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
PRIVATE MASON No. 49919
Alfred John Mason was born on January 3rd 1898. He was one of the ten children of Charles Mason who survived beyond infancy. He was the second child (of five) his mother Alice had with Charles; she was his second wife. Alfred grew up at 25 Russell Terrace in Trowse, a village just outside Norwich. Like his brothers and sisters he was educated at the village school. On leaving at the age of fourteen he worked in the mustard mill at Colman’s Carrow Works where his father and eldest brother were also employed.
When the First World War broke out two years later he was too young to enlist, but as soon as he was old enough he enrolled in the army. He was kept in England as in 1915 (aged just seventeen) he was still too young to fight, and so he was trained in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After basic training he was transferred to the Service Corps in 1916 and deployed to France. He finally made it to a front line fighting unit, the 6th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment. This Battalion had been formed in 1914 and after serving in Gallipoli and Egypt they returned to France in July 1916, where Alfred joined them in 1917. After fighting for months in France he had returned to Trowse on leave in September 1918. During his stay he took the opportunity of visiting old friends and colleagues at the mustard mill. His smart military appearance and his concern for the goings on back home made a definite impression on the workers he met.
In Northern France, at the end of October 1918 his Battalion were in training at
Valenciennes, but with just two hours notice they were ordered to the front line. On the 1st of November their fellow combatants in the 9th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters were ordered into battle, with Alfred and his unit held in reserve. On the 4th the Foresters made a successful attack on the hill at Sebourg with the Lincolnshires in support. On the sixth the Lincolnshires experienced some resistance from the enemy, but on the seventh the Germans were forced back; they were in retreat and disarray, and the war was rapidly coming to an end. However Alfred Mason had already been hit by shrapnel, and on the 3rd of November 1918 he had died of his wounds. By a cruel irony he was the only member of his Regiment to be injured by that shell blast. A week later the Armistice was signed on the 11th November to general rejoicing back home in Norwich, and many people thronged the market place. Alfred’s sister Edith met her future husband on that happy occasion. At the family home in Trowse this delight turned to despair three days later when the news of Alfred’s death arrived. His oldest brother was 38 and his youngest sister was only 11 at the time of his death. It was a very cruel circumstance that he so nearly survived the war.
He was buried at the St Vaast cemetery near Cambrai. There are 45 graves of British soldiers in this military extension to the communal cemetery; for much of the war this village was in German hands. Compiègne were the Armistice was signed is about half way between Valenciennes, where Alfred died, and Paris. Cambrai, where his body lies, is between Valenciennes and Compiègne. In 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War a display was mounted in Trowse church, with details of the twenty one villagers who gave their lives in the conflict. A photograph of Alfred Mason was among them, and two of his nieces attended the exhibition.
THE BLOG FOR the STORY OF THE MASON FAMILY
Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He was immediately thrown into the continuing war with the Danes; they were fresh from their victory over the King of East Anglia, which had involved the death of Edmund. Previously the Danes had successfully defeated the Northumbrians at York, so they appeared invincible. King Edmund had been killed by the invading Danes eighteen months before Alfred came to the throne, when his brother was killed in battle with the Danes.
There is no written record of any Anglo-Saxon kings who might have succeeded Edmund in East Anglia, and for many centuries it was assumed that none did, but the names of two kings are now known from the discovery of coins that they issued. The names of these two East Anglian rulers were Oswald and Æthelred. For simplicity’s sake I will restrict my comments to King Æthelred, and from his coinage we can state a few basic facts. One coin from his reign bears the name of the moneyer (i.e. coin-issuer) Sigered, who had also acted in the same capacity for Edmund. The design is also identical with the coinage that had been issued by Edmund. The coins issued a few years later by the Danes were very different; from this information we can assert that there was continuity between the reigns of Edmund and Æthelred, and the change to Danish rule came after 880.
We know that these coins circulated outside East Anglia, as one example was found in Kent, which by then was part of Wessex. This means that it is impossible that the Wessex court was unaware of the King Æthelred’s existence; in spite of this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (that work of Wessex propaganda) gives the clear impression that Edmund was the last English king of East Anglia, although (perhaps significantly) they did not explicitly say so. Were the authors of the Chronicle trying to hide something? And if so what?
