Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States in 1861. We all know the part he played in the Civil War, but the fact that his ancestor Samuel Lincoln emigrated to America in 1637 in his teens is a slightly less familiar fact. Samuel settled in Hingham Massachusetts, a settlement some 23 miles south of Boston. Samuel had grown up in the village of Hingham in Norfolk, before being apprenticed to Francis Lawes as a weaver in Norwich. This was a time when Puritan feelings were at their height, especially in Norwich, where Matthew Wren (uncle of the architect Christopher Wren) was appointed bishop in 1635. He tried to impose traditional elements of worship on the churches of the diocese, such as bowing at the name of Jesus and the wearing of surplices. These things were anathema to the Puritans, and many of them longed to escape the stifling influence of the Church of England by establishing a simpler form of worship in the New World. Francis Lawes could not tolerate this state of affairs for long, and within two years he and his family – his wife, daughter and servant Samuel Lincoln – had embarked on the ship the John and Dorothy at Yarmouth for the voyage to New England.
It was no accident that Samuel Lincoln chose to make his home in Hingham Massachusetts. His elder brother Thomas had emigrated two years earlier in 1635 when the town was incorporated. The settlement had been founded by a number of the better-off citizens of Hingham in Norfolk who, together with their clergy the Reverends Peck and Hobart, had sold their property off cheaply in England to make a new life for themselves in America. The poorer folk who were left behind in Norfolk suffered badly from the loss of so many wealthy inhabitants of the village and petitioned Parliament for aid. Hingham Massachusetts is nothing like Hingham in Norfolk; for a start is a coastal town, whereas the English village is deep in the interior of Norfolk. Until the coming of the railways many Norfolk people could live their whole lives without ever seeing the sea, in spite of the county being almost surrounded by water.
The most famous ship to take emigrants across the Atlantic was the Mayflower. She sailed from Rotherhithe on the Thames to Plymouth in 1620 en route to Massachusetts. She had been built towards the beginning of the 1600s in Harwich in Essex. Although the Pilgrim Fathers came from all over southern England, several of them were from Norfolk and Suffolk.
Many generations separate Samuel Lincoln from his descendant Abraham, and George Washington’s ancestral home in Northamptonshire cannot really be called part of Eastern England, but one of the most influential of political voices of the American War of Independence belonged to a Norfolkman born and bred. Tom Paine was born to a weaver in Thetford (note how the wool trade dominated the lives of East Anglians for centuries) and he was educated at the Grammar School there. You can read more about Thomas Paine in an earlier blog I wrote.
To get an idea of the more general way East Anglians were involved in the earliest settlement of the US look at all the place-names that we now associated with North America, but that originated in Norfolk. Yarmouth in Cape Cod was founded in 1639 and Norwich Connecticut in 1659. Norfolk itself means Norfolk Virginia to anyone from across the pond. Denver Colorado gets it name from James Denver, but indirectly from the fenland village in Norfolk. Of course many other parts of England have left their mark on the map of North America, but Norfolk is up there with the best.
So far I have only mentioned those who travelled westwards to the New World, but in the Second World War more American air force personnel were stationed in Norfolk than anywhere else in the UK. In view of the strong ties we in Norfolk have with North America I think we could do even more to foster tourism from the United States to our county.
THE BLOG FOR STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
PARSON JAMES WOODFORDE (1740-1803) was an unknown character until John Beresford published the first volume of selections from his diary in 1924. This caused something of a literary sensation, and figures such as Max Beerbohm and Virginia Woolf were immediately intrigued and delighted by the details of this eighteenth century cleric’s life. The popularity of the first volume resulted in four more volumes being published in the following years.
Woodforde had been born in the West Country, and after getting a Scholarship at at Winchester College he got his degree at Oxford. He then spent ten years as curate in his father’s parish in Somerset. In 1773 he was presented with the living at Weston Longville in Norfolk. He moved there in 1776 and after becoming established there he soon settled into life in this country parish, about ten miles outside Norwich. The nucleus of Weston included the church, parsonage and the Hart, the public house that supplied Woodforde with port, gin and rum; much of it smuggled!
