Had World War Two not happened then we may never have heard of him. But it did happen and for a short while his name hit the headlines thanks to the investigative skills of the local newspapers. The local press built a story on the unselfish nature, courage and deeds of this lad and the award that he sunsequently received from a King.
The lad’s name was John Grix, was born in 1927 and living with his parents at 79 City Road, Norwich at the time of the conflict. As an aside, his grandfather was William Grix who once ran a restaurant in the city. John was one of five children and when of age attended St Mark’s Senior Boys School on Hall Road in Lakenham. This was a 19th century-built school, erected in 1897 at a cost of £3,000; its main benefactor and instigator at the time was the Vicar of St Marks, the Reverend Prior Whalley. The Reverend was said to have contributed £1,000 of his own money to the building fund and also provided the entire cost of the school furnishings, estimated to have been £130. He apparently died a poor man but helped establish a school where the ethos prepared many of its pupils who later went on to fight in the First World War of 1914-18; plaques dedicated to some of them in the local church bear witness. Amongst those heroes, and with his own memorial in the city centre, was a Sidney Day who won the Victorious Cross.
From St Mark’s, John Grix moved on to the Technical School, whilst also a chorister at St Peter Mancroft Church and a scout leader attached to that church. Additionally, he applied to join the Civil Defence Messenger Service (SDMS), operational because of the War. John’s application in this respect may well have come about because, during World War II, Boy Scouts in Britain were called upon to serve as volunteers in civil defence. It was believed at the time that Scouts, due to their training and qualifications, would be ideal, stressing that during an emergency, means of communications could be disrupted and that written messages might be the only means of communication.
It has been said that the boys in the Civil Defence Messenger Service never received the credit that they undoubtedly deserved, at a time when they risked their young lives, racing across the city and suburbs on their cycles, past burning buildings and falling masonry to deliver vital messages. These riders had to operate with two-wheeled machines which often had to function with flat tyres, caused by strewn glass and debris; as bombs rained down, such riders were regularly thrown off. Those on the front line, such as the firemen and police officers who fought to put the fires and control the civil population, often relied and acted upon the vital information which was delivered to them by the members of the messenger service.
Then there was the feeling that no-one would ever know the exact number of lives the CDMS helped save during the Baedeker raids of April 1942, but it was established that more than 200 men, women and children died over two nights in that April and that many more lost their homes. As the movement grew, women also played their part, motor-cycles arrived and its headquarters were relocated at Chapel Field East. In total, there was said to be around 200 boys and 30 girls who were members of the Civil Defence Messenger Service in Norwich. It was an organisation where officialdom had decreed that the lads so employed must be aged between 16 and 18; but, for the quiet and modest John Grix, clearly keen to join and ‘do his bit’, he quickly invented another birthday which placed him in the 16-year-old bracket – he was readily accepted!
Pamela Brooks wrote in her book ‘Heroes, Villains and Victims of Norwich’ about John Grix:
“His actions in Norwich during the Blitz were incredibly brave, particularly as he had fibbed about his age so that he could become a member of the Civil Defence; he was only 15 at the time. As a member, as the air-raid sirens sounded and people took cover, Grix rode off on his bicycle to the report centre to await orders. He took messages to the firemen, even though the incendiary bombs were falling around him. On one occasion he was passing a factory when acid was sprayed from the windows and burned his hands; he didn’t tell anyone he was hurt and continued taking messages instead. And, he didn’t stop when the air raid was over; he helped rescuers among the ruins. He slept overnight at the report centre and was out again on the second night of the raid – he kept taking messages, even though he was blown off his bike five times.”
Whether one should believe that it was the local newspaper which told John Grix that he was in line to receive an award, or whether it was by way of a formal letter telling him that he was going to received the British Empire Medal (BEM), is not important. What was important was the fact that by being told by the Regional Commissioner, Will Spens, that he, John Grix, had acted ‘with courage and determination’ the way was being cleared for King George VI, during his surprise visit to Norwich in October 1942 when he referred to the feeling that ‘all these messengers should be remembered and applauded’. In particular, he spoke to John Grix and added his own congratulations, plus the comment “I understand you are only 15”. The wool had not been pulled over the eyes of the authorities!
John Grix could not serve his country in the armed services for several reasons, they included his true age, the injuries he received while serving in the CDMS, plus the unfortunate circumstances of losing one of his lungs. Instead, he went on to work at Laurence Scott & Electromotors for most of his remaining life, interrupted only by a period when he and his brother ran the Lings hardware shop in White Lion Street of the city. He married, and with his wife had two sons, Stephen and Ian. John Grix died in 1990 at the age of just 63 years.
The Secret Garden is well hidden, and so is the commemorative stone which sits in a dark niche immediately to the left of the entrance gate to the garden.
The late photographer and historian of Norwich, George Plunkett, stated that: “This rather secluded corner adjacent to the Adam and Eve public house was the location of the Meeting House or Tabernacle.” It was a plain little red-brick building with pantiled roof and a double row of sash windows, opened by Mr Whitefield on 14 April 1753 and leased to John Wesley from 1758 to 1764 – see below. Stanley Wearing in ‘Georgian Norwich and its Builders’ considered the Meeting House to have been the first building in Norwich with which the locally famous architect Thomas Ivory was known to be connected.
The person behind the existence of the Meeting House had been a Calvinistic Methodist by the title and name of Reverend James Wheatley. He, prior to his moving permanently to Norwich in 1750, had been preaching in the city at various places including an older ‘Tabernacle’ set up in a house on Scoles Green in Nowich. Unfortunately, Wheatley’s ideas were not generally well received and frequent riotous scenes occurred, resulting in his molestation to such an extent that on more than one occasion ‘the poor creature was half dead, not able to walk alone, and in a most terrible condition’, to quote one eye-witness. It would appear that such scenes and experiences left him totally undeterred for eventually he was able to purchase the land, of which we speak, for the building of the Meeting House, together with an adjoining three-storeyed dwelling house.”
It was in much earlier days, on 23 December 1737 to be exact, that John Wesley (1703–1791) and the founder of Methodism, disapproved of Wheatley’s reputation. It was at the time when Wheatley had invited Wesley to preach at an earlier ‘Tabernacle’ – possibly the one at Scoles Green. According to Wesley: “James Wheatley now repeated his offer of the Tabernacle. But I was in no haste. I wanted to consult my friends, and consider the thing thoroughly.” Eventually, however, Wesley consented:
“I went up and preached to a large congregation without any let or hindrance.” On the Sunday, “the Tabernacle was thoroughly filled, and mostly with quiet hearers. I saw none who behaved amiss but two soldiers, who struck some that desired them to be silent. But they were seized and carried to the commanding officer, who ordered them to be soundly whipped.” The following day he preached, he thought, to good effect, “Stony hearts were broke; many mourners comforted; many believers strengthened. Prejudice vanished away; a few only kept their fierceness till the afternoon.”
But, Norwich was suspicious of Wesley and he, in turn, thought of the city: “her people seemed fickle, perverse, unstable as water”. Then, in 1758, five years after the Meeting House had been built and also the time when Wesley was leasing the Meeting House, he wrote, “It seems the time is come when our labour even in Norwich, will not be in vain”.
Fast forward again to George Plunkett who, apart from photographing the Meeting House in the 20th century, had also seen inside before the building which was to be demolished in 1953: “the Tabernacle was furnished with handsome mahogany seating and a beautiful pulpit”.
But it was back in 1775 that the building was sold to the Countess of Huntingdon; she set up a trust to appoint ministers “whose preaching and sentiments [were] according to the articles and homilies of the Church of England”. Disused by the 1930s, it was then acquired by the Eastern Gas Board, whose works adjoined to the north, and was pulled down early in 1953, the year of its bicentenary. Now, in its place, is Norwich’s ‘Secret Garden.
On 11 December 1895 the journalist, James Hooper, wrote “Our way to Catton, which is some two miles nearer the North Pole than Norwich is, we are told ‘a delightful suburban village’. He went on to recount numerous theories on the origins of ‘Catton’ but in the end concluded that ‘there is little doubt that Catton was so named from the common cat.’ This, he believed, was substantiated by ‘many more cat observations and a visit to the church.’
Some one hundred years or so later, Ray Jones of the Old Catton Society placed far more substance on the village’s feline friend and its origins. His approach was to unravel and document the mysteries of the origins of this cat and how it became celebrated as part of the village sign. His investigations established the many lives that this sign subsequently had – which included the cat itself, the barrel on which the cat sits; plus every other part of the village sign in fact. However, the author has not, as yet, established where the cat disappeared to at various times throughout its history – especially during the Second World War! Neither has he yet discovered how many ‘Catton Cats’ have disappeared and not been seen ever again; or, which parts of the country (or world) the cat has been seen in his travels. One thing is certain; the Old Catton village sign, with a cat atop a barrel, is a symbol which must be familiar to many people of Norfolk, and indeed further afield. Its beginnings, however, pre-date the village sign by some 400 years. From a variety of Old Catton Council minutes, press reports and parish talk, Ray went on to compile what must be a better than excellent account of the cat’s history as one could reasonably expect. Here is a resume’ of his endeavours.
The rebus of a wild cat on a barrel was first recorded as the sign of Prior Robert Bronde (also known as Robert de Catton), the penultimate Prior of Catton before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. Historical sources record that his heraldic arms included “an ounce or cat of mountain.” and were included in stained glass placed in the windows of St Margaret’s church by Bronde himself. In addition, the Cat and Barrel rebus is also found in a beautiful section of stained glass situated in the south window of St Margaret’s church; this particular glass was installed by its then Vicar the Revd. Richard Hart in 1850.
There is also the original Tudor doorway on the east front of the Manor House in Church Street, Catton, which is also surmounted by a carving of a ‘cat’ and a ‘tun’ (barrel) rebus in the spandrels of its moulded bridging beams which by the early 17th century were already old fashioned. But, the most obvious and well-known manifestation of the device is to be found in the ‘cat’ and ‘tun’ reliefs which were carved in the door frame over the south door of the Manor House in 1891. This work is a well-executed copy of the Tudor carving situated over the Manor’s east door mentioned above; the person responsible is considered to be James Minns, a well-known Norwich wood carver often associated with works by Norwich architects George Skipper (1856-1948) and Edward Boardman. A footnote on plans for Boardman’s remodelling of the Manor House in 1891 names the Minns family as carvers.
Then in 1902, to celebrate the Coronation of King Edward VII, the Buxton family of Catton Hall gave a commemorative mug, made by the famous Doulton pottery, to every household in the village: the jug featured a cat in relief on one side and a barrel on the other. Several are still held in private ownership in the village. All the instances of the cat’s past existence are the forerunners of the present well-known village sign; the originals are a happy mix of intent and coincidence.
It was in March 1936 when the Parish Council first asked parishioners for their suggestions for commemorating the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, which would be held later that year. None were received immediately, and it was not until later in 1936 when a Mr Fred Gough of Crome House, Catton entered the scene; he owned the Norwich Paper and Cardboard Co. Mr Gough wrote to the Parish Council offering to erect a village sign which would represent the “Cat” and the “Tun”. The sign, similar to that erected at Swaffham, would stand on the ‘Village Green’ at the junction of Church Street and St Faiths Road; it was thought that this would preserve the small island there. Mr Gough’s offer was, in principle, accepted by the Council, along with a statement that the matter would be passed up to the St Faiths RDC.
It was the case that certainly by the November of 1936 no suggestions had been forthcoming from parishioners as to commemorating the forthcoming coronation; this being the case, the village’s deliberations on the matter were postponed a further three months, to February 1937; this to allow time to see what celebrations other Norfolk villages were planning. Eventually, the two interests of village sign and a suitable commemoration to celebrate King George VI’s Coronation merged. A new village sign was duly unveiled in 1937 by Mr Gough’s son in the presence of the Vicar, the Revd McCready, and formally handed over to the Chairman of Old Catton Parish Council. A large crowd of councillors and parishioners gathered for the occasion.
1. The unveiling of the Village Sign in 1937
2. The unveiling of the Village Sign in 1937.
3. The unveiling of the Village Sign in 1937.
At the time of the 1937 unveiling, the identity of the designer and maker of the sign was not known – seventy-nine years later it was! Early in 2016, an email was received from a John Hennings of Droitwich in which it said:
“It is told to me that the sign was designed by Bernard Nicholson (my Grandfather) he was the Architect for Bullard’s Brewery and I was always told that his idea was to place a cat on to a model of a “tun”. I have, what I was told as being the original Alabaster cat used to model the carved version.”
1. John Hennings with the 1937 prototype cat
2. The 1937 prototype cat.
From this message it became obvious that John Henning’s grandfather was none other than the Catton Parish Council Chairman present at the 1937 unveiling ceremony. One further delight to emerge from John Henning’s email was that he had in his possession an alabaster cat which was said to have been the model for the cat on the barrel. A commercial post-card published in 1938 illustrates the sign perfectly, showing scrolled iron-work under the top pedestal, and a vertical in inscription which read, “G.R.- TO COMMEMORATE THE CORONATION OF KING GEORGE VI ON 18TH MAY 1937”. Neither of these two features appear to have survived beyond the 1940s.
In Oct 1937 it was noted in the Parish Council minutes that under Section 268 (I) of the Local Govt. Act 1933, the Council were empowered to have reasonable expenses for the upkeep of the Village Sign presented by Mr F Gough and who, surprisingly enough, arranged for the sign to be renovated in 1938. No reason was given for the ‘remedial’ work on such a new feature, but the varnish was hardly dry before a remarkable series of feline adventures began. World War II intervened and across the nation signposts were taken down to confuse the enemy. It was in this way that the Officer’s Mess at RAF Horsham St Faiths, nearby, became the home of the sign for the duration of hostilities. The council minutes for August 1940 recorded: –
“The sign having been removed by request of the local police officer and temporarily placed in front of the Officers’ Mess R.A.F. Fifers Lane by request of the C.O. It was resolved on proposition of Mr Sabberton seconded by Mr Booty that the Commanding Officer should give the Council a written receipt for the sign on the understanding that it should be returned in good order to the former site on conclusion of hostilities.”
It seemed unclear to most in the parish what benefit the minor relocation of the sign would have in deceiving the enemy should they ever arrive, but clearly the move was very popular with the RAF as the following letter of 17 August 1940 (on R/H side) to the Parish Clerk demonstrated: –
In the final years of the war American Liberator aircraft were based at RAF Horsham St Faiths and US servicemen were clearly taken by the ‘cute’ sign on their doorstep. The following photograph shows Capt. Maurice Speer standing beside the sign in front of the Officers’ Mess.
Events during the war are shrouded in mystery but rumour had it at the time that the cat took part in a bombing raid over Germany. As the threat of German invasion waned the calls for the sign to be returned to its original home began. The Parish minutes for April 1944 recorded that the sign be brought back to its old position in the village, but it was not until the following April of 1945 that the Clerk approached the Air Ministry regarding the restoration of the sign. On 14 June 1945 the RAF responded:-
“Old Catton Village Sign
Receipt is acknowledged of your letter of the 11th inst., regarding the collection of the Old Catton village sign which is at present situated on front of the Officers’ Mess.
The Senior Works Officer raises no objection to the removal of the sign, provided no expense is incurred by the Air Ministry, but I regret to inform you that the cat is missing.
The matter has been taken up with the Unit Executive Officer, who assures me that no effort will be spared in endeavouring to trace the cat, and it is hoped that steps already taken will result in its location and return.
This matter is sincerely regretted, both by myself and the Unit.
Clerk of Works”
Four days later another letter was received: –
“Old Catton Village Sign
With reference to my letter of the 14th inst., I have pleasure in informing you that the cat has been traced and is now held in safe custody.
I should be glad if your representative would call at this office when he comes to remove the sign from the Officers’ Mess; the cat will then be handed over to him.
Clerk of Works”
In June 1946 the Council accepted Mr Southgate’s tender for re-erection of the sign. Materials were evidently difficult to obtain in the post-war economy, but the work was finally completed by the end of the year, and the sign stood again at its original home. There then began a long period of mixed fortunes.
In February 1949 the parish clerk reported the removal of the cat by RAF auxiliary merrymakers. Two months later, thanks to the local and RAF Constabulary, it was returned from Stockton-on Tees. The re-installation was undertaken by an RAF NCO but the sign was cleaned up at Parish expense. A charge of 25 shillings was made and councillor Mr English took steps to obtain restitution from the Commanding Officer of the auxiliary unit at Stockton on Tees; whilst in a separate letter, expressed the appreciation of the Parish Council to the Station Commander at Horsham St Faiths. Then in September 1952 the cat again vanished – apparently without trace! Fishponds appeared to be a popular choice for searching, and Bristol was mentioned as a possible fruitful ground of enquiry. Mr English of the Council promised to convey this information to the police.
Coincidently and quite out of the blue it seems, an offer to the Parish Council was received in 1953 from a Mr Wolfgang Klinge who was Danish. Despite having returned to his native Denmark, he offered to replace the cat in recognition of the happy years he had spent in Old Catton, having worked for Bush Builders at Hellesdon. His offer was ‘enthusiastically accepted on behalf of the Council’ and the Clerk was instructed to write to Mr Klinge ‘expressing the warm appreciation of the Council.’ However, the matter thereafter was far from being as straightforward as one would want.
Throughout the following year there were various reports which indicated ‘that there were frustrating delays in the making of a new cat.’; and Mr Klinge was expressing disappointment that nothing was being done, particularly as he had paid for the work before leaving Norwich. Then, in February 1954 Mr Klinge informed the Parish Council that he proposed to get the cat made in Denmark. In response, the Clerk was instructed to investigate the cost of a plaque pending the arrival of the cat. This plaque would note the gift of the original sign by Fred Gough in 1936, correctly reflecting the year when the idea of a cat on a barrel sign was born. A second plaque would acknowledge the generous gift of a restored version by Wolfgang Klinge. Keen to publicise the replacement, the Clerk of the Council undertook to supply a paragraph to the Press and Parish Magazine when the job was completed. In the meantime, in the June of 1954 to be exact, RAF personnel were seen trying, but failing, to remove the barrel. The new cat was finally posted to England and erected in September 1954.
Two months later, in November, a very interesting development took place in which the Parish Clerk received a letter from the Commanding Officer of RAF Horsham St Faiths with intelligence that the ‘cat’ might be found adorning a street sign in Chicago. A letter to the mayor of Chicago produced an inscrutable reply, thanking the village for their hospitality to the USAF during the war, but made no mention of the sign. This was followed in April 1955 with a suggestion that the cat had also been sighted in Orkney – or was it Shetland!
Back in Old Catton the life of Klinge’s cat was very short-lived for, on 19 April 1955, The Eastern Evening News reported that both the cat and barrel had been wrenched off the post the previous night. A Melvyn Johnson reported that the barrel had been found on farmland (now Ives Road), next to the vicarage garden, which was then at the junction of Fifer’s Lane with St Faiths Road – there was no sign of the cat. A further cat was generously donated by Wolfgang Klinge, and the Parish minutes for January 1956 duly record the arrival of a new teak cat from Denmark.
The sign again suffered damage in 1971. On Sunday, 12 June at 1.30 a.m. two men were seen trying to remove the cat; they were seen off but not before leaving three saw cuts. The barrel was damaged beyond repair and a new one had to be made.
Then a major change took place in 1972 when, for traffic reasons, the whole sign was moved from the busy Church Street junction. It had originally been intended to place it by the new school extension in Church Street, but the wide grass verge created by the development of Parkside Drive was finally chosen and the sign became a dramatic village centre feature opposite the church.
In June 1976, vandals struck again when the whole sign was laid flat. This prompted a complete renovation which was carried out in the workshops of Johnsons Joinery of Hellesdon at their expense, and unveiled by [Yorkshire born] parish council chairman Bill Catton at a ceremony on 13 November 1976. A wooden shield presented to Johnsons employees records their part in the restoration.
The latter quarter of the 20th century seems to have been incident free, and the only reference to the cat during this period was that it had not been forgotten in the USA; a fact established by village resident, Colin Green, in the early 1990s. He was on a visit to the ship Queen Mary, at her final resting place in Long Beach, when he saw a photograph and reference to St Faiths displayed on the wall of one of the great liner’s public corridors. Beyond that snippet nothing, except that by the end of the 20th century the village sign’s timber post was deemed to have decayed beyond the point of repair by the Parish Council and a new steel upright was commissioned.
It was in March 2001 when the wooden post was sawn down and later renovated, along with the cat and barrel, again by Melvyn Johnson who had worked on an earlier restoration as a young man place. By curious coincidence Drayton resident Peter Klinge, the son of Wolfgang, happened to drive past as the sign was being dismantled and stopped to see and reminisce. At a formal ceremony on 7 May 2001 the new sign was unveiled by Peter’s son Martin, the grandson of Wolfgang Klinge, along with Lucy Dingle.
In another nice touch a model of the sign was made from the old upright by Barry Leggett and presented to the Mayor of Lavare during the visit of the French Exchange to our twinned village in 2003. Another part was used to make a gavel for Old Catton Society. The remaining half of the decaying wooden upright was saved by Barry Leggett where it, with a freshly carved small cat and barrel, can be found on the wall beneath his car port in Garrick Green.
By an interesting development, village representatives made payed a visited to Zell-am-Zee in the Moselle valley and, apparently, they were amazed to discover a fountain in the town square with a large cat and barrel statue at its centre. As a keepsake, and no doubt to refresh this memory from time to time, a few wine bottles were brought back; their labels illustrating the feature.
1. Zell-am-Zee’s ‘Cat and Barrel’
2. The keep-sake bottle of wine.
In July 2009, being in need of further renovation, the sign was repainted. During the course of the work the cat fell sideways, no doubt due to decay. It was removed, renovated and replaced.
More recently, on Sunday 26 August 2012, Becky Betts and the the BBC Radio Norfolk Treasure Quest team arrived to find a clue secreted by the Society archivist in the leaf scroll work around the top of the column. The easily solved clue bringing the radio car to Church Street was:
“The rugby man who has aged a bit is changed from being on standby. The signs are they are not scraping it, not whisky in, but something galore over!”
Unfortunately, history repeated itself on 11 October 2012, when the cat and barrel were found missing. However, it was soon discovered – it had been briefly removed by the Parish Council for repair! By 2017 the barrel had decayed beyond repair and a new one was made and installed by Barry Legget and his son Graham. Now, and in retrospect, it has to be accepted that no-one is absolutely clear as to how many cats there have been over the years; but it is believed that the present incarnation is probably the fourth – sitting on what is barrel number two.
So, some 84 years on, the cat of many lives still stands and watches the villagers go about their business, and often seen sporting a Father Christmas bobble hat during the festive season.
Number 54 today, is an inconspicuous house in St Giles, Norwich. It is possible that it has always been so – or maybe it hasn’t? Maybe, if one was to delve into the complete history of No. 54, there would be many uncovered stories laying in wait. But that is not the aim of this particular tale, which prefers to settle on its owners and occupants at the turn of the 18th century; in particular, one Elizabeth Rigby (17 November 1809 to 2 October 1893) who became a British author, art critic and art historian, and was the first woman to write regularly for the Quarterly Review. She was known not only for her writing but also for her significant role in the London art world.
Elizabeth’s father was Dr Edward Rigby (1747-1821), a well-respected physician who, at the time of Elizabeth’s birth, owned both No. 54, St Giles, Norwich and also the neo-Georgian Framlingham Earl Hall which used to stand just five miles south of the City. He bought the Hall in 1786 along with about 34 acres of surrounding land on which, from about 1805, he laid out and planted what became a great collection of trees.
Dr. Edward Rigby was the son of John and Sarah (nee’ Taylor) and was born at Chowbent, Lancashire, on 27 December 1747. Educated at Warrington Academy and Norwich School, Rigby was apprenticed in 1762 to David Martineau, surgeon of Norwich. He then studied in London before being admitted as a member of the Corporation of Surgeons on 4 May 1769. In that same year he married for the first time, to a Sarah Dybal and settled in the Norwich area where the couple produced two daughters.
During this period Edward Rigby’s interests, outside his medical profession, began to involve both community and political activities. In 1783, he joined the Corporation of Guardians of Norwich, only to find that when he attempted to promote ‘the economical administration of the Poor Laws’ he was met with so much opposition that by the following year he had resigned. Then by 1786 he was seen to be taking the lead in establishing the Norfolk Benevolent Society for the relief of the widows and orphans of medical men. In politics he was a Whig and a supporter of William Windham. However, in 1794 when Windham became Secretary at War and had to stand again for Norwich, Rigby was one of the disillusioned Whigs of the time who backed James Mingay against him. Windham was re-elected, but Mingay’s reputation as a Whig was boosted.
As a widower, Rigby became an Alderman of the city of Norwich in 1802 in what turned out to be a very tight contest for the North Ward. He then became Sheriff the following year and Mayor of Norwich in 1805 when he presided over a meeting which addressed the issue of smallpox in the city. Rigby is said to have ‘made known the flying shuttle to Norwich manufacturers’ and to have introduced vaccination in the city. By then Rigby had married Anne Palgrave, the daughter of William Palgrave of Great Yarmouth. Their wedding had taken place in 1803 and the marriage thereafter produced a total of twelve children, amongst whom were a set of quads, three girls and a boy born on 15 August 1817. This was indeed a remarkable event. Unfortunately, the babies did not survive long; one lived just 18 days and the other three from between eight and ten weeks.
However, at a quarterly meeting of the Norwich Corporation on September 12th 1817, the Court of Aldermen resolved that a piece of plate be presented to Alderman and Mrs Rigby in commemoration of the births, to which the Commons “cordially acquiesced on the understanding that if the same event should happen in their own body they should put in a claim for a similar complimentary memento.” A violent personal dispute ensued between two members of the Common Council, “which so alarmed eight of the members for the Ward beyond the Water that they left the room without leave of the Speaker, the consequence being that the whole proceedings proved abortive.” Another meeting was held on the 27th, when the presentation was amicably agreed to, and on December 24th 1817 Dr. and Mrs. Rigby were given a silver bread basket, “with the names of the children and the arms of the family richly emblazoned thereon.” This must have been quite distressing, particularly to Mrs Rigby having, by then, lost all four of those children.
Over two marriages Edward Rigby sired fourteen children, some of whom found fame in their own right.
Alongside all this, Rigby was a notable physician and described as being a brilliant surgeon who was also instrumental in the founding of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital with which he was to be associated with for over 50 years. Outside of the medical profession, Rigby was a practicing agriculturist and a friend of Thomas William Coke of Holkham. He too experimented on his own farm at Framingham Earl. Edward was also a classical scholar and in later years, he further became distinguished when Pitt Lane, which ran between St. Giles and Bethel Street, was re-named Rigby’s Court.
Dr Edward Rigby died on 27 October 1821, aged 74 years. He was buried at St Andrew’s Church; Framingham and his tomb was inscribed with a fine epitaph to a man renowned locally as a tree planter:
‘A monument to Rigby do you seek?
