When the large parish church at ELSING in Norfolk was built back in the 1340s, what is now a small village was a substantial country town. Maybe it even rivalled EAST DEREHAM in size. A number of stones recording burials are to be seen on the floor of the church, and as late as the eighteenth century one of these still refers to Elsing as a town. The remains of the guildhall are incorporated into a house in the village, but nowadays the evidence of the formerly bustling town is mostly hard to spot, and not much remains of the once thriving district.
When l visited the church with my wife Molly there was an exhibition of former parishioners who had fought (and in some instances died) in the First World War. This was in 2014, to the mark the centenary of the start of the war. The centenary of the Battle of Waterloo received no such observance (for one thing it fell in the middle of the First World War), but one of the last survivors of that battle is buried in an unmarked grave in Elsing churchyard.
Elsing church was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and has not been materially altered since. The nave has no aisles and is one of the broadest uninterrupted church roofs in the country. It has lost most of the medieval stained glass, and appears very light and open. Despite the loss of its stained glass a lot of pre-Reformation decorative features remain, including a font cover which has been partially restored, to give some idea of the colourful effect.
Our dog Wesley accompanied us, and we met a man from Lincolnshire on a similar church crawl. He was very taken with the fact that a dog with a Methodist name should be inspecting an Anglican church. But (as he observed) the founder of Methodism (John Wesley) remained all his life a member of the Church of England and, as my wife never tires of pointing out, Samuel Wesley the hymn tune composer remained an Anglican until in 1784 he converted to Roman Catholicism! Wesley is certainly an ecumenical name.
It still has pub just across the road from the church. The building dates from the 16th century and it is called the MERMAID. It retains much of its charm, although modern requirements mean a large open-plan bar area rather than the old-fashioned saloon, snug etc. It has a large old fireplace. It is a dog friendly pub, which is a definite plus in my book. However the meal we had there a year or two ago was rather disappointing. Elsing’s economy was always based on agriculture, even when it was a ‘town’, but it is not all fields. The area is surprisingly well wooded. Even today there are many trees among which you can wander with you dog or ride your horse.
The village lies on the river Wensum, which, before the river was interrupted by many watermills, was a major route for trade. The watermill still stands in Elsing, but the last grain was milled for animal feed in 1970. It was water powered until the last. The final miller was one A. H. Forbes. The mill is now a superior style residence. We went to a fête and duck race (that used the mill pond to race the plastic ducks) in the summer of 2017. It was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon and the surroundings were quite stunning. The mill at Lyng was in the next village downstream, but it has long gone; for a few years in the early 19th century both Lyng watermill and the one upstream at Elsing were paper mills. So too were other mills on the river, notably the ones upstream at Swanton Morley and downstream at Taverham. Not far away were other paper mills at Oxnead on the river Bure at Stoke Holy Cross on the river Tas. At Hellesdon on the Wensum and Bawburgh (on the river Yare) other mills produced pulp for paper. Paper making was big business in Norfolk 200 years ago, supplying the metropolis of Norwich and using rags from the same source.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
SLEEPING UNDER CANVAS
I remember the small white canvas tent I crept into in those long-lost summers when I was a lad. It was a real tent for two, but I never actually slept in it. However it was fun to do the things that were ancillary to spending the night there, like arranging the ground-sheet and slackening the guy ropes when it rained. These are things that would puzzle most people today. Wasn’t the ‘ground-sheet’ part of the tent? And guy ropes; – why did they need slackening if it rained? I won’t bore you with the answers, but believe me, if you didn’t take these things into consideration you would have spent a wet night under a heap of collapsed canvas.
I didn’t begin real camping until I was a teenager. For most youngsters this would probably have entailed being a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout, but I was never a Scout. Instead my camping was done as an Army Cadet. Things had hardly moved on since Victorian times in terms of the technology employed. Heavy wooden poles held the tent up, and for the larger tents the pegs were still wooden wedges that had to be hammered in with a mallet. The tents I slept in were bigger than the one I had put up on my lawn at home, but you still had to watch those guy ropes and make sure the ground-sheet wasn’t outside the tent (and so letting in the rain). The canvas of an army tent was very tough, and so they were very heavy. Consequently, on one expedition, the four of us cadets decided to do without a tent at all, and sleep under the stars. It was midsummer, and the worst problem was the heavy morning dew. We did take a ground-sheet with us, and therefore slept under it instead of on top!
Some of my camping took place in Norfolk, but mostly it happened elsewhere. When I was sixteen we went on a three-day exercise from Sennybridge, a large army base that still exists in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This time we did load our packs with tents. We also had to take a map and a compass, and we were given a map reference to rendezvous with our CO three days later. All our food we had to carry on our backs; this consisted of tinned Compo Rations army style. On the other hand, all our water was provided by the mountain streams. This was fine until we discovered a drowned sheep a few metres upstream of our watering hole; this was after we had filled our water bottles and taken plenty of swigs!
Much of my camping was done under the auspices of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, but the effect was just the same. Once I had left school my camping days were almost over, but after I had joined the Territorial Army this part of my life was revived for a short period. The experience of spending the night outdoors was not an enjoyable one in the TA; I only had a waterproof poncho for protection, and sleeping was out of the question due to fire-crackers being let off all through the night; added to that, the threat of a tear gas attack was not conducive to a good night’s rest.
