Norfolk Militia Omnibus

Overview:

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.

Norfolk Militia (Battle of Hastings)
King Harold’s army at the Battle of Hastings (1066) included the fyrd. Photo Copyright: National Army Museum.

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.

Norfolk Militia (Knapsack 1795)
Militia knapsack, about 1795. Copyright; National Army Museum
A knapsack was among the 60-odd pounds of equipment carried by soldiers at this time. It was in these sacks, tied with leather straps, that the men carried their kit. This included items such as shirts, spare shoes, stockings, brushes, a button stick, comb, pen, ink, black ball, pipe clay, and tent pegs.
The design of this piece of equipment changed over time. Until the introduction of the famous ‘Trotter’ black lacquered knapsack, designed by Thomas Trotter of Soho Square in 1805, troops carried a canvas version on their backs, supported by straps (from 1790 to 1805). This canvas type was still worn by militia men who had joined line regiments in the 1815 campaigns.
As in this example, the number of the regiment or volunteer unit to which the wearer belonged was inscribed on the front flap of the knapsack. This one has a badge on a red background including the cypher of King George III, crown and thistles, encircled by the name of the 10th Regiment North Bristol Militia.

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:

Norfolk Militia (Officer 1759)
Officer of the Norfolk Militia, 1759 Photo:WikiVisually 

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.

Norfolk’s Contribution:

Norfolk Militia (Edward_Russell, 1st Earl of Orford)
Admiral of the Fleet Edward Russell, 1st Earl of Orford.

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:

Norfolk Militia ( Geo. Townsend)
George Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend, first Colonel of the 1st Battalion Western Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (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.

Norfolk Militia (Raynham Park)2
View of Raynham Hall showing medieval building and stables on the left, the Hall in the distance and St Mary’s Church on the right. Photo: Copyright of Charles, Viscount Raynham, (Charles George Townshend).
Norfolk Militia (Raynham Park)
Raynham Park, Norfolk. Photo: Courtesy of Francis Frith
Norfolk Militia (Musician)
A musician of the West Norfolk Militia, and the only known image of a West Norfolk Militia uniform in the public domain By Unknown – Antique print., Public Domain, Photo: Wikipedia

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.

Norfolk Militia (Rev. Benjamin Armstrong)
The Reverend Benjamin Armstrong.

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.

Norfolk Militia (West Norfolk Button)
1st or West Norfolk Militia Victorian Officer’s silvered tunic buttons.

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.

Norfolk Militia (Rail Accident 1874)

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”.

Norfolk Militia (Wodehouse)
Sir Armine Wodehouse MP for Norfolk, Colonel of the 2nd Battalion Eastern Regiment of the Norfolk Militia (East Norfolk Militia), at a Review of his Regiment near Norwich,  4th June1759.

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.

Norfolk Militia (East Norfolk Button)
2nd or East Norfolk Militia Victorian Officer’s silvered tunic button Scalloped rim, crowned title strap, castle over lion centrally. Approx 24 mm VGC Shank Firmin & Sons 153 Strand London.

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.

Ireland:

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:

Norfolk Militia (Norman_Cross_painting)
A painting of Norman Cross c1797. Photo: Wikipedia.

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 Navy Transport 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.

Norfolk Militia (Jean De Narde's Grave in Dereham Churchyard)
Jean De Narde’s Grave in the Graveyard of St Nicholas Church, Dereham. Photo: Dereham History.
The memorial reads…….
In memory of Jean De Narde,
Son of a Notary Public of St. Malo;
A French prisoner of war, who, having escaped from the Bell tower of this church, was pursued and shot by a soldier on duty, October 6th, 1799, aged 28 years.
The back of the memorial reads: –
This memorial of his untimely fate has been erected by the Vicar, and two friends who accompanied him on a visit to Paris, as a tribute of courtesy to a brave and generous nation, once our foes, but now our allies and brethren. October, Ainsi soit-it (So be it) 1857.

STORY 1

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.

Norfolk Militia (1822)2

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

Invasion Threat:

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.

Norfolk Militia (East Norfolk Colours)
Ensign and colour sergeant with colours of the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment. 1813 illustration.

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.

Norfolk Militia (3rd Volunteer Battalion 1861)
Oil on canvas by Claude Lorraine Nursey (1820-1873), 1864. Copyright National Army Museum.
Administrative battalions were formed mainly in rural areas, to provide Staff and headquarters facilities for widely scattered Volunteer units. This particular unit was formed in 1861, and in 1883 became the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment.
The painting depicts the battalion encamped at Gunton Park in Norfolk, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Lord Suffield’s family seat.
Norfolk Militia (Gunton Park)
Gunton Park, Norfolk.

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.

Norfolk Militia (P of W reviewing troops)2
Period print of the Prince of Wales reviewing the Norfolk Artillery Militia at Great Yarmouth, June 1872.

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.

Uniform:

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.

STORY 2

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.’

Norfolk Militia (1822)1

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.)

TO BE CONTINUED

Sources:
http://www.derehamhistory.com/norfolk-militia.html
http://www.derehamhistory.com/jean-de-narde—1799.html
https://eastnorfolkmilitia.webs.com/themilitia.htm
http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Norfolk_Militia
https://wikivisually.com/wiki/Militia_(Great_Britain)
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/
https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/civilian-soldiers
http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Gorleston_Barracks
ttps://joemasonspage.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/the-revd-benjamin-armstrong/
Feature Photograph: The Genealogist

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Yarmouth’s Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was the oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne from Great Yarmouth and one of three sisters who, in time, would be accused of witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Out of these three sisters Rebecca would be the second of them to be hanged.

Rebecca Nurse (St Nicholas)
St Nicholas Parish Church,Great Yarmouth, Norfolk  Photo:’Moldovia’ on Wikimedia Commons

Her father, William Towne was baptised on 18 Mar 1598/99 in St. Nicholas Parish Church, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England and his parents were said to be John TOWNE and Elizabeth CLARKE – although, others say that his parents were Richard TOWNE and Ann DENTON. Her mother, Joanna Blessing was born in 1594 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England but there again, others have said that she was born in 1595 in Somerleyton, Suffolk, England to John BLYSSYNGE and Joan PREASTE .

Whatever the true antecedents of these two, William Towne married Joanna BLESSING on 25 Apr 1620 in St. Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth England.  He and his wife remained at Yarmouth long enough to have six children before emigrating to America aboard the ‘Rose of Yarmouth’ with 32 other parishioners; this was sometime around 1640. Among Rebecca’s siblings were Mary Easty (or Eastey, to be arrested 21 April 1692 and hanged on 22 September 1692) and Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse) to be arrested on 4 April 1692 but the case was dismissed January 1693). The Towne family finally settled in America around 1640 to live on a farm in Salem where two more children were born to William and Joanna Blessing.

Four years later, Rebecca met nineteen year old Francis Nurse who was a “tray maker” by trade but more than likely also made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium would have been highly regarded. Rebecca married Francis Nurse on 24 August 1644, after which they went on to live for the next 30 years in the more thickly settled part of Salem, “near Skerry’s” not far from where the bridge crosses to Beverley. During this time they had four sons and four daughters, all but one of them married by the fateful year of 1692. As for Rebecca, she had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community” and became a long standing member of the Salem church; but she was also known for occasionally losing her temper. In 1672, Francis served as Salem’s Constable and was regularly asked to act as unofficial judge to help settle disputes in the village.

Rebecca Nurse (Homestead)2
Rebecca Nurse’s House, built 1636

Rebecca and the Salem Witch Trials

The public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on February 29, 1692. The first accusations were levelled against three women who were not considered very respectable: the Indian slave Tituba, a homeless mother Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne who had a somewhat scandalous history.Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused, and on March 19, Rebecca Nurse found herself accused, despite both being church members and respected community members.

A warrant was issued on March 23 by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin for the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. In the warrant were complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams and others. Rebecca Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Elizabeth Hubbard as well as by Ann Putnam Sr., who “cried out” during the proceedings to accuse Nurse of trying to get her to “tempt God and dye.” When she held her head to one side, those claiming afflictions moved their heads to the side as well “set in that posture.” Rebecca Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft. “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepentant of, that he should lay such an affliction on me in my old age,” she said.

That Sunday was Easter Sunday, which was no particular special Sunday in the Puritan calendar, but with Rebecca Nurse in prison, as were Tituba, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Martha Corey, the Reverend Parris preached on witchcraft. He emphasised that the devil could not take the form of anyone innocent. During the sermon, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca’s sister, left the meetinghouse and slammed the door.

Rebecca Nurse (Towne Sisters)
Caption: “The Towne Sisters”
Plaster statue depicting Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Esty, and Sarah Towne Cloyse, wearing shackles. The statue is located in the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, Salem. Artist: Yiannis Stefinarkis, ca. 1970.

The sequence of events thereafter was that on April 3, Rebecca’s younger sister, Sarah Cloyce, came to Rebecca’s defence…..but was then accused and arrested on April 8. Then on April 21, another of her sisters, Mary Easty, was arrested after defending Rebecca’s innocence. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin then ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Rebecca Nurse and others for acts of witchcraft committed on Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard – and others.

In a deposition, written by Thomas Putnam and signed on May 31, he detailed accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam by the spectres of Rebecca Nurse and Martha. Another deposition detailed accusations of afflictions inflicted by Rebecca Nurse’s spectre.

A Mary Warren testified on June 1, that when she was in prison, George Burroughs, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast at the Parris house, and that when she refused to eat some bread and wine with them, they “dreadfully afflicted her” — and that Rebecca Nurse “appeared in the roome” during the taking of the deposition and afflicted Mary, Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs, and that Philip English appeared and injured Mary’s hand with a pin.

On June 2, at 10 in the morning, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in its first session. Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good were forced to undergo a physical examination of their bodies by a doctor with a number of women present. A “preternatural excrescence of flesh” was reported on the first three. Nine women signed the document attesting to the examination. A second exam that day at 4 in the afternoon stated that several of the physical abnormalities they saw in the morning had changed; they attested that on Rebecca Nurse, the “excrescence …… appears only as a dry skin without sense” at this second examination. Again, nine women’s marks are on the document. A grand jury indicted Rebecca Nurse for witchcraft on June 3.

On July 3, the Salem church excommunicated Rebecca Nurse.

Rebecca Nurse (Brought in Chains)
Caption: “The sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped.”
This drawing illustrates a scene in John Musick’s book The Witch of Salem in which Rebecca Nurse is brought in chains to the meeting house where the Rev. Nicholas Noyes pronounces her excommunication before the congregation.
Source: The Witch of Salem or Credulity Run Mad. By John R. Musick. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1893: 275. Artist: F. A. Carter. Source: Photograph by Benjamin C. Ray, 2001

Rebecca’s trial started on June 30 1692. Banned from having a lawyer, she represented herself and 39 villagers appeared on her behalf as character witnesses; her accusers broke into fits as they spoke about their claims and the so-called “spectral evidence” was deemed to be relevant. Regardless of this, Rebecca was found not guilty and there was an immediate outcry – the girls fell into prolonged fits and spasms, the public bayed for blood and the judges asked the jury to reconsider. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the verdict was changed and Nurse was sentenced to death on July 19 1692. However, another twist came into play; in light of urgent pleas from Rebecca’s family and abundant evidence of her good character, Sir William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts granted Nurse a reprieve – then he withdrew it despite Rebecca filing a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was “something hard of hearing, and full of grief.”! On July 12, William Stoughton signed the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds and they were all hanged on July 19, followed by her sister who was tried and hanged on September 22 1692. Sarah Good cursed the presiding clergyman, Nicholas Noyes, from the gallows, saying “if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” – Years later, Noyes died unexpectedly, haemorrhaging from the mouth!

Rebecca Nurse (Trial, Museum)
Caption: “Trial of Rebecca Nurse”
Diorama depicting the trial of Rebecca Nurse, shown seated in the dock at the right, the magistrates in the center, and the “afflicted” girls at the left.
Source: 35mm slide © Salem Witch Museum, 1999.

By October, with 20 people executed and 150 more men, women and children accused, the hysteria began to die down and the tide of public opinion turned against the trials. Sarah was released and later given nine gold sovereigns in compensation for her imprisonment and her sisters’ deaths.

Francis Nurse was to die on 22 November 1695, after the witch trials had been ended (in 1693) but before Rev. Parris finally left Salem Village and before the 1711 reversal of attainder bill that also gave some compensation to Rebecca Nurse’s heirs. In 1697, 12 members of the jury made a public apology, admitting they had been “sadly deluded and mistaken”. On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., in formally joining the Salem Village church, publicly apologized “for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons…” She named Rebecca Nurse specifically and publicly confessed her contrition for her part in the trials. Her excuse – That Satan made her do it! In 1712, Salem church reversed its excommunication of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.

Rebecca Nurse (illustration-by-Howard-Pyle-1907)
“The Lord knows that I haven’t hurt them” illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Howard Pyle, published in “Dulcibel: A tale of old Salem” by Henry Peterson, circa 1907
Inscription: “Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands….”

