At nearly midnight in November 1898 a Lowestoft Smack lay close-hauled under a double reef weathering a North Sea gale. The third-hand, clad in yellow oil-skins, sou’wester and long sea boots had the watch. His left arm was hooked around the mizzen rigging as a safety precaution against the pitching and rolling deck. The wind was howling and shrieking through the rigging and stays; all around was a black, tumbling, crashing sea. The dark waves, like huge mountains with crests covered in snow, went snarling by. Occasionally one hit the vessel and masses of water came swirling along her decks.
Instinctively the third-hand hooked his other arm through the rigging. Over his shoulder he could see the red glow from the port light – somehow that glow reminded him of the open fire side in the cosy little cottage sitting room in Pakefield. It seemed a long way off tonight. He reckoned that the fire would be out by now fot it was getting late and the missus would have gone to bed. His gaze wandered to the lee side when stark fear and panic took possession of him. With a yell he tumbled down the companion way that led to the Skipper’s cabin below. The skipper sat beside the table as the third-hand burst in.
“Skipper” he gasped “there’s a young woman walking on the sea”. The skipper noticed the terror-stricken face and shaking limbs of the third-hand; in an endeavour to calm him down he said, “All right old man, let’s go up and help that lady aboard. “Don’t joke skip” wailed the third-hand, “I saw her, she’d got her arms outstretched. “There’s somebody she’s come after on this ship”. “You’re nuts” snapped the Skipper. “See, “there’s nothing here. Your gal friend’s cleared off”.
Later that night, as the sea continued to behave as if it had a particular grudge against the Smack and the crew were hauling down the reef, a huge wave rose high and hurled itself across the open deck. All the crew managed to hold on, except the third-hand who was swept cleanly away, along with his worries, fear, panic and life – to rest peacefully in the arms of the Sea Maiden.
There is an old and, some have thought, strange tale relating to the shingled beach at Weybourne; it is that it is haunted.
This haunting, if that is what it is, takes the form of a persistent whistling sound, which is be heard out on the foreshore just as dusk is descending – particularly on nights when the moon is full. The whistle is not random or casual but sounds more like the sort of signal given by a person who is trying to attract someone’s attention. You may well think that this form of distress call is quite normal from anyone seeking help; but you would be of a different mind if anyone ever suggested that no earthly lips were making this sound. But, many have said in the past that this is so!
The fact is, a moon’s glow is sufficient to see if anyone is on Weybourne beach who could be making this whistle; if it’s only you there and you hear it then there is a puzzle to be explained away. Some people have tried and even attempted to track down the source of this whistling, assuming at the outset that it may be someone in difficulty in the surf – but, to date, no one has ever been found. Then there are the locals, the ones who should know; a few of them have, in the past, described being right on top of the spot where the whistle is coming from and, even they, have still not been able to see anyone; but, of course, there have been a few exceptions in the past – the privileged few!
Some of these have indeed reported that after the whistling had gone on for a while, and then stopped, they had seen the vague outline of a man on the edge of the beach, where the sea strokes the shingle. Fully clothed in what appeared to be old-fashioned clothing, he appeared to have roamed along the foreshore whilst staring out to further reaches of the water. But, then he just vanished before anyone could go to investigate closer what appeared to be an apparition. The moment this ghostly image disappeared, the whistling recommenced, but it has always been impossible to pin-point its exact source.
Local legend has it, that it is the ghost of John Smythe who was a smuggler from long, long ago. It is said that one night, when the moon was full, he and his fellow crew mates came ashore at Weybourne to replenish their provisions, something they had done frequently in the past. On this occasion John Smythe, who was very, very friendly with the daughter of the local inn’s landlord, told the rest of the men that he would meet them back at shore at a slightly later time than had previously been the case. But despite this extension to his time away, John Smythe was to lose track of time which, understandably, would have been caused by the extent to which he and his young girl were, shall we say, ‘improving further’ their relationship. However, unbeknown to Smythe, the Custom’s men had been alerted to the presence of the smugglers and had made haste to Weybourne to try to catch them before they returned to their ship. At the same time, the smugglers who were there to pick up provisions, learnt of this entrapment and, together, hurried back to the beach and their boat. When aboard, they waited just off shore for Smythe, who they had not been able to locate before their hasty departure. But time was slipping away beyond the moment when Smythe should have returned; and still there was no sign of him. Understandably, they assumed that he had been captured and so began to row away from the shoreline and out to their ship.
As for the Custom’s men, they had not realised that their prey had already fled and hid themselves amongst the sand dunes and waited. Within a short while, John Smythe approached the rendezvous, hurrying down to where the rowing boat had been left, but all he could see were tracks leading out into the water’s edge. In the dim twilight he managed to pick out the rowing boat making its way out to the ship. Being, somewhat a cautious man for a smuggler, he began to whistle for his mates’ attention, which in itself was rather strange since both methods of signalling for help would attract attention. This problem was compounded by the fact that the tide had turned and the sea was on its way in – and coming in fast!
On hearing Smythe’s whistle the custom men sprang from their hiding place and ran towards him. He, in turn, decided to take his chances in the sea rather than be captured; bad choice for, unfortunately as was normally the case in those days, Smythe did not know how to swim. Nevertheless, his decision to wade out into deeper water was in the hope that his fellow smugglers would see him and return to rescue him. In doing this, he knew that the Custom’s men would not follow because they too could not swim. They remained on the foreshore, witnesses to Smythe’s whistling as he ventured further away from their grasp.
John Smythe waded out from a beach that drops steeply; the sea quickly rose higher and higher. What happened next will probably never be known but somehow he must have lost his footing or perhaps the current was so strong that it swept him off his feet; whatever the reason, he disappeared below the waves and drowned; the last sight of John Smythe was his one remaining outstretched hand trailing his body below, a body that was never to be recovered.
So the saying still goes; when the moon is full, John Smythe returns to the beach at Weybourne, desperately whistling for attention of his fellow smugglers, in the hope that they will come back and rescue him – but to date they never have.
From amongst all the major gales that have imposed themselves on to Norfolk over the years, the 1st September gale of 1833 must rank as the worst. That storm ranged wide over the North Sea and as far south as the English Channel when it wrecked hundreds of ships in the North Sea alone. Out of this undefined figure, over 60 ships were driven on to the County’s coastline alone. Areas inland weren’t safe either; the spires of St Margaret’s and St Nicholas Churches in Kings Lynn were blown down and forty wagon-loads of wreckage were removed from the beaches of Hunstanton and Snettisham. On the following Sunday, 8th September Bell’s ‘Life in London’ looked back at, what was referred to as ‘the great gale’, and recalled:
“……the loss of life and property in all parts of the country presents a dreadful catalogue of calamities, which must fill the minds of our readers with horror………On Monday, the public mind was shocked by the description of the disaster of the most appalling description, and everyday since has produced some new account equally heart-rending”
It was from the accounts written at the time that the public learned of dead bodies floating ashore throughout the storm ” from one end of the Norfolk coast to the other”. Cromer, which sits at the top right-hand edge of Norfolk, collected eighty-four bodies from its beach over two days. They were buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church. East Anglian reports following the storm emphasised the damage to homes, fields and orchards. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the rain and tide-swollen Ouze River breached its banks and:
“……such was the immense body and impetuosity of the water, that in a few hours, upwards of 1,500 acres of land were laid under water……many acres of standing corn are irretrievably lost and many head of cattle drowned……The damage sustained by the lamentable event has not yet been ascertained, but it is much to be feared that it is to a considerable extent, nor is there any prospect that the water can be got off before the next spring”
Similar accounts from the coast naturally focused on the destruction of ships,crew lives lost and infrastructure damaged. The Times, no less, referred to the coast around Lynn as ‘strewn with vessels, parts of vessels, boats and goods’ Also, in a report unusual for its concern for human life lost, referred to:
” The brig Margaret, Captain Osire……went down on Saturday afternoon, near Whiting Sands and all hands perished. By this awful circumstance there are four women left without husbands, and 22 fatherless children. Better luck attended the crew of the Brig ‘Waterloo’, like ‘Margaret’ carrying a load of coal. After Waterloo went down, the crew ascended the rigging at eight o’clock on Sunday night, and remained lashed in that perilous situation, the sea breaking over them mountains high till one o’clock the next day when they were taken off by fishermen, several of whom manned their boats and succeeded in rescuing eight individuals.”
But, probably. the most tragic tale was that of the Earl of Wemyss, Leith’s Old Shipping Company’s Packet Ship. In common with the Amphitrite, its tragedy became indelibly imprinted in the public’s minds, in part because it revealed men’s failure to behave in an honourable way. The crew and male passengers on board the ,Earl of Wemyss, en route from London to Leith in Scotland, survived the gale off Brancaster, Norfolk, but that the 6 women, one man and 4 children on board drowned. This news was met with the public’s disbelief and anger.
The ships owned by the ‘Old Shipping Company’ of Leith were called ‘White Siders’ to distinguish them from the ships of other trading lines which had a different strip of colour painted on their hulls; the ‘Old Shipping Company’ ships had a white strip. All these companies carried passengers, freight and hauled convicts sentenced to transportation or the home-based hulks from Edinburgh to London, thirty at a time. It was on the 29th August 1833 that the Earl of Weymss (pronounced ‘weemz’) set out from London on a return journey to Scotland. In command was a Captain Henry Nesbit; not the same Captain Nesbit who, almost thirty years earlier had been master of the Old Shipping Company’s smack Queen Charlotte when she was attacked by a French privateer. The successful defence of the Charlotte earned Nesbit a £105 reward from the owners. In 1833 Captain Nesbit of the Earl of Wemyss did not appear to be like the hero of 1804!
Ahead of Captain Nesbit was a 400-mile. plus, passage that could take as little as a few days or as much as 2 weeks. It was stated later, at an inquiry at the Hare Arms in Docking into the ship’s disaster, that the Earl of Wemyss had carried 19 passengers on board, 8 men and 11 women and children, but the Captain’s count did not include some passengers not travelling business class in the salons, but travelling economy in steerage. A substantial amount of cargo was also on board, including bales of hops from Kent. After the wreck, men worked for hours to unload the ship’s hold of the then sodden bales and goods packed inside – apparently, none of it insured.
It was said that late in the afternoon of the Saturday, “a northeaster blew up in the North Sea and continued to freshen until it became a hurricane” However, this was later contradicted by others who were on board who said that the gale had been blowing since 6.00 am that morning, when the ship was off the Spurn Light. By midday on that Saturday the Earl of Wemyss was out of control on seas – “like mountains of snow”, all her canvas was shredded and her stern boat gone. By the Saturday night the ship had lost both anchors in a failed attempt to wait out the storm and found itself aground off Brancaster, Norfolk. An effort early morning of the Sunday to launch another boat failed and soon afterwards the Earl of Wemyss flooded with water from storm-driven seas breaking over the un protected skylights and breaking through the glass, drowning everyone in the women’s cabin below. Those still living rushed out on to the open deck and stated later at a Magistrate’s Inquiry:
” where we found the captain, crew, and steerage passengers secured to the rigging and the winch, We lashed ourselves in the same manner and continued there with the sea breaking over us for about four hours.”
Two weeks later when the Inquiry, convened by the Home Office, took place at the Hare’s Arms in Docking, its brief was to determine ” whether there had been any loss of life by culpable negligence, or loss of property by dishonesty.” Captain Nesbit’s incompetence was made manifest through him missing at least two opportunities to save his passengers. One was a chance to wade ashore early on the Sunday morning when a lull at low water passed, when he misread a nautical almanac and also confused the flow of the tide with its ebb. He then offered ‘fatal advice’ that sent his female passengers and children into their berths. He failed to protect his ship’s four skylights and their chutes through the main deck and into the space below, thus setting up the circumstances for the drownings of the women and children. They were: Mrs. Hamilton, her son, and a lady ; Mrs. Pyne, her daughter, and child ; Mrs. Carmack ; Miss Susanna Roche and a child—all cabin passengers; total, 9. Mrs. Rymer and child, steerage.
The Reverend Holloway of Brancaster testified that Captain Nesbit told him that the ladies were already dead in their cabin and there was no point in rescuing them as they had been there for over four hours. When the bodies were recovered, they were taken to the Church. The Reverend Holloway believed that if the skylights had been battened down the ladies would have been saved – and if they had been rescued earlier their belongings may also have been saved. Statements referring to the dead said that “whilst their bodies were yet warm” they had been stripped of their valuables by Joseph Newman Reeve, son-in-law of the Brancaster Lord of the Manor. Reeve claimed that he had asked people to help get the bodies out of the ship and took the jewellery to “protect them from ‘revolting indignities’ – such as having their fingers cut off to get the rings off them” Reeve claimed that he had kept everything safely; although others claimed he had refused to give the things back and said that they belonged to the Lord of the Manor, who was entitled to everything cast up on the shore. Reeve admitted that he had unwisely opened one bag, belonging the Mrs Pyne, without witnesses, but said that others gave him jewellery to look after.
