c) George Plunkett.)
On Thuesday, 13 September 1825, Marten and his family continued their tour of Norwich but found the stones with which the Norwich streets were paved very annoying; this would seem to be a strange re-action to a material that had long been widely used for laying road and pavements in many other towns and cities. Nevertheless, they prevailed and on the same day, obtained permission to:
“mount the top of the elevated castle in order to have a panoramic view of the City and the hills which surround it, but we were dissuaded on account of the wind blowing so strong that it would be difficult to stand against it”.
However, they did manage to walk round the castle to where it was “loft enough to afford a view over the houses to the distant hills.” From there they counted 23 steeples of the 36 churches which the Map of Norwich stated to be in it. The view “prolonged our stay because of the pleasure we enjoyed”.
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbinings are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
“We were then shewn the winding into warp – the subsequent Beaming – & the reeds for the weaving & were informed that a yard wide crape has in that breadth 2560 single twisted threads of silk. We then saw one of the female superintendents at her crape loom, and afterwards the turners shop where nine men were employed in preparing Bobbins etc. for the factory here & the much larger [factory] which Mr Grout is now erecting at Yarmouth. The silk used here is principally from Bengal but part was the white silk fron China.”
“Seeing a loom going in a private house as we passed we asked the woman who was weaving Norwich crape & learned that she could, by close application, weave eleven yards each day – but we omitted to ask her earnings by that work.”
Where Mr Marten and family ate and refreshed themselves between forays is not known but they kept going thoughout each day. They walked towards the north of the City until they reach its outskirts and fields beyond and “found the population lively”. They were also amazed by the number of churches:
“so abounding that the eye could scarcely fail to see two or three which ever way it turned. Many of these were flint faced and some of them with squared flints very carefully cut & nicely laid” – They even counted eleven steeples from their hotel windows.
Their stay was also to include walks through both the eastern and southern parts of the city where they saw “many very large & elegant houses.” Marten even picked up on the fact that Norwich was in the process of building a new prison at the top end of St Giles, in an area now occupied by the Roman Catholic Cathedral. One wing of the new prison was expected to open for business later that year and Marten was sufficiently interested in the site to request a visit. He went on to write:
“We were admitted to go over the whole building. The Governor’s House is in the centre and from several windows he can at all times inspect every part of the prision. The Chapel is in the Governor’s House. His pew is opposite & very close to the Pulpit which is entered from the winding stair case. The Felons are in Pews even with this Governor whose eye may be constantly on them – and the Turnkeys guard the two entrances during the whole of divine services – the Debtors are on the floor of the Chapel and thus everyone can see & hear the Preacher. We were shewn the cells for the Felons who are confined at night separately – but they have a Day Room & they have the priviledge of the open air in a yard allotted to them. Condemned Felons left for execution have other & still stronger lonesome cells which they are not permitted to leave until the hour when they are taken to the platform over the entrance gate to surrender their forfeited lives to the violated justice of their Country.”
Marten’s general impression of the City was favourable, apart of course for those streets which were paved with small pebbles and flints, making walking “uneasy to the foot and on which one unused cannot walk either steadily of comfortably.” Other than that:
“We were not accosted in any of our walks even by a single medicant [a beggar] – Everyone seemed busy and we were told by a Gentleman, a resident, that no complaints were heard and that the manufacturers and general business of the place were in thriving condition. Houses of the third and fourth rate & some even beneath these were buildings to a great extension of Norwich, a circumstance which marks many other cities beside this.”
Marten’s final comments, as he prepared his party for their departure from Norwich, was to say that their stay had been pleasant and:
“the Norfolk Hotel intitled to praise for the goodness of its provisions – the neatness of its accommodation….and attention of its conductors & servants. We were also perfectly satisfied with the reasonableness of its charges. We left the Hotel at 20 minutes before 4 o’clock in the stage for Cromer……….”
On the 7th November 1882, twenty-year old Frederick Rolfe began fourteen days’ hard labour in Norwich Castle prison for poaching rabbits. He wrote:
A door swung open and a Turnkey led us inside. I shall never forget what I felt when I first saw that gloomy place, and I was fit to cry, but held back my tears somehow……..the cell was about ten feet long by six feet broad, and had a stone floor, and a board for a bed…… [The Turnkey] brought me a loaf of bread, about the size of a good apple, and a can of water and told me that was my tea……I did not want a bite that night…….I kept on thinking of mother and home, and the trouble I had been and got myself into, just like some had always said I would……they made me tread the wheel and pick oakum, which was hard old tarry rope…….but it was then I made a vow – that I would be as bad as they had painted me.
In the year’s 2011 and 2013 the East Anglian Daily Times wrote: “Bungay town lies encircled by the winding River Waveney, surrounded in turn by water meadows and the Broome marshlands where the cattle graze, where river banks are invariably covered by low mists and where the sound of tumbling water in the weir is heard as walkers pass through the kissing gate on their way to the Staithe.
This is geography to inspire tales and legends, one of which is the story of poacher and countryman, Frederick Rolfe, who in the early 20th century roamed these parts in search of illicit game. Although Rolfe wrote an account of his exploits ‘I Walked By Night’, edited by the famous Bungay resident Lilias Rider Haggard, little was known about this complex character until Charlotte Paton wrote her investigative biography of Rolfe in 2009. Her discoveries were also contained in a documentary film, ‘The Truth Behind I Walked by Night’, by film-maker Peter Hodges which was shown locally shortly afterwards.
It was in 2002 when Charlotte Paton embarked on her task of discovering the true identity of Frederick Rolfe. Charlotte had been given a copy of his book ‘I Walked By Night’ many years before by her mother, who thought it might be of interest to her as it was partly about Bungay, where she had grown up and where Rolfe had lived for the last 20 years of his life. Before long she discovered Rolfe’s identity and set about finding out more about the man and his times. Almost immediately she realised that much of what was written was untrue, the author conveniently leaving out the more unsavoury side to his character. The sum of Charlottes lengthy and painstaking research was published in her book, ‘The King of the Norfolk Poachers: His Life and Times’.”
The following text is Charlotte Paton’s personal account of her research:
In the early 1930’s a small scruffy, elderly man gave to the wife of the farmer for whom he worked as a mole catcher, a notebook filled with the story of his early life as a poacher. The woman, Mrs Longrigg who did not approve of the poacher as he charmed warts, put the document in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it for two years.
One evening, Lilias Rider Haggard the farmer’s neighbour and the daughter of Henry Rider Haggard, who wrote ripping yarns in the late 1800s, was talking to Mrs Longrigg about the weekly column she wrote for the Eastern Daily Press, when Mrs Longrigg remembered the dog-eared note book and gave it to Lilias thinking it might give her an idea for an article.
Lilias read the story and got in touch with the mole catcher. She encouraged him to write more and then edited the whole into the now much loved East Anglian Classic, ‘I Walked by Night’, published in 1935. It is a story of great deprivation but also of a deep love and understanding for the countryside. People then did not live alongside the landscape; they were part of it, working and watching the seasons change, seeing how the animals and birds behaved and the gamekeeper too. As a youngster the mole catcher, a difficult child and a naughty school boy, watched and listened, and by the age of eight had snared his first hare.
In 1955 I moved to Bungay in Suffolk where the poacher had lived and read the book. Many years later I married and moved to Norfolk. After paying off our mortgage and reading the deeds of our cottage I was prompted to read the book again; the poacher talked of living in an estate cottage close to where he was born in Pentney, which is about three miles from our cottage in West Bilney. Some of the detail he gave lead me to wonder if it was our house, and I thought it would amuse me to see if I could find out.
That led me a merry dance for 7 years. The first thing I had to do was find his name as he called himself ‘The King of The Norfolk Poachers’. With the help of Living History on Radio 4 I found he was Frederick Rolfe. I know that in autobiographies the truth is often bent a little to paint the subject in a better light, but Fred’s economy with the truth confused me utterly. He relates in the book how he went off the rails after the love of his life, a Marham orphan girl, died giving birth to their son. Fred said she was the same age as him, and they lived together from the age of eighteen, and she became pregnant three years later. I knew from the parish records that he was born in 1862, so I thought it would be easy to research; six months later I was tearing out my hair. I did not know her name, did not know if they were married, although her referred to her as his wife, could not find a male child born around that time who fitted the bill, and could not find a death for her.
My breakthrough came when I asked a friendly Registrar from a nearby town to search her records for the birth and death. Within 10 minutes she had rung me back to say that the boy I was searching for was in fact a girl, Edith Ann, and far from dying in childbirth, Anna Rolfe (so they had married) went on two years later to have a son, Frederick. This child she registered 6 weeks later, so clearly she did not die in childbirth. Armed with this information I began to unravel the truth. Far from being an orphan, it would seem Anna’s parents were alive at the time of her marriage, which took place shortly after her 21st birthday in, Marham church.
Edith was born 11 days later on May 25th 1883. Perhaps Mum and Dad refused to give their permission for the marriage to take place earlier, as Fred was already living outside the law. Sadly Edith died at eight months from marasmus, a wasting disease often caused by giving children food that lacked sufficient nutrition for them to thrive; this often happened through ignorance rather than poverty.
On August 31st the following year whilst Fred was out poaching he had a fight with two gamekeepers, and believed he had hurt them badly. Even though they had just lost their daughter, and Anna was already pregnant with their second child, to escape justice he fled to Manchester. Young Fred was born in February 1885. Fred Rolfe did not return to Norfolk until the summer of 1888 and was soon up to his old tricks again. He was summonsed to Grimston court for trespassing in pursuit of game and sentenced to 21 days with hard labour. He was also charged with the offence from the time he fled in 1884 and received a further 21 days hard labour. This was the second period he served inside.
He talks of his first experience in the prison at Norwich Castle in great depth in the book, how he had to walk on the tread mill, and endure the parson trying to reform him and how it turned him forever against the law. He had been sent down for 14 days for snaring 2 rabbits on Pentney Middle Common. He says he was scarce more than a child, but in a number of academic works he was said to be only12 or13; and he is held up as an example of the treatment meted out to children in prison at that time. After being released on 12th August 1888 he sent for a girl he had met in Manchester to come and join him, and he and Kitty were married on 8th October 1888 in Pentney church.
So where was Anna – was he a bigamist? I found young Fred with Anna’s mother in the 1891 census but could not trace a record of her death anywhere. Eventually a search by the General Records Office showed that she died of phthisis (consumption) in All Hallows Hospital Ditchingham, the village where Lilias and Mrs Longrigg lived many years later, and about 40 miles from her family and child in Marham Norfolk. I can only speculate as to why. The hospital was run by nuns who assisted prostitutes and the destitute of Norwich. Had she fled there to support herself, after Fred abandoned her, and fallen ill? Records from the hospital show that they did also take local needy cases from the area but her large family were miles away – would she have been sent so far from them. I shall never know for sure, but one thing is certain it reflects very badly on Fred.
The next part of his life is well documented. Apart from his book and my research, I have found a manuscript written by Emily his eldest child from his second marriage, which she sent to Lilias Rider Haggard from Canada just after I Walked by Night was published. She asked Lilias to publish it as her Mother’s version of the story, but Lilias never did. It has only recently come to light.
Emily recalls the stories her mother told her very poignantly; poor Kitty, arriving from Manchester to Pentney, she described as a nosey hostile village. Hating the dark and the quiet; admitting she had never been into a field before she took Fred his lunch, whilst he worked on the harvest; beaten by Fred because he thought she had flirted with one of the village lads; forced to pick and sell watercress from door to door to survive, whilst Fred had yet another stint in prison.
Emily’s memoir also shows that Fred was the gamekeeper for the West Bilney estate from 1894 to probably 1897, when he was sacked. During that period he did live in our house the Lodge cottage on Common Road. Poor Kitty had been very happy during this time, but sadly then had to join Fred in his endless changes of home as her tried to keep one step ahead of the law.
Fred always maintained he was not a thief, pheasants have no names on their tails he told the magistrates at one court appearance, but in 1892 he served 2 months for stealing two hens, a screwdriver and 11ounces of solder. He was caught by the marks his corduroy trousers left in the dirt and the dust on his knees. He also had two dead chickens in his hands when apprehended, and the solder and the screwdriver in his pocket. He pleaded not guilty!
When things became too hot for him in West Norfolk he moved to North Norfolk, and then during World War I to Bungay. He joined the Third Volunteer Battalion in 1916 at the age of 54 and became the Regimental rat catcher. After the War he was briefly an under-keeper at Flixton, near Bungay, but lost his job because he was caught poaching. Clearly from the reports in the local papers of court appearances, he was caught for poaching on a number of occasions. The last prison sentence I can find was in 1927 when at the age of 65 he received 2 months with hard labour for stealing coal from a railway yard.
During my research I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a sprightly 91 year old whose father had been Gamekeeper at Earsham Hall. He recalled that on November 4th 1928 his father had gone to check for poachers on Bath Hills, just outside Bungay. He thought that they might be about that night as the noise of their guns would be disguised by the noise of the fireworks the lads were letting off in the town. Sure enough Fred was out and about and was soon apprehended. In the struggle to relieve him of his gun, it went off and shot a hole in the Gamekeepers hat. I went to the local records office and found the case in the local papers and my informant was completely accurate in his recollection 76 years later; and why did it stick in his mind?; – his mother had been so concerned at what might have happened to her husband when she saw the hole in his hat that she went into labour and gave birth to his twin brothers the next day.
At the next Petty session, in Loddon, Fred pleaded not guilty as usual, saying he was only after a rabbit, being out of work; but the magistrates reminded the defendant that his record was none too good and fined him £2 with 2/6d costs. This he paid rather than face another spell inside. Frederick Rolfe hanged himself with a snare in an outbuilding in Nethergate Street in Bungay on 23rd March 1938. He was found at 3.30 pm; the inquest was the following day, and the funeral the day after. Events following a death were obviously speedier in those days.
I met an elderly man during my research who, as a 5 year old running home from school, took a short cut through an open stable and hurt himself there. On going home and being asked why his face was grazed he replied that Mr Rolfe had kicked him. His parents went to Rolfe’s home where they learnt from his landlady, Mrs Redgrave, that she had not seen him that day. They later realised that Fred’s dangling boots had caught young Les on the side of the face. The Coroner heard evidence that the Police had recently had reason to speak with Fred on a matter of some seriousness, and Mrs Redgrave said that on the evening prior to his death, on retiring to bed, he had said to her “Goodnight mother, this is the last time I shall bid you goodnight.” She told him not to be so silly. After that she heard no more of him. He had enjoyed good health recently she said.
Rumour has it that Fred sexually assaulted a girl behind the coal yard at the railway yard at Ditchingham. I have found no proof of this, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, although family members have hinted at a darker side to his nature.
At his funeral the local Vicars wife sent a bunch of daffodils, the card attached read ~ “Happy Memories. The heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind”. What memories could a smelly old mole catcher and the vicar’s wife possibly share? Despite his shortcomings was she, like me and the warts, charmed by him?
Charlotte Paton 2009
The old rogue wrote later in his life: “I have always had the idea that game was as much mine as anyone else’s ……….I envy not the Ritch man’s lot nor the Prince his dream. I have took a fair share of the ritch. I am well over 70 and waiting for the last Roll Call. If I had my time to come over again I still would be what I have been – a Poacher.”
John Brunton was born in Norwich, Norfolk on the 10th Norwich 1741. He was the son of John Brunton, a soap maker said to have come from a Scottish family which claimed to have descended from James II of Scotland!
The baby joined 30,000 other inhabitants, the number of which contributed to making Norwich of that time England’s largest inland town and, after London, its second city. Some people in the City were prospering from the relatively new textile industry which was expanding, only to reach its zenith of prosperity before the end of the 18th century, at which point it increasingly declined. Before then, however, the vast majority of Norwich’s population continued to be housed inside Norwich’s medieval walls, despite this prosperity and that of other supporting industries and trades. This meant that a great deal of renovation of old properties was going on around John’s unfamiliar home, his father’s business and Norwich at large.
The number of wealthy merchants with the finances to do this, and particularly to build their grand homes, was continuing to grow in tandum with the ready money available; other industries emerged and developed on the back of this wealth. Examples were the well-established quarries in the areas of Ber Street, Rosary Road and Earlham prospered in support of the building boom. Several breweries were established to satisfy demand; one such name was to be the Anchor Brewery in Coslany Square. Norwich society also embarked upon a programme of civic building. This included the construction of everything from Bethel Hospital, founded in 1713, to pleasure gardens like ‘The Wilderness’ which was just inside the city walls east of Bracondale and overlooking King Street. The Gardens was said to have had a ‘grand piece of machinery’…….splendid clockwork sheep! As one local historian reported proudly about the textile industry:
“By their Industry and ready Invention, the Norwich Manufacturers have acquired prodigious Wealth in the Art of Weaving, by making such variety of Worsted Stuffs, in which they have excelled all other Parts of the Kingdom; which Trade is now in a flourishing Condition.”
But the Brunton family were only to be involved on the fringes of the textile industry, supplying soap. John (junior) less so, but he came from strong stock and was able to withstand the City’s smallpox plague of 1747. He was also fortunate enough to be born into a home supported by income from a soap-making business, making for at least a comfortable existence – thanks to the numerous wealthy families in and around Norwich who own the textile businesses and could afford to wash and bathe using Mr John Brunton’s product. In providing this valuable service to the rich it would be incumbent on him to be an ‘upright citizen’, one who would pay his taxes, taxes which probably had been legislated for or supported by Norfolk’s aristocracy and landed gentry – the very people served by Mr John Brunton!
John Brunton (senior), like all the other soap makers in Norwich, of which there were several, paid a very high tax levy on the soap they manufactured for the silk, woollen, linen, and cotton manufacturers, as well as for domestic purposes, and the way in which the law was worded effectively meant that soap production had to be in batches of no less than one ton. The annals say that the pans used to make soap had to be locked at night by the tax collector to ensure that no illegal production could take place ‘after hours’. Soap was, apart from servicing other types of manufacturing, regarded as a luxury item and wasn’t in common use until the mid-1800’s, long after John Brunton junior had himself died!
Young Brunton’s formative years were not documented, but it is known that when he was ‘of age’ he attended a grammar school – which one, we can only guess! However, given the family’s apparent situation and its location within Norwich, it is reasonable to suppose that young John Brunton received his early schooling at the Norwich Grammar School ( as it was known at the time); this school was situated next to Norwich Cathedral. It was the one school, at that time, which offered free places to ‘Norwich citizens’. The only other schools which offered similar standards, some with boarding facilities, were outside the city walls, at Hingham and Wymondham; much further away were schools at Holt, Swaffam and North Walsham – all probably too far to travel to. Yet, the Norwich Grammar School had connections with the Cathedral and we are told that, as time went on and as part of his education, John was placed into the care of a Reverend James Wilton, Prebendary of Bristol Cathedral until his formal education was completed. Importantly, in the context of this story, nothing is known about Brunton’s personal interests outside of family and education, certainly nothing specific about any interest he may have had in acting. Well, it seems a safe bet that, given the path that he did take from the moment he completed an apprenticeship and set up a business in London’s Dury Lane thereafter, his thoughts and heart may well have been in the theatre whilst he was growing up in Norwich.
The seeds of this interest could well have been planted during the course of his formal education and if so, would have been strengthen by him visiting whatever theatrical venues and events took place in Norwich at the time. Venues such as the White Swan Inn, known as the White Swan Playhouse since 1731 and refurbished in 1747 due to its popularity. There was the Norwich Company of Comedians who were based at the White Swan, but also toured other towns in East Anglia. The Assembly Rooms opened in 1755 and the City’s ‘New Theatre’, near Chapel Field in 1757/58. In the same year, the Norwich Company of Comedians moved into the New Theatre from The White Swan Playhouse and made it new headquarters from where they continued touring. The New Theatre’s opening play in 1758 was “The Way of the World” (by William Congreve) which young Brunton could well have seen. Surely, all that was on offer in Norwich at that time would have been enough to ‘wet the appetite’ of any aspiring actor?
As it was, no sooner had John Brunton completed his formal education at Norwich, than his father directed him into a seven-year apprenticeship with a wholesale grocer; some say this was in Norwich, others suggest that it was with a wholesale grocer based in Drury Lane, London! Whatever was the case, given the possiblity that he already held an interest in acting, then the lure of the theatre on his future London doorstep would have been the real turning point in his ambitions. Once his apprenticeship was finished, he did set himself up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane, London.
” The Drama had long floated in his imagination, superior to the produce of the East and West Indies”
(Annonymous – ‘Green Room Book)
It was during his early years as a grocer in Drury Lane when he met and soon married a young lady by the name of Miss Elizabeth Friend. Whilst some have said that she was the daughter of a Norwich mercer, or cloth merchant another, by the name of William Dunlap, was quoted as saying that Miss Friend came from Bristol! No matter, this story is about young John Brunton who, after his marriage, continued nurturing his plan to enter the acting professtion; this ran alongside the arrival of his children, the first of whom was William, born in 1767 at his parent’s home in Dury Lane.
The next arrival was daughter Anne in 1769, also at Drury Lane; a time when John was regulary visiting the London theatres with the aim, not only to enjoy the performances, but probably to promote his acting talents in the hope that eventually he would be given the opportunity to enter the profession. Certainly, within a very short time, he had made friends with a Mr. J. Younger who was the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship encouraged Brunton to present to Younger a ‘specimen of his skills’ which resulted in the prompter also encouraging him to grab the first opportunity. Brunton, undoubtedly took note and had to work hard but in April 1774, he was persuaded to appear in a performance of Cyrus for Younger’s ‘Benefit’, Brunton taking the title role for which he was announced only as “A Gentleman”. Several weeks later, on the 3rd May 1774, he played ‘Hamlet’ at the same theatre for a ‘Benefit’ performance for Mr and Mrs Kniverton; on that occasion, Brunton was announced as “the young gentleman who played Cyrus”. It was at this point in his life, when he had achieved his first taste of real success, that he gave up his business as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.
Further children came along at the time when Brunton was being considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles. They were Elizabeth in 1771, Sophia in 1773 and John Robert in 1775 – all born at the Brunton’s new address at St Martins-in-the- Fields, Westminster. But, no sooner had the most recent baby John arrived when, in 1775, father decided to return to to his home city of Norwich to live and to perform. Here, Harriet was born – on the 23rd December 1778. By 1780 John Brunton was the father of six children and established as one of Richard Griffith’s (the manager) leading actors; also, a popular man with his fellow actors. John Bernard said of him “our leading tragedian and one of the best Shylocks I have ever seen” . Then, at the pinacle of his Norwich acting career in 1780, Brunton and his family decided to pack their posessions and move to Bath for the next five years. It was at Bath where Louisa was born in the February of 1785.
It was also whilst the Brunton family was living in Bath that another story found its roots – the beginings to Anne Brunton’s own acting career. She, as the reader will remember, was John Brunton’s first daughter and made her 1785 stage debut at Bristol, at the tender age of 16 years. According to “The Secret History of the Green Room (1790)”, Anne Brunton was regarded “as a slutish, indolent girl” by members of the Bath Theatre who thought that she, at her stage debut in Bristol in Febuary 1785, would be “humbled“. Instead, she acted with “unqualified success”. Soon after, on the 17th February 1785, she made her Bath debut where John Brunton went on before her to speak. He expressed his “trepidation at offering his daughter to the stage” and promised:
“If your applause give sanction to my aim
And this night’s effort promise future fame,
She shall proceed – but if some bar you find,
And that my fondness made my judgement blind,
Discern no voice, no feeling, she possess,
Nor fire that can the passion well express;
Then, then for ever, shall she quit this scene,
Be the plain housewife, not the Tragic Queen.”
Anne Brunton must have been somewhat burdened with those words and the fact that ‘gossip’ had circulated beforehand regarding what some at Bath thought were Anne’s shortcomings. Her response was to perform with a show of “self-confidence and grace that one would expect from a more experienced performer”. Anne drew “thunderous applause” – and was to go on to greater things in both London and later in America.
The following year, the Brunton family returned to Norwich and in 1788, John Brunton took over the Norwich Company of Comedians, leading it through its most stable and profitable years. The reason for his appointment was that his predecessor, Giles Barrett, approached the Theatre Royal’s proprietors in 1788, asking for the remaining five years of the lease to be transferred to Brunton. Apparently, the formal hand-over of the Norwich, Colchester, Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Yarmouth theatre’s took place on the 1st November – on the road between Colchester and Ipswich. Brunton then returned to Norwich and when he addressed the audience, at the opening of his first season as the theatre’s manager on News Year’s day 1789, he received almost raptuous applause.
This marked the start of the most succesful decade in the history of the East Anglian theatre, when Brunton’s personal standing was high. He was also fortunate in having good quality actors and he, in return, had their interests at heart. He instituted the Norwich Theatrical Fund in 1791 “for the relief of sick and decayed actors who have been members of the Norwich Company” and gave them an annual benefit. This scheme replaced a similar one which was set up by the previous manager, Richard Griffin, in 1772. By 1799, Brunton’s company, included Sophia Ann Goddard, Joseph Inchbald, Blanchard, Bennett, Beachem, Dwyer, Wordsworth, Taylor, Lindoe and Seymour. It was a prosperous time and benefits were paid out to his actors. It was also Brunton’s last year as manager; having decided not to renew his lease.
Brunton relinquished his position in 1800, the same year when the Theatre Royal was remodelled by William Wilkins, a local builder and architect who entirely rebuilt the theatre’s interior, leaving only the outer walls unchanged. The refurbished theatre reopened barely seven months before its Sophia Ann Goddard, an apparently charming lady and a most promising actress, died on 15th March 1801, at the age of 25 years. Her body was buried in a tomb in the St. Peter Mancroft graveyard. At the time of her death she was betrothed to a relative of the Bolingbrokes – John Harrison Yallop of Norwich. The inscription on the tomb still reads, “The former shone with superior lustre and effect in the Great School of Morals, the Theatre, while the latter inform’d the private circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection.” No mention was made of John Brunton being at her funeral, but his replacement manager John Clayton Hindes was, along with members of the Theatre Royal. It was in 1811, when John Brunton and his wife moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa their daughter. John Brunton died in July of 1825 at the age of eighty-four years.
FOOTNOTE: So far, we have told as much as we know about the theatre actor and manager John Brunton. All that is now left to do is to round off his story by giving a particular mention to his wife, Elizabeth, who seems not to have acted and was blessed with fourteen children – her last child, Richard, was born on the 26th June 1789. Some of her children evidently died young. Certainly, William the first child died and was buried at St Pauls Church, Covent Garden on 17th November 1778. From those that did survive, six had stage careers of varying success and lengths. Initially, John Brunton did not intend for any of them to perform on the stage. Then, at the time when the family lived in Bath, his wife took on the responsibility of educating their children with John also spending many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a Governess. It was whilst doing this that he identified her talent for acting and arranged for her to go on stage at the tender age of fifteen years.
Hopefully, more can be said later about the acting dynasty nurtured by John Burton, a dynasty which graced the stage in the 18th and 19th centuries in both England and also the United State of America.
JOHN BALE (1495-1563), was born in the little village of Cove, near Dunwich in Suffolk, on 21 Nov. 1495. The village was so named after the deCove family who had held land there in the 13th century – today, the place is named Covehithe) because the village once had a hithe, or quay, for loading and unloading small vessels.
Covehithe’s nearby beach and ruined, St Andrew’s Church.
Photos: (c) Paul Dobraszczyk
Bale’s parents were of humble rank and at the age of twelve he was sent to the Carmelite Whitefriars Monastery at Norwich, where he was educated, and thence he passed to Jesus College, Cambridge. He was at first an opponent of the new learning, and was a zealous Roman catholic, but was converted to protestantism by the teaching of Lord Wentworth. He then laid aside his monastic habit, renounced his vows, and caused great scandal by taking a wife, of whom nothing is known save that her name Dorothy. This step exposed him to the hostility of the clergy, and he only escaped punishment by the powerful protection of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex.
Bales held the living of Thornden in Suffolk, and in 1534 was convened before the archbishop of York to answer for a sermon, denouncing Romish uses, which he had preached at Doncaster. Bale is said to have attracted Cromwell’s attention by his dramas, which were moralities, or scriptural plays setting forth the reformed opinions and attacking the Roman party. The earliest of Bale’s plays was written in 1538, and its title is sufficiently significant of its general purport. It is called ‘A Brefe Comedy or Enterlude of Johan Baptystes Preachynge in the Wyldernesse; openynge the craftye Assaults of the Hypocrytes (i.e. the friars) with the glorious Baptyme of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. i.). Bale wrote several plays of a similar character. They are not remarkable for their poetical merits, but are vigorous attempts to convey his own ideas of religion to the popular mind. When Bale was bishop of Ossory, he had some of his plays acted by boys at the market-cross of Kilkenny on Sunday afternoons.
Cromwell recognised in Bale a man who could strike hard, and Bale continued to make enemies by his unscrupulous outspokenness. The fall of Cromwell brought a religious reaction, and Bale had too many enemies to stay unprotected in England. He fled in 1540 with his wife and children to Germany, and there he continued his controversial writings. Chief amongst them in importance were the collections of Wycliffite martyrologies, ‘A brief Chronicle concerning the Examination and Death of Sir John Oldcastle, collected by John Bale out of the books and writings of those Popish Prelates which were present,’ London, 1544; at the end of which was ‘The Examination of William Thorpe,’ which Foxe attributes to Tyndale. In 1547 Bale published at Marburg ‘The Examination of Anne Askewe.’ Another work which was the fruit of his exile was an exposure of the monastic system entitled ‘ The Actes of Englyshe Votaryes,’ 1546.
On the accession of Edward VI in 1547 Bale returned to England and shared in the triumph of the more advanced reformers. He was appointed to the rectory of Bishopstoke in Hampshire, and published in London a work which he had composed during his exile, ‘The Image of bothe Churches after the most wonderfull and heavenlie Revelacion of Sainct John’ (1550). This work may be taken as the best example of Bale’s polemical power, showing his learning, his rude vigour of expression, and his want of good taste and moderation.
In 1551 Bale was promoted to the vicarage of Swaffham in Norfolk, but he does not appear to have resided there. In August 1552 Edward VI came to Southampton and met Bale, whom he presented to the vacant see of Ossory. In December Bale set out for Ireland, and was consecrated at Dublin on 2 Feb. 1553. From the beginning Bale showed himself an uncompromising upholder of the reformation doctrines. His consecration gave rise to a controversy. The Irish bishops had not yet accepted the new ritual. The ‘Form of Consecrating Bishops,’ adopted by the English parliament, had not received the sanction of the Irish parliament, and was not binding in Ireland. Bale refused to be ordained by the Roman ritual, and at length succeeded in carrying his point, though a protest was made by the Dean of Dublin during the ceremony.
Bale has left an account of his proceedings in his diocese in his ‘Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie’ (Harleian Miscellany, vol. vi.). His own account shows that his zeal for the reformation was not tempered by discretion. At Kilkenny he tried to remove ‘idolatries,’ and thereon followed ‘angers, slaunders, conspiracies, and in the end slaughters of men.’ He angered the priests by denouncing their superstitions and advising them to marry. His extreme measures everywhere aroused opposition. When Edward VI’s death was known, Bale doubted about recognising Lady Jane Grey, and on the proclamation of Queen Mary he preached at Kilkenny on the duty of obedience.
But the catholic party at once raised its head. The mass was restored in the cathedral, and Bale thought it best to withdraw to Dublin, whence he set sail for Holland. He was taken prisoner by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war, which was storm driven into St. Ives in Cornwall. There Bale was apprehended on a charge of high treason, but was released. The same fortune befell him at Dover. When he arrived in Holland he was again imprisoned, and only escaped by paying £300 – about £80,000 in today’s terms. From Holland he made his way to Basel, where he remained in quiet till the accession of Elizabeth in 1559. He again returned to England an old and worn-out man. He did not feel himself equal to the task of returning to his turbulent diocese of Ossory, but accepted the post of prebendary of Canterbury, and died in Canterbury in 1563.
Bale was a man of great theological and historical learning, and of an active mind. But he was a coarse and bitter controversialist and awakened equal bitterness amongst his opponents. None of the writers of the reformation time in England equalled Bale’s sharpness and forthrightness. He was known as ‘Bilious Bale’. His controversial spirit was a hindrance to his learning, as he was led away by his prejudices into frequent mis-statements. The most important work of Bale was a history of English literature, which first appeared in 1548 under the title ‘Illustrium Majoris Britanniae Scriptorum Summarium in quinque centurias divisum.’ It is a valuable catalogue of the writings of the authors of Great Britain chronologically arranged. Bale’s second exile gave him time to carry on his work till his own day, and two editions were issued in Basel, 1557-1559. This work owes much to the ‘Collectanea’ and ‘Commentarii’ of John Leland, and is disfigured by misrepresentations and inaccuracies. Still its learning is considerable, and it deserves independent consideration, as it was founded on an examination of manuscripts in monastic libraries, many of which have since been lost.
The plays of Bale are doggerel, and are totally wanting in decorum. A few of them are printed in Dodsley’s ‘Old Plays,’ vol. i., and in the ‘Harleian Miscellany,’ vol. i. The most interesting of his plays, ‘Kynge Johan’, was printed by the Camden Society in 1838. It is a singular mixture of history and allegory, the events of the reign of John being transferred to the struggle between protestantism and popery in the writer’s own day. His controversial writings were very numerous, and many of them were published under assumed names. Tanner (Bibl. Brit.) gives a catalogue of eighty-five printed and manuscript works attributed to Bale, and Cooper (Athenae Cantabrigienses) extends the number to ninety.
Creighton, Mandell. “John Bale.”
The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol III. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885. 41-42.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the Victorians.
Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor – Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.
The holidays: The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Father Christmas / Santa Claus: Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.
Christmas Cards: The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Turkey Time: Turkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two. By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas!
The Christmas Tree: The Victorian age placed great importance on family, so it follows that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones. Family life was epitomised by the popular Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and their nine children. One of the most important Christmas traditions, the decorated Christmas tree, was a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert.
The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight. Mechanisation and the improved printing process meant decorations could be mass-produced and advertised to eager buyers. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1853. Victorians would often combine their sparkly bought decorations with candles and homemade edible treats, tied to the branches with ribbon.
Today, candles on the Christmas tree have been replaced by fairy lights, printed cards may be substituted with e-cards and we’re more likely to find plastic knick-knacks in our crackers than jewellery. Our Christmas customs continue to be shaped by technological advancements and modern changes in society. How many of us do our Christmas shopping online, or Skype our families across the world on Christmas Day? But these new traditions are still rooted in the spirit of the Victorian Christmas – an integral part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
The Crackers: Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Christmas Cards: One of the most significant seasonal traditions to emerge from the Victorian era is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned the artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene for his seasonal greeting cards and had 1000 printed – those he didn’t use himself were sold to the public. Later in the century, improvements to the chromolithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone.
Carol Singers: Carol Singers and Musicians “The Waits” visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Back in July 2013 the author Ian Sansom, writing in the Guardian Newspaper, asked the question: “Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strangest literary County?” On the basis that little would have changed in five years, it seems a good idea to repeat his rhetorical question and to present it to what might well be a different group of readers; it is equally of benefit if the response he gave at the time is also repeated. Here it is:
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact –and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, eco-criticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Literature. This is my big idea!
If we were to apply some of the quantitative methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. Last year (2012) Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and the late Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransoms‘s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith‘s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald‘s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.