On the 30th April 1823 Mr Stebbings of Norwich was brought before the City Mayor to answer charges that he had sold his wife for £6.10s to a Mr Turner. Mr Stebbings thought he made a good deal when he took up with his ‘more favourable wife’, Turner having made a down-payment of £4 on the old Mr Stebbings.
Turner took the ex-Mrs Stebbings home and immediately turned his lawful spouse out of the house. When the now-destitute Mrs Turner applied to the authorities for poor relief, they were not satisfied with her story. Both husbands were ordered to appear before the Mayor, together with their rightful wives, to undergo investigations as to their legal marital position.
After listening to their individual versions at length, the bewildered Mayor finally ordered each husband to take only his original and legal wife back into her rightful home and support her. The unhappy four were subjected to a hustling from a jeering crowd which had gathered outside the Town Hall, and had difficulty in making their way home. Whether Stebbings ever returned the £4 down-payment to Mr Turner was never recorded.
Quite frequently, wife selling took place in public and involved an element of street theatre – as in the case at Thetford on Saturday, 17 September 1839, where a John Simpson of Brandenham sold his wife. Soon after, a broadsheet carried news on the sale:
“……. a man about 40 years of age, in a shabby-genteel dress, leading a smart-looking woman, with a handkerchief [halter} round her neck and shouting with a load voice. “Who’ll buy a wife?”. After arriving at the centre of the market, he mounted a chair and offered her for sale……. A young man of plausible appearance offered 10s for her, but he was immediately opposed by an old gentleman bidding 5s more. Afterwards, the young man became the purchaser for £5. The money was paid down and the husband, on handing over the handkerchief to the purchaser, began to dance and sing, declaring he had got rid of a troublesome noisy wife, which caused much merriment in the crowd. The young woman turned sharply round and said ‘you know you old rascal you are jealous – you are no man and have no need of a young wife, and that is the reason you sold me, you useless old dog’……The women began to clap their hands to him. He then said she was a gormandizing woman, and would eat any man’s substance up; and declared that if he had kept her another year, she would have eaten him out of the house and harbour……”
According to Peter Tolhurst, the use of a halter was, in this case a handkerchief, but more often a length of rope, the exchange of insults and payment of the agreed sum, all witnessed by the crowd, were essential elements in this ritualised drama sufficient to legitimise the transaction.
Wife selling in England was a way of ending an unsatisfactory marriage by mutual agreement that probably began in the late 17th century, when divorce was a practical impossibility for all but the very wealthiest. Quite often, a husband would tie a halter around his wife’s neck, arm, or waist, and publicly auction her to the highest bidder. Wife selling provides the backdrop for Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, in which the central character sells his wife at the beginning of the story, an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, and ultimately destroys him.
Although the custom had no basis in law and frequently resulted in prosecution, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, the attitude of the authorities was equivocal. At least one early 19th-century magistrate is on record as stating that he did not believe he had the right to prevent wife sales, and there were cases of local Poor Law Commissioners forcing husbands to sell their wives, rather than having to maintain the family in workhouses.
Wife selling persisted in England in some form until the early 20th century; according to the jurist and historian James Bryce, writing in 1901, wife sales were still occasionally taking place during his time.
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it became its Regimental March in 1881. Even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. It is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main; floor
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:
All their attempts to bend thee down
Will but arouse thy generous flame;
But work their woe, and thy renown.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,
Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!
With matchless beauty crown’d,
And manly hearts to guard the fair.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Britannia rule the waves.
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.
No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder so another chance to revisit this ‘old chestnut’ of a story – the Red Barn Murder. By now, few can plead ignorant of it, one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder: William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten: Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime: All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder: Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn: Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body: ‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere: During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
The Arrest: When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
The Inquest: At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The Trial: The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
Corder’s Defence: So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed: When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed.
“Bury Jail, August 10, 1828 — Condemned Cell,
Sunday Evening, Half-past Eleven.”
“I acknowledge being guilty of the death of poor Maria Marten, by shooting her with a pistol. The particulars are as follows:– When we left her father’s house we began quarrelling about the burial of the child, she apprehending that the place wherein it was deposited would be found out. The quarrel continued for about three-quarters of an hour upon this and about other subjects. A scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle, and at the time I think that she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket and fired. She fell, and died in an instant. I never saw even a struggle. I was overwhelmed with agitation and dismay — the body fell near the front doors on the floor of the barn. A vast quantity of blood issued from the wound, and ran on to the floor and through the crevices. Having determined to bury the body in the barn (about two hours after she was dead), I went and borrowed the spade of Mrs Stowe; but before I went there, I dragged the body from the barn into the chaff-house, and locked up the barn. I returned again to the barn, and began to dig the hole; but the spade being a bad one, and the earth firm and hard, I was obliged to go home for a pick-axe and a better spade, with which I dug the hole, and then buried the body. I think I dragged the body by the handkerchief that was tied round her neck. It was dark when I finished covering up the body. I went the next day and washed the blood from off the barn floor. I declare to Almighty God I had no sharp instrument about me, and that no other wound but the one made by the pistol was inflicted by me. I have been guilty of great idleness, and at times led a dissolute life, but I hope through the mercy of God to be forgiven.
Witness to the signing by the said William Corder,
According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder: One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case: It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.
This is a fabulous walk along the cliff tops from Old to New Hunstanton. There is much to see, fascinating historical facts and myths to consider, and an awesome secret that was kept under wraps for decades.
Why not? Reached from everywhere by rail from Kings Lynn! Golf Galore and first class on the ladies championship course of 1914; and a nine hole course on the cliffs that youngsters may learn the rudiments and long handicaps may be made short! Why not? Lawn tennis and croquet with ‘open’ tournaments on 13 good courts at the recreation ground; cricket for residents and visitors on the best ground in West Norfolk; bowls on two fine greens; and tennis again on the Esplanade Gardens. Grand cliffs and glorious sands, the safest bathing on the East Coast, esplanades, shelters, cliff rambles, promenade pier, and sea fishing, concert rooms, and theatre. Why not?
Eastern Daily Press July 4 1914, describing Hunstanton
(the train station was later closed by Dr Beeching in the great ‘cull’ of Britain’s railways)
Starting the walk: The walk begins at the huge car park at the beginning of Lighthouse Close in ‘Old’ Hunstanton. You can drive here or walk from the vast sand dunes of Holkham and up to the top of the cliffs. There are toilets here as well as a cafe. Look back for unforgettable views of the sand dunes.
There is a cute road train that operates from here in the summer to the new town and back again – very popular with kids but it takes anybody! – And you can ride it either way (picks up by the green at the new town).
The white lighthouse you see straight ahead was built in 1840, although there have been structures with a similar purpose on this spot since at least 1665. The present lighthouse was the world’s first with a parabolic reflector. Nowadays, the building serves as holiday lets.
The legend of St Edmund: A few yards away on the green cliff top are the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, alongside which is a wooden sculpture of a baying wolf.
St Edmund, the first Patron Saint of England, arrived in this locality as a very young man and was crowned King of East Anglia in 855. For some years he was a benign and just ruler before being defeated by the invading Danes led by a man called Ivar the Boneless at a place – exact location unknown – called Haegelisdon. He was offered his life if he denounced Christianity, which he refused to do. He was tied to a tree and his body shot through with arrows (there are obvious parallels with the legend of St Sebastian here) and he was decapitated. His mortal remains were unceremoniously dumped in a nearby wood.
When the broken-hearted people of East Anglia heard of this, they organised a search party for their king, finding his body quite quickly. However, as they could find no trace of his head, one of them yelled out ‘Where are you?’ Where are you?’ A cry came back from further inside the wood: ‘Hic, Hic, Hic’ (Hic is Old English for ‘Here’). The head was found, protected by the forelegs of a wolf. The wolf allowed the head to be taken and went with the men to the body of Edmund where the head miraculously reconnected itself to his body. The wolf returned to the forest.
Hippisley Hut: Hippisley Hut is here, still surviving as a private home, and pivotal to the success of the war as the centre and birthplace of wireless interception. It is a five bedroomed family home now, no longer a hut, and has in the past been available as a rented holiday home. It played a key – some say THE key – role in a top secret campaign to give Britain command of the seas and the U-Boat campaign during the Great War.
It is named after Richard John Bayntun Hippisley CBE (1865-1956), known in his life as Bayntun. Science was very much in the family genes, his grandfather being a Fellow of the Royal Society and another relative, Richard Lionel Hippisley (1853-1936) having a very distinguished career first as Director of Telegraphs in South Africa during the Boer War and later as Chief Engineer of the Royal Engineers in Scotland.
Bayntun joined the West Sussex Yeomanry in 1908, soon developing an interest in wireless and he successfully applied to the Post Office for a licence to start his own wireless station at the Lizard in Cornwall where he reputedly picked up messages from the doomed Titanic in 1912.
