Norfolk’s Scarlett Pimpernel – Perhaps?

St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave.  Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.

On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.

 

Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!

Pimpernel (Charlotte)
Lady Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole.

Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:

Pimpernel (Charlotte on stage)
“She is a good Singer, an excellent Actress, and it is a matter of dispute with the young Londoners in which character she appears to most advantage, male or female.” [i.e. in “breeches” parts, as in the image above]

In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:

“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”

Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:

“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”

Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:

“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”

When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.

Pimpernel (Louis_de_Frotte)
Louis de Frotté. Courtesy of Wikipedia. He was to be court marshalled and executed by firing squad in February 1800

Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!

Pimpernel (Royal Family in Prison)
The Royal Family Of France In The Prison Of The Temple. Edward Matthew Ward

There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.

Pimpernel (Peltier)
Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Public Domain.

The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:

“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”

But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:

“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”

Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”

Pimpernel (Marie Antoinette)2
Marie Antoinette.

Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:

“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”

All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.

Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:

“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”

As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.

After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.

Pimpernel (Letter)1
19th September 1822, to Sir Charles Stuart (‘Your Excellency’). Atkyns states that, with October fast approaching, she wishes her correspondent to ‘press my claim upon the King of France’, continuing ‘I am persuaded that your Excellency’s protection will prevail and that His Majesty will at last decide to do me justice’ and further adding ‘I live in a state of continual agitation as not anything but paying my mortgages can prevent my estate being sold, trusting to the interest that I am persuaded your Excellency feels in my favour, I beg leave to apologise for my eternal intrusion, the nineteenth of this month is arrived, and nothing yet decided’.
Charles Stuart (1779-1845) was a British Diplomat, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal and Brazil 1810-14, British Ambassador to France 1815-24, 1828-30 and British Ambassador to Russia 1841-44.

Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.

The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:

“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”

The “few” mentioned above were Lucy Lady Boileau and her husband, Sir Maurice Boileau BT (of Ketteringham Hall, 3rd Baronet of Tacolneston); Lady Dorothy Nevill (an English writer, hostess, horticulturist and plant collector and the daughter of the third Earl of Orford); Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (of Elvedon Hall, the son of the deposed and exiled Maharaja Duleep Singh of the Punjab); the Earl of Orford (Robert Horace Walpole, 5th Earl of Orford); Sir Spencer Walpole (English historian and civil servant) and James Nevill.

Pimpernel (Memorial)
Charlotte Atkyns 1907 memorial in St Peter’s Church, Ketteringham.

FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!

THE END

Sources:
https://www.geriwalton.com/lady-atkyns-plot-to-save-marie-antoinette/
The Eccentric Mrs Atkyns
https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1670846&partId=1
landedfamilies.blogspot.com/2016/12/242-atkyns-of-sapperton-swell-bowl.html

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

A Most Scandalous Priory!

God’s own County of Norfolk is blessed with many religious establishments – large, small, dissolved into ruins or still conducting holy practices as they should; most of these religious establishments even have a history worth talking about. However, it is the investigation of this history which, from time to time, snaps one out of any tendency to be naive about the fact that misdeeds and misdemeanours are not only possible in these places but probable! In a previous blog ‘A Most Disorderly Abbey’, the Premonstratensian Canons of Langley Abbey in the south of the County were given the treament of exposure. This blog targets the Benedictine monks of Binham in the north of the same County. Fortunately, we are talking of the past!

img_3266

The Priory Church of ‘St Mary and the Holy Cross’ in Binham is simply classed as the Binham Village parish church (see above), but the ruins, precinct walls and gatehouse that surround it tell quite a different story. This is the site of a once grand and wealthy Benedictine monastery known as Binham Priory. It was founded in 1091 as a cell of St Albans Abbey by Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. Peter was a nephew of William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who gave Peter de Valoines the land in the west and north of Norfolk, including the entire village of Binham. According to the Domesday Book the land in and around the village was originally owned by a freeman named Esket. The Priory subsequently built was endowed with the entire manor of Binham, making the Prior the ‘Lord of the Manor’, together with the tithes of 13 other churches in Norfolk.

For over 400 years, Binham Priory used to be home to a community of monks. This community was always small, with 14 monks at its peak in 1320, dropping to 11 in 1381 and by the time of the Priory’s suppression in 1539 the community had been reduced to just six monks and the Priory’s annual income low at £140. However, despite its small numbers, the Priory managed to establish a history of almost continuous scandal with many of its Priors proving to be unscrupulous and irresponsible.

About 1212, the Priory was besieged by Robert Fitzwalter because the Abbot of St Albans had removed the Prior. Fitzwalter claimed, by way of a forged ‘Deed of Patronage’, that the Prior could not be moved without his consent. The result of this seige resulted in the monks being forced to eat bran and drink water from the drain-pipes. When King John heard about it he swore ‘By God’s feet, either I or Fitzwalter must be King of England’ and he sent an armed force to relieve the Priory. Fitzwalter fled for his life. Then there followed the deaths of about twelve monks of Binham, as recorded in an Obituary of St Albans from 1216 to 1253; it included the story of Alexander de Langley, one-time Prior of Wymondham who became insane through overstudy. When his outbursts of frenzy could no longer be tolerated, he was flogged and kept in solitary confinement at Binham until his death. He was buried in chains in the churchyard.

In 1317 William de Somerton became Prior of Binham and was to spend vast sums on the pursuit of alchemy, selling during his time in charge – two chalices, six copes, three chasubles, seven gold rings, silk cloths, silver cups and spoons and the silver cup and crown – not quite what you would expect of a holy man! For this, William was suspended before the altar. In addition, the Abbot, Hugh of St Albans was making exorbitant demands on Binham Priory so that it was difficult to buy food for the monks there. This did not go down well and when Abbot Hugh proposed to visit Binham, the Prior and his friends the Earl of Leicester and Sir Robert Walpole forcibly resisted the visitation. Edward I ordered the arrest of de Somerton and the monks, who at this time numbered thirteen. Six monks were imprisoned but de Somerton escaped to Rome. Eventually he was reinstated but in 1335 debts again caused him to flee, leaving a deficit of £600.

 If all this was not enough, there existed continual quarrelling with the Abbot of St Albans Abbey, wasting money on expensive lawsuits, the charge of ‘scandalous behaviour’ levied at the Binham’s community. Then there was the ‘irresponsibility’, such as when, in 1433, the Prior and the monks resisted the visit of the Bishop of Norwich whilst the village people, who were on bad terms with the Priory at the time, made the Bishop welcome. One could, of course, go on and on in this vein, but no self respecting Tale of an Abbey or Priory would be complete without a reference, or two about myths or ghosts. Binham Priory is no exception. But before we go there, let us satisfy possible curiousity about the fabric of the monastery, its structure and architectural quality without the emotive topic of behaviour.

The Church:
The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross is so named because the Priory was dedicated to St Mary, and its Church to the Holy Cross. What remains today is the former Nave of that Priory Church which is now simply the Village Parish Church.

Originally, the Priory Church was a cruciform building with a central crossing tower (now fallen), supported on massive piers. The monks sat in wooden stalls facing one another in the area immediately beneath the tower. This area was separated off from the public Nave by a stone screen. East of the tower would have been the Presbytery, where the high altar was located.

img_3259
Reconstruction of the church presbytery in about 1500, looking towards the rood- screen with the nave beyond. © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

As a Benedictine foundation the Nave has always been used as the village church, identified as such today by the presence of a font, which would not have been needed by a monastic congregation. Nearby are the remains of the rood screen which was originally located where the east wall of the church now stands. This screen was painted over after the Reformation, but traces of medieval painting of saints can still be seen showing through. The present east end was formed by extending the original pulpitum, a low wall which divided the lay area from the monastic area.

Church Exterior:
The church was built of local flint and Barnack limestone, brought from Northamptonshire by river and sea in barges, and travelling up the river Stiffkey. Its construction spanned close to 150 years from when it started in the 1090s. Thereafter, the buildings were adapted and extended throughout the medieval period. Bear in mind that most medieval churches looked very different from how they appear today; they were usually covered, both inside and out, with lime-washed plaster. Traces of this can still be seen on the west front.

The Church’s west front is not the earliest part of the Church, but it is the first thing you see as you approach; it is beautiful and, to the informed, of great architectural interest. According to Matthew Paris, the thirteenth century monk and chronicler, this facade was built between 1226 and 1244 when Richard de Parco was Prior. For the less informed of you, the Facade is divided into three parts, the centre part containing the large west window, which could be the earliest example of bar tracery in England in which the design is made up of slender shafts and shaped stones continuing and branching out from the mullions to form a decorative pattern. This was first used at Rheims in 1211 and at Westminster Abbey some time after 1245. Before this date, the space between lancets placed together, was pierced with an open pattern, cut directly through the masonry — known as ‘plate tracery’. The window must have been magnificent before it fell into disrepair and was bricked up in 1809; maybe to avoid the cost of reglazing? Below the window is the Early English arcaded screen, with much dog-tooth ornament, in the centre of which is the main portal. This doorway is flanked on each side by five shafts, topped by crocket capitals beautifully carved from a single stone — each a masterpiece.

The bell-cote is a later addition. The domed interior is constructed of brick. An indenture of 1432 made between the Prior and the parishioners ordered that:

‘they have one bell, of the weight of eight hundred pounds or under, purchased at the cost and charge of the said tenants and parishioners, to hang in the further-most western part of the said parish church, that is to say above the roof of the church next the gable, and without any detriment to or lessening of the walls or windows of the said church, to warn and call the said parishioners to divine service, so that they may hear it and be present’.

The north and south walls correspond with the former aisles which were pulled down. The south aisle disappeared soon after the dissolution of the monasteries but the north aisle survived until 1809.The windows in the north aisle are the original windows but re-set.

