Entries in Current local interest (3)

Tuesday
Mar292011

Big Cats, the Black Shuck and Rampaging Elephants: Norfolk's Menagerie

This week, the local news once again featured a sighting of a Big Cat (capitals added for effect) in Norfolk. Those of us from these parts have seen a large number of these reports in the press in recent years, and indeed going back further – move over Beast of Bodmin! Norfolk and Suffolk have creatures to rival you... 

This time the Norfolk Puma (or Panther, depending on your preference) was reportedly sighted on the Bayfield Hall Estate near Holt. (See Evening News here). Apparently, Norfolk often has more than 50 reported sightings of big cats a year, just ahead of Suffolk, and has one of the highest rates of sightings in the whole of the UK. (For more on this see www.bigcatsinbritain.org/englishnews347.htm).

Big cats are technically those of the ‘Panthera’ genus – lions, tigers, leopards, jaguar and snow leopards. Again technically, pumas and lynxs are not big cats – they are of the ‘Felix’ genus and therefore small cats. Of course, as you might expect, ‘proof’ of these big cats, whether Panthera or Felix, is hard to come by. Scores of people swear they have seen large felines roaming the countryside though, and I would never take it on myself to declare their sightings false. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before someone with a smart phone manages to film such a beast and prove the doubters wrong!

Keeping exotic creatures in menageries was common well before the advent of the modern ‘zoo’. The Tower of London’s collection was thought to have been in existence as early as 1204. Who knows, with our wealth of beautiful country houses and estates in Norfolk and Suffolk, could any of the local aristocracy have indulged in owning exotic cats like William the Conqueror, or Elizabeth I? Could any of these hypothetical animals have escaped? Later on, could the changing of laws in the 70s, requiring licensing of big cats, really have encouraged less well off owners to dump their pets in the East Anglian countryside? And if so, in either case, could they have survived in the wild?

It wouldn’t have been the first time that an unfamiliar animal had wandered lose in Norfolk. The wonderful book “I Read it in the Local Rag” by Pip Wright includes the following passage taken from the Suffolk Chronicle on January 25th, 1845:

“On Friday evening, My Hylton, owner of the caravans of wild beasts on the Castle meadows, Norwich was showing the elephant to the company; the beast showed signs of insubordination. He was directed to kneel and confess his submission to his keeper, but did not obey….the mighty beast just then aimed a tremendous blow at the side of the booth, which at once gave way…and the giant of the forest walked off in spite of all opposition, going through the streets, out of St Stephen’s Gates, on to the London Road…After about two miles to Harford Bridges, he sought pleasure or food amongst the umbrageous woods and scanty foliage of Mr. Alderman Thurtell as if enjoying his pristine liberty in his native wilds.”

It seems on this occasion that the elephant was recaptured but according to the author there were complaints from the public who had already noted that “a lion had already nearly escaped earlier”.

The Tower of London’s menagerie, mentioned above, did not close until a few years after the Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826. You might be surprised to learn that Norfolk had its links with lions in London at least as early as Victoria’s reign, and not through the local gentry but through a working man born in 1828 in a little village. 

Seth Sutton, born in Topcroft, was one of only a few men recorded as working as a “keeper in a menagerie/zoological gardens” in the Victorian census returns. What’s more, he did the job for a very long time -  the 1861, 71, 81, 91 and 1901 censuses all show him in Marylebone – probably working at the gardens we now know as London Zoo. Seth had begun his life as an agricultural labourer, the son of George and Mary Sutton. Based on his children's birthplaces and the census, he must have left have left Norfolk behind for the city between 1851 and 1857.

The Sutton family lived at 2, Calvert’s Cottages, Marylebone, Pancras. Seth resided with his wife Maria (born in Flixton, Suffolk) and their children, less than ten minutes’ walk from the Zoo. By 1901, aged 73, Seth was recorded as “Pensioner (Lion Keeper at Zoo)” and still in London. As an aside, it seems that the census analysts must have had trouble working out what to class his occupation as in the statistics, which required occupations to be split into somewhat inflexible categories. Next to both his occupation and his son Harry’s (who had by then followed in his father’s footsteps) is written the word ‘Dog’, probably so that he would be categorised along with dog breeders and trainers! 

