Life in Nelson’s Navy: An Account of Joseph Emerson, a Surgeon on board the HMS Agamemnon in 1793.

The wellbeing of the men in the navy, despite leading a rough and treacherous lifestyle, was considered superior to that in the army, especially now that scurvy was on the decline. Still, being out at sea for long periods increased the risk of disease and injury. Surgeons like Joseph Emerson were employed to aid the men during and outside of battle. The ship he worked upon, anchored at Spithead in the Mediterranean, was HMS Agamemnon which was captained by none other than Horatio Nelson. Launched in 1781, she was infamous for being in in constant need of repair but would participate in many battles, including Copenhagen 1801 and Trafalgar 1805. It is likely that she was only in operation for this long because Nelson was particularly fond of her, perhaps more so than HMS Victory.

While in dock at Portsmouth Emerson wrote to his brother at Swaffham (NRO, PD 337/161). Emerson starts his letter regretting that it could not meet his brother earlier. Depending on the amount of distance between the ship and land, letters could take weeks to get to their respective destination. He complains of mismanagement in the post service and that he has not heard back from his father ‘or anyone else’, likely because their letters had been detained. This was a frequent occurrence, possibly to stop potentially sensitive information from being intercepted by the enemy.

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Letter from Joseph Emerson to his brother at Swaffham (NRO, PD 337/161).


On the ship itself Emerson has ‘nothing to complain of’. There was currently no medicine chest on board, this is probably because the ship was away from the battlefield. In intense sea battles which defined the earlier stages of the Napoleonic Wars the surgeon would tend to the men around the clock, some of them with horrific injuries. Nelson’s right arm was famously put under the mercy of the bone saw during the disastrous battle of Tenerife and his surgical wounds would take months to fully heal. Outside of battle, nausea was commonplace and Emerson admitted to feeling ‘very sick for a day or two’. Nelson ironically, was also known to frequently come down with the seasickness.

Emerson reports the ship pursuing two French frigates and two brigs. They laid in wait for 3 days but did not venture out. Occasionally scuffles would break out between British and French vessels, such as the ‘Action of 22 October 1793’ in which Agamemnon was involved, but casualties were small. Ships spent time outside battle patrolling the waters, seeking out enemy vessels that could potentially cause trouble. With little to occupy him, Nelson’s depression would take its toll, as he felt his true home was on the battlefield. Being a man of pride and vanity, compared to the more down to earth Duke of Wellington, he wanted nothing more than to honour his nation, little of that was possible during these long and tedious cruises.


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Chasing two French Frigates and two Brigs. NRO, PD 337/161.

Nelson’s son in law messed alongside Emerson which as commented by the latter, resulted in many advantages. Captain Nelson is described by Emerson as a ‘worthy, good man, & much lik’d by men on board’ and ‘is much of a gentleman’. Nelson would later become a national celebrity and memorabilia related to the navy commander was all the rage, especially after his death. He was admired for his aggressive tactics, as was demonstrated at the Battle of the Nile 1798 and in the case of Copenhagen, his willingness to do the ‘greater good’ for the nation, even if it meant defying his superiors’ orders. Nelson’s surging popularity in British society and the navy would prove to be crucial to him at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite many casualties, the love for their commander, even as he lay dying below deck, successfully motivated the British navy to secure a victory, albeit a bittersweet one, and Napoleon’s weaker and disheartened navy would no longer present a major threat to British waters.


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Well liked by his men. NRO, PD 337/161


Emerson mentions that two of the servants on board consist of a black man and a boy. It was not uncommon to see black men acting as either sailors or servants in Nelson’s navy. Contrary to what is often depicted in history related media, they are frequently depicted in various paintings and monuments, including Nelson’s column. They are shown to be proudly fighting alongside their white comrades, presenting a rare example of racial integration in the British military. Given the amount of racial prejudice back on land, those enlisting in the navy would have likely seen an opportunity to prove their worth and honour, and that they could fight just as well as white men. Food and accommodation would have been provided too, as was the case for the servants mentioned in the letter. Sadly however, navy life was not free from racial prejudice. Like many in his society, Nelson spoke against the British abolitionist movement as he was acquainted with various plantation owners, his wife’s family included.

Emerson was able to sleep ‘very comfortably’. Compared to rough terrain that men in the army often slept upon, seamen slept in hammocks which cheap, light and could be packed easily. Food provisions for Emerson were good too, describing meals consisting of a roast leg of mutton, a plum pudding, and a beef steak pie. Emerson and his mess companions would receive a pound of meat a day, a hearty amount for the time period. The men were properly fed too, compared to life at home and indeed, life in the army. They would also receive a regular dose of lemon juice in order to prevent the spread of scurvy which had proved devastating to sailors during the previous Seven Years War. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, in order to ensure ultimate fitness and prestige, the government and the navy felt an increased sense of urgency to stop the spread of scurvy once and for all.

Accounts like Emerson’s prove that Nelson even before his ‘glory days’ was popular with the men of the British Navy and was well respected as a commander. While Nelson himself now lies in St Paul’s Cathedral, next door to Britain’s other great Napoleonic war hero, the Duke of Wellington, his influence around Norfolk remains strong. Emerson’s letter be read at the Norfolk Record Office. The Britannia monument commemorating Nelson stands in Great Yarmouth. The Church in which his father worked as a preacher as well as The Lord Nelson pub where he dined for the men of the village before setting sail on Agamemnon can still be visited in Burnham Thorpe, his birthplace. Last year many important historical artefacts, associated with Nelson, including a captured French tricolour flag which had not been shown to the public for a century, were reunited for the first time after more than 100 years, at a successful exhibition in Norwich Castle. Considering how important Norfolk was to Nelson, and the fact that he personally wished to be buried there, it seemed the ideal place for such an occasion.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.






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Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Homemade Remedies in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Long before the NHS was founded, many households in 18th and 19th century Britain relied on home remedies to help them cope with various ailments. Healthcare was less accessible, especially for the poorer sectors of society and quack doctors would take advantage of this fact, often lying in wait to scam anyone who came to them in desperation. Home remedies on the other hand were a much less expensive, safer alternative, and families would often rely on them to cope with numerous ills. The ingredients needed for some of these remedies such as oil and laudanum, would have been readily available and could be bought over a counter quite easily. Laudanum, which was less regulated at the time, was often used to numb the pain of ailments such as toothache. Other plant based ingredients, especially herbs could be grown at home in a garden. All that would be needed is a pot of boiling water to make these ingredients safe for human consumption.

Not much is known about Hannah Neal (nee Burton) and her son John, but from information that is available it appears that Hannah was born in 1783 and died in 1855. It is believed that her son John (1816-1859) continued his mother’s book on home remedies as his handwriting has been spotted in parts of the book (NRO, MC 3291, 1067×1). As medical knowledge would been limited, they probably would have had to conduct various experiments with these remedies to test their effectiveness. Some food recipes are included in the book too such as ginger pop and lemonade. The recipe included for jugged hare contains tips on how to create the perfect garnish for it and how to boil the meat properly. The dish was largely popularised in Britain by the work of Hannah Glasse in ‘The Art of Cookery’, one of the most influential cookbooks in the 18th century. Pudding recipes are included too, such as various cakes and tarts, a rather simple variety included are Shrewsbury cakes, a small dough cake. It is recommended they are baked in a stone oven.

Lavender is listed as an ingredient in an antidote to help ease fever. In the 19th century lavender was often regarded as a therapeutic property, much of the time it was kept in little bags under pillows to create a sweet aroma, creating a calming effect, it could also help clear nasal passages. Also mentioned is sage, throughout history it was one of the most commonly used herbs in Britain and was also regarded as having positive effects. Beeswax is one of the more commonly used ingredients, likely because it is effective when it comes to skin treatment and is even today still popular in cosmetic products such as hand cream.

In a cough remedy liquorice is mentioned, which is ironic as it was well known for being added to tobacco to enhance flavour. While it is generally associated with sweets that children tend to avoid, it was commonly used in medicine. A type of resin called Dragon’s blood is one of the ingredients for making a plaster. It is known for being effective at stopping bleeding and for healing wounds. In the 19th century when superstition was rife it was regarded as a good omen by various cultures around the world. In American voodoo for instance, it was said to ward off ‘negative energy’ and it is still acknowledged for its healing properties.

Various alcohols such as wine and brandy are used often for various ailments and white wine vinegar is even recommended to cure a horse of a cold. Honey is also commonly mentioned, today it is regarded as a natural painkiller and can soothe sore throats. A medicine recommended for a consumptive horse advises that the remedy should be administered with 2 spoonfuls of it. A similar method is mentioned in curing the cold of a horse, most likely to create a more tolerable taste. It can also be seen in a remedy for green sickness, a condition in which red blood cells appear paler than normal.

One interesting remedy mentioned is a ‘certain cure’ to be used after being bitten by a mad dog. It involves the powder of crab’s claws and periwinkle being boiled in milk. It is recommended that a dose or two is taken for a period of 8 days after being bitten. Recipes for rabies have varied throughout history. Another guide for a cure appeared in an early 18th century guide (NRO, COL 5/19), this time involving the use of rue leaves, treacle and garlic among other things which would have been boiled in a strong ale, and recommends a dose being taken for 9 days after receiving a bite. According to a report written after the recipe, the solution allegedly did work on a number of people attacked by a mad dog in Lincolnshire.

In 1742 Dr. Mead wrote letters for various treatments of mad dog bites depending on who was bitten (NRO, HMN 4/8/1-2). The general solution involves bleeding first, a common medical practise at the time when the concept of the four humours was still taken seriously, before taking the powder in half a pint of warm milk. It is then recommended that for the first month since the bite, the patient spends around three minutes under cold water covering the head and ears. For a dog, the solution involves something similar to hiding a pill in peanut butter as it recommends that the powder is rolled into balls with some fresh butter. The dog should then be made to swim for a quarter of an hour every morning for a month. Both cases advise that the wound should be kept open and dressed with ungulntum basilicum mixed with some red precipitate. The powder itself is made using the prime ingredient, fire dried lichen. In his third entry Mead highlights a very specific case which gives advice on how to treat madness in a ‘Christian from China’, Mead claims that his method, a recipe containing local and artificial cinnabar, can cure ‘those that even bark like a dog’. According to Mead, this unique recipe came from the missionaries of Tonquin where dog bites were apparently a regular occurrence.

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Extract from the Neal’s Notebook showing a Remedy for Dog Bites. NRO, MC 3291, 1067×1

Now that basic healthcare is free for all, homemade remedies, while they are still being used today are not as common as they once were, probably because they are not needed as much, although they remain relatively popular in countries that still charge for healthcare like the U.S. In the U.K. homemade remedies are generally for the most minor of ailments, like the common cold, and serve more of a therapeutic purpose.

Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Rebecca Hanley

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Hashtags and 280 Characters: My Experience of Teen Twitter Takeover Day

During the summer I was lucky enough to take part in the Teen Twitter Takeover 2018 at Norfolk Record Office. Hosted by museums from across the country the Teen Twitter Takeover gives teens the chance to experience not only the museum and archive services but also running a twitter account.

Throughout the day I was in charge of the Norfolk Record Office’s twitter. I got to explore their fantastic archive, find out more about different areas and careers in the sector and experience a children’s workshop all while documenting my experience on Twitter.

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My discoveries during the day.

I had a great time and my experience provided me with a lot of insight. Social media and marketing is not an area that you might think is especially connected to museums and archives but it is vital. Social media allows museums and archives to connect to a wider and new audience in particular young people. Part of the Norfolk Record Office’s mission is to present history in a new and exciting way. Social media is a great tool in this respect.

During my visit I was really struck by all the different jobs that come under the archive sector. It was both interesting and useful to learn about careers such as education officer, photographer and conservator. These careers are not always talked about at school. I was quite surprised by how many different jobs are connected by a love of history. I was also really struck by the amount of hard work that goes in to ensuring that history is made accessible to all. Archive staff do really deserve more recognition.

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Enjoying the school holiday activities.

One of the best highlights of the day was the children’s workshop in which children made tabards. It was great to see children so enthused about history.

Running a twitter account was a great experience. It was also quite challenging. I had to learn to write in such a way that was succinct and engaging.

Overall I had a brilliant time and came away having gained a lot of new skills, knowledge and confidence. I was presented with a fascinating insight into the inner workings of an archive.

Thank you to all involved for giving me such a great experience.



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Lord Willoughby and ‘the time of rebellion’.


The King’s Lynn Borough Archives received a request for information regarding an ‘apparent uprising’ in West Norfolk in 1548, which was described by Francis Blomefield in 1728. On researching this uprising the archivist discovered a number of references within one of the Hall Book’s (KL/C 7/6). The Hall Books are a series of large, leather bound books which record the minutes, memoranda and proceedings of the Town Council. The references to the upraising include payments of reasonable sums of money. I was asked to look further into these entries and the ‘apparent uprising’, and these are my findings.

Causes of the uprising

Francis Blomefield wrote about the West Norfolk rebellion, attributing its causes to a reaction against the removal of saints’ images from churches in 1548. This surely would have been in contradiction of the claims by Kett’s rebels that the clergy were not doing enough to advance the reformation.

The Norfolk Places website contains photograph of ‘Kett’s Oak’ on the road between Hethersett and Wymondham. However, there is another Kett’s Oak in the grounds of Ryston Hall, reputedly a rallying point for rebels during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.

Kett’s Rebellion

The Rebellion was part of a wave of discontent which swept the country in the late 1540’s; it was partly due to religious issues – the feeling that the Reformation was not making sufficient progress, and discontent with the availability and general level of education of the clergy – and partly economic. The issue here was enclosures – the appropriation of land for sheep farming, which was seen as more profitable for the major landowners, many of whom had gained possession of the church lands which became available after the Reformation.

In point of fact, it appears that Robert Kett himself was guilty of enclosure and a dispute between him and one John Flowerdew gave rise to the uprising round Norwich. With considerable foresight Kett dismantled his enclosures. Although, there are more generous accounts which have him seeing the error of his ways and offering himself as spokesman for the rebels, who began tearing down enclosures in protest at the overgrazing of common land by the landowners.

Kett set up camp on Mousehold Heath, and the rebels actually succeeded in taking Norwich. The forces of authority surrounded the city and ordered Kett to surrender. It was reported that while this was happening, ‘One of the rebels lowered his hose and tauntingly bared his backside. An archer, with ‘commendable accuracy, shot an arrow into his rump.” (from ‘Spartacus Educational’s British History’)

Rather than face starvation under siege, Kett complied, but as the rebels marched out, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, commander of the king’s forces, sent in the cavalry, the resulting rout seeing the slaughter of several thousand of the rebels.

A special commission was put together to deal with the issue of prisoners, though it has been said that the Norfolk gentry, enraged at what had happened, were not satisfied even by the slaughter of the fleeing rebels. Warwick himself had to step in to stop further brutality, pointing out that the gentry got their wealth from the agricultural classes. He is quoted as saying, ‘Will ye be ploughmen and harrow your own land?‘, an early way of saying ‘Why cut off your nose to spite your face?‘.

Kett and three other leaders, including Kett’s brother William, were arrested and detained in the tower of London. Kett was reputedly twice offered a pardon, which he refused on the grounds that he had done nothing which needed to be pardoned; he was hanged at Norwich Castle on 7th December, 1549.

Effects on the West of the County

The rebellion did not just affect the east of the county though, as demonstrated by the reference to Kett’s Oak at Ryston Hall.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the upper levels of society of those times, but Robert Kett himself was, as we have seen, hardly the downtrodden man of the people rising against oppression that he often comes across, and there will be doubts about other players in this drama, as we shall see.

Returning to the earlier uprising and delving into the appropriate Hall Book (KL/C 7/6) and its later transcription (KL/C 7/31) we come across various references to one of the major figures in the West Norfolk rebellion, Lord Willoughby.

Folio 112 of the Hall Book reports:

‘This day there is taken out of the Treasure House to be delivered unto the Lord Willoughby by way of present upon letters directed from my Lord Protector and others of the King’s Majesty’s Council for the furniture of his service here 100 marks.

Folio 112 of the Hall Book. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/6

This entry is dated 15th August of the third year of the reign of King Edward VI. Edward came to the throne in 1547.

The next entry of note is folio 118, dated 20th November:

‘Robert Houghton has been accounted this day in the hall for £71.7.9 to him delivered for the payment of the soldiers’ wages in the time of rebellion.’ (I have underlined the key words myself).

Folio 118 of the Hall Book. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/6

Folio 125 mentions the feast of the Purification of Mary. This feast is also known as Candlemas: it was tradition that Jewish women were kept in semi-seclusion for 40 days after giving birth. If we accept 25 December as the Birth of Jesus, forty days takes us to 2 February, when it is calculated that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to present him in the Temple. The entry reads:

‘On the Friday next after the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mary Virgin in the 4th year of Edward VI’ (i.e. the Friday following 2nd February, 1550). John Hokes has paid in the hall £53.17.6 in full payment of the arrears of his present account one at Michaelmas last past whereof £30 was delivered to Mr. Mayor and £16.5.8 to the Chamberlains and £7.6.8 towards the payment of such money as was delivered to the Lord Willoughby in the time of rebellion.’ (Once again, I have underlined the key words.)

Folio 125 of the Hall Book. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/6

Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is celebrated on the 29th September every year. As it falls near the equinox, the day is associated with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days; in England, it is one of the ‘quarter days’.

Folio 145 is dated Friday 25th day of January in the 4th year of Edward VI:

‘This day My Lord Willoughby’s obligation of the sum of £25.6.8 is delivered to Mr. Amyas to demand the money of My Lord now at the Parliament which is delivered to Mr. Overend’s servant.’

William Overend and George Amyas are listed in the Hall Book as members of the ‘Congregation‘, and were the two elected Chamberlain’s for the year.

Folio 145 of the Hall Book. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/6

Other sources

As far as I can work out from various sources, including an excellent website run by the Castle Rising History Group, these entries from the Hall Book, gives details of some of those who played a major part in the events.

Jackie Morrallee has an excellent site, which was researched in conjunction with the Castle Rising History Group. Reading through it, it seems that unrest had been breaking out throughout the country, and throughout Norfolk a year before Kett’s Rebellion.

It was reported that one of the Fermours of Barsham was killed during the riots in the west of the county. This was, I believe, Sir Thomas. This is also noted in Walter Rye’s book Norfolk Families.

The Fermours held land at East Barsham, some of which they had acquired after the dissolution of Hempton Priory. They had something of a record of bad behaviour in their pursuit of expansion to the detriment of tenants, and Sir Henry Fermour stood accused of overgrazing the whole of the common land when he only had rights to a certain acreage and a certain number of sheep. This was as far back as 1520, so the unrest had been brewing for many years.

Sir Thomas was connected by marriage to the Cootes of Blo Norton, one of whom was, some 10 years later, ‘attainted for coining’, and though he was acquitted, it seems he was on the run from someone or something when he drowned in the Thames while trying to escape by boat. We hear in the news these days about criminal families, but it seems that it is by no means a new phenomenon!

Lord Willoughby’s Defence against the Uprising

Things came to a head and erupted in 1547. Malcontents from villages around Fakenham gathered, and they are reported as setting up camp in Rising Chase, a royal hunting area since Norman times. Various local spots have been identified as being what came to be known as Kett’s Castle.

Enter Lord Willoughby. The family are to be found back in 1334 in Lincolnshire. One of them fought at Crecy, and advantageous marriages through the years helped establish family fortunes.

William Willoughby was in service with the Duke of Richmond in 1536; he served in Parliament representing Lincolnshire and was raised to the peerage. He was certainly connected with John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, before the ‘time of rebellion‘.

There was apparently a plan afoot for the rebels in Castle Rising to mount an attack on King’s Lynn, but Lord Willoughby, leading a force comprised of the local gentry and paid for with the help from King’s Lynn, managed to thwart it.

Jackie Morrallee reports that the rebels moved south to Downham, which is where the Kett’s Oak of Ryston Hall comes in. It was, we are told, a rallying point for the rebels, but following what must have been something akin to a kangaroo court, the ‘Reformation Oak‘ was used as a gallows tree, giving rise to a rhyme:

   ‘Surely the tree which nine men did twist on must be the old oak at Ryston’

Having completed his work and cleared the camp at Castle Rising, Willoughby moved a sizeable force of loyalists to Walsingham, where he joined forces with the Earl of Warwick, and the combined force moved eastwards to tackle Kett’s uprising in Norwich.

Researched and Compiled by Pete Widdows, NRO Research Blogger.

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Extending his Grasp on Science even after Death

The statue of Sir Thomas Browne stands in the Haymarket in Norwich, often covered by birds, and occasionally wearing a traffic cone on his head. But how many people passing by really know who Sir Thomas Browne is. Hopefully, with the launch of Talking Statues, the statue of Sir Thomas Browne, voiced by Adam Buxton, will be able to give people an understanding of the man himself.

The man himself

Sir Thomas Browne was a well know scientist and medical doctor. Although born in London in 1605, he settled in Norwich in 1637 and practiced medicine there for the rest of his life.

Finding his remains

His interest in these subjects continued into his death. Browne died on 19 October 1682 and was buried in his parish church of St Peter Mancroft on 24 October (NRO, PD 26/16). However his story doesn’t end there. Browne’s resting place in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft was accidentally disturbed in 1840 by workmen digging a grave for the Vicar’s wife, and the skull and coffin plate (which was broken into two pieces) were removed. They were among the subjects chosen for a new photographic process, the calotype, patented in 1841 and popular for the next decade.

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The original burial of Thomas Browne, 1682. NRO, PD 26/16

Looking after the skull

The skull was presented to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in 1845, and remained in the hospital’s museum for more than 75 years. It was reburied in the chancel of St Peter Mancroft church following the issue of a faculty in 1922 (NRO, PD 26/41).

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The Burial of Thomas Browne’s Skull. NRO, PD 26/189

The Norfolk Record Office holds a number of documents relating to Thomas Browne, including letters, manuscripts of some of his books and his will. They were displayed in an exhibition in the Long Gallery. Information on some of the documents are included in Thomas Browne


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Locating a fitting tribute to Norfolk’s Hero of the Sea

Many Norwich citizens know about Nelson’s statue in the Cathedral Close in Norwich, now voiced by Stephen Fry for the Talking Statues project. But how many people know about the huge column on the coast? At the very south end of Great Yarmouth, as you head towards Gorleston, stands a tall pillar, dedicated to the ‘Norfolk Hero’. It stands at 44 metres high (only 8 metres shorter than Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London). Originally built on open ground, the Pillar is now surrounded on 3 sides by an industrial estate and the other by the sea.

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Drawing by George Clayton Eaton. NRO, ETN 4/13/9

This image of Nelson’s Monument drawn by George Clayton Eaton, shows the monument as it stood in the 1850s, surrounded by mainly open countryside (NRO, ETN 4/13/9).

Creation of the Column

It was created in 1817-19 by William Wilkins, and was the first monument in England dedicated to Lord Nelson, pre-dating Nelson’s Column by over 20 years. At the top of the pillar is a statue of Britannia, facing inland and holding an olive branch in her right hand and a trident in her left.

Where to locate the Column?

Although the authorities were relatively quick to provide a tribute to Nelson, just over 10 years after his death, the prospect of where to locate the monument proved to be tricky. The records of the Town Clerk’s Department within the Great Yarmouth Borough Archives (NRO, Y/TC 35F/1) highlight a meeting of 1815, were it was decided that the monument should be placed in or around Great Yarmouth. They state that the monument should be a column and that it should be useful for navigation by sea. This information was sent off to the Court of Corporation of Trinity House, to be discussed at their meeting in September of that year. However, they were not so keen on the idea, preferring instead to place the column in Cromer, where it could serve as a lighthouse. This, they thought, would be particularly useful if coastal erosion destroyed the existing lighthouse.

Thankfully the matter was clearly resolved and only 2 years later the monument was built in Great Yarmouth. Many of the visitors to Great Yarmouth’s Pleasure Beach have probably never noticed the figure of Britannia watching over them as they enjoy their rides. Next time you visit, be sure to look out for her.

Other Nelson Documents

The Norfolk Record Office holds a number of documents relating to the life and memory of Lord Nelson, from letters written by him, to his baptism and even a lock of his hair. More information on each of these items can be found in Lord Nelson- Norfolk Hero.

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What was the True Identity of ‘Black Bart’?- part 2

Most sources state that US outlaw, Charles E. Boles aka ‘Black Bart’ was born in Norfolk, England in 1829 to John and Maria Bowles. John left a will which mentioned a number of family members and they can be traced through the US censuses. These records tell us that John was born c. 1789 England, Maria was born c. 1793 England and they had children: Harriet (c. 1812), William (c. 1815), James (c. 1818), John Jr. (c. 1819), Robert (c.1822), Lucy (c. 1824), Charles (c. 1829) all in England, then Maria (c.1832) and Hiram (c.1834) in Jefferson Co, NY, USA. There has been some discussion about the change from Bowles to Boles, but the name is spelled in several ways in the censuses, so this is just another spelling variant. Norfolk was not recorded in the censuses, but much of what is known about Black Bart came from people who knew him and there is a further piece of compelling evidence. Leonard Bowles born c.1792 England also came to Alexandria with his wife Mary Ann and family at the same time as John and Maria and there is a surviving naturalisation intention for Leonard stating that he was 44 and had been born in Shelfanger, Norfolk, England. It is very likely that Leonard and John were brothers.

It is commonly stated that John Bowles and Maria Leggett married in Great Yarmouth in 1807 and there is such a marriage in the Great Yarmouth St Nicholas Marriage Register (NRO, PD 28/71) (in the name of Ledgett), but if Maria’s ages in the census and on her gravestone are correct, she would only have been 13 in 1807, which while legal with parental consent, was fairly uncommon and the marriage does not record consent. The children born to this couple in Yarmouth were listed in the Great Yarmouth St Nicholas Baptism Register (NRO, PD 28/30) as being Thomas William (1811), Mary Ann (1814) Harriet Maria (1816) John Ledget (1819), Robert Cropley (1821), Joseph (1828), Harriet (1830) and Richard Leggett (1835). They do not fit with what is known of the family and crucially, their last child was born in Yarmouth long after we know the family were in the USA. They can also be seen in the 1841 (HO 107/794/38/20) and 1851 (HO 107/1806/163/3) censuses in Yarmouth, so they cannot possibly be Charles’ parents. (N.B. They had lost track of their true ages, but are living with two of their known children and a Mary and Charlotte Leggett in 1841, so it is surely the same couple).

As Leonard Bowles reported that he was born in Shelfanger, those parish registers were searched, but neither John nor Leonard’s baptisms were found there. There was just a burial of a William, son of James and Rebecca Bowles, in 1795 (NRO, PD 80/4). Were John and Leonard baptised to this couple before the family moved to Shelfanger? Various genealogy websites were searched for other children baptised to James and Rebecca, but none were found.

The marriages of John and Maria Bowles and Leonard and Mary Ann Bowles were also looked for without success. However, in Bressingham -just 4 miles from Shelfanger – baptisms were found for John (1824), George (1824) and Eliza (1827), the children of Leonard and Mary Ann Bowles, late Stone (NRO, PD 111/4). This must surely be the couple who emigrated with John and Maria. Burials for a Sophia Bowles, aged 14, Martha Bowles, aged 10 and John Bowles, aged 6 were also found in the Bressingham burial register, in 1827 (NRO, PD 111/9). The baptisms of Sophia and Martha were looked for in the Bressingham registers, but were not found. However, on 6th September 1818 Sophia (born 1813), James (born 1815) and Martha (born 1818), the children of Leonard and Mary Ann Birch, late Stone, were all baptised together. So we have a Leonard Birch and a Leonard Bowles both married to a Mary Ann Stone, both in Bressingham and with children seemingly in common. Could Leonard Birch and Leonard Bowles be one and the same man?

A marriage for Mary Ann Stone and Leonard Birch was looked for and found in Fersfield, which lies between Bressingham and Shelfanger, in 1812 (NRO, PD 144/4). Also found there was a baptism of Sophia, daughter of Leonard and Mary Ann Birch, in 1813 (NRO, PD 144/3). Thus it appears that Sophia was baptised twice in the name of Birch, but buried in the name of Bowles.

The Shelfanger baptisms (NRO, PD 80/2) were looked at again to see if any Birch baptisms were found there and the following was noted:

Leonard, son of James and Rebecca Birch, baptised 26th February 1792

Therefore, Leonard Birch was baptised in Shelfanger the very year that Leonard Bowles recorded he was born there. Also his parent’s names were James and Rebecca Birch and just 3 years later a William, son of James and Rebecca Bowles was buried in the parish. Therefore, it seems we have clear evidence that not only did Leonard use the names Bowles and Birch, but so did his father, James. Could John and Maria Bowles also have used both surnames?

There was indeed a marriage between a John Burch and Maria Hall, in 1811, in Shelfanger (NRO, PD 80/6). There were also marriages for Elizabeth Birch and Edward Bell and Martha Birch and Jonathan Bennett, both in 1800. Jonathan Bennett witnessed John and Maria’s marriage. In the Shelfanger Particular Baptist Birth Register (TNA, RG 4/1138) there were baptisms of children of Robert and Martha Birch and Robert Birch witnessed Leonard’s marriage in Fersfield (NRO, PD 144/4). It seems likely therefore that John, Leonard, Elizabeth, Martha and Robert were all the children of James and Rebecca Birch aka Bowles.

Could Charles Bowles aka Black Bart also have been baptised as Birch? The following baptism was located in Bressingham (NRO, PD 111/4), the same parish that Leonard and Mary Ann were living in:

Charles, son of John and Maria Burch, late M. Halls, labourer of Bressingham, baptised 25th October 1829

baptism of Charles Burch, bressingham-ed

Baptism of Charles Burch, 25 October 1829 in Bressingham Parish Register. NRO, PD 111/4

Thus we do find a baptism of a Charles Birch in exactly the year Black Bart is said to have been born.

A number of questions remain:

Firstly, why did the family use two surnames? The most likely explanation is that James was born illegitimately to a woman named Birch and his father was a man named Bowles. James Burch was buried in Shelfanger, in 1837, aged 86 (NRO, PD 80/9) which gives him an approximate year of birth of 1751. There was a James, the base born son of Sarah Birch, baptised in Wymondham, in 1753 (NRO, PD 184/3) and there were Bowles living in the Wymondham area at the time. James’ father may well have acknowledged him and so the family commonly used the name Bowles and took the opportunity of the emigration to take permanently the name they felt was their inheritance.

baptism of James Birch, Wymondham-ed

Baptism of James Birch, on 25 September 1753 in Wymondam Parish Register. NRO, PD 184/3

Secondly, where are the baptisms of the other children thought to have been born to James and Rebecca and the other children known to have been born to John and Maria? We do only have Leonard’s and Charles’ baptisms thus far. There are two obvious explanations for so many missing baptisms. The family lived in an area very close to the Suffolk border, so may have been living in Suffolk when the other children were born. Alternatively, the family may have been non-conformists. Norfolk was a hotbed of non-conformism and there is an established link between those communities and emigres to the US. Jonathan and Martha Bennet (late Birch) had several of their children baptised into a Wesleyan Church and recorded in the New Buckenham Circuit Wesleyan Baptism Register (NRO, FC 72/6) and Robert and Martha Birch had their children’s births registered with the Shelfanger Baptist Church (TNA, RG 4/1138), so other members of the family may well have belonged to churches whose records have not survived. Leonard and Charles may have been weak when they were born and so baptised into the Anglican Church as a precaution in case they did not survive until an itinerant dissenting minister could perform a ceremony.

Despite these questions there are some further additional pieces of evidence that the Birch family are one and the same as the Bowles family and these are:

  • There is no trace of any of the people thought to have emigrated in Norfolk records after 1829.
  • One of the few children born to Leonard in Bressingham who survived infancy was James Birch, born 1815. A James Bowles of that age born in England is found in Alexandria, Jefferson County in the 1855 New York State Census.
  • A baptism of a Maria Halls in 1793 in Fersfield (NRO, PD 144/2) gives her date of birth within just 5 days of the date of birth which can be calculated from information on Maria Bowles gravemarker in the USA.
  • The Bressingham Churchwarden’s Account (NRO, PD 111/70) for Easter 1830 – Easter 1831 records an interest payment for £300 borrowed “to enable certain paupers of the Parish of Bressingham to emigrate”.

The evidence all points to needing to add one more to the list of names that Black Bart was known by during his lifetime. Of course, there is at least one more left to discover: what was he know as after his disappearance from Vasalia in February 1888?

Researched and compiled by Professional Genealogist, Joanne Penn.


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What was the True Identity of ‘Black Bart’?

The Outlaw

Black Bart was an infamous US outlaw who committed some 28 holdups of Wells Fargo stagecoaches, in California, between 1875 and 1883. He was known for his politeness, for taking only the contents of the strongbox and the mail – he never stole from the passengers – for never firing a shot or harming anyone and after the 4th and 5th robbery, for leaving a poem at the scene.

His modus operandi was to halt the stage on foot by brandishing a shotgun, he wore a long linen duster coat, a bowler hat and a flour sack with eyeholes as a disguise. He would pretend that he was part of a gang and indeed the driver would see 4 or 5 shotguns aimed at him from bushes. After requesting that the driver “Please throw down the box” he would use a hatchet to break into the box, take the gold and mail and escape on foot – it is said he was afraid of horses – whereupon the driver would eventually realise that the other shotguns were merely strategically placed sticks.

It is estimated that Bart netted some $18,000 during his career, but his luck finally ran out on the 3rd November 1883. At the scene of his first robbery, on Funk Hill in Calaveras County, Bart held up his last stage. The driver had given a ride to a hunter and dropped him off shortly before the holdup. As Bart was breaking into the strongbox, the driver saw the man and beckoned him over whereupon he opened fire. Bart made his escape, but was hit on the hand.  The alarm was raised and a posse set out in pursuit. Bart was on foot, exhausted and bleeding, he jettisoned his belongings and much of his haul. He did escape, but found among his belongings was handkerchief which bore the laundry mark ‘FXO7’.

A Wells Fargo detective, James B Hume, had been trailing Bart since his early robberies. He set about tracing the laundry mark and eventually tracked it an outlet in a tobacco shop in San Francisco. The proprietor recognised the clothes as belonging to his friend, C E Bolton, a mining man who was frequently away, at times it was later found that coincided with the robberies. Hume had his man. The photograph, which was taken at the time of his arrest, portrays an elegantly dressed man, carrying a cane, wearing a diamond ring and pin, with piercing blue eyes and a thick moustache.

Black Bart - Norfolk, England

At first, he denied the crimes, but eventually confessed. He insisted his name was C E Bolton, however, a bible in his room, bore the inscription:

‘This precious Bible is presented to Charles E. Boles, First Sergeant Company B, 116th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, by his wife as a New Year’s gift, God gives us hearts to which His — faith to believe. Decatur, Illinois, 1865.’

It was signed by Mary Boles.

Charles E Boles aka C E Bolton aka Black Bart was charged with the final robbery only, he pled guilty and was sentenced to 6 years in San Quinton Prison. He always denied being Black Bart or Charles E Boles, but during his incarceration he did send and receive letters from his wife Mary Boles and other family members, so there can be no doubt about his true identity. On 21st January 1888, he was released for good behaviour after serving 4 years 2 months. He was met by reporters to whom he declared that he was through with crime. He did not return to his family, but did write again to his wife from San Francisco, saying that he was demoralized by being kept under constant surveillance by Wells Fargo and needed to get away. In February 1888, he left his boarding house and did not return. Hume tracked him to The Palace Hotel in Vasalia. The owner confirmed that a man answering his description had checked into the hotel on 28th February 1888 and then vanished, leaving a bag of belongings, including clothes bearing the laundry mark ‘FX07’. He was never seen or heard of again.

On 14th November 1888, a stagecoach was robbed by a masked man who left a poem. Upon comparing the handwriting, Hume declared this the act of a copycat.


 Early Life

Charles E Boles was born in 1829, in Norfolk, England. He was the 7th of 9 children born to John and Maria Bowles. The family left England, in 1830, and settled near Alexandria, Jefferson County, New York where John bought a farm.

In 1849, Charles, or Charley as he was known, and his cousin David went west to join the California gold rush, prospecting in the north fork of the American River, near Sacramento. They did not do well and returned home briefly in 1852, before returning again, this time with Charley’s brother, Robert. Both David and Robert died shortly after they arrived, but Charley remained for a further 2 years before he gave up and came home where he married Mary Elizabeth Johnson.

By 1860, Charley and Mary were living in Decatur, Illinois with their 4 children. In 1863, Charley enlisted in 116th Illinois Regiment and fought bravely in the Civil War and was made 1st Sergeant within a year. He fought in a number of important battles and was badly wounded in the abdomen at a battle at Vicksburg and was lucky to survive. He was mustered out in 1865 and returned home.

However, he couldn’t settle to farming and in 1867, he went prospecting again, in Idaho and then Montana, where he bought a small mine. Men connected to the Wells Fargo Company pressured him to sell his mine and when he refused, they cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon it. He wrote a letter to his wife complaining about the incident and declared that he would ‘take steps’. In August 1871, Mary received a letter from Charley indicating that he had made money and was returning home, but when she heard no more from him, she assumed he had died. When Charley’s father died a year later, he left a bequest to his daughter-in-law Mary, the wife of his deceased son Charles. It was not until his arrest in 1883 that the family discovered he was still alive and had been living the life of an outlaw for the last 8 years.

Joanne has carried out some research into finding the ‘true’ identity of Black Bart, and this will be uncovered in the next blog post.

Compiled by Professional Genealogist, Joanne Penn using sources from;; Wikipedia

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