Knowledge was something that Alfred prized above almost everything else. He was an avid collector of travellers’ tales, and we have the details of what he heard about the far north of Norway, and of Ireland too. If he was that interested in distant lands, how could he not have known the king of an adjacent realm like East Anglia? Surely the Wessex court was not only very interested in what was happening there, but they would also have been very well informed. If the writers of the Chronicle were unforthcoming about the king, it was not because of a lack of knowledge. Why was the Wessex establishment so keen to give the impression to posterity that East Anglia had already fallen under Danish rule in 869, with the death of Edmund?
Between the departure of the Danish army from East Anglia late in the year 870, and the return of this army as settlers in 880, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nothing to say about what was happening in East Anglia. However, we can be certain that its future was high up on the list of concerns discussed at Wednore, after Alfred’s victory over the Danish army. Alfred had emerged from his low point in hiding at Athelney with a radical solution to the problem posed by the Danes in Wessex. After his defeat of Guthrum’s army Alfred was able to put his plan into effect. Despite his victory, he knew that the best way to protect Wessex from future Danish attacks was to give them somewhere else; if they were occupied in setting up another kingdom, they would have less time to bother Alfred. Northumbria they had already taken over, and Alfred had plans to annex the kingdom of Mercia; that left the kingdom of East Anglia as the place to give Guthrum, and he was duly dispatched thither in 880.
For an English king to impose a Danish monarch on an Anglo-Saxon nation was certainly a betrayal, but if it protected Wessex then Alfred could live with that. What he could not contemplate was to impose a heathen king on a Christian people. That is why it was so important for him to have Guthrum baptised, and anointed as a Christian king. This was achieved in 878, but then there was a long delay.
In 878 -880, with the decision to establish the Danes in East Anglia, we have now reached a period of inactivity on the part of Guthrum and his army. Between his baptism and his eventual arrival in East Anglia there was a period of about 18 months. This posed a problem of provisioning; as the Danish army could no longer forage for itself as predators on the people of Wessex they would have to be provided with food. That difficulty however paled into insignificance compared to that task of keeping so many fit young warriors idle for so long. Eventually they became too much for the people of Wessex to deal with, and they were moved across the border to Cirencester in Mercia. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution, for the advantage of putting a reasonable distance between them and the kingdom of Wessex was offset by the difficulty of supervising and controlling them. The question that must be asked is ‘why were these hungry and impatient Danes not sent straight to East Anglia’? The answer must lie in East Anglia itself.
It is sometimes stated that in 880 Guthrum returned to East Anglia, but this implies he had been there before. However, it is clear from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he had never before been to East Anglia. He had not arrived in England until after the Danes had left the despoiled lands of Norfolk and Suffolk for Wessex. The nearest he had got to East Anglia was in 874, which year he spent in Cambridge. This has never been a part of the province of East Anglia, and in any case he was only in Cambridge to muster his troops for a renewed assault on Wessex; all his attention was directed west, not east.
When Alfred was arranging the future of East Anglia with Guthrum in 878, they were dealing with a kingdom that neither leader had any legitimate claim to. Even if King Æthelred of East Anglia was (against all the evidence) a Danish puppet king, he owed his allegiance to the dynasty of Ragnar Lothbrok, members of which family had led the earlier invasion of East Anglia which had led to the death of King Edmund. Æthelred could not have been the puppet of Guthrum under any circumstances; if he had been a puppet, Æthelred’s strings would have been pulled from York, the city Ragnar’s sons had retired to after 870. Guthrum was not a part of this family, and the fact that he could walk into East Anglia suggests to me that York had no influence over East Anglia after 870.
The other party to the arrangement, Alfred, had no authority over East Anglia either. His own view of himself as protector of all Anglo-Saxons would not have been shared by the people of East Anglia, who he was engaged in delivering to the mercies of a foreign king. We may imagine that once Æthelred got wind of the fate that Alfred and Guthrum had cooked up for him frantic representations were made, not only to the West Saxon court but also to anybody else who would listen. We may also imagine that some important people in Wessex itself must have had some serious misgivings about Alfred’s intentions.
The fact that not a word of all this appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not surprising. Like the silence of the Chronicle on the existence of King Æthelred, the propagandists of Wessex were keen to leave the impression to posterity that nothing stood between Alfred and the smooth implementation of his plan. The long delay gives the lie to this story. We cannot know how this situation was eventually resolved, but it is cannot have been done in a pleasant manner.
