Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States in 1861. We all know the part he played in the Civil War, but the fact that his ancestor Samuel Lincoln emigrated to America in 1637 in his teens is a slightly less familiar fact. Samuel settled in Hingham Massachusetts, a settlement some 23 miles south of Boston. Samuel had grown up in the village of Hingham in Norfolk, before being apprenticed to Francis Lawes as a weaver in Norwich. This was a time when Puritan feelings were at their height, especially in Norwich, where Matthew Wren (uncle of the architect Christopher Wren) was appointed bishop in 1635. He tried to impose traditional elements of worship on the churches of the diocese, such as bowing at the name of Jesus and the wearing of surplices. These things were anathema to the Puritans, and many of them longed to escape the stifling influence of the Church of England by establishing a simpler form of worship in the New World. Francis Lawes could not tolerate this state of affairs for long, and within two years he and his family – his wife, daughter and servant Samuel Lincoln – had embarked on the ship the John and Dorothy at Yarmouth for the voyage to New England.
It was no accident that Samuel Lincoln chose to make his home in Hingham Massachusetts. His elder brother Thomas had emigrated two years earlier in 1635 when the town was incorporated. The settlement had been founded by a number of the better-off citizens of Hingham in Norfolk who, together with their clergy the Reverends Peck and Hobart, had sold their property off cheaply in England to make a new life for themselves in America. The poorer folk who were left behind in Norfolk suffered badly from the loss of so many wealthy inhabitants of the village and petitioned Parliament for aid. Hingham Massachusetts is nothing like Hingham in Norfolk; for a start is a coastal town, whereas the English village is deep in the interior of Norfolk. Until the coming of the railways many Norfolk people could live their whole lives without ever seeing the sea, in spite of the county being almost surrounded by water.
The most famous ship to take emigrants across the Atlantic was the Mayflower. She sailed from Rotherhithe on the Thames to Plymouth in 1620 en route to Massachusetts. She had been built towards the beginning of the 1600s in Harwich in Essex. Although the Pilgrim Fathers came from all over southern England, several of them were from Norfolk and Suffolk.
Many generations separate Samuel Lincoln from his descendant Abraham, and George Washington’s ancestral home in Northamptonshire cannot really be called part of Eastern England, but one of the most influential of political voices of the American War of Independence belonged to a Norfolkman born and bred. Tom Paine was born to a weaver in Thetford (note how the wool trade dominated the lives of East Anglians for centuries) and he was educated at the Grammar School there. You can read more about Thomas Paine in an earlier blog I wrote.
To get an idea of the more general way East Anglians were involved in the earliest settlement of the US look at all the place-names that we now associated with North America, but that originated in Norfolk. Yarmouth in Cape Cod was founded in 1639 and Norwich Connecticut in 1659. Norfolk itself means Norfolk Virginia to anyone from across the pond. Denver Colorado gets it name from James Denver, but indirectly from the fenland village in Norfolk. Of course many other parts of England have left their mark on the map of North America, but Norfolk is up there with the best.
So far I have only mentioned those who travelled westwards to the New World, but in the Second World War more American air force personnel were stationed in Norfolk than anywhere else in the UK. In view of the strong ties we in Norfolk have with North America I think we could do even more to foster tourism from the United States to our county.
THE BLOG FOR STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
PARSON JAMES WOODFORDE (1740-1803) was an unknown character until John Beresford published the first volume of selections from his diary in 1924. This caused something of a literary sensation, and figures such as Max Beerbohm and Virginia Woolf were immediately intrigued and delighted by the details of this eighteenth century cleric’s life. The popularity of the first volume resulted in four more volumes being published in the following years.
Woodforde had been born in the West Country, and after getting a Scholarship at at Winchester College he got his degree at Oxford. He then spent ten years as curate in his father’s parish in Somerset. In 1773 he was presented with the living at Weston Longville in Norfolk. He moved there in 1776 and after becoming established there he soon settled into life in this country parish, about ten miles outside Norwich. The nucleus of Weston included the church, parsonage and the Hart, the public house that supplied Woodforde with port, gin and rum; much of it smuggled!
On horseback, and accompanied by a servant and a friend or relative, he would travel the East Anglian countryside in the summer. Great Yarmouth, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Lowestoft and Southwold were all seaside places he visited; they were not yet the holiday resorts that they would become in the next century. He was less interested in going to inland towns. For longer journeys back to Somerset he would take the coach from the Kings Head in Norwich Market Place and travel via London. Norwich, he said, was the fairest city in the country by far, and as a Norwich born person I may be slightly biased, but I think it has held up well to that description. From the castle to the cathedral to Elm Hill it presents a picturesque face to tourist and local alike.
What the reader of a diary wants are just the sort of everyday details he supplies. Of the great national events we may read full accounts elsewhere, but of Mr Mason of Sparham’s playing on the handbells (for example) we can only learn about in Woodforde’s diary. They may seem mundane events, but it is those very glimpses of the past that become lost as time passes, because no one else has recorded them. In the Parson’s diary we may read of an onion which measured 14 inches in circumference; this was certainly a big onion, but the interest is not so much its size. He seldom mentions the vegetables he has with his roast lamb or shoulder of pork, but onions are obviously one possibility. They have good keeping qualities. ‘Roots’ (probably turnips) he also refers to, and they were available for most of the autumn and winter; asparagus had short season in the spring, but that too appeared on Woodforde’s table.
Much fun was had by ‘the Captain’ – Bill Woodforde, the Parson’s nephew. He had served in the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence and with demobilisation following the Peace Treaty he stayed at Weston for several months. While there he built a miniature sloop (a type of sailing ship). The baulks of deal from which he constructed the hull he brought from Norwich in Woodforde’s cart, and the lead for the keel he acquired from a glazier in Mattishall. You may get some idea of the size of the vessel, as 25 lbs of lead were needed to balance the keel. Unfortunately he got the balance wrong, and on being launched the vessel listed to starboard and immediately began taking on water. This was a matter of great chagrin to the Captain. Where it took to the water is not revealed, but it may have been in the river Wensum, or else a local pond.
You can appreciate Woodforde in many different ways; you can dip into his dietary life, which is recorded on a daily basis, or chart the weather. Rain, snow and wind are all recorded, and he had a barometer from which he regularly took the pressure. For me the details of the lives of his acquaintances provide endless snippets of information for my researches into local history; although his appeal is nationwide, for me it is truly local. Weston Longville is only separated from where I lived by one other village. I can picture the rivers he fished in, the woods he skirted around and the roads he ventured along, not from the printed page but from my everyday familiarity with the landscape. Even many of the pubs he mentions are still there, in the old buildings Woodforde would have known, still serving their pints of ale to me as they did to him nearly 250 years ago.
THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
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
THOMAS BROWNE was a native of London; he was born in Cheapside in 1605, the son of a silk merchant from Cheshire. He studied medicine at Oxford, and later went on to several European universities, obtaining his final qualification from Leiden in 1633. He came to Norwich in 1637 and remained there as a physician for the rest of his life.
He was not a great practical scientist, even in his chen field of medicine, but he was the foremost scientific writer of the 17th century. His introduction of the word ‘electricity’ to describe the developing study of the effects of static is probably his most important contribution to the world, but other coinages like hallucination, cryptography and incontrovertible have become part of the fabric of the English language. As a physician he is more important for his contribution to the vocabulary of medicine than for any medical advances he advocated; the word pathology is one of his neologisms, as indeed is the word medical itself. The state of knowledge in the sciences was just about to explode; Isaac Newton was already working on his great advances, although he did not publish his ground breaking works until after Browne’s death. It was the older man’s sceptical methodology which marks him out as a truly modern thinker.
It was for his opinions on religion that he was first read, and these form the basis of his book Religio Medici (in English the Religion of a Doctor). The scientific discoveries of the Renaissance were throwing up all sorts of uncomfortable questions for traditional theology, and was these that he addressed in this work. This circulated widely in manuscript during the 1630s, and a pirated copy was published in 1642. His own version, which had the more controversial elements of the privately circulated copy removed, was published a year later. His view of the unhistorical nature of the story of Noah’s Ark was influenced by the then recent discovery of the New World. No North American beasts were present among the animals that disembarked on Mount Ararat, and this gave him pause for thought.
Like all his contemporaries, he believed in witches and magic, and the evidence he gave in 1662 to the trial in Bury St Edmunds of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny may have helped the prosecution in convicting the women of witchcraft and their subsequent execution. It is a fact that these so-called ‘witches’ also undoubtedly believed in witchcraft, although they were (in most cases) probably convinced of their own innocence of the charge. It is nevertheless a blot on the memory of a man who was an advanced and modern thinker in most of his opinions.
A work called Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk was published by Jarrold’s in 1902, based on Browne’s manuscripts. It shows the inquisitive nature of the physician’s mind that such a book could be compiled. It deals with fishes and paricularly the birds he saw as he travelled the count. He gives the first known reference to many of the birds associated with the county, and to those that have since disappeared. The Great Bustard was frequently seen and heard in the Fenlands of Norfolk in the 17th century, and was (according to Browne) deemed a ‘dainty dish’; so much so that by 1832 it became extinct in England, when the last one was shot. It has only been reintroduced from Europe in recent years. Writing before Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature method of defining the species of the natural world, it is sometimes not obvious what bird Browne is referring to, but the ‘woodspeck’ is clearly the woodpecker. Browne recounts specimens recovered from Horsey mere in North Norfolk and Thetford Heath near the Suffolk border, showing that his interest ranged widely across the county.
In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne dealt with the Vulgar Errors commonly believed in the 17th century. He used three ways of determining the truth – past authorities, reason and experience. Book Three treats the common misconceptions concerning the Animal Kingdom. On the existence of the unicorn for example he used reason to demonstrate that the position of its horn would make it impossible for the animal to eat. The similar horns of the rhinoceros and narwhal do not have this feature, and Browne accepts these beasts as genuine. In all three instances he was absolutely right, although his other methodology of empirical observation was not available to him in Norwich. None of these beast had ever been found in Norfolk.
He was knighted in 1672 by King Charles II on his visit to Norwich. Sir Thomas Browne continued to practise medicine in Norwich until his death aged nearly 80.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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
When I was in my thirties I would sometimes spend an evening in Aylsham, playing chamber music in the home of a retired butcher. Butchers are not normally notable for their musical tastes, and this one was no exception; he was a plain, hones, down-to-earth Norfolkman. However, his wife had longings for the more refined side of life, which is why she played the violin. To find a young string player of a similar cultivated background (who had been to a Public School and Oxford no less) obviously impressed her greatly, and so I was invited to her soirées, although my instrument (a double bass) was not the ideal member of a string quartet! Butchering had been kind to the family, and they lived in fine style in a detached house in its own grounds in Aylsham.
I would already have been very familiar with the town, because the road from Norwich to Cromer went right through the middle until the bypass was built the 70s. My first plain memory of Aylsham goes back to middle 1960s, when I attended the wedding of Sandra, my father’s receptionist at the time. In fact she was only a few years older than I was, although she seemed very mature to me. My father had two receptionists at this period, and the other one, Helen Keller, was even nearer my age. Sandra’s wedding took place at St Michael’s church, which stands just north of the market place.
My frequent attendance at the Aylsham Sale Yard was mostly in search of second-hand books; Keys, the auctioneers, developed a special line in book sales. However I have bought all sorts of other things there too; everything from musical instruments to rolls of wire netting. I have never bought ‘Three Chairs’ though; this announcement was always made preceding the sale of a lot of these articles of furniture, and it always brought the response from the crowd ‘Hip, Hip, Hooray’. This joke is probably obscure to those unfamiliar with the ‘Broad Norfolk’ dialect. To let you ‘furriners’ in on the joke, the word ‘cheers’ is pronounced ‘chairs’ in the local tongue.
