Norfolk’s ‘Moses of Jamaica’!

James Mursell Phillippo was a missionary, born simply James Phillippo in East Dereham, Norfolk, on 14 October 1798; he was the eldest son of Peter Phillippo, a locally well-known master builder and part-proprietor of an iron foundry, and his wife, Sarah, née Banyard.

Phillippo, James Mursell (1798–1879)
James Mursell Phillippo

Jame’s mother, was the daughter of a respectable and wealthy tradesman and farmer and was serious in her religious beliefs. As for her son, James, he was considered not to be a diligent student, but was intellectually talented enough to win prizes for his extraordinary memory and his ability to recite poetry or long passages from books. At about seven years of age he was sent locally to the Rev. Samuel Green’s Baptist school where he quickly became known for little more than being disobedient and mischievous for which he was frequently punished. Subsequently, James was sent to a Grammar School at Scarning until the age of around thirteen years, from where he left formal schooling completely and went, initially, into his father’s building business.

Phillippo, (Dereham)2

Before long he moved on to live with his grandfather who, more than likely, tried to encourage James to take an interest in both farming and trade. Unsurprisingly perhaps, James preferred to become ‘very involved with worldly pleasures, forgetting his mother’s teaching’. However, after two near fatal accidents he began to re-evaluate the direction in which his life was clearly heading and started attending a local Baptist chapel. A clue to this almost sudden change in James’s interests and possible ambitions would be found in the fact that, as a child, he had read Robinson Crusoe and Captain Cook’s voyages; he was being increasingly drawn to missionary work. According to his 1874 Autobiography, his induction into the Baptist faith allowed him to ‘experience conversion and cast his lot ‘with the despised people of God’!

According to the Dereham Baptist Church: “He had a desire to go to the Baptist Church at about the age of 15 on attending he was directed to a seat near the pulpit. After a number of visits and under the conviction of sins, he accepted Christ has his Saviour. He took religious instruction with Rev. Samuel Green and in 1816 he invited his family to the Dereham Baptist Church to witness his baptism. They went with some reluctance. His father was a staunch member of the Parish Church and had threatened to disown him. A considerable number of the town attended the service. James’ family continued to attend the church, and his mother also became a Baptist. After working for his father for a while James became a book keeper, printer and bookbinder before he felt the call of missionary work and applied for training.”

James Phillippo Makes his Move!:
James, having made up his mind to apply to enter the field of missionary resigned from his post, which at that moment was in Elsing. His Pastor there, the same Rev. Samuel Green of James’s early school days, was also about to leave the Dereham Baptist Church for a Pastorate in Huntingdonshire; he wrote a letter of introduction, on behalf of James, to the Rev. Kinghorn of Norwich, stating its object and recommending that James Phillippo should meet with him. Kinghorn clearly agreed for the Rev Green loaned James a horse to travel to Norwich for the meeting. But James was fearful that he would not be accepted, and it was said that:

“…… he prayed earnestly to God during the whole of the journey, a distance of fourteen or fifteen miles, sometimes dismounting from his horse to pray at places along the road or in a field.”

It was also said that on arrival, “Rev Kinghorn soon put James at ease and gave him every encouragement”. He also promised to write to the Baptist Missionary Society on his behalf, and suggested that James make a direct application to the Society himself.

James Phillippo applied to the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in 1819, addressed to its Secretary, the Rev. John Dyer. However, several months passed without hearing anything from the Society and James filled in the time by visiting his friends in different parts of the county, and taking on preaching engagements and attending different religious meetings at Aylsham, Foulsham, Fakenham, Burnham Market, including Dereham. He was met with encouragement from both ministers and people, with one proposal being made by some members of the Dereham church – which happened to be without a Pastor (and James was still a member of that church) to be their Pastor. This proposal came to nothing. James was also advised to go into business; his advisors arguing that his prospects of a missionary life were evidently closed. Whilst this option was pursued, it failed from, apparently, “mysterious causes.” Then a situation was offered him in Norwich which did not require permanency of residence; he accepted and joined the Norwich Church under the Pastorate of his venerable friend, the Rev Kinghorn. After a lapse of two or three months, during which time James’s hopes of missionary work had all but expired, he began to receive ‘an occasional hint’ from Kinghorn.

Phillippo, (BMS Members)
Early 19th Century Baptist Missionary Society Members. Image: Public Domain.

Acceptance:
In 1819 James was invited to London to meet Baptist Missionary Society Committee, but he then had second thoughts about leaving his employment, friends and going abroad – however, there was no time for hesitation! As events turned out, his meeting with the BMS committee was postponed until the evening of the day arranged for the interview. There, in the waiting room beforehand, he met a young man who asked if he was “the young man from Norfolk”. After receiving James’s reply in the affirmative, he rose from his chair and grasped James’s hand with great warmth and said “my name is Mursell, I am come for the same purpose from Gloucestershire, how glad I am to meet you.” Thus, James established a lifelong friendship with Thomas Mursell; and such was the strength of this friendship that both men sealed it by exchanging surnames for Christian [forenames] names- the Dereham preacher becoming James Mursell Phillippo.

Jamaica Bound;
James was accepted into the Society and began his studies in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1821 with the Revd William Gray, minister of the Baptist church there; this was followed by further study at Horton College, Bradford in preparation for the missionary life: ‘This world is not a place of repose for a faithful soldier of the cross’ he was to tell his parents. Whilst at Bradford, he also visited the Revd Thomas Morgan in Birmingham and, again, a lifelong connection was established. Then In 1823 it was reported that “Mr. Phillippo also has pursued his studies under the patronage of the Missionary Society, and is expected soon to go to Jamaica”. Later that year James received confirmation that the committee had indeed fixed on the Island of Jamaica as the place of his labours. The time fixed for the departure was the month of November, and the period was short! – he had, while a student at Chipping Norton, met with a lady with whom a strong affection ensued – her name was Miss Hannah Selina Cecil.

Phillippo, (BMS Jamaica)

After finishing college, James followed the BMS recommendation that missionaries must be married before going abroad; this was quite common for ‘a soon-to-be missionary’. He married now fellow missionary, Hannah Selina Cecil in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire and almost immediately the couple sailed to Jamaica under the auspices of the BMS; James had expected to go to India but the BMS was responding to requests from Jamaica for support for embattled Baptists struggling with a deeply hostile plantocracy. The couple sailed from Gravesend, Kent, on Wednesday, 29 October 1823, leaving all their family and friends behind – possibly forever.  They both knew that there was a strong possibility that they would not survive the tropics for long; for it was not an exaggeration to say that the Caribbean, as with Africa, was the “graveyard of the white man”. Fevers, heat and humidity killed many colonists, sometimes within weeks of arriving at their new home.

Overview of the Arrival of British Baptists in Jamaica;
James Phillippo had been appointed to the mission in Spanish Town, the capital of the island; however, at this point in his story it is important to know why the British Baptists went to Jamaica in the first place. It is a fact that Jamaica’s mission had been first set up in 1783 by George Liele, a converted freed slave and an ordained minister of the Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, USA. It was he, and not the British, who laid the foundation for Baptist ministries throughout the island. However, the British Baptist Missionary Society in England was not to recognise this Jamaican Baptist ministry until 1814, when a John Rowe came to the island as the first English Baptist missionary. This was the Society’s eventual response to an appeal from George Liele for help – Baptist work on the island had grown rapidly since its foundation! It was from 1814 when a series of British Baptist missionaries were to arrived and work on the island.

Image1
Rev George Liele

What was seldom admitted by many was that British help brought an underlying tension between ‘native’ Baptists on the one hand, and the British missionaries on the other. Many native congregations were to become part of the ‘Jamaica Native Baptist Missionary Society’ (JNBMS) because:

“of perceived maltreatment by the English Baptists ……. to redress the sidelining of male persons of African descent who could have augmented the pastoral ministry ……. these Africans also perceived educational snobbery towards them and took umbrage.”

After the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, that implicated some native Baptists, there was a reaction “the white missionary began to distance itself even more from the worship forms and patterns of the black (Native) pastors.” The fact of the matter was that English missionaries who went to Jamaica never made peace with the “Africanness” of their African-descended congregants, even though when they arrived, Baptist witness was already flourishing among the enslaved in the colony. Native Baptists and their influences were sidelined, and the British understanding and practices of ministry prevailed, ensuring that thereafter “Baptist worship, polity and organization had a distinctly British look and feel to it”.

As the missionary church expanded, additional ministers were recruited from England. One of these missionaries, the Reverend Christopher Kitching, started the mission station in Spanish Town in December 1818. Its first Baptist Church was built on an area once occupied by an old military barracks and where James and Hannah Phillippo were to first settle after their arrival. In the meantime, the Rev Thomas Gooden was selected as the church’s minister in 1819 and, as James Phillippo was to find out, Protestant ministers had to obtain a licence to preach. The Rev Gooden received his licence shortly after he arrived and preached his first sermon on June 11 1819. He continued as Pastor of the church until 1824, when he was succeeded by the man whose name remains indelibly in Baptist annals – Rev James Mursell Phillippo.