Arthur Miller’s Play “The Crucible”:

Rebecca Nurse (the-crucible)
“The Crucible” Thurston Hopkins / Getty Images

Rebecca Nurse is a central character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and in a Crucible Character Study of Rebecca Nurse Wade Bradford stated:

“If there is one character in “The Crucible” that everyone can love and sympathise with, it is Rebecca Nurse. She could be anyone’s grandmother, the woman you would never speak foul of or intend to hurt in any way. And yet, in Arthur Miller‘s tragic play, sweet Rebecca Nurse is one of the last victims of the Salem Witch Trials.

Nurse’s unfortunate end coincides with the curtain that closes this play, even though we never see it happen. The scene in which she and John Proctor head to the gallows is heartbreaking. It is the punctuation mark on Miller’s commentary on ‘witch hunts’ whether they be in 1690s Salem or the 1960s round up of alleged communists in America which prompted his writing this play.

Rebecca Nurse puts a face to the accusations and it is one that you cannot ignore. Can you imagine your grandmother being called out as a witch or a communist? If John Proctor is the tragic hero, Rebecca Nurse is the tragic victim of “The Crucible.” She is the saintly character of the play. Whereas John Proctor has many flaws, Rebecca seems angelic. She is a nurturing soul, as seen when she tries to comfort the sick and the fearful in Act One. She is a grandmother who exhibits compassion throughout the play.

  • Wife of Francis Nurse.
  • A sensible and pious older woman held in the highest regard in Salem.
  • Self-confident and compassionate and as the last act demonstrates, the humblest of all the characters.

When convicted of witchcraft, a humble Rebecca Nurse refuses to bear false witness against herself and others. She would rather hang than lie. She comforts John Proctor as they are both led to the gallows. “Let you fear nothing! Another judgment waits us all!”

Nurse also utters one of the more subtle and realistic lines of the play. As the prisoners are led to the gallows, Rebecca stumbles. This provides a dramatically tender moment when John Proctor catches her and helps her to her feet. She is a bit embarrassed and says, “I’ve had no breakfast.” This line is so unlike any of the turbulent speeches of the male characters, or the vehement replies of the younger female characters.

Rebecca Nurse has much she could complain about. Anyone else in her situation would be consumed with fear, sorrow, confusion, and rage against the evils of society. Yet, Rebecca Nurse merely blames her faltering on a lack of breakfast. Even at the brink of execution, she exhibits not a trace of bitterness, but only the sincerest humility. Of all the characters from “The Crucible,” Rebecca Nurse is the most benevolent. Her death increases the tragedy of the play.

Rebecca Nurse (Memorial)
Description: Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected 1885. Located in the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery, Danvers, Massachusetts. The inscription on the monument reads: Rebecca Nurse, Yarmouth, England 1621. Salem, Mass., 1692. “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.” From the poem “Christian Martyr,” by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Source: Photograph by Benjamin C.. Ray, 2001
Rebecca Nurse (Family Assoc.)
Description: Nurse Family Association, dedication of the Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected July, 1885. The tall granite memorial is located in the cemetery of Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Massachusetts
Source: Photograph, courtesy of the Danvers Archive Collection.

THE END

Sources:
https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-crucible-rebecca-nurse-analysis
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Nurse
https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-proctor-about-3529972
http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/nursepics.html
http://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-trial-of-rebecca-nurse/
https://www.anamericanfamilyhistory.com/Towne%20Family/TowneRebeccaNurse.html
https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/salem-witch-trials
https://minerdescent.com/2010/05/18/william-towne/
http://familypedia.wikia.com/wiki/Francis_Nurse_(1618-1695)

 

An Odd Little Station!

There is a railway station in Norfolk that is more than a little odd. Its history is odd; its size and shape is odd and where it is located is odd. So, what makes this particularly station odd, over and above the established ritual that passengers are expected to go through when they alight there – and when they leave! We are talking here about the Berney Arms Station on the often windswept Halvegate Marshes.

Berney Arms Station
Berney Arms Station: The train will not stop unless someone on board has asked to be dropped off.

Why not start with the station’s platform, which is too short to accommodate the small two-coach train which stops on request on its way to and from Great Yarmouth (Vauxhall). Then there is the platform’s tiny wooden hut which, quite frankly should be labelled “Room for one person only”. Inside, there is a very informative map of the area which, with the aid of a pointer tells, you, “You are here”. Next to this very helpful statement someone once wrote: “In the middle of nowhere” – and that is just how you will feel if you ever get off at Berney Arms station. There is no road there, not even a track, but in a northerly direction you will see a path which is part of the Weaver’s Way which will take you, given time and stamina, to the north coast at Cromer. To the south there’s a grassy track which leads to the waterside.

Berney Arms Station2

Should you feel inclined to venture forth on the basis of the information so far imparted, be also prepared to attract a degree of attention from those on the train, a few of which would never dream of following when you alight. But, it’s a fair bet that they would think that you were off to go to the Berney Arms pub. This pub, by the way, is not beside the station but a good three quarters of a mile walk away! So, What’s the point?

Berney Arms Marshes (by Ian Dinmore)3
Halvergate Marshes – Nothingness! Photo by Ian Dinmore.

This is a very pertinent question, bearing in mind that there are plenty of decent pubs close by in Yarmouth – in the opposite direction of course. But this sort of question has been asked ever since the Berney Arms station was created in the mid 18th century. Then, and ever since the assumption has been that the station was built because the pub was there – simply not true! The Berney Arms station is there because the original landowner, Thomas Trench Berney, would not sell to the railway company unless a station was put there “in perpetuity”.

Berney Arms (cottages_1969)
Station Cottages
The station cottages were built around the same time as the railway in the 1840’s. One of the rooms was used as the Post Office, rail ticket office and waiting room. The shot was taken in March 1969 shortly before demolition.
(Taken from the book “Berney Arms: Past & Present” courtesy of the author, Sheila Hutchinson.)

So, a station was built, along with a row of cottages alongside, one of whose rooms served as the ticket office. But right from the very beginning of the station’s operation, very few people used it; so much so that within a decade from the station opening, the rail company announced that its trains would no longer stop there. Hey! – what about our agreement? protested Berney at the time; to which the railway company replied “Our promise was that the station would be there in perpetuity; we did not promise that our trains would stop there in perpetuity. There was, of course, much acrimony over this before it was finally ruled that one train in each direction should stop at that point on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. For this change, Berney was paid £250 as compensation.

Berney Arms (lamps_1953)
Lighting the Lamps
An atmospheric shot taken in 1953, showing station mistress Violet Mace lighting the oil lamp on the station platform.
(Taken from the book “Berney Arms: Past & Present” courtesy of the author, Sheila Hutchinson.)

From then and until the mid 1990s, the station seemed timeless, still retaining the old wooden name board from Great Eastern days, on top of which a lamp was mounted. Against the sign stood a short metal runged ladder allowing access to the lamp. The platform was lined with old sleepers which had seen better days and its surface was shingled and rough. From the beginning of the second millennium, the platform still looked the same but just about everything else went, replaced by the standard Anglia Railways metal name board.

The service of course runs daily, to and from Berney Arms station, with several trains a day and sometimes more on Sundays. The well established custom also continues, namely, that the train will stop at the Berney Arms Station but only if requested to do so. All the passenger has to do on the outward journey is warn the conductor in sufficient time. Returning home, however, requires a different procedure for the passenger, that of waving energetically to the driver of the oncoming train as soon as it comes into sight and approaches the station.

Berney Arms Windmill (by Ian Dinmore)
Berney Arms Windmill Photo by Ian Dinmore.

So, having stepped from the train on to the platform, what can you do to while away the three-hours at your disposal before you take the return train back to Norwich? There is, of course, little option other than to take a walk along the grass path that runs south of the railway – towards the waterside and the pub. It is the same path that takes you first to the Berney Arms windmill, which is sometimes open to the public. From there, you have two options; either walking eastwards, which follows the river towards Yarmouth or, walking in the opposite direction towards Halvegate. Either way, there will be boats chugging by and many water birds massed on the edge until you approach when, in domino fashion, they will dive into the river at the first sound of your feet. Butterflies seemingly will take no notice as they flit in and out the foliage and ground cover. Above there will ornithological specimens of various kinds coming and going. Beyond these meadows and the grazing cows you will not fail to notice the distant A47 highway traffic scudding along, symbolising the kind of world you probably had come here to get away from. As in almost a complete contrast, the walk west towards to Reedham is even better: little disturbance here, only passing boats and the occasional swoop of swans crash landing and then, ritually, adjusting their attire of wet feathers.

Berney Arms Pub2
Berney Arms Public House

Then, there is the Berney Arms pub, all brown, homely and cosy inside, ready to quench the thirst of a long walk – but watch the clock and time your return to the station. With whatever time you have left, enjoy the company of fellow walkers, and if you choose to sit outside you can watch the multifarious activities on the water. The boats ritually dislodge their holidaymakers, they and the crews in search of a pie and a pint or two. Then there are those people, regularly seen on a Broads holiday, who find it impossible to look anything other than habitual landlubbers but intent on establishing their credentials by shouting commands which incorporate such seafarer words as “ahoy”!

It will remain a safe bet that whilst drinking in the Berney Arms there will be someone who will say “I always wanted to come here”. Equally, if that person is then asked if they knew of any other station in England as odd as the one three-quarter’s of a mile back up that grassy path, the answer would be somewhat vague at best. So, what’s the point of the Berney Arms station? Well, for those who come across it, either by accident or intent, it deserves to survive ‘in perpetuity’, as a kind of therapy for stressed out urbanites who just wish to get away! But goodness knows what they would do if it rains.

THE END

Sources:

http://www.berneyarms.co.uk/html/berneyarms/railway/berney_railway1.htm
http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/blog/2015/09/the-wherrymans-way-berney-arms-to-reedham/

  • Note: Norfolk Tales & Myths does not claim credit for any photographs displayed in this article.

Breydon Water: A Step Back in Time!

Approximately one-hundred and twelve years ago, William Dutt wtote, in his book ‘Norfolk’ a charming account of his stay with a friend in his houseboat named the ‘Moorhen’ on Breydon Water; Dutt titled this account ‘A Night on Breydon’. Now is your opportunity to return with him and view this section on the Broads as he saw it – at a time when life generally was, to our minds today, forged at a much less hurried pace. Those of you who know the Breydon area, may judge that little has changed from Dutt’s time there – but there again, maybe you will feel that much has!

************

No lover of wild life should leave Norfolk without exploring Breydon Water, a wide expanse of ooze flat and tidal water lying inland of Yarmouth. Breydon Water, or Breydon, as it is generally known is the estuary of the three principal Broadland rivers, the Yare, Bure, and Waveney. Its length from Yarmouth Haven Bridge to Berney Arms is about four and a half miles, and its width about a mile in its widest part. Seen under whatever aspect, it presents a striking appearance, whether its flats are steaming under a mid-day summer sun or its waste of waters is reflecting the ruddy glow of sunset. There is still something primeval about it and except for the artificial barriers which have been built to protect the marshes from its tides, it must present much the same aspect now as it did when, as a vaster estuary, it occupied the entire valley of the surrounding lowlands. It can have altered little since the days when the Iceni crept out in their coracles upon its waters, and the Romans, who built the massive fortress at its upper end, signalled across it to their camp at Caister.

Breydon Water (Berney Arms)
Ariel view of Breydon Water and the Berney Arms Inn (centre)

I think I cannot give a better idea of Breydon than by describing a visit paid to its tidal waters towards the end of August 1899, when I accepted an invitation from a well-known Norfolk naturalist, Mr A. Patterson, to spend a night with him in his house-boat the ‘Moorhen’. We left Yarmouth shortly after mid-day, starting from a characteristic Breydon boathouse, with its eel-spears, butt-darts, fish boxes, punt sails, and bobbing poles, in a typical Breydon punt. Visitors to the Broadland soon become familiar with boats of this description, which, however, often differ slightly, according to the taste and fancy of the owner. Our boat was better constructed than most of them, having been specially designed to meet the requirements of a naturalist. Space economy was one of its special features. It was flat-bottomed, decked-in fore and aft, and had a roomy central “well.” It carried a lug sail, and had a rudder instead of the customary sculling rowlock.

Breydon Water (Houseboat - Broadland Memories)
This is as close as we can get to showing the sort of Broad’s Houseboat as described by William Dutt. (For illustration only)

The sea itself could scarcely have presented a wider outlook than did Breydon when we commenced our inland voyage, for the tide was at flood and all the flats were submerged. In a little while, however, the ebb set in, and one by one the flats, instead of being wholly hidden, became simply awash, so that the succulent water weed locally known as ” widgeon grass,” which grows freely upon them, began to fall in matted masses on the mud. Then we saw our first signs of wild life in the shape of a bunch of knots which, uttering their musical note, came flying towards us over the water. An Arctic tern also came within a few yards of us, and some ringed plovers settled on a “rising” flat.