On horseback, and accompanied by a servant and a friend or relative, he would travel the East Anglian countryside in the summer. Great Yarmouth, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Lowestoft and Southwold were all seaside places he visited; they were not yet the holiday resorts that they would become in the next century. He was less interested in going to inland towns. For longer journeys back to Somerset he would take the coach from the Kings Head in Norwich Market Place and travel via London. Norwich, he said, was the fairest city in the country by far, and as a Norwich born person I may be slightly biased, but I think it has held up well to that description. From the castle to the cathedral to Elm Hill it presents a picturesque face to tourist and local alike.
What the reader of a diary wants are just the sort of everyday details he supplies. Of the great national events we may read full accounts elsewhere, but of Mr Mason of Sparham’s playing on the handbells (for example) we can only learn about in Woodforde’s diary. They may seem mundane events, but it is those very glimpses of the past that become lost as time passes, because no one else has recorded them. In the Parson’s diary we may read of an onion which measured 14 inches in circumference; this was certainly a big onion, but the interest is not so much its size. He seldom mentions the vegetables he has with his roast lamb or shoulder of pork, but onions are obviously one possibility. They have good keeping qualities. ‘Roots’ (probably turnips) he also refers to, and they were available for most of the autumn and winter; asparagus had short season in the spring, but that too appeared on Woodforde’s table.
Much fun was had by ‘the Captain’ – Bill Woodforde, the Parson’s nephew. He had served in the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence and with demobilisation following the Peace Treaty he stayed at Weston for several months. While there he built a miniature sloop (a type of sailing ship). The baulks of deal from which he constructed the hull he brought from Norwich in Woodforde’s cart, and the lead for the keel he acquired from a glazier in Mattishall. You may get some idea of the size of the vessel, as 25 lbs of lead were needed to balance the keel. Unfortunately he got the balance wrong, and on being launched the vessel listed to starboard and immediately began taking on water. This was a matter of great chagrin to the Captain. Where it took to the water is not revealed, but it may have been in the river Wensum, or else a local pond.
You can appreciate Woodforde in many different ways; you can dip into his dietary life, which is recorded on a daily basis, or chart the weather. Rain, snow and wind are all recorded, and he had a barometer from which he regularly took the pressure. For me the details of the lives of his acquaintances provide endless snippets of information for my researches into local history; although his appeal is nationwide, for me it is truly local. Weston Longville is only separated from where I lived by one other village. I can picture the rivers he fished in, the woods he skirted around and the roads he ventured along, not from the printed page but from my everyday familiarity with the landscape. Even many of the pubs he mentions are still there, in the old buildings Woodforde would have known, still serving their pints of ale to me as they did to him nearly 250 years ago.
THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Norfolk; it is impossible to talk of Norfolk politics without acknowledging the great divide between Norwich, which has been Labour inclined since the birth of the Independent Labour Party in the last years of the nineteenth century, and the rest of the county which has (in the popular imagination anyway) been painted Tory Blue since time immemorial. This, particularly the latter part, is not true by any means.
For hundreds of years the tiny area of Castle Rising in West Norfolk returned two MPs. Some well-known figures sat for Castle Rising, including Samuel Pepys and Robert Walpole. The elections were never contested although they could be bought and sold. Following the Reform Act of 1832, which abolished most of these notorious Rotten Boroughs, some of the smaller boroughs remained until 1867/68; both Great Yarmouth and Thetford returned two MPs until that date. These Rotten or Pocket Boroughs were in the ‘pockets’ of the local landowner and did not respond the changing political mood in the country at large. After 1832 Norfolk was divided into two constituencies, East and West; previous Norfolk had been one. Each constituency in the country returned two Members of Parliament. The bigger constituencies of East and West Norfolk regularly changed their allegiance between Tories and the Liberal Party.
In the House of Commons Norwich was a separate constituency from the first establishment of Parliament in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century one of the Members for Norwich was called Thomas Sotherton, a name that may be familiar to the residents of Taverham; his family provided all the squires of the village from 1623 until squires as such disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Norwich returned George Roberts as its first Labour MP in 1906. He had stood unsuccessfully in 1904. George Roberts lost his seat in 1923, but by then he had ceased to represent the Labour Party.