When war broke out in 1914 the Admiralty was very keen to utilize the experience of amateurs like Bayntun due to their wealth of experience and, frankly, lack of costs. Thus it was that Bayntun and a friend of his, Edward Russell Clarke, were recruited as ‘volunteer interceptors’ and together began an effective monitoring of German wireless stations. They proved to be successful operating at a lower frequency than the ‘official’ Marconi stations. In late 1914 both of these men were sent to Hunstanton, to a bare wooden building that became known as ‘Hippisley Hut’. Hunstanton was the highest point in close proximity to the German coast.
One of the men who won the war?: The work of Bayntun and Clarke was top secret but it is the opinion of some experts on the period that they may well have had a crucial impact on the outcome of the conflict. They rapidly converted the basically wooden hut into a listening station which could tune into the signals of German shipping and airships. Sometimes they would venture out onto the surrounding cliff tops and operate from tents. 14 more similar stations were set up along the coast and two at crucial overseas locations, Malta and Italy. The listening stations were critical in several ways, in particular during the Zeppelin menace of 1916.
Hippisley Hut, signal interceptors and the Battle of Jutland: This battle in 1916 was the most important naval clash of the war. The plan of the Germans was to lure the Royal Navy into a trap by offering battle with a small number of fast ships before attacking with the full might of the Dreadnoughts and U-boats waiting over the horizon. However, the Allies were aware of the location of the High Seas Fleet through the work of the listening stations, including that in Hunstanton. Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the British ships, was able to turn back from his pursuit before disaster may have struck, although he still lost two cruisers. Thereafter, there were skirmishes during which HMS Indefatigable, HMS Invincible and 11 other cruisers and destroyers were lost along with 6,000 men. Germany lost about 3,000.
It was the only meeting between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet and, although claimed to be a German victory, and indeed, the Royal Navy lost 14 craft to the 11 of Germany, it nonetheless ended for good any aspiration by the Kaiser to dominate the seas.
By 1917 Bayntun had further developed his systems and was able to advise as to the locations of German shipping and U-boats which led to the clearing of the seas, enabling essential supplies to reach the British people.
After the war Bayntun was awarded an OBE and returned to Somerset where he became involved in local politics. In 1937 he was honoured with a CBE. He died in 1956.
Walking into the ‘New’ Town: From the lighthouse, follow the path along the cliff top towards New Hunstanton, along Cliff Parade. As you walk looking over the cliffs, you will see not one, but up to four fences, each about a yard further in, stopping any further progress toward the cliff edge. The council has simply put up a new fence each time erosion has impacted the cliffs, leaving the ‘old’ one in situ. The fact that they are all in reasonable condition still is a physical reminder of just how quickly the land is being eaten away.
As this is an area of sometimes blanket mists, the grass can become surprisingly wet and waterproof footwear is a must. Some walkers choose to use the pavement on the further side of the road.
You will soon pass the area of new houses and flats designed with a sea view. On the left, the buildings become grander, constructed of beautiful deep sandy coloured ‘honeystone’. This is the start of the ‘New’ Hunstanton, designed as a complete new settlement by a celebrated Victorian architect, William Butterworth, and paid for by a consortium of wealthy businessmen led by Henry Styleman Le Strange. You will pass two elegant squares – Lincoln and Boston – which were based on London squares but each having a wonderful sea view. The town was begun in 1846 and linked to Kings Lynn by a new railway.
The road passes the old ‘pitch and put’ course on your right and leads to the Green, the epicentre of the town. Look up to your left to see the very first building ever built here, now called The Golden Lion Hotel. Glance around to witness a wonderful triangle of deep sandy-coloured honeystone buildings, with the bottom side of the triangle being the seafront and promenade. The sixties and seventies have a great deal to answer for here as, especially from the apex and along the right-hand side of the triangle, much quick ‘adding on ‘ has been done in order to turn the original buildings into shops and cafes. If, however, you can blot these out in your mind’s eye, it is possible to travel back in time and see this town as the beautiful and highly praised settlement it once was. The great and the good all came here along with the ‘ordinary folk’ who utilised the railway.
Went to New Hunstanton, which in consequence of the Camp and some excursions from the Midlands was a complete Fair, almost equal to the sands of Yarmouth in the height of the season. …The whole place was replete with life, and every available place of refreshment was crowded.
Rev Benjamin Armstrong July 20 1874
Walking around the town: If you have time, take a walk around the town. To do this, pass upwards to the right hand upper side of the green. Turn right, along the cafes and then first left. Follow Le Strange Terrace into Westgate and turn left into the High Street. This higgledy-piggledy street of golden honeystone has much the same atmosphere as it did years ago, although the shops themselves may have changed. At the end, turn left down the hill, left again at the green, until you stand opposite The Princess Theatre. You are on top of the green, where this mini walk began.
Personal memories: If you look behind you, this is precisely the spot where the writer of this account spent his teenage years. It was in a restaurant with flat above situated on the ground and first floors of one of these beautiful honeystone buildings. It had (has) five floors, the three above, alas, all being empty at the time. Unfortunately, the water tank was at the top and froze constantly in winter. Many was the time that mother and son went up and down, up and down, with hot water!
I have many memories of this restaurant where my Mum worked so hard for two years that she saved up enough money for the family’s first house. I recall, on the day we opened for business, a family of customers went to sit outside on the terrace. As they all sat down around the table I heard a sharp ‘crack’ and the man in the group was on the floor – his wooden chair had broken. This was excruciatingly embarrassing to the 13 year old boy (me) who was acting as the waiter. Oh well! He was very nice about it as I recall.
As you will see, from the top of the town the green slopes towards the massive Norfolk ocean over which the sun sets in spectacular fashion – Hunstanton is rare in facing west and the sun actually sets over the sea. For up to five or six hours a day, depending on time of year, silver and golden, at times also pink and red, even greenish, ‘roadway’ – some locals call it the ‘pathway to heaven’ – stretches to infinity over the waves. When the tide recedes and it is peaceful, scores of seals bask on the sandbanks. This is also a place of mirages: some claim to have seen magical ships and beautiful castles through the fine haze on a summer’s day, on the horizon just above the sea.
Local legends and literature: If there is a reasonable wind, there is no better place for windsurfing. Yet, when a gale blows and the sea roars, it is best to take cover – the pier was completely swept away in 1978. King John is reputed to have lost the Crown Jewels somewhere in the Wash due to a storm of unprecedented ferocity, so somewhere out there may be riches beyond imagination. Some historians think this may have been an early insurance scam, King John having secured the jewels somewhere else …
Again, legend has it that when St Felix was sailing in the Wash on his way to bring Christianity to East Anglia in 630 AD, his boat became tossed in a storm. The resident beavers came to his rescue and, in gratitude, he granted the chief beaver Episcopal status before landing at nearby Babingley: this is why the first Bishop of Norfolk is reputed to have been a beaver.
One of the most celebrated novelists associated with Hunstan is L.P. Hartley. In 1944 he published The Shrimp and the Anemone which drew upon his childhood experiences playing among the rock pools below the famous cliffs. Many became aware of him through the book The Go-Between, a work immeasurably melancholy and beautiful in almost equal proportions. The famous film of the book, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie, was filmed in the region. PG Woodhouse was another frequent visitor.
If you have the time, you can wander down to the shore and along the long promenade, gaze at the ocean and even wait for one of the famous sunsets if you are lucky enough to visit when the weather conditions are right.
Jeremiah James Colman was once asked how he had made such a vast fortune from the sale of mustard. His reply was:
“I make my money from the mustard that people throw away on the sides of their plate”.
‘Old’ Jeremiah Colman, as he was to be known in later life, was originally a farmer and had also owned Bawburgh Mill. He had no children and was to adopt James, the eldest of his brother Robert’s fifteen children. Jeremiah was a devout Baptist, kindly, honest and a good master. Jeremiah Colman bought Pockthorpe smockmill in March of 1804 and sometime during the next ten years he demolished the old mill and replaced it with a towermill; to be known as either Bagshaw’s Mill, Bayfield’s Mill or St Paul’s Mill. The towermill had six floors and stood on land between Magdalen Road and Silver Road, approximately where Knowsley Road was later laid. After ten years had passed, Jeremiah Colman branched out when he leased Stoke Holy Cross watermill on the 3rd April 1814. He bought it as a going concern and paid £51 2s 0d to Edward Armes for his stock of mustard.
This is the point where the story of Colman’s Mustard really begins. It was from this moment when Old Jeremiah plotted his Company’s prosperous 50-year period at Stoke and gradually introduced a range of products, starting with the introduction of starch manufacturing. Under his ownership, between 1814, when he set up at Stoke, and 1851 when he died, wages rose regularly – although employees, including 8 and 9-year old boys, worked 12 hour shifts with two breaks and wages were 3d per hour. The working day for employees was normally from 6.00am to 6.00pm, although sometimes a shift could go on until midnight when some workers faced a long walk home.
