Henry Rider Haggard was a solitary figure; a man of little or no small talk, he was at his most relaxed when discussing agricultural matters with the workers on his Ditchingham estate; then he would open up. He would perambulate the fields with his walking stick, finished off with an iron ‘spud’ made by the local blacksmith on the corner of Drapers Lane. He had few acquaintances, and his closest friends (like Andrew Lang and Rudyard Kipling) he seldom met, being immersed in rural Norfolk life. His task as the author of many tales of high adventure he kept to the privacy of his study, and to Ida Hector his secretary.
The eighth of ten children, he was born in 1856 at West Bradenham near Dereham in central Norfolk. His family was of the Norfolk gentry class, but with a hint of the exotic; the Haggard family derived its name from the founder’s Danish origins, and Henry’s grandmother was a Russian who his grandfather had met in St Petersburg during his banking career.
West Bradenham was only three miles from Wendling railway station on the Kings Lynn line, which had opened in 1848. It was not much further to Holme Hale, on the branch line from Swaffham to Thetford, which took its first passengers when he was thirteen. These lines opened up the whole railway network, with Thetford providing trains to London, Peterborough and the North. The Varsity Line ran from Cambridge and gave him easy access to Oxfords and the country rectory where he was schooled by a family friend. The education of so many sons was a considerable strain on his father’s resources however, and Henry was not a bright scholar; he was the only one of his brothers not to receive a Public School education. His father transferred the boy to Ipswich Grammar School, and thence to a crammer in London to finish his studies. It was intended that he should apply to enter the Foreign Office.
As it was far from certain that Henry would pas the exam, his father William instead packed his 19-year-old son off to Africa to serve as secretary to the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer of Heydon Hall in North Norfolk. Once there he ventured into the Transvaal, where the Boers, Zulus and British were vying for supremacy, leading to bloody warfare. The experiences of these years provided him with much of the raw material for his later work. Already in childhood he had picked up the names of acquaintances that would feature in his novels.
He returned to England in 1879 to give official reports on events in Africa. At home in Bradeneham Hall he was introduced to a school friend of his sister Mary. Within a week he was engaged to Louie Margitson; as an orphaned only child she was to inherit the estate when she came of age in October of that year. After determined opposition from some of her relatives the couple were married in Ditchingham church in 1880. They began their honeymoon by travelling to Norwich in a coach and four. They passed the Kings Head in Brooke and Poringland’s Dove before transferring to a train which took them to the Lake District. They returned to South Africa later in the year. Henry’s African adventure was curtailed by the success of the Boers, which led to the return of the Transvaal to the Dutch.
Henry Rider Haggard returned with his wife to Norfolk to live. Her family were long established at Ditchinham House; they had acquired the property in 1817. At this stage the future course of Henry’s career was still uncertain, but he already possessed (through his wife) a fine mansion which would remain his home for the rest of his life. He studied the law, intending make his way in the legal profession. In his leisure moments he began some writing, but with little success. The enormous popularity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1885) showed him the direction his future writing should take. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was written in six weeks and published in the same year, 1885. It was an immediate run away success. He was thereafter a prolific author and became perhaps the world’s best-selling writer of the late nineteenth century. Although some of his hand written manuscripts are preserved in the Norfolk Record Office, he preferred to dictate to his secretary rather than write his novels down himself. His lifelong interest in farming led to several non-fiction books on agriculture.
He travelled widely, going to Europe, the Americas, Egypt, New Zealand and of course South Africa. He had one son, Arthur John (Jock), who died as a boy of nine while his father was abroad. Although this dead son was never mentioned, this devastating loss overshadowed the rest of Rider Haggard’s life. He also had three daughters, among whom was the youngest, Lilias Rider Haggard, who was born after Jock’s death. She herself was the author of local books, including Norfolk Life (1943) and Norfolk Notebook (1947).
Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels must have enthralled me when I read them over 50 yeas ago. I have of course utterly forgotten their plots, but I have no wish to reread them. They belong to a period of my life so distant that the author himself was but a recent memory at the time. His daughters were then still living in Ditchingham. My wife’s relatives in nearby Bedingham used to work for him in the ‘Mustard Pot’, as the locals referred to Ditchingham House. For them he was ‘the master’ for whom they washed the linen and prepared the meals, not the best-selling writer.
It was a complete change from the peaceful round of changing seasons in South Norfolk to the primeval grandeur of the South African Veldt and the proud and warlike Zulu tribesemen, yet Ride Haggard’s life encompassed them both. He was made a Knight of the British Empire by King George V in the New Year’s Honours List for 1912. He died in 1925 and his remains are interred in Ditchingham church, where he was for decades the regular reader of the lesson every Sunday.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
It is the sheer variety of the English landscape that fascinates me. France and Germany have varied landscapes too, but they are larger countries. We in England have such diversity crowded into our small land.
I contrast the picturesque beauty of Kent (the Garden of England) with the featureless expanses of the French scene just across the English Channel. I regard this division as emblematic of the charm of the English landscape. There are beautiful parts of France, but these do not include the land around Calais.
I am sure you know what I mean, but to demonstrate this let me take you on a virtual tour of the country. We will start near the centre of England, where the Grand Union Canal makes its leisurely way through rural pastures. From there we pass across the verdant Cotswolds, the Malverns and the Mendip Hills to the bleak grandeur of Devon’s Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rocky cliffs of North Cornwall stand against the Atlantic rollers that frequently pound the coast. Returning through Dorset there are the marvellous sweeping green headlands and crumbling Jurassic cliffs that meet the English Channel. The North is a combination of moors and dales where livestock graze the landscape; further south the lower lying fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk are the bread basket of the country, with acres of arable land punctuated by commons, streams and woodlands. Finally in the North West are the majestic mountains and still waters of the Lake District.
There is little countryside in England that could be described as boring. In contest to the interest of England Canada has vast tracts of snowy wastes to the north; there you experience a brief summer, but the vanishing snow and ice only reveal scrubby grass, firs, myriads of flies and no people. The shifting sands of Arabia consist of dunes and hills but no greenery, apart from the occasional oasis. In England the wide expanses fertile but flat lands where the watery Fens have been reclaimed by ingenious Dutch drainage experts might appear a bit dull, were it not for the towns such as Wisbech and Ely that provide such beautiful relief.
The mountains in England do not provide the spectacular crags that those of Scotland and Wales do, let alone the majesty of the Alpine peaks. Grass rather than snow graces their summits for most of the year. Nature has smiled on us, and the great variety of our geology gave our island people a head start in the push to modernity. All around our shores ports flourished as first canals and then railways connected the inland regions of England with an avid export market.
Coal mines blighted many areas of the landscape, but most of the activity took place underground and out of sight. Lead and tin mines were places of early industrial hardship, but have left behind the picturesque ruins of pumping stations on the Cornish coast. At regular intervals the cathedral cities from Canterbury to York, Wells to Lincoln and Salisbury to Durham provide centres of elegant restraint. The people of England have grown to resemble their landscape; industrious, various but accommodating and friendly; so at least I like to imagine.
Surrounding it all is the sea, that greatest boon to the country. This scenic backdrop to the countryside provides us with a bulwark against foreign invaders, an ocean highway to the wider world, a food resource in the form of fish, a place for the production of green energy from the winds and (maybe) tides.
There is so much to be grateful for in the landscape of England. Let us try to preserve it.
Great Aunt Bessie (she was born Sarah Elizabeth Mason) was my grandfather William’s youngest full sister; he was five years older than her. Their father was Charles Mason, and he was working for Colman’s, the mustard makers, at the time of her birth. She was born in 1889 in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. She went to the local school where she received a basic education. By the time Sarah was 21 she was working as parlour maid for a retired Army Officer in Folkestone. There she met a young clerk who worked for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, Douglas Hughes. He was employed on the Elham Valley Line, a short branch of 14 miles that ran from Canterbury to Folkestone. The cuttings and embankments of this pretty country railway were thick with primroses in the spring. The whole area was a provider of horticultural produce across the South East, and apple blossom gave it the authentic appearance of ‘the Garden of England’; it adjoined the East Kent coal field, but test bores near the line in the last years of the 19th century failed to find significant deposits of coal. It thus remained an agricultural district, free of the mine shafts and winding gear of a coal field. The service on the line was regular but not heavy, with seven passenger trains in each direction every weekday. In 1914 a railmotor – a tank engine with an attached carriage for passengers – was introduced for local services, while a non-stop train ran through from Canterbury to Folkestone.
When Sarah was 25 the First World War broke out, and things would never be the same again. Douglas and Bessie were married in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Elham in 1915. (The village was pronounced Eelum.)
Being so near the South Coast there was a strong military presence; with the Great War this only increased. There were for example Canadian soldiers billeted at nearby Shorncliffe. The Royal Train was brought to a siding on the Elham Valley line in 1915, while King George and Lord Kitchener rode off to inspect the troops.
In December 1915 a landslip closed the mainline between Dover and Folkestone; it remained closed for the rest of the war and all the traffic between these two ports was diverted along the Elham Valley line, which therefore became even busier. Red Cross trains carried wounded soldiers from France to hospitals in Canterbury and beyond, while fresh troops were transported to embarkation at Folkestone. Goods trains of materiel destined for the frontline kept the railway busy late into the night. One of the signalmen on the line was recruited into the Army, and his replacement was the first female to be so employed on the SE&CR. Following Grouping in 1923 the SE&CR was taken over by the Southern Railway; meanwhile the motor bus company began to attract passengers from the railway. Slowly the line declined and in 1931 it was reduced to single track. In 1940 the passenger service ended and the line was given over to military use. In 1947 it closed completely and the track was lifted the following year. It was thus never an operational part of British Railways, which was formed in 1948.
Back in 1916 Bessie Hughes was pregnant with her first child, and Charles was born in Elham on the 21st of November of that year. He was named after his grandfather Charles Mason (my great-grandfather). Charles Hughes was his second grandson, the eldest being my father, born in 1911. Douglas and Sarah’s second child was born in 1922; although he was christened Alfred after his paternal grandfather (a tea dealer from Rye in Sussex) he was always called John, his second name. The family was still living in Elham when John was born, and continued to do so for many years thereafter. With two boys the Hughes family was now complete.
Bessie’s youngest half-sister was Florence, eighteen years her junior, being born in 1907; their father’s first child had been born in 1880, nearly 30 years earlier. Florrie was married to Billy Witham in Kent at St Mary’s church in Elham, although they both came from Norfolk. Florence had lived with her father Charles until his death in April of 1938; she was unable to work, being rather immobile on account of a stiffness in her legs. Without her father’s pension for support she needed some alternative, and quickly too; she was married within a couple of months of her father’s death. She continued to live in the house in Russell Terrace, Trowse, as Billy’s wife. The properties had been built to house Colman’s workers, but Billy was not employed by them, soan arrangement must have been made.
Travel had been easy for railway worker Douglas Hughes, and his family had made frequent visits to Trowse to see his aged father-in-law Charles Mason – there was even a station a few hundred yards from his house there. A friendship with Florrie must have developed, and perhaps this explains why Kent was chosen for their wedding; this did not please other Norfolk members of the family however, who were not invited! As appears in the photograph, the only sibling to attend the wedding in the 13th century church was Bessie.
Before the ultimate closure of the Elham Valley line the Hughes family had moved to Cheriton, a suburb of Folkestone. Cheriton was a halt on the mainline from Tonbridge to Dover, but it was only used by Elham Valley line trains, so that it too closed in 1940. (Today the site of the Elham Valley line at Cheriton Junction has been obliterated by the huge marshalling yard where lorries and cars are loaded onto Le Shuttle for transport to Calais via Euro Tunnel.) Charlie Hughes had married Eileen Fenwick in Folkestone during the war, and while her husband was away fighting in the Navy Eileen had a daughter Christine. She was born in July 1945. The war ended on September the 2nd; Aunt Bessie was hanging out the washing when her neighbour rushed into the garden shouting ‘The Japanese have surrendered’!
After Aunt Bessie died in 1964 her widower Douglas Hughes moved from Cheriton to Croydon to live with his eldest son Charles and his family. Charlie had begun by following his father into working on the railways, until call-up came early in the war. After his war service in the Royal Navy he stayed on for peacetime deployment; after finally retiring from the Armed Forces he worked for the Inland Revenue at Somerset House in London. This fine Neoclassical building will be familiar toanyone who has walked along the Strand. Charles died in Croydon in 2001.
Charles and Eileen’s daughter Christine married a clergyman Frederick Woods in 1968. He had a parish in Colchester where she died in 2003, and her husband remarried. The Rev Woods and Christine had four children. Charlie and Eileen also had a son Neil in 1946; he is my second cousin, although I have never met him, nor indeed any of the people mentioned in this essay. It is only in the past few years that I have even learned of their existence. I have known of Sarah Elizabeth Mason for slightly longer, but initially believed she had died unmarried! It is only through meeting another cousin that I can piece together their story.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF MY RELATIONS
RECTOR OF SWANNINGTON
JOHN DIXON WORTLEY’S father John was born in North Walsham in 1835. He belonged to a wealthy farming family; by the age of 25 John Wortley was already established with a dairy herd and a farm of 218 acres. In 1867 he married a young lady called Sarah Wright who was born in Trunch in 1845. Her father was a corn merchant and another wealthy landowner. The eldest son of John and Sarah Wortley was John Dixon Wortley (the name Dixon after his maternal grandmother’s maiden name), born in 1870 at Swafield, which is the village that lies between Trunch and North Walsham. Sarah died aged only thirty, about eighteen months after her second son Earnest Dixon was born in 1874. Her widower John soon remarried; his second wife Victoria Barber was born in 1837 to the squire of Hobland Hall in Bradwell near Lowestoft. The family later moved to Skeyton, which is another village not far from North Walsham. John Dixon Wortley went up to Trinity College (Cambridge) to read Divinity in 1889. By then the family were living in Frettenham, an area between Spixworth and Coltishall and only 6 miles from Norwich. It is well-known for its rich soil and superior farmland. John Dixon’s younger brother Ernest trained in medicine. He became a doctor, eventually practising in Nottinghamshire. Their stepmother Victoria had two daughters. Their father John Wortley died in 1910 and his wife four years later.
After various curacies, first in Liverpool and then in Kent and Surrey, John Dixon Wortley was given the living of Swannington by his old college Trinity Hall. He was inducted in 1917 and remained at Swannington until his death at the age of 79 in 1950. His predecessor, the Revd George B. Aitkinson, had taught Wortley as a Fellow of “The Hall”, while Wortley was an undergraduate there in 1890. John Dixon Wortley was the last Rector to live in Swannington Rectory, built in the 17th century. He was a bachelor, and his two half-sisters also remained single, but his brother Ernest had a son who emigrated to Canada.
John Dixon Wortley was a prolific author on local history subjects during the first half of the 20th century. The following bibliography makes no claims of completeness. The duties associated with the care of the souls of Swannington obviously did not occupy him all his time. The father of one of my sister school friends, the Revd Frank Jolley, was Rector of an adjacent village before the last war, and must have known the Rector of Swannington.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Shippea Hill has been having a bit of publicity recently, with articles in The Guardian and The Daily Mail. It has also got a mention on the Youtube channel. This is all because Shippea Hill is the least used station in the country. Some years the grandiosely titled Tyneside Airport station has fewer passengers, but generally this distinction falls to Shippea Hill; it gets around one passenger a month on average, so when I say it is mostly deserted I mean it. In the in the autumn of 1977 I got on a train at Shippea Hill. That morning I (and my friend Bill) must have been among the largest group of passengers to have got on a train at Shippea Hill in over 160 years! There were dozens of us. How did this come about?
I will explain, but first I want to tell you a little about Shippea Hill; it will be a little, for there isn’t very much to say about the place. Where the hill is I cannot say, because the wide expanse of Cambridgeshire fenland seems as flat as a pancake. I have read that the land here rises a foot or two above sea level, so perhaps that explains the ‘hill’; either that or the sense of humour among railwaymen. Other names that the station has gone by in the past are Mildenhall Road and Burnt Fen. In 1977 there were no buildings in sight except for a signal box – it was still being used until 2012. Otherwise there are just acres and acres of rich agricultural land.