Breydon Water (widgeon grass)
The Widgeon Grass scientific name is Ruppia Maritima. It is a shallow water plant. It typically grows to depths of less than five meters in ponds, lakes, rivers and streams. Because it can tolerate salty and alkaline water, it is often also found in tidal flats, estuaries and salt pens.

 

Breydon Water (Rotting Hulks)
A Rotting Hulk on the Norfolk Broads. Norfolk Broads Forum

After a pleasant sail, during which we passed several stranded and rotting hulks, and the floating headquarters of “Ducker” Chambers, the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society’s watcher, we arrived at the ‘Moorhen’ a snug and well-fitted-up little houseboat in which my friend often lives the life of a water gipsy. She was moored in a creek on the north-west side of Breydon, near Banham’s Farm, the home of a handsome, fair-haired, blue-eyed, marshland farmer, in whose veins is the blood of the Vikings. Several other houseboats were to be seen not far away, belonging to local gunners and fishermen. My friend’s, however, was the only naturalist’s houseboat on Breydon, and both in situation and convenience was admirably suited to his work. Behind it stretched mile after mile of level marshland, intersected by the winding waterways of the Broadland; in front were hundreds of acres of ooze flats, to which the curlews were just returning, and on which the gulls were settling to feed on crabs and flounders. Sea asters were blooming on the shores of the creek, and whenever we emerged from the cabin we inhaled the fragrance of sea southernwood, dense masses of which grew all along the ” walls.”

 

Breydon Water (Berney Arms Inn-BroadsNet)
The Berney Arms Inn

As the weather was warm we lit a fire on the side of the wall and boiled our kettle there. A cup of tea and a pipe made us supremely happy, and after a few minutes’ chat with the Norseman, who, glad to exchange a few remarks with a human being, strolled down to us from his farm, we set out on a ramble along the walls towards Berney Arms. A bunch of eight common sandpipers rose from the foot of the wall as we neared one of the drainage windmills, and we counted thirty-two curlews in a flock which came over from the marshes. The year 1899 was a good one for curlews – at any rate so far as Norfolk was concerned, for we saw more there then than we had seen for many years.

Breydon Water (Common Sandpiper)
A Common Sandpiper

Sunset on Breydon is often a sight to be remembered, but that night, as we were moored on the north-west side, we saw the sun sink, not into the water, but beyond the far off horizon of the marshes. It kindled a glorious glow among the fleecy cloud-drift, and for a few too brief moments it seemed as though the western sky were afire. The suggestion of a vast conflagration was emphasised by the mist which rose out of the dykes and creeks at sundown, and drifted like smoke across the lowlands. A quarter of an hour later land and water were hidden by a dense fog, which had a disturbing effect upon the fowl on the flats, for as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’ we heard an almost incessant clamouring of gulls, curlews, and smaller shore birds. As long as the fog lasted the fowl continued to call, chatter, and whistle ; but there were periods of comparative silence, when the fog lifted for a while and the flats were lit up by the moonlight. Most of the gulls were black-headed gulls, but now and again we distinguished the laka-laha of a “saddle-back.” After we closed our cabin door a heron flapped down close to the house-boat and at intervals shouted ” Frank ” across the flats.

Breydon Water Sunset
Sunset over Breydon Water, Norfolk

I was in no hurry to sleep that night, for my companion possesses a fund of interesting information and reminiscences, and has much to say about the wild life of Breydon. We talked together of the times, remembered by some of the older gunners, when the flats were often white with fowl, and that ardent naturalist, Mr E. T. Booth, brought from them some of his rarest and finest birds. There are still a few punt-gunners on Breydon in autumn and winter, but the Wild Birds Protection Acts have made it impossible for them to gain a livelihood by gunning alone. They complain, too, that nothing like such quantities of fowl visit the flats as in former days; but it must be borne in mind that of late years we have experienced several mild winters, and only comparatively small numbers of  birds have been driven southward in search of food.

Breydon Water (Punt Gunning)
Punt Gunning

The last time we had a severe winter Breydon and the Norfolk marshes were alive with wild fowl, and there is little reason to doubt that under like circumstances just such flocks will come to us again. As to the Breydon smelt-fishers, whose house-boats are moored where the Yare and Waveney unite and form the estuary, the decreasing depth of the water and the making-up of the flats has had much to do with rendering theirs an unprofitable occupation. An old broadsman whom I know can remember the time when the wherries could sail over what are now called Burgh Flats, and he tells me that these flats “made-up” four inches in one year. Smelting was once such a paying business that the fishermen ran all sorts of risks in defying the River Commissioners and police during the close season. But although smelt-fishing on Breydon has seen its best days, there are still several methods by which the Breydoners profit by the time they spend on their home waters. Eels abound in the mud of the flats, and the eel-picker is often at work with his spear ; butt-darting is a favourite sport, and trawling for butts and flounders and dredging for mussels are resorted to by some men desirous of earning an honest penny. It is impossible to record here one half of the subjects discussed as we sat in the ‘Moorhen’s’ lamp-lit cabin and listened to the cries of the fowl and the lapping of the tide.

Breydon Water (Smelt Fishing 1906)
Smelt Fishing on Breydon Water, Norfolk

When at length we stretched ourselves out on the cushioned settles to sleep, we found our minds still occupied with the matters upon which we had discoursed, and not a few amusing incidents of life on the tidal waters were recalled. My friend suddenly remembered how one night, while in his house-boat, he had tried to sleep, but found it impossible, owing to the uneasiness of his couch. After tossing restlessly to and fro for hours, he recollected that he had placed under his thin mattress two saws and a hammer! I, myself, while occupying a water-bailiff’s houseboat, had been kept awake all night by the singing of the sedge and reed warblers in the riverside reed beds. On another occasion my companion had been considerably startled by the violent rocking of the ‘Moorhen’ and discovered that it was due to the attentions of a horse, which was amusing itself by rubbing against the edge of the roof. No such disturbing incident occurred that night, however, though we were now and again aroused by the roar of a punt-gun, which proved that in spite of the close season extending for another week some gunner was already after the fowl.

Breydon Water (Daybreak-David Dane)

Morning dawned upon a cloudy sky and misty earth; but the sunlight soon broke through the clouds, dispelled the mists, and the roofs of Yarmouth were seen, at first dimly and then distinctly, across the water. We opened our cabin door carefully, not knowing what strange visitors might be in our neighbourhood, and were rewarded by catching a glimpse of five sheldrakes paddling in a goose-like fashion near the boat, and a small flock of wild ducks some distance away. The flats, often so unsightly under a lowering sky, were transfigured by the sunlight, which here and there streaked them with glistening bars of greenish gold. The far-spreading marshlands, too, with their many windmills, isolated homesteads, innumerable cattle, and abundant bird life, presented a very pleasing picture, and reminded me of what a somewhat neglected Yarmouth historian wrote, some forty years ago, concerning Breydon and its surroundings. He said,

Breydon Water (Sheldrake Duck)
Shelldrake Duck

“There is a peculiar charm in the contemplation of these wide and fertile vales, under the ever-changing aspects of sun and sky, with all their subtle gradations of light and shade. Raised above the river’s banks, the eye takes in a landscape which has that true and powerful element of the sublime — wide expanse — above us soars a vast o’er-arching canopy, and below is the bright glancing stream, flowing through a rich Champaign country, and as it gleams cheerily in the clear bright sunny air, filling the soul with an infectious gladness : anon the clouds are flinging down their flickering shadows as we flit past, now in sunshine, now in shade. . . . Here are rich poetical landscapes equalling aught of the great Dutch masters, tranquil cattle pieces worthy of Paul Potter, sunny Cuyps, romantic Hobbimas, gloomy Ruysdaels, moon-lit Aert Van Der Neers.”

After breakfast we walked across the marshes to the banks of the Bure, arriving, after an hour’s easy strolling, at Mautby Swim, where lives Fred Smith, an intelligent millman who is also an enthusiastic sportsman and observer of wild life. Although still only a young man, he can boast of having shot no less than nine spoonbills. One of these is said to be the finest specimen ever procured in England; and judging from an excellent photograph in Smith’s possession, I should say there are grounds for the assertion.

Breydon Water (Spoonbill)
Spoonbills in Norfolk. Rare Bird Alert

In addition to a stuffed kingfisher, which unfortunately is too common a feature of the marshman’s home, the millman pointed out to me a white-tailed starling and a handsome merlin. Among the rare birds which have fallen to him of late years were a broad-billed sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus) only about half a dozen of which species have been taken in England, and four of these on Breydon; and a pectoral sandpiper (Heteropygia maculata) an American species. About two months before the date of my visit he had seen a roller (Coracias garrulus) at Mautby. One of his especial bird friends is a winged hooded crow, which, on account of its injury, is unable to re-cross the North Sea, and has frequented the marshes in all seasons for two or three years. Ramblers on the marshes and voyagers on the Bure will do well to pay a visit to the picturesque home of this entertaining marshlander, if only to climb the tower of his windmill and view the surrounding country. There was formerly a wild-fowl decoy at Mautby, but it is now disused. Plenty of good fishing may be had in the neighbourhood, especially at Stracey Arms, where, in all probability, a railway station will soon be built. Mautby is about seven miles from Yarmouth and two and a half miles from Acle.

 

Shortly after two o’clock we started on our homeward voyage, following the winding of the walls instead of crossing the flats. We had not gone far before we saw something which reminded us of a cruel and stupid practice of some of the summer season cruisers on these inland waters. I refer to the useless and unsportsmanlike shooting at gulls which, even if they are hit, can only be left to die on the flats. As we glided along by the flint-faced wall a bird dragged itself up the stones and hid amongst the coarse sea grasses. My companion jumped ashore, and in a few moments returned with a winged black-headed gull, which he took home and placed in an aviary rather than leave to the mercy of the Breydon rats. The local gunners seldom waste their powder and shot upon gulls, and it is a pity that yachtsmen, who cannot leave their yachts and venture upon the flats to get the birds they shoot, do not refrain from this questionable sport.

Breydon Water (Punt Gunning)2
Punt Gunn.

Near a couple of quaint little houseboats we encountered a typical Breydoner in his gun-punt. In a few days he would probably be prowling about in search of fowl; and even though the 1st September had not yet arrived, the long-barrelled, pistol-stock gun pointing over his boat’s bow looked as if it might go off accidentally should a bunch of fowl settle on a flat. Apparently he wished us to understand that he was engaged in the harmless occupation of collecting driftwood; but he seemed to have his eyes open for other things than stray fish boxes and floating timbers. He was an elderly man, and no doubt could call to mind many days of exciting sport, when the flats were almost hidden by fowl, and the discharge of his murderous-looking gun filled the air with wheeling and crying birds which left a score or more of their kind lying dead or dying on the ooze.

By four o’clock we were back in Yarmouth, and I was saying good-bye to the friend to whom I was indebted for such a delightful holiday. If any reader is desirous of spending just such another he cannot do better than communicate with Mr A. Patterson, who of all the Norfolk naturalists knows most about Breydon, and than whom none is more ready to assist and impart information to a kindred spirit.

THE END

Sources:

Taken from WILLIAM A. DUTT’s book ‘Norfolk’, Edited by George A. B. Dewar and published by J. M. Dent & Co. Aldine House, Bedford Street, London W.C (circa 1906).
https://archive.org/stream/norfolk01dutt/norfolk01dutt_djvu.txt

Horsford’s Little Hero.

In the graveyard of All Saints Church in Horsford, Norfolk lies a very young person of mystery who clearly had received a heroes burial from those who thought highly of him. One may well ask what his qualities might have been in life and what had he done to deserve such a place in the memories of others. His gravestone, name and inscription raises so many questions but few answers. In this day and age one can only speculate!

All we have is the inscription on his headstone. It tells us clearly that his name was John Pirsins, he was 13 years old and he had died from wounds received at the Battle of Camperdown which took place on 11th October 1797. John Pirsins had survived, and presumably suffered, for five weeks before giving in to the inevitable. His gravestone states the following:

All Saints Church, Horsford 093
Sacred to the memory of John Pirsins aged 13 years who died the 18th Day of November 1797 in consequence of the wounds he received on board His Majesty’s Ship Triumph the 11th of October in the action fought between the British and Bativian fleets off Camperdown. This stone is erected by his messmates as a tribute due to his early valour.

Where does one start in trying to identify this young lad and his circumstances. For a start, take his name – John Pirsins. In the 18th century, one in four seamen were apparently named ‘John’, this may have been their baptismal name or the one the authorities or mates would bestow in the absence of a known name. Then there is the surname which is a rare, so rare that one may well construe that it came about in error. How come is the obvious question? Well – John, let’s assume this to be correct, appears to have been a rural lad from the heart of the Norfolk countryside and he left home to join the British Navy. Literacy, at the time, was not a strong point in either area of occupation, so when it came to registering one’s name, the presence of illiteracy, local dialects and unclear pronunciation came into play: “Name”. “John Parsons (Pirsins) Sir” Who knows, but the surname stuck!

Did John Pirsins really come from the lower classes, or did he have connections with a higher status from where favours were often bestowed on family members and friends? Take the the quality of the gravestone as another faint clue. It is clear that the stone, and the skill required to inscribe it, would not have come cheap. Whilst it is commendable that more than a few of his mess-mates had, apparently, rallied round to find the money to erect such a monument in his honour, one wonders if they, in turn, were helped by a sponsor? Did this someone, as a possible favour to his parents, also have taken John on board ship as, maybe, an officer’s servant with intentions for him to be trained as an able seaman if not midshipman? – just like Horatio Nelson some 25 years earlier. But then, if all this was true then would not his surname and connections be better known today? Crucially, does any of this fit? Did John Pirsins enlist on his own volition because he wanted an adventure? Where did he join his first ship and at what level was he recruited? Two options stand out – did he become a Cabin Boy and/or a Powder Monkey?

Horsford Hero (Cabin Boy)1
18th Century Cabin Boy undertaking one of his many duties aboard ship.

As Cabin Boy, he just about fitted the criteria with regard to his age. In this role he would have been expected to undertake a variety of day-to-day duties; these would have included waiting on the officers and passengers of a ship and especially running errands for the captain. He would also have been expected to help the cook in the ship’s galley and carry buckets of food to the forecastle where the ordinary seamen ate. Then there was running from one end of the ship to the other carrying messages and becoming familiar with the sails, lines and ropes and the use of each in all sorts of weather – and that was not all. He would have had to be able to scramble up the rigging into the yards whenever the sails had to be trimmed and occasionally stand watch, like other crewmen, or act as helmsman in good weather and holding the wheel to keep the ship steady on her course. Then, in times of battle, he may well have been expected to undertake the role of ‘Powder Monkey’.

As a powder monkey, or powder boy, John Pirsins would not have held any official naval rank but would have been employed to man naval artillery guns as a member of a warship’s crew. His chief role would be to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges; this practice was designed to minimise the risk of fires and explosions. One can assume that he would have been selected for the job for his both his speed and height. If so, then John Pirsins was a short individual, in order for him to move more easily in the limited space between decks. As a powder monkey John would have had the comfort of knowing that being hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, kept him from being shot at by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. However, he would have been as vulnerable as the rest of the crew in situations where the ship was hit by heavy cannon fire. Is that what happen when he was mortally wounded?

Horsford Hero (Powder Monkey)1

If John Pirsins had, indeed, been a powder monkey then it is more than likely that he had come from the poor working classes. The Marine Society that encouraged youths to join the British Royal Navy did so by providing clothes, bedding, and a rudimentary education once they had enlisted. In the mid-1790’s it is estimated that the Society was sending five or six hundred boys a year to the fleet, although not all of these boys became powder monkeys. Of the boys who were recruited; most had no other option than to join the navy as their parents could not afford to raise them. However a significant number had familial ties to the sea by having cousins, fathers, and even grandfathers who were, or had been, sailors. These role models made youngsters want to continue family traditions and exploit their sense of adventure. So, does any of the foregoing detail fit with our John Pirsins? As things are, we know much more about the Battle of Camperdown of 1797 and HMS Triumph, on which John Pirsins enlisted and became a hero.

HMS Triumph:

HMS Triumph was a Large Type, 74 gun, third rate ship of the line, built at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich. She, together with her sister-ship HMS Valiant were the prototypes, re-designed from the ground up for the Royal Navy. Their descendants would become by far the most numerous type of ship in the Royal Navy and would form the backbone of the Royal Navy’s battle-fleets until well into the 19th Century. But, what was significant about these two ships was not the long list of significant naval battles they fought in, or that they were commanded by any particularly famous or infamous naval officers, but the political machinations which led to their being ordered, designed and built.

 

During the Second Hundred Years War, and specifically in the 1730’s, the French began to introduce a new type of ship of the line, one carrying 74 guns on two gun decks. The British soon found that these new French ships were bigger, faster, more manoeuvrable and more heavily armed than their own. Something had to be done, but the British, were struggling with their own naval departmental problems which were rather more political than tactical or technological. Two departments existed with different aims and responsibilities which were the cause of much procrastination, delays and poor designs which, for several years, failed to produce anything that matched up to those of the French.

Horsford Hero (HMS Invincible)1
The former French 74-gun ship L’Invincible. After capture it was renamed HMS Invincible.

Then, on 14th May 1747 at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre, the British captured one of the finest of the French 74-gun ships, L’Invincible. On being taken into British service, L’Invincible was found to be capable of up to 16 knots in ideal sailing conditions; a good three knots faster than the best of her British counterparts. It was also found that in ideal sailing conditions, she could open her lower gun-ports, well clear of the water. As a direct result, the Admiralty began to pressure the Navy Board to do something about it, ideally, to produce a British 74-gun ship along the lines of the French ones. But habits die hard and it was not until the old guard in the Navy Board had either died or had been pensioned off that the situation began to improve. That did not begin until the mid-1750’s when more enlightened men were employed, led by a Thomas Slade. However, even under new management, nothing would be achieved until the Navy Board gave in to the Admiralty’s continuing pressure for two new ships which, essentially, had to be direct copies of L’Invincible but adapted for British use. The first , HMS Valiant was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and launched on 10th August 1759. On the other hand, HMS Triumph was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich where, despite its keel section being laid on 21st May 1757 was not launched into the great River Thames until Saturday 3rd March 1764 – long before our John Pirsins was even born.

Horsford Hero (HMS Triumph)4

On completion, HMS Triumph was an enormous ship for what she was. Very nearly as big as a first rate ship, HMS Triumph was 171ft 3in long on her upper gundeck and 138ft 8in long in her keel. She was 49ft 9in wide across her beams and her hold (between the orlop deck and the bottom of the ship) was 21ft 3in deep. Fully loaded, HMS Triumph was a ship of 1,825 tons. She was armed with twenty-eight 32-pounder long guns on her lower gun deck, thirty 24-pounder long guns on her upper gun deck, fourteen 9-pounder long guns on her quarterdeck and two 9-pounder long guns on her forecastle. She was manned by a crew of around 650 officers, men, boys and Royal Marines.

HMS Triumph had taken almost seven years to be built as opposed to the three years or so which the construction of a ship like her would be expected to take. This meant that by the time HMS Triumph was completed, the war for which she had been built was over and the Royal Navy rushed to pay off the great first and second rate ships of the line. It would fall to ships like HMS Triumph to provide the heavy firepower for the peacetime navy until May 1766 when the ship was commissioned into the Channel Fleet only to find that by the 11th December of the same year she was paid off and went into the ‘Ordinary’ at Chatham for the next five years.

Horsford Hero (Suckling)1
Captain Suckling

Then in January 1771, HMS Triumph was recommissioned under Captain Hugh Pigot as part of Britains response to the Falklands Crisis of 1770 and went into the Royal Dockyard to be fitted for sea. Captain Pigot left the ship just three months later, having made sure that her Midshipmen’s berth was fully occupied and the ship was fully manned. This meant that when Captain Suckling took command of the ship, there were no vacancies for Midshipmen. In turn, this meant that his young nephew was forced to take up a position as his cabin servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. His young nephew had briefly served in Suckling’s previous command, HMS Raisonnable, as a midshipman because Suckling had been able to man that ship from scratch. The young boy, who was aged just 12 when he joined his uncle aboard HMS Triumph, was Horatio Nelson.

Horsford Hero (Midshipman Nelson)1

For clarification, it should be explained that Nelson’s role on HMS Triumph would have been as a ‘Midshipman in Ordinary’; for although the ship had her quota of Midshipmen aboard, and there was no room for the young Horatio aboard in an official role, the captain was entitled to have up to a dozen servants. For that reason, they often took boys of friends, family and anyone else they owed a favour to or were doing a favour for, aboard as Midshipmen-in-Ordinary.

The boys in this role were on the ships books as Captains` Servants, rated and paid as Able Seamen, but wore the uniform and did the job of a Midshipman proper, that is to assist a Lieutenant in his day-to-day duties. They also lived in the Midshipmen’s quarters, which was in the cockpit, located on the ships Orlop level. They would have continued in this role for two years until they gained two years sea service at which point the Admiralty would have appointed them as Midshipmen proper, enabling them to transfer (or be transferred) between ships in order to gain experience and to further their careers.

On 7th May 1773, Captain Suckling managed to find a vacancy for his nephew, Nelson, as Midshipman in the bomb-vessel HMS Carcass but this came to an end in October 1773, when the vessel was paid off at Sheerness and went into the Ordinary. Nelson returned to Portsmouth and to HMS Triumph, once more to take up the only position available to him, as the Captain’s Servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. This, however, was for a very short time because his uncle had found a vacancy for him as Midshipman proper aboard the 24-gun sixth rate post-ship HMS Seahorse. Nelson was never to return to HMS Triumph.

Over the next 20 years, or so, HMS Triumph was involved in many skirmishes and more than a few refits to maintain its battle readiness. In between, it undertook policing and peace keeping roles with reduced crew levels. Then in January1792, she was decommissioned and went into the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth for a ‘Great Repair’, which amounted to an almost complete rebuild. The work was completed in January 1795 and had cost £46,499, more than it had cost to build the ship in the first place. By now, HMS Triumph’s upper gun deck of 24-pounder long guns had been replaced with smaller 18-pounder long guns, while the rest of her armament remained as built. In this, HMS Triumph was unusual in that she was never fitted with carronades. HMS Triumph was recommissioned and joined the Channel Fleet.

The Battle of Camperdown:

Horsford Hero (Admiral Duncan)1
Admiral Sir Adam Duncan

The beginning of May of 1797 saw HMS Triumph lying at the Nore, as part of the North Sea Fleet under Admiral Sir Adam Duncan. By the 12th of the month it became caught up in the Great Mutiny which had spread from Spithead. Whilst Spithead, along with Plymouth, ended peacefully on the 15th, that of Yarmouth was put down forcibly with that of the Nore proving irritable to the authorities. Having started on 12th May in the 90 gun 2nd rate ship HMS Sandwich at 9:30am, it quickly spread to the other ships in the anchorage including HMS Triumph.

Horsford Hero (Essington)1
Captain of HMS Triumph, William Essington

It was at this time that Captain Sir Erasmus Gower was replaced in command of HMS Triumph by Captain William Essington. In the meantime, while the mutiny at the Nore was continuing, the Dutch fleet was making preparations to break out and join the French fleet at Brest. Admiral Duncan was ordered to immediately blockade them and ordered his ships to set sail for the coast of Holland. All but two of his ships disobeyed the order and joined the mutiny.  Nevertheless, Duncan set to his task with the handful of ships available to him and by a mixture of subterfuge and luck, kept the Dutch bottled up in Texel. However, while Duncan was at sea, the mutiny at the Nore fell apart and he was joined by more ships, including HMS Triumph. In October 1797, news reached the Admiralty that the Dutch had called off their plans to break out and the fleet was recalled to Yarmouth to refit and resupply; this included HMS Triumph.

Horsford Hero (De Winter)1

On 8th October however, the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Winter did indeed break out. They were followed by ships Duncan had left behind to watch them, these included the hired armed cutter Black Joke. When the Dutch fleet, consisting of four 74-gun ships, seven 64-gun ships, four 50-gun ships and four frigates was seen putting to sea, it was the Black Joke (Other accounts say it was the hired cutter Active.) that was dispatched to Yarmouth to summon Admiral Duncan and the fleet. When the Black Joke was seen off Yarmouth in the early morning of 9th October flying the signal, all hell broke loose in Yarmouth as ships prepared to put to sea immediately – John Pirsins must have certainly been in the thick of thing! By noon, Admiral Duncan’s fleet was at sea and at 7am on 11th October, Duncan’s fleet sighted Captain Trollope’s squadron who were flying a signal ‘Enemy in Sight to Leeward’. At 08.30, the Dutch fleet was sighted.

Because of the widely differing sailing qualities of the British ships, Duncan’s force was in a very loose order when the enemy was sighted. In order for his ships to take their allotted stations, Duncan’s first signal was for his vanguard, or leading ships, to shorten sail. This was followed, at about 11:10, by signals ordering each ship to engage their opposite number on the enemy’s line of battle and then for the British vanguard to attack the rear of the enemy fleet. De Winter the Dutch commander, for his part and on sighting the British, ordered his ships to go about and head closer to the shore, where his smaller, flatter bottomed ships would have the advantage in shallower waters than their larger round-bilged British opponents. Seeing the Dutch heading into shallower waters where he knew they would have the advantage, Duncan gave up trying to get his fleet into their proper order and instead issued signals to the effect that his fleet was to form into two rough divisions and sail towards the enemy line as best they could and engage the enemy in close action. The fleet formed into two uneven divisions with Duncan leading the Starboard division in his flagship HMS Venerable and his Second-in-Command, Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Onslow leading the other division in his flagship, HMS Monarch.

Horsford Hero (Fleets)1
Relative positions of the fleets at the start of the Battle of Camperdown, 11th October 1797.

HMS Triumph was part of Duncan’s Starboard Division, second in line behind the flagship. Because of the lack of time, the British ships were all jockeying for position to get into the thickest part of the action, which soon became intense. At one point in the battle, Captain Essington could see that both HMS Ardent and HMS Venerable were surrounded and immediately took HMS Triumph into the thick of things by engaging the Dutch ship Wassenaer with everything it had. Wassenaer eventually surrendered to HMS Triumph which then moved on to directly support the damaged HMS Ardent in her action against the Dutch flagship, Vrijheid. The Vrijheid was eventually forced to surrender by HMS Director after having been dismasted and left helpless, crippled and alone. The British had won a spectacular victory. They had defeated a Dutch fleet within sight of their own coastline. In the Battle of Camperdown, HMS Triumph had suffered casualties of 12 men dead with 55, including Captain Essington and John Pirsins, being wounded. She had suffered damage to her hull and masts and had had ten of her heavy 32-pounder guns knocked off their carriages.

By fast clipper, the news of this victory spread fast with the nation already celebrating by the time the ships returned to Great Yarmouth. The grateful nation breathed a sigh of relief that their ‘rebellious’ navy had, once again, restored its authority on the high seas, along with the strong and blatant patriotism, unashamedly renewed among the British people. The dead were buried and those of the wounded that could not function normally were cared for in the town. John Pirsins was amongst them, suffering from extensive injuries incurred in the heat of battle. Only his closest mates would have witnessed the circumstances of his heroism; it would have been they who visited him as he lay in the hospital in Great Yarmouth; and it would have been they who hoped he would recover. As it turned out, John Pirsins did not, but it was these same mates  who dipped into their pockets and paid for his headstone back at his home village of Horsford and its All Saints Church.

All Saints Church, Horsford 032
All Saints Church, Horsford, Norfolk. John Pirsins grave is to the left of the right-hand ‘green’ door. Picture: Haydn Brown

 

THE END

Sources:

http://leewright67.wixsite.com/horsfordlifemagazine/contact
http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=18402.0
https://www.cnrs-scrn.org/northern_mariner/vol14/tnm_14_4_11-24.pdf

Norfolk Witchcraft in the 17th Century

The crime that has attracted the attention of historians more than any other in early modern England is witchcraft. It is a complex subject, not least because early modern beliefs regarding witchcraft and magic were obviously very different from those of today. However, it is not my intention to carry out an extensive investigation into early modern witchcraft beliefs here; that area has already received much coverage elsewhere.[1] My interest here is to look at what the records reveal about those charged with witchcraft in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts and how these findings compare with current theories. In particular, I look at how complaints arose and developed, and the involvement of the neighbours of the accused in that process.

Prior to the mid-sixteenth century witchcraft cases were normally tried in ecclesiastical courts. Punishments were rarely severe and some form of public penance was the most likely sentence. Witchcraft became a secular crime in England for the first time with the passing of a short-lived act of 1542.[2] Elizabethan legislation in 1563 resurrected the crime and provided for the death penalty when “any p[er]son shall happen to be killed or destroyed”.[3] However, this was repealed in 1604 and replaced by “An Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits”. This provided for even harsher punishments, extending the list of offences to which the death penalty applied to wasting, consuming or laming persons as well as causing their death. Where the “goods of any p[er]son shall be destroyed” the sentence was a year in prison for a first offence and death for a second offence. However, the major difference between this and the earlier Acts was that it also made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”.[4] For the first time a hint appears in the legislation of the fear of a diabolical compact, which was a major element in European legislation where practitioners of witchcraft were thought of as being members of an organised heretical sect.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Hanging)

The activities that witches were accused of were a clear inversion both of community norms and gender roles. However, Keith Thomas has argued that “the idea that witch-prosecutions reflected a war between the sexes must be discounted, not least because the victims and witnesses were themselves as likely to be women as men”.[5] Whilst it has been well established that the majority of people charged with witchcraft in England were women, and the Norfolk records support this, the situation regarding witnesses is more contentious.Based on his findings from Yorkshire witchcraft depositions, James Sharpe has concluded that “the whole business of deciding if an individual was a witch or if an individual act constituted witchcraft, of how witchcraft should be coped with, of how suspicions should be handled, was seen as being fundamentally in the female sphere”. He argued that witchcraft accusations were frequently one of the ways in which disputes between women were resolved.[6] This view has however, been disputed by Clive Holmes. He argued that whilst the gossip and suspicions of women may have been instrumental in bringing the accused to more general notice, it was men who were responsible for organising the process that took the case from suspicion to formal accusation. Holmes claimed that, despite their numerical involvement, women played a largely passive role in the legal process against witches. He noted that in Home Circuit indictments between 1596 and 1642 men acted alone as witnesses in 27.7 per cent of cases and together with women in a further 67.7 per cent. In contrast, in only 4.6 per cent of cases did women testify against an accused witch alone.[7]

Feminist historians such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have seen witch trials as “a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population”.[8]  Their argument is partly based on the premise that old women, often known as ‘cunning women’, who dispensed folk healing were deliberately eradicated when a male-dominated medical profession came into existence. It is also known that some of these cunning women kept small animals such as cats and toads for use in their medical work and this is one explanation for the appearance of familiars in English witchcraft. Other feminists have seen witchcraft prosecutions as symptomatic of a misogynist social structure. Marianne Hester contends that the witch-hunts provided a “means of controlling women socially within a male supremacist society” and were “an instance of male sexual violence against women”.[9]  She claimed that men gained from the linking of women with witchcraft as “it provided them with a greater moral and social status than women”.[10]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)3

Sharpe has argued that the involvement of women in witchcraft prosecutions allowed them to carve out a role for themselves in the male dominated legal world.[11] Not only did they appear as witnesses, they were also involved in the search for what was often a crucial piece of evidence in proving guilt – witch’s marks on the body. The large number of references in the records to women searching for marks suggests that this practice was widely used. Sometimes teams of up to twelve women were appointed to search the accused, a midwife often included in the number. Clearly women did have a vital involvement in the witch trials, not least because, as has already been stated, it was women who were most likely to be charged. Some contemporary commentators recognised the disproportionate number of women accused, the well-quoted sceptic John Gaule complaining that every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furr[owe]d brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side; is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.[12]

As can be seen from this description, witches were not only seen as women, but often as old women. One of the main reasons put forward for witches being elderly is that often they were only eventually prosecuted after suspicion of them had grown over the years. It has also been suggested that older, vulnerable women, unable to defend themselves in any other way, were forced to rely on their alleged occult powers.[13]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)4

The witch stereotype established by Alan Macfarlane’s Essex findings presents the accused as an economically marginal, elderly female, rarely living with a husband. He argued that, between 1560 and 1680, social and economic pressures led to increasing tensions within communities and to a lessening emphasis on the bonds of neighbourliness. One way in which these pressures manifested themselves was in villagers withholding alms that they had traditionally given to the poor. The fear of counter actions from those refused alms and the guilt produced by the abdication of responsibility then led to accusations of witchcraft, usually after the party withholding charity had suffered some sort of misfortune.[14] However, as Cynthia Herrup found in Sussex, this stereotype was not always matched. Although she found only few examples of the crime they stood out “because of the prominence of male defendants and because of the economic and social parity of the accused and the accuser”.[15] Here there appeared to be no gap in social status and conflict is seen as reflecting ongoing competition rather than guilt produced by a failure to provide alms.

The earliest known references to witches being condemned in Norfolk under the 1563 act date from 1583, when Mother Gabley was probably hanged at King’s Lynn, and 1584, when Elizabeth Butcher and Joan Lingwood were condemned to be hanged at Great Yarmouth.[16] The forty years that followed the 1604 act saw an increase in the number of witchcraft trials in many areas of England, yet during this period there were very few in Norfolk, the only trial of note being that of Mary Smith, hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616.[17] However, after being notable for having so few trials in the first part of the century, the county suddenly saw an eruption of cases in 1645 and 1646, especially in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn – towns visited by the self-proclaimed Norfolk Witchcraft (Hopkins)

Nearly half of all seventeenth-century Norfolk witchcraft trials for which records have survived were prosecuted in the 1640s; prior to that there were under five per annum on average and, in common with other parts of the country, by the end of the century there were hardly any at all. A combination of reasons explains the circumstances under which such an increase in numbers of cases could take place. Firstly, England was in the middle of a civil war, and whilst it cannot be said that East Anglia was in the midst of the fighting, as it was a parliamentary stronghold, there were still threats of Royalist uprisings. Secondly, it has been claimed that, mainly because of the upheaval created by the war, there was a breakdown of authority during this period.[18] The uncertainty created by the civil war and a less effective than usual local government permitted the witch-hunting activities of Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne, who operated among the towns and villages of East Anglia for over two years from 1645. There has been some debate about the typicality of the cases resulting from these activities and I will return to this later.[19]

Of the sixty-nine people charged, fifty-nine or 85.5 per cent were women, so from a simple mathematical point of view the Norfolk evidence supports the view that the crime was gendered.[20] This picture is strengthened by an analysis of the outcome of the trials. Ten cases resulted in the guilty party being sentenced to be hanged and there were four other guilty verdicts for which the sentences were not recorded. All fourteen of those known to have been found guilty were women. (Of the other accused, forty-two were found not guilty, verdicts are not known in twelve cases, and one was found to be non compos mentis.)

Norfolk Witchcraft (Ducking)1

Of the women whose marital status is detailed in the court records, thirty-two per cent were described as ‘spinsters’, the same proportion were married and thirty-six per cent were widows.[21] It is possible, of course, that some of those described as spinsters were not, although there is no clue as to this in the records. As ages were not recorded it is impossible to be precise, however, this profile does not seem to suggest that most were elderly women, as often popularly described. Whilst it is difficult to deduce from this whether women on their own were more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, the fact that only one of those found guilty was married suggests that they were possibly not in such a good position to defend themselves without the protection of a man.

Bewitching people                                 26                          37.7 %
Bewitching animals                                  3                           4.3 %
Bewitching property                                3                           4.3 %
Entertaining the devil                            14                          20.3 %
Consulting with spirits                           11                          15.9 %
Using witchcraft to find property          5                           7.2 %
Non-specific witchcraft                           7                           10.1 %

Table 1. Norfolk witchcraft cases by category

Table 1 shows, in general terms, just what these people were being accused of. By far the biggest category is the bewitching of people and over half of these cases claimed to involve the death of an infant or child. Whilst two other categories combined, entertaining the devil and consulting with spirits, account for an almost equal proportion, these charges, traditionally not associated with the majority of English witchcraft cases, were all brought in trials that Matthew Hopkins and his associates were involved in.[22] A surprisingly small percentage of cases involved bewitching animals or property, acts of maleficium normally found in English witchcraft cases.

Analysing the surviving records for some of these cases allows us to examine the circumstances that led to these charges and how that compares with interpretations developed from other studies. In Norfolk the best surviving sources for background information are the witness statements gathered by the local justices to whom the complaints were made. It is clear from the numbers of witnesses in some of these cases and the stories that they tell, that neighbours must have talked together about their allegations or suspicions. Often there was one recent complaint that started the process off and others then added their stories from the past, sometimes the distant past. Allegations were frequently founded on the reputation that the accused had in the locality.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Weighing Witches)1
Weighing Witches

Thomas Cutting of Runhall, Norfolk, complained in 1679 that Anne Diver of the same town had made his cow sick and bewitched him so that he fell over a stile and broke his leg. He also recalled that on a previous occasion, after he had refused to give her some herbs from his garden, his wife and daughter fell ill and they also suspected that Diver had bewitched them. The collection of back-up stories then followed. John Calfe told how, when he fell ill over a year before, a cunning man showed him the face of Anne Diver in a glass. Seven years previously, Elizabeth Pitts bought a goose from Diver and fell ill for four months after eating it. Ten years earlier, Frances Beales refused to give Diver some beer on a hot day, but when she drank some herself she was ill for three weeks. Susan Major claimed that as much as twenty years before, Diver went to the house of her master to beg some meat for her father, but left before receiving any, saying that she was too proud to accept it. A week later she fell ill, losing her speech and sight and suffering strange fits.[23]

According to Holmes, when women became involved in the accusation process they often retailed older grievances that had not previously been brought to the attention of the authorities, leaving the lead to men, and this case supports that view.[24] However, it is the only one that does. In all other Norfolk cases for which witness information survives women took the lead in making the complaint. On occasions men also voiced older suspicions, but many accusations came from women alone, providing a very different picture from that Holmes found in the Home Circuit indictments. This is much closer to Sharpe’s position that “the background to a witchcraft accusation was something to which women were thought to have privileged access”.[25] Of the surviving witness statements relating to Norfolk witchcraft accusations, exactly fifty per cent were made by female witnesses, a larger proportion than has been reported elsewhere. Of course, we cannot know the extent to which women may have been encouraged to make their statements by men. It is also difficult to assess the extent to which depositions were the product of leading questions from a justice or a clerk’s written interpretation of verbal answers. Care must therefore be taken in the use of these documents.

One aspect of the accusations involving Anne Diver that does conform to the stereotype developed by Macfarlane is the refusal of alms or charity from neighbours; Thomas Cutting had refused herbs from his garden and Frances Beales refused beer on a hot day. Furthermore, John Calfe informed

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)1

that when “John Castleton … haveing the disposall of some money given to the poore of the … parish yearely gave to the said Anne Diver a lesse p[ro]portion then had bene given her in former yeares”, she said that he should “take heed lest some mischeife came to him or his”.[26] Other cases also contained this element, for example, Elizabeth Scandell informed that her daughter was bewitched after Elizabeth Blade threatened her when she refused to let her have a chicken.[27] Both Cutting and Scandell made the point themselves that their misfortunes came about because they had refused requests for charity, indicating that there was a popular belief in a connection between refusal of alms and acts of witchcraft.

Some of the depositions give the impression that someone who had suffered misfortune was looking for something to blame it on. Sometimes they made an accusation against a neighbour who had not even uttered any curse or threat, but who was simply “taken for a witch” or had maybe fallen out with them recently. When William Tasborowe suffered a series of misfortunes, including the death of his son and a fire at his house, he remembered an argument with widow Betteris. After he made a complaint to the justices other neighbours suddenly remembered similar arguments. “When the s[ai]d Betteris did fall out wth the wif of John Dennys … his child did sicken & dyed wthin three dayes”. “At another tyme after the s[ai]d Betteris had fallen out wth Edmund White the next day was the s[ai]d Edmund taken lame”.[28] Anthony Leland of Saxlingham, Norfolk, did not even mention having seen William Chestney’s wife when, in 1614, he blamed her for the death of a cow and a calf. He could only testify that when he had moved to the area four or five years earlier, “he heard amongst his neighbors that shee was taken for a witch” and so was “persuaded in his conscience” that it must have been her doing.[29]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)2

Witness statements also provide evidence of other early modern popular beliefs about witchcraft and magic. Whilst these informers were ready to complain about their neighbours for their use of supernatural powers, they were also prepared to use such powers themselves as counteractions. In 1670 Margaret Kempe of Great Yarmouth complained that when she had been ill fourteen years previously her friends suspected Margaret Ward of bewitching her. Their response was to make a heart with a piece of red cloth and to put it into a bottle together with some nails and pins. This was then put on the fire for two hours. Within a fortnight she was well again.[30] When Thomas Cutting believed that Anne Diver had bewitched one of his master’s cows he threw a horseshoe with seven nail holes into the fire. Elizabeth Pitts made an almost instant recovery from her bewitchment when she threw thatch from above the door of Anne Diver’s house into the fire.[31] Thomas Burke of Northwold, Norfolk, also recovered from his extreme leg pains when he burned thatch from the house of Alice Lyster.[32] Another remedy often described was that of ‘scratching’ the witch to destroy their power.[33] When Elizabeth Scandell’s child saw Elizabeth Blade, who she believed had bewitched her, she “flew at her & desired to scratch her but was hindered by her mother”. Mary Crispe later testified that the child told her that “if she had scratched … Blade … she should not have had so much power over her”.[34]

Daniel Jecks, another of Diver’s ‘victims’, chose another popular measure and went to a cunning man to seek help.[35] Cunning men and women were believed to have powers to discover who had bewitched someone, to provide folk medicine cures, and to discover the whereabouts of lost property.[36] On occasions they would find themselves prosecuted under the witchcraft legislation for using their supposed magic powers in these ways. Christopher Hall of Harpley found himself before Norfolk quarter sessions after Goodwife Smithbourne of neighbouring Hillington consulted him regarding a lump in her breast. Hall, who admitted to the local justices in his examination that he practiced as a cunning man, told Smithbourne that a Hillington witch had caused her harm. He gave her some powder and wrote out a charm, which, he claimed, would help her.[37]

Norfolk Witchcraft (Ducking)2

Another possible source for a cure was the accused him or herself. Some of those who believed that they or members of their family had been bewitched by a neighbour still allowed the accused to have access to them or their property after the event, probably believing that whoever imposed the curse also had the power to lift it. This is evident from the information of Margaret Kemp of Great Yarmouth who, in 1670, believed herself bewitched by Margaret Ward. Not only did she still allow Ward access to her house, but also to her infant son. When Kemp believed that Ward had also bewitched her son causing him to have fits, her husband “forced the said Margarett Ward to take the child into her armes and hold it some tym” in an attempt to stop the condition.[38]

In virtually all of these instances the person accused had been suspected of being a witch over a period of time, sometimes over a very long period. Often the events that led to the accusation were also part of a long-running disagreement and in some cases the charge of witchcraft appears to have been a tactic in such a dispute.[39] A typical example of such a long-term dispute between neighbours, which involved accusations of witchcraft, is found in the Norfolk quarter sessions order books. In 1652 Mary Childerhouse petitioned that a group of her neighbours “plotted her ruin and the destruction of her body by witchcraft”. This was, however, only one of a series of complaints she made against her neighbours, with whom she was clearly unpopular. “Idle boys and rude people disturbed her in her trading”, and a “lusty young woman dressed as a man beat down her windows and threatened her”. When she complained, “they imprisoned her unjustly and took her goods”. Two local justices were requested to look into the matter, but no further action appears to have been taken at the time.

Two years later, in 1654, Mary Childerhouse was again petitioning the court regarding further disputes. Here the order book described her as “impoverished … aged and unable to prosecute law”. It is interesting to reflect on whether the response to the complaints would have been the same if it had been a group accusing the aged Childerhouse of witchcraft rather than the other way round. Clearly in this case the complaints of one aged woman against a number of neighbours brought no action, as three years later, in January 1657, Childerhouse was still complaining that six of her neighbours “endeavoured her destruction by poison, and to spoil her estate by witchcraft, fire and knives”.[40] However, it is interesting to note that Childerhouse, a woman so poor that she was “unable to prosecute law”, was still able to take her complaint before the justices. She was another example of someone from the poorest social class who was able to take advantage of the flexible nature of the early modern judicial system to ensure that her complaint was heard, even if she did not get the result she wanted.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Witches)5

The episode that resulted in more witchcraft accusations in East Anglia than at any other time was of course that involving Matthew Hopkins and his associates. However, an interpretation of the Norfolk cases involved is problematic, not least because a lack of surviving documents does not allow for any in-depth analysis. For cases heard at Bury St. Edmunds, in neighbouring Suffolk, there is at least some material that details what those brought to trial were accused of and what they were purported to have confessed to.[41] In Norfolk, however, all we have are the indictments recorded in the quarter sessions books. These are characteristically formulaic and in many cases state only that the accused consulted with spirits, or fed and entertained the devil. Occasionally more specific allegations were made. Maria Vervy of Great Yarmouth was said to have been responsible for the deaths of three children, but was found not guilty; Elizabeth Bradwell, also of Great Yarmouth, was accused of the death of another child, found guilty and hanged. There is no detail that might allow us to know why one was found guilty and the other not. Five others were found guilty at Great Yarmouth, but we are only told that they practiced witchcraft and consulted and compacted with the devil. At King’s Lynn there is even less detail, the sessions books recording only that nine people were charged with consulting with the devil. Again there is nothing to tell us why six were found not guilty, two guilty and one found to be non compus mentis.

Sharpe has claimed that although the context in which the Hopkins and Stearne cases took place was unusual – a country in the midst of a civil war, the involvement of witch-hunters and the interrogation techniques used – the charges against the accused were not – most were women, most were about cases of harm typical of other prosecutions, and the harm followed some kind of falling out. Unfortunately, the lack of surviving documents means that little can be added from Norfolk to that debate. Eighty-four per cent of those charged were women, typical of the English pattern, and, where the charge is given, it is for harm against children, not uncommon in witchcraft cases.

Norfolk Witchcraft (Trial)1

I would, however, point out an additional unusual circumstance. Hopkins was invited to find witches and was paid for that activity. An entry in the Great Yarmouth assembly book dated 15 August 1645 states that “it is agreed that the gentleman Mr. Hopkins imployed in the countie for discovering & finding out of witches shall be sent for hither to come to Towne; to make search for such wicked p[er]sons if any be here”.[42] The following May the King’s Lynn hall book records that “Aldr Revitt be requested to sende for Mr. Hopkins the witch discoverer to come to Lynne and his charges & Recompence to be borne by the Towne”.[43]

However, whilst Hopkins’ appointment may have been a catalyst for the formal accusations, it was still the neighbours of the accused that brought the complaints. Although the law and the teachings of the church may have provided a framework within which accusations of witchcraft could be made, as other historians of the subject also acknowledge, this was not simply a process being imposed from above – accusers, witnesses and accused all normally lived in the same village, town or district and had often known each other over long periods.

Given the high proportion of women involved in making accusations, neither does the Norfolk evidence support the view that this was some means of imposing patriarchal authority;[44] although this does not rule out the possibility that women accusers and accused were not playing out some sort of power battle within a patriarchal society.[45] In many ways the Norfolk evidence supports the stereotype of an early modern English witchcraft prosecution, if not the stereotypical English witch. Nearly all cases arose from disagreement between neighbours and a good proportion of these involving a refusal of charity.

Apart from some aspects of the Hopkins cases there is little to support the view proposed by Robin Briggs that English witchcraft was not very unlike its European counterpart, as has been traditionally maintained.[46] In Europe witches were part of a circle that attended sabbats. In contrast, virtually all of the Norfolk examples concerned accusations against individuals. Although Briggs points out that in English cases the familiars performed the role of the devil, in only two examinations in Norfolk trials is there any mention of a familiar; in most cases words, in the form of threats, seem to have been the medium by which the maleficium was carried out.[47] The European stereotype also emphasises the demonic pact, yet again, outside of Hopkins, there is little mention of this. Even in the Norfolk cases involving the Witchfinder there seems to be an obvious reason why the association with spirits and the devil should be cited, particularly in such formulaic indictments. It was important for the process of law that the indictment was worded correctly and made clear that the act under which the charge had been brought had been breached, and the 1604 act made it an offence to “consult covenant with entertaine employ feed or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose”.[48]

Ideas about witchcraft would have entered early modern popular culture in a number of ways. It is certainly likely that people would have heard about the evils of the devil in church sermons and they would also have been brought up learning about a range of popular beliefs concerning witchcraft and magic.[49] Even those who had no direct access to pamphlet accounts of trials are likely to have heard about them in alehouses, particularly the more sensational trials. The most sensational local case to have been written about in early seventeenth-century Norfolk was that of Mary Smith, who was hanged in King’s Lynn in 1616.

Norfolk Witchcraft 1
A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith

Details of the Mary Smith case appeared in a pamphlet published in 1616 by a King’s Lynn clergyman, Alexander Roberts, entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft. After “sundry propositions … plainely discovering the wickedness of that damnable Art”, in which he considers theoretical points, Roberts moves on to describe Mary Smith’s “contract vocally made [with] the Devill … by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied”. The devil is said to have “appeared unto her … in the shape of a blacke man”.[50] This is an interesting early appearance of the devil in this form in one of these narratives. According to Macfarlane the devil never appeared as a man in Essex before 1645, so this may well be an example of a pamphlet that influenced later stories, particularly those that emerged during interrogations by Hopkins and Stearne.[51] The devil is said to have taken advantage of the fact that Mary Smith was “possessed with a wrathful indignation against some of her neighbours, in regard that they made gaine of their buying and selling cheese, which she (using the same trade) could not do, or they better (at the least in her opinion) then she did”.[52]

Roberts goes on to describe the “wicked practise” of Smith against each of her enemies. “The first who tasted the gall of her bitternes was John Orkton a Sailer”, who had hit her son after he had committed some misdemeanours. She “came foorth into the streete, cursing … and wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Of course when he grew ill “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as his toes putrified & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”.[53] Another argument, this time over an accusation of stealing hens, led to Smith wishing the pox to light upon Elizabeth Hancocke. Within three or four hours of the curse being made “she felt a sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body”. The illness went on for several weeks, during which, one night “the bed upon which she lay, was so tossed, and lifted up and downe, both in her owne feeling, and in the sight of others”. Eventually Hancocke’s father consulted a cunning man who, after showing him Mary Smith’s face in a mirror, gave him a recipe for a ‘witch cake’, which cured her. However, unfortunately for her, her husband became annoyed with Mary Smith’s cat and “thrust it twice through with his sword … and stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staffe”. Not surprisingly, his wife’s condition returned.[54]

The stories continued: she picked a quarrel with Cicely Balye, a neighbouring servant, and the next night a cat sat upon Balye’s breast so that she could not breathe properly and she “fell sicke, languished, and grew exceeding leane”.  The illness continued for six months until she moved away, then she recovered.[55] Edmund Newton, who was also a cheese seller, was able to do a better deal than Mary Smith when buying cheese. However, every time he bought cheese he became grievously afflicted. When he lay suffering in bed Smith appeared to him “and whisked about his face … a wet cloath of very loathsome savour”, after which someone with a “little bush beard” appeared telling him that he had come to heal his sore leg, which by now had cloven feet. Later, imps appeared in the form of a toad and some crabs and crawled about the house until one of the servants caught the toad and put it on the fire, which caused Mary Smith to endure “tortured pains testified by her outcries”. However, Newton’s illness continued, despite his attempts to break the curse by scratching the witch, as whenever he tried “his nailes turned like feathers”.[56]

These narratives are interesting for several reasons. Not only do they tell us something about early modern popular beliefs regarding witchcraft, but it is also likely that ideas from them were passed on to others at the time, for several of the features of earlier pamphlets such as this recur in later trials. As I have already mentioned the devil in the form of a black man reappears in the 1645 Hopkins trials at Bury St. Edmunds.[57] So do the imps or familiars that Edmund Newton claims appeared to him. Throwing a toad or frog into the fire to cause distress to the witch is another feature that reappears in seventeenth century Norfolk cases. When Amea Winter of Grimston was accused of bewitching Alexander Turner in 1627 “two thinges like unto a frogg & a toade”, presumably Winter’s familiars, appeared, but one was caught by John Piper who “held it in the fire untill such tyme as it was burnt”, causing Amea Winter to become lame.[58] Witch cakes provided by cunning men and scratching the witches face to counter their power both also commonly recur.

However, these narratives leave many more questions to be asked than they answer. The behaviour of Mary Smith is again similar to that which might have seen her charged with scolding – if it hadn’t been for the illnesses that were claimed to have followed. So what was the truth about these claimed illnesses? Presumably at least some of the facts could be checked when complaints were made to the justices. If John Orkton’s fingers had really rotted and been cut off then this would have been apparent. Did Mary Smith perhaps know that he already had a problem with his fingers and made a nasty comment about it that eventually came true, or was Orkton just lying and she never even made such a curse? Elizabeth Hancocke’s bed couldn’t lift up and down on its own, so clearly she and the claimed witnesses to it were lying. And what are we to make of Edmund Newton’s claims that his feet had become cloven? We can, of course, never really know the truth; the main thing was that the justices believed them and the courts believed them. But how much did they question the evidence? The complaints against Mary Smith must have been over a period of time – so why didn’t they complain earlier, or if they did then why wasn’t she charged earlier? Unfortunately the assize records haven’t survived that might have provided some of the answers.

Whilst there has been debate about the usefulness of witchcraft pamphlets as a reflection of what actually happened up to and during the trial, there is no doubt that they are a useful source regarding early modern popular beliefs.[59] They are also interesting because in some ways they stand between elite and popular attitudes towards witchcraft, in that they would have had an educated authorship, often members of the clergy or legal profession who usually had some agenda in writing them, but would have also had to appeal to the tastes of a popular readership. This reflects to an extent the “complex series of transactions between various elite and popular elements” that Clive Holmes has claimed brought about witchcraft prosecutions.[60]

Witchcraft pamphlets would, of course, only have continued to be written whilst there were still witchcraft trials to write about. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there were fewer trials as the authorities became more and more sceptical about the whole issue of witchcraft and courts became much less likely to convict. Although this meant the death of the witchcraft pamphlet it didn’t mean the sudden death of a popular belief in witchcraft. Even in the later seventeenth century people were still making accusations that their misfortunes were the result of witchcraft, and some of the accused still believed that they had the power to carry out the acts. When Mary Neale of Wissenset, Norfolk, confessed in 1678 that she was the cause of the deaths of three local people she also told that two other women were involved with her. Both of these, however, denied the charge. But Neale was only too ready to admit to her witchcraft, signing a confession and crying out, “O wicked wretch that I am, I have destroyed two poore soules”.[61] She was one of the few accused in Norfolk for whom evidence survives who admitted to using familiars in her craft. She claimed to have “sent a mouse” to Alice Atkins “wch did soone dispatch her in five dayes”. She also said that one of her accused accomplices “did send a Duck to John Willis … who soon died”. She also claimed to keep two imps, John and Robert, though did not expand on what form they took.[62] Popular beliefs clearly did not change overnight.[63]

In many respects this analysis of seventeenth-century Norfolk trials supports the models already developed around early modern witchcraft. The gender breakdown of those accused – about eighty-five per cent female, fifteen per cent male – is similar to that found in other English counties. The pattern of prosecutions was obviously affected by the outbreak of cases in the 1640s brought about by the influence of Matthew Hopkins and his associates, but apart from that aberration we see the decline in prosecutions towards the end of the century that was experienced elsewhere. Even the context in which many of the disputes took place fits the stereotype developed by Alan Macfarlane; many cases involved refusal of charity and acts of maleficium occurring after a falling out.

There is little to support the radical feminist view that witchcraft accusations were used as some sort of patriarchal technique to keep women under control. In fact, the main aspect of the Norfolk cases that seems to be somewhat out of line with other studies is that women were in the majority in making the lead, or most recent, complaint; in Norfolk it was often men who backed this up with older stories. As I have already mentioned, one of the main conclusions to come from the surviving evidence, and this agrees with what Macfarlane found in Essex, is that people were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours. Most historians now accept the view that witchcraft accusations were not simply imposed ‘from above’, but that a complex set of relationships existed between local elites and the poor that provided a framework within which these accusations could be made and pursued through to their legal conclusion.

We can now only speculate as to why neighbours made these complaints. Given the contemporary belief in the powers of witches, it is perhaps not surprising that when they needed an explanation for why things had gone inexplicably wrong they should blame someone they thought capable of witchcraft. This might well lead us to ask the question, originally posed by Robin Briggs, why were there not even more prosecutions than there were?[64] Some of the Norfolk depositions give the impression that there may also have been strategic accusations, either to gain some sort of revenge for a past wrong or to enable the accusers to rid themselves of someone who they did not like or with whom they had been involved in some sort of interpersonal dispute. The very fact that witches were often only accused after a long period of suspicion means that there had been time for disagreements to develop and fester until an opportunity to solve it once and for all presented itself.

THE END

[1] Over the last thirty years or so witchcraft has been the subject of an enormous amount of research and a wealth of literature has been produced. Amongst the most accessible works on witchcraft in early modern England are James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness. Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (London, 1996) and Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester and Gareth Roberts, eds., Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief (Cambridge, 1996) and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours. The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (London, 1996) draw on both the English and continental European experience.
[2] 33 Henry VIII, cap. 8.
[3] 5 Eliz I, cap. 16.
[4] 1 James I, cap. 12.
[5] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 568.
[6] J.A. Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women in seventeenth-century England: some Northern evidence”, Continuity and Change volume 6, no. 2 (1991), p. 192.
[7] Clive Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, Past and Present 140 (1993), pp. 56 – 8.
[8] B. Ehrenreich and D. English, Witches, Midwives and Healers: A History of Women Healers (London, 1974), p. 6.
[9] Hester, Lewd Women and Wicked Witches, pp. 108, 199.
[10] Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal reconstruction and witch hunting”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in early modern Europe, p. 296.
[11] J.A. Sharpe, “Women, Witchcraft and the Legal Process”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts,  p. 120.
[12] John Gaule, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts (London, 1646), pp. 4 – 5.
[13] B.P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (London, 1987), p. 143.
[14] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 161.
[15] Herrup, Common Peace, p. 33.
[16] Norfolk Record Office. Wells Parish Register. PD 679/1, fol. 43, records the burials of four men “whose deaths were brought to pass by the detestable working of an Excerable Witch of King’s Lynn whose name was Mother Gabley, by the Boiling or rather labouring of Certain Eggs in a pail full of cold water. Afterwards approv’d sufficiently at the arraignment of the said witch”; Palmer, History of Great Yarmouth, volume 1, p. 273.
[17] Due to the lack of surviving assize records for this period, the most detailed account of the  alleged activities and the trial of Mary Smith is a pamphlet written by Alexander Roberts entitled A Treatise of Witchcraft (London, 1616).
[18] See especially Underdown Revel, Riot and Rebellion, chapter 2.
[19] For a discussion of the circumstances surrounding these cases, see J.A. Sharpe, “The devil in East Anglia: the Matthew Hopkins trials reconsidered”, in Barry, Hester and Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, pp. 237 – 254.
[20] This compares with ninety-two per cent in the 1645 Essex trials.  Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 160.
[21] This compares with Kent assizes where widows accounted for twenty-six per cent of prosecuted witches between 1565 and 1635 and thirty-seven per cent during the Interregnum. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 49.
[22] Sharpe has claimed that “English witches … were rarely accused of … consorting with evil spirits”. J.A. Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England (Harlow, 2001), p. 40. Whilst it is true that the depositions do not contain this allegation, the formulaic Norfolk indictments often do.
[23] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting, John Calfe, Elizabeth Pitts, Frances Beales, Susan Major, 22.5.1679.
[24] Holmes, “Women: Witnesses and Witches”, pp. 54 – 5.
[25] Sharpe, “Witchcraft and women”, p. 191 – 2.
[26] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of John Calfe, 22.5.1679.
[27] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, February 1678.
[28] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/15 part 1, articles against [blank] Betteris, undated.
[29] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/19, examination of Anthony Leland, 28.5.1614.
[30] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe, 30.9.1670.
[31] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Thomas Cutting; information of Elizabeth Pitts, 22.5.1679.
[32] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/13a, information of Thomas Burke, 2.3.1602.
[33] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 634; Sharpe, Witchcraft in Early Modern England, p. 53.
[34] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Elizabeth Scandell, Mary Crispe, February 1678.
[35] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, information of Daniel Jecks, 22.5.1679.
[36] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, chapter 8; Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, chapter 5.
[37] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/41a, examination of Christopher Hall, 26.8.1654. See also NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/3, fol. 122: Thomas Wolterton prosecuted for using enchantments and charms to find lost property; Y/S1/2, fol. 196: Marcus Prynne prosecuted for using witchcraft to discover the whereabouts of lost money.
[38] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/21/3, information of Margaret Kempe 30.9.1670.
[39] See Annabel Gregory, “Witchcraft, Politics and ‘Good Neighbourhood’ in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye”, Past and Present 133 (1991), pp. 31 – 66, regarding the argument that some witchcraft accusations may have been strategic.
[40] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions order book, C/S2/1, petitions of Mary Childerhouse 13.1.1652, 10.1.1654, 13.1.1657.
[41] British Library, Add. MSS. 27402, fols. 104 – 21.
[42] NRO, Great Yarmouth assembly book 1642 – 1662, Y/C19/7, fol. 71v.
[43] NRO, King’s Lynn hall book 8, 1637 – 1658, KL/C7/10, fol. 187.
[44] For this view see Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Witchcraze. A New History of the European Witch Hunts (San Francisco, 1994) and Hester, Lewd women and wicked witches.
[45] Willis, Malevolent Nurture.
[46] Briggs, Witches and Neighbours, pp. 28 – 53.
[47] Although, as I have pointed out, there are a large number of cases where details of events leading up to a trial have not survived.
[48] 1 James I, cap. 12.
[49] Interestingly, John Stearne claimed that sermons drawing attention to the power of the devil and his ability to torment the wicked had actually attracted some people to him. See John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1648), p. 59.
[50] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 46.
[51] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 189. Although this may be an early reference to the devil appearing in this form, the fact that witchcraft was carried out in the devil’s name was popularly believed in early modern England. According to William Perkins “a witch is a magician, who either by open or secret league, wittingly and willingly, consenteth to use the aide and assistance of the Devil, in the working of Wonders”. William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1608), p. 3. The devil appeared in other forms in other early witchcraft pamphlets. The Apprehension and Confession of three notorious Witches, concerning the trial and execution of three women condemned at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1589, tells that Joan Cunny, one of the three, learned her art from one “Mother Humphrey … who told her that she must kneel down on her knees, and make a circle on the ground, and pray unto Satan the chief of the devils”. One of the other accused, Joan Prentiss, told that “the Devil appeared unto her … in the shape and proportion of a dunnish-colored ferret” who then carried out her evil work. The other two also admitted to having familiars to do their work, two black frogs, a mole and two toads. Reprinted in Joseph H. Marshburn and Alan R. Velie, Blood and Knavery. A Collection of English Renaissance Pamphlets and Ballads of Crime and Sin (Cranbury, NJ, 1973), pp. 80 – 8.
[52] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 45.
[53] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, p. 48.
[54] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 50 – 4.
[55] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 55 – 6.
[56] Roberts, Treatise of Witchcraft, pp. 57 – 8.
[57] The devil appeared in this form to Mary Bush of Bacton, Suffolk. He promised her that she would never want and “us’d to have the use of her body two or three times a weeke”. Stearne, Confirmation and Discovery, p. 29.
[58] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/26, articles against Amea Winter, dated 23.5 1627.
[59] Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 85; Walker, “Demons in female form”, p.124.
[60] Clive Holmes “Popular Culture? Witches, Magistrates, and Divines in Early Modern England”, in S.L. Kaplan, ed., Understanding Popular Culture. Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Berlin, 1984), p. 87. See also Dolan, Dangerous Familiars, p. 179.
[61] Freely given confessions such as Neale’s illustrate that accused witches were not always the victims of malicious prosecution. See also Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, p. 71.
[62] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/32/3, Information of Mary Neale, 25.2.1678.
[63] For a case of a mentally disturbed woman who confessed that she had the power to use imps to carry out acts of maleficium, see Malcolm Gaskill, “Witchcraft and power in early modern England: the case of Margaret Moore”, in Kermode and Walker, Women, Crime and the Courts.
[64] Robin Briggs, Communities of Belief: Cultural and Social Tensions in Early Modern France (Oxford, 1989), p. 22.

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© Keith Parry 2011

Source:

https://keithparry.org/my-writing-2/witchcraft-in-seventeenth-century-norfolk/

From Motley Crew To A Monument!

The Wrestlers Inn, the termination point for the `Flying Coach on Steel Springs’ run by Job Smith between Gt. Yarmouth and Norwich, was a well established hostelry. It had the reputation as “the most considerable hostelry in the town” by the time James Sharman was born in 1785. The Inn’s popularity continued to grow to a point when Lord Nelson, having landed in Great Yarmouth on, 6th November 1800 from his victory at the Battle of the Nile stayed at the Wrestlers Inn; he was accompanied by a small party which included Lady Hamilton.

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Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1800, National Maritime Museum. Visible on his cocked hat is the aigrette presented by the Ottoman Sultan as a reward for the victory at the Nile.

It is said that, standing at an open window of the Inn, Nelson addressed an excited crowd “I myself am a Norfolk man, and I glory in being so”. On his departure, Mrs Suckling the Inn’s proprietor asked Nelson if he would allow her to call the Inn the “Nelsons Arms” in future. “That would be absurd” said the hero “seeing as I have but one”. As a result of this remark, the Wrestler Inn became the “Nelson Hotel ” and remained so for the next 20 years, reverting to its previous name around 1820 – one year after its 1799 ‘pressed’ waiter became ‘Keeper’ of Yarmouth’s Nelson Monument on the South Denes.

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John Suckling, Licensee of the Wrestler Inn since 1791, took young Sharman into his employ as a ‘waiter’ – let us just say, for a matter of convenience not fact, that this would have been in early 1799 when James Sharman was 14 years old. Sometime later that year this young lad, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Had this unfortunate incident not occured when it did then the young Sharman might well have served on Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson  during his visit to the Inn on 6th November 1800. Unfortunately it did happen, Sharman was press ganged and the probability was that he was not the only one being grabbed for naval service. Almost certainly, the Press Gang would have targeted other ‘strong healthy-looking persons’ in Yarmouth. The only concession probably offered to Sharman would have been a choice between voluntary or forced servitude.

Sharman ( The Press Gang, John Collet, c_1760's, from The Foundling Museum_detai1)
Detail from ‘The Press Gang’ by John Collet, c1760’s, from The Foundling Museum

Sharman had been forced into service by a Crown practice that did allow for the navy to take British subjects into service. There were, of course, certain restrictions laid down by the Government on this practice but anything that stood in the way of ‘a result’ was often ignored; the Royal Navy had a constant need for able bodied seamen to man its fleet. The groups of men that made up the Press Gangs came from amongst sailors, or civilians hired for the purpose. They would roam the countryside, concentrating on areas near the naval ports and the coastal counties, searching for men to compel into the service. If no man-of-war sailor was available, fishermen and merchant sailors were preferred, but any strong healthy-looking person might be taken. Norfolk was not excempt from the practice.

Sharman ( The Press Gang)
The Press Gang at work.

One of the ‘escape clauses’ available to those taken by a press gang was to have access to ‘prominent associates’ ashore and, importantly, the means by which to contact them before the ship sailed. On the basis of such help, the individual would be released. Other means by which release would be granted was if the men taken had communicable diseases or too infirm to serve. The rest would be given a choice between voluntary or forced servitude. Records indicate that the Royal Navy in the 18th Century consisted of 47% volunteers, 24% impressed men and another list of 29% volunteers. The last probably included those who volunteered for service after being forced on board, although no one can be certain about this.

It would be pure supposition to say that Sharman must have ‘volunteered’ at some early point, but he did go on to record a lengthy period of service before being invalided out some years later; he also appeared to have modestly risen in rank. However, at the outset of his new career and, on the basis of his age, he must have been classed as a “ship’s boy” when he joined his first ship. As things turned out that was HMS Weazle, a new 214 tonne sloop-of-war sailing ship with a size of 77 x 26 ft. It had been built by the firm of King in Dover in 1799 and she had 16 cannons. It is not known at what point in the ship’s five year life he actually joined the Weazle but on the 1st March 1804, the ship was wrecked off Cabritta Point near Gibraltar. At the time she was under the command of Lieutenant William Layman (acting) when, during a storm, it ran aground and was smashed to pieces with the loss of one man out of a crew of 70.

Sharman ( Shipwreck)1

By a twist of fate, Sharman then found himself amongst the motley crew of HMS Victory, as proved by his entry in the surviving Ship’s Muster. He was be under the command of Captain Thomas Hardy and, allegedly, given the rank of ‘Able Seaman’. This rank was certainly a leg up from first being a ship’s boy, landsman and then ordinary seaman; it is a further indication that Sharman had established himself as a willing ‘volunteer’ in His Majesty’s Navy and no longer a ‘pressed man’. As an ‘able seaman’ he must have demonstrated to the ship’s satisfaction that he could perform several skilled tasks on the ship. As a result, he would have been paid a bit more than an ordinary seaman and, if possible, assigned to a position consistent with his skills. There were 212 experienced ‘able seamen’ amongst a total motley crew of 821 from mixed nationalities who made up HMS Victory’s manpower at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Sharman (Battle_JMW Turner)
The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the VictoryJ. M. W. Turner (oil on canvas, 1806–1808)

It has been said that Able Seaman, James Sharman, survived Trafalgar largely unscathed by the experience, leaving the ship’s employ sometime after it had returned to Portsmouth. He took away with him the seeds of what would, in time, become a common belief that it was he who helped carry the fatally wounded Horatio Nelson below decks to the cockpit during the battle. Be that as it may, Sharman went on to have three more ship postings before eventually being discharged through illness and entering the Greenwich Hospital for Seamen. Understandably, he was not happy and on the recommendation of his former Captain Hardy, Sharman was to be appointed “Keeper of the Pillar” in 1817. This post was created to look after a proposed edifice in honour of Horatio Nelson which was to be built on the South Denes on the outskirts of Yarmouth.

Sharman (South Denes)1
View of the Nelson ‘Pillar’ Monument at South Denes, Yarmouth by JMW Turner © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

During the course from conception through to planning and fundraising, the proposed ‘Pillar’ went through more than one name change. An original suggestion was for something along the lines of ‘Norfolk Naval Pillar’ before opting for ‘The Norfolk Column’ – to think that nowadays, it is referred to as the ‘Britannia Monument’ following restoration in 2005. But back in the early 19th Century, the South Denes on which this pillar/column/monument would be built was still an open, grassy area between the sea beach and the River Yare. This was where fishermen hung out their nets to dry, cattle grazed and public hangings took place. It was also used by the East Norfolk Militia for its military manoeuvres, and also where its officers laid down a proper race course for themselves. The site also became a popular venue for assembled “fashionable personages” to be seen! Maybe it was not envisaged at that time but a few years after Nelson’s death, a Royal Naval Hospital was built on the Denes and, later still, incorporated into a large military barracks.

The idea of raising a monument of sorts to Norfolk’s Nelson was first put forward in the late 1790s after Nelson’s great victory at Aboukir Bay or, in other words Battle of the Nile in 1798. However, this suggestion was not carried through at the time, but was certainly revived after his death at his greatest triumph, the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. We are told that a first proposal was not to have a monument in Yarmouth at all, but on Castle Hill in Norwich, which would not have pleased those in Yarmouth. In fact, it was in 1814 when a group of Norfolk businessmen, with Yarmouth interests, finally set up a committee to collect money for the project, having decided that the open spaces of Yarmouth’s South Denes would be the most appropriate setting – right in the centre of the race course.

Sharman (races)
The Racecourse at South Denes, Yarmouth

It was an area well known to Nelson, rich in military and naval connections and an excellent site for a physical beacon “to guide future generations of navigators towards the harbour mouth” they would say. It would be built in the centre of the recently-established officers’ race course, as soon as subscriptions had reached £7000. That was when the committee in charge finally met in Thetford to choose from 44 different proposals, from which they opted for the Doric design put forward by the prominent London architect William Wilkins. Wilkins was a native of Norfolk and an architect who had designed the Shire Hall in Norwich, London’s National Gallery and Downing College, Cambridge.

The foundation stone of the Nelson’s Monument – aka Norfolk Pillar, the Norfolk Naval Pillar and Britannia Monument – was laid on 15 August, 1817. It was a moment when there “were great huzzahs and goings-on” – 12 years after the death of Norfolk’s favourite son and Britain’s greatest naval hero. During the next two years the column rose to its full height of 144 foot (44 metres), standing clear on the South Denes beach but slightly shorter than the 169 foot (52 metre) memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square which, incidentally, followed some 20 years later. Yarmouth’s monument was in the style of a Doric column topped by six caryatid figures that supported a statue of Britannia proudly atop a globe inscribed with the motto from Nelson’s coat of arms ‘Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat’, translating as ‘Let him who has merited it take the palm’. Britannia holds an olive branch in her outstretched right hand, a trident in her left, and looks inland, some say, towards Burnham Thorpe in North Norfolk, Nelson’s birthplace. At its base are inscriptions commemorating Nelson’s victories at St Vincent in 1797, Aboukir on the Nile in 1798, Copenhagen in 1801, and Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. On the western front a Latin inscription reads:

‘This great man Norfolk boasts her own, not only as born there of a respectable family, and as there having received his early education, but her own also in talents, manners and mind’.

img_3427
The Column showing Sharman’s Cottage – later to become a beer house.

The work was completed in 1819 when a fully recovered James Sharman, commenced his duties as “Keeper of the Pillar” – but not before the opening ceremony was out of the way. That affair, marked by “an elegant ball” for three hundred and fifty persons of rank and respectability”. One can assume that ‘common seamen’, including Sharman maybe, would not have been amongst its guests? Be that as it may, we do know that from his first day in charge, Sharman was to remain Keeper for nearly 50 years, living in a cottage nearby that had been built for him. Then in 1827, some ten years after being appointed, Sharman undertook a brave rescue of several sailors from the Brigantine Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his cottage. It was the famous author, Charles Dickens, who read a newspaper report of this exploit whilst writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth. He must have been clearly intrigued because he made the effort to visit Sharman in his cottage and, from this experience, Dickens was said to have based the book’s character, Ham Peggotty, on Sharman. Also, during his visit and talks with the old sea-dog, Dickens was to hear Sharman’s account of his collecting wood from shipwrecks and building a shelter for himself. As the driftwood from wrecked boats tended to be curved, the shelter resembled an upturned boat – again, reminiscent of Peggotty’s boat house in David Copperfield.

Sharman (Pegotty's Boat House)1
Illustrations by Phiz and Barnard of Peggoty’s Boat-House in David Copperfield

But, Sharman was reputed to be something of a ‘colourful character’. Apparently and throughout his life in Yarmouth, he never tired of recounting the exploits of his hero, Nelson, and telling yarns of his own adventures. Who’s to say, he did not spin a tale or two when speaking to Dickens, Similarly, was it Sharman who gave birth to the claim that it was he who carried Nelson down to HMS Victory’s cockpit during Trafalgar! Surely, no one could possibly put it past him, particularly when trying to encourage extra tips from those ‘regaled’ visitors to ‘his’ Monument.

But one event that Sharman could not have made up and must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia’s shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below.

Sharman (Monument 1851)1
The present “Britannia Monument” back in 1851

James Sharman died in 1867 at the age of 82 years. He was entitled to a Royal Naval funeral and funds were available to finance it but due to an oversight he was borne to his grave, in the Old Cemetery in Yarmouth, accompanied only by members of his family and without anyone from the navy being present. His gravestone, which includes the words ‘HMS Victory’ is now badly laminating and may well have become illegible.

Sharman ( With Medals)
James Sharman

As for his ‘Pillar’? Well, It has ended up being surrounded by commercial and industrial buildings. But despite this, and with the restorations of 2005, there is still grandeur and fascination with it – “a monument to a Norfolk man who bestrode his epoch and commanded the sea”. In 1817, an ‘Able Seaman’ from Yarmouth by the name of James Sharman was allowed the opportunity to looked after his master’s Monument.

Sharman (Death_of_Nelson)
The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (Houses of Parliament, London

THE END

FOOTNOTE:

Towards the latter part of James Sharman’s 50 years in charge of Nelson’s (Britannia) Monument, the cottage that he lived in became a beer house with him as Landlord. This beer house later became a public house called the ‘Monument House’ followed by being re-named the Nelson Hotel.

James Sharman’s General Service Medal with Trafalgar Bar was sold at auction in 2012 for £27,000!

Sources:

The Nation Museum, Royal Navy: http://www.hms-victory.com
Photos: Royal Navy National Museum & Google Images.
Nelsons Monument: http://www.nelsonsmonument.org.uk
http://www.owlcation.com
http://www.waymarking.com
Visit Norfolk: http://www.visitnorfolk.co.uk
Wikipedia