Nothing is known with certainty of Revd. John Brooke’s early life and education, only a guess that he was probably born in Norfolk in 1709; however, it is recorded that he died at Colney, near Norwich on 21 January 1789. In between John Brooke was ordained a priest on 17 June 1733, and between 1733 and 1746 he became Rector, or perpetual curate, of five parishes in and around Norwich, England, all but one of which he held until his death.
In 1756 Brooke married Frances Moore, he was 15 years her senior. Frances was his second wife and already a prominent literary figure; they were to have a son and probably a daughter. Brooke was appointed acting chaplain in the British Army in February 1757 and was shipped out to Canada where he served as chaplain at the garrison at Quebec; he was part of the British forces fighting the Seven Years’ War with France, which included the territorial struggle for Canada. Frances, three months pregnant, went to live with her sister Sarah. On the other side of the Atlantic, Revd. Brooke was deputy chaplain in the 22nd Foot. By August 1758 he was garrison chaplain at Louisburg, Cape Breton Island until July 1760, when he went to Quebec.
In December of that year, Quebec’s Governor James Murray, who was a personal friend of Brooke for some 20 years, unofficially appointed him minister of Quebec and chaplain to the garrison. In Quebec, Church of England services, which had been celebrated in the Ursuline chapel from September 1759 until the summer of 1760, were held in the Recollet church following the Roman Catholic service. Neither the newly appointed Revd Brooke nor the Roman Catholic Church appreciated the arrangement; Brooke, in fact, considered it a humiliation for the state religion. In August 1761 about 100 civil officers and merchants in Quebec petitioned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) to appoint Brooke its missionary at Quebec with a French-language assistant. By 28 Oct. 1761, Brooke was formally commissioned garrison chaplain, by which time he was also chaplain to the Royal Americans (60th Foot).
In 1763, with the war over with France, Frances Brooke set sail for Canada to join her husband after a six-and-a-half-year separation. She was accompanied by her sister and her son John Moore [Brookes], born on June 10, 1757, who had yet to meet his father. They arrived on October 4, 1763. In January 1764 he was chosen by the absentee auditor general, Robert Cholmondeley, as his deputy at Quebec. Murray reported to London in October the presence of 144 Protestant householders, Church of England and dissenters, in the town; the following month about 80 people repeated the petition of 1761 to the SPG. Murray officially supported the petition, but unofficially he began to criticise Brooke. To the SPG he regretted that Brooke did not understand French. To Cholmondeley he complained that Brooke:
“cannot govern his tongue and will perpetually interfere with things that do not concern him . . . ; Brookes certainly is an honest man and a man of parts, he is very well informed too and when passion does not interfere is a most agreeable companion [but] his sprightly imagination makes him . . . frequently forget that he wears Black. . . .”
Although Brooke, as garrison chaplain and unofficial minister of the town, was expected by Murray to be a peacemaker in the agitated relations between civilians and the military in the colony, his meddlesome and prickly nature, plus his good relations with the merchants, who were the military’s most persistent critics, provoked the garrison to question his value as a chaplain. Particularly galling was his appearance on behalf of the merchant George Allsopp who, charged with failure to carry a light after dark as required by law, had brought a suit for brutality against the two soldiers responsible for his arrest.
Governor Murray himself was probably angered most by Brooke’s friendship with Allsopp – the Governor’s obstreperous political opponent. Indeed, in July 1765 Murray identified Brooke to the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the American Colonies, as a member of a cabal seeking to have him replaced; this cabal was composed mainly of merchants who, unlike the more patient Governor, sought the colony’s rapid anglicisation and protestantisation in order to facilitate integration into Britain’s political and economic Empire.
Murray was succeeded in July 1766 by Guy Carleton, who tended at first to sympathise with the merchants. Revd. Brooke became friendly with the new Lieutenant Governor and with his Huguenot attorney general, Francis Maseres who found Brooke “a very sensible and agreeable companion,” at first, but shortly after wrote that, although Brooke was a fine minister, he was also “rather too warm in his Temper which hurries him now and then into indiscreet Expressions.”
Guy Carleton and Maseres soon parted ways as the former came to realise the necessity of James Murray’s policy of conciliation with the Roman Catholic Church while Maseres was strongly anti-Catholic. Brooke was caught in the middle when in the summer of 1767 Leger-Jean-Baptiste-Noël Veyssière, a Recollet and parish priest converted to Protestantism, presented himself to the garrison chaplain to take the oath of abjuration, but Brooke refused to administer the oath to Veyssière. But if Veyssière had been temporarily hindered by Brooke, it was the latter whose future was cloudier. The two petitions in favour of Brooke’s appointment as an SPG missionary at Quebec were never granted. Brooke continued his unofficial ministry until 1768, even travelling back and forth between Montreal and Quebec for six months in 1766 until the arrival of David Delisle as Protestant chaplain in Montreal.
In July 1768 Revd Brooke auctioned off the household belongings. Some of these indicate that he and his wife Frances, who had first come to Quebec in 1763, lived comfortably; their home, a former Jesuit mission house at Mount Pleasant in Sillery, had been sublet to them by the merchant John Taylor Bondfield. In August 1768 the Brookes left for England and, despite his permanent absence from Quebec, Revd John Brooke drew full pay as garrison chaplain until his death.
Little is known of Revd John Brooke after his return to England, although he seems to have resumed his Norfolk church positions. In 1769, a year after their return, John’s wife Frances published The history of Emily Montague . . . in London, an epistolary novel, much of which was set in Canada. Émile Castonguay, Canadian author, has speculated that John Brooke actually wrote the letters of one of the novel’s characters, Sir William Fermor. Frances’ dedication of the novel to Guy Carleton, her husband’s patron, as well as John’s vocation and longer experience in the colony, would make it reasonable to speculate that, at the very least, Revd. John Brooke contributed substantially to the book’s comments on religion, politics, and the character of the Canadians which predominated in Fermor’s letters.
John Brooke died at Colney, near Norwich, Norfolk on 21 Jan. 1789, by which time his son, John Brooke, Jr, was also a minister – in Lincolnshire. Frances had been with her son in his parish ever since late 1788 when she had suddenly fallen ill, thereby missing her husband’s death. Frances died on January 23, 1789, two days after that of her husband’s in Norfolk – one day shy of her 65th birthday.
As for the Reverend John Brooke; his eight years in Quebec left no lasting impression, and he is now all but forgotten. He represents, however, that group of clergies, all chaplains, who served as a stopgap while the Church of England pondered the best pastoral approach to a colonial population almost entirely French speaking and Roman Catholic, but on to which had been grafted a minuscule but fractious band of British and French Protestant merchants, office-holders, and soldiers. Although his own unclerically febrile temperament and James Murray’s well-placed censures no doubt hurt Brooke’s chances of remaining in Canada, it was the church’s decision that a French-language clergy would best serve its cause which ultimately displaced Brooke and other British chaplains.
The following story provides extra exposure to a very interesting article which was written by Stuart Anderson and first appeared in the ‘North Norfolk News’ on 9 June, 2019, and subsequently updated on 11 October, 2020. He reported on the previously hidden fate of Anna Paston, was titled ‘Discovery of a Hidden Paston girl…….’. His words, began with a question:
The Pastons are among the most-studied families from the English later Middle Ages. So how has the story of one Paston girl who died tragically young gone unnoticed for so long?
The Pastons are also one of England’s best-known medieval families, who rose from humble origins to become leading members of the aristocracy, wielding political power and entertaining royalty at their sumptuous mansions. Thanks to the letters and other documents they left behind we know more about the Pastons than virtually any other family of that age. The documents, which chronicle the rise of the family during the War of the Roses, speak volumes of their arguments, gossip, feuds, plotting, private scandals, and even their shopping lists. Now, a recent discovery at Oxnead church in north Norfolk has uncovered evidence of a previously unknown Paston which is literally re-writing what was thought we knew about the family.
A small medieval memorial brass is dedicated to Anna Paston, who is thought to have died tragically young. The brass was found tucked away between two larger monuments, and reads in abbreviated Latin:
‘Here lies Anna, daughter of John Paston Knight, on whose soul God have mercy, Amen’.
Historian Helen Castor, author of the bestselling ‘Blood and Roses: The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century’, said nothing had previously been known about Anna. She said:
“This is an extraordinary find: not only a previously unknown Paston grave, but the grave of a previously unknown Paston. The family’s remarkable letters shine a spotlight on the middle decades of the 15th Century, but a great deal of their story, before and after, remains in shadow.”
Dr Rob Knee of the Paston Heritage Society said Anna can only have been a daughter of John Paston III. The memorial is believed to have been crafted at the one of the Norwich workshops in the last decade of the 15th Century or the opening years of the 16th Century, and is of the type commonly used to memorialise an unmarried girl.
Archaeologist, Matthew Champion, who came across the memorial whilst investigating the church as part of the ‘600 Paston Footprints’ (-this is a Heritage Lottery funded project that aims to shed new light the family). added:
“Some people may be taken aback that one of the best known and most thoroughly researched families in England can still throw up surprises such as this. However, very few of the Paston letters actually survive from the 1490s, so there is likely to be quite a lot more that we have missed. “
It is known that John Paston III had another daughter called Elizabeth, who would have been Anna’s sister. Elizabeth survives to adulthood, and eventually marries, but the surviving documents contain barely a mention of her.”
The Paston documents contain no further information about Anna, although it is likely she died in her early teens, given the ages of her siblings. But she may also may have been a scion of John Paston III’s second marriage, which means she would have died an infant.
It was at Oxnead that the Pastons entertained King Charles II in 1671, and where the medieval Paston letters were discovered mouldering in an attic room half a century later. These documents have been studied by historians in minute detail since they were first published in the late 18th Century, and it was thought that the family held few new surprises for academics.
The earliest member of the family that we have any record of is Clement Paston, of the village of Paston in north-east Norfolk. Clement was born in the years immediately after the Black Death swept England in the middle of the 14th Century, and was a miller and small-scale farmer by trade. In the wake of the plague, that killed about a third of the population of the country, Clement made good use of the less regulated land market to buy up small pieces of land in Paston and the neighbouring parishes. He married well, to the sister of a local lawyer, and their son William became a rich lawyer, high court judge, major landowner, and founder of the family fortune.
The original Stuart Anderson’s article, plus advertisements and other extraneous matter, can be found via the source link below.
Above the north porch of St Michael’s church at Booton in Norfolk is the bronze statue of St Michael the Archangel himself, commissioned over 120 years ago by the Reverend Whitwell Elwin.
By being placed in front of a niche in the wall, this particular St Michael was intended to be seen both from the front – and from the sides. It is said that this figure was inspired by examples of the pre-Raphaelites, most notably the St George in Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s St George Slaying the Dragon, which was commissioned in 1866 by Miles Burket Foster for the dining room of his house at Witley, Surrey.
The striking profile of Booton’s St Michael, with ruffled hair and a combination of plate armour worn over chainmail with sheet leggings, does follow Burne-Jones’s St George, with the strikingly textured wings attached to the rear of the breastplate. Here, the dreamlike action of the painting has been replaced by a more heroic stance as St Michael, with a cross hanging from his neck, places both hands on his large sword, looking out purposefully across the fields as he stamps down the dragon under foot.
The name of the sculptor was not recorded, but Ann Compton of the University of Glasgow, has underlined, what she thinks is, its amateur approach – as restated by the RACNS:
“the figure was modelled by someone who had not been trained in working for bronze or, possibly, was deliberately flouting current teaching. My point is that the composition goes against the accepted idea that works cast in bronze should show off the possibilities of the material by incorporating minute definition of draperies and adopting an expansive composition to reflect the self-supporting properties of the final material – whereas the composition here is very contained.”
The Norfolk artist of the time, James Minns (1828-1904), responsible for the wooden angels in the roof, described himself variously as ‘sculptor’ and ‘wood carver’ and could possibly, as again stated by the RACNS, have provided the model for this St Michael.
It seems generally accepted, by many accounts of the Booton church, that the building is extraordinary – the product of one man’s eccentric imagination! The Reverend Whitwell Elwin (rector 1850-1900), said to have been a descendant of Pocahontas of Hiawatha fame, built the church at the end of the 19th century – without the help of an architect. Apparently, he borrowed details from other churches throughout the country, and thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust which investigated Elwin’s sources, it can be stated that the design of the nave windows is taken from those at Temple Balsall in Warwickshire, and the west window from St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster. Then there is the west door design, which is that of Glastonbury Abbey, and the curious trefoil window above the chancel arch is from Lichfield Cathedral. It has been suggested that this may have been a homage to Elwin’s passion for Dr Johnson; this may strike some as far-fetched; but then, the whole building is, with its slender twin towers soaring over the wide Norfolk landscape and the central pinnacle looking almost like a minaret; everything seem to have sprung solely from Elwin’s imagination.
The dramatic wooden angels that hold up the roof are the work of James Minns, the well-known master-carver whose carving of a bull’s head is still the emblem on Colman’s Mustard; he also worked at Ketteringham. But the church’s great glory is its stained-glass windows, by Cox Sons and Buckley from the 1890s, a unique example of a unified scheme of saints, angels and musicians set against imaginative Gothic canopies moving in procession towards the high altar. The colour for the rich red robes and Venetian inspired brocades, which are woven across the windows, are also striking – worn by archetypal willowy pre-Raphaelite ladies. Edwin Lutyens, the distinguished architect who married the daughter of one of Elwin’s oldest friends, said the church was:
‘very naughty but built in the right spirit’.
People visiting Booton church may love it – or hate it, but no one would remain unmoved by such an exuberant oddity, well bedded down in the Norfolk Landscape – with St Michael standing over and protecting visitors.
In one sense, this is a sequel to the previous article: “Fishley: A Story of an Estate.” , which clearly outlined where Fishley, and its church, are in Norfolk. Suffice to say here that the church of St Mary’s is comfotably settled near the Estate’s heart, in an elevated position among open fields and just off the South Walsham Road, near Acle. A ‘just about’ driveable track leads the visitor from this road to the church before becoming a private link with the farm and Hall beyond.
St Mary’s is an old stone and isolated church and is one of around 124 existing round-tower churches in Norfolk and which, in 2009 was recorded by English Heritage as a significant survivor of the early 12th century. The mound on which it rides is tree-covered and lies about half a mile across the fields from the village of Upton with its own church of St Margaret’s. Upton-with-Fishley was once a Saxon hamlet and its Churches’ synonymous with each other; however, the whole place is often referred to as just Fishley:
“It is one of those places where, apart from its history, you will find peace, tranquillity, romance and curiosity, curiosity into wonder”.
So wrote Churchwardens, Ivan Barnard and Chloe Ecclestone, on the ‘British Listed Buildings’ website, some ten years ago. Nothing, it seems, has changed.
St Mary’s is enthusiastically stewarded, which should make any parishioner proud and an attraction to any visitor who has mustered sufficient interest to go there. Inside, they would find no medieval feel about the place, but they could easily imagine what it must have been like to attend services in this church in the 19th century when much was renovated.
In these days when often it feels fashionable to neglect, there are those places which are maintained to a high order – St Mary’s is one. Even some of its 19th Century headstones in the churchyard have, in recent years, been cleaned and relettered. For those who may prefer a more haunting and neglected setting for old churches, may I suggest that they simply view this particular church from a distance – in poor, damp and cold visibility, sufficient to lend the place a seemingly brooding appearance among its trees – else give credit to the volunteers who put their care into practice!
We are told, by those who know, that St Mary’s tower is probably Norman, with the rest of the building being essentially a late 13th century rebuild; thanks, it seems, to Sir John de Veile who appears to have been the most generous of benefactors to the Fishley Parish prior to Miss Edwards’ (of Hardingham Hall) intervention from 1860.
According to Francis Blomefield in his ‘An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, vol.11, 1810, pp.100-104’:
“the Manor of Fishley came into the ownership of the de Veile family sometime in the late 12th century. King John, in his 2nd year (of 1201) had grant and charter of confirmation of this manor, and those of Laringset, Witton, &c. as his ancestors held by the service of being the King’s ostringer (or falconer) dated at Dorchester, April 19, under the hand of Thomas, Archdeacon of Wells, witness, William Earl of Salisbury, and in the 13th [year]of the said King (1212), held it by the fourth part of a fee, and Thomas de Veile by the same tenure.
Sir John de Veile, and Leola his wife, was living in 1277 and gave lands in Fishley and Witton to the Priory of Bromholm; in 1300; John, son of Sir John de Veile, dying without issue, Reginald de Dunham, son of his sister Beatrix (b.1274), was his heir and inherited the Manor. By 1316 the manorial rights were in the possession of Peter Buckskyn who conveyed it in 1335 to Roger Hardegrey, a citizen of Norwich. In 1365 license was granted to John Berney and John Plumstede to give the Manor of Fishley to Joan, widow of Roger Hardegrey for life.”
Over the years, ever since the 13th century rebuild in fact, very little was done to St Mary’s as far as maintenance of the fabric was concerned. Certainly, by 1836, Fishley was considered to be a ‘decayed parish’ and nine years later, it had reached the point of being referred to as ‘dishevelled’. The situation seems not to have been redressed when Revd. Edward Marsham’s took over the Estate, and the only aspects of his occupancy which are noted is that, at some point, he replaced a William Henry Grimmer as occupier of Fishley Hall then, took advantage of his position of being a “squarson” – (a member of the clergy who was also the main local landowner) and installed himself as the incumbent of St Mary’s – replacing the Revd. Robert Cooper.
The position of the Estate’s owner, Revd. Edward Marsham (1787 -1859), meant that he was able to wield some clout, if he so desired. He was a son of Robert Marsham Esq (1749-1824), of Stratton Strawless, and Sophia, second daughter of Edward Hase Esq. of Salle. He was also the grandson of the famous phenologist, Robert Marsham (1708-1797), also of Stratton Strawless – the one who planted all those trees!
The young Edward Marsham was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1803, and from where he became a B.A. scholar in 1805, and in 1808 – 10th Wrangler no less. He also became a Fellow of Emmanuel College on 28 May 1810, and was ordained Deacon at Norwich 8 July 1810. He also held the posts of Rector of Wramplingham in Norfolk, between 1811 and 1849, with that of Brampton between 1826 and 1828; also at Sculthorpe 1811-1859; and of Stratton Strawless 1828-1859. Included in his later years, up to his death in 1859, was Fishley.
It is yet to be discovered when the Fishley Estate came into his hands. However, when he died in 1859, the Estate was bequeathed to his niece, Miss Sophia Catherine Edwards of Hardingham Hall, near Wymondham. Kelly’s Directory for Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1883, pp.316-317, confirmed that Miss Edwards was the landowner and patron of the living, with the Revd. David Thomas Barry as Rector.
Miss Sophia Edwards proved to be a generous benefactress at Fishley, completing much there which had been left undone by her predecessors. The parish of the mid-19th century was fortunate to have had her, despite Sophia living in an age where women were barred from voting, attending universities, or even opening their own bank accounts or holding a mortgage. Sophia was certainly unique and probably something of an anomaly for that time; she remained unmarried but, importantly for Fishley, she was an independent owner of an estate and had the means to make her mark on that part of Norfolk, despite the fact that she was to follow every previous owner of the Fishley Estate by never actually living there.