I returned to the joys of camping when I was over fifty, because by then our children were in their late teens and ready for the outdoor life. We had gone to Sheffield (where they both were to attend university) to spy out the land. We spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Monsal Head. This is a beauty spot in the Peak District, and this is near Sheffield. By then the technology of camping had changed beyond recognition. None of it resembled what it had been in my youth; cotton canvas had gone, and no longer were tents cumbersome but light and compact affairs. Strong but insubstantial tent poles could be erected in seconds and separate rubberised ground sheets no longer existed. Their function was integrated into the tent itself. Sleeping bags, which once had been filled with kapok (a natural fibre that was warm enough but heavy to carry) are now made of man-made material that is both lightweight and easy to stow. I was really far too old to go camping on this occasion, but apart from the fact that my air-bed slowly went down overnight (some things hadn’t changed), it was an agreeable few days. The fact that we had our car with us meant there were no heavy backpacks to be humped across the country; our camping trip wasn’t one of the arduous kind. When we finally loaded up the car for our return home that really was my last night outdoors. I cannot say that I am sorry that this chapter in my life is now well and truly over.
My son and his girlfriend recently spent a few nights camping. We still had the equipment we had used in Derbyshire, and lent this to them. The weather was fine, and they had a good time round the fire-pit as the sun went down. Although she is Dutch, his girlfriend has lived all over the world from Hong Kong to Venezuela, but she found the attraction of North Norfolk very special.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
You may recall that over the course of the years since the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I have been giving annual updates on the life of Edward Lound MM. He had been born in Leicester, but brought up in Great Yarmouth. He worked for several years in the holiday industry before commencing his army career. He joining up in Derby. As a professional soldier he was at the outset of the war a Colour Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion the Sherwood Foresters; he must have been too good as his job to be promoted, because he never progressed beyond that rank. He fought on the Western Front in Flanders throughout the war; just eleven private soldiers of his regiment shared this distinction with the equally few officers and NCOs. The other battalion (the 1st) that was in existence at the outbreak of war was serving overseas and did not arrive in France until November. At the outbreak of war he had been in Ireland, and was immediately dispatched to Cambridge and thence to France. This made him one of the Old Contemptibles, those in the British Expeditionary Force who were involved in the earliest battles up to the end of November 1914.
After the war he went on to serve in Turkey, Egypt and on the North West Frontier. There he was constantly in conflict with the people who he referred to as Pathans; we know these people as Afghans. After leaving the army he worked in Derby until retirement when he and his wife moved back to Norfolk. When his wife died in 1951 he married my grandmother, who had been widowed in 1945.
THE LIFE STORY OF EDWARD LOUND (part seven)
1917 saw a great change on the Eastern Front, with the collapse of Russian resistance to German advances. From the beginning of the year unrest was growing in Russia, and this led to the February Revolution. The Tsar abdicated and discipline in the army became increasingly suspect. All over Russia the demands for peace were growing. Nevertheless the Provisional Government ordered an offensive against the Austro-Hungarians and Germans to begin on July 1st. The Russians enjoyed initial success against Austria, but Germany proved a much harder proposition, and by the 16th July the offensive had ground to a halt. By the 23rd of the month the Russians were in full retreat. On 1st September Russia attacked Riga, but the Russian troops refused to fight and fled the town. In the October Revolution the Bolsheviks seized power and hastily arranged a truce with Germany.
While the collapse of opposition on the Eastern Front altered the balance of power in Europe, the entry of America into the conflict on the Allied side, on April 6th, proved to be of enormous importance for the future course of the war. The coming of the Americans into the war, in which they had previously been determinedly neutral, was largely brought about by the German attempt to bring Britain to its knees by U boat attacks on neutral shipping. Although the addition of the United States to the Allied war effort was welcome, the arrival of American troops did not take place for another twelve months.
Things were also afoot in Austria, where the Young Emperor Charles I, who had come to the throne late in 1916, was secretly attempting to negotiate an Armistice with the French. Charles, the last monarch of Austria, was not at all warlike in his attitude, and has been sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church for his peaceable intentions. However the part played by Germany was far more influential as far as the British were concerned, and they were by no means ready to make peace.
The new command of the French forces under General Nivelle proposed a large-scale attack by French forces in the north of the country around the river Aisne, which meant a shift in British and Commonwealth forces. These were now to be deployed along a hundred miles of trenches, including Vimy Ridge. This was the scene of three days of bloody fighting which ended on 12th April 1917 with the Canadians taking the Ridge. The dug outs and trenches are preserved as a memorial and this gives some sense of the horrors of war a hundred years ago, though without the mud.
The New Year had begun with hard frosts and snowstorms which made operations extremely arduous for all, including the Sherwood Foresters. The Germans were driven back in the Somme valley by some heavy fighting during January and February. This did not involve the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters to any great extent; they were stationed between Béthune and Arras. Nevertheless six men were lost in January and on one day’s action on 9th February ten members of “C” Company were killed. The relentless casualties of the war kept reducing the Battalion’s strength not only through death, but also through life changing injuries and disease. March passed with repeated raids and counter raids, some larger than the rest but apparently doing nothing to shorten the war. One German raid early in the morning of April 5th was particularly violent, involving up to 50 soldiers who rushed towards the British line from a sap. They drew such a barrage of fire that they retreated back to their own lines, apparently without loss. Two Britons of the Battalion were wounded during this exchange of fire. This was followed by a similar raid from the Foresters a few days later; a Lance-Corporal was severely wounded but there were again no fatalities.
In the last week of April the Battalion was moved to the Loos area, where the headquarters were briefly established in what for then were luxurious surroundings. The new HQ even had electric light, but after a day or two this unaccustomed refinement, this home had to be surrendered to other occupants. We hear now for the first time in the Sherwood Foresters’ war diaries of a junior N.C.O. suffering shell shock. It is certain that this affliction was suffered by troops long before 1917. The description of the trenches as being full of debris, with rifles and bayonets sticking out of the mud, and the bodies of soldiers left unburied, gives some idea of the daily horror that the fighting men had to endure. This trench warfare had gone on now for years, and almost all were susceptible to the mental damage from daily endurance of scenes of carnage. Edward Lound was not one of these men; he would tell, in a matter-of-fact tone, of an officer of the Battalion who went mad. When asked if the man was then relieved of his duties, he replied ‘No; he was sent up to the front, where he got a shoulder wound which removed him to safety’.
The position of the Battalion in April was particularly bad as their section of trench had no dugouts and therefore nowhere for the men to shelter from the continuous shelling. During this month they lost 18 men killed and nearly 100 wounded. May and June passed in a similar way. There was no large-scale attack on the German lines during these months, but repeated raids of up to 150 men, who would spend half an hour or so in the enemy trenches before returning. The Germans had a very similar way of operating, so the attrition of soldiers continued with little prospect movement.
At the end of June and the beginning of July the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters were engaging the enemy near the town of Lens. For five months they had been fighting in the area, and although large-scale battles were taking place elsewhere on the front, none involved the 2nd battalion. Nevertheless the fighting had resulted in 67 killed and 302 wounded. On July 14th the troops were visited by King George V for whom the battalion provided a Guard of Honour with drums and bugles; it was an incongruous event in the mud and blood soaked circumstances of war. The whole month of August was spent by the battalion in recuperation, taking part in sporting contests and rifle drills.
On the 4th September they were ordered to ‘Bug Alley’ near Loos, where they were preparing to carry out a raid on the German lines, but on the 9th they were relieved of their duties. At the beginning of October they were again detailed to the front, where heavy rain and gales added to the difficulties of warfare. With the taking of Passchendaele the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end on 6th November, although the Foresters had not been involved; the Allies had advanced five miles in two months of horrendous fighting. With winter approaching the Germans hoped to regroup before a spring-time offensive, when a huge addition of troops freed from operations on the Eastern Front could be deployed before the arrival of the American forces.
The Allies could not afford to wait for these German reinforcements, and the Battle of Cambrai began at dawn on the 20th November. After the initial success of the Allies, the German response developed into the most substantial offensive in Northern France since 1914. The great break-through made in the German trenches and barbed wire demonstrated the effectiveness of tank warfare. By the 7th December when hostilities ceased, Allied advances to the north were balanced to certain extent by German advances to the south. The Sherwood Foresters had lost 23 men killed in the action.
(to be continued)
APRIL 2 – JUNE 14 1982
This is the story of how the war developed. These extracts from my diary will, I hope, give you an idea of the facts as they unfolded, together with the daily round of ordinary events that carried on as usual.
We listened to the nightly bulletins to learn what was going on far away across the Atlantic Ocean. The first reference to the coming conflict came at lunch time on Saturday the 3rd April:
We had corned beef for lunch; I was deeply suspicious that it came from Argentina. That evening I was anxiously watching TV to learn what was happening; I continued to follow the news closely through the following weeks. On Thursday I watched Question Time, which in those days was still hosted by the bow tie wearing Robin Day; there is no doubt what was on everybody’s mind. The spring proceeded nonetheless; the sloes were beginning to blossom on Alderford Common.
With incredible speed a Task Force of 100 ships was assembled at Portsmouth and was ready to sail by the 5th of April. There had been no contingency planning before the invasion; everybody thought such a thing against British Territory impossible. After the initial flurry of activity there was a lull while the Task Force made its way across the equator and into the South Atlantic. My diary concentrated on other things, notably the week’s performance I was giving playing the double bass in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. My friend Bill came down to the Saturday performance and recorded it on his little tape machine.
