Oliver Fellows Tomkins, to give him his full name, was born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, the fourth son of the Daniel Tomkins. His formal education began in his father’s school in the town before travelling to Switzerland for a short time to complete it. He then spent five years working in business in Norwich, during which time he joined Dr George Barrett’s Congregational Church in Princes Street. Later, Tomkins become a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.
The original Princes Street Congregational Church was opened in 1819 with John Alexander becoming its “Founder and First Pastor”, and one of the most popular ministers in and around Norwich from 1819 to 1866 at what is now the United Reformed Church. Dr George Barrett took over the church reigns following the death of Revd John Alexander.
Tomkins was clearly smitten with evangelism for during college holidays and half-terms, he would preach to the North Sea fishermen and volunteer for mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan, whilst camping at night. He was therefore delighted when, eventually he was appointed to work as a missionary in the Torres Straits of New Guinea. Half of his financial support for this mission was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped to pay enthusiastic bearers of ‘God’s word’ to go to many far-flung places in the world.
Tomkins sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse in December 1899; they were to join the Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea, the territory where Chalmers himself was to ignore calls from his friends to leave and return to England when his second wife died. His refusal, along with the arrival of Tomkins was to have consequences for both of them some sixteen months later.
But for the moment, Chalmers was pleased with the arrival of Tomkins, who would share the burden of his large district. According to Chalmers:
“Throughout Mrs. Chalmers’s last illness, Tomkins [was] “a great help and a great comfort.” No son could have treated me kindlier than he did.”
In his young colleague Tomkins, Chalmers saw reasons for hoping that he might have more time to return to his pioneer work. A few months after Tomkins’s arrival, Chalmers again sent a brief message to the Mission House regarding Tomkins: “He will do”; and that opinion was confirmed again, and again in the months that followed. Dr. William George Lawes was to call them, “the intrepid Paul and the beloved Timothy.”
But we move on – to 7 April 1901 to be exact. This was when Tomkins and Chalmers were on board the ‘Niue’ and had arrived at the Aird River at Kisk Point on Goaribari Island. The last entry in Tomkins’ diary indicates what happened next:
“In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching ……. They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board. Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them …… On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”
Neither of the Niue two missionaries, nor the twelve native Christians who accompanied them were seen after this visit to the natives. What really happened was only ascertained a month later, when George Le Hunte, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony, visited the Aird River with a punitive expedition, and heard the story from a captured prisoner. This was quoted from an account supplied by the Rev Archibald Ernest Hunt, who accompanied the Lieutenant-Governor:
“The Niue anchored off Kisk Point on 7 April and a crowd of natives came off. As it was near sunset, ‘Tamate’ [the native name for John Chalmers] gave them some presents, and made signs that they were to go away, and the next day he would visit them ashore. At daylight the next morning, a great crowd of natives came off and crowded the vessel in every part. They refused to leave, and in order to induce them to do so, Tamate gave Bob, the captain, orders to give them presents. Still, they refused to move, and then Tamate said he would go ashore with them, and he told Tomkins to remain on board. The latter declined, and went ashore with Tamate, followed by a large number of canoes. When they got ashore, the whole party were massacred and their heads cut off. The boat was smashed up, and the clothing etc. distributed. All the bodies were distributed and eaten, Tomkins being eaten at the village of Dopima, where they were all killed.”
But just like most stories aimed at a reading public; the writers kept to the old adage ‘don’t let the facts spoil a good story’! One suggested that the ships party was invited back to the native’s village and into a newly constructed ‘Dubu’ for refreshments; clearly, if this was true, the two did not recognise the significance of entering such a communal house – which was for fighting men and could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice! Tomkins and Chalmers were clearly ‘taken in’ by the welcome; neither could they have seen any meaning behind the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut, a picture of stark contrast!
True or false, it was the case that other fellow missionaries had already reported similar sights elsewhere; of smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community. So, some may have thought, what on earth were the two men thinking, when clearly it was common knowledge that there were cannibalistic traditions in the region, a place where the missionaries were trying to bring the word of God!
