Shipdam church tower with its attractive lantern

Shipdam church tower with its attractive lantern

SHIPDHAM is a large village in central Norfolk  just a few miles south of East Dereham on the Watton road. In past centuries it was a small market town – it still has a Market Street, the main road to Watton. 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) down to my great-grandfather Henry Rivett who was born there in 1848. Throughout the 18th century my lineal ancestors in the Rivett family had lived in or around Shipdham. They married girls from the surrounding parishes but they nearly all lived in Shipdham.

The first one whose occupation we know of was William Rivett (b. 1777, my great-great-great grandfather) who was for most of his life a carpenter. His sons (he had five and five daughters) were all in similar trades; a coach builder, two carpenters and two wheelwrights. Even one of his daughters married a wheelwright in Wymondham. His youngest son Francis was one of the Shipdham wheelwrights, though he married a school teacher from Kent. He died in 1912. 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, 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 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.

Born 1848


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 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. At Black Moor Row Farnhouse he was living with his bachelor uncle William in 1901, together with his grandmother Susan and spinster aunt Kate. (Kate died in 1962 at the grand 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 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 school; perhaps 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. Perhaps money was tighter before their father was fully established in his farm.  As things worked out the girls got a better education than the boys

Tony Rivett

Tony Rivett

It is remarkable that three members of the family (two of them relatives by marriage) were teachers, 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 had 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 used. There is also an industrial estate on the site.

Julian Rivett

Julian Rivett

iAs far as I know there are no Rivetts left in Shipdham. Members of the family may now be found throughout the country and ndeed across the world although many may still be found in Norfolk. My cousin Julian Rivett who was a pupil about two years my junior at Farfield at Gresham’s is now a semi-retired builder living at Burnham Market. He has for a long while been associated with Sir Richard Branson and was involved in the re-building of his holiday home in Necker Island when it was burnt down a few years ago.

Molly and I went to Shipdam last year, 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.





One response

  1. Felicity Robinson | Reply

    Facinating Joe, to read more about my father’s family! (lovely photo of him at Cambridge too) Thanks. Felicity


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: