A Murderer Amongst King’s Lynn School’s Staff!

By Haydn Brown.

The subject of the gibbet has become a topic of correspondence of late. Amongst the names of those who were so called ‘gibbeted’ for a crime is a Eugene Aram of Knaresborough in the County of Yorkshire. He suffered this fate in 1759.

Here, it should first be said that Eugene Aram was born in 1704 in the village of Ramsgill, near Harrogate to a family of labourers, his father being a gardener. But Aram was bright; his intellectual energy and quick mind enabled him to gain an education and to discover and develop a particular gift for languages, especially ancient ones. He was therefore, not the typical eighteenth-century murderer, for he had become an educated professional, a published author of works of philology who, at the time of his arrest at the King’s Lynn Grammar School, was working on his comparative lexicon of Latin, Greek and Celtic.

A note of Eugene Aram’s appointment as an usher at King’s Lynn Grammar School in February 1758, as it appears in the minutes and memoranda of the King’s Lynn Town Council. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Hall Books, KL/C 7/13.

But before then, and after spending some time without success in London, he returned to Knaresborough and became a teacher, marrying and fathering seven children whilst at the same time gradually running up debts. Matters became particularly sour when he made the acquaintance of a shoe-maker, Daniel Clark, whose wife was a woman of means. Clark was spending lavishly and running up debts with local traders. Then, on 7 February 1744 he vanished. This set tongues wagging and by April 1745, Aram was starting to feel insecure; he abandoned his wife and children, moving from town to town before he was appointment as an usher at King’s Lynn Grammar School in February 1758. At that time the school was housed above the 14th-century Charnel Chapel, alongside St Margaret’s Church on Saturday Market Place. Later it was to become a Workhouse.

A pre 1914 view of  the ‘New Shambles’ (meat market downstairs and King’s Lynn Grammar School upstairs) once stood near the site of the Saturday market place until 1914. Eugene Aram taught in the grammar school. Wikipedia.


The Plaque showing the site of  the former  St John’s Charnal Chapel between 1364 and 1779. In front was a row of butcher’s Shambles. Above, for a time,  was the King’s Lynn Grammar School in which Aram’s taught until his arrest.

At first it was thought Aram had run away to escape his debts; his friends assuming that he had also fled with a quantity of valuable goods he had acquired illegally. At the same time Daniel Clark remained unaccounted for, even a ‘no questions asked’ reward of £15 (more than £3,000 in today’s money) was offered for information, but there were no takers.

Thirteen years later, the discovery of bones in St Robert’s cave. just outside Knaresborough led to speculation that Aram and another man, Richard Houseman, had conspired to kill Clark and steal his possessions. Aram was traced and arrested; this came about when a visiting horse trader to King’s Lynn recognised him, and the wheels of justice began to turn. In the same year, a skeleton was discovered in St Robert’s Cave near Knaresborough which did not do any favours for Aram.  At some point his property was searched and some of Clark’s booty was found in Aram’s Garden as well as those of other friends. Aram was later to say that Clarke had left the goods there. Also, Houseman, who seemed by some to be far more suspicious, was to turn King’s Evidence and testified that Aram had murdered Clark.

St Robert’s Cave, Knarsborough in which bones were found. Mark Pallant.

The saying “hell hath no fury……” seems to have been appropriate for Mrs Aram, Eugene’s abandoned wife; she was quick to accuse him of the murder of Daniel Clark. Added to this was the rumours going around of an affair between her and Clark, which added more fuel to the fire. Aram was taken back to Yorkshire and tried for murder.

At his trial, in August 1759, Aram decided, unwisely as it turned out, to conduct his own defence. He questioned the identification of the bones and asserted his own good character but did not challenge the shaky, inconsistent and unreliable evidence of his former friend, Houseman. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Aram was convicted and sentenced to death. Accordingly, Aram was executed at York Castle, after an unsuccessful attempt to end his own life in prison, and his body returned to Knaresborough, where his gibbet was erected close to the scene of crime, overlooking the river Nidd; his body remained there, gradually decomposing, for at least 25–30 years.

There was great public interest in Aram’s crime and trial. The association between the apparently gentle and scholarly man and violent murder for material gain was unusual and, combined with the instability of the evidence on which he was convicted, resulted in a widespread belief that the wrong man had been executed. His biographer, Norrison Scatcherd, even described the riots and threats with which Houseman was greeted on his own return to Knaresborough.

Aram’s story was irresistible to cultural producers of the period. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel ‘Eugene Aram (1831)’, giving Aram a beautiful and brilliant lover, romanticised the story. Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, though involved in the death of Clark, was the victim of circumstances and no murderer. The novel was adapted for the stage and had a successful run with Henry Irving in the title role. Thomas Hood’s narrative poem “The Dream of Eugene Aram” (1829) was recited by generations of schoolchildren. PG Wodehouse even has Bertie Wooster quoting Hood’s poem in proper Wooster style – (something along these lines): Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum, I slew him, tum-tum tum! (PG Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge, 1916) Hood’s Aram, though guilty, was thoughtful, penitent and intelligent: a sympathetic hero. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel and Hood’s poem are the best known of Aram’s literary incarnations, but there were many more – forty-one, including a stage play and at least three films.

Gustave Doré’s engraving of Eugene Aram. Photostock.

At some point, probably before the end of the eighteenth century, a doctor called Hutchinson, then practising in Knaresborough, decided to augment his private cabinet of curiosities with the skull of Eugene Aram and managed to remove it from its gibbet cage. But why was Hutchinson so keen to acquire Aram’s skull? Maybe it was simply that he wanted it as a curiosity because of its association with a significant local event—and one which had attracted national attention – who knows!

The skull resided in Hutchinson’s personal museum until he died, when it passed to his widow’s second husband, and his former assistant, Mr Richardson, a surgeon from Harrogate. When, in 1837, the young Dr James Inglis, burning with phrenological zeal, took up a post as physician at the public dispensary in neighbouring Ripon, it is probable that he found out about Aram’s skull from Richardson, as a fellow medical man working in a neighbouring town. It was Inglis who presented the skull to the Newcastle meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1838.

5. Aram’s skull. Norfolk Museums Service.

The skull then passed from Dr Richardson to his step-grandson, John Walker, in whose private collection it remained, first at Malton in Yorkshire and then at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, when Walker moved house. He presented the skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1869, by which date it had become something of a strange embarrassment to its owner, an Anglican minister, who therefore sought to place it in a museum. The skull was included in Sir William Flower’s catalogues of the Royal College collections in 1879 and 1907 and remained in that museum until 1993 when it was given to King’s Lynn Borough Council and passed to the Old Gaol House Museum in the town.

Today, and for anyone who is interested, there are three last bits to this story. In the Stories of Lynn Museum there are exhibited in the old gaol cells: Aram’s skull, a fragment of Clark’s skull, and a small pill box made of the wood from the gallows on which Aram was hung.


Sources: Tarlow S. (2017) The Afterlife of the Gibbet. In: The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and its Afterlife. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-60089-9_3. Link: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-60089-9_3 Also: https://norfolkrecordofficeblog.org/2019/03/12/a-murderer-in-the-school-the-case-of-eugene-aram-of-kings-lynn/

Banner Heading Image: This is the Caxton Gibbet, which is on the old Ermine Street Roman Road where it crosses the Cambridge to St Neots Road. Wikipedia.

Robert Walpole and ‘The Bloody Code’!

By Haydn Brown.

 England in Georgian times is remembered as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty. Imprisonment for debt was commonplace and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.

Walpole (Execution of Lord Ferrers)
The execution of Lord Ferrers at Tyburn (From an Old Print of the Period.). Image: Public Domain.

The Government of the day had no desire to to improve the life of ordinary people – and probably was not expected do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the 3% of the population with wealth; these were the lawmakers and the only ones who were permitted to vote in elections even though they were unlikely to be the victim of crime – unless it was the pickpocket on the street, the robber on the highway, or from poaching on the rich man’s estate. The true beneficiaries of the draconian laws were more often middle-class shop owners and tavern keepers who along with the poor were always more vulnerable to being the victims of crime; however, this was a by-product of, and not the intention of, those who made the law.

Walpole (bloody-code)
Sir Robert Walpole

The man most responsible for the shaping of Georgian England was Robert Walpole. He was born near Houghton in Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a prominent Whig politician who upon his father’s death in January 1701, was elected as Member of Parliament for his old constituency of Castle Rising.

Walpole (Houghton Hall)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk.

British politics in the eighteenth century reflected a society divided between the pro-Church and pro-Monarchy landed aristocracy and the rapidly expanding commercial class that sought the primacy of Parliament in all things (the vast majority had no say at all) and it was a fraught arena where tensions often ran high. The Tories and the Whigs were not political parties as we would understand them today but factions who formed alliances to best serve their own interests, and it was no friendly rivalry. They were in effect two warring camps with both willing to take up the cudgel if required. Their mutual enmity was reflected in the names they called one another – a Tory was an Irish bandit or thief – a Whig a Scottish rebel or Presbyterian fanatic.

The fact that elections were held every three years guaranteed a febrile atmosphere with members of the different factions meeting in their own coffee houses to conspire with one another and plot their opponents, downfall. Also, Political meetings were violent affairs, graft and corruption was commonplace, votes and constituency seats bought and sold and the behaviour on the hustings would often border on riotous assembly.

Yet this would be the world in which Robert Walpole, the great manipulator not to say enabler, would thrive and prosper. Walpole’s connections ensured that he soon gained political office and he proved himself an able administrator and earned a reputation for probity at a time when such a thing was transparently lacking in politics, this despite the fact that he had been briefly imprisoned for embezzlement in 1712. Having gained the favour of King George I, as he would later his son George II, he began to rise through Government ranks but his ambition was a secret to no one and he was hated by the Tories who time and again tried to discredit him and have him impeached. But, Walpole’s reputation was to soar following the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.

Walpole (bloody-code_Bubble)
The South Sea Company.

The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 as a joint-stock company which through the sale of bonds would purchase the national debt but in reality, it was a get rich quick scheme underpinned by promises of vast profits to be made from trade. After all, the Company had been granted a monopoly of trade with South America. The fact that Britain was at war with Spain meant that there was little real trade to be had – a fact that was seemingly overlooked by most investors. The rich flocked to buy shares but by 1720 it was apparent that the South Sea Company was an empty shell and the rush to sell shares caused it to crash spectacularly.

Though Walpole had also invested heavily he had earlier been advised to sell his shares. Even so, he tried to re-invest but his purchase of further shares was delayed in the mail and did not arrive in time. This was to prove a stroke of good fortune both financially and more significantly politically for coupled with a few minor criticisms he had made of the Company’s behaviour in the House of Commons it appeared to many that he’d had the foresight to see the crash coming. However, nothing could have been further from the truth but it provided him with a reputation for financial rectitude at a time when others who should have known better had allowed their greed to overwhelm their common sense.

Walpole (George II)
King George II

The King now turned to Walpole to help the Government out of the financial mess it now found itself in, and he seized the opportunity with aplomb. Walpole was quick to smooth things over making a series of emollient and reassuring speeches in the House of Commons and confiscating the estates of the Company’s Directors to pay off those worst hit financially in the crisis. He also deflected criticism away from the King who as Governor of the Company was heavily implicated in its wrongdoings. For this both the King and his successor George II would be eternally grateful. Appointed to the position of First Lord of the Treasury alongside a number of other high offices Walpole was the King’s indispensable man and effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister and he would remain so for the next 15 years. It was to be the beginning of the Whig Supremacy and Walpole was to refashion Georgian England in his own image – a country of both conspicuous wealth and extreme poverty, of unapologetic self-interest and punitive laws.

First Walpole, or Cock Robin as he was known, not always with affection, secured his own position. He accumulated for himself a vast array of patronage, ensured that people who would be his men in Parliament were elected to Rotten Boroughs, and aware that he could break as well as make political careers where bribery didn’t serve his purposes, he wasn’t averse to a little intimidation. As a last resort he could always turn to the King for support. Walpole’s policy would be to maintain the status-quo by appealing to the naked self-interest of those who mattered. He adopted a peace policy avoiding ruinously expensive wars, kept taxes low especially those on land, and introduced laws that would protect property, game, and livestock. The rich could sit back and enjoy their wealth comfortable in the knowledge that they were safe from ideological dispute, revolution, robbery, or foreign invasion, and as long as the calm waters of conspicuous self-indulgence and display remained undisturbed then all was well in Georgian England. It would prove for the time being at least a winning formula.

Walpole (bloody-code)2
Debtor’s Prison Scene

The most potent symbol of Walpole’s England was to be the Debtor’s Prison. Every major city had at least one and there were seven in London alone, the most notorious of which were the Fleet Prison in Farringdon Street and the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. These prisons were Government owned but privately managed, and were run for profit. For example, in 1728, Thomas Bambridge purchased the Letters of Patent to run the Fleet Prison as its Warden for £5,000, and like most Warden’s he immediately divided the prisoners into those who could pay for their keep and those who could not. Indeed, Bambridge was to become particularly notorious for extorting money from his inmates even manacling them on occasions until his demands were met. It was possible to be imprisoned for a debt as little as £2 and incarceration would often come as the result of a request from the creditor.

Walpole (bloody-code)3
Debtor’s Prison Cell

Whilst in prison the interest on the debt would continue to accrue and release would only come after a financial arrangement had been made for repayment of the debt or the creditor himself relented, and with no specific time to be served a prisoner could be wrangling for his release ad nauseam. For those able to pay imprisonment would be less onerous and depending on how much money they had they might get a cell to themselves with a bed, they would also be able to purchase food, and beer that was often brewed on the premises. They could receive visits from their family, if they were not already imprisoned with the inmate which sometimes happened, and could even conduct business.

The Fleet Prison even permitted prisoners to live within a short distance of the confines of the prison itself, a practice known as the “Liberty of the Rules”. If you were unable to pay for your keep then you would be left to rot in the squalor of the common cells, the damp, windowless, rat-infested rooms situated on the ground floor where the petty criminals were confined. Forced to sleep on a bare floor strewn with straw, fed on gruel twice a day, and with nowhere to urinate or defecate disease was rife and life expectancy short.

The “Bloody Code” as it was to become known, saw offences ranging from poaching, the theft of a loaf of bread, and sheep stealing through to murder and treason carry the death penalty. It was harsh in the extreme, as also were the penalties for those crimes that did not carry the ultimate sanction such as being publicly whipped, branded with hot irons, and confined to the pillory for days on end. In the case of many women and children, and those men who could show themselves to have been of previously good character there was always the option of transportation to the colonies as an indentured slave.

Despite the many laws that now made up the statute book there were few formal structures in place with which to enforce them. There was no police force at this time and instead every parish was obliged to have at least a Constable but these were unpaid volunteers often concerned only with the status their position brought them and little concerned with the actual enforcement of the law. In London and other major cities there were paid Watchmen, these were often elderly ex-soldiers who patrolled the streets at night and at the top of every hour would ring a bell to declare the time and cry “All is well.” Though they were much-maligned at the time they did play a role in keeping the streets safe at night and provided reassurance if nothing else.

Walpole (Henry Fielding)
Henry Fielding

In 1749, the author Henry Fielding who had been appointed Chief Magistrate for London along with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners. They now largely replaced the “Thief Takers”, the men often recruited from amongst the criminal underworld itself who would investigate crimes and arrest people for a fee. This had always been an unsatisfactory arrangement to say the least for the Thief Takers were most likely involved in the crime itself and were merely turning in their associates for money. The Bow Street Runners did not serve as policemen as we would understand them, they did not patrol the streets at night or make themselves available for emergencies. They did however serve writs and make arrests on the authority of the Chief Magistrate, and they travelled the length and breadth of the country to do so.They were also paid for the first time by central Government.

Walpole (Bow Street Runners)
Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London: This engraving was published as Plate 11 of Microcosm of London (1808). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Justice was administered by Local Magistrates who were invariably drawn from amongst the wealthiest of any parish. They were unpaid and often found their work burdensome and time consuming. Also, there was no oversight as to their activities and they were not necessarily disinclined to act maliciously or take a bribe. Indeed, the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, the son of Robert, remarked of the Magistrates in London: “The greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice.” More serious crimes such as burglary, murder, and treason would be tried before the Quarterly Assizes and in London at Newgate, later to become the Old Bailey.

Unlike the trials for petty crime more serious offences were tried before a jury of the accused person’s peers. Even so, it was commonplace for such cases to be dealt with quickly as it was rare for there to be a defence barrister as none was provided by the State. Also, the presumption on the part of the Magistrates was always one of guilty. Also, the fact that the Courtroom itself would be liberally sprinkled with fresh smelling herbs and flowers to mask the smell of the filthy and unwashed prisoners indicates the attitude of those dispensing justice.

A guilty verdict at the Quarterly Assizes would invariably carry the death penalty and such trials were popular events that would be well attended and raucous affairs. The crowd would heckle and jeer throughout but a silence would descend upon the courtroom as the Judge would place the black cap upon his head and speaking these words pass the sentence of death:

“Prisoner at the bar, it is now my painful duty to pronounce the awful sentence of the law which must follow the verdict that has just been recorded, that you be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul.”

Walpole (Tyburn)
Execution at Tyburn

Public executions in London were carried out at Tyburn and were occasions for a social gathering in an atmosphere that often resembled that of a fairground. Thousands of people would gather in the field where the gallows were located whilst others lined the streets of the three mile journey of the condemned man from his place of incarceration to his place of execution. Carried on a cart where he would be sat upon his own coffin and accompanied by the Sheriff, a Chaplain and an armed escort the condemned man was for a short period at least the centre of attraction and sometimes as the cart passed a tavern the landlord would offer him a last drink to which the Sheriff would invariably reply: “Not for him, he’s on the wagon.” There would be a celebratory feel to the day with music played, pies sold, and many people drunk. As in the Courtroom however once the condemned man mounted the gallows the crowd would fall silent to hear the Chaplain’s last words:

“You have been adjudged by the laws of this country unworthy any longer to live, unworthy to walk this earth, unworthy to breathe its air, and that no further good to mankind can be expected from you, only the example of your death to warn others in the future, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

Popular Heroes of the Period:
The common people knew full well that the justice system was not there to serve them as a popular saying of the time testifies: “The laws grind the poor, and the rich make the law”. As a result the more notorious a criminal, no matter how brutal, the more likely he was to be treated as a folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood, and Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, and Sixteen String Jack who intercepted and robbed the Stage Coaches ridden by the rich were particularly admired and became celebrities. In 1774, when the famous Highwayman John Rann was found not guilty of robbery thousands of people who had gathered outside cheered and carried him aloft from the Court.

Claude Duval:
Claude Duval (or Du Vall) is credited with being one of the first great gentlemen highwaymen. Born in France in 1643, Duval emigrated to England after meeting a group of Royalist exiles, who were laying low in France during the Civil War. Once the war was over, Duval not only moved to England, but got an intimate look at the life of English nobility. Not content to live off a servant’s wage, he turned to the life of a highwayman, and he did it in style.

Walpole (Claude Duval)
Claude Duval

One of the most famous stories about him is his robbery of a carriage on Hampstead Heath. Here, upon meeting the beautiful young wife of the elderly knight he was robbing, Duval danced with the young woman on the side of the road. He then took only a portion of the money the knight was carrying as payment for the entertainment. He was well known but, by all reports, far from reviled. After fleeing to France for a short time to let the heat die down, he returned to England and was arrested during a drunken night out.

Once his death sentence was given, it was said that a number of his previous victims (mostly women that had been wooed by his courtly demeanor) tried to speak up on his behalf to get him a pardon. It didn’t work. He was executed in 1670, and his body was taken to lie in state at a local tavern. There were so many mourners present that the wake was cut short, as it was deemed rather unseemly.

John Rann:
John Rann, also known as “Sixteen String Jack,” was one of the first highwaymen (and indeed, criminals) to make his occupation as much about his celebrity status as about his actual crimes or the spoils of his robberies. He was a larger-than-life, over-the-top figure whose nickname came from his extravagant dress. He was always perfectly groomed and gentlemanly in his appearance, always wearing silk breeches that had eight silver strings hanging from them. He encouraged all rumors that were spread about him, and consequently, there are a couple of different versions of his story.

Walpole (John Rann)
John Rann

He was born somewhere around 1752, and at some point, he entered life as a coachman. He was strongly associated with several different women. His apprenticeship didn’t give him enough income to support his lifestyle or his women, so he turned to highway robbery. Many of his crimes were of the flamboyant, drunk and disorderly type. It was ultimately an attempt by one of his mistresses (who quickly gave up his name) to sell a stolen watch that earned Rann his first arrest. When he got off, it only made him that much more confident. He boasted to full pubs of his highwayman lifestyle and predicted his own early death. He got off on minor charges of attempting to climb through windows into homes where the ladies always seemed to come to his defence.

It was a similar situation—his female associates trying to sell stolen property—that led to Rann’s final trial, after he and an associate robbed a clergyman riding through Ealing. His female associates got off, stating that they unknowingly traded clean clothes for the stolen property, but Rann himself was executed in December 1774.

Jack Sheppard:
The most popular hero of his day however was the 22-year-old apprentice carpenter, Jack Sheppard. He had served five years of his apprenticeship and had been showing great promise at his chosen profession when encouraged by the other apprentices he began to frequent the Black Lion Tavern in Drury Lane, a popular haunt of the local criminal underworld and with his newly acquired taste for alcohol and having made the association of a local gang leader, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, he soon found that there was easier money to be made in crime than there was in having to work for a living and he quickly progressed from petty theft and pick-pocketing to burglary.

Walpole (Jack Sheppard)
Jack Shepherd

Arrested on numerous occasions it was to be his increasingly spectacular prison escapes that made him a popular hero. Arrested once again and sentenced to hang he promised to escape on the day of his execution but the pocket knife he was carrying to cut the ropes that bound him was discovered. Nonetheless, he had another plan and remained supremely confident that he would not hang and boasted of his forthcoming escape calling upon public to come and witness it. The people expected him to be as good as his word.

Jack Sheppard, a wide-eyed young man with a ready smile was only 5’2” and weighed barely 100 pounds and he firmly believed that as the cart was wheeled away to leave him hanging he would not be heavy enough for the noose to break his neck, and so he had arranged for his friends to cut him down and take him to a doctor to be revived. On 24 January 1724, more than 200,000 people turned out to see Jack Sheppard hang – or escape?

On his journey to the gallows Sheppard joined in the celebratory mood revelling in the banter and urging on the crowd. He even persuaded the Sheriff to stop off at the City of Oxford Tavern so he could down a pint of ale.

As he stood beneath the gallows with his neck in the noose, he continued to play to a crowd that truly expected him to escape once again. As the cart was pulled away from beneath his feet the raucous crowd descended into a hushed silence as they watched his body squirm and twitch. But there was to be no escape this time and this Sheppard was to dangle from the rope for a full 15 minutes as he endured the agonies of slow strangulation. When the body was at last cut down the crowd surged forward to grab their souvenirs, they pulled out tufts of his hair, cut off his fingers, and gouged out his eyes.

His friends who had planned to rescue him before death’s deadly embrace took hold never even got close to retrieving his lifeless corpse. Such had been the popularity of Jack Sheppard that newspapers were forbidden to write of his exploits and theatres were banned from using his name for the next forty years.

Dick Turpin:
He was, perhaps, the best known English highwaymen, and he is possibly the worst example of what the idea of a gentleman robber was supposed to be. Born in 1705 in Essex, Turpin couldn’t be bothered to put in the hard work that would have allowed him to make a good, honest living as a butcher, following in his father’s footsteps. He joined a gang instead, raiding houses in the London area, stealing what he could, and outright destroying the rest. Turpin was one of the last members of the gang to be caught; he had since moved on from robbing houses to holding up carriages that were traveling to and from London.

Walpole (Dick Turpin)
Dick Turpin

The fictional stories that grew up around Turpin were largely just that: fiction. Turpin became a character in books that embellished the details of his life. Added to the story were dashing good looks, a beautiful, devoted black horse, and a family inheritance that Turpin was supposedly cheated out of. The historical Turpin was a cold-hearted murderer, whose egotistical boasting and a letter back home eventually led to his capture, trial, and execution. It was only after his death and the publishing of a book called Rockwood in 1834, that he was catapulted to fame as a gentleman robber. Perhaps more fitting to his memory was the fate of his corpse. The night that he was buried, Turpin was dug up by grave robbers, who sold his corpse to a doctor for dissection. His body was discovered missing, recovered, and reburied, while the doctor was fined.

Gin – or ‘Mother’s Ruin’:
London was the largest city in the world with a population of over 800,000 and was growing all the time. It was a place like no other with more than 50,000 shops, taverns, restaurants, coffee houses, and brothels where every need and desire could be catered for; a place of both outlandish display and grim squalor, with beautiful parks and filthy streets; a place of hucksterism and gaudy self-indulgence. A city of vice, violence and disease its many iniquities were vividly captured in the paintings and lithographs of the artist William Hogarth, and no problem was more evident than that of public drunkenness.

Walpole (Beer Street & Gin Lane)
Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751) By William Hogarth.


By the 1720’s London was quite literally awash with gin, or “Mother’s Ruin,” as it was known. The craze for gin had caught on in the 1690’s following its cheap importation from the Netherlands and within a decade distillery producing it were cropping up not just in London but throughout the country. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone more than half were Gin Palaces. By 1743, it is estimated that the English were drinking up to 10 litres of gin per head of population a year.

Drunkenness had become a common feature on the streets of all England’s major cities and with it a corresponding rise in the crime rate, and the number of abandoned children that thronged the streets and dead babies that littered the gutters had become a national disgrace. Attempts to stamp out the craze for gin were easier said than done, however. The Gin Act of 1736 that priced it at 20 shillings a gallon and required a licence to sell it at a fee of £50 per annum provoked disturbances so violent that they lead to it being repealed in 1742. A further attempt to curtail its production and distribution the following year were to lead to the Gin Riots that were to leave many dead and cause widespread destruction throughout London. Learning the lessons of past mistakes, a series of more moderate measures were introduced which over time saw a decline in the consumption of gin and by 1757 it was perceived to be no longer a problem.

Back to Walpole:
By this time Robert Walpole, the man who had done so much to forge Georgian England in his own image was long gone. He had by the early 1740’s ceased to be seen as the guardian of wealth but as an impediment to increased prosperity and people had tired of the widespread corruption that had so come to mark his time in power. His peace policy of placating Britain’s enemies abroad had come to be seen as a national humiliation and his increased taxes on commodities to ensure that the tax on land remained low was damaging the economy. Many amongst an aspiring and growing middle-class, and even many of his natural supporters amongst the nobility and gentry, now saw their futures in overseas trade and the expansion of Empire and so with his enemies, and he had always had many, gathering in Parliament and fearing impeachment on 11 February 1742 he resigned, returning to his palatial home at Houghton Hall a bitter and resentful man. There he died in great splendour three years later on 18 March 1745, aged 68, a bloated caricature of himself and the country he had created. The draconian laws that Walpole had introduced did not go with him, however.

Indeed, the number of capital offences on the statute book increased. It still remained possible to be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, going out at night with a blackened face, damaging a turnpike, and writing a threatening letter. Most of these offences would continue to carry the death penalty late into the Victorian era though as the decades passed they were rarely enforced. Even so, between 1791 and 1891, long after the Bloody Codes had first been introduced more than 10,000 people were hanged in England alone, and imprisonment for debt and Debtor’s Prisons were not abolished until the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The first professional police force wasn’t established until 1829 when the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police to maintain law and order on the streets of London.



‘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.
Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.

The Curiousity of Georgian Norwich!

By Haydn Brown.

Those who frequented the Inns and pleasure gardens of England during Georgian times seemed to have enjoyed taking in a ‘spectacle’ or two whilst drinking, dining or perambulating the streets. The ‘invitation’ from proprietors, as has always been the case, was designed to entice, and what was on offer could be anything from a ‘freak show’ displaying some sort of physical deformity, through to demonstrations of ‘mystical powers’, animals that could ‘calculate’, and even the display of some strange or new animal not previously known about. All these types of shows or exhibitions would be quite apart from ‘knuckle fighting’ and ‘cock fighting’ thereabouts. It was indeed a national trait, which extended into the realms of the aristocracy and royalty; unsurprising therefore to learn that the inhabitants of Norfolk, and Norwich, were no exception when it came to seeking such gratification and amusement.

Freak Shows (Thomas_Hearne,_Norwich_Market_Cross)
Norwich Market Cross, by Thomas Hearne. Image: Wikipedia.

Norwich was once famous for the number of inns and public houses within its jurisdiction, once said to total 365 – ‘one for every day of the year’. Of this number, some 30 public houses plus at least four larger notable Coaching Inns once surrounded the city’s Market Place on four sides – but in a somewhat ‘scattered’ fashion. Most of these establishments, at one time or another, presented some sort of ’entertainment’, all with the intention of pleasing the customers, and pulling in extra numbers.

