SHIPDHAM is a large village in central Norfolk just a few miles south of East Dereham on the Watton road. In the past it was a small market town – it still has a Market Street, the main road to Watton, although it has not had a market for centuries. My direct Rivett ancestors had lived in Shipdham from at least the mid 17th century. John Rivett was born there in 1685 and his mother-in-law in 1649. The family lived there or in nearby villages right down to the time of my great-grandfather Henry Rivett. He was born there in 1848. Throughout the 18th century my lineal ancestors had married girls from the surrounding parishes, but they themselves nearly all lived in Shipdham.
The first Rivett whose occupation we know of was William (b. 1777), my great-great-great grandfather who was for most of his life a carpenter. His sons (he had five sons and five daughters) were all went into similar trades; one was a coach builder, two were carpenters and two wheelwrights. Even one of his daughters married a wheelwright in Wymondham. His youngest son Francis was one of the Shipdham wheelwright; he married a school teacher from Kent. William’s eldest daughter Mary married a grocer who set up shop in Railway Road, Kings Lynn; her spinster sister Sarah, who had earlier worked as a school teacher herself, later helped her widowed sister Mary in the shop in Lynn.
Aged 70 William branched out from woodworking into dealing in pigs, thus perhaps laying the foundations of my great-grandfather’s successful farming enterprise. One of William’s sons, Henry John Rivett, began his career by following his father as a carpenter but soon turned to farming; it may be no coincidence that this move followed his marriage to Susan Hall, by all accounts a forceful character and the power in the family. It may even be the result of Susan’s influence that her father-in-law William went into dealing in livestock late in life.
One of Henry John’s ten children, a son (also called Henry) was my great grandfather. He too was born in Shipdham. Our great grandfather’s sister Julia was only a year younger than Henry and they must have been close growing up together. When he was a young man he moved to Beeston, a village a few miles away to learn farming. By the age of 21 Julia too had left the family home in Shipdham and was working as a housemaid in Wimbledon. Ten years later she was a servant in Cookham, Berkshire. In her fortieth year she married a blind Irishman who she had met. They were married in Croydon, but two of Julia’s sisters also left Shipdham to get married in Cookham; what was the matrimonial attraction of this Buckinghamshire town?
Julia’a husband was a music teacher; this was not an unusual choice for the blind who had many other employment options closed to them. The couple had a son called Horace. John Wilkie (his blind father) had died before the boy was ten, and no doubt to enable his mother to return to her previous employment in domestic service the young boy was sent to the family home in Shipdham. In 1901 he was living with his bachelor uncle William at Black Moor Row Farnhouse, together with his grandmother Susan and spinster aunt Kate. (Kate died in 1962 at the grand old age of 101.) Uncle William had taken over his father’s business of turning bull calves into bullocks, as well as more general livestock farming. William died in 1907 and spinster Kate took over the farm, although the more emasculating side of farming no longer appears as one of her businesses in the 1911 census. By then Julia was living in Maidenhead with her 21-year-old son Horace, who was employed by the Post Office as a telegraphist.
Henry’s wife Rebecca (née Alton) was the daughter of another pig dealer. Henry and Rebecca’s eldest daughter Mabel, although born in Beeston, was sent to board at Shipdham aged 10 where she attended a local school; perhaps it was great aunt Mary’s establishment (you know, the one who was born in Kent but married the village wheelwright and taught in Shipdham). All the couple’s younger children were sent away to boarding school, either to Shipdham, Swaffham or Fakenham for the girls and for the boys to Swaffham or the business academy in Saham Toney. The two eldest boys seem to have attended the village school in Beeston before helping on the farm from the age of twelve; the youngest daughter on the other hand was still at school aged 16 in 1911. As things worked out the girls got better educated than the boys.
It is remarkable that at least three members of the family were schoolteachers, and Henry’s children were sent away to boarding school. Education was obviously already important to the Rivetts by the nineteenth century. In the 1930s one of Henry’s grandsons (my uncle Tony) was the first member of my family to receive a university degree; he studied science at Cambridge. He had been sent as a boarder to Hammond’s Grammar School in Swaffham, a few miles away from Shipdham, although by them his family were living in the midlands.
During the Second World War Shipdham was still home to members of the Rivett family. It was the site of an American airfield. Construction started in 1942 and the base was home to Liberator bombers longer than any other base in Britain. In 1946 and 1947 it was used as a transit camp for repatriating German POWs en route from America. When that use ended it was sold off for a return to farm use, but since 1970 the airfield has had the distinction of being home to the Shipdham Aero Club, so the runway is still in use. There is also an industrial estate on the site.
As far as I know there are no Rivetts left in Shipdham. Members of the family may now be found throughout the country, and indeed across the world although many may still be found in Norfolk. My cousin Julian Rivett who was at school with me is now retired, dividing his time between living in Ne Zealand and in Burnham Market. He was for a long while associated with Sir Richard Branson, and was involved in the re-building of his holiday home on Necker Island, when it was burnt down some years ago.
Molly and I went to Shipdam in 2013, the first time I had ever been there. After looking round the church we went to the nearby pub, the Dog. In spite of its canine name they do not allow dogs in the bar, but fortunately it was a sunny early autumn day and we were able to drink our pints with Wesley in the beer garden.
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