There is no longer any livestock sold at Aylsham sale yard, but when I first used to go there calves and pigs were still being auctioned every week. This part of the sale ground has now been built on as a housing estate. Live chickens and rabbits lasted rather longer.Now the only bullock you will see there is when they hold a picture sale of eighteenth century livestock.
The fine thatched pump in Aylsham was erected to commemorate John Soame, who died in 1910. He was a farmer from Spratts Green, an area towards Brampton near Marsham, and was undoubted a relative of Soame the steam engine maker from Marsham. We no longer require water to be drawn from a public well, but back in 1911, when it was built, both horses and people were glad of the artesian bore that was sunk some 50 metres into the subsoil.
There is still a railway station at Aylsham, but this is now the terminus of the narrow gauge tourist line that runs to Wroxham from the town. This follows the route of the standard gauge line that was opened in 1880 and finally closed in the 1980s. Regular passenger services were withdrawn in 1952. This was the GER branch line from Wroxham to County School near North Elmham. Aylsham had two railways serving the town; Aylsham North was on the M&GN main line from Leicester to Great Yarmouth, and lost its passenger service when the former M&GN closed in 1959.
My most recent visit to Aylsham was during last summer, when I spent a pleasant hour or two in the Black Boys pub on the Market Place. The market is not to be confused with the sale yard; the Market Place is the centre of the town, where the Town Hall and the church look down on the vegetable and flower stalls. A market still take place there. I had known this pub the Black Boys for as long as I can remember, but this was the first time I had been inside. It was already long-established in the 18th century, when it was supplied by William Hardy from his brewery at Letheringsett. The interior has been much altered over the years, but the oak staircase running to the first floor from the bar is as old at the property itself.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Ellen Lydia Mason is something of a shadowy figure. I can for instance show you no pictures of her or of her husband. She was born in Northamptonshire at a village called Sulgrave. Its main claim to fame is Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington’s family. Since Ellen was born, the Grade 1 listed building has become a museum, and no doubt it gets many visitors from America.
To find out why Ellen (Nellie) was born so far from Norfolk we must try to discover some family history. Ellen’s parents (and my great-grandparents) Rebecca (née Buxton) and Charles Mason had met at the age of 21 in Staffordshire. Rebecca was from Easton in Norfolk, but she had gone to Stoke on Trent for a job in domestic service. The young couple fell in love and Charles travelled to her home village of Easton to marry her; this took place on June 17th 1879. It was difficult for her husband to find employment locally, and at the time their first child was born in Norfolk the boy’s father was working away.
Charles always had an affinity with animals and spent most of his career looking after the cart horses that were used for deliveries from Carrow Works in Norwich. In 1880 he was working as kennelman to a hunt in Kent. Three years later both he and his wife were living in Northamptonshire, no doubt with Charles working in some similar capacity. So it was in Sulgrave that Ellen was born. She was baptised in the church of St James the Less in Sulgrave on March 7th 1883. She did not stay long in Northamptonshire, because by the following year the family was back in Easton for the birth of Will, my grandfather. Rebecca stayed at the Dog Inn for her lying-in.
At the age of eleven Nellie lost her mother Rebecca; her father was left with a young family to bring up and soon remarried. By then he had found secure employed with Colmans at Carrow Works and the family was living in Trowse. By the time of the 1901 census she was 18 and already living away from home as cook to a pair of middle-aged spinster ladies at Elham in Kent. It was there that she met her husband to be, Maurice Lawrence.
Maurice was born in 1877 in Stratford St Mary near the river Stour on the Suffolk/Essex border. The son of a farm worker, after starting as kitchen boy he soon graduated to be an errand boy, delivering goods to houses in the locality. One of the places he visited on a regular basis was Willy Lott’s cottage, well known from the picture of the Hay Wain by John Constable (1776-1837). By 1900 Maurice was in service to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s mother at her home, Leith Hill Place in Surrey (this house now belongs to the National Trust). A year later he had got a job on the railway and he was working as a porter at Elham station in Kent. He was not there long either, as he was soon promoted to the position of signalman in Folkestone, but not before making the acquaintance of young Nellie Mason.