Her benevolence to the parish included the extensive restoration and repairs to St Mary’s church in 1861, followed in 1875 with her financing the building of a new Rectory for its incumbent, Reverend David Thomas Barry; the Rectory was built on the outskirts of Acle, alongside the road leading to South Walsham. Sophia also funded the building of Upton School.
The Revd. David Thomas Barry’s CV ran somewhat along the following lines:
“Reverend David Thomas Barry was born in 1822 in Ireland, the son of David Barry and Mary Peacock Cooke-Collis; he married Ann E. McKee, daughter of Alexander McKee and Ann Miller. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin University, Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland in 1844 with a Bachelor of Arts, followed with a Master of Arts (M.A.). He was a Curate between 1847 and 1848 at Parr in Lancashire, England, followed by a curacy at St. Paul, Toxteth Park, Liverpool between 1848 and 1853, then as Curate at St. Barnabas, Liverpool between 1853 and 1857. Finally, he became Rector at Fishley, Norfolk.”
So, this particular rector was to officiate at St Mary’s from the early days of Miss Edwards patronage, through to after her death in 1892. It was clear by then just how much he loved Fishley for not only did he dedicate the church lectern to Miss Edward’s memory but also, after his wife died and was buried elsewhere, he had her exhumed and reburied at Fishley. Reverend David Thomas Barry remained at Fishley until his own death in 1904.
Miss Sophia Edward’s 1861 restoration and repair of St Mary’s church was largely carried out to the designs of her cousin, the amateur architect Revd. John Barham Johnson, Rector of Welbourne, Norfolk. He, by the way, was also responsible for restoring the church at Mattishall, Norfolk in the mid-19th century and for designing the chancel and nave windows at Welbourne in 1874-76. Included in Revd Johnson’s plans was for a spectacular stained-glass window to be installed at St Mary’s, in commemoration of the former owner of Fishley and rector of the church, the Reverend Edward Marsham.
The work on St Mary’s brought it back from near total dereliction by first replacing the roof. Also, a large section of the south nave wall was rebuilt, as was the east gable; the chancel arch was demolished. The scissor-braced roof, which exists today, was designed with a very steep pitch, to cover both the nave and chancel in one sweep. The north side of the roof had previously rested on two beams which spanned the length of the nave and supported the rafters over the north extension. To counter this structural weakness, a cast iron column was installed to give extra support.
With the exception of a heavily-restored piscina in the chancel south wall and a ledgestone in the middle of the nave, marking the grave of Bridget Johnson (d.1747 – Revd, Johnson’s sister), all of the internal fixtures and fittings were removed. Precisely what was removed was never recorded, but one would assume that it included the box-pews, communion table, altar-rails, pulpit and font for there would be nothing left which pre-dates the 1861 work. The wooden lectern and the wooden reredos, both having been executed under the supervision of Barham Johnson were gifts of the Rev’d David Barry.
Amongst the items that were removed from the church in 1861 were two 13th century lidded stone coffins and the fragment of a third coffin-lid. The coffins were reverently placed in the churchyard to the south of the nave, and they were not rediscovered until 2010 when one was examined by Dr Julian Litten FSA in 2011. According to him:
“Whether or not the two stone coffins contained skeletons was not recorded at the time. Furthermore, no record was made of the……. positions, occupied by the coffins when they were in the church, and neither is it known if the items were visible in the building or were discovered below floor-level when preparations were made for laying the new tiled floor. The fragmentary coffin-lid, of Purbeck marble and with double-chamfer mouldings, was returned to the church in 2010 and now stands within a niche in the south wall of the chancel”.
Perhaps, of all the fixtures housed in St Mary’s today two stand out. One is the church’s 18th century organ which is hand blown and ideally suited to the church which remains unconnected to mains electricity. A plate affixed to the organ informs that it was made by Edward & John Pistor of Leadenhall Street, London in 1781. This organ is a chamber organ, the type of which was normally intended to be played in large houses. It was originally, and unsurprisingly perhaps, in Fishley Hall and was moved into the church in 1883 as a gift from Miss Edwards.
The second notable feature of St Mary’s is that it is the custodian of a unique map of the Norfolk and Suffolk inland waterways area, which includes the sites of some 75 churches (including Fishley) that surround former large ‘Great Estuary of Gariensisostium’; these churches are listed and displayed alongside the map for those who wish to explore further.
Stephen Heywood, in his ‘Conservation Based Analysis’ Report to the Norfolk County Council in October 2009, stated:
“This very attractive church, in its isolated setting and accentuated by the pine trees in the churchyard, retains a lot of its original fabric despite the wholesale restoration of 1861. Of very special interest is the virtually untouched tower which, through good fortune and good mortar, has not been repointed and keeps its valuable patina so easily spoiled.”
It would seem that for the present-day appearance of St Mary’s, credit should go to those who have applied a considerable amount of ‘elbow grease’, money and time with on-going maintenance, clearly backed by a considerable amount of love for such duties. Such people, not forgetting past benefactors such as Miss Sophia Catherine Edwards, have safeguarded the church from the ravages of time. Collectively, they have secured its tower, re-established the churchyard, installed a watertight roof, built a new access, gates and pathways and restored stained glasses.
“There hasn’t been a village at Fishley since the Saxons left, but here it stands, this remote gem in open countryside, which is a tribute to everyone that has loved the church and is determined to keep it safe.” – So wrote churchwarden, Ivan Barnard.
On 7 April 2020 the Wisbech Standard published the sale of Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s former home in Emneth, Norfolk. It was The Old Vicarage and it was there, between the years 1953 to 1965, where Awdry wrote around half of his much-loved and popular children’s stories; principally, the Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends series of books which children, around the world, still enjoy today. The 8-bedroom detached house itself was built in 1858, using distinctive Victorian red bricks and set in 1.5 acres of grounds. This was where Awdry’s parishioners came on those occasions when they wanted to see their vicar. These visitors usually entered the house through the east side of the property, thus giving them access to his study. It was in this study where Awdry, not only attended to his day job of looking after his flock but also continued to write his famous books.
Wilbert Awdry was born at Ampfield vicarage near Romsey, Hampshire on 15 June 1911. His father was the Reverend Vere Awdry, the Anglican vicar of Ampfield who was 56 years old at the time of Wilbert’s birth; his mother was Lucy Awdry (née Bury). More importantly perhaps is that the experiences upon which much of young Wilbert Awdry’s writings were to be based in later life began in 1917 when the family moved to Box, in Wiltshire when he was six years old. The family settled at “Journey’s End”, a house which was only 200 yards from the western end of Brunel’s 1841 Great Western Main Line ‘Box Tunnel’, through which the line passed on its way to Bath and Chippenham. Wilbert would lie in bed at night listening to the noise of the engines and he later described to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs how he and his father would engage in trainspotting the names of GWR engines, with a telescope aimed through his father’s dressing room window.
Railway enthusiasts would know that it is at this point where the railway climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for some two miles. A banking engine used to be kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker, as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way eastwards up the incline.
Here was where young Awdry’s imagination began to believe that all steam engines had definite personalities and that in their ‘puffings’ and ‘pantings’ he could hear the conversation they were having with one another. From this point, Awdry quickly developed his passion for steam engines. As the son of a vicar, of whom he was very fond, Awdry also grew gradually towards a vocation as a priest and was ordained into the Church of England priesthood in 1936. It was these two lines passion – steam engines and religious devotion – that were to run throughout his life of 85 years; two lines that were straighter than most railway tracks and, together, were to be the inspiration for the story that Wilbert first told his own son Christopher.
The origin of that particular story happened in Birmingham, in 1942; Wilbert having taken the curacy at St Nicolas Church, Kings Norton, Birmingham in 1940. Christopher was confined to bed with measles. Wilbert set about amusing his son with a ‘germ’ of a story about a little old engine who was sad because he had not been out for a long time. When Christopher asked what the engine’s name was, his father said that it was Edward – the first name that came into his mind. It was Edward who, in Awdry’s subsequent first story book entitled “Edward’s Day Out”, helped Gordon’s train climb an incline – the inspiration for that act of charity clearly came from the time when Awdry listened to the sounds at Box Tunnel.
After Awdry wrote ‘The Three Railway Engine’, he built Christopher a model of Edward, together with some wagons and coaches, out of a wooden broomstick and scraps of wood. Children being children, Christopher also wanted a model of Gordon; however, the wartime shortage of materials limited Awdry to just making a little 0-6-0 tank engine which he named Thomas because, according to Awdry, it was the most natural of names to give this particular engine – Thomas the Tank Engine was born! Christopher liked a train named Thomas and asked his father for more stories about Thomas; these duely followed. By the time Awdry stopped writing in 1972, his Railway Series numbered 26 books. They all featured what became ‘established engines’ – the impish Thomas, industrious Edward, argumentative Henry and proud and pompous Gordon – as well as introducing new characters in such stories as Toby the Tram Engine, Percy the Small Engine and Duck & the Diesel Engine from the 1950’s.
In 1946 Awbry and family moved from Birmingham to Cambridgeshire to serve as Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Elsworth with Knapwell which was near Cambridge.
Thomas the Tank Engine – in the Flesh!: In 1947 a 0-6-0T steam engine, No.1800 was built by Hudswell Clarke for the British Sugar Corporation (BSC) to work at Woodston at Peterborough. It remained at Woodston for all of its working life where it was in daily use, in the sugar beet season, pushing wagons of beet from the farms up the steeply graded line to be uploaded at the factory. It also marshalled lengthy trains in the extensive siding that BSC had near the Fletton Loop just east of Orton Mere Station. It was in the late 1960s when diesel traction took over the duties from this steam locomotive; fortunately, however, the pensioner was maintained in good condition.
Then in 1970 the newly formed Peterborough Railway Society (later to become the Nene Valley Railway) appeared on the scene, setting up their working base in a compound within the BSC sidings. The company then sold its steam locomotive No.1800 to the Society for a nominal £100, and it was sometime around this point when the engine acquired the nickname of ‘Thomas’ – because of its blue livery! Almost twelve months later, in 1971, the retired Rev Wilbert Awdry returned to Cambridgeshire to officially name the locomotive ‘Thomas’, thereafter to become the star of what is now the Nene Valley Railway.
Of Thomas’s lasting popularity, Wilbert Awdry wrote:
“Thomas is the eternal child! Thomas is given a prohibition; naturally, as all children do when they’re told not to do something, they want to know why and they find out why by doing it.”
As for Awdry, he served seven years at Elsworth with Knapwell before moving to Bourn in 1950 as Rural Dean and then, in 1953, as Vicar of Emneth, Norfolk, near Wisbech. According to the Wisbech Society:
“It seems that concerns about his daughters’ future schooling drew Awdry from Elsworth to the Wisbech area and St. Edmund’s Church at Emneth. Both daughters attended Wisbech High School, three miles from Emneth Vicarage, and his wife Margaret taught in Wisbech at the Queen’s Girls School for 10 years.”
‘Gordon the Big Engine’ was the first book published after Awdry moved to Emneth and 12 more were to follow during his incumbancy. Whilst there, he also maintained his enthusiasm for railways and was very much involved in railway preservation, building model railways, which he took to exhibitions around the country. At Emneth he created an extensive model railway network in his loft – it was based on Barrow-in-Furness layout. Fuelling his enthusiasm, Awdry’s Emneth home was also close to three Wisbech railway stations. The former Emneth railway station itself was on the EAR line from Watlington (formerly Magdalen Road Station) to Wisbech East. The GER Wisbech and Upwell Tramway tram engines, coaches and rolling stock were similar to ‘Toby the Tram Engine and ‘Henriett’ on the Ely to King’s Lynn mainline with Wisbech East (Victoria Rd) station. The M&GN Peterborough to Sutton Bridge via Wisbech North (Harecroft Rd) station. There were also harbour lines either side of the River Nene – M&GN Harbour West branch and GER Harbour East branch.
Time, inevitably, slipped away and in 1965, Wilbert Awdry “went into private practice” – retiring in other words. He moved to a smaller red-brick house in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his study there became “an agreeable jumble of railway books, maps and timetables”, and was denoted by a “STATION MASTER” sign on the door. During these years, Awdry continued writing books for children, published a new Railway Series title each year until his last ‘Tramway Engines’ in 1972.
According to Awdry’s biographer, Brian Sibley:
“All these stories harnessed Awdry’s knowledge and love of railway engineering and history, which had to be “true-to-life”. Although the fictional engines had human personalities and voices, their activities always followed the rules of the railroad and virtually all the exploits described were based on something that had happened, somewhere at some time, to a real railway engine. Those adventures – mostly mishaps – included common derailments as well as more surprising disasters such as an engine running off the end of a jetty into a harbour or an unexpected disappearance down a disused mine. As often as not, however, these crises were brought about by the arrogance, stubbornness, jealousy or ambition of the engine involved. The morality of the stories was clear and Christian: misbehaviour led to suffering and retribution; however, provided the culprit showed repentance, restoration always followed. “The important thing,” Awdry said, “is that the engines are punished and forgiven – but never scrapped.
The analogies between the Christian faith and the ways of the railway are obvious: the engines are meant to follow the straight and narrow way and pay the price if they go off the rails. No wonder Awdry enjoyed drawing the parallels between railways and the Church: ” Both had their heyday in the mid-19th century; both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain; both are regularly assailed by critics; and both are firmly convinced that they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination.”
In 1983, Wilbert made his final visit to Wisbech when he opened the Tramway Centenary Exhibition at Wisbech Museum. In 1996 Awdry was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List, but by that time his health had deteriorated and he was unable to travel to London. He died peacefully in his sleep in Stroud, Gloucestershire, on 21 March 1997, at the age of 85.
In Emneth, a stained-glass window was commissioned by the Awdry family and unveiled at St Edmund’s church in 2003; and in 2011 a blue plaque was unveiled by his daughter Veronica Chambers at The Old Vicarage where he had lived from 1953 and until 1965. Finally, in 2020, the Old Vicarage was placed on the market with an asking price of £895,000.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.
Our thanks to Jim Moon of ‘Hypnogoria’ who, somewhere amongst his many blogs, wrote the following – it is his take on a very famous and popular Norfolk myth – whoops! – tale.
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, in the past, to the Pedlar’s Hall Cafe and inspiring the carved wooden village sign (above) 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 ‘The 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’.
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 versions 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.
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.
Of 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…
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
There are parts of South Norfolk that, even today, can seem remote – like those that have a maze of lanes, particularly between Diss and Thetford where the villages hide. It is surprising therefore that one of those villages, Fersfield, holds an important place in the history of Norfolk; but not necessarily because of the village itself, or its parish church. Fersfield is famous because of an 18th century incumbent of its church, St Andrew’s
The church of St Andrews at Fersfield sits where some of those lanes mentioned come together, its truncated, pencil-like tower a beacon across the fields and farmlands. According to Simon Knott (2018):
” The capped tower is reminiscent of Culpho and Thornham Parva in Suffolk, and probably dates from the early 14th century. If so, it is probably later than the bulk of the church against which it sits. There were further improvements: money in the late 15th century brought a fairly imposing south aisle and porch, and the chancel is entirely Victorian, I think. But it all works well together, especially when seen from the south-east.”
This church is depicted on the village sign at Fersfield, and stands next to it. At the brick base of the sign is a metal plaque which reads:
“This sign was given by the people, to the people of the village of Fersfield. 31st July 1988.” Then, in two columns the plaque includes the names of ten individuals before concluding. ‘Between the faces lies our village history.”
Taking this as a guide, it is clear that the residents of Fersfield have every right to celebrate the village’s past. More importantly however is that it was at Fersfield where the first major work on the history of the entire county of Norfolk was written; its author was Francis Blomefield, the 18th century incumbent of St Andrew’s Church who happened to have been born in the village on 23 July 1705.
Francis Blomefield was the eldest son of Henry and Alice Blomefield, who were yeoman farmers nearby. Later biographies record that he developed a fascination for visiting churches as a child, when he began recording their monumental inscriptions, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and later Cambridgeshire. At the same time he began his education at Diss and Thetford Grammar Schools; then, in April 1724, he was admitted to Caius College, Cambridge from where he graduated BA in 1727 and MA in 1728. While at college, he also began keeping genealogical and heraldic notes relating to local families; then, soon after leaving university in 1727 he was ordained a priest whilst continuing with collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire.
On 13 September 1729 Francis Blomefield was ordained as an Anglican minister when he was ‘presented by his father, Henry Blomefield, Gent’. His first appointment was a very brief affair as rector of Hargham before moving on to become rector of Fersfield, his father’s family living. According to Simon Knott, it was at Fersfield where:
“……. he would spend the rest of his life. He was not always a well man, and although he visited many of the churches himself, the bulk of his work involved sending questionnaires to Rectors of other churches. Because of this, and because Blomefield himself did not always understand what he was seeing or reading about, the survey needs to be used with care. Moreover, Blomefield did not finish it. I always tend to think of 18th century antiquarians as be whiskered old men sitting with quill pens at high desks, but Blomefield contracted smallpox and died at the age of 47. His work was completed by friends, most notably Charles Parkin and William Whittingham.”
It was on 1 September 1732, when Francis Blomefield married Mary Womack, the daughter of a former rector of Fersfield. They had three daughters, two of whom survived him. It was also in 1732 when the project of collecting materials for an account of the antiquities of Cambridgeshire was deferred when he was given access to Peter Le Neve’s huge collection of materials for the history of Norfolk by Le Neve’s executor “Honest Tom” Martin.
It is said that during a visit to Oxnead Hall in 1735, Blomefield found a vast number of written correspondences among the papers of the country house. Of the discovery, Blomefield wrote in May 1735:
“There are innumerable letters, of good consequence in history, still lying among the loose papers all which I layd (sic) up in a corner of the room on an heap, which contains several sacksful, but as they seemed to have some family affairs of one nature or other intermixed in them I did not offer to touch any of them…”
This collection, known today as the ‘Paston Letters’, is now regarded as one of national significance. These papers date from the period of the Wars of the Roses and the Black Death and reveal details of everyday life of a notable East Anglian family.
Before his untimely death, on 16 January 1752, Blomefield wrote just three volumes of his ‘An Essay towards the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’. Determined to protect and control the production of this work, he also installed a printing press in his own home. The first volume, covering his own Parish of Fersfield among others, was completed on 25th December 1739. He was nearing completion of his third volume – having reached page 678 – when he contracted the deadly smallpox during a visit to London. He died in Fersfield on 16th January 1752 aged 47. The Rev. Charles Parkin, the rector at Oxborough and a friend and fellow history enthusiast, was the first to continue Blomefield’s work. He not only completed Blomefield’s third volume but went on to write two further volumes. This initial set of three was subsequently published in various forms.
This portrait of Francis Blomefield is positioned on the south side of St. Anne’s chapel in St. Andrew’s Church, allowing him a pleasing opportunity to look down on a memorial which he himself took great pains to conserve. In his own words, from Volume 1 of his work:
“In the south side of St. Anne’s chapel, in the south isle, under the window, in an arch in the wall, lies an effigies of a knight, armed capà-pié, cut out of one piece of oak, which being in a dirty condition, I had it taken out and washed very clean…..… After removing the seats that stood before it, I caused it to be painted in the same colours, as near as could be, and added this inscription:
‘Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Son of Sir Robert, and Grandson of Sir Robert du Bois, Knt. Founder of this Isle, Lord of this Manor, and Patron of this Church, died in 1311, aged 43 Years.’
He, the most famous medieval survival is the man in a glass case and represents someone who was probably responsible for the rebuilding of the church’s tower. He lies with his legs uncrossed, a rather surprised buck at his feet. Nearby is a relatively plain Norman font. After his own visit to St Andrew’s in 2018, Simon Knott also wondered:
“…… how much Blomefield would recognise his own church if he came back to it today. The furnishings are all modern, and the feel is of a pleasantly light space of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His memorial is in the rebuilt chancel, a fairly simple ledger stone set, not inappropriately, beneath the kind of 17th century panelling which must have been familiar to him. Less happy is the clumsy reredos, which looks as if some of the panelling had been left over and cobbled together with a picture of the Last Supper…… Even today, St Andrew is not without Antiquarian interest. Above Blomefield’s memorial in the east window are three roundels of glass, all of which are continental, I think. They depict St Andrew, St Gregory, and the eagle of St John. They were probably placed here by the Victorians at the time of the rebuilding. Curiously, Blomefield records quite a lot of medieval glass at Fersfield, mostly from the narrative of the Blessed Virgin, which is now all gone……… But despite the modern ambience, this is a church in which to recall the 18th century. The south aisle contains more Blomefield memorials, curly ones on the walls and simple ledgers on the floor. And, looking down on them all, the great royal arms of Queen Anne dated 1703, two years before Francis Blomefield was born.”
Of Francis Blomefield, it has been said that he was one of a generation of 18th century historians who ultimately saved that past belonging to Norfolk churches from being consigned to oblivion – with no thanks to the 16th century Anglicans and 17th century Puritans who seemed ‘hell-bent’ in doing just that. He was a giant among Norfolk antiquarians!
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
James Mursell Phillippo was a missionary, born simply James Phillippo in East Dereham, Norfolk, on 14 October 1798; he was the eldest son of Peter Phillippo, a locally well-known master builder and part-proprietor of an iron foundry, and his wife, Sarah, née Banyard.
Jame’s mother, was the daughter of a respectable and wealthy tradesman and farmer and was serious in her religious beliefs. As for her son, James, he was considered not to be a diligent student, but was intellectually talented enough to win prizes for his extraordinary memory and his ability to recite poetry or long passages from books. At about seven years of age he was sent locally to the Rev. Samuel Green’s Baptist school where he quickly became known for little more than being disobedient and mischievous for which he was frequently punished. Subsequently, James was sent to a Grammar School at Scarning until the age of around thirteen years, from where he left formal schooling completely and went, initially, into his father’s building business.
Before long he moved on to live with his grandfather who, more than likely, tried to encourage James to take an interest in both farming and trade. Unsurprisingly perhaps, James preferred to become ‘very involved with worldly pleasures, forgetting his mother’s teaching’. However, after two near fatal accidents he began to re-evaluate the direction in which his life was clearly heading and started attending a local Baptist chapel. A clue to this almost sudden change in James’s interests and possible ambitions would be found in the fact that, as a child, he had read Robinson Crusoe and Captain Cook’s voyages; he was being increasingly drawn to missionary work. According to his 1874 Autobiography, his induction into the Baptist faith allowed him to ‘experience conversion and cast his lot ‘with the despised people of God’!
According to the Dereham Baptist Church: “He had a desire to go to the Baptist Church at about the age of 15 on attending he was directed to a seat near the pulpit. After a number of visits and under the conviction of sins, he accepted Christ has his Saviour. He took religious instruction with Rev. Samuel Green and in 1816 he invited his family to the Dereham Baptist Church to witness his baptism. They went with some reluctance. His father was a staunch member of the Parish Church and had threatened to disown him. A considerable number of the town attended the service. James’ family continued to attend the church, and his mother also became a Baptist. After working for his father for a while James became a book keeper, printer and bookbinder before he felt the call of missionary work and applied for training.”
James Phillippo Makes his Move!: James, having made up his mind to apply to enter the field of missionary resigned from his post, which at that moment was in Elsing. His Pastor there, the same Rev. Samuel Green of James’s early school days, was also about to leave the Dereham Baptist Church for a Pastorate in Huntingdonshire; he wrote a letter of introduction, on behalf of James, to the Rev. Kinghorn of Norwich, stating its object and recommending that James Phillippo should meet with him. Kinghorn clearly agreed for the Rev Green loaned James a horse to travel to Norwich for the meeting. But James was fearful that he would not be accepted, and it was said that:
“…… he prayed earnestly to God during the whole of the journey, a distance of fourteen or fifteen miles, sometimes dismounting from his horse to pray at places along the road or in a field.”
It was also said that on arrival, “Rev Kinghorn soon put James at ease and gave him every encouragement”. He also promised to write to the Baptist Missionary Society on his behalf, and suggested that James make a direct application to the Society himself.
James Phillippo applied to the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1819, addressed to its Secretary, the Rev. John Dyer. However, several months passed without hearing anything from the Society and James filled in the time by visiting his friends in different parts of the county, and taking on preaching engagements and attending different religious meetings at Aylsham, Foulsham, Fakenham, Burnham Market, including Dereham. He was met with encouragement from both ministers and people, with one proposal being made by some members of the Dereham church – which happened to be without a Pastor (and James was still a member of that church) to be their Pastor. This proposal came to nothing. James was also advised to go into business; his advisors arguing that his prospects of a missionary life were evidently closed. Whilst this option was pursued, it failed from, apparently, “mysterious causes.” Then a situation was offered him in Norwich which did not require permanency of residence; he accepted and joined the Norwich Church under the Pastorate of his venerable friend, the Rev Kinghorn. After a lapse of two or three months, during which time James’s hopes of missionary work had all but expired, he began to receive ‘an occasional hint’ from Kinghorn.
Acceptance: In 1819 James was invited to London to meet Baptist Missionary Society Committee, but he then had second thoughts about leaving his employment, friends and going abroad – however, there was no time for hesitation! As events turned out, his meeting with the BMS committee was postponed until the evening of the day arranged for the interview. There, in the waiting room beforehand, he met a young man who asked if he was “the young man from Norfolk”. After receiving James’s reply in the affirmative, he rose from his chair and grasped James’s hand with great warmth and said “my name is Mursell, I am come for the same purpose from Gloucestershire, how glad I am to meet you.” Thus, James established a lifelong friendship with Thomas Mursell; and such was the strength of this friendship that both men sealed it by exchanging surnames for Christian [forenames] names- the Dereham preacher becoming James Mursell Phillippo.
Jamaica Bound; James was accepted into the Society and began his studies in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1821 with the Revd William Gray, minister of the Baptist church there; this was followed by further study at Horton College, Bradford in preparation for the missionary life: ‘This world is not a place of repose for a faithful soldier of the cross’ he was to tell his parents. Whilst at Bradford, he also visited the Revd Thomas Morgan in Birmingham and, again, a lifelong connection was established. Then In 1823 it was reported that “Mr. Phillippo also has pursued his studies under the patronage of the Missionary Society, and is expected soon to go to Jamaica”. Later that year James received confirmation that the committee had indeed fixed on the Island of Jamaica as the place of his labours. The time fixed for the departure was the month of November, and the period was short! – he had, while a student at Chipping Norton, met with a lady with whom a strong affection ensued – her name was Miss Hannah Selina Cecil.
After finishing college, James followed the BMS recommendation that missionaries must be married before going abroad; this was quite common for ‘a soon-to-be missionary’. He married now fellow missionary, Hannah Selina Cecil in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire and almost immediately the couple sailed to Jamaica under the auspices of the BMS; James had expected to go to India but the BMS was responding to requests from Jamaica for support for embattled Baptists struggling with a deeply hostile plantocracy. The couple sailed from Gravesend, Kent, on Wednesday, 29 October 1823, leaving all their family and friends behind – possibly forever. They both knew that there was a strong possibility that they would not survive the tropics for long; for it was not an exaggeration to say that the Caribbean, as with Africa, was the “graveyard of the white man”. Fevers, heat and humidity killed many colonists, sometimes within weeks of arriving at their new home.
Overview of the Arrival of British Baptists in Jamaica; James Phillippo had been appointed to the mission in Spanish Town, the capital of the island; however, at this point in his story it is important to know why the British Baptists went to Jamaica in the first place. It is a fact that Jamaica’s mission had been first set up in 1783 by George Liele, a converted freed slave and an ordained minister of the Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. It was he, and not the British, who laid the foundation for Baptist ministries throughout the island. However, the British Baptist Missionary Society in England was not to recognise this Jamaican Baptist ministry until 1814, when a John Rowe came to the island as the first English Baptist missionary. This was the Society’s eventual response to an appeal from George Liele for help – Baptist work on the island had grown rapidly since its foundation! It was from 1814 when a series of British Baptist missionaries were to arrived and work on the island.
What was seldom admitted by many was that British help brought an underlying tension between ‘native’ Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other. Many native congregations were to become part of the ‘Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society’ (JNBMS) because:
“of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists ……. to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry ……. these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”
After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, that implicated some native Baptists, there was a reaction “the white missionary began to distance itself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.” The fact of the matter was that English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony. Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed, ensuring that thereafter “Baptist worship, polity and organization had a distinctly British look and feel to it”.
As the missionary church expanded, additional ministers were recruited from England. One of these missionaries, the Reverend Christopher Kitching, started the mission station in Spanish Town in December 1818. Its first Baptist Church was built on an area once occupied by an old military barracks and where James and Hannah Phillippo were to first settle after their arrival. In the meantime, the Rev Thomas Gooden was selected as the church’s minister in 1819 and, as James Phillippo was to find out, Protestant ministers had to obtain a licence to preach. The Rev Gooden received his licence shortly after he arrived and preached his first sermon on June 11 1819. He continued as Pastor of the church until 1824, when he was succeeded by the man whose name remains indelibly in Baptist annals – Rev James Mursell Phillippo.
Overview of the Situation; James and Hannah Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, at a time of great transition. Britain had banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, and in 1823 propositions to abolish slavery itself were brought to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, but were initially rejected and with little hope of success. Despite Parliament’s failure to pass the legislation, British mission workers in Jamaica, especially Baptists, were criticised by planters and the white population, the press, and the colonial government for being in league with the anti-slavery camp, with the “intention of effecting our ruin.” The plantation owners were strongly against missionaries preaching the gospel to the slaves. They were upset that the nonconformist missionaries (chiefly Baptist, Wesleyan and Methodist) were educating slaves and teaching them the Bible, believing that this made the slaves discontented with their station. Some opponents reacted by burning down missionary churches and schools for slaves. It was a cold fact that in 1807 there were 350,000 slaves in Jamaica. By 1823, there were still more than 300,000 slaves remaining on the island; the law prohibited them from practicing any form of religion. Nonetheless, when Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, he was to set out to build places of worship and to preach Christianity to the slaves.
The home allocated to James and Hannah on their arrival must have come as a terrible shock. To start with, it was in the former military barracks mentioned above, surrounded by a brick wall. Their house itself was very small with two stories and only one filthy room on each floor. The inner walls had been painted black to ease the failing sight of the previous missionary, Rev Kitching, who had died of yellow fever in December 1819 – a prevalent disease that claimed the lives of many missionaries. James and Hannah set to work with a level of optimism which youth often brings in abundance; and soon they made themselves a workable home. Clearly, Hannah was every bit as much a missionary as was James. The couple’s home was the place where hospitality was always available and, as a missionary’s wife, it was Hannah’s job to receive callers and visitors and serve them refreshments. Later the ground floor of the house became their first school, the couple living above and working side by side in the school room. It was during this period of ‘settling in’, but particulary at the moment when James first arrived on the island, that he was horrified by the ‘heathenish processions’ that took place at Carnivals.
James, in particular, energetically set about also establishing a Sunday school and Bible classes and applying for the necessary licence to preach. This he finally received in 1825 after much resistance from the planters who objected to the provision of religious teaching for the enslaved. Nevertheless, the British Missionary Society granted Phillippo permission to preach to the slaves. In fact, he was never free from persecution during this period of extreme tension on the island when hopes of emancipation had been raised by reports of the strong anti-slavery movement in Britain. Although the authorities regularly threatened him with imprisonment and he received death threats from planters, he continued. together with Thomas Burchell and William Knibb, to set up new chapels, schools, Sunday schools and Bible classes. James preached to slaves in villages where his preaching ban was not common knowledge. The slaves reacted enthusiastically to his preaching and crowds of them came to church. His congregation was drawn almost entirely from the enslaved, who were very receptive to the Baptist message of the possibilities of salvation for all, irrespective of colour. By 1828 he had established a number of out-stations together with schools and classes for adults and children.
Pressure of Work takes its Toll; Suffering from ill health and exhausted from overwork James sailed for England in 1831 with his wife and two children, one of whom died on the voyage. He missed the major rebellion in Jamaica that Christmas which was followed by extreme retaliation against the rebels and attacks on the Baptist missionaries who were blamed for the uprising. His brother missionary William Knibb came to England in the wake of the rebellion and broke his vow to the BMS not to speak out politically, declaring that slavery and Christianity could not co-exist. James too spoke publicly in England and Wales. He returned to Jamaica in 1834 and was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the emancipated. He wrote “I was in a new world surrounded by a new order of beings”. The planters continued to harass their ‘apprentices’ and James raised money in Britain to establish ‘Free Villages’ where the emancipated could live in what he imagined as utopian religious communities, peopled with industrious and domesticated freedmen and women, under the watchful eye of their pastor.
Slavery had been a key issue for a long time, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the British Empire. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, the country was still permitted to own slaves in the Colonies. As a missionary who had campaigned fearlessly, both in Jamaica and England, for the abolition of slavery it was only natural that James would take a leadership role in the housing of the newly freed slaves. He knew that many slaves would be emancipated, although they would be left with neither home nor source of income; he, therefore, envisaged a village where newly freed slaves could live and work. In support of his ideals, he bought twenty-five acres of land ten miles north of Spanish Town in the St Catherine Hills, there, he founded Sligo Ville, the first Free Village.
Full freedom was finally won on 1 August 1838 and James Phillippo took pride of place with the governor in the celebrations in Spanish Town. These were heady days when the Baptist missionaries enjoyed a level of authority and prestige which was not to last. In 1843, after another period in England, he published ‘Jamaica: its Past and Present State’, which provided a triumphalist account of the ‘great experiment’ of emancipation. This was in part a response to the tide of criticism of the reluctance of the emancipated to work on the plantations. The 1840s brought new kinds of troubles as James’s patriarchal stance towards his chapels and his people was challenged and enthusiasm waned. He experienced depression and spiritual doubts in the wake of these difficulties but maintained his educational and pastoral activities with support from England and acted as a mediator between the peasantry, the plantocracy, and the colonial authorities. In 1856 he travelled to the USA and Cuba with two sons and wrote of the continuing horrors of slavery there. In the wake of the Rebellion at Morant Bay in 1865 and the brutal reaction of Governor Eyre, the Baptist missionaries were once more under attack and were anxious to separate themselves from any association with ‘Native Baptists’ and demonstrate their loyalty to the crown.
The Phillippo’s Final Years: The death of Hannah in 1874 at the age of 82, and a partner in everything, was a severe blow to James and he could no longer bear to live in the mission-house; the fact that he did so was because of his dedication to his long-chosen work, epitomised by him continuing in his missionary work until he retired. However, in 1877 he did make, what was to be his final visit to England – at the age of 79 years; this was all part of his several fare-well visits to friends in various parts of the country. James Phillippo wrote that he was unwilling:
“….. to leave for my adopted home without a last look at, and bidding a final farewell to, my dear old native town, I went over to Dereham, accompanied by my brother. It was Saturday, the market day, when I might chance to meet old acquaintances from the country, as well as in the town.
We went to the Corn Exchange, wandered about the streets, called at some of the old houses, with whose tenants I was once so familiar; and at one or two of the principal inns, but, on my part, without the slightest recognition, except in one instance by a distant relative, though only twenty years had passed since my last visit. That visit, however, was so brief that it may be said I had been absent from Dereham fifty years. Equally disappointed was I in the result of my inquiries after the notabilities of my boyish days. Most of the old families had almost entirely passed away, root and branch.
The tenants of the house where I was born looked incredulous when I stated the fact, and requested permission to look around. The lower story was now occupied as a large ironmonger’s store, and I should have been at a loss to identify it but for the sign of the ‘ Bull’ opposite. Yes; there was the ‘ Bull,’ unaltered in form and size and noble bearing as eighty years ago. All else seemed changed. The streets looked narrower, distances much shorter, the houses smaller, though externally more attractive; the old Baptist. and Independent chapels superseded by new ones, more conspicuous, larger, and ornamental.
Improvements were everywhere considerable, especially in the suburbs, where. Beautiful villa residences had sprung up, rendering the dear old place still more worthy of the eulogy of the author of ‘Lavengro'[George Burrows]:
‘Pretty Dereham! thou model of an English country town!’
Fatigued with my perambulations, and straitened for time, I reached the station just previously to the starting of the train, in which my brother and myself took places for Norwich. But I was a stranger at home, and was sad.”
James retired on Sunday July 7, 1878 and moved to a small cottage outside Kingston, to be cared for by his daughter. He lasted less than a year thereafter and there must have been little doubt that his missionary work, coupled with a long, hard life in an unfriendly climate had finally worn him out. He died on 11 May 1879 at the age of 81 years and was buried alongside his wife, Hannah and their son, in the Phillippo Baptist Church churchyard. Two tablets were placed in the Church building dedicated to James’s memory. Also located on the Church grounds is a stone slab which marks the spot where some of the shackles of slavery are buried. The slab is inscribed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Church. James and Hannah had nine children, five of whom died in childhood.
Postscript: Jamaica had been James Mursell Phillippo’s adopted home and he was well respected by the Jamaican people at all social levels. His sons followed their father in finding colonial routes to upward mobility, becoming professionally trained in England – one becoming a doctor, another a lawyer who was to hold significant posts across the Empire. Over the course of his working life James Phillippo had baptized over 5000 men and women, been associated with the establishment of 25 stations, 17-day schools, and a college to train ‘native’ pastors. He was hailed at his funeral as ‘the Moses of Jamaica’.
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Nearly four centuries separate the desecration, or violent disrespect, of two churches that once stood along Ber Street, in Norwich – namely the church of St Michael-at-Thorn and the church of St Batholomew. Read on:
Norwich’s ‘Berstrete’ was named after the Anglo-Saxon road which was the Northern Conesford sub-leet’s backbone. It ran along a ridge above a long slope which ran down to the river on the western side of the ridge; below, the Great Cockey ran through a natural valley. In time, the road became Ber Street, placing itself between present-day Queens Road and King Street. Ber Street formed one of two major routes into Norwich that ran through the Conesford area; the second was the Royal Conesford Way – the present-day King Street. Today, Ber Street is a fragmented mix of historical buildings and post-war WW2 industrial buildings; the result of a 1950/60’s slum clearance scheme which followed extensive war bomb damage.
Back in the Middle Ages, Norwich and Bristol were judged to be second to London in size. Consequently, Norwich still had 36 parish churches in its city centre when the Reformation took place; a couple were quickly demolished, but most lingered on into the 21st century. Over the centuries, the function of some parishes fell into disuse, but a surprising number were still parish churches of the Church of England within the minds of many Norwich people.
Any mention of Ber Street would be incomplete without mention of its medieval Gate, one of a series of gates that, together with an almost continuous wall, surrounded the city. Early references to Ber Street Gate, which was built on a corner of the city wall which runs southeast and southwest from the gate, are contained in documents from the reign of Henry III in the second and third quarters of the 13th century. The gate itself was demolished in 1808 but the street remained busy and densely populated and was known locally as “Blood and Guts Street”, due to its many slaughterhouses and butcher shops; also, because cattle were driven down the road into the city.
1. The church of St Michael-at-Thorn:
St Michael at Thorn was once the most central of Norwich churches but was lost in the World-War-Two blitz of January 1942. When it did exist, it stood about 200 metres south of St John Timberhill at the edge of the Ber St ridge, and overlooking the Wensum valley. Next to the church, on its south side, Thorn Lane led steeply downhill into King Street, but since the area was redeveloped in the early 1960s it now terminates at Rouen Rd. From the 1840s onwards the whole area between Ber Street and King Street was densely populated and consisted of many yards and courts leading off from Ber Street. This whole area was known locally as the ‘Village on the Hill’ and the three roads of Mariners Lane, Horns Lane and Thorn Lane, led into the district. It became the settlement for a small Italian community.
St Michael at Thorn was described by Ian Hannah as being only ‘partly built in 1430 but largely modern’. Completed, it consisted of a square west tower, nave with north aisle, a south porch, and a chancel. The original tower collapsed in 1886 and was rebuilt the following year. Sillett’s ‘Norwich Churches’, published in 1828, showed that the style of the Victorian work followed very closely to that of the old.
The historian Francis Blomefield, writing of St Michael at Thorn, said that it: “was anciently a Rectory appendant to the Castle, until the Conqueror gave it to FitzWalter along with St Martin at the Bale.” The church of St Martins, also known as St Martin-in-Balliva, once stood on a triangular piece of ground close by the entrance to Golden Ball Street – near to, what once was, the principal entrance to the barbican of the Castle. The apparent strange title of this church stemmed from it having been built within the bailey, which once was the outer courtyard of the castle. St Martins church was demolished in 1562 when the parish was united to that of St Michael at Thorn; and in the latter’s church registers, which date from that year, are records of burials of many of the criminals who were executed on the Castle hill. In 1926 a chapel in St Michael’s was dedicated to the patron saint of the Bale to perpetuate this association with St Martin’s.
With regard to the dedication – or rather the “surname” – of St Michael’s church, Blomefield mentions that it is:
“called in antient evidences, St Michael in Ber Street, and ad Spinas or at the Thorns, and even to this day, a very large Thorn remains growing in the Churchyard. I find it also in the most ancient Deeds called St Michael Super Montem, or St Miles on the Hill from its situation”.
Prior to the church tower collapsing in 1886, it contained only one bell; but John L’Estrange noted in 1874 that: “There were three bells here until about 1838, when the two largest were sold, to help to build a hideous north aisle, recently replaced by a much comelier structure. They are now the ‘first’ and ‘second’ bells at Bale, near Holt”. [making up a ring of 4 bells there, the oldest of which was cast c. 1440. This is the ‘second’ bell from St Michaels, and bears the inscription ‘Nobis Succurre Michael Raphael Gabriel Quaesumus’, – ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, help us’. On the ‘first’ bell from St Michael’s is the inscription “Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1777. John Spratt and Henry Warns Ch. Wardens.]”
The main entrance to St Michael’s was through the porch and south doorway; the latter was Norman probably the oldest remaining part of the building. Following its survival of the WW2 blitz, the doorway was dismantled and re-erected in St Julian’s church nearby, forming the inner doorway to Mother Julian’s cell.
When the doorway was ‘in situ’ at the former St Michaels, it was described as having a shaft on either side supporting a round-headed arch with cable and zig-zag ornaments, with one of the billets of an outer moulding carved into a queer little animal; then, according to White’s Norfolk directory of 1833, the door was then still in possession of its ancient ironwork. As for interior fittings, only an ancient octagonal font with shields survived the centuries. All the Victorian reconstruction woodwork was modern, including a fine roodscreen surmounted with a St Michael’s cross.
The bombs that fell in that January of 1942 left only the tower of St Michael’s standing, but removing a section of the parapet and the spirelets; the church itself was gutted, leaving only the eastern gable and the other walls at a lower level. Up to the day the church was lost, thorn trees grew in the churchyard, though perhaps not the same ones to which Blomefield referred. It was said that by the time the war ended, the thorn bushes that gave the graveyard its character and the church its name had quickly regrown through the rubble. The name of Thorn Lane is comparatively modern, for two centuries previously it was known as Sandgate, and it is a matter of speculation whether or not it was named after the nature of the soil there; in time the Lane was probably named after the thorns then flourishing in the neighbouring St Michael’s.
In the 1950’s, with redevelopment plans well formulated in the minds of the authorities, there was no way that St Michael was going to be rebuilt – or its tower kept as a landmark. St Michael’s was too close to other working churches to be needed, and was set in an area earmarked for industrial and commercial building. As things turned out, the site was completely erased with the church ruins, tower and thorn trees completely removed for the laying out of a car park for Archant House, the Eastern Daily Press building.
Simon Knott said in 2005: “It gives an idea of the ferocity of the blitz, as well as of the completeness of post-war Norwich planning, when I tell you that the two images below were taken from exactly the same spot. Robert Ladbrooke made his leisurely sketch in the 1820s. Some 180 years later, I risked my life and limbs to stand in the middle of Ber Street to take the same view of the site as it is today. I am obviously closer in time to the destruction of St Michael at Thorn than Mr Ladbrooke, but not a single building in this modern view, apart from perhaps those on the far horizon, was here when the church was”.
The Church of St Bartholomew: Southern Conesford was the long, straggly suburb to the south of Northern Conesford and the Norwich medieval city within the walls, but with an independent life of its own. The two Conesford sub-leets were amalgamated by mid-14th century, the likely result of a reduced population (and therefore the number of tithings) in the area. Subsequently, large areas of land were acquired by the Augustinians and Franciscans for their friary precincts. Conesford, as a whole, had nine medieval parish churches, as well as several monasteries, and was home to important merchants – the Pastons’ Norwich house was in Conesford, down on the the ‘Royal Conesford Way’ (King Street), the main road to London. Parallel to it, but high on the ridge to the west, sat Ber Street, leading out of the city centre to the Berstrete Gate in the city walls.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, this part of Norwich became home to warehouses and factories, a slum area of workshops and back-to-back terraces. As if in anticipation of this future development, St Bartholomew was desecrated in 1549 and abandoned; its two bells transferred to St John de Sepulchre – situated at the junction of Ber Street and Finkelgate. St Bartholomew itself once sat barely 100 metres south of St Michael at Thorn, its advowson belonging to the prior of Wymondham.
The church was to be used as a factory; then gradually, other buildings were built on to it, until almost nothing at all of the medieval exterior showed, and few would have ever known that the former church was there. All that was visible was part of the south wall of the nave. It was about this time when George Plunkett sketched, in his own hand, Claude Messent’s plan of the building as it was in 1931. Nineteenth-century houses had been built into the west end; the nave and chancel were part of Snellings factory, and against the north wall was a slaughterhouse.
George Plunkett’s fascination with Norwich churches led him to be ‘on the spot’ when the Norwich City Corporation began to clear the site in the summer of 1939. They really need not have bothered – and would have saved some money had they known that, two or three years later, the Luftwaffe would have done the job for them. As it was, the ramshackle lean-to buildings were torn away by the Corporation and the heart of a medieval church revealed – the blocked-up chancel arch, the Tudor arched interior window splays, and a brick south doorway. But now everything has gone and all that survived from the clearance is the rump of the tower which sits beside the Ber Street pavement. Unlike St Michael at Thorn, it was not a victim of war time bombing. Today, modern sheltered housing occupies the area where the St Bartholomew, the factory and the slaughterhouse once stood.
(The remains of St Bartholomew’s Church).
A few yards south along Ber Street from the site of St Michaels at Thorn a portion of St Bartholomew’s 15th century church tower still stands, its flint, brick and some stone dressings preserved among a block of new dwellings. To think that it was only brought to light in the 1930’s; in a sense, its preservation offers slight compensation for the total loss and disapperance of St Michael’s.
Finally, Simon Knott again adds: “St Bartholomew should not be confused with Norwich’s other medieval church of the same name. The other one was the parish church for Heigham, the area to the west of Pottergate and St Benedict, and is also a ruin today – but unlike the long-suffering St Bartholomew of Ber Street, the Heigham church really was gutted in the blitz”.
Before we proceed with what happened to the Royal Naval ship HMS Invincible some 219 years ago take particular note of Hammond’s Knoll, a 6-mile (9.7 km) long sandbank off the coast of Norfolk, England, just off Happisburgh. This is an innocent sandbank below high water when the sea behaves itself; but when the weather is foul and the tide is low, it is best to stay alert and be on guard – it can be dangerous. At low water, the sandbank has only a depth of about 6 fathoms at each end, and 3 fathoms in the centre. Nowadays, the Hammond’s Knoll is marked by lighted buoys at its north and east ends – this was not the case on the 16th March in the year of our Lord 1801.
The East Anglian coast is recognised as dangerous when the weather and sea choose to be foul. Many ships have been lost to gales over the centuries – some say the number runs into thousands. Storms in this part of the world seem frequent and ferocious either side of Autumn and Spring, wrecking and shifting the many sandbanks and shoals as they rage. In winter months particularly, the prevailing off-shore westerly wind would, more than likely, become a north-easterly, thrashing down from Scandinavia and the Artic. battering the lee shoreline. Ships which managed to sail a safe course through those ever shifting sands would still risk being smashed by the wave’s force, overwhelmed or driven ashore.
In the days of sail, the sea lanes up and down the eastern coast were far busier than they are today. Any storm would, as likely as not, have created a havoc of torn canvas, tangled ropes, broken masts and dead bodies. No ship, whether they be on Government business or commercial trading, were immune from possible disaster. Even the large fishing fleets that once thrived on herring could be lost; in fact, in 1789 around 130 fishing smacks and coasters were wrecked between Southwold and Cromer – one of more than a few such instances. With so many storms over the years the losses have been many, with coastal churchyards well used with graves and memorials for those who did not come home safely. These included resting places for members of the Royal Navy.
Britain once prided itself on having the greatest navy in the world and her sea battles were renowned, but East Anglian seas were even a challenge to military ships. Amongst those who did fall foul of the seas off Happisburgh, two stand out; the first was HMS Peggy which, in short, was wrecked on 19th December 1770 with thirty-two of its men losing their lives. They were buried in Happisburgh churchyard while their ship, the Peggy, was to remain on the beach for many years thereafter.
The HMS Invincible disaster was the other instance of a Royal Naval ship going down. She was a 74-gun, Ramilles Class third-rate ship, thirty-six years old in the spring of 1801 and battle-wearied, but nevertheless a stirring sight when fully rigged.
Launched at Deptford in March 1765, the HMS Invincible had served in the American War of Independence. Her battle honours included Cape St Vincent 1780, Chesapeake 1781, St Kitts 1782 and the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she was badly damaged and lost fourteen men. In 1797, she took part in the invasion of Trinidad which captured that island from the Spanish. So by 1801, HMS Invincible, which had a proud record of service, was back in British waters. By March of that year, and with the war against France in a protracted state, fear remained that the French would seize the powerful Danish navy and use it against Britain. Therefore the British Baltic fleet, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and with Nelson as his second-in-command, was directed to sail to Copenhagen and make sure the Danish fleet could not fall into French hands.
HMS Invincible was to be part of this fleet so it was ordered to sail from Chatham, with its crew of around 600, and meet up with the fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker which was already in the Sound preparing for the planned attack on the Danish fleet – to be known later as the Battle of Copenhagen 1801. HMS Invincible sailed on its journey under the flag of Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty.
During its way north, Invincible, with the ship’s newly appointed, thirty-fout year old, Captain John Rennie, put into Yarmouth to collect final orders and stock up with ordnance, stores and ammunition. She was by then a 1,631 ton war ship, as prepared as she could be for the battle ahead. Her state of readiness meant that on the 16th March she was able to leave Yarmouth Roads and, with a master and pilot aboard, set a course towards the notorious area of shifting sandbars off Happisburgh on the north-east coast of Norfolk.
The Master and Pilot clearly thought that they could navigate through the shoals safely, but a rising wind and the strong tide forced the ship off course. Within an very short time, at 2.30pm to be precise, she struck the sandbank of Hammond’s Knoll where the effect of wind and waves tore down the masts and began to break up the ship. The crew did all they could to save the ship. They jettisoned provisions and when the mizzen mast went they cut away the mast, hoping that the ship would float off the sands at high water. Whilst all this was going on, Invincible repeatedly fired a distress signal with its guns. For a while, it looked as if the crew’s efforts of jettisoning every they could would work for the Invincible moved slightly into deeper water. But, as she did so an even heavier swell and stronger wind caused the ship to lose its rudder. Unmanageable, she was driven back on to the sandbank. There she remained whilst the only thing left for the crew to usefully do was to man the pumps and try to keep as much of the ship as possible above water.
The wreck was only a few miles offshore and its distress signal, by way of frequent firing of the guns, was eventually answered by the collier Hunter, on her way into Yarmouth – but unfortunately she, for one reason or another, ignored the Invincible’s plight. Only the Yarmouth smack The Nancy, fishing for cod under its skipper, Daniel Grigson, came to Invincible’s aid. He offered whatever assistance he could. However, by midnight, it was clear to all on the royal naval ship that nothing could be done to save it and the order was for two of her boats to be lowered with Totty, the Purser, four midshipmen and some seamen in one and seamen in the other. They made it safely to The Nancy and then made a second run only for one of the boats to capsize as it approached The Nancy for the second time. Those men who had been thrown into the water were, fortunately, picked up by a Collier which had also answered the distress signal from the Invincible.
Both The Nancy and the Collier remained on rescue watch throughout that Monday night to pick up survivors, although neither were able to offer any assistance to Invincible herself. Then, after dawn had broken, the final act of this tragedy was played out. Those on the rescue ships were nothing more than spectators to the death throes of the Invincible as she shifted gradually into deeper water before slowly sinking. As she lowered herself below the surface waves, those on its forecastle made a last desperate attempt to survive by leaping into the sea before trying to get on board the last of the ship’s launches. Some made it but others were beaten back by those safely on board who feared that the launch itself would also capsize if overloaded. The weapons they used to repel greater numbers were the launche’s oars.
When the Invincible finally disappered into the depths, it took with her about 400 crew. Out of a full complement of 600 and, bizarrely, 50 passengers despite the fact that the ship was scheduled to go to war, one hundred and ninety persons were saved. Not included in this number of survivors was Captain Rennie who, duty bound, was the last man to leave his post; when he did so he was not only wet and extremy cold but suffering from exhaustion. He tried to swim to a launch but gave up. At that final moment before he drowned he seemingly had accepted his fate when he lifted his hands and place them over his face before sinking calmly beneath the water. Rear-Admiral Thomas Totty reported Rennie’s loss in his Report for the Court-martial which was to follow, calling him ‘a truly zealous and intelligent Officer’. That same Report also described the last moments of the HMS Invincible :
“At daylight on Tuesday morning, I observed that the Invincible had not a single Boat, either alongside or astern of her, and the tide ran so strong that it was impossible to get the fishing Smack to her, but the moment the tide slacked … she stretched under the Invincible’s stern, endeavouring by all possible means to work up and get alongside of her; but before that could be accomplished the Ship went down in thirteen fathoms Water, and out of 600 persons that belonged to the Invincible they have not been above 190 saved and now living; several who were picked up by the launch died very soon afterwards. I am extremely grieved to inform you that Captain Rennie was among the number of those drowned; by his death the service has lost a truly zealous and intelligent Officer … The horror of the scene at the Moment the Ship went down far exceeds all power of description.”
Amongst those who had reached The Nancy, and were later landed at Great Yarmouth, were those who were still to die as a result of the experience. In total, more than 400 were lost, compared to the 256 who were to die at the Battle of Copenhagen. On his way home from his triumph, Nelson still made time to visit “his men” from the Invincible lying injured in Great Yarmouth hospital.
For days after the wreck, bodies were washed up all along the coast. Most were brought on carts to Happisburgh churchyard, where they were buried in a huge, unmarked communal mound grave in unconsecrated ground to the north of the church. Of all those lost only six received a proper burial in the Holy Trinity & All Saints churchyard at Winterton the 20th day of March, 1801. Their names unknown
But the story of the Invincible did not end there because an attempt was made by a Mary Cator in 1913 to erect a memorial as a reminder to the lives lost. She raised money by subscription but when it was found that there was no official record that proved that bodies from the Invincible were buried in the mound, she returned the money raised. Then in 1924, Mary Cator’s persistence to ensure that an appropriate memorial existed in St Mary’s churchyard paid off. This was the year when the church bells were re-hung and Mary gave a treble bell on which was inscribed ‘In memory of Nelson’s men wrecked off Haisboro in 1801‘. A memorial at last! – but the story did not even end there.
The unconsecrated land where the dead were buried was later incorporated into Happisburgh churchyard, then in 1988, the remains of many of the Invincible’s crew were located by chance in their original mass grave during the digging of a new drainage channel. There was found a disordered mass of bones less than three feet below the surface. These remains were reburied with proper rites; then, ten years later, in 1998, a memorial stone was erected to their memory by the Ship’s Company of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, together with members of the Nelson Society,, the Happisburgh parochial church council and a descendant of Captain John Rennie. This was a final recognition of all those who had died on HMS Invincible in 1801, summed up by St Mary’s Rector, Reverend Doctor Richard Hines as being: “interpreted as a gesture of Christian faith that even in their most desperate moments those who perished out in the cold North sea did not perish beyond the love and presence of Almighty God” The Memorial’s inscription came from Revelation and reads ‘And the sea gave up the dead that were in it’.
Transcript of Memorial Lettering:
On 16 March 1801, HMS INVINCIBLE
was wrecked of Happisburgh when
on her way to join the fleet with
Admiral Nelson at Copenhagen.
The day following, the Ship sank with
the loss of some four hundred lives.
One hundred and nineteen members
of the Ship’s Company lie buried here.
“And the sea gave up the dead
that were in it…..”
This memorial stone was given jointly
by the Parochial Church Council and
The Officers and Ship’s Company of
HMS Invincible. 1998.
The compulsory court martial that followed Invincible’s sinking was held on the HMS Ruby at Sheerness. It absolved the Amiral and the Captain (posthumously) of culpability in the disaster, but posthumously blamed the harbour pilot and the ship’s master, both of whom had been engaged to steer the ship through the reefs and shoals of the dangerous region – they should have known the location of Hammond Knoll, especially since it was daytime and in sight of land.
The only amusing side to this story concerns the many casks that were seen floating on the sea after the HMS Invincible went down. Some 150 were brought ashore by the customs officers and were found to contain brandy. Others casks escaped and were to be picked up by delighted villagers; many of whom drank themselves into oblivion – one even died from his excesses!
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