Here are interesting stories of Massingham’s past, courtesy of David Miller
Histry Bits No. 40: The Merry Millers
It was the late nineteen-fifties, and the skiffle craze was in full blast. Inspired by Lonnie Donegan, and using washboards and tea-chests in place of real (and expensive) musical instruments, Skiffle Groups sprang up throughout the country. Skiffle contests were held, with local winners going on to regional and national finals. Skill levels varied from quite good to quite appalling, but one group stood out from the rest – The Merry Millers, led, inevitably, by my mother Merrill, and featuring half a dozen plump and jolly Massingham ladies who could sing and strum along to the latest hits. They didn’t win, but their Norfolk version of ‘Rock Island Line’ certainly brought the house down!
Caption for image:
From the left: Edith Riches, Joan Hodson, Connie Warnes, Merrill Miller, Minnie Mortimer, Lily Cooper
Histry Bits No. 39: The Story of a Tree
Halfway up Castle Acre Road, guarding the entrance to Kennels Farm is a remarkable tree. It’s an oak, but it doesn’t look much like one. Its densely-packed dark green leaves are small and shiny, and when our native trees shed their leaves in the autumn, this particular tree retains its foliage right through the winter. It is, in fact, a holm oak, most commonly seen on sun-drenched Mediterranean hillsides. For those of you who’re interested, it’s got a Latin name – Quercus ilex – and is related to the holly. But what on earth is it doing in Massingham?
It’s a charming story, and it begins just down the road at Houghton Hall in 1739, when young Horace Walpole, third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, set off on a Grand Tour of Europe, accompanied by his friend Thomas Gray, author of the famous Gray’s Elegy. For aristocratic youths like Horace, a Grand Tour was an essential part of growing up and in the days before railways, the two friends covered huge distances by coach and on horseback, heading first for Paris, where they visited the French Court, before aiming south across the Alps to Florence, Venice, Genoa, Toulon, and Marseilles. Unfortunately, during their travels, Horace and Gray had a serious row, and Horace returned to England in September 1741. But not before he had fulfilled another essential function of his tour – the purchase of large numbers of classical statues – some genuine, but many fake – to enhance the marble halls of Houghton. These were duly despatched by horse and wagon and in some cases by sea, back to Norfolk where the wooden crates containing them were levered open by excited staff to reveal the treasures within.
And that’s where our holm oak enters the story. In the days before moulded polystyrene and plastic bubble wrap, tree branches were used to protect valuable items on their slow transit along the rutted roads of Europe. Once at their destination, the branches would normally be thrown out and burnt. But not in this case. During the unpacking, an eagle-eyed member of staff spotted something on the discarded branches. They were acorns. They didn’t look like English acorns, but acorns they definitely were. A gardener was consulted, a seedbed was prepared, and the acorns were carefully planted.
The rest, as they say, is history. The strange-looking acorns duly germinated, and the resulting saplings were distributed throughout the villages of the Houghton estate, one of which was Massingham. If my maths is right it makes our very own holm oak tree 277 years old!
Histry Bits No. 38: The Buzzards Are Back
I must have been about twelve when I saw my first buzzard, and I remember it well. I was on my bike, heading off along the Grimston Road when without any warning a large bird of prey – much bigger than the sparrow hawks and kestrels I was used to – thumped down into the beet field on my left, scattering a covey of partridges as it did so. Convinced that it was, at the very least, an escaped eagle, I jettisoned my bike and scrambled through the soaking leaves towards the place where it had come down. A plume of partridge feathers drifting in the wind showed me exactly where, and I slowed to a walk as I approached it. It was crouched over the motionless body of a partridge, ripping the feathers and flesh from its breast, and for an instant – a tiny instant – our eyes met. I remember wishing I’d had my camera, but there wouldn’t have been time to use it. Almost instantly it was airborne, and with the remains of the partridge dangling from its talons, it headed off towards Little Massingham and was gone.
It wasn’t just my first buzzard, but the only one I saw when I was a boy. I found out later that the bird I had seen, with its heavily-feathered legs, was a rough-legged buzzard, a rare winter migrant to Eastern England from Northern Scandinavia. But where were the supposedly much more numerous common buzzards that my Observer’s Book of Birds assured me could be spotted in any self-respecting strip of deciduous woodland? The inevitable answer came back: they were vermin, and had been ‘shot out’ (i.e. rendered locally extinct) to preserve pheasant numbers.
I was gone a long time from the village, spending many years travelling and working in London and overseas, and if there were buzzards around they didn’t register with me. It was only when I finally moved back to our house in Weasenham Road that things changed. I was walking across the lawn one morning when I heard a mewing noise overhead, much louder than a cat might make. Semi-blinded by the rising sun, I peered upwards. I could just make out the silhouette of a large raptor, circling on a thermal, and being dive-bombed by rooks and jackdaws, furious at its invasion of their airspace. I knew instantly what it was.
I’ve seen and heard numerous buzzards since then, youngsters as well as mature adults, sometimes as many as half a dozen birds in the air at one time, shouting to each other in what has to be tones of sheer joy. Something had obviously happened while I was gone. Something wonderful.
The buzzards are back!
Common Buzzard (Buteo Buteo) Photo by Spencer Wright from North Walsham, England
Histry Bits No. 37: The Worst Job in the World?
Anybody who tries to tell you that life on the farm was better in the old days is talking rubbish. Poorly-paid, back-breaking labour in mud and snow and driving rain was the rule, not the exception. But there was one job that outstripped all the rest for mud, tedium and squalor – and it didn’t even exist until just before the First World War – the production and harvesting of sugar beet.
The first sugar beet factory was set up at Cantley, near Norwich in 1912, and during the 1920’s a further 17 factories were built around the region. These were later amalgamated to form the British Sugar Corporation which until the 1950’s set quotas and processed the entire crop, saving many small farmers from bankruptcy at that time.
After the beet seeds had germinated, they needed singling, to give the growing plants space to develop. Known as ‘chopping out’, this was done by gangs of men using hand hoes, working their way methodically backwards across the vast fields of beet that surrounded the village. It was truly exhausting work, with no protection from the driving rain and gales that turned fields into seas of mud.
Beet harvesting was no better. Before the advent of mechanisation, everything was also done by hand. Known as ‘Knock and Chop’ the beet was uprooted, knocked together to remove as much of the mud as possible, and its leafy upper stems sliced off using a hooked, machete-like beet knife, before being lobbed into an accompanying cart. Lorries would later visit the farm to ferry the mountains of waiting beet to the various factories for processing.
Of course, things are better now. But next time you get stuck behind a gigantic, state-of-the-art beet-harvester occupying the entire width of a narrow mud-clogged country lane, try to be patient. Things used to be a whole lot worse.
With thanks to Clive Casburn and Peter Brown.
Histry Bits No. 36: Screen Savers?
The church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Eye is truly magnificent. One of East Anglia’s famous ‘wool’ churches, its intricately patterned tower soars more than a hundred feet above this small Suffolk town. Its interior is equally spectacular, though most of it was ‘restored’ by the Victorians in the mid-nineteenth century. Its true glory lies in its magnificent rood screen, dating from the late 1470s. In medieval churches the rood screen divided the chancel, where the altar is situated, from the nave, the main body of the church. Most screens were torn down and destroyed during the Reformation. But not all. Those that survived are usually made from intricately carved and painted wood, and feature portraits of the twelve apostles, or other saints. The screen at Eye is no exception.
But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with Massingham? The answer is simple. Village legend has it that the screen at Eye church originally belonged to us, and that way back in the mists of time it was stolen, removed or otherwise expropriated. Like the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, maybe it should be given back!
