Today’s Christmas traditions may seem to have been with us for ever, but they are, in fact, cobbled together from numerous centuries and countries. Some rituals have survived for millennia, but others, such as the instructions for peacock served in its plumage, dating from 1430, have fallen from vogue. – i.e:
‘Take a peacock, break its neck and cut its throat,” the recipe begins. Then “flay him”, being careful to “keep the skin and feathers whole together”, the better to reclothe the peacock’s flesh once cooked. For maximum effect, you should gild the beak.
The wreath on your front door is a remnant of the ancient practice of bringing evergreen foliage into the home, symbolising everlasting life and renewal at the darkest time of the year. The early Christians cleverly re-appropriated the existing Pagan mid-winter festival, deciding that it should instead celebrate Jesus’s birthday, and making it the occasion for a special “mass for Christ” as well as a party.
Medieval Christmas lasted for 12 days, and New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night were just as important as December 25. However, Christmas Day was the first day of feasting, made doubly enjoyable because Christmas Eve was a fast. Masques and entertainments whiled away the holiday in grand households. Edward III even staged a Christmas tournament in 1344, in which “the fierce hacklings of men and horses, gallantly armed, were a delightful terror to the female beholders”.
A Christmas banquet for Henry V included dates, carp, eels roasted with lamprey, and a leach (boiled milk jelly, a bit like Turkish delight). This 15th-century feast concluded with “subtleties”, edible sugar sculptures depicting figures such as St Katherine, or a tiger. Medieval bellies were not used to refined sugar, a rare and expensive food, so smashing up and eating a subtlety must have provided a sugar rush that felt rather like being drunk.
The 12-day holiday sometimes saw the normal social hierarchy reversed, not unlike the Roman feast of Saturnalia, where the masters waited on the slaves. The “Lord of Misrule”, a lowly servant, might be crowned master of ceremonies and japes. The tradition survives today in our wearing of the paper crowns, with which the Lord of Misrule was identified.
Then, what do you think happened in the 16th century; – along came the Puritans to spoil the fun. These extreme Protestants “protested” against the ossified, superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church. To the Puritan mind, these included the degenerate celebrations at Christmas.
An early example of Father Christmas in literature appears in Ben Jonson’s play of 1616, Christmas, His Masque, which was really a diatribe against the killjoys. In comes a bearded old man, old because he personifies the ancient feast of Christmas. “Ha!” Father Christmas says, “would you have kept me out?” Introducing his sons and daughters, Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Minced-Pie and Baby-Cake, they all celebrate “a right Christmas, as of old it was”. Father Christmas comes down the chimney because this, rather than the door, is the traditional entrance to the house for Pagan trespassers such as witches or evil spirits.
Also – nowadays, clever and compassionate adults never say silly things like “Santa doesn’t exist” because (a) they know deep down that he does – sort of , (b) they know that life would be just too prosaic if he didn’t, and (c) they know that kids know that adults would say that because they can’t be bothered to leave a glass of whisky and a mince pie out for him on Christmas Eve. Grown-ups are so….ooo lazy!
However, the Puritans did have the last laugh. Swept to power in the Civil War, their zealot governments of the 1640s and 1650s forced shops to stay open on Christmas Day and punished anyone caught celebrating. In Oxford, in 1647, this led to “a world of skull-breaking”; in 1657, John Evelyn was taken prisoner by soldiers for taking the Holy Sacrament at Christmas. Some people still celebrated in secret and when Oliver Cromwell died and King Charles II was restored to the throne, Christmas returned. But it remained a lower-key, domestic affair throughout the 18th century. “Much harried by the Poor of the Parish who come for Christmas Gifts,” wrote the miserable Reverend William Holland, a real-life Georgian Scrooge. Someone once wrote, “Apparently not the most charming man–but honest in his political and social views, and detailed about his daily life.”
Christmas dinner, served at home, was usually beef, venison or goose with plum pudding. The turkey, although introduced into England in Tudor times, did not catch on as a Christmas essential until the late 19th century. The killing of a deer might induce a generous nobleman to give the offal or “umbles” to his dependants, who would encase them in pastry to make an “umble” or “humble pie”. On the same plate as your meat, you might have enjoyed plum porridge or plum pudding. This boiled mixture of suet, flour and fruit was the origin of Christmas pudding, but palates still relished sweet and savoury mixed together. Samuel Pepys loved “a messe of brave plum-porridge”, and also mentions giving tradesmen the “boxes” containing gifts of money, explaining the name of Boxing Day.
Pepys also enjoyed mince pies, and his 17th-century “mincemeat” really did contain meat. Mixed with fruit and alcohol, the shredded flesh of beasts slaughtered in the autumn could thus be preserved in stone jars for the Christmas feast. Ann Blencowe’s 1694 recipe recommended a boiled calf’s tongue, chopped up and mixed with beef suet, “raisins of ye sun”, lemon rind and spices. Other food sounds half-familiar, too: Diana Asty, in 1701, celebrated with the recognisably modern “ham & chicken, & sprouts”, and “out landish sweets” (French bonbons).
Georgian houses were still “decked with laurels, rosemary and other greenery”, and the later 18th century saw the German Christmas tree imported by the Hanoverian royal family. Teutonic trees had been decorated with apples, nuts and paper flowers since the 16th century. While the German-born Prince Albert didn’t import the idea of the tree (as often claimed), he did indeed popularise it, setting up trees for his own children in an attempt to recreate the magical Christmases of his youth.
It was a single but influential engraving, published in the Illustrated London News of 1848, that made the tree central to British Christmas culture. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children are shown gathered around their decorated tree at Windsor Castle. Attended by just one maid, they present a paradigm of a normal, respectable family, and the nation rushed to emulate them. Albert’s trees were furnished with fruits, gilded nuts and gingerbread, but over time, these perishable items were replaced with glass or, eventually, plastic. Crackers, too, evolved from the simple twists of paper that originally protected sugared almonds. But the pleasures of Victorian Christmas weren’t for everyone. Hannah Cullwick, an overworked cook, was frightened that the tree set up in the kitchen by one of her fellow servants would be “too much for Missis, who won’t allow us 6d worth of holly”.
The Christmas card was another Victorian innovation. Henry Cole, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is usually given credit for “inventing” the mass-produced card. So popular did these become that, by 1880, the Post Office advised people to “Post Early for Christmas”. However, this merely meant the morning, rather than the afternoon, of Christmas Eve.
The 1880s saw a curious trend for cards depicting dead robins. Helpless birds, killed by the December cold, appealed to the sentimental Victorians, who had also revived the charitable side of Christmas. Charles Dickens, of course, did more than anyone else to spread the good cheer with A Christmas Carol (1843). The Penny Illustrated Paper began to run Christmas charity campaigns in aid of the unemployed Lancashire mill operatives; one reader sent them a thousand plum puddings. But Christmas was fast developing a consumerist side as well. “10,000 Penny Toys” shouted an advert for a shop in Oxford Street in 1863. Rocking horses and “walking dolls” were promised to those who braved the crowds.
Christmas 1939 was the last for five years to be celebrated with butter and bacon, as food rationing began. The card game of Blackout was launched, and a popular gift was the Take Coverlet, a sleeping bag and coat combined, to wear on your way to the bomb shelter. The Ministry of Food implausibly claimed that nobody needed tropical fruit at Christmas because “vegetables have such jolly colours. The cheerful glow of carrots, the rich crimson of beetroot… looks as delightful as it tastes.”
Dead robins, decorative beetroot, eels and offal in your mince pies are festive traditions safely buried, but even today you may still encounter the odd Puritan or Scrooge. Don’t let them spoil your Christmas!
This is the last in the Christmas Series, so may we wish each and every reader a very Happy and Contented festive season; along with our best wishes for 2019.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated. Many businesses did not even consider it a holiday. However by the end of the century it had become the biggest annual celebration and took on the form that we recognise today.
For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed midwinter festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, pagan festivals became mixed with Christmas celebrations. One of the leftovers from these pagan days is the custom of bedecking houses and churches with evergreen plants like mistletoe, holly and ivy. Apparently, as well as their magical connection in protecting us from evil spirits, they also encourage the return of spring. No era in history however, has influenced the way in which we celebrate Christmas, quite as much as the Victorians.
Before Victoria‘s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers. No Christmas cards were sent and most people did not have holidays from work. The wealth and technologies generated by the industrial revolution of the Victorian era changed the face of Christmas forever. Sentimental do-gooders like Charles Dickens wrote books like “Christmas Carol”, published in 1843, which actually encouraged rich Victorians to redistribute their wealth by giving money and gifts to the poor – Humbug! These radical middle class ideals eventually spread to the not-quite-so-poor as well.
The holidays: The wealth generated by the new factories and industries of the Victorian age allowed middle class families in England and Wales to take time off work and celebrate over two days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, earned its name as the day servants and working people opened the boxes in which they had collected gifts of money from the “rich folk”. Those new fangled inventions, the railways allowed the country folk who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas.
The Scots have always preferred to postpone the celebrations for a few days to welcome in the New Year, in the style that is Hogmanay. Christmas Day itself did not become a holiday in Scotland until many years after Victoria’s reign and it has only been within the last 20-30 years that this has been extended to include Boxing Day.
At the start of Victoria’s reign, children’s toys tended to be handmade and hence expensive, generally restricting availability to those “rich folk” again. With factories however came mass production, which brought with it games, dolls, books and clockwork toys all at a more affordable price. Affordable that is to “middle class” children. In a “poor child’s” Christmas stocking, which first became popular from around 1870, only an apple, orange and a few nuts could be found.
Father Christmas / Santa Claus: Normally associated with the bringer of the above gifts, is Father Christmas or Santa Claus. The two are in fact two entirely separate stories. Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. The stories of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klaas in Holland) came via Dutch settlers to America in the 17th Century. From the 1870’s Sinter Klass became known in Britain as Santa Claus and with him came his unique gift and toy distribution system – reindeer and sleigh.