There is some evidence that Alfred himself had some conscience about the fate that he was wishing on his fellow Englishmen in Norfolk and Suffolk. For all Guthrum’s apparent conversion to Christianity and his Anglo-Saxon baptismal name of Athelstan, Guthrum had not really changed, and Alfred was aware of this. His new religion was politically expedient, not the result of a heart-felt change in belief. No bishops were allowed to promulgate the faith in the east throughout the period of Danish rule. Guthrum proved to be as oppressive as everyone had feared. What evidence do we have have for this? The violent and unjust nature of Danish rule can be found in the treaty between Alfred and the Danes known as Guthrum’s Peace. This also demonstrates how Alfred continued to feel responsible for the conditions under which Guthrum’s English subjects lived.
This treaty, which is likely to date from 886, has five articles. Numbers two and three both deal with murder in East Anglia; article two begins “If a man be slain we esteem all equally dear, English and Danish.” This is a strong hint of two things; one is that inter-ethnic violence was rife. If murder were a rare occurrence there would have been no need to refer to it in the treaty. Secondly, if when it did occur, Danish and English perpetrators were treated equally, there would have been no need for such a clause either. We can therefore be sure that native East Anglians found themselves second class citizens in their own land, as a direct result of Alfred’s intervention. Alfred’s concern for these victims of discrimination has been attributed to his view of himself as the king of all Englishmen. Although it is is certainly true that he saw himself in his way, there is more to it than that. His responsibility was more direct and personal, and reveals perhaps that he felt a sense of guilt for his treatment of the East Anglians. Surely I am not alone seeing Alfred’s queasy conscience at work here?
It is doubtful if Guthrum took these treaty obligations any more seriously than the other oaths he had taken and then reneged upon when it suited him. Alfred certainly wished to improve the conditions under which East Anglians lived, but his ability to do anything about them was severely limited. Ultimately he intended to extend his kingdom into East Anglia, a policy objective which was only accomplished some twenty years after his death. For the time being, and for the remainder of his lifetime, all that Alfred could do was to demonstrate his good intentions by such things as the treaty with Guthrum.
As ruled over by Guthrum East Anglia was more extensive than it had been as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; it reached into most of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and into part of Lincolnshire too. Essex was the first part of this kingdom to be lost, becoming part of Alfred’s Wessex before Guthrum’s death in 890. North Norfolk finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 917.
This examination of the last period of East Anglia’s existence as an independent kingdom reveals how intimately involved it was with Alfred the Great, despite his having no direct power over the land. He established its last dynasty of Danish rulers, and then plotted to depose them and establish his own rule. He even tried to influence their laws in treaty negotiations with the Danish king. You might think Alfred’s story is all about Wessex; but East Anglia was an abiding concern throughout his life.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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
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.
‘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
Downing Street was built at the end of Charles II’s reign by Sir George Downing, after whom it takes its name. It is suggested that Sir Christopher Wren was involved in the design, but the terrace was cheaply built as a speculative development; at this time (the early 1680s) Wren was occupied with designing the (never built) King’s House in Winchester, and it seems that Wren’s input to the architectural appearance of Downing Street was small.
George Downing was born in Dublin in 1623 and educated in the American Colonies. This was a bold move for the first part of the 17th century. He was among the first nine students to graduate from Harvard College in 1642. He then went to the West Indies as a preacher, but abandoned that career for government positions in England. He became established during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but moved easily into the new political realities of the Restoration period. He retained an interest in America and was responsible for the English assuming control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. He was at the time Ambassador to The Hague. The city was renamed New York after Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. Downing was opposed to the Dutch as the main commercial rival of England; this was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars. By the end of his life he had amassed a great fortune, and was regarded as exceptionally mean. In 1663 he had become Sir George Downing, having been raised to the baronetage, and his grandson the 3rd baronet (who was not so close with his money) founded Downing College in Cambridge. Downing having spent his early adult life in America, there are Downing Streets there too, in Manhattan and Massachusetts, named after him.
The construction of Downing Street preceded the evolution of the post of Prime Minister. I have to mention East Anglia in this context, and Sir Robert Walpole was the son of a Norfolk country gentleman who was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. After a successful business career he went into public life as a Whig politician. He was the first person to be regarded as Premier Ministre, a French phrase initially used as a term of contempt by political rivals. His official title was First Lord of the Treasury, and so it remains today. It was King George II who provided the house in Downing Street, now known as No. 10, as his official residence. This was in 1732, half way through his period of office. Since then it has remained the official home of the Prime Minister. There have been 75 Prime Ministers since Walpole, although the scope and nature of the position have changed over the 300 years since its inception, not least being the appearance of women among its holders. Only one Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, has been assassinated and that was over 200 years ago.
Downing Street used to be just another public street in Whitehall, and it was popular among tourists to have their picture taken outside the door of No. 10. I remember going into Downing Street to see the seat of Government with a group of school friends on a visit to the capital. This was during Harold Wilson’s time as PM, and there were already mutterings among the security community about public access to so important a cul de sac. Harold Wilson however would have no restrictions placed on the public who wished to visit the street. It is a sad refection on the changed nature of the country that it would be unthinkable today to allow anybody, without impeccable credentials, into Downing Street; let alone a bunch of giggling schoolboys.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND
You have only to look through old 19th century Directories to get an idea of what I mean by vanished trades. There are still plenty of shopkeepers, and lawyers will always be with us; newsagents and insurance agents are still a presence on the High Street (or not far off it) but have you come across a silk thrower lately? Or a basket maker? Or even a dressmaker? Silk still gets woven somewhere, and baskets are still made, while women’s clothes are so plentiful they just get thrown away, but I doubt they are made much closer to home than Bangladesh. Nor do I think sackcloth is a big seller in Woodbridge any more, but two hundred years ago it was. Even coal merchants are few and far between nowadays.
Straw bonnet makers are no longer with us, nor are the straw bonnets they once made. Saddlers are not as common as they once were, though people still ride horses and so still require saddles; someone must make them. Horses still need grooming as well, but this tends to be done nowadays by their devoted owners, rather than by professional grooms. Shoemakers are not the common tradesmen they were in the 19th century, but shoe shops have replaced them to some extent. Plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers are as sought after as ever.
The butcher is still a useful tradesman, although supermarkets have taken a lot of the business that once was exclusively in the hands of the small trader. The same is true of the baker, but the hair dresser is still independent, and there are no big chains of barber’s shops. Jewellers are now a mixture of large chains like Samuels and smaller independent shops like Windsor Bishop here in Norwich. The large chains tend to concentrate on the cheaper end of the market, while the independents supply the wealthier customer. Music teachers are still in demand, although they tend not to describe themselves as Professors of Music any longer. Accountants are more prolific than ever, and bookkeepers; so too are bookmakers, although booksellers seem to be struggling.
Among the vanished trades is that of currier; I am not even sure what a currier did. It had nothing to with making curries, that’s for sure. Upon further research I discover that a currier was responsible for dressing leather after the tanner had done with it, applying the dyes, softeners and waterproofing. So now you know. A bird preserver must have been what we would now call a taxidermist; does such a trade still exist, or is it done today exclusively by amateurs? Malting is now done in large processing plants, and the old trade of maltster has gone. There used to be tobacconists when I was young, but although tobacco is still available it is hidden away and never seen. The trade of hosier has gone, the sale of socks and stockings being subsumed into the general clothes retailing sector. You would go a long time before you came across a foreman boiler maker, and even longer before you met wheelwright.
What about the trades that have replaced these old ones? That of garage mechanic springs to mind, and before that the cycle repair man. Typists and telephonists have come and gone between the 19th century and now. Buses have replaced stage coaches and so bus drivers have replaced coachmen, while aeroplanes have appeared out of the clear blue sky, together with their pilots. Shops selling mobile phones and computers were unknown forty years ago. Charity shops did not exist before the Second World War, and nor did health food stores. The Chinese restaurant was the first of the exotic food outlets to appear in town and cities, to be followed by Italian restaurants. Now you can buy virtually any cuisine under the sun in your local high street.
The nature of employment has changed and will continue to change. Automation and robots will increasingly takeover the mundane tasks, but that does not mean the end of work. The reluctance of people to prepare their own meals has led to a huge growth in restaurants and takeaways; once it was just the chippie. Eventually food preparation may be automated, but with more people than ever being employed in this country I can see no evidence that the growth of technology has led to a lower demand for workers. Estate agents shops have flourished while banking branches have declined. Antique shops and garden centres have sprung up in the last 75 years, demonstrating how the increase in wealth and leisure time is changing our shopping habits.
MEMORIES OF OLD TRADES
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.