Su’en and I recently took a day out to visit Eye to see if we could find out any more about this fascinating story. We were met by a very kind and welcoming parishioner who, besides letting us use the church loo (we were desperate) produced a faded manuscript copy of a book called, (not very originally), ‘The History of Eye’ by Clive Paine. And there, on page two was what we were looking for. The screen, according to Mr. Paine’s researches, had genuinely come from Massingham. Not from dear old St. Mary’s as we had supposed, but from Massingham Priory Church, which faced it across the green. The priory was closed down in 1475, and the remaining handful of monks and lay brothers transferred to the priory at West Acre. Left behind was a set of empty buildings and a redundant rood screen. Though we don’t know for certain, it is more than likely that the entire lot was put up for sale soon afterwards, its stone being re-used for building purposes, and its beautiful screen shipped down to Eye, where it remains to this day.
Anyone for a rescue bid?
Histry Bits No 35: Miss Doris King – memories of the life of a ‘very ordinary Massingham woman’
A proper beginning will tell that I was born a few days after Christmas in the reign of Edward VII. The snow was knee-deep, and my father had to walk three miles to call the doctor. There were no telephones then, but the doctor did give him a lift back in his horse and trap. I was the sixth daughter to arrive and made my debut before the doctor reached us. My father was what was called a team man in those days, responsible for a team of horses, and we lived in a tied cottage.
In later years my mother told me it worried her when a new baby was coming because we were very poor, but she couldn’t really be cross. My father used to say better another baby than lose any we have. He was a good man, and I think we loved him most because he was never stern with us. He used to say to my mother: ‘I’m sure no one has daughters like ours.’ He was very fond of cats. I remember him buying a little chair from a gypsy at the door, especially for our cat. It stood on an uneven place on the floor, and the cat sort of rocked back and forth on it.
We had to walk a mile to school, and took our dinners with us. In winter one trick we played was to toast our bread and butter on the end of the cane used for our chastisement. Strangely enough, the teacher didn’t seem to notice that the cane got shorter and shorter, the boys cutting the burnt ends off gradually. Talking in class was my besetting sin, and too much talking is my failing to this day! I left school at the age of fifteen to go into domestic service, and at eighteen I went to London.
I was most keen to go, having three sisters already in service there, two as parlour maids, and one as a cook. On the day I arrived there was a black fog. I was told to change into my uniform of black cashmere dress and white apron, with lace trimmed bib and what in those days was termed a ‘Sister Dora’ cap on my head. Then I was taken to see my new employer. She received me so kindly that I did not feel nervous for long. I worked for her for sixteen years and was very happy there. I enjoyed dinner parties the most. I loved to prepare the table with lovely glass, silver and attractive mats.
The only task I did not like so much was announcing the names of guests as they arrived, as I felt I could never speak loudly enough. A princess, who visited sometimes, was very charming to me.’
Miss Doris King 29/12/1906 – 4/11/1995
Miss King eventually returned to Massingham, becoming a much-loved village character. She spent a large part of her day in the immaculate front garden of her tiny cottage next to the old Post Office, having lengthy chats with anybody who had a moment to spare – and many who didn’t. When she went into a care home, my wife Su’en and I bought her cottage. It became our happy holiday home for the next seventeen years.
Miss King’s memories were edited and abridged by David Miller
Histry Bits No 34: A Summer Knock About
Some time back, Barry Hardingham very kindly lent me a fascinating photograph. It was of Massingham boys’ cricket team, and it appears to have been taken in the summer of 1960 or very soon after, on the meadow behind our turkey farm up Drunken Drove. It features an almost complete set of village boys between the ages of nine and thirteen – including myself – and it brings back vivid memories from fifty years ago.
We’d get together on long summer evenings for a knock about – usually amongst ourselves – but every so often against neighbouring villages such as Helhoughton or Grimston if transport could be arranged. We particularly liked playing Grimston, where we were allowed to use the posh cricket field belonging to Congham Hall. This made us feel extremely important, but unfortunately did nothing for our cricketing skills. I remember vividly how on one occasion our entire team was bowled out for a grand total of seven runs. Mind you, the situation was reversed somewhat when visiting teams came to play us. Our pitch, which resembled a sheet of rusty corrugated iron, was shared with my Uncle Ivor’s herd of Frisian cows which invariably came to get a close-up look at us once the game had started. They were particularly effective in the outfield where strategically-positioned cow pats prevented a host of boundaries.
One mystery remains: where on earth did my brother Paul get that kit? I can’t remember, and nor, he alleges, can he.
With many thanks to Barry Hardingham
Histry Bits No 33: A Window on the Past
What exactly did Massingham look like in the years before photography was invented? Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure, but two extraordinary drawings dating from the year 1835, photocopies of which are with Ant Robinson, can give us a pretty good idea. It seems that the then Rector, Christopher Grenside, was not just a priest, but a highly-skilled artist. Drawn in charcoal and/or pencil, they open a unique window into the daily lives of ordinary working inhabitants of the village almost two hundred years ago. Let’s take a closer look at them.
The earliest of the two pictures is a view from the top of Walcup’s Lane, looking south-east across Scotsman’s Pit to the church. Though it is difficult to be absolutely certain, the drawing appears to show a gang of men engaged in road mending. Stones, gathered from the fields by villagers to earn a few extra pence, are brought by horse and cart to fill potholes caused by the winter rains. Watching them work is a man on horseback, most likely the Parish Overseer of the Poor, checking that the men – unemployed farm labourers – are doing a proper day’s work for their dole money. In the background two women can be seen approaching, the taller of the two carrying a basket on her head, African style. Her companion appears to be holding a large sheaf of corn, suggesting that the pair have been gleaning – gathering up fallen corn from the fields to feed their families. On the left of the picture, we see ‘Cobwebs’, one of the oldest houses in the village, looking very much the same as it does today.
The second picture has a caption written on its reverse. It reads as follows: Great Massingham. The church. Gable of Swan Inn.The Swan barn, thatched and butcher Hendry’s house from the south end of pond. It features the classic view of the village looking north to the church, with a hive of activity in the foreground. Several large trees have obviously been recently felled, and a gang of men is struggling to unload one of them from a waiting tumbril. The standard of drawing is extraordinary. You can almost hear the grunts and shouts of the labourers as they strain every muscle. In the left foreground two men are busy splitting a tree trunk using a sledge hammer and iron wedge. Known as cruck frame, this same building technique was in use from pre-medieval times, until surprisingly recently. The enormous thatched Swan barn pictured in this drawing probably had a roof constructed in this way.
Histry Bits No 32: A Noisy Young Davil
A century and a half ago, there was no qualified doctor in Massingham. For all but the most severe cases, ‘Doctor’ Wharton Forster, landlord of the Swan would be sent for. He was greatly respected by the villagers, doubling up as a vet, and when necessary, as a dentist. I remember vividly as a small boy suffering from a very bad toothache. Despite my protests I was sent to have the offending lower molar extracted. The doctor took me into the veterinary surgery. On the shelves all round were horse medicines, horse balls, horse forceps and other paraphernalia which go to make up a vet’s equipment. I can smell that smell, now, many years later. The old gentleman spread out a corn sack on the floor for me to sit down on. I did so, with fear and trembling. Standing over me, with my head firmly held between his knees, he examined the scene of operation. Then he reached for a huge pair of horse forceps, which nearly filled my mouth. After ordering me to keep still and not to make a noise, he applied the forceps to the offending molar, and with a jerk I shall never forget, wrenched it out. Up I jumped yelling with pain. The doctor picked up a hunting whip and gave it a loud crack. “Go you home you noisy young davil,” he said. And I did so, very quickly, I can assure you.