Christmas Cards: The “Penny Post” was first introduced in Britain in 1840 by Rowland Hill. The idea was simple, a penny stamp paid for the postage of a letter or card to anywhere in Britain. This simple idea paved the way for the sending of the first Christmas cards. Sir Henry Cole tested the water in 1843 by printing a thousand cards for sale in his art shop in London at one shilling each. The popularity of sending cards was helped along when in 1870 a halfpenny postage rate was introduced as a result of the efficiencies brought about by those new fangled railways.
Turkey Time: Turkeys had been brought to Britain from America hundreds of years before Victorian times. When Victoria first came to the throne however, both chicken and turkey were too expensive for most people to enjoy. In northern England roast beef was the traditional fayre for Christmas dinner while in London and the south, goose was favourite. Many poor people made do with rabbit. On the other hand, the Christmas Day menu for Queen Victoria and family in 1840 included both beef and of course a royal roast swan or two. By the end of the century most people feasted on turkey for their Christmas dinner. The great journey to London started for the turkey sometime in October. Feet clad in fashionable but hardwearing leather the unsuspecting birds would have set out on the 80-mile hike from the Norfolk farms. Arriving obviously a little tired and on the scrawny side they must have thought London hospitality unbeatable as they feasted and fattened on the last few weeks before Christmas!
The Christmas Tree: The Victorian age placed great importance on family, so it follows that Christmas was celebrated at home. For many, the new railway networks made this possible. Those who had left the countryside to seek work in cities could return home for Christmas and spend their precious days off with loved ones. Family life was epitomised by the popular Queen Victoria, her husband Albert and their nine children. One of the most important Christmas traditions, the decorated Christmas tree, was a custom introduced to Britain by Prince Albert.
The idea of an indoor Christmas tree originated in Germany, where Albert was born. In 1848 the Illustrated London News published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a tree bedecked with ornaments. The popularity of decorated Christmas trees grew quickly, and with it came a market for tree ornaments in bright colours and reflective materials that would shimmer and glitter in the candlelight. Mechanisation and the improved printing process meant decorations could be mass-produced and advertised to eager buyers. The first advertisements for tree ornaments appeared in 1853. Victorians would often combine their sparkly bought decorations with candles and homemade edible treats, tied to the branches with ribbon.
Today, candles on the Christmas tree have been replaced by fairy lights, printed cards may be substituted with e-cards and we’re more likely to find plastic knick-knacks in our crackers than jewellery. Our Christmas customs continue to be shaped by technological advancements and modern changes in society. How many of us do our Christmas shopping online, or Skype our families across the world on Christmas Day? But these new traditions are still rooted in the spirit of the Victorian Christmas – an integral part of the Christmas we celebrate today.
The Crackers: Invented by Tom Smith, a London sweet maker in 1846. The original idea was to wrap his sweets in a twist of fancy coloured paper, but this developed and sold much better when he added love notes (motto’s), paper hats, small toys and made them go off BANG!
Christmas Cards: One of the most significant seasonal traditions to emerge from the Victorian era is the Christmas card. It was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, who introduced the idea of the Christmas card in 1843. Cole commissioned the artist J.C. Horsley to design a festive scene for his seasonal greeting cards and had 1000 printed – those he didn’t use himself were sold to the public. Later in the century, improvements to the chromolithographic printing process made buying and sending Christmas cards affordable for everyone.
Carol Singers: Carol Singers and Musicians “The Waits” visited houses singing and playing the new popular carols;
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger
By Mark Forsyth.
Christmas is a strange time of the year, when people merrily do all sorts of bizarre things. Try explaining to a judge in June that you were allowed to kiss somebody without warning because there was a parasitic shrub hanging from the ceiling, and call me when you’re on the register. But, just as often, people confidently claim that they know exactly why they are doing them.
How many times have you heard somebody say: “You know it’s all pagan, of course?”, as though the barely recorded history of pagan activities in north-west Europe was something they happen to be terribly familiar with. Trees? Trees are pagan, don’t you know? No. Trees are just there. They’re trees and there’s nothing pagan about them.
The truth is, we usually have no idea of the origin of these curious traditions. So here, as a public service, are 10 myths of Christmas.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Except it’s tosh. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
2 Jingle Bells is the essence of Christmas Except it’s not. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upshot.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men No, it doesn’t. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”. Did you notice the word “three”? Nor did I. They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, hence our modern word “magic”.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
5 Good King Wenceslas That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Vikings
The story goes that after the Norse god Baldr was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe, his mother, the unfortunately named goddess Frigg, swore that the plant should never harm anybody else and that instead it should encourage kissing. This, though, isn’t found anywhere in Norse mythology. Well, the mistletoe arrow is, but Frigg’s response has nothing to do with kissing and everything to do with torturing Baldr’s killer for all eternity. Mistletoe is an English tradition. It seems to have been little-known in 1719, when Sir John Colebatch wrote a whole book on the plant and the customs associated with it. But it was well-known enough in 1786 to appear in a popular song from the now-forgotten musical Two to One.
7 Christmas starts earlier every year There’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Jesus’s birth, but the earliest calculation, made in the second century, reckoned it was in March. So we’re nine months late on the whole.
8 Hark the Herald Angels Sing That’s not the first line of the hymn; that’s not even a line of the hymn, at least according to the man who wrote it. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn that began “Hark how all the welkin rings/Glory to the king of kings”. Another preacher called George Whitefield then published a version with the line we all know now. Wesley responded by saying that people were welcome to republish his hymns “provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them; for they really are not able.”
9 Advent begins on 1 December Advent begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30 November. So, this year, Advent began on 2 December. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
10 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least imported it to Britain) This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848. There was also one Christmas tree recorded in England in 1444, but nobody knows what it was doing there.
THE END Mark Forsyth is the author of ‘A Christmas Cornucopia’ and ‘The Curious Origins of Our Yuletide Traditions’, published by Viking Penguin.
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.
Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”
Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!
Strange how some people keep things to themselves? William Sheward way back in the mid 19th century was like that……..kept things very much to himself. In fact, this William never, ever breathed a word during those eighteen years about murdering his wife!……….He never even thought to mention that, after he had cut her throat, he chopped her up into small pieces!………..and would you believe it – he finally scattered her bits around the streets of Norwich!
All this is true – and we are not the first to have uttered words on the subject…… and we will not be the last. Versions of this tale have gripped the imagination of people for the last 150 years, ever since the court case and the moment the newspapers-of-the-day sensationalised events. This tale is certainly gruesome in its content, and for that reason it comes with a serious ‘Health Warning’, particularly for anyone with a sensitive disposition – don’t even begin to read it!
For everyone else, what follows is based on reports of the case and such other sources as have been unearthed. The end result will be a reminder to those who may have already come across this tale, but have forgotten at least some of the details. For those who are completely unaware of William Sheward, turn the page and read on.
Where it all started:
During the early 1830’s, William Sheward lived east of London towards Greenwich, although he had some connection with Richmond Place Walworth. He was aged 24 years, of small stature and employed either as a pawnbroker’s assistant or a tailor of some unknown description – no one seems to be quite certain; but, employed he certainly was.
Whilst in Walworth he met Martha Francis who was much older than he, she being 38 years of age and said to be ‘small with golden curls’ and having been born and brought up in the small Norfolk town of Wymondham. Martha became Sheward’s housekeeper somewhere near Greenwich and was to marry him in London on the 28th October, 1836. For reasons that have never been explained, neither were settled in the great metropolis and within two years of their wedding, in 1838 to be exact, the two uprooted and returned to Wymondham, lodging with Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn. Work appeared not to be easy to find for William who was a restless type to say the least; some would say that he was also ‘a quiet and inoffensive man’!
Inevitably this meant that he and Martha would move house and job quite frequently. Their first was from Wymondham to Norwich where there were better choices of employment and one would suppose – better prospects. It was said that, on moving to Norwich, Sheward did find a job as a tailor and lived in Ber Street. Certainly in 1842 he appeared to be well settled there – but not for long however. In fact, it was within a short time afterwards that the couple moved to White Lion Street. It was from there that Sheward tried setting up his own tailoring business but, unsurprisingly perhaps, it failed in 1849 and he was declared bankrupt. From the position of insolvency, he went to work for a Norwich pawnbroker by the name of a Mr Christie with whom he was also to deposit a healthy sum of £400; the presumption here must be that he wanted to keep the money out of the hands of his creditors – and Martha, his wife. Later Sheward was to say:
“In November, 1849, I placed a box of money containing £400 in Mr Christie’s possession, for him to take care of it for me. In the year 1850 and to June, 1851, I drew from that box £150, during which time my wife wanted me to bring the box home. Mr Christie asked me if he might make use of the money. My wife seemed determined to fetch the box herself. I knew he (Mr Christie) could not give it to me”
Martha, was none too pleased and the couple’s long-established pattern of rows were set to continue apace; clearly their marriage was an unhappy affair. Money was certainly one aspect of their problems, but not the only one. The age difference between the two of fourteen years, plus, was clearly another, as seen by Sheward’s constant search for love affairs with younger women. There was also his track record in the employment field which was nothing short of abysmal – but on all fronts he kept trying.
Breaking Point – Then it Happened!
Two further house moves followed, first to Richmond Hill, near to the Southgate Church Alley and then to No.7 Tabernacle Street, which used to be at the western end of Bishopsgate – note this address! Even there, the pattern of their quarrelling continued at seemingly ever-increasing pace; be it about money, William’s multifarious dalliances or jobs. Inevitably, everything came to a head at Tabernacle Street and that was on Sunday, 15th June 1851. Martha could not have picked a worst moment to be involved in yet another confrontation with her husband for the circumstances were all wrong – if only she had realised!
The previous day, Saturday 14th, Sheward was preparing to travel to Great Yarmouth; again, in his own words:
“On the 14th June. Mr Christie asked me to go to Yarmouth to pay £1000 to a Captain of a vessel laden with salt, to enable him to unload on the Monday morning. On the Sunday morning, the 15th, I was going to Yarmouth on the above errand. She (his wife) said “You shall not go, I will go to Mr Christie and get the box of money myself and bring it home”.
It was at this point when William Sheward clearly lost it – and Martha was foolish enough to be standing too close to William as he shaved in preparation for his journey to Yarmouth:
“An altercation occurred when I ran the razor into her throat” (some say it was a pair of sissors – either way) “she never spoke after. I then covered an apron over her head and went to Yarmouth. I came home at night and slept on the sofa downstairs.”