Overview of the Situation;
James and Hannah Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, at a time of great transition. Britain had banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, and in 1823 propositions to abolish slavery itself were brought to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, but were initially rejected and with little hope of success. Despite Parliament’s failure to pass the legislation, British mission workers in Jamaica, especially Baptists, were criticised by planters and the white population, the press, and the colonial government for being in league with the anti-slavery camp, with the “intention of effecting our ruin.” The plantation owners were strongly against missionaries preaching the gospel to the slaves. They were upset that the nonconformist missionaries (chiefly Baptist, Wesleyan and Methodist) were educating slaves and teaching them the Bible, believing that this made the slaves discontented with their station. Some opponents reacted by burning down missionary churches and schools for slaves. It was a cold fact that in 1807 there were 350,000 slaves in Jamaica. By 1823, there were still more than 300,000 slaves remaining on the island; the law prohibited them from practicing any form of religion. Nonetheless, when Phillippo arrived in Jamaica in 1823, he was to set out to build places of worship and to preach Christianity to the slaves.

Phillippo, (Phillippo Baptist Church_ Wiki)
The Phillippo Baptist Church, at 9 William Street, Spanish Town, Jamaica. It was built by the Rev Christopher Kitching in 1818 at a cost of £5,400 from contributions from overeas partners. The chapel had a capacity for  around 1,500 persons and was named ‘The First Bapitst Church’.  Photo: Wikipedia

The home allocated to James and Hannah on their arrival must have come as a terrible shock. To start with, it was in the former military barracks mentioned above, surrounded by a brick wall. Their house itself was very small with two stories and only one filthy room on each floor. The inner walls had been painted black to ease the failing sight of the previous missionary, Rev Kitching, who had died of yellow fever in December 1819 – a prevalent disease that claimed the lives of many missionaries. James and Hannah set to work with a level of optimism which youth often brings in abundance; and soon they made themselves a workable home. Clearly, Hannah was every bit as much a missionary as was James. The couple’s home was the place where hospitality was always available and, as a missionary’s wife, it was Hannah’s job to receive callers and visitors and serve them refreshments. Later the ground floor of the house became their first school, the couple living above and working side by side in the school room. It was during this period of ‘settling in’, but particulary at the moment when James first arrived on the island, that he was horrified by the ‘heathenish processions’ that took place at Carnivals.

Phillippo (Divination)
This engraving depicts post-mortem divination practices with the remains of the deceased being used to determine the causes of death, among other questions. In this case, the entire body was used for divination. Phillippo provides a detailed but very ethnocentric description of the West African custom of carrying the corpse. Image: Public Domain.

James, in particular, energetically set about also establishing a Sunday school and Bible classes and applying for the necessary licence to preach. This he finally received in 1825 after much resistance from the planters who objected to the provision of religious teaching for the enslaved. Nevertheless, the British Missionary Society granted Phillippo permission to preach to the slaves. In fact, he was never free from persecution during this period of extreme tension on the island when hopes of emancipation had been raised by reports of the strong anti-slavery movement in Britain. Although the authorities regularly threatened him with imprisonment and he received death threats from planters, he continued. together with Thomas Burchell and William Knibb, to set up new chapels, schools, Sunday schools and Bible classes. James preached to slaves in villages where his preaching ban was not common knowledge. The slaves reacted enthusiastically to his preaching and crowds of them came to church. His congregation was drawn almost entirely from the enslaved, who were very receptive to the Baptist message of the possibilities of salvation for all, irrespective of colour. By 1828 he had established a number of out-stations together with schools and classes for adults and children.

Pressure of Work takes its Toll;
Suffering from ill health and exhausted from overwork James sailed for England in 1831 with his wife and two children, one of whom died on the voyage. He missed the major rebellion in Jamaica that Christmas which was followed by extreme retaliation against the rebels and attacks on the Baptist missionaries who were blamed for the uprising. His brother missionary William Knibb came to England in the wake of the rebellion and broke his vow to the BMS not to speak out politically, declaring that slavery and Christianity could not co-exist. James too spoke publicly in England and Wales. He returned to Jamaica in 1834 and was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the emancipated. He wrote “I was in a new world surrounded by a new order of beings”. The planters continued to harass their ‘apprentices’ and James raised money in Britain to establish ‘Free Villages’ where the emancipated could live in what he imagined as utopian religious communities, peopled with industrious and domesticated freedmen and women, under the watchful eye of their pastor.

Phillippo, (Sligoville)
Sligoville
Located about Ten miles north of Spanish Town. The property was purchased by Rev. James Mursell Phillippo, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for free villages for the emancipated slaves. Phillippo on bought 25 acres of land on 10 July 1835 for £100, on which the village of Sligoville was established.
The land was subdivided into 1/4 acre lots and sold to the emancipated slaves for the sum of £3. The property was originally called Highgate, and was renamed Sligoville on June 12, 1840 in honour of Howe Peter Browne, the second Marquis of Sligo, who was governor of Jamaica from 1834 until 1836. Phillipo, along with Sligo’s support, constructed a school and church on the property.

Slavery had been a key issue for a long time, not just in Jamaica, but throughout the British Empire. Although the slave trade had been abolished in England in 1807, the country was still permitted to own slaves in the Colonies. As a missionary who had campaigned fearlessly, both in Jamaica and England, for the abolition of slavery it was only natural that James would take a leadership role in the housing of the newly freed slaves. He knew that many slaves would be emancipated, although they would be left with neither home nor source of income; he, therefore, envisaged a village where newly freed slaves could live and work. In support of his ideals, he bought twenty-five acres of land ten miles north of Spanish Town in the St Catherine Hills, there, he founded Sligo Ville, the first Free Village.

Phillippo, (Abolition of Slavery)
Lithograph with watercolour depicting the ‘Extinction of Slavery on 1 August 1838’. Image: Courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica.

Full freedom was finally won on 1 August 1838 and James Phillippo took pride of place with the governor in the celebrations in Spanish Town. These were heady days when the Baptist missionaries enjoyed a level of authority and prestige which was not to last. In 1843, after another period in England, he published ‘Jamaica: its Past and Present State’, which provided a triumphalist account of the ‘great experiment’ of emancipation. This was in part a response to the tide of criticism of the reluctance of the emancipated to work on the plantations. The 1840s brought new kinds of troubles as James’s patriarchal stance towards his chapels and his people was challenged and enthusiasm waned. He experienced depression and spiritual doubts in the wake of these difficulties but maintained his educational and pastoral activities with support from England and acted as a mediator between the peasantry, the plantocracy, and the colonial authorities. In 1856 he travelled to the USA and Cuba with two sons and wrote of the continuing horrors of slavery there. In the wake of the Rebellion at Morant Bay in 1865 and the brutal reaction of Governor Eyre, the Baptist missionaries were once more under attack and were anxious to separate themselves from any association with ‘Native Baptists’ and demonstrate their loyalty to the crown.

Phillippo, (Morant Bay)
Illustration of the Rebellion of Morant Bay in 1865. Image: Public Domain.

The Phillippo’s Final Years:
The death of Hannah in 1874 at the age of 82, and a partner in everything, was a severe blow to James and he could no longer bear to live in the mission-house; the fact that he did so was because of his dedication to his long-chosen work, epitomised by him continuing in his missionary work until he retired. However, in 1877 he did make, what was to be his final visit to England – at the age of 79 years; this was all part of his several fare-well visits to friends in various parts of the country. James Phillippo wrote that he was unwilling:

“….. to leave for my adopted home without a last look at, and bidding a final farewell to, my dear old native town, I went over to Dereham, accompanied by my brother. It was Saturday, the market day, when I might chance to meet old acquaintances from the country, as well as in the town.

We went to the Corn Exchange, wandered about the streets, called at some of the old houses, with whose tenants I was once so familiar; and at one or two of the principal inns, but, on my part, without the slightest recognition, except in one instance by a distant relative, though only twenty years had passed since my last visit. That visit, however, was so brief that it may be said I had been absent from Dereham fifty years. Equally disappointed was I in the result of my inquiries after the notabilities of my boyish days. Most of the old families had almost entirely passed away, root and branch.

Phillippo, (The Bull)
The Bull

The tenants of the house where I was born looked incredulous when I stated the fact, and requested permission to look around. The lower story was now occupied as a large ironmonger’s store, and I should have been at a loss to identify it but for the sign of the ‘ Bull’ opposite. Yes; there was the ‘ Bull,’ unaltered in form and size and noble bearing as eighty years ago. All else seemed changed. The streets looked narrower, distances much shorter, the houses smaller, though externally more attractive; the old Baptist. and Independent chapels superseded by new ones, more conspicuous, larger, and ornamental.

Improvements were everywhere considerable, especially in the suburbs, where. Beautiful villa residences had sprung up, rendering the dear old place still more worthy of the eulogy of the author of ‘Lavengro'[George Burrows]:

‘Pretty Dereham! thou model of an English country town!’

Fatigued with my perambulations, and straitened for time, I reached the station just previously to the starting of the train, in which my brother and myself took places for Norwich. But I was a stranger at home, and was sad.”