Reeve was tried in March 1834 at the Norwich assizes before a Judge Vaughan, but escaped conviction on two charges of felony thanks to being represented in court by Sir James Scarlett, a local MP and a famously competent lawyer. He might also have been helped by the still general belief in England, that coastal residents were “the lawful heirs of all drowned persons” and so entitled to the property providence had cast at their feet. A further trial at the Norwich summer assizes in the July of 1834, of the ship’s steward, cook and a local farmer who had been in charge of the wreck, included some very damaging evidence about people who had offered to lie to protect Reeve – but this evidence was dismissed and the jury of the second trial also gave a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Captain Nesbit was dismissed from his role and was ejected by his Guild and all that is left of the wreck of the Earl of Wemyss is a weathered gravestone inscription in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Brancaster:
Sacred to the memory of Susanna Roche, aged
32 years and also to her nephew, Alexander David
Roche, aged 4 years who were unfortunately
drowned with many others in the cabin of the
Earl of Wemyss, Leith Packet which was
stranded on this coast during the dreadful gale
on September 1st 1833 on its passage from London.
Which melancholy affair has been doubly afflicting
for the relatives of the deceased from the fact that no
attempt was ever made to rescue them from their
situation, and in continuation of such inhuman
conduct their persons were stripped of every
valuable and their property plundered.
The tale of the Leith Packet ship Earl of Wemyss combined all the elements to interest readers: evidence of incompetence at sea, the death of innocents and a suspicion of crimes inflicted on the dead. The reason for such persistent coverage by the press was that all the dead came from the same propertied class as did the readers of The Times and The Scotsman. On May 6th, 1834 the rebuilt Earl of Wemyss went back into service, carrying passengers and cargo from Scotland to London, under the command of a Captain Brown. Eventually the ship was replaced in the packet service by steam. The Wemyss, now twenty-five years old, could still be seen at sea 15 years later sailing between Aberdeen and the Baltic.
Ever since the early chapters of David Copperfield appeared in the Chapman and Hall serial in 1849, some scrupulous readers have noted that the description of the Peggotty family’s boat-house “cottage” on the Yarmouth sands does not coincide with Hablot Knight Browne’s illustrations. The question of the upside down or right side up deployment of the seaside cottage extends beyond the authority of the text over the illustrations (which constitute a first reader’s response) to the matter of ultimate authorial intention, since Dickens had several opportunities during serialization to adjust Phiz’s conception of the Peggotty home, and could easily have vetoed the 1850 title-page vignette. Ironically, this novel, despite less than stellar sales compared to those of its predecessor, Dombey and Son, was Dickens’s “favourite child.” Surely he would have taken pains to instruct Phiz carefully as to what he required in the way of illustration in each of the nineteen months of part publication.
The few surviving letters from author to artist do suggest that Dickens was alert to even minor details, so that the inverted boat-house of David Copperfield constitutes something of a literary mystery. Jane Rabb Cohen offers the following solution to it:
As Browne seemed to be taking special pains to please, Dickens was less prone to criticize him. Even when the artist turned Peggotty’s boat home upside down, in contradiction of the text (III, facing p. 30), though not reality, the author said nothing. 
Cohen here seems to be suggesting that Dickens knew that the boat-house at Yarmouth was not inverted, but chose not to correct Phiz’s misconception. Certainly, the 1850 title-page vignette, one of the last monthly illustrations that Phiz created for the novel, in preparation for the volume edition by Chapman and Hall, implies by its very presence at the beginning of the single volume an authorial sanction; after all, if Dickens had fundamentally disagreed with Phiz’s reconfiguration of the Peggottys’ home, he could have required another subject. Although we have scant evidence of Dickens’s monitoring Phiz’s compositions for the novel in serial, we know that he approved mightily of the illustrator’s conception of Micawber and intervened in the matter of David’s wearing an Eton jacket rather than a travelling coat in “The Friendly Waiter.” Moreover, Mark Cronin, arguing that the opening vignette may be intended to prefigure Steerforth’s overturned boat (depicted as capsizing in Barnard’s full page illustration “The Storm”), terms the upside boat-house “a textual synergistic disjunction that works.” Although Dickens’s text does not so specify in chapter 3 when David first lays eyes on the unconventional cottage, both Phiz’s exterior and interior plates of the Peggottys’ cottage depict an upturned boat with a door and window cut into its sides. Two plates from the original monthly serial numbers depict the boat-house’s interior as commodious; the second plate for the first instalment (“I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty”) and the second for the seventh instalment (“We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty’s fireside”) imply by the curvature of the ceiling beams that the boat is upside down, so that the floor is actually the underside of the deck. The breadth of the room and the arching beams in “I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty,” a scene involving four adults and two children), indicate that the ceiling is the inverted keel, reinforced by a thick cross-beam at the top of the plate. In “Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure” (first illustration for the August 1849 monthly number) we see the transom (right) and the keel uppermost, but the boat is a mere backdrop to the foregrounded social action (Barkis and Clara Peggotty driving off to their wedding in a chaise attended by David and Emily), so that the only Phiz image that communicates his conception of the exterior of the Peggottys’ boat house is that in the title-page vignette, one of his last plates for the nineteen-month serialisation. The curvature of the walls as they blend into the ceiling is once again evident in “We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty’s fireside” (second illustration for the November 1849 monthly number), but the room seems to have expanded to accommodate Steerforth’s height and the size of the social gathering (six adults disposed in three groups of two each), and the window, curtained over (right), seems bigger than in either of Phiz’s exterior realizations. Compare these interiors to that of a righted boat, that in “The Emigrants” (second illustration for the October 1850 monthly number), in which there is no curvature of the walls. Finally, Phiz’s exteriors of the boat are at variance, that in “Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure” suggesting a small hut, but that in the title-page vignette suggesting a house of regular dimensions.
Valerie Browne Lester argues that the composition of the boat-house plates “is a reminder that Phiz occasionally had the upper hand” (147) in his collaborative arrangement with Dickens, and contends the inversion actually constitutes an improvement in the conception of the Peggotty family’s home. In her attitude she is echoing Frederic G. Kitton’s earlier assertion that the sequence of boat-house plates are the result of the novelist’s uncharacteristic failure to conduct adequate “surveillance” (103) of Phiz’s monthly contributions, although, as has already been noted, “To Hablot Knight Browne, 9 May 1849,” implies quite the contrary. The illustrator may have simply assumed that the writer had intended an upside boat. Despite local traditions reflected years later in such illustrations as “The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth” (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), there is no evidence that the writer actually saw such a boat house when in company with John Leech and Mark Lemon he visited Yarmouth on 9 January 1849; even that most meticulous of biographers, Peter Ackroyd, can only speculate as to Dickens’s experience on the shore at dusk: “It is possible that he also saw the Yarmouth boat-house, an odd structure with its roof made from the bottom of a boat” (553).
