Oliver Fellows Tomkins, to give him his full name, was born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, the fourth son of the Daniel Tomkins. His formal education began in his father’s school in the town before travelling to Switzerland for a short time to complete it. He then spent five years working in business in Norwich, during which time he joined Dr George Barrett’s Congregational Church in Princes Street. Later, Tomkins become a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.
The original Princes Street Congregational Church was opened in 1819 with John Alexander becoming its “Founder and First Pastor”, and one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church. Dr George Barrett took over the church reigns following the death of Revd John Alexander.
Tomkins was clearly smitten with evangelism for during college holidays and half-terms, he would preach to the North Sea fishermen and volunteer for mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan, whilst camping at night. He was therefore delighted when, eventually he was appointed to work as a missionary in the Torres Straits of New Guinea. Half of his financial support for this mission was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped to pay enthusiastic bearers of ‘God’s word’ to go to many far-flung places in the world.
Tomkins sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse in December 1899; they were to join the Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea, the territory where Chalmers himself was to ignore calls from his friends to leave and return to England when his second wife died. His refusal, along with the arrival of Tomkins was to have consequences for both of them some sixteen months later.
But for the moment, Chalmers was pleased with the arrival of Tomkins, who would share the burden of his large district. According to Chalmers:
“Throughout Mrs. Chalmers’s last illness, Tomkins [was] “a great help and a great comfort.” No son could have treated me kindlier than he did.”
In his young colleague Tomkins, Chalmers saw reasons for hoping that he might have more time to return to his pioneer work. A few months after Tomkins’s arrival, Chalmers again sent a brief message to the Mission House regarding Tomkins: “He will do”; and that opinion was confirmed again, and again in the months that followed. Dr. William George Lawes was to call them, “the intrepid Paul and the beloved Timothy.”
But we move on – to 7 April 1901 to be exact. This was when Tomkins and Chalmers were on board the ‘Niue’ and had arrived at the Aird River at Kisk Point on Goaribari Island. The last entry in Tomkins’ diary indicates what happened next:
“In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching ……. They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board. Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them …… On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”
Neither of the Niue two missionaries, nor the twelve native Christians who accompanied them were seen after this visit to the natives. What really happened was only ascertained a month later, when George Le Hunte, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, visited the Aird River with a punitive expedition, and heard the story from a captured prisoner. This was quoted from an account supplied by the Rev Archibald Ernest Hunt, who accompanied the Lieutenant-Governor:
“The Niue anchored off Kisk Point on 7 April and a crowd of natives came off. As it was near sunset, ‘Tamate’ [the native name for John Chalmers] gave them some presents, and made signs that they were to go away, and the next day he would visit them ashore. At daylight the next morning, a great crowd of natives came off and crowded the vessel in every part. They refused to leave, and in order to induce them to do so, Tamate gave Bob, the captain, orders to give them presents. Still, they refused to move, and then Tamate said he would go ashore with them, and he told Tomkins to remain on board. The latter declined, and went ashore with Tamate, followed by a large number of canoes. When they got ashore, the whole party were massacred and their heads cut off. The boat was smashed up, and the clothing etc. distributed. All the bodies were distributed and eaten, Tomkins being eaten at the village of Dopima, where they were all killed.”
But just like most stories aimed at a reading public; the writers kept to the old adage ‘don’t let the facts spoil a good story’! One suggested that the ships party was invited back to the native’s village and into a newly constructed ‘Dubu’ for refreshments; clearly, if this was true, the two did not recognise the significance of entering such a communal house – which was for fighting men and could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice! Tomkins and Chalmers were clearly ‘taken in’ by the welcome; neither could they have seen any meaning behind the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut, a picture of stark contrast!
True or false, it was the case that other fellow missionaries had already reported similar sights elsewhere; of smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community. So, some may have thought, what on earth were the two men thinking, when clearly it was common knowledge that there were cannibalistic traditions in the region, a place where the missionaries were trying to bring the word of God!
But for Tomkins and Chalmers it would be too late; no sooner had they taken their places, seated at ground level along one side of the large laid-out spread, when each was clubbed from behind and killed. It was also said that their bodies were prepared and cooked with a variety of sago dishes, cooked with shell-fish, boiled with bananas, roasted on stones, baked in the ashes and tied up in leaves, – to be served as the main course, a feast that had been promised to the victims! Afterwards, their bones were kept on display and seemingly, the native’s ‘Dubu’ house had been suitably blessed by their preferred Gods!
Back home, relatives and friends undoubtedly mourned the loss of Oliver Tomkins and the church he once worshiped in, the Princes Street Congregational Church, held a memorial service for Tomkins. Members afterwards subscribed to a plaque which they placed inside the church building in his memory; it remains there to this day.
Some images in this blog are believed to be outside copyright. However, if anyone has any information to the contrary, would they please write via our ‘Contact Us’ page so that matters can be rectified and the correct attribution applied.
It was a vicious murder that worked its way into 19th century national imagination and also crept into later fiction. Many authors wrote about the crime and the man who perpetrated it. Sir Walter Scott became fascinated by him and even visited the scene of his crime. George Burrows was said to have been at his execution, but certainly wrote about him afterwards as editor of ‘Notable Trials’ when he wrote his personal account of the man’s execution. Scholarly crime studies also made a feature of the man, his background and the reasons for what was a murder, and a gruesome one at that! These studies began to filter through long after the actual gallows, on which the man swung, had long become an exhibit at Madame Tussauds. The murderer’s name was John Thurtell.
John Thurtell is a well-documented person of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with numerous biographies and studies about him in various forms of print which were published in both the United Kingdom and abroad. His was a short and wretched life where many of the opportunities that were offered to him, or came to him by chance, were wasted and he was best known for his personal brand of criminality. Unfortunately, and despite Thurtell being an intelligent ‘hard’ man, he quickly became a compulsive gambler and seemed to have had no trouble in thriving on the trappings of shady deals and illegal prize-fights which he promoted – and in which he sometimes took part.
Born on 21st December, 1794, Thurtell had every opportunity to make the most of his life in times when to be poor probably meant hardship and deprivation. His parents were financially quite well off in their home at Harford Bridges, which is still just a handful of miles south of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk. It was there where his father Alderman Thomas Thurtell, a prominent merchant and city councellor – who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828, celebrated the birth of baby John, his first son and the first in an ultimate line of several other children. As thrilled as the father must have been with the baby’s arrival, young John was to become his mother’s favourite child. This may have been one of the reasons why, as a child, John was not sent away for his schooling. A second reason may have been that young John, being an unruly child, had to be kept well within sight at all times when awake and active. Apparently, as John grew older, he became ‘not averse to tying canisters to dog’s tails’ – as George Burrow once put it.
Thurtell was certainly not a scholar and when he eventually went to school in Norwich, he remained permanently poor at both spelling and English Grammar. However, he must have shared the family’s social asperations at least, for he lacked the skills for much else. The truth was that he never applied himself to his studies and always seemed pre-occupied with competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). It was only after too many tussles for his family’s liking that his father decided that maybe a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good. So, at the age of 15 years, and with a freshly purchased commission by way of his father, John Thurtell joined Company 99 of the Marines as a second lieutenant and set out on 8 May 1809 to Chatham where he undertook a period of training before joining the HMS Adamant, a 50-gun Portland-class fourth rate warship which had just completed its final voyage after a thirty-year career as a fighting ship in the Royal Navy; it had served in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars.
During the month that Thurtell joined HMS Adamant, the ship was in the process of being fitted out as a ‘receiving ship’ which would be used, in harbour, to house newly recruited (also ‘impressed’) sailors before they were assigned to a ship’s crew. In the Royal Navy, the use of impressment to collect sailors resulted in the problem of preventing escapees. A receiving ship was part of the solution, for it was difficult to get off such a ship without being detected, and most seamen of the era did not know how to swim! Receiving ships, such as Adamant, were typically older vessels that could still be kept afloat, but were obsolete or no longer battle-worthy.
At the same time as Thurtell was being indoctrinated into his naval role, HMS Adamant was recommissioned under Captain John Sykes and in August 1809, presumably with Thurtell as part of its crew, took part in the ‘Scheldt Operation’ which was aimed at sealing the mouth of the Scheldt to prevent the port of Antwerp from being used as a base against the British Fleet. The primary aim of the whole campaign was to destroy the French fleet thought to be in Flushing whilst providing a diversion for the hard-pressed Austrians. Captain Matthew Buckle took command of HMS Adamant for this operation and was still in post two years later when Rear-Admiral William Albany Otway (not Robert Waller Otway as mentioned in other works – he came to Leith later) adopted the ship as his flagship.
It was on 16 July 1811 when Thurtell was disciplined and discharged from HMS Adamant by Rear Admiral William Albany Otway for misconduct. Beyond this point, real evidence of Thurtell’s immediate life and naval career is non-existent, and therefore some assumptions must be made. For instance, it can be assumed that his discharge was not absolute, for he went on to find another berth with HMS Bellona (another aging ship of the line) on 11 November 1811; just in time to be involved with the ship’s blockade of Dutch ports before a convoy trip to St Helena and back by September 1813 when she returned to the Basque Roads, but was back on blockade duty off Cherbourg by October of that year. From all this, it is clear that Thurtell’s service in the Navy was confined to two old ships which were fit only for blockading duties and not for any degree of real action.
But Thurtell was prone to boasting to his friends and family about his involvement in sea battles; how he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain for instance. However, Naval records indicate that this and other stories of action on the HMS Bellona were untrue; Bellona was docked at the Isle of Wight on 1 August 1813 when San Sebastian fell and the ship merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had ended. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war; it was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. By June 1814 there were no further opportunities for his ‘heroism’; this was the month when he resigned his commission and returned to Norwich. Being permanently ashore from this point did not, apparently, curtail his story-telling; and he always seemed to have a good audience around him, particularly in and around the Haymarket public houses in Norwich. It is said that folks there were greatly impressed with his tales of derring-do.
This growing attraction of his to frequent public house brought further interest in the world of boxing, and this was to be fuelled in 1818 by the landlord of ‘The Anchor’ in Lobster Lane, who was none other than Ned ‘Flatnose’ Painter who famously defeated Tom Spring in the August of that year. But three years before all this happened, in fact shortly after Thurtell’s 21st birthday on 21 December, Thomas Thurtell had set his son up in a bombazine business, alongside a designated partner by the name of John Giddons – or was it Giddings? – some accounts refer to the partner being John’s Brother, Thomas Thurtell; maybe it was all three?. No matter; the situation of being backed and supported by his wealthy and respectable parents was a wonderful opportunity for John Thurtell; also having been placed in the booming bombazine manufacturing and selling trade and with a young Quaker girl on his arm – what could possibly go wrong with his life? Plenty it would seem!
Inherent weaknesses with the partnership included the fact that John Thurtell did not like hard work, or show any trace of faithful endeavour towards the business; instead, he preferred frequenting Norwich taverns, and participating in or promoting boxing matches, even making numerous journeys to London in pursuit of the sport – and, inevitably, falling in with the ‘underworld’ fraternity who frequented such pastimes; maybe even, falling foul of ‘The Fancy’ – those professional crooks and gamblers who, seemingly, merged effectively into the the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing at the time. Frequently, underworld elements and gentlemen of so-called genteel society mixed in a sport that during the early 19th century was officially illegal; however, it was widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, boxing — with its brutality, fatalities and associations with unsavoury characters, had ample potential for morals to be expressed. ‘The Fancy’, said a judge in 1803,
“draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.”
It would seem the these ‘gentlemen’ were far better at the game than the likes of John Thurtell, who was seen by them as a country ‘yokel’, despite being the son of an Alderman and having successfully promoted a big fight at North Walsham on the 17 July 1820. That one event was probably the only moment when Thurtell’s standing with ‘The Fancy’, as a backer and partial promoter, was at its highest.
At least anecdotal evidence suggested that Thurtell’s behaviour after this fight remained as bad as ever, and he even caused a fight at another sporting event when he assaulted someone who he accused of being a pickpocket. Maybe his failing business was beginning to play on his mind at moments when he behaved so badly in public. Certainly, within six years of indulging himself elsewhere and not paying due attention to his bombazine business the partnership was swiftly heading towards bankruptcy. By 23 January 1821 Thurtell, it seems, was in an utter mess, but had already planned to go to London to collect a considerable amount of money owed to the bombazine partnership. Much of this money was owed to his creditors, but that was not what was on Thurtell’s mind when he collected it and returned to Norwich, where events took a very ‘mysterious’ turn. He put it about that he had received a note asking him to call on a Mr Bolingbroke who live near Chapelfield. Whilst on his way, an unidentified woman approached him and as they walked along Thurtell was violently attacked and relieved of the £1508. Afterwards he could neither identify the woman or his assailants! It followed that he immediately placed an advertisement in the local Norfolk newspapers; it read:
“£100 Reward: Whereas at about 9 o’clock on the evening of the 22nd inst, Mr John Thurtell was attacked in Chapel Field, Norwich, by three men, knocked down and robbed of a pocket book containing £1,508 in notes, thirteen of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each, and the name of John Thurtell is endorsed on them. Notice is hereby given that whoever will give information which might lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery, shall be paid the above reward on applying to Mr Thurtell; and any person concerned in the robbery who will give information of his accomplices will receive the reward and a free pardon.”
The total sum involved would seem to be an incredible amount of money to be carrying, and it was quickly established that this little episode was a complete scam and that the so-called wounds he received during the ‘assault’ had been self-inflicted. It became all too clear that Thurtell’s motive was to enjoy a public subscription from the publicity. However, his creditors were never to be impressed or taken in by what had been the latest of Thurtell’s antics and notices of bankruptcy against his and Gidden’s partnership duly appeared, stating that J Giddens and J Thurtell, bombazine manufacturers, dealers and chapmen of Norwich were listed as insolvent, and that Ides, Poole & Greenfield of Gray’s Inn Square had been appointed solicitors. A creditors meeting took place on 15th to 17th March 1821 at the Norfolk Hotel.
Within days of this meeting Thurtell fled to London with a woman named Mary Dobson, whose looks were proving more interesting to him than those of his Quaker girl-friend. They left Norwich, leaving his apparent naïve father as his biggest creditor. By this time John Thurtell was being better known as ‘Jack’ Thurtell, and over the next twelve months or so Jack managed to obtain a licence to run a public house; get his brother, Thomas, imprisoned for a claimed debt of £17 which Jack thought would help discharge his own bankruptcy – that failed but left a bad taste in the mouths of at least his family. Jack also continued with any scam which he thought would bring him money; one involved buying a consignment of bombazine and storing it in a warehouse which he and Thomas had previously had insured for £1900. Jack then made some internal alterations to the warehouse which effectively concealed the inside. He then sold his entire stock for cash, but before it was delivered the warehouse was gutted by fire on the night of 26 January 1823.
The inevitable insurance claim was lodged but when investigators found that there were no traces of bombazine the County Fire Officer refused to settle the claim. Thomas Thurtell, who was clearly a partner in this fraud, not only sued the insurance company but won the case; however, such was the level of suspicion that the insurance company’s Managing Director not only confirmed its refusal to pay out, but threatened to pursue a case of conspiracy to defraud. Jack and Thomas where effectively broke and literally went into hiding, wandering from inn to inn and mixing with the rogues of London. Individuals like William Probert who had married a woman described as ‘physically repellent but financially attractive’, and was thus able to purchase a cottage in Gills Hill Lane, Radlett. Here he lived with his wife, her sister, two children of Thomas Thurtell and a couple of servants. Probert also put his wife’s money to other use, by setting himself up as a wine merchant, a venture that failed around the same time as John Thurtell’s own business ventures collapsed. The two were well matched.
Another rogue was Joseph Hunt, 26 years of age and an illiterate whose only talent was that he could sing. Doubtless there were other such characters in Jack Thurtell’s world of dubious deals and gambling. Then there was 43-year-old William Weare, a gang member and a ‘notorious blackleg’, card sharp, gambler at billiard tables and race horse meetings. He trusted no-one, and kept his considerable fortune about his person, strapped to his chest or secreted within his clothing. He lived in lodgings at Lyons Inn, off the Strand. This had previously been the address of reputable solicitors, which would have made Weare appear ‘respectable’, an image borne out by his appearance, for he was always smartly dressed. He could, and did, fleece many an easy prey and Jack Thurtell, who was considered a novice amongst such ‘sporting people’, was to be Weare’s next victim.
In October 1883, Weare, who had been to Doncaster races, returned to town having had a very successful day. He was approached by one of London gang-leaders who further tempted Weare with more ‘easy pickings’. The victim would be Jack Thurtell who had already lost heavily but was given the opportunity to make up his losses by playing a certain person who was considered poor at playing cards. Jack Thurtell thus met William Weare, who duly lost early rounds, conning Jack to play ‘just one more round’ – Weare took Thurtell for £300, and the loser was not pleased at all and conspired to exact revenge on Weare.
Jack Thurtell invited Weare to accompany him and his few friends out into the country around Radlett for a spot of hunting; Weare gladly accepted. In the meantime, Jack Thurtell and Hunt had bought a pair of pistols, a rope and a large sack; also hiring a gig, which would have been ideal for making the trip to Radlett, except that it would be pulled by two greys which were to prove to be a ‘give-away’ when the planned crime had been committed.
On the appointed day, Weare appeared, complete with a gun and a change of clothing; he accompanied John Thurtell in the gig, whilst Probert and Hunt followed in a second gig. Together, the party raced along the Edgware Road, calling into taverns along the way as they settled into their boozy, sporty and ultimately murderous weekend. Entering Radlett, Thurtell went on ahead whilst, it seems, Probert dropped Hunt off, before heading off along Gills Hill Lane after him. What really happened near Probert’s cottage really depends on which story is believed; people’s accounts varied between the inquest and the trial that was to follow. However, one thing was certain; Jack Thurtell was still aboard the gig when he shot Weare in the face before striking him several times with his pistol. If that was not enough, which it wasn’t because his was a ‘grudge’ assassination in which he demanded full revenge; he cut Weare’s throat.
The Sequell: The deed done, Thurtell must have felt that the score was settled – short of disposing of Weare’s body of course. Now, whether or not Probert helped in this matter is not really clear, so speculation must be that Thurtell carried out this task alone; placing Weare’s body into a sack and dumping it under bushes. This was during the early 19th century when Gills Hill Lane was little more than a track, with wild bushes, tree and hedgerows; at approximately three-quarters of a mile long, this overgrown lane was, in those days, referred to as a ‘dismal ravine’. However, Weare’s corpse was not to lay hidden for long by that lane; Probert and Hunt joined Thurtell at the cottage, which lay east of the lane, before all three went to the hidden site and rifled Weare’s pockets. Then, later that evening, after darkness had well and truly fallen, they carried the body to a nearby field, on horseback, where they threw it into a pond. Thurtell, obviously panicking, then went back to the scene of his crime and searched for the two murder weapons, the pistol and the knife – but with no success. Strange therefore that during the very next day two workmen, who were employed to clear the lane, passed the very same spot and not only noticed blood on the ground, but also discovered the bloodstained pistol and knife. These they passed on to their employer, a Mr Nicholls, who later presented them to the Petty Sessions of the Watford Branch which happened to be sitting, in session, at the Essex Arms Inn; it was on Tuesday, 28 October 1823.
According to Pete Goodrum, in his book ‘Five Norwich Lives’ what followed next was that:
“The Magistrate did not praise or thank Nicholls but unsurprisingly admonished him for taking so long to report his story. On seeing that the pistol was covered in blood, human hair and brains, they were galvanised into action. Constable Simmonds of Watford was given the weapons, along with instructions to go straight to London to request a Bow Street Runner to come down immediately. [After 1815, the Runners’ most regular employment was to respond to help requests from prosecutors outside London. These were likely cases in which their skill and experience was thought to be useful in investigating offences in the provinces.”
At the same time as the police were being alerted, rumours were spreading. Firstly, a gunshot was heard by a Mr P. Smith, at nearby Battlers Green. Secondly, a man named Freeman had noticed a gig in Gills Hill Lane with two men on board; and thirdly, it became established that on the day of the murder, Joseph Hunt had sported a beard and moustache – at the time of his arrest just days later he was to be found clean shaven and wearing Weare’s clothes! Then a chanced remark from a farmer that he had ‘heard a shot’ about the time of the killing forced Probert to waste no time in telling his companions; this resulted in all three men racing back to the pond which held Weare’s corpse, retrieving it, placing it into the gig and driving to another pond near Elstree to drown it once more!
But time and events were against Hunt, Thurtell, Thomas (Thurtell’s brother) and Probert, the latter displaying his extreme uneasiness to such an extent that soon the police authorities became interested in him. Magistrate Clutterbuck visited Probert’s cottage, which stood just north of Elstree and found that Probert had packed his bags and was clearly in the process of making his escape. Probert was questioned and revealed that his weekend guests had been Hunt and Thurtell. A subsequent warrant authorised, at first, the arrest of Thurtell’s brother, Thomas, together with Probert; then the investigation was passed over to the London Detective, George Ruthven, apparently a well-known and minor celebrity.
Again, according to Pete Goodrum:
“Events then moved quickly. One of the magistrates, Clutterbuck, having returned home exhausted, was woken by two visitors. They introduced themselves as John Noel, a London solicitor, and a billiard saloon owner called William Rexworthy. Noel claimed that on his way to the theatre in London he had heard from a patrol on the Edgware Road that there had been a murder of an unknown victim in Hertfordshire. Putting two and two together, he had become anxious that the victim might be his client, William Weare. He had heard from Rexworthy that Weare had planned a trip to Hertfordshire to go shooting with somebody called Jack Thurtell. However, Weare had apparently not returned to London. His lodgings were locked and he’d not been seen in any of his regular haunts. Clutterbuck took his visitors straight to the Essex Arms where the hearing was about to commence and where Noel quickly took legal control.”
Meanwhile, Detective Ruthven arrested Hunt at his lodgings in London before finding Thurtell in the Coach and Horses in Conduit Street, again in the city. Finding some items of Thurtell’s clothing blood stained, some exposed parts of his body covered with cuts and bruises and significantly, a pistol in one of his pockets, he too was arrested. Both Hunt and Thurtell were then taken back to the Essex Arms to join Probert and Thomas; from this point onwards the principle of ‘Honour among criminals’ fell by the wayside as Probert and Hunt turned King’s Evidence and pointed the finger at Thurtell, and also revealed the location of Weare’s body. The inquest had been held at the Artichoke public house in Elstree, whose licensee was foreman of the jury. Dr. Ward and Dr. Kendall, of Watford had examined Weare’s corpse and concluded that the cause of death was as a result of severe blows to the skull by a gun, causing pieces of bone to lodge in the brain.
Joseph Hunt, clearly setting out to save his own skin, gave evidence against Thurtell and spun out a story which included a statement saying that Thurtell had bought the pistols for £1 17s 6d., and that he had also enquired about hiring a gig. Incredulously perhaps, Hunt also revealed that the party under suspicion had called at the Artichoke for a drink on the way to Radlett prior to the murder! He then added that, after the murder, Thurtell had admitted killing the man “who robbed me of £300 at Blind Hookey (cards)”, and that he had taken a gold watch from Weare’s body. Hunt then gave an account of the episode of dumping Weare’s body. Concluding his evidence, Hunt gave more damning details which included him previously passing on to his solicitor the fact that he (Hunt) had received Weare’s clothes and had also shaved off his whiskers. Unintentionally amusing was when a juror asked Hunt: “What has become of your whiskers and moustache?” Hunt apparently replied: “You must be able to see I have cut them off!”
It was the court custom at the time to question each person separately, and without them knowing the submissions of others; these submissions were to vary widely. Probert’s version matched Hunt’s, but only in absolving himself of murder; other than that, he frequently contradicted Hunt’s version. He told the court that Thurtell had gone ahead and killed Weare, and that he (Probert) had not been party to it. He agreed he had helped to dispose of the body and that he, together with Hunt, had shared some of the money stolen from Weare by Thurtell.
As for poor Jack Thurtell, he simply dug a hole from which he failed to extricate himself; particularly on the question of the pistol found on his person when he was arrested. He had, at first denied that he ever owned a pistol, until he was reminded that such a weapon had been found on him; also, that the second of the matching pair had been found ‘within yards’ of the murder spot. Thurtell must have realised that the game was up for him and that it was clear that the three men had obviously lured Weare to Probert’s cottage because Jack intended to murder him. Events at the Hearing was progressing irrevocably to wards a proper Trial. The court returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ and committed the prisoners to Hertford gaol to await such a trial, that was set for 6 January 1824 at Hertford.
Languishing in prison for over three months, the three men continued to protest their innocence. Plenty of accusations and counter-accusations were voiced, all designed to set the blame elsewhere. Outside, most of the country who were interested in following the case were fed by Newspapers and broadsheets which peddled the grisliest details of what was becoming a sensational case; and no report failed to mention Jack Thurtell’s fall from grace as a ‘son of Alderman Thurtell of Norwich.’
When the trial commenced on 6 January 1824 it quickly became clear that it was a complicated case, requiring a considerable amount of legal talent to enable a conclusion. To assist in this, legal trickery was employed and this included granting immunity to Probert on condition that he appeared as a witness against Thurtell. Neither he nor Hunt, whose neck was on the line, did Thurtell any favours. It was Thurtell who was allowed to conduct his own defence and appeared to be doing quite well, until he made a big mistake by talking too long and in the process did himself no favours. At the end, the judge summed up, the jury retired only to return with a guilty verdict for both Hunt and Thurtell. The inevitable sentence was that the two men would hang; however, on the eve of their executions, Hunt’s sentence was commuted to transportation. As for Probert, he was only to remain alive and well for barely a year and a half; he died on the gallows in June 1825.
When Thurtell took the short walk to the rope, on 9 January 1824, he was in chains but dressed smart, as was his nature. Soldiers, armed with staves separated him and his execution party from the estimated 15,000 spectators who were there to see the spectacle; many removed their hats. Now, the last words describing this scene are left to those of Richard Clarke:
Execution: “James Foxen, the hangman, arrived from London on the Thursday and made the usual preparations. Thurtell dressed for the occasion and was described as being “elegantly attired in a brown great coat with a black velvet collar, light breeches and gaiters, and a fashionable waistcoat with gilt buttons.” A little before 12 noon on Friday, the 9th of January 1824, Foxen pinioned Thurtell’s hands in front of him with handcuffs and he was then led from his cell to the accompaniment of the tolling prison bell and the prison chaplain reading the burial service. A few moments earlier he had confessed his guilt to the chaplain. He mounted the 5 steps slowly but steadily and positioned himself on the trap. Here Foxen removed his cravat and loosened his collar. When Thurtell had finished praying, Foxen drew the white cotton cap over his head and placed the noose around his neck. The Governor of Hertford Gaol and the Chief Warder both shook hands with him before Foxen adjusted the noose. Wilson said, “Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you” to which Thurtell replied, “God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you.” At two minutes past midday on the signal from Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, Foxen drew the bolts and Thurtell dropped into the box like structure with a crash…….by the standards of the day, Thurtell died easily and was not seen to struggle. After hanging the customary hour, his body was taken down and sent to London for dissection in Surgeon’s Hall in accordance with his sentence.”
Postscript: Great sensation was caused in Norwich by the trial and execution of John Thurtell, at Hertford. The execution took place on 9 January 1824, and on the 24th the Norfolk Chronicle published a letter received by Mr. Alderman Thomas Thurtell, of Norwich, the father of the deceased; it came from Mr. Robert Sutton, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which the writer commiserated with Thomas Thurtell in his great affliction. In the same paper was another letter addressed by Mr. N. Bolingbroke, of Norwich, to the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, in which he wrote:
“It may appear to some that he (the father) has not acted with sufficient kindness of feeling towards his unhappy son; but you may be assured, Sir, that there was no part of his conduct which could not be satisfactorily explained. He has generally acted under the advice of Mr. Unthank, a respectable solicitor in this city, my own, and others. There are many actions in a man’s life of which no correct opinion can be formed without a knowledge of the motives by which such have been influenced.”
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
The complete history of the former Bethel Hospital is too involved to appear here. Instead, today’s blog is confined to its very beginning, prefaced by a summary of the periods which led up to the time when Mary Chapman shared her ideas with her husband, Reverend Samuel Chapman of Thorpe Parish Church. He died before their project was implemented and it was left to Mary to forge ahead – when the time was right!
Preface: There is evidence to suggest that the site of the Bethel – and that was its original name – had been settled as early as Saxon times. We know this through extensive archaeological excavations which took place on the site of the former Norwich Central Library prior to its construction in 1960; the library then lay almost next door to the ground on which the Bethel was built back in 1713. This pre-1960 excavation unearthed a large collection of finds; significantly, the discovery of Saxon postholes confirmed that the area had been settled well before Norman times, whilst a rare Viking gold ingot, the first of its type found in the UK, could be roughly dated to the Viking occupation of East Anglia in the late ninth century.
During the Medieval period, Over or Upper Newport, as Bethel Street was then known, stretched from St Peter Mancroft to St Giles Gate, or New-port, close to the surviving church of St Giles. The Norfolk historian, Francis Blomefield, wrote in 1768 that this street was:
“the ropery, where the cord and ropemakers formerly dwelt’.
During this period the Bethel site also fell under the shadow of St Mary-in-the-Fields, a chapel and hospice founded by John Le Brun in 1248, the crypt of which survives below the Assembly House grounds, which itself still faces towards the south-west of the earlier Bethel and later renamed Bethel Hospital.
The Committee House and The Great Blow: Blomefield also noted that part of the Bethel was located on the site of the former ‘Committee House’, a meeting place and store for the County’s armoury; the house was rented to Norfolk’s County Committee. Significantly, the building’s importance was reflected in the naming of the road outside as Committee Street, which linked Over or Upper Newport Gate (Upper St Giles’) to St Peter’s Street by St Peter Mancroft Church.
Little is known about the Committee House, but it is recorded as having been the house of Francis Wyndham (1525-1592), who is ‘immortalised’ in a memorial at St Peter Mancroft. He had no children and left his property to his wife, Elizabeth, with the exception of the Committee House, which was valued at £400 and was to be sold to pay his debts.
The Committee House’s demise is recorded in an incident known as the ‘Great Blow’ which took place on 24 April 1648. The background to this incident is that Norwich, on the eve of the Second English Civil War, was a hotbed of dissent. This was exacerbated by high taxes levied by Charles I and objections to the King’s High Anglicanism, which stood in contrast to the Puritan values prevalent in Norfolk at the time. It was said that tensions ran particularly high when a death warrant was apparently placed on the head of the City’s Mayor, John Utting. A crowd of residents, ‘having a strong affection for the Mayor’, attempted to prevent the official’s imminent capture and, to prove their point further, a number of rioters plundered the houses of his suspected enemies.
It was around 2pm on the same day when crowds converged on the Committee House, a symbol of Parliament’s power over the city, emphasised by it being the arsenal for the County Arms Magazine. The crowd broke through the bolted doors and ascended to the armoury above where Samuel Cawthorne, the armourer, was assaulted for having shot a boy in the scuffle. By 4pm three troops of Colonel Charles Fleetwood’s parliamentarian cavalry regiment converged on Norwich. Riding down the crowd, they sent many of the inhabitants scurrying indoors, while a firefight developed around the Committee House during pouring rain.
Amongst the excitement, the rioters were careless with the gunpowder, ‘one sweeping it from the stairs, another taking a hatful home’! In the midst of the violence and clear confusion, the rioters accidentally detonated ninety-eight barrels of gunpowder. It was reported that around 100 people were killed or seriously injured as a result, along with total destruction of Committee House and adjacent properties. The blast also blew out all the windows of both St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen’s Churches, along with most other glazed buildings in the Market Place. Total damage was later estimated at the colossal sum of £20,000. Subsequently, fragments of glass were “gathered” from the site of the former Committee House and later set in St. Peter Mancroft church’s east window.
The Founding of the Bethel: Given Committee Street’s history, it is not perhaps surprising that in 1712 the Guardians described the site on which the Bethel Hospital was built as a ‘wast peece of ground’. Thomas Cleer’s map, produced in 1696, was the first professionally surveyed scale plan of Norwich; it showed the site of the Bethel, seventeen years before the building was construction. The row of buildings fronting the street were broken by an empty plot. It appears very likely, therefore, that this plot was the site of the former ‘Committee House’ that had been destroyed 50 years earlier. The south side of the site was undeveloped at this point and backed on to a street, to the south of which were gardens adjoining ‘Chapply Field’ – known today as Chapelfield Gardens.
Mental Health Care in the 18th Century: Before the eighteenth century the only dedicated facility in England for the care of those suffering from mental illness was the Bethlehem Hospital in London, which admitted its first mentally ill patients in 1407. Hence the Bethel, once built, would be the first purpose-built asylum in the country outside London.
Before the Madhouse Act of 1774, treatment of the Insane was generally carried out by non-licensed practitioners, who ran their asylums as a commercial enterprise with little regard for the inmates. With the establishment of the Mad House Act, licensing was required for each property if it was to house mentally ill patients, with yearly inspections of the premises taking place.
As the century progressed, ideas surrounding the treatment of patients changed. One notable Georgian development was the belief that regular bathing in hot and cold water would help alleviate symptoms of mental illness. In 1797 the Master of Bethel was responsible for ‘properly preparing the Bath and bathing of the patients, when ordered by the physicians’, reflecting the adoption of bathing as a medical practice.
The part dereliction of this area of Committee Street does offer an explanation for why the City was willing to lease the land to Mary Chapman for the establishment of her lunatic asylum in 1712. Mary Chapman came from a background of wealth and influence; the daughter of a former Mayor of Norwich and wife of Samuel Chapman, Rector of Thorpe. Although the Bethel was opened 14 years after her husband’s death, Mary’s Will suggests that the project was the joint charitable venture of Mary and her husband, both of whom had experienced the effects of lunacy in their own families. The name ‘Bethel’, meaning ‘House of God’, was apparently chosen by Samuel Chapman for its biblical connotations. His widow reinforced this sentiment by having a quotation from the book of Hebrews inscribed above its eventual door:
‘But to do good and to communicate forget not; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’
Mary Chapman (1647 – 1724): At this point in the story, a little must be said about the driving force behind the building of the Bethel, Mary Chapman. She was born on 24 of March 1647, during the English Civil War, and was the third daughter of John Mann and Hester nee’ Baron. Her father had made his fortune as a Worstead weaver, before going on to become Sheriff of Norwich in 1649 and Mayor four years later; in 1671 he took up the position of High Sheriff.
It was on 10 of May 1682 when, at the age of 35, Mary became the second wife of Rev. Samuel Chapman, Rector of Thorpe St Andrews; however, the marriage was childless. The couple, nevertheless, had the possible compensation of both sharing a concern for the treatment and welfare of the mentally ill. However, only 18 years of marriage passed before Samuel Chapman died, leaving money in his Will for Mary Chapman to build their dream of a house for the ‘habitation of poor lunatics’. In this, Mary was to devote herself to its foundation – somewhere in the city.
It was Mary’s staunch faith that was the driving force behind success in eventually building what became the Bethel in 1713. It was so named in accordance with the ‘advice and desire of Samuel Chapman’. Once founded, Mary Chapman continued to dictate the running of the Bethel; from specifying rules for admittance to carefully appointing her trustees, It was only later when the Bethel, became known as the Bethel Hospital, maintaining ‘several poor lunatics therein at her own expense during the time of her life and at her decease’.
Mary Chapman was a very religious women and in her Will she wrote; ‘First and before all things I humbly dedicate most heavenly devote to God….…’ and requested a plaque with the inscription ‘To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’ from Hebrews 13th chapter and 16th verse. As well as inscribing this quotation above its door, Mary ensured that biblical texts were placed throughout the building, such as “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom” and “Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad”. According to Dylan Read:
“Mary Chapman became aware that ‘abuses of several kinds’ were taking place at the Bethel towards the inmates. She devised a system to regulate the abuses and instructions were given to deal with reducing the amount of abuse at the Bethel……”
Mary died in 1724, leaving most of her possessions and her wealth to the Bethel, as well as directions of its future running. It was her intent that, even after her death, the Bethel would continue to serve the purpose for which it was founded. In this, she also left it under the direction of seven trustees; John Hall, William Cockman, Richard Cooke, John Lombe, John Thompson, William Lombe and Timothy Gaming. In her Will, Mary also said that she wanted everyone with lunacy, whether from Norwich or not, to be placed in the Bethel and for the trustees to be paid by the families and friends of those living there. She also requested that a percentage of the earnings would go into the improvement of the charity through the payment of rent, maintenance and the employment of doctors. It was also requested that the trustees elected a treasurer.
Mary Chapman’s body was buried in accordance to her Will in the grounds of the Old Parish Church of Thorpe St Andrews, next to her Husband – without disturbing him. She asked for a plain coffin with only the letters M.C and that it would be carried to the by six parish clerks. Her tombstone survives in the chancel of the now ruinous church. It reads,
“She built wholly at her own expense the house in Norwich called Bethel for the reception, maintenance and cure of poor lunatics, to which and other charitable uses she gave all her income while she lived and her estate at her death.”
The Design of the Bethel: After securing a 1000-year lease on the site of the proposed building at a peppercorn rate, Mary Chapman and her trustees commissioned Carpenter Richard Starling and mason Edward Freeman to build the Bethel, at a total cost of £314 2s. 6d; one trustee, John Morse, was responsible for overseeing the work. The only surviving image of Mary Chapman’s Bethel can be found on the Hospital’s seal, which depicts the building’s north façade and shows a two-storey range with two adjoining wings.
A copy of the original building agreement in Bateman and Rye’s History of the Bethel Hospital sheds further light on the building’s original design. In it, the trustees ordered the construction of a building measuring 89 foot in length with two 27-foot wings, as well as two cellars at the south-east and south-west corners of the main range. Staircases ran from these cellars to the second floor. Internally, the Hospital was to be divided by a passageway running:
“from the dore in the middle of the fore front of the said building to the dore in the midle of the back front of the said house”.
Each side would then be partitioned into three rooms. Every door was to include a six-inch square hole covered by an iron grille and shutter, presumably as a means of ensuring proper ventilation whilst also enabling the observation of patients. Three of these seem to survive in an altered form on the second floor of the western 1753 wing. The agreement specified that ‘good clear glass’ was to be used for all windows except for the cellar and attic windows, which were to be glazed with:
‘quarrell (kwor′el} glass’ – a square of glass placed diagonally – a diamond pane of glass. Windows were also to be fitted with ‘two iron bands of three-quarter inch barrs’.
Whether or not these plans were enacted in their entirety, they nevertheless help to shed light on the building’s function as a place of confinement. Mary Chapman herself stated that:
“those put…into the said House shall be kept close and not suffered to wander abroad during their disorder”.
However, it was the inmates’ care rather than their confinement that was at the forefront of Mary’s vision for the Bethel. In an inscription on the Hospital’s foundation stone, now repositioned at the entrance of the building, Mary laid out the Bethel’s purpose:
“This house was built for the benefit of distress Lunaticks Ano Dom. 1713 and is not to be alienated or employed to any other use or purpose whatsoever. Tis also requir’d that the Master, who shall be chosen from time to time, be a Man that lives in the Fear of God and sets up true protestant Religion in his Family and will have a due Regard as well to souls as bodies as those that are under his care.”
In his history of the Hospital, Bateman describes how the Bethel was “bounded west by a house and east the school house of Bernard Church”. These buildings on either side of Bethel Hospital are shown on Kirkpatrick’s 1723 map of Norwich, with Mary Chapman’s House clearly set back from the street.
Another terrace fronting Theatre Street falls within what is now the south west wing of Little Bethel Court. Produced four years later, James Corbridge’s 1727 map clearly illustrates the U-plan of the Bethel, showing the main range with its two adjoining north wings. Aside from this detail, the area around Committee Street appears relatively unchanged from Kirkpatrick’s map published three years earlier.
Little is known about the Hospital’s early years, other than that Mary Chapman lived at the Bethel until her death in 1724. In her Will, dated 22 October 1719, Chapman mentions that one Henry Harston was the master of the house at the time. The presumption that Harston was a layman with no medical qualification gives an indication of the type of care provided to those patients at the Bethel during its early years. Chapman’s Will also specified that seven trustees were to be appointed to run the Hospital on the occasion of her death. This wish was enacted in January 1724, when a group of appointed trustees presided over the newly formed public charity for the first time.
Footnote: (Mental Health Reform): For a century, the Bethel was the sole public facility specifically for the mad or insane in Norwich. Andrew Halliday reported to the 1807 Select Committee that Norwich had 112 ‘lunatics and idiots’, of whom only 27 were detained in poor law or penal institutions. In 1808, the County Asylum Act was passed, which allowed counties to levy a rate in order to fund the building of county asylums. The intention was to remove the insane from the workhouses and provide them with a dedicated care system. Despite this legislation, only 20 county asylums were built around the country.
One such institution was the Norfolk Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1814 with beds for 104 patients. However, the city’s provision of care for the mentally ill was severely inadequate. Of the few patients that were sent to Bethel Hospital, hundreds more were left in workhouses. Until the Lunatics Act of 1845, the number of patients at the Bethel remained between seventy and eighty, while those in the new asylum increased. This was sped up by the transferral of a number of Bethel’s pauper patients to the County Asylum in 1814.
By 1845, the Lunatics Act had brought public asylums into line with each other. It made the provision of accommodation for pauper patients compulsory and required mental healthcare institutions with more than 100 patients to have a medically qualified superintendent at their head. It also took into account the moral treatment pioneered by William Tuke and saw the care of the lunatics being funded by the individual county.
William Tuke (1732 – 1822) was a prominent mental health reformer and philanthropist. Born into a leading Quaker family, Tuke embraced social activism in his youth, campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. Towards the end of the century Tuke increasingly became involved in mental health reform and raised funds to establish his own Quaker asylum in 1796. The York Retreat was a religious and humane hospital for Quakers suffering with mental illness.
Tuke’s model of moral treatment was adopted by asylums across the country and went on to become one of the most influential practices in 19th century asylums. Chains were removed from inmates, accommodation was improved, and patients were engaged in occupational work as a form of ‘moral therapy’.
Footnote: For those who have an appetite for more, several documents which relate to Mary Chapman are held at the Norfolk Record Office; NRO, BH21-23 -‘A Short Account of Mrs Mary Chapman and of her founding and embowering the house called Bethel in the city of Norwich’, this includes information on Mary Chapman as well as a copy of her Will. This can also be viewed on the microfilm at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, NCC will register Lawrence 219). NRO, MC 2018/1, 895X6 is a Work book which contains transcript and notes on Mary Chapman amongst other information on the Bethel Hospital.
Francis Blomfield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: History, Volume 1. (W Miller: London, 1805), 235
Christopher W Brooks, “‘Wyndham, Francis (d. 1592)’”, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),
Anonymous, The History of The City and County Of Norwich: From The Earliest Accounts To The Present Time, Volume 1 (1768), 267
Sir Frederick Bateman and Walter Rye, The History of the Bethel at Norwich (Gibbs and Waller: Norwich, 1906), 6 and 166.
Some images in this blog are believed to be outside copyright. However, if anyone has any information to the contrary, would they please write via our ‘Contact Us’ page so that matters can be rectified.
Norfolk – The Lincolns in the 16th Century:
Early in the 16th Century there lived in Swanton Morley a Richard Lincoln – or ‘Lincorne’ as it was then spelt. He was born around 1550 in the village and was churchwarden at its All Saint’s Church from 1599 to 1620; that we know. We also know that he was the 6th times Great Grandfather of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the USA.
It appears that Richard Lincoln’s son from his first marriage was Edward, and it was he who expected to benefit from his father’s Will when he passed away – but that was never to happen! In his will, written 3 January 1616, with a codicil in 1619, Richard Lincoln left everything, apart money for his burial and small gifts to the poor, to his wife and the children of his fourth marriage. The original Will, consisting of four sheets of paper, each sealed at the bottom with a red wax seal bearing the device of a hound, is still preserved in the Norfolk Record Office at Norwich.
Clearly then, Edward would not have been too pleased about being cut out of his father Richard’s Will after he had heard the news. In fact, a family squabble ensued as he abandoned his home at Swanton Morley and relocated to some small acreage at Hingham, taking with him his wife, Brigit, nee’ Gilman and his seven children. Amongst these seven children was Samuel. Now, some historians have said that this Samuel, and there have been many over the generations, may never have moved to America had his father not been cut out of Richard’s Will – meaning that the path of the Lincoln family’s history would have changed completely – and Abraham Lincoln would never have become the 16th President of the USA!
Samuel Lincoln was born around 1622 and baptised in St Andrew’s Church, Hingham on August 24 1622. At the age of 15 years, when he was an apprentice weaver in Norwich; he left home and sailed on a ship named John & Dorothy from Great Yarmouth for a new life in the USA. The year was 1637 and ironically, he settled in Hingham, Massachusetts. There, around 1649, Samuel married Martha Lyford from Ireland and bought a house plot so as to provide a permanent home. There, the couple had eleven children, three of whom died in their infancy. Samuel’s eldest son, born 25 August in 1650, was also named Samuel; however, the emigrant Samuel Lincoln’s fourth son was Mordecai, who became a blacksmith, and was the direct ancestor of Abraham Lincoln.
But on-board ship back in 1637, there were eleven Puritan ministers from Norwich among the passengers; they had been suspended during a purge by Bishop of Norwich Matthew Wren; the solution for these eleven, was to emigrate and seek freedom of worship elsewhere. Also on board, amongst those struggling with the demands of conscience, and maybe family as a result of Wren’s demands, was Francis Lawes, aged 57, a worsted weaver – he was young Samuel’s employer and companion for at least this journey, although it has been suggested that there were also other members of the Lincoln line from Hingham on board. Whatever may have been their reason for emigrating, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Lawes may well have been an influencing factor upon young Samuel’s own decision to place his future overseas. Samuel, in fact, was following in the footsteps of his brothers, Daniel and Thomas who had settled in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1635. Thomas, had been granted a house lot by the town and although twice married Thomas had no children. After his death, he left a great deal of his property, including several house lots, to Samuel and his nephews. Samuel was never to return to Norfolk.
It has been said that, despite his young age, religion did influence Samuel Lincoln in his decision to leave Norfolk; it was certainly the case that religion led future American Lincolns to connect with members of the Norfolk Gurney family and to renew a centuries-old link with the Lincoln’s ancestry back in Norfolk.
The Gurney Connection:
One Hundred and Fifty-one years after young Samuel Lincoln had sailed to America, and barely 12 years after the former colony had declared itself to be the ‘United States of America’, on 9 September 1776, Joseph John Gurney was born into the Gurney family in Norwich – the year was 1788. The Gurney family was famous for Banking and were also well known as Quakers. Joseph was one of ten children, which included his equally famous sister, Elizabeth Fry of prison reforming fame. It was with this particular sister that the now 29-year-old Joseph also campaigned for prison conditions to be improved, coupled with a call for the abolition of capital punishment. The year was 1817 and he was now an evangelical minister.
In his capacity as a prison reformer, Joseph Gurney made trips to the West Indies and the United States, between 1837 and 1840, where he preached and called for an end to slavery. While Gurney was preaching in the United States he caused some controversy that resulted in a split (schism) among Quakers. He was concerned that Friends had so thoroughly accepted the ideas of ‘the inner light’ that they no longer considered the actual text of the Bible and that the New Testament Christ was important enough. He also stressed the traditional Protestant belief that salvation is through faith in Christ. Those who sided with him were called ‘Gurneyite’ Quakers. Those who sided with John Wilbur, his opponent, were called ‘Wilburites’.
It was also during his first visit to America in 1837 that he, then 39 years of age, first met Eliza Paul Kirkbride, who was three years his junior. She came from Philadelphia and was able to make quite an impression on Joseph when she presented her extensive briefs on American life to him. It was also during this visit that Joseph had the opportunity to meet with Abraham Lincoln several times, and to address a joint session of Congress; he also exchanged letters with Lincoln, then a young and ambitious member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Was it simply a coincidence then that, in 1837, Lincoln made his first public declaration against slavery?
Eliza Kirkbride came to England with Joseph Gurney when he returned home to Norwich; she becoming a Quaker minister in July 1841, and marrying him three months later to become his third wife. For the record – Joseph’s first wife had been Jane Birkbeck, whom he married at the Friends Meeting House at Wells on 10 September 1817; they had at least two children before Jane died in in 1822. His second wife was Mary Fowler whom he married five years later in 1827 at his brother’s (Samuel) Ham House in Essex. It is not generally known that prior to this marriage, Joseph had an admirer in none other than Amelia Opie, the early 19th century Norfolk writer. According to Mrs Fletcher’s Norwich Handbook, 1857:
“In 1825, she [Amelia] was received into the membership of the Society of Friends, perhaps with the hope of becoming the second Mrs Joseph John Gurney. If so, she was disappointed…….” Mary nee’ Fowler died in 1835.
By all accounts, Eliza and Joseph were a formidable pair in their eloquent pursuit for better and fairer conditions for all. In this capacity they travelled far and wide and became well-connected; it was said that they once urged the French king Louis Philippe to abolish slavery in his Colonies! The two also founded Earlham College, in Indiana – an echo of Earlham Hall – it being the Gurney’s Norfolk family home.
But the good days were not to last; on a winter’s day in 1847, Joseph John Gurney, then 58 years of age, was thrown from his horse and died. He was buried alongside many of his family in the now overgrown Gildencroft Quaker Cemetery in Norwich; his funeral witnessed by many in the city who respected him as one of the Norwich’s great philanthropists. As for Eliza, his widow, she returned to her home country in the USA three years later, settling in an elegant 18th-century mansion at West Hill in Burlington, New Jersey from where, over the next eight years, she travelled extensively.
Eliza’s Possible Influence on Abraham Lincoln: Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln continued on his political rise, chosen as the first-ever presidential candidate for the new Republican party in May 1860. His election in November of that year hardened the sharp divisions between North and South over the issue of slavery. Seven slave states in the Deep South left the union and declared their own country, the Confederate States of America. Unsurprisingly, the now President Lincoln, along with the Northern states refused to recognise the new ‘country’, fearing it would lead to towards splinter- groups of ‘petty nations’. Both north and south were on an inevitable collision course. The first shot in the American Civil War came on 12 April 1861.
Eliza Gurney, like many others, had to choose sides. Being a Quaker, she was a passionate opponent of war – but also a passionate opponent of slavery. She soon decided that the northern ‘Union’ cause was the more honourable one. In this, she was determined to let Lincoln know of her convictions but her efforts to meet with him towards the end of October 1862, in the company of three other senior Quakers, failed – the Confederate army was waiting only a few miles from the capital city of Washington! But then, on the morning of Sunday 26 October an opportunity arose for Eliza and in her own words ‘the great iron door’ opened. The group was ushered into the President’s private apartments.
It was said that Lincoln rose to greet them, he remembering his old links with Joseph John Gurney, Eliza’s connection with Norfolk by marriage and his ancestral roots at Hingham and Swanton Morley. Eliza spoke to him for fifteen minutes and he listened. Afterwards, Lincoln was deeply moved for it was also said that he grasped her hand, then said: “I am very glad of this interview ……” and Lincoln never forgot Eliza – or her message of support. In fact, the two corresponded during the following two years, until on 4 September 1864, when he wrote to his ‘esteemed friend’ to thank her again for her ‘very impressive visit two years earlier’:
“We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise…… For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself, your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven.”
Lincoln carried Eliza’s reply to this letter in his breast pocket when he went to the theatre – and was assassinated!
In 2018, Trevor Heaton, writing for the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk about Eliza’s reply and the closing moments of President Lincoln’s life, stated:
“Five days after the surrender of Confederate general Robert E Lee, Lincoln was enjoying a rare evening away from the crushing burden of his public office. Together with his wife and two guests, they were at the Good Friday performance of the popular comedy ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theatre in the capital. Then around 10.15pm, as the play reached its final stages, on-stage comedy turned to real-life tragedy. John Wilkes Booth, a 26-year-old actor and Confederate sympathiser, took advantage of the temporary absence of Lincoln’s bodyguard to step inside his state box in the theatre’s balcony and fire his Derringer pistol, point-blank, into the back of the President’s head. Lincoln, fatally wounded, died nine hours later. And in his breast pocket, neatly folded, was a treasured letter with a strikingly familiar Norfolk surname on it – Gurney.
The story of how that letter came to be written makes for one of the most moving insights into the character of a man hailed as one of the greatest-ever presidents, the man who finally ended the shame of American slavery. And how curious that Lincoln’s life should be book-ended by Norfolk connections. For his roots were set deep in the county, with family links to Hingham and Swanton Morley. Only a few months later prayers were being said for Lincoln not in support of the great burden of his office but for the comfort of his soul……… And of all the fine things that Eliza Gurney did in her life, probably she rendered no nobler service to humanity than when she gave spiritual comfort to a great president in his hour of need. No wonder, then, that as he lay dying, it was her treasured words that were – literally – the closest to his heart.”
The Norfolk writer, Bruce Robinson, died in 2016 at the age of 80 years. His wife, Cynthia, said in his obituary – published in The Guardian newspaper, on 14 July 2016 and modified on 28 November 2017 – that he was:
“Quietly spoken, unassuming, browns and beige on the outside but inside seething with ideas that tumbled over each other to reach the daylight; my husband, was a born writer; someone for whom the honing of a chapter was as natural as the squeezing of oranges he juiced each day for breakfast.”
Notable, after his retirement in 1993 Bruce Robinson wrote mainly for pleasure; focusing on local history, novels with a Norfolk connection, plus miscellanies. Included amongst these was his ‘flongster blogspot’, from which the following two extracts about the late James Stewart, famous film-actor, were taken – Enjoy!:
James Stewart’s visit to Tibenham in 1975:
“…….In early June, 1975, I took a phone call from a [Tibenham] gliding club member who told me that film star James Stewart was planning a private visit to the base – a members’ only job, apparently; very hush-hush; no fans; no Press! But if I didn’t let on how I knew, kept in the background, and didn’t wave a notebook about, then I might be able to pass muster as a club member.
However, Stewart’s visit was not a total surprise because during the Second World War he had been based at Tibenham (and elsewhere), from where he flew 20 bomber missions. He was a genuine war hero, and now, thirty years and many films later, he was appearing in the stage play ‘Harvey’ in London, and was simply taking advantage of a day off. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he had also planned to do a photoshoot with Terry Fincher for the Daily Express.
On the day in question I did my best to melt into the background and became a quiet bystander as James toured the base and the ruined control tower, and gazed at the runway. He clearly found it all very affecting. When they offered him a towed glider flight to RAF Coltishall and back, he jumped at the chance, and happily squeezed his lanky frame into the tiny cockpit. While he was away ….. I withdrew for a pub lunch.
Back at Tibenham again, Mr Stewart was ushered into the clubroom for sandwiches and coffee, where he looked at more memorabilia and chatted freely with everyone. Every so often his gentle drawl, ‘ahhh, well,’ and ‘kinda’ and ‘sorta’ could be heard across the crowded room. Relaxed and affable, he was in his element.
I was sitting in a corner munching sandwiches when Stewart’s agent came across. ‘He knows who you are,’ he said. ‘He knows you’re a local journalist.’ I envisaged a firing squad. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ Yes, please!
Then James Stewart came across and sat down beside me, balancing a cup and saucer on his knee, and we talked for ten minutes. Deliberately, I ignored my notebook and later on had to struggle to remember some of the quotes. But in a way I was glad. It was not an interview, it was a neighbourly chat, freely offered and entered into.
James Stewart was like that. Aimable, interested, and at ease. He talked about Tibenham and how tough he had found it to remember his way around the base. ‘The only thing I can really orientate on is the control tower,’ he said. He talked about his glider flight, and I asked if he had taken the controls. ‘Sure I flew it. Sure I did.’ And then he talked about Norfolk and Norwich and how he hoped one day to visit the city’s American Memorial Library. Then his agent came back, and Stewart rose, shook hands, and wandered back towards the sandwiches.
An Aside: In 2012, a Tibenham housing development was opened, and named “Stewart Close” in memory of James Stewart and his links with the village.
James Stewart visits Norwich and the Norwood Rooms:
“Having revisited his War-time Norfolk air base at Tibenham in 1975, Hollywood film star James Stewart kept his word and joined in with two or three of the subsequent 2nd Air Division reunions. But he did not come back to England as a visiting ‘celeb,’ but as an ordinary ex-flyer, one of the boys. He stayed with his mates in the same hotels, travelled with them by coach as they did the rounds of once-familiar locations, and remained as anonymous as possible within the group. They all liked him for that.
One of his more formal appearances was on the day he and his group went to see the former American Memorial Library – later severely damaged by fire, and replaced by a new Memorial tribute in the Forum – which at the time was housed at the old City library. Here he did pose for photographs, and behaved as a visiting dignitary would in a public role.
I have no doubt, however, that he had his ‘anonymous’ role firmly in mind when he and his colleagues, on another of their four-yearly visits, went to the former Norwood Rooms in Aylsham Road, Norwich – a popular dancing and dining venue at the time – for a veterans’ banquet. My wife and I were also invited, and we saw what happened.
First, he did not sit with the brass and bigwigs on the top table. He stayed at his table on the floor of the hall surrounded by his pals. And second, he was a very reluctant speaker.
When he was finally persuaded to clamber on to the band platform to say a few words, he thanked everyone, including the people of Norfolk, for the welcome they gave the Americans during the War, and he told the story of the powdered eggs. Apparently powdered eggs were the staple breakfast diet in the officers’ mess at Tibenham, and Stewart became heartily sick of them. On other days, however, they were fed fresh farm eggs straight from a local farm. Unfortunately, those were the days on which a bombing mission was scheduled. So that was how they knew what was happening. Dried eggs, and they had their feet on the ground a little longer. Fresh eggs, and it was bombs away!
Later the same evening there occurred one of those rare, unrehearsed and unexpected events that invariably stick in the memory. The band was playing some Glenn Miller favourites, which got the veterans whistling and cheering. It was particularly apt because the film, The Glenn Miller Story, starring Stewart as Miller, was still doing the rounds. The band leader beckoned to Stewart and invited him to take over the conducting role. Stewart shook his head. Then the audience started clapping and shouting, and he reluctantly clambered back on to the stage and led the band through an admittedly slowish version of Moonlight Serenade. It brought the house down.
Some years’ later, our local morning newspaper began a scheme promoting plaques to be fixed to buildings where famous people had appeared. Most of those erected, it seemed to me, related to 1960s and 1970s pop groups. There was nothing to remind passers-by, for example, that Count Basie and his band once appeared at the old Samson & Hercules dance hall in Tombland, Norwich. Or that at the old Norwood Rooms a famous Hollywood film star once clambered on to the stage, borrowed the resident band, and reprised a tiny piece of one of his best-known film roles.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
In the days of stage coaches, the ‘Unicorn’ plied its services between Norwich and Cromer. It was said that the coach set out twice a day from the Coach Office in Lobster Lane, Norwich and travelled via North Walsham to Cromer. What the “Unicorn” was like we may see from Pollard’s picture. It was something between an omnibus and a hearse, and was drawn by a “unicorn” team—i.e., three horses; hence the official name of the coach; it was also called the Lobster Coach after its destination – Cromer!
Then in 1907 yet another Lobster Coach hit the headlines! It was designed by a Thomas Cook, father of Lieut. Colonel Sir Thomas Cook, J.P. In the beginning, it was run as a road coach from the Grand Hotel, Cromer, to the Maids Head Hotel, Norwich – and back. In the summer of 1909, it offered a daily service and, again, was known as the ‘Lobster’ – for the same reason as previous coaches – its association with Cromer.
Its route involved three intermediate ‘halts’, each with a change of four horses – The New Inn at Roughton, the Black Boys in Aylsham, and “The Crown” at Newton St. Faiths. The teams were comprised of different coloured horses for each of the four lengths, with five changes – skew balls, bays, blacks, browns and greys. On entering Aylsham from Cromer; a fifth horse, known as a ‘Cock Horse’, was provided to pull the coach up the hill past the Church.
The Lobster arrived at Norwich in time for lunch, calling at Aylsham for tea on the return journey to Cromer. There were two grooms stationed throughout the season at each ‘halt’, with additional staff at the main stables in Cromer. The professional driver was a Mr. Harry Milton, a well-known Park Lane, London, horse dealer, father of Harry Milton the film actor so they say. The horn blower, known as the Guard, was a Mr. T. Manley; he also won a number of National blowing competitions.
Subsequently, the Lobster took part in International Horse Shows at Olympia, right up to the outbreak of the first World War. These competitions included a marathon race from Ranleigh, finishing up round the arena at Olympia. The coach was also used for private purposes from Sennowe, up until the sale of the horses in 1915. It was dragged annually to Fakenham Races by a team of Suffolk’s, until the outbreak of the second World War in 1939. It survives today in the Coach House at Sennowe Hall (see below), together with another coach, 14 other carriages and a large collection of harness, all of approximately the same age.
Sennowe Hall (also known as Sennowe Park) is a large country house and estate located near the village of Guist in Norfolk, England. The clock tower, the house and the stables, all located in a beautiful landscape park, are Grade II* listed buildings. The Hall was originally a Georgian house built in 1774 and owned by Edmond Wodehouse MP. It was subsequently owned by the Morse-Boycott family, who had it re-built by Decimus Burton. It then passed into ownership of the lighting engineer Bernard Le Neve Foster.
The Estate was bought in 1898 by Thomas Albert Cook grandson of Thomas Cook founder of the firm of travel agents called Thomas Cook and Son (now Thomas Cook plc). He commissioned the Norwich architect George Skipper to remodel and considerably enlarge the existing house. The house and its surrounding estate is still owned by his descendants. The Hall was the main filming location for The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, an episode of the television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
The year is 1906. The age of the car has arrived and James Edmund Vincent, Welsh barrister, journalist and author, has been asked by his publishers to help put together a motoring guide for sale to touring motorists. The feeling is that there exists a potential need amongst car owners for information which would allow them to take full advantage of the open roads of this country. James’s brief, on this occasion, is to write about East Anglia. He is asked, as the very minimum, to concentrate on detailing the conditions of the region’s roads, outlining the topography and history of notable towns and other places en route; and give an impartial account of the hotels and inns visited with regards to their standards of service, cleanliness etc. Being an established writer, James’s is given a free hand to plan his own itinerary, with the only stipulation being that a completed copy of a draft guide should be completed and with the publishers within twelve months of starting out on his first journey. Payment, including reimbursement of expenses for the work are agreed but remain confidential.
Because James intends to make several forays into the region, he has arranged to use his 6-cylinder Lanchester on all journeys except this one, the inaugural trip to Norwich – a city he is familiar with, having been there before. James has planned most meticulously, with the enthusiastic collaboration of his friend, Claude Johnson, a somewhat large broad-shouldered extrovert who is someone of importance with the Roll-Royce Company. Claude will remain characteristically keen on the arrangements, mainly because he sees them as part of his early promotion to the company of his ideas for a new model car, which will eventually become Rolls Royce’s ‘Silver Ghost’. He particularly wants to prove that this unique car is smooth, silent and solid – and the best car that money can buy! Beyond this, he also wants to demonstrate the car’s reliability to the buying public. What better way would there be than to be part of James’s journey; a ‘trial run’ as it were, for his own anticipated 15,000 mile ‘non-stop’ promotional journey around Britain. Claude will of course drive the company car – who else!
James is nevertheless, and unquestionably, in charge of all other aspects of the trip to Norwich – and beyond. It will take his party of Claude the driver, James’s wife and youngest daughter – both of whom will occupy the back seats of the Rolls; James will ride ‘shotgun’ next to Claude in the front. Arrangements looked perfect; everyone loves travelling, and what better than to ride in real comfort to what will be the ‘far end of the region’– perfect! The city of Norwich, indeed most of East Anglia, is still almost unexplored territory to most of the party – and there are no impossible hills of any length to worry about. So, with no worrys worth mentioning – they set off.
We next catch up with the James’s party and Claude’s car as it crawls through the narrow and crooked streets of Norwich, having successfully negotiated those ‘questionable’ roads en route, from Cambridge through Newmarket, Ipswich, Woodbridge, Beccles, Lowestoft and Yarmouth. However, the journey has not been completely without incident for the car; which confidently displayed its engine’s smoothness, reliability and power throughout, but did suffer two punctures – through no fault of its own according to Claude! Fortunately, and maybe by some sort of miracle, a garage appeared closeby on both occasions!
The still proud Silver Ghost, under the nurturing of Claude, now passes close to the city’s central Market Place before winding its way towards and around the Castle Mound before swinging left, around the Royal Hotel, into Tombland. This is a wide and open space opposite the west end of the Cathedral. James continues to take note of the city’s features which will be included in his eventual ‘tome’. But for the moment, he ponders on the meaning of Tombland’s name, but remains uncertain. Later, he is to write:
“We had seen the Cathedral spire rising against the clear sky, glanced through two great archways leading to the Cathedral Church itself, had passed on our left the “Stranger’s House”, though the quaint fact that the faces of the figures of Hercules and Samson, supporting the arch of its door, are adorned with “Imperial” beardlets.”
At the end of Tombland the car finds itself in Wensum Street with the Maid’s Head Hotel, where they are to stay, immediately on the right. Claude steers into the hotel by way of an archway some little way further down the street. Immediately the party finds itself in a covered courtyard. Here, there is such a contrast between the old and the new and James feels that the surviving surroundings are thanks to no other than Walter Rye who had once bought this ancient building and saved it from destruction; thereby winning the gratitude of every traveller of taste who would also witness features as near identical with those of the 15th-century when the Pastons used the “Mayde’s Hedde” and spoke well of its accommodation.
The Bar Parlour on the left, from which an attentive hostess appears to take instructions from the new arrivals, seems also to be of almost immemorial age. Yet in the centre is the most modern thing in this world, Claude’s six-cylinder motor-car. However, staring him in the face is a notice requesting all motorists, to make no unnecessary noise, but to deposit their passengers, or pick them up, as rapidly as possible and then go! He clearly quips that he almost feels inclined to push the car, instead of compelling it to propel itself, onwards through the covered courtyard and into the carriage yard and garage beyond. Claude truly believes that his Silver Ghost is, a beautiful car—and cars can be beautiful he feels. Half the assertions that they are ugly are due to the fact that his generation is not sufficiently educated in relation to cars, have not grown familiar enough with them to know what the lines of beauty in them are. Still, in the courtyard of the “Maid’s Head,” any car is an anachronism, a jarring note and the sooner this one is moved out of sight the better!
Probably taking advantage of this distraction, James’s wife and daughter quietly break away to explore the hotel. They soon ascend a very ancient and charming staircase of real oak, really black with real age and found someone who was delighted to show the two around “Queen Elizabeth’s Chamber”. James, downstairs, is soon handed a message telling him to visit them there and on arrival sees that the visit is, in his words, “more than worth paying for”. It is a spacious room, if one considers the floor area alone; but of course, the ceiling is very low and the dark beams supporting it still lower. He sees that one great bed is of carved oak, relieved with gilding, whilst another makes no impression on him at all. But not so the long and low windows, the shining planks of the ancient floor, which boasts its own hills and valleys, slopes and hollows, along with the cleanliness and brightness of everything; these make a very vivid and pleasant impression on James.
Nevertheless, he understands that Queen Elizabeth I never did sleep in this chamber, or indeed in the Maid’s Head itself when she visited Norwich in 1578 – he had heard that she had stayed nearby in the Bishop’s Palace, at a time when weird pageants were displayed in her honour. No, the “Maid’s Head” was an old inn even in 1578. Edward the Black Prince entertained here after a jousting competition at Gildencroft and Queen Catherine of Aragon (King Henry VIII’s first wife) was entertained here. So, it is reasonably certain that the chamber named after Queen Elizabeth was also there. James then thought the room to be ideal for those who hanker after the old world, but do not yearn for that dirt which seems to have been an all-pervading characteristic of the lives of his forefathers. But this room, together with the hotel is certainly spotlessly clean!
After this small interlude, the rest of the party disperses elsewhere whilst James sets off for a half hour stroll into the city before dinner. But at the foot of the stairs he sees quite an imposing person, whose presence is a happy coincidence for him. James remembers his first visit and the “Royal,” where Lord Kimberley was found to be a guest. Now, at the foot of the stairs of the “Maid’s Head,” is none other than the 15th Duke of Norfolk and his wife, the Duchess; both were about to become guests of this ancient hotel. Heavens! he thought; what a contrast to a similar visit some two centuries ago in 1685, on which Macaulay quoted:
“In the heart of the city stood an old palace of the Dukes of Norfolk, said to be the largest town house in the kingdom out of London. In this mansion, to which were annexed a tennis court, a bowling-green and a wilderness, stretching along the banks of the Wensum, the noble family of Howard frequently resided, and kept a state resembling that of petty sovereigns. Drink was served to guests in goblets of pure gold. The very tongs and shovels were of silver. Pictures by Italian masters adorned the walls. The cabinets were filled with a fine collection of gems purchased by that Earl of Arundel whose marbles are now among the ornaments of Oxford. Here, in the year 1671, Charles and his court were sumptuously entertained. Here, too, all comers were annually welcomed, from Christmas to Twelfth Night. Ale flowed in oceans for the populace. Three coaches, one of which had been built at a cost of five hundred pounds to contain fourteen persons, were sent every afternoon to bring ladies to the festivities; and the dances were always followed by a luxurious banquet. When the Duke of Norfolk came to Norwich, he was greeted like a king returning to his capital. The bells of the Cathedral and of St. Peter Mancroft were rung; the guns of the Castle were fired; and the Mayor and Aldermen waited on their illustrious fellow citizen with complimentary addresses. In the year 1693 the population of Norwich was found, by actual enumeration, to be between twenty-eight and twenty-nine thousand souls.”
What a contrast James felt! Now, on the 9th of March, 1906, the present Duke of Norfolk enters a city of approximately one hundred and thirteen thousand souls; the bells of the cathedral and St. Peter’s Mancroft are not ringing. No guns are being fired. No mayor and aldermen waiting upon the Duke in his Palace, because there is no Palace. All that is happening is that this quiet, bearded English gentleman walks, limping slightly, with a lady into the courtyard of the Maid’s Head Hotel and, after a parley with the hostess, vanishes up the stairs, to be seen no more. It is pure luck that James sees him, and that he is able to recognise this Premier Duke and Earl, the Hereditary Earl Marshal and Chief Butler of England. He was received with precisely the same courtesy of attention that had been shown to James and his party, but without servility. The Duke received all that he wanted, and in a manner which, James thought, really did him credit.
No more is left of the pomp and dignity of the 17th-century Palace than that of the city’s clothing trade. The Duke of Norfolk has become, in the interval, an Englishman first and a great power in Sussex next, and the clothing trade of Norwich is no more. The city of 113,000 souls is now subsisted, as James is told during his walk-about, on the proceeds of boots and mustard, the latter industry founded by one of whom a correspondent of the Norfolk and Norwich Notes and Queries wrote:
“The original Colman [the name means “free man”] was a jolly old fellow who used to give me sixpence and direct me to the house for refreshment”; it subsisted also, as I learned for myself next morning……. as one of the largest agricultural and pastoral centres it has ever been my good fortune to witness. Times were indeed changed; but he would be a rash man who should say that they were changed for the worse in all respects.”
James writes up his notes after Dinner, which has been taken in the coffee-room of the hotel, and everyone in his party thinks it is very pleasant there. James includes a further thought that the room also has an air of antiquity, and its deep fireplace certainly charms the eye. The ‘cookery’ is, in his opinion, distinctly good and the attendance quiet and prompt ‘as that in any well-ordered private house’. The Dinner was also the time for him to reflect on some of the other famous associations with the hotel. For instance, the Pastons had used and commended it, and their words of praise, blazoned on the outer door, seems right and proper; but it was a pity, James thought, to have placed newspapers near to them! He also thought that sitting in this same hostelry on the morning of his last fight with Kett and his rebels, Warwick had breakfasted, and had then led his men, who were camped on the market-place, to victory. It is also certain to him that Margaret Paston’s horses were seized here. Then, in the time of the rebellion, the Royalists stayed, despite being scarce in the eastern counties. But Royalists were also Freemasons and held their lodges in the “Maid’s Head” as early as 1724; James understands that on one occasion a Mrs. Beatson hid behind the wainscot of the lodge-room and heard all their mysteries!
As James writes, he is pleased that all this information is decidedly enhanced by the fact that this visit had provided further insight and confirmation. Undoubtedly, its value will also be fully appreciated once ‘his’ Motoring Guide is published – next year?. But his pleasure does not end there. James is also proud to be able to say that the Maids Head, this very building in which he sits, was built on the site of Herbert de Losinga’s first Palace, which once stood on Gothic arches; also, that an Assembly Room was built over the courtyard to become a minstrel’s gallery. The carving in the smoking-room represents a fish – possibly a ray? If this is correct, it probably accounts for the title of the hotel; for it was certainly mentioned in the 1287 Norwich Court Records as the ‘Myrtle Fish Tavern’ where “Robert the fowler stole goods from the said innkeeper at Cook Rowe.” Again, if this fish is a ray, then another difficulty vanishes, for the sea-fishermen of Norfolk call, or once called, the ray, “Old Maid.”
Certainly, the hotel did not take its new title on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth I’s 1578 visit, for John Paston had, in 1472 confirmed the hotel’s name change to ‘Maids Head’ in a letter, recommending the inn as a good place to stable horses:
“if he tery at norwyche ther whyls, it were best to sette hys horse at the Maydes Hedde.”
The hotel is also mentioned in a curious petition to Wolsey, again unearthed by that man Walter Rye. James again blesses Mr Rye for having bought the lease of the Maid’s Head in the 1890’s – and saving it! James also remembers him acquiring property next door on Tombland and building the frontage with the ‘Mock Tudor’ look, but keeping the Jacobean snug and bar. This was the moment when Rye quoted:
“I had been myself a customer of the house for 20 years and more and some of the most pleasant parts of my life had been sent in and about it. It was rumoured that when Mr Webster left the Maids Head, the whole scope of the old Tory house – the nearest approach to the typical old hostel that I ever saw – was going to be spoiled and no longer to be a refuge for those who like peace and quiet and old surroundings. I heard what the new rent was to be and took upon myself the burden…..I will try and keep on trying to make people as comfortable as I was myself.”
The next day James, his wife, daughter and Claude the driver, complete packing in anticipation of an early departure soon after breakfast. James gathers up his notes of all he had witnessed and heard during what had been a short stay; but he knows that he will return. His final accolade is saved for the hotel itself; after settling the account he is very pleased that the final bill is ‘quite moderate—for England’ The party eventually departs Norwich for Cromer and James took that moment to note some further useful information which will eventually be passed to the readers of the proposed Motoring Guide Book:
“As with arriving in this city, great care should always be observed when leaving Norwich, for the streets are narrow, crooked and full of risk, and directions difficult to work out…… Roads here are gerally fair, some good – especially to Cromer”.
Research in recent years uncovered lost 17th-century treasures once owned by the Paston family of Norfolk. In 2018 this treasure was brought together in an exhibition that was held at the Castle Museum in Norwich; included in the items displayed was a picture, named ‘The Paston Treasure’ (circa. 1663). This painting has been described as an enigmatic masterpiece commissioned by either Sir William Paston, first Baronet (1610–1663), an epic collector and traveller who got as far as Cairo, Constantinople and Jerusalem; or his son, Robert Paston first Earl of Yarmouth (1631–1683), to mark his father’s death in 1663. Robert himself was a passionate amateur scientist (believed to have accounted for the unusual number of different expensive pigments that were used in the painting) who practiced alchemy for years but failed to turn base metal into much-needed gold. He was to die in 1683, aged 52, overwhelmed by debt which was partly caused by the ruinous cost of lavish hospitality, including a party for King Charles in 1671; also, after a life scarred by gout, scurvy and depression. However, the identity of the Flemish artist, working out of a makeshift studio at Oxnead Hall around 1663, is not known, although there have been suggestions.
The painting was given to the Norwich Museum in 1947 by a descendant of one of the buyers from the Paston’s 18th-century “garage sale” and was regarded then as a historical curiosity rather than a major work of art – it was “very faded, of no artistic value, only curious from an archaeological point of view.”However, its eerie atmosphere and teeming detail have mesmerised generations of visitors. In 2018, and in a partnership between the Norwich Museum and the Yale Center for British Art many of the painting’s secrets were decoded.
At the time of the exhibition the Curator, Dr Francesca Vanke, said that the event was:
“A once-in-a-lifetime event [that] tells both a very Norfolk story and a genuinely international one. The painting is not just a typical 17th century still life, but the key to unlocking a fascinating, dramatic and ultimately tragic story: of a family, a collection, and a great house. The first clues to the story are in this painting. They open up a world we never knew existed, for which evidence is scattered worldwide. This exhibition, the result of years of research, brings everything together.”
The exhibition, in fact, reunited ‘The Paston Treasure’ painting with some of the rare works of art that the painting depicts; it also shed new light on the Paston family itself, their Norfolk home, and the rise and fall of one of 17th century England’s most important private art collections. The exhibition also displayed the recently discovered painting ‘The Paston Prospective’, which dates from around 1640, a couple of decades before ‘The Paston Treasure’, and features a grand imaginary building that it is thought could have been a vision of what Sir William Paston wanted to create at Oxnead.
The Paston family possessions, plus many of the surviving objects depicted in the painting, were brought together from museums and private collections in Europe and the US; this was the first time in 300 years that they could be placed together in a single venue. On view were five treasures from the 16th and 17th centuries that appear in the painting, one of a pair of silver-gilt flagons, a Strombus shell cup, two unique nautilus cups, and a perfume flask with a mother-of-pearl body. A host of other objects, many with Paston provenance, depicted the rich story of collecting within the family from the medieval period until the moment the painting was created. However, the Paston collection was sold off within two generations of the painting’s completion.
The Paston family is beloved by historians for a unique set of medieval letters tracing their family and financial affairs in vivid detail. By the mid-17th century they were rich, powerful landowners. When they commissioned The Paston Treasure painting, a swaggering boast of their wealth and culture, it was also a vanitas, with the hour glass, the ticking clock, the flowers and fruit which will decay and rot, the reminders that life is fleeting and death inexorable. The Pastons could not have guessed how true this was for them: there would be many deaths in childhood including the little girl in the painting. Robert’s son, William, would inherit massive debts, and instigated the disposal of the treasures; this began far earlier than previously thought for the research mentioned turned up a sale receipt dated 1709. Finally, Oxnead Hall itself was sold and, by 1732, William was bankrupt, with debts equivalent to £17m today. So, within two generations the family was overwhelmed by debt, the treasures scattered in a series of sales, and their huge house, Oxnead Hall, abandoned and then sold, and later almost entirely demolished in the 18th century.
Pre-exhibition research also identified the sheet music being held by the pale little girl shown in the picture. She was Robert Paston’s daughter who died in childhood. The handsome young African boy has still not been identified, but because the identifiable details are so meticulously accurate, the researchers believed that he must, like the girl, been a real person and possibly had lived in the Paston household. Jonathan Wainwright, professor of music at the University of York, had pored over photographic enlargements of the sheet music held by the little girl and identified it as an appropriately doom-laden piece by the Scottish composer Robert Ramsey, “Charon, O Charon, Heare a Wretch Opprest”, written in 1630. The music itself was so meticulously painted that he could read it. Only one manuscript of this music still survives and that resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The first recording of the song was commissioned by the Castle Museum from the Royal College of Music and was played during the Norwich exhibition.
Wainwright also traced a second musical reference, though in the painting of the tiny book held by the satyr on the golden stem of the shell cup was too minute even for his eyes. However, on the real cup, which came on loan from the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft, he could read the words of a popular 16th-century round song – again dealing with death – “Je prens en gré la dure mort”.
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.
This is a fictional story set in Norwich, Norfolk during the early 19th century, but based on genuine news reports from the local newspapers of the day.
The year is 1814 and a young clerk to the insurance firm of The Norwich County and Municipal Insurance Company, which has offices overlooking the city’s Market Place, is making his way to work. His first name is Cloudesley, which is quite a popular name of the time. The job he has as clerk is a pretty good one, although not fabulously well paid to begin with but, yes, he is on his way.
Cloudesley has to tread carefully as he crosses the Market Place to avoid the blood and offal discarded by the butchers who are just setting up shop. There are also leather merchants, coffee dealers, beer sellers, vendors of hot potatoes, bread makers and bakers of the famous Norwich biscuit, which is probably filled with 50 per cent chalk; he needs to watch that he is not hit by the waste they throw from their stalls without looking! Everything is just left to drain away down to the bottom of the Square where a pack of dogs lap up up the disgusting-looking mess.
There is a wretched man in a pen – he is shirtless and has a scatted back; several people are laughing, throwing rotten vegetables at him. He has obviously been there all night, having been flogged for drunkenness or maybe lewd behaviour. Being a kind sort of a chap, Cloudesley passes his flask of week beer through the bars to the man – cold water is far too dangerous to drink – and the pitiful prisoner grasps it thankfully, downing it in one.
It’s only ever men who you see being punished in the Market Place – most days there are at least one flogging and several left in cages like the chap this morning. This does not mean that women don’t swear or steal or get drunk – the courts are full of them as a matter of fact. No, it’s just that their punishment is always courtesy of the ducking stool at Fye Bridge, near Tombland.
The main thing, though, is the smell, and it is something our hero can never get over. He cannot understand why people let themselves smell so rank – Cloudesley insists on going to the public bathhouse once every few weeks, whether he feels dirty or not. He passes a group of well-dressed people, each of whom has an orange, pricked all over, in front of their noses to ward off the worst of it. Oranges are very expensive; one day, maybe, he will treat himself.
On the whole, the Market Place has happy memories for him. It is here that nine years before he had witnessed the wonderful news of Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. The news was conveyed to the city by coach which arrived, colours flying, to the cheers of the crowd. The Volunteer Corps paraded and the bells of St Peter Mancroft were rung throughout the day, although the news was cast in shadow by the death of the hero of the Nile and Trafalgar. A giant ox was roasted in the pub on the corner.
Truth be told, Cloudesley is just a little tired this morning. Last night he and a group of the clerks had gone to Mrs Peck’s Coffee and Ale House on Gentleman’s Walk. The poster had read:
“To be seen alive in a genteel room at Mrs Peck’s Coffee and Ale House, Market Place, Norwich, the largest Rattlesnake ever seen in England, 42 years old, near nine-foot-long, in full health and vigour. He is well secured so that Ladies and Gentlemen may view him without the least danger. He has not taken any sustenance for 11 months. Admittance, Ladies and Gentlemen 1s; working people and children 6d.”
It was a bit of a mystery why this particular creature was not eating – Norwich had many ‘exhibits’ and the usual thing was that people would be admitted at half-price if they brought something – a live mouse or rat, say – to feed the animal.
Afterwards, being in fine spirits, the party could not resist going just up the road to the White Hart, Rampant Horse Street, to see the famous ‘counting pig’. It might have been the beer, but it was amazing – customers were invited to hold up a number of fingers and lo! The fat old porker would scape a paw on the ground the right number of times! Cloudesley couldn’t help thinking that maybe, somewhere out of sight, was a man with a pointed stick, poking the poor thing……
So, what’s going on in ‘No Mean City’ as the people so proudly called it? How are things? – Well, there is a great nervousness about a probable French invasion, which could well happen via Weybourne. The greatest ever British General, Wellington, may have blunted Napoleon’s glories and sent him into exile, but there were almost weekly rumours of his escape. Besides, the French absolutely detested us, a feeling returned with vigour. The largest pub on Gentleman’s Walk, owned by Alderman Davey – he who has recently invented an iron coffin, said to be completely safe against body snatchers – has an effigy of a strutting Corsican being skewered on a giant fork by John Bull. The pub is very popular. From the coast to the top of Norwich Castle are a series of wooden beacons ready to be fired if the French are spotted; thus, Norwich would know within minutes if the dreaded enemy has landed.
Cloudesley always arrives early for work as he likes to take a look at the newspaper before the five fellow clerks with whom he shares an office arrive. He sits at his tall wooden stool and spreads the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette out on his desk. Several items catch his eye. The population of Norfolk is returned as 274,221, of whom 130,249 were males and 143,972 females. However, as about 4,000 men are away in Wellington’s army, the sexes at slightly more equal than the figures suggest.
Cloudesley also reads that 247,000 quarts of soup are weekly being given to the poor, However, all is not doom and gloom as the Duke’s Palace Workhouse – down by the old Palace of the Duke of Norfolk, the one who lost his head planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots – reports that the number of inmates has fallen from 1,027 to 425.
Wheat has risen from 146 shillings per quarter at the beginning of the month to 180 at the end. Various ruses are being tried to get people to eat less bread. ‘The officers of the West Norfolk Militia’, the paper states, ‘have entirely left off the use of bread at their mess, and have forbid the use of puddings and pies, except the crust is made of rice or potatoes, which they eat in a variety of shapes as a substitute for bread. Nurses are advised to use linseed meal and water instead of bread and milk in making poultices.’
Cloudesley is pleased to read that repairs to the disastrous fire in the roof of Norwich Cathedral, caused by careless workmen and estimated to be costing over £500, are almost complete. Oh, lucky man! The winner of the Irish Lottery, Mr Charles Weston, a banker living in Norwich, is richer to the tune of £15,000. Chapelfield, where he often eats his lunch, is berated by a leading architect as being ‘a very cockneyfied and badly laid-out public space’.
The man previously cleared by Magistrates for knocking down and stealing the wallet from the old soldier in Castle Ditches – who subsequently died – has had an attack of conscience and confessed, even though he knows he will be hanged!
Under a section called ‘Curious Notes’ he reads of a businessman, Ainsworth Crisp, who has a shop in London Street and lives upstairs. He has had a coffin made of solid English oak, with a silver plaque on the outside giving his name; only the exact date needs to be filled in. The coffin is kept in the corner of his bedroom and is used as a cupboard.
A lady in the letter’s column complains that Cromer is become far too expensive as regards lodging in the season, but is pleased that this will keep out the troublesome London Cockney. As regards Happisburgh, one reader agrees with Walter Rye who, in a famous account of 1885, scathingly said that no book was to be found there; everyone is in bed by nine; dullness reigns supreme; and William Cowper, the poet, went there but went mad and he does not wonder at it.
Much of the paper is filled with crime, which is rampant, there being no law enforcement officers employed by the authorities. It is true that Aldermen can appoint men with temporary powers to arrest and detain troublemakers but, being usually the chief troublemakers themselves, they were notoriously subject to bribes and worse.
Four men were hanged in Norwich – two for robbing the Rectory at North Walsham; one for stealing a cow and three heifers, and one for stealing six sheep. The hangings took place at the entrance to the castle in front of enthusiastic crowds. Food and drink was sold and there was much singing and general merriment until the arrival of the prisoners when ‘an awful silence fell’. The paper reports that one man, a well-known criminal, 34 years old and dressed in fine clothes, attracted considerable attention from several well-dressed ladies.
At Norwich Quarter Sessions, John William Smith was charged with stealing a spoon from the Waggon and Horses public house, the property of William Smith, and a coat, the property of Michael Callow, from the Crown Inn, St Stephens. He was sentenced to seven year’s transportation.
Politically, Cloudesley is neither committed to the Whigs nor the Tories. Sometimes, he goes along to the Norwich Revolution Society which meets at the Bell Hotel and which, despite its alarming name, seems more of a heavy drinking club than anything else. The alternative is the Norwich Patriotic Society, but that appears much the same. No, his future probably lay not in politics, but in insurance – he greatly admires Mr Thomas Bignold who started something called The Norwich Union Insurance Company a mere twenty years ago, at the age of 36, as he was unable to insure himself against highwaymen (who are a curse whenever a respectable person ventures outside the city walls). Norwich Union is fast becoming a great English commercial company.
Thomas Bignold is very much a hero of young people hereabouts and Cloudesley chuckles to himself as he reads of his latest exploit. The Chronicle relates that, not one to suffer fools gladly, he has refused insurance to a man he disliked who wanted cover against being bitten by a mad dog on the grounds that should the dog do this, it would assuredly be sane. There is much idle talk of his son, Samuel, taking over the company as his father is becoming increasingly erratic, but Cloudesley thinks the press would not like it as it would certainly have less to write about.
He is much taken with the report about the library which may open in the Guildhall building – the cost of membership as proposed is high, no doubt to detract ruffians, but the idea of being to borrow books is pretty exciting; he reads a letter in the Chronicle from a Parson who thinks that allowing the working man to gain knowledge will inevitably lead to them becoming discontented with their lot and end in disaster. Hmm….. it’s a thought!
Life expectancy in 1814 is about 40 years. Cloudesley will do better than this because he is temperate in his habits, takes a good wash every now and again and has a respectable career which will mean a reasonable house. He hopes to meet a local girl to settle down with and bearing this in mind will no doubt find himself at six this evening parading up and down Gentleman’s Walk, which is exactly what it say it is, and may fall into a coffee shop now and again to rest and set the world to rights – especially regarding that troublesome French so-call ‘Emperor’ – with his fellows. Life is good! He picks up an invoice from a pile in front of him, nods ‘Hi’ to Tim, a fellow clerk who is just coming in the door, and begins his day’s labours.
Written by Stephen Browning and extracted from his latest book “Norwich and Norfolk: Stone Age to the Great War”.
In all probability, if the Queen had not visited the Strangers’ Club at 22-24 Elm Hill, Norwich in early May, 1935, Mrs Simmons, of Beckenham would never have attracted the attention of the local Eastern Daily Press. By picking up the ‘scent’ of a local-interest story and linking it with the Club to which Royalty was favouring a visit, the newspaper brought Mrs Simmons into the limelight and to the attention of its readers. The EDP also laid the basis of an unique window into a few small aspects of life in and around the city’s Elm Hill area between 1860 and 1870 which would never have seen the light of a future day had it not pursued the story and the Norfolk Record Office had not filed it for posterity.
Mrs Simmons, for we know nothing more of her identity, lived on Elm Hill from the time when she was a very young girl, through to when she was approaching her 21st birthday. During that time, she, her parents and siblings lived at 22-26 Elm Hill, the very house now occupied by the Stranger’s Club; also, once known as the Paston house, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1507. Mrs Simmons, therefore, probably knew more about what the area was like than anyone else living in those pre-WW2 days. These writings of hers were originally intended only for the amusement of her family as they grew up; however, since they had long flown the nest and the Queen was coming, maybe she was flattered by the attention of the local press – because, it was at that point, she consented to the publication of her personal reminiscences. The opening paragraph was as follows:
“Norwich was my birthplace and Elm Hill my cradle. My earliest home was an old house, there belonging to my grandfather, at least 300 years old [and] once the residence of Augustine Steward, Mayor of Norwich 1545, and now called the ‘Strangers’ Club’. In the lounge is a 20-light window frame of moulded oak from the adjacent building, occupied in the 15th century by the Norfolk family of Pastons and from here some of the Paston letters were written, headed “at Seynt Peter of Hungate” 1479. According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth I looked through this window when visiting the city in 1578……… Be that as it may, I loved the old house, where I spent a very happy childhood. I loved to look from the open window down upon the hill with its great elm tree in the middle of the plain and shading the parish pump (now gone). I can only picture it in bright sunshine, as there were to me few dark clouds in those early days.”
Father Ignatius: Maybe it was inevitable that Mrs Simmons would make an early reference to Father Ignatius O.S.B, since he was quite a controversial during her childhood; his real name was the Reverend Joseph Leicester Lyne. It was while she was living in Elm Hill that Father Ignatius and his Anglican monks first came to open his monastery in 1863. It seems that from the outset of his arrival, she painted a positive and rather charismatic image of Ignatius:
“Indeed, it was through my father, John Bishop, that Father Ignatius founded his monastery at Elm Hill. [The Reverend’s] aunt, Mrs [Julia] Utten Browne,[ wife of Edward Utten Browne of All Saints Besthorpe], called upon my father to ask if he knew of any premises to let suitable for a religious community, and he took her to Samson and Hercules House, then vacant, but as it did not suit he [her father] brought her back to Elm Hill and showed her a big old mansion, entered through an arched doorway into a paved courtyard with buildings around it, and it was here [at No.16 Elm Hill] that Ignatius soon founded his monastery.”
Thereafter, Mrs Simmons would recall that Elm Hill witnessed rare scenes during a period when often the street was crowded with sightseers; sometimes:
“Ignatius would come out and speak to the people, who were often more scoffers than hearers, and when the noise became too much for his voice to be heard he would lead his choir with his beautiful voice and sing a hymn and then retire through the arched gate behind him and the nail-studded door was shut and barred……on Easter morning, long before it was light, the monks came out in procession with banners and cross, dressed in their vestments and carrying lighted candles and censers, and would parade round the Parish singing hymns. I thought it “Beautiful”!
But maybe because Mrs Simmons was writing for her children, she never mentioned the more contentious aspects of Brother Ignatius’s activities, such as the community hostility towards him and his monks, and the fact that opinion was greatly divided towards the principle of accommodating a monk community in Norfolk. Specifically, she did not mention that he had caused outrage in the November of 1863 when it was reported that here was;
“a clergyman of the English Church, who has the temerity to come before a public audience attired as a Benedictine monk, with bare head and bare feet, carrying a rosary and crucifix, which in this country are regarded as symbolic only of the Romish Church, and calling himself by a name not accorded to him by his godfathers and godmother,”
On 13 February 1864, after Brother Ignatius had purchased No.16 Elm Hill as part of his attempt to revive a form of monasticism by forming a religious order, or brotherhood in the city, he was labelled as “notorious” in the press. This preceded his actions of 24 February when he dedicated the building as the “Benedictine Chapel of the Priory of St Mary and St Dunstan,” From this date scenes of disorder and riot were a frequent occurrence in the neighbourhood and the monastery. Directly, or indirectly the existence of the confraternity gave rise to several remarkable incidents; such as the daily procession by the brethren to and from St Lawrence’ church to celebrate Communion – this was met by a mob assailing and insulting them. The protection of the police was demanded by Ignatius, and the magistrates were frequently engaged in the hearing of cases of riot and assault arising out of the proceedings at Elm Hill and St. Lawrence’
Four months later, on 28 June 1864, the wide-spread public outrage at the activities of Father Ignatius and his Third Order on Elm Hill spilled over into actual violence. According to the Baroness de Bertouch, in her book ‘The Life of Father Ignatius’, 1904, it was triggered by the previous day’s pilgrimage of ‘over four hundred enthusiasts’ to St Walstan’s Well at nearby Bawburgh – as a challenge to the Bishop’s authority. The crowd had ‘moved as one long flexible column through the town’ and services were held at the Well, vials and vessels being filled with its holy well water. On their return to Norwich cries of ‘No Popery’ were heard and Ignatius received an anonymous letter telling him that his priory would be set on fire, together with anyone who happened to be within its precincts. A mob of many thousands gathered and detachments of police began to arrive. The brothers barricaded themselves in and some of the sisters arrived to lend support. The authoress lent a degree of humour to the incident when she stated that the sister’s armoury was mixed: “Sister Faith brought her rosary; Sister Hope carried a magnificent rolling pin; but Sister Charity was made of sterner stuff – she brought a kettle filled with vitriol (sulphuric acid).” In the event, the Elm Hill monastery was closed in May, 1866, and the building work of a proposed new chapel to be erected by Father Ignatius was suspended and he left Norwich.
St Peter Hungate Church: Today, at the top of Elm Hill, stands the church of St Peter Hungate. It is not the original church you understand, that was demolished way back in 1458; but the one that was there in the mid-19th century and to which Mrs Simmons attended as a youngster; this was in fact a rebuild by John Paston and Margaret his wife by 1460. Fast forward to 2011 when Simon Knott wrote of it:
“Although St Peter Hungate is right in the heart of the urban area, its setting is idyllic; 16th and 17th century cottages flank the north and east sides, and then beautiful Elm Hill drops away below it. To the west is the magnificent chancel window of the Blackfriars church………. Hungate itself no longer exists, but was formerly ‘houndsgate’ – the street of dogs. In this conservation area the roads are cobbled, and it is an oasis of charm in the middle of East Anglia’s biggest city.”
As a child, Mrs Simmons remembered her father discovering a rude (sic) carving on the stone shaft in the north porch; it was of an acorn with an oak tree growing from it and he thought it probably was to indicate that the present church was built on the site of an older one. St Peter Hungate then, as now, was built of black flint, cruciform in shape and having a nave, chancel, transepts, and square tower with two bells. The roof of the nave was ornamented with figures of angels and with ‘a fine east window filled with ancient glass’; the church also had squints, spy-holes.
In 1861 the interior of St Peter Hungate was much improved and we find that the church also retained what may have been a unique three-tiered pulpit. According to Mrs Simmons:
“the clerk’s desk at the base, and above this the reading desk, equivalent to our lectern, and still above this the pulpit and over all a big sounding-board.”
The church’s Rector at the time was the Rev. Samuel Titlow M.A. who was first appointed to the post in 1839. He was, according to Mrs Simmons: “a confirmed old bachelor who, was very pompous and stern”. She also remembered how the Reverend would preach in his college gown – after taking off his surplice in the vestry! Always, around his neck he wore white ‘Geneva’ bands; these were two bands or pendent stripes made usually of white lawn and worn at the throat as part of the clerical garb, originally worn by Swiss Calvinist clergy. Then there was her father, John Bishop, who was a churchwarden at St Peter Hungate and he, together with his fellow wardens would sit in special high pews at the west end of the church. Whilst all pews were square with high board screens around them, a warden’s pew had a padded arm-rest, just like an armchair and above the pew door was a green curtain, which the clerk drew after everyone had entered and before the service begun. According to Mrs Simmons:
“We, my brother, sister and I, sat opposite to our parents. I could not see over the pew, even [when] standing, so father used to lift me on to the seat, and I well remember an old chap in front who used to lay his wool glove on the top of his bald head to keep off the draughts. I used to hope it would fall off, but it never did.”
She also noticed that on the wall, at the end of the pews, were pegs for the men to hang their hats on. She also witnessed the ritual these men went through before entering their pews; still standing, they would hold their hats before their faces to pray into; only then did they hang them up and then proceed to their seats:
“How queer we should think it now to see a collection of tall hats hanging round a church during a service………[then] Once a month, on the first Sunday, there was Holy Communion after morning service. The bell would be rung on Saturday afternoon to announce the fact. Then, when the service had ended, father and the other warden stepped out of their pews and, armed with big brass bowls, would stand on either side of the porch to receive the alms of the departing congregation.”
It is sometimes amazing how the smallest of memories can be permanently locked into one’s mind. This seems to have happened with Mrs Simmons who, from her recollections of St Peter Hungate, remembered one little incident between the old Rector, Samuel Titlow, and Father Ignatius, who attended one particular service, along with his band of monks:
“The Rector did not approve, but they were parishioners and he could not exclude them – and our father liked Ignatius and showed them into pews in front of the pulpit. All went well until the Creed. The Rector began in his severe style, reading “I believe”. The monks took it up and intoned it. [There was] a pause, the Rector started again and read it deliberately by himself. I do not remember anything else during the service and do not think the monks ever came again.”
Father Ignatius, instead, had a chapel fitted up in his ‘monastery’ and continued to have regular services there. These drew crowds of people; so much so that not all could be accommodated. The solution was for admission tickets to be issued. We are told that Mrs Simmons’s father, John Bishop, did ‘business with Ignatius’, and presumably on that basis he was given a family ticket for any service.
“By the way”, quoted Mrs Simmons at one point, “a funny thing happened one day: Ignatius wanted to see my father and, as he could never appear without a crowd mobbing him, he opened our private door and walked into the house. Our maid was on her knees at her work and, hearing a sound, turned her head and saw (to her) ‘an awful figure clad in black with a cowl over his head’. She fled in fright to my mother, exclaiming: “Oh! Mam, I believe it is the Devil now come in.””
Mr and Mrs Trory:
Mrs Simmons’s reminisces were not, however, confined to the controversial figure of Father Ignatius and his activities. She remembered her music master, Mr Trory who was “a dear old man with a stately wife”, both of whom lived at the top of Elm Hill; he played the violin and his wife sang at the Triennial Festivals. Mrs Simmons recalled that this couple use to recall ‘earlier days when several neighbours owned horses and carriages.’ But Mrs Simmons could only recall one, a Mr Able Towler, of the firm of Towler, Rolland & Allen; manufactures, specialising in crepes, bombazines and Paramattas – and earlier than this in producing the noted Norwich Shawls. Their factory was next to Mrs Simmons’s parent’s home in what is known as Paston House behind which was Crown Court.
She had a very vivid memory of one large room in Paston House which had a beautiful moulded ceiling, from the centre of which hung “a wonderful wrought-iron snake to support the original oil lamp”. It has been said that when Queen Elizabeth I stayed at the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace nearby, she and her courtiers walked through the gardens by the riverside and held court in that very room. On what would have been the same occasion, the Queen was said to have also watched a pageant from the existing first-floor window of the same building – now known as the Strangers Club. Hence the origin of the name “The Crown Court” since applied.
Mrs Simmons eventually brought her newspaper reminisces to an end with a late reference to the Rev. Samuel Titlow and Mrs Trory. The readers are told that Mrs Trory met the Reverend out walking one day and respectably smiled at him and bowed. However, he, looking his grimmest and taking no notice passed her by:
“Soon afterwards he called upon her [Mrs Trory] for a subscription and, before the bell could be answered, he opened the door and met her in the hall. He began in his pompous manner: “Excuse me, Mrs Trory ——,” She took him by the arm, turned him round, saying: “You do not know me in the street and I do not know you in my house,” and she showed him out! The old man was very indignant and afterwards told my father how he had been treated…. When we heard the tale, we were much amused as we could picture the scene and the performers”.