On every side the whisp’ring woodlands speak.’
His wife, Anne, survived him by 51 years, dying at Slough, Buckinghamshire on 2 September 1872, aged 95 years.
Elizabeth Rigby, the main subject of this tale, was born on 17 November 1809, one of twelve children eventually produced by Edward Rigby and Anne (nee’ Palgrave) at their 18th century neo-Georgian Framingham Earl Hall. This was the family’s country home where her father planted many trees, turning a bleak heath into a pleasant wood.
Today, both the parkland and the site of the old Hall are mostly hidden by those trees, although in the winter glimpses may be seen through the hedge. Both parents were to include Elizabeth in their social life and conversations with prominent citizens and intellectuals of the time; this says much about their enlightened attitude where their children were not ‘pigeon-holed’ by being required ‘to be seen but not heard’ when in adult company. It also says much about Elizabeth’s own intellect.
Elizabeth grew up being very fond of drawing and continued studying art well into her twenties. During this time, she may well have been influenced by John Crome (1768 – 1821), the famous painter, who was well known to the family; her father had first employed Crome as an errand boy in his youth and later gave him lodgings at his house at 54 St Giles, Norwich. Also, during this time Elizabeth was privately educated and learnt French and Italian; however, after an illness in 1827 when she was about 18 years of age, she was sent to convalesce in Germany and Switzerland. There she stayed for two years, during which time she began a lifetime of publication which included a translation of Johann David Passavant’s essay on English art. A second trip to Germany in 1835 led to her writing an article on Goethe. Then, after travelling to Russia and Estonia to visit a married sister, her letters of the time, plus her subsequent travel book, ‘A Residence on the Shores of the Baltic’ (1841) led to an invitation from John Gibson Lockhart for her to write for his Quarterly Review.
In 1842, Elizabeth’s widowed mother, Anne Rigby, moved with her daughters to Edinburgh, where Elizabeth’s literary career brought entry to an intellectual social circle including prominent figures such as Lord Jeffrey, John Murray and David Octavius Hill, who photographed her in a series of about 20 early calotypes, assisted by Robert Adamson.
Hill and Adamson
David Hill and Robert Adamson were pioneering photographers, now acknowledged as masters of the art, working in Edinburgh, a city where they were not constrained by Henry Talbot’s English patent on his calotype process. They exploited their opportunity to the full, creating a magnificent series of photographic prints throughout their partnership (1843-1847). Their salted paper prints were made from calotypes [paper negatives] and have a soft, painterly appearance.
Despite writing in her diary in 1846 saying that there were many “compensations” for unmarried women, Elizabeth met and married Charles Eastlake, artist, connoisseur and Director of the National Gallery in London three years later; Elizabeth was aged 40. She joined Charles in an active working and social life, entertaining artists such as Landseer and mixing with a wide range of well-known people, from Macaulay to Lady Lovelace. In 1850 Charles Eastlake was both knighted and elected President of the Royal Academy. Then in 1853, he was appointed first President of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1855, Director of the National Gallery. Throughout the time following their wedding and into the 1860’s, Elizabeth Eastlake (now Lady Eastlake) continued her habit of continental travel as she and her husband toured several European countries in search of new acquisitions for the National Gallery. In addition to all this Elizabeth managed, and anonymously, to contributed a 26-page review titled ‘Photography’ in 1857. In this perceptive but much-scrutinised essay on early photography, she included a discussion on the position of photography in art.
In fact, Elizabeth wrote prolifically, helping to popularise German art history in England, both as critic and as translator; sometimes, she collaborated with her husband. She wrote a memoir of him after his death in 1865. Italian art also absorbed her attention. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael and Dürer were the subjects of her ‘Five Great Painters’ (1883), published ten years before she died in 1893. In 1895 her nephew Charles Eastlake Smith edited her Letters and Correspondence, the first volume of which at least was read by the late nineteenth century English novelist George Gissing in July of the following year.
Lady Elizabeth Eastlake’s reputation in the 20th century, quite apart from her photography, was mainly to be remembered for her scathing review of the book ‘Jane Eyre’, of which she strongly disapproved. She disputed the morality of this novel, writing that:
‘the popularity of Jane Eyre is a proof how deeply the love for illegitimate romance is implanted in our nature’………..It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste’.
She was also known for her attacks on John Ruskin, assumed to be linked to her role as confidante to his estranged wife, Effie Gray. According to historian Rosemary Mitchell, however, her work as art historian and writer was significant and original. Mitchell considered Elizabeth Eastlake to have been a scholarly and perceptive critic, and Marion Lochhead regarded Eastlake as a ‘pioneer of feminine journalism’, whereas Janice Schroeder decried her values supporting women’s subordinate place in the class structure within British imperialism.
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Prologue: The 18th and 19th centuries were the golden age of the dancing master. Social dances of that period were not only changing constantly, but were also extraordinary complicated. Considerable investment of time and money was required in order to achieve complete competence before being ‘let loose’ at a Ball or a Dancing Assembly. It was an age when a good appearance in oneself was so important. The dancing master was, in fact, the important conduit and arbiter in matters of deportment, behaviour, etiquette and social instruction.
Such cultural refinement was not lost on the aspirations of most of Norwich’s well-heeled citizens. This could be gauged by the city’s long-standing connection with Noverre family, where the family’s first link with Norwich is to be found in 1765. This was the year when another of the city-based dancing masters, by the name of John Brown, returned from London having received dancing lessons from the ‘celebrated’ Augustin Noverre (1729-1805) who was the brother of Jean-George Noverre (1727- 1810), dancing master to Marie-Antoinette.
It was not until the outbreak of World War I did a popular rhyme celebrating the Noverre name finally fade on the lips of those living in and around Norwich:
Mr Noverre came from France
To teach the natives how to dance.
Jean-Georges and Augustin Noverre:
The Noverre family had Swiss ancestors who possibly migrated to France during the late 17th century or early 19th century. Jean Georges Noverre was born in Paris on 29 April 1727 to Marie Anne de la Grange and Jean Louys, a Swiss soldier who became an Adjutant in the French army of Louis XIV. The couple expected their son to pursue a military career but the boy chose dance, studying with M. Marcel and then with the famous Louis Dupré. In 1729, a brother arrived by the name of Augustin Noverre; he also was to choose dance, but his achievements in that field was not to match those of the internationally renowned Jean-Georges.
In August of 1743, Jean Georges made his debut at Fontainebleau at the court of Louis XV. Following the marriage of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria to Princess Beatrice of Modena, he was created a ‘Chevalier’ – a member of the lowest rank of French nobility. Later, upon the nomination of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, he joined the Imperial Academy of Dance in Paris, working with such luminaries as Mozart and Voltaire.
The Noverres’ brothers, Jean-Georges and Augustin, first came to England in late 1755 when David Garrick, a celebrated theatre impresario and actor, brought Jean-George’s ballet company from France to perform in his Chinese Festival ‘Les Fêtes Chinoises’ at the Drury Lane Theatre. Noverre had promised that in preparation for the upcoming winter in London he would “compose such dances as would surprise and captivate all ranks of people.” In fact, Noverre did surprise and captive the people, but not in the way he and Garrick would have liked. Somehow, “between the planning of this public diversion, and the representation of it, hostilities commenced between England and France” with anti-French riots breaking out in the capital.
We are told that, on the back of anti-French feelings, a scuffle broke out on the stage of the Drury Lane Theatre where several men drew their swords and attacked both the cast and other social groups in the audience. One newspaper gave this account of the fray:
“On Tuesday Night there was a great Riot at Drury-Lane Theatre, on account of the French Dancers performing there, on which Occasion the Audience was divided into two Parties, and some Mischief was done on both Sides, tho’ not so much as might have been expected. The Advocates of the Dancers being the Strongest Side, drove a great Part of their Opponents out of the Pit, and the Performance was executed, but in great Confusion, and the Managers though proper to promise that it should never be repeated.”
Augustin Noverre, defending himself, thought he had run a man through and killed him. Presuming that the man was dead, he fled to Norfolk to live among the Huguenots who had, years previously, come to Norwich as silk weavers. Unfortunately, no record seems to exist as to where, exactly, Augustin hid during his first spell in the city; from this, one may be forgiven for doubting the authenticity of this part of the Noverre’s tale. Nevertheless, the facts seem to be that Augustin’s ‘victim’ was not dead, but making a full recovery. This allowed Augustin to return to London to carry on working on the Drury Lane stage as a dancing master, coupled with periods of being a ‘dancing-master in Norwich’.
Eventually Augustine moved to Norwich permanently, but no one seems certain exactly when. It has been suggested that this was at the point when he retired – any time after 1776! The only firm reference to the Noverre’s permanent arrival in Norwich comes from the Norwich Mercury of 31st August, 1793 which was directed at Augustine introducing his son, Francis as a Norwich dancing-master in his own right. Here, one should understand that in the 18th century the most fashionable dancing masters were very visible members of society. Not only did they teach the ‘beau monde’, but they held and officiated at public balls and they advertised their services assiduously in the newspapers and elsewhere. Such was the case with Augustine, for it would appear from the reference to himself in the Notice (below) that he, Augustin, may also have been attempting to make himself appear ‘fashionable and important’ to the reader:
“Mr [Augustine] Noverre of London, wishing to establish his SON in Norwich, and having been greatly encouraged by his Friends to such an undertaking, begs leave to acquaint the Ladies and Gentlemen of this City and County that his son, Mr F Noverre, has just arrived from the Continent (where he has been for some time under the tuition of his uncle Sir [Jean-George] Noverre and intends opening an Academy for young Ladies and Gentlemen on or before Michaelmas next, of which timely notice will be given by Mr Noverre, whose present address is at Mrs Milligan’s in St Stephen’s. Mr Noverre has not a doubt but that his son’s assiduity in his profession will give perfect satisfaction to any Lady or Gentleman who may honour him with their support.”
By 1797, both father and son were living in a house in the Chantry – a street close to the Assembly House in Norwich. As for ‘Sir Jean-George Noverre’ of the above newspaper entry, (here given the British version of the title ‘Chevalier’ awarded him in France), he returned to France and was later ruined by the Revolution. Jean-George died there in poverty in 1810. As for Augustine, his daughter, Jane Louisa, married into the family that owned the Norwich Mercury newspaper, itself one of the first provincial newspapers in the land; Augustine’s son, Francis, built up his own dancing business whilst the father settled firmly into retirement. Augustine died in 1805 when his obituary stated that ‘he was considered the most finished elegant and most gentlemanly minuet. dancer that ever appeared’. He was buried in St Stephens Church, Norwich.
Francis Noverre (1773 – 1840) carried on the family tradition of working as a dancing master; and in his case, at the Assembly Rooms in Norwich. He, above his predecessors, became a very prominent citizen in the local social scene, where he taught dancing to the wealthy young men and women and married the daughter of the Manager of the city’s Theatre Royal. The Noverre family did so well that they added a large wing to the original Assembly House in 1840. This was where they held Balls, as well as the Noverre Academy where they taught dancing. In the 20th century, this wing was to become a cinema and is now a gallery, shop and exhibition space -but still carrying the Noverre name.
It is at this point where our Noverre tale moves somewhat on to Francis’s other preoccupation – Assurance/Insurance and Norwich Union Fire Society in particular. Although Francis Noverre is not listed on the original deed of settlement for the Norwich Union, he certainly joined the Board fairly soon after its establishment and is listed as a Director in the supplementary deed of 1805 – can you spot his name, towards centre on the third line?
(Thought not – so here is a close-up).
In 1818 a pamphlet was targeted at the homes of those insured with Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society; those homes would have been identifiable through the fire marks attached to the outside of every home. The pamphlet gave details of a meeting in the July of that year about perceived irregularities in the way the Society was being run. One of the main thrusts of the argument was that those listed as Trustees, illustrious names such as The Dukes of Somerset, Beaufort and Argyll, whose involvement was intended to inspire confidence in the society, were actually not engaged in running the business at all. What would catch the eye is that the Earl of Craven had allowed his name to be used at the request of his family dancing master, none other than Francis Noverre who was one of the Directors of the Society. On the following page, listed under the heading ‘directors’, Francis Noverre of Norwich, Gentleman has a little asterisk by his name which identifies him as the dancing master in question. The relationship between Noverre and the Earl of Craven was that the two were in fact brothers-in-law.
Research into the early records of the Norwich Union Fire Society also revealed that Noverre was also a ‘Member’ of the society, in other words a person whose property was insured against fire by Norwich Union – his employer. The list of members (below) dates from around 1802.
This next list of members, from 1806, shows increasing sophistication of presentation and demonstrates the growth of the business even over a few years. Among Noverre’s fellow ‘Ns’ now appear members from as far afield as Yorkshire and Leicestershire.
Sadly, the early records of the fire society are sparse and there are no surviving board minutes to show evidence of Francis having attended meetings and no policy registers to provide details about the property he insured. There is, however, one surviving early fire policy which was actually signed by Francis.
As can be seen from a close-up of the policyholder’s details, by the time Policy 46349 was issued in 1814 the business of Norwich Union Fire had continued to spread far beyond the predominantly local members listed a decade earlier. By this date, Francis and his fellow directors were considering insurance on property as far afield as Blackburn and beyond. Indeed, by 1817 the society boasted 80,000 members (whom they could presumably no longer afford to list), 500 agents across the country and annual premium income of £78,800.
Another unexpected find in the archive collection was this receipt, for Noverre’s own fire policy in 1820…. which had been stuck into a scrapbook of sundry, odd Norwich Union material.
Also, in the same scrapbook was another reference to Noverre. Can you identify him in the poster below? His name is carefully hidden but with, appropriately enough, a dancing link.
‘Nowhere’, ‘Starling’ and ‘Crow’ are billed as performing a ‘pas de trios’, in what, initially, one could assume is a nice piece of entertainment for the Norwich Union Life Society staff. Just think, three respectable members of the board (Francis Noverre, John Starling Day and John Crowe) putting together the dance – obviously choreographed by Noverre – to the delight of those who had been working hard writing policies and keeping the books. Sadly, this was only a fantasy; a closer look reveals that the document was another piece of ingenious propaganda made to look like a contemporary theatre handbill.
A further search of the archive was made for an explanation as to some of the references in the handbill – in which no individual is specifically referred to by name. It would appear that the gist of the document is that at an upcoming general meeting of the Norwich Union Life Society, master Sammy (Samuel Bignold) would perform ‘hocus pocus’ to make the Society appear solid, successful and well run – a view with which the writer of the handbill evidently disagreed!
The major thrust of his complaint seems to be to do with the board and how the Society was effectively being run by three directors rather than the twelve specified in the deed of settlement. Furthermore, the three ‘dancers’ Noverre, Starling Day and Crowe who were making all the decisions were all under Bignold’s control or, in the words of the anonymous writer:
“live, move and have their being at the command of Sammy”.
Frustratingly, the minutes of the board for 1835 make no reference to any discontent within the Society or to protests by outside forces so it is not possible to discover who produced the handbill. It is, however, possible that there were links to local political divisions as Bignold was a prominent member of the local conservative Orange and Purple Party. Records of board meetings that year certainly support the view that attendance of all 12 directors at meetings was rare and that Noverre, Day and Crowe were overseeing the bulk of the society’s business.
On the question of Life Policies for Directors, it is clearly the case that Francis Noverre took one out – Policy Number 8 (which paid out a total of £1280 18 shillings, including bonuses after his death in January 1840). Now, a policy number is the key to unlocking fascinating life policy records from which it is possible to find the original proposal document. This was the case with Policy Number 8 which was completed by Francis when he took out his policy in 1808. Although listed, for appearances sake, as a ‘Gentleman’ in company literature, he completed his proposal giving his occupation as ‘dancing master’. Other details given include his place, month and year of birth and confirmation of his physical fitness declaring that he had had ‘measles and whooping cough and not suffered with spitting of blood or gout’. The proposal also required him to give the names of a doctor and two friends who could further vouch for his temperance and suitability as a life assurance candidate. In the case of Francis’s Policy Number 8, we find the original enquiries sent out to James Nosworthy (fellow director and Norwich silversmith)……R M Bacon (husband of Noverre’s sister Louisa and editor of the Norwich Mercury ),……and Edward Rigby (Noverre’s family doctor).
The information required to assess the health of an individual in 1808 was fairly basic compared with what would be needed today, and it would be interesting to see the difference between the letter sent to the ‘medical person’ and that sent to Noverre’s friends. Interestingly, the last paragraph carried the following: “should you return this letter without any answer we shall understand the hint and decline the insurance.” Fortunately, Francis Noverre was considered a suitable candidate for life assurance and his details duly appeared in the first ever policy register.
As with all other policy registers held by the then Norwich Union, one column listed an individual’s occupation; Noverre’s ‘dancing master’ stands out among the more sober bankers, wool factors, linen drapers and clergymen. To establish evidence of Noverre as being a customer of Norwich Union is one thing, but to also unearthed an unexpected ‘treasure’ was a bonus – namely Francis’s own policy! Issued on the second of August 1808 and signed by fellow directors James Roper (Woollen Draper), William Bacon (Coach Maker) and James Nosworthy, the policy is the final piece in the paper trail of Francis Noverre the customer.
The collection of life policies and board minutes, shows that Francis Noverre was closely involved in the business of the Life Society. His attendance at board meetings meant he regularly helped make decisions on which proposals should be accepted and on the payment of claims. Francis was indeed a member of the board which declined to pay out after the suspicious death of poet Percy Shelley (whose links with the society may be the subject of another blog).
As for Francis, he continued his involvement with Norwich Union Life Society even after his retirement, in 1837, from his dancing school. The last policy signed by him is dated April 1839, less than a year before he died. Listed among the directors on that policy is one Frank Noverre, his son.
Frank Noverre (1807 – 1878): He too became a Director of Norwich Union Life insurance, but also further enriched the cultural life of Norwich as a founder member and honorary secretary of the Norwich Philharmonic Society (1841-1878), honorary treasurer of the Norwich Choral Society and a prominent committee member of the Triennial Musical Festival. However, back on the business front, Frank lost his fortune when the East of England bank crashed in 1864; he was a large shareholder in the bank which in those days meant that he had unlimited liabilities.
Frank Noverre first appears in the Life Society’s board minutes for 1835 where he was variously referred to as F Noverre Junior or Frank Noverre. Unlike his father, Francis, he does not seem to have been a member of the ‘inner circle’, the Board Committee, and although he is listed as a director on policies – he does not appear to have ever signed one.
Despite being a director for over 30 years, there are very few references to Frank in the board minutes. His name stops being listed as a director in around 1868 and newspapers of the period report that he lost a vote to be on the Society’s board that year. Surprisingly, the minutes themselves do not pass any comment on his departure. Although board minutes, generally, are often frustrating for the very fact that they are full of references to the coming and going of board members rather than the business undertaken – this is not a criticism that can be made of the Norwich Union minutes in this period. Characteristically, the minutes record a payment on Frank’s life policy a decade later, but in a similarly business-like way with no expressions of regret at his loss despite the length of his tenure on the board and his family’s, by then, nearly 80 year link to the Society.
The reference to his death in the board minutes does, however, give his policy number which unlocks the records of Frank as a ‘customer’. He took out two policies with the Society, one when he was 27 and another a’ged 59. By all accounts his wife, Sophia, would have been very grateful to receive the insurance payment of £1221 7s 13d as Frank had lost a great deal of his fortune as a result of his liabilities as shareholder of the East of England Bank which failed in 1864. Records show that his entire estate was valued for probate purposes at less than £2,000.
In many ways the investigation into Frank is a lesson in the disappointments of archival research for, despite him taking out two policies nearly thirty years apart – both coincide with gaps in the company’s policy records. Without the proposal and referee letter books it was not possible to see what his doctor said about his pulmonary condition or which friends he chose to support his application. To return to the analogy of unlocking customer records; in Frank’s case – we have the key but the doors no longer exist!
Frank Noverre, by virtue of his long association with the society, took a pre-eminent position in the list of directors. His name appeared directly below the main committee of the board (see above) who undertook the day-to-day business of the society. As an aside, at the foot of this list of Directors there appears a one W.M.R. Haggard – father of H Rider Haggard, the author known for his adventure novels.
The ‘wow’ moment during research into Frank is also linked to the developing promotional activity of the Life Society – like being listed as a director on this very attractive information leaflet which folded to form an envelope and could then be posted to policyholders or prospective policyholders. All the information on the premium rates and security of the company is cleverly fitted in below an attractive engraving showing the society’s offices at Bignold House in Surrey Street Norwich and when this leaflet was turned over we find that it was addressed to none other than Frank!
With so many ‘dead ends’ with regard to Frank, the unexpected discovery that this attractive example of company literature had been sent to him, and had been in his hands, must be a real thrill to any archivist. It is also a fitting place to end the links between Frank Noverre and Norwich Union. While Frank may have been a shadowy figure in the Norwich Union records his son Charles is one member of the Noverre family that offers more.
Charles Edwin Noverre (1845 – 1920) was the first of the Noverre dynasty to put insurance/assurance before dancing – leaving his elder brother, Frank William Bianchi Noverre, to run the dancing school. Charles took up an apprenticeship in the Norwich Union Life Office in 1861 at the age of 16 when his father, Frank, was still serving on the board. Seven years later he elected to transfer to the Fire Society. The first reference to his employment in the Fire Society was this fragment which appears to record overtime paid to clerks from both societies in 1871.
As can be seen from the above reference, he received £9 12 shillings for his overtime which was a relatively low sum compared to the amounts racked up by his fellow clerks. It may be that his other, more artistic pursuits, as organist and choirmaster at St Stephens Church etc. meant he had less spare time than some.
The next reference to Charles Noverre came in that invaluable scrapbook which also contained his grandfather’s fire policy receipt and the interesting ‘Nowhere, Starling and Crow’ handbill referred to above with regard to his grandfather, Francis Noverre. The significance of the document (see below) is that it lists the order in which the clerks of both Societies attended the funeral, in 1875, of Sir Samuel Bignold who had served as secretary of the fire and life societies for the preceding 60 years. By virtue of his length of service Charles was transported to the funeral in coach Number 5 and by 1904 was one of few members of staff still working for the Society who had also served under Sir Samuel.
In a staff magazine article that year he fondly reminisced…
“Well shall I ever remember the genius of my dear old chiel, Sir Samuel Bignold, who used to devote a whole day in personally paying salaries of his large staff of clerks, from the highest to the lowest, as each quarter day came round, and who, on these occasions, used to discuss and advise each of us in our separate anxieties and aspirations, and who showed by his unprompted comments that that separate individual had been in his thoughts at other times. Truly, was he a father to us all. He would notice our children when he met them on the roads and would rein up his horse to give a passing remark of kindliness and encouragement, perhaps allowing the little ones to examine and stroke the gee-gee, to their infinite delight. The children may have forgotten these little attentions but their parents never did. Need I say his staff loved him to a man. Here was an influence which cost nothing even in dignity, but its effects were immeasurable.”
…..and revealed that he had tried to emulate Sir Samuel in this respect when he himself joined the ranks of the management.
Although staff records for this period are limited and not particularly informative we know from his obituary in the staff magazine that in 1882 that Charles was promoted to Head of the policy and tariff department. In this role, according to a contemporary on the staff, he oversaw every policy written up for the Fire Society – just as his grandfather had been so closely involved in all the life policies produced half a century before. Fellow employee and colleague, W Jecks Drane, also recalled in this period that:
“Having himself contracted writer’s cramp, he adopted me temporarily as his amanuensis, as he considered I had a facile pen. He would be at the office as early as 6 o’clock in the morning, if occasion required, when arrears of correspondence were cleared off. Mr [Charles] Noverre would dictate to me, and the letters would be written on the Board Room table, the illumination being by candle-light in the winter. Those were not the days of short-hand writers and typists, but frequently as many as 40 letters were written before breakfast. Regular office hours commenced at 9 o’clock, when we would adjourn to the St Stephen’s Cafe, quite near, and would there have a somewhat frugal meal, and so back to the ordinary day’s work.”
It is illuminating to have such memoirs of former staff to bring life the everyday work activities which are not recorded in the formal records of a business. The reference to Charles’ problem of writer’s cramp is pertinent as it links to a further reference in the Staff Superannuation and Benefit Fund records for references to the Noverre family. Although the name crops up several times the most informative reference is one of 1885 shows that Charles had visited the doctor provided by the SS&B Fund after suffering from writer’s palsy [cramp]. In this instance Charles sought a cure for his condition in Germany (the trustees of the fund did not feel that this was something they ought to pay for!), but the trip was not a success and evidence of his problems with writing appears again later in Charles’ career when his personal letters were stamped with a polite notice excusing his use of a typewriter.
Despite this disability Charles continued his rise within Norwich Union and in March 1887, only a month after attending this dinner in Norwich,……he was appointed manager for the London branch at 50 Fleet Street. Further records show that by 1895 Charles was manager for the whole of London on a salary of £700 a year plus commission. His position guaranteed him a role in celebrations for the centenary of the fire office in 1897.
The portraits appeared in the staff magazine and it is through the magazine that the real Charles Noverre comes to life. While official correspondence as London Manager shows him dealing with business and administration……..in the magazine we see him as a man as well as an insurance official and as someone who was very proud of Norwich Union and his family links to it. The Norwich Union staff magazine, one of the earliest staff publications produced, first appeared, in manuscript form, in 1888. It is an incomparable source for information on the lives and activities of the men, and later women, who worked to build up Norwich Union.
Charles remained an active contributor to the publication even after his retirement providing the editor not only with treatises on insurance topics, but also fictional tales with titles like “the Muggs of Mugborough, a dream” and “A Christmas Nightmare”. Through the magazine we learn about his social life in London…… and even find out about an accident in 1893 which injured his leg and nearly cost him his life.
Reminiscences by his contemporaries for his obituary in the magazine provided details of his activities outside the office, as a writer of plays and musical scores, and information on his philanthropic work. For four years ending in 1887, he was secretary of the Jenny Lind Infirmary for Children and also secretary of the Children’s Convalescent Home at Great Yarmouth, of which he may be regarded as the founder. Then there was his enthusiasm for music. He was, for 21 years the choirmaster and organist of St Stephens Church in Norwich and a useful scribe and counsellor for the Norwich Triennial Musical Festivals. Charles also acted as ‘Musical Editor’ of the Easter Daily Pre
Apart from his abilities as a musical critic, he was an amateur playright and a musical composer of no slight merit, besides being a brilliant pianist. For some, his best plays were “Later On” and “A Game of Nap”. These were first performed in a bijou theatre at his residence of ‘Connaught House’ in Norwich. Charle’s musical compositions, which were both sacred and secular, were published under the pseudonym of “Errevon”. When Charles retired at the start of 1912 he had completed over 50 years in the service of Norwich Union. After his retirement he was to serve, until his death, as chairman of the society’s London board.
The journey of discovering the links between Norwich Union and the Noverres’ is nearly over – but not quite. The death of Charles Noverre in 1920 effectively saw the end of family links which were over 120 years old, but there were thtee further family members to whom fleeting references have been discovered – read on!ss.
Two of Charle’s sons, Frank William Bianchi Noverre (b.1843), founder of the Norwich Ladies Orchestral Society, and Richard Percival (Percy) Noverre (1850-1921) were both organisers of the ‘Festivals’ and fourth generation dancing masters in the city. According to one former pupil of theirs, they cut imposing figures as follows:
“……the Noverre brothers wore tail coats and knee breeches, silk stockings and buckle shoes, and we certainly did learn to waltz and reverse beautifully. Also, we knew at the time that their ancestor had been a ballet master at the French Court.”
The lack of comprehensive staff records means that it hasn’t been possible to say precisely when ‘Percy’ Noverre began to work for Norwich Union. According to the Census records he was working as a dancing master, alongside his elder brother, Frank William Bianchi Noverre, in 1891 but by 1901 he gave his occupation in the Census as insurance clerk. The earliest reference to his employment for the Society dates to 1902 when he applied to join the Staff Superannuation and Benefit Fund which had been employed by his father, Charles, in his quest for treatment for his writers’ palsy. Percy’s request was denied and it is possible that this was something to do with his age, for the change from dancing master to insurance clerk came very late in life when he was around 50 years old. What caused the change of career and how influential his brother and his long family connections were in securing his position remain unanswered questions.
Ten years later, in 1912, Percy was well in charge of the ‘office ladies’ and the following memory, shared by Geoffrey Hart, is of Percy’s role of ensuring that there was no fraternisation between the clerks and his ladies:
Sadly, his retirement in 1918 when he would have been about 69 years old occurred during the time of the First World War. As a result there was no retirement notice to add to the details on Percy. The brief reference to his death in 1921 also contains few further clues about the life and career of the last of the dancing Noverres.
Finally the last man of the Noverre dynasty: Francis Gray Noverre: He was the only son of Charles and his wife Laura. References to his brief employment, at the Fleet Street branch under his father, are very limited. He was listed, as Noverre (new clerk), in a board minute relating to staff salaries in 1895 …… then the staff magazine announced his departure two years later. The 1911 Census records him living in Hove and gives his occupation as ‘insurance official’ but there is no record of his employment by Norwich Union after he left Fleet Street. Two years later on the 11 December 1913 he was admitted into Holloway Sanatorium where he died on 28 December 1943.
It seems a shame to leave investigations into the Noverre family on such a sad note but, to quote Anna Stone, Group Archivist ov Aviva:
“…… it is the final feature of research that historical facts rarely fit neatly into the plans we have for them and that we can’t change what happened in the past to suit the view of history we want to project.”
Hopefully, you have enjoyed getting to know the Noverres and remember the thought that all archivists may well hold – that of this verse, from A Psalm of Life by Longfellow:
“Lives of great men all remind us,
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time;”.
Sources: Gratitude and thanks to Anna Stone, Group Archivist, of Heritage.Aviva who made this blog possible. She contributed most of the information and supporting images contained herein; exceptions are annotated otherwise.
Richard Caister could be described as a medieval maverick cleric who preached and wrote in the vernacular a century before the Protestant Reformation. However, it is more than likely that not many people today would recognise his name if asked; or be aware of his deeds, character or reputation.
It was timely therefore that between February and October of 2020, St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, (where this late priest and poet was based in the latter part of his life), celebrated the 600th Anniversary of his life and work. The church did so by hosting several events, including family craft workshops and musical performances. These events were supported by associated historical tours of the city and variously timed lectures at the Forum and the Norfolk Record Office.
Not everyone could possibly have shared in these celebrations, but for those who missed the events but remain interested in the man, the period in which he lived and those with whom he was associated with, here is an adapted summary of his life based (in part) on the information compiled by St Stephens Church.
We can never be absolutely certain of Richard Caister’s place of birth or the actual date, only that he was born either in Caister St Edmund or Caister-on-Sea sometime around the middle of the 14th century. He was apparently styled ‘master’ but there is no clear evidence that he studied at a university; but it is said that in 1385, possibly on 1 October, a part of his head was ‘tonsured’ – left bare on top by the shaving off of the hair – he had been made a cleric. It was at that moment when he was admitted to Merton Priory in Surrey where he received his education in preparation for an ordained ministry. It is probable that, after being ordained, he spent some 10 years as a monk of the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Certainly, in 1397, he become vicar of St Mary’s Church in Sedgeford, near Kings Lynn, having been presented to the benefice by the Prior of the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Richard Caister served Sedgeford for five years; its location described by Simon Knott in 2006 thus:
“Sedgeford is one of those surprisingly secluded villages not far from the Wash, with busy Hunstanton and Sandringham just over the hill. Many East Anglian churches are at the highest point in their parishes, which isn’t saying a lot, but this big church is down in a dip in the valley below the road, and you would never notice it unless you were deliberately looking for it. The nave seems vast with those great clerestory windows, and the round tower appears to grow out of it, the aisles extending westwards to wrap around it.”
In 1402 Richard Caister was transferred to St Stephen’s Church in Norwich, where he remained until his death on April 4, 1420. He was buried in the chancel of the Church; an indication of the high regard he was held at the time. According to Norman P. Tanner:
“Margery Kempe [see below] provides a glowing portrait of him as vicar of St Stephen’s. He was, she indicates, a generous and apostolic parish priest, and a noted and effective preacher. He acted as her confessor in Norwich and supported her against her critics, including the officials of the bishop……… Following his death in 1420, perhaps on 29 March, his reputation for holiness developed into a minor cult. Margery Kempe went to pray at his grave in St Stephen’s Church, to thank him for the recovery of a friend from sickness: between 1429 and 1500 a number of bequests were left in wills for people to make pilgrimages to his grave, or for offerings to be left at it. He appears to have been a radical and evangelical priest, one in a succession as vicars of St Stephen’s parish, though Bale’s claim that he was an enthusiastic Wycliffite, albeit a secret one, seems unfounded……… Books on the ten commandments, the beatitudes, and the meditations of St Bernard, and also some homilies, were attributed to him. His only extant work, however, is the hymn ‘Jesu, lord, that madest me’, which seems to have been very popular, surviving in numerous manuscripts (though eight of its twelve stanzas come from an earlier poem).”
Richard Caistor’s Will was probably written within a few days of his death; it is remarkable, especially for a man who had been incumbent in one of the most valuable livings in Norwich for some eighteen years. The Will is very brief and contains no requests for masses or prayers to be said for his soul. Instead, he seems to have wanted his ‘unspecified wealth’, apart from £10 that was to be spent on buying two antiphonaries for his church, to be given to the poor, with preference being given to those of his parish on the grounds that “the goods of the church, according to canon law, belong to the poor”
Two significant Contemporaries of Caister: One of Caister’s contemporaries was Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She is, of course, known for her book The Revelations of Divine Love, which is a masterpiece of 14th century vernacular theology and also the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman.
There are no documents in existence which says that Richard Caister and Julian of Norwich ever met. However, it seems inconceivable that this was never so, when their geographical proximity of St Julian’s and St Stephen’s Churches were practically next door to each other. Also, having both a mutual friend in Margery Kempe, would strongly suggest that the lives of Julian and Richard may well have overlapped at times. However, more significantly than that suggestion, is the fact that both of them wrote in the vernacular. By doing so, both opened spiritual and theological matters to ordinary lay people, as distinct to only the clergy which believed, certainly in Caister’s time, that the English language was not an appropriate vehicle to consider or broadcast theological matters; such matters needed to be presented in the language of the Church – Latin.
Margery Kempe (1373-1438) was another significant contemporary of Caister and the author of The Book of Margery Kempe, which is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language; she was also a Christian mystic whose work gives a careful spiritual and social commentary of England. Kempe became very close to Caister; in their first meeting, Caister listened to Margery Kempe speak about the love of God and her spiritual experiences. Margery Kempe also recorded that while some considered her to be insane or under the influence of demons, Richard Caister defended her, open to the idea that God may inspire a woman. Caister became Margery Kempe’s confessor and even defended her in a hearing before the formidable Bishop Henry le Despenser. From the website of present-day St Stephen’s Church, we learn that:
“……. after Caister’s death and burial, Margery Kempe writes that she was moved to journey to St Stephen’s to pray for the healing of a priest who was close to her. She writes of a powerful spiritual encounter of the goodness of God during this time of prayer at the chancel of St Stephen’s Church, where Caister was buried. The priest for whom she was praying was healed. It is most likely for this reason that Caister’s burial place became a shrine for pilgrimage throughout the latter half of the 15th century.”
The Character of Caister and his Ministry: Caister had a reputation for being a man of significant learning who was assiduous in his pastoral duties, particularly in his preaching and in his concern for the poor of his parish. The pilgrim badges that accompanied the shrine of Richard Caister frequently depict him preaching from the pulpit, wearing either clerical or academic dress’.
John Pits, (1560 – 17 October 1616) was an English Roman Catholic scholar and writer who was born in Alton, Hampshire. He provides a character sketch of Richard Caister.
“He was a man simple and upright, and no mean scholar. In his sermons he used not so much to attack men’s vices with bitter words, as to deplore them with tears of sympathy, and to exhort all to flee from their sins and to have pity upon their own souls. With the ignorant multitude he willingly adopted a familiar style, and used to mingle with the crowds to hold outdoor meetings. The simplest folk he loved the best, as being most like himself, saying that of such is the kingdom of heaven. He is said to have had the spirit of prophecy, and both during his life and after his death to have been renowned for many miracles”
Then there was Francis Blomefield who, in his History of Norfolk (volume 4), adds to this description that Caister was “a man of greatest learning and what was exceedingly remarkable in those days, a constant preacher of God’s word in English to his parishioners”.
Religious Dissent in the 14th and 15th Centuries: Caister lived in a turbulent period in the life of the Church in England, for there existed a particular element of non-conformist thought, known of today as “Lollardy“; this movement became increasingly powerful across England in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The book “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards (1395)” indicates a set of ideas held in common at the time, and strongly criticises clerical practice, the doctrine of transubstantiation, pilgrimage, plus rejecting the necessity of the mediation of God’s forgiveness through the Church via confession of sins to a priest. However, at the heart of Lollardy was the insistence for access to the scriptures in the English language – not Latin.
Thomas Arundel (1353 – 19 February 1414) was an English clergyman who served as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Richard II, as well as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, an outspoken opponent of the Lollards. In 1409 he promulgated a piece of ecclesiastical legislation, called the ‘Constitutions’ which was designed to establish control over religious thought and speech in England; it established controls over access to the scriptures in the English language:
“No one should translate any text of holy scripture on his own authority into the English language or any other under pain of excommunication, until that translation was approved by the local diocesan council”.
Alongside this, the Constitutions outlawed the criticism of clergy in the context of sermons and limited the topics upon which clergy could educate their parishioners. In a very influential essay Nicholas Watson argued that the goal of Arundel’s Constitutions was to restrict the development of religious thought in the English language; this led to the ‘watering-down’ of a growing and creative tradition of vernacular theology in England, as represented by Julian of Norwich.
Then there was the 15th century Nicholas Love; the Carthusian prior of Mount Grace Priory. He translated and adapted Pseudo-Bonaventure’s ‘Meditations on the Life of Christ’ into English and named it ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus (1410)’. His was not merely a translation of one of the most popular Latin works of Franciscan devotion on the life and passion of Christ, but an expanded version with additions against the John Wycliffite (Lollard). Specifically, Love argued that Latin was the true language of theological thought and spiritual devotion. As such, the lay person remained in an unchangeable state of dependency on the Latin-speaking clergy. His version was submitted to Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, around the year 1410 for approval. This submission was in accordance with strictures that forbade any new biblical translation written since the time of John Wycliffe, “in any form whatsoever, unless the translation was submitted to the local bishop for approval.” Arundel not merely approved the ‘Mirror of the Blessed Jesus’, but commanded its propagation; the work survives in sixty-four manuscripts; nineteen of these contain a note of Arundel’s official approval along with a note that this work is a “confutation of heretics or lollards”. Love’s work appears to have been the most popular new piece of literature in 15th-century England and was published at least ten times between 1484 and 1606. It provides an instructive insight into the character of the Church at the time, in contrast to which Richard Caister’s own ‘Metrical Prayer’ can be better understood. In short, it is a fascinating document written at that turbulent time and does, arguably, contains some themes consistent with Lollardy.
Lollardy was particularly influential in Norfolk at the turn of the 15th century. The Bishop of Norwich, the then Henry le Despenser, was also a fierce an opponent of Lollardy. According to Thomas Walsingham, (Rolls Series, Vol. ii., p.188):
“He swore, and did not repent, that if any of that perverse sect [Lollards] should presume to preach in his diocese, he should either be given to the flames or deprived of his head”.
The Legacy of Richard Caister: Richard Caister was closely associated with the linguist, philosopher and theologian John Wycliffe who was an important influence on Lollardy and is thought of as a forerunner of Protestantism in England. Then there was Bishop John Bale (himself a man with strong protestant sympathies) who, in his work ‘Illustrious Writers of Great Britain’ (printed c1549-1559), wrote:
“Richard Caister, of the County of Norfolk, and coming from near Norwich itself, a man learned and pious for his age, and Vicar at the Church of St Stephen in that City, [he was] called ‘the Good’, lead an apostolic and innocent life in great simplicity of spirit. Miracles are narrated of this man, but many are void of all truth. Nevertheless, he was distinguished for remarkable sanctity and a prophetic spirit. He favoured the Wycliffite (or rather the Christian) doctrine strongly, but secretly, for fear of the Papists, having had experience of their tyranny in others. The scandalous example of the clergy he deplored with humble reproof in sermons, since otherwise he was not able to cure it. Many other proofs of piety did the good man display, and amongst other things he wrote in his native tongue”.
Whether or not Richard Caister really held Wycliffite views is not clear. In the case of Bishop Bale, (who was quite partisan towards Protestantism and could stretch his views of people towards his own ways of thinking), Richard Caister’s own Metrical Prayer does indicate, at least, some sympathy with ideas associated with Wycliffe and Lollardy; but, of course, did not suffer the same fate as others in the Diocese of Norwich who were more explicitly loyal to Wycliffe’s thought, such as William Sawtrey, and payed the price!
Charles Dickens, writing in April 1835, describes running into a fellow office clerk:
“He was a tall, thin, pale person, in a black coat. He had an umbrella in his hand – not for use, for the day was ﬁne – but, evidently, because he always carried one to the office in the morning.”
This particular story would not have been written without the help of a professional archivist, someone who proved instrumental in bringing together information about the somewhat obscure Corsbies’. Never heard of them? Well, that would not be at all surprising since theirs is not a house-hold name. In fact, they would have remained within the sphere obscurity had not this diligent archivist brought them back into the light. Up until that point, the name Corsbie lay hidden in time-worn files, scrap books, photograph albums – company magazines and board minutes; most detail having been kept for a very long time in dusty draws before digitisation came along. Theirs is a simple story which offers a glimpse into what office life of the past was like, particularly for the generations of Corsbies who all worked, at some point, as humble clerks before rising up their own particular career ladder. However, they did have one thing in common – apart from the surname; they all had the distinction of having worked for one of the most famous and greatest Insurance companies ever to have once existed – Norwich Union.
“In 1792, Thomas Bignold helped in the creation of ‘Norwich General Assurance Company’ and was appointed its secretary. He left there in 1797 to found the Norwich Union Fire Insurance Society with support from local shopkeepers and in 1808 he founded the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. After 1815 the post war recession began to bite and claims against the Society increased; initially he resisted many of those claims – some legitimately but some not so. Eventually his sons collaborated with the other directors to force him to retire. In retirement he became increasing eccentric forming a business to make shoes with revolving heels: this venture pushed him into bankruptcy and he eventually into prison. He died in 1835. It was in 1821 when the companies founded by Thomas Bignold, and which had operated in competition, merged under the Norwich Union name.”
The Corsbie family were from Norwich and several generations of them worked for the Norwich Union for well over a century. Our archivist’s research discovered that the Corsbie family, from Joseph Clarke Corsbie downwards, amassed more than 370 years of combined service for the Company. Joseph himself joined the Norwich General Assurance Company in 1810. and when company moved to its Surrey Street office in Norwich, Joseph went went with it. He joined the rest of the office staff who would then work in Bignold House, the actual family home of Samuel Bignold, the then Secretary of the Company.
In November 1819 Samuel Bignold wrote a set of rules for his clerks which would have been in force when Joseph Corsbie arrived in Surrey Street. According to those rules, office hours were from 9 o’clock till half past one, and from half past two to 6pm. Staff who were late in the morning or after lunch were fined 2d for each 5 minutes they were late. Clerks were also fined for tending the office fire:
“The office fire to be attended to by Mr Driver, or the junior Clerk, and any Clerk who may assume his duty shall be fined 3d. Clerks are permitted to warm themselves at the Fire in Office hours, but only one at a time to be at the fire and no Clerk is expected to remain there longer than may be sufficient for Warming himself.”
Clearly Samuel suspected that without such a rule his clerks would spend too much time chatting while warming themselves at the fire. Despite these strict rules it seems that clerks at Norwich Union were generally content with their lot, and most spent their entire working lives with the company. When Samuel Bignold was knighted in 1854 he took the clerks from the Norwich Union Fire and Life Societies out for a meal to celebrate and at least half of the forty clerks who attended had reached more than 26 years’ service with one or other of the companies.
During following year of 1855, Joseph Corsbie presided over a meal of Norwich Union clerks to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday and by that date he was the oldest clerk in the establishment. Joseph spent 50 years working for Norwich General and Norwich Union and was granted his retirement by the Directors in January 1860, when he was awarded an annuity ‘in consideration of his long service’. He received £130 per annum, the equivalent of around £130,000 in today’s terms. According to the Board’s minutes, Joseph had not been fully able to attend to his duties for two years before he retired, and he died in September 1861 after a long and painful illness.
Joseph was not the only Corsbie to be working in Surrey Street in 1821. In June of that year his nephew, Dennis Tooke Corsbie, took a position with the Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. According to a staff list, Dennis retired in August 1874 as managing or chief clerk, having clocked up an impressive 53 years’ service with the Society. During his time with the Norwich Union he would have been involved in the take-over of the Amicable Society, the world’s oldest mutual life insurer, which happened in 1866. Dennis may also have been responsible for starting an Easter tradition which was carried on by his successor as chief clerk, George Holmes. According to the memoires of another staff member, Henry Butler, Mr Holmes would call all the staff together at noon on the Thursday before Good Friday and give them each a glass of sherry and brown and white biscuits known as ‘fair buttons’. At one o’clock the office would close and all the clerks would go to the fair at Tombland.
The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union arrived in the 1850s. His name was Henry Webster Corsbie, son of Joseph; he joined the Fire Society in 1852 but left in 1865. Henry had been involved in a court case in 1857 after he was ‘struck’ in the face by a certain William Tuck who was angry that other Norwich Union clerks had cancelled the periodicals they usually purchased from him. During the case, Tuck claimed that the clerks, who followed the Conservative political views of Sir Samuel, had turned against him after he had voted for the Whigs in the local elections.
In 1853, Henry’s brother, Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society and went on to work for the Life Society for 38 years’, retiring 1891 and by which time he was earning £350 a year. Presenting him with an inscribed timepiece from the Directors, Mr Forrester said:
“…… throughout your forty years’ service you have born an unblemished character, distinguished by integrity of purpose, devotion to your duties, courtesy to the higher officials and kindness and sympathy toward the other members of staff”.
In his response Horace thanked the directors for the gift and the generous provision for his retirement and said he ‘could look back upon nothing but kindness during his long connection with the society, both from those now in office and those who have been long in their graves’.
The 1850s also saw Henry John Abs Corsbie and his brother Charles James Abs Corsbie, sons of Dennis Corsbie, join the Norwich Union Life Society in 1854 and 1856 respectively. There would have been five Corsbies in the employment of the two societies in May 1862 when each clerk was given £5 by the management to go and visit the Great Exhibition at Kensington which was also insured by the Fire Society.
In 1871 the names of the four Corsbies then working for the Life Society featured in an illustrated letter which was presented to Sir Samuel Bignold to mark his 80th birthday.
The names of Horace, Henry John, and Charles also appear on a list of staff who attended Sir Samuel’s funeral in January 1875. Samuel Bignold died in the Surrey Street office which was also his family home and, according to contemporary newspapers, on the morning of the funeral hundreds of people filled the pavements of Surrey Street wanting to pay their respects:
‘As the time announced for the starting of the procession arrived, the Market-Place and approaches to Surrey Street became almost impassable by reason of the thousands who had there congregated.’
Twenty-five carriages were included in the funeral procession which followed a route along Rampant Horse Street, the Market Place, London Street and Queen Street, through Tombland and along Magdalen Street to the family vault at Catton. All Norwich Union staff attended the funeral and they were allocated places in the carriages in order of seniority of service. Charles Corsbie should have been in coach three with his brother and cousin but instead watched proceedings from the window on the office stairs as he was too ill to attend. The staff list notes that he died the following month.
Charles Corsbie was only 34 when he died and had still spent nearly twenty years working for Norwich Union. As for his brother, Henry John Abs Corsbie, he was first appointed an inspector for the South Eastern Region in October 1884, at which point his salary was raised to £225 pa with 2nd class rail travel and an allowance of 12s 6d for each day he was away from Norwich. Henry is the first of the Corsbies to be clearly identified in a photograph (see below) which was taken in around 1900. Apparently, he was still working for Norwich Union when he died, aged 73, in 1909 and the notice of his funeral refers to ‘upwards of 55 years’ service’ with the Society.
The next generation of Corsbies to join Norwich Union were the grandsons of Joseph Corsbie. In total, five of his grandsons began work for the company between 1877 and 1889. The first was Arthur Benjamin Corsbie who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in May 1877 and died in service just over two years later. In January 1882, Horace Frank Corsbie, the eldest son of Horace Webster Corsbie, joined the Life Society on a princely salary of £20 per annum. His time with Norwich Union coincided with the introduction of a Thursday half-holiday for clerks and the arrival of the office telephone, but he left in December 1891, eventually working as a municipal clerk. Next to join was Horace Frank’s younger brother, Ernest Benjamin Corsbie, who joined the Policy Department of the Fire Society in April 1883. The notice of his death in the staff magazine records that he also worked for the Loss Department, Accounts Department and Secretarial Department before being appointed head of the Marine Department. He moved to London with the department and died in service there in July 1917. Ernest also contributed to the social life of the office, he was auditor for the staff football club and wrote articles for the staff magazine, which is probably why his photograph appears in the magazine’s photograph album.
Also joining in 1883 was their cousin Walter Lewis Corsbie, who’s application letter he sent asking to join the Fire Society still exists in the archive collection. He was 22 years of age when he applied and had already served out his apprenticeship with Dexter & Moll the ‘old established family linen warehouse’ based in Upper Market Norwich. By the time he applied to join Norwich Union Walter was working at Henry Snowdon’s Drapery in Bridge Street, Norwich and, according to his letter, was looking for employment with a shorter working day. As seems to have been standard in application letters to the Society, he made it clear that he was not looking for a particularly high salary.
By the time Walter joined, Norwich Union Fire had already established a compulsory staff Superannuation and Benefit Fund which had opened the previous year. Each member of staff contributed 2% of his salary to the scheme and in return received a guaranteed pension and guaranteed payments to his widow and children if he died in service. The fund also provided medical attendance for each member of staff. This benefited the company by helping reduce time off for sickness and benefited the members of staff who could have access to a doctor, which might otherwise have proved too expensive in a time when there was no National Health Service.
It also provided an unanticipated benefit for future archivists as detailed reports were made each year about which staff had been attended by the doctor and these were recorded in the fund minutes. The reports contain fascinating information about staff who were working for Norwich Union during this period and what illnesses or injuries led to them having time off work. According to the reports, Walter was attacked with influenza on 3rd Feb 1890 and suffered with severe inflammation of the lungs but recovered sufficiently to return to the office on 31 March. However, he had suffered from symptoms of heart disease for several years which became rapidly progressive after this and ‘he was obliged to give up work on June 25 and finally succumbed on 8 August.’
The last of the third generation of Corsbies to work for Norwich Union was Louis Frederick Corsbie, the brother of Ernest Benjamin and Horace Frank. He had initially ignored family tradition and taken a position in April 1886 with Norwich and London Accident Insurance Association, a company which was later absorbed by Norwich Union. He obviously saw the error of his ways and in July 1889 left Norwich and London Accident and started work for Norwich Union Fire. According to the staff magazine, he spent the first ten years of his service in the Fire Policy Department before moving to the Fire Loss Department where he remained until he retired in 1930. He was known as ‘Uncle Louis’ to many of his contemporaries and was described as ‘a man of equable and genial temperament and popular with his colleagues’. He was an enthusiastic bowls player, secretary and librarian of the orchestral society from 1896, and played second violin in the office orchestra. His name appears in many concert programmes for the orchestral society and he was photographed with the orchestra in around 1902.
Both Louis and Ernest were working for the Fire Society when it celebrated its centenary in 1897 and the staff received a 10% bonus, double that handed out a decade earlier to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Ernest can be found in this staff photograph taken for the centenary but for some reason Louis is missing.
Both the names of Ernest and Louis Corsbie also appear in a booklet presented to George Oliver Clark on his retirement in 1905.
A fourth generation of Corsbies started at Norwich Union when Harold Gordon Corsbie joined the Life Society in March 1900. A great grandson of Joseph Corsbie he appears in this group photograph of Life Society staff, looking much younger than his 18 years.
Harold Gordon Corsbie can also be identified in two cartoons produced to mark the move of the Life Society into its new offices in Surrey House in 1904. Here he is moving with his typewriter across the road to his new abode.
Harold stayed with the company until at least 1914 and cashed in his company life policy in 1924 before emigrating with his family to Australia the following year.
Harold was still with Norwich Union when these decorations were put up in Surrey Street to mark the coronation of George V in June 1911. The banner spanned the street between the head offices of the two societies and Harold probably had to pass under it to get to work.
It is also likely that he is somewhere in this photograph of life office staff in the Marble Hall of Surrey House at around the same date.
By 1911 another Corsbie had joined the Fire Society across the road in Bignold House; her name was Elsie Gertrude Corsbie who joined the society in 1911 as a typist in the fledgling typing section. The Fire Society had first employed women in the Norwich head office in 1906 and the board minutes of 7th February that year record the decision to form a Typing Department:
“consisting of six lady typists with a member of the current staff to be appointed superintendent to act as an intermediary between the typists and the departments.”
The staff member chosen was Percy Noverre whose family had a long association with Norwich Union and who had come to insurance late in life having been a dancing master in Norwich (the family was well known in dancing and the Noverre ballroom in the Norwich Assembly Rooms was named after them). This photograph shows Percy and the lady staff, including Elsie, in around 1914.
According to the memoires of another long-serving member of staff, Geoff Hart, Percy Noverre’s role was to prevent fraternisation between the clerks and the lady typists.
Elsie was Joseph’s great granddaughter, the daughter of Ernest Corsbie, and she moved to London with her father and the rest of the Marine Department during the First World War. The war may well have been the reason Elsie never married. When war ended, she returned to Norwich to the Secretarial Department where she spent some time as personal secretary to Sir Robert Bignold, the 5th generation and last of the Bignolds to run Norwich Union. She remained with the department until 1948 when she retired after 37 years’ service. Elsie was the last Corsbie to work for Norwich Union and her retirement ended an unbroken 138 years of family service.
There was, however, another descendant of Joseph Corsbie who worked for Norwich Union. His name was Geoffrey William Cecil Corsbie who joined Norwich Union Fire in April 1935, and was the 5th generation of Corsbies to join the society – and the great-great grandson of Joseph Corsbie. Geoffrey worked in the Workmen’s Compensation Department and died in 1944 at the early age of 28. The notice of his death in the staff magazine indicates that he was never physically very fit and remembers his skill on the piano accordion and his ability to mend all things mechanical, especially watches and clocks.
Source: Gratitude and thanks to Anna Stone of Heritage.Aviva who made this blog possible. She contributed most of the information and supporting images contained herein; exceptions are annotated otherwise.
Emanuel Cooper was an obstetrician but first and foremost he was an eye specialist. Born in 1803 in Birkby, Huddersfield in Yorkshire and was baptised in its 11th century St Peter’s Church.
He went on to study in Yorkshire and eventually was awarded his LSA (Licentiate Society of Apothecaries, London) in 1828 before setting up a practice in Norwich by early 1830s. White’s 1836 Directory lists his occupation as Surgeon and his address at that time was Red Well [now Redwell] Street. According to Piggot’s 1839 Directory, Cooper had purchased and moved into his Tombland home, a house (long since demolished) which stood adjacent to the Erpingham Gate which leads from Tombland into the Cathedral Close. This house was described as having had columns at the front entrance.
Dr Cooper was certainly regarded in Norwich as a generous man, but also one who was quite eccentric. Ralph Hale Mottram, the son and grandson of the principal bankers at Gurney’s Bank, Norwich, described him thus:
“Dr Emanuel Cooper was, even in remote, isolated, provincial Norwich, full of unusual people, a ‘character’ only redeemed from being an ‘oddity’ by a very high professional reputation ….. Of Yorkshire extraction and mildly Quaker persuasion he had ……. the reputation of being the foremost accoucheur (obstetrician, gynaecologist) in the Norwich district…..”
In 1862, and seemingly totally in character, Dr Cooper accepted the position of Honorary Assistant to what had been named the 1st Norfolk Mounted Rifle Volunteer Corps when it was first formed during the previous year. At the time of his appointment, in September 1862, the Corp. became known as the 1st Norfolk Light Horse. Nothing more is known about Cooper’s involvement with the military, or his responsibilities as an ‘Honorary Assistant’; and we can only speculate what part he may have played, if any, during the following ‘showpiece’ which took place on Mousehold Heath in March of the following year:
Around 1865-86 Anna Julia Pearson (1838-1913), born in 1841 at Wreningham, South Norfolk, became Emanuel Cooper’s mistress; she at least twenty years younger than he. Little is known about Anna’s life and she never married Cooper. There were two children born to Anna but there is no evidence that Cooper fathered them and they were born before she moved into 36 Victoria Street, Norwich; a house that Cooper owned but never lived in himself.
The children were named Charles Arthur (1862 – April 1904), and Ada Nemesis (1864-1956) and were probably not born in Norwich at all. Later legal documents refer to both children as “strangers in blood” to Dr Cooper. Why Anna Julia Pearson came to Norwich and who fathered her two children are not known, neither is whether “Pearson” was her maiden or married name. To his credit, Cooper supported Anna and her children fairly comfortably and left her economically secure for life. The fact that she gave her daughter the middle name of “Nemesis” may indicate that she had not felt nearly so secure at the time of Ada’s birth.
It is said that Cooper formally adopted both children as his own, and in a Will dating from August 1866, when his daughter was only two years old, bequeathed her a fortune. R.H. Mottram, In his biography of John and Ada Galsworthy titled “For Some We Loved” he described Mrs Anna Pearson as ‘a very stately figure, full-bosomed and full-skirted, a fine woman … of yeoman stock’.
Then there was the letter written to Helen Flood by a relative in June 1933 (Norfolk Record Office MC 630/29 784X2) offers a few more glimpses of what was seen as ‘the Coopers’:
“When a boy, P often saw Dr Cooper walking across Tombland with his wife. May I say it without any offence, a Darby & Joan* – he with his black coat and white hair, and her with a crinoline dress. I do not remember her wearing any other. There was a personalus about them which impressed your memory and it would be well if the present-day young folks would follow their example.”
(*Darby & Joan is a proverbial phrase for a married couple living a placid, harmonious life together and are seldom seen apart.)
“A prominent obstetrician in Norwich during the 1860s and 1870s, Dr Cooper was fond of making elaborate wills. He first mentions Ada [his adopted daughter] in a will dated 24 August 1866, describing her as less than two years’ old and living with her brother, Arthur Charles, two years older than she, and her mother at 36 Victoria Street in Norwich, a house Dr Cooper owned but did not live in. Little is known about the life of Anna Julia Pearson (1838-1913), Ada’s mother. She never married Dr Cooper and there is no evidence that he fathered her children or knew her at all before 1865 or 1866…….
Of Yorkshire extraction and mildly Quaker persuasion he had, by the time of Ada’s birth, the reputation of being the foremost accoucheur in the Norwich district, in which so many remarkable names have been made in the medical world, from the times of Dr Caius and Sir Thomas Browne to the present day …. I can say only that the best known fact of his private life was that he employed his leisure in planning and seeing built a handsome, and I think stylistically correct, Mausoleum, midget in dimension, but in the classic taste, which is still the most conspicuous object in the Rosary Cemetery at Norwich today. Here, on Sunday afternoons, he used to sit, smoking a clay pipe and (possibly) reflecting on our future state …. Called to the bedsides of the titled, landed and what we nowadays feel to have been incredibly privileged classes, to preside over the entry into the world of future lords and ladies, members of Parliament and county hostesses, I fancy he began to think that he was no ordinary mortal. The proof is to be found in the long list of noble names set down to be executors of his Will, not one of whom ever acted in that capacity.”
Emanuel Cooper died, in January 1878 and his death notice stated:
“We regret having to report that the lengthened career of this successful surgeon terminated rather suddenly on Saturday evening at a few minutes to ten o’clock. He made the ‘eye’ his special study and was considered an authority on its treatment. He also took a great interest in the Norwich Blind Institution and devoted much of his time to it. He was the oldest practitioner in Norwich, and died at an advanced age. He will be buried on Tuesday at the Rosary, where under his direction, a mausoleum has been for some years erected.”
The one executor who did serve and who managed the family’s financial affairs was Ralph’s father, James Mottram. When Emanuel Cooper died, his elaborate fifteen page Will, (dated 22 April 1870) left £3,000 for “my adopted daughter Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper”, and the same sum for “my adopted son”. He added the stipulation that no one was to be buried in his mausoleum except his adopted son, adopted daughter, “their mother Anna Julia Pearson”, and his servant, Maria Bayes (the latter two were also left considerable sums).
As for Dr Cooper’s mausoleum – it is the only such structure in the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich. The only remains it contains are those of Dr Cooper; a vault situated below the mausoleum does contain the remains of Anna Julia Pearson Cooper, Cooper’s wife, who died in 1913 in Newport, Essex, and of Charles Arthur Pearson Cooper, their son, who died in April 1904 in Kensington, London. The railings surrounding the mausoleum (and perhaps also the ironwork) were made by J Barnes whose foundry was based at Church Street, St Miles, Norwich.
Footnote: Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper (adopted daughter of Dr Emanual Cooper of Norwich) married the writer John Galsworthy; he based his novel, ‘Jolyon’ on their relationship. His more famous novel was ‘The Forsyth Saga’ – a story about the vicissitudes of the leading members of a large commercial upper middle class English family – similar to his own – is believed by his biographers and people who knew him to have been based on his own life.
The firm of John Barnes was listed in the 1865 Kelly’s Post Office Directory as “iron and brass founder, Church Street, St Miles” but the foundry was to be known variously as Barnes Ironworks, Barnes and Pye as a partnership (between Jacob Pye [a son?] and John Youngs – dissolved on the latter’s death in 1929) and as a company (Barnes and Pye Ltd from 1962 until dissolved in 2006) and also as the St. Miles Foundary. Their products included joists, beams, columns, manhole covers, standpipes (examples still in Maddermarket and Dereham Road), sturdy fittings for the gates of churchyards and the like – and they supplied the ironwork for Edward Boardman’s new Royal Hotel in Prince of Wales Road, built by John Youngs & Son and completed in late 1897.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
This blog was inspired by an essay by J K Edwards back in 1967 when he looked back at the changes that had taken place at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital during the time it was located at its old city centre site on St Stephens Street. However, I was initially thrown by his opening sentence when he wrote: “To understand the matter of the chimney we have to go back 200 years”; but from there on, things began to fall into place with a concluding, but all too brief, explanation at the end.
He considered that both Norwich and the County of Norfolk prospered during the 18th and early 19th centuries and their peoples increased yearly in numbers; however – and according to modern thinking, living conditions were bad then, even for thrifty working-class people where there was only a small margin between being able to “manage” and being forced to depend on charity. Also, the philosophy of the times was hard:
“God had created the high and the low, work was part of the process of salvation, and only if you were diligent and God-fearing would all be well in this world and the next”.
Unfortunately, accident and disease, along with horse-drawn traffic and squalid living conditions produced plenty of each, either of which could bring even the most deserving family to the verge of starvation:
“What confusion and distress must enter a family when the father is overcome with one of the innumerable accidents and how deplorably wretchedness is increased when sickness visits any member of the family”, wrote one contemporary author.
The first firm proposal for a hospital for Norfolk and Norwich was made at a public meeting called by a Mr. William Fellowes, of Shotesham, in 1770. But even before then, certainly before 1754, Fellowes and a local surgeon by the name of Benjamin Gooch joined forces to set up one of the very first cottage hospitals in the country – and in Fellowes’s his own village of Shotesham by the way! He was, after all, Lord of the Manor and owned almost all the land and houses thereabouts but, at the same time, he did care for the people in his charge.
The idea of a new hospital for Norwich was, in fact, a late-comer in the wave of provincial hospital building, which had begun in the 1730’s. Certainly, by 1744, there was pressure for the City to have one of these new voluntary hospitals, although impetus was lost after 1761 when Thomas Hayter, Bishop of Norwich and a leading advocate, moved to a bishopric in London. Enter William Fellowes who was the one to call this open meeting in 1770, the moment when subscriptions were opened – kick-started by a fund-raising concert in Norwich Cathedral.
Very soon the Norwich City Council came on board when it made the St. Stephen’s site available at only a nominal rent, thus enabling the first steps towards fulfilling a dream. Subsequently, the sentiment towards the scheme was so great that funds of some £13,000 was raised, building plans adopted and the fabric fitted and furnished in little more than two years. In this way, a much improved Norfolk and Norwich Hospital came to the city.
The building was constructed in the form of a great figure ‘H’ and it had many of the characteristic features which, at the time, was considered very satisfying – red brick, beautiful proportions, large well-placed windows and a most imposing front porch and doorway; it “justifiably generated a great deal of local pride”. It therefore followed that when the hospital took its first seven in-patients in November, 1772, the event was marked by a celebration in the city.
The original rules of the hospital, as outlined by Edwards, threw an interesting light upon charitable attitudes of the times. It would appear that since public subscribers had provided the hospital, donors naturally expected to be able to see that their money was being well spent. A gift of two guineas brought governorship for a year and one of 20 guineas brought the same for life. All governors in turn had to visit the hospital every day for a week and:
“walk through the wards with White Wands in their hands and enquire of the patients whether the Physicians, Surgeons, Matron and Nurses had attended them agreeably, and enquiry of the Matron and Nurses whether the patients had all conducted themselves decently.”
One of the main local troubles was “the stone” for which people had to be “cut.” The stones extracted were kept in a special chest-of-drawers and put on public display; and so successful was “cutting” that after 20 years or so the chest was crammed so full that another had to be ordered. In fact, whatever the limitations and dangers, the hospital dealt with 12,000 people by the end of the 18th century and of these “upwards of 7000 have been dismissed in perfect health.”
On this subject, Dr. Benjamin Gooch’s accounts of ‘bladder stones’ are particularly interesting for he, along with John Harmer of Norwich, were the leading lithotomists of the first half of the 18th century when bladder stones in Norfolk were reputedly to be more common than anywhere else in the country. The Norwich Gazette, of 14th July 1746 (2071/2) reported one instance of a stone removal operation, which was conducted by John Harmer, with Benjamin Gooch assisting:
“On Sunday last (June 8th) was cut for the stone by Mr John Harmer surgeon in this city, John Howse, a gardener from Poringland aged 48 years, from whom he extracted a stone of prodigious magnitude; measuring 12 inches one way and eight the other and weighed upwards of fourteen and a half ounces; and is said to be the largest ever extracted from any person who recovered the operation, as this man is likely to do, not yet having had a bad symptom” ….. and a week later:
“John Howse …… is in a final way of recovery and is judged to be out of danger. Mr Harmer has cut for the stone upwards of 170 persons, and that with as much success as any man living, but never extracted one so large before.” (Norwich Gazette 21/7/1746).
As an aside:- John Harmer is buried in Stoke Holy Cross churchyard, his monument bears carvings of his lithotomy instruments.
Benjamin Gooch said of the operation:
“It was found impracticable to extract the stone through a wound of common size, which the operator had made, or to break it by the force of the forceps, therefore at his desire I divided the parts occasionally, as he continued gentle extraction. The stone was of hard texture and was covered by a substance like spar of a considerable thickness on many parts of its surface.”
The wound remained in a foul and bad condition and was made worse by the continued wetting of urine which prevented applications from healing it. The poor unhappy sufferer’s secret of how he managed to survive is revealed next. He [the patient] tempted a little favourite dog to lick the parts. It became such a habit for the little dog that whenever his master laid down and uncovered them he [the dog] immediately set to work with his tongue; this gave the sufferer a pleasing sensation; “As long as he lived his dog was his surgeon”, and the wound kept tolerably clean and easy “to his great comfort and satisfaction” as he [John Harmer] often told Gooch.
People today often question the effectiveness of medical treatment during years long past and, of course, there were many deficiencies. But it was the 18th century that brought forward many new ideas, like ventilation, sanitation and cleanliness. Equally, there were some people who held advanced views on many things. The then matron of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was judged to be “most unusually able” and as a result the hospital acquired a reputation for being “kept very neat and clean, not crowded with beds and well ventilated.” True, the floors were sanded in exactly the same way and for the same reasons that public-house floors were until comparatively recently, but they were swept daily and entirely washed each week. This by the standard of the times was cleanliness amounting almost to mania. One can doubt, too, the efficiency of medicines and surgery of those days, for drugs were very few and surgery without antiseptics was dangerous. Even so, cold baths, enforced rest, clean living conditions and dieting cannot have failed to be beneficial. As for surgery, the risks were perhaps fewer than we imagine.
The early years did, of course, present their problems. How to advance surgically was always difficult; but it was not unknown for the bodies of executed murderers to be provided for the hospital and doubtless there were other sources too – this helped. But money was always scarce and, in 1788, someone conceived the idea of a ‘Grand Musical Festival’ to help the Hospital’s Fund; this particular event was to be much grander than previous funding raising concerts in aid of the hospital. It proved such an enormous success that it was repeated three years later; after which it was decided to make the festival a permanent function, using St Peter Mancroft Church in the morning and St Andrew’s Hall in the evening. In 1824 the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial was founded. This event, known as the ‘Triennial’ continued for almost one hundred years, presenting a programme of concerts in St Andrew’s Hall. In time, the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and the Triennial went their separate ways but, importantly, they both continued to flourish.
If you had walked along St Stephen’s Road in 1967 – going away from the city – you would have seen the then new hospital chimney on the right, “rearing up like a rocket launcher, monstrous, a thing of no beauty”. Clearly, Edwards hated its massiveness and the domination it exercised over that part of the city of Norwich. But, in his opinion, the chimney symbolised progress – in medical science, in humanity and in ideas – but, equally, “one had to weigh-up the balance of advantages”. He concluded that all these developments were “well on the side of progress”.
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where possible, to obtain permission to use an owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with an owner), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.
The oldest part of Hellesdon is along Low Road, on the outskirts of Norwich and away from the vast, and all too familiar, Hellesdon housing estates on the other side of the Drayton Road. The village and its parish church lay in the settlement of Lower Hellesdon, beyond the former Hellesdon Hospital; this relatively small area still preserves something of its former rural character, despite its proximity to both the estates and modern Costessey. It is indeed fortunate to be on the fringe of the present-day Hellesdon community; for if it were to be in its centre then the original village would, by now, be suffocated by what must be a case of over development – a continuing trend one would suspect, that can only get worst. On the face of it – and so far, the village and its parish church of St Mary’s are indeed the fortunate ones!
St Mary’s is not the grandest or prettiest church to be found in Norfolk, indeed, some might feel that it is somewhat odd – from an architectural point of view that is! St Mary’s is small but tall for its size – if that makes sense? Furthermore, most parts appear disproportionate to the other. Take the southern facing porch for instance; it appears too tall for such a squat Saxon Nave, and with quite small and simple windows which let light enter the very small room over the main porch entrance; this, in turn, allows access into the body of the church. Entry to the small elevated room above the porch is via an external stair turret, as seen to the left of the porch. As for the lead-covered bell turret; well, this struggles in its attempt to look like a spire, above the short ‘stumpy’ Nave which, in turn, is not helped by the addition of a north aisle – all be it having been built way back in the 14th century.
St Mary’s has, in the distance past, been referred to as the ‘church without land’ and is recorded as far back as in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is also believed, by some at least, that the old church or chapel that stood on this site marked the spot where King Edmund was interred and martyred in 869. One version of the story goes like this:
In 985, Abbo of Fleury, who at Ramsey Abbey (Cambridgeshire) compiled the ‘Life of St Edmund’, in which he writes of hearing the Archbishop relate a story that came from a young man who had heard it from a very old man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour bearer at the time of his death. On his capture, Edmund was whipped and tied to a tree, and shot with arrows. He was then beheaded and his head thrown into a bramble thicket in Hegelisdun Wood – hence the association with Hailesduna, present-day Hellesdon? The King’s head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and according to the story, the body was buried in a small chapel built nearby for the purpose. The site of the chapel is believed, again by some, to be where the present church of St Mary’s stands. However, some suggest otherwise, with Lyng (only a few miles away) offered up as one possibility!
Joe Mason wrote a blog back in 2015 when he said: “……..I must outline some of the story concerning the king’s [Edmund] death. This tale was written down by a French monk about a hundred years after the events described took place. In the manuscript [see previous quote] the location that was attacked by the invading Danes was a few miles downstream from Lyng at Hellesdon. This event is commemorated on the village sign at Lower Hellesdon, but for some unfathomable reason it is not believed by any academic historian. I think they must live in their ivory towers and have never got their feet muddy in Norfolk……The monk goes on to say that the King was buried a few miles away from Hellesdon, and a humble chapel was erected over his tomb [at Lyng?]. The king’s body did not stay in Norfolk very long, and well before a century had passed his body was re-interred at the place now known as Bury St Edmunds. The king’s body lay in Norfolk for less than 75 years and to this day everyone is unsure where…..”
Joseph C. W. Mason’s latest book ‘St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066’ (see the above link) says so much more on the subject.
Not to put too finer a point on it – this story remains one of dispute, depending whether you live in Norfolk or Suffolk. But Hellesdon did stake its claim when images of St Mary’s Church, the dead body of King Edmund, and the wolf that stood guard over Edmund, found their way on to the village sign.
It used to be thought that the whole of the present church was 14th century, but now historians recognise that both the Nave and Chancel are much earlier – possibly between 1040 and 1120. The clue lies in the fact that both these parts of the church are built with whole flints laid in mortar, whereas the walls of the 14th century North Aisle are built of ‘knapped’ flints – whole flints having been cut to reveal flat shiny Surfaces.
St Mary’s may well have languished in insignificancy, or even faded completely from history, had it not been for a group of 14th century benefactors. One happened to be John de Heylesdon, he being a local man who became a citizen and merchant of London; he was supported by his wife Joan. Then there were John’s parents, Richard de Heylesdon and Beatrice; following close behind was Walter de Berney, yet another local man who also became a citizen and merchant of London – but he reaching the heights of Sheriff there in 1360.
The church might also be grateful to John de Heylesdon for its bell, which is the oldest surviving in Norwich and an item which, along with the contruction of the bellcote and steeple, was probably funded by de Heylesdon. This belief in his generosity is supported by the fact that this solitary bell is inscribed “JOHNES DE HEYLESDON ME FECIT FIERI IN HONORE MATRS CRESTI WILELLMVS DE NORWYCO ME FECIT” – Translated as ‘John de Helesdon caused me to be in honore of the Mother of Christ. William of Norwich made me’. As for its sound; well, this has been familiar to the Hellesdon community for generations, but it is probably very likely that few have ever actually seen it as access to the bellcote is very restricted, and in this day and age deemed perilous.
According to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones, who compiled a very readable booklet, titled ‘Notes on the History of St Mary’s Church, Hellesdon’ (and from which the historical content of this blog is largely based – incidentally, copies of which can be purchased at the church for a mere £2 donation); also included reference to another incumbent of St Mary’s:
“In 1362/63 the three men [mentioned above] obtained the manor and advowson – the right to present a clergyman to the living. It appears that Richard de Heylesdon had died by 1379 when the other two men presented Richard de Taseburgh to the living. They could have followed the example of other church benefactors and replaced the old building [St Mary’s] with one entirely new. However, it seems they loved the building, which even then, was old and contented themselves by making additions to it.”
These additions came in the form of a newly constructed north aisle and, it is believed, a two-storey porch on the south side of the chancel. Credit for these must clearly go to John de Heylesdon and his group of fellow benefactors. The addition to the 14th century north aisle runs the entire length of the church and, in effect, doubles its size. Of course, at the time of construction, little thought could have been given to the aesthetic nature of having an additional wing on only one side of the church, along with a disproportionate sized porch on the opposite south side; these only contribute to the overall ‘odd’ appearance of the present-day building.
On the outside, St Mary’s is pleasantly surrounded on all four sides by a neatly kept churchyard, broken only by one path on the north side which connects the church proper with the church hall, a less than well-kept car park, but a neatly kept churchyard extention beyond. On the south side a path connects the front entrance to a war memorial on the right, a small parking area with graves beyond, and the front porch to the left.
Into the porch and one is met with a neat, clean and plain looking enclosure which because of its simplicity has something of a calming effect as one prepares to enter into the nave beyond. On the porch ceiling are two bosses of a man and a woman – who are they the visitor might well ask. No one really knows, but one could reasonably speculate that they are perhaps the portraits of John and Joan de Heylesdon who, together with other benefactors, came to the rescue of St Mary’s centuries ago.
Again, according to Freda M. Wilkins-Jones: “the construction of the porch partly obstructed one of the original nave windows which, when viewed from the churchyard shows that part of the window was filled in. What is not so obvious is that the other part of that window still exists, as an alcove in the room over the porch. This small but charming room, with its lovely views of the southern part of the churchyard and the Wensum Valley beyond, its fireplace and chimney with its ‘squint’ (which at one time gave a view of the high altar) is now used by the Sunday School. There can be few Sunday Schools priviledged to have accommodation of such character.”
Stepping inside, one can see a well-kept interior which, nevertheless, is somewhat austere, given its narrowness and height. It begs the question as to what does this church really need in this day and age? But this question doesn’t detract from some of the attractive aspects of this church. Take the low-sided window in the south wall of the chancel for instance one of around fifty such windows to survive in Norfolk Churches. We are told that in medieval times it would have had a wooden shutter through which, during the daily celebration of Mass, a handbell would be rung so that those working at their tasks in the fields, or their homes, could pause, cross themselves and so take part in the service. Fortunately, this particular window has not been filled in; however, in 1858 when this window was unglazed, thieves entered through it, after which, it was glazed but the shutter and ironwork retained. Sometime thereafter the wooden shutter itself was removed and in 1953 a beautiful stain-glass window was installed, depicting the Virgin Mary and Child; this replaced the window damaged by bombing in 1942. Despite this, in 1987 it was vandalised, but was quickly repaired with an external transparent screen being mounted to prevent further assaults.
The present two-manual organ on the north side of the church was built by F. Browne and came from St Mary’s Church in Eastwell, Kent in 1949. Initially, the organ console was placed in the north aisle itself so that the organist sat with his back to the congregation. The carved lattace screen depicting the Benedicite was positioned to mask the organ pipes. The console was later moved to its present position so that the organist now sits behind a stone screen with his back to the chancel and the choir. For a while, the Benedicite screen looked somewhat isolated until an oak-sided altar and furnishings were place below the screen in 1970.
John de Heylesdon was granted his wish to be buried in St Mary’s, alongside the tomb of his parents which was originally situated in what was then the Chantry; it and three other tombstones remained there until 1949 when they were moved into the main north aisle proper in order to make way for the organ. Set in the floor of the north aisle and protected by a blue carpet are the brasses to the memory of John de Heylesdon and Joan his wife; theirs is written in Latin; that of his parents are written in Norman French.
Despite what has been said about this church, it remains lovely place for many and, thank goodness, it has a special character of its own which needs preserving; the church is unique and clearly provides an invaluable service to the Hellesdon community – all be it from its fringes. With this in mind, would the thoughts of a visitor be admissible? Such as one who suggests that the powers-to-be may have a mind to consider the replacement of its Victorian pews with ‘flexible’ seating more in keeping with present-day needs.
Those who may feel that this suggestion would be sacrilege should ponder on the fact that many church pews date from just the 19th century before when, churches and their interiors were more open and flexible in their use. It is only over the last 150 years or so that congregations have had to experience rigid pews; this period of time has been but minuscule in the context of the time church worship has been in existence. So, has the time come to get rid of pews? Certainly, with St Mary’s, the present access along the central aisle, together with the amount of space in and around the point where the nave meets the chancel, suggests possible problems for the likes of wedding ceremonies and funerals – heaven forbid that any pall-bearer should ever trip over!