In 1931, Lawrence Gadd cited Dr. Bately, a native of Yarmouth, as stating that such a boat-house existed in the 1830s, although not quite where Dickens in the novel locates it: “it was originally built, partly of an old boat, on a piece of swampy land, as a shed in which to stow the fishing gear of a shrimp-man” (71), coinciding with the catch that Daniel and Ham Peggotty present to David at school. Dickens may have deliberately shifted the location of the cottage seaward in order to facilitate its destruction by the tempest at the end of the story. However, Gadd’s source “asserted that Dickens never saw it. It is not clear on what ground he made such a confident statement, unless he knew that the original boat-shed was hidden by the brick-work and tile roof prior to Dickens’s first visit to Yarmouth in 1848” (72) as of his time of writing, Gadd reported that “numerous old boats, upright and inverted, high and dry upon the shore, at many places round the English coast and used as habitations” (72), and any of these could have provided Dickens with his model. Indeed, in his 1929 article in the Dickensian, Gadd proposed as a likely source of inspiration the boat-house on the Gravesend, Higham Canal, near Rochester, which Dickens knew from visits to the immediate neighbourhood in 1836 and 1841:
a quaint little cottage consisting of an inverted fishing-boat, or navy cutter, supported upon low walls of brickwork. The entire boat, which is 30 feet long, 71/2 feet beam and 5 feet deep, was used to form the roof and upper part of the house; and at the bow end there is a small brick chimney to carry away the smoke from the kitchen fire. Small as it is, the cottage has two stories, the actual boat forming an upper chamber, lighted by a small window cut in the stern. (125)
This Gravesend structure, as Gadd has demonstrated, was erected on that spot between 1802 and 1832, and therefore was likely known to Dickens in his twenties, if not earlier. Yet another source, K. J. Fielding suggests, was Samuel Laman Blanchard (1804-1845), a Yarmouth native and member of Dickens’s intimate circle who heard Dickens read The Chimes in Forster’s rooms in December, 1844. It is not implausible that Dickens combined James Sharman’s boat-shed (located at the foot at the Nelson Monument) from his friend Blanchard’s recollection of it (for the original was demolished in 1845) with other boat-houses he had seen elsewhere on the coast and in particular with the boat-house on the Higham Canal.
Whereas Fred Barnard twenty years later interpreted the letterpress literally to show the cottage at the first moment of its appearance in the novel as a boat “high and dry,” as though washed ashore on the sands, and “roofed in” like a child’s Noah’s ark, according to Hammerton in 1910, “On the Denes at Yarmouth, however, in recent years might have been seen an inverted boat that had been converted into a snug dwelling-place” (339). Hammerton states that Phiz, whom he terms “the least imaginative and inventive of the famous illustrators, improved upon the text, for the pictorial value of the inverted boat will not be denied” (339). In fact, so compelling is Phiz’s conception that it has failed to convince only two of Dickens’s principal illustrators (Harry Furniss and Fred Barnard). The 1935 MGM film adaptation clearly shows the ribs of the boat’s keel in the set design, which undoubtedly reflects Phiz’s interior scenes. The appeal of the inversion alluded to by Hammerton may well be that the boat house’s interior scenes visually as well as psychologically foil the novel’s early conventional drawing room scenes, dominated in the letterpress by the glacial Murdstones (enacted by the sinister Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble in the 1935 black-and-white film). As David G. Smith remarks,
Dickens’s acceptance of Phiz’s alteration of his plans (if that’s what happened) might have been because he recognized the thematic rightness of having the boat turned upside down. After all, the Peggottys continually encounter tragedy and death. Dan Peggotty, Mr. Gummidge, and Ham all end up “drowndead,” Em’ly meets a fate worse than death, and the last time we see the boat it is nothing more than an abandoned wreck. It’s a household that is figuratively turned upside down — perhaps Dickens thought it would make sense if it happened literally as well.
Since, however, as Valerie Browne Lester notes, Phiz and Fred Barnard were great friends during the period when the younger illustrator received the Chapman and Hall commission for the Household Edition, we must also consider the possibility that Barnard’s revised image, true to the textual description of a “roofed in” boat and the biblical associations of the boat house (the very name Ham, one of Noah’s sons, and such Old Testament figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Daniel depicted in the cheap coloured prints on the interior walls), had Phiz’s sanction and therefore represents his final intention. Further, one might plausibly argue that when Davy, born aloft on Ham’s shoulder, first spies the “superannuated boat not far off, high and dry on the ground” in chapter 3 he would have commented upon its being an inverted boat as he subsequently describes it, rather than “That ship-looking thing” (Norton, p. 32). Further, it is less likely that the boy in chapter 10 would experience apprehensive fancies “that the sea might rise in the night and float the boat away” (Norton, p. 127) if the boat were not grounded on its keel.
Part of the appeal of an upside-down boat is its verisimilitude (for such huts were common enough on England’s southern coasts, apparently), and part its suiting the unconventional, anti-bourgeois Peggotty family. Phiz’s image matches a peculiar cottage with an odd family, for Daniel Peggotty’s “children” are neither his nor brother and sister, and Daniel Peggotty’s housekeeper is not even a blood relation, but the widow of his deceased fishing partner; and yet this family unit like the cottage itself is hardly dysfunctional. Guiliano and Collins in the second volume of The Annotated Dickens include both Barnard’s right side-up boat house (p. 39) and a period photograph of an inverted boat house at Gravesend which they suggest may have given Dickens “the idea for the Peggottys’ house (note 5, p. 38), despite the fact that such a conception “is at odds with the text” (38). Moreover, they allude to K. J. Fielding’s citing in “Peggotty’s Boat: Fact and Fiction” (Dickensian, May 1960) local journalist Louis Meall in A Guide to Yarmouth (2nd. ed, 1851) as saying that the inverted boat house was “as much a creation of the author’s fancy, as the adventures of the heroic and true-hearted Peggotty himself; but it is a very characteristic feature in a coast scene of 30 years ago” (118).
Significantly, Fred Barnard chose the scene of David’s seeing the Peggotty cottage for the first time as the subject of his first full-page illustration, “That’s not it?” said I, “That ship-looking thing?” “That’s it, Mas’r Davy,” returned Ham.” (see above). In the British Household Edition this appears opposite the relevant letterpress (page 15), but after the interior scene with David and the Peggotty family grouping (“Dead, Mr. Peggotty? Page 9, – see below). The placement of this large-scale illustration is even more effective in the American edition (opposite the relevant letterpress, p. 18) since it occurs prior to the interior scene (p. 21). A point of continuity between the exterior scenes of Barnard and Phiz is the domestic hearth; the discontinuity is the supporting beams, which frame action in Phiz but are absent in Barnard, who presents the characters in profile in two groups of three on either side of the enlarged and emphasized hearth. In terms of the large-scale, exterior illustrations, Phiz has foregrounded a melancholic little Emily on the beach with the vessel behind, clouds and breakers contributing to the overall mood, while Barnard has foregrounded the figures of Ham, Clara, and David (right half), and reduced the boat house to half of the frame. The crosshatching in the 1872 plate’s boat house roof and walls echoes the crosshatching in Clara Peggotty’s shawl and box, David’s coat, and Ham’s sweater and boots.
