By Haydn Brown.
Starston is a small village in the South East corner of Norfolk with a population of 331 at the 2011 Census. Its southern boundary edges to within one mile of the River Waveney, which divides this part of Norfolk from Suffolk.
Starston is mentioned in the Domesday Book and its earliest name recorded as Sterestuna or Steerstown; the latter probably reference to the raising of cattle or stores in the village. If this is correct then it can be claimed that the raising of cattle in the area has been carried on ever since. In the year 1086 Starston was a very small village, being ‘one mile and five furlongs long and five furlongs wide’ according to old maps and references, and the area covered was the northward end towards Starston Hall. As the years went by more and more land came under cultivation and the boundaries of the village grew.
As land became cultivated so more land become in demand for houses and it is recorded that there was a large increase in the population in the years 1698 to 1798, going up from 215 to 381 and by 1877 the total had reached 510. When an informal census was taken in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee it was found that the population was 545. However, after this growth in population there was a steady decrease, particularly noted at the end of the 1914-18 war.
Most of Starston is good agricultural land, loamy with a clay subsoil. The land has been used very much for corn growing and to a lesser extent sugar beet; but in recent years Diss-based Wharton’s, a local firm of Rose Growers, have been growing roses on the lighter lands towards Harleston that originally belonged to Beck Hall. Founded in 1947, the company grows in excess of 1.5 million rose bushes and more than 300 different varieties. This family business must be one of Britain’s biggest rose growers, selling to garden centres and nurseries across the country.
One of the special features of Starston is the stream that passes through the village, known as The Beck; its source is said to be a wide ditch at Tivetshall Hall. By the time this stream reaches the Norwich to Ipswich main road it has become a constantly running stream, running through a brick archway under the road, about a quarter mile south side of Pulham crossroads. When next seen from a public road, near the old railway station at Pulham Market, the stream is much larger.
Along the whole length of the Beck, surplus water feeds into it from the uplands and many minor streams and ditches leading to it. It travels a winding course through the village of Pulham St. Mary and by the time it reaches Crossingford Bridge it has become a stream capable of maintaining a quantity of coarse fish such as Roach, Dace, Gudgeon and Eels.
As the Beck comes within a quarter of a mile of Starston there is a footpath on the southern side of the road. Roy Riches of Starston, writing in 1969 said:
“……in my boyhood days the Beck was known as ” Gowers Ford “, a wooden plank bridge was there to allow people to cross when the water was too high to ford. This footpath carries on through ‘White House’ farm yard and joins up with Cross Road near the Poplars Farm. Further along the road there is another footpath – this is near the Streamlet Farm, and once again a wooden plank bridge is provided, the footpath then continues through the farmyard of ‘Yew 3 Tree Farm’ on to cross roads, and so the Beck rolls on to the first of four sluices which is situated near The Street.”
The main reason why the sluices was erected at this spot was to hold the water to a depth of not more than 4 feet. About two feet under the water’s surface was a suction pipe which ran to the windmill’s well which stood in Mill Field, quite close to the Beck. The purpose of this windmill was to pump water to a large tank placed on top of Starston Place house; the tank was its main supply of water. Part of this facility was a large indicator on a wall of Starston Place which told when the tank was full and when pumping should stop. Another large tank, used for a similar purpose, was in the farmyard of ‘The Home Farm’; this tank always being kept full, as in years past there was never less than 200 head of milking cows and fattening bullocks, plus a very large herd of pigs. Another use for this water was to maintain the level of water in the farm’s horse pond, fed by an overflow pipe from the main tank.
From this point, the Beck continues to be allowed to glide quietly along a further four miles or so before its outfall into the river Waveney at Homersfield.
The Parish Church:
The oldest and most historical building in Starston is the parish church of St. Margaret’s. It is situated in a very commanding position in a well-kept churchyard, which long ago was planted with many fine trees. They say that the original church was built sometime between 1150 and 1200, and that the main body of the church and tower were erected about 1300. The first Rector of Starston, according to Blomefield’s Register, was Robert De Beverley, who resigned in 1306, and he could well have been St Margaret’s first Rector.
Of the church, Simon Knott wrote, after his visit there on a damp, miserable day in 2005:
“St Margaret’s stood proudly, a small church, in the greying light of the wide graveyard. The Victorianised chancel and medieval body and tower made a nice harmony. On the north side is a 19th century aisle, not unpleasing. Most striking is the chequerboard flintwork of the nave and tower parapets – perhaps the medieval chancel had the same……. Inside, St Margaret’s is almost entirely the work of the 19th century, and medieval survivals are few and far between. But it is a pleasant, welcoming interior, and the restoration and rebuilding were done well.”
The list of Starston Rectors shows that many prominent people were, at one time or another, been appointed. One, in particular, deserves a special mention – that of the Rev. William Whitear, who was appointed in 1803. During this period of 1803 to 1826, the poor of the villages were poor; often the main provider had to resort to poaching to obtain the food necessary for their families. There were no County or Rural Police in those days, and most villages used an unpaid Village Constable who was appointed by the overseers of the Parish. It was more than likely that many poachers were more than capable of outwitting him, and that was probably a good thing for if caught for rabbiting, sheep stealing, wood stealing or taking linen from someone else’s linen line, the sentence was more than likely death by hanging. In many parts of rural Norfolk vigilante groups were formed in an effort to catch such people. One such group was formed in and around the Harleston district, stretching from Hoxne to Hardwick and from Dickleburgh to Flixton – taking in some eighteen villages. This body included the village of Starston and was known as the ‘Harleston Association’.
There is a true story goes that says that a group of poachers were known to be planning a poaching visit to the woods belonging to Gawdy Hall (demolished 1939); the night in question was 27 November 1826. The Association Committee decided to go out in force, in an effort to catch the poachers red-handed. This armed party, included the Reverend William Whitear of Starston’s St Margaret’s church, together with a young man from Starston Hall named Thomas Pallont. They proceeded to the woods with the others, in conditions that were so dark that ‘it was made difficult to see friend from foe’. There, a shooting incident took place and both the Rev. Whitear and Thomas Pallont fell to the ground wounded; it was said that the latter lost both his finger and thumb. The Rector, who was more severely wounded in the chest, died two weeks later. The Norfolk Chronicle reported the incident, dated 27 November 1826:
“The Rev. William Whitear, Rector of Starston, met with his death under singular circumstances. He had gone out with a party to apprehend poachers; the party divided themselves into two bodies, and on proceeding to the place where it had been agreed upon to reassemble, Mr. Whitear was mistaken for a poacher and shot in the right side by another of the party, a young man named Thomas Pallont. He died from the effects of the wound on December 10th, and Pallont was committed for trial on the charge of manslaughter. The case was tried at the Norfolk Assizes at Thetford before Mr. Justice Stephen Gaselee, on March 26th, 1827, when the accused was acquitted. “He was so seriously affected during the trial that before its conclusion he became quite insensible, and was taken home in that state.”
The Judge by Thomas Rowlandson (c.1800).
(Image: Tate Gallery, number T08531. © Tate, granted under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.)
The Judge presiding was Justice Sir Stephen Gaselee (1762 – 26 March 1839), justice of the Court of Common Pleas. It was said that Gaselee was the original of the irascible judge represented by Charles Dickens in the trial of Bardell v. Pickwick, under the name of Justice Stareleigh.
One of the most famous 19th century Rectors of Starston was the Rev. Angus Macdonald Hopper, who was appointed in 1845 and remained in the village until his death in 1878. While he was here as Rector, he also became Archdeacon of Norwich, and was very active in the church life of the country. He was a great benefactor to the church at Starston, also to the village school. Archdeacon Hooper left a family of three sons and one daughter. In gratitude to their father’s memory, they presented the church with its Brass Lectern which is still in use today.
The Waveney Valley Railway:
The Waveney Valley Railway was a branch line running from Tivetshall in Norfolk to Beccles in Suffolk, it connected the Great Eastern Main Line at Tivetshall with the East Suffolk line at Beccles, providing an interconnecting rail service to Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Ipswich and many other smaller towns in Suffolk with additional services to London.
The line was authorised by the Waveney Valley Railway Act on 3 July 1851 and the line opened in stages. First, it ran from Tivetshall to Harleston from 1 December 1855, then to Bungay from 2 November 1860, and finally to Beccles. When the line was finally completed, around 1863, it was incorporated into the Great Eastern Railway; it then became part of the LNER from 1 January 1923. In its early years, services on the line were worked by the company’s only locomotive, named ‘Perseverance’; this was a 2-2-2T locomotive, built by Sharp Stewart and Co of Manchester. However, it did not perform particularly well and was rebuilt by the GER in 1864 as a 2-4-0T- it was withdrawn in 1880 and broken up in November 1881.
Apart from stations at Pulham Market and Pulham St. Mary, Starston also boasted a station of its own, but it was only in operation for 11 years, between 1856 and 1866. It was been said that, when the station was at the planning stage, local landowners insisted that no trains should run on a Sunday; however, with the coming of the 1914 war this ruling went by the board, as troop trains very often moved along the line. Also, with the creation of the Pulham Air Station, much of the stores and materials were carried on a loop line connected with the Air Station. With the coming of motor transport however, the amount of business done by the railways declined, and eventually the passenger service was withdrawn in 1953. The line was finally closed in 1966 when the Goods trains ceased to run.
Some of the Larger Houses in Starston:
The largest house in Starston until recently, was known as ‘Starston Place’. It came into the possession of the Taylor family in 1824 when a Mr. Taylor of Diss purchased it, and was known then as ‘Bressingham House’; the owner having some connection with the village of that name which is situated just outside Diss. The original house was demolished just after the second world war, and a smaller house was built which, certainly up to 1969, remained named as ‘Starston Place’. It is believed that a house has stood on the site since 1235, but the earliest date mentioned of ‘Starston Place’ is 1878, when a General Clay was the owner.
Other large houses in Starston include ‘Grove Hill’ built in 1849, ‘Conifer Hill’, built in 1881 and ‘Beck Hall’, the latter first mentioned in 1296. ‘Gunshaw Hall’ is another house, which stands partly in Needham and partly in Starston, it is said that the boundary of the two villages runs exactly through the middle of the house.
Again, writing in 1969, Roy Riches states:
“Until the year 1836 when the Pulham Workhouse was built, every village had its own Poor House, and the first recorded one stood in what is known as the Church Pightle, this was where the unfortunate poor of Starston were put, usually when they were in a very distressed state. However, with coming of the poor law, Authorities built another house by the side of the Pulham Road, and this became the village workhouse, and until quite recently this house was known by the older residents as Workhouse Cottages. During the last few years, this house has become the home of farm workers employed at Starston Place Farm, and was occupied by three families at one time, being known as Stone Cottages. In 1836, it was decided to put all the poor of the district into one building, and Pulham Workhouse standing by the side of the Ipswich to Norwich road was completed. This was a very large building, with accommodation for 500 inmates. In consequence, village workhouses were done away with. Another of these workhouses is still standing at Pulham St. Mary, and known as Workhouse Cottages, they stand on South Green, and like Starston Cottages, these too are now used as ordinary residences.”
Starston is yet another village that is unable to boast a public house. It used to have one, it was known as ‘The Gate Inn’ and was situated near the school. Prior to the 1950’s, travellers and locals used to call in there for refreshments; and, because this hub was something of ‘a social centre’ for the village, all sorts of leading topics would be discussed. It was also quite common for such talk to be centred around crop growing and garden produce, when keen gardeners used to compete with others for which was the best and largest produce. It was often believed that the information exchanged could be far from the truth. It is said that before the ‘Gate’ closed, and turned into a shop (closed 1984), there used to be a wonderful Walnut tree growing in front of the pub, and high up in its branches was a sign which read:
“This Gate hangs high and hinders none – Refresh and pay and travel on”.
Unfortunately, the walnut tree became old and began to rot to the point where it had to be removed – along with that sign. The Brewers then put a twist on things by having a miniature gate made and attached to the front of the Pub. An amended inscription read:
“This Gate hangs well – refresh and pay and travel on”.
It was also said that the nuts from that lost walnut tree tasted far better than those bought in the shops; and it was not unknown for the village boys to throw wooden sticks and ‘cudgels’ into the branches of the tree, in an effort to bring the nuts down; much to the worry of those people living close by who were afraid for their windows. Up until a few years before the Gate Inn closed, it was kept by a Mr. and Mrs. Osborne. Apparently, in addition to Mr. Osborne being the landlord, he was also a fishmonger who took his business around the countryside thereabouts by a pony and cart. He became renowned for the quality of his herrings and bloaters, which he used to cure himself. His most enthusiastic customers would recall how Mr Osborne would always smoke his fish in his very own drying sheds – and he would use nothing other than oak to cure them with. The herring that he selected for smoking always had to be prime ones, with lovely fat roes!
Such memories are long into the past; along with village windmills which used to grind the corn, public houses which used to refresh the body if not the soul, local schools close to communities, and even the traditional village blacksmith shop. Close behind have also long been the loss of rectors and rectories with parishes now combined under one parson. But it seems many Norfolk villages survive – and even thrive. Starston feels like one of them; in 2010 its villagers purchased Glebe Meadow in the heart of the village and converted it into a public space with attractive views of the church!
The booklet ‘A Brief History of Starston’ was originally published by Roy Riches of Starston, Harleston, Norfolk in 1969. The booklet was designed, printed and bound by The Harleston Press, Station Road, Harleston, Norfolk.