Titanic: The Real Jack Dawson!

The 15th April marks the 106th Anniversary of the Titanic sinking. It is time once again to air the life of one of the least known but, probably, the most intriguing of all Titanic victims.

by Senan Molony

There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”

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For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).

Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?

You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!

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They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.

A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson in the Film ‘Titanic’

Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.

So who was the real Jack Dawson?:

A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.

Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.

And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.

But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.

It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.

A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.

How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.

Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.

Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.

MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”

Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.

Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.

The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.

Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.

Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.

By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.

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The entry for the Dawson family in the Irish census of 1901, with Joseph’s name on the lower line (Irish National Archives, Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.

It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.

Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.

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Joseph Dawson in uniform of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 1911. From “The Irish Aboard Titanic” (Courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”

There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.

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Titanic fireman John Priest, who survived. He encouraged Joseph Dawson, who was courting his sister, to take a job with the black gang. (Public Record Office, courtesy of Senan Molony, Ireland)

It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.

John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.

There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:

“Madam,

Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.

Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “

…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.

Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.

© Senan Molony, 2000

A Tale of Norfolk Peat Cutting

The Norfolk Broads may look natural, but they are a man-made phenomenon, the result of inundated peat diggings. Amazingly, this fact was not realised until the 1950s, when Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the sides of the deep lakes were vertical and not gently sloping as would be expected of a naturally formed lake. This, coupled with the historical evidence of peat demand for fuel, proved irrefutable. Another clue was that the area’s names are not Anglo-Saxon or Norse. They are named after people or landmarks, meaning they originated later.

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View of Barton Broad, Norfolk

Imagine a time where there are no mod cons, no electricity and certainly no mechanical diggers – just man power and a need to survive in what would have been difficult and unforgiving times. By the time of Domesday, around 1086, East Anglia was the most densely populated part of Britain, with a prosperous economy founded upon a stable agricultural regime. At this point, water levels in the Broadland estuary would have been sufficiently low to enable widespread exploitation of the wetlands, but very little wood was to be found on the Broadland uplands and much of the remaining floodplain woodland would have already been cleared for timber and particularly for firewood. Peat cutting, or ‘turbary’ provided a readily available alternative.

The extraction of peat would have been a difficult and unpleasant task, requiring great physical effort. Yet it was a prosperous industry and provided fuel for both individual families and manors, with a greater proportion being sold. It is estimated that more than 900 million cubic feet of peat would have been extracted.

 

The work

Peat extraction was a very hard and unpleasant task; the deeper, more compacted peat has a higher calorific value and is a superior fuel to that unearthed from the surface layers, but the effort of cutting blocks of peat from pits which were constantly filling with water would have been enormous.

Some people would have been cutting fuel for their own individual domestic consumption, however much of the peat, or ‘turf’ was likely to have been from demesne turbaries, which were owned by the church or by the manor. The peat produced in these turbaries was sometimes used within the manor or priory, but a large proportion was sold.

The decline of the peat cutting industry

Wage labour was used, but for the most part the turbaries are likely to have been worked by bond tenants as part of the mandatory labour service owned to the lord of the manor. For example, the bond tenants of Stalham Hall in the 13th Century owed their lord 23 days labour per annum in the turbaries, and were likely to have been required to work in the fields in addition to this. Records made in 1328 indicate that the tenants were required to undertake 14 days labour in the pits, or to pay 14d. in lieu.

Peat Cutting (stalham hall)

The industry peaked in the 13th Century, but increasing water levels and floods made extraction from the submerged turbaries more difficult, and more costly; by 1350 there were visible signs of decline.

The account rolls for properties held by Norwich Cathedral Priory at Martham date from 1261. Up until the early 15th Century, the Martham turf accounts were made more or less systematically and show annual revenues for turf sales of between 3s. 2d. and 14s. 2d. for the period between 1299 and 1340. From 1341 onwards there was no revenue from turf sales, although peat was still cut for domestic use. In 1349, the accounts show that the cost of producing turves rose dramatically, from a previous 50 year high of 9d. per 1000 turves to 20d. per 1000.

The accounts of the Norwich Priory show that peat was the main fuel in the cathedral kitchens in the first half of the 14th century. Turf consumption began to fall after 1350, although the Priory continued to rely on turf as the main source of fuel until around 1384. After this date, however, other fuels, such as wood, are increasingly mentioned in the accounts, and after 1440 there are no further references to peat as a fuel.

The reasons for this shift are almost certainly economic ones: there was either a greatly increased availability of other fuels which could be more easily obtained, or the cost of producing peat had risen to such an extent that alternatives had to be sought.

Towards the end of the 14th Century, the relative sea level had risen to the extent that the peat workings were being flooded on a regular basis. Where flooding was not too severe, it may have been possible to bale the cuttings, but once flooded, the deep turbaries could not be adequately drained with the technology then available and it was probably nearly impossible to continue to extract peat from the flooded workings in the traditional manner.

