Here are interesting stories of Massingham’s past, courtesy of David Miller
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.