From the Massingham memoirs of Ernest Johnson
Caption for image: A painful extraction
Histry Bits 31 – A Massingham Mini Marvel
You might be forgiven for thinking that the above object is the latest Sky channel changer, until I tell you that it’s only five centimetres long and was picked up in the village by Ant Robinson during one of his many metal detecting expeditions. It is, in fact, a strap-end, designed to be attached to the end of a leather belt or strap to stop it fraying during use, and becoming difficult to thread. It is made of silver and features a complex design of intertwined animals, picked out with niello (black sulphide of silver) to provide added decorative effect.
It is not just very small, but very old, dating from the early part of the ninth century, during the second wave of Viking attacks on the Norfolk coast, and it caused a great deal of excitement at Lynn Museum when Ant took it to show them. Here’s an extract from the Curator’s report: ‘Wonderful silver strap-end, a 9thcentury, possibly of Cornish origin, with very fine quality of decoration. The rectangular space below the two silver rivets features two back-to-back and intertwining animals. The animals’ heads are unusually well-modelled, with rounded ears, eyes, and nostrils one of which is inlaid with black glass. The eyes have incised lines around them to indicate the sockets. The rivets are silver and dome-headed, and have serrated borders.’
Praise indeed. And a feeling of wonderment at the incredible eyesight of the Anglo-Saxon silversmith who created something so tiny and so intricately detailed without the aid of any artificial magnification.
Caption for image: Silver strap-end
Histry Bits 30: An Owl in the Family
When I was a boy, the perimeter fences of many of the big country estates in this part of the world were festooned with the shrivelled corpses of dead animals and birds. This was the work of gamekeepers anxious to prove to their lords and masters, and anybody else who cared to look, that they were keeping vermin under strict control. In addition to numerous rats, weasels and stoats, there would be the carcases of jackdaws and rooks, magpies and jays, and countless smaller birds such as starlings and sparrows, condemned for stealing corn from pheasant feeders. There were raptors too: sparrow hawks and kestrels; and, of course owls, a favourite target for trigger-happy keepers.
Almost certainly that was what happened to Claude’s mother. Claude was a tawny owl who came to live with us at our turkey farm up Drunken Drove in the late nineteen-fifties. My brother Paul found her down Rougham Road, flopped at the base of a tree, squeaking pathetically, wearing a full coat of fluffy baby feathers. There was no way she could fly or feed herself, and there were no wildlife rescue centres to take her to in those days. Knowing that any gamekeeper would kill her on sight, Paul took her home.
She lived in an empty rabbit hutch to start with, wrapped in an old towel for warmth. She was a feisty little thing, and clawed my brother painfully on the hand when he attempted to hold her, which was how she got her name. Being a turkey farm, we had a ready supply of dead turkey chicks, which we cut into pieces to feed her. We’d expected problems in getting her to eat, but she wolfed the food down, squeaking loudly for more, flapping her stubby little wings as she did so. She grew very fast, shedding most of her baby fluff, and developing strong wing- and tail feathers as she did so. As winter approached we brought her indoors, and established her in the living room in an old parrot cage. She became increasingly tame, tracking our movements with her bright eyes as we crossed the room, chirruping loudly to get our attention – and yet another turkey snack. One day, when her cage was being cleaned out, she took her first flight. It was almost vertically upwards. Somehow she managed to cling onto the pelmet of one of the curtains in the living room and hang there upside down until rescued with the help of a step-ladder.
Claude stayed with us during the worst of the winter, practising her flights across the living room, and spending happy hours staring down at us from her favourite pelmet, making her familiar baby squeaks. Then one evening in early spring, everything changed. For once we were ignoring her, and she didn’t like it. Perching on the back of our father’s armchair, she let out a sudden ear-splitting shriek. Dad, who was sitting in the chair at the time shot bolt upright, dumping the contents of his whisky glass onto the carpet as he did so. What on earth was happening?
We boys knew. During the breeding season tawny owls have two distinct calls: a soft twoooo made by males trying to locate a female, and a raucous kewick! made by females to advertise their whereabouts to the males. Two things became immediately clear to us: firstly that Claude was a female and not a male, as we had always thought, and secondly, that spring was coming, and she was trying to attract a mate.
She certainly succeeded in that. Her first spectacular shriek was followed by a string of others, each one louder than the last. The noise she made must have been audible for miles around. Within minutes the branches of the oak tree outside the living room window were lined with owls, like spectators at a football match. Claude seemed to enjoy her fifteen minutes of fame, and flirted shamelessly with the newcomers. But as the days passed, she became increasingly restless and unhappy, and at last we were forced to face up to the truth: it was time to let her go. We chose a quiet moonlit night to release her. Wearing thick gardening gloves, Paul launched her through the open French windows, and on silent wings she was gone. Despite myself I felt my eyes prick with tears. It was like losing a member of the family.
That should have been the end of the matter, but amazingly, it wasn’t. Six months later, in early autumn, Paul and I were walking home through the darkness along Drunken Drove, which at the time was just a deserted country lane with no houses apart from ours. Suddenly there was an audible thump followed by a surprised exclamation from my brother. Clinging to the front of his jumper, making little squeaky baby noises, was a fully-grown tawny owl. It had to be Claude! She stayed with us for a while, cocking her head to have her neck feathers stroked and ruffled, which was what she loved most, before flying off into the night. We never saw her again – but we didn’t need to. The memory of our magical meeting will stay with both of us forever.
Histry Bits No 29: Marsincham
In the year 1085 William the Conqueror commissioned a ‘great survey’ of his newly-acquired kingdom. Completed in just 12 months, its purpose was to maximise tax revenues, and reinforce control over an increasingly rebellious population. Nicknamed ‘The Domesday Book’ it was in fact two volumes – the larger one a broad survey of the entire kingdom, and a smaller volume known as ‘Little Domesday’ covering the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex in much greater detail. Massingham (usually spelt Marsincham) is mentioned several times in both books, providing fascinating details of how our village ancestors lived their lives.
The first thing to note is that for its time, Marsincham was a very big settlement, numbering 117 households. With a high birth-rate the norm in most peasant families, it is entirely likely that its total population topped the nine hundred mark, making it as large, if not larger than our present day village. The working population consisted of 21 ceorls or freemen, 10 villeins (landless peasants) and one unfortunate slave. Cultivation was carried out by plough-teams, each of which consisted of up to 6 small oxen, which would pull a primitive single-furrow wooden plough known as an ard, managing an acre a day, or less. Marsincham had 17 plough-teams in all – a huge number – with 3 teams belonging to the Lord of the Manor, and the rest to the village. The breeding of sheep was clearly very important, with a total of 260 animals being raised mainly for their wool, which almost certainly provided the only reliable cash income for the village. In addition, there were 23 pigs, 10 of which were free-ranging in nearby woodland, feeding on acorns and roots; and 7 acres of meadow.
If we could travel back in time to Marsincham, we’d probably see a circle of thatched mud-walled huts surrounding the two large ponds, occupying more or less the same footprint it does today. A church gets no mention in our Domesday entries, though it is likely there was a small chapel on the site of the present churchyard, but with no tower.
Histry Bits No 28: Man Trap
I don’t know where it came from, or where it is now, but when we were boys there was something truly scary fixed to the wall of one of Owen Cole’s outbuildings along Station Road. It was a man trap, and it made you shudder just to look at it, imagining the terrible pain its spiked steel jaws would cause when they sprang shut, crushing the bones and flesh of your leg, leaving you to bleed to death.
Man traps were scaled-up versions of the familiar rat traps used on farms. To set one, its metal jaws were forced apart, and held down by a finely balanced catch. The slightest pressure on its central trigger plate would release the catch, causing its jaws to slam shut.
Man traps first came into use in the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the poaching of game, as a direct result of the starvation wages paid to agricultural workers, reached epidemic proportions. Their use was never widespread, acting more as a deterrent than an offensive weapon, and they were finally banned by an Act of Parliament in May 1827 which ‘prohibited the setting of spring guns, man traps and other engines calculated to destroy human life, or inflict grievous bodily harm.’