By the next Sunday evening, Sheward had cleaned the house and burned all the blood-stained clothes, both his and those worn on the Saturday morning before. On the Monday he went to work as normal, as a pawnbroker’s assistant, but left off at four o’clock and returned home because in his words “the house began to smell”. He lit a fire in the bedroom and commenced to cut up Martha’s body. This went on until “half-past nine when I took some portions and threw them away, arriving home at half-past ten”. This pattern of activity continued throughout the week during when, and in order to prevent the possibility of neighbours picking up on strange odours, he boiled the parts. Through future common consent, these parts would be judged as crudely cut up, hacked and sawed into small pieces; the head, hands and feet being the only ‘difficult’ parts to find their way into a pot which was kept boiling on the open fire until the job was done. Everything thereafter was cooled, placed in a bucket and, over numerous trips over several days, Martha’s bits were distributed around the streets of Norwich.
The discovery of the first of Martha’s body parts was on the following Saturday, 21 June 1851. Charles Johnson, a thirty-four-year-old wood-dealer and son of a church minister, was walking his dog from Trowse to Lakenham when his dog picked up what he thought was a bone or a piece of carrion on Martineau Lane. On closer inspection back home he saw that it was part of a hand with two fingers clenched over a thumb. Some 200 yards from the spot where the hand was discovered a foot was picked up. Both items found their way to the Police and a further ‘random’ search of the area took place. Back in those days there was no thought of ‘securing the area’ and carrying out a systematic search. The following day, Thomas Dent and his dog came across a piece of pelvis further down the same lane. More body pieces were found over the next five days, including a fibula in a field near Hellesdon Road by a Samuel Moore and a few pieces of flesh by PC John Flaxman. More were found in the same area by a Mr Carter and Mr Cory, also in a field along what is now Heigham Road and at Alder Carr at Trowse Eye, Bull Close and even as close as 300 yards from No7 Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived. When further body parts turned up at places that had already been covered, it was clear that the killer was still making his deliveries around the City!
A John Sales was employed in clearing out the three open sewers, called ‘Cockeys’, in Bishopsgate, which is a continuation of Tabernacle Street where Sheward lived in an area named St Martins-at-Palace in Norwich. A ‘cockey’, by way of explanation, is Norfolk colloquialism for a stream over which (in this case) would have been a large iron grate and provision below for a sink. It was in one of the three sinks along Bishopsgate where John Sales discovered blood and deposits. Mr Charles Walter Sales, senior, “a scavenger of Norwich” helped his son to load the contents on to his cart and deposited the same in Bull Close where, refuse was thrown. Next day Constable John Sturges inspected the waste soil and found yet more bits and pieces, principally a woman’s breast and entrails; he took them away. Back at the station, it was Police Sergeant Edward Peck’s grim task to construct his own jigsaw by trying to put together as many of the discovered parts as was possible.
The search for further remains was continued after the 26th June 1851 when a piece of skin and muscle was discovered on Saturday, 28th, followed by some intestines on the 29th and a hard substance thought to be a thigh-bone and part of a female breast on Monday, 30th. The last discovery was made on Wednesday the 2nd July 1851 when some bones were found. Later, three surgeons examined the remains and seemed to have got everything correct, such as sex and that the perpetrator was neither a surgeon nor butcher. However they did not, at that stage at least, get the age right, opining that the female was between 16 and 26 years. This information was included on a poster issued to the public:
Whilst the inevitable few applications were received about females missing, they were all influenced by the mis-information from the medical profession of an age between 16 and 26 years. No one thought that they would be so far out in their estimations – poor Martha was 54 years of age! On top of all this, a great many theories were expressed in an attempt to explain the macabre discoveries, and the Press created further confusion by making sensational mis-statements in their newspapers. The Times and the local Norwich Mercury did their utmost to sensationalise everything and even ‘pointed the finger’ (please excuse the pun!) at medical students for playing pranks. The medical authorities rose to the bait all too easily and complained bitterly to the newspapers about ‘bringing the medical profession into disrepute’.
Inquiries got nowhere and no one linked Mrs Sheward’s unexpected disappearance with the horrific finds. William Sheward said that his wife had ran off to New Zealand to find a former lover and his plausible story was believed because the couple’s rows were well known amongst their few friends, coupled with the knowledge that apparently, according some unconfirmed comments, Martha too had quite a chequered past – one would suppose that murder was not included! There were also two other more important reasons why nothing was suspected. The police did not link the body parts with Mrs. Sheward, the head was never recovered and the police had no idea that Mrs. Sheward had been murdered.
The year of 1851 continued on its inevitable way – beyond the murder, the continued enquiries, and the Press speculation. To say that Sheward was calm during this time must have been wrong. Being the sort of person he was, as taken from descriptions, other people’s opinions and his own behaviour, he would have been on an extreme edge. Not least when his brother-in-law wanted to tell Martha about an inheritance, but Sheward abruptly brushed him off. Also when Martha’s twin sister, Mary Bunn, died in November 1851, Sheward refused to attend the funeral, adding that ‘he was sure Martha couldn’t either’. Sometime later, he moved out of No 7 Tabernacle Street (now the western end of Bishopsgate) and rented three unfurnished rooms from a John Bird in St Georges, Middle-Street, but within 12 months was thrown out when he was caught with more than one woman in his rooms. One of these women was to become the second Mrs Sheward a few years later. But, for the moment and from the pavement of his former lodgings in St Georges, William Sheward temporarily moved to the Shakespeare Tavern further along St Georges before finding another set of rented rooms in Lower King Street (St Peter Permountergate). It was from here where he carried on in business as a pawnbroker, lending money on goods and plate. It was while he was living in this neighbourhood that Sheward’s drinking was first observed.
Sheward’s restlessness, together with whatever misguided aspirations he may have held, meant that he was destined never to be successful in business. A bankruptcy notice in The Jurist of 4 June 1853 described him as ‘a pawnbroker of Norwich’. True to character, it would seem, Sheward took increased solace in drink and in his quest to cultivate a string of lady friends around Norwich, while keeping up his relationship with the girl found in his previous rooms in John Bird’s house in St Georges. Her name was Charlotte Maria Buck with whom he eventually lived and sired two children, one in 1856 and the other in 1859. It was not until the 13th February 1862 that William Sheward eventually married Charlotte at the Norwich Registry Office in King Street. From then on Charlotte witnessed first-hand Sheward’s journey further downhill, not just with his heavy drinking but also his tendency to talk in his sleep – but, apparently, never to reveal the time in 1851 when he had disposed of his first wife.
Sheward also aged prematurely following his second marriage and began to show early signs of rheumatism and of becoming increasingly consumed with guilt. Almost 18 years passed, during which time Sheward said absolutely nothing then, in 1868, he changed his employment to become the landlord of the Key and Castle tavern at 105 Oak Street, Norwich where he also lived with his family – but not for long however. Over the Christmas of 1868 and towards the New Year Sheward’s depression became so bad that he said he needed to go to London to see his sister; Charlotte thought that would cheer him up. But, then he wrote to her to say that he was ‘in trouble of which you will soon learn’
The Beginning of the End:
On the 1st January 1869 Sheward, apparently the worst for drink, went to Walworth Police Station to confess to the murder and disappearance of Martha Sheward in 1851. He was met by Inspector Davis to whom he said “I want to speak to you; I have a charge to make against myself……It is for the wilful murder of my first wife at Norwich”. When asked if he had given due consideration to the very serious nature of the charge, Sheward added. “I have…. I have kept it for years, but can keep it no longer. I left home on the 29th December intending to destroy my life with the razor I have in my pocket.” He further explained, as he handed the razor to Inspector Davis, that he had intended to commit suicide at the Steamboat, near Chelsea; but, ‘the Almighty would not let me do it’. At that point Sheward broke down sobbing and continued to speak in broken sentences at the end of which he said that the Inspector could take his charge in writing. Inspector Davis noted that Sheward was ‘quite sober‘ as he dictated his confession which he willingly signed before being placed in a cell for the night.
“I, William Sheward of Norwich, charge myself with the wilful murder of my first wife. (Signed) W.S.”
The following morning Sheward said that he stood by his statement, then confirmed that he had killed his wife on the 15th June 1851, then cut up her body – parts of which was still preserved with spirits of wine and stored at the Guildhall, in Norwich. When asked where the body parts had been found, Sheward pleaded:
‘Oh, don’t say any more; it is too horrible to talk about’……I went last night to a house in Richmond Place (Street), Walworth, where I first saw my first wife; that brought it so forcibly to my mind that I was obliged to come to you and give myself up……. they know all about it at Norwich”.
Two days later, Sheward tried to retract his confession but most of the detail submitted seemed to tally with facts obtained from Norwich and he was remanded in custody and placed in Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.
Then on 7 January 1869, the London magistrates decided to return Sheward to Norwich to face trial. The prisoner and escort party travelled by train and were met at Thorpe Station by a large crown. There Sheward was transferred to a shuttered cab and taken to give a deposition to the magistrates at the City’s Guildhall. After following advice to reserve his defence, he was further charged with murder and committed to the Assizes. Between then and his trial, the police had the difficult task of gathering all the available evidence together. Forensic and medical methods were far more limited than they are today and, because of the time span, many witnesses had either died or had forgotten the circumstances. The police even ripped up the floorboards of No.7 Tabernacle Street but found nothing, and had to pay the owners £3 compensation for the privilege.
Between the 13th and 26th January 1869, Sheward was re-examined by the magistrates followed by his indictment for murder at the Assizes on the 29 March – the day when Martha would have been 72 years of age had she lived and kept herself together! Understandably, the history and publicity surrounding this case ensured that the Court was packed with spectators. It was said at the time that many seemed surprised that such a little old man, crippled with rheumatism, would be capable of committing such a horrible crime. When proceedings began, there were no shortage of tales from witnesses who remembered that they had found bits of flesh and bone; that Martha was controlled by her husband and secluded from the rest of the extended family; and when she vanished he was 39 and she was 54 ‘he being in the prime of life and in the zenith of his passions, she past the heyday of life and passion’. At the end of a two-day trial, it took just one hour and 15 minutes for the Jury to find Sheward Guilty! – to which he responded ‘I have nothing to say’. Following the pronouncement of the death sentence, Sheward was taken to Norwich City Gaol where he spent his remaining days in the infirmary because of his rheumatism in both ankles, there he composed his final confession. On 19th April he saw Charlotte for the last time, prompting him to write a letter to her and their children, asking for forgiveness and apologising for ‘drawing you into all this trouble and affliction’.
His was the first ‘private’ execution in Norwich, to be held behind prison walls and with no members of the public present except for members of the Press. The stipulated execution date was 20th April 1869 when Sheward prayed with Reverend R Wade for an hour before being carried, in fear and agonising rheumatic pain, by Chief Warder Hall and Warder Base to an anti-room to be pinioned by the executioner, William Calcraft. The execution party then continued on to the scaffold where the Executioner carried out his duties – the way he normally carried them out. Calcraft was known for his ‘short drops’ which normally resulted in the majority of his ‘clients’ strangling to death rather than having their necks broken. That day, the Press reported that ‘his struggles were slight and brief’ so, maybe, Calcraft had measured out a little longer rope and Sheward’s neck snapped cleanly. Outside the Prison gates the crowd of 2,000 were there to see the black flag raised, signalling that the execution was done.
William Sheward dropped from life to follow his wife, Martha Sheward into history. One could imagine the impossibility of the two ever being reconciled since she left this earth ‘in little pieces and all over Norwich’ and, without a head! William would never have recognised her. In any case, it is unlikely that he would have said anything!
During periods of war, Britain has long relied on soldiers on home soil to ease the fear of invasion. As far back as Anglo-Saxon times, able-bodied men were bound to serve in a militia army, called the fyrd, mobilised usually as a reaction to raids by Vikings. The fyrd comprised a core of experienced soldiers supplemented by ordinary villagers and farmers. Its function was to defend local lands from invaders. They were not full-time fighters, but bound to serve when the king needed them. Men could be fined if they neglected service in the fyrd on being called up.
The decay of feudal life in Britain during the 16th and 17th centuries led to a rise in mercenary soldiers who could be paid to fight. This might have meant that locally conscripted civilian militiamen no longer played a part in defence. But the British Civil Wars (1639-52), and the reign and deposition of King James II in 1688, showed that a centralised army could be used as an instrument of royal tyranny or political revolution. The part-time militia was preserved as a counter to a small professional army that had to be sanctioned by Parliament. It became an increasingly important institution in civilian life. The Militia Act of 1757 transformed these men further into a better-trained and better-equipped national force, organised by county.
The Militia was very much local in character. Militia officers were gentlemen chosen by the local landowner and the ordinary militia soldiers were local farmers, tradesmen and labourers. These were conscripted by ballot from their own communities – unless they could produce a substitute – to serve for five years.
Uniforms and weapons were provided and regiments were assembled for training and to deal with civil disturbance. The sheer number of eligible men obliged to serve in the militia meant that many more ordinary civilians had experience of military service than they do today
End of compulsion:
Although muster rolls were prepared as late as 1820, compulsory obligation to serve in the Militia was abandoned in the early 19th century. Those who joined would return to their day jobs after initial training, subsequently reporting only for extra instruction and the two-week camp every year. There was never an obligation for Militia to serve overseas like regular soldiers sent on active service, and for all ranks it was a relatively soft option in comparison. However, the Militia still appealed to agricultural labourers and men in casual occupations who could leave their civilian job and pick it up again. And the pay they received could be a useful top-up of their usual wages.
The Militia Act of 1757:
The Seven Years’ War was a global conflict fought between 1756 and 1763. It involved every European great power of the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The Militia Act of 1757, passed at an early stage of the Seven Years War, enabled part-time reserve forces to be raised in each County of the British Isles. Each Lord Lieutenant was to command the Militia of his County and recruiting was the responsibility of him and his deputy lieutenants. Each County was to provide a given quota of men according to its population. The men were chosen by ballot in each parish and had to serve for three years or they could provide substitutes or compound for a monetary payment, and there were various exemptions. The Act replaced earlier less-formal arrangements and led to better records being kept, and the men were selected by ballot to serve for longer periods. Proper uniforms and better weapons were provided, and the force was ’embodied’ from time to time for training sessions.
In effect, Militias were formed to be the “Home Guard” for the British Isles should there be an attack by foreign powers….notably the French. While this was the “primary” reason for the Militia’s existence, it was no doubt thought that in times of civil unrest, the Militia could be used to put down any pro-revolutions by the population. For this reason, most militia rarely served in the area in which they were raised so as not to be put in the situation of shooting their friends, neighbours and family. There were cavalry and artillery militia but most numerous were the infantry militia where a soldier was not required to serve overseas. Despite this ruling, the lure of adventure and ‘possible’ riches made many join up with the regular Line Regiments; indeed, roughly half the recruits for the Army came from the ranks of the Militia.
In 1758 the Admiral of the Fleet, Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford put the “Act for the better regulating of the Militia” into effect and The Norfolk Militia was the first regiment to be formed under the Bill of 1757. It comprised of the 1st Battalion Western Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (West Norfolk Militia) under the command of Lord George Townshend and the 2nd Battalion Eastern Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (East Norfolk Militia) under the command of Sir Armine Wodehouse. Their Colonel in Chief was the 1st Earl of Orford who set the total number of men to serve in the regiment at 960, with the city of Norwich providing 151. These men were detailed to exercise once a fortnight for three years.
The West Norfolk Militia:
In the book called ‘The Norfolk Assembly’ Ketton-Crèmer of Felbrigg Hall quotes Lady Townshend as saying ‘My Lord is at Dereham with his Militia playing soldiers’. He used Raynham Park to review his West Norfolk Militia.
West Norfolk Militia Snippets:
In 1850 the Reverend Benjamin Armstrong was made vicar of the considerable parish of Dereham in Norfolk. In his diary he mentions that the West Norfolk (Dereham Volunteers) held their first outdoor display in the Vicarage grounds in May. Families were invited and four tents which had been used in the Crimea in 1854/5 were erected for the benefit of the ladies. Two bands played at intervals and there were military movements, bugling, running, kneeling and firing.
In June 1859 a public meeting was held in the Corn Hall, Dereham, for the formation of a Dereham Rifle Volunteer Corps. The Reverend Armstrong made a short speech urging people to join. About thirty men did, the eldest an elderly fat banker of 70 years, and the youngest a seventeen-year-old. They were kitted out in a grey uniform. The Corps met regularly to drill and exercise. The following June the Queen reviewed no less than 30,000 Volunteer Rifles in Hyde Park, London. This was to give a warning that an invasion would meet with strong resistance.
The Dereham contingent continued to work hard and helped to put on a Subscription Concert the following November. It was recorded that the hall was full and the Dereham Rifles’ fife and drum band was a great attraction. In September they attended a review of 2,000 volunteers at Holkham Hall, hosted by Lord Leicester, who dined the whole force and 500 private guests too.
About this time competition was starting between the Corps of Dereham and Wymondham and in April 1862 a Rifle Match was staged at Swanton, which Dereham lost. As the day was windy it was said it was chancy shooting anyway! There was a Grand Entertainment given to the volunteers at Letton Hall, where a vast crowd assembled. 150 volunteers sat down to a dinner under a tent and speeches were given. Social events were held to raise money for needy volunteers.
It was a red-letter day when the Dereham Volunteers marched with the Reverend Armstrong to the railway station to form a Guard of Honour for the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the Queen of Denmark who were en route to Costessey Hall.
Thorpe Rail Disaster, 1874
Two serving members of the West Norfolk Militia, Sgt Major Frederick Cassell and Sgt Robert Ward, are recorded to have been killed in the Thorpe Rail Accident whilst returning from a fishing trip. Their bodies were recovered and they were buried with full military honours. Robert Ward had previously been part of the Coldstream Guards.
Both the two Norfolk Militias were recognised as being the first to offer to “march wherever they might be most serviceable to the public defence.” Consideration was also given by King George II“that every mark of his Royal Favour should be shown to this Corps” and that they “should be distinguished by the title of Militia Royal”.
It was on the 4th June 1759 when the East Norfolk section of the Norfolk Militia, comprising of 1 Colonel, 1 Lt. Colonel, 1 Major, 11 Captains, 11 Lieutenants, 8 Ensigns, 1 Adjutant, 24 Sergeants, 24 drummers and 466 rank and file, was reviewed by the Earl of Orford on Magdalen Fairstead, just outside Norwich. The event was reported in the press at the time, with the conduct of the men being praised and a statement that the unit could now be ready to march given four days’ notice. Then on Wednesday 4 July 1759 both battalions did just that by marching from Norwich to Portsmouth barracks, to accept orders from Major General Holmes. They marched via Beccles, Ipswich, Colchester, Islington, and Petersfield and arrived at Portsmouth on Tuesday 24 July. During the march, they were reviewed by King George II at Kensington Palace. Then, due to the day-time heat, they again set off soon after midnight, when they were described as being in good spirits.
By August of that year the two Militias were alternately guarding prisoners-of-war and undergoing training exercises. It was also in 1759, when “A Plan of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk” was published by William Wyndham of Felbrigg & Lord George Townshend. This text, written for the use of officers in this English rural militia unit, went on to become one of the most important drill manuals employed during the American Revolution.
From 1759 onwards, The Norfolk Militia moved around the country; they were quartered in Cirencester on 5 July 1760, but moved back to guard prisoners in Norfolk in July. On 28 May 1761 King George awarded the two battalions of the Norfolk Militia a “Warrant for Colours”. In November the East Norfolk Militia was ordered to Fakenham, then to remain at Wells and Walsingham for the duration of the Fakenham Fair.
In September 1798 all of the officers and most of the rank and file volunteered for service in Ireland during the Rebellion. Eight hundred men of the West Norfolk Militia were serving in Ireland in 1815 and 1816, and aspects of this were dramatised in the writings of George Borrow‘s book Lavengro.
The Norfolk Militia’s Connection with Norman Cross:
Norman Cross lies near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire but traditionally is in Huntingdonshire, it gave its name to a Hundred and lies near the junction of the A1 and A15 roads. It was the site of the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp or “Depot” built during the Napoleonic Wars by the Navy. At the time, the Royal NavyTransport Board was responsible for the care of prisoners of war. When Sir Ralph Abercromby communicated in 1796 that he was transferring 4,000 prisoners from the West Indies, the Board began the search for a site for a new prison. The site at Norman Cross was chosen because it was on the Great North Road only 76 miles (122 km) from London and was deemed far enough from the coast that escaped prisoners could not flee back to France. The site had a good water supply and close to sufficient local sources of food to sustain many thousands of prisoners and the guards. Work commenced in December 1796 with much of the timber building prefabricated in London and assembled on site. 500 carpenters and labourers worked on the site for 3 months. The cost of construction was £34,581 11s 3d.
The Norfolk Militia became heavily involved in the transit of prisoners from Yarmouth to the Norman Cross camp, the operation of which included Lieutenant Thomas Borrow of the West Norfolk Militia, who was the father of author George Borrow. Thomas Borrow was quartered at Norman Cross from July 1811 to April 1813 and young George spent his ninth and tenth years in the barracks there.
In October of 1799, whilst escorting French prisoners of war from Yarmouth to Norman Cross, the East Norfolk Militia locked up their prisoners for the night and safe keeping in the Bell tower of St Nicholas Church in Dereham – apparently, this was a regular occurrence during such a duty. On this occasion however, an officer by the name of Jean De Narde, the 28-year old son of a notary from St. Malo, managed to escape from the church. Finding that the Militia had set guards around the perimeter of the Church he climbed an oak hoping that his absence would pass unnoticed and that the party would leave without him, thus allowing him to make good his escape. Unfortunately for De Narde, the Militia, realising that they were missing a prisoner conducted a search of the locality and the Frenchman was spotted – thanks to him leaving his legs dangling from the tree. The Sergeant, who was told to get the Frenchman down, called on De Narde to surrender. Now, whether the prisoner did not understand English or that he did not even realise that he had been discovered, stayed where he was. Unfortunately, as events turned out, the Sergeant shot the Frenchman out of the tree, killing him instantly. The local population were apparently ashamed by this action and thought this deed to be one of unnecessary cruelty, according to the Parish Priest at the time, the Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong . Eventually a monument was raised to the unfortunate De Narde and the family in St Malo informed of his fate.
On the 11th June in 1804, the Royal Artillery, two troops of the 1st Dragoons, 24th Regiment of Foot, Colonel Patterson’s Battalion, the City of Norwich, Regiment of Volunteers (on permanent duty) and the Riffle Corps, had a sham fight at Bramerton; one party (as English) marched by Trowse, and the other (as French) by Thorpe to Postwick grove, and crossed the Yare on floating bridges, formed by wherries placed alongside each other and planked over. The troops were in motion at 6 am.
The representation of an action was on a very extensive scale. The English, of course, were victorious, and were regaled with several barrels of porter and marched back to Norwich. The vanquished returned to Postwick grove where their spirits were ‘recruited’ with brown stout. They then returned to the City about 4.30pm. The concourse of spectators in carriages, on horseback and on foot, was immense.
The Volunteer Infantry and Rifle Corps had been formed two years earlier at a public meeting held in the Guildhall, for the purpose of conforming to the regulations of the Acts for the Defence of the Realm.
(The Norfolk and Norwich Remembrancer, Matchett and Stevenson, 1822
Militia units were fully assembled – or embodied – on a permanent footing during the Wars of the French Revolution (1793-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). During these periods, troops were stationed at strategic locations, especially along the south coast to allay the fear of French invasion. It was in 1805, after Britain had declared war on France on 18 May 1803, when Napoleon did, in fact, turn his attention to invading England and, in preparation, started to assemble an expeditionary force at Boulogne. With the British Isles threatened, the Norfolk Militia were ordered to join the Southern District (Sussex), which covered Kent east of the river Cray and Holwood Hill; Sussex; and Tilbury Fort in Essex. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) was General Sir David Dundas who directed that the East and West Norfolk Militia regiments be placed, along with the Nottinghamshire Regiment of Militia, into the Infantry Brigade of Major General Alexander Mackenzie Fraser whose headquarters were in Winchelsea. The 712 men of the West Norfolk Militia (under Lt. Col. George Nelthorpe) and 698 men of the East Norfolk Militia (under Lt. Col. George Berney Brograve Bt.) were barracked at Clifford Camp.
East Norfolk Militia Snippets:
Following declaration of Peace, the Norfolk Militia was disembodied at Great Yarmouth in 1814, and was not called out again until 1820. Then, in April 1853, 612 men of the West Norfolk Militia, under Col. the Earl of Orford, mustered in Norwich at the Swan Hotel. During this muster they were subjected to verbal attacks by members of the Peace Society and “Liberals”. On the same date, 571 enrolled in the East Norfolk Militia assembled at Great Yarmouth under Colonel the Hon. Berkeley Wodehouse. It was noted that:
“Their appearance was much more respectable than might have been expected, and many of those who were prepared to ridicule them acknowledged that they were a much better class than they expected”.
Again in 1853, an order for the provision of Militia barracks at Great Yarmouth was issued. The intention was to base all three regiments of the Norfolk Militia at Great Yarmouth, but on February 25 this order was rescinded, and it was agreed that:
“…..the present Committee be empowered to receive estimates and tenders for building barracks for one regiment of Militia at Norwich, and for one regiment of Militia and one regiment of artillery at Yarmouth, on such plans as they may think best suited for the purpose.”
This was followed on 16 May 1854 with the East Norfolk Militia being presented with new colours, and these were still being carried in 1898. These colours were presented at a public ceremony held on South Denes, Great Yarmouth, that was attended by 10,000 persons, including civic dignitaries. The day concluded with a ball held at the Town Hall, which had been decorated with the new colours, mirrors and stars formed of bayonets. In 1853 it was noted that the government intended to convert the Board of Ordnance store (an arsenal) at Yarmouth to create the Gorleston Barracks; the site was originally designed by James Wyatt and built in 1806 to supply Royal Navy ships anchored off Great Yarmouth during the Napoleonic Wars. This facility was converted into army barracks to accommodate the Prince of Wales Own Norfolk Artillery Militia in 1853. This regiment comprised of two field officers, 15 sergeants and 408 men of the East Norfolk Militia. The old Great Yarmouth barracks having been converted into an Admiralty hospital.
In 1856, the East Norfolk Militia, comprising of 1 Major, 13 officers, 3 sergeants and 415 men left Great Yarmouth by train, travelling to an encampment at Colchester. At Colchester railway station they were met by the band of the Royal Essex Rifles. On April 23 all the units at Colchester, including the East Norfolk Militia, were reviewed by Prince Albert, but by June 4 orders were issued for the East Norfolk Militia to return to Great Yarmouth for disembodiment. In the same month, the left wing of the West Norfolk Militia returned to Norwich from Fermoy, County Cork; with the right wing reaching the city on the 26th.
On 20 May 1861, the East Norfolk Militia were involved in a serious military riot at Yarmouth, against men of the Royal Artillery. It was reported in the Norfolk Chronicle that this riot included the use of belts and stones, and that 200 Artillerymen, armed with swords and knives issued from the arsenal, had to be prevented from joining the fight by “persuasion and threats”. The report also said that officers from both corps were involved in ending the riot, and that guards had to be placed on the bridge to keep the Artillery out of Yarmouth and the Militia from crossing into Southtown.
The Norfolk Artillery Militia were granted barracks in All Saints Green, Norwich from around 1860, these consisting of Ivory House, a parade ground and stables. These barracks remained in use until the late 1920s.
The Prince of Wales became Honorary Colonel of the Artillery Militia in 1871, and the Great Yarmouth Assembly Rooms became frequently used as the Officer’s Mess, whilst artillery practice was conducted on South Denes. In 1883 Lt. Colonel Lord Suffield and Major Edward Southwold Trafford purchased the building on behalf of the Artillery Militia, and the building remained under the Militia’s ownership until 1918 after which it became a Masonic Lodge.
In 1880 the unit was renamed the 1st Norfolk Artillery Volunteers, then 2nd Brigade Eastern District Royal Artillery (Prince of Wales’ Own Norfolk Militia Artillery) in 1882 and, in 1902, becoming the 1st Norfolk Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers).
In 1901, during the Second Anglo-Boer War, five officers and 134 Other Ranks from the Prince of Wales’s Own Norfolk Royal Garrison Artillery (Militia) were sent to Cape Town, from which they were split up for garrison duty on armoured trains Wasp, Challenger, Bulldog and Blackhat, among other duties including Military Intelligence and escort duties for the Royal Engineers. The Special Service Company of the Militia was commanded by Colonel Thomas Coke, 3rd Earl of Leicester, who had served in the Scots Guards until 1892.
The uniform of the East Norfolk Militia was scarlet turned up with black. An early sketch by Lord Townshend, published in “A Plan of Discipline Composed for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk” in 1759, shows a Private wearing a simple uniform of cocked hat, jacket, breeches and shoes worn without gaiters. A cross belt and waist belt, with bayonet, are worn over the single-breasted jacket, with the latter secured by a single button close to the collar, two at the chest and three at the waist.
Long boots were discontinued, except for mounted officers, on 12 April 1814. On 22 June 1820 epaulettes, buttons and ornaments of dress were changed from gold to silver, although serving officers were permitted to retain their old style of uniform unless called on for actual service. In January 1831 the old uniform was finally discontinued, with orders that all uniforms must meet the latest King’s Regulations and include black velvet and silver epaulettes.
Gold lace was restored to the East Norfolk Militia on 5 June 1882, at the same time as the badge of the then 4th Battalion Norfolk Regiment was changed from the castle and lion to the figure of Britannia.
On the 7th October 1859, as part of the great Volunteer Movement that started in Norwich in that year, the first muster of the Norwich Rifle Corps Club with 22 men present. Three companies were formed, the Mayor’s, the Sheriff’s and Mr Gurney’s. Many in the Quaker community were hesitant to join but stipulated that ‘on no account could they be called from Norwich except in the actual case of invasion or rebellion.’
The uniform consisted of a ‘grey cloth tunic with black mohair braid and buttons down the centra, with a low, upright collar…….this was surmounted by a shako of hair-cloth of the same colour, with a plume like a shaving brush, and……a black patent leather waist belt with pouch bags’ Officers carried a sword in a steel scabbard with brown whistle and chain. The Government later provided the Corps with long Enfield rifles, with which to practice on Mousehold Heath. By the there were 1,200 volunteers who were inspected by the Lord Lieutenant of the County; standing in long lines of grey, the ‘rank and file from various social grades from bank clerks down to those of weekly wage-earners.’
(Mottram, R. H., Portrait of an Unknown Victorian, Robert Hale & Co., 1936.)
The Broads as we know them today were, originally, a man-made accident. They were formed by the flooding of medieval peat excavations which provided fuel to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. As sea levels began to rise, the pits began to flood and by the end of the 14th century, these pits were abandoned and large individual areas of enclosed water were formed. Collectively, they were not known then as Broads and certainly not the Norfolk Broads. That name seems to have gained popularity in the mid-Victorian era, about one hundred and sixty-five years ago; this was when they were ‘discovered’ and promoted by devotees of all things picturesque.
At the beginning of what became the ‘Broads’ brand, the railway had wielded its way across Norfolk and taken much of the carrying trade out of the wherry-man’s hands; eventually to rob him entirely of his livelihood. Victorian pleasure-seekers followed, at first in small numbers to explore the waterways and try the marshland inns during what was, at the outset at least, a short season. Then, as time past, visitor numbers increased so that the Broads, like many other places became overcrowded, a situation which in some people’s opinion was quite detestable!
It seems quite natural for so charming an area as the Broads to have had so much literature written about it. However, George Borrow (5 July 1803 – 26 July 1881) was one writer who, despite having lived for a while by Oulton Broad, did not write anything about the neighbourhood or the Broads – but, there were other less eminent early writers who did. They were the ones who busied themselves in making known the attractions of the flat landscape of the Broads, its slow moving waterways, the peaceful meres, the free shooting and fishing, together with the apparent strange life of the marsh-folk who drained the waterways.
By the late 19th century, luxurious boats could be hired to navigate the waters amongst the clean white sails of yachts, all of which mingled with the dirty brown sails of the wherries on the rivers Yare, Bure, and Waveney. William Dutt, (1870-1939) wrote admirable books about Norfolk and its Broads which were read with great pleasure by those of his time, He knew the country and the people thoroughly, and wrote in a very agreeable fashion:-
“……the visitors who content themselves with what they can see of Broadland from a yacht’s deck can never become really acquainted with the Broads and Broadland life. To gain a real knowledge of these, they must, to some extent, ‘rough it,’ as the early adventurers did; trudge the river walls; associate with the eel-catchers, marsh-men, reed-cutters and Breydon gunners, as well as exploring the dykes which were non-navigable by yachts. There are also the swampy rush marshes where the lapwings and red shanks nested……..spend days with the Broadsman in his punt, and nights with the eel-catcher in his house-boat; crouch among the reeds to watch the acrobatic antics of the bearded titmice, and mix with the wherrymen at the staithes and ferry inns……..If the stranger in Broadland is unwilling to do these things, he must rest content with the outward aspect of the district and second-hand knowledge of its inner life………But there must always be many whom lack of time, opportunity, or inclination will debar them from becoming intimately acquainted with the scenery, inhabitants, archaeology, history, sport, and wild life of this most delightful and interesting district.”
Then there were the illustrators and artists who produced drawings, oil paintings and water-colour sketches of the landscape, the sailing craft, the birds, and the vegetation of the Broads. These ‘interpretations of reality’ were, and indeed still are, exceedingly attractive and capture the full charm of the area. By the very successful process of colour printing they have, for many years, been reproduced in books that did not rely on just wearisome pen sketches or tonal single-colour photographs – although the best of these have found their place.
But it must be said that if one is to understand and appreciate the real, deep laying, beauty of the Broads, it is clearly advisable to also gain at least an outline on the history of this part of the County, from its earliest days, when a great chunk of East Norfolk was the bed of a vast estuary. Close behind came the Roman days when galleys could sail up to Norwich. Then there were the years of great inundation and, at the beginning of the 17th century, the work of reclamation with much of the swamps being drained and the resulting pasture put to profit.
Fortunately, despite all this activity, the Broad’s wild life was not seriously affected when Sir Thomas Browne made his list of Norfolk birds. Then the peewits were so plentiful that cartloads were brought into Norwich and the rustics used their eggs in puddings. Cranes bred, on what is now the Broads, till 1542 and spoonbills nested in 1671. The avocet ceased to breed by about 1825 and the black-tailed godwit’s egg was last taken at Reedham in 1857. At the same time, it used to be believed that the bittern and the black tern would, most likely, never rear their young again in the county of Norfolk – but they have.
We are told about the life of the marsh-folk of old; how the eel-catchers set about their business and made a precarious livelihood; how the professional wildfowlers became an extinct race; and how the marshmen controlled the drainage, looked after the cattle, and made a harvest of the reeds. Much has been pleasantly described, not least about the wild life on Breydon, an area of thirteen hundred acres which remains, strictly speaking, not a Broad, but an estuary to which numerous sea-birds and waders come and go. Many a rare straggler from foreign countries used to be shot there; spoonbills used to appear there every year and even more commoner birds used to, and indeed still do, visit the Breydon flats at the seasons of migration. It used to be said that an old Victorian gunner boasted that he once secured over a hundred dunlins at one discharge of his punt-gun. Although Breydon is not a Broad, there are about fifty pieces of water, some, of course, small pools, which are called Broads. Hickling, Rollesby, Ormesby and Barton are good examples, each having an area of over two hundred acres, with eight others of the best-known broths each more than a hundred acres in extent. Such a district has much to make it attractive to animals, plants and humans!
On the subject of ornithology, nests of the marsh harrier can still be found and, certainly, the Montagu’s harrier was known to have been present on the Broads in past years. However, one big complaint used to be expressed against the gamekeeper’s ‘pestilent activity’ which if not restrained, would doom many species, including the ‘ruff and the reeve’ sandpipers.
Entomology is another specialism which has always thrived on the Broads and written about; the precursor to the preservation of the species, such as that of the swallow-tail butterfly which in the past had been on the verge of becoming very rare, if not extinct. At one time, this would have been due to the insatiable greed of collectors and also to the draining of places where the hog’s-fennel, on which the caterpillars feed, once grew abundantly. On the other hand, the greatest treasure still to be found in Broadland is the moth, Fenn’s Nonagria typhae (Bullrush Wainscot) which was first discovered way back in 1834.
Then there is the ‘pond life’ which has been described as a rather vague branch of natural history for it deals in the ‘research of pond life which takes the seeker, who is after knowledge, into a world totally different to that in which he may otherwise have lived.” However, for such a person to study the rotifers and polyzoan, a microscope is needed which few visitors to the Broads are likely to possess.
Then there is Botany, another of those subjects which is more likely to be studied by the intelligent tourist. In the past, popular interest in plants was almost confined to orchids and ferns which suffered accordingly. Ammophila arenaria, is a grass which did spread from the sand-hills of coast and would not have competed with the flowering fern (Osmunda regalis) had it not itself been exterminated in many spots by past fern-gatherers. Neither should it be forgotten that the small orchis (Spiranthes autumnalis) used to be dug up by ‘wretches’ armed with trowels.
In total, the natural features of the Broads, and its geological history, differ so greatly from those of other parts of England. We are told that its earliest strata was cretaceous, but goes back only to the comparatively recent geological period when East Anglia, like the rest of Europe, was under the sea. Nature, assisted by man, is still at work. But one should not forget that in the past, owing to the deposition of mud, the drainage of swamps, and the effects of tidal currents, the Broads were in danger of slowly, but surely, vanishing. Fortunately, in these days of ‘enlightenment’ that is no longer the case.
But, the Broads have always been much more than that described above. Nothing has yet been said about prehistoric men who made the flint implements which have been discovered in the valley gravels of the Upper Waveney. Then there is yacht-racing which was once known as “water frolics” and dates back to the 18th century, whilst “regattas” and “yachting” as we understand them are inventions of the 19th century. Fishing, we are told, is not what it used to be on the Broads but good bream fishing may be had in some places – the worst of the bream is that it is useless when you have caught it. Perch is even less abundant. On the other hand, pike fishing is excellent in winter, and it has been known for the occasional 36 lb specimen to be caught. Roach, we are again told, remain abundant but Rudd, which will take a fly, give better sport in places like Barton Broad and in some parts of the Bure. Wild-fowling and free shooting used to be a popular pastime, but has long been restricted if not banned. Snipe, redshanks, and plovers were once at the mercy of a reputed twenty or thirty gunners who made a living on Breydon water; these have long disappeared and life has been allowed to flourish and move on.
FInally, for the statistically minded, the area covered by the Norfolk Broads is estimated to be 303 square kilometres (117 sq mi), most of which is in Norfolk, with over 200 kilometres (120 mi) of navigable waterways. There are seven rivers and 63 broads, most less than 4 metres (13 ft) deep.
Approximately one-hundred and twelve years ago, William Dutt wtote, in his book ‘Norfolk’ a charming account of his stay with a friend in his houseboat named the ‘Moorhen’ on Breydon Water; Dutt titled this account ‘A Night on Breydon’. Now is your opportunity to return with him and view this section on the Broads as he saw it – at a time when life generally was, to our minds today, forged at a much less hurried pace. Those of you who know the Breydon area, may judge that little has changed from Dutt’s time there – but there again, maybe you will feel that much has!
No lover of wild life should leave Norfolk without exploring Breydon Water, a wide expanse of ooze flat and tidal water lying inland of Yarmouth. Breydon Water, or Breydon, as it is generally known is the estuary of the three principal Broadland rivers, the Yare, Bure, and Waveney. Its length from Yarmouth Haven Bridge to Berney Arms is about four and a half miles, and its width about a mile in its widest part. Seen under whatever aspect, it presents a striking appearance, whether its flats are steaming under a mid-day summer sun or its waste of waters is reflecting the ruddy glow of sunset. There is still something primeval about it and except for the artificial barriers which have been built to protect the marshes from its tides, it must present much the same aspect now as it did when, as a vaster estuary, it occupied the entire valley of the surrounding lowlands. It can have altered little since the days when the Iceni crept out in their coracles upon its waters, and the Romans, who built the massive fortress at its upper end, signalled across it to their camp at Caister.
I think I cannot give a better idea of Breydon than by describing a visit paid to its tidal waters towards the end of August 1899, when I accepted an invitation from a well-known Norfolk naturalist, Mr A. Patterson, to spend a night with him in his house-boat the ‘Moorhen’. We left Yarmouth shortly after mid-day, starting from a characteristic Breydon boathouse, with its eel-spears, butt-darts, fish boxes, punt sails, and bobbing poles, in a typical Breydon punt. Visitors to the Broadland soon become familiar with boats of this description, which, however, often differ slightly, according to the taste and fancy of the owner. Our boat was better constructed than most of them, having been specially designed to meet the requirements of a naturalist. Space economy was one of its special features. It was flat-bottomed, decked-in fore and aft, and had a roomy central “well.” It carried a lug sail, and had a rudder instead of the customary sculling rowlock.
The sea itself could scarcely have presented a wider outlook than did Breydon when we commenced our inland voyage, for the tide was at flood and all the flats were submerged. In a little while, however, the ebb set in, and one by one the flats, instead of being wholly hidden, became simply awash, so that the succulent water weed locally known as ” widgeon grass,” which grows freely upon them, began to fall in matted masses on the mud. Then we saw our first signs of wild life in the shape of a bunch of knots which, uttering their musical note, came flying towards us over the water. An Arctic tern also came within a few yards of us, and some ringed plovers settled on a “rising” flat.
After a pleasant sail, during which we passed several stranded and rotting hulks, and the floating headquarters of “Ducker” Chambers, the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society’s watcher, we arrived at the ‘Moorhen’ a snug and well-fitted-up little houseboat in which my friend often lives the life of a water gipsy. She was moored in a creek on the north-west side of Breydon, near Banham’s Farm, the home of a handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed, marshland farmer, in whose veins is the blood of the Vikings. Several other houseboats were to be seen not far away, belonging to local gunners and fishermen. My friend’s, however, was the only naturalist’s houseboat on Breydon, and both in situation and convenience was admirably suited to his work. Behind it stretched mile after mile of level marshland, intersected by the winding waterways of the Broadland; in front were hundreds of acres of ooze flats, to which the curlews were just returning, and on which the gulls were settling to feed on crabs and flounders. Sea asters were blooming on the shores of the creek, and whenever we emerged from the cabin we inhaled the fragrance of sea southernwood, dense masses of which grew all along the ” walls.”
As the weather was warm we lit a fire on the side of the wall and boiled our kettle there. A cup of tea and a pipe made us supremely happy, and after a few minutes’ chat with the Norseman, who, glad to exchange a few remarks with a human being, strolled down to us from his farm, we set out on a ramble along the walls towards Berney Arms. A bunch of eight common sandpipers rose from the foot of the wall as we neared one of the drainage windmills, and we counted thirty-two curlews in a flock which came over from the marshes. The year 1899 was a good one for curlews – at any rate so far as Norfolk was concerned, for we saw more there then than we had seen for many years.
Sunset on Breydon is often a sight to be remembered, but that night, as we were moored on the north-west side, we saw the sun sink, not into the water, but beyond the far off horizon of the marshes. It kindled a glorious glow among the fleecy cloud-drift, and for a few too brief moments it seemed as though the western sky were afire. The suggestion of a vast conflagration was emphasised by the mist which rose out of the dykes and creeks at sundown, and drifted like smoke across the lowlands. A quarter of an hour later land and water were hidden by a dense fog, which had a disturbing effect upon the fowl on the flats, for as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’ we heard an almost incessant clamouring of gulls, curlews, and smaller shore birds. As long as the fog lasted the fowl continued to call, chatter, and whistle ; but there were periods of comparative silence, when the fog lifted for a while and the flats were lit up by the moonlight. Most of the gulls were black-headed gulls, but now and again we distinguished the laka-laha of a “saddle-back.” After we closed our cabin door a heron flapped down close to the house-boat and at intervals shouted ” Frank ” across the flats.
I was in no hurry to sleep that night, for my companion possesses a fund of interesting information and reminiscences, and has much to say about the wild life of Breydon. We talked together of the times, remembered by some of the older gunners, when the flats were often white with fowl, and that ardent naturalist, Mr E. T. Booth, brought from them some of his rarest and finest birds. There are still a few punt-gunners on Breydon in autumn and winter, but the Wild Birds Protection Acts have made it impossible for them to gain a livelihood by gunning alone. They complain, too, that nothing like such quantities of fowl visit the flats as in former days; but it must be borne in mind that of late years we have experienced several mild winters, and only comparatively small numbers of birds have been driven southward in search of food.
The last time we had a severe winter Breydon and the Norfolk marshes were alive with wild fowl, and there is little reason to doubt that under like circumstances just such flocks will come to us again. As to the Breydon smelt-fishers, whose house-boats are moored where the Yare and Waveney unite and form the estuary, the decreasing depth of the water and the making-up of the flats has had much to do with rendering theirs an unprofitable occupation. An old broadsman whom I know can remember the time when the wherries could sail over what are now called Burgh Flats, and he tells me that these flats “made-up” four inches in one year. Smelting was once such a paying business that the fishermen ran all sorts of risks in defying the River Commissioners and police during the close season. But although smelt-fishing on Breydon has seen its best days, there are still several methods by which the Breydoners profit by the time they spend on their home waters. Eels abound in the mud of the flats, and the eel-picker is often at work with his spear ; butt-darting is a favourite sport, and trawling for butts and flounders and dredging for mussels are resorted to by some men desirous of earning an honest penny. It is impossible to record here one half of the subjects discussed as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’s’ lamp-lit cabin and listened to the cries of the fowl and the lapping of the tide.
When at length we stretched ourselves out on the cushioned settles to sleep, we found our minds still occupied with the matters upon which we had discoursed, and not a few amusing incidents of life on the tidal waters were recalled. My friend suddenly remembered how one night, while in his house-boat, he had tried to sleep, but found it impossible, owing to the uneasiness of his couch. After tossing restlessly to and fro for hours, he recollected that he had placed under his thin mattress two saws and a hammer! I, myself, while occupying a water-bailiff’s houseboat, had been kept awake all night by the singing of the sedge and reed warblers in the riverside reed beds. On another occasion my companion had been considerably startled by the violent rocking of the ‘Moorhen’ and discovered that it was due to the attentions of a horse, which was amusing itself by rubbing against the edge of the roof. No such disturbing incident occurred that night, however, though we were now and again aroused by the roar of a punt-gun, which proved that in spite of the close season extending for another week some gunner was already after the fowl.
Morning dawned upon a cloudy sky and misty earth; but the sunlight soon broke through the clouds, dispelled the mists, and the roofs of Yarmouth were seen, at first dimly and then distinctly, across the water. We opened our cabin door carefully, not knowing what strange visitors might be in our neighbourhood, and were rewarded by catching a glimpse of five sheldrakes paddling in a goose-like fashion near the boat, and a small flock of wild ducks some distance away. The flats, often so unsightly under a lowering sky, were transfigured by the sunlight, which here and there streaked them with glistening bars of greenish gold. The far-spreading marshlands, too, with their many windmills, isolated homesteads, innumerable cattle, and abundant bird life, presented a very pleasing picture, and reminded me of what a somewhat neglected Yarmouth historian wrote, some forty years ago, concerning Breydon and its surroundings. He said,
“There is a peculiar charm in the contemplation of these wide and fertile vales, under the ever-changing aspects of sun and sky, with all their subtle gradations of light and shade. Raised above the river’s banks, the eye takes in a landscape which has that true and powerful element of the sublime — wide expanse — above us soars a vast o’er-arching canopy, and below is the bright glancing stream, flowing through a rich Champaign country, and as it gleams cheerily in the clear bright sunny air, filling the soul with an infectious gladness : anon the clouds are flinging down their flickering shadows as we flit past, now in sunshine, now in shade. . . . Here are rich poetical landscapes equalling aught of the great Dutch masters, tranquil cattle pieces worthy of Paul Potter, sunny Cuyps, romantic Hobbimas, gloomy Ruysdaels, moon-lit Aert Van Der Neers.”
After breakfast we walked across the marshes to the banks of the Bure, arriving, after an hour’s easy strolling, at Mautby Swim, where lives Fred Smith, an intelligent millman who is also an enthusiastic sportsman and observer of wild life. Although still only a young man, he can boast of having shot no less than nine spoonbills. One of these is said to be the finest specimen ever procured in England; and judging from an excellent photograph in Smith’s possession, I should say there are grounds for the assertion.
In addition to a stuffed kingfisher, which unfortunately is too common a feature of the marshman’s home, the millman pointed out to me a white-tailed starling and a handsome merlin. Among the rare birds which have fallen to him of late years were a broad-billed sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus) only about half a dozen of which species have been taken in England, and four of these on Breydon; and a pectoral sandpiper (Heteropygia maculata) an American species. About two months before the date of my visit he had seen a roller (Coracias garrulus) at Mautby. One of his especial bird friends is a winged hooded crow, which, on account of its injury, is unable to re-cross the North Sea, and has frequented the marshes in all seasons for two or three years. Ramblers on the marshes and voyagers on the Bure will do well to pay a visit to the picturesque home of this entertaining marshlander, if only to climb the tower of his windmill and view the surrounding country. There was formerly a wild-fowl decoy at Mautby, but it is now disused. Plenty of good fishing may be had in the neighbourhood, especially at Stracey Arms, where, in all probability, a railway station will soon be built. Mautby is about seven miles from Yarmouth and two and a half miles from Acle.
A Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) feeds along the shoreline in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Shortly after two o’clock we started on our homeward voyage, following the winding of the walls instead of crossing the flats. We had not gone far before we saw something which reminded us of a cruel and stupid practice of some of the summer season cruisers on these inland waters. I refer to the useless and unsportsmanlike shooting at gulls which, even if they are hit, can only be left to die on the flats. As we glided along by the flint-faced wall a bird dragged itself up the stones and hid amongst the coarse sea grasses. My companion jumped ashore, and in a few moments returned with a winged black-headed gull, which he took home and placed in an aviary rather than leave to the mercy of the Breydon rats. The local gunners seldom waste their powder and shot upon gulls, and it is a pity that yachtsmen, who cannot leave their yachts and venture upon the flats to get the birds they shoot, do not refrain from this questionable sport.
Near a couple of quaint little houseboats we encountered a typical Breydoner in his gun-punt. In a few days he would probably be prowling about in search of fowl; and even though the 1st September had not yet arrived, the long-barrelled, pistol-stock gun pointing over his boat’s bow looked as if it might go off accidentally should a bunch of fowl settle on a flat. Apparently he wished us to understand that he was engaged in the harmless occupation of collecting driftwood; but he seemed to have his eyes open for other things than stray fish boxes and floating timbers. He was an elderly man, and no doubt could call to mind many days of exciting sport, when the flats were almost hidden by fowl, and the discharge of his murderous-looking gun filled the air with wheeling and crying birds which left a score or more of their kind lying dead or dying on the ooze.
By four o’clock we were back in Yarmouth, and I was saying good-bye to the friend to whom I was indebted for such a delightful holiday. If any reader is desirous of spending just such another he cannot do better than communicate with Mr A. Patterson, who of all the Norfolk naturalists knows most about Breydon, and than whom none is more ready to assist and impart information to a kindred spirit.
At nearly midnight in November 1898 a Lowestoft Smack lay close-hauled under a double reef weathering a North Sea gale. The third-hand, clad in yellow oil-skins, sou’wester and long sea boots had the watch. His left arm was hooked around the mizzen rigging as a safety precaution against the pitching and rolling deck. The wind was howling and shrieking through the rigging and stays; all around was a black, tumbling, crashing sea. The dark waves, like huge mountains with crests covered in snow, went snarling by. Occasionally one hit the vessel and masses of water came swirling along her decks.
Instinctively the third-hand hooked his other arm through the rigging. Over his shoulder he could see the red glow from the port light – somehow that glow reminded him of the open fire side in the cosy little cottage sitting room in Pakefield. It seemed a long way off tonight. He reckoned that the fire would be out by now fot it was getting late and the missus would have gone to bed. His gaze wandered to the lee side when stark fear and panic took possession of him. With a yell he tumbled down the companion way that led to the Skipper’s cabin below. The skipper sat beside the table as the third-hand burst in.
“Skipper” he gasped “there’s a young woman walking on the sea”. The skipper noticed the terror-stricken face and shaking limbs of the third-hand; in an endeavour to calm him down he said, “All right old man, let’s go up and help that lady aboard. “Don’t joke skip” wailed the third-hand, “I saw her, she’d got her arms outstretched. “There’s somebody she’s come after on this ship”. “You’re nuts” snapped the Skipper. “See, “there’s nothing here. Your gal friend’s cleared off”.
Later that night, as the sea continued to behave as if it had a particular grudge against the Smack and the crew were hauling down the reef, a huge wave rose high and hurled itself across the open deck. All the crew managed to hold on, except the third-hand who was swept cleanly away, along with his worries, fear, panic and life – to rest peacefully in the arms of the Sea Maiden.
Is this the time to re-open the discussion as to whether the opening of ancient Egyptian tombs can bring forth misfortune and death?
It has been said that on one particular stormy night in 1965, some fifty-three years back from the present and the writing of this tale, Police Constable Williams was on his beat, cycling around a remote part of the Breckland region in Norfolk. It was bitterly cold that night, made worse by a harsh wind that made cycling extra difficult when it blew the occasional shower of rain across PC William’s path.
At 10.50 pm that night, the Constable stopped, consulted his watch and estimated that he should complete his beat sometime before midnight; this estimate taking into account the occasional cigarette and an inevitable natural break. The smoking element would, of course be breaking the rules, but what the hell! No one ever seemed to be around in this remote part of Norfolk, so there was little chance of anyone reporting him. As he shielded himself from the wind and lit up, cupping the match’s flame to prevent it blowing out and also stopping its glow giving both his position and actions away to anyone who may happen to be nearby, he heard the sound of a distant bell. He took his first drag at the same time as becoming even more conscious of that bell’s curious and continuously monotonous ring. Puzzled, and with a growing feeling of uneasiness, he realised that the bell’s sound was coming from St Michael’s church at Didlington Hall, just a short distance away as the crow flies, but very much longer by road. Who on earth would be ringing it at such a late hour? With that thought, he stubbed his cigarette out on a tree trunk, flicked it away into the darkness and set off in the direction of the church – all part of a constable’s duty they would say! The single, monotonous bell ring continued, even when he eventually reached the churchyard gate via a circular route round the site of the once proud Didlington Hall. After dismounting at the gate, he stood there, trying to decide whether or not to enter the church………!
At this point we should pause the tale of PC William’s experience and go back some thirty years previous to that night in 1965 when he heard that bell, to the 1920’s. That was when everyone seemed to be enthralled by a particular discovery in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor on the west bank of Egypt’s river Nile. It was there, on the 4th November 1922, that Egyptologist and archaeologist, Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamen, after six years of failure to locate his burial chamber. This discovery received worldwide press coverage and sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Epypt. The clearance of King Tut’s tomb, with its thousands of objects was to continue for the next ten years or so. But it was shortly after his discovery when Carter decided to retire from archaeology and tour the world to give lectures on his remarkable finds.
Now, the one thing which Carter refrained from discussing, following the opening of the tomb, was something which, perhaps, he found too preposterous or even ridiculous to ever to discuss – Curses! Yet, others did warn him of the consequences of not only opening the last resting place of the boy King, but also the despoiling of his tomb. There is an enduring myth with regard to the opening of Tutankhamen’s burial place, it is that an ancient curse was placed upon all who were present when the labelled ‘grave robbers’ entered the inner chamber and looted the contents – All would die! Of course, to Howard Carter or indeed to the other rationally minded, such notions were absurd, pointing out the fact that most of those present at the opening of the tomb went on to live long, healthy lives.
Carter lived to a relatively decent age of 64 years. Indeed, no curse was actually found inscribed in the tomb of King Tut, and the evidence for any curses relating to him is considered to be so scanty that it is viewed by almost all Egyptologists as unadulterated ‘clap-trap’. But, take care! Although no curse was found inscribed in King Tut’s tomb. there have been other discoveries of Egyptian tombs where curses have been found – in particular, at Saqqara near the ancient capital of Memphis. There, the tomb of Ankhtifi, dating from the 9th-10th Dynasties, contains the warning “any ruler who……shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin my Hemen (a Falcon God) not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit” The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi, 9th-10th Dynasty, contains the inscription “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb…..impure……there will be judgement…….an end shall be made for him……I shall seize his neck like a bird…..I shall cast the fear of myself into him.”
Within three years of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb six people, who had been present with Carter, had been murdered. Three died of illness and one committed suicide. Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s financial backer, died on 5th April 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected; he died four months later. His dog, back in England, is said to have howled, whined and died at the same moment as his master. Howard Carter lived for another ten years before dying of lymphoma in London, on 2nd March 1939, aged 64 years. – In short, there were about 11 deaths in the first 10 years of Tut’s tomb opening. With that thought, let us return for a moment to Constable William’s experience that night in 1965 and find out what happened after he heard the bell in Diddlington church…….
As PC Williams eventually entered the churchyard, the bell was still ringing out its melancholy toll, but then it stopped – abruptly; there was no slowing or fading of the clanging; one moment it was ringing, the next – silence! The Constable made his way along the church path towards the south door, his lantern picking out the lines of shadowy headstones. Searching and finding the door key under the mat, he unlocked the door, opened it – and then hesitated. By his own admission, he was fearful about entering the building; something was simply not right! Instead, from his position, he cast the light from his lamp across the inside of the church, along its empty pews and silent nave to the arch under the tower. There, he saw the bell rope swinging back and forth as if an unseen hand had only then released it. This scared PC Williams for he sensed that he was not alone; he wanted to be out of the church and away. However and despite his fear, he had sense to close the church door and lock it before quickly retracing his steps to the gate where he had left his bike. Too distressed to complete his beat, he rode straight home through the stormy night. His wife, on seeing his pale pallor and concerned expression, commented that he looked as if he had seen a ghost. PC Williams replied ” Perhaps I have!” Some days later he told an old local man, in confidence, of his strange encounter and was surprised to learn that the moment at which he had heard the church bell tolling was the moment when the last master of Didlington Hall had died.
Built in the 17th century, Didlington Hall was one of the grandest houses in England. It was extensively remodelled in the 19th century in the Italian style and became the home of William Tyssen-Amherst.
William Tyssen-Amherst was a antiquarian and had amassed a vast collection of artefacts, including rare books, tapestries, furniture, works of art, including Egyptian treasures. He was, in fact, best known for his Egyptian collections. His passion for the ancient land led him to leave the running of his Estate to his Land Agent; this proved to be a great mistake. The Agent embezzled to satisfy his gambling habit and in doing so, used up much of Tyssen-Amherst’s assets; the Agent was to take his own life in 1906. possibly to escape the consequences of his actions. It then followed that most of Tyson’s collection had to be sold off to raise funds for his estate.
During World War II, Didlington Hall was taken over by the Army and was HQ for General Miles Dempsey, Commander of the British Second Army during the D-Day landings. After peace had been declared. the Hall remained empty because the damage and neglect caused by the period of requisition meant that the building was far beyond economic repair. It was finally demolished in 1952
Coincidentally maybe, one of the regular visitors to Didlington Hall in better past times was Howard Carter; it was where his love for Egypt and his entry into the world of archaeology. The Amhersts provided the contacts which led to Carter’s arrival in Egypt. The Amhersts guided him to King Tut’s tomb.
Interestingly perhaps! Maybe, what Constable Williams heard on that cold night in 1965 was a bell that not only was mourning the loss of the last master of Didlington Hall but also for the Hall itself and its contents, both of which had met the same fate as Tutankhamen’s final place of rest!