Alternative techniques for removing peat from the flooded pits were devised: for example dredging the soft peat, or ‘mora’, from the bottom of the flooded pits and shaping it into blocks. Where there was sufficient labour available, the industry continued for a time on this basis, however the impact of another factor meant that this labour was no longer in cheap, and plentiful, supply.

The advent of the plague

Bubonic plague, otherwise termed the ‘greate death’, because it affected everyone, whether rich or poor, young or old, arrived in England by ship in June 1348. ‘Black Death’ was a later name for the disease, thought to refer to the dark swellings, or ‘buboes’ at the lymph nodes. Those infected with the disease died within 4 days of detecting the first signs of swellings in armpit or groin.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)2

Others were inflicted with the pneumonic form of the disease, which affected the lungs. In either case, very few recovered. Within 18 months of the advent of the plague, almost half the population of the country was dead. It is impossible to comprehend the scale of the personal devastation and panic which would have swept the country.

“alas this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders.                           William Dene

Food shortages caused by famine may have exacerbated the impact of the plague, with perhaps a higher mortality rate among the famine-weakened population than might otherwise have occurred. East Anglia was seemingly particularly hard-hit by plague, perhaps because of the high population density. A prayer in the church of St Edmunds in the market town of Acle, written by the rector at the time, refers to the “brute beast plague that rages hour by hour”.

In the months following the first outbreak of plague, houses would have been empty, crops stood unharvested in the fields, and animals were left untended; the workers who undertook these tasks struck down by the disease.

Peat Cutting (Black Death)1

“for want of watching…….animals died in uncountable numbers in the fields and byways and hedges”                                                                         Henry Knighton

The impact of the Black Death

Corresponding to the first outbreak of the plague the peat cutting industry seems to have undergone a rather sudden decline, even thought the natural resources of Broadland was by no means close to exhaustion at this time and large tracts of uncut peat fen still existed in many of the river valleys.

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Reed cutting that, for a time at least, operated alongside that of peat cutting.

It is possible that some of these surface resources were not exploited because of ownership constraints or because there was some other significant and conflicting economic use of the land, for example reed or sedge cutting. However, because of the enormous scale of the peat cutting industry, the value of the excavated peat, and the rapidity of the change, it is probable that there was some more substantive factor which caused the decline.

The decline in the peat cutting industry almost certainly had its underlying cause in natural phenomena, but these were greatly exacerbated by the changing economic and social circumstances which came about as a result of the Black Death.

Bubonic Plague 1A major impact of the plague was severe labour shortage and because of this between 1350 and 1500 average wages in England rose dramatically. The economic impact of this on peat cutting, which was labour intensive, was devastating. While it would have been possible, if less economically viable, to continue to excavate peat in the face of rising sea levels and increased flooding by more labour intensive methods such as dredging the wet peat and shaping it into blocks, the loss of almost half of the labour force would have rendered any labour intensive tasks unworkable, and moreover, many of those who organised and supervised the work were dead.

The plague shifted the balance of economic power in favour of the workforce: labour became scarce and it became increasingly difficult to coerce the peasant classes into carrying out their traditional tasks on behalf of the manor. While not the single most important factor in the decline of the peat industry, the plague certainly reduced the economic viability of peat extraction from the deep cuttings to a point where it was no longer possible.

Peat continued to be cut from surface deposits on a smaller scale until the beginning of the 20th Century to supplement, and locally to replace, firewood as a source of fuel, but the deeper turbaries were never again exploited, and the industry which was instrumental in creating the Broadland landscape we know today was never fully revived.

THE END

Four Generations of Marshmen and Reedcutters.

The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.

Generations of marshmen:

My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.

My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency  in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.

My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.

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This shot, taken circa 1950, shows Violet Mace (nee Hewitt), Eliza Hewitt and Albert Hewitt who lived at the nearby station houses.

My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.

Childhood by the river:

I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.

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Henry Hewitt and Violet Mace at West Station cottage. Brian Mace in the corner. From Peter Allard in Sheila Hutchinson’s book Berney Arms Past and Present (2016).

Winter of ‘63:

I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.

Coypu:

And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.

Coypu (Feeding 1938)2
Farmed Coypu being fed.

Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!

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Coypu Pelts

Life after school:

When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.

St Olaves Map
Diagram showing position of Priory Craft, St Olaves

Reedcutting:

We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.

We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.

Mace-reeds-boat-1
Brian Mace, Bob Mace and Stanley Freary, reedcutters, opposite Burgh Castle in 1970s.

It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.

It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.

Travelling around the marshes:

They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.

Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:

After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.

These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.

We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.

Bob Mace
Bob Mace

The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if  a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.

I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.

sheep beccles-1

There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.

Future of the marshes:

I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.

From coypu to mink:

My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.

mink-in-the-marsh-sun-ng-01.jpg
Mink?

The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.

It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out  into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.