James retired on Sunday July 7, 1878 and moved to a small cottage outside Kingston, to be cared for by his daughter. He lasted less than a year thereafter and there must have been little doubt that his missionary work, coupled with a long, hard life in an unfriendly climate had finally worn him out. He died on 11 May 1879 at the age of 81 years and was buried alongside his wife, Hannah and their son, in the Phillippo Baptist Church churchyard. Two tablets were placed in the Church building dedicated to James’s memory. Also located on the Church grounds is a stone slab which marks the spot where some of the shackles of slavery are buried. The slab is inscribed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Church. James and Hannah had nine children, five of whom died in childhood.

Postscript:
Jamaica had been James Mursell Phillippo’s adopted home and he was well respected by the Jamaican people at all social levels. His sons followed their father in finding colonial routes to upward mobility, becoming professionally trained in England – one becoming a doctor, another a lawyer who was to hold significant posts across the Empire. Over the course of his working life James Phillippo had baptized over 5000 men and women, been associated with the establishment of 25 stations, 17-day schools, and a college to train ‘native’ pastors. He was hailed at his funeral as ‘the Moses of Jamaica’.

THE END

Sources:
https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/104911
https://derehambaptist.org/about/history/james-phillippo/

The “Natives” and the English


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Phillippo

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John Craske: An Artist Saved By The Sea.

John Craske was a fisherman from a family who had been fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The sea was in his blood, he felt at home there, both when it was calm and breathing like a great beast resting, and also when it was wild and holding his life by a thread. But Craske was never a well man, and so he had to learn how to go to sea in his mind so he could paint and stitch pictures of maritime elements that mattered to him and that he understood.

Craske (Portrait)
Portrait of John Craske as a young man by Trevor Craske. Photograph: Trevor Craske.

John Craske was born in the town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast on 6th July 1881 where he joined a North Norfolk family with a long tradition of being associated with sea. John was the Grandson of Nathaniel and Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Craske, a staunch salvationist who lived to be 100 years of age and during her time she produced 12 children. Her eleventh child, Edward married Hannah Sare Dennis from North Walsham, Norfolk, in 1875. It was these two who were to be John Craske’s parents.

But times were indeed hard for fishing in and around Norfolk towards the latter part of the 19th century and presumably prospects were better further north; that was the direction taken by Edward and Hannah in 1876 when they moved to Grimsby. Their first son, Edward was born there soon after their arrival, followed by Robert Nathaniel in 1879. A further two years then passed before the family decided to return to Norfolk to live at Lower Sheringham. It was here where John Craske made his entrance, followed by a sister in 1883. Later the family moved yet again to Grimsby. where two more sons were born, between 1889 and 1896.

Craske (Fishing out of Grimsby)
Fishing out of Grimsby. (Photo: copyright owner unknown)

John Craske eventually put his schooling behind him when left his Board School in Grimsby to follow family tradition; he went to sea to become a deep sea fisherman. So commenced a period in his life which was to make a lasting impression on him; it was, in fact, to become almost a passion which was to dominate his artistic talent and output of paintings and embroideries in later years. But for the moment he fished alonside his two older brothers until their parents decided, in 1900, to return, with most of their children, to Sheringham. But times were still tough; tough enough to eventually convince John’s family to distance themselves from the sea altogether and move inland to East Dereham where, in 1905, his father opened a fishmonger’s shop. Father Edward ran the shop with his two sons, John and Edward, buying a daily supply of fresh fish from Lowestoft.

The Craske family tolled with its fishmongering business whilst the local fishing industry continued in its decline. Inperceptably, tourists began to take over, gradually moving in to enjoy the air, the newly built promenades and the more frequent train connections within Norfolk and to and from London. Tourists, by definition, did not have to work, instead they delighted in taking photographs of the fishermen who, to most outsiders, looked like becalmed wild tribesmen as they lolled against their boats, dressed with their high Cossack hats, tight Guernsey sweaters, heavy thigh boots with metal cleats and each with a distant gaze in their eyes that hoped for a better catch next time. None, it would seem, had enough money in their pockets to live on.

Then there was the Craske family’s strict Christian upbringing which saw them attending services at Dereham’s Salvation Army Citadel where in summer months John, in particular, took part in outdoor services held in the Market Place. On one particular occasion, a certain Miss Laura Augusta Eke came along and her attention was drawn to a tall young man standing on a soap box in the centre of the ring of Bandsmen and worshipers. He was dressed in a fisherman’s blue jersey, his black hair ruffled by a stiff summer breeze. Laura watched and listened as a noticeably nervous John Craske began to sing ‘Since Christ my soul from sin set free…………….’

Craske (Dereham Primitive)
Dereham Primitive Methodist Church as it has appeared in recent years. Photo: Keith Guyler 1987 

John and Laura married on 22 July 1908, at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dereham, after which they went to live at Swanton Morley where John started a fish hawking round, serving the surrounding villages. He obtained two ponies which carried pannier baskets full of fish which were slung over their backs. It was a precarious existence which forced John to lead a very vigorius life, often working sixteen or seventeen hours a day. It was extremely rare for him to even take a half day off. On top of this, Swanton Morley lacked a railway station so, in order to make things easier for him to obtain daily supplies of fish from Lowestoft, he and Laura moved to North Elmham in 1909. From there, John continued to collect fish for his father’s shop and carried out all their fish curing and smoking. Then, in 1914, John and Laura moved back to Dereham and continued to carry out fish hawking business. Shortly afterwards, the First World War broke out.

John Craske was never strong and it is not certain whether, in 1916, he volunteered or was called up when conscription began. There was certainly doubts about his health for on two occasions when he attended medicals, he was classified as being C2 during his first visit then C3 subsequently. John gained exemption, however, some local people was said to have appealed to the authorities against exemptions and John received his call-up papers. It was also said at the time that the authorities were so desperate for men that they were taking on practically anyone. John formally joined the Army on 9 March 1917. That was fine as far as it went but the training process was to become John’s nemesis, from the point when reference was made to his “relapse”.

Craske (In Hospital)
John Craske (fifth from left) sitting next to the uniformed officer in Ward 22 of Davidson Road War Hospital, Croydon, on 20th April 1917. Photo: Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum Dereham Antiquarian Society.

On the 7 April, Laura received news from Davidson Road War Hospital in Croydon that John has relapsed whilst recoving from influenza; three days later she received the news that he had an ‘abscess on the brain’ which left him prone to attacks of nervous collapse from which he would not recover. He no longer knew his own name or who he was, just that he missed his family, his brothers and he just wanted to go home. He could not even remember his age. Initially, John was diagnosed as being an imbecile and admitted to seven different hospitals before finally being transferred, in August, to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. Laura visited him on alternate days; then on 31 October 1918  he was discharged into her care; his health verdict being that he was ‘subject to harmless mental stupours’Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed. It was Laura, who came to collect him, having signed a declaration form saying that she would care for him – and care for him is what she did ever after.

Craske (Fishing Boat 'Gannet')
Fishing Boat ‘Gannet’ Photo: Sheringham Museum

It was Laura who first suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. It was said that she took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months, or even years at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”. Craske would regularly slip in and out of “a stuporous state” but still managed to eat and drink. Theories were inevitably expounded as to what was wrong with him, from diabetes to pituitary trouble; however, the most popular opinion was that he had depression with a “psychic neurotic basis”.

Then in 1920, John’s father died. This affected John so badly that he relapsed through shock and became confined to a wheelchair for a while; certainly until his GP, Dr Duigan, suggested a spell of recuperation by the sea, because “only the sea can save him”. Apparently, this was endorsed by an endocrinologist who, on hearing about this recommendation, said “Wise man, – the movement of the sea acts as a very good calmative for mental instability.” John and Laura rented a cottage, ‘The Pightle’ near the Blakeney estuary and were lent a boat, for which Craske, duely motivated, soon cut the sails for Laura to stitch them. Whenever the weather was kind the two would set off on the tide’s ebb and return with its flow. It would be three hours each way, drifting within the safe confines of an estuary rich with terns diving for sand eels, abundant dab being caught on hooks and where mud banks surrounded marsh wort, sea poppy and sea campion. Everything and everyone enjoying big skies and quiet days.

Craske (A Detail from Embroidery NUA)
A detail from an embroidery of John Craske’s ‘Rescue from Breeches Buoy’. Photo: Andi Sapey

Craske gradually improved and more aware of his surroundings; he had become aware that the cottage was unsuitable as the living room floor was below street level and all he could see were the legs of people walking by. They returned to Dereham after 5 months but it was the moment when John said to Laura that he would like to paint a picture on the lid of an old bait box. It turned out to be a red-sailed lugger leaning precipitously to one side in a storm where the wind appeared to be scudding through the crests of the waves and creating an imaginary roar. From the bait box he went on to paint on anything he could find: cardboard, brown wrapping paper, mantelpieces and doors, jugs and teacups. Even when he and Laura had another spell by the sea, this time in the village of Hemsby further down the east coast, he still went on painting.

Craske (Norfolk Coast with Boats)
Embroidery by John Craske depicting the Norfolk coast Photo: Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection

It was whilst the two were in Hemsby that Craske began to also make toy boats to sell to passersby, and that was how the poet Valentine Ackland first came across him and persuaded him to sell her one of his works which she showed to her lover, Dorothy Warren, who had a new gallery in Maddox Street in London. Valentine was keen to add Craske to her list of artists; so much so that she returned to Norfolk to find him. By then, Craske had left Hemsby and returned to Dereham. She eventually tracked him down there and found him in bed in a coma and close to death. Laura thought this tall lady in trousers had come to ask for her money back, but when she was told that more of the same was wanted, Laura brought out all of her husband’s paintings and, in return for £20 in £5 notes, gave them to Ackland who took a good few away with her. A few months later she and Warren returned to Dereham to find Craske much improved. He had produced his first embroideries and was more business-like than his wife, selling pieces according to the time he had spent on them.

Craske (All at Sea Painting-Sylvia-Townsend)
‘All at sea’ … A John Craske painting from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection

He had taken up embroidery because he could stitch while lying down. He used deck chair frames as stretchers for the cloth and old gramophone needles to hammer it in place. Craske was very meticulous about getting the precise tilt of a boat according to the pull of a current or the direction of the wind. It was said that when a photocopy of an embroidery, called Rescue from Breeches Buoy, was shown to a Cromer fisherman, he looked at it and said: “See, she’s foundered and she’s going to get smashed. That main line there is to get the people off …….. they’ll be alright soon enough.”

The first exhibition of John Craske’s work opened at the Warren Gallery in August 1929 where it was a success: “the ship pictures by Mr. John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,” said the Times. The Daily Mail declared: “the work, though childishly naive, has extraordinary charm and decorative effectiveness”, adding, “The hero of the hour himself, a humble and God-fearing man, was not present as he is seriously ill.”

Craske (Dereham Times 1934)
John Craske, as pictured in the Dereham Times of July 1934. Photo: EDP

A second exhibition followed but this did not go so well. The principal reason was that Ackland had fallen out with Warren having started a love affair with the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. In a strange and curious way, Craske became part of their romance when Townsend Warner was taken to meet him. She was immediately impressed by his speechlessness, his simple poverty and by what she saw as the integrity of his vision. Both Ackland and Warner became his patrons and bought his work whenever they could, persuading their friends to do the same; with the Norfolk preservationist Billa Harrod acquiring a number of pieces. For the two women, together with Ackland’s wealthy American lover Elizabeth Wade White who appeared on the scene a few years later, Craske encapsulated not only the beauty of the north Norfolk coast and the North Sea, but also of happier times. The three had numerous examples of Craske’s work on the walls of their houses, although the embroideries yellowed by cigarette smoke and bleached by the sun. But it is mostly thanks to Ackland and Warner that Craske’s work has survived, especially when in the early 1970s, Townsend Warner presented her collection, along with whatever biographical material she had, to Peter Pears and the Snape Maltings, believing that:

“Craske is an artist whose work should be on view in east Anglia ……. enhanced in the sharpened light of a seaboard sky”.

Craske (Water Colour-Sylvia-Townsend)
John Craske’s Watercolour of the tiny boat with big sea from the Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection.

Craske continued being mostly silent and often ill, making pictures whenever he could. He must have produced hundreds of images, but most have been casually mislaid, and although his work did receive a certain amount of praise when it was shown in the US in the early 1940s, his reputation was never established beyond a small circle of admirers. When the Norwich Castle Museum was approached in 1947, with a request to borrow a large embroidery which they had in storage, the curator agreed on condition that her name was not mentioned, “because, quite frankly, I do not think work of this type comes under the heading of art”.

Craske explained that some of his ideas came from memory and some from imagination, which was often inspired when friends told him of shipwrecks or lucky escapes at sea. He spent an increasing amount of time listening to the wireless and in 1940, he heard how the English soldiers had been pushed back to the Normandy coast. The unfolding account of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired his most ambitious embroidery: a sort of modern-day Bayeux tapestry, 13 feet long, which told the story of men in boats being saved by the sea. He worked on it until his death, leaving a raggedy patch of unstitched sky that still needed to be filled in.

In his lifetime Craske, a self-taught artist, was briefly welcomed by the arts world, championed by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friends who bought and sold his works, and exhibited in London and in the US. Craske died on 26 August 1943 but within a few years of his death he was almost completely forgotten. Many of his works were destroyed, thrown away, burned, faded in sunlight on parlour walls, or left decaying in damp museum stores. Craske’s widow, Laura, gave the Dunkirk embroidery, which she regarded as his masterpiece, despite the poignant patch of bare unfinished canvas in the sky, to the Norwich Castle Museum. Craske would have been proud to know his work was in the museum, she once said – but it has never been exhibited there!

Arguably, the largest exhibition ever of John Craske’s works, rescued from museum stores or borrowed from private collectors, was as recent as 2015 in Norwich; it was displayed at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, where he is regarded not as a forgotten eccentric but as a neglected genius. It was Prof Neil Powell, curator of the exhibition along with Craske’s biographer Julia Blackburn (see below), who quoted at the time:

“I don’t believe Craske should be viewed either as an outsider artist, or as naïve. In any other country he would be properly viewed as a serious artist. He had a highly sophisticated sense of colour and form, and a truly extraordinary ability to convey the three-dimensional world in the medium of needlework.” Julia Blackburn added: “He was poor, he was sick, and he was a man who did embroidery – of course he was forgotten.”

Craske (Dunkirk Embroidery)
Detail from John Craske’s Dunkirk embroidery shown at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) Gallery in 2015. Photograph: NUA. 

It was purely by chance when Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn learned that they had been separately on the trail of Craske; Powell had been hunting for surviving works, including some given by Townsend Warner to the Aldeburgh Music centre, whilst Julia Blackburn had been gathering scraps of biographical information including a hand-coloured studio photograph of him as a young fisherman, self-consciously holding what she thought was a photographer’s prop, a length of fake paper rope. “You get more old photographs of fishermen than any other workers – they had them done to leave some record in case they drowned,” she once said.

It was the hope that the NUA Gallery exhibition would revive Craske’s reputation and uncover more of his work. Previously unknown postcard-sized paintings still cherished by his doctor’s family turned up weeks before that exhibition. Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn also found that many of the owners expressed surprised when the experts thought them worth exhibiting.

Craske (Julia Blackburn - biographer)
Julia Blackburn, photo by her partner, the sculptor Herman Makkink (2013)

Julia Blackburn also recalled that during the preparation for her biography on Craske, she visited Sheringham and looked up old people who might have remembered John Craske. In her own words:

“Eliza, who had had 12 children and at the age of 92 could still dance, thought John was her uncle “Ninny” Craske, but she wasn’t sure. She told me of “Little Dick” Craske, her grandfather, who learned to tap dance on a wooden chest when he was sent to Icelandic waters at the age of nine, and who would dance for the ladies and their clients in the ‘Two Lifeboats’ whorehouse. “Where’s my little Dick?” asked his mother when she came looking for him, and that was how he got his name. The only Craske that Old Bennet knew was Jack, drowned in 1931; they saved his friend Sparrow by grabbing hold of his hair. Old Bennet had lobster pots instead of flowers in his front garden and he giggled like a schoolboy when I asked him how to catch whelks: “They’ll eat anything, whelks … they travel about the sea looking for dead meat …… a boat turned over and three men drowned, they was full o’ whelks.”

Julia Blackburn’s book Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske was published by Jonathan Cape and is still available.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/13/life-on-rocks-john-craske-saved-by-sea
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/11/stitch-in-time-john-craske-exhibition-revives-work-of-artist-fisherman
http://www.derehamhistory.com/news.html
https://artuk.org/discover/artists/craske-john-18811943
http://www.edp24.co.uk/features/the-amazing-norfolk-artwork-inspired-by-the-miracle-of-dunkirk-1-5103495
Featured (Banner) Image: John Craske’s embroidery of The Evacuation of Dunkirk shown at the NUA gallery, Norwich.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Ghostly Tale: The Tower That Flew!

St. Nicholas’ church in East Dereham, Norfolk has a tower detached from the building. It is said the bells were originally hung in the 13th century lantern tower rising from the centre, but they became too heavy for the structure and were removed to the bell-tower in the churchyard, specially built in the 16th century. In 1797 it was used as a temporary gaol for French prisoners on their way from Great Yarmouth. One tried to escape by hiding in a tree, but was shot and buried in the graveyard (his memorial is near St. Withburga’s Well.)

By tradition the tower was once attached to the church, but the builder forgot to use the proper mortar and it was never watertight. The parson ordered the tower to be pitched all over, but while it was still hot and sticky, all the birds of Dereham (some say a flock of starlings) flew over to see what the fuss was. They landed on the tower, but on finding their feet stuck, kicked up a commotion and fluttered their wings so hard that they flew away with the tower. But before they’d flown far, their feet came unstuck and the tower fell where it stands.

St Nicholas Church & Tower (Dereham)2

Sources:

R. H. Mottram: ‘East Anglia’ (Chapman & Hall, 1933), pp.179-80.
Noel Boston & Eric Puddy: ‘Dereham’ (G. A. Coleby, 1952), pp. 148-9.
Photos:
Eastern Daily Press & Norfolk Churches

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.