But for Tomkins and Chalmers it would be too late; no sooner had they taken their places, seated at ground level along one side of the large laid-out spread, when each was clubbed from behind and killed. It was also said that their bodies were prepared and cooked with a variety of sago dishes, cooked with shell-fish, boiled with bananas, roasted on stones, baked in the ashes and tied up in leaves, – to be served as the main course, a feast that had been promised to the victims! Afterwards, their bones were kept on display and seemingly, the native’s ‘Dubu’ house had been suitably blessed by their preferred Gods!
Back home, relatives and friends undoubtedly mourned the loss of Oliver Tomkins and the church he once worshiped in, the Princes Street Congregational Church, held a memorial service for Tomkins. Members afterwards subscribed to a plaque which they placed inside the church building in his memory; it remains there to this day.
Some images in this blog are believed to be outside copyright. However, if anyone has any information to the contrary, would they please write via our ‘Contact Us’ page so that matters can be rectified and the correct attribution applied.
Major William Mordaunt Marsh Edwards, VC, DL was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Edwards’ Early life: He was born on 7 May 1855 at Hardingham Hall, in the village of Hardingham, Norfolk; the son and heir of Henry William Bartholomew Edwards, and Caroline Marsh, formerly of Gaynes Park, Epping, Essex. Due to his wealthy upbringing, he was educated privately at Rottingdean, at Eton, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree at Cambridge; instead he joined the Army. He was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant on the Unattached List on 22 March 1876, then in January 1877 joined the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot, with the rank of lieutenant.
His Victoria Cross: Edwards was 27 years old, and serving as a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry during the British occupation of Egypt, when the following deed of his took place and for which he was awarded the Victorious Cross.
It was on 13 September 1882 at Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, when Lieutenant Edwards led a party of the Highland Light Infantry which stormed a ‘Redoubt’. He was the one who rushed forward alone and in advance of his party, entered the battery and immediately killed the artillery officer in charge. In the melee, Edwards was knocked down by a a rammer, welded by an enemy gunner and was rescued only by the timely arrival of three men of his regiment. Edwards was severely wounded.
Edwards’ Later career: Edwards was promoted to captain on 23 March 1887 and served as adjutant of the 3rd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry from 1 January 1892 and until 1 November 1893; almost two years later, on 4 September 1895, he was promoted to major and retired from the army on 11 November 1896. On 19 February 1899, on the nomination of Lord Belper, he was appointed one of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms, and on 13 August 1900 he was commissioned as a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Norfolk.
Major William Mordaunt Marsh Edwards, VC died Hardingham Hall, Norfolk on 17 September 1912; he was aged 57 years. He was buried in St George’s Churchyard, Hardingham, Norfolk; an impressive place, sitting as it does on St Georges Mount but somewhat isolated. The mount is, as the name suggests, a rise in the ground which is framed by a sandy track and the large old rectory. Inside the church, is a window in the west wall which commemorates Major William Mordaunt Marsh Edwards VC. On the north wall is a memorial window to a family descendent, William Bartle Marsh Edwards of the Rifle Brigade, who was killed in action in Tunisia in 1943.
Grave of Major Edwards VC in St George’s Churchyard, Norfolk.
Memorial window to Major Edwards in St George’s Church, Hardingham.
Footnote: There are three other Norfolk recipients of the Victoria Cross: Cpl Harry Cator (b Drayton), Capt David Jamieson (b Thornham) and Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (b Swaffham) Hardingham churchyard also contains three CWGC graves. The will form part of a future blog.
We are in the centre of Norwich, in that part of St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard that sits on the north side the Church. This half the whole churchyard, which extends on both sides of the church, is the larger and does not seem to suffer the unfavourable associations that the northern side of church graveyards usually have to put up with. It is the side which is the nearest to the market place and divided by a path which allows visitors to enter the church through the northern side door.
Here is an ‘altar’ styled tomb – in fact the only tomb in the whole of the Church’s churchyard still standing upright and proud; most other headstones have long been laid flat at ground level. This particular tomb is a finely carved family sort of tomb, one of those big box-shaped ones now, in the present-day, being slowly destroyed by moss and the constant weathering from the trees that overhang it. At one end, facing full on to the path that takes visitors into the church, is an inscription which refers to the main family member, that of John Harrison Yallop. At the other end of the tomb, facing the Forum, is an oval cartouche, within which is the following inscription:
is dedicated to the
Talents and Virtues of
Sophia Ann Goddard
15th March 1801 aged 25
The Former shone with superior
Lustre and Effect
in the great School of Morals,
while the Latter
inform’d the private Circle of Life
with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners
that still live in the memory
Of Friendship and
(Photos above: Haydn Brown 2019.)
This inscription is intriguing, it suggests that there is a real story hereabouts; maybe there are several stories, all interlinked one would assume. In the absence of any facts to the contrary, it must be assumed that Miss Goddard’s remains found their way into this Yallop family tomb shortly after her funeral in 1801; John Yallop followed thirty-four years later when it might have been previously arranged that he would rejoin Sophia there. As to answering the question as to why she, a Goddard, would join these family members; well, at the time of her death she had been betrothed to John Harrison Yallop.
One thing needs to be agreed between writers on the subject of whether this is a Yallop or Bolingbroke tomb! This article favours it being a Yallop family tomb, despite references to the Bolingbroke name. Mary Yallop, John’s sister married Nathaniel Bolingbroke and both are there – John does speak of ‘his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ at some later date. The other references to the Bolingbroke name are two older members – so, the matter is debateable! The other point is, that with the exception of John Yallop, nowhere does it say that the others are ‘buried’ in the tomb; the inscriptions are headed simply ‘In Memory’; the exception to this heading is, of course, the notable inscription dedicated to the young actress with whom John Harrison Yallop fell in love.
Strange therefore that there is no reference on the tomb to John Yallop’s wife of some fourteen years, Mary Ann Yallop (nee’ Watts) who died in 1833 – two years before her husband. Not so strange when we discover that, their marriage, in 1819, became an empty relationship. In 1820 John completed building his fine house at Eaton Grange but he did not live much there. More oddly still, his wife did not live there either. In the words of R.H. Mottram, in his book The Speaking Likeness:
“He bought a neighbouring property and installed her in it, either from some deep emptiness that she, good if ordinary woman as she must have been – or why did he marry her? – could never fill. She died while he was in his sixties, so that her separate establishment cannot have been a mere provision made for her widowhood. He himself migrated to Brighton where he died in June 1835……”
From this, we could reach the understandable assumption that the information detailed on her husband’s grave, in St Peter Mancroft’s churchyard, shows that John Harrison Yallop never lost the love he had for Sophia Ann Goddard. Also, it would seem to indicate that he preferred to be accompanied in the afterlife with those he felt the most closest to on earth. Sophia Ann Goddard was the strongest contender for this distinction since the inscription dedicated to her is an affectionate reminder of his love for this actress – the wording would clearly suggest so!
Sophia Ann Goddard was born in 1776, her parents were Florimond and Sophia Goddard, of whom nothing more is known. It may not be safe to suggest that Miss Goddard was educated and brought up in south eastern area of England but she did make her first stage appearance at Margate, Kent in July 1797 at twenty-one years of age. Within a month of her debut, the Monthly Mirror reported from Margate that:
“A Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, has played several characters with some promise; but her friends have certainly over-rated here talents”
By the 10th November 1797 it had been announced from Margate that Miss Goddard had made her first appearance in London as Laetitia Hardy in Mrs Centlivre’s ‘The Belle’s Stratagem’ at Dury Lane Theatre, a role which she was to repeat with much success in Norwich in a later year. London was enthusiastic, the critics less so according to the Monthly Mirror of November of that year, declaring:
“This young lady has fallen sacrifice to the art of puffing. She has been placed at the head of the school before she has imbibed the rudiments of knowledge………….[her talents were] “not of a primary nature”
Evidently, the Dury Lane Theatre management agreed with the newspaper, for her next performance of Letitia Hardy, on the 14th November 1797, was her last appearance in a London theatre. Undaunted, according to a much later provincial newspaper, Sophia Ann returned to Margate to continue her desire for success with determination. She appeared to be nothing, if not, a trier and was soon making progress – all be it the hard way:
“Puppy teeth were cut, experience gained while her talents pointed for the first tune, with certainty, at a capability that extended far beyond mere good looks and a pleasing personality”.
Within the year, the Monthly Mirror itself was forced to admit that “Miss Goddard, about whom the papers have been very busy, played several characters with promise”. By December 1798 she had chosen Norwich where she first secured lodgings with a Mrs Curtis of St Gregory’s parish; the same lodgings which had been used by another famous actress, Mrs Sarah Siddons (nee’ Kemble) in 1788. Sophia Ann then joined the ‘stock company’ of actors and actresses at the Theatre Royal; and it was here where she soon became a popular and favourite actress, particulary amongst the County’s gentry. It was also said at the time that she was ‘a particularly graceful dancer’ as well. But it was for her acting that Miss Goddard received most admiration. Her acting of Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ was particularly well received, whilst it was reported of her performance in Jane Shore by the Norwich Mercury on 12th January, 1799:
“Miss Goddard to greater advantage that we ever remember to have seen her. The last scene was given to such effect that she loses nothing by comparison with Mrs Siddons, whom we recollect in the same character.”
For the next sixteen months, or so, life appeared to be full for Sophia Ann. She the leading feminine ‘box-office draw’ and playing all the stock leads of the day, often opposite John Brunton, the celebrated actor-manager who, incidently, was a Norwich born man who was to create a family acting dynasty of his own. Sophia Ann also combined her career at the Norwich Theatre Royal with other theatres included on the East Anglia Circuit; all this along with socialising with her many friends and admirers, one of whom was the 38 year-old John Harrison Yallop.
It could well be assumed, from the inscription that ultimately appeared on John Yallop’s grave, that he became besotted with Miss Goddard. One can imagine him rushing round to the stage door after one particular and early performance by Sophia Ann, in an attempt to persuade the person in charge of the Stage Door to allow him admission so that he could ‘introduce’ himself. The ploy must have worked because the two were soon engaged with plans to marry. Unfortunately, time would reveal all too soon that Miss Goddard was not only ill, but her health was deteriorating fast. She died of consumption on the 15th March 1801 at the age of only 25 years. This brought an abrupt end to the couple’s relationship and she would miss out on a marriage to someone who was an ‘up and coming’ man of distinction in Norwich; someone who would become rich and, in some ways, a powerful influence in local and national politics.
Unlike Miss Goddard, John Harrison Yallop had been born in the City of Norwich, the son of William Yallop who was a ‘Glover’. It is unclear, whether it was before or after Miss Goddard’s death, when John Yallop became a partner in the firm of Dunham & Yallop, goldsmiths which was situated on the corner of Davey Place and The Walk. Sir John had a house in Willow Lane, just off St Giles and a short walk from the shop opposite the market place where the business traded in jewellery, precious metals and stones. Having been appointed an agent for the Government Lottery of that day, the shop also sold its tickets to subscribers. On one occasion, so the story goes, John Yallop had two tickets left, one he returned, the other he bought – and won! With the proceeds, which was considerable, he built himself the fine country house, Eaton Grange, on the Newmaket Road in 1820 – the same house mentioned above and where he seldom lived. It is now a Girl’s High School.
John Yallop and his partner were to branch out into selling tea, coffee and cocoa and advertised these and every other commodity which they held on their premises – they called them ‘comestibles’. From their well positioned shop, on the Gentleman’s Walk, they formed a good connection with the public that purchased for the household. It was also on the ‘Walk’ where the gentlemen would rather pass up and down on the shop side so as to avoid the clamour and soiled pavements of the market stalls. JohnYallop also became an important money lender in Norwich; one of his debtors included his brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke, the very one who married Mary, his sister. It is interesting to note that when debtors were imprisoned at the suit of a money lender, that creditor was responsible for paying for the upkeep of the debtor. Records show that John Yallop paid for the upkeep of an unnamed imprisoned debtor. One wonders who that was?
Four years after Miss Goddard’s death, John Yallop was elected to the position of Sheriff of Norwich in 1805 and again in 1809, so he was on his way up both socially and professionally and politically. Then in 1815 he attained the public office of Mayor; it was also around this time that he met a Mary Ann Watts and married her in 1819 before he was again elected as Mayor in 1831. While he was Mayor, back in 1815, he travelled to London with his ‘brother-in-law Nathaniel Bolingbroke’ to present the City’s petition in favour of Parliamentary Reform to King William IV; this resulted in John Yallop being awarded a Knighthood. At the time it was said to have been quite an event which resulted in an amusing ditty being written which began:
“To the King, the Blues wished to present an address
By the Mayor – and their sense of reform to express”
The ditty goes on to describe how the Mayor and “Old Natty” coached to London, each hoping for a knighthood – but only one received it!
As for Sophia Ann Goddard, she died on the 15th March 1801 and was buried on 20th in the churchyard of St Peter Mancroft Church, which was very close to the theatre. in Norwich. The burial register identified her as a single woman from the Parish of St Stephens. Her Obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1801 reported that:
“15th March: Died in St Stephen’s Parish, Norwich, Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, who came forward with so much success at Dury Lane Theatre a few years ago. This lady obtained a considerable reputation on the Norwich stage, and was so much improved in theatrical merit that her talents would doubless have soon made their way to a secure establishment on the London boards. Her figure was elegant, her understanding excellent, her manners were amiable and her character in all respects was highly meritorious. She was in the prime of life, and promised more than any other performer now on the stage to suceed to that line of character which was so admirably sustained by the present Countess of Derby [Elizabeth Farren]“. “
The officiating Vicar of Miss Goddard’s funeral was the Reverend Peele who, pronounced the last sad but dignified sentences of her burial service before the slow, muted procession emerged on its short journey to the chosen plot on the northern edge of the church where she would be put to rest. There doesn’t appear to have been any definite mention of John Harrison Yallop being present at the time, but surely, as the main mourner it would have been inconceivable that he would be absent. It could also be imagined that he would have walked in procession alongside Mr Hindes, the theatre manager now that John Brunton was no longer in charge. They would have been joined by the actors of the day, such as Mr and Mrs Chestnut, Mrs Rivett, Mr George Bennett and his wife Harriet Morland, the daughter of an ancient family in Westmorland (parents: Jacob Morland of Killington, Dorothy Brisco of Kendal, and sister, Lady Shackerley of Somerford Hall). Both were actors in the Norwich Company of Comedians. Then there may have been Mr Lindoe.
On 20 March 1801 the Norfolk Chronicle brought the spectacle to and end when it reported:
“The remains of Miss Sophia Goddard, of the Theatre Royal, Norwich, were interred at St. Peter Mancroft. Mr. Hindes, the manager, and the principal actors attended on the melancholy occasion. This young lady had obtained considerable reputation on the Norwich boards, and was making rapid advance to eminence in her profession when death prematurely deprived the theatrical world of an actress whose talents would have ensured her success on any stage. She supported with great fortitude and resignation a long and painful illness, brought on by exertions that her constitution was unequal to, and died on Sunday last (March 15), in her 26th year, sincerely beloved and lamented by her family and friends.”
The final words are left to R H Mottram, a great nephew of John Harrison Yallop. He wrote in his book ‘The Speaking Likeness’:
“But there is something else which has made me want to tell this true story, with such filling-in of the gaps that local history does not scruple to leave in a local record. The story of John Harrison Yallop and his Sophia might well be dismissed as an ordinary, pretty tragedy making its limited appeal, too usual in its features to be noteworthy. But, it is not like that at all, and Sophia’s very pathetic demise happens to make all the difference”.
What was it that took place, once the brief [burial] ceremony just outside the porch of the Church of St Peter Mancroft was concluded? John Harrison Yallop turned away, sorrowful enough, heartbroken one may well believe, when one gazes at the miniature of a beautiful young woman, her appearance enhanced by the training in presentation she had received. Some friend, or member of the family that surrounded him, one hopes took his arm and led him home”.
1.The small portrait of Miss Sophia Ann Goddard, said to be by John Thirtle, was reproduced in a St Peter Mancroft publication in the 1950’s, namely the St Peter Mancroft Celebratory Programme for 1455 to 1955. The present location of that portrait, which perhaps at one time belonged John Harrison Yallop, and the Bolingbroke family, is unknown.
When next you are near St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, go to that tomb on the northern side of the church. Pause, look and imagine as to what really transpired during the all too brief relationship between a provincial businessman come politician and a young, beautiful actress.
2. Following the first publication of this blog in 2019 a brief but complimentary note was received from Mrs B. Miller, a member of St Peter Mancroft Church and someone who clearly cares for the tomb and the area in which it sits:
NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that, at least, 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 ever intentional.
Twelve years ago, on the 25 November 2010 to be exact, Bernard Matthews of Great Witchingham Hall and turkey fame died. That November date is otherwise of no significance here, but in the USA it denotes ‘Thanksgiving Day’ – which is often dubbed “Turkey Day”!
In 2010, Bernard Matthews had reached 80 years of age and his death ended a remarkable business career that started just after the World War II when he purchased a clutch of eggs and an incubator. He went on to make his fortune by cultivating the British taste for turkeys, whether they be plucked and oven-ready, tumbled, extruded, lubricated, breaded or shaped. All these choices were packaged into 120 assorted products, all produced within a multinational business that, by 2010, produced seven million turkeys a year, employed more than 2,000 people and had an annual turnover of more than £330m.
Bernard Trevor Matthews was born at Brooke, near Norwich, on 24 January 1930, the youngest of four children of a motor mechanic. He was a bright child and won a scholarship to Norwich Grammar School, but his early life was not an easy one. His father was regularly out of work and his mother worked as a cleaner to supplement the small amount of money that her husband did manage to bring home. When Bernard was 11, he and his sister had to move in with an aunt after their parents suddenly disappeared. They eventually returned, but divorced when Bernard was 16. After leaving school and then completing two years national service as an RAF clerk, Matthews found clerical work at a livestock auctioneers at 35 shillings a week. It was barely enough to live on, and he began casting around for a moneymaking hobby to supplement his income.
That lucrative hobby began, or so he thought, on the 8th May 1950 when he bid at auction for 20 turkey eggs and a paraffin oil incubator. They were knocked down to him for £2.50. Twelve of the eggs hatched but, as he had not built into his costs the money needed to feed those birds, the venture netted him far less than he had hoped; needless to say, he sold the chicks – to a neighbouring farmer for the equivalent of £9 today. Then, after resigning his position at the auction house in 1951 he became an insurance clerk with Commercial Union where the salary was appreciably better. He now had more money to spare and with that money he bought a second batch of turkeys and sold them on as day-old poults – baby turkeys. This may have been a touch fortutitous at the time since a gale force wind blew the turkey shelter away and the rest escaped. But, Bernard being Bernard, refused to give in and tried again. By 1952 he was selling over 3,000 turkeys a year and within 12 months thereafter he left his insurance role to become a full-time turkey farmer on a grand scale.
In 1955, backed by a £2,500 loan, he bought Great Witchingham Hall and 36 acres for £3000. The Hall was a dilapidated 80-roomed Elizabethan manor outside Norwich, near Lenwade, which had once been the home of Oliver Le Neve and John Norris, man of letters. He and his wife Joyce moved in, despite its broken walls and leaky ceilings and soon nicknamed it ‘Turkey Hall’. Several hundred turkeys also joined the young couple and apart from the bedroom in which he and his wife Joyce were to live, he put most of the turkeys in the grand reception rooms, turned the bedrooms into massive incubators and transformed the huge kitchen into a makeshift slaughterhouse. Matthews said at the time:
“People said I was crazy. The place was almost derelict, but it was the cheapest turkey house I could find. So it became the only stately home in England occupied by turkeys.”
He reckoned that, at 5p a square foot, it was considerably cheaper than the 30p a square foot he would have had to invest to build his own turkey sheds.
When Matthews began his business in the 1950s, turkey was a luxury item, seen exclusively as a Christmas treat for the better-off. The average turkey, a huge beast, cost two weeks’ average wages. By the 1970s, Bernard Matthews had turned the turkey into the cheapest meat product on the market and available all-year-round. He then went on to become a household name in the 1980’s when he, all be it reluctantly, agreed to front an advertising campaign to promote his products. Standing in a Norfolk jacket and plus fours in front of Great Witchingham Hall, he extolled the virtues of his turkeys in a broad Norfolk accent: “Bootiful, really bootiful”. Those three words increased sales a massive 17-fold, breaking all previous records for an advertising campaign and propelling Matthews into the rank of a multimillionaire.
A powerfully built man who stood 6ft 4in tall, Matthews came across on television as a ruddy-cheeked, chubby, jovial Norfolk poulterer. But the bluff image was deceptive. In fact, Matthews was a rather solitary, reticent man who took himself and his turkeys extremely seriously. He was defensive with journalists and disliked personal publicity. His direct, brusque style did not endear him to some of the more traditional members of Norfolk society and his intensive factory farming techniques made him the bête noire of environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and foodies. Yet there were many people in Norfolk who admired him, not least for the jobs he had brought to the County and his generosity to local causes. And even his rivals had to admit that he was no fool. When supermarkets and rival manufacturers tried to duplicate his success with spin-off products in the early 1980s, they found both the products and the processes involved protected by impenetrable patents, an unusual thing in the food industry at that time. Matthews was always happiest when running his business and talking turkey. As chairman of his company, he would regularly spend two hours in the food laboratories, testing out new lines. Sometimes he would taste 30 products in one session: “You really have to like turkey to do this job,” he declared.
The new squire of Great Witchingham soon established himself as the leading player in the industry, which until then had been a small if profitable sideline for only a few farmers. After filling his house, Matthews moved out into the surrounding acres and, in 1958, bought the former United States Airforce airfield at Weston Longville, the first of six redundant airfields across Norfolk and Suffolk. It was a shrewd move. Aerodromes were secure and isolated, and their concrete runways ideally suited for turkey houses. He built the first big turkey slaughterhouse and went into large-scale production.
Matthews quickly realised that the normal-sized turkey was too large for most modern families – even at Christmas – so he began breeding smaller birds at weights of between five and seven pounds. That led to higher turnover and more efficient methods of producing them in quantity, which helped keep prices down. Matthews’s frozen turkeys took the oven-ready market by storm. Eventually his empire would run to 500 vast turkey houses, most of them in Norfolk, which, if laid end to end, would stretch for 40 miles. In 1964 he presented a 55lb turkey to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a Moscow trade fair. Soon afterwards he began developing food production plants for the governments of communist countries such as Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and Bulgaria.
But his domestic market remained stubbornly seasonal, and by the mid-1970s was showing signs of stagnation. So he set about making turkey a year-round, non-luxury item by deboning it, chopping it up and repackaging it in smaller portions. In 1975 he developed a revolutionary new “co-extrusion” technique in which meat is taken off the bone and pumped into a long casing like a sausage. This enabled him to move into mass production of spin-off lines, but he did not build up a really big market for his turkey rolls and turkey roasts until the 1980 advertising campaign.
The effect of the campaign was to turn Matthews PLC – the company went public in 1971- from an agricultural business into an advanced food processor, and Matthews patented the extrusion technology, not just for turkeys but for all meat. He diversified into red meat, chicken, fish and pork products, moved into North America, New Zealand and Europe, and sought royalties through international deals for his technology. He even launched a range of vegetarian products, though this did not prove successful. By the 1990s, nine tenths of his earnings came from spin-off products. The festive season, by comparison, was something of a sideshow.
However, the brand once advertised as “bootiful” also came to embody everything that food campaigners believed was wrong with factory farming. On the quality front, Matthews’s turkey products featured in reports that claimed that water was added to increase weight. “Chicken breast” sold under the brand, for instance, consisted of 80% chicken, the other 20% being water and chemical additives. When the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver set about his mission to improve school meals, he identified the ubiquitous Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzler – made with only 34% turkey meat – as an example of the lowest common legal denominator of poultry products, precisely the sort of food that children should not be fed. The product was withdrawn in 2005.
The following year, two employees admitted ill-treating birds at a Bernard Matthews unit in Haveringland, Norfolk, by playing “baseball” with live turkeys. On 19 June 2007, the Daily Mail reported the incident and went on to state that:
“Poultry tycoon Bernard Matthews faces more criticism after animal rights supporters released a video showing one of his workers repeatedly kicking turkeys. The footage was secretly taken last week by an undercover investigator for an animal welfare charity who sneaked on to one of the multi-millionaire’s farms. The same investigator last year filmed two other Bernard Matthews staff appearing to play baseball with live turkeys on another farm.
The confidence of consumers with Bernard Matthews products was also shaken in February (of 2007) by an outbreak of bird flu at his biggest farm in Holton near Halesworth., Suffolk. Production at the farm and its adjoining factory was halted as more than 160,000 birds were culled after the discovery of the virulent H5N1 strain of the disease. The latest video is another embarrassment to Matthews managers who had claimed they did not tolerate workers abusing poultry.
