By Haydn Brown.
The first thing to say is that Fincham is a village north-west Norfolk, England, with a population of approximately 500. Located on the A1122, which is a Roman road connecting Swaffham and Downham Market, it is 12 miles south of King’s Lynn. Its neighbouring villages are Shouldham, Boughton, and Barton Bendish.
Fincham is old enough to have had an interesting history, and the first clue to this can be found on the village sign. Notably, this depicts a grand building of Fincham Hall; the couple standing in front of the Hall are said to be Nigellus de Fyncham and his wife, who during the reign of William II (1087 – 1100) were the first recorded Lord and Lady of the Manor. It was during this period when the village was known as Fyncham ; then, the name ‘de Fyncham’ simply referred to the place where the owner of the title came from. It was not the formal inherited surname that we might assume today so, it is impossible to know whether subsequent de Fynchams – and later Finchams – are descendants, or not, of Nigellus de Fyncham.
The original Fincham Hall was built by John Fincham, a lawyer in the late 1400s. It was constructed on the site of a previous fortified building which had existed since at least 1337. It was also John Fincham who dropped the ‘de’ moniker when the fashion for French sounding names waned. He died on 6th September 1496 and is buried in Fincham’s St. Martin’s Church.
A point of particular interest within this church is its font – one of the finest Norman fonts in East Anglia.
The coat of arms on the left of the village sign is that of Fincham family. Its first recorded use is on the seal of Simon de Fincham, the father of John who died in 1458. He was a generous benefactor to St. Martin’s Church and much of the rebuilding work that took place there in the 1400s would, more than likely, have been funded by him. Simon de Fincham and his wife Elizabeth are buried side-by-side in the church. The Fincham coat of arms appear both inside and outside the church, on the buttresses of the tower and in a stained-glass window.
As for Fincham Hall itself, the next thing to say is that the octagonal tower on the north-east side, left on the above photograph, is the only survivor from John Fincham’s original building. The rest of the Hall, as it stands today, was constructed in the late 1500s and extensively restored in the 1800s. By this time the connection with the Fincham family had been lost. In 1572 William Fincham sold the estate to his brother-in-law, Charles Cornwallis who also purchased a second local property of Talbot Manor.
The floral display beneath the name of the village, on its sign, celebrates the horticultural career of a much later occupier of Talbot Manor – Leonard Maurice Mason. Always known as Maurice rather than Leonard, he was not only a farmer of some 6,000 acres, but also the most respected amateur grower of tropical and sub-tropical plants in Britain in the mid-to-late 1900s. At one point he had 18 glasshouses dedicated to this hobby at Talbot Manor where he grew a range of species, but specialising in orchids and bromeliads. In an article he wrote for The Bromeliad Society Bulletin in 1953, Mason described the arrangement of bromeliads he had exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show in May earlier that year. Covering 640 square feet, the display consisted of around 450 individual plants. It was transported from Talbot Manor to the show in two 5-ton double-decker lorries and took three people three days to set up. The effort paid off: it was awarded a Gold Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society Council. Incidentally, Maurice Mason was also awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour by the RHS Council in 1960, the only grower to be granted this honour in that year. The award is held by only 63 recipients at any one time to represent the 63 years that Queen Victoria was monarch.
From 1973 to 1985 Mason acted as Chairman of the RHS Orchid Committee. Important specimens from his collection of orchids were donated to Kew Botanical Gardens after his death in 1994.
Maurice Mason’s headstone is appropriately decorated with images of foliage and bears the inscription ‘A Great Plantsman’. The variegated begonia, Begonia masoniana, is named in his honour. He is buried in the grounds of St. Botolph’s Church, Shingham, which is around 6 miles distant from Fincham.
Christopher Lloyd writing in the Guardian in July 2003 said of Maurice (he preferred his middle name and not Leonard) Mason that:
“Maurice Mason was a wealthy farmer in a part of East Anglia where it was possible for farmers to be wealthy, was a passionate gardener and collector. He and Margaret, his wife, travelled the world collecting. He had a huge number of greenhouses, one of which was devoted entirely to begonias and opened my eyes to the range of this extraordinary genus. His garden, mainly of trees and shrubs, had no pretensions to being well designed, but most certainly to skilful cultivation. It covered many acres and, when more space was required, he simply added to it from the farm. As the soil was alkaline, he bought another property not far off, where it was acid and he could grow a new range of plants.
Maurice was also a great character and bon viveur. His hospitality was prodigious and he was immensely generous. If you expressed pleasure in any plant seen as he took you round his garden, he would say, “You like?” and noted it down, and presently you would receive a large parcel of all these goodies.”