It was a slow burning romance, because the couple were not married for eight years; then they returned to the bride’s home in Trowse where the ceremony took place in the village church on the 26th of September, 1908. The couple began married life in Cheriton, a suburb of Folkestone. They lived in a spacious terraced house with a bay window in Dunnett Road in the town. By 1930 he had been promoted from assistant to the signal box at Walmer, a seaside town just outside Dover. They had a house in the centre of town not far from Walmer Station, in Dover Road. Maurice reached retirement age during the Second World War; after twelve years of retirement he was widowed when Nellie died in 1956 aged 73. Maurice lived until 1967, when he died at the age of 90. They had no children.
FOR THE STORY OF MASON FAMILY LIFE
‘This creature, when Our Lord had forgiven her her sin . . . had a desire to see those places where He was born . . . and where He died . . .’ This passage sums up the Book of Margery Kempe. She is forever seeking forgiveness for her sins, but rather annoyingly she never tells us what those sins were. From her earlier life we may take it that they concerned thoughts of a sexual nature. Once the sins were out of the way, her mind turned to thoughts of travel. It could be to Canterbury, or York, or further to Rome and Jerusalem. No modern-day tourist could have a more packed itinerary, given the necessary restrictions of the time -the early fifteenth century. For some reason, among all these journeys she undertook, she frequently fell into fits of weeping, though what so seasoned a traveller could have had to weep about is not entirely clear.
As you might have guessed, it is easy to find Margery Kempe a little tiresome at times, but if you step back from her privileged prayerfulness and concentrate on what she reveals of the history of her period, the Book of Margery Kempe is fascinating. Coaches were unsprung affairs in the Middle Ages, and roads were miry and rutted, so travel by wheeled transport was uncomfortable. If you had a heavy load to carry you had to use an ox-cart, but otherwise the poor walked everywhere while the wealthy went on horseback. The distances involved could be staggering. For the more far-off destinations going by ship was unavoidable, for at least part of the way. This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks; the passengers had no option but to sit back and enjoy the ride (if possible), either in the open air or below decks; on the other hand the waves could make the passage not only rough but perilous, for the small ships then in use. You could easily endure seas sickness, or even end up drowned.
With the choice of going by car or train it is quite a trip for me to go from Norwich to Ipswich, but without such modern means of transport Margery thought nothing of going there to see her daughter-in-law off en route to Germany. Upon bidding her son’s widow farewell and leaving the Suffolk port, Margery had almost reached her home when she was seized by an overwhelming desire to accompany her relative abroad. This volte face she naturally attributed not to herself but to the will of the Holy Ghost. The master of the vessel readily agreed to take her aboard, and only her daughter-in-law, who was looking forward to returning to Danzig, was unimpressed; I wonder why?
Margery Kempe was born around the year 1373 in Bishops Lynn – now called Kings Lynn. Edward III was coming to end of his long reign; his ambitions in France had led to the Hundred Years War, a problem for those wishing to travel in Europe. Margery’s family were rich merchants, and both her father and husband were prominent members of the local Corporation. Wool was providing great riches across East Anglia, and Wool Churches were springing up in villages around Norfolk. Her wealth enabled Margery to travel with an entourage of confessors and hermits, despite having fourteen children; she had plenty of servants to care for the youngsters back home. Her education was fairly basic, and she authored her autobiographical work through dictation.
Wherever she went she was able to call on the local vicar, friar or Prior to discuss religious commonplaces with him, which she recounted in her book. No doubt the prospect of a charitable donation made these pleasant chats mutually rewarding. Charity was expected but not demanded of the public. It is revealing to read what Erasmus has to say on the subject; although dating from a hundred years after Margery Kempe’s time, it could be just as true of today’s charitable giving. He says that people were likely to be more generous if observed in the act, and there were nimble fingered pilgrims who could remove a coin from the altar while apparently depositing one.
In all her travels Margery Kempe did not neglect a pilgrimage to nearby Walsingham. Starting from Lynn she would have joined pilgrims from abroad who had landed at the port there, before journeying on to Fakenham; there other pilgrims from Norwich, the Midlands and London all met up before going on to Walsingham. Once there the devout would visit the chapel built as a replica of the House of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The building was draughty, having no doors or glass in the windows. More congenial were the dramas enacted in the Common Place, the market just outside the chapel. Margery went for spiritual solace, but many of the pilgrims were the sick, in search of a miraculous cure. Walsingham is again a place of pilgrimage, the medieval streets drawing tourists from around the rest of the country. [I am myself due to visit Great Walsingham in the near future, but that is to visit a relative who farms there.]
On her travels in Italy Margery was abandoned by her fellow travellers, who only agreed to let her accompany them if she stopped talking about God and instead devoted herself too eating, drinking and merry-making. It was in such unaccustomed riotous good company that she arrived in Venice. She stayed there for over three months, getting her spiritual refreshment by attending church every Sunday with a group of nuns. Eventually she could not resist reciting a verse from the Bible, whereupon her friends accused her of breaking her word. For the last six weeks of her stay she dined alone in her bedroom. In spite of Margery Kempe’s own religiosity, it is plain that not everyone was similarly inclined, even in the supposedly devout Middle Ages.
From Venice she took ship to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean port of Jaffa she travelled inland on a donkey to Jerusalem. During the three weeks she spent in the Holy Land she visited Bethlehem and the river Jordan, as countless others have done both before and since. She returned to Italy and visited Rome. Once back in Lynn her restless nature soon had her off on her travels once more, this time via Bristol to St James, Compostela, in Spain.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
A RURAL TRADE?
Normally when we think of rural industries we turn to things like farming and basket making, and not to a technically developed trade involving advanced skills in metalwork. Watchmaking and clockmaking started in London in a big way in the reign of James I and they spread to the provinces from there. It reached Norfolk in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. It wasn’t just the large towns of Norwich, Yarmouth and Kings Lynn that had their own horologists; every market town and even a few rural villages had one or more clockmakers or watchmakers among their citizens. Although certain components could be bought in (like the cast brass spandrels round the face), the majority of the work was done in the clockmaker’s remote workshop; the nature of cutting the escapements and pinions shows the advanced levels of mechanical attainment required.
It was becoming important for people to know the time of day, and for those too poor to afford a clock of their own churches were increasingly displaying the time, inside or out. I remember how hard it was to learn to tell the time as a child, but the common folk must have managed it? Sundials were the most reliable way of telling the time, but they only worked when the sun was out.
One of the earliest clocks known to have been made in Norfolk is dated 1610. In appearance it is very European. As it is engraved on the back ‘Jhone Smyt in Lynne wyt my hand’ its manufacture can be placed in Kings Lynn. This was about the most cosmopolitan town in the country, so the foreign nature of the clock is not surprising. This, and the early date, suggest that the clockmaking art was first introduced to Norfolk from abroad. The next Lynn clock we know was signed by Thomas Tue in 1646. This clock was built in the English tradition. Thomas Tue’s principal occupation was gunsmith, and many of the clocks he supplied and signed may have been bought in from London. Tue had a long life; he was twice churchwarden of St Margaret’s for which church he made the clock in 1681. He died in 1710 at the age of 97.
The town of Diss on the Norfolk/Suffolk border gained its first clockmaker when Benjamin Shuckforth set up in business around the end of the first decade of the 18th century He was an accomplished craftsman who had obviously completed an apprenticeship, although where is unknown. It would not have been in Diss as there was no clockmaker in the town before Shuckforth. He took on an apprentice in 1730, one John Frost of Bury St Edmunds, who went on ply his trade elsewhere when his apprenticeship was over. Shuckforth ended up a wealthy man, although this had more to do with a fortunate marriage than with clockmaking itself; his spouse Dulicibella Dalton was related to the Longe family of Spixworth Park. He died in 1760 and his shop was taken over by William Shaw, previously a clockmaker in Botesdale, a large village near Diss but in Suffolk.
By then Samuel Buxton was working in Diss. He was apprenticed to James Smyth in Saxmundham and had completed his apprenticeship in 1756. One of his earliest commissions was to build the turret clock which still gives out the time in St Mary’s church in Diss. He also produced the clock in nearby Banham church, which is dated 1768. His clocks were well made, but aimed at the oak cased clock market rather than at the buyers of high-end mahogany cased clocks. My parents were given a long case clock made by Sam Buxton for their wedding in 1935. They were married Thorpe St Andrew in Norfolk, so the clock had not travelled far from home in nearly two hundred years. It was a standard two-handed model with a chime.
The next clock (illustrated above) is by a much less well-known clockmaker. John Halsey was working in the middle years of the eighteenth century. In Norwich he took on an apprentice clockmaker (William Brightwell) in the summer of 1754; but a John Halsey had taken on an apprentice (John Gilbert of Walsingham) as a surveyor at Wells-Next-the-Sea on the 17th of March 1729. Rather than changing both his occupation and his place of residence during the following twenty years, it is likely that the earlier John Halsey was his father. It is certain that the son was already making clocks while still living in Wells, as this simple one-handed clock has his name and ‘Wells Norfolk’ engraved on the face. Once established in Norwich he had his business in the St Andrews area of the City. Only the face remains of the clock he made in Wells, the case and movement having been lost many years ago. My mother-in-law left it to my family. She was born in Wells and it now belongs to my wife, who lives only twenty five miles away, and it seems that, like the Sam Buxton timepiece, this clock had not moved far in over 200 years either; indeed until about 75 years ago it had never ventured beyond its home town. It is a moot point whether he or Isaac Nickalls was the first clockmaker in Wells; Nickalls was building the church clock in Holt in the mid 1730s (he charged £36.15sh). He went on to build some very ornate high end longcase clocks. With that sort of competition to contend with a move to Norwich was a wise one.
Another local watchmaker was Johnson Jex of Letheringsett. He was brought up to inherit the family’s blacksmith business, but he was never apprenticed to a watchmaker, and was virtually self-taught. He was born in Billingford, and he played truant from school, preferring to stare through a watchmaker’s window in nearby Foulsham. He was fascinated by the intricate mechanism he saw taking shape before his eyes. As result he left school without learning to read or write, although he became a proficient watchmaker. His illiteracy he had to remedy as an adult, when he learnt not only English but French as well! He began working on watchmaking in the early years of the nineteenth century, when he acquired a state-of-the-art screw cutting lathe. The machine is still in existence. He produced a relatively small number of watches, with highly complicated and advanced mechanisms. Johnson Jex also worked on the Holt church clock (see above) as as a dial plate was discovered in 1995 with his name engraved on it. He never left Norfolk and seldom ventured outside his immediate locality. He died at the age of 74. He never married.
The earliest written reference to a clockmaker in Suffolk is in the will of Robert Sparke, dated 1648. No clock made by this maker is known. He worked in Cockfield, a village not far from Lavenham in central Suffolk. Unlike in Norfolk, the origin of the trade could not have been more rural. There were certainly clockmakers in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich (Francis Colman was making clocks in the latter town by the early years of Charles II’s reign), but the villages of Suffolk were involved in the trade at at a very early date. A lantern clock was made in Bradfield St George (a village between Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham) some time before 1644. For those who wish to learn more I direct them to this essay by Brian Loomes.
For over 300 years the clockmaking trade was an important industry in East Anglia, culminating with the firm of Metamec in East Dereham, which was producing quartz clocks into the final quarter of the 20th century. At its peak the firm was producing 25,000 clocks a week and was the foremost clockmaker in the UK, with 750 employees. With the import of cheaper clocks from the Far East the business declined, going into receivership in 1984, and finally closing ten years later.