At the same election Norwich returned one of the first three female MPs to represent the Labour Party. Her name was Dorothy Jewson and she was hardly a typical member of the working class. Her father had been a prosperous coal merchant, and her educational background was Norwich High School and Girton College Cambridge. She was firm in her principles however, and was a pacifist who had opposed the First World War. It was a time of political turmoil nationally, and she lost her seat in the 1924 General Election, although she came closely behind the winning candidates. She stood again in 1929 and 1931, but she never again entered parliament. She sat on the City Council as an Independent Labour Party member, at a time when my Great Aunt Ruth Hardy- a woman of authentic working class roots – was establishing her career in local politics, which led to her becoming Lord Major in 1950.
In the General Election of that year the constituency of Norwich was abolished, to be replaced by Norwich North and Norwich South. The number of representatives did not increase, as the old two member constituencies were replaced by single member ones. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system that we regard as a basic (though controversial) facet of British politics is in fact not that old. I can claim to older than it is, though only just.
In Norfolk the picture is more varied than that in Norwich; West Norfolk has been a Tory stronghold pretty consistently from the nineteenth century onwards, but East Norfolk has swung more between the major parties. North Norfolk has long struck an independent course; throughout much of the twentieth century it returned a Labour MP, and in the twenty first century it has loyally stood by its Liberal Democrat representative, Norman Lamb.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
My great-grandfather Charles Mason was brought up as a Primitive Methodist. This branch of Methodism grew from a large open air meeting of the working class held at Mow Cop in Staffordshire in 1807. (Mow Cop, on the border of Staffordshire and Cheshire, is a ‘ruined castle’ on a hill; actually a summer-house built in 1754 by the local landowner.) The organisers of the meeting had no wish to establish a break-away denomination, but were merely trying to re-assert what they regarded as the basic tenets of Methodism; particularly its missionary outreach to the poor and dispossessed. It this sense it mirrored the creation of Methodism itself, which arose as a branch of the Church of England dedicated to the lowest orders of society. In spite of these views, John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) remained a clergyman of the established church all his life.
The Church of England was firmly entrenched as the church of the Establishment, and the concentration of the ‘Methodists’ on the less well off proved too controversial for the C off E, and the ‘enthusiasts’ split into a separate denomination. There were also some technical disagreements about church organisation, but the rigid class barriers which existed in society proved to be more divisive. A major development was when the founder John Wesley appointed preachers in North America outside the normal ordination procedure as practised in the Church of England. This action in 1784 inevitably led to the setting up of new denomination after John Wesley’s death.
It was less than twenty years after the birth of Methodism as a new church that the Primitive Methodists were divided in their turn from the Wesleyans. Again it was social rather than religious differences that proved insuperable obstacles to unity; the Baptists and the Quakers (for example) have huge disagreements in matters of belief, but in theological terms there was little to choose between the two branches of Methodism, or indeed between them and the mother church, the C of E. To put it crudely, the Established Church was upper class, Methodists were middle class and the Primitive Methodists were working class. The result was that the Wesleyan Methodists refused to countenance the inclusion of such low-class congregations in their ranks. Such camp meetings as those held at Mow Cop were ‘highly improper in England’ they maintained. Thus it was propriety rather than dogma that stood between them.
Living in Staffordshire the Masons were at the epicentre of these developments and were among the first adherents of Primitive Methodism. Before 1800 the residents of Stoke on Trent and the surrounding area were regarded as a bunch of godless and benighted individuals. The Primitive Methodists provided these people, who had been seen as the ignorant and worthless dregs of humanity, with a path to salvation. The movement rapidly spread around the country from its Staffordshire beginnings. By the 1820s there were Primitive Methodist chapels springing up across Norfolk.
In the UK the Primitive Methodists were finally reunited with the Wesleyans in 1932, but in other parts of the world they maintain their independence. As well as providing the nascent Labour Party with many of its members, the ‘Prims’ were instrumental in the formation of the Trades Union Congress. The Primitive Methodists even more than the Wesleyan Methodists were deeply involved in supporting hospitals, providing education (particularly in Sunday Schools which taught children to read and write before the advent of Universal Education) and were foremost in promoting women as preachers.
After leaving Staffordshire to get married in 1879, Charles Mason was already well established in Trowse at the beginning of the twentieth century, but unfortunately there was no Primitive Methodist chapel in Trowse. (Neither had there been one in the first village in which he had made his home in Norfolk, Easton.) The nearest one to Towse was in Queens Road in Norwich, which had been built in 1872. This remained a church after Methodist Union, finally closing after the Second World War. No doubt Charles occasionally attended these popular services, but mostly the family went to the Mission Chapel (associated with the Congregational Church) in the Street in Trowse. This was demolished in 1970. A hundred year after that first meeting at Mow Cop a grand anniversary was held there in 1907. Charles attended the celebrations in Staffordshire, which suggests that he had not entirely lost touch with his family in his birthplace. One of his granddaughters (there are still grandchildren of Charles Mason, not much older than me) has a plate issued to commemorate the occasion in 1907, and this would have been brought back to Norfolk by Charles Mason.
William and Emily Mason (my grandparents) brought their children up as ‘Congs’, no doubt reflecting their own upbringing in the chapel in Trowse. The youngsters went to the morning service at the Princes Street Congregational Church in Norwich, followed by Sunday School in the afternoon. They had time walk home for tea before it was off again to the evening service; it was not a very restful day of rest. Primitive Methodism did not survive into the next generation of Charles’s family, and six years before his death the church had ceased to exist as a distinct entity.
THE HISTORY OF METHODISM
This Norfolk village is hidden away in the depths of the countryside. It is twenty five miles south west of Norwich; it is not exceptionally picturesque but pleasant enough. It comes under Breckland District Council. In summer it is surrounded by green hedges and fields of corn. The church of St Michael is set back on a bend in the road and the bell rings the hours; when we were there in June the clock was a quarter of an hour fast. It has a fine display of 15th century Norwich School stained glass and five remaining figures set in brasses on the floor.
The river Wissey passes through Great Cressingham and rises a few miles north at Bradenham. You are a long way from the Norfolk Broads here, and further downstream the Wissey is home to narrow boats that have come to Norfolk from the Midland canal system. It has more in common with the river Severn that the river Bure in boating terms – almost a foreign country!
Molly and I were there to watch our daughter Polly compete in a British Cycling road race. Although this was held in Norfolk the competitors came from far away; several from London and one from Shropshire. The field was therefore a strong one and Polly did well to finish around half way down the field – there were 30 in the women’s race. It was her first road race, previously she had competed in a Mountain Bike contests near Brandon which we had also gone to watch. On that occasion we never even found the venue! This race started at the village hall and there were seven laps of the surrounding roads, each one taking about 20 minutes to complete. Along the Watton Road the villagers had turned out in force to watch. They probably don’t get very much entertainment in the village. My wife could get no signal on her phone – maybe it would be better on another network.
The nearest town is Watton and for ninety years until 1964 that was their nearest railway station, on the Swaffham to Thetford branch. Great Cressingham may have felt a little less cut off before the Second World War because southwards the Stanford Battle Training Area now blocks off Great and Little Cressingham from the Thetford area. In all five villages (plus a deserted medieval settlement) were taken over by the War Office in 1942 and remain out of bounds today. STANTA is used for regular training exercises by the Paras and others, and soldiers from Europe are frequently to be seen there. The former habitations have been wrecked by decades of neglect and gunfire, but the churches have been preserved. The fine church at West Tofts was largely rebuilt in the 19th century by Pugin, at the expense of its millionaire vicar. It is described as one of the finest Gothic Revival churches in the country and so it is doubly sad that it cannot be visited. However occasional services have been held there since the 1980s.
As a civil parish Great Cressingham is combined with Little Cressingham and two villages together had a population off 421 in the last census. The village school close in 1992 and there is no longer a shop, but the 17th century pub (the Olde Windmill) remains. It seems a popular place with a dining room and guest bedrooms as well as wide range of cask ales.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
There used to be many ferries across the rivers and estuaries in Norfolk. Now there are only a few; Reedham ferry across the Yare and the ferry across the Great Ouse from Kings Lynn to West Lynn. There are also the ferries to Blakeney Point; these popular trips to see the seals leave from Morston Quay and Blakeney Harbour. Going back into history, in Roman times Holme-next-the-Sea (where Peddars Way reaches the coast) used to be the base for a ferry across the Wash. Its destination was the Roman station of Vainona (now called Wainfleet) in Lincolnshire. About forty years ago Norfolk Line used to run two ferries a day from Great Yarmouth to Holland; these ferries, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Holland, were mostly for commercial freight, but they were also used by the general public.
In Suffolk, since the MoD left the Orfordness peninsular in 1973 there has been a ferry service to allow people from Orford to explore the sand dunes and derelict military buildings across the river Ore in the Nature Reserve. There is a ferry service between Felixstowe and Harwich on the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour, linking these major ports of Suffolk and Essex. There is still a rowing boat that ferries people across the river Blyth from Walberswick to Southwold, though it only operates in the summer season. It only costs a pound. I have used the Walberswick ferry (many years ago) and also went across the Deben ferry which goes across the Deben estuary from Bawdsey to Felixstowe, with my new wife (and our bikes) in 1986.
The rowing boats that used to ferry people across the river Yare were common before the 20th century. They had all been abandoned by the time I was aware of my surroundings, but many of the boats themselves survived, as battered and unloved hulks pulled up on the riverbank. One such boat was at Pulls Ferry on the river Wensum in Norwich (it was broken up by vandals around 1970). Why a ferry had lasted so long there is something of a mystery. Bishops Bridge is only a few hundred yards away, and it had ceased to charge a toll in the mid 19th century; yet Pulls Ferry only ceased to operate within living memory, during the Second World War.
The boat which used to link Brundall with Surlingham at Coldham Hall was by repute going into the 1970s, but whenever I saw it the boat always appeared disused. I was a not an infrequent visitor to Coldham Hall in the 1960s, where my father would buy his half pint on a Sunday. I dare say we should have gone during the week to see the ferry in use. There was also a ferry that linked Surlingham with Postwick at the suitably named pub, the Surlingham Ferry. Between there and Norwich was Whitlingham ferry, and although I have never heard of a ferry at Bramerton, I am sure that at one time you could take a boat from the Wood’s End (as the riverside pub used to be called) to Hall Lane in Postwick.
The ferry at Buckenham was always remote from human habitation, although across the river was the Ferry Inn. The Ferry Inn (now rebuilt and called the Beauchamp Arms) figures prominently on this picture from 2oo years ago. It is across the river from Buckenham in Langley near Loddon. It is still a popular place of refreshment, although it draws almost all its trade from thirsty holiday makers who arrive there by boat. The only difference with the nineteenth century is that then its customers were working wherrymen. Note that in 1826 ten sheep, two cows and three people were waiting for the ferryman to pull the pontoon across the river to pick them up; two sailing boats are tied up at the pub. I went there as a teenager with my cousin Andrew, when we spent day sailing my dinghyfrom the Buckenham Sailing Club. Despite being an almost uninhabited location, the hamlet of Buckenham still boasts its own railway station, although it served by only a couple of trains a week.
The layout of the roads shows that once it was possible to take a ferry from Cantley; in fact there were two routes across the river Yare from there, but all traces of them have been lost. Reedham car ferry has already been mentioned, and it remains in use. It was almost the last ferry before you reached Great Yarmouth; the last one was a marshland ferry near the Berney Arms pub. Heaven only knows who used it, as the pub must accessed by railway or river boat, unless you walk for miles across the marsh from the A 47; what sort of income did the ferryman earn I wonder? The steamer which used to ply the river between the South Quay in Yarmouth and Gorleston saved holiday makers a long walk via Haven Bridge.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The British nurse who was born in the Rectory on the edge of Swardeston common did great work in the provision of modern nursing services in Belgium. However her name would be utterly forgotten today had she not been shot by a German firing squad a hundred years ago. Most people will be aware of her story, and how she tried to help the soldiers on both sides. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her cry; but that does not mean she did not feel that patriotism was important.
Although her work to aid the German injured is undisputed, there is controversy over the precise nature of Cavell’s contribution to the Allied War effort; did she merely help British soldiers to escape the Germans, or was her involvement with British Intelligence more substantial? This attempt to cast her in a less favourable light is entirely misplaced, although utterly in accord with modern mean-spirited scepticism. As a patriotic Englishwoman her intention was unmistakably to aid the British, whether in the escape plans of personnel or with intelligence. Strictly speaking, even her work in aiding fugitive Britons to escape Belgium was clearly illegal to the German occupation force. The question should not be whether or not they were right to shoot her; this raises many problems, not least whether the Germans had any right to be in Belgium in the first place. The question should rather be ‘were the Germans wise to shoot her’? And the answer to this is that they made a monumental error. The contrast between her kind and caring but patriotic nature and the unfeeling brutality of the German High Command could not have been more marked. Is it any wonder that observers across the world have, ever since her death, taken her side?
I am afraid that it is still part of the German psyche to pursue legalistic correctness in disregard of the wider decencies of life. Even today the Germans (and it is they who run Europe) are inflicting apparently endless economic punishment on Greece. The Greeks may have acted extremely irresponsibly in the past, but what is the point of loading extortionate loans onto them, loans that they have no prospect of ever repaying? Individual Germans may be delightful people, but as a nation they appear dour and humourless. Even their sports cars are dedicated to speed and performance rather than fun. Perhaps it is this trait that has made the nation such an economic powerhouse.
Edith seems to have been an exemplary character, whether as a student of French, an amateur painter, mistress of her beloved dogs, nurse to her ailing father or matron of a hospital in Brussels. In spite of her life in Belgium, she was quintessentially a middle class English spinster of a type that no longer exists. These women had grit. It is in no way to denigrate her courage and fortitude to say that any number of her contemporaries would have behaved exactly as Edith Cavell did, given the same circumstances.
I sometimes reflect on the fact that Edith and I attended the same school in Norwich (though 75 year apart). This may seem a little odd as it was the Norwich High School for Girls, but as I have explained elsewhere, the school briefly accepted boys for the first two years of their education. Swardeston common itself was a popular dog-walking spot during my youth, and despite often passing her former home I scarcely gave the poor lady a second thought. My son must have passed her statue daily on the way to school, but such regular attendances soon blunt any deeper consideration. It is as well to take some time to examine the significance of the life and death of nurse Edith Cavell.
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The family originally came from the village of Gresham in North Norfolk, and must have got their Grasshopper crest from being the village squires in the middle ages. The similarity of sound suggests as much. James Gresham is referred to as the local agent of the Paston family in the Paston Letters. In the mid-fifteenth century they migrated all of five miles to the market town of Holt. Richard Gresham was born there in 1485; he was apprenticed to the Worshipful Company of Mercers of London in the last years of Henry VII’s reign. He later went into partnership with his brothers John and William and between them they began to make money hand over fist.
Mercers were dealers in textiles, and this formed the principal part of their trade, but the Gresham brothers were interested in anything which would turn them a profit. As well as exports of woollen cloth they imported grain from Germany, wine from France and exotic goods from Turkey and Russia. All were handled by ships belonging or lent to the Greshams.
Richard became especially close to his fellow East Anglian Cardinal Wolsey, and did much to find the continental wall hangings that decorated his new palace at Hampton Court. When the Cardinal was on his death-bed, abandoned, alone and charged with High Treason, he wrote of his ‘fast-friend’, Richard Gresham. Richard paid for the funeral of Wolsey, although this was a muted affair at Leicester Abbey, where the Cardinal was interred without ceremony or memorial.
Richard and John were influential in the City Corporation of London, both becoming Lords Mayor, Richard in 1537 and John ten years later. Both were knighted in recognition of their services. The brothers were not ashamed to indulge in dubious financial arrangements; these would be regarded as sharp practices today, and even in the sixteenth century these actions got them many enemies. But their great wealth protected them; the government was permanently short of money and the Gresham brothers were experts at negotiating foreign loans. Richard was elected MP in the mid 1530s, and served again in the Parliament of 1545; both he and John acquired titles in the Royal Household.
Richard’s son Thomas went on to even greater heights during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was apprenticed to his uncle John and was admitted to the livery of the Mercers’ Company in 1543. As their agent in the Low Countries Thomas became adept at financial arrangements and was able to rescue the pound from impending disaster. For this the government was extremely grateful and rewarded him with grants of land. All the Greshams benefited enormously from the Reformation, as plenty of the Church’s former lands came their way, either as gifts from the Crown or by purchase. Thomas Gresham provided the capital needed for the Royal Exchange building, which was officially opened in 1571. It was modelled on the Antwep bourse and became the focus of London’s burgeoning importance as a financial centre, a position that it still retains. A few years before his death in 1579 he established the first successful paper mill in England, on the river Brent in Middlesex. Before this corn mill was converted to produce paper all the books printed in this country had to use imported material. This paper had to come from the Low Countries, where Gresham would have got the skilled workers the mill needed.