The scene, then, is fundamentally different in the 1850 and 1872 presentations as Barnard presents the house as an extension of a family unit rather than an adjunct to the romantic scenery of the beach, waves, and sky. The potential for melancholy, evident in the Phiz title-page vignette, is dispersed in Barnard’s illustration by the presence and size of the human figures, and the viewer cannot be even momentarily deceived about the nature of the hulk in the background, which, but for the slight whiff of smoke blowing towards the right in Phiz’s title-page vignette, might be a derelict left high and dry on the sands. Phiz has chosen to alienate Emily as a child to suggest her apartness from David’s intense and largely indoor middle-class milieu; Barnard has chosen not to show her at all, focusing through carefully accumulated nautical details on the mixed working and domestic nature of the boat house, which serves both as the Peggottys’ home and their place of business. Barnard’s emphasizing the hearth in the initial interior but including—uncharacteristically—so much maritime bric-a-brac reinforces the comfort and coziness of this outwardly odd but inwardly normative Victorian home. Despite their working class background and untidily anti-bourgeois configuration, the Peggotty family offer a far more welcoming environment than David’s legal guardians, the Murdstones, who though possessing all the outward signs of middle-class respectability and affluence, including formal education and the property inherited from David’s mother, impose an emotionally stifling home life on the child and eventually exile him.
As for the issue of whether there actually was such a cottage on the Denes in Great Yarmouth in January 1849 when Dickens visited, despite traditions enshrined in such pictures as “The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth” (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), we should accept K. J. Fielding’s verdict that “whether there was ever a ‘real hut’ one can probably never hope to decide” (117).
Note: James Sharman was something of a local character at Yarmouth, and author of the Guide to Yarmouth (1854). Fielding (118) quotes the following from Louis Meall, who regarded Sharman as “the prototype of the brave Ham”:
In 1817, James Sharman was appointed ‘Keeper of the Pillar’, and looked after the Monument for 50 years until his death in 1867 at the age of 82. As a 14-year old, Sharman was working as a waiter at the Wrestler’s Inn when he was forcibly press-ganged into the navy. He went on to serve on HMS Victory at Trafalgar. He later claimed to have helped carry the fatally wounded Nelson below decks, though this may have been his own embellishment in order to gain extra tips from visitors! Sharman was certainly a colourful character. His better documented exploits included a brave rescue of several sailors from the brig Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his house in 1827. Charles Dickens read a newspaper report of this. While writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth, he visited Sharman, and apparently based the character Ham Peggoty [sic] on Sharman. An event that Sharman must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below. [See “Nelson’s Monument — Background Information (Yarmouth)”
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. Press, 1980.
Cronin, Mark. “Turning Peggotty’s Boat Right Side Up: Hablot K. Browne and the Overturned Boat House of David Copperfield.” 14th Annual Dickens Symposium. Providence, RI: Providence College, 9 August 2009.
Barnard, Fred, il. Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872.
Browne, Hablot Knight (“Phiz”), il. Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. 1850. London: Nonesuch, 1937, rpt. 2004.
___. 1850. The Personal History of David Copperfield. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Graham Storey and K. J. Fielding. The Pilgrim Edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. Vol. 5 (1847-1849).
Fielding, K. J. “Peggotty’s Boat: Fact and Fiction.” Dickensian, May 1960. 117-119.
Gadd, Lawrence. “Is This Peggotty’s Boat-House?” Dickensian 25 (1929): 124-126.
Outside of Norfolk most people have never heard of them; come to think about it – some inside the County would also be at a loss to know! Follow me then – and bring a pair of ‘wellie’ boots with you. But don’t wear them just yet unless, of course, you particularly like their weight and feel for we are heading first to Skiffkey on the North Norfolk coast, the place where those ‘Stewkey Blues’ may be found.
The village of Stiffkey lies, as we now know, on the North Norfolk coast, along the A149 coast road between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Morston. The name of Stiffkey derives from the tree stumps that are found in the marsh – the area of which is referred to as ‘tree-stump island’. Skiffkey is a beautiful village consisting largely of flint and brick cottages, built on the banks of the charming River Stiffkey which is bridged just into the Langham road. The river, with its little, narrow, confining valley is quite attractive during summer months and never seems to lose its way as it flows through the village on its way to the sea at Stiffkey Freshes (see below). There was once a harbour at Stiffkey, but it has long been completely silted up – the reason why those ‘Blues’ of old grew so fondly attached to the area.
The main street of Skiffkey is narrow and winding and is bordered on both sides by high walls – making it a dangerous place for pedestrians, particularly in wellie boots, also something of a nightmare for motorists – especially in the busy summer months when tourists pass through from afar. In fact, for those who venture through the village by car, van or lorry for the first time they would immediately notice one thing – the road is not only extremely narrow, but has no pavement between the flint walls and road. In the height of the summer tourist season this feature not only creates traffic jams, but sometimes the occasional ‘incident’ caused by those vehicles which choose to joist with others, often resulting in damaged paintwork at best or dented bodywork and, frequently, displaced side mirrors. It is also not the place for the faint hearted or for those who like to test their prowess at speeding. Patience is required!
High above the village sits Stiffkey Old Hall and the church of St. John the Baptist (or is it St Mary’s? – but that is another story) both in close proximity and with impressive structures. The nearby Rectory was one time infamous during the 1930’s, all because of the activities of its incumbent, the Reverend Harold Francis Davidson. His neglect of his parish work, his family and his frequent trips to London to carry out his work as the so called “Prostitutes’ Padre” started local tongues wagging. In 1932 he was defrocked by the Church after being convicted by a Consistory Court in Norwich on immorality charges. But, Davidson went on to make a new career as a performer to raise funds, principally for his proposed appeal – which obviously wasn’t successful by the way. He finally met his demise at Skegness when he was supposed to have been killed by a lion after he entered its cage – a kind of action replay of Daniel in the lion’s den. Despite his experiences and end, Davidson still had many friends and it was they who provided the funds for his funeral back at Stiffkey. The church and the churchyard were packed with people and estimates at the time numbered the crowd at 3000 plus; even the Marques and Marchioness Townshend, from their stately seat at Raynham Hall near Fakenham, were among the mourners.