On St George’s Day I drove to Oxford, where I took my landlady from my student days out to a meal at the Cherwell Boat House, a rather superior restaurant. I must have been feeling well off, because I spent £25 on the meal for two. This was a sum that I would feel a little excessive, even today more than thirty years later! Penelope enjoyed it anyway. The next day I joined a meeting of the Recorder Society (of which I was a member) at Magdalen College and played (so I said at the time anyway) rather well! Back at Penelope’s house we continued to listen to the news, and it was on Sunday the 25th April that we heard of the outbreak of fighting on South Georgia. I had earlier been enjoying the Botanical Gardens by the river Cherwell, and had a drink at the Welsh Pony in George Street. This had been my favourite pub as a student, and in 1982 it was still open (it has long gone now). In the evening Penelope, Ian (her fiancé) and I pored over the atlas to discover more about South Georgia. I learned that Ian and Penelope had been a couple for eight years. Ian, who is disabled, works for British Aerospace. He lives in Stevenage, so theirs is long distance relationship during the week. They get together at weekends.
On Monday I returned to Norfolk. The windscreen of my car already had a crack in it, but at Thetford a pheasant crashed into the car, which made the crack much worse. Back in Norwich I had fish and chips for supper with my sister Tiggy. The primroses were out, and the cuckoo was singing; in the South Atlantic winter was coming. On Saturday May 1st things were beginning to happen, as the Task Force approach the islands: We saw the News to keep up with developments in the Falklands. During the next few days the TV was full of updates. On the 4th of May I saw the News, which was rather bad (this was following the sinking of the General Belgrano, the Argentine battleship). The sinking of HMS Sheffield followed shortly afterwards.
The Government spokesman was a man called Ian Macdonald, and he gave daily updates on the BBC; the eyes of the nation were glued to him. My sister Tiggy and I drove up to Yorkshire with our dogs to spend a few days in Bill’s house near Whitby. (Bill was manager of Whitby hospital.) Naturally we had to visit the North Yorkshire Moors Railway while we were there, and an evening was spent at the Spa Theatre in Scarborough. It is rather strange how serious things were going on across the world while we were enjoying ourselves in the British summer.
Victory for Britain came in the middle of June. The Falklands War demonstrated among other things the great abilities of the Harrier jump jet, without which we would have struggled. The war provided the Vulcan, the last of the three V bombers to remain in front line service, with its only taste of real conflict. Mrs Thatcher, who had been far from popular in the months leading up to the Argentine invasion, drew huge and approving crowds in the aftermath of victory. Following a successful war, for the outbreak of which the UK was in no way to blame, the outcome of the 1983 general election was never in doubt. It was of course a Tory landslide.
The liner Uganda was converted from a cruise ship (taking schoolchildren on education voyages) to a Hospital Ship, for dispatch to the South Atlantic. Like all the work needed to prepare for the distant conflict, this was done in record time. That summer, when she returned to the UK to a hero’s welcome, she was again fitted out as a school cruise ship in September. After just two months she was chartered as a supply ship for the Falkland Islands. When her charter ran out she was taken to Taiwan for breaking up. My friend Bill Wragge (who we had visited in Yorkshire in the summer of 1982) is a long-standing member of the World Ship Society, and members contributed to the definitive history of the ship. The book was published twenty years ago. Bill contributed the chapter on her time as hospital ship.
It was the Falklands War that persuaded me to join the TA, but that is another story, which I have already told. Click here to read of my time as a private in the RAMC(V).
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE 1980s
This Norfolk village is hidden away in the depths of the countryside. It is twenty five miles south west of Norwich; it is not exceptionally picturesque but pleasant enough. It comes under Breckland District Council. In summer it is surrounded by green hedges and fields of corn. The church of St Michael is set back on a bend in the road and the bell rings the hours; when we were there in June the clock was a quarter of an hour fast. It has a fine display of 15th century Norwich School stained glass and five remaining figures set in brasses on the floor.
The river Wissey passes through Great Cressingham and rises a few miles north at Bradenham. You are a long way from the Norfolk Broads here, and further downstream the Wissey is home to narrow boats that have come to Norfolk from the Midland canal system. It has more in common with the river Severn that the river Bure in boating terms – almost a foreign country!
Molly and I were there to watch our daughter Polly compete in a British Cycling road race. Although this was held in Norfolk the competitors came from far away; several from London and one from Shropshire. The field was therefore a strong one and Polly did well to finish around half way down the field – there were 30 in the women’s race. It was her first road race, previously she had competed in a Mountain Bike contests near Brandon which we had also gone to watch. On that occasion we never even found the venue! This race started at the village hall and there were seven laps of the surrounding roads, each one taking about 20 minutes to complete. Along the Watton Road the villagers had turned out in force to watch. They probably don’t get very much entertainment in the village. My wife could get no signal on her phone – maybe it would be better on another network.
The nearest town is Watton and for ninety years until 1964 that was their nearest railway station, on the Swaffham to Thetford branch. Great Cressingham may have felt a little less cut off before the Second World War because southwards the Stanford Battle Training Area now blocks off Great and Little Cressingham from the Thetford area. In all five villages (plus a deserted medieval settlement) were taken over by the War Office in 1942 and remain out of bounds today. STANTA is used for regular training exercises by the Paras and others, and soldiers from Europe are frequently to be seen there. The former habitations have been wrecked by decades of neglect and gunfire, but the churches have been preserved. The fine church at West Tofts was largely rebuilt in the 19th century by Pugin, at the expense of its millionaire vicar. It is described as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the country and so it is doubly sad that it cannot be visited. However occasional services have been held there since the 1980s.
As a civil parish Great Cressingham is combined with Little Cressingham and two villages together had a population off 421 in the last census. The village school close in 1992 and there is no longer a shop, but the 17th century pub (the Olde Windmill) remains. It seems a popular place with a dining room and guest bedrooms as well as wide range of cask ales.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
The British nurse who was born in the Rectory on the edge of Swardeston common did great work in the provision of modern nursing services in Belgium. However her name would be utterly forgotten today had she not been shot by a German firing squad a hundred years ago. Most people will be aware of her story, and how she tried to help the soldiers on both sides. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her cry; but that does not mean she did not feel that patriotism was important.
Although her work to aid the German injured is undisputed, there is controversy over the precise nature of Cavell’s contribution to the Allied War effort; did she merely help British soldiers to escape the Germans, or was her involvement with British Intelligence more substantial? This attempt to cast her in a less favourable light is entirely misplaced, although utterly in accord with modern mean-spirited scepticism. As a patriotic Englishwoman her intention was unmistakably to aid the British, whether in the escape plans of personnel or with intelligence. Strictly speaking, even her work in aiding fugitive Britons to escape Belgium was clearly illegal to the German occupation force. The question should not be whether or not they were right to shoot her; this raises many problems, not least whether the Germans had any right to be in Belgium in the first place. The question should rather be ‘were the Germans wise to shoot her’? And the answer to this is that they made a monumental error. The contrast between her kind and caring but patriotic nature and the unfeeling brutality of the German High Command could not have been more marked. Is it any wonder that observers across the world have, ever since her death, taken her side?
I am afraid that it is still part of the German psyche to pursue legalistic correctness in disregard of the wider decencies of life. Even today the Germans (and it is they who run Europe) are inflicting apparently endless economic punishment on Greece. The Greeks may have acted extremely irresponsibly in the past, but what is the point of loading extortionate loans onto them, loans that they have no prospect of ever repaying? Individual Germans may be delightful people, but as a nation they appear dour and humourless. Even their sports cars are dedicated to speed and performance rather than fun. Perhaps it is this trait that has made the nation such an economic powerhouse.
Edith seems to have been an exemplary character, whether as a student of French, an amateur painter, mistress of her beloved dogs, nurse to her ailing father or matron of a hospital in Brussels. In spite of her life in Belgium, she was quintessentially a middle class English spinster of a type that no longer exists. These women had grit. It is in no way to denigrate her courage and fortitude to say that any number of her contemporaries would have behaved exactly as Edith Cavell did, given the same circumstances.
I sometimes reflect on the fact that Edith and I attended the same school in Norwich (though 75 year apart). This may seem a little odd as it was the Norwich High School for Girls, but as I have explained elsewhere, the school briefly accepted boys for the first two years of their education. Swardeston common itself was a popular dog-walking spot during my youth, and despite often passing her former home I scarcely gave the poor lady a second thought. My son must have passed her statue daily on the way to school, but such regular attendances soon blunt any deeper consideration. It is as well to take some time to examine the significance of the life and death of nurse Edith Cavell.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
PRIVATE MASON No. 49919
Alfred John Mason was born on January 3rd 1898. He was one of the ten children of Charles Mason who survived beyond infancy. He was the second child (of five) his mother Alice had with Charles; she was his second wife. Alfred grew up at 25 Russell Terrace in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. Like his brothers and sisters he was educated at the village school. On leaving at the age of fourteen he worked in the mustard mill at Colman’s Carrow Works where his father and eldest brother were also employed.
When the First World War broke out two years later he was too young to enlist, but as soon as he was old enough he enrolled in the army. He was kept in England as in 1915 (aged just seventeen) he was still too young to fight, and so he was trained in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After basic training he was transferred to the Service Corps in 1916 and deployed to France. He finally made it to a front line fighting unit, the 6th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment. This Battalion had been formed in 1914 and after serving in Gallipoli and Egypt they returned to France in July 1916, where Alfred joined them in 1917. After fighting for months in France he had returned to Trowse on leave in September 1918. During his stay he took the opportunity of visiting old friends and colleagues at the mustard mill. His smart military appearance and his concern for the goings on back home made a definite impression on the workers he met.
In Northern France, at the end of October 1918 his Battalion were in training at
Valenciennes, but with just two hours notice they were ordered to the front line. On the 1st of November their fellow combatants in the 9th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were ordered into battle, with Alfred and his unit held in reserve. On the 4th the Foresters made a successful attack on the hill at Sebourg with the Lincolnshires in support. On the sixth the Lincolnshires experienced some resistance from the enemy, but on the seventh the Germans were forced back; they were in retreat and disarray, and the war was rapidly coming to an end. However Alfred Mason had already been hit by shrapnel, and on the 3rd of November 1918 he had died of his wounds. By a cruel irony he was the only member of his Regiment to be injured by that shell blast. A week later the Armistice was signed on the 11th November to general rejoicing back home in Norwich, and many people thronged the market place. Alfred’s sister Edith met her future husband on that happy occasion. At the family home in Trowse this delight turned to despair three days later when the news of Alfred’s death arrived. His oldest brother was 38 and his youngest sister was only 11 at the time of his death. It was a very cruel circumstance that he so nearly survived the war.
He was buried at the St Vaast cemetery near Cambrai. There are 45 graves of British soldiers in this military extension to the communal cemetery; for much of the war this village was in German hands. Compiègne were the Armistice was signed is about half way between Valenciennes, where Alfred died, and Paris. Cambrai, where his body lies, is between Valenciennes and Compiègne. In 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War a display was mounted in Trowse church, with details of the twenty one villagers who gave their lives in the conflict. A photograph of Alfred Mason was among them, and two of his nieces attended the exhibition.
THE BLOG FOR the STORY OF THE MASON FAMILY
Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He was immediately thrown into the continuing war with the Danes; they were fresh from their victory over the King of East Anglia, which had involved the death of Edmund. Previously the Danes had successfully defeated the Northumbrians at York, so they appeared invincible. King Edmund had been killed by the invading Danes eighteen months before Alfred came to the throne, when his brother was killed in battle with the Danes.
There is no written record of any Anglo-Saxon kings who might have succeeded Edmund in East Anglia, and for many centuries it was assumed that none did, but the names of two kings are now known from the discovery of coins that they issued. The names of these two East Anglian rulers were Oswald and Æthelred. For simplicity’s sake I will restrict my comments to King Æthelred, and from his coinage we can state a few basic facts. One coin from his reign bears the name of the moneyer (i.e. coin-issuer) Sigered, who had also acted in the same capacity for Edmund. The design is also identical with the coinage that had been issued by Edmund. The coins issued a few years later by the Danes were very different; from this information we can assert that there was continuity between the reigns of Edmund and Æthelred, and the change to Danish rule came after 880.
We know that these coins circulated outside East Anglia, as one example was found in Kent, which by then was part of Wessex. This means that it is impossible that the Wessex court was unaware of the King Æthelred’s existence; in spite of this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (that work of Wessex propaganda) gives the clear impression that Edmund was the last English king of East Anglia, although (perhaps significantly) they did not explicitly say so. Were the authors of the Chronicle trying to hide something? And if so what?
Knowledge was something that Alfred prized above almost everything else. He was an avid collector of travellers’ tales, and we have the details of what he heard about the far north of Norway, and of Ireland too. If he was that interested in distant lands, how could he not have known the king of an adjacent realm like East Anglia? Surely the Wessex court was not only very interested in what was happening there, but they would also have been very well informed. If the writers of the Chronicle were unforthcoming about the king, it was not because of a lack of knowledge. Why was the Wessex establishment so keen to give the impression to posterity that East Anglia had already fallen under Danish rule in 869, with the death of Edmund?
Between the departure of the Danish army from East Anglia late in the year 870, and the return of this army as settlers in 880, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nothing to say about what was happening in East Anglia. However, we can be certain that its future was high up on the list of concerns discussed at Wednore, after Alfred’s victory over the Danish army. Alfred had emerged from his low point in hiding at Athelney with a radical solution to the problem posed by the Danes in Wessex. After his defeat of Guthrum’s army Alfred was able to put his plan into effect. Despite his victory, he knew that the best way to protect Wessex from future Danish attacks was to give them somewhere else; if they were occupied in setting up another kingdom, they would have less time to bother Alfred. Northumbria they had already taken over, and Alfred had plans to annex the kingdom of Mercia; that left the kingdom of East Anglia as the place to give Guthrum, and he was duly dispatched thither in 880.
For an English king to impose a Danish monarch on an Anglo-Saxon nation was certainly a betrayal, but if it protected Wessex then Alfred could live with that. What he could not contemplate was to impose a heathen king on a Christian people. That is why it was so important for him to have Guthrum baptised, and anointed as a Christian king. This was achieved in 878, but then there was a long delay.
In 878 -880, with the decision to establish the Danes in East Anglia, we have now reached a period of inactivity on the part of Guthrum and his army. Between his baptism and his eventual arrival in East Anglia there was a period of about 18 months. This posed a problem of provisioning; as the Danish army could no longer forage for itself as predators on the people of Wessex they would have to be provided with food. That difficulty however paled into insignificance compared to that task of keeping so many fit young warriors idle for so long. Eventually they became too much for the people of Wessex to deal with, and they were moved across the border to Cirencester in Mercia. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution, for the advantage of putting a reasonable distance between them and the kingdom of Wessex was offset by the difficulty of supervising and controlling them. The question that must be asked is ‘why were these hungry and impatient Danes not sent straight to East Anglia’? The answer must lie in East Anglia itself.
It is sometimes stated that in 880 Guthrum returned to East Anglia, but this implies he had been there before. However, it is clear from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he had never before been to East Anglia. He had not arrived in England until after the Danes had left the despoiled lands of Norfolk and Suffolk for Wessex. The nearest he had got to East Anglia was in 874, which year he spent in Cambridge. This has never been a part of the province of East Anglia, and in any case he was only in Cambridge to muster his troops for a renewed assault on Wessex; all his attention was directed west, not east.
When Alfred was arranging the future of East Anglia with Guthrum in 878, they were dealing with a kingdom that neither leader had any legitimate claim to. Even if King Æthelred of East Anglia was (against all the evidence) a Danish puppet king, he owed his allegiance to the dynasty of Ragnar Lothbrok, members of which family had led the earlier invasion of East Anglia which had led to the death of King Edmund. Æthelred could not have been the puppet of Guthrum under any circumstances; if he had been a puppet, Æthelred’s strings would have been pulled from York, the city Ragnar’s sons had retired to after 870. Guthrum was not a part of this family, and the fact that he could walk into East Anglia suggests to me that York had no influence over East Anglia after 870.
The other party to the arrangement, Alfred, had no authority over East Anglia either. His own view of himself as protector of all Anglo-Saxons would not have been shared by the people of East Anglia, who he was engaged in delivering to the mercies of a foreign king. We may imagine that once Æthelred got wind of the fate that Alfred and Guthrum had cooked up for him frantic representations were made, not only to the West Saxon court but also to anybody else who would listen. We may also imagine that some important people in Wessex itself must have had some serious misgivings about Alfred’s intentions.
The fact that not a word of all this appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not surprising. Like the silence of the Chronicle on the existence of King Æthelred, the propagandists of Wessex were keen to leave the impression to posterity that nothing stood between Alfred and the smooth implementation of his plan. The long delay gives the lie to this story. We cannot know how this situation was eventually resolved, but it is cannot have been done in a pleasant manner.
There is some evidence that Alfred himself had some conscience about the fate that he was wishing on his fellow Englishmen in Norfolk and Suffolk. For all Guthrum’s apparent conversion to Christianity and his Anglo-Saxon baptismal name of Athelstan, Guthrum had not really changed, and Alfred was aware of this. His new religion was politically expedient, not the result of a heart-felt change in belief. No bishops were allowed to promulgate the faith in the east throughout the period of Danish rule. Guthrum proved to be as oppressive as everyone had feared. What evidence do we have have for this? The violent and unjust nature of Danish rule can be found in the treaty between Alfred and the Danes known as Guthrum’s Peace. This also demonstrates how Alfred continued to feel responsible for the conditions under which Guthrum’s English subjects lived.
This treaty, which is likely to date from 886, has five articles. Numbers two and three both deal with murder in East Anglia; article two begins “If a man be slain we esteem all equally dear, English and Danish.” This is a strong hint of two things; one is that inter-ethnic violence was rife. If murder were a rare occurrence there would have been no need to refer to it in the treaty. Secondly, if when it did occur, Danish and English perpetrators were treated equally, there would have been no need for such a clause either. We can therefore be sure that native East Anglians found themselves second class citizens in their own land, as a direct result of Alfred’s intervention. Alfred’s concern for these victims of discrimination has been attributed to his view of himself as the king of all Englishmen. Although it is is certainly true that he saw himself in his way, there is more to it than that. His responsibility was more direct and personal, and reveals perhaps that he felt a sense of guilt for his treatment of the East Anglians. Surely I am not alone seeing Alfred’s queasy conscience at work here?
It is doubtful if Guthrum took these treaty obligations any more seriously than the other oaths he had taken and then reneged upon when it suited him. Alfred certainly wished to improve the conditions under which East Anglians lived, but his ability to do anything about them was severely limited. Ultimately he intended to extend his kingdom into East Anglia, a policy objective which was only accomplished some twenty years after his death. For the time being, and for the remainder of his lifetime, all that Alfred could do was to demonstrate his good intentions by such things as the treaty with Guthrum.
As ruled over by Guthrum East Anglia was more extensive than it had been as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; it reached into most of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and into part of Lincolnshire too. Essex was the first part of this kingdom to be lost, becoming part of Alfred’s Wessex before Guthrum’s death in 890. North Norfolk finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 917.
This examination of the last period of East Anglia’s existence as an independent kingdom reveals how intimately involved it was with Alfred the Great, despite his having no direct power over the land. He established its last dynasty of Danish rulers, and then plotted to depose them and establish his own rule. He even tried to influence their laws in treaty negotiations with the Danish king. You might think Alfred’s story is all about Wessex; but East Anglia was an abiding concern throughout his life.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
My Great Aunt Ruth was born in 1890, to a warrener whose job it was to harvest the rabbits on Jeremiah James Colman’s estate. It was a very ordinary job in which Phipp Peachey, my great-grandfather, disgraced himself by selling rabbits under the counter to the local butcher. This was a serious thing to have done, but he kept his job; however he was no longer allowed to wear the Colman livery. This was apparently a great ignominy for him.
Ruth Peachey was educated at the local village school in Trowse. When she had finished her schooling she was retained as a pupil teacher, which was still how new teachers were trained in the early years of the twentieth century. This was quite a step up for a warreners daughter, but she was not the first of her family to go down this route. Her eldest sister Thurza had already qualified as a teacher. Another Trowse born youngster was called Bertie Hardy, the son of a bricklayer. Three years older than Ruth, he had already qualified as a teacher.
Bertie and Ruth were married in 1912. When the First World War broke out Bertie joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private. He went on to become a sergeant. I do not know how good he was at the language when he arrived in France, but he obviously took full advantage of living among foreigners to improve his linguistic skill. After returning from the front he secured a job teaching French at the City of Norwich School. This was established in 1910 by Norwich City Council as a boys’ secondary school, to be built at Eaton on the edge of town. The most intelligent boys from the City’s Primary Schools were awarded scholarships, to be educated until the age of sixteen. The CNS, together with the Blyth School for girls, were in fact Grammar Schools, although most such schools were set up following the 1944 Education Act.
Ruth was very interested in politics and was a member of the Independent Labour Party. She was proud to call herself a Socialist, and once she was elected to the council she rose rapidly through the ranks. During the Second World War she established MAGNA (Mutual Aid Good Neighbour Association), a voluntary group that supported the vulnerable. In 1950 she was appointed Lord Mayor. For her inauguration she revived the Civic Coach, pulled by two dray horses from Steward and Paterson’s brewery. The coach had been in storage since before the war.
As her Lady Mayoress Ruth had her daughter Marion. How Ruth’s husband would have been described had he wished to fill the position I do not know; her predecessors as female Mayors were spinsters, so the problem had not arisen. As it was Bertie was more than happy to remain in the background. An only child, Marion was a graduate of Oxford University. Like her father she had studied French. All this was a long way from laying bricks and catching rabbits in the Norfolk countryside.
Aunt Ruth retained a great interest in politics, and she lived into the era of Margaret Thatcher. In spite of their very different political backgrounds, she was enchanted by the prospect of a female politician rising to the very highest power in the land. ‘Mark my words,’ she predicted, ‘she will be a great prime minister’.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
I will start with the letter A, and so I will begin with Dr Andrews. When I arrived in 1959 he had already given up the position of school chaplain – apparently due to a crisis of conscience (as I learnt much later). He was housemaster of Woodlands throughout my school career, and he was succeeded in that post by Steve Benson, who arrived during my time in the 6th form. I was taken to task by Dr Andrews for disposing of a black goldfish I had bought at the Holt pet shop in the Woodlands house pond. Apparently it was spotted by Andrews and caused quite a stir; how did it suddenly appear in the pond? How he found out it was me I still do not know; somebody must have snitched on me.
He taught history, so I came into contact with him quite a lot, being a budding historian myself. His manner was precise and rather formal, and he did not make the subject come alive as David Gregory did for me. Neither Benson not Gregory had yet arrived at the school in 1963, so I will say no more about these masters in this article.
Because it was my poorest subject, my father arranged for me to have extra maths lessons with Dan Frampton. I used to go round to his house in Woodlands Close, where he had a surprisingly elegant study at the back of his large garage. There he would attempt to teach me Pythagoras’s Theorem, long division and such like. He must have been successful, because I passed my ‘O’ level in the subject. Dan developed cancer while I was still at school, although I did not learn the detail of this until after I had left. Although he returned to work following treatment, he died before very many years were up. Before he became ill he was the C.O of the CCF, following Colonel Williams. During my short career in the CCF (I joined in 1963 and left in 1966) I had three C.O.s. Two I have mentioned already, and the third was ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who had been in a pilot in the air force during the war. (He was not of course the real ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who was a night fighter ace during WWII.) The other two leaders of the CCF were army men.
Bernard Sankey was my housemaster when I went into Farfield in 1963. In that year he was also my physics master. I might have passed my physics ‘O’ level had he remained my teacher, but instead we had a man who could not keep discipline among us 15-year-old boys. Almost the entire form failed, so it wasn’t just me who played him up so cruelly. I can remember sitting in the physics lab doing experiments with Bernard Sankey. One involved collapsing a tin in which boiling water had been sealed, and then allowing it to cool. To demonstrate that all objects would fall at the same rate he went up to the top of one of the towers that adorn the Big School building, and dropped a stone and a feather from the top. Of course they didn’t fall at the same rate, as he knew the wouldn’t, and he explained why. Another involved the use of mercury, and this got spilt of the desk in front of me. We chased the little globules of liquid metal across the woodwork with our fingers. This relaxed attitude to such a poisonous element would horrify today’s teachers, but in 1964 the phrase ‘Health and Safety’ had not then entered our physics vocabulary. Nor had it in chemistry; although we wore white lab coats to protect out clothes from spitting acid, we wore no goggles to protect our eyes. This worried my father, who was a little more advanced in his ideas, and he was glad I wore glasses which protected them to some extent.
Mrs Sankey, his wife, was already becoming ill by 1964 – also with cancer – and Bernard had retired from Farfield by 1966. He went to live in a restored cottage in the nearby village of Hunworth. He invited those of his former Farfield boys who were leaving the Upper Sixth to a meal in his cottage at Christmas 1966. This was a memorable occasion. After leaving Farfield I did not see Bernard again for over 15 years, when in 1984 I and Molly (my wife to be) attended the unveiling of the Gurney Clock in Chapelfiel Gardens in Norwich. This was a replica of John Harrison’s chronometer, and this was just up Bernard’s street. He was an old man by then, but he was as delighted as a young boy by the clock. He seemed to remember me.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE