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.

nelson column

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 www.blackbart.com; www.sptddog.com; Wikipedia

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Post-war Demining Operations in the Norfolk Wash and Police Invasion Procedures from the Second World War

A closer look at Norfolk Record Office document, C/PO 1/60.

This intriguing document contains primarily Copy Number 500 of the 1942 revised version of procedures that the British Police should take in the event of an invasion by Nazi Germany (the document appears to account for a naval invasion as opposed to a Para drop).

The front of the document mostly revolves around telegrams between a Chief Constable S. Van Neck (based in Norwich), and a West Norfolk police officer, Superintendent Woodeson MVO, Sandringham Division. Detailed within are the copies, recopies and original texts distributed to officers from five different police districts in relation to the demining of the North Norfolk coast, ranging from sea mines in Hunstanton to pipe mines in Holme.

Also contained are several maps related to the demining, as well as a decommissioned AFV (tanks etc) firing range located at what is now the RSPB reserve at Titchwell Marsh. It’s hard to appreciate the slog of reports and telegrams that each police house and district would have had to trawl through following the end of the War – until you read such a wall of text as this.

Secondly, there is a large file in the middle of the folder labelled “Police Invasion Instructions” – dated May 1942. While some of the background information as to the reasoning behind the document (telegrams etc) are not included, the file does reveal that the police would, in the event of an invasion of Britain by Germany, be vital to the defence effort.

CPO 160

Plan of A.F.V. [artillery firing] range at Titchwell showing arcs of fire control. Norfolk Record Office, C/PO 1/60

Details of curfews, movement restrictions, and for prison wardens an especially stark message – “If governors receive instructions to discharge certain categories for either of these reasons, members of the Services who are within the category of prisoner ordered to be discharged will be handed over to an escort to be supplied by a local Army unit, together with a nominal roll”. It can be assumed by reading this that the government intended for quite literally all able bodied men with a prior service record to be inducted into the military..

The document overall gives a “between the lines” viewpoint of what the defence of this country would have looked like, calling for total mobilisation of all adults. Eighty years later, it makes for both unnerving and fascinating reading.

Written by JP July 2018

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Gruesome goings-on in Old Hunstanton

There is a slim uncatalogued file in the King’s Lynn Archive which contains some 14 documents, dated to the 24th year of King George III’s reign labelled, “Customs Murder Suit”. George III reigned from 1760 to 1820. These documents include a small scrap of paper which is basically a list of expenses to claim, “expenses incurred in conveying Kemball and Gunton to Norwich Castle”, receipts, lists of guards, one interesting one referring to the Wells party and the men who were “all very near Green when shot”, who “took Gunton on the beach”, and “took Kimball lying under the wall”, a list of vital questions to be asked, an account of the fray, the examination of Sergeant Leishman and his identification of Gunton, the statement by Mr Rounds of Snettisham who carried out the post mortem and the indictment document.

1 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Post mortem

Post Mortem. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

Fascinating stuff, but what was it all about? The website for The Lodge, Hunstanton, refers to the story, and there is much to be found online about Norfolk smugglers. The fray in question took place on the night of 26-27th September 1784, when, according to The Norfolk Chronicle, a group of smugglers came across two groups of revenue officers and light dragoons, one from Wells, one from Lynn, who had taken possession of contraband from Dunkirk and were lying in wait for the smugglers to try and get it back.

2 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Wells and Lynn party

List of Members of the Wells Party and Lynn Party. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Cusoms Murder Suit

 

The captain of the smugglers, and the lugger Vipel, was one Thomas Kimbell (or Kemball) of Thornham, and two of his seamen, Andrew Gunton and Thomas Williams, are also named.

3 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - ID document

Document of Identity. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

The soldiers involved were from General Eliott’s Light Horse Dragoons. George Augustus Eliott, PC, KB, 1st Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar, had seen service in the Seven Years’ War, the Great Siege of Gibraltar, where he was Commander in Chief, and the American War of Independence. He first raised the 15th King’s Hussars in 1759; the regiment was merged with the 19th Royal Hussars into the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars, but was named after their general. Interestingly, the regiment was involved in 1819 in the Peterloo Massacre, when it was led by Lt Colonel Guy L’Estrange, another family name with local connections. During the fray, a revenue man, William Green, and a dragoon, William Webb, were shot dead.

4 Uncat Customs Murder Suit -Account of murder

Account of the murders (1). King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

5 Uncat Customs Murder Suit -Account of murder reverse

Account of the murders (2). King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

Among the documents in the file, there is one which includes a directive to select one of the gang to be persuaded to turn king’s evidence, and a request for the baptism certificates of Green’s children, to arrange financial relief for his family.

6 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Evidence and benefits

Evidence and benefits (1). King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

7 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Evidence and benefits

Evidence and benefits (2). King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

8 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Evidence and benefits

Evidence and benefits (3). King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

The three smugglers named above were taken to Norwich Castle and tried for murder at the Thetford Assizes in March 1785.

9 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - Conveyance

Conveyance to Norwich Castle. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

10 Uncat Customs Murder Suit -Expenses Chit

Expenses List. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

They were acquitted, and a retrial was ordered, where they were once again acquitted. The prosecution came to the conclusion that no Norfolk jury was ever going to convict smugglers!

 

11 Uncat Customs Murder Suit - List of questions

List of Trial Questions. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

The gravestones of Webb and Green can be seen in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Old Hunstanton. The epitaphs read: “Here lie the mangled remains of poor William Green, an Honest Officer of Government, who in the faithful discharge of his duty was inhumanly murdered by a gang of smugglers in this parish September 27, 1784, aged 37 years.

12 Green headstone

Gravestone of William Green. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

And: “William Webb, late of the 15th Light Dragoons, who was shot from his horse by a party of smugglers on 25 September 1784 aged 26 years. I am not dead but sleepeth here And when the Trumpet Sound I will appear. Four balls thro’ me pearced there was. Hard it was I’d no time to pray. This stone that here you Do see My Comrades Erected for the sake of me.”

13 Webb headstone

Gravestone of William Webb. King’s Lynn Borough Archives, Uncat Customs Murder Suit

 

There are some obvious mistakes in grammar and spelling, and, it seems, a doubt about the date. Spooky, but that date just happens to be my birthday!

Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Pete Widdows

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A Seaside Holiday in Sketches

Inspired by Norfolk Record Office document MC 2784/G/16.

In 1884, Juliet Mary Seebohm – later wife of Sir Rickman John Godlee, one of the first surgeons to remove a brain tumour – holidayed in Cromer with her family and the Weber family. Her sketches show a charming insight into what the families got up to during their stay.

Fourteen cartoon-strip-esque panels show various events from a day at the beach. The

subjects vary from waiting impatiently for an empty bathing machine on the beach, to capsizing a boat in the sea, to playing cricket in the evening. Rhyming verses on the back give us an idea of how Juliet Mary Seebohm saw and interpreted the events. My favourite is the verse on the back of the drawing titled ‘Desertion’:

‘One day the sea is raging wilde

But gentle mayds are brave

One false mayd leapes – the other sinks

Head-first into the wave.’

Eight more, smaller sketches are stuck to a page which looks as if it has been

MC 2784

Preparatory Sketches NRO, MC 2784/G/16

ripped out of an exercise book. The artistic talent ranges from an intricately drawn child wearing a striped jumper and holding a cricket ball, to a sketch of a lady labelled ‘Hilda’ who isn’t really much more than a glorified stick figure.

M. Seebohm herself doesn’t feature in any of the sketches, showing that she was probably more of an onlooker than a swimmer. But her drawings give us the chance to see her

holiday for ourselves, and to see that, despite the 120 year difference, beach holidays haven’t really changed all that much. The verse on the back of ‘Paradise’ still hold the essence of the joy a beach holiday today can bring:

 

‘These laydes are in Paradise

All bright, with gladfull glee

Disporting them for houres in

The greene and sunnie sea.’

Written by Eleanor Johnson July 2018

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Schools Programme 2018-19

We are really pleased to announce that our schools programme for the next academic year is out now. Containing a number of new workshops, alongside some of our more popular ones, we have something for offer from Key Stage 2-5. The programme for both Primary and Secondary schools can be downloaded below:

schools programme – 2018-19

Thanks to those who have already booked for next year, many of whom are repeating a workshop they had this year. If you haven’t booked with us before, and are interested in a workshop, please don’t hesitate to contact us and we can talk through the workshop with you.

We look forward to hearing from you, and hope you enjoy your summer break.

 

 

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The rise and fall of Woolworths: A case study of the Norwich Store

In 2009, during the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, Woolworths finally closed all of its stores, resulting in thousands of job losses. The company had been operating shops in the UK for over a century. In the aftermath Woolworths products, particularly its legendary pick ‘n’ mix brand were made available online until the UK brand closed its doors once and for all in 2015.

Woolworths first opened its UK doors in 1909, and some may consider the store a product of its time. After all, the concept of a store with almost anything available is regarded as a largely 20th century idea. In addition, some may consider the company, which followed the formula of the increasingly developing and vibrant USA, as out of place in a rigid Edwardian society that was stuck in past. In a society where American influence had not yet taken hold, a place like Woolworths was an ‘ugly duckling’ so to speak. While many today think of Woolworths as a British company, it was American in spirit. America’s class system was not as strict as Britain’s and this is what likely made the idea of the company so appealing to working class British civilians. Woolworths with its fixed prices made a variety of goods, which were previously unobtainable for members of the lower classes, affordable.

The 1928 Norwich building plans for the company (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10015 and N/EN 12/1/10071), show the soon beloved Woolworths store on Rampant Horse Street was being developed around this time. One plan in particular (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10015) discusses how a drainage system will be incorporated with the building. A good drainage system was crucial as buildings posing potential health risks to the public were rejected across Norwich. The Rampant Horse street store was approved however and it would become the heart and soul of the street. According to a later building plan, the final design would have four floors in total, including the basement, as well as a lift (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10071). When it was first built, the upper and middle classes of Norwich most likely considered it a ‘poor man’s’ version of John Lewis but to the not so fortunate majority in Norwich, the store would soon go on to become a local hit with customers.

n,en 12,1,10015

First Floor Plan for Woolworths. NRO, N/EN 12/1/10015

 

 

n,en 12,1,10071

Front Elevation of Woolworths. NRO, N/EN 12/1/10071

 

In the 1940s, Woolworths was one of the unluckiest stores in Norwich. Woolworths was due to reopen in 1939 around Christmas time, following a large extension, but when war was declared with Germany the opening of the store was delayed until September 1940 due to the difficultly of obtaining supplies. It was around this time that a mysterious photograph named ‘girls on the roof’ was taken. This photo displayed mostly female employees from the store, as most of the men would have been conscripted into the army. Due to the lack of men in the nation, it was up to Britain’s women to bear the brunt of the workforce back home, including shop management which would have previously been considered a ‘male occupation’. Little did these women know what was to become of the store in two years’ time. In April 1942 it was blown up by Nazi bombers. Due to Britain’s poor economic situation during and after the war, the store would not be rebuilt until 1950. By that time it had been drastically modernised and employed approximately 300 people.

By the 1960s it had a restaurant, a food hall and even escalators, reminiscent of the numerous large department stores in New York. American influence after the Second World War had dramatically changed post war Britain. In a country and economy which had still not fully recovered from the Second World War and had only recently abandoned its ration system, trendy American styled convenience stores would have been welcomed unlike during the start of the century.

Following three fires in the 1970s Woolworths began to lose its reputation. In 1988, possibly due to the poor national reputation of the business and subsequent financial losses, the Rampant Horse store closed its doors. It was moved to what is now the old Sainsbury’s site at St Stephen’s and then to Riverside where the Norwich chain limped on until it closed for good.

It is obvious that the concept of a store like Woolworths has not aged well with British public, despite its widespread appeal in the second half of the twentieth century. This is perhaps due to the greater and more accessible variety of businesses which specialise in one particular item, rather than many lower quality items. The British public seems to have moved on from the days of convenience and even today, for better or worse, mixed produce stores tend to be looked down upon by society. Norwich is an exception however, and the locals as well as local media, cherish the memories of the store that helped to bring the community together, even in times of war and economic stress. Most significantly, Woollies despite it being regarded as a prominently British business, introduced the ‘American Dream’ to Norfolk and this can still be seen and experienced in places like Castle Mall and Chapelfield. Even today the Norwich store is beloved and though the store itself is long gone, the nostalgic memories of those who walked through its doors will remain.

Sources:

Pete Goodrum, Norwich in the 1960s: Ten Years That Altered a City, Amberley Publishing Ltd, 2013

Derek James, Mystery of Norwich Woolworths picture solved, Eastern Daily Press, 29 March 2011

Courtney Pochin, Take a trip down memory lane with these Woolworths photos, Eastern Daily Press, 03 May 2017

 Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Rebecca Hanley

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