Freak Shows (Church Style)
The Church Stile Inn is pictured here in an 1880 etching by Edwin Edwards, reproduced courtesy of Norwich Museum and Art Gallery
 NB: The Church Style Inn took its name from the old custom of drinking beer at the church gate at the church’s expense on certain holy days in the ecclesiastical calendar.

One of these establishments, which was quite successful in the game, was the Church Style Inn, standing as it once did, in an elevated position overlooking the market; it stood by the north gate of St Peter Mancroft Church, in Pudding Lane / St Peters Street – the latter once known as ‘The Overerowe’.

Of all the Inns close to the market, the Church Style Inn was a particularly favourite setting-up place for those travelling showmen whose speciality was wild animals. It was to this Inn, on the 25 April 1801, where the citizens of Norwich came after reading an advertisement in a Norfolk Chronicle which ran:

“To the Lovers of Natural Curiosities – To be seen alive in a general room at Mr Peck’s Church Stile…….the largest rattlesnake ever seen in England, forty-five years old, near nine feet long and in full health and vigour. He is well secured, so that ladies and gentlemen may view him without the least danger. The proprietor begs to return thanks to those who have honoured him with a visit…….N.B.A. ‘quadruped’ [live animals] to be put in the rattlesnake’s cage at 12 o’clock on Thursday night. Admittance, Ladies and Gentlemen,1s, working people and children 6d.”

It might be hard to believe now, but it was probably customary in those days, and in such places, for admittance to travelling menageries to be free of charge for those who delivered live ‘cats and rabbits’ at the pay-box of the show – with no questions asked! It is probable therefore that the custom was present when, in August 1806, customers were again treated with a visit by:

“a most surprising crocodile from the Nile ever seen in the kingdom. He is so remarkably tame that any lady or gentleman may touch him with safety”

Almost next door to the Church Style, but on a lower level and facing directly on to the southern end of the market, was the Half Moon – a name chosen to distinguish it from the Lower Half Moon which stood on the eastern edge of the market toward Cocky Lane – Now London Street. It was here, at the Lower Half Moon Inn, during July 1744, when someone thought fit to ’exhibit’ John Coan. The thing is that young John was just 16 years of age at the time, but was certainly regarded as a freak or curiosity!

Freak Shows (norfolk-dwarf)1
John Coan (1728-1764), the ‘Norfolk Dwarf’ pictured with Edward Bamfield or Bamford (1732-1768), the ‘Staffordshire Giant’. They both earned a living as sideshow performers; giants and dwarfs were particular favourite attractions in the 18th century. Wellcome Library Images.

To understand this, it is worth going back to Coan’s birth in Tivetshall St. Margaret sometime around 1728 – the year is uncertain. His parents were a John Coan and Sarah (nee Negus) who had previously married at the village church on 5th December 1727 – of that it is reasonably certain. Similarly, it is known that the young John was baptised on 31 May 1730 in the same church; and that, in later life, he would be known as ‘John Coan, The Norfolk Dwarf’.

John Coan
Porcelain figure of John Coan (c.1728 – 1764), produced by the Chelsea Porcelain Works (London, (1745-69)) circa 1760. This example entered the Royal Collection from the Lady Ludlow Collection which was dispersed following her death in 1945. Royal Collection Trust.

Being around two years old at the time of his baptism does possibly imply that, at birth, John Coan appeared to be a normal healthy baby; therefore, his parents would have seen no reason to have had him baptised quickly. However, and despite having appeared to have developed at the same rate as other children in the first 12 months, his growth thereafter slowed down, and by 1744 he was just three feet tall and weighed just 27.5 pounds. Within six years, sometime around 1750, John was strutting the boards in London and maintaining his popularity there. He also attracted the attention of Surgeon William Arderon who took it upon himself to examine and weigh John (with, of course, his agreement), noting that, fully clothed, John weighed no more than 34 pounds and his height of 38 inches included his wig, hat and shoes.

Freak Shows (kings_head)3
Norwich Market Place by Robert Dighton, 1799. This view is of the northern end of the main (lower) market, looking north towards the Guildhall and Cockey Lane (now London Street). A coach is visible emerging from the narrow entrance to  the Gentleman’s Walk ‘Kings Head Coaching Inn’ on the right. Image: Wikimedia.

Almost next door to the Lower Half Moon was the Kings Head Coaching Inn, again on Gentleman’s Walk (formerly known as ‘The Nethererowe’), to the east of the market. This inn of good reputation amongst the wealthier clients, offered excellent cuisine alongside the usual run of entertainment and spectacle as other such places in the city.

Freak Shows (kings_head)
Coach departing the King’s Head (From Dighton’s painting, above. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

Also famed for its entertainment, the Kings Head offered amongst the variety of acts, prize fights, plays and natural curiosities – in 1729, the Norwich Company of Comedians presented “Macbeth” with all the witches’ songs and dances. In 1797 the major attraction was the “greatest man in the world” – an Irish Giant with the stage name of Patrick O’Brien (real name Patrick Cotter) who was eight foot four inches tall. His skeleton is said to be preserved in the College of Surgeons museum!

Freak Shows (Patrick O'Brien)
Patrick O’Brien, an etching and aquatint by John Kay 1803. National Portrait Gallery NPG D14754.

The King’s Head was particularly liked by Parson James Woodforde, whose day-to-day responsibility was to look after the spiritual needs of the living of Weston Longville, some 10 miles north west of the city. However, on his time off he would often ride into the city and place his horse in the care of the Inn’s stables whilst he dined or perambulated through the neighbouring streets of the city. It was like so on 19 December 1785 when he arrived at the King’s head, with a companion, just after 1pm and:

“put up our horses at the Kings Head and there dined on, a fine piece of boiled Beef and a saddle of Mutton, etc.”

Learned Pig3
An acknowledgement as it appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle of the time.

After lunch he managed to walk to the Rampant Horse in St Stephens, just off the Market Place, where he saw the:

“……. learned Pigg……. there was but a small company but soon got larger. We stayed about an hour. It was wonderful to see the sagacity of the animal. It was a Boar Pigg, very thin, quite black with a magic collar on his neck. He would spell any word or number from the Letters and Figures placed before him…… paid for seeing the Pigg one shilling.”

Learned Pig2

He afterwards took a turn around the city before attending a lecture on astronomy at the Assembly Rooms, with which he was ‘highly pleased’. His appetite restored, he returned to the Kings Head for ‘the best supper I ever met with at an inn…… Hashed Fowl, Veal Scollops, a fine Woodcock, a couple of Whistling Plovers, a real Teal of the small kind and hot Apple Pye.”

Norwich Market Place, John Sell Cotman, 1806.
Norwich Market Place. 
By John Sell Cotman, Watercolour and graphite on paper, 1806. The view is south from the Guildhall; Gentleman’s Walk is on the left. The buildings (right) dividing the upper Haymarket and the lower main market were by this time substantial four-storey structures. Tate Gallery, N05636

The buildings surrounding the Norwich Market, particularly the ‘scattered’ hostelries that lay between today’s Haymarket and Davey Place had narrow passages which opened on to their long yards; these were overlooked by guest rooms on first and second floors. The public rooms which were habitually on the ground floor also kept company with warehouses used by travelling dealers for storing and selling their stocks.

The Whie Swan

Amongst this mase of structures stood the White Swan, built in the 1400’s and was a noted playhouse – often called the “Metropolis of The East”. It was also the Headquarters of the Norwich Company of Comedians from 1730 until 1758 and preceded Norwich’s first Theatre Royal. During the 18th century visitors could view “an ox weighing more than 100 stone” whilst in 1811 Napoleon’s coach was (allegedly!) on show. In the early 19th century, the White Swan became the principal centre for cockfighting which, eventually, gave way to prize fighting. Opposite, at 23 Haymarket, was the Star Inn which can be traced back to 1763; but it was on 27 December 1783, when much excitement accompanied the arrival of “A Capital Collection of Wild Beasts” to these premises. On that occasion, visitors were advised that the animals were “well secured and kept clean.”! Also appearing was ‘a beautiful lion from Algiers and an amazing Siberian black wolf’.

Crossing into Gentleman’s Walk and strolling towards Cocky Lane was the well-appointed Angel Inn at No.16. Here, from the 15th century, it regularly presented ‘unusual’ entertainment and, over the years it was the scene of many events – some more bizarre than others! As with so many inns, the Angel was host to many entertainments and peep shows. These included a visit by a pair of elephants in 1685, followed by a series of “monsters freaks & marvels.” An element of culture was introduced in 1696 when “The Little Opera” played here whilst in 1825 Monsieur du Pain provided the entertainment when he dipped his feet in boiling lead!

Freak Shows, Gentleman's Walk (Angel Inn_1813)
A 19th century sketch of part of Gentleman’s Walk and the position of the former Angel Inn – within the archway shown on the right-hand side. Image: Norfolk Library and Information Service.

At its peak, the Angel was the most popular Inn on Gentleman’s Walk. Later renamed the Royal Hotel, it closed in the declining years of the coaching inn era and by the end of the 19th century, had been converted into the Royal Arcade. The former depth of the Angel Inn extended from the Walk to Castle Street and Back of the Inns, where the inn’s rear entrance is still evident. High above the ‘other’ arcade entrance is the face of an angel looking towards Castle Meadow! The Royal Arcade therefore partly carries on the former hotel’s name.

Freak Shows (Two-Neck Swan Inn)
The Two-Necked Swan Inn (centre).

Almost immediately opposite the Angel Hotel, on the other side of the market was the Two-Necked Swan Inn. It is thought by some that the original name for this Inn was “The Swan with Two Nicks”, reflecting the swan census of old. The name was a 16th century pun, for the word “nick” also meant “neck”……  So we find a number of pubs were called ‘The Swan with Two Necks’. Norwich had its own variation – and another hostelry that once offered ‘entertaining attractions’ to market traders and the young bucks of the city.

A stone’s throw away from the market, just the other side of St Peter Mancroft Church (as shown in the above image) is the Assembly House. Sometime during the first half of the 19th century a young George Burrow paid a visit there:

“…..to see the Bosjemans (or Bushmen) exhibiting at the Assembly Rooms, men about 4 ½ feet, strange and disgusting creatures, with a strange inarticulate language full of clicks.”

The present-day Assembly House, Norwich.

Finally, at the Bear Inn on 5 November 1788, Guy Fawkes Night no less, a large tiger, was exhibited. Unfortunately for two monkeys included in the exhibition, the tiger broke loose and ate them! Then, unfortunate for the tiger, it too died soon after; the cause was said to have been “a brass collar and chain, which he had swallowed, having gangrened within him.”


Sources: Various, but including the following:
Beresford, J., ed., The Diary of a Country Parson: James Woodforde, 1758-1802, Oxford University Press, 1978. Image: Wikipedia.
Thompson, L.P., Norwich Inns, W.E. Harrison & Sons, 1947

Heading Image:
Norwich Market Place by Thomas Rowlandson, 1788. This shows the southern tip of the main market (centre), with Gentleman’s Walk running south towards the former livestock market site to the left. The buildings to the right divided the upper and main markets; Pudding Lane, the alley between these buildings and the church, still exist.

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.
Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.

The Cripple, Her Partner and Sea Rescues!


By Haydn Brown.

Those so enthused can read much more about the life of Anna Gurney (1795–1857) from no end of sources directed towards the Gurney and Buxton families of Norfolk. They will soon discover that, at the very least, Anna was not only an English scholar, geologist and philanthropist who donated mammoth bones and teeth from the Cromer Forest Bed in Norfolk to museums, but in 1845 was the first woman to be accepted as a member of the British Archaeological Society. But clearly, there is much, much more about her; but in this little narrative I will simply keep to a handful of possibly little-known aspects of this lady. However, even this needs some sort of lead in, so what better than with the usual ancestral detail, and continue from there with my contribution which will be woven in at appropriate places.

It was in 1778 when Bartlett Gurney bought a house at Redwell Plain, Norwich previously occupied by a wine merchant. This imposing building with its wine cellars proved ideal as a bank building; its cellars proving useful for housing the safes – which were also protected by a mastiff and a blunderbuss! As the Gurney banking business grew the house became a landmark, and the site came to be renamed as Bank Plain.

A fairly obvious fact for those who are familiar with the Gurney’s, is that they, together with most of their connections, were Quakers – members of the Society of Friends; and many of these were involved with banking. My starting point however is with Richard Gurney (1742–1811), simply because he was the father of Anna Gurney. It was he who, amongst the wealth and wealthy of the Gurney’s, also attained part control of the Gurney Bank in Norwich, married twice and inherited the Northrepps estate on the North Norfolk coast. His first wife was Agatha, the only surviving child of the banker David Barclay of Youngsbury, (he whose name remains with the present-day Barclays Bank.); another Quaker merchant and banker of the 18th century who had brought his daughter, Agatha, up in:

“What may be termed the best aristocratic Quaker life of the middle of the eighteenth century”.

Richard sired at least six children, and Agatha’s final child was a daughter named after her, but with the family pet name of “Gatty”; she would be Anna Gurney’s half-sister and would, in later years, marry Samson Hanbury of Hanbury Manor. That particular family branch was connected to Truman’s Brewery, one of the largest brewers in the world in the 19th-century – what’s more, Samson himself was the brother of Anna’s mother, Rachel she to become Richard’s second wife. This would come about because Agatha, unfortunately, died just a few days after her daughter, young Agatha, was born. Thereafter, it was felt by the Barclay grandparents that Richard Gurney ‘now the widower’ was;

“Too much a typical country squire and too little a serious religious man”

So, they asked the above sixteen-year-old niece, Rachel, to live in with Richard ‘the widower’ and “instil some sterner Quaker spirit into his children”! Within a year, Richard and Rachel married, she the second daughter of Osgood Hanbury of Holfield Grange, near Coggeshall, Essex. Her first child was Richard Hanbury Gurney, “Dick” (1783-1854) to his friends; followed by Elizabeth, born in 1784. Then a gap of over a decade passed before the youngest child, Anna Gurney – the subject of this post, was born on 31 December 1795. The family seat at the time was Keswick Hall, about three miles south from Norwich in Norfolk, UK. Anna Gurney’s eldest half-sibling was Hudson Gurney, who was twenty years her senior; nevertheless, as adults, they were to share scholarly interests together.

Hudson Gurney (1775 – 1864).
He was an English antiquary, verse-writer, and politician.

At ten months of age, Anna Gurney became infected with poliomyelitis (polio), which paralysed her lower limbs and deprived her for ever of the use of her legs. Although needing a wheelchair for most of her life, Anna passed through it independent in thought, always busy, active and apparently happy, and without ever having been able to stand or move without mechanical aid. Probably because of her infirmity, she was educated at home by family members which may, arguably, have proved relatively easy for others since Anna demonstrated a prodigious talent, particularly in languages – learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Anglo-Saxon along the way. She began her professional career as a 22-year-old ‘mostly anonymous’ published scholar. In fact, in 1819 she brought out, anonymously and in a limited impression for private circulation, ‘A Literal Translation of the Saxon Chronicle. By a Lady in the Country’. This work, which went to a second edition, was commended by James Ingram, in his ‘Saxon Chronicle with Translations’ of 1823.

Rachel Gurney, nee’ Hanbury, Richard Gurney’s second wife.

Throughout her infirmity, Anna Gurney had received the unwearied attention of her mother, Rachel, who took her annually to Hinkley in Leicestershire “to see some celebrated surgeon there”. She always wore “Irons”, but John Henry Gurney could remember her:

“Walking up the Norwich Meeting [at Gildencroft] on crutches, and at Northrepps Hall a second hand-rail was placed on the stairs for her to pull her-self-up by, but as she became very stout and apparently more helpless, she finally lived entirely in a wheel chairs, that she propelled with her hands which had become very strong.”

More to the point, Anna moved about in her self-propelling chair almost as rapidly as others on their feet, and seems to have kept pace with the active pursuits of her companions in a manner which would have appeared beforehand, well-nigh impossible. She actually learned to swim in her childhood, supporting herself by her hands alone, and she used to speak of accompanying her brother in his shooting excursions in her chair and even learning to fire a gun. However, Anna was educated chiefly by her sister Elizabeth, who was supported by other relations. Elizabeth was afterwards followed by a tutor, whose only complaint was that:

“He could not keep pace with her [Anna] eager desire for and rapid acquisition of knowledge.”

Northrepps Hall in the 19th century.

Northrepps Hall and its estate remains today near Cromer in Norfolk, and in the past was occupied by the same extended Gurney family for more than eight generations. It has been estimated that the family now has in excess of a thousand members, many of whom have made their mark on society. Notable amongst these have been Thomas Fowell Buxton, of slave emancipation fame, mentioned below, and Elizabeth Fry the social reformer. For the Buxton, Barclay and Gurney families, Northrepps Hall estate was a central focus for many years – and particularly for Anna Gurney.

It was John Ellis, Rector of Southrepps and his wife, Martha – nee’ Riches, who had sold Northrepps Hall in April 1790 for something over £5000, plus an annuity of £52 to Robert Barclay of Bury Hill, Surrey. Robert’s motives in buying a Norfolk property were never established – other than it may have been an investment. However, it was known that:

“The family had just discovered the charms of Cromer and its neighbourhood”.

Bartlett Gurney. This portrait was photographed by Coe of Norwich in 1900 from an original canvas by F.Van der Myn. It was, at one time, displayed in Gurneys Bank in Norwich.

It followed that a separate piece of land at Northrepps was also purchased by Bartlett Gurney in 1792, after which he employed Humphrey Repton, the celebrated landscape gardener, to lay out his new estate, with the help of William Wilkins, the architect of London University. Plans for both a mansion and a park by these two men were drawn up – and are said to be still in existence. The mansion was to have been built south of the Hill House; however, in 1793 Bartlett concentrated on first building “The Cottage”; this being ‘Northrepps Cottage’ alongside the Northrepps Road, which nestled within the heart of ancient woodland and within walking distance of Overstrand beach, also a mere two miles away from Cromer. It was a place destined to play a significant role in Anna Gurney’s later life and where she was to live for 30 years.

Northrepps Cottage was described in 1800 by E. Bartlett, in his “Observations upon the town of Cromer and its neighbourhood,” as a:

“House which is flinted and thatched, with a Gothic porch, also thatched, fitted up with the greatest neatness and simplicity, and the stained glass which occupies the upper parts of the arches of the windows throws a very pleasing light into the apartments. (Two of these, panes, of birds, were copied from Bartlett Gurney’s copy of Edwards’ History of Birds, now belonging to Edmund Backhouse). The parlour, which commands an elegant view of the sea, is decorated with coloured prints, extremely appropriate to the situation, such as “The Sailor-boy’s Return”, the ship-wrecked sailor-boy telling his tale at the cottage door, and on the chimney-piece are shells and pieces of Derbyshire marble. Planting has been done with a liberal hand, and the healthy appearance of the young trees, when the situation so near the sea is considered, promises hereafter, amply to reward the owner for his perseverance,” – For this purpose a hundred pounds worth of young trees had been used, between 1793 and 1794.

As events turned out, Robert Barclay sold his estate and Hall to his brother-in-law, Richard Gurney, the Quaker, banker and father to Anna Gurney. Richard, it was said, was a very mild and kind person, rather stout, florid, with dark hair and a prominent nose. He had very much the effect of being:

“The old-fashioned country squire, rather unusually well appointed. He used to ride a handsome grey horse, with a dapper groom behind him on a second grey horse. He was fond of sport, particularly coursing and shooting.”

Four years after Robert Barclay’s wife, Martha, had died, Bartlett Gurney followed, dying in February 1803. Because he had no children, he left his beautiful cottage and “Hill” estates at Northrepps, to the same Richard Gurney, who then became head of the family; the two estates of the Hall and the Cottage ‘thus becoming one fine property’. Interestly, it was later claimed by a descendent that Hannah Lady Buxton (his grandmother) had once said:

“It was a cruel one; that he [Bartlett] left nothing to two poor sisters, who needed help greatly – in order that he might enlarge the estate of a second cousin”.

At the time of Northrepps coming into the hands of Richard Gurney he was married to his second wife, Rachel, said to be “a sweet and gentle lady who wore a Quaker dress”. At that time, Richard had four children under his care; the handsome and lively Hudson, then aged twenty and Agatha “Gatty” of nineteen years of age; she was to marry her step-uncle, Sampson Hanbury of Poles, Hertfordshire, the following month. Richard’s other two children, born to Rachel, were Richard Hanbury and Elizabeth – of twelve and eleven years of age respectively. It was a further month, after Gatty’s wedding, that another little sister, Anna, was added to the family; she, just to remind the reader, was:

“the cripple from infancy, having it was supposed, fallen from her Nurse’s arms”.

Sometime around 1810, when Richard and Rachel were still enjoying the delights of Northrepps Cottage, they temporarily let the property to Sir George Hoste, who was to pay his annual autumn visit to Northrepps Hall as, it was said, he had done in former days. At this same time, another relative by the name of Catherine Gurney, wrote from the Hall:

“I am writing in Anna’s [Gurney] room at Northrepps, while she is busy on the floor as usual”.

Anna’s father, Richard Gurney died on 16 July 1811 when she was 15 years old. In his Will, Richard bequeathed Keswick and Northrepps estates to his widow Rachel. When she died in 1825, the family estates passed to Anna’s brother Richard Hanbury Gurney, who continued to live at Keswick. This was also the moment when Anna went to live permanently in Northrepps Cottage, along with her first cousin and Thomas Fowell’s younger sister, Sarah-Maria Buxton (1789 – 1839); she was to become, not only a long-term companion and partner of Anna, but also another social reformer and abolitionist. The coming together of Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria at Northrepps Cottage was to be a happy union for the two cousins, henceforth to be known locally as the “Cottage Ladies” who openly spoke of themselves as “partners”.

Pencil sketch of Anna Gurney signed and dated 15 Feb 1824 by John Linnell. Gurney of Northrepps Family Papers, NRO, MC 2784/G/11.

Anna and Sarah-Maria’s life together became a busy and seemingly happy and satisfying partnership. However, it was Anna’s belief in the importance of education which led her, amongst many other pursuits, to also set up a school in Overstrand, initially using the Parish Church. Its construction was paid for by Anna, whilst continuing to teach the village children inside Northrepps Cottage. Anna’s love for learning and languages was said to be infectious, and according to the Gentleman’s Magazine’s obituary of Anna in September 1857:

‘When talking on her favourite subject – philology – she would suddenly and rapidly wheel away the chair in which she always sat and moved, to her well-stored bookshelves, take down a book, and return delighted to communicate some new thought or discovery.’

In 1830 Anna also began to instruct her friend and novelist, Amelia Opie, in German; apparently a “satisfactory arrangement for both women”. Every week Anna would send Amelia a story in German to be translated into English.

by George Richmond, oil on canvas laid on board, 1853
George Richmond, RA (1809-1896), self portrait. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2509.

On the more leisurely side of their lives, both Anna Gurney and Sarah-Maria Buxton were also introduced to the artist, George Richmond; this was as the result of the artist being brought to the attention of the Gurneys, the Buxtons, the Frys and the Upchers of Norfolk by his friend, Sir Robert Harry Inglisall. Richmond made a pair of portraits of Anna and Sarah-Maria, the latter ending up at Colne House. The present existence of these two portraits is not known, but one can only hope that they still survive, either within the homes of their descendants, museums or other private collections. Amongst these may also be those of Mrs. Fry and Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, both painted in watercolour by George Richmond and dated 1845.

On the question of there being ‘abolitionists’ in the wider Gurney family, it was Thomas Buxton’s daughter, Priscilla, who following her own marriage, decided not to work with her father anymore. However, he soon enlisted the help and support of his sister, Sarah-Maria, and their cousin Anna; these two ‘Cottage Ladies’ being considered as an ideal pair to take his project forward. Much of his collection of papers, presented by him to the Colonial Office in support of the anti-slavery movement, was done by the two; but it was Anna’s 1835 ‘Compendium on the Cape’ which was considered to be:

“The most valuable and the only thing in use; [which] might save a nation of 100,000 beings and several flourishing missions”.

Nevertheless, the combined efforts of Thomas, Anna, Sarah-Maria, and Priscilla Buxton, together with her husband Andrew Johnston, an MP and member of the Aborigines Select Committee, enabled the Gurney and Buxton team to collect, collate and repackage large quantities of colonial information. Anna Gurney, by the way, also worked alongside her friend, Amelia Opie, to create an Anti-Slavery Society in Norwich – as if she wasn’t busy enough!

A watercolour showing Anna Gurney in her wheelchair being pulled by two male servants, attended by her three ladies. This is the way Anna Gurney would be conveyed, particularly when   pulled to the cliff edge to supervise  sea rescues off the shore at Overstrand (see below).

Sarah-Maria died on 18 August 1839, aged 50 years. Barely three years earlier, in 1836, she and Anna had visited the European continent, taking in Brussels, Dresden, Prague and Vienna; but this would be their last shared experience. Despite her physical limitations, Anna did, however, undertake a second excursion to the continent, but Sarah’s sudden death in 1839 continued to throw a dark shadow over her. The Buxton family had planned to spend the winter of 1839/40 in Italy, where Anna and Sarah were to join them before moving on to Greece. But, despite her grief, Anna was eventually persuaded to make the trip, but she was to be absent from her Northrepps Cottage home for many months.

Anna mourned her partner until the end of her life, but stayed on in the cottage, giving support to the Buxton family, continuing her involvement with the local community, welcoming friends and family members as house guests and maintaining her interest in languages. For the last 12 years of her life, she edited a modest periodical called ‘The Fisherman’s Friendly Visitor & Mariner’s Companion’. She also continued to write poetry. An illustration of her work was written by her for the Launch of the ‘Augusta’, Sheringham’s First Purpose Built Lifeboat, in 1838 – some 12 months before her partner Sarah-Maria died.

In 1835 Gurney wrote to geologist William Buckland at the University of Oxford, who had accepted some ‘bones’ from her, explaining how she obtained specimens with the aid of ‘one old woman in my employ who goes fossil gathering on the shore, in spectacles’. Gurney’s employment of ‘poor inhabitants of the coast’ as paid specimen-collectors was also noted approvingly by Richard Owen.

It was in 1845 when she became an associate of the British Archaeological Association, being the first lady member who joined the association. In its ‘Archæologia’ is a communication from her on The Discovery of a Gold Ornament near Mundesley in Norfolk. In her later life she studied Danish, Swedish, and Russian literature.

During all her years at Northrepps and all the activities undertaken be her, Anna not only taught children but also took a great interest in the well-being and safety of seafolk. When this particular interest began, we do not know, but at some early point she obtained and paid for the initial purchase of the ‘Manby’ life-saving apparatuses for local use. This ingenious contraption (shown above) was in fact a mortar which was fired from the shore carrying a line to a shipwrecked vessel. Its designer was a Captain George Manby, who had been a boyhood friend of Norfolk’s Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. His invention had first been used in February, 1808, when seven seamen were brought to safety from the Plymouth Brig ‘Elizabeth’ which had been stranded offshore at Great Yarmouth.

In reference to Anna Gurney, and her involvement in local sea rescues, the Gentleman’s Magazine of September, 1857 reported:

‘In cases of great urgency and peril, she caused herself to be carried down to the beach, and from the chair in which she was wheeled about, directed all the measures for the rescue and subsequent treatment of the half-drowned sailors.’

So, it was clear that Anna was not simply an advocate of this life-saving equipment, she actively involved herself in the training of fishermen in its use, as well as directing its deployment.

This drawing by Hannah Buxton shows the lifesaving Manby Mortar being demonstrated, or practiced, by Overstrand fishermen to ‘rescue’ children from the silver fir tree at Northrepps Hall (the tree acting as the rigging of a ship). In the bottom right corner Anna Gurney, in her wheel-chair, is believed to be directing the operation. Coincidently, the artist, Hannah Buxton was Anna’s cousin and the wife to Thomas Fowell Buxton mentioned above. Yarmouth Museums, CRRMU: 1981.50.

There have been references that the demonstration illustrated in the above Hannah Buxton drawing of 1828, came about when Anna actually invited Captain Manby to Northrepps to demonstrate his mortar. It is therefore not at all clear who was in charge in this particular drawing. However, it was a fact that Anna frequently directed operations from the cliff edge or beach during particularly challenging rescues. It remains a sobering thought that at this time, around 60 or 70 lives were being lost every year, and with over 20 ships being wrecked; so, the difference she, and the ‘Manby’ life-saving apparatuses, made to a great many people’s lives should not be under estimated. Furthermore, Anna also ensured that all rescued men were provided with food and clothing, and, if required, she acted as their interpreter, such was her flair for linguistics.

Anna Gurney later in life; date and location  and source unknown.

It was after a short illness Anna Gurney died; not at her home in Northrepps Cottage, but at the home of her brother, Hudson Gurney, at Keswick, near Norwich; it was on 6 June 1857. She was buried beneath the aisle of St Martins Church in Overstrand, because she had left the Society of Friends in 1826 to be baptised into the Church of England. Alongside her was her ‘partner-in-life’ Sarah-Maria Buxton, together with Thomas Fowell Buxton, his oldest son John Henry, and his wife Hannah. However, there is in the same church, a memorial stone to the ‘Cottage Ladies’ themselves; it is wall-mounted.

The memorial stone to Hannah-Maria Buxton and Anna Gurney in St Martins Church, Overstrand. It reads: 
“To the beloved memory of Sarah Maria Buxton of Northrepps Cottage sister to Sir T. Powell Buxton Bart. who died (whilst on a journey) at Clifton August 18 1839, aged 50 years and was buried in the adjacent vault [having left the Society of Friends and been baptised into the Church of England in 1826]. This tablet was inscribed by her sorrowing relative and partner Anna Gurney. Also, of Anna Gurney. They were partners and chosen sisters knit together in the love of God and heirs together of eternal life through Christ Jesus.”
Image: Simon Knott.


Sources Include:
Northrepps History (gurney.co.uk)
Our History – Northrepps Cottage by Ann Farrant, 2009
An Artist’s View of Cromer – Part 2 (artworks 4-6) – Time and Tide Museum (wordpress.com)
Literary Norfolk




Fustyweed – You Better Believe It!

By Haydn Brown.

Quite often I pass by the road signs on the Fakenham Road in Norfolk that tell me where the villages of Lyng and Elsing are. Each time I do so the name ‘Fustyweed’ comes to mind – a name that had been curious to me in the past – but no longer; but it still does tempt me to delve into the realms of ‘fantasy’ from time to time!

Upper reaches of the river Wensum near the Norfolk hamlet of Fustyweed, between Lyng and Elsing. Credit: Bill Smith – Archant.

For those who do not know, ‘Fustyweed’ is real, both as a word with a pedigree, and also the name of an actual hamlet that sits comfortably between the neighbouring villages of Lyng and Elsing; all blessed for being on a sheltered side of the valley, and with open meadows. This hamlet itself consists of a collection of five older, artisan sized, houses, one of which is a treehouse!

A Fustyweed cottage, as you approach from the direction of Lyng; it is the first you see before entering this small hamlet. Credit Zorba the Greek- Wikipedia.

It seems that Fustyweed has always been a hamlet, remaining so because it never grew to warrant a church or a working mill as did its neighbours. So, there must have been another reason for it being where it is; and why was it so named? Was it simply that in the very distant past, not only did crops grow thereabouts, but also some unpleasant smelling plant – possibly offering medicinal benefits to the community? The reason I suggest this is the possible origin of the word itself, which may offer a clue.

Fustyweed Cows by the River Wensum. Credit Julian P Guffogg 2016.

Here, I had to go back to an 1822 publication by Robert Nares (1753 – 1829), titled ‘Nares’ Glossary’; this book was described in 1859, by Halliwell and Wright, as indispensable to readers of Elizabethan Literature. Within it I found the following information:

Robert Nares (1753 – 1829). Wikipedia.

“Fusty” – Musty or mouldy:

Hector shall have a great catch if he knock out either out your brains: ‘a were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernal’. (Troilus and Cressida ii. 1.)

“Dirty, Musty, Ill Smelling”:

…. Where the dull tribunes,
That with the fusty plebeians [a commoner] hate thine honours,
Shall say, against their hearts, “We thank the gods
Our Rome hath such a soldier.” (Coriolanus. i. 9.)

Now, with the dry stuff out of the way – how about a little of that fantasy that I hinted to earlier. On that topic, I can do no better than recommend the following, by fellow blogger, Molly Potter in her November, 2009 blog, titled ‘Fustyweed’. Here it is:


A terrace of five small houses sits some distance back from the only road. Smoke from the five little chimneys zig zags into the sky. The doors and window frames are haphazardly painted orange, purple, red and green. The front gardens are brimming with stunningly beautiful flowers: mostly noddydil, fraf and craggleweed. Silver and gold fluttifol buzz around them collecting gliff to make their glittery crunnyplop (which is sold in jars from a table at the roadside).

All of the houses are kept perfectly maintained with the exception of number four. Minky Flupp who lives there says she spends far too much time granting wishes to bother with keeping her house shipshape. Her neighbours don’t mind, as long as she grants them a wish now and then.

Jiggy Paloozeville at number three keeps yickins. The yickins lay the most delicious eggs with a yoke so deeply purple few can resist. He willingly shares the produce with his neighbours and most mornings the fruity aroma of freshly poached yickin eggs wafts around the terrace.

People tend not to call round to number five because its resident: Professor Batty Baffookink conducts science experiments there. The one-time Minky knocked on the door, it was answered by a squealing green and brown slimey mass. It took Minky some time to recover even after she had learned that the sight was just Batty covered in Harpypoo Sulphate after a tuttyfragwill experiment had blown up. Even so, these days everyone prefers to wait for Batty to come to them.

The eldest Fustyweed occupant lives at number one. At four-hundred and forty-two, Neg Keg is filled with memories. So many, in fact, that he has to have them regularly removed by Chiffle Lacey-Trickle-Doot who conveniently lives next door. The removal process uses a bespoke machine that Chiffle invented. The machine has many cogs, several springs, a few sparking wires, two glass tubes and a large wooden memory vat. A wriggling hose-like attachment (tailored to Neg’s spikey head) sucks out twenty years’ worth of memories at a time. With the relief this provides, Neg can go back to filling his head up with new memories. These memories mostly come from his time on the wirrity field playing tuffball.”

– What more can one say!

A suitable candidate for inclusion. Credit Peter Owen Steward 2022.


Sources Include: Molly Potter’s website at: http://torturedcreative.blogspot.com/2009/11/fustyweed.html

Heading Image: The welcoming village (hamlet) sign. Credit Cameron Self, 2010.

‘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.

Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.

If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.

Miss Savidge’s Version of ‘Moving House’!

By Haydn Brown.

The story of Miss May Savidge is not new; it has done its rounds on television via ‘Bygones’ and the Antiques Roadshow, YouTube, newspapers, social media and local history groups. But it does have an endearing theme which makes it readable with all who discover it for the first time. For that reason, I am ressurecting the detail in the hope that a fresh audience will find it. And, where better to start her story than where it reached its final conclusion – at Wells-Next-The-Sea in Norfolk. This was where the love of her life – Ware Hall House, ended up!


But first, let’s establish its actual location, which is not an easy task as the house, from one direction at least, is hidden down a pathway and behind a curved wall. It is, however, not too far from The Buttlands and if one exits that place by walking down the hill from its south-west corner, Ware Hall House come easily into sight. It is, in fact, a medieval house which was originally built some 100 miles from Wells-Next-The Sea, at Ware in Hertfordshire. Why, you may well ask, would a house of that vintage need to find an excuse to move its roots?


Well, this particular part of May’s story continued from the 1970’s when the house was brought, in many parts, to Wells by Miss May Savidge and rebuilt over a period of 23 years, first by her and then finished by her niece, Christine Adams, after May had died. What follows is very much about May and her determination to see off death-watch beetles, rats, developers, bureaucracy, planners who threatened to demolish her historic cottage under a road-building project – and even her eventual failing health – and accompanied only by her faithful dog, Sasha. But who was May, and why did she move her 15th-century Ware Hall House from one County to another!

Born in Streatham, South London, in 1911, May Savidge was just ten when her father died of heart failure, plunging the family into poverty. As soon as she was old enough to go out to work for a living, she found a job with the Ministry of Aircraft Production where she trained to become a draughts-woman; as thing were to work out, this skill was to hold her in good-stead years later.

At a relatively young age of 16 years, May met an older man, his name was Denis Watson; he was a gifted Shakespearean actor and they had planned to marry; however, after they became engaged Denis died prematurely in 1938. It was said that May never completely recovered from this blow and continued to wear his signet ring on her wedding ring finger. She also retreated into herself for a time, that is, until she entered into a 17-year courtship with a man she believed would marry her. His name is not known, but from letters found amongst her many belongings discovered after her death many years later, he wrote a devastating letter to May in 1960. In it he revealed to her that he has simultaneously found God and fallen in love with his cousin, stating:

‘I have, thanks to God, seen my dear cousin Iris in a new and wonderful light……I know this will hurt you as I know only too well how you feel towards me. I pray to the Lord that you, too, may experience this most wonderful love…….I should like nothing better than for you to regard us as a new sister and brother. I would like to bring Iris to see you when you feel like it, I know you, too, will love her – everybody does!’

Clearly cut to the quick, May wrote back:

‘It surprises me that anyone so dear and lovable as your Cousin Iris should have thought it right to come between us, after 17 years. My heart is not made of stone. You often spoke of our marriage. Is it surprising that I thought you really cared? I hope you will be more faithful to Iris than you have been to me. Goodbye.’

Next to these letters was a photo of her former fiancée, Denis, playing Hamlet! From that moment on May wrapped her broken heart in a parcel, tied it with string and hid it at the back of her attic to be discovered years later. She became a loner, a spinster – but not through choice.

May Savidge’s 15th century house in Ware, Hertfordshire.

Then in 1947 she bought a house with the intention of restoring it. The address was No. 1 Monkey Row, Ware, Hertfordshire, a house built around 1450 for a wealthy monk as a ‘hall house’, a medieval arrangement in which the living space was attached to an open hall overlooked by a minstrel’s gallery. At the time of May’s purchase, the remainder of the house was still being used as a bakery. Encouraged by her wish to renovate it, the Local History Society launched their own research exercise into the property, soon finding they could date it even further back, to 1415, when Monkey Row was used daily by monks, and named Monke Road.

As a self-taught home improvement enthusiast, May set about exposing the heavy oak beams of the house, each bearing the marks of medieval carpenters, and she lifted crumbling lino to reveal wide, hand-cut floorboards which needed to be preserved. She employed a builder to repair the roof, but for all the rest of the work – including brick-laying, carpentry, re-glazing and stripping plaster from the ceilings and 20 layers of paper from the walls and re-plastering – she did with her own hands.

The emerged shell of May’s house.

Then in 1953, having spent so much of her time renovating her house, the Council told May that they had planned for it to be demolished to make way for a road sometime in the future! In her eyes, that was nothing less than vandalism, forcing her to declare her form of outright war! May dug her heels in and resolved to save the building and for 15 years, she fought the Council’s plans, writing to them at one point:

‘If this little house is really in the way, I would rather move it and re-erect it than see it destroyed.’ She also separately commented: ‘I just won’t have such a marvellous old house bulldozed into the ground……. I’ve got nothing to do all day, so I might as well do the job myself.’

By 1969, when she was 58 years of age, but before the bulldozers were primed to advance, May effectively embarked on a 23-year labour of love and life of hardship. Dressed in a workman’s apron and her greying hair tucked beneath a headscarf, she single-handedly began first to number each beam, tile and pane of glass so that her home could be reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. She then organised the dismantling of the heavy oak timber frame, held together with tapered wooden pegs; this was both difficult and dangerous and a team of local demolition contractors offered to help. Thousands of hand-made Hertfordshire peg tiles from the roof were piled high on the ground and huge timbers were laid out in a set order and in various and appropriate sizes. She had no electricity and worked by the light of Victorian paraffin lamps. She used an alarm clock to set herself targets each day; even noting how many nails she had extracted from oak beams per hour, as she dismantled the house and prepared for rebuilding. May even traced over a sample of brickwork using greaseproof paper and crayons so that she would know which bond to use and how thick to lay the mortar. Eventually, all these materials would all be loaded on to a lorry alongside Tudor fireplaces, Elizabethan diamond leaded glass and more, for a rebuild she might not have already realised, could span the rest of her life.

May cataloging and storing the house materials prior to transporting to Norfolk.

But doggedly, she pressed on and continued to live in the house as it was being taken down, sleeping beneath the stairs – even in the freezing cold. All this time, charitable local reaction continued to build up and even leading to complete strangers offering help to May. Some sent her money to help with the inevitable expense and many became life-long friends. One was said to have commented: ‘Yours is the spirit that once made Britain great!’ May even woke up one morning with an idea which she considered to be a brainwave. On the basis that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ she hastily wrote to the R.A.F; she simply asked if they could possibly supply a helicopter and ‘lift and move the house for her’; they, unsurprisingly, sent a negative reply, saying unfortunately, the load was too big and they felt, much too risky. Even if they could, the journey would need to be painfully slow, given the age and structure of what they would be moving; it was a diplomatic way of saying No!

But this was the point when May already knew where she and her entire house would be going, and she had already found a site on which the house would sit; it happened to be in the seaside town of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Taking the next step, May had also secured the necessary planning permission to re-build, and went as far as to employ a Wells builder to lay the foundations. All it needed was for a lorry to make 11 round trips, between Ware in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, every part and section of May’s dismantled house.


Back in Hertfordshire, the dismantled parts had been stacked up and stored around the garden, ready for their long journey. Visibly, the scene resembled a builder’s yard, in which everything was arranged with strict military precision. All bricks were placed together as were roof tiles in neatly stacked rows and seemingly innumerable piles of wooden beams, roof joints and more. Screws, nails, hinges, door handles, hooks, door knobs, nuts & bolts; cabling, dozens more items and maybe a few other possessions as well all had their own place, box or container. This neat arrangement even suggested that May would immediately know if any single item had been the least bit disturbed!

And when the day came for the first load to leave for Wells, three men and a lorry made the first of eleven round trips to Norfolk, to ensure every single part of the house – regardless of size or type – was moved. With the completion of this manoeuvre, May’s 20-year reconstruction programme continued; her temporary home at Wells being a former holiday caravan. Conditions there would often be unbearably cold, but she remained doggedly determined to press on; her niece, Christine Adams told the Fakenham Ladies Circle Club in 1971:

“My mother brought us up to believe there’s no such word as can’t” and this possibly fuelled her determination to continue and succeed.”

Two years later, the main framework had been fixed to the foundations by a local carpenter and May had also started to infill the brickwork; her still somewhat limited experience of this skill had been honed during her previous repair of the same house at Ware, that skill would be honed further over the coming years; but she was determined to lay every single brick perfectly – and it might still be another eight years before the roof tiles were put in place and the property made watertight.



By her 70s, May had almost moved in as the house now stood proudly in its new surroundings. Each old oak beam had been correctly placed, the brickwork nearly completed and most walls plastered. Despite her age, she still continued to build, climbing the layers of scaffolding daily to reach the upper floors, top windows or whatever else required her attention. By 1986, the Queen had heard of May’s incredible project and immediately invited her to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. But now it seemed, May was running out of steam and in 1992 she installed a small wood-burner stove to heat the ‘new’ house, while already having difficulty climbing ladders. She also found cement work ‘a bit heavy’. Her failing health sometimes required home visits from the local doctor but reputedly, such conversations were only exchanged through the letterbox!

During 1993, May Savidge passed away peacefully, in the Wells Cottage Hospital just before her 82nd birthday, with the house still unfinished. The walls were up and the roof was on, but overall, it was still little more than a shell. However, in her Will the property had been left to members of her family and after May’s death, they subsequently finished it over the ensuing 15 years. Still standing not far from The Buttlands it is now the home of May niece, Christine Adams – and a B&B.

May’s house today.

But there’s still one more story to tell about Miss May Savidge; she was, on the side, a collector extraordinaire and perhaps even a hoarder. It was a fact that May had filled her home to possibly resemble an overstocked curiosity shop. In the garden, were nine side-saddles, as relics of a bygone age. Boxes of unworn wartime nurses’ bonnets and May’s Service Medals lay inside heavy trunks, stacked to ceiling height. She kept packets of old-fashioned soap powder, Omo and Oxydol, alongside bottles of J Collis Browne’s Mixture, the Victorian cure-all.


There were thousands of train, bus and trolley bus tickets, milk bottle tops and notes left by the milkman. She reputedly kept old matchboxes, confectionery wrappers and still more which today, might be items eagerly sought by collectors or dealers. And in 440 diaries, she had listed every daily action carried out, revealing life in a Britain now lost – e.g., the use of farthings, florins, half-pennies, half-crowns, shillings, three-penny pieces, milk churns, chains, furlongs, yards, ounces, telegrams and typewriters on a much longer list. It was much of these memorabilia that was sold in order to raise funds to complete the renovation project left by May after she died.

May Savidge at Wells.


She clearly had much dogged determination to pursue a passion that existed long before conservation became fashionable. May Savidge had decided to move her home lock, stock and barrel across Britain from the busy Ware High Street in Hertfordshire to peaceful Norfolk around 100 miles away. What a remarkable lady and such an incredible task she undertook!


A Lifetime in the Building: The Extraordinary Story of May Savidge and the House She Moved, by Christine Adams with Michael McMahon, published by Aurum.
Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archive 2021.
Images: Courtesy of Christine Adams.

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.
Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.


A Poet, His Friend and Overstrand’s ‘Mill House’.

By Haydn Brown.

The North Norfolk coastal village of Overstrand was not really discovered until the late 19th-century. Before then the hamlet was quiet, sleepy and simply a remote fishing village. Even nearby Cromer was still a small but selected watering-hole; that was until the area was ‘exposed’ by the London journalist, Clement Scott, followed by its easy accessibility afforded by the railways. In August 1883 the first in a series of articles, written by Scott, were to change the face of Overstrand and Cromer when they appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Visitors soon came flocking to see for themselves this romantic haven – Poppyland, of which Scott had dreamt up and written about.

Many stayed at the Mill House, the owner of which was miller, Alfred Jermy, and his daughter, Louie; they became celebrities and Mill House became a centre for visiting literati; thus turning it into a meeting place for poets, actors, playwrights and a bohemian retreat. The poet A.C. Swinburne, together with his companion Theodore Watts-Dunton, came to stay there. During that time, it was Swinburne who, despite his problem with alcoholism, used to bathe in the sea off Sidestrand and manage to produce a number of poems about the location; these later would appear in his ‘A Midsummer Holiday’ in 1884.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Algernon Charles Swinburne was born in London on 5 April 1837; he was the eldest of six children born to Captain Charles Henry Swinburne (1797–1877) and Lady Jane Henrietta, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, a wealthy Northumbrian family. As a child, Swinburne was “nervous” and “frail,” but “was also fired with nervous energy and fearlessness to the point of being reckless.” He also developed a lifelong passion for the sea, hence his nickname ‘Seagull’ – for he was never to be far from a seashore. Apart from his development into an adult, his appearance along the way was described by Elizabeth Jones:

“…… that he had both the appearance and the sound of a fragile child. Red hair crowned a strangely large head that sat on the sloping shoulders of a small, wiry body. A high-pitched voice and a tendency towards nervous fits characterised a man who was nevertheless polite and popular.”

It was whilst at Oxford that Swinburne was to meet his long-lasting friend Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton. It was also from Oxford that the poet was expelled in 1860 and therefore never attained a degree.

Theodore Watts-Dunton by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1874. National Portrait Gallery 4888

Swinburne’s poetry, certainly in his younger days, was strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ ‘medievalism’, which often linked love and sadness; however, his early works, despite attracting some degree of enthusiasm, inspired a storm of abuse from critics. One critic denounced Swinburne as “unclean for the sake of uncleanliness”, whilst another wanted censorship of his poems for their “pagan spirit”. The popularity of an article entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’ was said to have been assisted by the scandalous accounts of the poet’s lifestyle.

Rumours were rife of Swinburne’s “homosexual affairs, cannibal dinners, bestiality and patronage of flagellation brothels.” Wild outbursts brought on by his inability to control his drinking contributed to his sinking reputation. One American newspaper paper called him “a perfect leper and a mere sodomite,” whilst the famous ‘Punch’ magazine referred to his surname as “Swineborn.” It was somewhat surprising therefore that by the 1890’s Swinburne was being hailed “as the greatest living English poet,” – and Queen Victoria by 1892 had even considered him as a replacement for Tennyson, the late poet laureate! However, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone was not of the same mind and told Queen Victoria:

“I fear he is absolutely impossible. And I must own to have been astounded at the terms in which The Times (17th) described his early outrages. It is a sad pity: I have always been deeply impressed by his genius.”

But, the public’s attitude towards the poet was to change, and responsibility for this was said to have been down to his now firm-friend, Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton. When Swinburne’s drinking threatened his own life, Watts-Dunton quickly removed him from London and set up a home for them both at Putney. For the remaining thirty years of his life, Swinburne lived a calm, sober and respectable existence at ‘The Pines’, protected and seemingly controlled by his friend.

Swinburne often referred to Watts-Dunton, as his ‘Major’, a term that summed up their relationship. Swinburne would be kept to a strict regime of healthy walks and meals, polite conversation and a little writing. All visitors were vetted by Watts-Dunton, who also actively discouraged Swinburne’s past friends, together with any visits to their home in the interests of peace and quiet. Praise and persuasion were used to keep Swinburne away from his favourite drinks, and also from the latent pull of attempting to shock the reading public. Instead, Watts-Dunton encouraged the writing of descriptive poems on nature and odes to various heroes. Because of this he was criticised for a lack of insight into Swinburne’s talent. It was said of Watts-Dunton that he saved the man but killed the poet.

As for a further description of Watts-Dunton, he was described as genteel, suburban but professional; he was also said to have possessed “a genius for friendship”. Through this and his “apparent self-confidence”, he won the devotion of several men, one of which was Swinburne – it would seem that Watts-Dunton “pulled many of the strings that moved the rest.” However, a contemporary of his referred to him as a “bright-eyed, umpire-like little man.” It was also said that Watts-Dunton once hid Swinburne’s boots to prevent him from going out; certainly, he concealed chapters of the novel ‘Lesbia Brandon’ until after Swinburne was dead because he was so anxious to prevent its publication.

But, as it was, ever year the two spent time by the sea, often at Southwold; but by the September of 1883 the Overstrand was the regular destination for both men who were inspired by the romantic beauty of the imaginary Poppyland landscape, “for too long the area had been sadly neglected by romantics.” Both men, it seems, found the experience awesome.

On the grass of the cliff, at the edge of the steep,
God planted a garden – a garden of sleep!
Near the blue of the sky, in the green of the corn,
It is there that the regal red poppies are born!

A deserted graveyard and church tower on the poppy-covered cliffs provided another fruitful source of inspiration for the poets. It was this spot that had moved Clement Scott to write his poem ‘The Garden of Sleep’ and to name the area Poppyland. Swinburne revealed at the time that he disliked places like Cromer, preferring isolated, unspoilt areas of the coast. His appreciation of the peace and beauty of Poppyland and Overstrand was continually in evidence.

Cromer’s Bath House Hotel mid 19th century.

Following a short stay at Cromer’s Bath Hotel, these two friends settled into Overstrand’s Mill House; they would be the guests of Alfred Jermy and his daughter Louie Jermy. Swinburne wrote of the delights of the place when he wrote to his sister, Alice:

“The whole place is fragrant with old-fashioned flowers, sweet William and thyme and lavender and mignonette and splendid with great sunflowers.”

His enthusiasm for the picturesque cottage and its scented garden produced his poem ‘The Mill Garden’. Also, Swinburne had always enjoyed swimming, particularly when the sea was very rough, and declared at the Mill House that the bathing at Overstrand “to be far superior to that at Southwold”.

“Louie of the Blackberry Puddings”, or the “Maid of the Mill” as Jermy’s daughter was nicknamed, must have made her literary guests very welcome at the house, for they returned year after year. However, the villagers of Overstrand must also have been somewhat wary of these two strangers, but particularly Swinburne who, by this time was “the most talked about man in England.”

An old image of Mill House. Credit Literary Norfolk.
The Mill House today. Credit Jermy Org.


Towards the close of the 19th-century, owing to the influx of the rich and famous, Overstrand became known as the “village of millionaires.” Politicians and publishers bought property there, amongst them Churchill and Sir Frederick Macmillan. Clement Scott’s writing drew a host of artists to stay at the Mill House and nearby, including Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Punch artist George Du Maurier.

Louie Jermy, thrived on caring for her bohemian guests. She had aspirations towards the theatre herself that were never realised, except in terms of the many friendships she made in the theatrical world. After World War One the character of Louie’s guests was to change and she had to contend with “midnight bathes, hilarious singing and shouting, and a growing laxity of general behaviour.” In The Referee in 1919, George Sims paid tribute to her: “Miss Jermy of Poppyland has been the guardian angel of famous men. Swinburne wrote some of his finest poetry at her house.”

For Swinburne and his friend, Watts-Dunton, holidays at the Mill House was an important part of their lives, for it inspired both men to write of their experiences there. Their friendship was one firmly based on a common passion for the arts, poetry in particular, and it survived over a period of seventy years until Swinburne’s death in 1909 at the age of 72 years.


Source: Jones, Elizabeth. 1984. The Poppyland Poets. Norfolk Fair. Sep. 26-27


‘Old’ Crome, the ‘Norwich School’ and Much Else!

By Haydn Brown.

My other hobby is oil painting – landscape painting. Having ‘cut my teeth’ with those of John Constable many years ago. I later discovered John ‘Old’ Crome and, apart from his paintings, I soon became interested in the man’s background; for, apart from some 200 years between us, we share certain aspects: such as same county, city, locations of work, home, painting, church – and public houses! So why shouldn’t I follow his trail, and maybe dream; and, hopefully, with you in tow:

Riding on the backs of sheep and cloth, Norfolk was once rich; it was also at the forefront of the Agricultural Revolution which brought further wealth. Norwich’s mercantile class also blossomed and comfortably melded in with the surrounding country gentry. Between them, privileged society provided a cultured patronage on which aspiring local artists could emerge.

John Crome, (1768 – 1821) was one such artist. He, as many art enthusiasts would know, was a principal English landscape painter of the Romantic era, and one of the founding members of the ‘Norwich School of Painters’. It was he who, in later life, was better known as ‘Old’ Crome; this to distinguish him from his son, John Berney Crome, who painted in his father’s manner but who, in the opinion of some at least, had an inferior talent – but no matter!

St Georges Church in Tombland, Norwich where John ‘Old’ Crome was baptised on Christmas Day 1768. Photo: Julian White.

John Crome was born on 22 December 1768 in an alehouse named the ‘Griffen’ (Griffin)’ which, according to Hocksetters Map of 1789 used to be in the Castle Meadow/ Tombland area of the city, near the corner of Tombland and Upper King Street, on what was then called Conisford Street in the quarter known as the Castle Ditches. Records show that the building itself dated back to at least 1603, but it completely disappeared when the Prince of Wales Road was constructed in 1860. Here, John Crome’s father, despite being an active weaver by trade, ran the Griffin; it would appear that being in more than one occupation was not an uncommon practice at the time!

On Christmas Day 1768, in St George’s church in Tombland, Crome was baptised. By then, this church had already accumulated a long history, which dated back to at least the 14th century (some say as far back as the late Anglo-Saxon period) – its tower dating from 1445 and then having major repairs in 1645. The font from which John received his baptism was, and remains, of Purbeck marble, not uncommon in many rural East Anglian churches; in 1768 it had yet to be ‘urbanised by enthusiastic Victorians who would place it on grand marble pillars.

An inscription on the above drawing states:
“South Porch of St George, Tombland, Norwich – formerly called ‘St. George at the Gates/of the Holy Trinity’ the Cathedral – A new [19th century?] porch, in the same style, has been erected within the last 15 years in place of the above. I would particularly call attention to the singular form/of the buttresses / HH”. Image: Norfolk Museums Collections.
On the day of Crome’s baptism, this would have been the porch through which the congregation would have walked.

The young boy Crome was later to be described as ‘very likeable’ with a ‘charming character’; even, a ‘loveable rascal’ – with these attributes it may be no surprise to learn that he grew up and lived in Norwich for the whole of his life! However, it was a life which only slowly emerged in any sort of recorded detail when the boy had reached 12 years of age. At that point, in 1781, young Crome had become an errand boy for the eminent city doctor Edward Rigby. Dr Edward Rigby owned an apothecary’s shop, at 54 Giles Street, and it was there where the 12-year-old lived and worked for about three years.

54 St Giles Street, Norwich.
The Rigby family, of husband, wife and fourteen children shared this corner house with their country residence named Framingham Earl Hall. The St Giles address could well have been where Dr Rigby also had his Practice and Apothecary’s shop, standing as it does on the corner of Rigby Court (formerly Pitt Lane) and St Giles. Rigby Court linked St Giles to Bethel Street. Photo: Evelyn Simak.

Dr. Rigby was to have an initial influential effect on Crome’s life for he appears to have been the first person to recognise Crome’s potential as an artist. As time went on, he introduced him to some of the influential people of that period whom Rigby knew and who were interested in art. In particular, the weaver-turned-banker Gurney family – although of equal importance was to be Thomas Harvey (1748-1819), of Catton House in the village of Old Catton, who would also make an early appearance in Crome’s development.

Dr. Edward Rigby MD, (1747-1821) Physician by Joseph Clover – circa 1819. Portrait: (Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital) – Image: Edward Rigby Clover

Of course, Crome’s personal responsibilities and interests were not expected to be solely directed towards art; there was also the matter of work that he was employed to do for the doctor who, in his own field of skill, was already someone of eminence. But the doctor, it seems, had to handle a sometimes ‘mischievous’ lad in Crome – for the lad had a propensity for pranks, with several stories surviving through time. An example was the occasion when young Crome changed the labels on the medicines that he was delivering on behalf of the doctor! Another, which may have been one which had rebounded on to him, was when he threw the doctor’s medical skeleton out of his bedroom window; it was said that medical students had placed it in his bed for a joke – Boys, it seems, will always be Boys!

Nevertheless, young Crome survived a full three years of employment with Dr Rigby before his employer, having given him lodgings, paid him and nurtured his desire to paint, decided that it was time for Crome to move on – and here, we may have to thank the doctor for what followed. Just around the corner from the apothecary’s shop, stood Francis Whisler’s, Coach and Sign painting business – in Bethel Street. It was there, in August 1783, where Crome began his seven-year apprenticeship, learning first-hand how to mix colours and to appreciate what these substances could produce in the right hands. Clearly a precocious lad, with an ability to apply paint to canvas, board and paper with effect, he had taken the first steps in establishing his preferred career path.

Fast forward now to today; and surviving in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is believed to be the earliest known example of Crome’s work, produced during the time of his apprenticeship, which was between 1783 and no later than 1790. The painting is known as ‘The Wherryman’; it was a sign which must have formerly hung outside a public house – and it would be interesting to know where?  In 1906, an auction in Norwich first brought this signboard back into the light and, at that time, it was sold for the price of twelve guineas. The V & A Museum’s description of the work is as follows:

‘The Wherryman’
“Figure in the centre foreground is wearing the dress of a boatman or wherryman. He points to a wherry, which is shown sailing on the Norfolk Broads behind him, with his right hand.”

It was also during the early years of his apprenticeship when Crome became firm friends with an apprenticed printer named Robert Ladbrooke, who was employed by Whites of Norwich. The two boys had serious compatible interests in art and went out together to sketch the streets and lanes around Norwich, and particularly to Mousehold Heath on the outskirts of the city. For a time, they shared a garret studio and between them, sold some of their art-work to a local print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich. At that time Ladbrooke concentrated of portraits whilst Crome on landscapes, which both sold for very small sums. Subsequently, Ladbrooke turned to Landscape painting, in which he was said to have ‘become highly successful’.

Thomas Harvey of Catton by John Opie (1761–1807) – after. Norfolk Museums Service

It has also been said that it was through the print seller, Smith and Jaggers of Norwich, that Crome met Thomas Harvey of Catton; but here it should be remembered that Harvey and Dr Rigby, mentioned earlier, were already friends; and young Crome had been in the employ of the doctor and through ‘introductions’ probably already knew Harvey. That apart, the little extra money that Crome and Ladbroke earned during their excursions went on buying prints of Dutch masters to copy – and Ladbroke was much inspired by Crome’s undoubted superior skills; skills which included the ability to make his own paintbrushes from cat’s hairs, whilst using oyster shells as palettes!

Harvey House in Colegate, Norwich; Thomas Harvey’s city house, which was in addition to his country pad ‘Catton House’, north on the outskirts of Norwich in the village of Old Catton. Image: Courtesy of Reggie Unthank.

When Crome’s apprenticeship ended, in 1790, he began to take up commissions and to give drawing lessons to children of the wealthy. This was also the moment when Crome’s earlier introduction to Thomas Harvey, the wealthy weaver from Old Catton – who also, by the way, had a house in Colgate (see above), really began to pay off.

Thomas Harvey was a rich master weaver who had come from a line of wealthy merchants, ten of whom had been mayors of Norwich. Harvey had married a Ann Twiss, the daughter of an English merchant living in Rotterdam who had an important collections of paintings, which included Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Cottage Door’ (see below), plus several of the Dutch School. These eventually passed into the Harvey family and to Thomas who was something of an artist himself, but very much of the amateur kind. His wealth also allowed him to build up his collection of Dutch masters, some of which had come from Antwerp dealers; these were supplemented by paintings from other artists, including those of Richard Wilson and Miendert Hobbema.

Thomas Gainsborough – The Cottage Door. By Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1773. Commons Wikimedia.

When Harvey became Crome’s patron, both his own studio at Catton House and his art collection became available to the young artist and he, it seems, became particularly influenced by the Wilson and Hobbema paintings – and their ‘ability to give landscape paintings a sense of space and breadth’. Given this patronage, Crome certainly visited Catton House frequently; and it is probably quite true that, for a time at least, Crome may have lived there. This would have been of real benefit when it came to Crome actually copying these paintings as part of his further development, thus ensuring that the qualities and colour aspects of these two masters would feature in Crome’s future works and teachings.

Thomas Harvey’s ‘Catton House’ years later. He, along with other members in the Harvey line, had a considerable presence in Old Catton. It was Thomas who had built the above Catton House, and then there was Robert Harvey whole lived at ‘The Grange’, not to mention Jeremiah Ives Harvey at Eastwood. Image: Courtesy of the Old Catton Society.

Catton House was also the place where young Crome met other artists, such as Sir William Beechey R.A. and later, John Opie. Then there was Sara Siddons the famous actress who was related by marriage to Harvey’s wife, Anne; as a consequence, Siddons was reputed to have given ‘a Reading’ before an invited audience at Catton House in October 1793. But it was Sir William Beechey who saw Crome’s promise as an artist and gave him some lessons – all be it in London. Beechey was also the one who described Crome as:

‘…. an awkward country lad when I first met him, but shrewd in all his remarks on art, although he wanted words to express them’.

This post-apprenticeship period was certainly a busy one for Crome one way or another; included in which was an activity that had little to do with painting – romance! He had met Phoebe Berney and in the October of 1792, they married at St Mary’s Church, Coslany; just in time, for by the 30th of that same month, their first child, Amelia, arrived! Quite a relationship one would suppose since the couple were to go on to produce eleven children in total during their marriage. However, four were to die in infancy and Amelia died shortly before her second birthday. Two of their surviving sons, John Berney Crome and William Henry Crome (1806–67). were to follow in their father’s footsteps to become well-known artists in their own right.

Robert Ladbrooke who, unsurprisingly, had been present at Crome’s wedding in 1792 followed his close friend one year later when he married Phoebe Berney’s sister, Mary.

St Mary Coslany Church, Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams.

Either side of his domestic life, Crome continued to paint and, increasingly, to build up his contacts and clients. By 1796 he was teaching sketching to Master Sparshall, the son of the Quaker wine merchant who lived in St Clements Alley which, incidentally, was quite near to Thomas Harvey’s town house in Colgate. The Sparshall house itself had previously been the residence of Alexander Thurston, the 17th century Mayor and MP for Norwich.

Then in 1798, Crome accepted a post as drawing master to the three daughters of Quaker and business-man, Joseph Gurney of Earlham Hall. It was also the year when John Opie painted Crome’s portrait. This may have been during the time leading up to May of 1798 when Opie married Amelia Alderson, a gifted poet and authoress, whom he had met at a party in Norwich. Also, in that same year, John Opie was not only in Norfolk visiting Thomas Harvey in his home at Catton House but, principally, carrying out some commissions for Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall.

John Crome’ 1798 by John Opie.
Here, Crome has turned 30 years of age. John Opie’s oil painting captures, as an art critic once described: “A handsome young man whose heavy brows, full lips, thick black hair and brooding, perceptive countenance suggest deep waters. Norwich Museum & Art Gallery.

By this time, Crome had become a Freemason, joined the Philosophical Society and the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’, which met in the Rifleman’s Arms in Calvert Street, across from Cross Lane which in turn led to St George’s Street. There, a group of like-minded characters, smoked ‘churchwarden’ pipes and enjoyed a drink or two with other members of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’ – the origins of which were said to be as follows:

“The Rifleman was located in an industrial area of shoe and weaving industry workers. And through this, came an unusual if not ingenious idea to attract more customers to the pub. The normal working week in such trades was then six days during which their workers clothing unavoidably became dirty. So, one Master Weaver arranged with the Rifleman for him to ‘set up shop’ in the bar on Saturday afternoons so that he could pay his out-workers when they came in to have a drink to end the week.

The former Rifleman Arms in Cross Lane, off St George’s Street, Norwich. Image: George Plunkett.

Not only were they paid, but naturally arriving dirty, the distribution of wages was accompanied by a change of shirt with a clean one provided for the following week. The number of people “enjoying” this opportunity, led to the formation of the ‘Dirty Shirt Club’. While enjoying a drink or two and a gossip, members also smoked their own churchwarden clay pipes, given to them on entry. Each member’s initials were inscribed on the bowl and pipes were kept aside for them by the publican, between visits. Any new members had honour of smoking from a silver pipe. From the early 1800s, ‘Old’ Crome was a regular visitor, and had his own special chair – witnessing everything.”

Origins of sketch unknown.

By 1801, Crome had established a school of art in his house at 17 Gildencroft, possibly Green Lane (now demolished) and later took up a post as drawing master at the King Edward Grammar School which lay within the shadows of the Cathedral in Norwich. At the Grammar School he helped the sons and daughters of the Norfolk gentry and middle-class, as well as private pupils to learn to paint and draw. Amongst these pupils were notable artists of the future, such as James Stark and Edward Thomas Daniel. There was also George Borrow’s brother, John – who was to paint George Borrow’s portrait in 1821, whilst the latter was working as a solicitor’s clerk in London

The Poringland Oak by John ‘Old’ Crome, circa. 1818–20.
Here Crome depicts the open heath at Poringland. His painting centres on a large oak tree that would have been familiar to locals. The warm glow of the setting sun and the carefree bathers give the scene an idyllic feeling. Crome may have painted this for nostalgic reasons of knowing Dr Edward Rigby who owned nearby Framingham Earl Hall and who, by 1819, had enclosed the Poringland heath for over a decade for his tree planting scheme. John Crome’s painting of the Poringland Oak was to become the inspiration behind the present Poringland village sign. Image: Tate Gallery.

In 1802, and by way of an extension to the business of tutoring the Gurney’s three daughters in art, Crome was invited to join the whole Gurney family on a tour of the Lake District. Sometime after their return to Norwich, on 19 February 1803 to be precise, Crome, together with his long-standing friend, artist and printer Robert Ladbrooke, became the principal movers in the foundation of the ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; this was later to become famously known as the ‘Norwich School of Painters’ — the first art movement in England to be formed outside London. The term ‘Norwich School’ was coined because its style reflected landscape painting which had moved away from European influences, which favoured warm, burnt-brown palettes. The Norwich School replaced these with the verdant greens actually seen in the Norfolk landscape. It was Old Crome himself, through the Society, who had advocated that paintings should look ‘only to nature’, a statement that regularly appeared in the Society’s exhibitions catalogues at the time.

It is not known whether it was Crome or Ladbrooke who first raised the idea of forming this debating/exhibiting society in Norwich, but the two’s growing involvement with local art patrons and fellow artists probably made it inevitable that such a body would emerge – to be added to the many other clubs and societies that were flourishing in Norwich at the time? The purpose of the Crome/Ladbroke version was, from the outset to be:

“An Enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present State of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of Study to attain to Great Perfection in these Arts”

1810 portrait of Robert Ladbrooke – by an unknown artist! Wikipedia.

Also, the Norwich Society of Artists promoted, from the outset,  an ‘open-door’ policy whereby no one was turned away who had a genuine interest in art. The only criteria to joining was for each to submit a piece of their own and to secure a place via a ballot of existing members. These members consisted of active painters in oils and watercolours, and included such people as John Sell Cotman, Joseph Stannard and ‘Old’ Crome’s artist son John Berney Crome, Robert Dixon, Charles Hodgson, Daniel Coppin, James Stark, George Vincent and of course others. Some would have seemingly worked under Crome’s influence, with a bias in favour of Norfolk scenery – the slow-flowing rivers and gnarled trees, the people and places of their home city and the Norfolk coast.

Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court off Little Cockey Lane was demolished in 1826 to make way for the first version of Norwich’s  Corn Exchange (red star) which, in the long term, ended up as the Jarrold’s Department Store. Also suggested here is not only old ‘The Hole-in-the-Wall’ Lane, but also the location of the tavern of the same name (purple star). As per Millard and Manning’s plan of Norwich 1830 – Courtesy of Reggie Unthank and Norfolk County Council.

Throughout, the Society’s meetings were held fortnightly at the ‘Hole in the Wall’ tavern, which was destined to be demolished by 1838. Its actual location of this tavern is not clear today; time and changes to street layout etc. have seen to that. However, it has been said by the likes of George Plunkett that it was once near the St Andrews Street end of the Hole in the Wall Lane, and built into a part of the east wall of the chancel of the Church of St. Crowche, most of which had itself been demolished as far back as the 16th century. The tavern must have also stood very near to what is now the lower section of Exchange St. It was said that at the time pedestrians had to walk round the old churchyard to get into St Andrew’s. Today, all that remains of both the tavern, and St Crowche, is a mediaeval stone corbel set in a flint wall off the north side of St Andrew’s Street.

As for the Norwich Society of Artists, its evenings at the tavern were taken up with ‘taking supper listening to the presentations of papers’; for this, there was a yearly subscription of 4 Guineas to maintain membership.

Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, off Little Cockey Lane, Norwich by David Hodgson (1798–1864). Norfolk Museums Service.

By 1805, the Society had enough paintings to present their first exhibition, hosted at Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, which was off Little Cockey Lane and not far from Little London Street; Crome contributed twenty-two works. This venue was later to became the home of the Society. From that point onwards, and until 1825, these exhibitions were held annually and coinciding with the city’s Summer Assizes Week when many people from the surrounding area visited the city and where amusements took place. Norwich became the first English city to establish regular art exhibitions outside London.

John ‘Old’ Crome was to become the president of the Society on several occasions up until his death in 1821, but when he was again elected in 1808, his long-standing friend, Robert Ladbrooke was elected as Vice-President. However, in 1816 Ladbrooke, Stannard, Thirtle and a few other members – Ladbroke having also fallen out with Crome – broke away from the Society to set up and run rival exhibitions; but these proved a failure and were ended after three years. Ladbroke and Crome were reconciled at just about the same time; maybe simply because theirs had been a long-standing friendship; it was a friendship between entirely different characters though:

“Crome was found of company, a ‘dashing fellow’ and with great ideas; whereas, Ladbroke was ‘plodding, prudent and took great care of what cash came his way; he taught his family likewise”.

St George Church, Colegate, Norwich, Norfolk. Photo: Courtesy of John Salmon.

Finally, on 14 April 1821 and after a few days’ illness, John ‘Old’ Crome died at his house in Green Lane, Gildengate, and his death certificate recorded that he had died of ‘an inflammatory malady induced by early labours as a house painter’!  On the 27th of that same month, his remains were interred in St George’s church Colegate – a mere stones-throw away from his home and his local, ‘The Rifleman’. The local paper reported that ‘an immense concourse of people’ attended his funeral at St Georges, which had been his church and where, in later life, he became its churchwarden. It was an appropriate place in which to mount a memorial tablet to him.

John Crome’s memorial plaque in St Georges Church at Colgate. Whilst some may feel that it is nothing spectacular, it does display a nice clean-line relief profile of the man; also a palette and brushes below and a laurel wreath over his head.

When ‘Old’ Crome died in 1821, John Sell Cotman became President of ‘The Norwich Society of Artists’; its activities continuing until his own departure for London in 1834. It was at that point when Cotman actually closed the Society and many former members and their pupils went off elsewhere to continue painting and exhibiting.

Crome’s grave in St. George’s Church ,Colegate, Norwich. Wikipedia.

Surprisingly perhaps, Crome and what was known as the ‘Norwich School’ had been little known outside Norfolk; that is, until the late twentieth century. This was due mainly to the fact that many of Crome’s paintings, together with paintings of other ‘Norwich School’ members, were bought privately by the J.J. Colman family. It was in 1946 when Russell James Colman donated these to the city’s Castle Museum. He also gave money in order for the museum to build a gallery to house them in a permanent display.

Following the death of ‘Old’ Crome, during the November of 1821, the Norwich Society of Artists held a memorial exhibition of more than 100 of Crome’s works in the city. During his life, however, he had exhibited an estimated number of 307 pictures, 16 of which had been exhibited in London – and none of which had been signed. It appears somewhat strange that Crome, above all, never signed any of his paintings. Bearing in mind that his pupils and sons had been trained by Crome on the basis of copying his works, meant that it has always been difficult, or impossible indeed, to verify which are ‘Old’ Crome’s paintings and which are replicas!

It is also a sad fact that when Old Crome died, he was in debt – to the sum of £145 owed to the Gurney’s Bank. Nevertheless, John ‘Old’ Crome was and remains, in my eyes at least, as an artist of considerable repute.


  1. An incident in Crome’s life was the subject of the one-act opera ‘Twice in a Blue Moon’ by Phyllis Tate, to a libretto by Christopher Hassall: it was first performed in 1969. In the story Crome and his wife split one of his paintings, depicting Mousehold Heath, in two to sell each half at the Norwich Fair.
  2. Part of the front of Stranger’s Hall was once the home of sculptor Pellegrino Mazzotti; it was he who produced a bust of John Crome; today, a ‘blue plaque’ on Its wall refers to this.


Heading Image: John Crome by Denis Brownell Murphy, watercolour and pencil, exhibited 1821. National Portrait Gallery.

Sources Generally Referred to Include (and in no particular order):
(Chillers, Ian (ed), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, Oxford University Press, 1990).
The Norwich School of Painters | COLONEL UNTHANK’S NORWICH (colonelunthanksnorwich.com)
In Focus: John Croome, the ‘mouse that roared’ of the art world – Country Life
Walking Crome’s Norwich self guided trail (1).pdf

‘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.
Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.


An Esteemed Black Member of Yarmouth’s 19th Century Middle Class.

By Haydn Brown.

The story of Edward Steele, and his sister Katherine Anne Steele, is of middle-class life. For Edward, it was in around Norwich and Great Yarmouth, but began in the heart of Caribbean slavery. Here, his story contrasts to the evils of a life forced upon someone who was of African descent, and the freedom and status achieved by him in Norfolk. His story, bought to you thanks to Richard C. Maguire, offers a brief insight into the issue of race in 19th-century Norfolk Society.

Edward Steele, Esq:
Edward Steele, Esq resided for many years in Regent Road, Yarmouth following his retirement from the military; first at No 8 then later at No 13. There he was long known and highly respected in the town’s society, despite being born in Barbados in 1785. For many years he had been an officer in the East Norfolk Regiment of Militia but died in 1873, in his 89th year, unmarried and having retained his faculties almost to the last.

Regent Road, Yarmouth at the turn of the 19th century. Public Domain.

There is no reason to think that Edward Steele had any connection to the history of Norfolk’s Black population. In fact, his story, and that of his sister Katherine Ann Steele, began in the heart of Caribbean slavery and racism. Both Edward Steele and his sister were born enslaved, the illegitimate children of a plantation owner in Barbados called Joshua Steele, from whom they presumably were named.

Joshua Steele (1700-1791):
Little is known of Joshua Steele’s life before 1750, but he eventually became an accomplished 18th-century ‘Gentleman and Scholar’. In 1750, he married a wealthy widow, Sarah Hopkins Osborn who had inherited a large plantation on the island of Barbados, called Hallett’s, which in 1774 held 131 enslaved people. She also had the lease of two other plantations that bordered Hallett’s: Byde Mill House plantation, which held 102 enslaved people and Kendalls, which held 184 enslaved people in 1774.


When Joshua’s wife died in 1757, he found himself the possessor of both enslaved people and plantations. Although interested in how this income might be increased, Steele showed no interest in the welfare of his enslaved people and kept silent about his own ownership status in general discussions.  Nonetheless, he needed the income from these plantations to fund his lifestyle and from 1775 he became increasingly concerned over their falling cash-flow, beginning to attend meetings of the Society of West India Merchants and Planters, which had been established to protect the interest of absentee landlords such as himself.

In 1780 Steele, possibly now eighty years of age, travelled to Barbados to examine his estates. There he was confronted with the reality that he had avoided for so many years. Appalled by, what he termed, the ‘brutality of my species’ Steele spent the next decade challenging the accepted way in which plantations were run. To the delight of abolitionists in England, he implemented changes such as banning the use of the whip, paying his slaves, having them sit in courts to judge their fellows, and even established a system of tenancy.


Steele remained on Barbados until his death in 1796 and fathered two children with Anna Slatia, one of the enslaved women on the Byde Mill plantation. The children were Edward, born in 1785, and Katherine (birth date unknown). The children remained enslaved, as did their mother. However, a few hours before Joshua died, he changed his Will. He left his plantation to his sister, Mary Ann Steele and his children, stating that the plantation was not to:

‘Become the property of any other person claiming in right of my said children, who are now slaves, but for their own proper benefit and not otherwise.’

As Joshua had probably intended, his Will led to a major court case. Firstly, disagreement flared between Mary Steele and the executor, Francis Bell, when Mary proposed to sell the plantation to a planter named Phillip Gibbes – disinheriting Edward and Katherine. Francis Bell, to his credit, disagreed. Mary Steele died before the matter was settled and Bell assumed control of the plantation. Gibbes continued litigation, however, claiming that his agreement with Mary Steele should be honoured, because Edward and Katherine, as slaves, had no rights!

The case was eventually dealt with and the wishes of Joshua Steele were ignored; the idea that enslaved people could be allowed to hold property was so dangerous that it was not allowed to be entertained in the Barbados courts.

Yet, while Edward and Katherine lost their inheritance, they did not remain enslaved. Francis Bell arranged for Edward and Katherine to be freed and for them to travel to England. Now free for the first time in their lives, the children received the education appropriate for the children of a gentleman such as Joshua Steele. Katherine went to a finishing school in Camberwell, London, while Edward was sent to school with Bell’s own son in Norwich. It seems possible that Bell may have been connected to the Bell family of Beaupré Hall in Outwell, Norfolk and that this led to Edward’s connection with the county of Norfolk.


Bell had been a loyal confederate of Joshua Steele for many years, and his allegiance to his friend’s last wishes was instrumental in enabling Edward and Katherine to make the transition from lives as enslaved people to lives as fully integrated members of Norfolk and London society.

Katherine Anne Steele:
Unfortunately, little is known about Katherine’s life after she arrived in England. Katherine married on 17 July 1807, in the St James Church, Clerkenwell, London. The man she married was ‘Henry White Esq.’ of the Parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, London. Although the marriage record lists her as ‘Catherine Ann Steele’, she signed it as ‘Katherine Anne Steele’. Katherine had married well, with no indication that her heritage as a mixed-race, formerly enslaved, woman had any impact upon her marriage prospects in early 19th-century England. The couple had at least one child, Mary Ann White, who became the major beneficiary of her uncle Edward’s estate on his death in 1883, where he described her as his ‘dear niece’ and the daughter of his late sister ‘Katherine Anne White’.

A Return to Edward:
It is not known where in Norwich Edward was schooled; however, he was to make his permanent home in Yarmouth, and it appears that this was a consequence of his military service. Edward served with the East Norfolk Regiment of militia for many years, although he is also recorded as being a member of the ‘Norfolk Regular Militia’ at one point.

Officer of the Norfolk Militia, 1759. Wikimedia.

He made steady progress through the junior officer ranks, being listed as a Lieutenant in 1824 and 1826, but had become a Senior Lieutenant in 1832. It may be that he eventually rose to the rank of Captain, since his 1873 obituary in The Ipswich Journal, listed him as ‘formerly Captain in the East Norfolk Militia’.

The Royal Barracks, Great Yarmouth (looking south, with the coast on the left). Wikiwand.com.

Edward had, up to at least 1841, lived at the Royal Barracks, Yarmouth, which were situated at the South Denes. The barracks had begun as a naval hospital in 1809, and was was later converted to a general military barracks, capable of accommodating about one hundred men. It may have been that he was resident in one of the ‘four excellent family houses, for officers belonging to the establishment, handsomely constructed with every requisite for convenience, and suitable to the comfort of the inhabitants’ that were to be found in the courtyard.

During this period Edward appears to have had a full social calendar and to have been actively engaged in the intellectual life of the town. Three letters from him while living at the Royal Barracks survive, giving us a small glimpse into his life during late 1833. All the letters were written to Charles John Palmer (1805-82), the Yarmouth antiquary and historian. The first two letters, from June and September 1833, were written in respect of a manuscript entitled ‘Love and Money’ that Palmer had written. Steele promised to examine the manuscript and ‘endeavour to form a proper opinion of it’. Having done so, he was able to inform Palmer that the manuscript was missing certain pages. The other letter relates to social engagements.

In December 1833, Palmer invited Edward Steele to spend Christmas at his house, but Edward had already agreed to spend it with his ‘my old neighbour Mr Buckle at Hethersett’. It is clear that Edward and Charles Palmer were good friends, for Edward was also involved in Palmer’s editing of ‘Manship’s History of Great Yarmouth’ and was one of the subscribers to the completed work.

Antique Steel Vignette – “St. Nicholas Church, Yarmouth” published by W Cobb & Co, Quay

Edward was also involved in his local church, St Nicholas. Described in 1806 as being in ‘a very decayed state’ St. Nicholas saw a series of restoration projects during the 19th-century. In 1840 Edward was one of a group of local gentlemen who established a committee to raise the funds required to restore the church’s organ, which was described as:

‘Once the pride of, but now the town’s disgrace’.

Whereas other restoration projects at the church caused some controversy, the organ project was successfully managed by Edward Steele and the other committee members, and the completion of the repairs in 1844 was seen as a major success for the town’s community. Edward also appeared to have found such activity suitable for his talents, as he was also responsible for supervising the restoration of the organ at The Chapel of Saint George, King Street, (which was a chapel of ease for St Nicholas), in 1844. His talent in this area appears to have become known across the County, since around 1850 he also designed the wainscot for the organ at All Saints, Necton, which lies to the west of Norwich.

The Chapel of St George,  King Street, Great Yarmouth 1891. Francis Frith.

Sometime between 1841 and 1851 Edward moved to a house at 8 Regent Road following his retirement from army service; the 1851 census shows that he was unmarried, sixty-five years old and a Lieutenant on half-pay. His household consisted of a female servant, Christiana Heighs, who was aged 41 years and unmarried. This arrangement was unchanged a decade later, but at the time of the 1871 census Steele, now eighty-five years old, was cared for by two female servants, Mary Britton, aged 65, and her daughter Charlotte.

Edward’s death, at age eighty-eight, was recorded in the register of the church he had been so heavily involved with. No mention was made of his colour, or of his birthplace, just that he had been born in 1785. Indeed, no official document made any mention of his colour. The censuses of 1841, 1851 and 1861 noted merely that he was born in Barbados. The 1871 census noted on that he was a ‘British subject’. It seems that his access to a good education, and presumably some degree of funds from his father’s estate had given him the necessary entrée into middle-class society. His middleclass credentials appear to have removed any issue of race. Richard C. Maguire further says something on this:

“Indeed, the complete absence of any evidence for racial antipathy towards him is an interesting fact, that should cause us to re-evaluate any preconceptions about attitudes to race in a county such as Norfolk in this period. To most people in Norfolk, it seems that Steele was perceived by his class position rather than his racial heritage, he was simply ‘Edward Steel Esq., gentleman’.”


Source: THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS IN NINETEENTH- AND EARLY TWENTIETHCENTURY NORFOLK by Richard C. Maguire. Norfolk Archaeology XLVII (2017), 511–522. https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/72271/1/Maguire_NA_2018.pdf

‘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.
Further Note:
If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction.
If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.


Norfolk in Brief: The Bale Oak.

By Haydn Brown.

The village of Bale can be found just off the A148, which runs from Fakenham towards Cromer. There is some history here, not so much for being mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but for it’s famous ‘Bale Oak’, once an enormous tree with a trunk 36 feet in circumference. The Bale Oak is said to have been a gathering place for pagan worship before the coming of Christianity. Indeed, it is said the 14th century church of All Saints was built beside the oak, in a place already considered sacred. By the early 18th century, the oak was hollow and it was said that ten men could stand inside its trunk. The then Norfolk historian, Rev. Blomfield, added to the information by recording:

“A great oak at bathele near the church, its hollow so large that ten or twelve men may stand within it and a cobbler had his shop and lodge there of late and it is or was used for a swinestry.”

Bale Oak3
Sir Willoughby Jones © Norwich Civic Portrait Collection

However, in 1795, the oak was severely damaged and was heavily pollarded, with the removed bark and some of the wood sold to the Hardy’s of Letheringsett for tanning. The tree never recovered and was deemed dangerous by the local populace; it was also subjected to abuse and this led to its removal in 1860 on the orders of the Lord of the Manor, Sir Willoughby Jones. There was said to have been much local mourning as the remains of the oak was taken in a cart to Cranmer Hall at Fakenham.

Bale Oak4
Cranmer Hall. Photo: Pinterest.

The site was replanted with a grove of 12 Holm Oaks (Quercus Ilex) and may have been planted to commemorate the Bale Oak, although there is a record of oaks being planted there in 1617. The trees have been National Trust property since 1919, and are now ‘listed’ by that body as a ‘Place of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. A wooden sculpture now marks the approximate position of the original Bale Oak tree, and the trees that surround it have now grown to maturity and form a screen between the church and the road.

Bale Oak1
The Bale Oak Site: © Copyright Humphrey Bolton






%d bloggers like this: