Village historian, David Miller has many great stories and you can find a selection as below
Histry Bit No. 64: Rough Tough and Wonderful!
One of the few sad things for me about coming back to Massingham after so many years away has been the lack of a football team. Not so long ago every Norfolk village had one. A little short on skill, maybe but it more than made up for it in enthusiasm and passion – especially amongst us village boys. We weren’t much interested in Manchester United, or even in Norwich City, come to that. What really mattered to us was Massingham’s position in the North West Norfolk League, and whether our crack centre forward – my uncle Ivor – could add to his fifty-goal tally for the season. It would be difficult, but not impossible – especially in those days of full-blooded physical contact, when anything short of grievous bodily harm was not just permitted but actively encouraged. And when bundling not just the rain-sodden, heavy-as-lead match-ball, but your opponent’s goalkeeper into the back of the net when the going got rough.
Away matches were serviced by one of Eagle’s rattling green coaches, which made a whistle-stop tour of the village, collecting players and spectators as well as distributing Massingham’s red and green shirts which had been dutifully boiled clean after the previous week’s mud-mud-bath. I well remember the players stripped to the waist, pulling the stiffly-ironed garments over their heads, and puffing on lit cigarettes as they did so.
The most exciting matches of all, were for the Norfolk Primary Cup. This county-wide competition was (and still remains) the gold-standard for village teams. It was first won by Massingham in 1927, a feat that remained unmatched until the nineteen-eighties. Depending on the the draw, our team could end up in outlandish places such as South Repps on the east coast, or Welney, deep in the fens. The Welney match involved a seriously early start for the two coach-loads of players and supporters who travelled with them, followed by a contest of evenly-matched brutality when they reached their destination. The result.? A four-three victory for Massingham, celebrated by numerous stops for liquid refreshment on the long, dark journey home. Magic!
Histry Bits No. 63: Monks in Massingham
The priory at Massingham belonged to the Augustinians, one of the most popular monastic orders in the Middle Ages. They were pledged to poverty, obedience and chastity; and they lived and worshipped together; labouring alongside the people in the fields and meadows of the village. They were commonly known as Blackfriars on account of their dress, which included a black cloak worn over a black cassock. They must have been one of the most striking sights in the village, crossing and re-crossing the green as they went about their daily business, no doubt pausing to exchange the latest gossip as they did so.
The Priory was founded by Nicholas of Massingham in about 1260, and was described as a hospitium – a cross between a hospital to treat the sick and needy, and a place where pilgrims and travellers could find rest and refreshment free of charge on their way to the Holy Shrine at Walsingham. One of the most important visitors was King Edward I who stayed at the Priory in the spring of 1302.
In the early days the Priory was quite large. In 1299 it had a Prior, a Sub-Prior, and a Cellarer, but by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries its population had shrunk to just four, with two monks and two poor brethren, and its buildings were described as wasted and decayed. Over the years much of its masonry was recycled, and was incorporated into the walls of various village house and barns.
Histry Bits No. 62: A Roman Revelation
Did you know that Massingham once had its very own Roman villa? No? Nor did I until quite recently when Ant Robinson happened to mention it in passing. It was discovered in1964 by farm worker and amateur archaeologist Albert Hooke from Rougham while he was working in one of the fields bordering onto Weasenham Road. Eager to find out more, he got permission to dig an area of about 100 by 150 feet. He soon uncovered a series of low flint and brick walls around two to three feet thick which would have supported a large wooden framed building, probably a farmhouse or villa. The villa theory was given added impetus by the discovery of a hypocaust, a series of pipes and ducts which would have provided underfloor heating to its pampered inhabitants. A section of painted wall plaster was also found, which again indicated the high status of the site.
Mr.Hooke continued his excavations for the next three years until the site was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and all excavation was brought to a halt. During that time he had produced an impressive list of finds, including a large amount of late third century Roman pottery, a coin of the Emperor Maximinus AD 305-311, a lock and keys, a knife, and a complete pot which was said to be found smashed on the floor of the villa.
Without a thorough professional excavation we shall never know much more about how our illustrious neighbours lived. But times change, and maybe one day Massingham’s very own Roman Villa will yield up its secrets for us all to see.
What Massingham Roman Villa might have looked like.
Histry Bits No. 61: A rude awakening
World War Two took a long time to get going – at least in Massingham it did. When my father, Corporal Ken Miller arrived in the village on his posting to 18 Squadron RAF in September 1940 the airfield was just that – a grassy field that until very recently, had had cows grazing on it. He vividly recalled that it was pitch black when his train pulled into the station, with an incomprehensible voice shouting out MAAAASNUM as he and two companions stumbled out onto the narrow platform. There was, inevitably, no one to meet them, so shouldering their kit bags, they were forced to tackle Station Hill before eventually arriving at the Squadron Headquarters which, of course was locked for the night. It was a bad start, but it soon got better. Dad was billeted at first with the late Myrtle George’s family at Kennel Farm, and soon after that, at Heath Farm where he was welcomed with roast partridge and apple pie, by my grandmother Dolly Morton.
It was just few days after his arrival that the first major enemy attack on Massingham took place. Carried out by a pair of Junkers 88s, it hit the airfield at 6pm on October 27th just as one of our Blenheim bombers was preparing to take off on an operation to northern France. The Blenheim’s navigator “Topsy” Green takes up the story. ‘As we taxied to the end of the flare path we were halted by the sight of several aircraft very low, and coming straight at us. Blenheims, we thought until they opened up at us and we realised they were German Ju88s. They circled again, releasing incendiaries as they did so. We managed to return fire before scrambling out of our plane, and racing for cover into a nearby air raid shelter – or what we thought was a shelter, but turned out to be a heap of 250lb bombs waiting to be loaded onto various aircraft!’
Dad, who was uncomfortably close to the attack, recalled tumbling into a ditch, and burying his face in the stagnant water, praying that the German gunner was a rotten shot, which, luckily he turned out to be. The attack lasted just a few minutes, but it left five people dead, and eight others wounded. It served as a rude awakening to all concerned, especially my father, who made the extremely sensible decision then and there never to volunteer for aircrew.
Ken Miller outside Heath Farm, November 1940
Histry Bits No. 60: If Hitler had invaded…
What would have happened if Hitler’s forces had successfully invaded Britain in 1940? They would have certainly have met with fierce resistance as they responded to Churchill’s promise to fight on the beaches and landing grounds. But the German army would also have found itself under merciless attack from a top secret underground resistance network trained to sabotage and harass the invading forces.
Formed by Churchill in the early months of the war, the British Resistance Organisation GHQ Home Forces Special Units were made up almost entirely of stay-behind civilians trained to sabotage and harass the enemy in the event of an invasion. At the same time a network of civilian observers and spies was set up whose task it was to also stay behind, but rather than to sabotage, they were to observe enemy troops and their movements, and to pass on any information to secret wireless stations. These stations were operated by civilians who had legitimate reason to be seen out and about, such as doctors, postmen, school teachers, midwives, vicars and of course farmers. The civilian spy network is said to have consisted of about 3250 men and women. They all had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and only a few of them ever talked about their experiences after the war had ended.
The organisation consisted of small self-contained groups or cells, each deliberately kept small so that the details of its operations were known to as few people as possible. In the early days, observers would write their reports on a piece of paper which was then deposited in one of the network’s pre-arranged dead letter drops. Other members of the network, commonly referred to as runners, would collect the messages, and hide them until they could be sent onwards by wireless.
As the years have passed, the exact location of many of the wireless relay stations has inevitably been forgotten. But records show that one of them was located midway between Massingham and Rougham at Washpit Farm under the command of Captain Jocelyn Hardy. The description would seem to indicate that the station was in a wood. Primrose Wood, Roger Plantation, and Ash Plantation are all possibilities, with wiring hidden under the bark of a tree, and the wireless set concealed inside an oil drum.
Would it have worked? Would the German advance have been slowed or even stopped, by the efforts of a handful of brave and dedicated civilians? Fortunately, we will never need to find out.
A wireless relay station similar to the one at Rougham
Histry Bits No. 59: A Fishy Business
Several years back, when the big house at Heath Farm was being renovated, a bundle of dusty farm accounts came to light. They date from the year 1923, and provide a fascinating insight into the day to day running of both the farm and the village during the decade following the Great War.
At that time the farm was being run by my maternal grandfather John Morton, known to all and sundry as the Boss. He was a huge man in every sense of the word, well over six feet tall, with a girth to match, and was loved and respected by his employees and villagers alike.
Big John Morton holding his daughter Merrill, 1923.
The majority of his surviving invoices are for the purchase of such items as Egyptian Seed Cotton cake, presumably to augment cattle feed, and on winter oats for the horses. There are visits from the vet, Mr. Hill from Rudham for the purpose of ‘ringing the bull’ and providing physic balls and a jar of ringworm ointment.’ In addition there are several invoices from W. H. Johnson in Lynn for the repair and servicing of my grandfather’s model T Ford, which included ‘running a new wire to the electric horn, and tightening up the front wing.’.
But perhaps the most intriguing bills of all are the bills from Donaldsons the Lynn fishmongers, who incidentally are still in business today. Could one Norfolk farmer, even with the help of his family, eat quite so much seafood every week?
Bill from Donaldsons Fishmongers
Histry Bits No. 58: The Backhus Boy
Back in the days before the First World War, every farmhouse of any size in Massingham would have a backhus (back-house or kitchen) boy. He would be a young lad aged twelve or so, straight out of the village school, who, unlike the other male farmworkers, was directly answerable to the farmer’s wife. His wages were £4 a year, and he lived in the big farmhouse. His duties were many and various.
He rose at six-thirty in the morning, and his first job was to give the milking pails to the cowman. These were kept indoors for the sake of cleanliness, and the cowman would come to the back door to fetch them. He next made up and lit the fire under the copper boiler so there was plenty of hot water for the maids to carry upstairs for the family to wash. Then came shoe polishing – both for the farmer’s family and any guests who might be staying. These had to be taken upstairs by the maids before ‘they’ rose. His next job was to grind coffee for the cook, and clean and sharpen all the knives, giving him just time to feed the backyard chickens before breakfast. This usually consisted of herrings and salt pork. The herrings were smoked or bloatered, and enough were bought to last a week. They were strung up in a line across the back kitchen.
After breakfast came family prayers in the drawing-room. Then it was time to go outside to get the vegetables for dinner – potatoes, cabbages, roots, anything that was in season. Dinner was eaten about one-thirty after the family had finished theirs. In the afternoon the backhus boy fed the chickens again and did a variety of jobs around the kitchen, such as chopping kindling and calling in the cows for milking. His last task was to take the letters to the post office by six-thirty, after which if there were no evening jobs, he could stay in the village to visit his home and play with his friends. But whatever he did, he had to be back at the farm before nine o’clock, and in bed soon after.
Image: A Backhus Boy
Histry Bits No. 57: Who was Charles Dewar?
Charles Dewar was a member of the famous Scotch whisky distilling family, founded in Perth in 1846. In the early 1920s, he purchased Abbey House from the Marquis of Cholmondeley and lived there until his death in 1933 at the age of 75. He took a great interest in village life, helping to finance the construction of the original village hall, which was built by the villagers in 1924 using their own unpaid voluntary labour. In 1937 his widow Mrs. Dewar gifted a parcel of land behind the village hall which became the current playing field. The naming of Charles Dewar Close seemed a fitting, if somewhat overdue, gesture of thanks towards this very generous couple.
Charles Dewar and his wife in front of Abbey House.
Village Hall under construction 1924.
Village Hall Committee 1920s
Back Row: N. Chilvers, R.Leveret, H. Callaby, B. Taylor, P. Plattern,
H. Jackson, J. Morton, A.Woods, F. Attew, A. Savory, J. Leveret, J. Boon.
Front Row: Rev. Mcanally, C. Dewar, A. Cracknel, F. Cole.
