Norfolk’s Ancient Animal Magic

Language, we are told is a constantly evolving beast. Whilst this is undeniable, in certain rural areas this evolution can be somewhat slow. We have, for example in the Norfolk vernacular today the phrase ‘to put the toad on someone.’ Admittedly this is not an everyday comment, but this curious phrase that seems to date back many hundreds of years is, remarkably still in use today.

It is often spoken in hushed tones by those fearful of having the toad put upon them, or more forcefully and with a sense of threat by those wishing to afflict their enemy using what is known in East Anglia as ‘toad magic.’

An NRO document entitled ‘Folklore: Veterinary Cures and Recipes – The Horseman’s Words and Charms’ (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) gives us detailed insight into the origins of the phrase. Written in approximately 1958, it clearly demonstrates the superstitious fears that were held by rural communities as late as the twentieth century. The small exercise book has been written by two unknown hands, both of whom appear to be local clergymen.

‘Folklore: Veterinary Cures & Recipes – The Horseman’s Words and Charms’

Toad magic was a complex skill, involving ritual ceremonies and training. To become a toadman;

“…was a particular aspiration for labourers working with horses.”[1]

The powers were not reserved for men alone however; women could become toadwomen, or toad witches, after performing the same initiation. The tradition of toad magic was particularly infamous in the Fens, where it was said to grant the owner of a toad bone the power to immobilise and control not only horses, but also pigs and cattle. In a county where most people lived cheek by jowl with their livestock, and relied on them for their very survival, having some sort of control over the natural world was a longed-for gift. Thankfully for us, the details of the ritual carried out by prospective toadmen and women has been preserved. In the document previously mentioned, (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2) the local clergyman has noted down the requirements as told to him by a labourer named Golding,

“Put a toad in a pishimere’s nest [2] ; throw the skeleton into the river and the bone that floats upstream is the required bone. (Golding says he did not hold with all this old squit). Some talk of a frog bone; but that sounds like a softening up: the toad is the magic beast.”

Folklore: Veterinary Cures and Recipes – The Horseman’s Words and Charms’

Other reports of the ritual are rather more dramatic and shadowy, claiming that the toad’s skeleton must be thrown into the river at midnight, whereupon the devil will appear. The prospective toadman or woman must then make a secret pact with the devil; only then will they gain the power they desire.

One toadwoman, Tilly Baldry, is quoted in Eastern Counties Magazine in 1901, describing her own initiation, and giving us some idea of how Fenland handywomen would use the toad for maladies of the breast,

“You catch a hopping toad and carry it in your bosom until it has rotted away to the backbone, then you take it and hold it over running water at midnight til the devil comes to you and pulls you over the water.”[1]

Upon being carried upstream, the magical toad bone would separate from the remainder of the skeleton. This was the bone that was to be used for witching purposes, to be kept in one’s pocket or worn around the neck.

Two witches smoking by the fire with a toad at their feet (1720)

Despite the temptation of the magical powers that the toad bone could bestow upon its owner, would-be toadsmen and women had to be hardy souls. Local accounts tell of the power of the bone going hand in hand with a descent into deep despair, with some toad magic practitioners eventually taking their own lives.

Previously mentioned document (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2)  notes a quote from a Billy Roberts, who stated on 4th March 1958 that,

“He knew a man (dead now) who after getting a frog bone lost his wife, and was dogged with misfortune all his life. He regarded it as evil or witchcraft, and said if he couldn’t manage horses without that sort of thing, he’d do without it.”

These claims of certain misfortune may have been propagated by those who had been initiated as a way of retaining their own power and mystique. It was said that “No door is ever closed to a Toadman,” [1] and anyone with the nickname ‘Tuddy’ garnered instant respect.

Going back to our original source, (NRO, MS 21630/147 502X2)  the author tells us,

“The immobilisation power doesn’t seem to have been believed in, but they may be due to reluctance to talk, and even in these days of the tractor, teamsmen are chary of speaking, or of disclosing recipes.”

The later pages of the document describe the use of poisonous plants as key ingredients to the aforementioned recipes; plants renowned in rural communities for their toxic nature, such as yew, hellebore, nightshade and root of bryony.

