In today’s terms, John Bilby of Norwich did not live long; he was born in 1801 and died in 1839. He became a tradesman and as far removed from being an author as one would suppose. Nevertheless, he wrote an account of his life and career in an autobiography, supplemented with the regular ‘jottings’ that he entered in his personal journal that he had maintained from quite a young age. Such documents would be considered as the most personal and private forms of writing; fortunately, they have been preserved, thus allowing researchers to obtain fresh information on the period in which John Bilby lived.
John Bilby was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth and his family moved to Norwich within twelve months of his arrival. His jottings followed his life story from the time his family first took up residence in Norwich and included the addresses at which he lived, until marriage; these included Ber Street in the City, and then later in King Street. During this time, Bilby organised his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focused on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. Bilby’s father died when John was seven years old, so his mother had a struggle caring for John and her other three children, until she remarried in 1811. What follows is just a sketch of his writings.
Soon after his mother remarried, when John was ten years of age, he made his first reference to becoming an errand-boy, and his later transition to becoming an apprentice hairdresser:
“I was engaged as Errand boy to Mr Willement, master weaver of St George’s. Lived with Mr Willement for 12 months, then for a short time at Mr [Houth’s], an Appraiser of London Street in Norwich, left Mr [Houth’s] to go and live with Mr Leeds, a brush maker of St Andrew’s – at this shop I was two years when my master was made a Bankrupt of, and I left. I was also with Mr Ling, a tailor in St Michael at Plea until, on the 20th day of August 1815 I was bound out Apprentice to Mr Mason, tailor and hair-dresser of King Street in Norwich.”………I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed……I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser”.
So, like many young men in every generation, John tried a number of jobs before he settled down to train; in his case, to be a ‘hair cutter and dresser’ [hairdresser] – it was the career that he followed for the rest of his life. In addition to his early experiences of life, Bilby was to include in his diary, and his later autobiography, details on the techniques and skills which had aided him in his apprenticeship as a hairdresser. For instance, there were remedies for both cuts and bruises, along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. Then there was his serious approach towards his job title but, at the same time, there were instances when he was able to find humour in most situations. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich’ humorously described how women often denied that they wore false hair, even though Bilby often knew ‘where she bought It’!
In 1821, when he had qualified as a hairdresser and gained the necessary experience, he was given the opportunity to run his own barber’s shop:
“I agreed to conduct the Business for Mr Lofty, the Hair Dresser of St Giles, Norwich, 3rd Feb. 1821, he being at the time very ill and not able to attend to it himself……..”
However, Bilby did not remain with that business for long, after joining a musical Group called the ‘Musical Sons of Good Humours’, and was given a job offer by Samuel True, who was the Group’s treasurer. True provided Bilby with a hairdressing parlour in his own house, and had it painted and equipped for a hairdressing business which started trading on 9th March 1822. In his spare time, Bilby continued performing with the musical group, and eventually received a ‘Star Medal’ for serving as its secretary and later as president. In 1822, he was also part of the Norwich Company of Comedian’s appearance at the Theatre Royal in a special show to celebrate the Coronation of King George IV. Bilby took the part of a Knight of the Garter. The Norfolk Chronicle reported:
“In consequence of extensive preparations, the opening of the opening of the Theatre is necessarily postponed until Thursday, 31st January when will be represented the Coronation of His Majesty George IV, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The dresses and regalia and every decoration are copied from the models of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by permission of the Proprietor. The whole of the Company, with numerous *Additional Aid, both vocal and instrumental will be employed to give every possible effect to this splendid ceremony.”
*Bilby was part of the ‘Additional Aid’.
During this same period, Bilby courted a ‘Miss Payne’. It was said that during their courtship ‘they enjoyed a pleasure cruise together on the ‘Nelson’ steam packet to Yarmouth’. Clearly their relationship flourished, both on water and land, for in the same year they married; he writes in his journal:
“I was married to Miss Payne on the 25th November, 1822 by the Rev. Whittingham at St Saviour’s Parish Church – spent the day very comfortably and had a large supper party in the evening at Mr Payne’s house in St Paul’s parish…….”
Thereafter, very little is said in Bilby’s diary about his wife – certainly he was never to mention her forename. He did, however, include her in his entry about their first child:
“My wife was delivered of a fine boy on the 11th of June, 1823, at a quarter before eleven at night. The boy was named John Bilby on the 15th. Mrs Bilby came downstairs on the 22nd, this was the 11th day after her being delivered of a son.”
Two years into his marriage, he was picked to serve five years with the militia as a private; this was in April 1824. He was clearly very reluctant to comply for:
“I found a young man who was willing to serve for me – for a sum of money – this sum I paid him and he was sworn in on the 20th of the same month – his name was Daniel Orford of St Martin’s parish.”
In 1827 the Bilby family moved to his father-in-law’s parish of St Paul’s where John was soon to be appointed as an ‘Overseer for the Poor’; a positioned which he was to fill for a number of years thereafter. We find that the winter of 1837 was a particularly severe one and Bilby, together with other parish helpers, raised several hundreds of pounds to provide food and fuel for the poor. John personally helped to deliver these around the houses of the parish. There was thick snow in the streets, and John writes: “Five officers from the Horse Barracks [in the Pocock parish] amused the public by driving through the streets in a large sledge.” The following winter the weather conditions were identical, and he again writes: “Mr Berry, Mr Dring and myself relieved 2000 poor persons in the St Paul’s parish with bread and coals.”
Bilby’s diary, journal or notebook, whatever one chooses to prefer, was not only of a personal and autobiographical nature throughout, but also functioned as a travel diary in which he described, in detail, the journeys he undertook. His excursions, and the activities which he participated in, are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip, discussed in detail, was Bilby’s trip to Lincoln. He described the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Similar observations were also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.
Beyond this date Bilby’s jottings tail off and eventually we learn the last about ‘the virtuous and vigorous Mr Bilby’. Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This seems to signify John Bilby’s passing, as described by the subsequent writer remarks:
“Mr John Bilby died on Sunday the 15th of July at half-past 8 o’clock in the morning, after a long illness which he bore with Christian fortitude, aged 37 years, in 1839, and he was interred in St Giles’ churchyard on the 18th. His funeral was attended by his wife and three children, his two brothers and his sister – Peter, William and Charlotte, and Mr Payne also, his bearers were as follows: Mr Fox, Mr Hart, Mr Whiting, Mr Poll, Mr Alborough and Mr Right.”
The cause of John Bilby’s death was not given, so it is left to pure speculation to suppose that his illness had been particularly virulent and this had led to the death of a comparatively young man. From where, and how, he had picked it up – would again be speculative!
This is not a new story – just a resume. The ‘Strangers’ of Norwich; are well documented.
The arrival of the “Strangers” from the Low Countries in the 16th century was the result of the persecution of Dutch Calvinists by the Catholic Spanish rulers of that region of Europe. The Duke of Alva had ruthlessly pursued them as heretics and many were raped, murdered or burnt at the stake and they became refugees looking for a new home. These ‘Strangers’ were broadly welcomed in this area of Eastern England and there were two main reasons why. Under Elizabeth I, England was a Protestant country and it had not been long previously that Mary I had persecuted “heretics” in a similar manner as Alva. The second reason was that, with their skills in weaving, the new immigrants were of immense economic value. Having first settled in Sandwich, Kent, in 1565, the City of Norwich elders recognised their worth and invited them to the city because of their renowned skills in textile. Much of the prosperity of Norfolk after this period can be traced to this influx of these ‘Strangers’.
The arrival of the Strangers was described by W. Moens in his book The Walloons & their Church at Norwich (1888):
“Invited by the Duke of Norfolk and the Corporation of Norwich, the strangers on obtaining letters patent from the Crown, came to Norwich in 1665 from Sandwich, where they first settled, and soon increasing in numbers restored to the city, by the manufacture of their various fabrics, that prosperity which had been lost by the ravages caused by the mortality from the black death at the close of the 14th century.
In 1566 an accord was made by the Duchess of Parma with those of the reformed religion in the Netherlands, who, on attaching their signatures to the terms before the magistrates of the various towns, were allowed to attend the Services of their own ministers. Many returned from England to the Low Countries on this concession, but in the following year faith was broken with them, and the unscrupulous severity of the Duke of Alva’s rule caused a flight of all who could escape the vigilance of the authorities. … The details of the conditions under which foreigners were formerly allowed to settle in this country and to follow their trades are interesting and very different from the custom of the present day, when they are on the same footing as natives, but from their frugal habits are able to (and do) work at rates, which in many eases bring misery and ruin to whole districts…. The old custom of hostage, revived by the grant of 1576 to William Tipper, compelled to reside with appointed hosts who received payment for their entertainment and who supervised and received a percentage on their purchases and sales. The Corporation of Norwich purchased this right in 1578 for the sum of £70 13s. 4d., but did not exercise it against the strangers. The strangers paid double subsidies or taxes on the value of their personal property; they paid their own ministers, by whom they had to be furnished with a voucher before permission to reside in the city was granted to them, all their names being registered; they had to pay all the expenses of their churches and the entire support of their poor besides twenty pence in the pound on their rentals, towards the pay of the parish clergy. … As in the present time in London, where the old jealousy against foreigners seems to be reviving, there was always a party in the Corporation of Norwich opposed to the strangers, but the manifest benefits derived by the city from their manufactures and trade always induced a large majority of the Council to watch over and protect them.
The strangers at Norwich from the first were placed under a strict and special rule; a book of orders was drawn up by the Corporation and settled by a committee of the Privy Council, From time to time these articles were varied, but it was not long before they were allowed in a measure to fall into abeyance, on account of the prosperity brought to the city by the successful trade of the strangers.”
However, Norwich was not free from xenophobia. As early as 1144, the death of a boy, named William, had led to accusations of ritual murder by Jews and sparked anti-Semitic rioting. In 1567 the Mayor of Norwich, Thomas Whall, made inflammatory statements, which sound all too familiar today, that the Walloons had “sucked the living away from the English” and greater restrictions were placed upon them. Interestingly, when a crowd tried to foment attacks on the ‘Strangers’ in 1570, it was the ring-leaders of the anti-Stranger faction who were executed.
In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I made a state visit to Norwich, which may have been a specific attempt to demonstrate her support for the ‘Strangers’. The Dutch community presented her with a pageant and a silver-gilt cup worth £50. Although there were further difficulties and conflicts between their community and the established population of Norwich, it was probably the beginning of their assimilation and, as with most influxes of immigrants and refugees, they gradually disappeared as a separate entity. In 1633-4, the Norwich rate book listed many names which were probably Dutch or Flemish in origin. By 1830, the Norwich poll book includes very few: possibly only Adrian Decleve (goldsmith) and John De Vear (draper).
A Solution to a Problem:
Strong trading links had existed between Norwich and the Low Countries before the 16th century, evident from very early Wills of Dutch and Flemish people already settled here. But, it was in the 16th Century that immigrants in the Low Countries were officially encouraged to move to the City.
Ever since the Middle Ages, Norwich had been at the centre of an extensive textile inductry in woollens and worsted. By the 16th Century, however, this industry was in crisis, with competition coming from cheaper and better quality merchandise from Flanders – a region in the south west of the Low Countries now split between Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It was the skilled immigrants from these Countries which could provide a solution to the economic crisis here. At a time when skills were handed down through apprenticeships, the Strangers could teach local workers to produce new types of cloth, giving fresh impetus to Norwich’s flagging inductry.
So it was that in 1565, the Norwich City authorities sent a representative to Queen Elizabeth I, asking for permission for immigrant workers to settle in Norwich. Later that year, the Queen responded by issuing a royal “Letters Patent”, allowing “thirtye duchemen” and their households – totalling no more that 300 people – to settle within Norwich’s city walls. Twenty-four of the householders admitted were Dutch and six were Walloons – the latter a Romance ethnic people native to Belgium, principally its southern region of Wallonia, who spoke French and Walloon. Walloons remain a distinctive ethnic community within Belgium.
The Strangers also had their own pressing motives for emigranting. The anti-Protestant policies of their Habsburg ruler, Philip II of Spain, together with economic hardship and war, forced many people to leave the Low Countries. Between 50,000 and 300,000 refugees sought religious freedom elsewhere, many of whom came to Protestant England, settling in towns like London, Southampton, as well as Norwich.
Victims of Success:
The Stranger community grew rapidly from the original 30 households. By 1620, there were around 4,000 Dutch and Walloons living in Norwich, comprising a quarter of the city’s population. They had an impact on all aspects of Norwich life. They rejuvenated the local economy, and by the end of the 16th Century the city was prospering again. English textile apprentices learnt new skills and techniques; the ” New Draperies” produced proved lucrative exports to Europe and the East. By 1600, Norwich weavers were even facing a shortage of yarn and labour. On the whole, the Strangers integrated well with the local community. With no restrictions on their residency, they were not deliberately “ghettoised”. They rebuilt the whole area north of the River Wensum that had been devastated by a great fire in 1507, leaving their mark on the city’s landscape.
Over the years, strong personal links were forged between the two communities: wealthy Strangers married into the Norwich elite, they sent their children to the local grammar school and they formed business partnerships with local merchants. But, the Dutch and Walloons did not lose their own identity and culture. The Stranger churches were important as centres of communication and social care, and immigrants continued to donate money to them, despite also having to support English parishes.
Dutch and Frence schools were established in the area, and strong links were maintained with their native countries, especially through trade. In the second generation, ties were strengthened as Stranger children returned to Holland to attend University.
Local Friction Nevertheless:
Despite general harmony, there were some teething troubles. When the immigrants first moved into the area, they were subject to detailed restrictions – from controls over what they were allowed to buy and sell, to an 8pm curfew intended to stop drunkeness and disorder. Frictions and disputes between the Strangers and indigenous locals sometimes erupted. Many Strangers refused to pass on their skills to English apprentices, arguing that they had enough of their own children to set to work. Locals were often upset when immigrants set up business in other trades, such as tailoring and shoe-making because this created unwanted competition.
From this fragile start, relations gradually improved. A number of “politic men”, or arbiters, were appointed and they negotiated agreements between the authorities and the Strangers. Immigrants in Norwich were offered citizenship rights before those of any other town, and the corporation made full use of the Stranger skills and expertise. The Dutch printer, Anthony de Solempne, was employed to publish official orders and decrees. While in 1596, during a period of poor harvest, the authorities turned to a Stranger, Jacques de Hem, to help them secure provisions from Europe.
During the Elizabethan era, foreigners became more numerous on the Nation’s streets. The government’s response to this wavered between control and welcome. Restrictive policies were needed to minimise tensions between Stranger and local communities, but very different policies were necessary if the English economy was to benefit from the skills and technologies of immigrants. Influence by both religion and international politics, the Crown’s attitude towards foreigners was constantly shifting and this can be seen filtering down in the treatment of the Norwich Strangers.
Initially, under Elizabeth I, the Strangers were allowed to hold their services at Blackfiars’ Hall and St Mary the Less in relative freedom, but in the 1630’s they suffered under Archbishop Laud, who ordered them to attend only English services. Matthew Wren, Bishop of Norwich, was one of Laud’s committed followers, and frequently quarrelled with the Stranger community. He accused one congregation of Strangers of damaging the Bishop’s Chapel, where they held their meetings. But, above all, Wren worried that locals might start attending Stranger services and weaken the English church.
The Stranger’s reputation was not helped by evidence that radical religious books were being smuggled into Norwich from the Low Countries, or by the flow of English Puritans to Rotterdam in the 1630’s led by William Bridge, where they established a ‘Gathered Church’ – “A church which asserts the autonomy of the local congregation……its members believe in a covenant of loyalty and mutual edification, emphasising the importance of discerning God’s will whilst ‘gathered’ together in a Church meetins”.
Even if the Strangers were not involved in these activities, as religious separatists they still viewed with suspicion by the authorities. The government also feared that immigrant communities were a threat to public order and security by assisting foreign powers to invade. In 1571, the authorities searched Stranger’s homes for armour and weaponry,and in the unsettled years before the Civil War, it was feared they might be disloyal to the Crown. However, the relationship between the Norwich Strangers and the English was generally stable. Personal ties were formed through marriage and friendship. Some English even became godparents and guardians to Stranger children.
Overall, the story of the Strangers in Norwich was a very successful one and not only helped the local economy but also of added to the cultural variety and vibrancy of the community in which they settled. These immigrants were to become so well integrated into the local community that they were no longer “Strangers”.
Today, there are a few obvious reminders of the Strangers of old. They did bring with them a love of canary breeding, which soon caught on with the locals. It was not long before there was a new breed of bird known as the “Norwich Canary”. Bizarrely maybe, this is their most visible legacy – for who doesn’t know in Norfolk that the Norwich football team is the “Canaries”!
BILLY Bluelight was a Norfolk eccentric who – in the absence of a welfare state lived on his wits and his charm. This most iconic of characters was famous for racing the steam pleasure boats along the River Yare from Bramerton to Norwich – hoping for spare change from the passengers on board.
At half past eleven or so every morning, the tinkle of a bell would intrude upon the cooing of the wood pigeons; it heralded the approach of the Yarmouth Belle or the Waterfly, both deep in the water as a result of their heavy freight of Yarmouth trippers, all bound for Norwich.
As if on cue, a strange figure would appear on Bramerton’s river bank and take up a familiar stance. Clad in shorts and a singlet and hung with a prodigious array of medals, his expansive smile, matched at a higher level by the peak of his gaily-striped cricket cap. From the river bank he would call out:
“My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45,
I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.”
With these words, he would sprint off along the river footpath of the Yare. At Woods End he would be no more than level, but once out of sight he always gained by taking a short cut across the Whitlingham Sewerage Farm, to reappear still neck and neck by the time both man and boat had reached the old limekiln at Crown Point. There, Billy would again disappear from view, and while the boat passed very slowly through unsuitable bends and narrow waters, Billy would make a detour over Trowse Bridge. By the time Carrow Bridge was reached, there would be Billy, ready to receive the well-earned plaudits of the trippers and the coppers thrown on to the path by the Boom Tower.”
Year after year this performance was repeated, but Billy’s age remained 45! This may have been for the sake of the rhyme, but there was enough of the Peter Pan in him to have justified it on other grounds.
Bluelight, whose real name was William Cullum is one of many interesting ghostly characters that still lingers on the 35-mile route along the Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. He was born in the slums of his home city of Norwich, eking out a living selling cough medicine, firewood and blackberries. He never received a formal education, but he did however teach himself to read and worked briefly at Caley’s chocolate factory. By 1907 he was already legendary for his racing and street selling activities and continued racing boats into the 1930s, when he was considerably older than 45 – He is said to have remained ’45’ for many, many years. He never married and lived with his mother, until her death around 1930. The two lived at several addresses in the city including Oak Street, Colegate and Pkyerell House at St Mary’s Plain. After his mother’s death, he was reported to have entered Woodlands, part of the West Norwich Hospital. By the 1940s he was living at Palmer Road on the Mile Cross Estate which was built between the wars. In his eighties he entered the West Norwich Hospital and was later moved to St James Hospital at Shipmeadow, Suffolk where he died in 1949. Five years after his death, writer R L Potter wrote this description of him:
“That over-worked term ‘nature’s gentleman’ was never better exemplified than in the gentle, unpretentious character called Billy Bluelight. It may seem astonishing that a humble little man could imprint his personality so widely on a large city, but it was so. ”
— R L Potter, EDP.
In 1994 Woodforde’s Brewery renamed their outlet The Freemasons Arms in Hall Road, Norwich to The Billy Bluelight, but since March, 2005 and after a change of ownership, the pub reverted to its former name. However, close to the Woods End Inn in Bramerton and on the Wherryman’s Way long-distance footpath stands a life-size statue of Billy. This particular footpath is named after the men who operated the distinctive flat-bottomed sailing barges that were the HGVs of the 1700s, when Norwich was England’s second city, and a prodigious amount of cargo was ferried between the Low Countries and Norwich via the Yare. This was thirsty work and its legacy, happily, lingers in an unusual wealth of riverside pubs, there to refresh the walker en route – although never Billy Bluelight, who was teetotal.
Many theories have been put forward to how he received his name. In 1907, a reference was made to the ‘bluelight’ of his eloquence; another suggestion was that of his blue nose in winter, or that he sold blue-tipped matches. ‘Bluelight’ was also a Victorian term for teetotaler or temperance worker and William Cullum did speak out against the dangers of alcohol.
There have been several reminders of him in the Norwich area over the years since the days when he graced the River Yare and Norwich, from a pub, a statue and the Apache theatre company’s play about his life in recent times, entitled “Nature’s Gentleman – The Story of Billy Bluelight.”
It does not take too much imagination to create a 15th or 16th century scene where the condemned are seen walking from their place of imprisonment in Norwich Castle or the City’s Guildhall jail, through the streets and past the Cathedral towards Bishopsbridge and the place of execution beyond. Unquestionably, the route taken would be thronged with the inquisitive, those who were sympathetic, others who were downright hostile and some who were simply curious but with no feelings one way or the other. The parade of unfortunates would eventually preceed over the ancient Bridge and into a chalk pit on the other side of the river Wensum. There the faggots would be piled high and ready. The Church, having handed over the condemned to the secular authorities, would step out of the limelight whilst the executions took place – burning the condemned ‘at the stake’. The Church’s preferred way was to claim the authority to sentence but not kill – it kept things neat and tidy! As for those on the wrong side of the Church’s principles and laws well, they were disposed of. In Norwich they went to the chalk pits, for no other reason than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates was ‘Lollards’.
Just Who Were The Lollards?
We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at John Wycliffe and who he was; born sometime in the 1320’s, becoming young Curate at Ludgershall in Wiltshire and dying there of natural causes on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard.
Wycliffe was an English Christian theologian who became popular for translating the Bible into vernacular (common) English in 1382. During this time, the Bible was usually only available in Latin, the language used by the Church and the Upper Classes. Many regular men and women were therefore not able to read the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe wanted to change that and he did so by translating the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) into the people’s common language. As professor of theology at Oxford University, Wycliffe also challenged the Catholic Church on numerous points of doctrine. He felt that the Church was too institutionalised and had become corrupt. He promoted a personal type of Christianity – one that emphasised piety, humility and simplicity.
After Wycliffe had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and afraid that his grave would become a religious shrine, Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln and acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, ordered officials to exhume the bones, burn them, and scatter the ashes on the River Swift. Thereafter, events saw the beginning of what was to be a conserted persecution of Lollardy over a large area of England.
The Lollards were part of a movement that existed from the mid-14th century and up to the English Reformation, inspired, if not led, by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards’ demands, in line with Wycliffe’s thinking, were primarily for the reform of Western Christianity and in this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. Amongst the many beliefs held by the Lollards, was that the Catholic Church’s practices of baptism and confession were unnecessary for salvation. They also considered that praying to saints and honouring their images was a form of idolatry. Oaths, fasting, and prayers for the dead were thought to have no scriptural basis and they had a poor opinion of the trappings of the Catholic church, including holy bread, holy water, bells, organs, and church buildings.
Definition of the ‘Lollard’ Label: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Lollard is most likely derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”) and from the verb lollen (“to mutter, mumble”). It appears to be a derisive expression applied to those without an academic background, educated (if at all) only in English, who were known to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular; they were certainly considerably energised by his translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century, “lollard” had come to mean a heretic in general. The lesser known use of the more neutral term “Wycliffite” was generally applied to those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.
Lollard Influence – and the Consequences! Although the Lollard’s influence spread to Lincolnshire to the north and to both the midlands and Wales to the west, the greatest concentration was in the south and East Anglia with Norfolk as an influential hub. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural Estates within which were the bulk of the restlest peasantry – the working classes of the future industrialised England. They, inherently, voiced grievances and complained, not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled troublemakers by the authorities. By the late 14th Century, the unrestful peasants became embroilled in the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler (1381), As a result, Lollardism became associated with tradesmen, peasants, public disorder, licence and excess; these were excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notebly, King Henry IV was persuaded by the Church to pass the 1401 Statute “De Heretics Comburendo” (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). This Act did not, specifically, ban the Lollards, but (a) probibited the translating or owning heretical versions of the Bible and (b) authorised death by burning for all heretics.
By 1395, the Lollards had their own ministers and were winning popular support but were to be subjected to extreme measures of persecution. Throughout England they, increasingly, were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and frequently burnt at the stake as heretics. Clearly, the religious and secular authorities were strongly opposed to the them and a primary early opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ably assisted by none other than Henry le Despenser of Norwich of whom the Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham praised for his zeal! In 1410, John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy was burnt at the stake; he was the first layman to suffer capital punishment in England for the crime of heresy. John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias.
The Norwich Heresy Trials of 1428 to 1431: These trials saw fifty-one men and nine women prosecuted for heresy – four were priests: John Midelton, vicar of Halvergate; John Cupper, vicar of Tunstall; Robert Cavell, parish chaplain of Bungay; and Master Robert Berte of Bury St Edmunds, chaplain. This, and mush more, is contained in a surviving manuscript from the Westminster Diocesan Archives MS. B.2, which is considered to be perhaps the most important record of heresy trials in the British Isles before the Reformantion. This manuscript is also of local interest because it is by far the most important record of Lollardy in East Anglia. It shows the extent of heresy at an early date in this area, which produced few known Lollards, before John Oldcastle’s Revolt – or after 1431 when the trials ended. The evidence also clearly offsets East Anglia’s reputation as an exceptionally ‘High Church’ area in the late Middle Ages and helps to explain why the eastern region became a Puritan stronghold.
Thus we learn, from the Norwich Heresy Trials Manuscript, of William White, a priest from Kent who had moved to Ludham to preach dissent; also of fellow Lollard’s John (or William?) Waddon and Hugh Pye. White’s trial took place on 13 September 1428, followed by those of Wadden and Pye; all three were burnt at Lollard’s Pit later that month. How bravely they met their fate is not known but it was reported that some people had a habit of emptying the contents of their chamber pots over the condemed as they walked along Bishopsgate.
Then there was Margery Baxter from Martham who was put on trial in October 1429. A Johanna Clifland testified against Baxter stating, amongst other things, that she had expressed a variety of unorthodox sentiments, including speaking out against the traditions of sanctioned marriage, fasting for religious days, and the swearing of religious oaths. Johanna Clifland accused Baxter of telling a friend that the bread consecrated in the mass was not the very body of Christ:
“You believe ill because, if every such sacrament is God and the true body of Christ, there are countless gods because a thousand and more priests every day make a thousand such gods and afterwards eat these gods and, having eaten them, discharge them through their posteriors into repulsively smelling toilets, where you can find plenty of such gods if you want to look. Therefore, know for certain that that which you call the sacrament of the altar will never by the grace of God be my God, for such a sacrament was falsely made and deceitfully ordained by priests in the church to induce idolatry in simple people because this sacrament is only material bread”.
Baxter also went on to argue that “the images which stand in the churches come from the Devil so that the people worshipping those images commit idolatry”. Then, echoing foundational Lollard beliefs, Baxter also opposed the wealth of Catholic clergymen and the practice of confession to church officials. However, despite such statements and confessions, Margery Baxter was sentenced not to be burnt, but to receive four Sunday floggings as she walked barefoot around her parish church.
It was the case that not all of the Norwich accused were condemed to be burnt at Lollards Pit. Nearly half the total tried ended up, like Margery Baxter, being flogged in either their parish churches or the adjoining cemeteries or, in the local market places on market day. Occasionally, sentences would be carried out in Norwich, in its market place or in the Cathedral church or Cloisters. Clearly the ecclesiastical authorities were eager to make the penances known to the public. Frequently, a penitent was given precise instructions that he, or she, was to appear bare-footed, bare-headed and clad in simple clothing, carrying a candle which they had to offer at the high altar of their parish church as soon as they had completed their penance.
Persecution of heretics in Norwich tailed away after 1431 but was to return in 1531 when the Reformation (1517 – 1648) ensured further persecutions in Norwich – they had, of course, continued in other areas of England during this ‘tailed off’ period during when there was a general respite of about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the Lollards entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London and Canterbury. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century and were to be still burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). In 1519, seven people were burnt in Coventry and within the next few years there were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.
One of the first trials in Norwich during 1531 was that of Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like William White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he had recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recant when initially faced with execution, returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Richard NIX or NYKKE, (circa 1447–1535) of Norwich had him re-arrested and, thereafter, took a leading part in the execution of Thomas Bilney – who, by the way, had belonged to Nix’s old college. It was said, with some justice, that Nix burnt Bilney on his own authority, without waiting for the royal warrant. There was no mercy. Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.
On the morning of his execution, Bilney was unwavering from his fate. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, Bilney raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake. As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt appeared bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.” With that dying prayer of faith, Bilney sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal”.
The climax to burning at the stake came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 50 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, a Cecily Ormes declared her support for them.
Cecily Ormes was the wife of Mr. Edmund Ormes, worsted weaver of St. Lawrence, Norwich. At the death of Miller and Elizabeth Cooper she had said that “she would pledge them of the same cup they drank of”. For these words the civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice but to take her to the chancellor, who would have discharged her if she had promised to go to church and to keep her belief to herself. As she would not consent to this, the chancellor urged that he had shown more lenity to her than any other person, and was unwilling to condemn her, because she was an ignorant foolish woman; to this she replied, (perhaps with more shrewdness than he expected,) that however great his desire might be to spare her sinful flesh, it could not equal her inclination to surrender it up in so great a quarrel. The chancellor then pronounced the fiery sentence, and September 23, 1558, she was taken to Lollard Pit at eight o’clock in the morning.
After declaring her faith to the people, she laid her hand on the same stake at which Miller and Cooper had been burnt and said, “Welcome, thou cross of Christ.” Her hand was sooted in doing this and she at first wiped it only to again welcomed and embraced the stake. After the tormentors had unhurriedly built up the faggots and kindled the fire, she prayed then crossed her hands upon her breast, and ‘looking upwards with the utmost serenity, she withstood the fiery furnace. Her hands continued gradually to rise until the sinews were dried, and then they fell. She uttered no sigh of pain, but yielded her life’.
Note: There used to be a local rumour that had Sir Thomas Erpingham listed as a Lollard, for which his ‘penance’ was to build the Erpingham gate, entrance to the Cathedral precinct in Norwich!
Why did Norwich choose that particular ‘Pit’ site? What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was in the distant past, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with part of the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond as something approaching an industrial site. Early chalk workings were dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby Cathedral; hence the creation of a Pit in the first place. Also, its position was, conveniently, just outside the city walls and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church. The approach to it was directly along Bishopsgate. linking the Cathedral and city centre with the Pit which lay opposite Bishop’s Bridge.
Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone. Today, the only clue of where it once was is the Lollards Pit Public House on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road. It marks the approximate position of the old chalk pits.
The aftermath: For many years after the exercutions ended the area surrounding Lollards Pit was shunned by local people, many of whom feared evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, also it was a convenient place to dump the City’s rubbish and later it was used as a camp for gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by the ghosts of the past.
Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is sometimes claimed that eerie ghostly screams may be heard in the pub late at night. Claims also refer to terrified witnesses having seen ghostly black figures in the pub’s corridor and on one occasion, a shocking apparition of a woman engulfed in flames was claimed to have been seen before she quickly vanished into thin air; this suggests that, maybe, spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!
On the other side of Riverside Road, on the riverbank, is another commemorative plaque which hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly in Lollards Pit centuries ago.
FOOTNOTE: No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue that it was not by the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House but under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, others say it does indeed lay beneath the back bar of the Pub, whilst others put the case for it being below the site once occupied by Godfrey’s Store – or even underneath Chalk Hill House on Rosary Road. All close to one another.
The story of the Bullards Brewery goes way back to the days when a pint was pulled in the shadow of its brewery. It was a time when the brewery was at the heart of the community – providing work for hundreds of men and women. It was part of the social history of Norwich, and was to provide a collection of warm reminiscences that illuminated that most distant of times and helped to define the city.
It all started on the 8th February 1808 when a Richard Bullard was born in the Parish of St John Maddermarket; and at that time there were about twenty-seven breweries in Norwich. When Richard was twenty-years of age he married and went to live at the top of Oak Street, in Norwich, where he was ‘Overseer of the Parish’ for a time. After several more moves, which included to the parishes of Coslany, St Lawrence and St Giles, he took on the old dye office near St Miles Bridge where, in partnership with James Watts, he founded the Anchor Brewery on Westwick Street; that was in 1837, when his family had grown to three children – all girls. The site of the brewery was well-placed for, from it, the brewery was able to draw high quality water from a deep artesian well and receive its grain and hops by wherry along the River Wensum which flowed close to the brewery walls.
The partnership between Richard Bullard and James Watts was, however, relatively short-lived, being dissolved on 24th June 1847 following Jame’s loss of interest in playing any part in the business. Richard Bullard, now a father of six children, was left to go it alone as sole proprietor; but being a good Brewer and with ‘a head on his shoulders’ his business seemed to have little difficulty in prospering very quickly thereafter. So much so that more buildings were to be needed; surrounding properties purchased; and new premises erected. The brewery was also to build up an extensive tied estate, largely through taking over smaller breweries; not for their brewing capacity, but for their tied houses.
“The deceased, well known as a brewer and merchant, of extensive business, sprang from very humble beginnings. By industry and constant application, he made the best use of the the good intellect he was gifted with, and steadily raised himself to a foremost position amongst the traders of this city…….. young men [should know] that it is possible by energy, industry, and business talent to force their way even now-a-day through the great obstacles.”
As a consequence of Richard Bullard’s passing, it was announced that the firm would continue as BULLARD & SONS. The sons in question were Harry, Charley and Fred Bullard – young partners headed by Harry Bullard. It would be Harry who would make his mark, becoming Sheriff of Norwich in 1877 and Mayor in 1878, 1879 and 1886 when he was also knighted by Queen Victoria. Probably not contented with that, he was then elected as MP for Norwich in 1890 and 1895.
Just as an aside; in May 1888, Bullard & Sons advertised a Light Bitter Ale, specially adapted for Family use at 9s per Firkin – put another way, the price of this beer was 1½d per pint! The timing for this tipple was well timed for the Annual Outing of staff employed at the Anchor Brewery again took place on the Friday of 21st September that year:
“As on former occasions, the wives of workmen were included in the party and every man was given 3s to pay for tea and extra refreshments. The train fares and dinner were included in the treat.
The assembled party departed in twenty carriages from Platform 6 of Thorpe Station, punctually at nine o’clock. It was estimated that upwards of 700 persons were most liberally and hospitably entertained at Yarmouth by Messrs. Bullard & Son. Lady Bullard honoured the party by travelling with a large gathering of special friends, in a special carriage. Free admission was given to Britannia Pier. Switchback rides, De Cone’s Magical Entertainment and Miss Webb’s Swimming Exhibition were available at half price – but only on production of his or her rail ticket. Dinner was at 1:30 at the Aquarium where Sir Harry Bullard was loudly cheered – and who would not cheer a man who had orchestrated a free day out for them! Fred Bullard added that the Company looked forward to many such outings in future years, to which more cheers came forth from the assembled employees. In the late afternoon the party departed from Yarmouth, arriving at Thorpe Station, Norwich at 10:40pm. It was never recorded when the last returnee went to bed.”
Over the years the business prospered and by the end of the century it occupied a seven-acre site, and by 1914 the company’s estate included 133 premises in Norwich. The business went on to own over 1,000 public houses. All this shows that the story of Bullards was one which ran alongside those of other main breweries in Norwich, such as Steward & Patteson, Young’s Crawshay and Youngs, Morgans which, together, played such a leading role in the life of the city.
The following is a quote from the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’, By Edward & Wilfred E Burgess and first published 1904:
“A visit to the Anchor Brewery, and an inspection of the various processes incidental to brewing, is not a light task. One has no time to visit the various maltings, for they are scattered throughout various parts of the city and county. Arriving at the brewery proper, Mr. W. J. Moore, the head foreman, conducts us up the steps to the landing stage, where the malt, just arrived from the maltings, is hoisted to the platform. The malt is next shot through hoppers into the rolling mill, where it is cleansed, crushed and otherwise treated in patent machines, previous to its appearance in the mash tun.”
In 1958 Bullards acquired their Norwich rivals Youngs, Crawshay & Youngs. Three years later they joined with Steward & Patteson to take over Morgans. At this time their position must have seemed unassailable but the two victorious chairmen made a huge mistake. Their target wasn’t Morgans’ brewery but its tied estate, and so they sold the brewery on to the national firm, Watney Mann. As part of that deal it was agreed that Watneys could sell its beers in Steward & Patteson and Bullards pubs, and soon Watneys were outselling the local brews. In the background of all this activity, Watney was purchasing Bullards’ shares, and by 1963 they had taken it over; to be followed three years later with the parent company closing the Anchor brewery. In 1972 the site was sold to a property developer and it is now the site of the appropriately named ‘Anchor Quay’ residential development.
FOOTNOTE: Someone once said that the Fat Man poster (below) that used to advertise Bullard’s beers depicted an overweight person who just might have watered the workers’ beer! There he stands in the doorway of a pub, one hand on a substantial hip, the other grasping what may have been a Bullard’s Old Winter Warmer or, let’s face it, any other of the once thriving Norwich company’s nourishing beers.
The Bullards Fat Man was a little piece of magical artwork from the brush of a young Alfred Munnings – before he went on to become one of the best loved artists. The story goes that he was on holiday at the time and The Fat Man was simply a doodle sent as a postcard to a close friend in the Bullard family in 1909. That person liked it so much that it became the company’s advertising logo until the brewery was closed by Watney Mann some sixty years later. Over the years the much-loved Fat Man became a symbol of good Norfolk ale – welcoming both regulars and visitors to Bullards pubs across the city and county.
Mr Marten, who chose not to reveal his forename in his Diary of 1825, came to Norwich for the very first time in early September of that year. His, was not so much a visit to the City, but a tour of a sizable part of Norfolk; he came with his wife, daughter and a servant. They were what could be better described today as tourists, and because Mr Marten was something as a diarist, we benefit from a unique and fresh impression of their destinations as they were at the time.
The diary describes how he began his tour from London Docks on the Thames built steam packet ‘Hero’, bound for Norfolk. They reached the port of Great Yarmouth a little over a day later, their mini-cruise probably more comfortable and enjoyable than any stage-coach journey. We are told that they stayed in Yarmouth and visited the more fashionable Gorleston. On Saturday, 10 September, Mr Marten’s party boarded yet another, but smaller, steam vessel to make their way along the river Yare, some 27 miles and a journey time of approximately 5 hours, to Norwich.
The boat arrived in the city near the Ranelagh Gardens entertainment centre, formerly the Quantrell’s Gardens; the area had been renamed after the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, London by Samuel Neech when the Norwich site had come into his hands sometime near the end of the 18th century. This area was just one part of Norwich’s Pleasure Gardens. It was a spot on the river which was also associated with a circus and, later, its future association with Pablo Fanque.
External view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens
Internal view of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens. (c) British Library
(Views of Chelsea’s 18th century Ranelagh Gardens; the inspiration for Norwich’s ‘pleasure’ garden of the same name)
Immediately following disembarcation it was probably likely that Marten and his party would have been picked up by a hotel employed vehicle and conveyed, in this instance, to the Norfolk Hotel at 25 St Giles in the city centre near the Market, and where they had been booked in for a several-day stay. The thought that the party would have been picked up made good business sense to the hotels of Norwich; certainly fourteen years later, when trains operated to and from Norwich at Thorpe (incidentally, at the very site of the once Ranelagh Gardens), the Norfolk and Bell hotels had an arrangement whereby visiting customers were conveyed to and from terminous points.
Mr Marten and his party were to take the opportunity of their stay to explore the City and all its facets, but high on their list was to attend various places of worship. The first opportunity to do this was during their first full day in Norwich, which was a Sunday. They attended morning service at the old St Mary’s Baptist Chapel near Duke Street. It seems that they were a very devout family for during the evening they attended yet another service at the Princes Street Chapel.
Clearly, two visits to a religous establishment in a week was not enough for Mr Marten, for he and his party headed for Norwich Cathedral on the Monday morning to attend the 9.45am Matins. Marten described the service as “the same as in other Cathedrals” – this comment may well suggest that he was an Anglian, but one who enjoyed visiting different places of worship. He went on to say in his diary:
“There were scarcely a dozen persons besides the ecclesiastics who officiated. The building is in fair preservation considering that it has been [in use] since the year 1096. The interior is very clean and from the magnitude and architecture presents to the eye a solemn grandeur. The Courts & inclosure and ancient houses around it are also kept in that order & have that still and quiet aspect & that appearance of retirement & comfort which is usually found around Country Cathedrals.”
Mr Marten also took a a particular interest in Meeting House buildings and attended a sermon by Mr Joseph Kinghorn, although:
“His preaching was not to us so satisfactory…….He appeared to be more the preacher than the minister or pastor. His pronounciation is very broad…….Mr Kinghorn is a thin tall old gentleman, very plain in his attire, simple in appearance, of acknowledged talents and has entered the lists in controversy with Robert Hall of Leicester on the subject of open communion which is advocated by the latter and opposed by the former.”
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1981
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
Old Meeting House, Colegate, Norwich. (c) George Plunkett 1933
(The Old Meeting House, Colgate, Norwich. Photos: (c) George Plunkett.)
On Thuesday, 13 September 1825, Marten and his family continued their tour of Norwich but found the stones with which the Norwich streets were paved very annoying; this would seem to be a strange re-action to a material that had long been widely used for laying road and pavements in many other towns and cities. Nevertheless, they prevailed and on the same day, obtained permission to:
“mount the top of the elevated castle in order to have a panoramic view of the City and the hills which surround it, but we were dissuaded on account of the wind blowing so strong that it would be difficult to stand against it”.
However, they did manage to walk round the castle to where it was “loft enough to afford a view over the houses to the distant hills.” From there they counted 23 steeples of the 36 churches which the Map of Norwich stated to be in it. The view “prolonged our stay because of the pleasure we enjoyed”.
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbinings are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
“We were then shewn the winding into warp – the subsequent Beaming – & the reeds for the weaving & were informed that a yard wide crape has in that breadth 2560 single twisted threads of silk. We then saw one of the female superintendents at her crape loom, and afterwards the turners shop where nine men were employed in preparing Bobbins etc. for the factory here & the much larger [factory] which Mr Grout is now erecting at Yarmouth. The silk used here is principally from Bengal but part was the white silk fron China.”
“Seeing a loom going in a private house as we passed we asked the woman who was weaving Norwich crape & learned that she could, by close application, weave eleven yards each day – but we omitted to ask her earnings by that work.”
Where Mr Marten and family ate and refreshed themselves between forays is not known but they kept going thoughout each day. They walked towards the north of the City until they reach its outskirts and fields beyond and “found the population lively”. They were also amazed by the number of churches:
“so abounding that the eye could scarcely fail to see two or three which ever way it turned. Many of these were flint faced and some of them with squared flints very carefully cut & nicely laid” – They even counted eleven steeples from their hotel windows.
Their stay was also to include walks through both the eastern and southern parts of the city where they saw “many very large & elegant houses.” Marten even picked up on the fact that Norwich was in the process of building a new prison at the top end of St Giles, in an area now occupied by the Roman Catholic Cathedral. One wing of the new prison was expected to open for business later that year and Marten was sufficiently interested in the site to request a visit. He went on to write:
“We were admitted to go over the whole building. The Governor’s House is in the centre and from several windows he can at all times inspect every part of the prision. The Chapel is in the Governor’s House. His pew is opposite & very close to the Pulpit which is entered from the winding stair case. The Felons are in Pews even with this Governor whose eye may be constantly on them – and the Turnkeys guard the two entrances during the whole of divine services – the Debtors are on the floor of the Chapel and thus everyone can see & hear the Preacher. We were shewn the cells for the Felons who are confined at night separately – but they have a Day Room & they have the priviledge of the open air in a yard allotted to them. Condemned Felons left for execution have other & still stronger lonesome cells which they are not permitted to leave until the hour when they are taken to the platform over the entrance gate to surrender their forfeited lives to the violated justice of their Country.”
Marten’s general impression of the City was favourable, apart of course for those streets which were paved with small pebbles and flints, making walking “uneasy to the foot and on which one unused cannot walk either steadily of comfortably.” Other than that:
“We were not accosted in any of our walks even by a single medicant [a beggar] – Everyone seemed busy and we were told by a Gentleman, a resident, that no complaints were heard and that the manufacturers and general business of the place were in thriving condition. Houses of the third and fourth rate & some even beneath these were buildings to a great extension of Norwich, a circumstance which marks many other cities beside this.”
Marten’s final comments, as he prepared his party for their departure from Norwich, was to say that their stay had been pleasant and:
“the Norfolk Hotel intitled to praise for the goodness of its provisions – the neatness of its accommodation….and attention of its conductors & servants. We were also perfectly satisfied with the reasonableness of its charges. We left the Hotel at 20 minutes before 4 o’clock in the stage for Cromer……….”
There was a time when Norwich had, along with Bristol, the honour of having a Mint. There even was a time when Norwich had an importance which was second only to that of London. There was also a time when this City had its best forgotten days, when it lost its famous old weavers and saw the break-up of textile trade. There was also a time when its transport links to the capital city were poor and stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous. That once famous ‘Punch’ magazine, in a sarcastic thrust at the slow methods of reaching East Anglia from the Metropolis, wrote at the time: “ On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.”
On one hand, there was that glorious year of 1815 when Napoleon was finally beaten at Waterloo; then, on the other hand that same year had its’ drawbacks. There were no railways, penny postage, morning papers, matches or gas, to say nothing of electric light; without a thousand and one inventions that were to give comforts to the masses, it was a time ripe for enterprise and progress. It was a time when a certain Henry Chamberlin, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, opened a business on Guildhall Hill which was to become known by the diserning as “ Chamberlin’s of Norwich,” a title that signified the hall-mark of excellence.
Henry Chamberlin (born 1777 and died 1848) never was one to entertain the selling of low quality goods; he went for the best, and the firm which he founded in 1815 never swerved from the principles of “value and reliability,” during perplexing years which saw, just like today, the rise and fall of the craze for cheapness. On this basis the Store became firmly established and grew. Then, in 1823, Henry the founder was joined by his son, Robert Chamberlin and continued to prosper. Some years later became known as Chamberlin, Sons & Co. and then quoted as a Limited Company under the title of Chamberlin & Sons, Limited. On 4 March Henry Died and was buried at Thorpe St Andrew Cemetery.
Robert took over the Company’s reigns and just like his father, not only oversaw the business, but was to occupy a variety of civic office rolls during his life. On the domestic front, he found time to have seventeen children from two marriages. Then, following his death in 1876, his son, George Chamberlin, became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have a large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons were to serve in the First World War. Throughout his life, George, just like his father and grandfather, also occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, as well as having a very active personal life – his favourate sport was shooting. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.
The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in the community at large. While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk they also help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city. Their story is told in the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’ in which members of the present Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the Chamberlin Store and factory were in their prime. The two authors had a wonderful way with words when describing the scene before them when they walked into the shop on Guildhall Hill some 114 years ago, when it had been rebuilt following the fire of 1898 which was reported in the Norwich ‘Evening News’ at the time describing the blaze as “an irreparable loss.” It went on to say:
“The blaze had started at Hurn’s ropemaking business and spread to the library. Sixty thousand volumes, many rare and valuable, were lost including the important Norton collection of foreign dictionaries. Chamberlins – the big, upmarket department store on Guildhall Hill – was also damaged in the blaze.
If the wind had been blowing in a different direction much of Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane could have gone. It was also said later that if the fire brigade – the Carrow and the Anchor brigades also helped – had had longer ladders, they would have more chance of saving the building and many of the books.
The library reopened a year later at a cost of £1.719.
But back to Edward and Wilfred Burgess’s dissertation of 1904:
“Spacious and elaborate as were the premises of Messrs. Chamberlin, Sons, & Co., prior to the year 1898, an event then occurred which was regarded at the time as most disastrous to the city but which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we refer to the destruction of the premises by fire. The fire was of a most serious character, devastating the whole of one side of Dove Street, and part of the other side. From the ashes of the old premises arose — phoenix-like — a building, compared with which, the previous establishment — extensive as it was — was quite a modest affair. The disastrous experience of the fire has resulted in elaborate preparations being made for fighting or preventing a fire in future. At the end of each floor hydrants are fixed, giving a copious supply of water, while in the immediate vicinity of each hydrant lengths of hose are placed within easy reach. The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness. From the ne entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world’s drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand. The ground floor saloon is devoted to the various retail departments under the management of Mr. George Waite, and they are the admiration of every visitor. So and agreeable tints pervade the whole place, and the lighting of the spacious area, from concave lights on either side, is perfect. Comfort and luxury are conspicuous features of the saloon, yet the space allowed to the display of goods appears to be almost unlimited. e further end of the saloon is artistically furnished with ladies waiting and reception rooms, while close by are the Fitting and costume departments. The upper floors are occupied by the counting houses and the wholesale departments; and the extensive basement, which is nothing less than a huge warehouse itself, is also utilised for the latter, especially for heavy goods.
The area of the establishment is enormous, extending as it does from Dove Street — one entire side of which it occupies — up Guildhall Hill to the other side of the square facing the public library. Bearing in mind the numerous departments, the elegance of the appointments, the care devoted to ensuring the comfort of customers, the large and varied stock, and the unremitting attention given by assistants, it is no exaggeration to say that few establishments, either in or out of London, equal “Chamberlins,” and none surpass it. The Furnishing Department is of comparatively recent origin, but it is already a very extensive business of itself. The building appropriated to this branch is the last one of the series up Guildhall Hill, and the entrance is at the corner of the Public Library Square, almost exactly facing the entrance to the ancient Guildhall. Here is to be seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths, and furniture of every description, to be found in the Eastern Counties. The managements in the capable hands of Mr. T. Morpeth, a gentleman of wide experience in carrying out furnishing contracts. The comprehensive range of this department may be judged from the fact that it embraces the manufacture of bedding, all kinds of cabinet making and upholstering — in fact everything which goes to constitute a full equipment of complete house furnishers.
Even this latter does not exhaust the variations of Chamberlins, for in Botolph Street the firm runs a modern clothing factory of large dimensions, which, has quite recently been rebuilt, and now provides cubic space of over 300,000 feet, with ample accommodation and motive power for about 1000 workers. On these premises are manufactured various kinds of clothing and shirts, but judging from appearances the main output is in uniforms and waterproof clothing for the Army, Navy, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Colonial Service, Postal Departments, Railway Companies, Police, etc. The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country, while the variety of military uniforms indicates that the clothing supply of a considerable branch of the Army is catered for here. In the pressing room, the temperature is decidedly high, but here, as in every other department of the works, the ventilating arrangements are as perfect as modern science can make them. In the cutting room are to be seen some really wonderful machines, viz., the machine cutters. Driven at a terrific speed each of these cutters, by means of a rotary knife apparently as sharp as a razor, must do more work than any dozen hand cutters. Garments are cut and shaped by the one, two, or three dozen — according to the resisting qualities of the material – at a surprising rate. In one case layers of cloth, to a thickness of three inches, are cut to a pattern drawn on the top layer, as easy as a lady would cut muslin with scissors. In another cutting and trimming room, a numbers of hand cutters are engaged shaping garments which probably were not required in such large numbers as the uniforms are.
The basements of the two buildings are very extensive and in one of them a powerful dynamo, by Laurence, Scott and Co., provides the electric light for the establishment. In the other basement, long rows of bales of material — probably scores of tons — are awaiting the handling in the dissecting and cutting rooms, and for the purpose of more easily moving these bales from floor to floor, a new lift has been erected which runs from the basement to the topmost floor. Here the preparations against fire are most complete, including an outside re-proof iron staircase, which has an outlet from every floor. Of course in works of this description the management is divided and sub divided, but the sole responsible manager for the entire Clothing Works is Mr. G. S. Barnard.
It is worthy of observation, in a review of this nature, that in re-opening the Market Place premises, a new departure was made in giving a musical treat to the public. The Blue Hungarian Band was engaged on that occasion, and the experiment proved to be so eminently successful and so generally appreciated that the precedent has since been followed on several occasions.
In closing and appreciation in which we have clearly established the right of Chamberlins, Limited to be bracketed with the “Men Who Have Made Norwich” it is interesting to note that the enormous number of persons attending a recent sale was quite unprecedented. In the first few days the rush was so great that it became absolutely necessary to keep the doors closed and customers were admitted in batches, as they could be dealt with; an authority on crowds estimating that there were at least 1,200 customers in the shop at a given’ hour on one afternoon.”
When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.
Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company’s output during the whole period of the war.
Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments. At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities’ official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.
One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.
In 1935 the post-war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men’s sports clothing under their registered brand ‘Sartella’. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.
It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They would instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers. Unfortunately, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand modernisation, different shopping habits and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.
From the days of ‘Value and Reliability’ to the present day ‘Every Little Helps‘! This says much about the seismic shift in marketing, business provision and consumer demands.
The ‘Norwich: History & Guide’ makes reference to the 25th February 1643 when the Conesford Gate in the City was blocked, as were the St Giles, Pockthorpe and St Agustine’s Gates. It was simply a precaution.
Norwich’s role during the English Civil War, (22 August 1642 to 3 September 1651), was principally to supply troops and money to the Parliamentary forces operating elsewhere in the Eastern Region. However, discussions were held about constructing several bastions against the river. The intention was probably to create a star-shaped defence on the contemporary Dutch model. There was no direct threat to the City but 150 Dragoons (mounted musketeers) were raised for Oliver Cromwell at Cambridge. The horses were at least partly seized from the properties of Royalist sympathisers in the City.
During March, more volunteers were raised for Parliament and the young men and girls of Norwich raised £240 to equip the ‘Maiden Troop’ of Cromwell’s cavalry under Captain Robert Swallow, who became the eleventh troop of Ironsides. He served in that capacity down to the absorption of the troop into Edward Whalley’s regiment of horse in the New Model Army in spring 1645, when he initially became a captain in Fairfax’s regiment of horse, but in summer 1645 he moved as captain to Whalley’s New Model regiment of horse, becoming its Major by the end of 1646. In 1659-60 Swallow briefly commanded the regiment but was removed at the Restoration.
By July all threats seemed to be lessening and the Gates were re-opened. Norwich was by no means united in its opposition to Charles I and at the end of 1643 a list was made of 432 Royalists suspects amongst the principal citizens because the City feared a subsequent attack by loyal Royalist gentry.
The Model Regiment:
Cromwell first mustered a troop of cavalry (then referred to as “horse”) at Huntingdon in Huntingdonshire, on 29 August 1642, early in the Civil War. John Desborough was quartermaster. The troop was late in being organised, and arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Edgehill, the first pitched-battle of the war. Cromwell however did witness the defeat of the Parliamentarian horse at the battle and wrote to fellow Parliamentarian leader John Hampden,
“Your troopers are most of them old decayed servingmen and tapsters; and their [the Royalists’] troopers are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons and persons of quality; do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows [as ours] will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honour and courage and resolution in them?”
It is evident that Cromwell’s answer to his own question lay in religious conviction. Early in 1643, he was given a commission as colonel and expanded his troop into a full regiment in the newly formed Army of the Eastern Association, under the command of Lord Grey of Warke and then the Earl of Manchester. By 11 September that year, he referred to them in a letter to his cousin Oliver St. John as a “lovely company”. A champion of the “godly”, Cromwell became notorious for appointing men of comparatively humble origins but stoutly-held v Puritan beliefs as officers, who would then attract men of similar background and leanings to the regiment. He wrote to the Earl of Manchester, who disagreed with this policy,
“I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else. I honour a gentleman that is so indeed.”
On 28 July 1643, the regiment took part in the Battle of Gainsborough, where Royalist cavalry were defeated. One of the troop captains, James Berry, is stated to have killed the Royalist commander, Sir Charles Cavendish, a relation of the Marquess of Newcastle (Commander-in-Chief of the Royalist forces in the North). By April, 1644, after two years of war, Cromwell’s unit had grown into a “double” regiment of no less than 14 troops. (A regiment normally had only 6 troops). Cromwell by this time was Lieutenant General of the Horse in the Parliamentarian Army of the Eastern Association, and the regiment would be routinely commanded by its Lieutenant Colonel, Cromwell’s cousin Edward Whalley. The regiment played a major part in the victory over the Royalists at the Battle of Marston Moor, where the discipline of Cromwell’s wing of horse was decisive. Where a victorious wing of Royalist cavalry scattered in search of plunder, Cromwell’s men rallied after defeating their immediate opponents, and then swept the disordered Royalist armies from the field. Captain Valentine Walton, Cromwell’s nephew, died of wounds after a cannon shot smashed his leg during the battle.
It was a different story by the time of the Second Battle of Newbury later that year. The Parliamentarian high command of Sir William Waller, the Earl of Manchester, Sir William Balfour and Cromwell decided to split their large force into two. Cromwell, the Eastern and London Association Cavalry and the Southern Association headed across the river and toward Donnington Castle in the West. The regiment was part of the first attack on the King’s western forces under Goring and Astley, but was beaten back and had to be relieved by Cromwell’s fellow commander, Sir William Balfour, and his London horse.
Template for the New Model Army: Cromwell’s double regiment was later split into two regiments, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s and Edward Whalley’s, which became the nucleus of the New Model Army‘s cavalry. Shortly before the Battle of Naseby, Cromwell was reappointed Lieutenant General of Horse in the army, and later became its commander. “Ironsides” seems to have become the term for all cavalry in the army, regardless of their origin.
Two “divisions” i.e. half-regiments of three troops each, one from each of Fairfax’s and Whalley’s regiments, under Major Christopher Bethel and Major John Desborough, mounted a remarkable charge at the Battle of Langport, where they galloped up a narrow lane and attacked the Royalist Army of Lord Goring in front, putting the entire army to flight.
Although the phrase “Ironside” suggests heavily armoured men, Cromwell’s troops were equipped in the common cavalry style of the day, termed the harquebusier, with armour limited to back- and breastplate and “pot” helmet. It does seem that they presented a uniform appearance which contrasted with that of the Cavalier horse, which became increasingly individual during the war through shortage of equipment or personal choice.
As Puritans, the Ironsides often attributed their glory in battle to God. Their religious beliefs extended to the field where they adhered to strict ethical codes. In quarters, they did not drink or gamble. They did not partake in the traditional spoils of war and did not rape, or pillage defeated opponents (although their religious zeal sometimes led them to be merciless to Catholic enemies).
So Tom Cox of The Guardian thought when he wrote the following article way back in 2011 – apparently, he enjoyed scaring himself so much at the time. Eight years have now passed and nothing in the County, we don’t suppose, has changed since then. Maybe it’s a good time to remind readers of the fruits of his efforts – unabridged, but without the advertisements and extraneous matter which can detract from the qualities of a good story. Take it away [again] Tom:
The remains of New Buckenham Castle are situated on a mound of unnervingly perfect circularity 16 miles south of Norwich, behind a moat and large, padlocked iron gate. I’ve done the six-and-half-mile walk that goes past it several times in the last few years, as it features a pretty cool donkey and, if you’re there at the right time of year, a couple of impressively macabre scarecrows, but until last week I’d never quite had time to visit the castle itself.
On my previous attempt, I’d been determined to collect the key to the 12th-century ruin – for which one must pay £2 at the petrol station down the road – but been waylaid by a nice bearded man called Roger in a local pub who wanted to tell me about his Indian wife’s cooking. Hence, last weekend, on bonfire night, as my girlfriend Gemma and I approached Castle Hill Garage, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in our way: not the gathering November gloom, not the damp, flared bottoms of my ill-chosen trousers, not the fact that my car, and any form of warmth, was three miles away.
The garage is one of those charmingly shabby ones at which Norfolk excels, harking back to the days when you still needed to say petrol pumps were “self-serve” to acknowledge they were different to the norm. The establishment’s specialty is ‘Robin Reliants’, of which a dozen or so are parked around the front of the garage. A key to a venerable ancient structure is something folklore tells us will be presented to us by a bearded mystic or, at the very least, a civic luminary, but in this case, you get it from a man in late middle age called John, with two-day stubble and oil-stained overalls, from whom you can buy some surprisingly cheap Fruit Pastilles.
I’d expected a bit of a grumble, what with it being late, but John clearly relishes his role as gatekeeper (the family who actually own the castle live over 100 miles away, so the arrangement is convenient for them, and the small fee helps for the grass to stay cut). He told Gemma and me of a conspiracy theory suggesting that New Buckenham Castle, then owned by the Knyvet family, was where the gunpowder plot was born. “Is this confirmed?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “By me.”
I’m not sure how thoroughly John believed in what he was telling us, or if he had a different castle-related story for every big date on the British calendar. Whatever the case, after five minutes he’d lost us, partly because the story we might be about to be part of was potentially more involving than the one we were being told.
It had all the hallmarks of the beginning of a tale you might find in An Anthology of Supernatural Rural Brutality: a dark night, a pair of young(ish) lovers, a haunted ruin, a couple of country types in overalls. It didn’t help that Gemma was wearing a bright red coat with the hood up and I’d not long since rewatched the film Don’t Look Now. We stood on top of the mound as night hurtled down, looking at the cobwebby remnants of the earthworks, taking in the silence, and imagining all the people who’d died here. “This would be a great place for a Grand Design house,” I said. “Good transport links, too,” said Gemma.
As we walked back along the road to the sister village of Old Buckenham in the pitch black, cars hurtling towards us around each bend, I tripped into a ditch, lucky not to break my ankle, and reflected on just how often I did this sort of thing: put myself needlessly in a remote, spooky part of Norfolk, at nightfall, often while alone. I thought back to the previous week, when I’d walked uneasily past some doggers near Whitlingham Broad, just outside Norwich, after misjudging the hour change. Or last year, when I’d been on a walk near Blythburgh in Suffolk, in tribute to the Black Dog legend of the local church, accompanied by my friend’s black spaniel, and the breaking down of the river walls had necessitated that I took a three-mile detour through spooky marsh country. In truth, I probably brought it on myself every time.
During Norfolk holidays in the 80s, as a pre-teen obsessed with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books and a rudimentary form of Dungeons And Dragons, I would wander off on my own into woodland, fighting warlocks and orcs. By the time I was an adolescent this seemed pretty stupid, but really what I spend a large amount of my leisure time doing now is a scarcely more grown-up version of the same. The difference is that instead of going sword-to-mace with goblins to win the hand of elf princesses, I’m in my own unwritten MR James story, equally as bleak and unsettling as Jonathan Miller’s phenomenal 1968 adaptation of ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’. I like the countryside, and I like scaring myself, so combining the two seems an obvious thing to do. If it were at all useful, you might call it a hobby.
The ghost stories of James, written in the early 20th century, are all about the power of suggestion, and for this reason it’s not surprising he set so many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk. Despite the fact that the area’s most famous ghost is a demon hound, its spookiness is not a gnashing, toothy one of aggressively frightening terrain. It’s a more subtle, eerie spookiness: that of a hillock filled with dead Saxons rising out of an otherwise flat landscape from behind a copse, or a mist rising off a broad with a decaying windmill in the background. Yet it feels awash with ghosts and legends in a way that, in all Britain, perhaps only the West Country can match.
Oddy, the ghost walks in Norfolk’s county seat didn’t start running until 1997. Their host, Ghostly Dave, retired four years ago, and has now been replaced by the Man in Black: a narrator with a skull-headed staff and an impressively hawkish, Victorian face. His mystique is in sharp contrast to, say, the ghost walks in Dudley, which a West Midlands-dwelling friend reliably informs me are hosted by a man simply called “Craig”. That said, The Man In Black’s blood-red business card does lose something of its aura by having an ad for ‘Richard’s Driving School’ on its flipside!
I’ve been on a ghost walk in Norwich twice now, and I can’t think of a more appropriate, more inherently Norfolk, way to spend an early winter evening. As well as the ghouls and witches paid to jump out at punters on the walk – including The Faggot Witch who will curse you with her sticks, a skull-faced man who my friend Michelle offered a tenner to stop growling at her, and the Grey Lady and Lonely Monk who lurk amidst the plague pits in the city’s Tombland district – you get the odd unexpected extra. During my first ghost walk, a local wino tagged along for a while to see what all the fuss was about, and the owner of a new Chinese restaurant stole away into a dark corner in a churchyard to make a deal with the Man in Black, allowing him to hand flyers out to that evening’s ghost walkers advertising cut-price chow mein.
Later, the Cathedral Close area – the beautiful inspiration for the unforgettable final scenes in John Gordon’s 1968 young adult horror novel The Giant Under The Snow – became a lot more chilling when a notorious local bag lady emerged out of the fog from her favourite bench behind us, especially to my friend Jenny, who had an apple thrown at her head after trying to give her spare change.
We chuckled at the atmosphere-puncturing banality of it, but there was also the possibility that this was a preview to a future age of Norfolk ghosts: an era when, just as the rotting specter of the rebel Robert Kett still sometimes hangs beside the castle in his gibbet, The Phantom Bag Lady And Her Demon Braeburn would intimidate ecclesiastical enthusiasts in the cloisters and The Ghoulish Man Of The Pumps would be condemned to drive for eternity in circles around Old Buckenham in his Robin Reliant, searching for his key and the pesky couple who bent it slightly in the lock while trying to get his gate shut.
The first fact to reveal about Pablo Fanque is that he was born in Norwich in the County of Norfolk. The second, and probably the more important, is the fact that he not only became a brilliant equestrian performer, but famous as the first non-white British circus owner in Britain and the most popular circus proprietor in Victorian Britain during a 30-year golden period of circus entertainment. His life’s story starts in Norwich, and it is this beginning on which the City lays its own claim to this showman’s name and fame.
Norwich boasts the fact that Pablo Fanque, baptised William Darby, was born in the City; the date of his birth was 30th March 1810. He died on 4th May 1871 in Stockport, Lancashire, having left Norwich as a teenager, never to return.
Fast forward to 2010; this was the year when Norwich first expressed its pride in being associated with the gentleman in the form of a commemorative blue plaque placed on the wall of the John Lewis department store on All Saints Green. Its position was the nearest the authorities could get to the house in Ber Street where Fanque lived his earlier years. Then, in 2018 a student accommodation block was opened in the Norwich, opposite the John Lewis Store and named ‘Pablo Fanque House’.
Much of Pablo Fanque’s early life in Norwich is unknown and speculative. What is known comes from the City’s church records which state, quite clearly, that he was born in 1810. He was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) in Norwich. When Fanque married in 1848, he entered on his marriage certificate “butler” for his late father’s occupation. A Dr. John Turner, in a biography, speculated that Fanque’s father “was Indian-born and had been brought to Norwich and trained as a house servant.” Other accounts have also speculated that Fanque was orphaned at a young age, and even born in a workhouse to a family with seven children.
Over the years, biographers have also disputed Fanque’s date of birth and it was Dr John Turner, again, who popularised the belief that Fanque was born in 1796, presumably based on the 14 May 1871 ‘Era’ newspaper which recorded that Fanque’s coffin bore the inscription; “AGED 75 YEARS”. Dr Turner may also have been influenced by the detail on Fanque’s gravestone, located at the base of his late wife Susannah Darby’s grave in Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds (now St George’s Field) which reads; “Also the above named William Darby Pablo Fanque who died May 4th 1871 Aged 75 Years“.
But those who support the belief that Fanque was born earlier than 1810 should maybe take note of certain facts. Firstly, his age was recorded in the 1841, 1851 and 1871 Census’s of England as being born in 1810 – surely, not all three would be incorrect! Then, a birth register at St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich also records the birth of a ‘William’ to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. This is the same birth year as that on Norwich’s blue plaque (above).
It is particularly worth noting the marriage record of a John Darby to Mary Stamp on 27 March 1791 at St. Stephen’s, Norwich, and the records of their children; these include a John Richard on 4 Jul 1792, Robert on 27 Jul 1794, William on 28 Feb 1796, Mary Elizabeth on 18 Mar 1798, and William (again!) on 30 March 1810. Crucially, the family also had two burial records, a William on 30 April 1797 and Mary Elizabeth on 10 Feb 1801. Now, Genealogists worth their salt would know that it was quite common in families that suffered infant mortalities in the past for a later child to be given the same name as a sibling who had previously died. This was particularly true where parents wished to maintain a family name in perpetuity. These facts strongly indicate that our subject, William, (Pablo Fanque) was indeed born in 1810 – following the earlier William who had died in 1797.
William Darby became apprenticed to the circus proprietor, William Batty, around 1820, when he was about ten years old and in circumstances that biographers can only dream up. Certainly, Darby picked up the ‘bug’ of being a circus entertainer in Norwich and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring there on December 26, 1821. He was billed as “Young Darby”; his acts including equestrian stunts and rope walking. Then, as soon as he had grown and developed into a young adult with the full range of skills that he was to became famous for, William Darby left Norwich for good and toured extensively.
It was around this period when he changed his name to his professional “Pablo Fanque” identity, and in 1841, he began business on his own account, with two horses, and has assembled a fine stud of horses and ponies at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire…. “in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” Thus started the 30 year period when Fanque ran his own successful circus, only sometimes involving partnerships with others where these were necessary. During this time he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now “Greater Manchester.”
Families flocked to his shows in their thousands, lured by exciting poster and newspaper advertisements, street parades and the stories told by those who had been held spellbound by what they had experienced. Fanque was extremely adept at conjuring together new ‘exotic’ names, acts and historical extravaganzas, which could transport poor people out of what many experienced as drab, hardworking lives into a world of imagination, colour, dangerous feats of courage, expertise and sheer fun! His shows appealed equally to those of the higher classes.
One reason for Fanque’s success, one that often goes unremarked in circus histories, was his keen appreciation of the importance of advertising. Among the advantages that his circus enjoyed over its numerous rivals was that it enjoyed the services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900. Fanque seems to have been among the first to recognise Sheldon’s genius, hiring him when he was just 17. Sheldon spent the next three years as Fanque’s advance man, advertising the imminent arrival of the circus as it moved from town to town.
In addition to such advertising, Fanque would organise a spectacular parade to announce his arrival in town. In some towns he would drive ‘Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’. He was also known to drive fourteen horses in hand through the streets in some places.
Even serious churchgoers sought enjoyment from a Fanque circus, whilst risking chastisement from some quarters. It was in 1843, when clergy in Burnley were criticised in the Blackburn Mercury for attending performances of Fanque’s circus. This prompted one reader to respond thus:
“Ministers of religion, of all denominations, in other towns, have attended Mr. Pablo Fanque’s circus. Such is his character for probity and respectability, that wherever he has been once he can go again; aye and receive the countenance and support of the wise and virtuous of all classes of society. I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness.”
It was 1847 when William Darby made his highly successful London debut under his professional name “Pablo Fanque”.
Describing Fanque and his performance at that debut, The Illustrated London News wrote:
“Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed … we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled … Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”
This same edition of The Illustrated London News also provided an example of how contemporaries regarded Fanque’s performance:
“This extraordinary feat of the manège has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” –
Fanque was also described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian. It was the same newspaper, reporting on another performance at London’s Astleys Amphitheater, that filled in many more biographical details of Fanque:
“… Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astleys Amphitheater” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling etc; and is also considered a very good equestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time before rejoining Mr. Batty.”
The Beneficial Nature of Mr Fanque: The “Benefit for Mr. Kite”, a title later to be immortalised by the 20th century’s musical Group ‘The Beatles’, was one of many benefit shows that Pablo Fanque held for performers in his own circus, for others in the profession who had no regular retirement or health benefits, and for community organisations. Fanque was, in fact, a member of the Order of Ancient Shepherds, a fraternal organisation affiliated with the Freemasons. The Order assisted families in times of illness or death with burial costs and other expenses. For example, an 1845 show in Blackburn benefitted the Blackburn Mechanics Institution and the Independent Order of Odd-fellows, offering a bonus to the Widows and Orphans Fund. Fanque held a similar benefit in Bury the following year.
Then in 1857 and 1858, Fanque was again active, holding at least two benefits among other performances. In 1857, in Bradford, he held a benefit for the family of the late Tom Barry, a clown. Brenda Assael, in The Circus and Victorian Society, writes that in March 1857:
“Pablo Fanque extended the hand of friendship to Barry’s widow and held a benefit in her husband’s name at his Allied Circus in Bradford. Using the Era offices to transmit the money he earned from this event, Fanque enclosed 10 pounds worth of ‘post office orders…being the profits of the benefit. I should have been better pleased had it been more, but this was the close of a very dull season.” On 24 October 1858, The Herald of Scotland reported: “IN GLASGOW, ‘Pablo Fanque’s Cirrque Nationale’ offered ‘A Masonic Benefit.”
An 1846 a Bolton newspaper story epitomised the public’s high regard for Fanque in the communities he visited on account of his beneficence:
“Several of the members of the “Widows and Orphans Fund” presented to Mr. Pablo Fanque a written testimonial, mounted in an elegant gilt frame……..Mr. Pablo on entering the room was received with due respect. Mr. Fletcher presented an address……..which concluded:……..’and when the hoary hand of age should cease to wave over your head, at a good old age, may you sink into the grave regretted, and your name and acts of benevolence be remembered by future generations.”
Fanque’s Partnership with W. F. Wallett: During the 1840s and 1850s, Fanque was close friends with the clown W. F. Wallett, who performed in his circus. Wallett also managed Fanque’s circus for a time. Wallett frequently promoted himself as “the Queen’s Jester”, having performed once before Queen Victoria in 1844 at Windsor Castle. He appeared regularly with Fanque’s circus and many towns throughout the north. It was during a ‘benefit’ being held for Wallett in the amphitheatre, Leeds when a balcony collapsed, killing Fanque’s wife; see below.
Throughout his 1870 autobiography, Wallett shares several amusing anecdotes about his work and friendship with Fanque, including the following about their 1859 engagement in Glasgow:
“ The season was a succession of triumphs. One of the principal attractions was a little Irishman whom I engaged in Dublin, who rejoiced in the name of Vilderini, one of the best posture masters the theatrical world ever produced. I engaged him for three months at a liberal salary, on the express understanding that I should shave his head, and convert him into a Chinaman. For which nationality his small eyes, pug nose, high cheek bones, and heavy mouth admirably adapted him. So his head was shaved, all but a small tuft on the top, to which a saddler with waxed twine firmly attached his celestial pig-tail. His eyebrows were shaved off, and his face, neck, and head dyed after the most admired Chinese complexion. Thus metamorphosed, he was announced on the walls as KI HI CHIN FAN FOO (Man-Spider-leg mortal).”
We had about twenty supernumeraries and the whole equestrian company in Chinese costume. Variegated lanterns, gongs, drums, and cymbals ushered the distinguished Chinaman into the ring, to give his wonderful entertainment. The effect was astonishing, and its success extraordinary. In fact the entire get-up was so well carried out that it occasioned us some annoyance. For there were two rival tea merchants in Glasgow at the time, and each of them had engaged a genuine Chinaman as touter at his door. Every night, as soon as they could escape from their groceries, they came to the circus to solicit an interview with their compatriot. After being denied many nights in succession, they peremptorily demanded to see him. Being again refused, they determined to move for the writ of habeas corpus. That is to say, they applied to the magistrate stating they believed their countryman to be deprived of his liberty except during the time of his performance. We were then compelled to produce our celestial actor, who proved to the satisfaction of the worthy magistrate that he was a free Irishman from Tipperary.”
Marriage and Family: Fanque married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of whom was named Lionel. It was on 18th March 1848 when his wife died in Leeds at a ‘Benefit’ performance for Fanque’s friend, W F Wallett, clown. Their son was performing a tightrope act before a large crowd at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft. The 600 people seated in the gallery fell with its collapse, but Susannah Darby was the only fatality when heavy planks hit her on the back of the head. Reportedly, Fanque sought medical attention for his wife at the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead. Years later a 4 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Intelligencer recalled the incident, while announcing the return of Pablo Fanque’s Circus to the town:
“His last visit, preceding the present one, was unfortunately attended by a very melancholy accident. On that occasion he occupied a circus in King Charles’s Croft and part of the building gave way during the time it was occupied by a crowded audience. Several persons were more or less injured by the fall of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak, and Mrs Darby, the wife of the proprietor, was killed. This event, which occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848, excited much sympathy throughout the borough. A neat monument with an impressive inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby, in the Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.”
It is clear that widower Fanque did not waste any time in finding another wife for in June 1848, he married an Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Elizabeth was 22 years old and was to deliver two more sons to Fanque, George (1854) and Edward Charles “Ted” (1855). Both sons were to join the circus with Ted Pablo achieving acclaim as a boxer, and would tour Australia in that profession. A daughter, Caroline died at the age of 1 year and 4 months and was buried in the same plot as was for Susannah and William.
In Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh there also stands a tombstone dedicated to the memory of two others of Elizabeth and Fanque’s children —William Batty Patrick Darby (13 months) and Elizabeth Darby (3 years). Both died in 1852 but Elizabeth, the younger, died in Tuam, Ireland. This was at a time, in the early 1850’s, when Fanque was performing regularly in Edinburgh. The inscription on the children’s tombstone is thus:
“Sacred to the Memory of
William Batty Patrick Darby son of
William and Elizabeth Darby
Professionally known as Pablo Fanque
who died 1st February 1852, Aged 13 Months
Also of Elizabeth, their Daughter
who died at Tuam Ireland 30th Oct. 1852,
Aged 3 years and 4 months”
It is left to the 1861 census records to reveal that Fanque was living with a woman named Sarah, aged 25, who was described as his wife! But there again, the 1871 census records show him living again with his wife Elizabeth and his two sons, in Stockport.
The successful performance years and the money enjoyed by Fanque were destined not to last beyond the 1860’s. Certainly within a couple of years of his death, Fanque was ‘insolvent’, living in a room in the Britannia Inn, 22 Churchgate, Stockport, with his wife and two sons – George and Ted Pablo. There Fanque died of bronchitis on 4 May 1871. It was a sad end for such an extraordinary man, who rose from humble beginnings in Norwich to reach the top of his profession and in a career that lasted fifty years.
Despite the apparent poor financial circumstances of his last few years, Pablo Fanque’s funeral was a spectacular occasion. One may think that, having been a member of a charitable ‘Order’ and someone who often raised money for others, help came forward to see him on his way. Certainly, his body was brought from Stockport by train and a great procession accompanied him to his resting place, watched by several thousand people. The hearse was preceded by a band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul and was followed by Pablo’s favourite horse, ‘Wallett, – partially draped in mourning trappings and led by a groom’, four mourning coaches, and several cabs and private vehicles. Pablo was buried with his first wife in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, Leeds. Ahead of the funeral procession to the cemetery was a band playing the “Dead March”. Fanque’s favourite horse followed, along with four coaches and mourners. Fanque was buried next to his first wife Susannah Darby. The Cemetery is now named St. George’s Field and part of the University of Leeds campus. While the remains of many of the 100,000 graves and monuments have been relocated, the monument that Fanque erected in his wife’s memory, and a smaller modest monument in his memory still stands.
While some contemporary reports did not refer to Fanque’s African ancestry, other reports noted that he was “a man of colour“, or “a coloured gentleman”, or “an artiste of colour.” These suggest he was of mixed race with partial European ancestry as well. Thirty years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, Reverend Thomas Horne, wrote:
“In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”
Thomas Horne was commenting on Fanque’s success in Victorian England despite being of mixed race.
For all the charitable qualities possessed by Fanque, he was far from perfect. Apart from the apparent eye he seemed to have for the ladies, there was a less savoury side to him that should not be forgotten if a sense of balance is to be maintained.
Fanque, at best, seemed to have also been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked a James Henderson, not the J. Henderson on the playbill by the way! James Henderson was an employee who, although taking Fanque to court, the matter was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).
Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28. Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)
However, a chronic problem with Fanque was that he was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court but by October 1858 Fanque had been made bankrupt and in June 1859 was refused protection from bankruptcy, owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that
“the transactions with Battye……..were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion………nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”.
However, a charge of perjury was more serious for it was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)
Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”. – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.) In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.
There you have it! – the ‘not so complete tale’ of Pablo Fanque’s life. However, like with most lives and events legacies remain. In Pablo Fanque’s case, his name was almost forgotten, that is until it became immortalised in the mid part of the 20th century, on the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’. The words of that song had been lifted by John Lennon from an advertising poster for Fanque’s Royal Circus in Rochdale, in 1843, which Lennon had spotted in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent:
“For the benefit of Mr. Kite/There will be a show tonight on trampoline/ The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair – what a scene/ Over men and horses, hoops and garters/ Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!/ In this way Mr. K will challenge the world!”
Lennon bought the poster while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple Records employee, recalled:
“There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!”
The title “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken verbatim from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845. As for “Mr. J. Henderson”, he was John Henderson, a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown. While the poster made no mention of “Hendersons” plural, as Lennon sings, John Henderson did perform with his wife Agnes, the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons performed throughout Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s.