SWANNINGTON is a village some 9 miles north-west of Norwich. Its centre is off the Norwich to Reepham Road, and there is little through traffic; it is a peaceful place. The name has nothing to do with swans and comes from an Anglo-Saxon personal name – the place where Swein’s family lived.
Until the practice of ecclesiastical appointments being allocated by some local worthy or institution was abolished in the 20th century, Swannington was in the gift of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The church at nearby Weston Longville was in the gift of New College Oxford, and James Woodforde who was appointed Parson of Weston in 1773 was a scholar of that college. Similarly at Swannington many of the clergy who occupied the position of Rector were Cambridge men of Trinity Hall.
In the Autumn of 1616 John Copeman married Alice Bunnett in St Margaret’s church in Swannington. The Rector Miles Knollys, who officiated at the ceremony, had only recently been appointed. The church was in a dilapidated state of repair; birds flew through holes in the roof and the missing panes in the West Window meant it had been boarded up. The condition of the Rectory was not much better.
When Alice was a young girl her uncle Edward had got into trouble for not standing during the reading of the Gospel at Swannington church. At least these passages were in the vernacular by 1598, when this misdemeanor was recorded; this was before the Authorised Version, and it would have been readings from Henry VIII’s Great Bible that Edward Bennett sat through. A couple of generations earlier the Gospels were only available in Latin, which was entirely unintelligible to the vast mass of the people. Alice’s father George was more respectful, and stood at the appropriate time. Attendance at church services was compulsory in the 16th century, but there was apparently some reluctance among the parishioners to do so. Joan Thomson of the same village was admonished a few years later for non-attendance at Sunday service; she replied that she was sick and so unable to attend. The fact that her actions came to the notice of the Rector suggests there is some question over how genuine her illness was.
In 1630, after the death of Miles Knollys, the Rev. Edmund Duncon (a Suffolk born graduate of Trinity Hall) was appointed Rector of Swannington. He married his wife in the village eight years later. One of his early acts was to rebuild the Rectory, which was in the last stages of decay. The Old Rectory is a large building in the 17th century style, that was still the residence of the Rev. John Dixon Wortley in 1950; he had been appointed in 1917. He was the last Rector to live in the Old Rectory, and the last graduate of Trinity Hall to receive the living in the old way. The Rev. Edmund Duncon did not remain for many years in the parish of Swannington, for in 1643 he was sequestered (i.e.removed) by Parliament, along with many of his fellow priests in Norfolk. He was replaced by an ‘Intruder’, a local preacher named Robert Cronshaye. Cronshaye was still active in Watton after the Restoration, where he obtained a licence to preach in 1662. The Puritans discouraged outward ceremony, and no doubt the whole congregation was compelled to sit during Scripture readings. In the 1650s Duncon was appointed Curate to the Chaplain of the Beaumont family, who were living in Suffolk. As this was a private arrangement, the harsh requirements of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate were to a certain extent avoided. The Prayer Book, for example, that had been banned in all acts of public worship would have continued in use in the Beauchamp household. With the Restoration of the monarchy, the Rev. Edmund Duncon was again installed as Rector of Swannington, before resigning two years later and moving to his final appointment in Friern Barnet, Middlesex. There he died in 1672 at the age of 73.
Alice and John Copeman moved to the village of Whitwell after their marriage. This is a few miles north of Swannington, and there they had their family. Alice was some years older than her husband, and when the last son was born she was approaching 40 years of age. In 1628 her pregnancy went badly, and she died shortly after giving birth to George. George however survived. John Copeman was plunged into great difficulties with the death of his wife; he was left with five children under the age of ten to bring up. He did not remarry, so members of his extended family must have stepped in to look after the children while he went out to work. Despite the best efforts of his relatives, all three sons died in 1630, and a daughter, Alice, did not survive into adulthood. Only Catherine, aged just two at the time of her mother’s death, lived through all obstacles to have a family of her own. It was unsurprising if, in these tragic circumstances, John turned to drink.
The Kings Head was the pub in Swannington at this time, and to judge by its appearance it had been built at least 100 years before that. Why John Copeman had returned to Swannington from Whitwell is unclear, but not content with a pint of two at the Kings Head, he became thoroughly inebriated, to such an extent that he abused his fellows and got into fights. His behaviour came to the attention of the local constable. Not to be put off alcohol so easily he continued to make a nuisance of himself, and he was taken to court in Norwich in 1632. There he was fined five shillings; this was a huge amount that of course he could not pay, so failing that he was placed for six hours in the stocks in Norwich Market Place. After his punishment he continued his rowdy drink-fuelled behaviour, and before 1635 he was again arraigned before the Justices. 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 post was where miscreants were whipped. This was an experience that finally seems to have cured him of his drinking problem; certainly he does not again appear in the court records.
My interest in these years in the history of Swannington is twofold. The Rev. Edmund Duncon was, in 1633, instrumental in the publication of George Herbert’s seminal book of devotional verse, The Temple. Edmund Duncon was a friend of Nicholas Ferrar, one of the saintly founders of the Anglican community at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire; Duncon was visiting his friend at Little Gidding when word came of the serious illness of another of Ferrar’s friends, George Herbert. Duncon was immediately dispatched to Wiltshire. We often think travel was impossibly difficult before the age of railways, but Duncon was able to go to George Herbert’s parish of Bemerton (now a suburb of Salisbury) without delay. Having met the 39-year-old priest on his deathbed, he was was entrusted with the volume of manuscripts to be brought back to Little Gidding; if they were deemed worthless, he was to burn them. On the contrary, all who read the poems on his return to Huntingdonshire were immediately impressed by their value.
As well as an early form of ‘concrete poetry’, where the shape of the verses is an important part of the effect, he wrote several compositions that are perfect for setting to music. Hymns are not as popular as they once were, but Herbert’s “Let All the World in Every Corner Sing” and “Teach me, my God and King” may be familiar to those who listen to Songs of Praise. He took the poems together with an introduction by Ferrar to the printer in Cambridge, and later legend reports that it was the wealth generated by The Temple which enabled Duncon to rebuild Swannington Rectory on such a grand scale. It went through many editions during Duncon’s lifetime. In case you should doubt this connection between the great poet and this sleepy Norfolk village, the part played by Duncon in this story is recorded by Isaac Walton in his 1670 biography of the poet.
My interest in the rather less elevated career of John Copeman is more personal; he was my wife Molly’s 16 times great-grandfather. George Bunnett was her ancestor a generation before that. It may seem that her family has not moved very far in nearly half a millennium- after all, Swannington is only a couple of miles away from our current home. That is a co-incidence however; John Copeman’s daughter Catherine moved away, and others of her ancestors lived in London, Scotland and Devon.
My first visit to Swanninton occurred some three hundred years after Edmund Duncon’s return to Swanninton Rectory at the Restoration. After a Summer Sunday visit to the Broads, all the boarders from our school house (all 25 of us, aged from eight to thirteen) were taken in the coach to spend the evening in the garden of Upgate House in Swanington. This was a large 1930s style house, in splendid grounds that were much older than the house. It was the family home of two of our companions, the Barratt boys. We had a great time playing childish games as the July sun drained from the sky.
The head of the family, John Legh Barratt, was a veteran of the Second World War, having been captured by the Japanese in Singapore as an officer of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. John Barratt was the head of the old-established Norwich stockbroking firm of Barratt and Cooke, that had been established in the 19th century by his father Legh. John’s younger son Charles has been for many years the Chairman of the firm.
Charlie Barratt was almost my exact contemporary, being just six months younger. I should really call the bothers David and Charles, but they will always be remembered by me as Dave and Charlie. They had a sister too, who was sadly killed when she was knocked off her moped in London in 1973.
Charlie and I referred to ourselves as the two CWs, because our parents had wisely named us Charles William and not vice versa, which would have made us the two WCs! We went into different houses in the Senior School and consequently lost touch. About five years ago Charles William Legh Barratt was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk, and later Deputy Lieutenant of the county. As you may have guessed, David and Charles Barratt come from a distinguished family with aristocratic connections. The high offices of state still retain their social elevation, even in the supposedly egalitarian 21st century.
I returned to Upgate House in Swannington 30 years after my first visit, when my own children were young. Old Mr Barratt, the father of David and Charles, was still living there and was holding a summer Fête to raise funds for St Margaret’s church. I still have some books by Dr Seuss I bought there on his lawn at the Fête. John Barratt’s widow died in 2014 at the ripe old age of 99, and John himself had died 12 years earlier. The Barratt gates to the churchyard at St Margaret’s are a memorial to members of the family and the church now has a new heating system thanks in part to a donation from the Barratt family’s Charitable Trust.
My neighbour owns a field in Swannington, where she was born at about the time of my first visit to the parish; as a child she sang in the choir at St Margaret’s church. The field is under an acre, but it is ample for her to grow all the fruit and vegetables she need to supply jams and chutneys to all the local Fairs and Fêtes. The presence of so much food attracts wildlife; mice and crows forage for seeds, and even the occasional adder suns himself among the marrows. We were given our raspberry canes by our neighbours, and they had been grown in Swannington. Every year they produce all the raspberries we need to freeze for the year. Now, as I eat some delicious fruit from these Swannington raspberry canes, I will end this brief account of the village.