Of course Norfolk doesn’t just boast sightings of big cats and links to lion keepers, we also have big dogs. 

“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring, And its wild bark thrill’d around, His eyes had the glow of the fires below, Twas the form of the Spectre Hound”

At least, we have one in particular: the Black Shuck, known by some through its relatively recent addition in a Darkness track (which also namechecked Blythburgh in Suffolk - the “town in the east”) and by many more through its inclusion in myth, legend and folklore for centuries before a few Lowestoft rockers borrowed our Hell Hound for a song.

The beast has been argued to have been part of Norse mythology and the word ‘Shuck’ is said to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘scucca’ meaning devil or demon.  (For more see http://norfolkcoast.co.uk/myths/ml_blackshuck.htm). Whether or not either (or both) is true, these suggestions nevertheless point to a longstanding belief in the creature. I’ll be watching out for the Grim next time I’m on the road from Overstrand to Cromer as this is where he is said to spend much of his time. Overstrand even used to have a carving of the Black Shuck on its village sign and there is still a ‘Shuck’s Lane’ leading to Runton. 

As you can see from this somewhat varied post, Norfolk’s cat, dog and indeed elephant sightings have taken place over many years and have been discussed by many generations. Doubtless too, they will carry on as the topics of conversations for many years to come.

To conclude, where do I stand on the Big Cat debate? Well, I think that not knowing might be more exciting than knowing the truth!

Tuesday
Mar222011

The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again (?) of Market Gardens

Last spring, some colleagues and I began a gardening group in the grounds of our workplace growing potatoes, onions, squash and a little bit of everything else we fancied. Some of us were completely clueless (myself included – I entered into the lunchtime activities armed only with an iPhone app) while others already knew a fair amount about the art of ‘growing your own’. The group has developed and prospered, and a year later we are digging a further bed, allocating vegetables to people and looking out for an extra water butt (nb if you’re Norwich based and you can help, let me know!)

I’ve recently come across Norfolk market gardeners in my own family tree, and spotted several listed in trade directories in villages I’ve been doing research on. For this blog, I thought I’d delve into the history of the industry locally in the hope that it may be of interest to others.

While different to modern day land shares and community groups through their commercial nature, employees of market gardens of another age were nevertheless using many of the same skills as modern day gardeners - and doing so far better than many of us. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing to see a return to more localised, seasonal and organic farming, and it would be wonderful to ensure that the East Anglian market garden heritage and skills aren’t completely lost to history.

A ‘market garden’ was historically a term for farming aimed at producing vegetables and berries, rather than grain, dairy or orchards; in other words farming by the hoe, not the plough. Although the word ‘garden’ may suggest a small set up, this was not always the case. Most gardens, especially towards the beginning of their rise to prominence, were necessarily located close to their markets. Those of the mid 1800s were growing all kinds of produce for local consumption and, by the time of the expansion of the railways, urban areas much further away.

Great Plumstead (arguably meaning ‘dwelling place near plums’) was one of many Norfolk villages to boast successful market gardens – other locations included Mulbarton and Bracon Ash. All three were within striking distance of regular markets in Norwich. In Suffolk*, one of the most wellknown villages for market gardening was Belton, and the recent discovery of market gardener and grave digger Richard Pole’s diaries (see article here) has reawakened interest in an industry which boomed with the railways and the need to feed an ever-growing population. Richard’s diaries describe growing wheat, barley, potatoes, beet, turnips, peas, lettuce, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries and other fruit….showing just how varied the produce of a market garden could be. Richard, like others in Belton and villages like Filby, further north, were able to sell their produce in Great Yarmouth and later export their goods by train to London. A hundred years after the surge in market gardening took hold, the industry started to decline. The end of the Second World War brought foreign imports into the country and the growing move towards largescale monoculture encroached on previously market garden dominated areas.

(*I should note that Belton was part of Suffolk until 1974, when the border moved and it became part of Norfolk.) 

A key word search in the census for ‘market gardener’ reveals the growth of this type of farming as an occupation across the country during Victoria’s reign. About a thousand were recorded in 1841. This figured tripled over the next decade, and almost doubled again over the next (by 1861 there were 5100). The total more than doubled all over again during the next twenty years to 1881. By 1901, a total of 28,700 individuals were employed as market gardeners – and those are only the ones captured by the census.

Somewhat entertainingly, several of the men recorded also had the surname ‘Gardener’!



On a more local basis, Suffolk, and particularly Norfolk, were strong market gardening counties. Then, as now, being known for their agricultural produce.

During the middle of the Victorian period, Norfolk contributed a little over 5% of the Country’s market gardeners, and Suffolk was about 1.5% behind its neighbour. Based on Norfolk’s population, market gardening rose from the occupation of less than one in every ten thousand people in 1841 to one in every 500 by 1901. In Suffolk, proportions were roughly half that recorded in Norfolk. 

The 1908 map of Norwich South shows acres of Allotment Gardens which are today underneath modern-day developments. Nowadays, the local council has a waiting list chock-a-block with local people wanting to get hold of a piece of land – and what some of them wouldn’t give to have that growing space back!

So many of my blogs have shown just how much history repeats itself – not least where it comes to corsets, first names and vegetables in recent times! As we strive to cut carbon emissions, know more about where our food comes from and support the local economy, we are (hopefully) beginning to learn from the past while moving forward into the future. The tide appears to be turning on some of the processes which we once called ‘progress’ and we are perhaps beginning to appreciate how much better some of our forebears may have understood the environment that we live in.

It seems quite right that the Bracondale Gardeners (perhaps soon the Knucklebone Gardeners – but that will need the honour of its own post!) are making the most of a patch of land which was once in the middle of a thriving market gardening area. Hopefully we will soon be proving that we can produce just as many fabulous vegetables as the original Lakenham vegetable growers. One thing is for certain though. None of the fruits of our labours will find themselves on the train for London’s markets. If last year is anything to go by, they’ll be enjoyed much closer to home!  

Tuesday
Jan252011

"Historic Market Town? Not us, we're a Hanseatic Town!"

Many, many times on entering King's Lynn I have pondered just how many people, local or otherwise, know why King's Lynn's urban gateways are proudly branded "King's Lynn - A Hanseatic Town".

Recently, King's Lynn has had a somewhat unfair reputation in my own humble opinion. As a 'west area officer' for several years I grew to appreciate the fantastic contrasts in the west of Norfolk, stark beaches, fabulous architecture, 'big skies', rolling hills (yes, Norfolk has some hills!) and gorgeous villages. Look below the surface and the town of King's Lynn itself is packed with heritage, history and culture. One particular part of this heritage hitting the local press today is Hanse House, the only surviving Hansa building in the UK.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries the so called 'Hanseatic League' united cities and their guilds in Northern Europe trading largely along the northern coasts of modern Europe, but stretching as far as the Baltic and the North Sea. These cities enjoyed their own legal systems and protection and provided each other with mutual aid.

In addition to the major 'Kontors' (trading posts) individual ports had their own warehouses and merchant representatives. There were several of these 'subsidiary settlements' in the UK, including Ipswich, Bristol, Boston, Hull, Norwich, Yarmouth and York. Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn, since King Henry VIII took control of the town in 1537) was one of the latter, and celebrates it's connections in various ways - in 2009 with it's first Hanse Festival.

The town is now also part of the modern Hanse, and since 2005 has been actively linking with other historic Hanseatic league settlements in order to promote cross border working and strengthen social, economic and social connections.

The reason that the town's Hanse House has hit the local headlines is because of a campaign to 'save' the building. Dating from 1475, the warehouse was in use by the Hanseatic League until 1751, after which it moved into private possession. In 1970 the building was restored and is currently the home of a County Council register office. Following relocation of the register office in the relatively near future, it has been proposed that the building is sold off. Prince Charles' visit today will no doubt keep the building's fate in the news. Time will tell how far the cuts bite into our local heritage. 

I hope that somehow the building is retained for local peoples' use and enjoyment. It is after all a relic of a different King's Lynn, where even the name of the town was dissimilar. Despite the passage of time however, the town is not completely removed from it's roots. The docks are still central to the town and many of the landmarks remain in the (dare I say it) 'historic' town centre.

I would encourage anyone to take a wander around the town, or even better run around it in the annual Grand East Anglia Run, to discover hidden gems that even many local people are unaware of.

The more we recognise where we've come from, the more ideas we can have for the future.