In modern times Davidson has come to be regarded as a victim of an antiquated church legal system and his reputation has, to some extent, been restored. But, enough of this slight digression and a tale which has received more than its fair share of coverage over the years. For those who are still curious and would like to follow his story in more detail; click on the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Davidson . We must move on to other digressions before homing in on the main reason for this blog.
In 1937 Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka the Otter, purchased Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey for £2250 – or so we are led to believe. He was anxious to contribute to Sir Oswald Mosley’s new vision of Britain but, unfortunately, he had no experience of farming and after eight years he abandoned the farm and his task to return to his beloved Devon. There, he recorded his experiences in ‘The Story of a Norfolk Farm’ (1941). The book contains some memorable descriptions of the north Norfolk coast:
‘The sea was half a mile from the village, and the field ended in a plantation or land-fringe of stunted trees, and then steeply down to a pebbly shore and a creek where a fisherman’s boat was moored.
We sat down on the grass, gazing out over the marshes, one vast gut-channelled prairie of pale blue sea-lavender. Afar was the sea merging in summer mist and the palest azure sky. There was no sound: the air was still: not a bird stirring. This was the sun I remembered from boyhood days, the ancient harvest sunshine of that perished time when the earth was fresh……’
For some of his time in Norfolk, Williamson lived in a small cottage off the village street in Stiffkey, while there he collaborated with Miss Lilias Rider Haggard on ‘Norfolk Life’ (1943), a journal of the years 1936-7. It is, in fact, an anthology of unusual extracts from old books on husbandry, farmers’ calendars and herbals. It is a gardener’s book, a farmer’s book, a field naturalist’s notebook — with some especially good observations on birds. It is a book of jottings that somehow manage to get the very heart of Norfolk in them.
At the northern end of the village is a long concrete road called Green Way that leads down to the Stiffkey salt marshes. This road was first laid by the army during WW2, as was its camp at the end of the road. The camp was used for training anti-aircraft gunners then and into the 1960’s before being abandoned, to be used as a camping site with its original guardroom still standing and in use by campers. It is worth saying, for those who cannot do without their cars, that there is what you might call a ‘rough’ car park area here, at the edge of the marsh. It is, in fact, on the Norfolk Coastal Path for you walkers and it belongs to the National Trust – so its members get a bonus of guaranteed free parking! The topic of parking gets a particular mentioned here because Stiffkey is another of those small places where parking within its environs is very limited, very limited indeed. The above mentioned National Trust car park is also a long way from the village itself; a village that can just about manage a general store that contains the village Post Office counter. The village also an antique shop that some say is worth a visit and as for food and drink, it has a pub, the Red Lion at the northern end of the village; again, some say it has ‘a good reputation’ and would offer a welcome pause for those on the way to seeking out those ‘Stewkey Blues’.
The Location of Stiffkey Freshes:
Stiffkey Freshes is located between Stiffkey and Morston adjacent to the coastline. The easiest way to reach the area is via the coastal path, having parked at the National Trust car park at Stiffkey. It is a walk east along the path for approximately one and a half miles until you reach the creek on your left. Alternatively, park on the NT car park at Morston and walk along the coast path towards Stiffkey – this is slightly further by the way. When you have reached the Freshes you will see some moored fishing boats in the creek and dinghies hauled up onto the grass.
There is, of course, an alternative and much shorter route from the A149 coast road at White Bridges, a location not named on the map so you would have to ask! But, a word of warning at this point. As already meentioned, the A149 through Stiffkey can be very busy in the summer months and is quite a dangerous road to walk along, because there are no pavements or flat verges. The advice is against using this route, particularly if you have children with you – carrying whatever you have for about 200 yards on this road, whilst supervising children, is fraught with danger from passing traffic. In addition, and not to rub the difficulties in, the only parking available is in a lay-by on the north side of the road near two farm buildings. This lay-by is frequently used by bait diggers who make their way down to the marsh via the footpath beside the buildings. So, do not go that way.
But, assuming that one has successfully surmounted all the obstacles, we find that this part of the North Norfolk coast that we speak of, is in a permanent state of flux. You have the cliffs between Weybourne and their vanishing point at Happisburgh to the east which are constantly being eroded. Sandbars, banks and dunes there, having been formed by the tides, gales and wave action over many months and years, can be ripped from their roots by simply one ferocious winter gale from the north-west. Stiffkey Freshes is somewhat lucky in this respect; the two-mile long Blakeney Point curves around offshore like a comforting arm and gives vital protection. This guardian prevents major erosion on the southern side of the channel and, as a result, the dunes edging the Stiffkey Freshes creek and abutting the beach itself have not changed a great deal over the years.
Now, the locals advise that visits to the Freshes should be made about one hour before low water in order to reach the marram-topped dunes that are ideal picnic venues. It would be here where those wellies would prove temporarily very useful; that is. if you did not wish to take off walking boots and paddle bare footed across the creek. From there, it is a walk along the dividing line between the dunes and the ribbed hard sand that runs down to the channel several hundred yards away. Only then would that ideal secluded and sheltered spot be found, with the added possible bonus of seeing a hare or two – they seem to favour living amongst the dunes.
Be still and listen:
Once you have established your base, take time to be still and look around you. Attune your ears to the constant calling of the seabirds and wildfowl that can be seen going about their business on the sands and in the shallows that lie in front of you. Take your binoculars and scan the north-west where you will see seals hauled out on the sandbanks. You may also spot a mussel fisherman wading up the creek, pulling his heavy boat behind him because the water is too shallow to run the outboard engine. It will be laden with the day’s catch to be shovelled into net bags on the bank of the creek.
A ‘wild’ place:
There are just a few places left in Norfolk that can be described as ‘wild’; Stiffkey Freshes is one of those. If you are an early bird and can get to the dunes as dawn breaks, or you are prepared to stay as dusk approaches, you will witness nature at its most impressive. These are the times of day that you will see a great deal of bird activity, with skeins of geese and flights of duck going to or returning from their feeding grounds. You may also see a fox hunting along the foreshore or a muntjak trotting along amongst the dunes. Again. do not visit only on hot summer days – wrap up warm and come in winter when the north westerly’s blow and the clouds skitter across the sky like the sails of racing yachts. Watch the waters of the channel being whipped up and spume dancing off the crests of the waves. The fine sand that blows in drifts across the landscape will sting your face and you will taste salt on your lips; you may never feel as cold again anywhere else, but what a rewarding experience you will have had.
Where the hell are those ‘Stewkey Blues’ you may be asking by now, having been dragged through the village and down on to and over the marshes. Well, all that was to give you a flavour of the place; and talking of flavour, the good news is that you have finally arrived at your destination and the source of ‘Stewkey Blues’ It is here, on the marshes, that you will need those Wellies – and, sorry, it should have been mentioned before that a rake and bucket would be a further advantage! Let Alan Savory – the Norfolk wildfowler tell you what you have been dying to know since you started reading this Blog; revealed by way of his writings which, whilst about duck shooting on the North Norfolk marshes including Stiffkey, mention that the Stiffkey marshes are famous for the ‘Stewkey Blues’ – a type of cockle with a distinctive blue colour. Let this extract from his book ‘Norfolk Fowler’ (1953) explain further:
‘There is a place far out on the sands somewhere between High Sand Creek and Stone Mell Creek that is called Blacknock. It is a patch of mud covered with zos grass and full of blue shelled cockles known as “Stewkey Blues”. It is a famous place for widgeon, but very dangerous to get on to and off, if one is not too certain of the way on a dark night. The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.’
It is the geography of this region that helped create perfect conditions for these special cockles: nowadays they can be found a few kilometers north of Stiffkey, on the seaward side of a saltmarsh, where muddy creeks flooded with tide create a good habitat for them to live in. They are usually buried an inch under the muddy sand which, it is claimed, gives the cockle its blue colour. Traditionally the cockles were raked from the mud by the women and then washed in seawater, and it is still as it was that the Stiffkey fishermen and inhabitants collect them. Some fishermen add flour or oatmeal to assist this process.
Stewkey Blues is a popular nickname for Stiffkey Blue Cockles which are only found at Stiffkey. The name ‘Stiffkey’ is actually pronounced ‘Stewkey’ and the cockles have a dark grey-blue shell – hence the name. They indeed have a different colour from other types of cockles around England. When they colonise, they form shells of a distinctive blue tinge, ranging from mauve to slate-blue. Its colour has always been thought noteworthy and that is why it is mentioned in their name. They have a rich shellfish flavour, refreshing and slightly salty. Stiffkey cockles open when they are steamed, and are eaten fresh, or used for soups and pies. Traditional seaside style is to boil and sell from stalls, with pepper and vinegar to taste. They have long been considered a delicacy in East England, but unfortunately, the cold winter of 1989 killed many cockles and its trade has never really recovered to the level that it once was. Indeed, it is unfortunately recognized that, year by year, the number of Stiffkey cockles declines.
Very few tales of Norfolk are without a myth or a ‘scary’ story. Stiffkey and cockle gathering is no exception. Rest a while longer from your long trek and hear this from a past Cockler:
The Screaming Cockler of Stiffkey:
In the small village of Stiffkey, out on the salt marshes is a large mud bank called Blacknock, which is the site of a ghostly haunting. Stiffkey is famous for its blue cockles, and in the 18th century these were gathered by the women of Stiffkey. It was hard and potentially dangerous work, as the tides race in cruel and fast over these marshes. But the cocklers of Stiffkey were tough women, they had to be. With their weathered faces, dressed in pieces of sacking for warmth, they trawled the marshes for cockles. Once collected, the cockles had to be hauled back in large sacks to the village, without help of man or beast. It was no wonder that the women of Stiffkey were known thereabouts as Amazons, given their strength and hardiness. You had to be tough to be a Stiffkey Cockler. On one particular day the Stiffkey women were out as usual gathering the ‘Stewkey Blues’.
“We all told her, but she wouldn’t listen, not her. Her mother was the same, stubborn as a mule. Her mother was a Stiffkey Cockler as well but at least she died in her bed, not like her poor daughter. It’s hard work cockling, you know! You get paid by the sack so if you come back with only half a sack then you might have to go hungry? Or one of your children? Then, we have to carry those sacks, full of cockles, all the way back to the village. You can’t get no mule out there, not out on those sand banks. But we’re tough, tough as old leather. That’s why they call us Amazons hereabouts. Though being tough don’t make it any easier when we lose one of our own.
But she just wouldn’t listen.
We all saw that the tide was turning; turning fast and the weather was closing in quick. That’s why we packed up. None of us, apart from Nancy, had a full sack – but half a sack and your life and a night with an empty stomach is far better than no life at all.
So we left the girl Nancy. Left her out there by herself still gathering cockles out on Blacknock whilst we all came back, came back home to our families and to safety. There was nothing we could have done – she just wouldn’t listen. Who could have known it was going to get that bad and that quickly. Of course when she realised the danger it was too late, the roke (fog) had descended. No way could she find her way back. Don’t even think Nancy could have found her way back in a roke like that. Not even with all her years of experience.
Our men folk tried to get to the girl. Well they could hear her, see. Out there in their boats on the sea they could hear her calling and a screaming for help. My man said he even heard her cursing and swearing. Raging against the roke and the tide, even against God himself. Then all of a sudden, he said, there was silence and he could hear her no more, none of them could. So they turned back – had to. Too risky in all that roke in a boat when you can’t see where the mud banks be.
She’s still out there of course.
No not her body. No, that we found the next day. Still had her knife clasped in her hand and her sack a way off still just half full. Seaweed there was, all tangled up in her hair and her eyes. Well her eyes they were open, glaring one might say, glaring at the injustice of it all. No it’s not her body out there, that be in the churchyard, but her spirit, her restless spirit, that’s still out there. Now I can’t spend my time gossiping I’ve got to get on, got to get back and feed my family.
Now, don’t you be thinking of going out there, not now!
No it’s not ’cause of the tide. The tide has already turned on its way back out. But there’ll be a fog tonight; you can already see it beginning to roll in from the sea. That fog – It’s her! – she’s always much worse on foggy nights, much more restless and noisy. Probably cause it was foggy when she drowned. No, she’s far worse on foggy nights. On foggy nights you may even see her, with all that seaweed still in her hair.
So you don’t want to be thinking about going out there, not by yourself, not out on Blacknock sandbank.”
The date is 5 February 1840. Charles Lewis Redwood stands at the helm, steering the St Leonard into the Yare. He remembers the tightening of his stomach the last time he watched Yarmouth coming into view, shackled as he was then with his men aboard the Admiralty cutter as his sloop, the Nancy, was towed into port. Deftly, he slips the St Leonard up against the quay and oversees his men unloading her cargo. Honest fare, now, he carries between Harwich and London. Not like the bales of tea and barrels of brandy, stashed in the hulk, discovered when the excise officers intercepted the Nancy crossing the Yarmouth Roads, disguised as a fishing smack.