For all the ruthless business practices displayed by these family members, they all had an abiding interest in education. Richard sent his son Thomas to university at Cambridge, a highly unusual course of action for someone destined for a life in trade. They bequeathed much of their wealth in endowments that have provided for education in England down the centuries. Sir Thomas left instructions to establish Gresham College in London, which was to provide lectures on academic subjects. These lectures are free to all members of the public; the college has no formal students and awards no degrees. It is a highly democratic institute of Higher Education, and is unique in its constitution. This opened in 1597 and has been giving lectures ever since.
It is assumed that the brothers Richard and John Gresham were educated by the Augustinian canons at Beeston Regis Priory near Sheringham. This school closed as the result of the seizure of Church lands by Henry VIII. To address the ensuing shortage of educational facilities in North Norfolk Sir John established a Grammar School in Holt. In 1546 he began to purchase land around Holt with a view to endowing the school. As a younger son he had not inherited the Manor at Holt, and so he had to buy the property that was to form the basis of the school. He passed this endowment to the Fishmongers’ Company shortly before his death in 1556, and they still govern the school today. For more than three centuries this country Grammar School provided a modest education for the sons of the local gentry, sending one or two scholar every now and then to Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, from which they would emerge as doctors, lawyers or clergymen. But in the last years of the nineteenth century it was transformed into a Public School of national acclaim. A number of leases on property in central London had fallen due for renewal, and this provided the huge sums of money that were invested in the school. New boarding houses and a chapel were built. Just one pupil of the old foundation remained. The recently opened Holt railway station became a magnet for pupils from across the land. Since the refoundation of the school Gresham’s has produced such figures as the Scot Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, the Yorkshire born poet W. H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and inventor Sir James Dyson. Although most pupils of the Public School are the sons (and since the latter part of the twentieth century the daughters) of the wealthy, the school provides scholarships to members of the local community who have the wish and ability to benefit from the education provided. This in the spirit of the original Free Grammar School, which would educate any suitable candidates from the Holt area gratis, although the boarders had to pay.
Widely despised during their lifetimes, the Greshams have been responsible for much good done since their deaths.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
Robert Ransome was the son of a Quaker, born in Wells-next-the-Sea in 1753. Wells was still a centre of Quakerism a hundred and fifty years later, when my wife’s grandmother moved there and became an enthusiastic member of the congregation. The town was not however home to a conventional brand of Quakerism; instead of opting for silent worship the Wells Quakers were namely for their singing. Indeed in the nineteenth century it was known that members of the Quaker community attended Church of England services in order to sing in the parish choir!
The Society of Friends (their official title) had met in the town since the very first flowering of the denomination in the middle years of the 17th century. The community bought the Meeting House (on its present site) for twenty pounds and one guinea in 1697. Robert Ransome’s father was a teacher, instructing the children of Quakers in the town. When Robert himself left school he was apprenticed to a local ironmonger. Even while still at Wells his inventive nature was apparent. From Wells he moved to Norwich where he established a foundry, and his first patents were granted. In April 1786 Parson Woodforde went round Mr Ransome’s new iron foundry in Norwich and was very impressed by what he saw.
Norwich had a number of flourishing Non-conformist denominations, including Unitarians and Baptists as well a Quakers, but Robert seems to have found that the Cathedral city stifled his religious convictions. Ipswich had been a hotbed of Puritanism in the 17th century, and this put the Suffolk town on a collision course with the Quakers, but by the 18th century this animosity had subsided. In 1789 Robert Ransome moved his business to Ipswich.
Quakers being both industrious and frugal became one of the wealthiest religious communities; the Barclays who founded the eponymous bank were Quakers, and other old Quaker names still appear in the field of business (think of porage oats). Ransome was no exception and his capital was £200, a considerable sum in the early years of the 19th century. He and one employee established a foundry at a disused maltings in St Margarets Ditches. As result of a mishap in his iron foundry a hot casting came into contact with cold metal, resulting in an extremely hard product. Ransome patented this discovery which he put to use in making ploughshares. Agricultural machinery became the company’s bread and butter, although railway equipment was also made by an associated firm.