‘Old’ Jeremiah had no children whilst his brother Robert, who was farming at Rockland St. Andrew, had fifteen – eleven of them were boys. It was the eldest, named James, who was adopted by Jeremiah, brought up and when he became 22 years of age, Jeremiah took him into his Company and gifted him partnership; the date was 15th February 1823. This date proved to be a significant date for the future development of Colman’s Mustard, because from that point Jeremiah shared the management burden of looking after a growing business, which in turn, opened up further job prospects for many people in and around Norwich. Young James began with a quarter share which increased to one-third in 1827 and half in 1831. Later on, two other brothers, Jeremiah the 2nd and Edward who were to represent the business in London, were also admitted into partnership; but this was not until 1844, six years before land was purchased at the Carrow Abbey district of Norwich for further expansion of the Company.
Before then, however, young James had to roll up his sleeves to sift and mix the mustard flour obtained from the crushed seed. Old Jeremiah remained at his desk, starting his day’s work at 7am, just one hour after the men had commenced their labours. With such commitment from everyone, the business prospered and by 1851 the firm was advertising mustard in casks, tinfoil packets, round tins and several types and different packages of starch, along with indigo and Prussian blue for laundries and manufacturers. The size of the business in those early days was relatively small and can be gauged from the records of a member of the Colman family who recalled his boyhood memories of 1834. Those memories included the moment when he watched Lazarus Horne:
“……who had only one arm, doing all the day’s packing himself; packing the mustard into wooden casks which, apart from a small amount of mustard being packed in bottles for export, were the only containers then used for the mustard flour……”
Then, on the 3rd December 1851, “Old” Jeremiah died; he was aged 74 years. Barely two years later, on the 24th November 1853 James Colman, his adopted nephew and successor, also died. It was his 24-year-old son, Jeremiah James Colman, who took over full control of the family business – he being the third member of the family to do so.
Young Jeremiah J Colman now controlled what was still a small local company selling modest amounts of mustard and starch. However, in the space of 50 years he was to build, what was essentially a mustard company, into a global brand by using innovative marketing techniques, hard-work, honesty and integrity. J.J. Colman also proved to be a brilliant innovator whose masterstrokes included creating Colman’s famous Bull’s Head trademark in 1855 and moving, in 1858, from nearby Stoke Holy Cross to a site at Carrow Abbey in Norwich. His decision to leave Stoke Holy Cross was brought about partly by an uncertainty about the lease renewal, coupled with the obvious advantage of working near to river and rail transport links which the City of Norwich offered. The young entrepreneur had also identified a ready-made workforce in the city – cloth workers made redundant by the decline of the textile industry in Norfolk and its exodus to northern mills.
The mid-19th century was a time of great poverty in Norwich following the dwindling of the textile industry. Land was cheap and labour plentiful. The grounds of the historic Carrow Abbey were selected as the site for the new factory and, without planners to satisfy, the Carrow mustard mill was working by 1858. Before long, flour and mustard mills began to appear along the bank of the river, with engine houses, granaries, and stores. The Company’s ‘Counting House’, still identifiable today, was built shortly afterwards for use as the administrative headquarters.
After Jeremiah J. Colman married Caroline, they set up home at Carrow Abbey, where they remained for 40 years with the head of a growing company able to give personal supervision daily to his business which was at the bottom of his garden. The Colman family had always been in advance of their time in recognising the need to look after the welfare of their employees. Even the wife of James Colman organised a clothing club at Stoke in the very early days. It was the move to Carrow and the great and rapid expansion of the business which accelerated the provision of social welfare for employees on a scale not seen in the neighbourhood before. In 1857 Carrow School began with 22 children in an upper room in King Street. This was followed by Colman building a school on Carrow Hill in 1864, years before education was compulsory. There was no better indication of the growth of Carrow Works than the fact that when, in 1870, the State took over responsibility for education in 1870, continuing in partnership with Colmans, there were 324 children on the school register. When the school opened, Colman sent a letter to each of his employee’s extolling the benefits of education. Here are a few highlights from that letter:
‘In these days of progress, that man is sure to be left far behind, who has neglected the cultivation of his intellect while he who strives to improve his mind stands a fair chance of raising himself in the social scale’
‘Remember the motto of your Reading Society ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’, power for advancement, power to be good and to do good, power to be happy and to cause happiness to others’
‘It is of the utmost importance that you should teach your children to be punctual, neat and industrious.’
The truth was that the Colman family had always taken a benevolent interest in their workforce and, increasingly as the Company grew, they not only supplied schooling but contributed to the social life of its staff; for example: Christmas dinners in the granary, staff outings, a meals service for its workers – 4p bought hot meat, vegetable stew and a pint of coffee. Colman’s also provided a clothing club and lodgings for working girls, followed by a lending library and a pension fund; but these benefits were provided once the Company had grown to many hundreds of employees at the Carrow Works in Norwich.
In 1872 he set up a self-help medical club for his workers, encouraging them to contribute, matching their contributions with his own donations. Then, in 1878, the Company established a nursery for younger children, and employ an industrial nurse, called Phillipa Flowerday; plus, a dispensary set up for the benefit of his workers. Colman’s were also to build coffins for workers and their families, and build and rent out houses to workers and pensioners. The company owned hundreds of homes and accommodation was provided for many workers, but special provision was made for single women who were provided with low-cost accommodation. Most houses were in neighbouring Lakenham and Trowse, and some of the terraces were said to have had mustard-coloured front doors. He even provided public houses in which his workforce could enjoy a pint or two. – And, it did not stop there!
An onsite kitchen was opened, this provided tea or coffee in the morning and a hot meal for lunch, charged at cost. Workers who were off sick long term would have food parcels delivered to them at home courtesy of the Company; to do this, somebody was employed full-time to deliver these food provisions. A clothing club was also established; this made saving towards the cost of clothing much easier. Additionally, the company contributed to the savings scheme. From 1874 a dressmaking teacher was hired to help female employee’s learn new skills that could be used in the home and save money. In fact, a whole series of educational classes were provided free of charge to all employees. Jeremiah Colman then insisted that his employees were insured against sickness or injury, the Company ran its own scheme for workers who could choose between that or joining a Friendly Society. From 1864 the dispensary employed a doctor to work alongside the nurse.
In 1856, Colman’s employed just 200 people, by 1862 this had risen to 600 and by the time of his death in 1898 it was closer to 2,000. The story of the rise of Colman’s and of the work and life of Jeremiah James Colman is fundamental to understanding the history of Norwich in the 19th century. Colman’s influence could be seen everywhere and his morals, actions and achievements drastically altered the lives of many thousands of people living in Norwich. This rapid growth of Colman’s Mustard ran counter to the general narrative of English 19th century industrial growth. In an age characterised by child labour, unsafe working environments and long hours for low pay, Colman displayed a remarkable duty of care to his employees. Many industrialists of the time in this country claimed they could ill afford to treat their workers better or pay them more; to do so, would destroy their business and the nation’s economy. Jeremiah Colman proved that it was possible to grow a profitable business whilst treating workers with humanity and giving them some form of dignity.
When Jeremiah James Colman died, he left £2,000 in his Will to the employee’s trust and the money from this was used to set up a pension fund. By the time he had departed Colman had built up a system of nurseries, schools, medical care, food provision, housing and pensions. A system of protection for his workers from cradle to grave – 50 years before the creation of the welfare state!
Why did Colman feel the need to provide such assistance? He could very easily have turned a blind eye to the plight of his workers, like the majority of his contemporaries did. He was no social revolutionary, in an age of socially radical ideologies Colman was politically a liberal. He was however a devout Christian paying strict adherence to the Protestant religion. This drove his belief in a strong work ethic but also his compassion for his fellow man and his ethical approach to business. Colman’s brand of charity was that of self-help, he believed in giving to help people, but he believed that once helped people had a duty to do everything in their power to help themselves.
Such was Colman’s religious conviction that at a young age he had been tempted to turn down the opportunity to run the family business, for he feared it would impinge upon the time he could devote to religion and self-improvement. He even questioned the morality of wealth and feared he would become corrupted and greedy. As a future close friend of four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone, who offered Colman a baronetcy, Colman was to decline the offer saying:
‘anything I can do to promote the principles I have always supported … I am glad to do, but I much prefer that it should be without the reward or rank a title is supposed to give’.
Outside of business, Jeremiah Colman had a great sense of civic responsibility stating:
‘Men should go into municipal affairs to see what they could do for the town, instead of seeing what the town could do for them’.
At the young age of 29 he was elected to Norwich Town Council. He was sheriff in 1862-63, mayor 1867-68, in 1869 he became a magistrate for Norwich and then for Norfolk in 1872. In 1871 he was elected as a liberal MP for Norwich, serving for 25 years but his political career was mixed. He did not thrive in the Houses of Parliament as a Liberal MP, in part due to his poor oratory skills, but also because he very quickly became disillusioned with national politics. He was however much more successful as a local politician he sought to end the corruption for which Norwich was well known.
He was a part of Norwich Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society, this group met regularly and spent their time writing, reading and debating the great questions of the day focusing on politics, religion, society, and morality. He was closely involved with the successful launch of the Eastern Daily Press in 1870; a newspaper that is still going strong today. He also fought for, and won, having a preservation order placed upon the Norwich City Walls – or what was left of them after the City had decided to remove the ancient city gates in the previous century.
Colman was one of the leaders of a subscription campaign that sought to argue for all public buildings in Norwich being used for the public benefit. By 1886 they had been successful in securing both the Castle and Blackfriars Hall for public use. At the time Colman was a trustee of Norwich Museums, whose collections were then housed in a purpose-built building on Exchange Street. After closing as a prison, the castle was offered to both the city and county councils for purchase, but they were unwilling to meet such expense. Briefly the decision had been made to allow the castle to become a ruin, however banker John Henry Gurney purchased the castle, and it re-opened as the museum we know today.
So how was a small local company able to transform itself into one of the top 100 British companies in just under 50 years, whilst simultaneously providing a decent living for its workforce? Well, Marketing was the key to their success, and Jeremiah James Colman was the man driving this forward. In 1855 they adopted the now instantly recognisable bright yellow packaging with the distinctive bull’s head and in 1865 they gained a royal warrant from Queen Victoria. Colman’s products are still used by the Royal household today. They were one of the first companies to really push forward the marketing of their products to a consumer market. As early as the 1840’s Colman’s made the decision to start selling their products in much smaller packages (penny tins). This enabled smaller amounts to be purchased more cheaply which opened up a huge new potential customer base. Railway carriages were decorated in the distinctive brand colours to transport their goods across the country. Before the age of Television this allowed the whole country to see the Colmans imagery.
By the 1870’s Carrow had its very own marketing department, and by the late 1890s they had started hiring famous artists to create high quality advertising posters for them. Including the illustrator John Hassall and later the painter Alfred John Munnings. The growth of the business rested on the increasing nationwide and world-wide demand for the limited ranges of its quality products, and on what today would be known as good marketing. The selling and marketing were carried out by other members of the Colman, and carried on through their sons and grandsons from the Company’s Cannon Street offices in London.
In 1896 an important change took place in the structure of Colman’s Mustard when the partnership became a limited company with a capital of £1,350,000. The first chairman was Jeremiah James, who was succeeded after his death two years later by one the London cousins, Frederick Edward Colman.
By Acquisition and Amalgamation
The growth of Colman Mustard over 150 years or so did not come about solely by the introduction of new products, methods of manufacture, and increasing sales. These played their part, but so did the Colmans’ gift of creating the means by which competing firms could be taken over. This policy of expansion by acquisition appears to be as old as the 20th century, for it was in 1901 that a rival starch-making firm of Orlando Jones & Co. was absorbed. Two years later, principally interested in their competitor’s mustard and spice trade, Colmans took over Keen Robinson & Co., but found they had become one of the most important baby-food manufacturers in the country through sales of Robinson’s Patent Barley and Patent Groats.
The period up the first world war marked the continued transformation of Colmans from a paternal 19th century business employing a great deal of labour, and relatively little mechanised, to one using mechanical processes tending towards automation, and backed by the different financial approach of the limited company. Then in 1936, Colmans became a public company and two years later, in 1938 joined forces with Reckitt’s of Hull to become Reckitt & Colman Ltd. The amalgamation was in the fateful year of Munich when, to all but the optimists, war was inevitable.
Carrow Works was severely damaged by air raids during the war. One in 1941 destroyed four buildings including the cereal and mustard departments and a year later the seed granaries, starch, blue and advertising departments were blitzed. In 1943, six months after his son Alan had been killed while flying as a war-time ferry pilot, Mr. Russell Colman retired from the board. For the first time for 130 years there was no Colman on the Norwich branch among the directors. In the main the heavy burden of carrying on the business under the difficulties of wartime fell on the shoulders of Sir Basil Mayhew and Mr. H. A. G. Salter.
In 1945 the Reckitt & Colman Group was joined by another large business, Chiswick Products Ltd., manufacturers of polishes and similar lines, building up towards what were a world-wide range of foods, wines, soft drinks, household goods, toiletries, pharmaceuticals and industrial and other products. Probably the most significant developments of recent years were the acquisition in 1968 of the Norwich-based wine company Coleman & Co., long known for its tonic wine, Wincarnis. Because of the similarity of names many people thought that this was always a Colman product, but until 1968 it was not, although a hundred years before Colmans bought up Colemans of Bury St. Edmunds, a small mustard and starch manufacturer. The proprietor, Mr. W. J. Coleman, a chemist, then developed the tonic wine. Colemans had by this time become a considerable business as shippers and distributors of branded wines. Reckitt & Colman extended it by further acquisition of the business of Edward Robinson and, in 1969, of Moussec sparkling wine.
When the Colman family picked the site around the old Abbey at Carrow something like 160 years ago, they were really looking ahead. Despite automation, computers, and mechanical processes not dreamed of by the early employees who put the mustard into large and small containers by hand, there was a sizable number of workers in the Food & Wine Division in Norwich. It was a point touched upon by Mr. James Cleminson, who came to Carrow in 1960, was appointed managing director of the food division in 1970, and then went on to become chief executive of the then £200 million parent company, Reckitt & Colman Ltd. At the 150th Anniversary of Colmans in 1973, James Cleminson said that it was appropriate that the Company should acknowledge the debt owed to predecessors when he opened a mustard shop in Bridewell Alley in Norwich.
“I am sure”, he added, “that they would regard it as more important that we should maintain their progressive outlook for the future.”
In 1995, Colman’s became part of Unilever’s Van Den Bergh Foods when it was purchased from Reckitt & Colman PLC. As part of the acquisition, Unilever acquired the dry sauces, condiments and mustards sold under the Colman’s brand name. In 2018, Unilever confirmed that it would close its base [Colmans] in Norwich! They went on to say that a transition period of moving production from Norwich to Burton-upon-Trent and Germany would begin in the autumn of 2018 and would continue until the end of 2019. To sweeten a bitter pill for many, Unilever said that it planned to open a new milling facility near Norwich for the production and packing of Colman’s mustard powder!
Those in the know would recognise the ‘boteh’, a tear-drop motif with a name which was inspired by the territories which bordered Kashmir. It was where shawls were made from the fine, under belly fleece of Tibetan goats. These Kashmir shawls became very fashionable in 18th century Britain, but they were very expensive. It was the sight of these shawls which inspired Britain and France to produce cheaper alternatives of their own. Ironically, within one-hundred years, shawls produced in Kashmir were influenced by European designs.
The Kashmir ‘boteh’ pattern was developed from an image of a vase, or bunch, of flowers with tightly packed heads bending at the top and forming the familiar decorated pinecone shape that we all recognise. For many-a-year, fabrics woven with a series of these tear-drop motifs were known as ‘Paisley’, the name of the Scottish town which used the design to decorate its shawls in the early nineteenth century. However, the town of Paisley was not the first British town to produce shawls decorated in this way. The fact of the matter was that the city of Norwich, in Norfolk, had been using a very similar pattern on the borders of their shawls ever since the latter part of the 18th-century.
(Gladstone House, 28 St Giles, Norwich. Former home of John Harvey).
It was John Harvey (1755-1842) who was credited with introducing shawl weaving to Norwich in 1791. He was a person of some standing in the city, becoming Sheriff in 1784, Mayor in 1792, High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1825 and, as an aside, was also credited for reviving horse racing on Mousehold Heath, on the outskirts of Norwich. Harvey also became associated with Norwich citizen Philip Knights. In 1794, it was Knights, Shawlman to Her Majesty, who mounted an exhibition in his London showroom at 136 Bond Street to honour Her Majesty’s birthday. There, at the windows of the showroom, little children could be seen embroidering Norwich shawls.
By the nineteenth century, Norwich had at least twenty shawl manufacturers, and the number grew. It has been said that in the 19th century, successfull manufacturers of Norwich shawls included Towler and Campin, Clabburn, Sons & Crisp, Edward Blakely, Willett & Nephew, and Bolingbroke & Jones. These, along with others, made the best use of the Jacquard Loom, which was developed in 1804 and worked on the basis of using perforated pattern cards.
Joseph-Marie Jacquard – the developer:
To be clear, Joseph-Marie Jacquard was not the inventor of what could be termed, the ‘programmable’ loom – as many people imagine. Actually, he created an attachment to the loom, which played a very important role not only in the textile industry, but also in the future development of other programmable machines, such as computers. In other word’s, Jacquard’s genius did not lay in originating the revolutionary ideas behind his loom, but in building upon the work of previous innovators, bringing their ideas together, adding his own insights, and solving a variety of practical engineering problems, to create an automatic loom that was fast, reliable and most importantly—commercially viable. The Jacquard loom revolutionized the speed at which decorated fabrics could be woven. Using the Jacquard loom, a skilled weaver could produce two feet of decorated silk fabric per day, compared with one inch per day that could be produced by a skilled two-man draw loom team.
As far as the Norwich weaving companies were concerned, the development of the Jacquard Loom allowed for ever more complex patterns to emerge, eventually covering most of their shawls rather than stopping at the borders. However, even though they could copy the ‘boteh’ designs, they found it difficult to reproduce the soft feel of the high-quality woollen shawls from Kashmir. Fortunately, Norwich, with its long experience of weaving fine quality, lightweight fabrics, came up with a combination of silk and ‘worsted’ wool; the result was a warm and strong fabric with a soft feel.
Continuing success seemed assured but it did not come without one inevitable offshoot. Norwich manufacturers became dismayed by towns, such as Paisley, copying the Norwich pattern and flooding the market; by doing this, the exclusivity of the design was watered down. Only Government legislation could help, but it was not until 1842, when it became possible to register a design at the Patent Office for one shilling; however, this protection was limited to between six and twelve months from registration. Most Norwich companies thought this to be a waste of time and effort and, in fact, only seven manufacturers bothered to take the opportunity to protect their patterns against what they thought to be piracy.
But it seemed as if there was ‘something for everyone’; certainly in Norwich from the turn of the 18th century, some companies were receiving orders for up to 42,000 shawls. Inevitably perhaps, this spawned the desire of the workers to have a share of this prosperity and it seems that, in some parts of the trade at least, there was a degree of ‘reward’ handed out (if one ignored the long hours), for wages in the trade were good for that period; Mr Marten, a visitor to the City in 1825 recalled:
“We then walked about the large city & came by St Giles Church into Heigham, and called on Mr Grout who permitted us to go through his important Silk Manufactory. The works are in several floors and the winding twisting bobbins are by machinery moved by a beautiful 20-horsepower engine. These operations are watched and conducted by more than seventy females, some so young as 7 to 8 years of age. These are on foot from seven in the morning till eight in the evening watching the threads, repairing the broken & seeing that all go on well – occasionally supplying oil where wanted to prevent evil from friction. Only that they have half an hour to breakfast & an hour for dinner. And these little girls earn some 5 shillings, some 5 shillings/6d a week.”
By way of description – Norwich shawls were long, narrow and square with woven borders which featured the ‘boteh’ motif and a plain central area or one sprigged with tiny flowers. Other shawls were fringed and contained varying sized ‘boteh’ which sometimes crossed each other and completely covered the background. Even full dresses of this period, showed off these designs with shawls at their peak of fashion. The most beautiful of Norwich shawls were produced between 1830 and 1850 and one of the companies in the forefront of high-quality production was Towler & Campin. Others were not far behind and, because of the competition, every manufacturer had to employ what today may be thought of as a ‘stylish’ selling approach, certainly on those who had the most money to spend on ‘luxuries’. One such company was that of Edward Blakeley; the following report appearing in the Norwich Mercury on the 5 March 1831:
“Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Sussex having condescended to patronise the manufacturer of Norwich shawls, Edward Blakely begs most respectfully to inform the Nobility and ladies that he will have ready for inspection, on Tuesday 15th inst, a splendid assortment of the same description of shawls which Her Majesty has been pleased to select”.
In 1848, an employee of Edward Blakely, a certain William Piper, went to London and obtained an introduction from the Countess Spencer to the Queen and was able to secure ‘sales of Norwich shawls with Her Majesty, the Queen Dowager, the Duchess of Kent and many members of the aristocracy’. In 1851, Edward Blakely took the opportunity to display his shawls at the Great Exhibition, showing Anglo-Indian scarves, shawls, dresses and brocades. He was rewarded with two orders for shawls ‘made in the pure Indian style’ from Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. It was by 1851 when ‘printed’ shawls also came on to the market with many being dyed with a colour identified as ‘Norwich Red’. These shawls were designed to cover crinolines and were over six feet square, or a twelve-foot rectangle and sometimes five feet in length, again filled with boteh and filled with flowers. The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave Norwich the chance to show off this development.
Norwich Pattern 1851 Great Exhibition
Norwich Pattern 1851 Great Exhibition
Norwich Pattern 1851 Great Exhibition
Norwich Pattern 1851 Great Exhibition
(Norwich shawl patterns, as displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition)
There had always been a problem wearing a shawl which had a right and a wrong side. Kashmir shawls overcame the difficulty by sewing two together but this was not suitable for the heavier European shawls. However, in 1854 Clabburn, Sons and Crisp successfully produced a reversible shawl. Their shawls were the most intricate, woven from silk using the Jacquard loom. The pine cone shape became elongated, resembling the handles of a pair of scissors and scrolled from the border boteh to the centre of the shawl, where there may or may not have been have been a plain central eye. Zebra shawls featured lines of complex patterns scattered throughout with tiny pine cone motifs. However, as the crinoline, so well suited for supporting a heavy shawl fell out of fashion, the shawl was superseded by a short jacket or cape. The shawl once epitomising elegance and gentility, was now identified with the frail and dispossessed and by the 1870s the heyday of the shawl in Norwich, as in other European towns, was over.
The Shawl in Norwich today: Norwich Museum Service remains the custodian of what remains of original Norwich shawls and Carrow House in King Street Norwich, which was once home to the Service, held its collection there until 2011. At that time, there were over 100 Norwich shawls in the collection and around 500 shawls of other types. The Norwich examples were credited to the companies that made them and where possible, a provenance was given, so it was possible to get a good sense of the shawl’s place in the history of costume, the contribution Norwich made to the shawls’ production – and made visitors realise the sheer variety of what was termed as the paisley pattern.
One may well wonder what the current value of original Norwich Shawls would be? – and certainly, it remains difficult to positively attribute any such shawl to the city. Many textile specialists have, in the past, listed them as European – or possibly Norwich. However, in the early years of the Second Millennium, the price of shawls at London auction houses and identified as Norwich fell. Immediately prior to this period, Phillips offered a good selection of Norwich shawls. In 1996 they sold a number of Norwich shawls for between £320 and £460; then, in May 1999 two Norwich shawls were sold by them for £280 and £300; on the other hand two, with an estimate of £250-£300 failed to sell. Later the same year they offered almost a dozen Norwich shawls and although two were sold for around £400, nearly half with an estimate of £200-220 remained unsold. Others went for £130, £220 and £300. Also, in 1999, Sotheby s sold one lot containing two printed Norwich shawls for £207. In October 2000, Christies sold a shawl possibly Norwich for £235. A month earlier, Phillips had sold one for £138.
In today’s terms, John Bilby of Norwich did not live long; he was born in 1801 and died in 1839. He became a tradesman and as far removed from being an author as one would suppose. Nevertheless, he wrote an account of his life and career in an autobiography, supplemented with the regular ‘jottings’ that he entered in his personal journal that he had maintained from quite a young age. Such documents would be considered as the most personal and private forms of writing; fortunately, they have been preserved, thus allowing researchers to obtain fresh information on the period in which John Bilby lived.
John Bilby was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth and his family moved to Norwich within twelve months of his arrival. His jottings followed his life story from the time his family first took up residence in Norwich and included the addresses at which he lived, until marriage; these included Ber Street in the City, and then later in King Street. During this time, Bilby organised his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focused on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. Bilby’s father died when John was seven years old, so his mother had a struggle caring for John and her other three children, until she remarried in 1811. What follows is just a sketch of his writings.
Soon after his mother remarried, when John was ten years of age, he made his first reference to becoming an errand-boy, and his later transition to becoming an apprentice hairdresser:
“I was engaged as Errand boy to Mr Willement, master weaver of St George’s. Lived with Mr Willement for 12 months, then for a short time at Mr [Houth’s], an Appraiser of London Street in Norwich, left Mr [Houth’s] to go and live with Mr Leeds, a brush maker of St Andrew’s – at this shop I was two years when my master was made a Bankrupt of, and I left. I was also with Mr Ling, a tailor in St Michael at Plea until, on the 20th day of August 1815 I was bound out Apprentice to Mr Mason, tailor and hair-dresser of King Street in Norwich.”………I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed……I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser”.
So, like many young men in every generation, John tried a number of jobs before he settled down to train; in his case, to be a ‘hair cutter and dresser’ [hairdresser] – it was the career that he followed for the rest of his life. In addition to his early experiences of life, Bilby was to include in his diary, and his later autobiography, details on the techniques and skills which had aided him in his apprenticeship as a hairdresser. For instance, there were remedies for both cuts and bruises, along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. Then there was his serious approach towards his job title but, at the same time, there were instances when he was able to find humour in most situations. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich’ humorously described how women often denied that they wore false hair, even though Bilby often knew ‘where she bought It’!
In 1821, when he had qualified as a hairdresser and gained the necessary experience, he was given the opportunity to run his own barber’s shop:
“I agreed to conduct the Business for Mr Lofty, the Hair Dresser of St Giles, Norwich, 3rd Feb. 1821, he being at the time very ill and not able to attend to it himself……..”
However, Bilby did not remain with that business for long, after joining a musical Group called the ‘Musical Sons of Good Humours’, and was given a job offer by Samuel True, who was the Group’s treasurer. True provided Bilby with a hairdressing parlour in his own house, and had it painted and equipped for a hairdressing business which started trading on 9th March 1822. In his spare time, Bilby continued performing with the musical group, and eventually received a ‘Star Medal’ for serving as its secretary and later as president. In 1822, he was also part of the Norwich Company of Comedian’s appearance at the Theatre Royal in a special show to celebrate the Coronation of King George IV. Bilby took the part of a Knight of the Garter. The Norfolk Chronicle reported:
“In consequence of extensive preparations, the opening of the opening of the Theatre is necessarily postponed until Thursday, 31st January when will be represented the Coronation of His Majesty George IV, as performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The dresses and regalia and every decoration are copied from the models of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by permission of the Proprietor. The whole of the Company, with numerous *Additional Aid, both vocal and instrumental will be employed to give every possible effect to this splendid ceremony.”
*Bilby was part of the ‘Additional Aid’.
During this same period, Bilby courted a ‘Miss Payne’. It was said that during their courtship ‘they enjoyed a pleasure cruise together on the ‘Nelson’ steam packet to Yarmouth’. Clearly their relationship flourished, both on water and land, for in the same year they married; he writes in his journal:
“I was married to Miss Payne on the 25th November, 1822 by the Rev. Whittingham at St Saviour’s Parish Church – spent the day very comfortably and had a large supper party in the evening at Mr Payne’s house in St Paul’s parish…….”
Thereafter, very little is said in Bilby’s diary about his wife – certainly he was never to mention her forename. He did, however, include her in his entry about their first child:
“My wife was delivered of a fine boy on the 11th of June, 1823, at a quarter before eleven at night. The boy was named John Bilby on the 15th. Mrs Bilby came downstairs on the 22nd, this was the 11th day after her being delivered of a son.”
Two years into his marriage, he was picked to serve five years with the militia as a private; this was in April 1824. He was clearly very reluctant to comply for:
“I found a young man who was willing to serve for me – for a sum of money – this sum I paid him and he was sworn in on the 20th of the same month – his name was Daniel Orford of St Martin’s parish.”
In 1827 the Bilby family moved to his father-in-law’s parish of St Paul’s where John was soon to be appointed as an ‘Overseer for the Poor’; a positioned which he was to fill for a number of years thereafter. We find that the winter of 1837 was a particularly severe one and Bilby, together with other parish helpers, raised several hundreds of pounds to provide food and fuel for the poor. John personally helped to deliver these around the houses of the parish. There was thick snow in the streets, and John writes: “Five officers from the Horse Barracks [in the Pocock parish] amused the public by driving through the streets in a large sledge.” The following winter the weather conditions were identical, and he again writes: “Mr Berry, Mr Dring and myself relieved 2000 poor persons in the St Paul’s parish with bread and coals.”
Bilby’s diary, journal or notebook, whatever one chooses to prefer, was not only of a personal and autobiographical nature throughout, but also functioned as a travel diary in which he described, in detail, the journeys he undertook. His excursions, and the activities which he participated in, are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip, discussed in detail, was Bilby’s trip to Lincoln. He described the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Similar observations were also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.
Beyond this date Bilby’s jottings tail off and eventually we learn the last about ‘the virtuous and vigorous Mr Bilby’. Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This seems to signify John Bilby’s passing, as described by the subsequent writer remarks:
“Mr John Bilby died on Sunday the 15th of July at half-past 8 o’clock in the morning, after a long illness which he bore with Christian fortitude, aged 37 years, in 1839, and he was interred in St Giles’ churchyard on the 18th. His funeral was attended by his wife and three children, his two brothers and his sister – Peter, William and Charlotte, and Mr Payne also, his bearers were as follows: Mr Fox, Mr Hart, Mr Whiting, Mr Poll, Mr Alborough and Mr Right.”
The cause of John Bilby’s death was not given, so it is left to pure speculation to suppose that his illness had been particularly virulent and this had led to the death of a comparatively young man. From where, and how, he had picked it up – would again be speculative!
The story of the Bullards Brewery goes way back to the days when a pint was pulled in the shadow of its brewery. It was a time when the brewery was at the heart of the community – providing work for hundreds of men and women. It was part of the social history of Norwich, and was to provide a collection of warm reminiscences that illuminated that most distant of times and helped to define the city.
It all started on the 8th February 1808 when a Richard Bullard was born in the Parish of St John Maddermarket; and at that time there were about twenty-seven breweries in Norwich. When Richard was twenty-years of age he married and went to live at the top of Oak Street, in Norwich, where he was ‘Overseer of the Parish’ for a time. After several more moves, which included to the parishes of Coslany, St Lawrence and St Giles, he took on the old dye office near St Miles Bridge where, in partnership with James Watts, he founded the Anchor Brewery on Westwick Street; that was in 1837, when his family had grown to three children – all girls. The site of the brewery was well-placed for, from it, the brewery was able to draw high quality water from a deep artesian well and receive its grain and hops by wherry along the River Wensum which flowed close to the brewery walls.
The partnership between Richard Bullard and James Watts was, however, relatively short-lived, being dissolved on 24th June 1847 following Jame’s loss of interest in playing any part in the business. Richard Bullard, now a father of six children, was left to go it alone as sole proprietor; but being a good Brewer and with ‘a head on his shoulders’ his business seemed to have little difficulty in prospering very quickly thereafter. So much so that more buildings were to be needed; surrounding properties purchased; and new premises erected. The brewery was also to build up an extensive tied estate, largely through taking over smaller breweries; not for their brewing capacity, but for their tied houses.
“The deceased, well known as a brewer and merchant, of extensive business, sprang from very humble beginnings. By industry and constant application, he made the best use of the the good intellect he was gifted with, and steadily raised himself to a foremost position amongst the traders of this city…….. young men [should know] that it is possible by energy, industry, and business talent to force their way even now-a-day through the great obstacles.”
As a consequence of Richard Bullard’s passing, it was announced that the firm would continue as BULLARD & SONS. The sons in question were Harry, Charley and Fred Bullard – young partners headed by Harry Bullard. It would be Harry who would make his mark, becoming Sheriff of Norwich in 1877 and Mayor in 1878, 1879 and 1886 when he was also knighted by Queen Victoria. Probably not contented with that, he was then elected as MP for Norwich in 1890 and 1895.
Just as an aside; in May 1888, Bullard & Sons advertised a Light Bitter Ale, specially adapted for Family use at 9s per Firkin – put another way, the price of this beer was 1½d per pint! The timing for this tipple was well timed for the Annual Outing of staff employed at the Anchor Brewery again took place on the Friday of 21st September that year:
“As on former occasions, the wives of workmen were included in the party and every man was given 3s to pay for tea and extra refreshments. The train fares and dinner were included in the treat.
The assembled party departed in twenty carriages from Platform 6 of Thorpe Station, punctually at nine o’clock. It was estimated that upwards of 700 persons were most liberally and hospitably entertained at Yarmouth by Messrs. Bullard & Son. Lady Bullard honoured the party by travelling with a large gathering of special friends, in a special carriage. Free admission was given to Britannia Pier. Switchback rides, De Cone’s Magical Entertainment and Miss Webb’s Swimming Exhibition were available at half price – but only on production of his or her rail ticket. Dinner was at 1:30 at the Aquarium where Sir Harry Bullard was loudly cheered – and who would not cheer a man who had orchestrated a free day out for them! Fred Bullard added that the Company looked forward to many such outings in future years, to which more cheers came forth from the assembled employees. In the late afternoon the party departed from Yarmouth, arriving at Thorpe Station, Norwich at 10:40pm. It was never recorded when the last returnee went to bed.”
Over the years the business prospered and by the end of the century it occupied a seven-acre site, and by 1914 the company’s estate included 133 premises in Norwich. The business went on to own over 1,000 public houses. All this shows that the story of Bullards was one which ran alongside those of other main breweries in Norwich, such as Steward & Patteson, Young’s Crawshay and Youngs, Morgans which, together, played such a leading role in the life of the city.
The following is a quote from the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’, By Edward & Wilfred E Burgess and first published 1904:
“A visit to the Anchor Brewery, and an inspection of the various processes incidental to brewing, is not a light task. One has no time to visit the various maltings, for they are scattered throughout various parts of the city and county. Arriving at the brewery proper, Mr. W. J. Moore, the head foreman, conducts us up the steps to the landing stage, where the malt, just arrived from the maltings, is hoisted to the platform. The malt is next shot through hoppers into the rolling mill, where it is cleansed, crushed and otherwise treated in patent machines, previous to its appearance in the mash tun.”
In 1958 Bullards acquired their Norwich rivals Youngs, Crawshay & Youngs. Three years later they joined with Steward & Patteson to take over Morgans. At this time their position must have seemed unassailable but the two victorious chairmen made a huge mistake. Their target wasn’t Morgans’ brewery but its tied estate, and so they sold the brewery on to the national firm, Watney Mann. As part of that deal it was agreed that Watneys could sell its beers in Steward & Patteson and Bullards pubs, and soon Watneys were outselling the local brews. In the background of all this activity, Watney was purchasing Bullards’ shares, and by 1963 they had taken it over; to be followed three years later with the parent company closing the Anchor brewery. In 1972 the site was sold to a property developer and it is now the site of the appropriately named ‘Anchor Quay’ residential development.
FOOTNOTE: Someone once said that the Fat Man poster (below) that used to advertise Bullard’s beers depicted an overweight person who just might have watered the workers’ beer! There he stands in the doorway of a pub, one hand on a substantial hip, the other grasping what may have been a Bullard’s Old Winter Warmer or, let’s face it, any other of the once thriving Norwich company’s nourishing beers.
The Bullards Fat Man was a little piece of magical artwork from the brush of a young Alfred Munnings – before he went on to become one of the best loved artists. The story goes that he was on holiday at the time and The Fat Man was simply a doodle sent as a postcard to a close friend in the Bullard family in 1909. That person liked it so much that it became the company’s advertising logo until the brewery was closed by Watney Mann some sixty years later. Over the years the much-loved Fat Man became a symbol of good Norfolk ale – welcoming both regulars and visitors to Bullards pubs across the city and county.
There was a time when Norwich had, along with Bristol, the honour of having a Mint. There even was a time when Norwich had an importance which was second only to that of London. There was also a time when this City had its best forgotten days, when it lost its famous old weavers and saw the break-up of textile trade. There was also a time when its transport links to the capital city were poor and stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous. That once famous ‘Punch’ magazine, in a sarcastic thrust at the slow methods of reaching East Anglia from the Metropolis, wrote at the time: “ On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.”
On one hand, there was that glorious year of 1815 when Napoleon was finally beaten at Waterloo; then, on the other hand that same year had its’ drawbacks. There were no railways, penny postage, morning papers, matches or gas, to say nothing of electric light; without a thousand and one inventions that were to give comforts to the masses, it was a time ripe for enterprise and progress. It was a time when a certain Henry Chamberlin, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, opened a business on Guildhall Hill which was to become known by the diserning as “ Chamberlin’s of Norwich,” a title that signified the hall-mark of excellence.
Henry Chamberlin (born 1777 and died 1848) never was one to entertain the selling of low quality goods; he went for the best, and the firm which he founded in 1815 never swerved from the principles of “value and reliability,” during perplexing years which saw, just like today, the rise and fall of the craze for cheapness. On this basis the Store became firmly established and grew. Then, in 1823, Henry the founder was joined by his son, Robert Chamberlin and continued to prosper. Some years later became known as Chamberlin, Sons & Co. and then quoted as a Limited Company under the title of Chamberlin & Sons, Limited. On 4 March Henry Died and was buried at Thorpe St Andrew Cemetery.
Robert took over the Company’s reigns and just like his father, not only oversaw the business, but was to occupy a variety of civic office rolls during his life. On the domestic front, he found time to have seventeen children from two marriages. Then, following his death in 1876, his son, George Chamberlin, became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have a large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons were to serve in the First World War. Throughout his life, George, just like his father and grandfather, also occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, as well as having a very active personal life – his favourate sport was shooting. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.
The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in the community at large. While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk they also help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city. Their story is told in the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’ in which members of the present Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the Chamberlin Store and factory were in their prime. The two authors had a wonderful way with words when describing the scene before them when they walked into the shop on Guildhall Hill some 114 years ago, when it had been rebuilt following the fire of 1898 which was reported in the Norwich ‘Evening News’ at the time describing the blaze as “an irreparable loss.” It went on to say:
“The blaze had started at Hurn’s ropemaking business and spread to the library. Sixty thousand volumes, many rare and valuable, were lost including the important Norton collection of foreign dictionaries. Chamberlins – the big, upmarket department store on Guildhall Hill – was also damaged in the blaze.
If the wind had been blowing in a different direction much of Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane could have gone. It was also said later that if the fire brigade – the Carrow and the Anchor brigades also helped – had had longer ladders, they would have more chance of saving the building and many of the books.
The library reopened a year later at a cost of £1.719.
But back to Edward and Wilfred Burgess’s dissertation of 1904:
“Spacious and elaborate as were the premises of Messrs. Chamberlin, Sons, & Co., prior to the year 1898, an event then occurred which was regarded at the time as most disastrous to the city but which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we refer to the destruction of the premises by fire. The fire was of a most serious character, devastating the whole of one side of Dove Street, and part of the other side. From the ashes of the old premises arose — phoenix-like — a building, compared with which, the previous establishment — extensive as it was — was quite a modest affair. The disastrous experience of the fire has resulted in elaborate preparations being made for fighting or preventing a fire in future. At the end of each floor hydrants are fixed, giving a copious supply of water, while in the immediate vicinity of each hydrant lengths of hose are placed within easy reach. The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness. From the ne entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world’s drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand. The ground floor saloon is devoted to the various retail departments under the management of Mr. George Waite, and they are the admiration of every visitor. So and agreeable tints pervade the whole place, and the lighting of the spacious area, from concave lights on either side, is perfect. Comfort and luxury are conspicuous features of the saloon, yet the space allowed to the display of goods appears to be almost unlimited. e further end of the saloon is artistically furnished with ladies waiting and reception rooms, while close by are the Fitting and costume departments. The upper floors are occupied by the counting houses and the wholesale departments; and the extensive basement, which is nothing less than a huge warehouse itself, is also utilised for the latter, especially for heavy goods.
The area of the establishment is enormous, extending as it does from Dove Street — one entire side of which it occupies — up Guildhall Hill to the other side of the square facing the public library. Bearing in mind the numerous departments, the elegance of the appointments, the care devoted to ensuring the comfort of customers, the large and varied stock, and the unremitting attention given by assistants, it is no exaggeration to say that few establishments, either in or out of London, equal “Chamberlins,” and none surpass it. The Furnishing Department is of comparatively recent origin, but it is already a very extensive business of itself. The building appropriated to this branch is the last one of the series up Guildhall Hill, and the entrance is at the corner of the Public Library Square, almost exactly facing the entrance to the ancient Guildhall. Here is to be seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths, and furniture of every description, to be found in the Eastern Counties. The managements in the capable hands of Mr. T. Morpeth, a gentleman of wide experience in carrying out furnishing contracts. The comprehensive range of this department may be judged from the fact that it embraces the manufacture of bedding, all kinds of cabinet making and upholstering — in fact everything which goes to constitute a full equipment of complete house furnishers.
Even this latter does not exhaust the variations of Chamberlins, for in Botolph Street the firm runs a modern clothing factory of large dimensions, which, has quite recently been rebuilt, and now provides cubic space of over 300,000 feet, with ample accommodation and motive power for about 1000 workers. On these premises are manufactured various kinds of clothing and shirts, but judging from appearances the main output is in uniforms and waterproof clothing for the Army, Navy, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Colonial Service, Postal Departments, Railway Companies, Police, etc. The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country, while the variety of military uniforms indicates that the clothing supply of a considerable branch of the Army is catered for here. In the pressing room, the temperature is decidedly high, but here, as in every other department of the works, the ventilating arrangements are as perfect as modern science can make them. In the cutting room are to be seen some really wonderful machines, viz., the machine cutters. Driven at a terrific speed each of these cutters, by means of a rotary knife apparently as sharp as a razor, must do more work than any dozen hand cutters. Garments are cut and shaped by the one, two, or three dozen — according to the resisting qualities of the material – at a surprising rate. In one case layers of cloth, to a thickness of three inches, are cut to a pattern drawn on the top layer, as easy as a lady would cut muslin with scissors. In another cutting and trimming room, a numbers of hand cutters are engaged shaping garments which probably were not required in such large numbers as the uniforms are.
The basements of the two buildings are very extensive and in one of them a powerful dynamo, by Laurence, Scott and Co., provides the electric light for the establishment. In the other basement, long rows of bales of material — probably scores of tons — are awaiting the handling in the dissecting and cutting rooms, and for the purpose of more easily moving these bales from floor to floor, a new lift has been erected which runs from the basement to the topmost floor. Here the preparations against fire are most complete, including an outside re-proof iron staircase, which has an outlet from every floor. Of course in works of this description the management is divided and sub divided, but the sole responsible manager for the entire Clothing Works is Mr. G. S. Barnard.
It is worthy of observation, in a review of this nature, that in re-opening the Market Place premises, a new departure was made in giving a musical treat to the public. The Blue Hungarian Band was engaged on that occasion, and the experiment proved to be so eminently successful and so generally appreciated that the precedent has since been followed on several occasions.
In closing and appreciation in which we have clearly established the right of Chamberlins, Limited to be bracketed with the “Men Who Have Made Norwich” it is interesting to note that the enormous number of persons attending a recent sale was quite unprecedented. In the first few days the rush was so great that it became absolutely necessary to keep the doors closed and customers were admitted in batches, as they could be dealt with; an authority on crowds estimating that there were at least 1,200 customers in the shop at a given’ hour on one afternoon.”
When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.
Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company’s output during the whole period of the war.
Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments. At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities’ official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.
One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.
In 1935 the post-war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men’s sports clothing under their registered brand ‘Sartella’. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.
