An Enigmatic Diarist as Ever Was Known: The Syleham Diary 1784 – 1824

Taken from Norfolk Record Office, MC 2329/1, 958X1

In 1805 this diarist wrote:

This comment led to the diary being offered to the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.  They declined the offer and it was subsequently retrieved from a waste paper bin in Portsmouth and offered to the Norfolk Record Office because it was thought to have originated from Brockdish.  Despite never identifying himself; family references and parish activities identify the diarist as Charles Souter, parish clerk of Syleham (1736-1828).

Syleham is a small Suffolk village south of the river Waveney on the Norfolk Suffolk border.  Charles Souter’s house and shop, marked on the map below in red, was at the end of the lane leading to the church.

The Souter Diary

The diary was not written on a regular basis and months can pass without an entry.  The contents can be categorized into six main themes; parish life, prominent families, the weather, crimes and calamities, births, marriages and deaths and national events.  This is a typical page: 

Family References

Charles Sowter of Syleham married Susanna Juby in 1736.  Were these Charles Souter’s parents?

Souter rarely mentions his family but they do give some evidence of his identity.  In 1816 Souter writes: My daughter, the wife of S Reeve, was safely delivered of a son.  Samuel Reeve had married Phoebe Souter in 1813 in Needham.  Baptismal records show that Robert Reeve was born on 26 July 1816 to Samuel Reeve and his wife Phoebe nee Souter.  He died in September.  A year earlier Souter had written:

Baptismal records for Phoebe Souter have been unavailable to prove that she was Charles Souter’s daughter.  To confuse the matter there is a Phoebe born to Charles Souter in 1817.  This Charles was born c1784 and was the son of Robert and Susanna Souter who I believe was related to Charles Souter, parish clerk, perhaps a nephew.

Diarist Charles Souter’s headstone in Syleham churchyard reads:

In Memory of

Charles Souter

Who was 54 years clark of this parish

He died Dec 16th 1828 aged 92 years.

Also of Mary his wife

Who died Augst 12th 1820

Aged 82 years.

St Margaret’s Church, Syleham.  Souter’s grave marked in red.

When Souter died in December 1828 the Bury & Norwich Post wrote: On Friday last at Syleham in his 92nd year, Charles Souter, he was clerk of the parish for 54 years.  From his early youth he made the Holy Scriptures his constant study, the fruits of which were apparent in his exemplary piety and strict integrity.

Charles Souter married Mary Mills in 1768.  He mentions her only once;  35 years after starting his journal, he writes: I and wife went to Fress (Fressingfield).

What other personal information can we glean from the diary?  A shopkeeper, he assiduously noted prices of crops and coal. Other references: The causeway before my home was thrown down in June and July 1787 . . . . shop end and fore side of the house daubed (July 1792) . . . . Pantry taken down (November 1800) . . . . House new tiled (June 1801) . . . A new window in the kitchen (May 1802).

Souter’s House

Parish Activities

Souter’s recording of parish activities provides strong evidence that he was Charles Souter, parish clerk.  Who but a parish clerk would be inspecting churches and issuing fines and have such a detailed knowledge of parish activities and costs? 

  • Went the bounds of the parish 9 ½ miles 27 rods (1802). 
  • Church visited and as many faults found as come to 7s 0d (1804). 

Other references include covering another parish clerk’s duties at Wingfield in 1816, purchasing a new bible for the church for £4 (1822) and tythe feasts.

The annual tythe feast was usually held at Wingfield in December or January. Souter first writes about it in 1803. The menu was similar throughout the years as were the numbers attending, usually between 40 and 60.  December 1812: Tythe feast at Wingfield.  45 dined.  4 stone 11 pound of beef 21 ½ pound of mutton.  Paid for all beer.

Souter wrote much about people and events in his parish.  A few entries to note include:

  • The building of the brick wall in the mill pool in 1784 and the county bridge to Brockdish the following year.
  • In 1805, at a time of fear of invasion from France: Volunteers reviewed on Syleham green by General Elwes . . . . Fressingfield Volunteers marched to Lowestoft on duty.

Prominent Families in Syleham


William Mann (1738-1812) owned Syleham corn mill.  When William died in 1812 he gave £20 to the poor of Syleham. 

Souter writes of the family building the Horse Mill (1785), building a windmill (1788), purchasing the Manor of Syleham (1791), building a barn (1793), purchasing the estate by the church gate (1795), purchasing the manor house (1796) and Richard Mann laying his first brick at the manor house (1797).  In 1818 Mr Mann sold his windmill and lett the water mill to Mr Hervy the windmill built by the side of the common.