THE END

 

 

 

A ‘Rednall’ from Reedham. A Life on the Marshes.

The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:

Rednall to Reepham (Archie 1948)
Archie in 1948

I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.

 

When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.

I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…

Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.

Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’

Reedham School
Reedham School

I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.

We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…

I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.

So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.

Rednall-piano-mandolin-300x217
Mr Rednall Senior with his mandolin

Reggie Mace, a Marshman:

Mace-Brian-17_11_17-1
Brian Mace

One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.

His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.

Slubbing the Dykes Out:

There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.

He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.

He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…

There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.

The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:

There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.

I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…

On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.

Spinning for pike:

When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.

‘Babbing’ in the river:

We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…

The 1953 floods:

When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.

That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.

The mill dykes:

The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…

When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.

When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.

Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:

My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.

I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.

People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.

“The River Yare Commissioner’:

Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…

Commissioners Launch
The former ‘Commissioner’s Launch’ at Stalham Museum

He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.

We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.

The Wherry Albion:

One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…

The Albion Wherry
The ‘Albion’ Wherry

It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…

Reedcutters:

There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.

Reed_Cutter
Norfolk Broads Reedcutter

The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:

Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…

He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…

At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…

There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.

The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:

We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.

Thunderbox.jpg
Thunderbox Toilet

Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…

Night Soil Lorry
Night Soil Men & Lorry

Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:

There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…

We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.

They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.

I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.

We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.

Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.

Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.

At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.

Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:

There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…

allotments
Church Road Allotments, Reedham, Norfolk

At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…

Getting out and about:

There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.

Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.

Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:

On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.

charabanc 1949

In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.

Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.

Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:

There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.

There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.

Pettitt’s, Reedham:

We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.

Cantley Sugar Factory:

My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.

Cantley Sugar Factory
Cantley Sugar Factory, Norfolk

When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.

They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.

My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.

I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…

I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.

One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.

I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.

There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.

The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.

I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.

During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.

I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.

THE END

 

 

 

The Stanfield Hall Murders – Revisited

Norfolk Tales & Myths

It will be 169 years, this November, since the Stanfield Hall murders were committed by James Blomfield Rush and to which so much interest was directed once his arrest was made, the trial called and the sentenced carried out on Saturday,21 April 1849. Over the years since, much has been written and many accounts recycled by and for those who have been and remain interested in Norfolk history. What follows is for those who are unfamiliar with the story and those who, in the past, may have undertaken a tour of Norwich Castle but who failed to take any notice of the Tour Guide!

James Blomfield Rush James Blomfield Rush

Introduction.

Stanfield Hall is a large and ancient mansion situated near Wymondham and about 10 miles south-west of Norwich in the county of Norfolk. The Hall and Estate was held by Earl Warren in the 11th Century and by 1249 the Prior of…

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Norfolk’s own ‘Will O’ the Wisp’

Norfolk Tales & Myths

Will o the Wisp 2Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.

Will o the Wisp 3jpgIn Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’…

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Baconsthorpe’s Spectral Sentry!

Norfolk Tales & Myths

A TALE OF BACONSTHORPE CASTLE!

Baconsthorpe 5Hidden from the busy roads around Holt is a hint of a prosperous past; a past that comes in the form of a ruin of a once-magnificent manor house which was originally the home to the Heydon family. This ruin is a hidden gem, now owned by English Heritage; the guardians of not only what remains of brick, stone, flint and mortar, but of a place that boasts a very curious caretaker – that of a spectral sentry!

It is Baconsthorpe Castle of which I speak, a peaceful place standing proud in the middle of open meadows and farmland with an impressive moat and lake offering an image of its lost grandeur which once was lent to this gentle corner of Norfolk. What meets the eye is also a stony reminder of how far one can fall from grace.

Baconsthorpe 93The Heydons began building work on…

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Elizabethan ‘Strangers’ of Norwich

Norfolk Tales & Myths

This is not a new story – just a resume of what has been written many times before. In other words – the Strangers of Norwich are well documented.

A Solution to a Problem:

Strong trading links had existed between Norwich and the Low Countries before the 16th century, evident from very early Wills of Dutch and Flemish people already settled here. But, it was in the 16th Century that immigrants in the Low Countries were officially encouraged to move to the City.

Strangers1cEver since the Middle Ages, Norwich had been at the centre of an extensive textile inductry in woollens and worsted. By the 16th Century, however, this industry was in crisis, with competition coming from cheaper and better quality merchandise from Flanders – a region in the south west of the Low Countries now split between Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It was the skilled immigrants from these…

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Weird and Wonderful Georgian Beauty Treatments!

Norwich, 4th March 1736: It was on this day when the City ladies read with mounting excitement of “A Fresh and Neat Parcel of the Royal Beautifying Fluid” which had arrived in Norwich. Praise for its efficacy was not modest:

“So exceedingly valued by the Ladies of Quality and all who have used it for  its transcendent Excellency in beautifying the Face, Neck and Hands, to the most exquisite Perfection possible. It gives an inexpressible fine Air to the Features of the Face and a surprising Handsomeness to the Neck and Hands which it immediately makes excellent Smooth, Fine and delicately White” As if that is not enough:

“It takes away all disagreeable Redness, Spots, Pimples, Heats, Roughness, Morphews [blemish or birth mark], Worms in the Face, Sun-burnt, Freckles or any other Discolouring in the Skin”.

It needed only a few wipes with a little of the royal fluid, dropped on to a clean napkin, to make a lady’s face “fine, clear, soft and fair, as to cause Admiration in the Beholders”. The same retailer, William Chase, a Norwich bookseller, also stocked “the incomparable powder for the teeth, which has given such great satisfaction to most of the Nobility and Gentry in England for these Twenty Years”.

(Norwich Mercury, 4/5 March 1736)

Bless them, the Georgians cared greatly about their appearance. Indeed, the lure of a pretty face in make-up became so strong in the Georgian period, and was considered so irresistible, that parliament, apparently, considered passing a law to protect men from being duped by painted ladies with designs on their purse:

“An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witch-craft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”

Put forward in 1770 likely as a wry jab at fashion rather than a serious law, this amendment to the Witchcraft Act was never passed, nor did it make it into the debating chamber. Nevertheless, beauty treatments were abundant in Georgian Britain. Here are just seven which today may be considered as the most weird and wonderful…….!

White, White and White!

Our obsession with acquiring the perfect sun-kissed tan would have utterly perplexed the Georgians. In the 18th century a suntan was a sure sign that one worked outdoors, whereas the polite, wealthy classes remained indoors and out of the sun’s glare. The most basic and perhaps famous Georgian fashion was porcelain white skin, for both men and women.

Alongside horse manure and vinegar, the main ingredient in skin-whitening creams and powders was lead. Daubed liberally on the face and neck, these creams and powders helped to achieve that all-important ‘never been outdoors’ look. Whiteness was accentuated by using blue colouring to highlight veins, while lips and cheeks were tinted with yet more lead – this time coloured with carmine [a bright-red pigment obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid] or even with mixes containing highly toxic mercury.

With the widespread use of lead, it was hardly surprising that fashionable sorts began to suffer serious reactions to their make-up. From eye disorders to digestive problems and even, in extreme cases, death, the price of following the fashion for blanc was high.

The prized porcelain skin tone so beloved of Georgian fashionistas wasn’t financially easy to achieve either. Deadly or not, skin creams were an expensive addition to a lady’s make-up bag and for those seeking beauty on a budget the options were limited: for both hair and face a light dusting of wheat flour might have to suffice.

A portrait of Kitty Fisher by Sir Joshua
A portrait of Kitty Fisher by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted between 1723 and 1792. Some sources say the celebrated courtesan died from the effects of lead-based cosmetics. (Photo by Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking of Patches…

Also known as mouches, beauty patches were small clippings of black velvet, silk or satin that were attached to the face to cover blemishes, including smallpox scars and damage wrought by white lead, or just as a bit of decoration. Often kept in highly decorative containers, these patches enjoyed many years of popularity.

Silver cachou box, 1797.
Cylindrical box, possibly by Joseph Taylor, dated from 1797 that would have contained pills, cachous (lozenges to sweeten the breath) or patches to cover smallpox scars. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Just as fans could be used to communicate a secret message, the position of these skin patches eventually came to be associated with coded meanings. For example, if one wished to show political allegiance, a patch on the right-hand-side of the face denoted a Tory while a Whig wore a patch on the left. On a more intimate note, a patch in the corner of the eye might be an invitation to a would-be paramour.

Unlike face creams, patches weren’t only the preserve of the rich. If you couldn’t afford finely shaped silk and velvet then a little bit of clipped mouse skin would do just as well. Patches even appeared in many pieces of Georgian art; perhaps most famously in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress:

Georgian Beauty (a harlots progress)
These were a series of paintings and engravings in which heroine Moll Hackabout’s face – once fresh and pretty – takes on more and more patches until she resembles the haggard brothel madame who initiated her into London brothel life. For Moll, the patches no doubt covered the telltale signs of diseases such as syphilis – a world away from the fashionable ballrooms of France where a patch might mean flirtation, seduction and intrigue.

Even Hugh Hair!

The popular image of the later 18th century is one in which enormous and flamboyant wigs teetered precariously atop the heads of fashionable ladies, but this isn’t actually accurate. There was plenty of teetering hair but it was often real, with wigs generally worn only by 18th-century men.

Ladies and gents alike achieved their fashionable pale hair colour by applying hair powder, which was made from flour or starch and puffed onto the head with a pair of bellows [a device constructed to furnish a strong blast of air]. For that typically Georgian ‘big haired’ look the wealthy employed an army of stylists who built elaborate structures atop their heads around wooden frames padded with extra sections often made from horse hair.

Curling tongs were also developed: these resembled a pair of blunt scissors, with two metal prongs and wooden handles. When the prongs were heated in the fire the hair could then be wrapped around them and held in place until the curl had set. Alternatively, clay rollers were heated in an oven and then applied to the hair or wig. Heads also would often be adorned with wax fruit and other decorations such as flowers or even model sailing ships, and the most elaborate hairstyles would remain in place for days or weeks at a time. Within these monumental headpieces our fashionable gentleman and ladies acquired the occasional lice, but the Georgians had an answer for that too: specially designed rods were sold that could be slid between the layers of hair and used to scratch the lice bites, while ensuring that their fashionable hairstyles stayed perfect. If the lice became really itchy there was always the possibility of treating them with mercury, but given that this was known to potentially cause madness or death, a scratching rod was usually the preferred option.

Georgian Beauty (Barber)
A barber dispensing powder over his customer, from a print after Carle Vermat, c1700. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mouse Eyebrows

With lead liberally applied to the face as a matter of routine, it is hardly surprising that people’s eyebrows often fell out. Georgian fashionistas therefore adopted a new approach and began to pluck out or shave what eyebrow hair remained before pencilling on a new brow or using lead or burnt cork to colour one in.

As black brows became a popular look, occasional mentions of a rather strange new fashion began to emerge: in 1718, celebrated poet Matthew Prior wrote a satirical poem about Helen and Jane, who wear eyebrows made of mouse skin. Evidence for mouse skin brows remains scant, but mention of them does appear in satire throughout the early 18th century.

It was a ‘Must’ to Pad the right places

Many 21st-century celebrity careers have been established upon (or at least bolstered by) the strength of a shapely bottom. Yet this is nothing new: fashionable Georgian men were no strangers to a bit of strategic padding.

Georgian Beauty (Hackney Assembly)
‘Hackney Assembly. The Graces, the Graces, Remember the Graces’, 1812, artist anon. Ballroom scene in which a man is presented to a woman. Pads could be inserted to breeches to give the appearance of muscular calves, says Catherine Curzon. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Skin-tight breeches designed to show off the well-formed legs of their wearer became all the rage – but what if one didn’t have well-formed legs? For those who were too skinny to fill the garment, padding was the natural answer. Just like a modern padded Bra enhances the bosom, pads of fabric or horsehair could be inserted to breeches that would give the impression of muscled calves.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)

These pads could also be inserted anywhere else the male wearer might like a boost! These pads were the preserve of the most fashion-conscious of Georgian and Regency men. They found popularity among the highly fashionable, flamboyant chaps known as Dandies who wore corsetry and pads to create the perfect male shape.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)2
The Dandies at Work!

What about that Gleaming Smile!

With the upper classes indulging in all manner of sugary treats, it’s hardly surprising that the teeth of our Georgian beauties were far from perfect. Tooth powders (also known as dentifrice) were therefore used to whiten teeth: among their ingredients of cuttlefish and bicarbonate of soda was often the mysteriously named spirit of vitriol. Better-known today as sulphuric acid, this mineral (which we now know to be highly corrosive) certainly whitened the teeth, but primarily because it stripped them of their enamel completely.

Unsurprisingly, many Georgians required dental surgery and, without anaesthetic, such procedures were a skin-crawling affair. Once the troublesome tooth was removed, the richest patients could opt for a replacement live tooth to be purchased from a donor and threaded directly into the socket. Some of these live teeth had actually come from the mouths of corpses, bringing with them whatever disease and infections their original owner had been subject to.

If a pricey live tooth was beyond your means and a gap simply wouldn’t do, there were alternatives on offer: anything from a single tooth to a complete set of dentures could be constructed from materials including porcelain, ivory, or even the teeth of soldiers who died at the battle of Waterloo. Known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, these were gathered from the mouths of dead soldiers and became highly sought after. After all, a client knew that a Waterloo tooth had come not from a man who died of disease or a corpse dug up by grave robbers, but a young and (hopefully) healthy soldier who died honourably on the battlefield.

200 Year Old Dentures Displayed For World Smile Day
A set of 18th-century dentures that once belonged to Arthur Richard Dillon (1721-1806/7), Archbishop of Narbonne in France. Archaeologists discovered them, still in his mouth, when they opened his coffin in London’s St Pancras graveyard during excavations in advance of construction work for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link’s new London terminus. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Plus a Face Pack!

Less well-known than white Georgian faces and huge hair is ‘Fard’, a regency face mask used to soothe sunburn and “cutaneous eruptions” [spots].

Fard was a mix of sweet almond oil, spermaceti [a waxy substance found in the head of a sperm whale] and honey that was dissolved over heat and, once cooled, applied to the face and left on overnight. The recipe, was first published in The Mirror of the Graces,1811 followed by reprints which must have meant that the fashion continued decades later.

Georgian Beauty (Fard Paste)

This Blog is based on various sources but inspired by Catherine Curzon, author of “Life in the Georgian Court”, by Pen and Sword Books . Curzon also runs an 18th-century themed website named “A Covent Garden Gilflirt’s Guide to Life” acessed via:  http://www.madamegilflurt.com/

THE END

Norfolk’s Public Enemy No.1!

There were once claimed to be 200,000 coypu in East Anglia; well, if that figure was ever remotely correct then it can be fairly safe to say that now it is zero – or as near as makes no difference! This population descent, of somewhat astronomical proportions, was due to trapping campaigns that started way back in the 1960s and which eventually eradicated the creatures, but at some cost both in time and tax payers money. Let’s look back at the early circumstances behind what is something of a contemporary tale in these here parts.

Maybe, the first question to ask is just how did an orange-toothed South American beaver end up as East Anglian public enemy number one?………

Well, it all began with a dodgy fence, and a would-be fur magnate with a name straight out of a P G Wodehouse novel. There was, however, nothing comical about the aftermath of an accidental release of a group of animals from farmland at East Carleton, Norfolk in 1937. These creatures were known by their more familiar name – coypu. Their story remains a fascinating one which once encompassed bitter rows between farmers and conservationists, landowners and politicians, along with a generous helping of cutting-edge science and, at times, more than a hint of old fashion farce as well!

Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that it was a story which ran and ran to the point where some probably became fed up………! in fact, its roots went back more than 80 years, to 1929. That was the year when aspiring entrepreneurs in this country began to import a species of large rodent from Argentina.

Coypu (with rat)

At up to 3ft long including the tail, and weighing perhaps 9kg, the coypu was an impressive creature – for a rodent. It was not quite a capybara or a beaver, but much bigger than the common rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels that we were used to in our part of the world. In many ways, you could consider the coypu to be something like a monstrous water vole, living along rivers and in swamps and marshes, and feeding on a wide range of mainly plant foods. With its combination of walrus whiskers, stumpy body, webbed hind feet and large orange front teeth it was never going to feature on the list of the most elegant animals in nature. In fact, it could be presented as rather a fearsome creature, which might explain why it was exhibited at the Great Yarmouth Easter Fair in 1935 as the ‘giant sewer rat’, accompanied by a rather lurid painting of two sewer workers fending it off with shovels!

Coypu (Feeding 1938)2
Farming Coypu in 1938

The local farmers were not, of course, interested in the coypu’s looks; neither were those entrepreneurs out to make a profit. It was the creature’s fur that was the big attraction, its stomach area yielding a fine, soft undercoat of fur known as ‘nutria’. Twenty-two pelts were enough to make one fur coat and this was the attraction for those hoping to make a lucrative living. Notable amongst these was the delightfully-named landowner Philip Tindal-Carill-Worsley (1881-1946) was living at East Carleton Manor and saw an opportunity to make a profit from some very wet land along the stream that formed the border with the Mulbarton parish. This stream orginates from behind Catmere Herne, borders ‘The Meadows’, passes under the B1113 at Mulbarton Bridge, flows through the lake of The Grove (Cheshire DisAbility), across Intwood Ford and on to join the River Yare near Keswick Mill. The stream and an adjacent area north of Catbridge Lane was fenced off and pens built for the animals. Here, Tindal-Carill-Worsley set up his coypu farm on what was a 120-acre site – alongside a silver fox farm which was also set up for the same reason. Gamekeeper Charles Edgar George Schofield was put in charge – and by 1938 there were 300 animals. The coypu pelts, or nutria fur, were sorted at East Carleton and sent off to the London market. Tindal-Carill-Worsley was one of three Norfolk landowners who were to dabble in the nutria trade.

 

Coypu (pelts0
Coypu Pelts

Things were fine at first, that is up until the year of 1937 when heavy rain caused some galvanised iron sheets to collapse. Some coypu, recognising an opportunity of more freedom, immediately seized this one possible chance to head for the nearest watercourses. A year after their escape coypu were noticed at Cringleford, near to Norwich, and within a few years they had reach Oulton Broad and the lower Yare and Waveney. At first, they were rarely spotted at all due to the fact that they are naturally very timid and tended to vanish at the first sign of danger. Their presence was only betrayed by tell-tale fast moving bubbles, and that distinctive whiskery snout when they came up for air.

Despite the fact that all of the country’s nutria farms had closed by 1940, the consequences of the 1937 escape meant that their numbers grew rapidly and would linger on for decades, well beyond the period of war when people had much more on their plates to deal with than an oversized renegade rodent and its ‘voracious vegetarianism’. Back in 1943, they simply ‘noted’ its presence, despite the fact that complaints about Coypus clearly damaging reed beds had started to be recorded.

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Spread of Coypu in Norfolk

Like herbivores the world over, the coypu’s principal survival mechanism is to out-breed their supposed predators – there were not many of those around in the East Anglian region, but the coypu were not to know! Maturing after only eight months, coypu bred up to five times in every two years and with up to nine young in each litter. This, of course, made them very popular with the fur farmers, as one pair of coypu could produce 60 descendants over their three-year lifetime. All very lucrative, at least in theory, but once the creatures were out in open country, it was quite another and serious matter entirely.

Soon people were harking back to the case of the musk rat. Introduced into Europe in the first years of the 20th century for its fur, it too had escaped. Five animals wriggled out of an estate near Prague in 1905 and had become, according to one fanciful and suspiciously exact estimate, 100,000,000 by 1932. In this country the musk rats were eliminated by 1928 but only after a long and expensive eradication campaign. Then, just one year later, there we were importing another voracious non-native herbivore. It’s strange how some people never seem to learn! In mainland Europe the musk rat was blamed for burrowing into, and weakening, river banks – the reason why they are still tightly controlled in the Netherlands to this day – and this charge was soon being levelled at the coypu. This claim would be made again and again over the years but of this, at least, the coypu may have been unfairly pilloried.

Coypu

By 1945 Mr H W Palmer, Pests Officer to Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee, was saying: “We have trapped and killed hundreds, especially in the Cringleford and Broads areas. They have become a feature of our fauna.” He also went on to say that in his opinion they were “harmless and purely vegetarian, living largely on the shoots of young rushes, and I do not think they do much real damage.” He said there was ‘no evidence’ that they damaged river banks. It was clear that it was its large increase in numbers that some people found unsettling.

The bitter winter of 1947 saw off many of the coypu, and population crashes were to be a feature of every sharp winter from then on. In wintertime, too, they were easy to spot, and therefore easy to kill, as they tended to huddle together for warmth. But as soon as spring came, numbers rapidly grew once more. By 1948 coypus had reached the mouths of the Nar at King’s Lynn and the Yare at Gorleston. There was still much debate raging about the creatures impact, but not everyone bought into the ‘giant rat’ image. In fact the coypus were so popular in the 1940s with some children, particularly in Cringleford – one of their early strongholds – where they would deliberately spring the traps to free them.

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Ted Ellis

Ted Ellis, that past doyen of Norfolk naturalists, would be closely involved over the years. At this time, he was pointing out that the coypus were mainly eating reeds, and said they only ‘very occasionally’ damaged sugar beet crops. “I have watched coypus at close range often enough and found it hard to wish them ill,” he said. But at the same time he recognised that they were affecting rare plants on Surlingham Broad, and reluctantly concluded that “their increase must be checked by man”.

Later that year the Great Ouse Catchment Board reportedly made – and quickly withdrew – a £5 reward offer for each coypu skin handed in. Someone, it seems, had had a gentle word in the ear of officials and pointed out that if they offered that much (worth £160 in today’s money) then very soon the fly ol’ country boys would be busy catching coypus, all right – for breeding!

The trouble was no-one could really agree how damaging the coypu were. The ‘official position’ was that it was a ‘potential menace’ on its artificially banked waterways, but the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board chief engineer said he had not seen a single case of coypu damage in ten years. Someone else wrote to the local newspapers about his fears of tunnelling, fearing a ‘major disaster’. But fellow landowner Henry Cator, of Woodbastwick, countered that the coypu were keeping the Broads waterways open ‘free, gratis and for nothing…’ by clearing out the bullrushes. It didn’t help the debate that there were just so many myths and half-truths floating around, just like the coypus’ habit of growling when cornered – plus those orange incisors! This led to some people fearing they would soon ‘attack’ Broads boating parties. J M Last of Corpusty had to write in 1960 – to point out that “coypus do not lurk in banks and hedges to leap upon passing cyclists.” However, the knack of these animals suddenly appearing in unexpected places such as suburban gardens, beaches and even Great Yarmouth Fire Station did not exactly endear them to local people. In one startling 1961 incident a coypu even turned up in an outside loo at Litcham which prompted the comment “What puzzles us, is how it got there in the first place and managed to lock itself in.” Well, the animal might have been ‘caught short’!

img_3045
Searching for those critters!

After its escape from fur farms in the late 1930s it had taken to munching through rushes clogging up Broads waterways, thereby keeping them clear for boats. The debate ranged and went on and on. Did they eat crops? Did they tunnel into riverbanks? So, In an attempt to bring some science into the matter Norfolk naturalist, Dick Bagnall-Oakley, kept some Coypus for six weeks and discovered they were ‘hopeless’ at burrowing; they liked sugar beet best, followed by kale and other root crops, but didn’t really care for potatoes. He argued that their crop-eating was more than outweighed by their usefulness in keeping those rivers weed-free. It was an argument that was not going to cut any ice with local farmers, who became increasingly strident as the 1950s wore on. Soon they were banging on the doors of their local MPs and the Ministry demanding action, but the reply at first was that there were ‘no plans’ to bring in controls’.

In 1958, the National Farmers’ Union county meeting in Norwich asked the ministry to list them as pests because of damage to sugar beet near waterways. Suffolk NFU followed suit a few months later. But the newspapers were still predicting that ‘an all-out attack on coypu in Norfolk was unlikely’, and people continued to write in claiming the damage reports were grossly exaggerated.

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The war begins: Getting ready to set coypu traps in 1962. Placing the traps didnt stay a collar and tie job for long, as getting to the coypu haunts often meant a long slog through rushes, wading through mud, or setting them from boats.

The public mood, though, was definitely with the farmers. one of whom said how coypu had cleared three-quarters of an acre of beet from his land:

“They took them when the beet were about as big as your thumb. They went right along the line, pulling the little beet up. They bit off the root and left the leaf lying on the ground. Rabbits were never as bad as that”…..“Two years ago I used to think they were pleasant animals. I even use to feed one near the Broad. Now I kill all I can.”

In 1960 the language took on a military hue, with a ‘War on coypus’ reported. They were soon killed in their thousands, or rather tens of thousands, aided by a 1962 Order under the Destructive Imported Animals Act which aimed to wipe out coypu and mink within five years – but still the numbers grew. More than 100,000 were reported killed in the year to September 1962 in the East Suffolk and Norfolk River board area alone. Rabbit clearance societies were called in to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, in the decidedly non-Broads setting of the Jupiter Road industrial estate in Norwich, a new ‘weapon’ was being introduced. The Coypu Research Laboratory would spend years finding out as much as it could about the coypus’ habits, even fitting them with radio transmitters so their movements could be tracked.

img_3048
Now what do I do with it: Police kill a coypu in a Norwich churchyard in December 1959.

A massive publicity campaign was launched at the same time, using everything from local television to post office noticeboards to warn the public of ‘the coypu menace’.

For a while, it looked like the battle would be won quickly. The terrible winter of 1962-63 had wiped out tens of thousands, with guns, traps and dogs accounting for thousands more. By February 1965 a campaign was being launched to clear Wroxham Broad, described as the coypus’ ‘last redoubt’ – a claim which turned out to be wildly optimistic. In the same year Coypu Control was set up, with five trappers working full time – which with hindsight was simply not enough. In 1966 the £72,000 campaign had cleared 2,500 sq miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and parts of Cambridgeshire, way above expectations. But still the coypu appeared. Every year saw upwards of a thousand trapped, giving the lie to reports of a battle won. Then a series of mild winters in the early 1970s saw numbers rocket once again. In 1973 there were 7,601 caught – more than six times the 1971 total.

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By now the campaign, which was originally supposed to cost £12,000 a year over five years was up to £30,000 annually with no sign of it ending. Critics began to point out it cost £6 to wipe out each coypu, but no-one had ever actually worked out in monetary terms how much damage they were causing. It was time for a fresh look and in 1977 the Government set up an independent Coypu Strategy Group to look at long-term control issues. Then in June the following year, a £1.7 million masterplan was unveiled to wipe out the coypu within ten years. Just as well, with Coypu Control reporting the rodents had developed an alarming new taste – for cereals!

This time, 24 trappers were employed and the 10-year project started in 1981. With the aid of careful ongoing analysis, including dissection of bodies to understand population structure, this approach was successful and the coypu was effectively extinct by 1989. Interesting elements of this strategy was that included was an absolute decision that the project would end after 10 years, whatever the result, and that if the trappers were successful they would get a bonus of up to three times the annual salary, declining as the 10-year deadline loomed. The trapping was carried out using weldmesh cages baited with carrots, and the captured animals were despatched using a .22 pistol. Also, one of the more interesting developments to emerge during the project was the adoption of trapping rafts. As well as being relatively safe from interference, the rafts kept the baited traps at water level and attractive to coypu, throughout the cycle on tidal waters such as the Norfolk broads.

 

Overall, it was felt that this ‘final’ push would mean the end for the orange-toothed invader. In 1984 a total of 2,300 coypus had been killed; the following year scientists claimed that there were fewer than 20 adults left. Then in1987, the last colony was found near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, and only a dozen were caught that year. In 1988 just two solitary males were reported – one at Barton Bendish, and one near Peterborough. So, in January 1989 agriculture minister (and our local MP) John MacGregor was able to declare that, at last, the coypus were gone for good. Each of the trappers was stood down, with a £20,000 bonus for their efforts.

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Was that the end of the story? Well not quite. In December 1989, a male coypu was caught at the Little Ouse at Feltwell and there continued to be 40-50 possible ‘sightings’ each year for some time thereafter but nothing was ever substantiated. Coypus did live on in Norfolk for a while, but only at Great Witchingham Wildlife Park where, unlike the dodgy fencing incident of the 1930’s, this time round the critters were securely penned in, drawing to a close East Anglia’s coypu saga. It only took 50 odd years and more than £2.5 million of tax payers’ money to get rid of a problem caused by “man’s greed and women’s vanity.”

THE END