It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They would instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers. Unfortunately, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand modernisation, different shopping habits and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.
From the days of ‘Value and Reliability’ to the present day ‘Every Little Helps‘! This says much about the seismic shift in marketing, business provision and consumer demands.
The story of 19th century bodysnatchers, who stole corpses from graveyards to help surgeons further their understanding of anatomy, have been well documented in history books. Otherwise known as resurrectionists, those who chose to undertake such work were hired by surgeons, across the country, to steal bodies from graveyards. Fresh corpses and bodies of children fetched the highest prices.
Bodysnatchers in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk was a case in point. Like everywhere else, these ‘gentlemen’ would have had to work quickly to avoid being caught. Their methods would have been to hastily dig away the soil from the head of a grave, force open the coffin with a crowbar and drag out the corpse by the shoulders. The body then stripped and the clothes and shroud bundled back into the coffin before the earth was filled back in. Most of the time, the relatives would not even realise the body of their loved one had been taken.
The risks were enormous for if body snatchers were caught in the act they probably would have faced mob justice. Desecrating the dead was seen by many as a crime worse than murder and it is known that some of the unluckier bodysnatchers were beaten to death. But, for many, the risks were worth it for trade in dead bodies was brisk and many of the poorest in society were worth more dead than alive. Ironically, the industry that dealt in the dead was driven by the men most concerned with keeping people alive. The 19th century was the golden age of anatomy, where surgeons would uncover the wonders of the human body and perform operations never before considered possible.
There was, of course, one problem; there were seldom enough cadavers around as a direct result of how the law was framed. You see, it was only the bodies of hanged criminals that were allowed to be used by surgeons and anatomists for dissection and research; and it all hinged on the Judge directing such a procedure when a sentence was passed.
To be dissected in public after execution was considered a fate worse than death. Most people believed their body would be resurrected on the day of judgment; a difficult prospect if it has been cut up into little pieces, each pickled in jars and often spread around the country. As a result, even the most brutal judges were reluctant to hand all but the very worst criminals to the surgeon for, after the dissection of any body, the unwanted remains would not be permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. This meant that such sentences were relatively rare and so, there was this scarcity. As a result, desperate surgeons and ‘enterprising’ individuals inevitably came together to fill the gap.
Graveyards were raided across the country, but particularly in and around London and Edinburgh which were prominent centres of medical learning. Fresh graves were re-opened at night and the corpses stolen, with surgeons making little secret of the fact that they would pay good money for prime cadavers. The robbers were aided by the fact that to steal a corpse was not a felony – but rather a misdemeanour. Provided the robbers were careful not to also steal items of goods from the grave the worst that could happen was for them, if caught, to be given a fine or a short prison sentence.
Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, was quite open about his use of corpses obtained from body snatchers, because the practice helped him to develop the first procedure for tying of an abdominal aorta to cure aneurysm. He boasted,
“There is no person, whatever his position in life might be, whose body after death could not be obtained. The Law enhances the price and does not prevent exhumation”.
Sir Astley Cooper, born the son of the one-time Vicar of St Nicholas Minster in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, really did push the boundaries of medical science and became a household name – when he died in 1841, his funeral drew huge crowds. However, says Druin Burch, author of Cooper’s biography – ‘Digging Up The Dead’:
“Constrained by a limited number of corpses to study, surgeons had little choice but to get hold of them by other means. They paid the grave robbers to do their dirty work for them and asked few questions but some of the more adventurous students, including the young Cooper, probably did some of the body snatching themselves.”
Cooper would have found expeditions to the graveyards a mischievous thrill, for as a boy, he liked practical jokes; he once dressed himself as Satan and convinced the drunk wife of the sexton to sell her his soul. He later chose surgery as his career and, with the help of his uncle, William Cooper, secured an apprenticeship under Sir Henry Cline, a renowned surgeon at St Thomas’s hospital in London. At first, he was a lazy student but one day Cline, annoyed that Cooper was paying little attention to his work, smuggled a human arm home from the hospital and dumped it on the kitchen table in front of his apprentice, challenging him to dissect it:
“The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished the apprentice and the teacher,” again says Burch. “Astley was transformed. For the first time in his life, he found himself taking an interest in his work.”
Cooper was also taught by John Hunter and in the winter of 1787 he visited the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh. In 1789 he was appointed demonstrator in anatomy at St Thomas’ and in 1783 he gave lectures in anatomy for the Company of Surgeons. He didn’t look back and became obsessed with cutting up bodies, gaining a reputation as a brilliant surgeon. His teachers were some of the best in the world but they stressed the importance of hands-on experience and encouraged Cooper to investigate human anatomy first hand. It was a lesson he happily took to heart.
“Neither filth nor stench nor risk now deterred Astley,” says Burch. “He would dissect until the strain of hunching over a stinking corpse made him physically sick.”
Now it was the same Sir Astley Cooper who accepted the body snatching services of Thomas Vaughan, a former stonemason from London who was renting a house in Row Six of the town’s renowned Rows. It is not known how, when and where the two men came into contact, if indeed they ever did? Maybe, because of the delicate nature of such an arrangement, there was an ‘intermediary’ instead; and indeed, was Vaughan despatched from London to undertake Sir Astley’s request? What is known is that, in 1827, Vaughan and probably two other suspected accomplices (said to be William and Robert Baker from Beccles) stole 10 bodies from Yarmouth’s Minster churchyard. Vaughan, it was said, had planned to steal these bodies over a period of 19 days; the complete consignment included two children, one young woman and a 67-year-old man.
Each body was put in a sack, then carried to houses in Row 6 where he lived and concealed behind locked doors. Row 6 became known as ‘Snatchbody Row’; the bodysnatchers themselves nicknamed ‘sack-em-up men’. Within a short time, these bodies were then packaged into crates which, it was claimed, were labelled “Glass: Handle with Care”, then stacked on carts and transported to London, via Norwich. Their destination was reported to be a room close to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, from where surgeons would choose a corpse and pay Vaughan 10 to 12 guineas for each body. Other reports suggested that, in total, more than 20 bodies were stolen from the St Nicholas Minster in 1827, which would indicate that probably others, apart from Thomas Vaughan and his accomplices, were also operating in the area.
The Papers, then and since, made much from this ‘scoop’, relying on the details extracted from police briefings, plus interviews with those personally affected be the crimes. They reported, for instance, that the scene in St Nicholas’s churchyard after the robberies was grim, and that coffins were “splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass”. The Norfolk Chronicle newspaper of the time reported that the actions of the resurrectionists caused “great excitement” in the town, while the churchyard at St Nicholas was seen to resemble “a ploughed field.” Another report in the Norfolk Chronicle stated:
“……. wives were seen searching for the remains of their deceased husbands; husbands for those of their wives; and parents for their children. Bodies of the number of 20 or more were found to have been removed and the grief of those whose search was in vain can better be imagined than described.”
Later reports elaborated further on the facts – and probably speculated much! Like an more recent article that suggested that:
“George Beck was the first to realise that something was awry. He had lost his beloved wife, Elizabeth, on Halloween of 1827 and she had been laid to rest on 4th November, clothed in a shroud and a gown. Grief-stricken, George went to visit his wife’s grave a few days later, only to discover that the grave had been quite obviously disturbed. He called the police and he and local constable, Peter Coble, laboriously exhumed the coffin, only to find to their horror that it was empty – all that was left was Elizabeth’s shroud.
During the bitterly cold weeks of November and December, Constable Coble kept watch over the cemetery in the vain hope that the bodysnatchers……. would return once again with their gruesome shopping list. Townspeople became aware of the grim vigil and fear turned to fury. Enraged relatives flooded to the graveyard and the graves of the most recently deceased were disinterred – there was an outcry when more empty coffins were discovered and it became apparent that the bodysnatchers had struck again.”
Vaughan was caught quite quickly and sent for trial. He was sentenced to six months in prison for his crime, but no mention was made of his accomplices. His costs were said to have been paid by the surgeons, and his wife cared for while he was behind bars. Inevitably perhaps, Vaughan never learned his lesson for he returned to bodysnatching, was caught and eventually transported to Australia – his mistake being that on this occasion he stole the victim’s clothes as well as the corpse. As for Sir Astley Cooper well, he finally ended up having his statue erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
In 2011, a blue plaque was commissioned by the Great Yarmouth Local History and Archaeological Society to highlight the 19th century crimes in Great Yarmouth where men were paid to steal bodies for surgeons to further their understanding of anatomy. It was unveiled on the gates of St Nicholas Church, Church Plain, Yarmouth, from where more than 20 bodies were snatched in 1827.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, the St Nicolas’ church curate Reverend James Stewart, said that it was important that despite the grisly crimes that were committed, the past activities in the churchyard should be marked for their historical importance.
“Necessary evil is a very dangerous thing to be talking about, but these things providentially took place because science moved on as a result……….But we also have to think of those that were disturbed from their immortal sleep, that had not expected they would be taken at cover of night and to be experimented on.”