I’d be delighted to hear where our Massingham man trap has ended up.
Histry Bits No 27: The Absolute Pits
The surest way to tell if somebody is a newcomer to Massingham is to ask him or her what those gleaming stretches of water that make our village so beautiful are called. It’s 99% certain that they’ll answer ‘ponds’. Well I’ve got news for them. Ponds they aint. Ponds, as everybody from Andrew Bickerton downwards will tell you, are shallow puddles in people’s back gardens inhabited by a few fungus-ridden goldfish. What we’re talking about here are pits. I’ll spell the word out: P I T S. So why do so many people insist on calling them ponds? It’s almost as if pits was a rude word that shouldn’t be spoken in polite company
As we all know, Massingham is positively riddled with pits. As well as the two massive pits that occupy the centre of the village (Scotchman’s and the Village or Post Office Pits), there’s an entire convoy of the things marching down Weasenham Road, terminating in the mysterious Swallow Pit in the meadow opposite my house, which literally swallows the excess run-off water from the village, sending it deep underground into the chalk strata beneath.
But there are other pits – smaller, but nevertheless forming an interesting side-note to village history. These are marl pits, and you’ll find one in the centre, or at the very edge of virtually every field in the parish, these days usually surrounded by a circle of thick vegetation. Marl – calcium-carbonate rich subsoil – was widely used as a fertiliser in Victorian times. A typical marl pit, dug out by teams of travelling labourers, has a cliff-like edge on one side, with a more gentle slope opposite, forming a ramp for horses and carts to haul out the marl, before it was spread onto the land. Used now mostly as launching pads for pheasants in the season, some of the pits are flooded, but the majority are dry. In case anybody asks, the dry pits are known as pit-holes, and the flooded ones, just plain pits.
Histry Bits No 26: Don’t Mention the War
When I first began these Histry Bits back in 2014 one of my principal aims was to take Basil Fawlty’s advice and not mention the War. I felt that Sister Lawrence’s meticulous and devoted research, over so many years, into the crews and aircraft that called Massingham their home, needed no additional input from me. It was almost too good – as if nothing else important had ever happened in the village before or since. But there was one major incident she failed to cover. It concerns a Canadian Airforce Lancaster bomber returning from a raid on Berlin on the night of the 23rd of November 1943.
Heading for its home base at RAF Warboys in Cambridgeshire, the huge aircraft lost height and crashed into the rear of High Acre House in Harpley, then the home of my godmother Miss Marjorie Morton. Reggie Tipple, a Home Guard sergeant, who lived nearby, heard the crash and rushed out of his cottage to help. Showing incredible bravery he smashed his way into the blazing aircraft, rescuing its navigator trapped in the nose, and another survivor, his clothes on fire, pinned to the ground under one of the wings. After putting out the flames, Mr Tipple went to help another crewmember who had been flung from the plane, and its rear gunner trapped in the aircraft’s broken tail. Then he turned his attention to the occupants of the house.
Incredibly, both women were rescued unharmed. According to family legend, Aunt Marjorie’s aged and deaf mother slept soundly throughout the whole thing.
Crashed Canadian Air force Lancaster Bomber
Histry Bits No 25: The Great Escape
In 1961 seven middle-aged Massingham housewives decided to take a week’s holiday in Paris without their husbands. No big deal you might think, but half a century ago it had all the makings of a major story for the Lynn News and Advertiser. That these women should have the cheek to leave their poor helpless husbands behind to wash the dishes and mop the floor was bad enough. But for the shameless hussies to be seen to be actually enjoying their new-found freedom was too good an opportunity to miss. A two man team from the Lynn News was sent to Paris to record their exploits, and after an initial feature article appeared back home, the story went viral. Astonishingly, it was picked up by major newspapers in Britain and France, by women’s magazines, and even TV. With their sightseeing costs paid for by competing publications, the ladies set off to paint the town red – or at least a pale shade of Norfolk pink. Pursued by photographers they visited the Christian Dior fashion house, various flea markets and the Lido nightclub –before finishing their final evening with front row seats at the famously raunchy Follies Pigalle in Montmartre. This proved a little too raunchy for two of their party, who made an excuse and left after just half an hour of full-frontal can-can. All in all our intrepid Massingham adventurers had a cracking time, and told reporters when they got home that they’d do it all again given half the chance. But of course, they never did.
On a bus in Paris
Left to right: Mrs. Minnie Mortimer, Mrs. Daisy Manning, Mrs. Iris Fraser, Mrs. Phyllis Morton, Mrs. Margaret Morton, Mrs. Merrill Miller, Mrs. Joan Hodson.
Off in style to a nightclub
Histry Bits No 24: The Malignant
In October 1642 the peace and quiet of Massingham and its surrounding countryside was shattered by the arrival of a troop of sinister, heavily armed, leather-clad horsemen led by a certain Oliver Cromwell. Its mission? To seize money, weapons and supplies to provision an 8000 strong Parliamentarian army camped at Setchey, awaiting orders to begin the siege of the strategically vital port of King’s Lynn. The English Civil War, which would culminate seven years later in the execution of Charles the First, had begun.
Cromwell, then still a lowly Captain, but later to become Lord Protector of England chose his targets carefully. Top of his hit list were the local West Norfolk gentry with their large country estates, who almost to a man backed the King. Chief amongst the landowners were the Lestranges of Hunstanton, the Spelmans of Congham, the Pastons of Appleton, and last but not least, the Mordaunts of Little Massingham.
Sir Charles Mordaunt, Lord of the Manor, had succeeded to the title at the age of 23, and was a staunch royalist. Referred to by Cromwell as a ‘malignant’, no contemporary record exists of the meeting between the two men, but it must have been a heated one. It resulted in the seizure of the landowner’s goods, which, after an excellent harvest were considerable. Using farm wagons the plunder was transported from Massingham to Swaffham, where a central depot had been set up to supply the needs of the waiting army.
The landowners got the message, and gentlemen from the surrounding countryside (including Sir Charles) hurried to Lynn to offer their services as volunteers in its defence. Within days, Lynn was under heavy siege, with eighteen thousand Parliamentarian soldiers drawn tightly around the town ‘like a living girdle’. Boats were requisitioned, and siege ladders were constructed to scale the town walls and break down the gates. The Earl of Manchester who commanded the Parliamentarian army held a Council of War, and it was decided to attack the town simultaneously by sea and land. A heavy bombardment began, with cannon balls smashing into St. Margaret’s church. The town’s fate seemed sealed. But they reckoned without the Mayor of Lynn, a certain Alderman Leeke. Anxious to preserve what was left of his home town, he put on his chain of office, tied a white flag to a stick, and to the consternation of both the siegers and the besieged, who had not been consulted, surrendered. The landowners were sent home, the army dispersed, and it being Norfolk, things returned rapidly to normal. So where was Cromwell when all this was happening? In Lincolnshire with his horsemen. He had bigger battles to fight..
Histry Bits No 23: Raising the Roof
As a boy I felt very proud when I was told that Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first Prime Minister, had been educated in Massingham. My grandfather, who was churchwarden, showed me where the schoolroom above the church porch had once been. But there was one thing he didn’t mention, and which has puzzled me until relatively recently: were Sir Robert and his classmates dwarfs? Go and stand in the porch and look upwards. The space between the top of the elegant pointed open arcades at the sides, where the floor would have been, and the apex of the arched roof above it is three or four feet at most – scarcely enough space for a schoolroom, unless the pupils and the teacher were permanently bent double. Obviously, at some time, the roof must have been considerably higher, or the floor considerably lower.
Ant Robinson, (as usual) supplied the answer. He came up with a drawing of Massingham church done in the early years of the Queen Victoria’s reign by William Taylor, an accomplished artist who was also the village schoolmaster. It clearly shows the original schoolroom, the one that Sir Robert had attended, perched rather precariously on top of the existing porch. It was a strange, rather ugly little building, with diamond paned windows, and a narrow spiral staircase leading up to it. But at least it was tall enough to stand up in.
Church Porch School Room by William Taylor
Histry Bits No 21: A Sad Centenary
Sorting through a pile of documents last week, I came across a flimsy, yellowing sheet of paper dated February 7th 1917, exactly one hundred years ago. It was a letter sent to my grandfather John Morton by Sidney Gage, one of his employees at Heath Farm, who was serving with the Norfolk Regiment on the Western Front. Sidney, who was uncle to the late Olive (Pop) Skipper, was a Massingham boy through and through, and judging by his neat pencil handwriting had been very well taught at the village school. Before she died, Pop filled me in on his sad story. Six weeks after this letter was written, aged just 22, Sidney was killed by a sniper up a tree, shot through the head in a brief moment of carelessness. According to Pop, he died instantly, just another homesick lad a long way from the village he loved.
A Coy 300 18 (censored) B.E.F
I am now taking the opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping you are quite well, as it leaves me with a cold.
We are in the firing line at present, and I should like to tell you plenty of news but we are not allowed to do so. There is a happy family of us in our little dug-out and Fritz keeps sending us his compliments, which are not very comfortable things.
I hear that Reg has got out here at last, but I have not come across him yet. but by the way, young Failes wishes to be remembered to you. He is in the same company as myself.
I expect you have had plenty of skating this winter as I dare say it has been very sharp frosty weather at home.
We are still having very sharp frosty weather here, and it makes you think of home when you are standing in the trenches these winter nights.
I expect you have not been able to do any ploughing this last few days.
Give my best respect to Mrs. Morton, hoping this letter will find you all well.
Sidney William Gage. Private 30018 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment. Killed in action 25th March 1917 in France and Flanders. Born in Great Massingham, enlisted Norwich. Son of the late Mr and Mrs William Gage of Great Massingham, King’s Lynn. Buried in VERMELLES British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. Plot V Row A Grave 44.
Beginning in the year 1830 West Norfolk was shaken by a series of violent uprisings in protest against the grinding poverty and starvation-level wages of its agricultural labourers. Horses and cattle were maimed, sheep stolen, and corn stacks torched. Farmers who attempted to intervene were attacked, and frequently badly hurt. Urged on by a mysterious Robin Hood like character calling himself Captain Swing, the desperate labourers fought pitched battles with armed militia, as the violence spread to Massingham and beyond. At Bircham there was a confrontation between the villagers and a group of prison officers from Walsingham Bridewell sent to arrest the ringleaders. One of the officers, a Mr. Tilney, was badly injured, and left behind, as his comrades were forced to retreat. The next day a crowd of close to a thousand labourers, drawn from neighbouring villages, ransacked the house of Mr. Kitton, one of the Overseers of the Poor. As Mr. Kitton and his family cowered in a back room, every door and window in the house was smashed, the furniture broken into pieces and set on fire by means of books. The family escaped just in time. The arrival of a squad of customs officers from the coast quietened things down until the following Wednesday, when a detachment of Inniskillen Dragoons arrived and were stationed in the village. Revenge followed swiftly. Fines and lengthy prison sentences were handed out, and three of the immediate ringleaders were transported for life to Australia. One of them, a Robert West, almost certainly from Massingham, joined 177 other felons on board the convict ship Portland, arriving at Port Macquarie near Sydney on the 19th of November1831. Alas, having survived the rigours of the long sea voyage, he died soon after his arrival.
And what happened to the mysterious Captain Swing? To this day, nobody really knows.
Saved by the Bell
Before most of it was ploughed up under government orders at the beginning of World War Two, Massingham boasted more than 1,000 acres of heath and common land, forming an extensive sheep-walk and grazing area. At any one time there could be as many as half a dozen separate flocks roaming freely across it, feeding on the herb-rich grass. To distinguish between the various flocks when the time came to get them safely back into their folds at night, the leading animal of each flock would wear a small bell known as a crotal round its neck. Each bell would have a slightly different note, and by listening carefully, the shepherd could locate the whereabouts of his own sheep, even if darkness was falling. The leading sheep of each flock, the one that wore the crotal, was known as a cosset, an animal that had been cosseted (hand-reared) by the shepherd from birth and would follow him wherever he went. The rest of the flock, in turn, would follow the cosset. This gave our Massingham shepherd a distinct advantage over his North Country rivals, allowing him to walk in front of his flock, leading them through gates and across roads, rather than having to drive them ‘One Man and his Dog’ style.
Since the advent of metal detectors crotals have become a relatively common find, and once cleaned up will still ring as loudly and clearly as they once did on Massingham Heath all those years ago. If you’re interested, Ant Robinson has got a few tucked away somewhere in his collection.
During the final years of World War Two my mother Merrill (nee Morton) ran a milk round in the village, delivering milk by horse and cart from her father’s Heath Farm herd. Delivery invariably took a long time, as villagers would come out of their houses with jugs to be filled from the churns, and exchange gossip. Here is an extract from a letter sent by Mum to my father Ken Miller, who was on active service in Italy at the time. Though the Italians had surrendered a year previously, in Massingham feelings were obviously still running high…
Heath Farm, Great Massingham, King’s Lynn.
I was so interested to hear about your leave in Rome. You mention the genuine friendliness you find in the Italians. As far as I’m concerned, some we have about here make me sick, riding to work in elaborate buses, and having everything they desire – even a few foolish English girls who are fascinated by their olive complexions and dark wavy hair. A bus load of them pulled up while I was out with the milk about a fortnight or so ago, and the driver, who’s face I took an instant dislike to – though of course, he was English – asked me for a pint of milk for a sick Italian who was sitting beside him. I took one look at him, and came to the instant conclusion that he looked extraordinarily well, so I simply said “Down here we have evacuees who have been bombed out of London. I consider that these people, who have lost everything, need this milk.” I just simply could not have given them anything, because they all come from the camp at Fakenham, and are still for Mussolini. There are only a few who have been given their freedom. They are working at Captain Hardy’s farm. The driver was very annoyed, and said, “Those people (the evacuees) should stay where they belong.” With this remark I said no more, but turned away and continued with my round to whistles and waves from the men on the bus.
With love, Merrill.
Massingham’s first Parish Register, listing baptisms, marriages and deaths in the village was begun in the year 1598. The original document is now in the County Record Office in Norwich, but Ant Robinson has a copy of it which he will happily lend to anybody interested. Most of the register consists of lists of names and dates but the first page is different. Originally left blank, the Rector of the day (or possibly his Parish Clerk) used the page to note down any interesting events and news items that came his way.
These are a mixture of national events such as the Armada or the Gunpowder Plot, interspersed with local news such as a ‘fearfull’ earthquake that shook all of Norfolk, or the casting of a new set of bells for the church tower in 1592. Most interesting of all is a tiny two-line entry dated 1599. Here it is in its original Elizabethan English: The Island dodger men came in wel before midsomer, wel fyshed, which time out of mind came not home before Lammas or Bartholomew and after. I spent a long time trying to puzzle out exactly what it meant.
Who on earth were these mysterious Dodger Men? And what Island did they come from? Eventually, the penny dropped. The Island was Iceland, and the men in question were not Dodgers but Doggers, the captains and crews of sturdy, twinmasted square-rigged open boats used for cod fishing in Icelandic waters during late medieval and Tudor times. They could carry up to ten men with a summer’s worth of provisions, and salt for preserving the catch. The dogger fleet left England in February or March each year, heading for Icelandic waters and, if the catch was good, would return in the early autumn with as much as 30 tons of split and salted cod on board.