Souter also writes of Issabella Mann:  Took Miss Issabella Anne Mann to nurse (1789), took Miss Mann to nurse she had been taken home for fear of the small pox (1790), died Mrs Murry of the smallpox Miss Mann went home (1791).

Memorial to three of the Mann family in Syleham church.


Pelham Corbould (1743-1771), of the Corboulds of Bath, lived at Monks Hall in Syleham with his wife Catherine (1740-1826).  They had three children; Pelham, Elizabeth and William.  Catherine later married James Walne in 1772 and they continued to live at Monks Hall.  They had six children; five died in infancy.  Catherine’s obituary in 1826 read: A woman greatly esteemed by a numerous acquaintance for her hospitality and for her kindness and attention to the poor.


Lambe Barry (1704-1768) was a wealthy landowner and lived at Syleham Hall.  He was High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1748.  He married Susan Morse (1709-1786) and they had two daughters.  Following the death of Susan Barry in 1786 Souter writes:  The remains of Lambe Barry was put into a new coffin he died November 24 1768.

Souter mentions Mrs Barry on two occasions.  On New Year’s Day 1814:  Mrs Barrys tennants dined at Wingfield beef 9lb mutton 10lb.  8 dined.  And in January 1816: A tythe feast at Wingfield.  6 stone 2lb of beef at 8s 9d per stone.  18lb of mutton at ? per lb.  Mrs Barrys feast included. 

The Weather

Souter appears obsessed with the weather and the diary is valuable for anyone researching weather patterns of this period.

A favourite and frequent phrase of Souter’s was “as ever was known” or “as was ever remembered by man” to describe extreme weather conditions, even those occurring within weeks of each other.

Property suffered in bad weather.  Following severe storms Mr Girling’s house was badly damaged in 1794, Mr Bond’s house burnt down in 1795, Mr Pitt’s barn burnt down in 1809 and Mr Kent’s house burnt down in 1811.

In July 1802: A very great tempest and a storm of hail such as had not been remembered by man . . . Hailstones as big as nuts.

In 1822:

Crimes and Calamities

As with any time or place, Syleham was not immune to tragedy in its many forms.

Some of the accidents Souter writes about include:

  • 1787.  Sharp frost many accidents on the ice. Boy Danford killed by turnip cart . . .2 children scald to death and many others had limbs broke near us.
  • 1791.  Miss Bunstead drowned at Hoxne Swan water her body found March 1st near the Red Bridge. 
  • 1804.  William Harper of Fressingfield drowned in going home from street.
  • 1808.  In May Mr Brighton of Wingfield drowned in the river near Earsham bridge.

Souter writes of the suicides of Samuel Gibbs and widow Pretty which were regarded by the jury as lunacy.  Charles Gosling drowned himself in the river and Mr Sherrick shot himself.  In 1791 Mrs Hawes gave herself the death sentence: Mrs Hawes of Brockdish hanged herself.  She first fractured her husband’s skull with a hatchet of which wounds he dy’d May 15.

Souter also writes of murder.  In 1791 Souter noted that Mr Gooch of Brockdish set off on his travels.  Gooch, an astronomer from Brockdish, joined a Naval voyage to make astronomical observations.  In 1793 news arrived of his death.  Malancholy news arrived of the death of Mr Gooch who was killed in the Sandwich Isle.  The Ipswich Journal (20 April 1793) reported that both Gooch and Lieutenant Hergest were making astronomical observations when they were attacked, killed and eaten by a local tribe.

In 1793 A cruel murder was committed at Cratfield on the bodys of Mr Carter and daughter. Their skulls had been fractured with a hammer.  What is interesting about this case is that it took 18 years to find the culprit.  In 1812 Souter writes: This month Thrower was hanged for the murder of Mr Carter and daughter.  The Bury and Norwich Post (25 March 1812) commented he eluded justice for more than 18 years.

Other Crimes included the theft of cows by Jonathan Saunder who was hanged in 1802.  At his trial Saunders denied any knowledge of the Carter murders in 1793 for which he and William Dunnett, hanged at the same time for stealing a horse, had both been suspect.  Prior to Saunder’s execution he was attended by a minister and Saunders spoke of his concerns and innocence in the murders which prompted the minister to write to James Fisher of Cratfield who had been diligantly trying to solve the case.  This letter was published in the Bury and Norwich Post on 28 April 1802. 

Births, Marriages and Deaths

Souter records 4 births, 65 marriages and 128 deaths.  Not all occurred within Syleham itself.  The reasons for Souter’s selective recording are unknown.  Not all can be listed here; see the full list at the Norfolk Record Office.

Souter usually only gives surnames.  Christian names have been added from checking his entries against genealogical sites.


The four births may all have a family link to Souter.  Three are the children of Syer and Elizabeth Smith born in 1793, 1794 and 1796.  Syer Smith’s wife was Elizabeth Mills, possibly related to Souter’s wife Margaret?

In 1799 twins were born to Robert and Susanna Souter.  Their son Charles, born in 1784, named his daughter Phoebe in 1817.


  • 1784 Henry Theobald and Susan Sadd.
  • 1785 John Walne and Anne Theobald.
  • 1792 Syer Smith and Elizabeth Mills.
  • 1794 Barzallai Hurry and Lydia Batho.
  • 1797 Rev Thomas Whitaker and Jane Ayton.
  • 1798 Charles Mann and Sarah Moxon.
  • 1799 Doctor Abraham Girling and Jane Goat.
  • 1800 John Burgess and Susanna Girling.
  • 1805 William Sumpter and Sophia Cotton.
  • 1819 September 9.  Was married by the Rev S Reeve Sir George Crewe Bart of Calke Abbey Derby to Jane eldest daughter of the Rev Thomas Whitaker of Mendham.  The last marriage to be recorded and a significant one at that.


  • 1784 John Pretty died very suddenly.
  • 1785 Thomas Souter of Stradbrooke died. Age 66.  A relation? 
  • 1786   James Branch, schoolmaster at Fressingfield.
  • 1787 Brothers John Branch age 48 and William Branch age 49 of Thorpe Parva.  Age 48.  They were buried together on 3 January at Billingford.
  • 1789 Rev John Malyn.  He preached at Wingfield on Sunday afternoon went to bed well and found dead next morning Text Tim 3.16.
  • 1793 Ann Mills.  Age 60.  Wife of Joseph Mills, Souter’s brother-in-law.
  • 1799 Elizabeth Theobald.  Age 61.  Died very suddenly Mrs Theobald very much lamented.
  • 1806 Jacob Sadd parish clerk of Brockdish.  Age 56.
  • 1817 William Gooch of Brockdish.  Age 77. An Israelite indeed in whom was no question.
  • 1819 Joseph Mills brother to my wife.
  • 1821 Susanna Souter.  Age 66.   Wife of Robert Souter.  A relation?

National Events

Major national events that made an impression on Souter were recorded including solar eclipses and political events.

There are several references to the monarchy including the beheading of the King and Queen of France in 1793.  A loyal supporter of George III, in 1810 he writes: A general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the protection afforded the King during a long and arduous reign.  A barrel of beer given to the poor on Syleham Green.  Perhaps not such a loyal supporter of George IV when, in 1820, he writes: Great rejoicing this month at the Queens acquittal of adultery  brought against her by spies and false witnesses to the disgrace of King and ministers.

Throughout this diary Souter gives us a glimpse of Georgian life but he remains an enigmatic figure revealing little of his own personal life.  Who knows how his journal made its journey from Syleham to Portsmouth but its return to East Anglia is most welcome.

With thanks for the help from the Needham and Brockdish History Group and J & L Woodger.

Daryl Long.  NRO Blogger.

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Great Yarmouth’s Early Modern Astrology

Astrology, or using the stars to tell the future, has been a part of human society since prehistory and remains with us today in the form of horoscopes and readings.  For Early Modern people astrologers offered a chance to understand and control their future, be it almanacs that predicted the following year, horoscopes used to search for lost items, and the stars used to cure disease.  Great Yarmouth had a variety of astrologers in the Early Modern Period, from conjurors using their gifts, to a family publishing an almanac for over half a century, and the amateur astrologer Mark Prynne accused of witchcraft.

By the early seventeenth century astrology had become more of a science or art, and a mainstream interest for residents of Great Yarmouth.  The first half of the seventeenth century to the British Civil Wars was a golden age for astrologers.  The puritan minister John Booker, Nicholas Culpeper, William Lilly, Richard Saunders, John Tanner, George Wharton, and Vincent Wing all gained fame for their astrological skills.  The astrologer William Lilly was described as ‘the first astrological republican’ during the Civil Wars, and he had been taught by the father of Great Yarmouth’s puritan minister John Brinsley senior.[1]  During the British Civil Wars both the royalist, George Wharton, and parliamentarian, William Lilly, were producing rival almanacs, and the leading generals of Parliament’s New Model Army during the British Civil Wars consulted astrological predictions to inform their military strategy.[2]  The professionalisation of astrology meant that it was respectable and accessible to residents.

The Le Neve family provided the commonest form of astrology available to residents in Great Yarmouth during the first half of the seventeenth.  Geoffrey Le Neve compiled a series of annual almanacs published in the town from 1604, in which he described himself variously as a physician, a student in mathematics, and a gentleman, rather than a conjuror.  After his death in 1613, his nephew Jeffrey Le Neve continued the almanacs until the corporation dismissed him from the town in 1626, and his cousin John Le Neve took over writing the almanac between 1626-61.[3]  Almanacs were a popular form of astrology that was accessible to the public.  In them astrologers laid out the year’s predictions, including astrological events, the weather, and predictions of major political occurrences.  They were sold unbound on cheap paper, a mass-produced product aimed to be accessible to ordinary people in Great Yarmouth.  Publishers sometimes relied on families of astrologers to maintain their readership, such as the Wing, Gadbury and Le Neve families.[4]  For astrologers like the Le Neves, astrology was not a magic, but an art.  It was connected to mathematics and being able to accurately read the sky rather than conjuring with spells or magical equipment.  The Le Neves and their almanac were acceptable to the Stationers’ Company, the official publishers during the Stuart period who continued to print the almanacs for half a century and to the town’s residents who purchased their almanac for over half a century.

Shepherds’ Almanac,
courtesy of Princeton University Library.

Jeffrey Le Neve was a man of status and importance, showing how respectable astrology had become.  He had been an alderman in Great Yarmouth, had served as one of the town’s bailiffs, the equivalent of mayor, in 1620 and was a gentleman quarter waiter to the king.[5]  After his dismissal from Great Yarmouth in 1626 he studied for a medical degree in Leiden.  When he returned, Le Neve becoming part of the city’s astrological establishment.[6] In London, Le Neve’s reputation as an astrologer amongst his contemporaries was mixed, though likely based on personal politics due to Le Neve’s court connections.  The royalist astrologer John Gadbury described him ‘one of the best Astrologers that lived in his time’, while the parliamentarian William Lilly was more scathing, claiming Le Neve had only ‘some small smattering in Astrology’.[7]  His use of medical astrology had likely started in Great Yarmouth, and involved the use of horoscopes cast to diagnose the cause of illness and its ideal treatment.  His high status gave him a position to promote his continued career as an astrologer even after he left Great Yarmouth.

Mark Prynne was an amateur astrologer who used his skills in astrology to supplement his income and we know was practising between the 1630s and 1640s.  His importance is as an astrologer whose story was recorded by John Taylor, the so-called water poet for writing as a boatman in London, because of accusations of witchcraft made against Prynne. It remains unknown if he was connected to the Le Neves, but as far as we can tell Prynne was a self-taught astrologer, his skills originating in his collection of astrological works.  While little information survives on Prynne’s family and background, we know he was an educated man, and well-practised in astrology.  Prynne was notable for his collection of ‘Theologicall, Historicall, and Phylosophicall’books.[8]  This collection demonstrates Prynne’s educational status, and how his astrology was self-taught.  Prynne’s astrological skills were ascribed to his use of Moulsons Almanack, a ‘breefe of the fam’d fabulous Sheperds’, a fifteenth-century almanac that provided guidance on astrology.[9]  Prynne was also described as using a book of circles, ‘an old almanac’, likely The Greater and Lesser Keys of Solomon a more overtly magical text relating the spells created by King Solomon or The Picatrix, an Arabic guide to celestial magic.[10]  Prynne was employed by local residents to use astrology to help them find lost objects such as hats and pillows, and according to the satirist John Taylor ‘lost Cowe, Calfe, Horse or Cart, or silver spoone, or Bodkin, Knife or Ring, or Milstone, Windmill, Corke’.[11]  Prynne would craft a horoscope based on when the question was received and understood.  His astrological skills were also applied to medicine and the Great Yarmouth town corporation paid him 30s in 1645 for curing ‘one Tills a distracted man in Bridwell of the malady w[hi]ch was upon him’, likely using a horoscope to determine cause and cure (‘distracted’ refers to a form of mental illness).[12]  Thirty shillings was the equivalent of three weeks wages for a skilled craftsman, showing the high premium put on Prynne’s skills.  Prynne’s medical treatment was comparable to other contemporary astrological medical practitioners like Jeffrey Le Neve or the contemporaries Richard Napier and Simon Forman, and efficacious enough for him to be paid handsomely.[13]  Prynne provided a skill that was in demand from local residents and Great Yarmouth’s corporation

Great Yarmouth Assembly Book, NRO, Y/C 19/7 f62

Despite Prynne’s skills, he was accused of conjuring.  He was tried for witchcraft in both 1638 and 1645.  According to the poet John Taylor in 1638 there was ‘no proof but a Book of Circles found in his [Prynne’s] Study, which Miles [Miles Corbet, MP and judge] said was a Book of Conjuring’.[14]  The connection made between astrology and witchcraft was nothing new.  The contemporary astrologer John Gadbury blamed ‘pretenders’ for the connection that emerged between astrologers and magicians and necromancers.  William Lilly sought to reject the ‘darke Sentences of Oracles’ being put on astrologers, differentiating between inspired soothsayers and astrologers who relied on natural philosophy.[15]  Corbet sought to argue that Prynne’s power to prognosticate emerged from the magical use of ‘conjuring’ of spirits.  In 1645, Miles Corbet described another almanac discovered in Prynne’s household s as ‘damnable and dangerous’ because of its astrological content.  Corbet was fearful of astrological content such as ‘pictures of the Bull, Beare, Goat and Lyon’ and the ‘names of Lucifer, and of Oryon’ were demonic in nature.  Despite this, Prynne was found not guilty each time, defended by a local minister called Thomas Cheshire.  While astrology had grown in popularity and status in the century between Wycherly and Prynne, it still held an uncertain place in the community.

Miles Corbett after Unknown artist, published by William Richardson
line engraving, published 1810
NPG D30024
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Astrology offered a chance for ordinary people to glimpse into the future.  The residents of Great Yarmouth made use of almanacs published over fifty years that gave them foresight of the year ahead.  They called upon astrologers who gave them insights into the issues they faced.   They could pay an astrologer to guide them to find lost objects or diagnose their illnesses through a horoscope.  Astrologers were respected enough to earn a living in the town, employed by the town’s corporation and private citizens alike.    

[1] William Lilly, Mr. William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times (London: J. Roberts, 1715), 12; Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind, 63.

[2] Alison A. Chapman, “Marking Time: Astrology, Almanacs, and English Protestantism,” Renaissance Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2007): 1257–90; Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2013); Ann Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 47-9, 64-5.

[3] Bernard Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [hereafter ODNB]; Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Ashmole 418; Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs, 1500-1800 (London: Faber And Faber, 1979), 371.

[4] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 42-3.

[5] John K. Gruenfelder, ‘Jeffrey Neve, Charles I and Great Yarmouth’, Norfolk Archaeology, 40 (1988), pp. 155-63; Cust, ‘Parliamentary Elections in the 1620s’, pp. 188.

[6] Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653); Gruenfelder, ‘Jeffrey Neve, Charles I and Great Yarmouth’, p. 161.

[7] Capp, ‘Le Neve, Jeffrey (1579–1653); Lilly, Mr William Lilly’s history of his life and times, p. 26; John Gadbury, Collectio Geniturarum: Or, a Collection of Nativities (London, 1662), p. 179.

[8] John Taylor, A Briefe Relation of the Gleanings of the Idiotismes and Absurdities of Miles Corbet (London: n.p., 1646), 8.

[9] Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press, 27.

[10] John Taylor, Persecutio Undecima: The Churches Eleventh Persecution: Or, a Briefe of the Puritan Persecution of the Protestant Clergy of the Church of England: More Particularly within the City of London, (London, 1648) 17.

[11] NRO, Y/S/1/2, ff. 194-6; Taylor, A Briefe Relation, 9.

[12] NRO, Y/C 19/7, f. 62.

[13] Michael MacDonald, “The Career of Astrological Medicine in England,” in Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham (Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996), 62–90.

[14] Taylor, Persecutio Undecima, p. 17

[15] Geneva, Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind, 10.

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Reaching for the stars: An Account of Early Space Exploration

Would we have reached the moon without the courage of men like General William Kepner?

The Experiment

In 1934 General William Kepner took part in an experimental stratosphere flight, in which he tried to reach the second layer of the earth’s atmosphere, a staggering 40,000-50,000 ft, in a gondola attached to a balloon. A recording of his memories of this event, held in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, MC 376/420), gives us a great insight into the technical research and training required to try such a flight, and explains just what happened when the experiment went disastrously wrong.

Continue reading
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New workshops for the Autumn Term 2021

We are really pleased to announce that we have received funding from the Paston Footprints project in order to create 2 brand new workshops. Defending the Castle and Tudor Shopping are initially availble for the first half of the Autumn Term only, in order to tie in with the current exhibition Finding Paston Footprints: 400 years of Norfolk Life.

There are limited spaces available and with 2 schools already booked in you will need to act fast in order to secure your place. Find out more about the sessions and whether they will benefit your pupils, below.

Defending the Castle

This workshop is aimed at both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 pupils so whether you are studying castles, following the topic with a curriculum provider such as Cornerstone’s Towers, Tunnels and Turrets topic or looking for a local history topic this is for you.

The session starts with a quick introduction to the Paston family and their ownership of various houses around Norfolk, including Caister Castle. Next, we move on to the siege of the castle. Pupils watch an animated video before having a go at story sequencing.

John Paston III telling us about the siege of Caister Castle.

Pupils get to discuss what makes a good castle, looking into building materials and defensive structures before deciding on whether the design of Caister Castle helped in the Paston’s fight to defend their property.

Finally we look at cracking the heraldry code. In which we talk though why people had coats of arms, and how these were divided up as marriages took place. We work with the Paston coat of arms to engage in some embedded maths, by looking at the fractions that the coat of arms was divided into.

One version of the Paston coat of arms

Key Stage 2 pupils follow a similar lesson plan, but using slightly trickier resources.

Tudor Shopping

This workshop is aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils studying the Tudors. In this workshop pupils will be introduced to the Paston family before meeting Richard Calle, the Paston’s senior steward, who will talk them through his journey to the local market town of North Walsham, to buy supplies for the coming week.

Pupils will talk about the differences of going shopping today compared to in the past and learn how shopping didn’t change for many years. Finally they will have a go at shopping in the Tudor period by playing our shopping game and visiting a number of different market stalls found in North Walsham at the time.

Miles Drake, the butcher in Tudor North Walsham

Finally pupils will get to have a look at an inventory from a local shop, discovering where different spices came from during the Tudor period. They will be able to smell and look at different spices in order to identify them.

If you would like to book either workshop, or need more details please contact the Education and Outreach Team.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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The Story of Sound part 4: Wire, War-time secrets, and Walkman’s

Previously on the Story of Sound blog series, we travelled back in time to discover the first invention to record and re-play audio, uncovered forgotten formats such as the wax cylinder, and learnt how American President Franklin Roosevelt is linked to the success of vinyl discs:

1: The Talking Machine

2: “Canned music” and a war of formats

3: Shellac to vinyl, how World War Two changed the record

In 1963 in Berlin, Germany, a new audio format was released that revolutionised the music industry. The compact cassette tape, developed by the electronics company Philips the previous year, was unlike any previous audio format. At a time when music was bought on vinyl discs at a cumbersome 7, 10, or 12 inches in diameter, the arrival of a small portable format that could be carried in a pocket or played in a car introduced a new era of commercial sound.

    While compact cassette tapes may be remembered in association with Walkmans, recording songs from the radio, or sending mix tapes to sweethearts, the magnetic audio tape inside has a long and important history; from transforming the BBC’s broadcasting abilities, to being a closely guarded secret of the Second World War.

Magnetic audio tape stems all the way back to the 19th century, when in 1898 the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen created the first magnetic recording device, the Telegraphone. Unlike the audio tape we know today, the Telegraphone used magnetised wire, and at the 1900 World’s Fair Poulsen used the device the capture the voice of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, now the world’s oldest magnetic sound recording.

In 1932 the BBC launched the Empire Service [now the World Service], which required them to broadcast repeats of radio programmes several times for different time zones. The quality of dictating machines that recorded onto wire fell short of broadcasting standards, however in 1924, a film producer and inventor called Ludwig Blattner licenced a new machine, the Blattnerphone, that replaced wire with steel tape as its magnetic recording medium. The machine used 6 mm steel tape, and its basic audio signal was not considered good enough by BBC engineers for reproducing music, however it was adopted for recording and replaying speech. The Blattnerphone had several disadvantages. It required large and heavy spools of tape and operated at a high speed of 5 ft per second, making it hazardous to run; a break in the tape could result in razor-edged pieces of steel flying around the room. Recordings were not easy to edit, the tape itself requiring soldering. This was too laborious for regular productions using this technique, however in 1932 a programme was produced in the Blattnerphone room called ‘Pieces of Tape’ which compiled several tapes recorded that year.

Blattnerphone Recorder, 1937

   Meanwhile, in Germany, advancements in magnetic recording were being made that would change the field entirely. In 1928, German inventor Dr Fritz Pfleumer experimented with applying magnetic powders to strips of paper or plastic film. This inspired the company AEG, who in 1932 began to use it as a principle on which to develop a device called the Magnetophone. AEG signed an agreement of collaboration with BASF: AEG developed the system, and BASF an appropriate sound carrier. In 1935 the reel-to-reel Magnetophone and its magnetic audio tape were first presented to the public at a Radio Fair in Berlin. Over the following years, further advancements (including the concept of AC tape bias) improved the sound quality and eliminated background hiss to a degree that made it difficult to tell whether a recording was playing live. During the Second World War, Magnetophon recorders were widely used in German radio broadcasts. Adolph Hitler used this to his advantage, performing what appeared to be live broadcasts from one city, while he was in fact in another. While the Magnetaphone had been released prior to the war, its improvements and advancements became closely guarded secrets. Allied forces were aware that Germany had a new system that could create pre-recorded material at a high quality and long duration, however, did not discover the full details of its construction or operation until the Allied invasion of Germany during 1944-45.

     One of the people to introduce magnetic audio tape to the West was American Major John “Jack” Mullin of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1944 he heard a Radio Berlin broadcast of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. The quality and duration of the recording far surpassed anything in operation by the Allied Forces and sounded like a live recording, however, at the time it was playing it was 3am in Berlin. After the war Mullin was assigned to discover what communications technology Germany had been operating and discovered high-fidelity Magnetophones in operation at a Radio Frankfurt station in Bad Nauheim. Mullin returned to America with two Magnetophones and fifty magnetic tape reels, which he worked to improve and amazed the attendees of the annual Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) conference in San Francisco who were unable to tell whether the recordings they heard were live or pre-recorded. Not only this, but magnetic tape could easily be edited, by simply being cut and spliced together with tape. Mullin was hired by the singer Bing Crosby, who both hated performing live on radio and was attracted by the high fidelity of the Magnetophone. Crosby later became a key investor in the development of the first American reel-to-reel tape machines by the electronics company Ampex.

Two Studer reel-to-reel tape machines in the Norfolk Record Office Audio Preservation Studio

     Reel-to-reel magnetic audio tape was used predominantly for professional purposes such as radio. When the compact cassette tape arrived in 1963, it introduced magnetic audio tape to the mass consumer market. Initially primarily intended for dictation, its popularity came from music and early recording artists to adopt the format included Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, and Johnny Mathis. The first in-car cassette player was launched in 1968 and the portable cassette tape player the Sony Walkman was released in 1979. Commercial cassette tape recorders allowed the public to record music at home, recording songs from the radio to create their own copies and mix tapes, leading to the British phonographic Industry (BPI) launching a campaign called ‘Home taping is killing music’ in fear of declining record sales. Compact cassette tapes remained popular throughout the 1980s, despite the 1982 release of the first CD (Compact Disc). However, by the 1990s CD had began to monopolise the market and by the early 2000s most major music companies discontinued the production of pre-recorded compact cassettes.

   Through the audio preservation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Norfolk Record Office is preserving collections of reel-to-reel and compact cassette tapes to ensure that their recordings can be safeguarded for the future. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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How Much Has School Really Changed In The Last 100 Years?


Adults often say “you have school far easier these days” to young people like myself. Making me wonder, how much has school really changed in the last 100 years? How does my modern experience of school compare to the general experience of a child in the early 20th Century? Using the Thorpe St Andrew Church of England (formerly National) School Infants’ school logbook from 1904 to 1918 (Norfolk Record Office C/ED 162/1), I have compared lessons, attendance records and school trips in the early 20th Century to those of modern schools.


Many lessons from the early 20th Century are still taught 100 years later. For example, geography, history, reading and scripture (better known as literacy) form integral parts of the curriculum today. Photographed below is a timetable of lessons, all of which still form a vital part of primary education – although recitation (repeating something aloud from memory) is usually conducted within lessons. Yet some lessons are no longer taught in schools – for example varied occupation and criticism lessons were given on a range of topics including coal, the moon, and laying a fire; not lessons you will find in a typical school today! Nowadays, these would either be taught as a project during a lesson, discovered in a club such as Scouts or wouldn’t be taught at all, instead being discovered through individual research/passion. Moreover, advancing technology has allowed for a multitude of new lessons including computing and T levels (a new course available instead of A levels). These lessons couldn’t have existed in the early 20th Century as computers weren’t invented yet!

The timetable of a candidate. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 20.

Another key difference between lessons in the early 20th Century and modern schools is their timetables. Between 1904 and 1918, the school timetable was constantly changing with extra-curricular activities and other events often cutting lessons short. For example, lesson times were changed to “enable the teachers to attend a garden party” on 18th July 1907. In the photograph below, an entry on 4th May 1911 details that “afternoon school began at 2.15 this afternoon to enable the choir boys to attend a Wedding”. In modern schools, timetables are fixed – lessons aren’t cut short for events unless pre-arranged and school related. Lessons start and finish at consistent times established from the beginning of the year and aren’t moved for social events such as Weddings or Garden Parties. Additionally, the school year ends in July in modern schools whereas in the early 20th Century, the school year ended on 31st January.

An extract from May 4th 1911. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 112.


However, lessons and timetables aren’t the only parts of school to have changed in the past 100 years – acceptable reasons for poor attendance have also changed. Between 1904 and 1918, wet weather was an acceptable reason for poor attendance. Children were often absent due to the “threatening state of the weather” or “general bad conditions of the weather”. Nowadays, school is only closed due to weather if it is unsafe to travel or the site is unsafe.

Furthermore, whilst illness has always been an acceptable reason for poor attendance, the illnesses themselves have changed over the past 100 years. Whilst colds, chicken pox and fever are still common childhood illnesses, other illnesses such as diphtheria, whooping cough and ringworms are not as prevalent as they were in the early 20th Century.

Yet attitudes to attendances haven’t only changed regarding absence – rewards congratulating good attendance have drastically changed since the early 20th Century. The logbook records half-holidays given at the beginning of some months for good attendance. In a modern school, certificates are awarded at the end of each term to congratulate only those with 100% attendance. This is a stark contrast to the half-holidays awarded to any child with good attendance 100 years ago; it was accepted that children wouldn’t be in school daily in the early 20th Century. The number on the books, attendance and percentage were taken weekly – the photograph below shows two examples of the attendance records being taken – not once between 1904 and 1918 was the percentage at 100%. Sometimes, if very few children have 100% attendance for the year in a modern school, book tokens are gifted as a special reward to children with perfect attendance at the end of the year.

Example of attendance records. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 126.

School trips and special events

Not all has changed since the early 20th Century, one core element that has remained much the same are school trips. Between 1904 and 1918, the logbook details visits to museums and nature walks, it also recorded the annual outing to Cromer. In modern schools, nature walks and museum trips still form an integral part of the curriculum. Whilst the destination may have changed, an annual outing is still commonplace today. Residentials also form a key part of the calendar in many modern schools – usually weeklong, it’s a time for the children to bond and have fun. Residentials weren’t part of school life 100 years ago; there are no records of overnight trips in the logbook from 1904 to 1918.

Whilst school trips form exciting opportunities away from the classroom, there some special events are celebrated inside the classroom. For example, in the photograph below, November 30th 1904 was St Andrew’s Day, Miss Birkbeck visited the school during the morning and “gave to each child a gingerbread cake and orange”. Whilst cake and fruit are no longer gifted to each child by a visitor, each school has its own way to mark days of importance.

The final verdict – has school really changed?

School has changed a lot over the last 100 years. Thanks to advancing technology, new lessons now exist and lesson times alongside acceptable reasons for absence have changed significantly too. Yet in many ways, school has remained the same to its core. School is a place where children come to learn both inside and outside the classroom, make new friends and have fun. Perhaps not much has changed after all. 

A good example of a typical page in the logbook. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 79.

Written by Kendra Payne

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Fear of Invasion

“He who would all England win, should at Weybourne Hope begin.” 

Norfolk has always been vulnerable to invasion from the sea, particularly in areas like Weybourne with its steeply shelving beach giving deep-water anchorage close to the shore. A map of 1588, when the Spanish Armada threatened invasion, noted amongst the coastline defences, the ‘Black Joy forte’ at Weybourne. It was also recorded that Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton offered 36 ships for naval service against the Spanish forces, showing the extent of local commitment before the formation of the Royal Navy in 1660. Despite the growing British naval power, coastal communities were still fearful of attack from foreign privateers and possible invasion, given that the French planned, prepared and even attempted several invasions between 1744 and 1805.

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How did football come to Carrow Road

On this day in 1935 the first football match was played at Carrow Road. In this blog we will be looking at why the ground was built on this site and some of the changes which have taken place to both the stadium and surrounding area over the following 90 years.

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