Histry Bits No. 56: An Unholy Alliance
St.Valentine’s Eve in Victorian Massingham was an unholy alliance between modern Valentine’s Day, traditional April Fools Day, and Halloween when the normally strict rules of village behaviour were suspended for twenty-four hours. It was a time when free licence was given to sweethearts, friends and enemies to exchange ‘greetings’ in various forms to suit the feelings of the senders. In the case of sweethearts, it was usually a love token in the shape of an ornate and highly scented card containing expressions of everlasting love. For friends, a useful present would be given. But for enemies, or anyone to whom a grudge was due, a practical joke, or something much more alarming would take place.
The greater the depth of scorn, the greater the secrecy required. Ugly paper caricatures were available to scare any likely opponent, with verses commenting on his or her intelligence or looks or lack of it. As a rule of thumb, the greater the grudge, the nastier the valentine.
If the parties involved were not worth spending money on, the following tricks were used: neat parcels, carefully packed and tied, containing a brick, a stone, a lump of coal; matchboxes with a live mouse or earwigs, toad or grasshoppers, or anything dead or alive inside. These would be placed on the doorstep, a loud knock given and the senders would be gone before the recipients could get to the door. But sometimes, when the grudge was deeply felt, things got more serious. On one occasion a piece of white cardboard about six inches square was filled with sharp pins pointing upwards, attached to which were several yards of stout cord. The cardboard was placed on the doorstep, and a loud knock was given. When the recipient stooped down to pick up what he thought was a nice present, the cord was suddenly jerked, leaving his hands painfully lacerated. Before the victim could recover from the shock, its senders were far away, ready to play the same prank on somebody else.
Ugly Victorian Valentine Card
Histry Bits No. 55: Bird Nesting
Nowadays we’d probably be sent to a young offenders institute if we were caught doing what all of us boys did during the Easter holidays back in the fifties – namely hunting for birds eggs. Most of us had a collection somewhere in the house, in a biscuit tin maybe, or a shoebox. Carefully arranged on cotton wool, they were as precious to us as pearls to a dowager duchess. Between us, we knew every track and hedgerow in the village, and quite a few in other villages too. We knew where nests were, and where they were likely to be. There was something almost magical about sliding a careful index finger inside the mossy cavity of – say- a wren’s nest, and feeling the clutch of tiny warm eggs inside, each one not much bigger than a grain of wheat. There were unwritten rules amongst us: we would take only a single egg from any bird’s nest. And we would never, ever, take a robin’s egg because if we did we’d be certain to break an arm or a leg. Or so the saying went.
Having collected our eggs we’d carry them carefully home and using a needle prick a small hole at each end, blowing gently into one of the holes until the white and the yolk plopped out of the other, and the shell was empty. With small eggs, this was an extremely delicate process. Too much air and the egg would burst between your fingers. Not enough and its contents would remain stubbornly stuck inside.
Most of the eggs we collected were larger than the tiny ones above. Those of moorhens, for example – wallies to us boys – who invariably built their nests on fallen tree branches over water-filled pit holes. Their contents could only be reached by tying a spoon onto the end of a long stick, and gently – very gently scooping up one of the delicately speckled brown eggs inside, and drawing it slowly towards you, until it fell triumphantly into your grasp. Magpie eggs were just as difficult to obtain, choosing spindly thorn-bushes in which to construct their lethally barbed nests. But the most prized eggs of all were those of one of our commonest birds – the rook. Congregating in huge flocks they built their nests on the uppermost branches of elms and other extremely tall trees, far out of reach of any ground predators – including small boys. We’d seen pictures of rooks’ eggs, of course, but none of us had seen the real thing or held one in our hands.
That is until one day in early February when I, my brother Paul, and my cousin John, were pedalling towards Rougham and stopped to take a breather under a massive Scots pine tree. Looking up at it we noticed that some of its branches had been sawn or broken off, leaving their stumps sticking out from its gnarled trunk, a bit like the rungs of a ladder. And we noticed something else too: perched on the very top of the tree were several rooks’ nests, their occupants cawing loudly. Was it possible – just possible – to reach them? We had to find out.
Next morning we found an old tobacco tin and put some cotton wool inside it. Then we tied a long length of string to it, long enough to reach from the top of the tree, down to the ground. Being the oldest, and being stupid, I volunteered to do the climbing. I was dead scared, but wouldn’t show it, not to Paul and John at any rate.
It’s sixty years since I climbed that tree, and I remember it as though it was yesterday – the rough texture of the bark against my cheek; the tangy smell of the pine needles; the chill wind that got stronger the higher I climbed; the agitated cawing of the rooks; and the giddy feeling I got when I dared to glance downwards. The ascent took a long time, my feet testing each branch and stump before I dared put any weight on it and haul myself a little further upwards. But eventually, miraculously, I made it to the top. I could see for miles in every direction, but didn’t stop to admire the view. Despite the protests of the rooks, I quickly collected eggs from three of the nests, placed them securely into the tin, which I’d had tied to my belt, and lowered them carefully down to Paul and John. Then I began my descent. It was much harder than climbing up, having to peer downwards all the time to check that my footholds were secure, praying that the soles of my school plimsolls gave enough grip. They did, and I scrambled down the last few feet, landing next to the boys.
With shaking hands, we opened the lid of the tin, and there they were: densely-speckled, shiny and just perfect. Our very own rooks’ eggs.
The Scots pine at Rougham sixty years on.
Histry Bits No. 54: The Best Fun Ever
I was reminiscing with my brother Paul and my cousin John in the Duck recently, and they both agreed with me that we’d had an incredible childhood. Once school was out the three of us had total freedom to patrol more than six hundred mud-splashed rain-soaked, sun-drenched acres, and as long as we didn’t do any serious damage nobody asked any questions about what we got up to.