The dogger men were fearless seamen, who suffered incredible hardships from ice-cold spray and cutting winds, with almost no protection whatsoever. But the market had to be satisfied. The dried and salted fish, an essential part of the Tudor diet, were loaded onto carts and sold from door to door in October and November ready for the following Lent. If stored carefully between layers of straw, the dried fish would keep for up to two years.
Here, in modern English, is what the Rector’s entry meant: The Iceland dogger fishing fleet came into port before the middle of June with a huge catch of cod when, for as long as people could remember, they never normally arrived home before Lammas(Aug 1st) or St. Bartholomew’s day (August 24th) . It must have been a phenomenal catch!
A GOOD THRASHING?
The passing of the 1870 Education Act, which promised free compulsory education for all children between the ages of 5 and 10, led to a huge increase in demand for school places in Massingham. To cater for this, our present primary school was built on a plot of land next to the schoolmaster’s house in Weasenham Road.
Among the first batch of children to attend when it opened in 1873 was a boy called Ernest Johnson who, in later life, vividly recalled his first days at the new school: ‘In due course the new master and mistress, Mr and Mrs Jones, were installed. Mrs. Jones was a short, stout lady of pleasant appearance and disposition. Mr Jones was a tall, thin, cadaverous-looking gentleman who was inclined to be quick-tempered. Woe to any boy who provoked his anger. If a boy wanted trouble, he found it and quickly too.
I remember a youth named Herbert Forster (son of the village painter and glazier, who was known as ‘Putty’ Forster) who did just that. Mr Jones seemed to lose all control over himself, so infuriated was he, and he thrashed poor young Forster with a length of solid and round and very hard leather. This was the master’s favorite instrument of torture. It was an evil, vicious-looking thing. When you were beaten with it, it would curl and cling to you, like the venomous and tenacious tentacles of an octopus, leaving long, ugly, blood-red weals. We felt for poor Forster but we were too afraid to move. The thrashing only ended when the master became too exhausted to carry on. Poor Forster was exhausted too. What a sight his body was, covered with huge, ugly weals. Were such a thing done today it would almost cause a riot.’
Wisely, Mr and Mrs Jones did not stay long in Massingham after this!
My father always took me with him whenever he went to Massingham Station to send off boxes of day-old turkey chicks to destinations all over England. I nagged him to get there early so I could stand on the footbridge and watch the distant plume of smoke from the approaching train get nearer and nearer until it finally rumbled and thumped to a halt somewhere beneath my feet, puffing out soot-laden smoke that made me cough and my eyes water.
It wasn’t healthy but, to me, it was the best smell ever! While the turkey boxes were being loaded, the driver and the fireman would nod to me, and ask how I was doing, before Mr. Bragg the station master waved his flag and the little train, consisting of no more than a couple of carriages and a goods van, chuffed away through the spring sunshine towards Hillington and Lynn.
When Dr.Beeching axed the Lynn & Fakenham line in 1963 and the last train left, it took a small chunk of my childhood with it.
Many years earlier, another small Massingham boy also enjoyed his visits to the station. His name was Ernest Johnson and he was there when it all started. He wrote about it, many years later, in a series of articles for the Lynn Advertiser: ‘The first section of the line, from Lynn to Massingham, was completed in 1879. The Fakenham section followed a year later. Most of us had never seen a real live railway train. The only thing we had seen resembling a
train was Arthur Chapman’s traction engines which used to come lumbering through the village from Grimston.
Naturally, some time elapsed between the date the new railway was started and when, from the top of Little Massingham Hill, we could see large gangs of men digging away, cutting the line across the fields from the direction of Harpley Dams. Huge crowds of sightseers came from all directions to check on its progress.
In due course, the line reached the site of Massingham’s new station. What games we youngsters used to have and on Sundays too, when we thought the coast was clear. We would push a navvies’ trolley onto the newlylaid line and, using the wooden lever device to spin the wheels round, go for long joyrides backwards and forwards for hours together. Eventually, the new station was completed and the line was opened for traffic. What a day that was! Those who were fortunate enough to take their first railway ride were as proud as dogs with two tails.
Henceforth, the name of Massingham would be brought out of obscurity to appear in the worldrenowned pages of Bradshaw’s Guide!’
A SAD ENDING
Pasted onto the inside cover of one of our old family albums is a sad little sheet of paper. It reads as follows: The last will and testament of James Galley, ‘I, James Galley serve to John Morton to take possession of any money and all monies in my possession, and to administer the same at his discretion. Also any furniture and goods belonging to me at my decease.’ James Galley, his mark. Witnesses – Chas McAnally J. B. Oldman March 30th 1930 Gayton Union
James Galley was an old fashioned shepherd who worked for my grandfather, Mr John Morton (of John Morton Crescent fame) for many years. He never married and occupied one of the red brick cottages at Bett’s Barn where Peddars Way crosses the B1145. It’s a sad little piece of paper for several reasons. Most obviously because Galley was illiterate – uncommon in the village by the nineteen thirties – and was unable to sign his own name. It was sad, too, that he left all his goods and money to his employer, indicating that he had no close family to mourn his passing. But saddest of all are the two words at the bottom of the will: Gayton Union. James Galley ended his life in the workhouse.
Gayton Union (which still exists and has been converted into flats) was built in 1836 to serve a large group of parishes to the south and east of Lynn. By the nineteen thirties it doubled as a hostel for unmarried mothers and an old people’s home. By today’s standards, conditions would have been primitive but at least Mr. Galley would have had his most basic needs taken care of and (I hope) was tolerably comfortable during the time that was left to him. David Miller
AN OVERNIGHT STOP
In the days before efficient road and rail transport, there was only one way for Scottish farmers to get their cattle to the lucrative Smithfield market in London – they had to walk. And what a walk it was! For more than three centuries vast numbers of ‘Scotch’ cattle, mostly sturdy Galloways, born and bred in the Highlands and Islands, were assembled at the Scottish border town of Dumfries, before being driven south by highly-skilled drovers and their scruffy but intelligent cattle dogs.
Their 300 mile route took them down through Northumberland and Durham, through Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, to Ely and the Fens. By the time they reached Norfolk the cattle were exhausted and emaciated, many of them scarcely able to walk. At Setchey, near Lynn, the weaker animals were sold to waiting dealers. The rest were herded onwards towards the two big Norfolk cattle fairs – St. Faith’s near Norwich, and Hempton Green near Fakenham. There they were bought by local farmers, fattened up on nutritious Norfolk turnips, before finally being driven down through Suffolk and Essex to Smithfield where most of them ended up on the Christmas tables of London’s burgeoning middle classes.
So where does Massingham fit in to all this? Draw a line on a map from Setchey to Hempton Green and the answer is clear. Our vil-lage lies exactly half way between the two of them, and with its wide greens and numerous ponds, it provided the ideal overnight rest stop for thirsty and exhausted herds and drovers alike. What a sight it must have been as the huge herds gathered on the greens, bellowing and mooing as the tireless cattle dogs rounded up the stragglers, and saw them safely settled down for the night. Lord Orford of Houghton, who owned the greens, charged a penny per animal per night, with strict fines levied on any stragglers. The herd would be on the move again at first light, the tartan-clad drovers marching on ahead, knitting as they went.
Yes, you read it right. Knitting. To earn a little extra cash the drovers, hard-drinking, wild-eyed men, knitted woollen stockings as they walked. Sweet…
Flipping through the family archives the other day, I came across this snippet from the Norfolk Chronicle (undated, but certainly from the early fifties). Charlie Cawthorne was a particular friend of my father’s and highly intelligent. I remember Dad saying that if he’d been born in different circumstances he could have ended up as Prime Minister. Older members of the village may well remember him:
“RETIREMENT OF MASSINGHAM TEAMMAN
After 45 years on one farm, 39 years of which were spent in the employ of Mr. John Morton of Heath Farm, Great Massingham, Mr. Charles Cawthorne has just retired from active work.
