‘Even some pressed seaweed’ – A historical student’s revelation.

This is the wonder of archives: you never know what you might find. I was lucky enough to study an early 19th century document which combined a variety of wonderful elements including diary entries, poetry, drawings, a butterfly fact file, and even some pressed seaweed! Although I enjoyed reading through this eclectic collection, it did make starting to create a blog post that much more daunting – where was I to start?

BUL 7-20 (12)

‘Even some pressed seaweed’. NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


These papers were from a women named Mary Anne Lee Warner (NRO, BUL 7/20, 615X1). From flicking through her pages it is easy to see she had a very curious and creative mind. She was eager to study and explore nature as shown in her writings on the various types of butterflies and moths. It is also clear that she loved to express this passion for nature in a variety of original ways, in her poetry and – my favourite – in her pressed seaweed pictures.

BUL 7-20 (9)

Butterfly Fact File. NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


It was extremely interesting to read this document, but looking at an early 19th century document from the perspective of a history student realised itself in an attempt to analyse and explain all elements about the life of Mary Anne Lee Warner and what this reveals to us about society at the time. Whilst reading this document I was eagerly scavenging for as much information as this document would reveal to me. It does show us a deeply personal snapshot into someone’s life, her personality and her interests, but I could not help myself wanting to know more. And then I discovered something to change my way of thinking.

Recently I was looking through my aunt’s house and her enormous collection of diaries, scrapbooks and notebooks. One such folder that I enjoyed immensely was a scrapbook of all her teddy bears. It was a hugely decorative document with detailed descriptions of each one’s appearance and origin all accompanied with various photographs, tickets and leaflets. It could also be described as a snapshot of her life but through her teddy bears- a collection of where she brought them, why and what was happening in her life at that time. It was looking at this marvellous collection that changed how I was to view the papers of Mary Anne Lee Warner. Previously, I was looking at the document wanting it to give me answers but now I realise it doesn’t necessarily have to have these answers. My aunt did not create this book for any other reason than enjoyment just as Mary Anne Lee Warner did not scribe down her musings for any other reason than her enjoyment. She did not write it in mind of a history student reading it 200 years later. She wrote it because it gave her pleasure, and that, perhaps, is the greatest reason of them all.

BUL 7-20 (7)

Look at the handwriting! NRO, BUL 7/20, 615×1


The next time I looked through this document, I just enjoyed it. I marvelled at the huge difference in handwriting from then and now (and also struggled to decipher it!), enjoyed the range of poetry (especially the Valentine’s poem for a dear Frank), and amazed at her delicate drawings (and very much envied her artistic talent). Apart from struggling to read it, it was as if it was just a piece I’d discovered in my aunt’s collection, to be loved and enjoyed, and I thoroughly did. It did inspire me to try harder to do more things purely for pleasure and for intellectual curiosity and I would encourage others to do the same. Happiness is the best reason to do anything, whether that’s reading someone else’s works or creating your own collection of pressed seaweed.

BUL 7-20 (1)

‘Love Blinding Innocence’. BUL 7/20, 615×1


Compiled by NRO Research Blogger Eve Staton

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John Bilby: Norwich’s Travelling Hairdresser

It can be suggested that autobiographical records are amongst the most personal and private forms of document available within an archive, this allowing researchers to obtain new information on the period in question. Therefore, it can be claimed that John Bilby’s handwritten notebook is no exception to this concept (NRO, MC 27/2, 501X4).

MC 27-2 (1)

Front page of John Bilby’s notebook. NRO, MC 27/1, 501×4


John Bilby, a self-titled hair cutter and dresser, was born on the 27th of October 1801 in the town of Great Yarmouth. His personal notebook follows his life story from the age of 12 months old, at which age his family first took up residence in Norwich on Ber Street (and later in King Street). Bilby appears to organise his own family history into a series of descriptive lists which focus on particular events such as the marriage and death of his parents and the lives of his siblings. It is within these explanatory lists that Bilby first references his transition to an apprentice haircutter from an errand boy to Mr Willement of ‘St Georges’.

 ‘On the 20th day of Augt 1815 = I was bound out Apprentice to Mr. Mason. Tailor and hair dresser of King Street in Norwich’.

 ‘I was with my master (Mr. Mason.) but two years before we disagreed’ ‘I was then turned over to one Mr. Hewett – hair cutter and dresser’.

In addition to these life events, Bilby also appears to include information on techniques and skills which have aided him in his apprenticeship as a haircutter and dresser. For instance, particular remedies for both cuts and bruises have been listed along with the accurate measurements and preparation techniques required. However, in contrast to the serious stance Bilby took towards his job title, it appears that in some cases he was able to find humour within the situation. For instance, a poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair In Norwich’ humorously describes how women often denied that they wore false hair even though Bilby often knew ‘Where She Bought It’.

MC 27-2 (2)

Short poem titled ‘On A Lady Who Wore False Hair in Norwich. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


In comparison to the personal and autobiographical nature of the opening entry of the notebook it appears that when reversed, the document begins to function as a travel diary in which Bilby is able to describe in detail the journeys he undertook during 1828. His excursions (and the activities which he participated in) are clearly noted in the ‘Contents’ page provided for the reader. One particular trip which appears to be discussed in its entirety is Bilby’s trip to Lincoln, a city situated within the East Midlands. The Hairdresser describes the nature of the city in depth, from the ‘very troublesome’ upper and lower streets which were considerably hard to navigate to the imposing cathedral which stands on a hill so high, that it can be ‘seen in six counties round’. 50 miles to the North and 30 miles to the South’. Observations such as these are also employed to describe the cities and towns of Nottingham, Peterborough and Newark which Bilby further travelled to during 1828.

Furthermore, a change in writing style can also be observed throughout the later entries of the journal. This appears to signify John Bilby’s passing whom the subsequent writer remarks on in an entry dated 1839.

MC 27-2 (5)

Excerpt referencing John Bilby’s death. NRO, MC 27/2, 501×4


Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Millie Sutton

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On your shelf – An Edith Cavell treasure?

Picture of Edith Cavell as a young woman

Edith Cavell as a young woman

Nurse Cavell was shot in Brussels in October 1915 for helping 200 allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium to neutral Holland.

Maltese composer Paolino Vassallo (1856-1923) wrote a three act opera on Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell which was performed in 1927.

Christina Gauci in Malta is researching Vassallo’s work and has sought our help in finding this opera’s score.

The Norfolk Record Office has leather- bound original manuscripts for the first two acts, pictured below. These were acquired in an auction in 1941 but no further details on their provenance are available.

Image showing Showing bindings and frontispiece NRO, MS 21153

Showing bindings and frontispiece of ‘Melodrama’ by Paolino Vassallo. NRO, MS 21153

Where is the third manuscript – the all-important act 3?

Is it on your library shelves, unopened for many a year? Contact the Record Office via norfrec@norfolk.gov.uk if you can help us unravel this mystery.

Nick Miller, Keeper of the Cavell memorabilia for St Mary’s Church Swardeston

Image showing NRO, MS 21153 example of score from vol 1

Example score from vol 1. NRO, MS 21153

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The experiences of the Earl of Albemarle during the Boer War: Part 3

After visiting the wounded from the previous days, Albemarle and his men marched back to Pretoria where they were provided with fresh clothes. That day the Earl also caught a glimpse of Baden-Powell, the future founder of the Scouts, who had rode from Mafeking.  After leaving Pretoria, marching to Irene and then to the mining town of De Springs, Albemarle regretfully was forced to leave 122 exhausted men behind before marching again. ‘They are really trying us too high. Many of our men are completely done up and utterly collapsed’, he reported sadly, ‘They have toiled on until they could do so no longer, and some of the men had tears in their eyes on being left behind the Battalion’. By the time the battalion reached Heidelberg, Albemarle solemnly reported a dramatic drop in the amount of men accompanying him, ‘The strength of the Battalion is now 604 men and 22 officers. When we left London, it was 1,048 men and about 30 officers’.


Near Pretoria. NRO ACC Albermarle 2/6/69

As the men marched on, signs of what would define the agonising second part of the Boer War would come into play. ‘We burnt two farms on the way, one of which was a model one, belonging to a Heidelberg potentate, who was out on commando’. The practise of burning Boer farms became all too common in the latter stages of the Boer War and was known as ‘scorched earth policy’. This tactic had previously been used in the American Civil War to great effect but not to the extremes that the British army would resort to which included sending the inhabitants to what are regarded as the first concentration camps. Although they had a different purpose to those in Nazi Germany, the death toll was frighteningly high and news of such atrocities caused other nations to see the British as barbarians.

Like what became of many British horses in the Boer War Albemarle commented that his steeds were ‘little more than skeletons now’ yet was happy that his remaining men were better fed and that their health was ‘pretty good’. For three weeks the men were entrenched at Heilbron where the men were involved with garrison work, anticipating any Boer attack that may arise. During this time officers and men would often indulge in cricket or football whenever they could have a break from their duties. Suddenly however, the garrison was forced to leave Heilbron. During the evacuation the enemy watched the British from the hills. To avoid bloodshed they took Boer hostages alongside them, warning the enemy that if they they were shot at, the hostages would also be shot, ‘They were all mighty frightened’ commented Albemarle. Fortunately for the British and their scared prisoners, they were met with no disturbance from the enemy.

Upon arriving in Friedrichstad an unusual event occurred in which a Boer rode towards Albermarle’s men with a white flag, uttering the words ‘surrender’. At first the earl was flattered for he thought the enemy was offering their submission before realising that it was ‘we who were expected to surrender and not the Boers’. Quickly the man was blindfolded and confined under a guard. Before long the battalion alongside the Yeomanry came into contact with the man’s comrades. They were driven back by the British guns but not before two men were killed while attending to a wounded yeoman, one of which being a stretcher bearer. The British then burnt around ‘eight or nine’ farms in revenge for the ‘murder’ of an engineer and two Kaffirs who were mending the way close to the village of Buffelsvlei.

Albemarle and his men were greeted in the capital but not before tragedy struck when Private Fenton passed away in the presence of his parents, most likely from sickness and exhaustion. Albemarle solemnly remarked it was ‘doubly sad at a moment when his comrades were about to receive, at the hands of the citizens of London, their reward, and approval for their labours in a long and honourable campaign’. The scene that met Albemarle and his men on the streets of London was a stirring one and soon they were embraced by family and friends. The earl and his battalion had done their duty well in the eventful (and controversial) South African Campaign.


Portrait of Albermarle on horse. NRO MC 2615/2, 989×6

Although Albemarle was not perfect as a leader or a person, it is clear he displayed great sympathy towards his men and they appreciated that in return. His diary is evidence that he had a very strong bond with his men and he deserves to be credited in history for his amount of compassion towards the more dispossessed members of military society.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.

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Church Briefs

If you’ve been delving through lists of parish deposits in your local record office, you may have come across a reference to ‘briefs’ or ‘church briefs’ before. Now, this has nothing to do with holy underwear, and everything to do with monetary collections towards a worthy cause.

We’ve been collecting for worthy causes for centuries, and briefs were a way for people to raise money for the rebuilding or repair of their church, or for damage after a natural disaster. In his book ‘The Parish Chest’, W.E. Tate states that briefs originated in the 13th century, but the most prolific period for collections was the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, when mentions are found in parish registers or separate brief books.

In order to obtain a brief, you had to apply to the reigning monarch, who, if successful, would grant Letters Patent for the appeal to be made. The brief would then be read out in churches, and a collection made after the service. The money would be given to an authorised travelling collector or handed over during the Bishop’s visitation.

Individually, the briefs themselves are detailed and give information about the reasons which led to its creation. This one, for example, is from the parish records of Hapton in Norfolk, and tells us of a fire in Little Waltham, Essex. We’re told about unfortunate widow Elizabeth Surry and her son James, who “by which dreadful Calamity they were reduced from comfortable Circumstances to great Difficulty and Distress” as a result of a fire that broke out in their yard and consumed a barn, goods, chattels, effects and property. This printed example is from 1815.

PD 236-34 - LW Fire top

Norfolk Record Office (NRO), PD 236/34

St George Tombland in Norwich is one parish who had its own Brief Book, begun in 1757. On the first page, the title ‘An Account of the Money Collected upon Briefs in St George’s Tombland Parish, in Norwich’ heads the page, and there follows a list of places in need, including Salop (Shropshire), Cheshire, Caernarvonshire, Sussex, Staffordshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.

PD 106-54 - Front page St Geo Tombland

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

It’s interesting, although perhaps not too surprising, that payments to churches in other parts of the country generally collected fewer donations than those for natural disasters or causes closer to home. This is nicely demonstrated on the page below, where the biggest payment by far is for a fire at Palling in Norfolk. The hash sign next to the word Palling, as seen below, indicates that the collection was made door to door.

PD 106-54 - Palling fire

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

The system of briefs was far from perfect. It was open to corruption, with letters patent sometimes being forged, and the monies collected not always making it back to the original cause. People also became weary of being asked for donations, and Samuel Pepys commented on this in his diary entry of 30 June 1661, where he wrote “To church where we observe the trade of briefs is come now up to so constant a course every Sunday, that we resolve to give no more to them.”

This ‘register of briefs’ from the parish of St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich covers some of the same period as the aforementioned book for St George Tombland, and it’s interesting to note the collections from around the same, for the same events. In these examples, a fire in London in the Savoy district, which started in a printer’s warehouse in 1776/7, and payments to colleges in America around the time of the start of the American Revolution in 1763.

Savoy fire

NRO, PD 499/33, St Mary in the Marsh. NRO, PD 106/54, St George Tombland

Colleges in America

NRO, PD 499/33, St Mary in the Marsh. NRO, PD 106/54, St George Tombland

The Church Building Society was founded in 1818 and continued the work that had been formally financed by briefs. However in 1828, an act abolished the brief system. Collections were still made for worthy causes, and sometime noted in the same register, as shown in the St George Tombland example below.

PD 106-54 - No longer brief - Distressed families of soldiers and sailors - 19 pounds

NRO, PD 106/54. St George Tombland.

The Norfolk Record Office holds a number of brief books, registers of briefs and briefs themselves in many different collections, and these can be found by searching our online catalogue, NROCAT.

Compiled by Claire Bolster, NRO staff member (written May 2017).

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The experiences of the Earl of Albemarle during the Boer War: Part 2

Albemarle and his battalion arrived in the ‘badly laid out’, ‘half savage’ town of Bloemfontein. The earl was especially happy to see the Union Jack waving above the town and the ‘pleased reaction’ of Lord Roberts after inspection. His cheerfulness did not last for long however as his men were soon after ordered to attack Schantzkraal. Heavy firing could be heard and Boers could be seen decamping in the distance but to Albemarle’s disappointment, the battalion did not engage with them.

Fortunately for the earl however the men would come into close contact with the enemy the next day at Welkom. With a force of about 10,000 men Albemarle finally came in touch with the Boers as they quickly fired upon them, After about an hour however the British soon shelled the Boers in return and they watched as the Boers bolted, shells bursting over them.

The battalion began to move towards Winburg. For seventeen miles in the sweltering heat the men persevered in the long hard march, being forced to carry wood for the last three. That night a party set off to cut off the railway from Winburg which if successful would prevent the Boers from escaping. It seemed it was a success, as Albemarle’s forces later occupied Winburg without opposition. The battalion continued marching each carrying minimal supplies, a blanket, mess tin, water bottle, haversack and an appropriate amount of ammunition.

At Kronspruit Albemarle expressed dismay at the way the troops were fed, ‘the meat is often uneatable, and it would be just as easy to eat india rubber. Tea and coffee are short. Bread we rarely see. Vegetables are unheard of, and it is most important that the troops should have them or lime juice, if they are to march from 12 to 18 miles a day in addition to fighting’. While tea and coffee may seem like luxuries to us today, British troops often had to depend on it since water was often disease-ridden and attracted malaria-carrying mosquitos. To make matters worse Albemarle’s troops were forced to spend the ‘bitterly cold’ and frosty nights in one blanket. Despite his men being uncomfortable however Albemarle ‘never heard a grumble’.

When Albemarle’s men attacked at Doornkop the main body of his battalion remained under cover while the mounted infantry were subjected to shellfire upon the heights of Florida, a suburb of Johannesburg. Soon the main body marched upon Florida. As the men approached closer however the Boers fired more accurately and their shells ‘burst most unpleasantly over the battalion’ their objective to Albemarle being ‘the extinction of the 76th Battery’. Briefly the men thought that Albemarle himself was hit, but he had just tripped over a stone causing him to roll ‘over and over’.


The Doornkop Fight. NRO, ACC Albermale 2/6/69

Before long the battalion was camped north of Johannesburg, things seemed to be quiet for the men before a woman ‘came shrieking towards us’, crying that two drunken soldiers had entered her house. In the long time it took for the town guard to arrive Albemarle and Ted Trotter were forced to tackle them and remove their bayonets, ‘Altogether, it was rather an undignified position for officers to find themselves in’, Albemarle commented before the two culprits were taken away. There were no major incidents among the men which occurred afterwards and the Earl expressed happiness when the mess cart was finally replenished in time for the battalion’s move to Pretoria. It would not be long however until the men were faced with danger yet again.

The battalion soon found themselves at Diamond Hill, not long after General Airlie had been shot there. The enemy was still in position and could be seen placing guns along the crest of the hill. Albemarle and his men were forced to spend the night near Boer occupied territory. As meals were prepared for the men the British guns fired upon the Boers above although it would be at least two hours until the foe actually responded. The challenge then was to locate where the Boers actually stood. As the men advanced it turned out they were 1,200 yards from the edge of the cliff, where they had a good firing advantage. For 3,000 yards the battalion was exposed. The ‘hellish’ fire became so bad that the men could not make any distinct progress. A soldier by the name of Alt received a wound and went back to have it dressed but was shot in the head and killed upon his return to the firing line. Several other casualties occurred in the fray and the surgeon and stretcher bearers were kept occupied. Thankfully the arrival of the 82nd Field Battery was able to buy some time for the shaken battalion. Soon after the Maxim gun was ‘ordered out’ due to the severity of the rifle fire it drew. Albemarle agreed that the Maxim gun was indeed, ‘an appendage of doubtful utility’. Boer fire finally decreased at sunset and the troops were ordered to encamp at Botha’s Farm. When the battalion was relieved by the Coldstream Guards, Alt and Private Ives the two men killed in the battle were buried and Albemarle counted about 19 casualties from the fight in total. Reflecting upon Alt’s death Albemarle lamented, ‘I believe he is the 4th generation of his family who has had one of its members killed in his first campaign’.

Diamond Hill

Diamond Hill. NRO, ACC Albermale 2/6/69

In the next few days it became obvious that many of the men would not make the remainder of the war.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.

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My Work Experience at the Norfolk Record Office

During my work experience week at the Norfolk Record Office, I have undertaken many different tasks in all areas of the work. This includes working in the search room, finding documents in the strong room, and learning about the conservation and preservation work that is done here. Before this week, I didn’t realise how many different jobs there are at the Record Office and how different many of them are to what I expected. I have also worked on two projects that are currently underway at the Record Office: the cleaning of their collection of maps, and the indexing of their birth records. These have both been fun as they gave me a chance to work with documents that are over 150 years old and so give an idea of what Norfolk was like almost two centuries ago. It has been interesting to see how different areas of the county, especially the area I live in, have grown so much in this time, from what were just fields to a now densely populated area.

One of the main tasks I have worked on is the cataloguing of an old document: a photo album created by Corporal Mechanic Cyril Morris of the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. This was very interesting as the album was very detailed and gave a clear insight to life at Snarehill airfield, near Thetford, during the First World War. It included pictures of the men who were stationed there, both while at the airfield and in their free time (when they played football, cricket, and other sports), and of the planes they flew and worked on. This is especially interesting as we do not see much about these early warplanes nowadays and these photographs show them in great detail. Furthermore, it also contains many photographs of crashed aircraft (which seemed to happen a lot) and includes the reasons for their crashes. The reasons were very intriguing as they show just how unreliable and uncontrollable some of these early aircraft were. This album is interesting as it brings to life an aspect of history that isn’t thought about as much now and those who took part in it, which wouldn’t be possible any other way.

Overall, it has been an interesting, enjoyable week in which I have learnt much about the Record Office and the work that is done here, as well as the history of Norwich and Norfolk. It has been especially surprising to find out how much history there is in Norfolk that I had no idea about, but is so easily accessible at the Record Office, and learning about the work that is done to make this history accessible and to preserve it.

Ollie Calver, Hellesdon High School

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My week at the Norfolk Record Office

Coming to the Norfolk Record Office a week ago I didn’t really know what to expect of the nature or varying roles within the building. This week has been brilliant in allowing me to experience aspects of not only historical content, but also to observe and undertake roles that directly use history skills attained at school. The most appealing feature of this week has been the opportunity to learn and understand the use of primary sources and historical evidence, far exceeding the scope of the school curriculum. Through doing so I have been able to index births in the district of Mancroft in the early 1850s, as well as enjoy cataloguing the collection of Frederick Parker.

Frederick Parker’s diary and a few other items in the collection express what life was like for a boy evacuated to Fakenham from London in 1941. His almost daily entries between January and November of 1941 show Parker’s thoughts on rural daily life, while he also has interest in the international affairs of the Second World War. Alongside the diary, the collection includes an edition of Parker’s School’s magazine, a transcript of his diary with a small biography, as well as three photographs. If you would like to further research into these items see the collection MC 3306. Cataloguing these items was enjoyable as it allowed for a more personal connection with the author of them. Being able to read Parker’s journal was important for really understanding the details of daily life for evacuees, which can often be underappreciated or become lost in statistics.

MC 3306-1 (2)

Frederick Parker’s diary, 1941. NRO, MC 3306/1, 1067X3


MC 3306-4 (1)

Photograph of Frederick Parker. NRO, MC 3306/4, PH52


I have enjoyed shadowing some of the jobs within the Norfolk Record Office and have been surprised in what they entail. These include: archivists, strongroom assistants and conservation and preservation. It was particularly interesting to observe the behind the scenes work in the strongrooms and searchrooms. With over 12 million items stored at the Norfolk Record Office and there being frequent requests and online enquiries the team has to be efficient and organised in finding and preparing documents.

It has also been interesting to improve my historical skills and understanding this week through activities such as a palaeography exercise, enabling myself to better read handwriting from centuries ago. Moreover, it was intriguing to observe the horrors of document preservation and the techniques used to preserve documents for centuries. I never knew that even paper clips and rubber bands can be very damaging to documents.

Altogether, spending a week at the Norfolk Record Office has been a great experience which has shown me a range of occupations within the historical field. While it has also been very enjoyable as I have been able to examine many documents from across Norfolk. One highlight was examining a map of my local area from 1842 and being able to notice the changes since this time in the population and landscape.

Connor Wright, Hellesdon High School

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