It was beyond brilliant – but it wasn’t the best. Because nothing – absolutely nothing – could match the day in early December when Mr. Palmer’s threshing tackle lumbered to a halt outside the farm gates. Sadly we three boys were too young to remember the huge traction engines with their spinning flywheels and hissing steam. By the time we came on the scene, they had all been scrapped or sent to museums to be replaced by the Field Marshall, a squat, green and distinctly unglamorous diesel tractor known as a Pop-Pop after the loud farting noises it made. Coupled behind it was a wooden grain elevator and the threshing drum, a rectangular box-like structure, festooned with chutes and hoppers. Speeding along on our bikes we followed the rumbling procession to the corner of the field where the barley stack was due to be threshed and gripping our rabbiting sticks we waited impatiently as the machinery was set up. After what seemed an eternity, the Pop-Pop let out a particularly loud fart, and its drive wheel spun into motion, powering the elevator which hoisted the sheaves of barley up to the men on the drum where their bindings were cut, and they were fed into the machine.
As the day wore on, the barley stack shrank until it was a fraction of its original size. After what seemed an eternity the Pop-Pop driver raised his arm and the machinery ground to a halt. Only a few feet of un-threshed barley remained where the original stack had stood. With the unfamiliar silence ringing in our ears, we watched as two of the farmhands unwound a large bundle of chicken wire and used it to encircle the stack. While they were doing it a dozen or so people arrived from the village to join us. Several of them had dogs – Jack Russells or similar small terriers – straining at their leashes. Gripping our rabbiting sticks, and with our hearts pounding, we joined them as they spread out around the perimeter of the wire fence. When everybody was in position, the men on the stack gave a loud shout, and plunged their pitchforks into the straw at their feet, throwing it high into the air.
It was the signal for utter pandemonium to break loose. Rats, more rats than we boys had ever seen before, exploded from the stack, and desperate to escape, hurled themselves at the wire fence. Unable to break through, they swung back. But the men with their pitchforks were waiting for them, forcing them into a corner. Now it was the dogs’ turn. Unleashed by their owners, and seemingly unconcerned with their own safety, they flung themselves at the seething mass of rodents, crippling them with a single bite to the neck, before throwing their writhing, twitching corpses aside and racing for more victims. Some of the rats fought back, sinking their teeth the dogs’ muzzles, but there was no escape, and they were flung free. In less than fifteen minutes the battle was over.
And what about us boys? I’d like to boast that we killed dozens of rats with our trusty sticks. But the truth is, we didn’t. As the demented animals raced towards us we lost our nerve and scrambled back over the wire fence just in time. But it was good country fun – the very best.
Histry Bits No. 53: Churching
One of the strangest stories my mother ever told me was what happened to her following my birth in July 1947, when she was barred from entering Massingham church by the then rector, Charles McAnally until she had been churched – that is, ritually purified with holy water.
I’d never heard of churching until Mum told me about it, and it was only recently that I fully understood why it had made her so angry.
The process was fairly simple. The woman to be churched, (usually without her baby) was ordered to come to the church porch, and kneel, holding a lighted candle. The priest, wearing a stole (a kind of scarf) would then sprinkle holy water on the woman and say a short prayer before guiding her to the altar using the stole as a sort of makeshift lead. There she would kneel down again and be sprinkled with more holy water, before being allowed to depart in peace – presumably to feed her baby who would doubtless be seriously hungry by this time.
Churching is thankfully rare these days. But the implication that the act of giving birth is somehow dirty and demeaning, lingers on to this day in many parts of the world.
Histry Bits No. 52: Tally Ho!
Though fox hunting has always played second fiddle to game shooting on any list of Sandringham’s favourite country sports, members of the Royal Household regularly followed the West Norfolk hounds when they met at Massingham Kennels during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Ernest Johnson, a young Massingham lad watched their arrival in the village with awe, and wrote about it many years later: ‘What a stir would be caused! First, a long string of horses was seen entering the village, amongst which were some dear little ponies for the use of the young princes (Prince George – later King George V and the Duke of Clarence) and other young members of the party. The horses would be in the charge of Mr. Prince, the stud groom. (And yes, that was his real name!)
A short while later, a magnificent carriage arrived, drawn by four beautiful horses. In the carriage were their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales (our late King Edward and his Consort). After taking a light lunch at the huntsman’s house, this being the only accommodation on the spot, the Royal party mounted their hunters for the chase.
What a brilliant and happy cavalcade the party made as they wended their way along the road to Massingham Heath! Huge crowds followed them, arriving in carriages and vehicles of all descriptions, and on foot. The hounds with the huntsman and whips leading off, looked in the ‘pink’ of condition, as did the Royal party, which included the Master of Foxhounds Squire Hamond of West Acre Hall, with his cheery and rubicund countenance and portly bearing; followed by the rest of the hunt: the bright scarlet coats of the gentlemen mingling with the dark costumes of the ladies, the shining and varied coloured coats of the horses, the smart carriages and other vehicles of those driving; the glistening harness of the carriage horses, the merry peals of laughter of the ladies interspersed with the hearty chuckles of the gentlemen, the whole making up a hunting scene that would cause the heart to leap with happiness for being alive!’
Unless you were a fox, of course…
‘Histry Bits No. 51: Barn Story
Until recently every Norfolk farmyard of any size had a barn. These were often older, and usually very much bigger than the rest of the farm buildings, and were originally built to store and process grain after it was carted in from the fields after harvest. The most notable feature of any Norfolk barn was, of course, its enormous west-facing door, paired by a slightly smaller door on the opposite side of the building. These doors were tall enough to fit a loaded wagon through and positioned to catch the prevailing wind during threshing. Despite inevitable problems with rodents, barns provided reasonably safe, dry conditions until such time as the corn could be threshed, and sold on.
In the days before traction engines, most threshing took place inside the barn. The wagons bringing in the sheaves from the fields were carefully unloaded onto the threshing floor – the central area between the two big doors – and a horse, usually guided by a small boy, was led backwards and forwards across the sheaves to loosen the grain with its hooves.
When it was judged that most of it had been trampled free of its husks, the horse would be taken away for a well-earned rest, and flailing could begin. This usually happened during the winter months when it was too cold and wet to work outside on the land, but it could take place at any time, depending on demand for the crop. Each man would be provided with a hinged stick known as a flail. Its top section would be made from very tough wood such as holly or blackthorn; its bottom part from ash. The bottom part had a swivel-mounted on its top, joining the two halves. To use the flail, the worker swung the bottom half over his shoulder and brought the top half down across the straw, a bit like a tennis player serving a ball.
A skilled man could hit a bundle of sheaves just below the ears in an almost continuous movement, shaking lose even the most reluctant grain. While the threshing was going on, the big double doors to the barn would be thrown open to the wind, and with luck, the through-draught created would be strong enough to blow the chaff and dust away, leaving the grain ready to be riddled (sieved), and sacked up.
‘Histry Bits’…. No 50 Mr. Perkins
For my tenth birthday, I was given a horse. I didn’t want a horse. I hadn’t asked for a horse. But between them, my terrifying godmother Marjorie Morton and my father decided that I should have one. It duly arrived in an army surplus horsebox, towed by a rattling Morris van. The horse, which was actually a largish pony, was called Mr. Perkins, and he seemed friendly enough during our first meeting, his gaze following my godmother closely as she took me through the various stages of saddling up. He was still watching as the van and horsebox turned into Drunken Drove and disappeared.
That was when he bit my father on the bottom. It wasn’t just a little nip, it was a fully-fledged mouthful. Dad shot up rigid, clutching his posterior using language distinctly unsuitable for my ten year old ears. It was the opening shot in a battle of willpower that would continue for the entire time Mr. Perkins was with us.
After I’d got over the initial shock of becoming a horse owner I began to quite like the idea. I had visions of leisurely rides along Peddars Way, with, perhaps, a stop for a picnic lunch under a tree, and a carrot for my faithful four-legged friend. How wrong could a boy be? For a start, the bloody animal refused to go anywhere near Peddars Way – or, indeed anywhere else I might want him to go, literally digging in his hooves and refusing to budge. What he wanted was to stay in his nice, warm loose-box, or, if the weather was fine, to join his new-found friends Duchess and Duke, the two remaining cart horses, on the big pasture behind the barn, from whence no amount of shouting or carrot bribes could extract him. On the few occasions when we did manage to get him saddled up, he would lean against the door of his stable trapping the legs of anybody foolish enough to try to mount him.
As with all horses, the time came when he needed to be re-shod. The plan was that Aunt Marjorie would ride over to Massingham on her chestnut mare, and escort Mr. Perkins and me to Charlie Mountain’s smithy in Harpley, after which we would make our separate ways home.
On the outward leg of the journey, the pony behaved himself beautifully – possibly because he was almost as scared of Aunt Marjorie as I was – and I spent a happy hour in the ancient forge watching Charlie trimming the pony’s hooves, and fitting new shoes in place of the old.
The homeward leg was faster than the outward, with Mr. Perkins still behaving himself, and all would have been well if it hadn’t been for the train. We’d just crossed the tracks at the bottom of Station Hill when it chuffed and clanked into view. The pony had obviously never seen a train before and was quite simply petrified. Rearing up in terror, his new steel shoes slipping and sliding on the smooth tarmac surface of the road, he shot off up the hill towards the village, with me clinging desperately to his neck. There were few cars on the road back then, and fortunately, we didn’t meet one as, without slackening our pace, we charged past the Little Massingham turn-off, towards the village. I remember desperately shouting for help, and people running towards us as we rounded the last corner and onto the green. And there, quite suddenly, Mr. Perkins stopped, lathered with sweat and foaming at the mouth. Unable to hold on any longer, I slid over his head onto the soft grass beneath, not completely sure whether I was dead or alive.
That was the last time I rode Mr. Perkins. He was sent back to the stables where he’d come from, and since that day, almost sixty years ago, I have never ridden a horse, and don’t intend to start now.
Histry Bits’ No 49: The Lost House
One day in the early sixties, my father Ken Miller and the late George Warnes were digging trenches to lay the foundations for a new turkey unit facing onto Drunken Drove. In the days before JCBs, the job had to be done by hand and, at break time, they were taking a well-earned rest when George pulled something out of the pile of earth beside him. It was an oyster shell. He showed it to Dad who brought it in to show me when they’d finished for the day. It was clearly very old, its surface stained by exposure to the boggy subsoil. But what was it doing three feet underground and so far from any beach? We decided to investigate further.
Next morning we dug a shallow trench close to where George had been working, and we struck gold – or at least oyster shells – with almost the first spade-full. There were scores of them, many of them showing cut-marks where a knife had been inserted between the two halves to prise them apart.
As we continued to dig, we began to uncover pottery too. Lots of it and all of it broken. There were bowls, jugs, drinking cups and sections of what must have been large cooking pots, some blackened with soot from the fires that had been used to boil their contents. Many of the pieces had been decorated with a yellowy- green glaze, and some had crude designs scratched into their surfaces.
The following week we took our finds to Lynn Museum and showed them to Miss Mottram, the curator. What we’d discovered, she told us, was a midden – a medieval rubbish pit. In the days before weekly wheelie-bin collections, garbage had to be disposed of by the householder, and the simplest solution was to dig a hole and bury it. The oysters would have come from Brancaster, carried by itinerant vendors, probably in baskets on their heads. And the pottery would have come from – yes, you’ve guessed it – Pott Row, then a major industrial centre, churning out vast numbers of glazed pots known as Grimston Ware, for sale nationwide.
The presence of a midden was a strong indication that there was once a domestic dwelling nearby, most probably a two-roomed thatched cottage with an attached barn or cattle-yard, and a well to supply water. Our find would be recorded, Miss Mottram told us, but unless circumstances changed, the site was not important enough to warrant further investigation.
I remember being quite disappointed by her words, having developed a keen interest in archaeology but there was nothing more that could be done. It was only several years later, when the turkey buildings were being dismantled, that the digger-driver working on the site reported finding several low flint walls just below ground level. These were almost certainly sleeper walls, built to keep the lower sections of timber-framed buildings clear of wet and rot.
The Lost House of Drunken Drove, complete with its medieval rubbish tip, had finally been located!
‘Histry Bits’ No 48: Millers Turkeys
Until it was bought out and closed down by the giant Ross Foods Group in 1980, Millers Turkeys, founded by my father Ken, was by far the biggest employer in the village. During the thirty years it was in business it hatched a staggering 18 million turkey chicks in its Drunken Drove premises, to supply farmers and producers throughout the country.
Having served at RAF Massingham during the War, Ken returned to the village to wed my mother Merrill and set up the company in 1947. He started with £200 worth of breeding stock which he carefully nurtured, taking a keen interest in turkey genetics and the development of new, more productive hybrid strains.
In the early days, Ken was heavily involved in breeding and fattening turkeys, as well as hatching them. In the autumn he would run large flocks of Norfolk Bronze turkeys on the newly-harvested stubble-fields of Heath Farm, where they fed themselves on the spilt corn to produce a truly free-range product for the Christmas table, decades before the concept became fashionable.
As the business grew, so did the premises. Starting off with simple wire-netting pens, large numbers of army-surplus Nissen huts were added to the mix, before Ken finally took the plunge, and commissioned a purpose-built processing plant which incorporated a state of the art blast freezing facility.
It was hugely expensive and, even before it was completed, it was obsolete. The arrival on the scene of mega-producers such as Bernard Matthews and the rise of the supermarkets meant that smaller producers could be undercut, at will, and years of hard slog would come to nothing. By 1980, when the plant finally closed, only seven employees remained, with little prospect of alternative employment.
June Newton was one of the last to leave and she recalls her time at the turkey farm and the colleagues with whom she worked, with great affection.
It was truly a village enterprise and it was sadly missed. The buildings on Drunken Drove were sold off and demolished to make way for housing.
‘Histry Bits’ No 47: A Bustling Day
By pure chance, a fascinating collection of letters, written by a man called William Taylor, and sent to a friend in London almost two hundred years ago, has survived, copies of which have found a home in Ant Robinson’s village history collection. In addition to being a highly accomplished artist, Taylor had a wide range of other interests, spanning architecture, politics, music, and even hot-air ballooning. He was not a wealthy man, and the earliest letter finds him starting work for a furniture retailer in Cheltenham, where he was expected to sleep on the beds in the showroom! Politically, he was a committed Conservative and using his connections he gained an appointment as Superintendent of an Endowed School deep in the Norfolk countryside.
The school, of course, was Massingham, then still located in the room above the church porch, and financed from a fund set up in earlier times for the education of twenty poor boys. (see picture right) The salary was small, but Taylor’s enthusiasm for his new job shines out across the years. Here’s what he wrote on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in February 1840:
‘Now that the dazzling accounts of the marriage have subsided somewhat, I thought you might be amused with a short detail of our village doings on the occasion. On Sunday, the day before the marriage, Mr. Grenside (the Rector) told me that he thought of opening the church for divine service on the evening of the bridal day.
The notice was short, but we determined to render it as interesting as we could. Mr. William (the Rector’s son) undertook the decorative, I the musical, and Mr. Grenside his sermon, and a bustling day we had, I can assure you.
Perhaps Massingham church never presented a more lively and animated scene in our solemn protestant era. It was decorated in all points with evergreens and illuminated with numerous candles, a circular branch of which, with laurels and white ribbons, was suspended from the roof. (Picture Right: Great Massingham Church Circa 1840)
We mustered a very fair choir, as I invited three of the very best singers from the chapel, one a remarkable fine and musical bass that would be creditable to a London performance. Mr. Grenside and Anna Marie (Taylor’s daughter) sang a duet with flute accompaniment, words written by your humble servant. Anna Marie was not in the least timid of singing, notwithstanding the audience which was the largest I ever saw at Massingham church – every seat in the church being full.’
Histry Bits No 46: Swan Song
Most people would agree that there are far too many geese and ducks on our greens and pits. They’ve become not just a public nuisance, but a potential health hazard, especially to children and the elderly. But photographs taken during the fifties and sixties show a very different scene, with just a fraction of the current numbers scattered across the grass and water. What was so different about our pits and greens back then? And what can we learn from what’s happened since?
I believe that the difference between then and now can be summed up in a single word: Swans.
Throughout my childhood, there were always swans on our village pits. They paired for life and constructed a huge nest which they added to year by year, raising successive families of cygnets. Swans don’t like ducks. They don’t like geese much either. In fact, in America, swans are used by landowners to control geese numbers on their property. Could our very own pair of swans do the same for us? Could they persuade our unwanted geese and ducks to fly off to pastures new, and stay there, permanently?
But aren’t they dangerous, I hear you ask? Actually, no. It’s important to stay clear of them during the April to June nesting season, of course, when they can get protective over their brood but stories about them breaking your arm or leg with their wings are complete rubbish. In fact, John Huston of Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, where he keeps a thousand swans, has pointed out that in the six hundred years of the colony’s history, there have been no recorded attacks on humans. A pair of swans don’t come cheap. But maybe – just maybe – they could be the answer to our population explosion.
And what an elegant answer they would be! David Miller
Swans on the village pit during the big freeze-up of the early 1960’s
Histry Bits No. 45: A Real Treat
I doubt if any of us Village boys back in the fifties actually believed in God – though we’d have certainly said we did if we’d been asked. There was too much at stake to confess to the truth. Because once a year, on a Sunday in June, after the hay harvest was done, and before the corn harvest could get underway, one of Peeling’s green buses, belching smoke from its rattling exhaust, would draw up early in the morning in front of the church, and an excited scrum of children – plus a few supervising adults – clutching bags of cheese sandwiches, and bottles of pop, would squeeze themselves on board, three to a double seat, and grind off in the general direction of the coast. The long-awaited, much discussed Annual Massingham Sunday School Treat was underway.
The destination was Hunstanton, of course, always pronounced Hunstun, noted, as Stanley Holloway might have said, for fresh air and fun. And there to greet them in the coach park was the smiling Massingham Rector, Muzzy Davies, and his gaunt black-clad wife, who, if she had a Christian name, never revealed it to anybody in the village. They had travelled by car, presumably not wanting to get too close to the unwashed rabble on the bus! It was Mrs. Davies, who, clutching a register, ticked their names off as they emerged and issued dire warnings about them being left behind if they weren’t back at the coach by six o’clock sharp.
It was that self-same register which, for the previous twelve months, had been wielded in mortal combat between Mrs. Davies and the boys and girls of the village. Put quite simply, if you didn’t attend Sunday School enough weeks in a year, you didn’t qualify for the Treat, and would be left behind. In a village where only a very few people owned a car, that was a huge deprivation indeed. But so was being forced to memorise the Apostles’ Creed when spring was in full blossom outside the dusty windows of the Rectory when there were trees to be climbed, and birds’ nests to be found, and ferrets to be fed and trained. It was a simple case of bribery and corruption – but all in a good cause. And in the end, as far as I can recall, nobody was ever left behind, and I can still recite the Apostles’ Creed by heart. (almost!)
Histry Bits No. 44: A Most Capital Windmill
Once upon a time, Massingham had a windmill. Not one of those new-fangled wind turbines that clutter up our landscape, but the real thing. Here’s how it was described when it was put up for sale in April 1810:
To be sold by auction at the Swan Inn Great Massingham, a capital POST WIND-MILL, with a very large and commodious roundhouse under the same, and a large building contiguous thereto wherein are erected a horse mill, dressing machine etc. with a large granary over the same, the whole in complete repair and built within a very few years at very considerable expense. There is about half an acre of land belonging, and immediate possession may be had. This mill is most advantageously situated on a commanding eminence and is well worth the attention of any person desirous of carrying on a very extensive and lucrative trade. Mr. Gage at the Swan at Massingham will shew the premises.
As its name implies, Massingham post mill was constructed largely of wood in a design pre-dating even the Norman Conquest. Its sails and most of its machinery was hung off a massive central post – almost certainly a single dressed tree trunk – which pivoted as the wind direction changed. The mill ‘buck’ – the large wooden hut from which the sails were operated – had four floors, with a gallery around its eaves, and was set over a roundhouse – a circular domed brick structure which served to brace the central post when the mill was in operation, as well as providing valuable work-space and storage at other times. Four patent sails powered two pairs of French burrstones, a flour mill, and a dressing machine, and could be supplemented by a horse mill when the wind didn’t blow. Sadly, the mill was destroyed by fire in 1916 and was never replaced.
So where exactly was our mill situated? No prizes for guessing that it was at the top end of Mill Lane, close to the former perimeter track of the airfield. The site is overgrown now, but traces of the mill buildings can still be seen if you look hard enough.
A post mill like the one at Massingham
Histry Bits No. 43: A Hard Day’s Work
During World War Two feeding Britain in the face of constant U-boat attacks in the Atlantic was a top priority. With so many men away fighting, women and girls nationwide were roped in to keep food production moving. Only a minority were actual Land Girls. Most were just ordinary villagers, the wives, and daughters of farmers and farm workers. Massingham was no exception. Here’s a lovely letter my mother Merrill from Heath Farm sent to my future father Ken Miller who was serving overseas at the time, filling him in on a hard day’s work in the fields, and the evening that followed.
Heath Farm, Gt. Massingham, King’s Lynn
Wednesday Evening 28th May 1941
…What a day I had! It could not have been a nicer one. The sun shone with really terrific heat and I am nearly scorched up. It has made me a brilliant red, but it will be a nice tan in about two days’ time. Have got several blisters on my big toes, but that was because I wore Ivor’s boots. I was working the whole day with Charlie Cawthorne. He was sowing kale and I was rolling in front of him (the horse roll, not me!!!). We had our lunch together, he told me about his nephew, a bus driver in London, and me telling him about you. He is always very keen to hear what you are doing.
When I got back I was dreadfully dirty with the dust that the horse kicks up behind and was thankful to get into a nice bath. But despite the dirt in my shoes, hair all awry, and blisters on my feet, I really did enjoy my day. Not only was it the hardest work I have done for a very long time, but it was also a relief to get away from the fowls for a day. Tomorrow we are rolling the barley.
I hear on the wireless tonight that they are going to ration eggs. It is a good thing your mother has put a few [hens] down…
Must stop now to get ready for the dance. I don’t think dancing is very good for blisters, but luckily they are on the top of my toes as Ivor’s boots were too large. They all send best wishes from home. Fondest love, Merrill.
Histry Bits No. 42: No Ordinary Match
When we, our Queen’s loyal Norfolk subjects, have something truly Royal to celebrate – a wedding perhaps, or the birth of a new heir to the throne – we turn on our TVs and stare open-mouthed at the glittering coaches and prancing horses filling our high-definition fifty-five inch screens.
But way back in June 1953, when Her Majesty was crowned, and television had only recently been invented, things were a little different. For some still unclear reason, it was decided that Massingham could best demonstrate its loyalty by holding a football match on the Village Hall field. But this would be no ordinary match. It would be an early example of the now mainstream art of cross-dressing. The wives and girlfriends of the men’s team would wear the familiar red and green Massingham first team shirts, and the men would wear… well, anything that took their fancy. From Grandma’s bloomers (and they were bloomers in those days) through Auntie’s Sunday-best hats, housemaids’ pinafores, and scandalously-short skirts, to luscious lips and full clown make-up.
I was only six at the time, but the game is vividly etched in my memory. My chief reaction then was the same as it is today: Why? But then, perhaps some questions are best left unanswered. The final score, I seem to remember, was a ten-all draw.
Comic football team at Great Massingham to mark the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – the ladies played the men.
From left to right, back row: H. Smalls, D. Leverett, D. Skipper, P. Reeve, R. Moore, J. Church.
Second row: B. Seaman, J. Hodson, W. Moore, H. Hodson, O. Skipper, M. Hodson, I. Morton, J. Morton.
Third row: A. Bunkle, H. Christmas, L. Cooper, D. Manning, J. Drewery, D. Hardingham, M. Goodings,
Front: E. Skipper.
John Morton Snr. puts up a stout defence
Histry Bits No. 41: A Very Ancient Terrier
No, for once, we’re not talking about dogs! A terrier was a legal document establishing ownership of property and land in the centuries following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries – the equivalent of today’s Land Registry. One such terrier, relating to Massingham, has survived and provides a unique insight into life in the village. Dated 1732, it was drawn up by the then Rector, Dr. John Gardner, following years of protest and anger from the villagers. Their unhappiness could be summed up in a single word: Tithes. Tithes were originally a tax payable in kind of one-tenth of the produce of the land (crops, sheep, cattle etc.) to the Rector as payment for his services. They were payable by all parishioners, from big farmers with large landholdings, right down to little old ladies running a few geese on the village green, and were universally unpopular. Why should parishioners hand over a sizeable lump of their hard-earned produce to priests who at the time were regarded not so much as holy men as lazy (and often absent) leeches on society?
Our terrier gets straight to the heart of the matter.
Whereas there were formerly very great and unhappy disputes between ye Rector of Great Massingham in ye county of Norfolk, and the inhabitants of ye said parish, it was therefore at last mutually agreed that ye whole affair in debate should be left to arbitration, which was accordingly done.
Despite the talk of arbitration, Dr. Gardner is clearly using the terrier to define and defend his right to a full and profitable career as the village tax collector, and fortunately for us, he goes into considerable detail in doing so.
Here are just a few of the things that were agreed by Dr. Gardner and the arbitrators
That every parishioner having ten calves fallen within ye parish shall pay the tenth in kind as it falleth. That every parishioner having a flock of sheep and lambs shall pay ye tenth lamb as they run at hurdles. Any parishioner having any foals fallen within ye parish shall pay for the Tythe of every such foal according to ancient custom thereof, one penny.
Dr Gardner checks his flock
Concerning Tythe milk, every parishioner shall pay his first tythe (i.e. tenth) of all his milk cows upon the twelfth day of May in ye evening and upon ye thirteenth of May in ye morning and continue until Lammas Day in full payment of all Tythe milk for the year then passed.
I have further to observe that all ye houses beyond ye Parsonage-house towards Weasenham and Ruffham have from long time past delivered their milk at ye Parsonage, as Elizabeth Bubbier and others are ready to testify. I am told that there have formerly been tubs placed for the reception of Tythe Milk; one at ye Great Stone by ye Stocks and another upon the Green…
The terrier continues in a similar vein for several pages. From it we learn amongst other things that a farmer named Carr ‘threw down’ his milk in front of the Rector during a blazing row, and that no apology was given for two years; that an earlier attempt by the Rector to charge Tythe payments on Drover’s cattle overnighting on the village green on their way to the Hempton Fair was unsuccessful; that local shepherds were skilled at concealing the exact number of lambs born to their ewes from the eagle eyes of their money-grabbing priest. And that he was ever-present during shearing time to check that none of his share of the fleeces was ‘clandestinely made off with’. The original document is now in the County Records Office in Norwich and makes fascinating reading. It leaves just two questions unanswered: Where exactly in the village were the stocks? And what exactly was ‘the Great Stone?
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.
LEFT TO RIGHT: DUDLEY SKIPPER, ROBERT CANDLER, STANLEY COPEMAN. GORDON SKIPPER, PETER BACK, ANDREW MASON, MICHAEL GAGEN, MICHAEL GREEN, DAVID MILLER, PAUL MILLER, JOHN FREESTONE, JOHN BONE, ROBERT GRUMETT, BARRY HARDINGHAM, JOHN MORTON
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..
Caption for image:
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.
Caption for image:
Church Porch School Room by William Taylor
Histry Bits No 22: 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.
Histry Bits No 21: Captain Swing
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 November 1831. 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.
Histry Bits No 20: 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.
Histry Bits No 19: BRIEF ENCOUNTER
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.
Histry Bits No 18: DOGGER MEN
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!
Histry Bits No 17: 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!
Histry Bits No 16: THE GLEANING BELL
Before the days of cheap watches, a lot of fieldwork on Norfolk farms was regulated by the ringing of the church bell. This was particularly the case with the strictly-enforced rules governing gleaning. Gleaning – the gathering up of fallen grain after harvest by the women and children of the parish for their own personal use – was permitted after a field was cleared of standing corn.
If one sheaf was left standing, it was an indication that the farmer had not completely finished with the field, and it should not be entered. Having checked which fields were ready for gleaning, the women and children would gather at the relevant field-gate in the early morning to wait for the church bell to strike eight. As the sound rang out, the scene must have looked like the beginning of a January sale as the gleaners rushed into the field searching for the best places to begin gathering the whisps of corn that would help to feed their families during the long, hungry months of winter. It was back-breaking work, especially on hot days.
Wrapped up against the burning sun, the women used their bare hands to burrow beneath the sharp-stemmed stubble searching for the fallen grain and putting it into bags slung around their waists. Conscious that time was passing, they took very few breaks until the church bell struck seven in the evening, which was the signal to stop. But for the gleaners, the day was not over. The heavy bundles of corn they’d gathered still had to be transported back to their homes in the village – often more than a mile away. Some of them used hand-carts, but most carried the gleanings on their heads, African-style.
Histry Bits No 15: TRAIN SPOTTING
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 world renowned pages of Bradshaw’s Guide!’
Histry Bits 14: 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
Histry Bits No 13: 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…
Histry Bits No 12: CHARLIE CAWTHORNE
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.”
Histry Bits No 11 STONE PICKING
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, tedious 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
Histry Bits No 10 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
Histry Bits No 9 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.
Histry Bits No 8 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.
Histry Bits No 7 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.
Histry Bits No 6 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!
Histry Bits No 5 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!
Histry Bits No 4 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.
Histry Bits No 3 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.
Histry Bits No 2 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!
Histry Bits No 1 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.