It’s four years since he was on this quay. The Harwich men were waiting outside the Gaol to greet the five smugglers from the Nancy after six-months imprisonment. Singing and slapping each other’s shoulders, they marched down to the dock and into the nearest tavern. He was impatient to return home but first he must treat the band of smugglers for supporting his men during their confinement with regular supplies of food and tobacco. It felt ungrateful to watch his friends supping their ale and not join them in a glass. After all this time, he was glad to get the commission to come back to Yarmouth. At last he can call on the prison teacher he promised to visit. He seeks directions to Row 57. Will Miss Martin remember him?
She recognizes the sailor instantly, welcoming him into her little room. He’s taken aback by its bare simplicity. Brewing the tea strong, she manages to get two cups out of the teapot, made only for one. It was a hard time, he tells her, when he left the Gaol. Fourteen months he spent, searching for honest work. With his wife and children to feed, it was a sore temptation not to go back to the contraband. But he stood by what his teacher taught him. Now, he says proudly, he is master of a respectable merchant’s ship.
The mariner’s eyes light up when she asks after his family. Sarah, his wife, has another baby on the way. William, his first-born, has become a sailor. He’s a strapping lad. Good and steady. The teacher rummages through a box of envelopes, and takes out the letters of thanks from Edmund Cole and his wife, to read their cheery news. Like Redwood, the first mate had struggled when he returned home. But Cole had visited last summer and told Miss Martin how all the Nancy’s crew had finally left off smuggling. They are doing well, Charles Redwood nods. Fine men. He sees them often. The teacher is happy to hear him confirm Edmund Cole’s reports. Shyly, before he leaves, the former prisoner takes from his sack two presents for the teacher. He bought them in France, a token of his gratitude for all she has done for him. He hopes she will like them. But sat on the table between them, the pretty vase and jewellery box look out of place, he thinks.
Once the master mariner bids her farewell, Sarah Martin opens the Liberated Prisoners book and writes of his visit and gifts—a vase covered in shells, and a curious glass box—his gratitude for what he thought his obligation to me. At the end of their confinement, she remembers smiling, the smugglers asked to speak with the prisoners, and begged them to listen to her advice, and treat her with respect. She picks up the vase and box, and hesitates, weighing the strange trinkets in her hands. I am not sure if she stands them on the mantelpiece or hides them away in a cupboard.
The smugglers on the Nancy had been in prison before, as they told Sarah Martin. Why did her teaching touch them when previous correction had failed to deter their illegal activities?
In 1832 Charles Redwood was found in charge of the Union of Ipswich, sailing as a collier hauler with contraband concealed under the coal. His men were pressed into the Navy for five years—a gain for the Admiralty that won the services of experienced sailors, and for the Home Office that saved on the cost of imprisoning them. Of the six crew members, only the cabin boy was acquitted, as at the Yarmouth trial. But the captain must be made an example. Unable to afford the £100 fine, Redwood was sent to Springfield Gaol, a convict prison near Chelmsford.
The County Gaol, at Springfield, stands in an airy and pleasant situation on about 9 acres of land, half of which is enclosed by the boundary wall. The erection of the old buildings was commenced in 1822, and took six years to be built at a cost of about £57,000. Springfield opened in 1828 as a modern penitentiary, designed in the radial style to ensure close observation of inmates, with a tread wheel for hard labour. Under a ‘silent system’, inmates were prohibited from speaking with each other, on pain of punishment.
Housed together at Yarmouth Gaol and able to converse freely, the ‘Nancy’ men laboured keenly at their lessons. While agreeing with the teacher that smuggling was a form of fraud involving habitual lying, they doubted they could afford to leave the trade. Discussing their concerns with Miss Martin, and mulling over the costs and benefits when she left, the five men began to embrace Christian reclamation as a group.
Mateship had bound the Nancy men together on the open seas. It sustained them in prison, with gifts from the smugglers’ band—one of the illicit friendly societies formed by contraband men. The vision of Christian fellowship, offered by the prison teacher, shared much in common with the values of fraternity and mutual obligation expressed by friendly societies across the trades, often symbolized in Christian terms, especially in the figures of the Good Samaritan and St Christopher. They were embedded, too, in the sea-faring life where the maritime spirit of hardy independence was built on the interdependence of crewmen. Those same values girded the men in the difficult months after release, when the older ones kept a careful eye on their younger mates.
Determination to leave the smuggling trade was surely strengthened by the strain their imprisonment had placed on the men’s families and the fear of transportation if they were caught again. When Charles Redwood was arrested in 1836, his son Lewis was just two-years-old.
The census returns for the Redwood household suggest the precarious nature of sailoring life but also the principles of kinship and reciprocity that kept the master mariner on the straight-and-narrow and his family together. At each census the sailor and his wife lived at a different address but always in the streets by the harbour. In 1841, five of their eight sons and daughters, were with them in Castle Street. When the children left home, they remained close by.
All Redwood’s sons became mariners and his daughters married sailors or men employed in trades connected with the sea. In 1851 his widowed daughter Jane had returned to live with her parents, while she worked as a charwoman to support her young daughter and newborn son. By 1861, now remarried to another sailor, she was living next door to her mother Sarah, who was caring for two of her grandchildren.
The former smuggler passed away in 1859, aged sixty-five. Proudly, his family or his friends placed notices in the Essex Standard and Chelmsford Chronicle, to note the death at Harwich of Mr Charles Redwood, mariner of that town.
At the click of the latch, young Lewis Redwood runs squealing to the door and tugs at his father’s breeches. Sarah is all smiles. He feels the baby, firm in her belly, as he presses her in his arms. This one will not know his Daddy once went to gaol.
Sitting in his chair by the hearth, he keeps an eye on the potatoes bubbling on the stove while his daughters set the table. Suddenly he is hungry as the herrings, bought today in Yarmouth, sizzle smoky-sweet on the griddle. Up on the mantelpiece, Sarah has added the vase to the collection of shell decorations, beloved by sailors, which her husband has brought back from his travels. The new jewellery box has pride of place, already containing her blue bead necklace and money for next week’s housekeeping. Its glinting glass casts flickering rays of lamplight onto a picture, cut out from a magazine; it is his favourite print – ‘A Sailor’s Family’ by Thomas Rowlandson:
He turns away from the merry picture and looks at his own happy band, gathered around the table, his wife beckoning him. For a moment he thinks of Miss Martin, sat at the table in her spartan room, writing out verses for the prisoners to copy. Charles Redwood shakes his head and then joins the homecoming supper, beaming.
And because everyone loves a sailor, here are more returning sailors (and some smugglers)………
More typical of Rowlandson is his bawdy style of many Sailor’s Returns
That’s enough of that!
The Sailor’s Farewell and The Sailor’s Return were familiar motifs on pottery:
And then there was The Smuggler’s Return…
Fortunately, perhaps, there are no links here to extremely lewd and graphic set of Sailors Returns which I’m sure Charles Redwood did not display on his walls!