It seems that these rural labourers, whose livelihoods hung by a thread resting on the whims of the weather were sorely tempted by shadowy practices that promised some form of control over the natural world around them. Life must have felt unstable and unpredictable, with illness and death inextricably linked to the success or failure of the agricultural land upon which they worked.

Our lives are so detached from the seasons and the land around us that we can only imagine what lengths our ancestors were prepared to go to ensure their survival. Fortunately for us, we have access to some perfectly preserved documents, giving us a glimpse into our forebears’ lives and reminding us of the centuries-old superstitions that are still very much alive in the local vernacular of today.

[1] Pennick, Nigel ‘Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England’

[2] pishamere is Norfolk dialect for an ant

L. Spirit, NRO Blogger

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Norfolk Women in History

Click on a name in the drop down menu to find out about that individual

To find out even more about Norfolk women in history watch our YouTube channel to see films made by University of East Anglia film students about notable and inspiring Norfolk women.

Posted in 0-1299, 1300-1499, 1500-1699, 1700-1750, 1751-1799, 1800-1850, 1851-1899, 1900-1950, 1951-1999 | 4 Comments

Life in a Nineteenth Century Workhouse

The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) empowered the Poor Law Commission to unite parishes in England and Wales into Poor Law Unions to be administered by a local Board of Guardians. The Loddon and Clavering Union was instituted on 7th May 1836, its Board of Guardians numbered 44 and there were 42 constituent parishes (two parishes returned two Guardians each). The provision of a workhouse building was central to this process. The original workhouse at Hales which had been built in 1765 was adopted as the Union workhouse and the Poor Law Commissioners authorised £3,145 10s for repairs (probably over £300,000 today) and enlargement with accommodation for 500 people.

All admissions and discharges were recorded in a book covering several years – admissions on the left hand page and discharges on the right hand page. This book covers August 1855 to December 1859, NRO, C/GP 12/205.

Entry into the workhouse was voluntary but it was Hobson’s choice! On admission people were assigned a category which determined the food they would receive. These categories are listed in the front of the book:-

Categories listed in the front of the Admission and Discharge Book. NRO, C/GP 12/205

A Relieving Officer visited each parish in the Union regularly and interviewed anyone seeking poor relief. The most commonly recorded reason for seeking admission is ‘no work’ but a reason is not always recorded. Other reasons include dependent children, pregnancy, no home, infirmity (mental and physical), illness, destitution, desertion and vagrancy.

These are some sample entries:-

Elizabeth Dunn – admitted in August 1855 with her four children because her husband had deserted them.

Francis Burgess – admitted in December 1855 because his parents had deserted him. He was under 16 years old.

Esther Fairhead – admitted in November 1855 probably after the death of her husband. She was pregnant and already had two children, Sarah and Frederic (who were under 9) who she could not support. In November 1856 Sarah was taken out of the workhouse by her grandfather.

Family members are occasionally recorded as taking relatives out of the workhouse but it didn’t always work out as in the case of George Nixon (he was under 16 and an orphan) who was admitted and discharged a total of six times over two years. His uncle took him out on one occasion but he was re-admitted within a few weeks and it didn’t happen again.  The last entry for George is his discharge in October 1857 – there are no further entries for him in this volume.

In May 1856 Matilda Buck who was under 16 was ‘taken out by grandmother’ but readmitted in July 1856 because ‘mother in house’. Her mother, Mary Buck, who was able bodied had been admitted in May 1856 and Matilda had subsequently gone to her grandmother who must have died shortly afterwards when Matilda had no choice but to go back into the workhouse.

There are a couple of instances of people being taken out by friends as in the case of Susan Randlesome (able bodied) on 20th December 1859. Perhaps they wanted to spare her Christmas Day in the workhouse!

Children born in the workhouse are recorded as admissions by surname only plus the first name of the parent, usually the mother. But in February 1856, a child was born to Caroline and Joseph Gibbs of Thurlton and the names of both parents are recorded. They had been admitted on 14th January 1856 because there was no work along with their two children, Maria, and Joseph (who was an infant) and presumably Caroline was heavily pregnant. The next entry for the family is their discharge on 14th March 1856. They were discharged at their own request and sadly it appears that the new baby had not survived as the family still consisted of Caroline, Joseph, Maria, and the infant Joseph. There are no further entries for the family in this volume.

People were often moved between workhouses to ensure they were where they qualified for relief so in May 1856 George Francis was moved from Great Yarmouth to Loddon and July 1859 William West was moved from Loddon to the Wangford Union workhouse.

The 1834 Act did not make provision for vagrants but this did not prevent them from seeking relief at workhouses and in 1837 a new regulation was introduced which required food and shelter for one night to be given to any destitute person in return for them performing a task. They were accommodated in what were often called Casual Wards. Thomas Robinson was admitted as a ‘casual’ on 18th March 1857 and discharged the following day. No parish is recorded and it says ‘Comm. Fund’. If Thomas was from a parish that was not part of the Loddon and Clavering Union no parish within the Union would be required to fund his stay. This fund was, presumably, to cover the costs of taking in individuals from outside a Union.

The workhouse was not a prison and inmates were allowed to leave at their own request whenever they wished after giving reasonable notice but paperwork was involved with leaving as with entering. A person’s own clothes would be returned to them but if they left in workhouse issue clothes they could be charged with theft.  In August 1857 Horace Waterson of Thurston ‘absconded’ – nothing is recorded about what he took with him!

‘Own request’ is the most common reason for discharge but other reasons are recorded:-

George Hubbard was discharged in August 1857 on the recommendation of the Board to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

George Gower was discharged to the ‘asylum at Thorpe’ in November 1858

Robert Clarke, George Walpole and James Revell (all able bodied) were discharged in January 1859 because they were ‘taken prisoner’.

In March 1858 Thomas Martin was discharged to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – he was able bodied so was, presumably, ill or injured. He was not from within the Union and was charged to the Hartsmere Union. Mary Martin, also able bodied, was discharged at the same time ‘by order of the Board’ presumably she was Thomas’s wife so had to leave. Any dependents would normally go into the workhouse with the applicant and leave with them.

Deaths are recorded in the Discharged column as in the case of Elizabeth Love in March 1857 and the time of death is usually noted.

There were, however, some positive reasons for leaving. Able bodied inmates were encouraged to seek work and some were successful:-

George Barber was discharged in October 1857 when he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. His dietary category was 3 so he would have been in his early teens.

In March 1859 Ann Botwright was discharged ‘to service’. She would also have been in her early teens.

Simon Baker (able bodied) of Raveningham was discharged in November 1856 because he had been offered work.

Discharges from May 18th to May 27th, 1857. NRO, C/GP 12/205

The Loddon and Clavering Workhouse closed in 1927 and was repurposed as a mental institution. Workhouses were abolished in the UK in 1930 but many continued under the control of county councils and county boroughs. When the NHS was established in 1948 many became hospitals – Loddon and Clavering became Hales Hospital.

Researched and Written by A Baker

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The Boys are Back in Town! The American Red Cross Service Club, Bishop’s Palace, Norwich

In 1942, General Eisenhower tasked the American Red Cross with establishing a chain of service clubs throughout the United Kingdom to accommodate the masses of US soldiers on leave. Service Clubs were designed as a home-away-from-home with American décor, American-inspired meals, and showers so US troops could have a reprieve from the dreaded British bath.

Whilst many Clubs were established in requisitioned hotels, the Service Club in Norwich had the unconventional setting of the Bishop’s Palace, the residential home of the Bishop of Norwich situated due north of the cathedral. The foundations of the medieval palace were laid by the first Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga (c.1095-1119). The first major alterations came in the early 14th century when Bishop Salmon rebuilt the palace on the original foundations. A drawing-room was added on the first floor above the kitchen by Bishop Walter Hart in the 15th century. This was wainscoted by Bishop Repps a century later with oak panelling from St Benet at Holme. The first major works to be carried out since the 14th century occurred when Bishop John Pelham employed the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ architect to remodel the Palace in 1858-9 CE, which involved moving the entrance to the north elevation, restoring the Bishop’s chapel and dining hall, and refacing the west façade with flintwork (fig. 1).

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The Life of Ellenor Fenn – One Woman: Three Identities.

Lady Ellenor Fenn is listed in the Norfolk Record Office as the wife of Sir John Fenn. He found fame through his work transcribing the 15th century Paston Papers. The first two volumes were published in January 1787 and led to him receiving a knighthood. He was a notable figure in Norfolk, holding several civic roles over his lifetime; he was High Sheriff of Norfolk 1791-1792. However, with a little more investigation, Lady Fenn is revealed as a person of substance in her own right.

Lady Ellenor Fenn, née Frere was born 12 March 1744 in Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, Suffolk. The Frere’s were a wealthy family. Ellenor was the only daughter of 6 children born to Sheppard and Susanna Frere. Her parents later moved to Roydon Hall, Diss, Norfolk.

Portrait of Ellenor Fenn in Bishop Bonners Cottage Museum, (2022).

John Fenn met Ellenor through her brother John Frere; both attended Cambridge University (1758-63). He recounted his courtship in his autobiography of 1763 where, in the proper language of the day, he “paid his addresses” to Ellenor. (Fenn’s ‘Memoirs’ N.R.O. NNAS 505/4/13 f.10.) John Fenn bought Hill House in East Dereham, which at the time overlooked a bustling market square. The couple were married on 01 January 1766.

Ellenor Fenn can be regarded as a pioneer of feminism.  She pursued her own career at a time when the place of a wealthy woman was to be at home supporting the career of her husband. Instead, she was an early innovator of children’s learning and education. However, she was modest about her work and used 2 pseudonyms throughout her career; her achievements only being fully realised after her death.

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The Clandestine Marriage of 1774

The Norfolk Record Office (NRO) holds a large series of correspondence of Elizabeth Leathes, formerly Elizabeth Reading, later Elizabeth Peach, but known to her friends and family as Betsy. Part of the Bolingbroke Collection, these letters give us a glimpse into what life was like for this sociable lady who enjoyed moving in gentry circles, attending card parties and balls, and having a wide range of life-long correspondents.

This blog is concentrating on Betsy’s marriage to Edward Leathes, which took place without the knowledge of either of their parents in Holborn, London, in 1774 by licence. However, some background first. Betsy was an only child, daughter of Elizabeth and Revd James Reading of Woodstock, Oxfordshire and was born in 1748. James was a teacher at Woodstock Grammar School and the rector of nearby Stonesfield. Betsy was well educated, had a large circle of friends, played the harpsichord and corresponded with her friends regularly. In Celia Miller’s 2016 biography of Betsy, she says ‘By the time she reached her 20th birthday she had acquired all the social skills needed to function effectively in polite society, and knew how to present herself to the best advantage.’

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From Tram Conductor to Chief Inspector: The Police Registers of Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn

From Norfolk Record Office documents C/PO 1/58 & C/PO 1/46

Brief History of the Police Force

The first official police force was the London Metropolitan Police set up by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.  The County and Borough Police Act 1856 required a national system of policing throughout England and Wales and towns such as Kings Lynn (KL) and Great Yarmouth (GY) would each have their own forces.  Smaller town forces did not merge until the 20th century.

Registers Held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO)

The NRO holds personnel registers for the GY and the KL police forces.  The first dates from 1871 to 1924, the second from 1845 to 1920.  The KL register has suffered water damage making some entries difficult to read. 

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The Ghostly Mystery of Mannington Hall

With the nights drawing in and a distinct chill in the autumnal air, our thoughts turn towards all things ghoulish, ghostly and spectral. If you’re looking for a spine-chilling tale to tell by the fireside on a dark winter’s evening, look no further…

Our story begins in Victorian England, where there was a national hunger for the supernatural. The tradition of the winter ghost story was gaining popularity, and gothic literature surged forth as anathema to the rigid social and religious structures of the day.

Dr. Augustus Jessopp (1823-1914)  made his name as a clergyman and headteacher in Norfolk in the latter half of the 19th century. Although ordained in the Christian church, he was not averse to the rise of the popular new religious movement of Spiritualism.

It came to pass that in October 1879, the combination of a ghostly tale recounted by Jessopp, a trusted ‘man of the cloth’, and the nationwide thirst for all things beyond the grave caused quite a stir both within Norfolk and the wider world.

Dr. Augustus Jessop, 1913
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