It was early on Sunday September 25th, about 2 o’clock in the morning, that the coaches carrying our party pulled up at the station. We had been on a day trip to France, and as there was no Channel Tunnel in those days we caught a special train from Folkestone Harbour on our return. The train had to terminate at Ely because the junction with the Norwich line was closed for repairs. We got onto coaches at Ely, and the first station on the line to Norwich was Shippea Hill; it was there that we were headed. A DMU was waiting at the station to carry us on to Norwich, and once we had left the train it took the remaining trippers on to North Walsham, 24 hours after they had left.
Just six months before Shippea Hill had been the site of a fatal accident when a train collided with a lorry on the adjacent level crossing. The train driver was killed and several passengers were injured. The level crossing was operated by the signalman until 2012, when the crossing gates were replaced by automatic barriers. Although most trains do not stop at Shippea Hill (even by request), the line itself is served by stopping trains which call at most of the local stations. In the 1970s express train from Norwich to London still used the line. There were then (as now) two services every hour to Liverpool Street, only they went alternately via Ipswich and Cambridge. The Cambridge route took rather longer.
Shippea Hill is just one of several sparsely used stations on the line from Norwich to Ely; others are at Lakenheath, Eccles Road, Harling Road and Spooner Row. All are among the least used stations in the country. By contrast many far better used stations were closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s, although the lines still run past these former stations. Even on the Breckland Line (the line that runs past Shippea Hill) Hethersett Station was closed in 1966, although it must have had vastly more passengers than just twelve a year. I wonder how Shippea Hill has survived all those years? Fortunately the trains to Manchester, Liverpool and Cambridge that mostly bypass this little place are themselves increasingly busy.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
Norfolk is a big county, and it may be divided by the nature of the landscape into Broadland, Breckland and Fenland. It also falls naturally into four districts defined by the points of the compass. Norwich forms the centre of this division; towards Yarmouth is East Norfolk; towards Kings Lynn is West Norfolk, and the area towards the sea is North Norfolk. South Norfolk is the area between Norwich and the Suffolk border.
South Norfolk must be a very healthy part of the world, because here life expectancy is among the highest in the country. The cold winds that sweep down from the arctic onto North Norfolk are ameliorated by the gentle hills of South Norfolk. The extremes of heat and cold are to be found further west in the county. Here the waterways of the Broads and the wide open expanses of the Fens are replaced by arable fields, woods and hedgerows. Demeter, the goddess corn crops, has smiled on South Norfolk.
South Norfolk is well served by its transport links. From Diss railway station the capital is only an hour and a half away, which makes South Norfolk just about within commuting distance of London. From Thetford to the intellectual hub of Cambridge only takes half that time. Diss, Harleston, Loddon, Wymondham and Attleborough are the market towns of South Norfolk. Besides Diss with its mainline link, Attleborough and Wymondham are on the Breckland railway line to points west. Until 1952 Harleston also used to be served by passenger trains; it is however not that far from Diss. Loddon’s neared railway station is Haddiscoe, a rural halt on the Wherry Line to Lowestoft. It is too far to walk to the station from Loddon, so you might as well use you car to drive to Lowestoft instead. Loddon however has access to the Norfolk Broads along the river Chet. The A11 also goes through South Norfolk, providing speedy road access to both London and Cambridge as well as Stansted Airport. Otherwise the area is poorly served by roads, and the A140, the main road to Ipswich, is a disgrace.
The fact that there is no road bridge across the river Yare for twenty miles between Norwich and Great Yarmouth makes a firm border between South Norfolk and the area to the North. The county boundary defines the border to the South, which follows the river Waveney; the A11 marks the de facto boundary to the West.
Until I was married (aged 37) I lived in South Norfolk, so I know the area very well. My wife’s connections with South Norfolk go back much further, for generations in fact. She still has relatives who we have visited in Woodton. Lord Nelson’s mother came from Woodton, and he would visit his relations there as a boy. The artist Edward Seago lived in the district with a studio at Kirstead Hall, and a predecessor, John Crome, would venture into South Norfolk from Norwich to paint local scenes. Elizabeth Fry (then Elizabeth Gurney) spent many happy summers there in Bramerton as a child. Edith Cavell was born on the edge of Swardeston Common. The Hethel Thorn is reputed to be sprung from the staff of the biblical figure Joseph of Arimathea, via the Glastonbury Thorn. The Glastonbury Thorn was cut down in the Civil War, but that at Hethel is at least 700 years old. More recently Lotus cars have been manufactured in South Norfolk. In spite of its railway lines and rich history, it mostly stays in my mind as a peaceful rural corner, where the pace of life is slow.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
St Walstan died a thousand years ago on the 30th May 1016. He is our local saint, revered as the patron saint of farmers and farm labourers in East Anglia. Although a medieval text (Lambeth MS 935) records that he was born in ‘Blyborow’ (Blythburgh), I regard this as unlikely. I think that the similarity of the word to ‘Bawborow’ (Bawburgh) led the scribe to confuse the two places. The centre of his cult was around the villages of Taverham, Costessey, and Bawburgh; and Bawburgh was where his shrine was established after his death. Some sources do record this as his birthplace.
I think the story that he was of Royal blood is also unlikely to be true. The East Anglian royal family had died out after the death of St Edmund in 869, and the English royal family at the time of Walstan’s birth was descended from Alfred the Great of Wessex. Blythburgh, his reputed birthplace, had indeed once been a stronghold of the East Anglian royal family, but that time was long past by the 10th century, the time we are told that Walstan was born. The whole legend of St Walstan is shrouded in mystery; it all may be pure invention, or it all might be true. Most likely it is a mixture of fact and fiction, but we will never be able to untangle the story.
Throughout the Middle Ages, from late Anglo-Saxon times until the Reformation, St Walstan was a popular local saint. East Anglia was at that time the richest and most densely populated area of the kingdom, and remains its most fertile farming area. The profusion of great medieval churches in Norfolk and Suffolk are proof of the wealth this produced. Even tiny villages like Salle have magnificent churches which would almost appear to be cathedrals elsewhere. This wealth was based on farming – grain, flax, cattle and above all sheep, who produced the wool that was made into cloth and sold all over Europe. The extremely expensive ‘Wool Churches’ that appeared all over East Anglia show the importance of farming, so the cult of St Walstan was more important than its local nature might suggest.
Although the Puritans who flourished in East Anglia after the Reformation did much to consign the saints of the Roman Catholic past to the dustbin of history, the local popularity of St Walstan survived the advent of Protestantism. This was partly due to the presence of the Catholic Jerningham family, right in the middle of St Walstan territory in Costessey, who kept the memory of the saint alive. In the latter years of the 19th century pilgrims came from as far away as London during May in large numbers to visit the saint’s well in Bawburgh. The name of Walstan lived on in other areas of the county too. The historian R. W. Ketton-Cremer records an 18th century man named Walstan, proof of the continued popularity of the legend.
There were three St Walstan’s Wells; one in Bawburgh adjacent to the church which held his shrine and where he was buried, and one in Costessey where his funeral cortege paused. The well in Bawburgh remains. The well in Costessey dried up around 1750 and the pit that used to hold water has recently been restored by Costessey Golf Course. It has been fenced off and a plaque erected to record the place and to commemorate his 1000th anniversary. Tradition has it that the wells sprang up at the places where the bullocks pulling Walstan’s hearse pissed on the journey from Taverham where he died. It was while he was working in a field that he was visited by an angel who informed him of his impending demise. The site of this third well has been lost; it was said to have sprung up on the spot where he died. I suggest that Springfield Road which gets its name from an ancient spring may very well have been the site.
The St Walstan legend has him dying aged about 40. He had spent his days working in the fields for the local farmer. When an angel told him he was shortly to die he was shriven by the local clergyman of Taverham church. The oldest parts of the church that stand today were built within a few years of the saint’s lifetime. The Saxo-Norman round tower, and the even older north wall of the nave would have been familiar to men and women of Taverham who remembered Walstan the saint.
I have not said much about the legends surrounding the saint; those who wish to learn more may refer to the article in Wikipedia, or they may wish to read the two books by Carol Twinch, In Search of St Walstan (1995) and Saint with the Silver Shoes (2004). You should also read my blog on St Walstan’s Well at Bawburgh, which has further details.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
We are talking about modern man here, but the inventions that have created today’s civilisation begin unimaginable ages ago, with the development of language. At some stage the grunts and squeaks which represent meaning, even to members of the animal kingdom, were refined into language by the imposition of grammar. The rules of grammar, that even today puzzle many people, were in the past much more elaborate than they are today. (This is particularly true of English and its Germanic forebears.) We must not, therefore, think of our distant ancestors as people of simple minds; they were not. Mankind had much to learn, but the potential was there.
The next invention was not writing or reading, but drawing. I include what might seem a relatively minor accomplishment because it was the necessary precursor to writing. In its earliest form the art of writing required pictograms, graphic representations of whole words, rather than the alphabet that we (although not the Chinese) now use to represent sounds rather than ideas. Another invention, that was the necessary preliminary to all scientific advance, was the concept of number. From the simple counting from one to five on the fingers of one hand, advanced ideas in arithmetic and geometry were already commonplace by the dawn of history.
The next step on the journey to modern humanity was the development of farming. Hunter gatherers still exist among primitive tribes, and this way of life holds back the members of the tribe from making further advances. This is simply a matter of time; hunting for food leaves little opportunity for more thoughtful activities. The development of something as basic as farming was a decisive advance towards modernity.
So far we have been concerned with pre-history. The next major invention I will deal with was gunpowder, which falls within historical times. It is attributed to Chinese alchemists in the 9th century. The invention of gunpowder produced fireworks, but was of little importance however, until the development of artillery in Europe made it a deadly device. Some guns may be used for hunting, but of all the inventions talked of so far, this one is overwhelmingly used for warfare. Hand to hand combat had been partly removed from the battlefield by the bow and arrow, but since the invention of the canon, most victims of war are killed by people whom they never see. Whether this can truly be called an advance in civilisation, it has certainly gone a long way towards the making of modern man.
The next invention that revolutionised the future of humanity was another Chinese development – printing; but again, like gunpowder, it needed refining in Europe, by the invention of movable type. Printing then made the dissemination of knowledge completely different from what it had been before. For example, it is doubtful if the Reformation could have happened without the spread of ideas, that was only possible through the printing press.
The discovery that the sun did not revolve around the earth might seem far removed from everyday life, but this not so. Astronomy, which did not originate with Galileo but took a huge stride forward with his heliocentric discovery, made navigation by the stars possible. Without celestial observation, travel to distant continents would have been far too perilous. Similarly the researches in physics which led Sir Isaac Newton to discover gravity and the diffraction of light made many practical advances possible.
A further development of the much earlier invention of farming came with the Agrarian Revolution. The term is not widely recognised, but it made the Industrial Revolution and everything that flowed from it possible. Such things as the enclosure of common land led to much hardship at the time, but without it the bulk of the population would have remained tied to the land. Farming was still very inefficient until the 18th century in England, and without such inventions as the seed drill and the rotation of crops, food would not have been available to the growing numbers of townspeople. The digging of the canals and the building of huge new cities was still all done by hand (with the help of the odd horse and cart), but the Industrial Revolution paved the way for machinery to take the strain.
The most remarkable new machine was the steam engine. At first the atmospheric engine was used for pumping out mines, but it was not log before James Watt’s steam engine was working looms, powering steam ships and, most important of all, driving railway engines. While all these practical improvements were being undertaken, other progressive people were studying subjects such as physics and chemistry. The early experiments in electricity did not immediately result in practical uses, but of all the features of modern life it is perhaps electricity which has had the most pervasive effects.
The chemists produced things rather more quickly. One was anaesthetics, of incomparable benefit to all of us by allowing the reduction of the pain associated with disease and its treatment. Photography has made the publication of accurate images routine. Advances were now occurring thick and fast. The introduction of telegraphy meant almost instant communication between places as far apart as America and India. Telegraphy was largely the province of the ruler classes, but wireless communication spread this ability throughout society. The first flight by a heavier than air flying machine was followed within a few years by Albert Einstein’s ground-breaking Theory of Relativity (and its more ominous innovation, the splitting of the atom). Antibiotics made previously fatal diseases easily treatable; many people (including me) owe their lives to this invention. It is almost as an afterthought that I mention the first computer and the development of the Internet.
When you consider the enormous strides that have been made in the last two hundred years the prospect of the next two hundred years is almost frightening. This is particularly so when you remember that the last one hundred years have witnessed two of the most destructive and widespread wars that humanity has experienced. I feel enormously fortunate to have lived at a time when rapid progress has also been, for me and most Europeans, a time of almost complete peace. In historic terms wars have devastated most generations. If such a period of peace can endure is doubtful; I am glad that I will not be around to see the future.
THRESHING seems to be the normal way of spelling the word. Thrashing was my father’s preferred way of saying it or, in Norfolk dialect, it is troshin’. But however you say it, the process involves the separation of the seeds from the stalks of corn.
Before the first application of machinery this meant the use of a flail. If you have never seen a flail-and I don’t think I have ever seen one in use-it consists of two sticks joined by a chain or rope. The longer of the two sticks is held in both hands while the shorter one is used to beat the corn, thus knocking the grain out onto the ground. You might think this a boring and tiring job that any farm worker would be glad to see the back of, but this was far from the case.
The long winter months provided employment for the horsemen who were slowly ploughing the fields but other, less skilled labourers, had nothing to do but threshing. This at least provided them with a modest income during the winter. When the farmer could thresh his corn by machine this source of employment dried up, leaving the workmen penniless, hungry and increasingly angry.
The Captain Swing riots spread across south-east England during the summer and autumn of 1830, with many threshing machines being destroyed. Besides threshing machines, the rioters also hated the Poor Law and the operation of tithes; the workhouses were an inhumane way of supporting the poor while the operation of the system of tithes, a tenth of the farmer’s income that went to the Church of England, placed a heavy burden on the farming community. Many of them were Baptists or Methodists who resented this religious tax. Quakers refused point-blank to pay it and consequently had to find some other employment than agriculture. However these two institutions, the Poor Law and tithes, did not provide the obvious targets that the machines did.
Many people were in sympathy with the agricultural labourers and juries were in many cases reluctant to convict when the legal system swung into action against the rioters. However the heavy hand of the law eventually saw many men transported to Australia and some were even executed, although most capital convictions were eventually reprieved.
The threshing machine, which caused such problems 200 years ago has itself been replaced by the combine harvester. Threshing machines are now museum pieces. To demonstrate a threshing machine you need corn that has not been cut by a combine. Every year back in the 1970s you would find threshing machines at work as an antique feature. This was a winter activity, as you see from the leafless trees in the picture. You might still find a threshing machine at work, but I haven’t seen one for years; though it is only fair to say I have not been to any traction engine rallies for years either.
Although the use of a steam engine was much quicker than the use of a couple of horses on a treadmill (the earlier kind of power threshing), and that was far quicker than the man powered machines that started the whole thing off, it was still a laborious process. The engine driver had to get up early in the morning to raise steam, and the threshing machine had to be placed in just the right position to connect with the belt drive of the steam engine. Men had to be on hand with pitch forks to keep the machine fed and other men removed the threshed straw; still more bagged up the grain into sacks. By contrast no one is involved in the actual threshing in a combine; it takes place automatically in the bowels of the machine. One man drives the harvester and one drives the tractor which takes the trailers full of corn away.
Note how much of the equipment used in threshing was made in East Anglia. The Burrell traction engine was made in Thetford (it could equally have been a Garrett of Leiston) and the Ransome’s threshing machine was made in Ipswich. Their factory was near the quay and they had their own railway to carry the goods to the quayside. From there ships would carry Ransome’s farm machinery for export across the world. The founder of the firm was a Quaker, born in Norwich, who travelled to Ipswich as a young man and established what was to become a flourishing business. After several changes in ownership Ransome is still known as a producer of lawn mowers.
If you wish to learn more about 19th and 20th century farming you should read my blog on Sheaves, Stooks and Stacks, published June 21 2012.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA