Celebration for Norwich’s Jailed Couple!

On the 10th February 1788 Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes married in Australia; the first wedding ceremony in the new colony. Celebrations are afoot this year in Austalia to celebrate both the 230th Anniversay of the First Fleet’s arrival and the couple’s Wedding; also Susannah Holmes birth some 250 years ago. Here is their story as a tribute:

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church)1
Surlingham Church of St Mary’s where Susannah Holmes was baptised

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

Susannah Holmes (Surlingham Church Font)1
The Font in St Mary’s Church, Surlingham. Its waters baptised Susannah Holmes

Almost 250 years ago and amongst a score of baptisms, a special baby girl was annointed from the church’s font. She would leave her own footprints, not in the frost or snow of Norfolk, but in the margins of history on the other side of the world. Yet regretably, she would remain strangely anonymous in the county but maybe not so now in the village of her birth. That child’s name was Susannah Holmes. Her story, and that of her lover and later husband Henry Cabell (now Kable) still has a strength of line that not only defies true description but, on the face of it, is stranger than fiction.

Susannah’s story started in Surlingham and remained in the shadows of village events until the ancient pages of the Norfolk Chronicle and the Norwich Mercury newspapers recorded, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that in November 1783, she had been committed to Norwich Castle Gao,l accused of stealing clothing, silver teaspoons and linen, valued £2.00, from the home of her employer Jabez Taylor at Thurlton which was nine miles away. On the 19th March 1784, at Thetford Assizes, Mr. Justice Nares donned his black cap and sentenced Susannah to be ‘hanged by the neck until she was dead’. But her life was later spared and she was sentenced instead to fourteen years transportation to the plantations of America. Susannah Holmes would never see her Surlingham village and its round-towered church again.

Susannah Holmes (Norwich Castle Prison)1
Norwich Castle Goal

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

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

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

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

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Home Secretary, Lord North

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

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

Susannah Holmes (Hanging)1

Having been sentenced to death for separate robberies, Susannah and Henry were both reprieved but incarcerated in Norwich Castle for three years whilst the authorities decided what to do with them. The American War of Independence had halted transportation to the New World and plans were being made at Government level to send convicts to Australia instead, to a place on its eastern coast that the explorer James Cook had only set Western eyes upon in 1770. Whilst the couple also waited, they did so in prison conditions that were unsanitary, over-crowded and disease-ridden, stifling in summer, ice-cold in winter with cells often under water. But according to the prison reformer John Howard who visited the prison at this time, the gaoler George Glynne was a humane man. Although prisoners were shackled they were also allowed to mix. So it was that Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes first met and fell in love, simple unfettered villagers awaiting shipment to they knew not where.

Susannah Holmes (Prison Cell)1
A typical prisoner’s cell at Norwich Castle Goal

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

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

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

Susannah Holmes (Lord Sydney)1
Home Secretary, Lord Sydney

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

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

The Norwich gaoler, widely feted for a short time as ‘the humane turnkey’, would slip back into the shadow of anonymity, maybe to be rediscovered by descendants of his own children? – if indeed, there are descendants of this Norwich hero living today? It is not even known the fate of the two other female felons Elisabeth Pulley and Anne Turner who were sent from Norwich with Susannah to await transportation. What we do know is that transportation was a one-way ticket. There was no coming back.

It is worth noting here that the spelling of Henry’s name, like his life-story, was unpredictable. The parish records show he was the son of Henry and Dinah Keable. The newspapers called him Cabell, perhaps a mispelling. When he arrived in Australia it became Kable (probably a phonetic spelling) which it remains with his descendants. rom here Kable it is.

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

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‘Friendship’

 

Friendship – 278 Tons (a) 274 (k) 75 ft. (22.9m.) long, 23 ft. (7.0m.) beam, carried 73 people + 76 male and 21 female convicts. (170) Lt. P. G King’s Journal states 25 Seamen, 40 Marines, 76 and 21 Female Convicts (162). Skippered by: Master Francis Walton. Little is known about where and when the Scarborough was built c. 1784 During her return voyage to England her crew came down with scurvy and with insufficient crew to man her she was scuttled and sunk in the Straits of Macassar 28 Oct 1788.


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

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

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The First Fleet sets sail from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787

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

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

Susannah Holmes (Charlotte)1
‘Charlotte’

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

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

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Captain Arthur Philip, Commander of the First Fleet

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

Susannah Holmes (Alexander)2
Alexander

 

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

Two weeks later the lovers, together with three other couples were married by the Fleet’s chaplain – theirs were the first marriages in this new land. Then, our couple discovered that their possessions, which had been purchased after that earlier public appeal in England, had disappeared from the above ship, ‘Alexander’.


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

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

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

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

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

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The Kable Grave, Australia

Henry Kable died in 1846 at the age of 82. He was buried alongside his beloved wife who he had outlived by 21 years. Susannah was 61 when she died in 1825. Ten generations later the dynasty they founded is thriving and meets appropriately enough at Kable’s restaurant in Sydney to remember their celebrated forebears who famously became known as the First Fleeters.

This year of 2018 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Susannah Kable, (nee Holmes), the Surlingham lass who is rightly regarded as one of Australia’s founding daughters. A few years ago she was voted one of that country’s most influential historic figures.

Susannah Holmes (2018 Celebrations)

On 10th February 2018 a Kable Family reunion was organised for the descendants of Henry and Susannah, to celebrate the couple’s 230th Wedding Anniversary. The main venue for the activities was held in the Hawkesbury Race Club, Windsor. It included Registration and Welcome followed by a Church service and Dinner. Then on the following day, 11th February 2018 a Windsor heritage walk and bus tour took place, followed by a Light lunch. See Activities here for the full details.

Strange, how very undeserving, that in the country and county of her birth, she is seldom remembered and maybe only by parish historians

Back in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church at Surlingham, Norfolk the February sun had risen higher and taken the crispness from the early frost, but everywhere remained white. and the bare trees were leafed with snow. Beneath them the graves continued to say nothing. If it had not been for the theft of linen and silver teaspoons, Susannah Kable (Holmes) may, as likely as not, been laid to rest here beneath a Broadland sky instead of elsewhere far away. Who knows?

 

THE END

The Swaffam Peddlar’s Dream

Pedlar of Swaffham (Village Sign)In the county of Norfolk, between King’s Lynn in the west and Norwich in the east lies the market town of Swaffham. However while the town and its market have  been a centre for agriculture since the 14th century, the town is perhaps better known as being home to an oft-told folk tale. It’s a tale of a good man and good fortune, and frequently is mentioned when the subject of prophecies and dreams come up. It’s a tale that has been told many times, and its earliest incarnation is found in an old tome entitled An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk  by  Francis Blomefield  (William Miller, London, 1805-10). In Volume 11 of this truly compendious essay, we have a letter by Sir William Dugdale, dated 29 January 1652, and in it he relates the following tale:

“That dreaming one night if he went to London he should certainly meet with a man upon London Bridge which would tell him good news; he was so perplext in his mind, that till he set upon his journey he could have no rest; to London therefore he hasts and walk’d upon the Bridge for some hours where being espyed by a Shopkeeper and asked what he wanted, he answered you may well ask me that question for truly (quoth he) I am come hither upon a very vain errand and so told the story of his dream which occasioned the journey.  Whereupon the Shopkeeper reply’d alas good friend! should I have heeded dreams, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ‘tis not long since that I dreamt, that at a place called Swaffham Market in Norfolk dwells one John Chapman a pedlar who hath a tree in his backside under which is buried a pot of money.  Now therefore, if I should have made a journey thither to dig for such hidden treasure, judge you whether I should not have been counted a fool. To whom the pedlar cunningly said “Yes verily, I will therefore return home and follow my business, not heeding such dreams henceforward.”  But when he came home (being satisfied that his dream was fulfilled) he took occasion to dig in the place and accordingly found a large pot full of money which he prudently conceal’d, putting the pot amongst the rest of his brass.  After a time it happen’d that one who came to his house and beholding the pot observed an inscription upon it which being in Latin, he interpreted it, that under that there was an other twice as good.  Of that inscription the Pedlar was before ignorant or at least minded it not, but when he heard the meaning of it he said, “‘tis very true, in the shop where I bought this pot stood another under it, which was twice as big”; but considering that it might tend to further his profit to dig deeper in the same place where he found that, he fell again to work and discover’d such a pot, as was intimated by the inscription, full of old coine: notwithstanding all which he so conceal’d his wealth, that the neighbours took no notice of it.  But not long after the inhabitants of Swaffham resolving to reedify their church, and having consulted with the workmen about the charge they made a levy wherein they taxed the Pedlar according to no other rate than what they had formerly done.  But he knowing his own ability came to the church and desired the workmen to shew him their model, and to tell him what they esteemed the charge of the North Isle would amount to, which when they told him he presently undertook to pay them for building it, and not only that but of a very tall and beautiful tower steeple.”

 

Now this tale has become famous the world over, and is much celebrated in the the town itself, lending its name the the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign for the town. However curiously, Swaffham isn’t the only place that has a tale like this. Indeed, an almost identical tale is told of Upsall Castle in North Yorkshire. In ‘Ihe Vale of Mowbray: A Historical and Topographical Account of Thirsk and Its Neighbourhood’ by William Grainge (Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1859) we have a story he entitles “Crocks of Gold”:

“Many years ago there resided in the village of Upsall, a man who dreamed three nights successively that if he went to London, he would hear of something greatly to his advantage. He went, travelling the whole distance from Upsall to London on foot, arrived he took his station on the bridge where he waited until his patience was very nearly exhausted and the idea that he had acted a very foolish part began to rise in his mind. At length he was accosted by a Quaker, who kindly inquired what he was waiting there so long for. After some hesitation, he told his dreams. The Quaker laughed at his simplicity, and told him he had had that night a very curious dream himself, which was that if he went to dig under a certain bush in Upsall Castle in Yorkshire, he will find a pot of gold; but he did not know where Upsall was, and inquired of the Countryman if he knew, who seeing some advantage in secrecy pleading ignorance of the locality; and then thinking his business in London was completed, returned immediately home, dug beneath the bush, and there he found a pot filled with gold, and on the cover an inscriptions in a language he did not understand. The pot and cover were however reserved at the village inn; where one day, a bearded stranger like a Jew, made his appearance, saw the pot, and read the inscription, the plain English at which was –

 “Look lower where this stood

Is another twice as good”

The man of Upsall hearing this, resumed his spade, returned to the bush, dug deeper, and found another pot filled with gold far more valuable than the first: encouraged by this, he dug deeper still, and found another yet more valuable.”

This story has been related of other places, but Upsall appears to have as good a claim to this yielding of hidden treasures as the best of them. Here we have the constant tradition of the inhabitants, and the identical but yet remains beneath which the treasure was found; an Elder, near the north-west corner of the ruins.

Now you will notice that this text boldly mentions that the tale is told in other places, and indeed it is. For to travel further north in the United Kingdom, we find it retold yet again and at an earlier date. In The Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (W. Hunter, 1826), we learn the history of Dundonald Castle:

“Donald, the builder, was originally a poor man, but had the faculty of dreaming lucky dreams. Upon one occasion he dreamed, thrice in one night, that if he were to go to London Bridge, he would become a wealthy man. He went accordingly, saw a man looking over the parapet of the bridge, whom he accosted courteously, and, after a little conversation, intrusted with the secret of the occasion of his visiting London Bridge. The stranger told him that he had made a very foolish errand, for he himself had once had a similar vision, which directed him to go to a certain spot in Ayrshire, in Scotland, where he would find a vast treasure, and, for his part, he had never once thought of obeying the injunction. From his description of the spot, the sly Scotsman at once perceived that the treasure in question must be concealed in no other place than his own humble kail-yard at home, to which he immediately repaired in full expectation of finding it. Nor was he disappointed; for, after destroying many good and promising cabbages, and completely cracking credit with his wife, who esteemed him mad, he found a large potful of gold coin, with the proceeds of which he built a stout castle for himself, and became the founder of a flourishing family.”

Chambers, much like Grainge, goes on to remark “This absurd story is localised in almost every district of Scotland, always referring to London Bridge”. And indeed not only does the tale recur in other Scottish tales, but it appears in various other places in England and Wales too. Furthermore if we hop over the Channel to Europe, we find it flourishing there too, although of course with some other national landmark standing in for dear old London Bridge. The most famous example perhaps is found in the collections of folk tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm:

“Some time ago a man dreamed that he should go to the bridge at Regensburg where he would become rich. He went there, and after spending some fourteen days there a wealthy merchant, who wondered why was spending so much time on the bridge, approached him and asked him what he was doing there. The latter answered, “I dreamed that I was to go to the bridge at Regensburg, where I would become rich.“What?” said the merchant, “You came here because of a dream? Dreams are fantasies and lies. Why I myself dreamed that there is a large pot of gold buried beneath that large tree over there.” And he pointed to the tree. “But I paid no attention, for dreams are fantasies.” Then the visitor went and dug beneath the tree, where he found a great treasure that made him rich, and thus his dream was confirmed” (from Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), Vol. 1, No. 212)

However the trail does not end there. Even earlier and further south, we discover an identical tale in that famous anthology of ancient tales  A Thousand and One Nights (AKA Arabian Nights). The 14th tale is called The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream and goes like this:

“Once there lived in Baghdad a wealthy man who lost all his means and was thus forced to earn his living by hard labor. One night a man came to him in a dream, saying, “Your fortune is in Cairo; go there and seek it.” So he set out for Cairo. He arrived there after dark and took shelter for the night in a mosque. As Allah would have it, a band of thieves entered the mosque in order to break into an adjoining house. The noise awakened the owners, who called for help. The Chief of Police and his men came to their aid. The robbers escaped, but when the police entered the mosque they found the man from Baghdad asleep there. They laid hold of him and beat him with palm rods until he was nearly dead, then threw him into jail. Three days later, the Chief of Police sent for him and asked “Where do you come from?” “From Bagdad” he answered. ” And what brought you to Cairo?” asked the Chief.

“A man came to me in a dream and told me to come to Cairo to find my fortune,” answered the man from Baghdad “But when I came here, the promised fortune proved to be the palm rods you so generously gave to me.””You fool,” said the Chief of Police, laughing until his wisdom teeth showed. “A man has come to me three times in a dream and has described a house in Baghdad where a great sum of money is supposedly buried beneath a fountain in the garden. He told me to go there and take it, but I stayed here. You, however, have foolishly journeyed from place to place on the faith of a dream which was nothing more than a meaningless hallucination.” He then gave him some money saying, “This will help you return to your own country.”The man took the money. He realized that the Chief of Police had just described his own house in Baghdad, so he forthwith returned home, where he discovered a great treasure beneath the fountain in his garden. Thus Allah gave him abundant fortune and brought the dream’s prediction to fulfillment”.

Now we cannot be sure of the exact age of the many tales collected in this volume, for scholars believe the first versions of the collection appeared in Arabic in the early parts of the 8th century, with various additional tales being added over the next few centuries. However what we do know is that this particular story of a most fortunate dream appears in as part of a poem by the 13th century Persian poet,  Jalal al-Din Rumia, who is best known in the West as simply Rumi. In his epic collection The Masnavi, we have the poem In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad which you can read in its entirety here.

So then, here we have a tale retold in many places and at many times, indeed it is one of those small number of tales that seems to recur everywhere. And folklorists have a catalogue of such stories – this one is commonly referred to as ‘The Treasure at Home’, and under the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales it is number ATU 1646. Now given that we have several important literary landmarks for the story, it is widely though that this very popular tale was spread throughout Europe thanks the massive popularity of A Thousand and One Nights, and was adapted to fit local geography and history as it was retold in different places.

However the first European edition of A Thousand and One Nights was a French version translated by Antoine Galland that appeared 1704, and was first translated into English in 1706. We should also note at this point that the works of Rumi were not translated until considerably later, with the first English translations appearing in the late 19th century. However if you have been paying attention to the dates, we find that while the Arabian Nights theory could well account for the versions referenced by Grainge and Chambers, the oldest English version, comes from a letter written in the 1650s. Now while we cannot rule out this old Arabic tale been spread orally across Europe before its printed incarnations, it is certainly intriguing that the Swaffham version predates other European version by a good century or more. Furthermore Sir William makes clear that it was already an old tale when he set it down in his letter, and this is supported by the fact that the original Swaffham version has a sequel built in that many other version do not – the business of the inscription and a second pot of gold. For this kind of embroidery is typical of a tale been around for a good while, gaining additional details and extra subplots as it is retold by different generations.

Pedlar of Swaffham (Chapman & Dog)
John Chapman and his dog

Stranger still is the fact that our hero is actually given a name – John Chapman – something very unusual for a folk tale. But even more intriguingly, there is some historical evidence to back up the story, for John Botewrigh, the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 made an inventory of building and repair work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. And this tome is now known as the Swaffham Black Book, and in it we discover that in the mid 15th century the North Aisle of the church was rebuilt. And what is more, this renovation work was paid for by a fellow named John Chapman. And as part of this building work, new pews were installed and two of them are of particular interest for us: for their carved ends show a pedlar and his dog. Furthermore local tradition suggests that a third which shows a lady, is a representation of the shopkeeper in the story.

Pedlar of Swaffham 2Of course, none of that can displace the fact that a version of the tale was circulating in the East some centuries before, but certainly the pews and Chapman’s name appearing in the Swaffham Black Book does suggest that the story of his good fortune may have been doing the rounds while the goodly gent was still alive. Obviously Chapman, who served as a churchwarden, was a wealthy man, for construction work never comes cheap, particular in earlier times when a major building project may take years to complete. And given that in the 15th century, Swaffham was home to a thriving market, one wonders whether the tale had found its way to rural Norfolk thanks to travelling merchants, the very kind of folks Chapman would have been trading with.

Furthermore, in history we have many examples of less than virtuous men who in later life decide to bankroll various projects for their local churches. And usually these generous and charitable projects are seemingly done as a kind of penance for their earlier sins and misdeeds. Therefore it is tempting to speculate that the tale of Chapman’s fortune may well have been deliberately adopted to disguise the real origin of his wealth. And rather than repaying the good Lord for his luck by refurbishing his local church, as many versions of the tale suggest, he may well have been atoning for making a lot of money through less than virtuous means…

 

 

THE END.

Angels & Demons Looming in Norfolk Roof Timbers

The church of St Clement, Outwell,  was started in the 13th century and expanded in the 14th and 15th centuries when the roof was raised and its carvings installed.  The church was built of limestone from the Lincolnshire Wold and mostly likely came to site by the river. The church stands amid the fens and dykes below the Wash, between the rivers Nene and Great Ouse, close to the Cambridgeshire border. It was a prosperous place in the second quarter of the 15th century from when it remains a somewhat curious church that demands attention.

St Clements (Inner Roof)

St Clements is a church thick with angels. They flock about the roof beams, more than 100 of them, some bearing musical instruments, others the instruments of the Passion. If you look carefully at the above photo, you can see what is now known as the “unknown” glories, the carved buttresses, while in between and over head are the angels, with more angels in the south aisle and the Lynn Chapel off the north aisle. Then there are the demons which are very difficult to see for the roof is so dark that the visitor may miss these and even the large dark angels. The following two demons are exceptions:

St Clements (Carving)2There are 12 demons carvings and they were, in a sense, ‘lost’….but not really….in fact, they have been there all the time but, because of the poor light entering the roof area, the carvings are almost impossible to see. However, on one particular day in 2012 they were indeed ‘found’ by an historian who was studying the medieval glass…… so now they are famous!….having been safely ‘in situ’ for nye on 600 years. Apparently. they are carved the wrong way round, with the demon overcoming each of the smaller apostles, when it should be the other way round. Pevsner’s guide to Norfolk says they stand below canopies, but it’s more interesting than that. What has been revealed is that figures of Apostles, delicately carved with emblematic detail, stand under larger looming heads-and-shoulders of semi-human and demonic figures, bearing the weight of the roof. What does this juxtaposing of holiness and the infernal mean?

img_2440The placing of the figures was planned. The Apostles stand in pairs. Time and death-watch beetle have done away with most of the identifying symbols once held by the Apostles. But one pair, on opposite sides of the nave, are still easy to name: St John, holding a chalice, and St James, with his pilgrim satchel and staff. The horn-headdressed lady looms over the more sensitively carved sculpture of St James with staff and satchel. Leaning over St John is a furry-chested, beak-faced devil of the kind you might see in a manuscript illumination (or, at the time, perhaps in drama). Over St James  leans another unsettling figure: a large-featured woman with an exaggerated horned headdress and, in place of hands, taloned paws.

Why put such things together in a church? – but why not, for the aspect in play can be found in creation itself. Commenting on the Book of Proverbs, the 13th‑century spiritual writer John of Forde wrote that: “The Wisdom of God played before the Father’s face over the whole expanse of the earth.” God played with the monster Leviathan too, the Psalm says. There was indeed a medieval fondness for monsters which presupposed the reliance of humanity’s creativity on the primary creation by God. As St Anselm, the philosopher (Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109) saw it, men could mentally rearrange elements of God’s creation and so make an artistic image such as the horn-headdressed woman with clawed paws!

St Clements (Carved Demon)

At Outwell, then, the dignity of the Apostles is pointed up by the mirror‑image ludicrous figures grinning above them. But, as already been stated, the carved figures are hard to see. When they were made, the brightest light was from distant candles or reflected daylight, and their details could seldom have been clear. Yet, no doubt, the local yeomen, newly prosperous, the Beaupres and the Haultofts, would have been proud to pay for carved figures of the Apostles to join the angels aloft, and not have thought it out of place to have a few demons and chimeras thrown in.

Some other images of St Clements Church, Outwell, Norfolk