A native of Massingham, Mr. Cawthorne started work at the age of ten and, after a year or two with other employers, he settled down to work with Mr. Betts (an uncle of Mr. Morton) where he remained for the rest of his working life as a teamman.
Commencing work in the old days at 3am, he would leave Massingham at 5am with a team of horses and a wagon, twice a week, on a trip to Lynn market, arriving at Gaywood Ship for breakfast. He received an extra shilling a day for this long journey. The worst such journey he ever remembers was the one to Lynn during the blizzard of March 1916 when, every few yards, he had to stop and wipe the horses’ blinkers before proceeding. He also has many happy recollections of past events, such as the festivities at the coming of age of his employer, and the wedding day and silver wedding celebrations.
Mr. Cawthorne has been happily married for 40 years, and during that time was sexton at Massingham Church for 22 years. This service to the community he had to give up on account of sciatica and, as an appreciation of this long service to the Church, he was presented by the parishioners with a clock and scroll in 1933.”
If you’ve ever wondered what those massive agricultural ma-chines that roar through the village actually do for a living, check out the Standen Uniweb. According to its website it is a ‘high-capacity stone and soil separator for preparing crop beds before planting. ’
What many people may not realise is that, until surprisingly recently, local farmers employed low-capacity stone and soil separators to do much the same job: in other words, village women and children. Stone picking was carried out in late winter, when the corn was about two inches high and would take no harm to be trodden on. Stone-free soil was believed to encourage plant growth and increase yields. It was a family occupation, with each family being assigned a field to work on. The men of the family raked the land over first to loosen the stones so they could be picked up more easily.
Then each picker, woman or child, was given a two-gallon pail. When the pails were filled, the stones were emptied in a heap on the headland. Eighty pails of stones made up a load, which was carefully measured when it was collected by horse and tumbril. Boys often had to pick two or three buckets of stones before going to school in the morning. It was hard, tedi-ous and badly-paid work. However, it brought in vital extra money for poor village families and was often used to pay for new boots for the children. The stones were not wasted. In the days before universal tarmac, they were dumped at the side of the road where roadmen used them to mend pot-holes gouged out by winter rains. David Miller
KISSING THE CAT Before health problems intervened, Ant Robinson was a familiar sight around the village with his trusty metal detector. He made many fascinating discoveries but nothing compared to the simple lead disc he picked up one day during building work at Abbeyfields. On one side of the disc were stamped two crude faces marked with the letters SPA:SPE. On the other side was a name: GREGORIUS PP VIIII. What Ant had found was the seal from a medieval papal bull, a document issued by popes to communicate decisions about important church matters to monasteries and abbeys throughout Europe – including, presumably, the tiny Augustinian priory at Massingham.
The seal would have been threaded onto a length of coarsely-woven tape, which was then attached to the document to prove its authenticity. The letters SPA:SPE stood for Saint Paul and Saint Peter, and GREGORIUS was Pope Gregory the Ninth, who reigned from 1227-1241. Gregory was not a nice human being. He launched a much-feared Grand Inquisition, using torture to combat the rise of a devil-worshiping German sect known as the Luciferians. Concerned that the heresy would spread, he issued a papal bull, warning clerics and lay people to beware of the growing influence of the sect.
The text of the bull, known as Vox In Rama, still exists and describes the activities of the sect in vivid detail. Its initiation ceremony, it was alleged, began with a meal, after which members of the sect would stand up, and a statue of a black cat would come to life, walking backwards towards them with its tail erect. First the new initiate and then the master of the sect, were required to kiss the cat on its buttocks. Unpleasant, you might think, but nowhere near as unpleasant as the fate that lay in store for the poor cat. Vox In Rama was the first of many official documents to condemn black cats as an incarnation of Satan. It was a feline death warrant.
From then on, until well into the nineteenth century, it was the duty of good Christians to slaughter black cats on sight. It is intriguing to imagine the scene in the chapter house at Massingham as the Prior read out the text of the bull, which had just arrived from Rome, bearing what had to be the exact same seal as the one that Ant found; the monks’ eyes popping as one lurid detail followed another. Let’s hope none of them owned a pet cat. David Miller
FRENCH LEAVE Two wealthy young Frenchmen, Francois and Alexandre de la Rochfocauld made a year-long tour through Norfolk and Suffolk in 1784. Here is an extract from their journal. “We passed through a place called Massingham, where we went, for a moment, into a farm to have a word with someone threshing in a barn and ask him a few questions. The farm belongs to Lord Orford who lives at Houghton. It occupies nearly two thirds of the parish. There are two other farms in the same village. They are not so big but, in general, all the farms of this district are of a good size, their buildings greatly augmented now, after harvest, by enormous stacks of wheat and, above all, of barley raised all around. As they had an excellent harvest this year the stacks were huge.
The parson of this parish is, so they say, the greatest fop ever and, for this reason, very amusing. His parishioners told us that he always gets up in the pulpit with his hair powdered and beautifully dressed, but he reads so fast and also preaches so loud that no one can understand a word he says.
The manner by which he got his doctorate at Cambridge is unique. Having gone there to take his degree he was asked: ‘Does the sun turn round the earth or the earth turn round the sun?’ The cleric, not knowing what so say and wanting to say something declared: ‘Sometimes the one way, sometimes the other.’ The reply seemed so ridiculous that they made him a doctor for this fatuous stupidity.”
The Rector of Great Massingham in 1784 was the Reverend Cock Langford, son of a London estate agent. He died of an apoplectic fit while dancing at the Lynn Assembly Rooms. The farm referred to was Leicester Farm.
BLACK SHUCK Would you dare to walk alone along Peddars Way after dark ? If you’re foolish enough to answer yes, please read the following before you go:
“My name is Mark Barrett, and I live in King’s Lynn. On Sunday October 23rd 1977, when I was aged eighteen, I took part in a night hike along Peddars Way with other members of the 14th Wootton Venture Scouts from King’s Lynn. By about half past five in the morning the party had become rather strung out and I was walking on my own about a quarter of a mile from a point called Shepherd’s Bush, where Peddars Way meets the Castle Acre/Massingham road.
Looking up, I saw what I took to be a sheepdog running towards me. The distance closed quickly and, about 20 yards away, it leapt at me. I stumbled to my knees and put up my arms to fend off the anticipated attack and to shift my weight to counteract the thrust that never materialised. I quickly picked myself up and turned around expecting an attack from behind, assuming that it had passed clean over my head, only to find myself alone again on the quiet country road with no sign of it.
I remember the dog as big and black, about the size of a St. Bernard, with a wide mouth, teeth very evident and two largish eyes amongst a mass of black fur. When I got home my mother told me about the legend of the ghost dog, Black Shuck, which I’d never heard before, and how you are supposed to die before the year is out after having seen it. On October 23rd 1978, a year later to the day,
I was involved in a serious road accident and was on a critical list for five days, spending three and a half months in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital subsequently.” Co-incidence? You decide.
With thanks to Mike Burgess and Mark Barrett.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER The run-up to Christmas was a busy time at Heath Farm. Large flocks of turkeys – black -feathered and by today’s standards painfully narrow-breasted – were brought in from the stubble fields where they’d been on the shack (feeding on any loose or dropped corn) since harvest time, under the watchful eye of my grandmother Mrs. Dolly Morton.
One by one they would be hung by their feet from a goalpost-like wooden frame erected in the yard, to have their necks broken. I used to hate seeing them flapping pathetically as the life drained out of them under the hissing light of the tilley lamps but, as a small boy, it taught me a valuable lesson: that eating meat involves the acceptance of death and that life on the farm would be impossible without it.
Still warm, the heavy birds were carried into the harness room where teams of farm workers and village people began plucking them. Very soon the room would be waistdeep in flying feathers, forming a toxic mix with the cigarette smoke that everybody puffed out while they worked. Once clean-plucked, the turkeys were hung up in the stables to await collection, while everybody prayed that the weather would turn cold and stay cold enough to preserve them until the last ones were off our hands.
There were inevitably a few birds which didn’t make the grade – thin, blue creatures that looked only suitable for feeding the dogs. As with most other things in life, Grandma had a solution for them. I can hear her saying it to me now: ‘Bash them on the breastbone with a rolling pin to make them look fatter, stick a sprig of holly up their bums and send them to Swaffham market.’It never failed.
HOME TRUTHS On the 23rd of February 1820 the Reverend Charles David Brereton was appointed rector of Little Massingham. He was deeply interested in alleviating the grinding poverty of agricultural workers, and he published several books on the subject. Conditions were bad in Little Massingham but, at least, the population seemed to be honest. In Great Massingham, things were very different.
Here’s what the good Reverend wrote about our beautiful village: “In the neighbouring parish (of Great Massingham) there have been, during the year, cases of burglary, issuing of base coin, sheep, pig, corn and fowl stealing, besides poaching and other offences.
The house of one of the labourers was searched, and in it were found base coin, silver and gold, corn, and other articles, the apparatus of house-breaking, vice, files, dark lantern, and fifty picklock keys, which open almost all the locks in the two parishes. It is known that fifteen or more of the labourers have been at this man’s house at a time, and all night gaming.
Three persons have been transported from the same village during the past year, and many others imprisoned. The testimony of the farmers and constables goes to shew that the great body of the labourers have been more or less connected with the notorious offenders”. No change there, then!
NEANDERTHAL NEWS For those of you who have long suspected as much, I can now reveal that the original inhabitants of Massingham were Fred and Barney Flintstone.
Two remarkable flint hand axes, originally found in Massingham, and now in Ant Robinson’s Historical Society collection exactly match a haul of 28 Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) hand axes recently dredged from the sea off Yarmouth. The Massingham hand axes date from the end of the last ice age, around 100,000 years ago, and were painstakingly chipped from flint nodules by the hunter gatherers who roamed the grass-covered plains that joined Massingham with the rest of Europe, before water from melting glaciers raised the level of the North Sea and turned Britain into an island. We don’t know much about how our Palaeolithic ancestors lived.
They were presumably not cavemen, since Norfolk is not exactly noted for its caves. Instead they probably constructed shelters from tree saplings hacked down by hand axes (which did originally have handles) as they pursued the herds of game migrating across the plains and river valleys. The animals they pursued (and which frequently must have pursued them) included mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, wolves, bears and reindeer.
Recent archaeological analysis suggests that Palaeolithic humans were mostly scavengers, squabbling with wolves and hyenas over rotting mammoth carcases. And yes, they were Neanderthals. Modern humans had not yet arrived in Norfolk – though with the recent widening of the A11 there’s hope that they might do soon!
RABBITING STICKS Not so long ago, during the long, hot carefree months of July and August, one of the greatest joys of being a village boy was ‘gorn up the harvest field.’ You had to have a stick. One cut from a nut bush was preferable. But, even better, was one that had been in your family for years with its ends stained black with what could only have been rabbit blood.
Rabbits were what you were after – plump harvest rabbits that had gorged themselves on the ripening corn. Sadly, when I was growing up in the fifties, rabbit numbers had been decimated by myxomatosis but there were still enough fit and healthy ones, to give you a run for your money across the newly cut stubble and to hang triumphantly on the handlebars of your bike as you pedaled home.
There were some good old boys working on the farm then. I well remember ‘Ovens’ Shackcloth jumping off the back seat of a binder with a sack, as a rabbit that was too fast for my young legs raced towards him. At the last minute he flicked his sack open and the rabbit, mistaking it for a burrow, dived inside. As I caught up with him he handed me the sack, and giving me a wink, got back on his binder and clanked off round the field. I remember old Bob Abbs too. Semi-crippled with arthritis, his special job was sharpening the binder cutting blades with a large file. We boys didn’t like him much. He had a vicious little terrier that would get to any rabbit faster than we ever could. And he’d never give us one to take home.
Today, there are no binders left and combines are the size of small houses, with their drivers locked away in air-conditioned cabs. Needless to say, there are no boys and no rabbiting sticks anywhere to be seen.
BRICKED UP It was June 1256 and Walter de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, was dying. He sent for his clerk and dictated his will. Amongst a long list of bequests were the following: ‘Item: To the anchoress at Massingham, namely, Ela my niece, and her companions, 20 shillings. Item: To Ela my niece £5 to find her provision in her cell. Item: To Ela my niece one hundred shillings to provide sustenance for her in seclusion.
The bishop was clearly very fond of his niece. But what exactly was an anchoress? And why was she in a cell? Was she a criminal? An anchoress was, in fact, a religious recluse – a kind of female hermit – who lived in a small lean-to cell or room with two narrow shuttered windows, built into the walls of a parish church. Once she was inside, the door would be permanently bricked up, and would not be opened again until her death. Anchoresses ate frugal vegetarian meals, passed through a hatch in the wall and spent their days in prayer and contemplation.
So where did Ela, Massingham’s anchoress, live? A quick trip to the exterior north east corner of the church will reveal a set of crumbling foundations and a small bricked-up door. These are almost certainly the remains of Ela’s solitary and rather sad abode.
MASTER AND COMMANDER Those of you who’ve seen the film Master and Commander might like to know that we once had our very own real-life Russell Crowe in the village. His name was Richard Gardiner, son of John Gardiner, an eighteenth century Rector of Great Massingham.
In 1756, after a chequered early life, Richard was appointed Captain of Marines on the Rippon Man-of-War of 60 guns. At the outbreak of the Seven Years War against France in 1758, the Rippon sailed for the Caribbean to attack the French sugar producing islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Gardiner and his marines went ashore on Martinique and after bitter hand-to-hand fighting captured the unfortunately named Fort Negro, one of the chief French strongholds.
They then returned to the ship and set sail for Guadeloupe to attack Basse Terre, the capital of the island. That was when disaster struck! With all guns primed, the Rippon went too close to the shore and became stuck fast under withering fire from two French batteries and an eighteen pounder aiming down at them from nearby cliffs. There were many casualties, and for a long time the ship was on fire, a shot having exploded a large box of ammunition. Finally, about midnight, the ship was re-floated on the rising tide and managed to haul itself out of range of the French guns. But they didn’t admit defeat.
Next morning, at first light, while the wounded were still being tended on the blood-soaked decks, Richard and his marines went ashore in small boats and, after extensive fighting, managed to capture the island. Guadeloupe was later returned to the French in exchange for (and I’m not kidding) the whole of Canada. Not bad going for a ‘Massnum’ boy!
SIXTY YEARS IN BED! These days we’re lucky to get six hours in bed, let alone sixty years, but things were obviously a bit more relaxed in Massingham a century ago.
In January 1906 a reporter from a national newspaper interviewed Miss Honor Rye, a remarkable and very fierce-looking old lady, who had gone to bed in 1846 and hadn’t got up since. Miss Rye was born in Massingham and, when she reached her teens, became a housemaid. She was taken ill when she was twenty-one and the local doctor diagnosed spinal trouble. She became very weak and, being unable to walk, went to bed. And there she stayed, year after year, decade after decade, looked after first by her parents and, when they passed away, by her long-suffering niece.
She spent her time doing embroidery, reading the Bible and, in summer, watching new-fangled horseless carriages pass by on the road outside her open cottage door. ‘Ah,’ she told the reporter with a sigh, ‘they are fine, but I should not like to go in them, they go too fast.’
She died in 1911, and was buried in Massingham churchyard where, presumably, she’s still continuing her long rest.