The Cloisters:
The remains of the monastic buildings are extensive. They were arranged around the central cloister, a garden court that was enclosed on all four sides by covered walkways. These gave access to the principal rooms used by the monks in their daily life, including the chapter house (where they met daily to discuss business) and refectory or dining hall. Rebuilt several times during the life of the priory, by the 16th century the cloisters were lit by large windows opening onto the central garden. After the closure of the priory, some of the glass was moved to the nave wall of the church.

A reconstruction of the cloister as it may have appeared in 1500, looking north-east towards the church crossing tower © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

The Precinct:
Binham Priory is one of the few monastic foundations in Norfolk where the precinct surrounding the priory buildings remains essentially intact, including part of its boundary wall. This monastic precinct, built on the Benedictine plan was once a glorious collection of buildings, built around the open garth and its cloisters. One could imagine it as being a smaller version of Norwich Cathedral. Great wealth was always lavished on such buildings, with the master masons perhaps coming from Normandy. As for the ruins of the gatehouse beyond, it dates mostly from the 15th century and still serves today as the main entrance to the site. South of the cloister area are the earthwork remains of the priory’s surviving agricultural buildings, including what was probably a large barn or granary. One supposes that the outer court contained other buildings such as storehouses and workshops. Beyond these earthworks, bordering the stream, is the site of the priory’s mill and fishponds and the monks’ cemetery lays beyond the east end of the church. What stories could they tell if given the opportunity?

An engraving of Binham Priory in about 1738 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

Suppression:
At the dissolution in 1539, the King’s examiner Sir Robert Ryche had no difficulty in finding a pretext for suppression: As they levied fines, ‘not naymyng the Abbot of Saynt Albanys, and granted leases under their own seal, not naymyng the Abbot.’ The site and possessions were granted to Sir Thomas Paston, a local man and an important royal servant by Henry VIII, in the 33rd year of his reign and four hundred and fifty years after the Priory’s foundation. The Paston Letters relate that the sum of 13/7½ d being paid to Sir Thomas in 1533 for ‘rubble and stone from Binham Priory’ which was used to build a large house in the High St at Wells, and his grandson Edward Paston pulled down some of the monastic buildings intending to build himself a house on the site, at the southern corner of the refectory. However a workman was killed by a fall of masonry and this was considered a bad omen. The workmen refused to continue and the house was built at Appleton instead. Stone from the Priory was even sold and reused in many local Binham houses, particularly around doors and windows.

Myths associated with Binham Priory:
Places such as Binham Priory, in times of ignorance and superstition, inevitably spawned legends and myths of its own –  not forgetting that we are in Norfolk and here it seems obligatory for any famous place to boast a tale, or two. Frequently, such tales are about tunnels, quite a favourite topic; so too are ghostly spectres. Binham is not the sort of historical place to be left out; indeed, it has a monk and a tunnel. Maybe this is the moment to mention them.

1.The Hooded Monk:

The stranger, choosing nightime to stand amongst the fragments of old walls of Binham Priory, would not find it difficult to visualise such eerie surroundings as a perfect setting for a mythical ghost story. The same is true for those who venture inside. Take the inhabitants of Binham for instance who have, in the past, discussed a report of the appearance of the “ghostly” black-hooded monk in the Nave of the Priory Church.

The story goes that a newspaper reporter once interviewed the Vicar, Rev. C. F. Carroll, on the matter and the story told to him was offered ‘in the strictest confidence’ by a lady of position, and that he, the Vicar, would only repeat it if persons’ names were kept out of any published story.

“Some time ago this woman was present at an evening service of mine in the Parish Church, where she saw a figure on a ledge near the church door. She watched the phantom form, which resembled a Benedictine monk wearing a black cowl, walk slowly along the ledge for the full length of the church before disappearing. During its journey this spectre, for that is what this lady said it was, climbed some spiral steps, which were only there for the duration of this spectacle. The ledge itself is several feet from the floor of the church and, as you can see, there appears to be ample room for one to walk thereon”.

“I do believe that such an occurence is possible, but I would not go so far as to state that it had not taken place. The lady can be, in my opinion, imaginative at times but she was certain that she had seen the monk-like figure, so much so that she felt compelled to tell me – and remember. There were many other people at that service and it might have been that the other members of the congregation did not have the faculty to see in such a way. At any spiritualistic seance, for instance, it is only some people who may see a spirit appear; and, of course, you would know that illustrations on that point can be found in Biblical stories; such as the sory of St. Paul seeing the vision and the men who were accompanying him failing to see it. I must also say that on other occasions, villagers have stated that they have seen the figure of a Benedictine monk near the entrance to the Priory – the Gaol Gate.”

After leaving the Vicar, the newspaper reporter interviewed a lady in the village, not the one referred to earlier by the way. She related a story which was similar to that told to the Rev C. F. Carroll. She said that some years ago she was sitting with the choir when during the sermon she saw a dark figure, just like a monk; it was on a ledge in the church. Thinking that she was “seeing double” or that her eyes were playing tricks, she purposely looked away for a few seconds before again looking at the ledge; she saw that the figure was still there. Puzzled but wanting further confirmation, she once more turned her gaze away, but when she looked at the ledge for the third time there was no thing there. This same lady added, as if there may be some possible connection, that she and others had been warned that no one should go near the Gaol Gate at midnight. Why, it was never said but, from another source, the reporter was informed that the “Porter” was reputed to walk about near that gate, inside of which there had once been a gaol – and there had also been chambers for a Porter!

2. The Fiddler of Binham Priory:
Myths about entering into the earth through a tunnel that takes you to another place or different land are common across the world. Such tunnels, connecting us to such ‘underworlds’ or ‘Hades’, can be found in Greek and Roman myths, as well as in German and Eastern European folktales. In Britain, these myths are often associated with musician’s tunnels such as those in Northamptonshire, Culross, Fife with its piper, Richmond Castle with its drummer and Norfolk with its own fiddler, as depicted in tales Blakeney, nearby, and Binham Priory. In these tales, the musician enters a passage under the ground and is always followed above the ground by people listening to his music, which suddenly stops. It is very strange that he has a dog with him, and that this dog always gets out of the tunnel but the man is never seen again. The myth is often connected to a ‘barrow’ – which, to the uninitiated, is an underground burial place.

Binham (fiddlers-hill-warham)
The ancient Barrow called ‘Fiddlers Hill’ – between the villages of Bingam and Walsingham in Norfolk.

Now, Binham Priory seems to be an ideal place for the Norfolk version of this particular myth or legend, simply because of the ‘barrow’ named Fiddler’s Hill, a burial mound nearby which dates from the early Bronze Age, and nowadays a popular picnic spot. Of course, this tale needs a fiddler, a dog and tunnel, and what better than to have one leading to and from Walsingham Abbey, some three miles away. Certainly, local people thought so and their tale goes, broadly, along the following lines – bearing in mind that one can come across more than a few  variants of the same tale (see below):

A spectre of a monk called “The Black Monk” haunted the grounds around Binham Priory during the hours between dusk and dawn. The monk emerged each night from a tunnel that linked the Benedictine Priory of Binham to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingam some three miles away. One day a fiddler and his dog sauntered into the village of Binham and upon hearing about this spectre offered to explore the tunnel to see what caused the monk to haunt this particular spot. Before entering the passage he advised the sizeable crowd of locals who had gathered to see him off, that he would play his fiddle as he went so that the villagers could follow his progress above ground. Now, again, bear in mind that we are talking of a time when candles and lanterns were the main weapons against the night, or to battle subterranean gloom.

So it was that with this in mind the Fiddler called his dog to heel and lighting his way by means of a small lantern of his own, suspended on a rod so that he could free his hands for playing, he and his small dog entered the tunnel and the villagers followed listening to his jigs and reels, the strains of which were clearly audible. They knew that a fiddle plays a piercing and true sound which easily vibrates through the layers of soil. So they were able to follow, Lollygaggers (idlers), dawdlers, street vendors and interested onlookers – some with their own dogs which were, possibly, sensing a ‘hunt’.

However, when the fiddler reached a point where two roads crossed, his music suddently stopped. The villagers looked around at each other in consternation. Why, they thought would he stop? Maybe he was just taking a rest? They waited, but the sound never returned. There was talk of digging down, but everyone held off despite the possibly that this could be an emergency. If the truth were to be known, the villagers were, in fact, too scared to enter the tunnel themselves, for they had no candles or lanterns – being on the surface. So they just retraced their steps back to Binham and waited, for quite a long time as it turned out.

Eventually, the poor Fiddler’s little dog emerged from the tunnel, shivering and whining with his tail between his legs – but there was no sign of the Fiddler. Later that night a violent storm broke out, and the following morning the villagers woke to find that the passage entrance had been completely demolished. The spectre, in the form of a monk dressed in a black habit of the Benedictine Order that had founded Binham Priory in 1091, continued to wander the tunnel thereafter. It was believed that it was this Black Monk which spirited the fiddler away……..Over the years the hill where the fiddler disappeared became known as Fiddlers Hill, in memory of the brave Fiddler……..and always remember the final twist in this story?….. In 1933 when the road was widened around Fiddlers Hill, three skeletons were found one of which was a dog!…..They do say that still, during dark nights, you can sometimes hear a solitary violin playing along the fields between Walsingham and Binham Priory..

Binham (fiddlers hill plan)
A diagram of ‘Fiddlers Hill’ showing, approximately, where the road was altered – removing part of the barrow, 

A further story goes that a tunnel also ran between Blakeney Guildhall and Binham Priory; again, a fiddler was the only person brave enough to enter. Along with his dog, he too once set off while the Mayor and Corporation of Blakeney followed above ground, guided by the sound of the fiddle. When the fiddle music stopped they too believed that the Devil had taken him and the dog.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/binham-priory/history/
http://binhampriory.org/history-2/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binham_Priory
http://www.norfarchtrust.org.uk/binham
https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/abbeys/Binham.htm
http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/binham/binham.htm
https://www.explorenorfolkuk.co.uk/binham-priory.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/weird-norfolk-ghost-binham-priory-norfolk-1-5553222
Peter Tolhurst, ‘This Hollow Land’, Published by Black Dog Books 2018

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

In Search of the ‘Stewkey Blues’!

Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.

Stiffkey (Village-Sign)

The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.

The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!

 

High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.

Stiffkey (davidson grave)

In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.

Stiffkey (H Williamson)In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:

‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.

We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’

A more complete account of Henry Williamson’s experience in Norfolk can be found by clicking on the following link: ‘Don’t Take Up Farming Old Chap!’

For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.

Stiffkey ( H Williamson Cottage)
The cottage where Henry Williamson once lived. A commemorative plaque has now been erected by the Henry Williamson Society.
Stiffkey (Plaque)
The Henry Williamson Plaque

At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.

Stiffkey (Saltmarsh-Sign)

The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way.  When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.

Stiffkey (Marshes)

There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.

But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.

Stiffkey (Freshes)
Stiffkey Freshes

Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.

Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.

Stiffkey (Mussel Man)
A mussel fisherman – a painting by Wendy Haws.

A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.

Revelation!
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’  It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:

‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’

Stiffkey (Stewkey Blues)
Here they are – Stewkey Blues!

It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.

Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.

Stiffkey (Cockle Gatherers)1
Cheltenham Newpaper cutting 1902

Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:

The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.

Stiffkey (Scream)

“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.

But she just wouldn’t listen.

We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.

So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.

Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.

She’s still out there of course.

No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.

Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!

No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.

Stiffkey (screaming-faces)

So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”

THE END

Sources:
http://www.norfolkblogger.co.uk/stiffkey-notable-for-cockles-and-a-former-village-rector/2825
https://www.literarynorfolk.co.uk/stiffkey.htm
http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/stiffkeyblues.htm
https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/ark-of-taste-slow-food/stiffkey-blue-cockles/
http://escapetoexplore.co.uk/myths/ml_cockler.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiffkey

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Drovers: Scotland to London via Norfolk!

‘Persons unacquainted with country affairs are apt to associate everything that is rustic and even vulgar with the vocation of a drover; but there was never a greater mistake.

From ‘Obituary of Robert Hope’ 1826

As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet, for centuries, the trade of driving cattle to English markets did not flourish, Why? Well, the main reason was the wars between Scotland and England that lasted centuries; any trade with England was actively prevented as it was seen as giving aid to the enemy. However, in 1603, James the Sixth ascended the English throne as James the First of England, uniting the two countries; by 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two.

This free trade agreement launched cattle droving to almost unimaginable heights, helped in no small way by the active discouragement of cattle rustling, or ‘reiving’. This unlawful practice had once been the scourge Scotland and if continued, would have been a threat to any meaningful movement of cattle. With rustling reduced significantly – for it was never completely eradicated, neither was the nice little earner for a few enterprising tough individuals who offered to ‘protect your cattle’ – some with a less romantic view would term it simply as a ‘protection racket’.  Most, however, conducted the business honestly and there was no doubt that droving would not have grown into a huge operation, which it did by the middle of the 17th century, without complete trust in those who took your cattle to market and returned with the money, whether it be honouring ‘bills’ or handing over cash.

In the lawless days of Scotland, cattle were the main source of a man’s wealth, obtained either by raiding or trading. The beasts were small and thrived on the hills, moorland and the intemperate climate which no doubt conditioned them for the future long drives to the English markets. Daniel Defoe noted that “in the South West of Scotland the gentlemen took their rents in cattle. Some of them acquired such large numbers that they took their own droves to England; a Galloway nobleman would often send upwards of 4,000 head of black cattle a year”. In the North of Scotland he found that “the people lived dispersed among the hills. They hunted, chiefly for food and, again, bred large quantities of black cattle with which they paid their rent to the Laird”. These cattle, which came from the remotest parts, were driven south, “especially into the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex”. The burial of two Scottish drovers in Thrandeston, Suffolk —William Brown on 6 February 1682 and John Deek on 21 November 1688 —provides evidence of the traffic in cattle from Scotland to East Anglia in the 17th century.

Drover (Collecting Cattle)
A Scottish Drover collecting cattle from farms.

For the most part, however, the drovers handling these cattle would have been local Scottish men who, in May of each year, would visit farms bargaining for cattle, often for only one or two at a time because many of the Highlands farming tenants were very poor. Gradually as summer advanced, the Drovers would gather together a herd before heading south across the border and into England. For example, in 1663 the border town of Carlisle recorded 18,574 cattle passing through during that year. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south. These totals would have been made up of herds of at least 100 strong and often up to 2,000 strong; many, if not all, on their way to markets in Norfolk and London. This movement was a clear indication that the economy was balanced between the Scottish cattle breeder and the East Anglian farmer. The former, until improved methods of farming were developed in Scotland in the early 19th century, was unable to bring his cattle to a condition suitable for a wholesale butcher. The East Anglian farmer, on the other hand, was within reach of the London markets and had grazing, straw and, later, root crops, enabling him to fatten and finish the beasts; the resulting manure provided a valuable by-product.

Drover ( going to the-Falkirk-Tryst)
Arriving for the Falkirk Tryst

The farmers in the Highlands and Islands needed to reduce their stock in the autumn owing to the difficulties of winter feeding. Dealers would visit the Highlands to attend the local markets, and notices would be posted on church doors informing the farmers when they would be in the District so that cattle could be brought from the glens. The business revolved on credit: a price was agreed and, if the cattle fetched more within a certain period, the seller received more; but the reverse also applied and farmers suffered many a loss. The cattle might change hands again before reaching Crieff Tryst which, until the middle of the 18th century, was the largest cattle market in Scotland and considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and convenient to both buyers and sellers.

Drovers (Falkirk Tryst)
The Falkirk Tryst

Before the Rising of 1745 the trade had been in the hands of the Scots, but later, English dealers in greater numbers were visiting the Scottish markets and Falkirk, further south, replaced Crieff in importance. The Falkirk Trysts were held in August, September and October and lasted several days, during which time endless droves arrived from the North. They spread over a large area of the surrounding country which was enlivened by many tents selling refreshments and interspersed with banks for the financial transactions. When an agreement was reached, the tar dishes were brought out and the cattle marked and taken from the field. Small jobbers would send their purchases to a common trysting place where they were consigned to a drover who collected cattle from several grazings. The topsman could, without scruple, reject any beast he considered unfit for travel, as his remuneration was a small sum per head for every beast safely delivered to a market. These men were entrusted with the management of other people’s property worth thousands of pounds.

The term ‘drover’ covered a wide range of men, from the cattle dealer who turned over thousands of pounds a year to the hired hand who helped to drive the beasts. By an Act of Parliament of 1562, drovers had to be registered: they also had to be married householders and at least thirty years old. This was obligatory until 1772. They came to enjoy a professional reputation which enabled them to assume the role of travelling bankers. It is probable that only the topsman was required to register.

Drovers (Galloway Cattle)2
Galloway Cattle favouted by Norfolk farmers.

The Galloways were bred in the South West districts of Scotland, and were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk as they were easily fattened. A similar pattern of sale occurred: a number of local cattle markets, a large weekly market and three autumn markets on the Whitesands of  Dumfries. The droves heading for England from both Dumfries and Falkirk passed through Carlisle. The cattle were shod for the journey and accounts vary as to whether the shoes were fitted at the outset of the drive or when rough roads were reached. The ‘cues’ were made of thin, crescent-shaped metal plates and, to be fully shod, a beast needed two to a hoof, but often only the outer hoof was covered. To accomplish the operation, its front and back legs were tied together and the animal thrown on its back. An experienced man could shoe seventy beasts a day.

Drovers (Penines)
The Pennines over which cattle would be driven on their way to Norfolk.

From Carlisle, the path to East Anglia lay across the Pennines to what is now the Great North Road, turning eastwards south of the Wash. In the autumn, when the industry was at its peak, the roads south were thronged with cattle: 2,000 a day passed through Boroughbridge and there were many times when from dawn to sunset Wetherby was never free from beasts. The route chosen depended on the decision of the topsman, the head drover. If the weather had been wet the rivers might be impassable; if dry, certain paths would be devoid of wayside grazing. A drove would consist of 200 or more beasts with one man to every fifty or sixty cattle. They went to Norwich, Long Stratton and Hoxne at a steady pace, averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day. The topsman, usually the only man mounted, would ride ahead to warn oncoming traffic and secure overnight pasture for the beasts and shelter for the men. If neither was available they slept in their plaids alongside the cattle.

The men reputedly often travelled barefoot and carried their own food, a mixture of oatmeal and water called ‘crowdie’, in a leather bag. In the early 19th century they received between three and four shillings a day, twice that of a farm labourer, and ten shillings for the return journey. They had to pay their own expenses —at one time, nine pence a night for lodgings in the winter and five pence in the summer.

 Norfolk’s St Faiths Fairstead:

For hundreds of years the village of Horsham St Faiths was famous for its annual cattle market, traditionally named the St Faith’s Fairstead, held there from October 17th for three weeks each year. This fair was granted a Charter in 1100 and the last cattle fair was held there in 1872. Whilst the Fairstead itself ran from October 17th each year, the so-called ‘Norfolk Season’ began at Candlemas, on 2 February. Drovers taking cattle from the Fair, made weekly journeys during February and March, twice weekly during April, May and June, with possibly one or two journeys in August and September. The season appears to have been approximately the same in Suffolk.

Drover (Horsham Sign)

The site on which the St Faiths Fairstead was held was situated just outside Horsham St Faiths, to the north of Norwich. It occupied at least 50 acres along the present Spixworth Road, between Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, two legacies of the old Fair. In those far off days, the Fairstead consisted of many small fields which Drovers would hire to hold their cattle for the duration of the sales. Then, alongside these fields, there were a further three acres called ‘The Lond’ which held the market stalls. Whilst the St Faiths Fairstead attracted sellers and their livestock from around Britain, it was particularly favoured by Scottish Drovers who brought with them Norfolk’s favoured beast – the Galloway.

“The purchase of Scotch in the district is chiefly at the Fair of St. Faiths, to which Scots drovers bring annually great numbers. The most common age is 4 years old. Some have been worked in the collieries.” –

Norwich Mercury circa 1800

Invariably perhaps, and because of the good business links between Norfolk and the markets at Dumfries and Falkirk, the largest droves that came into Norfolk probably headed for the St Faith’s Fair. There were, of course others of which the Hempton Fair, near Fakenham, was used, not only to sell cattle in their own right, but to also assist the selling of those heads which failed to find buyers at St Faiths. The date for the Hempton Fair was usually on, or around, the 22nd November.

As for the St Faith’s droves, they usually left Dumfriesshire around the 14 September, the 340 miles taking twenty-eight days, at an approximate twelve miles a day. Before reaching St Faith’s, each drover would have hired a field for his beasts, the majority being bullocks, four to five years old, mainly black or brindled, some dun and a few red. To accommodate each herd, the host farmer would have ensured that his fields would offer ‘a full bite of grass‘ for the cattle. However, before arrival and employing the usual practice of ‘showing off’ his cattle to attract buyers, the ‘topsman’ drover would have assessed likely demand and price. As long as sales continued he would stay, up to a fortnight, before moving any unsold stock to another market.

As with all markets and sales, there was an art to selling lean cattle and much could be gained by choosing a favourable stand. The cattle looked best on a gentle slope with a minimum of forty beasts, especially the polled variety which stood closer together. Sixty were better and eighty better still. Ten beasts, matched for quality, would be segregated in one corner in the hope of persuading a grazier to buy all ten, in which case a discount would be given. The grazier had to know at a glance how much a beast would improve on good, bad or indifferent land as well as on turnips, in three, six or twelve months.

Drover (Old Drove Road)
Old East Anglian Drove Road

Whilst the Scottish drovers would eventually leave and return with business done, those cattle not retained for breading purposes would have further to go before their travels ended. There would be those sold on to Suffolk & Essex graziers who would further fatten these cattle on the luxuriant grass of coastal marshes before, in turn, selling them on to London buyers. The remainder would be fattened by local Norfolk farmers themselves, before returning to the St. Faiths Fairstead at some future date to sell their cattle direct to their own London customers. Local drovers would undertake the task of taking the animals to London and their final destination of Smithfield Market and the wholesale butcher – there to help feed a large and hungry city. It was a fact that Suppliers to London relied heavily on the Scottish Drovers who brought cattle south, together with the English (particularly East Anglian) farmers who fattened the beasts. The London meat market of Smithfield recorded in 1794, 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter, at least 80% of which came from Scotland along the extensive network of Drove Roads.

Back at Horsham St Faiths, as elsewhere, local drovers would advertise their services to those attending the Fair. The advertisements for the times and places for drawing in the stock for Smithfield invariably began with the drover thanking the graziers, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and friends for past favours and the hope that he would continue to merit their future custom. When each beast had had the owner’s mark clipped from its coat, preparations for the journey (approximately a week) were complete.

One such 1826 advertisement from a John Mald at St Faiths is an example:

“John Mald, drover from Norwich to London, returns his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for that liberal share of patronage which he received last year, and begs respectfully to assure them that the same unremitting attention will be paid to the punctual delivery of all cattle etc. with which he may be entrusted, to any salesman whom they may appoint.”

Once a contract had been agreed with farmers at the Fair, John Mald would issue a Notice of time and place for collection of each consignment:

“J.M. Will start on Saturday 2nd December 1826 and stop at Homesfield Swan on Sunday night; Wortwell Bull Monday morning; Cap Inn, Harleston, at 12 o’clock; Needham Fishmonger’s Arms; Brockdish Greyhound and Scole Inn that night. Also at the Queen’s Head, Long Stratton at nine o’clock; Tivetshall Ram at twelve; Dickleburgh Kings Head at three in the afternoon, and meet at Scole Inn the same night. On Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock at Wortham Dolphin; Botesdale Greyhound till two; Pakenham Woolpack that night; Bury Market every Wednesday; and at Alpheton Lion that night.”

It is clear from this Notice that J.M’s drove would set out on a Weekend, arriving in London the following Sunday, ready for the Monday market. Smithfield Market was held weekly on Mondays and Fridays, with the latter day being favoured by Suffolk farmers. At Mile-End, salesmen would meet John Mald, as too other drovers, taking charge of their lots and handing over payment. It was Mald’s responsibility to take the money back to the Norfolk farmers. It was clear that the East Anglian drover, like his Scottish counterpart, had to be a man of integrity, financing the overheads of the journey and returning with his clients’ profit in cash or short-date bills on a local bank, which he would dispense on settlement day. A typical settlement day is described by William Marshall at the ‘Angel’ Inn at Walsham, Norfolk in 1780.

Drover (angel-public-house_Walsham)
The former Angel Inn in North Walsham. Photo: North Walsham and District Community Archive

 

“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market”…. “What a trust, no security but his honesBeyond

Norfolk Chronicle – 4th November 1899 – Page 2.

There was once a public House at Horsham St Faiths called the HIGHLAND LADDIE, whose licensee in 1794, was Samuel Lovick. [This is not to be confused with the ‘Highland Laddie’ of Wisbech Road, Kings Lynn that was to be run by a Robert William Blyth some years later than 1794].

The St Faiths Fair was the centre for sales of cattle which had mostly been reared in Scotland. Very few cattle grazed in Norfolk were bred in the county when the Fair was at its prime. Cattle grazed were chiefly Galloway Scots, which years ago, gave way to Irish cross-breeds. The development of Norwich cattle market did much to close the Fair and indirectly the shutting of the Highland Laddie Inn’.

Beyond Norfolk and nearer to London:

Similarly, Suffolk drovers followed same practice and would place notices in the local press advertising where they would be collecting cattle stock. James Howlett of Brome, a drover and salesman was one:

Drovers (Notice)

A postscript to his advertisement assured ‘those gentlemen who may be pleased to confer their favours’ on him that every attention would be paid to their stock, and every care taken ‘to obtain the best price the market will afford to the benefit of his employers’ 2 January 1819). The advertisement ends ‘Please to direct, 60 West Smithfield, London’, which suggests that he was commissioned by a Smithfield salesman.

Drovers (Map)001
The drovers’ collection points for cattle being taken to Smithfield Market in London. Drawing: Sue Holden.

Inevitably misfortunes occurred. The drovers Benjamin Bell and his son Thomas farmed near Canobie in Dumfriesshire and brought droves to East Anglian fairs. They left home in mid October 1746 with a drove which contained 500 particularly good beasts which Thomas had bought at a favourable price after bargaining for twenty-four hours. On reaching Hoxne, on this occasion, in December they met with disaster – Distemper! Thomas wrote to their backer on Christmas Day to say that the illness was raging in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and there was no way for them to escape. The cattle in the area were dying at an alarming rate, and one hand at Hoxne had already lost 300. An Act of Parliament had been passed which obliged them to insure any cattle sold; they had sold forty beasts to a Mr Wilson of Colchester and had heard that they were all dead. On 7 January Thomas wrote again saying that he had found twenty-nine dead in one pasture, and twenty-five in other pastures; the rest were all infected. They were expected to dig pits and bury the infected beasts within three hours. The Bells had charges to pay and no money. He added that they would be home by Candlemas and people could do what they would with them. Apparently, the Bells’ fortunes recovered during the ensuing years!

In June or July 1766 there was an increased demand for Scottish beasts owing to a shortage resulting from a series of past cattle plagues. Many of the dealers in East Anglia went to Scotland for the first time and bought direct, depriving Scottish drovers of custom; this deprivation of trade stimulated a number of ‘drovers’ to become dealers in their own right. There developed a class of professional cattle dealer, referred to as ‘drover dealers’, whose reputation for honesty and fair-dealing became recognised throughout the country. They were highly organised, hard-headed businessmen who rode thousands of miles to cattle markets; they therefore needed a stud of horses, and rented thousands of acres of grazing. Many of them dealt with the English markets and sent their own droves south, where they employed a salesman or used the services of another firm.

These droves would start travelling down in January February and March, when the usual venues were either the Tie’ Nagpie] or the ‘Cardinal’s Cap’, both at Harleston. George Campbell was one of the first men to sell in this manner; his notice in the local newspaper for 2 January 1779 advised the gentlemen, farmers and graziers in Norfolk and Suffolk that he had on the road, on its way to Harleston and Hoxne, ‘a capital drove of Galloway Scots and heifers which he is determined to sell upon the most reasonable terms at the above places’. The date of sale was to appear in a future issue. The advertisement was repeated in the editions of 9, 16 and 23 January. On 30 January a further notice announced that the sale would begin on the following Monday, 1 February, and continue until all the cattle were sold. The First three days’ sale would be at Harleston, the next three at Hoxne, ‘and to change alternately’. The drove was said to be ‘very capital’ and would be ‘sold cheap’. The sale was evidently successful, for Campbell inserted a further notice on 20 February, intimating that he would be at Harleston with yet another capital drove by the end of March.

Campbell’s journeys emphasise the organisation required of the drovers, who had to work to a tight schedule to arrive at their destination on time. January, February and March were not the best months to be travelling on foot from Scotland to East Anglia. Grazing would have been at a premium, while paths could be water-logged, frozen, or obliterated by snow Overnight stops with fodder had to be reached and occasionally the weather did defeat them. James Campbell intended selling a capital drove at the Tye’ Inn, Harleston, on Wednesday 15 January 1794 which he advertised in the Local newspaper on 4 January. A week later a further notice informed the graziers that ‘owing to the badness of the roads’ the drove would be a day late and shown on 16 January.

Another name of note was William McTurk, possibly a relative of Robert McTurk who, in his day, was a dealer of consequence. A bystander recalled seeing one of his droves, numbering seventy-five score of Galloways, passing through Carlisle on its way to Norfolk. McTurk would buy between one and two thousand large cattle at Falkirk, sweeping the fair of the best lots before the other dealers had made up their minds to begin. He was a stout man with a calm, composed demeanour, who would sit on his pony and buy seventy score without even dismounting. He rented large grazings in Dumfriesshire, where he wintered his highlanders ready for the southern markets.

Drovers (Fighting)
Sometimes Tempers Flared!

With a workforce of one man to fifty or sixty beasts there could be a number of Scotsmen at the fairs and sometimes tempers flared. A violent fight took place between the Scotsmen and the locals at the `Bell’ in Hempton, Norfolk, in August 1791. Several people were injured, two seriously. The drovers then broke into a neighbouring public house where they attacked people and swore they would defend themselves against the Civil powers to the last drop of their blood. The next morning Lord Townshend armed his servants and tenants, surrounded the house and ordered them to surrender. The few who refused broke through the roof as evening approached and were caught nearby.

On the outskirts of London, such as Mile End, there were ‘layers’. These were areas outside the City’s jurisdiction where the beasts could be fed, watered and rested before they were collected by the licensed London drovers in the early hours of market day. Such ‘layers’ possessed great advantages as the stock went into the market less fatigued and in better condition than is possible in the usual method of droving. Early morning departure for Smithfield appears to have been at 3 o’clock when it would just be possible to see the beasts; the implication here is that salesmen came to the ‘layers’ and found advantages there.

Drovers (Through London Streets)
Funnelling cattle through London streets towards Smithfield Market.

As the droves funnelled towards the Capital they caused much inconvenience to the local inhabitants. When it was proposed to close one ancient footpath in Hornchurch Lane the tenants of Havering Enclosure wrote in alarm to the Commissioners to say that the path ‘enabled the women and children of the industrious tradesmen to enjoy the benefit of the air free from the dread and danger of the numerous droves of cattle and from the greater dread of insults from the drovers’. It is not difficult to imagine the disturbance caused by jostling cattle being driven through the narrow London streets. In 1839 regulations were enforced as to the number of beasts and the hours in which they could be driven. No dogs were to be used. On their left, upper arm, the London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number. Further regulations in 1850 stipulated the routes the cattle had to follow; those from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge were met at ‘layers’ in Stratford or Mile End and were to be driven via Shoreditch, Worship Street, Barbican and Long Lane. Tolls were paid at the City gates and to the City of London for the beasts sold in the market. On reaching Smithfield the beasts were tied individually to long lines of oak rails where the salesmen negotiated sales with the carcase butchers. Although the cattle had their prescribed routes through the City they caused much disruption and the public voiced their distress at the cruelty suffered by the beasts which, alarmed and frantic from pain, would rush in any direction but that which was intended.

Drovers (Arm-Badge)
London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number.

By the early 19th century, droving as a major industry was nearing the end of its days. The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were being established from the 1850’s, an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market was being offered. By then, cattle had been more carefully bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road anyway.

 

Drover (Smithfield)3

In East Anglia few traces of the long trails south now remain. ‘Bullock Hill’, ‘Calf Lane’ or ‘Fair’ incorporated in the name of a road suggests a one-time involvement, while the Inns, where farmers brought their cattle to be taken to London, now have large car parks. Was this where the men congregated with their cattle? – and, did the rivers nearby provide water for the drinking troughs?

THE END

Sources:

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Deterring Witches!

Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 to 400 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. Strong magic was therefore needed in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths. So, wherever evil might enter a building they buried magic charms, be it in doorways, up chimneys and beneath fireplaces; they even protected roof spaces with dead animals and would ‘brick up’ a bottle full of urine, human hair and nails – of which witches and bad fairies were known to be frightened! Importantly, all these spells against supernatural harm were concealed in secrecy, because secrecy was part of ‘charm’s’ power to protect against demons, witches and curses.

img_3319
The brick with magical symbols found at Earlham Hall, Norwich.

Today, witch bottles and mummified animals are still being discovered during renovations and demolitions, In Hethersett, near Norwich in Norfolk, a bottle with iron pins and nails was found buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.

img_3318
horse skull hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, Norfolk

The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. The “apotropaic” terminology comes from the Greek term “apotropaios,” meaning “averting evil.” Witches or their evil conjured spirits were thought to attempt to enter homes via doorways, hearths, and windows, and hide in shadows made by the nooks and crannies of the house. It was believed that once they had entered the property, witches and evil spirits would want to attack the inhabitants, or ruin the most valuable possessions of the owner. Tudor proprietors took a proactive approach to the issue, and carved the apotropaic marks near where items of value were storedIn Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.

These protective measures were taken inside all types and sizes of buildings, irrespective of the status of their occupants. Marks have been found in lowly cottages and high status buildings including the Tower of London. It seemed that homes, businesses, churches and grand houses all had a need of protection.

img_3322
The Red Cat of the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton.

Animals were believed to have special powers, Particularly dead cats, sometimes positioned as if hunting. Cats were also believed to have a sixth sense and might have been hidden as a sacrifice to ward off bad luck and black magic. During the 17th Century, it was common in England to bury mummified cats in the walls or ceilings to deter witches or evil spirits from entering the property. Remains of a cat were found in at the Dukes Head Hotel in Kings Lynn, in room 10 during October 2011.

Witches (Cat)
Mummified Cat

It was largely in the Middle Ages that the black cat became affiliated with evil. Because cats are nocturnal and roam at night, they were believed to be supernatural servants of witches, or even witches themselves. Partly because of the cat’s sleek movements and eyes that ‘glow’ at night, they became the embodiment of darkness, mystery, and evil, possessing frightening powers. If a black cat walked into the room of an ill person, and the person later died, it was blamed on the cat’s supernatural powers. If a black cat crossed a person’s path without harming them, this indicated that the person was then protected by the devil. Often times, a cat would find shelter with older women who were living in solitude. The cat became a source of comfort and companionship, and the old woman would curse anyone who mistreated it. If one of these tormentors became ill, the witch and her familiar were blamed.

Witches (Bottle)Witch bottles a common counter spell against illness caused by witchcraft was to put the sick person’s urine (and sometimes also hair and fingernails clippings) in a bottle with nails, pins, or threads, cork it tightly, and either set it to heat by the hearth or bury it in the ground. This, as Joseph Blagrave wrote in 1671, ‘will endanger the witches’ life, for … they will be grievously tormented, making their water with great difficulty, if any at all’ (The Astrological Practice of Physick (1671). Usually buried beneath the hearth or near entrances to buildings, their recipe was still known in a Norfolk village in 1939:

“Take a stone bottle, make water in it, fill it with your own toe-nails and finger-nails, iron nails and anything which belongs to you. Hang the bottle over the fire and keep stirring it. The room must be in darkness; you must not speak or make a noise. The witch will come to your door and make a lot of noise and beg you to open the door and let her in. If you do not take any notice, but keep silent, the witch will burst. The strain on the mind of the person when the witch is begging to be let in is usually so great that the person often speaks and the witch is set free.” (E. G. Bales, Folk-Lore 50 (1939), 67).

img_3321
A 16th-century Bellarmine jar found on the site of The Forum in Norwich.

Witch bottles are usually found beneath hearths or front-doors, but have also been uncovered from beneath floors and inside walls. Around 200 have been recorded in England, dating back to the 16th century. More than half are grey stoneware bottles and jars called bellarmine, decorated with the faces of grim-looking bearded men. As well as the ingredients mentioned above, they sometimes contained small bones, thorns, pieces of wood and heart-shaped scraps of fabric.

img_3320
A witch bottle found in Bury St Edmunds, containing the remains of rusty iron objects. Photo: Copyright owner unidentified at present.

Witches (Candle)‘Candle Smoke Marks’ have been found on ceilings, often in bedrooms or hallways near bedrooms. They consist of magical symbols written on the ceiling with the smoke from a candle. There were also spells written in words on rolls of paper, or scratched in pictures and diagrams on walls.

But perhaps the most common hidden charms of all were old shoes – almost always patched and repaired, usually single, often a child’s. Sometimes other items were hidden with the shoes, such as coins, pipes, spoons, pots, toys, goblets, food, knives, gloves, chicken and cat bones. This superstition dates back at least as far as the 14th century when Buckinghamshire rector, and unofficial English saint, John Schorn is said to have trapped the devil in a boot – something which is depicted on several Norfolk rood screens. More than 1,200 examples have been recorded with one of the earliest found so far hidden in Winchester Cathedral in 1308. And the practise survived into the 20th century. Strange as it may seem, modern shoes are regularly encountered; there was an example not so long ago of a Nike trainer being found in the roof of a central London bank and the clues seemed to indicate that it had been deliberately placed there.

Witches (Shoe)
The lonesome shoe at St. John’s, Cambridge University was discovered while staff members were removing panels to install electrical cables in the Senior Combination Room located in the College’s Tudor-era Second Court. This building was constructed between 1598 and 1602 and was originally home to the Master of the College. However, experts believe it was placed behind the panels between the end of the 17th century and mid-way through the 18th.

In homes, shoes were often placed on a ledge inside a chimney where it was thought they would trap bad spirits. Nothing unusual here; hidden charms were generally placed at entry and exit points, including the hearth which would have been open to the sky. Any supernatural harm circling the house would, hopefully, be put off trying to gain access.

It has been found that some houses had shoes, bottles, marks and cats, all from the same period, hidden together, evidence that there was a very strong urge to protect the property and occupants. Others have been found with many layers of protection, such as the three witch-bottles found mortared into the hearth of a grand house in Essex, at a time when the mistress was known to have been very ill. Maybe it was believed that she was bewitched!

Many hidden charms will still be concealed in buildings so, anyone keen to search for magic charms in their own houses, should try under floorboards or above lintels near doors, in walls and roofs, and around hearths and chimneys. Simply shining the beam of a torch obliquely across hearths or door lintels could reveal ritual marks carved into the stone.

It is known that buildings from the 17th and 18th century are frequently found to contain hidden charms. By their very nature, these charms are concealed so they are often only found by luck or during repairs or demolition. Many, of course, will have vanished without trace into builders skips or the antiques trade so they may have been far more common that we imagine.

Objects such as witch-bottles, dried cats, concealed shoes, horse skulls and written charms – amongst others – have all been found in buildings in Norfolk and throughout East Anglia. These are mainly found during demolition, restoration or sometimes just by exploring the nooks and crannies of a building.

It is a fact that secrecy and mystery still surrounds many of hidden charms, even after they are discovered. Unlike superstitions such as up-turned horseshoes, which are displayed openly, it was thought that magic lost its potency if uncovered and even modern-day householders often don’t want items removed or even discussed – perhaps because a vestige of those old beliefs still remains. It is quite common for extremely sensible, non-superstitious and professional people to suddenly become very superstitious and acutely tuned-in to the supernatural when they find these objects in their home. It is said that one home-owner refused to allow the contents of a bottle found in his home to be examined and insisted that it be re-buried with a small ritual with some nuns. Others have insisted that concealed shoes are returned to their find-spot and that cats be re-concealed.

THE END

Sources:

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

Norfolk’s Most Disorderly Abbey!

From the time of Augustine’s mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasteries and Abbeys formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. These religious communities, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline.

Monasteries, Abbeys, call them what you like, were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. The County of Norfolk was no different in how it’s religious communities were organised and run.

img_3252
Model of how Langley Abbey may have looked.

Principally, two Abbeys stand out in Norfolk but only one is the subject of this blog, that of Langley Abbey. It, along with the other Norfolk Abbey of Wendling, were both communities of Premonstratensian Canons. Langley was founded on the 19th Febtruary 1195 by Roger fitz Roger of Clavering and dedicated in honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin; whereas the Abbey of Wendling, Langley’s daughter house, was dedicated to St. Mary and founded about 1265 by William de Wendling, one of the king’s justices. That is by way of explaining that the Premonstratensian order was not confined to Langley; indeed, the Order spread throughout the land mass which is now Europe, crossed the English Channel and found roots throughout England. The Order was, in time, to also cross the ocean and develop in America – but that is another story.

Both Norwich Cathedral and Langley Abbey were built during the century after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and both, just as all cathedrals of William the Conquerer, were constructed using Caen stone delivered by boat from France. The site chosen to build Langley Abbey was situated on the south bank of the River Yare approximately mid-way between Lowestoft and Norwich. It was positioned on the extreme edge of a gravel terrace but stretched on to the peat of the marsh lands. It’s present day ruins occupy the same spot.

The area in which Langley Abbey sits is a strangely remote part of East Anglia, the uncompromising rivers have long dictated the landscape, and the modern roads now rushing through to Norwich do so without much regard for the villages and hamlets lost in the rolling meadows and copses beyond. Langley is on the southern side of the river Yare, opposite the sugar beet factory and although its silos and chimneys appear from time to time above the rise, Langley is a quiet place. It remains one of the small, ancient parishes created very early on in the colonisation of this island by the English.

Langley Abbey (River Yare)
The river Yare at Langley with Buckenham Watermill and Beauchamp Arms. The image is a reproduction of a charcoal-on-paper drawing by Susan Laughlin.

When first built, Langley Abbey housed between fifteen and twenty canons who were known as ‘white canons’, not monks in the strict sense of that name. They made up a community of priests who lived together under a Rule, modelling themselves on the Cistercian values of austerity and seclusion. What they lacked in personal wealth was offset by their Abbey which was impressive. It’s position and appearance, in Caen stone and flint, would have stood out for miles around and, in all probability, was the biggest building outside of Norwich. It was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community and once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk. What more did it need to make a mark on the landscape and show that the land around, and probably beyond, was completely under the control of the Abbey. The idea was clearly to blow people’s minds with amazing imagery!

During its first 100 years the wealth of Langley Abbey was almost entirely derived from contributions, grants and appropriations from more than 80 Parishes in the Diocese. During this period, when times were good, the number of Canons probably increased to over 20 with the gross income of the Abbey being estimated at about £178. Along with the daily duties and religious services, the Canons also took on the role of parish priests to the surrounding villages. This was a time when Norwich, just upriver, was one of the largest and most important cities in medieval England and Langley Abbey would have held a very prestigious position.

The surviving building that exists today formed part of the west range of the Abbey and, along with other areas of the abbey, was rebuilt and redesigned during the 14th century. The surviving Cellarium, as the name suggests, was a store room for food, wine and other goods and is thought to have possibly been used as the Abbots personal cellar. A narrow, spiral stone staircase leads up to what is believed to have been to Abbots private quarters.

image-98
The Cellarium

Very little is reported of life at Langley Abbey until 1475, when Bishop Richard Redman was appointed Commisary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England, which meant that he was responsible for the 29 larger English houses. Sadly for him, the abbey, which was to stand for over three hundred years, had a reputation for being one of the most wayward monasteries in England; it appears that disorderly conduct and corruption were rife! Apart from all the other indiscretions, there was a scandal when the presiding Abbot, who was responsible for the collection of funds for the crusades in the Norwich diocese, seemingly embezzled the £200 of taxes gathered in the the local area – claiming that he hadn’t received them.

Bishop Redman was charged to investigate this and all other reports of ‘wrong doing’; a task that was to occupy his mind and time for over 25 years. He made his first of many visits to Langley on 1 July, 1475 to sort things out. That was a short visit, leaving on 3 July but making sure that he dined at Beccles at the expense of Langley Abbey – perks of his position no doubt!

Langley Abbey (Drinking)2
Clerics ‘letting their hair down’.

The Abbey was again visited by this bishop three years later, on the same day of the month. On that occasion he met with Nicholas, Langley’s Abbot who was bowed down by age and sickness, the reason given for the Abbey’s bad discipline. The outcome to their meeting was for Prior John Bristow to receive unspecified discipline and for two of Langley’s canons to be appointed to ‘look after the spiritualities and temporalities of the house’. Thomas Russell was sentenced to forty days bread and water and banished to another house for three years ‘for evil living’. Two others were apostate for going out without leave and also sentenced to forty days of penance. The practice of locking any rooms so as to prevent the entrance of the superior was also forbidden. All recreation outside the precincts would be stopped until the next General Chapter when the Prior would attend report as to whether the new rules were being observed.

Little seemed to change after Redman departed for during his next visit to Langley on 20 August, 1482 there was again much scandal reported. John Myntynge the Abbot, John Bristow the Prior and fifteen others, including a novice and an apostate, were in attendance. The Abbot was accused of some incompetence and waste with the result that his powers were temporarily transferred to two of the canons under the Abbot of Wendling. Seemingly distressing to some was the diktat that ‘common taverns near the monastery’ were not to be visited and no one was to leave the precincts of the Abbey, save those responsible for services in churches. The injunctions did not end there for there were also a variety of minor and usual orders included.

Langley Abbey (Barn)
The Old Abbey Barn, Langley

Did all this work? Well, during his tour in the early summer of 1486, four years later, Bishop Redman, having reached Langley at supper time on 27 June, seemed pleased. Then. two years later, when Langley’s Abbot Walter Alpe, Prior John Shelton and thirteen other canons were present, Redman found matters going ‘excellently well’ – but not quite, despite being informed that the Abbey’s debt had been reduced from £200 to £100. Being the Commissary-General of the Premonstratensian Order in England and maybe a person wanting his present felt further, Redman highlighted other ‘irregularities’ and left behind him further injunctions; they were banns against absence for hunting and fishing by night under pain of the greater excommunication.

Redman, it seems, must have developed a taste for maintaining discipline at Langley for he was again there In 1491 to attend the serious case of Canon Thomas Ludham who, in a quarrel, had cut off a man’s right hand; he was sentenced to forty days penance and to perpetual imprisonment. Redman made further visits in1494 and 1497, reaching Langley at supper time the 20th June. He held his meeting with the Abbot the next day, but did not leave until the 23rd, when he slept at Norwich – once more at the expense of Langley. This unusually long stay of Redman and his retinue may have been intended as a kind of punishment for the laxity he had found at Langley; on the other hand, one should not forget Redman’s track record for his acceptance of ‘hospitality’.

In the year 1500 William Curlew was elected Abbot of Langley, but was obliged to resign in 1502 for some ‘delinquencies which are not named’. On 10th December, 1502, Robert Abbot of Alnwick, as father-abbot of Langley, being too aged and infirm to ride, wrote to Richard the Bishop of Ely, giving him full authority to act in his name and to conduct an election of a new Abbot for Langley. He told the Bishop in his letter that the house of Langley was in sore financial straits, being much in debt and not having sufficient for its domestic needs or, indeed, for the spiritual benefices that it held. Robert also anticipated difficulties as to the election and authorised the Bishop to excommunicate anyone who might be rebellious. It would seem that yet a another new Abbot would solve Langley’s problems.

********

For writers, like present-day Karen Maitland, Langley’s clear reputation could and would be exploited, all in the cause of developing a good plot – as in her book THE RAVEN’S HEAD , of which we shall sample an extract:

‘A tall, gaunt man steps from behind one of the pillars into the glow of the furnace.’ (Photograph: Ashley Dace)

“There are some people who appear friendly, even charming, like the neighbour spraying his roses who cheerily calls ‘good morning’. But behind the chintz curtains he is adding that deadly pesticide to his wife’s tea, as he did for his three previous wives whose bones now fertilise those same roses. And, like people, places too can present an innocent face, while concealing a heart of malice.

Langley Abbey in Norfolk is one. If you see it in summer with the sun glinting from its ruined walls, snuggled in the tender green grass, it presents a romantic setting. It could be one of those follies the landed gentry liked to build in their magnificent gardens, where ladies sipped wine and listened to lovers reading poems or played at being shepherds and shepherdesses among the daisies.

Langley Abbey
‘The ruins stood as jagged as broken tooth … leading nowhere, save to death.’

But creep up on Langley on a winter’s evening and you will glimpse its dark soul. The ruins rise like giant gravestones in the darkness as the bone-white mist from the marshes slithers through them. The stones are so cold, so silent that every night-sound echoes from them – the rat-rustle of dried grass, the gallows-creak of the branches of a tree, the drip and gurgle of icy black water.

Was it that desolation, those nameless terrors that drove the medieval White Canons out of their abbey every night to hunt, drink or seek comfort in the arms of village women, anything to escape those great oppressive stones?

Langley Abbey (Drinking)

For centuries, Langley corrupted those who entered its walls. The Premonstratensians or Norbertines, who founded this abbey in 1195, belonged to one of the strictest religious orders. They were ordained priests who had dedicated their lives to serving the community, but had also subjected themselves to living under austere monastic rule. Yet, as each new generation arrived the muddy ooze seeped into their veins; the marsh-agues gnawed their bones, and malevolence choked their souls. Every virtuous abbot sent to reform them was instead sucked into their mire.

But what lay at the heart of Langley’s darkness? Henry VIII’s recorders unearthed financial corruption, sexual ‘incontinence’ and violence against fellow clerics. But imagine if there was something worse concealed behind those walls, something far more sinister? Don’t be deceived by Langley; don’t be taken in by its sweet, innocent face. Like any poisoner, Langley knows where the bones are buried. The question is, can we find them?

image-99
‘the great, grim walls of the abbey. Their shadow stretches cold and dark across the track.’

 

image-102
‘A stone from the ceiling crashed to floor, narrowly missing the bed. I stared up, expecting
to see a glimpse of sky…….’ (Photograph: Jo Liddiard)
img_3256
‘I turned to see the figure of Sylvain filling the doorway at the top of the stairs. For a moment I thought I saw two great ragged wings folding themselves against his sides.

************

The 1500’s were obviously a seminal period for the Abbey and Langley Abbey’s dissolution took place in 1536, which meant that what assets it had were seized. It is understood that by the time of suppression in 1536 the numbers of the community were falling and the inventory of church goods showed nothing of value and the chattels were equally of little value. An obvious decline did not stop there; the buildings were also ruinous and in a state of decay. Twelve years later, the Abbey site was acquired by John Berney, Esq, when it was primarily seen as a quarry for stone and a reclamation yard for other materials. Reports from the time made if stark that the destruction of the Abbey was very thorough. The site and estate remained in the Berney family until the middle of the 18th Century when they passed to the Beauchamp Proctor family where they remained until the early 20th Century.

Little remains of this once magnificent and large Langley Abbey but extensive archaeological excavations in the 1920s by Elliston Erwood produced a detailed plan of how the Abbey was laid out. The fact that monastic buildings of that era generally conformed to a similar set of rules enabled the illustration below to be produced which shows how the Abbey is likely to have looked when it was first built.

Langley Abbey (Drawing)

The vaulted former Cellarium is still standing and there are remains of the church, barn and fishponds. The western range has recently been restored and now houses a full-scale model of the original monastic layout plus interpretation boards telling the fascinating story from foundation to dissolution.

 

But despite being a site of enormous historical and cultural importance, Langley Abbey has been shut away from the eyes of the public for hundreds of years. Now the remains of this 12th century abbey, near Loddon, has undergone restoration and is open as a fascinating Norfolk tourist attraction.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/record-details?MNF10344-Langley-Abbey&Index=9608&RecordCount=57338&SessionID=3af5a68d-8104-43f5-8bf0-724a7b257f25
http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/blog/2012/06/a-most-disorderly-house/
https://hforhistory.co.uk/article/langley-abbey/
https://www.fleetwoodtoday.co.uk/whats-on/entertainment/book-review-the-raven-s-head-by-karen-maitland-1-7201171

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

A Tale of Norfolk Peat Cutting

The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.

Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.

The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.

 

The work

Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.

Barton Broad

Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.

The decline of the peat cutting industry

Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.

Peat Cutting (stalham hall)

The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.

The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.

The accounts of the Norwich Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.

The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.

Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.

Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.

The advent of the plague

Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)2

Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.

“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders.                           William Dene

Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.

In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)1

“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges”                                                                         Henry Knighton

The impact of the Black Death

Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.

stacking-reed (Feature)
Reed cutting that, for a time at least, operated alongside that of peat cutting.

It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.

The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.

Bubonic Plague 1A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.

The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.

Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.

THE END

Sources:

Four Generations of Marshmen and Reedcutters.

The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.

Generations of marshmen:

My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.

My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency  in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.

My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.

signalbox_1950_sm
This shot, taken circa 1950, shows Violet Mace (nee Hewitt), Eliza Hewitt and Albert Hewitt who lived at the nearby station houses.

My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.

Childhood by the river:

I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.

Berney-arms-allard-2-5
Henry Hewitt and Violet Mace at West Station cottage. Brian Mace in the corner. From Peter Allard in Sheila Hutchinson’s book Berney Arms Past and Present (2016).

Winter of ‘63:

I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.

Coypu:

And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.

Coypu (Feeding 1938)2
Farmed Coypu being fed.

Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!

Coypu (pelts0
Coypu Pelts

Life after school:

When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.

St Olaves Map
Diagram showing position of Priory Craft, St Olaves

Reedcutting:

We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.

We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.

Mace-reeds-boat-1
Brian Mace, Bob Mace and Stanley Freary, reedcutters, opposite Burgh Castle in 1970s.

It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.

It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.

Travelling around the marshes:

They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.

Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:

After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.

These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.

We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.

Bob Mace
Bob Mace

The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if  a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.

I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.

sheep beccles-1

There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.

Future of the marshes:

I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.

From coypu to mink:

My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.

mink-in-the-marsh-sun-ng-01.jpg
Mink?

The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.

It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out  into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.

THE END

Sources:
http://www.wisearchive.co.uk/story/four-generations-marshmen-reedcutters/
http://www.wisearchive.co.uk.
http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/norfolk-marshmen-history-broads-1-5351566

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permissions to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

 

A ‘Rednall’ from Reedham. A Life on the Marshes.

The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:

Rednall to Reepham (Archie 1948)
Archie in 1948

I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.

 

When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.

I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…

Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.

Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’

Reedham School
Reedham School

I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.

We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…

I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.

So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.

Rednall-piano-mandolin-300x217
Mr Rednall Senior with his mandolin

Reggie Mace, a Marshman:

Mace-Brian-17_11_17-1
Brian Mace

One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.

His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.

Slubbing the Dykes Out:

There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.

He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.

He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…

There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.

The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:

There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.

I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…

On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.

Spinning for pike:

When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.

‘Babbing’ in the river:

We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…

The 1953 floods:

When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.

That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.

The mill dykes:

The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…

When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.

When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.

Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:

My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.

I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.

People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.

“The River Yare Commissioner’:

Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…

Commissioners Launch
The former ‘Commissioner’s Launch’ at Stalham Museum

He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.

We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.

The Wherry Albion:

One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…

The Albion Wherry
The ‘Albion’ Wherry

It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…

Reedcutters:

There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.

Reed_Cutter
Norfolk Broads Reedcutter

The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:

Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…

He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…

At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…

There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.

The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:

We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.

Thunderbox.jpg
Thunderbox Toilet

Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…

Night Soil Lorry
Night Soil Men & Lorry

Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:

There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…

We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.

They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.

I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.

We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.

Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.

Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.

At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.

Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:

There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…

allotments
Church Road Allotments, Reedham, Norfolk

At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…

Getting out and about:

There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.

Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.

Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:

On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.

charabanc 1949

In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.

Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.

Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:

There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.

There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.

Pettitt’s, Reedham:

We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.

Cantley Sugar Factory:

My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.

Cantley Sugar Factory
Cantley Sugar Factory, Norfolk

When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.

They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.

My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.

I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…

I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.

One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.

I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.

There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.

The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.

I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.

During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.

I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.

THE END

 

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

Revisiting a Haunting in Glasshouse Row!

The old ‘Yarmouth Independent’ newspaper carried a two-part article in its January 6th and 13th 1894 editions, entitled ‘Tales and Traditions of Old Yarmouth – A House of Mystery’ This story concerned the haunting in an old housed in Glasshouse Row, so named because the glass works of the celebrated William Absolon had been located there a long, long time ago.

The ‘Rows’ of Great Yarmouth, of which few remain complete, were an unique gridwork of very narrow streets which covered almost all of the old town. They were very narrow streets, most only measering a few feet in width and to quote from the article “most possessed the same quaint, gloomy and somewhat dingy characteristics in common”.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) said of them:

“A Row is a long, narrow lane or alley and quite straight, or as nearly as maybe, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the finger tips of each hand by stretching out your arms to their full extent. Now and then the houses overhang and even join above your head, converting the Row so far into a tunnel or tubular passage. Many picturesque old bits of domestic architecture is to be found among the Rows. In some Rows there is little more than a blank wall for the double boundary. In others, the houses retreat into tiny square courts (Crown Court was one -see below) where washing and clear starching was done.”

img_3223

Unfortunately, a great proportion of these rows were destroyed by bombing during World War 2; subsequent planning and rebuilding has more or less obliterated the rest. However, during the period in which this story is set, the Rows were probably in their hey-day containing, no doubt, a complete cross-section of the Great Yarmouth population. The Row with which this story is concerned was named Glasshouse Row, so named because a glass factory once stood in, or close to, its precincts. Glasshouse Row extended from George Street to North Quay in the east/west direction.

yarmouth-rows-glasshouse001.jpg
Diagram of Glasshouse Row and its immediate surroundings. The actual haunted house can not be located since it, and indeed most of this area was destroyed in 1941 and later rebuilt with flats which crossed the line of the old Glasshouse Row.

In 1797 there stood in the middle of this Row an ancient house which for many years had the doubtful reputation of being haunted. Such was its reputation that it had remained more or less unlived in for many years, what few tenents had been brave enough to rent  the property invariably moved out again within weeks, if not days.

All sorts of stories circulated as to the nature of the haunting. The general concensus of opinion was that, many years previously, someone had been murdered within its walls although opinions differed as to who exactly was responsibly for the haunting. Some said it was a guilty spirit of the murderer that wandered the house, whilst others maintained that it was the restless spirit of the victim which could not rest because its body was buried in unhallowed ground. Yet another section of opinion said that the spirits of both the murderer and his victim haunted the place and that they periodically re-inacted the grim tragedy. Whatever the true story,  the reputation of the place was enough to keep even the most stouted hearted away.

Yarmouth Rows 4
A typical Row

The lack of tenants and upkeep certainly seemed to have shown on the old building. The windows became broken, the roof tiles became dislodged to allow rain to pour in through gaping holes. The woodwork became rotten and the whole placed was completely devoid of paint. All in all, the house presented quite a very sorry sight, with the only occupants for any length of time being a colony of rats.

The building continued in this derelict state for a number of years, until the owner died and it changed hands. The new owner, who one suspects went into the deal without doing his homework, soon became anxious to get rid of his newly acquired ‘white elephant’, which because of its reputation was more of a liability that an asset; so he put it up for sale. Needless to say, no queue formed to purchase the house and many months passed before one person eventually became interested. The owner was approached by this middle-aged man of an austere appearance and with a brusque manner, his name was David Browne…….. They haggled of course but Browne being a very determined fellow managed to secure the property for a very low price and, although not ignorant of the building’s reputation, considered that he had secured the best bargin. With little ado, he had the house repaired and furnished and within a short time he and his family had moved in. The family consisted of Browne, his wife, daughter of about 12 years of age and an aging mother – a kindly old lady who was devoted to her son.

During the first few weeks of their occupancy all went well and Browne could not help but congratulate himself on what appeared to be a shrewed purchase. However, this period of tranquility was not to last for much longer, as subsequent events soon proved. After a residency of about two months, the family began to be constantly annoyed by the sound of doors being slammed violently shut. Even if they were shut were closed tight, unseen hands would quietly open them and violently slam them shut. At first, the slammings were attributed to draughts so steps were taken to make the whole house draught free. However, instead of curing the problem the precautions taken only led to the opposite effect. Now, instead of the doors slamming occasionally as before, they slammed constantly in quick succession. If this was not enough, there came the occassionally the tramping of heavy feet ascending the stairs, followed by the heavy ‘thud’ of something hitting the floor overhead. At other times, light hesitant footsteps would be heard stealthily pattering about the house, accompanied by a soft ‘rustling’ sound like that of a long skirt brushing the floor. The door of the room in which the family were sitting in would invariably be thrown open and some invisible presence would enter, walk around the room, pause for a seconds to seemingly ‘examine’ the trespassers and then depart leaving behind an air of sinister ‘creepiness’.

Yarmouth Rows (Ghost)

Naturally, all this soon left its mark on the family, especially the female members who were becoming more and more frightened. Browne himself, being a hard-headed man, would not openly admit that anything strange was happening, although deep inside he knew that there was more to this strange phenomena than could be explained – and he was more than uneasy! This nagging realisation was gradually to cause him much worry as to the best way to deal with whatever or whoever was causing the disturbances. He went to the former owner, but received little sympathy and certainly no help. At this point his anxiety increased to a point of desperation and he decided to visit one Nancy Green, an elderly woman who had the reputation locally of being something of a ‘witch’. She concocted love-potions for women, could find lost articles and cured those who considered that they had been bewitched and, above all, was known far and wide for her power over evil spirits. It was also reumoured that she could work evil against people – if the price was right!In fact, she was shunned by the majority of the populace whose only respect for her stemmed from fear. Such then was the person who Browne, in his desperation, consulted. Her house was situated in Crown Court.

Yarmouth Rows (Courtyard)
A modern touch to what used to be a typical Row courtyard where washing and dyeing was carried out.

David Browne knocked loudly on Nancy Green’s front door and, after what seemed to be an eternity to his mind, the door opened and Nancy invited him in. She then startled her visiter by first telling him exactly what the nature of his visit was about and then saying that she was unable to help as she had no control over evil spirits. Then as if teasing Browne she went on to say that she did have something else to tell him, but then silence – she said no more. Minutes ticked by and Nancy continued to show absolutely no interest in resuming any conversation with Browne. This impasse in any form of sensible communication with the woman soon became impossible for him and the little patience that he had normally snapped! Browne demanded to know what it was that she had to tell him and, receiving nothing but a silent stare, cursed her. “Damned you woman, you are nothing but a charlatan and a cheat!” Nancy’s response was to look him straight in the eye and break her self imposed period of silence by calmly telling him that when he arrived home he would find one member of his family Dead!

Browne’s immediate response to what he thought was a threat was to laugh – so Nancy thought. Then he called her a liar and left for home, unable not to ponder on what the woman had said. The sight that met him as he approached his front door was to see his wife in tears. She told him that in his absence his very own mother had collapsed and died……………………..!

The period of burial and mourning passed, but surprisingly perhaps, Browne made no immediate attempt to move his family out of the house in Glasshouse Row; in fact, the days passed into weeks and the weeks grew to five months during which time the whole house remained quiet and free from disturbances. But, any thought that the house would remain in this ‘normal’ state was cruelly shattered by a series of events that was triggered by piercing screams one night. These were followed by first a single thud overhead which reminded Browne and his wife of similar passed thuds which helped prompt him to visit Nancy Green. On this ocassion, they saw to their horror the gaunt figure of a very old man, wearing a long white night shirt and red flannel night-cap. He gazed at the couple for some seconds before sighing and disappearing through the bedroom door. The screams stopped…….

Yarmouth Rows (Ghost)2

Yarmouth Rows (Wizened Old Lady)7…..A further period of peace and tranquility descended on the house which made Browne think that the appearance of the old man had been the culmination of a whole  haunting and that maybe it was now finished. With this thought and some discussion, the family decided to stay in the house a while longer. Big mistake! Once more those piercing screams were again heard, only this time accompanied by a succession of loud crashes. Browne was to discover that, in the adjoining bedroom from which the screams were heard, every article of furniture, apart from the bed, was piled up in one corner, whilst the bed had been moved from its usual position to the centre of the room. Sitting at the head of the bed was a little wizened old lady, dressed in a black silk dress. She was intently occupied with a pack of cards which were spread out on the bed. She appeared to be completely unaware of Browne’s presence and continued rearranging the cards whilst muttering to herself. It was as if she was trying to see if the cards would foretell something! At length she gave a low chuckle, gathered the cards together and glided to the far end of the room and vanished. Browne was spell-bound and woundered if it was just his imagination, until he saw again the stacked up furniture. This was the final straw which convinced him that they should move out.

David Browne wasted no time in vacating the house but unsurprisingly he failed to sell it and it was left empty; Browne, in fact, thought that he had arrived at a point where he would never sell it, simply because stories of the Browne family’s misfortunes had spread throughout the neighbourhood and beyond. However and somewhat inexplicably, the notorious Nancy Green turned up out of the blue as it were and asked Browne for his permission to live in the house as a rented tenant; she gave no explanation. At first he was more that a little reluctant to have any more dealings with her but eventually, after some thought, agreed; probably because he knew that it would be impossible to find anyone else to take on the premises. No one knows why Nancy wanted to live in that particular house in Glasshouse Row. Did she have some past connection with not only the house……but maybe with that which caused its doors to slam, maybe the old man in the nigh-shirt who sighed…… and maybe, just maybe…the old lady who appeared to be able to ‘read’ cards? Of course, everything would be pure speculation with no human knowing this side of the divide. But, what was to become known to everyone hereabouts, was that in less than one month from moving in, Nancy Green was found dead, her facial appearance frozen in contorted terror!

Everything that happened after this, including the movements of David Brown and his family, was never-ever recorded. It was, however, suggested in the orginal Newspaper Article, that the house had been ‘exorcised’ and in the 25 years preceeding the 1894 Article, no further hauntings of the house were heard of…. but we don’t know what the future holds….do we!

FOOTNOTE: Today, very little remains of Glasshouse Row, certainly not that area in which the haunted house once stood. In fact most of it, running westwards from George Street, has long gone and replaced by a block of flats which extends across the original path of the Row at one point. Dare the question be asked as to whether there has been any reports of hauntings in. or near, these modern flats?

THE END

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

%d bloggers like this: