From Gunpowder to Fire Engines: The Role of the Cannonier in looking after Norwich’s seventeenth-century fire Fighting Equipment

Today, the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service protects Norwich, along with the rest of the county, using dozens of emergency vehicles and a range of advanced equipment. In the seventeenth century (when most buildings were made of wood) the technology involved was rather less advanced – but that did not mean there was no organised defence against fire. On the contrary: a court petition in the newly-catalogued Norwich City Records collection reveals that by 21 September 1691, the city of Norwich was protected by no less than six fire engines, all under the command of one man – Jonathan Barton, the city’s cannonier, or gunner.

NCR 12d-25-131

Petition of Jonathan Barton, Cannonier of Norwich, 1689. NRO, NCR 12d/25/131

The cannonier’s traditional responsibility was for matters concerning the city’s guns and gunpowder, chiefly fired during the celebrations of certain anniversaries, such as Guy Fawkes’ Night, and at other times as occasion required. One example of the duties a cannonier might be called upon to perform is an order from July 1685

‘to draw out the 5 brasse guns and cause them to be fyred upon the 26th daie instant beinge a daie of publique Thanks-giveinge… for the defeate of the Rebells in the West of Englande’ – that is, the Duke of Monmouth’s famous rebellion (NCR 16a/25, f. 187r).

Barton was not the one responsible for firing the guns to celebrate the defeat of Monmouth’s rebellion: he was appointed cannonier in February 1690 (1689 in Old Style dating). The record of this in the Mayor’s Court book says that it was ‘in the place of Burges, late deceased’, and that Barton was to have ‘such salary profits and advantages as his predecessors have had’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 262r ). But it seems this was insufficient, for a petition

hath ever since loked after the Engines to Quench fire belonging to this City being now six Engines. And hath been at great charge in playeing the said Engines att Heigham fire & for takeinge the same in peeces severall times & in giving his attendance & direction for the amending of such of them as have been out of Repaire & for oile & severall other thinges used about them to the great charge of your peticoner of which your peticoner hath not rec[eive]d any thinge.

This was not Barton’s first stint as cannonier, nor was he unpractised in maintaining and deploying fire engines. Records of the Mayor’s Court show that as early as 1668, the Norwich Corporation had at its disposal an ‘engine’ which was kept at New Hall along with brooms and ladders for firefighting (NCR 16a/24, f. 73r). This machine was ordered to be repaired in October 1675 (NCR 16a/24, f. 330r). A record of 23 October 1675 finds Jonathan Barton being elected to the post of cannonier for the city. His salary, fixed on 30 October 1675, was ‘10s per annum for ye keepeine ye fyre engine fit to use, and when it is drawn out upon ocasion of Fyre he is to have for the same what ye Court shall iudge mete and 10s for each of 3 anniv[er]sarys of ye 5th of November, ye Coronation & ye restauration of his Maiesty & 40s of St Georges Companie as hath beene accustomed’ (NCR 16a/24, f. 332v).

A second engine was purchased in 1679. In July of that year, the Mayor’s Court resolved that Robert Bendish, esq, an alderman of the corporation, would ‘contract with Mr Fromantel of London for an Engine to Quench Fyre at the cheapest rate he can… which Engine is to be sent downe by Mr Fromantel at his charge to this City by sea or otherwise as he thinks fitt’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 51v). Fromantel was to be paid the agreed rate if the engine succeeded in a trial; if not, it would be returned at the city’s charge. The machine duly passed its trial in September, and on the 27th of the month, Bendish was ordered to pay out £9 for it. Fromantel, a clockmaker, was also contracted with for a steel pendulum for the New Hall clock. His son, Daniel Fromantel Jnr, who appears in the records of the Mayor’s Court in connection with the Dutch Congregation prior to taking this new employment, was hired to ‘take care of the two water engines to keepe them in good order & ready to worke’, as well as ‘from tyme to time to take care that the clocke at the New Hall be kept in good order and repaired by him when ocasion requires’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 54v). For these duties he was paid 40s per annum, quadruple Barton’s starting salary, but there is no mention of reimbursement for firefighting duties. The engines were ordered to be stationed at New Hall. It is not clear when the younger Fromantel ceased to look after the fire engines (and the clock). Perhaps it was once the corporation were satisfied that they could be operated and maintained by local officials.

As we have seen, in the twelve years between that second purchase and Jonathan Barton’s petition for remuneration, at least another four engines were bought. But, as Barton’s petition indicated, the machinery was by then in a bad state after years of service. That the corporation also considered their condition unsatisfactory at around this time appears from an order made in June 1691 to withhold the £9 remaining in hand for payment until ‘satisfaction be made… for defects found in and reparacions done to the said Engine and til security be given for keeping the same in Repair for 2 years according to the Agreement upon sale’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 277v). The £9 value of the engine that had not yet been paid for suggests a continuing business relationship with the Fromantels, who had charged that amount for the 1679 engine. The state of disrepair they had fallen into does not necessarily mean that Fromantel’s work was shoddy; perhaps Burgess, the cannonier who preceded Barton in the role, was negligent in looking after them. Besides, these early fire engines would undoubtedly have been complex and sensitive pieces of equipment.

The upshot of all this was as Barton’s petition describes: he footed the bill for repairs himself, and was forced to petition the city to reclaim his expenses. Not unreasonably, he also asked for an annual salary as a firefighter, as well as a cannonier. Sadly, it does not appear in the Mayor’s Court records that his petition was successful!

Compiled by Robert Smith, NRO Research Blogger.

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‘It was a dreadful sight to see!’ Descriptions of the Crimean War

‘It was a dreadful sight to see! Both to my left and right men were cut away from me. I thought it would be my turn every minute but, thank God I have escaped as yet.’

These words were written by Private Thomas Towner (NRO, BOL 4/28-31) to describe the culmination of the Battle of Alma on 20th September 1854 only six days after the French and English forces had landed in the Crimea. The words appear in a copy of the first letter to his parents dated, 22nd December 1854. He describes how they came under Russian fire within three miles of Alma on 19th September, and having rested for the night, began their march one hour after daybreak the following day until they came in sight of the Russian forces. The letter eloquently conveys the esprit de corps of the British forces as they faced what appeared to be impossible odds. Thomas Towner says:

‘We got orders to load our muskets: we all seemed in good spirits and all gave three cheers as we rushed towards the Russians.’

Continue reading

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‘I suppose you think that I am shot’: Problems writing home from the Crimean War.

‘I suppose that you think that I am shot since you have not heard from me for so long but thank God I am not yet but I have had some near escapes.’

These are the words of Private Thomas Towner of the 95th Light Infantry taken from the first of two letters sent from the battlefront to his mother and father (NRO, BOL 4/28-31, 741X6). This letter is dated 21st or 22nd December 1854, after Thomas had already been in the Crimea for over three months. It hints at the difficulty ordinary soldiers had in getting letters to their loved ones from the arena of the Crimean war. He explains that he has not had ten minutes to himself since landing in Russia. This is not surprising since the allies had already been through the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and were now investing Sebastopol.  At the end of his letter Thomas says that he hopes that his mother will keep writing to him because, although he has been a good while trying, he has not had the time to write to her.

image for post 1 (2)

Letter from Thomas Towner, 21st or 22nd December 1854. NRO, BOL 4/28-31, 741×6


In his second letter, dated 25th March 1855, he apologises to his mother again:

‘I dare say you think it very hard that I do not write oftener to you but really our time is so greatly taken up with Hard Duty that it is very seldom you get time to write.’

Bearing in mind the sporadic intensity of the fighting between the allies and the Russians at this stage of the siege, Private Towner will not have had much opportunity, let alone any leisure time, to write to his parents. The Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, produced eye-witness accounts of the conflict which kept the British public informed of the real conditions of the troops. He stated that towards the end of March 1855, because of the risk of Russian attack, the British were obliged to keep men in the trenches before Sebastopol for twenty-four hours at a time. This meant that the men had no more three nights out of seven in bed.[i]

In the letters of Daniel Anguish of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards (NRO, MC 20/40, 445X4) the problems of ordinary soldiers in communicating with their loved ones from the Crimea are eloquently represented. The first letter, dated 8th January 1855, is not from Private Anguish himself, but from an official of the Horse Guards (signature illegible). It reads:

‘Mr Anguish,

In answer to your letter of the 2nd instant, I have to inform you that the name of Daniel Anguish, not having appeared in any of the lists of men killed or wounded or of men having died for any other cause, it is presumed that he is alive at the present time.’

image for post 1

Letter from a representative of the Horse Guards, 8th January 1855. NRO, MC 20/40, 445×4


The letter indicates that Daniel Anguish’s parents have not heard from him for some considerable time, if at all, since his arrival in the Crimea on the 14th September 1854. Some light is thrown on this in Daniel’s first letter dated 11th January 1855. He says that he has at last taken up his pen to write a few lines, and he explains that he is very unwell, but hopes to recover soon.  He goes on to describe the difficulty he has had in writing to them, saying:

‘I have only been ill two or three days with Bad legs But I hope they will soon get better no dought But you will think it unkind of me not wrighting to you before now But it is such a burdon to get papper to wright with or I would of rote to you before this’ (sic).

This extract shows that over and above the conditions he has to endure, the practical difficulties of finding the materials to write with had prevented him from communicating with his family. He elaborates further on such difficulties, writing:

‘This Bit of Papper cost me a Shilling and a verrey ard job to get it atorl it would give me much pledger to wright to you as awfen as I could. I will wright to you as soon as you write to me if you will please to send me some papper and stamps so I can wright to you again’ (sic).

Two months later, in a letter to his brother, dated 10th March 1855 and sent from the ‘Camp before Sebastopol’, Daniel further emphasises the practical difficulties he faces in sending letters home from the Crimea. He writes:

‘I must now conclude with my love to father and mother Brothers and sisters you must wright and let me know how you all get on and send out some Stamps as I cannot get them out here for love or money.’ (sic)

In their letters home, both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish take the trouble to tell their parents if they have seen any fellow soldiers who are the sons of their and their parents’ acquaintances. Thomas Towner says to his mother at the end of his first letter (22nd December 1854) to be sure to tell ‘Mrs Boyce’ that he has seen her son recently and that he is alive and well. In the same way, Daniel Anguish, scribbles the following message in the top corner of one of his letters, presumably to be passed on to the soldier’s parents and family:

‘I have seen Steven Riches and he is quite well… was at our camp the other day.’

It may have been that one or both of these young men mentioned by Towner and Anguish in their letters were illiterate and not able to write home to their parents. In which case those messages will have been gladly received by their loved ones back in England.

However, one of the remarkable aspects of these letters is the fact that both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish are literate, despite being working-class and bottom of the pecking order in the ranks of the British army. This reflects the findings of surveys in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, which suggested a major growth in the literacy levels of the working classes.[ii] This contrasts starkly with the situation in the centuries preceding the nineteenth when illiteracy amongst common soldiers was more likely to have been the norm. [iii]

Compiled by NRO Researcher Bob Hanna

[i] Russell W.H., Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, p. 141

[ii] Wilson A. N., The Victorians, Arrow Books, 2003, p. 363

[iii] Keegan J., The Face of Battle, Pimlico, 2004,p. 32


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A military wedding at Great Yarmouth and a mutiny

011 Prospect of Yarmouth YD-50-378

Section from Nathaniel and Samuel Buck’s South West prospect of Great Yarmouth, showing St Nicholas’ Church and ships, 1741. NRO, Y/D 50/378

For couples where the groom was serving in the military, time could be of the essence to marry before his regiment moved on, or ship sailed again and many military occupations are represented in marriage licence bonds.  This is particularly true for the Archdeaconry of Norwich bonds which cover the port areas of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

One bond, dated 17 March 1798, relates to the marriage of John Smallcom, widower and Mary Ward, widow, in Great Yarmouth.  The bond does not say which church they married in but, at this time, only St Nicholas’ Church was licensed for marriages and the parish register confirms that John and Mary’s wedding took place there the next day.

012 Crop of Smallcom mlb ANW 24-72-23

Marriage licence bond of John Smallcom and Mary Ward, 1798. NRO, ANW 24/72/23

The marriage licence bond leads us on to discover the history of John Smallcom’s ship, HMS Director. It appears that the ship and her crew had a short but colourful period of active service before she was broken up at Chatham in 1801 and we can only speculate whether John Smallcom was on board at the time.  In 1797, HMS Director was involved in both the Nore mutiny and the battle of Camperdown.  We know that the will of John Smallcom, of HMS Director, dated 1796, is held at The National Archives and John still lists the Director as his ship in this marriage licence bond of 1798, so he would have been aware of these events at the very least.

HMS Director was originally a 64 gun ship, designed by Sir Thomas Slade (the same man who designed HMS Victory) and built at William Cleverley’s shipyard in Gravesend. Ordered at the height of the American War of Independence in the early 1780s, by the time HMS Director was built the war was over.

In January 1796, HMS Director sailed under Captain William Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) and by 1797, she was part of the North Sea Fleet.  Her crew took part in the mutiny on the Nore when, encouraged by an earlier mutiny in the Channel Fleet at Spithead near Portsmouth, sailors at the Nore took control of their ships in May 1797.  The mutineers made many demands including payment of wage arrears, better working conditions and the removal of some of their least popular officers.

Other documents, held at the Norfolk Record Office, give eyewitness accounts of the mutiny.  Several letters sent from J.J. Gurdon, an officer of the militia at Sheerness, describe the day to day events of the mutiny as it unfolded.  In one letter, dated 29 May 1797, it is clear that he did not sympathise with the mutineers. Gurdon writes:

‘My dearest Anne, I am sorry to tell you notwithstanding the arrival of the Lords of the Admiralty & the pardon sent them yesterday, nothing whatever is done, they only made new propositions of a totally inadmissible nature.  The Lords still are here, & what is meant to be done…it is a most melancholy business & shows the total want of principle in these rascals…’

013 Crop of Gurdon letter v2 KIM 14-5-4

Letter of J.J. Gurdon, 29 May 1797. NRO, KIM 14/5/4

When some demands took a political tone, including requests for Parliament to be dissolved, this frightened the British authorities who were already fighting a war with revolutionary France.  It also spooked some of the sailors and several ships pulled up their anchors and escaped the mutiny.  HMS Director was one of the last ships to surrender when the mutiny collapsed and the ringleaders were hanged.

In early October 1797, the North Sea Fleet was ordered to Great Yarmouth to resupply but news soon reached them that Dutch ships had broken out of harbour and the British were ordered to intercept them.  On 11 October 1797, HMS Director, along with other ships in the Fleet, took part in the battle of Camperdown.  It was one of the most significant encounters between British and Dutch ships during the French Revolutionary Wars.  This time, the British were victorious and captured eleven Dutch vessels.

You can look back through our previous blogs for more tales from marriage licence bonds.


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The Mackenzie family of Scotland and a Norfolk romance

The unusual survival of some letters, found with the marriage licence bond for Henry Bathurst and Frances Mackenzie, 14 July 1807, give us a rare insight into a mother in Scotland eagerly awaiting news of her daughter’s marriage in the parish of Thurne with Ashby and Oby, Norfolk. The letters were sent from Margaret Mackenzie, a widow of Edinburgh, to her son William Mackenzie, a surgeon in the militia who was stationed at Great Yarmouth, giving consent to her daughter’s marriage.

008 Crop of Mackenzie mlb ANW-24-82-85

Marriage licence bond for Henry Bathurst and Frances Mackenzie, 1807. NRO, ANW 24/82/85

Frances needed her mother’s consent to marry as she was only 17 years old at the time and under the age of majority which was 21 years.  In a letter, dated 6 July 1807, Margaret Mackenzie writes:

‘In Mrs Mackenzie’s letter to Jessy she did hint that a young Gentleman was paying particular attention to Fanny but I did not think much about it at the time not knowing she was serious – Yours of the 30th June mentioning all the particulars puts it beyond a doubt, and as you seem to have so high opinion of the young gentleman and at the same time agreeable to Fanny I do most freely give my consent to the marriage and sincerely wish the young couple health and happiness’.  She goes on to request news of the wedding ceremony, ‘I expect you will write me all the particulars as soon as matters are properly settled and the day fixed.  Let me know if Catherine or Frances wish to have any cloaths sent them.’

009 Crop of Mackenzie letter ANW 24-82-85

Letter from Mrs Mackenzie to her son William, 6 July 1807. NRO, ANW 24/82/85

The parish marriage register for Thurne shows that Henry and Frances married a few days later on 16 July and that her brother, William Mackenzie, was a witness at their wedding.

010 Mackenzie marriage reg PD 308-4

Marriage register entry for Henry Bathurst and Frances Mackenzie, 16 July 1807. NRO, PD 308/4


In another letter from Mrs Mackenzie to William, dated 12 July, we also learn about her hope that her son’s regiment would soon go back to Scotland and about her health and family.  Like Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice (published only a few years after Frances Mackenzie’s wedding and which explores the social context of marriage at this time) it appears that news of her daughter’s marriage may have rapidly cured her mother’s aches and pains!  Mrs Mackenzie writes, ‘I was complaining for a few days with a rheumatism in my head but I am now quite well again’.

You can view our holdings of the Norwich Archdeaconry marriage licence bonds through our online catalogue, NROCAT (  Their main reference number is ANW/24 and you can search by the names of the marriage parties and by parish.  Please note that images of the documents themselves are not on NROCAT.

Look out for other blogs containing tales from other marriage licence bonds!


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Tales of the Great and the Not So Good

Marriage licences were often favoured by families of high social class since they allowed the couple privacy, ability to choose their parish of marriage and were faster to arrange than banns.  The marriage licence could also be a status symbol in itself, showing that the couple could afford to purchase it and although the cost of a licence was not exceptionally high, many people could not afford one.  As a result, the names of several prominent Norfolk families are included in the bonds.

One bond relates to the marriage of Philip Meadows Martineau (1872-1829) to Ann Dorothy Clarke in 1811.  The Martineau family were of Huguenot descent and Philip Meadows was a prominent member of the local French community.  He was a distinguished surgeon specialising in lithotomy, the surgical method for removing kidney, bladder and gallbladder stones which were common medical complaints in Norfolk.  Martineau was a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and also served as a hospital governor.

003 Crop of Bracondalle engraving MC 2295-1

Engraving of Bracondale Hall on the Martineau family estate. NRO, MC 2295/1

The Martineau family were Unitarians and Philip Meadows Martineau attended the Octagon Chapel in Norwich.  Following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, 1753 (which attempted to curb secret and irregular marriages) Nonconformists had to marry in an Anglican church.  There were exemptions for Jews and Quakers but Catholics and other protestant Nonconformists, including Unitarians, were not exempt until later.  Sadly, the marriage licence bond does not tell us which church Philip and Ann Dorothy married in, which is quite common.

Martineau owned a large estate at Bracondale (the Norfolk Record Office and County Hall now occupy part of the site) and this marriage licence bond is dated around the time that he also purchased the adjacent property of Carrow Abbey.

004 Crop of Martineau mlb v2 ANW-86-9

Marriage licence bond of Philip Meadows Martineau and Ann Dorothy Clarke, 1811. NRO, ANW 24/86/9

Another bond relates to the marriage of Ann Margaret Coke of Holkham, aged 15 years, to Thomas Anson in 1794.  Ann Margaret, born at Holkham Hall, became a painter and may have been taught by Thomas Gainsborough in Norfolk and London.  Her husband, Thomas Anson, was a wealthy politician and heir to the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire.  Since Ann Margaret was only fifteen at the time of her wedding, her father Thomas William Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, made a sworn oath of consent to her marriage which is noted on the marriage licence bond.

005 Crop of Margaret Coke mlb ANW-24-69-33

Marriage licence bond of Ann Margaret Coke and Thomas Anson, 1794. NRO, ANW 24/69/33

A.M.W. Stirling recounts in his two volume work, Coke of Norfolk and his Friends, that Ann looked very young at her wedding:

‘At the wedding breakfast she looked such a child that Dean Anson said mischievously to her: “Ann, if you will run round the table, I will give you a sovereign!”  Scarcely had the words left his lips, then away went the delighted bride and, racing round the table, triumphantly claimed her reward.’

Stirling also notes that Thomas Anson, concerned about his wife’s young age, insisted that Ann sat at cards with the dowagers when attending dances which unfortunately gave her a taste for gambling!

Marriage licence bonds were not the preserve of the gentry and even those of more modest social status such as tenant farmers, trades people and military occupations are well represented in them.  This particularly became the case as the cost of marriage licences fell relative to wages.  For some couples they may even have been an aspirational choice to emulate the higher social classes and add some sparkle to their wedding day!

Obtaining a marriage licence bond was no guarantee of social standing and character. One bond relates to the marriage of James Blomfield Rush (who later became the notorious Stanfield Hall murderer) to Susannah Soames (named in the bond as Susan Soame) in May 1828.  Rush, a tenant farmer who had got himself into debt, murdered estate owner Isaac Jermy and his son at Stanfield Hall on 28 November 1848.  After a dramatic legal trial, Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle on 21 April 1849.  A crowd of over 12,000 people gathered to witness the event and the Eastern County Railway Company even ran a special train from London to Norwich for the execution.

006 Drop of Rush lithograph mc 63-1

Lithograph of James Blomfield Rush by Sharpe, 1849. NRO, MC 63/1

Rush was no stranger to trouble. In 1835, despite being married to Susannah Soames, a woman, named either Dank or Dack, brought an action against him for breach of promise of marriage.  She claimed that she had been forced into the workhouse after Rush made her pregnant.  When the case came to court at the Norfolk Assizes in the summer of 1839, the court convicted Rush and ordered him to pay costs of over £26.

Look out for more tales from marriage licence bonds in our future blog posts.

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Did your ancestors marry by licence?

001 Crop of ANF BT Topcroft 1828

Illustration of a wedding at Topcroft, Norfolk. NRO, BT, ANF. 1828.

If you are researching your family tree and have come across an entry in a parish register which notes that your ancestors married by licence, then marriage licence bonds can be a valuable resource.  Although they do not include marriages by banns, the bonds cover a whole archdeaconry, or diocese, rather a single parish.  This can make them useful for tracing marriages of some ancestors if you do not know where the wedding took place.

A recent project at the Norfolk Record Office has made accessing some of these marriage licence bonds much easier than before!  For over a year, a group of 20 volunteers and staff have been busy indexing the Archdeaconry of Norwich marriage licence bonds, 1712-1915.  Over 20,000 records have been added to our catalogue, NROCAT, as part of the project.  The Norwich Archdeaconry bonds cover the main population centres in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn and Thetford.  We also hold bonds for the Norfolk Archdeaconry and for the Norwich Consistory Court but these have not been fully indexed yet.

After Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, 1753 (which clamped down on clandestine or secret and irregular marriages) there are several reasons why a marriage could take place by licence.  If one of the parties was a minor (under 21 years old) they needed parental consent to marry and had to apply for a licence.  Couples who chose to marry in a church other than their home parishes usually required one as well.

Licences were often favoured if the parties wanted to marry quickly (some were issued as late as the day of the marriage) or if a couple wanted to avoid the publicity of having banns read in church.  Perhaps it was a shotgun wedding, a second marriage, or the groom was a military man who had just disembarked from his ship at Great Yarmouth and needed to marry before he returned to sea. Non-conformists might choose to marry by licence in preference to having banns read in the Parish Church.

A marriage licence bond contained three parts.  The affidavit was a sworn statement, usually made by the bridegroom, stating that there was no legal impediment to the marriage.  The groom and a bondsman (often a relative or friend) entered into a bond agreeing that they would forfeit a sum of money if the marriage did not take place.  This penalty sum was set deliberately high to deter improper marriages.  The court which issued the licence kept the bond and affidavit and the applicant presented the marriage licence to the clergyman who was to marry the couple.  It is rare for the actual licence to survive.

002 Crop of DeHague mlb ANW-24-26-160

An example of one of the Norwich Archdeaconry marriage licence bonds, dated 1752, for Elisha DeHague, senior, who was Town Clerk of Norwich, 1774-1792. NRO, ANW 24/26/160.

You can view our holdings of the Norwich Archdeaconry marriage licence bonds through our online catalogue, NROCAT (  Their main reference number is ANW 24 and you can search by the names of the marriage parties and by parish.  Please note that images of the documents themselves are not on NROCAT.

There really is a story behind every marriage licence bond, and look out for future blog posts that show some of our favourite examples from the Norwich Archdeaconry records.

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Memories of Christmas from a German Prisoner of War

Soon after the Second World War ended German POWs were released across the country. Over 100 prisoners were released from Mousehold Camp based in Norwich. One such prisoner was Hans Dittrich who was interviewed shortly before release. Dittrich obviously appreciated Norwich as seen in an attached newspaper and gives evidence that he and his fellow German prisoners were treated decently, ‘When we leave Norwich, in two days, we shall take with us memories of many happy hours spent in the city, whose inhabitants, in spite of the damage inflicted by the war, never showed any hostility to us’. After living and serving under a fascist dictatorship, Hans very much appreciated British attitude towards democracy, in the same article he says, ‘The younger generation of us particularly have been able to see for the first time what the way of life in a real democracy is’. More evidence that prisoners were treated fairly well is highlighted in letters to his friend Mrs Statham where he invites her and some other female friends to a Christmas concert being held at the camp, visits were also permitted. Hans delightfully replied to his friend, ‘I accept with pleasure your kind invitation for Christmas Day’.


Newscutting describing departure of German prisoners of war from Mousehold camp. NRO, MC 2386/1, 962X6

By the early summer of 1948, Hans finally arrived home after a long and difficult journey back to East Germany where his family lived. On June 10 ‘on my mother’s birthday’ a steamer carried him and other German POWs to Holland. Soon after he spent four days at a discharge camp in the British Zone before being transported to Leipzig where he and his fellow prisoners spent a miserable fortnight at a ‘so-called quarantine camp’. When Hans finally returned to the now Russian controlled Dresden, he was heartbroken by what had become of his city. He commented ‘there is to-day an area of 30 square miles of ruins. Not a single house or church from the inner city survived the raids. Over 400, 000 people lost their homes in one night and 150,000 lost their life. Only the suburbs are better off’. He acknowledged however that reconstruction despite being the hardest hit city in Germany was going along well. Meanwhile Hans lamented life under Soviet rule, arguing that life in the British zone was better and that availability of food, especially meat and fats, as well as clothing was scarce due to rationing, ‘Only children up to 5 years of age get half a pint (of milk) per day. There are children of 9-10 years who haven’t seen a banana, a pine-apple or a grape-fruit their whole life’. On clothing he described, ‘if you are lucky you will get one pair of shoes for instance every ten years or one suit every fifty years’, he had nothing to wear except some ‘new-look’ clothes, given to him by the Royal Army. Nevertheless he desired to return back to a carefree life of paying visits to relatives, writing, reading, swimming and sun bathing.

While continuing to send Mrs Statham various German stamps Hans expressed envy over her seaside holiday, ‘What a pity we Germans aren’t allowed to spend a holiday somewhere in Switzerland, Bavaria or Austria, for I love the mountains more than the seaside’. It is unlikely that Hans had time for a holiday regardless, since he was training to become a teacher, after the majority of teachers who were previous members of the Nazi Party were dismissed. Although he himself had been a Nazi member, his time in Britain likely made him a more preferable candidate to the Soviets as he took an exam for mathematics and grammar. As Statham and Hans remained in contact, he was overjoyed whenever his overseas friend sent him food parcels to him and his family, in a November letter he commented, ‘You can’t imagine what joy your parcel brought’, since they were a rare treat in Russian occupied East Germany, he said, ‘The tin of milk and the sugar my mother put away for X-Mas’. Dresden was slowly recovering meanwhile, a department store where ‘nearly everything you need’, except for meat and fat was available, but lamented that prices were too high, as a response to the black market. £3 today may seem reasonable for a pair of silk stockings, but in 1940’s war torn Germany, many people were unable to afford a decent pair of stockings for the upcoming winter. The State Opera house, re-opening with Beethoven’s Fidelis was also rebuilt but queues lasted for hours and tickets were difficult to obtain, probably because most entertainment facilities in Dresden were destroyed in the war. Hans also yearned to see English and American in the cinemas since only Russian and pre-war German films for the time being were available (or permitted) to be shown.

Shortly before Christmas of 1948, Hans had his first ‘normal’ Christmas since 1941. From 1942-1944 he spent his Christmases with the German army, 1943 ‘alone on a little outpost’ and 1945-1947 as a POW in America and Britain. The festive season brought back nostalgic memories from when he was a child, he remembered the ‘boxing days days in our nice house, lots of presents under the ten feet – high X-mas-tree, which was decorated with dozens of burning candles. And to – day, no presents, no house’. Hans remained optimistic however, commenting that he and his family were happy, healthy ‘and able to wait for better times’. Also despite receiving no presents, Hans was more than grateful for a Christmas card and Christmas wishes sent from his British friends. His Christmas was quiet, ‘not so joyful and happy as before the war perhaps’, but he was happy to be unified again with his family. To add to his happiness, the government provided extra food, particularly sugar, flour and poultry. There were no wine or nuts at the shop but Hans shrugged, ‘but we could do without them’. A small Christmas tree with some candles was erected in his house, referring back to German holiday tradition he recalled, ‘It is an old German custom to have a Christmas tree decorated with about 10-20 burning candles, nuts, apples, silver bells etc’. On boxing day however while Hans and his mother visited family members, his father was forced to work. The unusually mild winter in his home city reminded Hans of ‘dear old Norwich’ although the cold weather was the kind ‘to catch a cold and keep it for some weeks’.

Things were still far from cheerful in Dresden, despite the disbandment of the Nazi Party the Soviet government used similar mind control tactics. Of Hans’ cousins for instance was ordered to appear before the Russian police for writing in a letter to a friend, ‘We still live, but for how long?’ Thankfully he escaped to the American zone where he took up a career as a salesman in a drug shop. Many others were not so lucky however, disappearing ‘without leaving a trace’. Hans feared that these men and women were in a concentration camp which were still open, or a Russian Labour Camp. On concentration camps he commented ‘thousands of good, brave Germans, who either are completely innocent or just did not do what the Russians ordered, or who were careless enough to tell a ‘friend’ or a neighbour about their feelings, fill these subhuman camps’. Many prisoners were locked up without a trial and died in these institutions, to make matters worse family members could not get permission to see or even communicate with them. A previously healthy and strong relative of Hans who stayed in one of these camps lost so much weight that he was unable to work. He complained of the hypocrisy of the ‘Russian beasts’, when they claimed to be of a nation of high culture and democracy. He assured Mrs Statham that many Germans contrary to what the Stalinist government believed, had ‘learned from their mistakes since Hitler came to power’. Although admitting to being a member of the Nazi Party he wrote that ‘Dictatorship is the most cruel and destructive form of government one can think of’. He expressed sadly that ‘After our capitulation in 1945 we wanted to become a democracy, to pay our debts and to establish a peaceful Germany. Now we see that our dream became true, but only in the three Western Zones’. Hans was bitter that East Germany suffered ‘under the terror-regime of the Russians and the Russian-sponsored Socialist Party (SED). When Hans refused to join the SED he was fined. Expressing anger over his ‘idiotic government’ he grieved, ‘We Germans see no way out of that misery, as long as the Russians are here’ and that most of the small level of production went back to Russia and other Eastern nations. Whenever East Germany rarely got something out of Russia’s ‘friendship’ the government according to Hans cried with joy, ‘’Thank you, dear Stalin’’ at the expense of the tax payers.

Christmas 1949 seemed to improve Hans’ mood however as he received presents, food parcels, with rare goods such as chocolate, fat and milk, and Christmas cards from Britain. Once again Christmas was ‘quiet and comfortable’ and a day in which family members greeted each other. Unfortunately there was no boxing day this time as there was in Britain and Hans would soon have to return to work, this time as a carpenter. One year later in 1950, Hans after a spending his first ‘nice and quiet holiday for me since 1939, when war broke out’, observed a snowy winter. Once again changing jobs, this time he served as a store keeper. He admitted that it was an ‘interesting job, but now before X-mas we have more than enough to do and overtime work is the rule’. It seems that despite living under a Stalinist dictatorship, this did not deter East Germans from carrying out their Christmas shopping as citizens in America and Britain did.


Letter from Hans Dittrich of Dresden to Mrs Statham of Norwich. NRO, MC 2386/9

Adjusting to life back in Germany after a long time in Norwich was difficult for Hans Dittrich, especially as his homeland was in a war torn state which had seen one dictatorship replaced by another. Nevertheless his contact with Mrs Statham and her family helped to keep his morale up, especially around the Christmas season. Though he and many of his fellow East Germans lived under the shadow of Stalin, this did not deter Christmas spirit, even in a city like Dresden which had seen much devastation during the war. Even if they were not guaranteed presents and had to depend on rations for a Christmas dinner, family and unity alone was good enough for Hans and the citizens of East Germany around the festive season.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO research blogger.

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