The new film shows a balding worker in overalls delivering eight separate kicks to turkeys in a shed on a farm at Wreningham near Wymondham, Norfolk. The incident was filmed prior to two different workers being shown loading live turkeys into crates which were delivered to the shed by a forklift. The video is said to have been filmed through an open door in the giant shed by an investigator who sneaked on to the farm at around 1.30 am last Thursday………”A spokesman for Bernard Matthews said he could not comment until he had seen the video, despite being shown still pictures of the alleged abuse.”
Their lawyer told the court that the men were influenced by “peer pressure” at the factory, but the company took out full-page newspaper advertisements reassuring shoppers that its employees were “conscientious people”.
Bird experts had long argued that intensive poultry operations were magnets for disease. They must have felt fully vindicated when the H5N1 strain of bird flu surfaced in the UK for the first time in 2007. This was at Bernard Matthew’s plant at Holton, Suffolk, which called into question the much-vaunted “bio-security” of such state-of-the-art units. Certainly, Matthew’s products appeared to regularly ruffle feathers, but the appeal of ‘instant’ bite sized pieces bland white meat, coated in a deep-fried breadcrumb crust continued to prove more potent with consumers.
Matthews’s no-frills factory farming techniques attracted the opprobrium of environmentalists and animal rights and health campaigners. He was twice prosecuted for polluting Norfolk rivers with effluent and once fined for failing to admit on a label that some of his products contained “mechanically recovered meat” (MRM). Though sensitive to criticism, he was always robust in defending himself and was to reject criticism of the conditions in his turkey houses. He said, probably more than once, that:
“Turkeys have a very low IQ. All they need is food and warmth. They don’t need to be taken to the cinema twice a week!”
Matthew’s Private Life:
Bernard Matthews once described his private life as ‘complicated’! All that needs to be said here is that he married his childhood sweetheart, Joyce, in 1952 and they adopted two girls, Kathleen and Victoria, and a boy, Jason. They separated in 1975 but remained married, despite having lived apart from her for 35 years. He then fell in love with Cornelia Elgershuizen, a Dutch aristocrat, and they lived together for eight years in his 80-room Norfolk country house, Great Witchingham Hall, where their son, Frederick, was born in 1981. However, that relationship ended when Matthews fell for U.S. model Natalie McCray, and the devastated Cornelia returned to Holland with their son. She died there in 2004. He also was reputed to have had a ‘long-term partner’, Odile Marteyn. If all this had been a play then the cast could well be publicised as follows:
Leading man: BERNARD MATTHEWS (January 24, 1930 – November 25, 2010)
Wife: JOYCE REID (married 1952. Lived apart from 1970s but never divorced)
Adopted daughter 1: KATHLEEN MATTHEWS
Adopted daughter 2: VICTORIA MATTHEWS
Adopted son: JASON MATTHEWS
Lovechild: GEORGE FREDERICK ELGERSHUIZEN
Mother of the lovechild: CORNELIA ELGERSHUIZEN
American lover: NATALIE McCRAY
French mistress: ODILE MARTEYN
Matthews did not flaunt his wealth. His two big concessions to multimillionaire status were a Rolls-Royce and a 158ft yacht, the ‘Bellissima’, which he eventually sold to “an Arab who wanted it more than I did”. In addition, he restored and furnished Great Witchingham Hall with antiques, and where he lived a careful, modest life, preferring to spend his evenings at home to going out and socialising.
On the plus side, along with the fortune he made, he did support a number of charities and had a positive effect on the local economy. In 2007 he was appointed CVO for services to the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.
One of the very few people who appeared not to have heard of the brand name Bernard Matthews was the Queen who asked him, during the CBE ceremony, which branch of the poultry business he was in. Apparently, when he told her, she observed that “a lot of turkeys come from Norfolk” – to which he more than likely replied “Yes, Maam!”.
‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site seeking only to be informative and educational on topics broadly related to the history and heritage of the County of Norfolk in the U.K. Further Note: If you are the originator/copyright holder of any photo or content contained in this blog and would prefer it be excluded or amended, please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for correction. Also: If this blog contains any inappropriate information please contact us via our ‘Contact Us’ page to flag it for review.