In 1845 the firm moved to Orwell Works, whose riverside location provided access to the sailing ships and steamers which carried their burgeoning export trade across the globe. The following year Ipswich was connected to the growing railway network, which opened up further the national market. One of my relatives was an engine driver for Ransomes in the 19th century; the firm had its own network of lines to transport goods from Orwell and Waterside Ironworks to the docks and railway station.
After over two hundred years it is not surprising that independent existence of the firm came to an end in the late 20th century, but the name Ransomes survives. They still make lawnmowers in Ipswich. The first mowing machine was made in 1832; before then any lawns had to be mowed by hand with a scythe, or else grazed to a smooth appearance by sheep. In the past the firm had a much more varied product range, from traction engines to large astronomical telescopes. During WW1 they made aeroplanes; by then the firm must have abandoned its historic links with pacifist Quakerism.
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THOMAS BROWNE was a native of London; he was born in Cheapside in 1605, the son of a silk merchant from Cheshire. He studied medicine at Oxford, and later went on to several European universities, obtaining his final qualification from Leiden in 1633. He came to Norwich in 1637 and remained there as a physician for the rest of his life.
He was not a great practical scientist, even in his chen field of medicine, but he was the foremost scientific writer of the 17th century. His introduction of the word ‘electricity’ to describe the developing study of the effects of static is probably his most important contribution to the world, but other coinages like hallucination, cryptography and incontrovertible have become part of the fabric of the English language. As a physician he is more important for his contribution to the vocabulary of medicine than for any medical advances he advocated; the word pathology is one of his neologisms, as indeed is the word medical itself. The state of knowledge in the sciences was just about to explode; Isaac Newton was already working on his great advances, although he did not publish his ground breaking works until after Browne’s death. It was the older man’s sceptical methodology which marks him out as a truly modern thinker.
It was for his opinions on religion that he was first read, and these form the basis of his book Religio Medici (in English the Religion of a Doctor). The scientific discoveries of the Renaissance were throwing up all sorts of uncomfortable questions for traditional theology, and was these that he addressed in this work. This circulated widely in manuscript during the 1630s, and a pirated copy was published in 1642. His own version, which had the more controversial elements of the privately circulated copy removed, was published a year later. His view of the unhistorical nature of the story of Noah’s Ark was influenced by the then recent discovery of the New World. No North American beasts were present among the animals that disembarked on Mount Ararat, and this gave him pause for thought.
Like all his contemporaries, he believed in witches and magic, and the evidence he gave in 1662 to the trial in Bury St Edmunds of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny may have helped the prosecution in convicting the women of witchcraft and their subsequent execution. It is a fact that these so-called ‘witches’ also undoubtedly believed in witchcraft, although they were (in most cases) probably convinced of their own innocence of the charge. It is nevertheless a blot on the memory of a man who was an advanced and modern thinker in most of his opinions.
A work called Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk was published by Jarrold’s in 1902, based on Browne’s manuscripts. It shows the inquisitive nature of the physician’s mind that such a book could be compiled. It deals with fishes and paricularly the birds he saw as he travelled the count. He gives the first known reference to many of the birds associated with the county, and to those that have since disappeared. The Great Bustard was frequently seen and heard in the Fenlands of Norfolk in the 17th century, and was (according to Browne) deemed a ‘dainty dish’; so much so that by 1832 it became extinct in England, when the last one was shot. It has only been reintroduced from Europe in recent years. Writing before Linnaeus introduced the binomial nomenclature method of defining the species of the natural world, it is sometimes not obvious what bird Browne is referring to, but the ‘woodspeck’ is clearly the woodpecker. Browne recounts specimens recovered from Horsey mere in North Norfolk and Thetford Heath near the Suffolk border, showing that his interest ranged widely across the county.
In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne dealt with the Vulgar Errors commonly believed in the 17th century. He used three ways of determining the truth – past authorities, reason and experience. Book Three treats the common misconceptions concerning the Animal Kingdom. On the existence of the unicorn for example he used reason to demonstrate that the position of its horn would make it impossible for the animal to eat. The similar horns of the rhinoceros and narwhal do not have this feature, and Browne accepts these beasts as genuine. In all three instances he was absolutely right, although his other methodology of empirical observation was not available to him in Norwich. None of these beast had ever been found in Norfolk.
He was knighted in 1672 by King Charles II on his visit to Norwich. Sir Thomas Browne continued to practise medicine in Norwich until his death aged nearly 80.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA