Swannington is a Norfolk village a few miles north-west of Norwich and only a couple of miles from where I live. It used to have two pubs but the Black Horse closed in 1971 and the Kings Head some seventy years earlier. Both these establishments were trading in the 18th century when William Sparks was the publican at the Black Horse. Swannington’s most famous place in history occurred on August 28th 1549, when two farm workers discovered a fugitive in a barn; it turned out to be Robert Kett, the leader of the rebellion, who had escaped from the rout of the rioters at Dussindale to the east of the city.
John Copeman was born in the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign in Whitwell, a small village just between Reepham and Swannington. He had married Alice Bunnett of Swannington when he was only 16 and she was 18. These were times when the deaths of family members were frequent and sudden. He lost his wife when she was only 30, and his two eldest sons Thomas and John two years later. Only his youngest daughter Katherine lived to have children of her own. He was living in Whitwell where his children were born, but as Whitwell never has had a pub he did his drinking in the adjacent village of Swannington. In his tragic circumstances of losing so many members of his family it is not surprising that he went a little bit off the rails.
For John Copeman took to drink. I have already mentioned the two pubs that existed in the village in the eighteenth century; no doubt one or both were already there a hudred years earlier. Beer would have been the only intoxicating liquor available, and it would have been brewed on the premises. John Copeman’s excessive drinking got him into trouble as these entries from the records of the Norwich Court of Mayoralty for the years 1632-1635 show.
John Copeman Confessinge himselfe to have bene drunke and not able to pay 5s is ordered to be sett in Stocks Six howers.
It is not surprising that John Copeman could not afford the 5 shillings it would have cost him to avoid standing in the stocks; it was a large sum of money. Less than a century earlier the labourer who had apprehended Robert Kett had only received 20 shillings as his reward. But after standing in the stocks John Copeman still had not learnt his lesson, as the next entry shows.
John Copeman beinge accused for many horrible misdemeanors doth first Confesse that he was drunken And he was also accused for swearinge & diverse other disorders, hee is ordered to be punished at the post, & then to be sett on worke in Bridwell.
The inmates were “sett on worke” such as grinding malt and cutting wood. We do not know how long his sentence was, but I suspect it would only have been a week or two. He had first been tied to the whipping post which was probably in Norwich market place. This must have had a more salutary effect on poor John Copeman, because we hear no more about him.
The merchant’s house in what is now called Bridewell Alley was bought by the city in 1583 and converted into a penal institution or Bridewell. The name comes from the first of these prisons which was built in London near St Bride’s Well just off Fleet St.
The building in Norwich is now the Bridewell Museum. Back in the 16th century it was used to employ “sturdy beggars” – really just the jobless of the times – and minor offenders like John Copeman. It was a mixture of Workhouse and punishment cells, and work was central to both.
I have a personal interest in John Copeman. He is my wife Molly’s 14x great-grandfather. His daughter Katherine married John Porter of Barney, a village east of Fakenham. The Porters lived in the area for many generations and Elizabeth Porter married Robert Fitt in 1785. His son James was a gardener in Wells-next-the-Sea, and his son and grandson were bricklayers, also of Wells. My wife’s mother Doris Fitt was born in Wells in 1922. By a twist of fate her father was a policeman who locked drunks up! But by then the stocks and whipping post were no more .
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