Today, Wells-next-the-Sea is at peace and a magnet for holidaymakers, day-trippers, sailors and bird-watchers. But that was not always so, particularly during the Second World War, when a somewhat unfortunate incident occurred just off its shores in this part of the North Norfolk coast. But only a handful of people ever knew about it at the time.
During the Second World War the waters just off the East coast of Britain were some of the most dangerous anywhere in the world and often protected by mines. Sadly therefore, the legacy from that time is a seabed littered with wartime wrecks and some incredible tales of heroism. Allied shipping was being decimated by German torpedo boats (or E-boats) which would often race across from occupied Europe, quickly attack and hastily retreat. So, for protection, convoys would huddle together in a narrow channel of water often protected by mines.
In June 1941, HMS Umpire (N82) a newly built Royal Navy U-class submarine was sailing from Chatham Dockyard in Kent, to Scotland. She was on her way up the East coast for sea trials in Scotland and fearing attack, joined a convoy of ships also heading northward along what was known as E-boat alley. Her eventual destination was Dunoon where she would join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. From there she was to carry out a single working-up patrol in the North Sea before heading off to the Mediterranean. After leaving Chatham, she made an overnight stop at Sheerness on the Ise of Sheppey, to wait for assembly of a north-bound merchant convoy leaving the Thames and gathering off Southend. The following day, she duly joined the convoy and headed North.
As early as the first night with the convoy a German Heinkel attacked the convoy and Umpire took evasive action by crash diving to well below the surface. However, on surfacing, one of its diesels developed a fault and had to be shut down. The propellers had to be driven purely by electric motors on the surface and when submerged, the submarine had no mechanical linkage to the diesel-powered units. This, inevitably, reduced the Umpire’s speed and a radio message was sent to the Commodore of the convoy, reporting this. A Motor Launch was sent back as escort but lost Umpire in the gathering darkness.
The Northbound convoy, of which Umpire was now a part, passed the Southbound convoy FS44 around midnight on the 19th June 1941, about 12 nautical miles off Blakeney. Both passed starboard to starboard which was unusual, since ships and convoys normally passed port to port. No vessel was lit because of the risk of attack from German E-boats, nevertheless and despite having dropped back from its convoy, Umpire spotted the southbound convoy and altered course to port to avoid a collision. Then suddenly, as if nothing more could go wrong, her steering faltered and she veered sharply into the path of an armed escort trawler named the ‘Peter H. Hendriks’, which was part of the southbound Convoy. Unavoidably, the trawler struck the Umpire near its bow, flooding the forward torpedo-room and rapidly sinking her in about 18 metres of water. The 180ft, 540-ton HMS Umpire settled on the seabed with a 30-degree list to starboard.
According to a Kendall McDonald – “The two vessels clung together for less than a minute before the HMS Umpire heeled to port and went down. Four of Umpire’s crew members were on the bridge at the time of impact – the Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, the navigator, Tony Godden, and two lookouts. Only the CO survived the cold water and was rescued by the trawler; both lookouts sank before help reached them. ………… Four men in her control room had managed to seal the compartment. They knew from the depth gauge near the periscopes that they were at 24m, and though they had no Davis escape gear they decided to make a free ascent from the conning-tower hatch without delay. They made a good exit and all four reached the surface, but two had held their breath and, though picked up, died later from ruptured lungs………
Due to the list, the bulkhead door of the engine-room would not close properly and the compartment was slowly but steadily flooding. Twenty men had taken refuge here and prepared to escape using the Davis escape trunk. Only 17 had Davis escape gear, so three of those went first, with the three without escape lungs clinging to their legs. Two of the latter did not make it to the surface, as they were knocked unconscious after hitting gear outside the escape hatch – and let go.
A seaman called Killan then took charge of those who were left in the engine-room. First, he ducked under water into the trunking and went up it to make sure it was all clear before returning to the engine-room. Then he sent the others up one by one. He was the last to leave and was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.”
Edward Preston Young was a junior officer on board the HMS Umpire at the time, and who was to go on to have a distinguished career as a submarine commander himself. His story about his experience on the HMS Umpire comes from his classic memoir of British submarine warfare, ‘One of Our Submarines’. in which he wrote:
“The sea continued to pour in on us, with a terrible and relentless noise, and the water in the compartment grew deeper every minute. As the level crept up the starboard side, live electrical contacts began spitting venomously, with little lightning flashes. Vaguely I wondered if we were all going to be electrocuted.In the half-darkness the men had become anonymous groping figures, desperately coming and going. There was no panic, but most of us, I think, were suffering from a sort of mental concussion. I discovered one man trying to force open the water-tight door that I had shut earlier. “My pal’s in there,” he was moaning, “my pal’s in there.” “It’s no good,” I told him; “she’s filled right up for’ard and there’s no one left alive on the other side of that door.” He turned away, sobbing a little.
For some reason we decided it would be useful if we could find more torches. I knew there must be one or two others somewhere in the wardroom, so I made yet another expedition down the slope, wading through the pool that was now waist-deep and already covering the lowest tiers of drawers under our bunks. I spent some time in the wardroom, shivering with fear and cold, ransacking every drawer and cupboard, pushing aside the forsaken paraphernalia of personal belongings — under-clothes, razors, pipes, photographs of wives and girl-friends. But I could find only one torch that was still dry and working. Holding it clear of the water, I returned to the control-room. It was deserted.
The door into the engine-room was shut. Had I spent longer in the wardroom than I thought? Perhaps they had all escaped from the engine-room escape hatch, without realising that I had been left behind. Even if they had not yet left the submarine, they might already have started flooding the compartment in preparation for an escape, and if the flooding had gone beyond a certain point it would be impossible to get that door open again. I listened, but could hear nothing beyond the monotonous, pitiless sound of pouring water. In this terrible moment I must have come very near to panic.”
Young was not on duty at the time and after the collision found himself in a flooding boat resting on the bottom of the North Sea in 60 feet of water. Having tried to surface the boat using compressed air and having searched for other survivors, Young ended up in the conning tower with the First Lieutenant, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) and an able seaman. They estimated that as a result of the angle of the boat and the height of the conning tower there was only about 45 feet above them and that they should attempt to swim to the surface. Closing the hatch below them, they forced open the upper hatch and escaped. The ERA was never seen again and the First Lieutenant drowned after reaching the surface.
Young and the seaman were picked up, along with several men who had escaped through the engine room hatch. The Commanding Officer, Lt M Wingfield, had already been rescued, having been on the bridge when the collision occurred. All told, 2 officers and 20 ratings died with only 2 officers, Young and Wingfield, and 14 ratings surviving.
So, just nine days after being commissioned by the Royal Navy, their newest possession at 58 metres long and 730 tons displacement, had gone. The loss of HMS Umpire was not a direct result of any enemy action, but from an entirely and unfortunate accident. Today, the wreck is designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. However, although it is legally a war grave, it can be filmed, so long as nothing else is touched nor moved. The wreck lies on the seabed about 15 miles off the Norfolk coast between Blakeney and Wells in part of what is called today the ‘Sheringham Shoal’ – an eerie memorial to its brave crew and the horrors of war.
(For a tour of the wreckage site go to Archive Divernet (here)
There seems to be some debate about the wreck of HMS Umpire being classified as a War Grave; some have pointed out that the wreck was reported as having been sold for scrap after the war and most of the damage to be seen today by divers was caused by the heavy use of explosives by the salvors.
Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.
Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.
The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”
When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.
Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.
When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.
Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.
In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.
Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.
It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.
It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.
By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.
With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.
When studying a map of Norfolk & Suffolk, the number of coastal locations including those with ports or harbours, soon becomes apparent. Some have past connections with very famous people or famous events, an obvious example perhaps being Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, now inland but once, also a port and the birthplace of Horatio Nelson. Or Burnham Overy perhaps, where Nelson first learned to sail a boat, but a few miles further down is Wells-next-the Sea, now a noted fishing port but once regularly visited by colliers, coasters and grain-carrying vessels as well. But how many people know of John Fryer, born in Wells on 15th August 1753 and why he became a famous name in Norfolk’s history?
Educated locally, John Fryer then acquired a keen interest in the sea, joining the Royal Navy at an early age and becoming a Master of the Third Rate, in 1781. He was then serving aboard HMS Camel, a 44-gunner vessel (previously named HMS Mediator). After a few more years at sea, Fryer moved to the HMAV Bounty, subsequently made famous by the mutiny aboard her, on 28 April 1789 which has since been commemorated by books, films, and popular songs.
The Bounty began life as the collier Bethia, built in 1784 at Blaydes shipyard in Hull and costing £1,950. But on 26th May 1787, she was purchased by the Royal Navy for £ 2,600, for a single mission during which she would travel from Britain to Tahiti and collect some breadfruit plants. These would be transported to the West Indies, where hopefully, they would grow well enough and also become a cheap source of food, for the slaves there. So during 1787, the Bethia was refitted at Deptford and renamed Bounty, as a relatively small three-masted and fully-rigged sailing ship of 215 tons. After conversion, she mounted only four4-pounders (2 kg cannon) and ten swivel guns. Her ‘great cabin’ was converted to house the potted breadfruit plants, and gratings were added to the upper deck, for ventilation and her complement would be 46 officers and men.
Meanwhile on 20th August 1787, John Fryer was appointed Sailing Master of the Bounty by the Admiralty, with Fletcher Christianas Master’s Mate and William Bligh as Captain. Little happened until 23rd December 1787, when the ship sailed from Britain for Tahiti. Then on 10th January 1788, Captain William Bligh put his crew on three watches, giving one of them to Christian and on 2nd March, ordered that Christian be promoted to Acting Lieutenant. Some speculated this fuelled the ill-will which later developed between Fryer and Bligh. When the voyage began, Bligh highly approved of John Fryer, his Sailing Master: “The Master is a very good man, and gives me every satisfaction.” he said. But his feelings soon changed, most likely because the Master was not a ‘yes-man’. He had strong opinions of his own and although he was not as sensitive to insults as Christian, Fryer was conscious of his dignity and competence and made Bligh aware in no uncertain terms, that he would not take things “lying down.” Despite this, John Fryer remained loyal, accompanying Bligh to Timor, but during the outward voyage, Bligh demoted the ship’s sailing master, John Fryer, replacing him with Fletcher Christian. This seriously damaged their relationship and Fryer would later claim Bligh’s act was entirely personal.
When the Bounty and 46 crew sailed from Timor, the unusual consignment greatly reduced the officers’ cabin space and almost added ‘an arboretum’ to the quarter deck undermining Bligh’s power to command as the space he controlled as captain had also been affected. Modification of the ship even meant there were too many men in too little space for too long a period of time. Tension increased en route and finally boiled over when the prospect of life in a Tahitian paradise seemed possible/ After this, came the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty” of 28th April 1789, led by Fletcher Christian against the commanding officer William Bligh. But John Fryer was the only officer who forcefully attempted talking Christian out of his hasty decision. When that failed, he made an earnest, but equally unsuccessful attempt to mediate between Christian and Bligh.
Finally, he was among those who forcefully demanded the loyalists be given the Bounty’s launch instead of one of two other boats which were unseaworthy. At one point Christian pressed his bayonet against Fryer’s chest, saying he would run him through if he advanced one inch further. John Fryer had the interesting position of being a strong critic of both William Bligh and mutiny leader, Fletcher Christian, even at one time accusing Bligh of favouring Christian. Despite his anger at Bligh, Fryer did not support the mutiny. Bligh’s account of this vilified Fryer (vilified means to slander or speak ill of someone), who merely gave fair evidence at Bligh’s court-martial. Edward Christian, Fletcher’s brother, was assisted by Fryer in publishing a counterweight to Bligh’s version.
Bounty had finally reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788, after ten months at sea and following the famous mutiny, eighteen mutineers finally set Captain Bligh and 18 of the 22 crew loyal to him afloat in a small boat. The mutineers then variously settled on Pitcairn Island or in Tahiti and eventually, Fletcher Christian took the vessel to an isolated South Pacific island, which they reached in Jan 1790. There, they burned her to avoid detection and to prevent desertion. Interestingly, as a direct result of this, a colony was established and inhabitants of the 1¾ square mile Pitcairn Islands inhabitants are therefore direct descendants of the mutineers and their former Tahitian wives. Even the present-day islanders now speak a dialect, said to be a hybrid of Tahitian and 18th century English. But no reason explaining why the Mutiny ever happened at all, was ever offered. Historically, Bligh and his remaining crew of 18 made an epic and eventful journey in the small boat to Timor in the Dutch East Indies where they spent five months. Subsequently, Bligh returned to England and reported the mutiny.
On retiring from the Royal Navy on 6th April 1812, John Fryer returned to his home town of Wells-Next-the-Sea where he died on 26th May, 1817 – ironically, also the same year as the death of Captain Bligh. He was buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Wells but in 2000, his gravestone was moved into the main church building, on the south side. Meanwhile in the churchyard and replacing his original grave site, is now a plaque to John Fryer, Master of the Bounty.
Images related to John Fryer to be found at Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk. (c) Jamie Beckford.
That Fryer received no promotions after the Mutiny is incorrect. He rose to the rank of Post Captain and served as Commander of at least 3 ships: HMS Serapis, 1801, HMS William, 1804, and HMS Abundance, 1806. Although a Master, the title was only considered a courtesy. In more recent times, Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him in the 1984 film ’The Bounty’. A biography of Fryer was edited by Owen Rutter in 1939: John Fryer of the Bounty (Golden Cockerel Press)
On the 7th November 1882, twenty-year old Frederick Rolfe began fourteen days’ hard labour in Norwich Castle prison for poaching rabbits. He wrote:
A door swung open and a Turnkey led us inside. I shall never forget what I felt when I first saw that gloomy place, and I was fit to cry, but held back my tears somehow……..the cell was about ten feet long by six feet broad, and had a stone floor, and a board for a bed…… [The Turnkey] brought me a loaf of bread, about the size of a good apple, and a can of water and told me that was my tea……I did not want a bite that night…….I kept on thinking of mother and home, and the trouble I had been and got myself into, just like some had always said I would……they made me tread the wheel and pick oakum, which was hard old tarry rope…….but it was then I made a vow – that I would be as bad as they had painted me.
In the year’s 2011 and 2013 the East Anglian Daily Times wrote: “Bungay town lies encircled by the winding River Waveney, surrounded in turn by water meadows and the Broome marshlands where the cattle graze, where river banks are invariably covered by low mists and where the sound of tumbling water in the weir is heard as walkers pass through the kissing gate on their way to the Staithe.
This is geography to inspire tales and legends, one of which is the story of poacher and countryman, Frederick Rolfe, who in the early 20th century roamed these parts in search of illicit game. Although Rolfe wrote an account of his exploits ‘I Walked By Night’, edited by the famous Bungay resident Lilias Rider Haggard, little was known about this complex character until Charlotte Paton wrote her investigative biography of Rolfe in 2009. Her discoveries were also contained in a documentary film, ‘The Truth Behind I Walked by Night’, by film-maker Peter Hodges which was shown locally shortly afterwards.
It was in 2002 when Charlotte Paton embarked on her task of discovering the true identity of Frederick Rolfe. Charlotte had been given a copy of his book ‘I Walked By Night’ many years before by her mother, who thought it might be of interest to her as it was partly about Bungay, where she had grown up and where Rolfe had lived for the last 20 years of his life. Before long she discovered Rolfe’s identity and set about finding out more about the man and his times. Almost immediately she realised that much of what was written was untrue, the author conveniently leaving out the more unsavoury side to his character. The sum of Charlottes lengthy and painstaking research was published in her book, ‘The King of the Norfolk Poachers: His Life and Times’.”
The following text is Charlotte Paton’s personal account of her research:
In the early 1930’s a small scruffy, elderly man gave to the wife of the farmer for whom he worked as a mole catcher, a notebook filled with the story of his early life as a poacher. The woman, Mrs Longrigg who did not approve of the poacher as he charmed warts, put the document in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it for two years.
One evening, Lilias Rider Haggard the farmer’s neighbour and the daughter of Henry Rider Haggard, who wrote ripping yarns in the late 1800s, was talking to Mrs Longrigg about the weekly column she wrote for the Eastern Daily Press, when Mrs Longrigg remembered the dog-eared note book and gave it to Lilias thinking it might give her an idea for an article.
Lilias read the story and got in touch with the mole catcher. She encouraged him to write more and then edited the whole into the now much loved East Anglian Classic, ‘I Walked by Night’, published in 1935. It is a story of great deprivation but also of a deep love and understanding for the countryside. People then did not live alongside the landscape; they were part of it, working and watching the seasons change, seeing how the animals and birds behaved and the gamekeeper too. As a youngster the mole catcher, a difficult child and a naughty school boy, watched and listened, and by the age of eight had snared his first hare.
In 1955 I moved to Bungay in Suffolk where the poacher had lived and read the book. Many years later I married and moved to Norfolk. After paying off our mortgage and reading the deeds of our cottage I was prompted to read the book again; the poacher talked of living in an estate cottage close to where he was born in Pentney, which is about three miles from our cottage in West Bilney. Some of the detail he gave lead me to wonder if it was our house, and I thought it would amuse me to see if I could find out.
That led me a merry dance for 7 years. The first thing I had to do was find his name as he called himself ‘The King of The Norfolk Poachers’. With the help of Living History on Radio 4 I found he was Frederick Rolfe. I know that in autobiographies the truth is often bent a little to paint the subject in a better light, but Fred’s economy with the truth confused me utterly. He relates in the book how he went off the rails after the love of his life, a Marham orphan girl, died giving birth to their son. Fred said she was the same age as him, and they lived together from the age of eighteen, and she became pregnant three years later. I knew from the parish records that he was born in 1862, so I thought it would be easy to research; six months later I was tearing out my hair. I did not know her name, did not know if they were married, although her referred to her as his wife, could not find a male child born around that time who fitted the bill, and could not find a death for her.
My breakthrough came when I asked a friendly Registrar from a nearby town to search her records for the birth and death. Within 10 minutes she had rung me back to say that the boy I was searching for was in fact a girl, Edith Ann, and far from dying in childbirth, Anna Rolfe (so they had married) went on two years later to have a son, Frederick. This child she registered 6 weeks later, so clearly she did not die in childbirth. Armed with this information I began to unravel the truth. Far from being an orphan, it would seem Anna’s parents were alive at the time of her marriage, which took place shortly after her 21st birthday in, Marham church.
Edith was born 11 days later on May 25th 1883. Perhaps Mum and Dad refused to give their permission for the marriage to take place earlier, as Fred was already living outside the law. Sadly Edith died at eight months from marasmus, a wasting disease often caused by giving children food that lacked sufficient nutrition for them to thrive; this often happened through ignorance rather than poverty.
On August 31st the following year whilst Fred was out poaching he had a fight with two gamekeepers, and believed he had hurt them badly. Even though they had just lost their daughter, and Anna was already pregnant with their second child, to escape justice he fled to Manchester. Young Fred was born in February 1885. Fred Rolfe did not return to Norfolk until the summer of 1888 and was soon up to his old tricks again. He was summonsed to Grimston court for trespassing in pursuit of game and sentenced to 21 days with hard labour. He was also charged with the offence from the time he fled in 1884 and received a further 21 days hard labour. This was the second period he served inside.
He talks of his first experience in the prison at Norwich Castle in great depth in the book, how he had to walk on the tread mill, and endure the parson trying to reform him and how it turned him forever against the law. He had been sent down for 14 days for snaring 2 rabbits on Pentney Middle Common. He says he was scarce more than a child, but in a number of academic works he was said to be only12 or13; and he is held up as an example of the treatment meted out to children in prison at that time. After being released on 12th August 1888 he sent for a girl he had met in Manchester to come and join him, and he and Kitty were married on 8th October 1888 in Pentney church.
So where was Anna – was he a bigamist? I found young Fred with Anna’s mother in the 1891 census but could not trace a record of her death anywhere. Eventually a search by the General Records Office showed that she died of phthisis (consumption) in All Hallows Hospital Ditchingham, the village where Lilias and Mrs Longrigg lived many years later, and about 40 miles from her family and child in Marham Norfolk. I can only speculate as to why. The hospital was run by nuns who assisted prostitutes and the destitute of Norwich. Had she fled there to support herself, after Fred abandoned her, and fallen ill? Records from the hospital show that they did also take local needy cases from the area but her large family were miles away – would she have been sent so far from them. I shall never know for sure, but one thing is certain it reflects very badly on Fred.
The next part of his life is well documented. Apart from his book and my research, I have found a manuscript written by Emily his eldest child from his second marriage, which she sent to Lilias Rider Haggard from Canada just after I Walked by Night was published. She asked Lilias to publish it as her Mother’s version of the story, but Lilias never did. It has only recently come to light.
Emily recalls the stories her mother told her very poignantly; poor Kitty, arriving from Manchester to Pentney, she described as a nosey hostile village. Hating the dark and the quiet; admitting she had never been into a field before she took Fred his lunch, whilst he worked on the harvest; beaten by Fred because he thought she had flirted with one of the village lads; forced to pick and sell watercress from door to door to survive, whilst Fred had yet another stint in prison.
Emily’s memoir also shows that Fred was the gamekeeper for the West Bilney estate from 1894 to probably 1897, when he was sacked. During that period he did live in our house the Lodge cottage on Common Road. Poor Kitty had been very happy during this time, but sadly then had to join Fred in his endless changes of home as her tried to keep one step ahead of the law.
Fred always maintained he was not a thief, pheasants have no names on their tails he told the magistrates at one court appearance, but in 1892 he served 2 months for stealing two hens, a screwdriver and 11ounces of solder. He was caught by the marks his corduroy trousers left in the dirt and the dust on his knees. He also had two dead chickens in his hands when apprehended, and the solder and the screwdriver in his pocket. He pleaded not guilty!
When things became too hot for him in West Norfolk he moved to North Norfolk, and then during World War I to Bungay. He joined the Third Volunteer Battalion in 1916 at the age of 54 and became the Regimental rat catcher. After the War he was briefly an under-keeper at Flixton, near Bungay, but lost his job because he was caught poaching. Clearly from the reports in the local papers of court appearances, he was caught for poaching on a number of occasions. The last prison sentence I can find was in 1927 when at the age of 65 he received 2 months with hard labour for stealing coal from a railway yard.
During my research I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a sprightly 91 year old whose father had been Gamekeeper at Earsham Hall. He recalled that on November 4th 1928 his father had gone to check for poachers on Bath Hills, just outside Bungay. He thought that they might be about that night as the noise of their guns would be disguised by the noise of the fireworks the lads were letting off in the town. Sure enough Fred was out and about and was soon apprehended. In the struggle to relieve him of his gun, it went off and shot a hole in the Gamekeepers hat. I went to the local records office and found the case in the local papers and my informant was completely accurate in his recollection 76 years later; and why did it stick in his mind?; – his mother had been so concerned at what might have happened to her husband when she saw the hole in his hat that she went into labour and gave birth to his twin brothers the next day.
At the next Petty session, in Loddon, Fred pleaded not guilty as usual, saying he was only after a rabbit, being out of work; but the magistrates reminded the defendant that his record was none too good and fined him £2 with 2/6d costs. This he paid rather than face another spell inside. Frederick Rolfe hanged himself with a snare in an outbuilding in Nethergate Street in Bungay on 23rd March 1938. He was found at 3.30 pm; the inquest was the following day, and the funeral the day after. Events following a death were obviously speedier in those days.
I met an elderly man during my research who, as a 5 year old running home from school, took a short cut through an open stable and hurt himself there. On going home and being asked why his face was grazed he replied that Mr Rolfe had kicked him. His parents went to Rolfe’s home where they learnt from his landlady, Mrs Redgrave, that she had not seen him that day. They later realised that Fred’s dangling boots had caught young Les on the side of the face. The Coroner heard evidence that the Police had recently had reason to speak with Fred on a matter of some seriousness, and Mrs Redgrave said that on the evening prior to his death, on retiring to bed, he had said to her “Goodnight mother, this is the last time I shall bid you goodnight.” She told him not to be so silly. After that she heard no more of him. He had enjoyed good health recently she said.
Rumour has it that Fred sexually assaulted a girl behind the coal yard at the railway yard at Ditchingham. I have found no proof of this, and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, although family members have hinted at a darker side to his nature.
At his funeral the local Vicars wife sent a bunch of daffodils, the card attached read ~ “Happy Memories. The heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind”. What memories could a smelly old mole catcher and the vicar’s wife possibly share? Despite his shortcomings was she, like me and the warts, charmed by him?
Charlotte Paton 2009
The old rogue wrote later in his life: “I have always had the idea that game was as much mine as anyone else’s ……….I envy not the Ritch man’s lot nor the Prince his dream. I have took a fair share of the ritch. I am well over 70 and waiting for the last Roll Call. If I had my time to come over again I still would be what I have been – a Poacher.”
This position is an ancient hereditary office within the English navy. In medieval times, the Lord High Admiral of the Wash was a nobleman with responsibility for defending and protecting the entire coastal area of the Wash.
The post was first granted to the Le Strange family (still associated today with Old Hunstanton) in the 13th century but in the 16th century, the post became obsolete when protection and defence duties around the area were taken over by the Royal Navy. However, somebody forgot to formally abolish the post so even today, it still remains in title as a hereditary dignity, but with absolutely no responsibilities nor privileges of any kind!
So when Henry Styleman Le Strange died in 1862 he was already Lord of the manor of Hunstanton – and other Manors, but also held the wonderful title of Hereditary Lord High Admiral of the Wash. But in more official times, this title had also allowed its holder the right to claim possession of anything out to sea for the distance a man on horseback could throw a spear from the High Water mark!
The Lord High Admiral of the Wash no longer resides at Hunstanton Hall. Nor does he control all shipping and smuggling around the Wash, as the Le Strange family had originally been commanded to do all those centuries earlier. The current Admiral inherited the title from his mother, yet still lives in Hunstanton. Technically, he still owns all the land between the High Tide mark and the distance he can throw a spear.
Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.
Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.
The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.
In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.
Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.
The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.
Back in July 2013 the author Ian Sansom, writing in the Guardian Newspaper, asked the question: “Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strangest literary County?” On the basis that little would have changed in five years, it seems a good idea to repeat his rhetorical question and to present it to what might well be a different group of readers; it is equally of benefit if the response he gave at the time is also repeated. Here it is:
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact –and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, eco-criticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Literature. This is my big idea!
If we were to apply some of the quantitative methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. Last year (2012) Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and the late Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransoms‘s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith‘s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald‘s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.
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 Le Strange family have had their ancestral home in Old Hunstanton, in the County of Norfolk, England, ever since they first came over from France in 1100, thirty-four years after the Battle of Hastings and the emergence of ‘William the ‘Bastard’ Conqueror’ on English soil in 1066,
The Le Strange ancestral home, since the 12th century, was originally known as the Old Moated Hall. The Estate boasted a magnificent coastal Mansion of carrstone and with Gothic battlements; the whole building was indeed surrounded by moats. The Mansion also had a large orchard, a deer park with an octagon pond, a park house and a banqueting house. There also was an orangery, pleasure grounds and a terraced walk. As Hunstanton Hall, the mansion came to be filled with amazing treasures and precious jewels rested in ornate boxes. Silks, velvets and satins were hung, waiting to be paraded by beautiful ladies and silverware, polished by servants, glistened by candlelight in every room; each room containing rarities from across the world and leather-bound books filled the library. That was not all – in time the Mansion was to inherit a ghost of a grey lady whose wrath was incurred by the destruction of her beloved Persian carpet!
This tale, the first of two about the Le Strange’s, is about a certain Dame Armine Le Strange who inherited Hunstanton Hall, in Old Hunstanton, in the mid-18th century to become the Lady of the Manor after her brother Henry died childless. One of Armine’s favourite possessions was a beautiful Persian carpet which was a gift from the Shah of Persia, which she she brought with her and placed in the Drawing Room of the Hall; the carpet showcased the exquisite talents of Far Eastern weavers . Whilst Armine loved this carpet, she was somewhat less enamoured with her son Nicholas who was a feckless gambler, hell-bent on stripping the Hall of its saleable assets in order to fund his gaming habits. While Armine bore the loss of many treasures by her son, she was determined that her precious carpet would not end up on the floor of one of her Nicholas’s creditors.
In 1768, as Armine lay on her deathbed, she made her son promise that the carpet would remain at the bosom of the family and in its place in the Drawing Room of Hunstanton Hall. She warned Nicholas that she would watch the progress of her carpet from her new heavenly home and if he broke his promise and removed it from the Hall, she would return, via the grave where her earthly remains were left, and haunt both the house and him with ghostly wrath.
Fearful he promised to keep his promise but was not enamoured with the now slightly moth-eaten carpet. Eventually, he picked up enough courage to instruct his servants to remove it from his sight, but place it in a wooden box and firmly nail it down to prevent him being tempted to forget his vow. The boxed carpet found a new home in a distant part of the attic. Now, some might think that this course of action would have resulted in Nicholas, the unfaithful son, being haunted by his dead mother for going back on his promise – but no, but the curse was to be passed on from generation to generation after Nicholas’ death in 1788.
Some 80 years later, Emmeline, the new American mistress of the Hunstanton Hall arrived in Norfolk having married Hamon Le Strange. Keen to put her own stamp on the mansion, she began enthusiastically renovating the Hall, discovering rooms which had been left untouched for decades. Fighting her way through the dust, cobwebs and rusty nails, she came across an interesting-looking wooden crate in the Attic. Emmeline instructed her servants to prise open the box, only to find, to her disappointed, that the box contained nothing but a dirty old carpet. However, wishing to be a good housekeeper and flex her philanthropic muscles, she instructed for the carpet to be cut into pieces and then she herself would ride out and distributed the ‘new’ but much smaller pieces of carpet to the poor and needy of Old Hunstanton.
Returning home, replete with goodwill, she felt that she was being watched. Instinctively, she glance up to one of the first floor windows and was surprised to see an older woman dressed in grey and glaring down at her. Her features were, unmistakably, those of her husband’s relatives and Emmeline assumed that a relation of her husband had come to visit; the countenance of the visitor caused, maybe, by the fact that she had been kept waiting upon the newly wed mistress of Hunstanton Hall. But once settled indoors, Emmeline was surprised to find there was no visitation from a Le Strange matriarch which left her more than a little puzzled. She decided to wait up for her husband who was due home that evening from a business trip.
Emmeline was still a bit unsure of her newly acquired position as mistress of Hunstanton Hall and felt it her duty to relay her story to her husband immediately he had settled into his favourite chair. On hearing the details of this women in grey, her husband realised that his wife’s description of her matched that of his ancestor, Armine Le Strange. He also remembered the family curse concerning the Persian Carpet, but became angry when Emmeline told him what she had been up to earlier that day with finding a carpet in a box, cutting it up and distributing the pieces amongst some of the people of Old Hunstanton. Her husband immediately insisted that all the pieces must be collected and returned forthwith but. at first, she refused. to agree.
That night, she and Hamon were disturbed by pacing footsteps outside their bedroom door – Hamon went to see who was there, but could see nothing. As he climbed back into bed and snuffed out the candle, the footsteps restarted. The next day, when Emmeline had looked at a family portrait of Armine and recognised her as the face she had seen at the window, she retraced her steps to the town and retrieved every one of the carpet pieces. Then she had her seamstress sew them all back together again – after a fashion! Those from whom the pieces were taken were each given a new replacement.
It would appear, however, that Armine was not appeased by the resurrection of her treasured Persian Carpet and was to continue her nightly haunting throughout Emmeline’s lifetime – and beyond. It was indeed too late: Lady Armine’s last wish had been ignored and that was unforgivable. Some say, she can still be seen wandering through the Hall today, despite it surviving two bad fires in past years and having been converted into flats in recent years. The spectre of a lady, all dressed in grey, still wanders lamenting the loss of her beloved carpet’s unsullied beauty.
This second tale brings us into the second millennium and to the 7th September 2002. It was told by a Jonathan Moor of Ludlow, Shropshire in a ‘Spooky Isles’ article. Let him tell you his tale in his own words; it is as follows:
“I was spending a few days over in Norfolk, taking a dozen or so rubbings of memorial brasses in several of the parish churches in the north of the County. On the 7th September I was at St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton, to take a rubbing there of the brass commemorating Sir Roger Le Strange who died in 1506 during the reign of Henry VII. It is a large brass placed on top of an altar tomb and to complete it I knew would take me a good three hours, if not longer.
I arrived at St Mary’s about 10 o’clock in the morning, having brought with me a packed lunch. Weatherwise, I recall the day was a mixture of sunshine and showers. Thereafter, having been rubbing for a couple of hours, I stopped for lunch. I suppose it must have been about midday. I went outside and sat myself down on a seat adjoining the churchyard path leading from the church gates by the roadside down to the south porch of the church.
While I was having my lunch, something caused me to glance up the path towards the church gates where I saw a little old man – grey jacket and dark trousers – accompanied by an elderly lady who was wearing an old fashioned “pork pie” hat. More than that of her appearance I didn’t take in. I carried on eating my sandwiches. Then suddenly, I remembered that it grew very cold; it was as if a bank of cloud had passed across the sun, which I suppose it might well have done. But, at the same time with regard to the old couple, I was conscious of several things. Firstly, I hadn’t heard the gate at the end of the path either open or close – so what was it that caused me to look up in the first place? And, despite walking on gravel, their feet had made no sound whatsoever. Rather more to the point, what had become of them? They hadn’t passed by me, and from where I was sitting to the gates the path was lined with thick shrubbery, so they could not have left at any point between the gates and myself.
I can offer no satisfactory explanation for any of this, but I have it in mind that – and I don’t know where the idea originated – that the elderly couple had come to tend a grave!
From amongst all the major gales that have imposed themselves on to Norfolk over the years, the 1st September gale of 1833 must rank as the worst. That storm ranged wide over the North Sea and as far south as the English Channel when it wrecked hundreds of ships in the North Sea alone. Out of this undefined figure, over 60 ships were driven on to the County’s coastline alone. Areas inland weren’t safe either; the spires of St Margaret’s and St Nicholas Churches in Kings Lynn were blown down and forty wagon-loads of wreckage were removed from the beaches of Hunstanton and Snettisham. On the following Sunday, 8th September Bell’s ‘Life in London’ looked back at, what was referred to as ‘the great gale’, and recalled:
“……the loss of life and property in all parts of the country presents a dreadful catalogue of calamities, which must fill the minds of our readers with horror………On Monday, the public mind was shocked by the description of the disaster of the most appalling description, and everyday since has produced some new account equally heart-rending”
It was from the accounts written at the time that the public learned of dead bodies floating ashore throughout the storm ” from one end of the Norfolk coast to the other”. Cromer, which sits at the top right-hand edge of Norfolk, collected eighty-four bodies from its beach over two days. They were buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church. East Anglian reports following the storm emphasised the damage to homes, fields and orchards. According to the Cambridge Chronicle, the rain and tide-swollen Ouze River breached its banks and:
“……such was the immense body and impetuosity of the water, that in a few hours, upwards of 1,500 acres of land were laid under water……many acres of standing corn are irretrievably lost and many head of cattle drowned……The damage sustained by the lamentable event has not yet been ascertained, but it is much to be feared that it is to a considerable extent, nor is there any prospect that the water can be got off before the next spring”
Similar accounts from the coast naturally focused on the destruction of ships,crew lives lost and infrastructure damaged. The Times, no less, referred to the coast around Lynn as ‘strewn with vessels, parts of vessels, boats and goods’ Also, in a report unusual for its concern for human life lost, referred to:
” The brig Margaret, Captain Osire……went down on Saturday afternoon, near Whiting Sands and all hands perished. By this awful circumstance there are four women left without husbands, and 22 fatherless children. Better luck attended the crew of the Brig ‘Waterloo’, like ‘Margaret’ carrying a load of coal. After Waterloo went down, the crew ascended the rigging at eight o’clock on Sunday night, and remained lashed in that perilous situation, the sea breaking over them mountains high till one o’clock the next day when they were taken off by fishermen, several of whom manned their boats and succeeded in rescuing eight individuals.”
But, probably. the most tragic tale was that of the Earl of Wemyss, Leith’s Old Shipping Company’s Packet Ship. In common with the Amphitrite, its tragedy became indelibly imprinted in the public’s minds, in part because it revealed men’s failure to behave in an honourable way. The crew and male passengers on board the ,Earl of Wemyss, en route from London to Leith in Scotland, survived the gale off Brancaster, Norfolk, but that the 6 women, one man and 4 children on board drowned. This news was met with the public’s disbelief and anger.
The ships owned by the ‘Old Shipping Company’ of Leith were called ‘White Siders’ to distinguish them from the ships of other trading lines which had a different strip of colour painted on their hulls; the ‘Old Shipping Company’ ships had a white strip. All these companies carried passengers, freight and hauled convicts sentenced to transportation or the home-based hulks from Edinburgh to London, thirty at a time. It was on the 29th August 1833 that the Earl of Weymss (pronounced ‘weemz’) set out from London on a return journey to Scotland. In command was a Captain Henry Nesbit; not the same Captain Nesbit who, almost thirty years earlier had been master of the Old Shipping Company’s smack Queen Charlotte when she was attacked by a French privateer. The successful defence of the Charlotte earned Nesbit a £105 reward from the owners. In 1833 Captain Nesbit of the Earl of Wemyss did not appear to be like the hero of 1804!
Ahead of Captain Nesbit was a 400-mile. plus, passage that could take as little as a few days or as much as 2 weeks. It was stated later, at an inquiry at the Hare Arms in Docking into the ship’s disaster, that the Earl of Wemyss had carried 19 passengers on board, 8 men and 11 women and children, but the Captain’s count did not include some passengers not travelling business class in the salons, but travelling economy in steerage. A substantial amount of cargo was also on board, including bales of hops from Kent. After the wreck, men worked for hours to unload the ship’s hold of the then sodden bales and goods packed inside – apparently, none of it insured.
It was said that late in the afternoon of the Saturday, “a northeaster blew up in the North Sea and continued to freshen until it became a hurricane” However, this was later contradicted by others who were on board who said that the gale had been blowing since 6.00 am that morning, when the ship was off the Spurn Light. By midday on that Saturday the Earl of Wemyss was out of control on seas – “like mountains of snow”, all her canvas was shredded and her stern boat gone. By the Saturday night the ship had lost both anchors in a failed attempt to wait out the storm and found itself aground off Brancaster, Norfolk. An effort early morning of the Sunday to launch another boat failed and soon afterwards the Earl of Wemyss flooded with water from storm-driven seas breaking over the un protected skylights and breaking through the glass, drowning everyone in the women’s cabin below. Those still living rushed out on to the open deck and stated later at a Magistrate’s Inquiry:
” where we found the captain, crew, and steerage passengers secured to the rigging and the winch, We lashed ourselves in the same manner and continued there with the sea breaking over us for about four hours.”
Two weeks later when the Inquiry, convened by the Home Office, took place at the Hare’s Arms in Docking, its brief was to determine ” whether there had been any loss of life by culpable negligence, or loss of property by dishonesty.” Captain Nesbit’s incompetence was made manifest through him missing at least two opportunities to save his passengers. One was a chance to wade ashore early on the Sunday morning when a lull at low water passed, when he misread a nautical almanac and also confused the flow of the tide with its ebb. He then offered ‘fatal advice’ that sent his female passengers and children into their berths. He failed to protect his ship’s four skylights and their chutes through the main deck and into the space below, thus setting up the circumstances for the drownings of the women and children. They were: Mrs. Hamilton, her son, and a lady ; Mrs. Pyne, her daughter, and child ; Mrs. Carmack ; Miss Susanna Roche and a child—all cabin passengers; total, 9. Mrs. Rymer and child, steerage.
The Reverend Holloway of Brancaster testified that Captain Nesbit told him that the ladies were already dead in their cabin and there was no point in rescuing them as they had been there for over four hours. When the bodies were recovered, they were taken to the Church. The Reverend Holloway believed that if the skylights had been battened down the ladies would have been saved – and if they had been rescued earlier their belongings may also have been saved. Statements referring to the dead said that “whilst their bodies were yet warm” they had been stripped of their valuables by Joseph Newman Reeve, son-in-law of the Brancaster Lord of the Manor. Reeve claimed that he had asked people to help get the bodies out of the ship and took the jewellery to “protect them from ‘revolting indignities’ – such as having their fingers cut off to get the rings off them” Reeve claimed that he had kept everything safely; although others claimed he had refused to give the things back and said that they belonged to the Lord of the Manor, who was entitled to everything cast up on the shore. Reeve admitted that he had unwisely opened one bag, belonging the Mrs Pyne, without witnesses, but said that others gave him jewellery to look after.
Reeve was tried in March 1834 at the Norwich assizes before a Judge Vaughan, but escaped conviction on two charges of felony thanks to being represented in court by Sir James Scarlett, a local MP and a famously competent lawyer. He might also have been helped by the still general belief in England, that coastal residents were “the lawful heirs of all drowned persons” and so entitled to the property providence had cast at their feet. A further trial at the Norwich summer assizes in the July of 1834, of the ship’s steward, cook and a local farmer who had been in charge of the wreck, included some very damaging evidence about people who had offered to lie to protect Reeve – but this evidence was dismissed and the jury of the second trial also gave a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Captain Nesbit was dismissed from his role and was ejected by his Guild and all that is left of the wreck of the Earl of Wemyss is a weathered gravestone inscription in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Brancaster:
Sacred to the memory of Susanna Roche, aged
32 years and also to her nephew, Alexander David
Roche, aged 4 years who were unfortunately
drowned with many others in the cabin of the
Earl of Wemyss, Leith Packet which was
stranded on this coast during the dreadful gale
on September 1st 1833 on its passage from London.
Which melancholy affair has been doubly afflicting
for the relatives of the deceased from the fact that no
attempt was ever made to rescue them from their
situation, and in continuation of such inhuman
conduct their persons were stripped of every
valuable and their property plundered.
The tale of the Leith Packet ship Earl of Wemyss combined all the elements to interest readers: evidence of incompetence at sea, the death of innocents and a suspicion of crimes inflicted on the dead. The reason for such persistent coverage by the press was that all the dead came from the same propertied class as did the readers of The Times and The Scotsman. On May 6th, 1834 the rebuilt Earl of Wemyss went back into service, carrying passengers and cargo from Scotland to London, under the command of a Captain Brown. Eventually the ship was replaced in the packet service by steam. The Wemyss, now twenty-five years old, could still be seen at sea 15 years later sailing between Aberdeen and the Baltic.