The Strangers’ Case

How does it feel to be a refugee, bereft of everything that you know and hold dear, standing on a shoreline looking towards a foreign, perhaps a hostile new country, fleeing from the worst of humanity but having to hope that, contrary to all your experience, there is the best of humanity on this new, this other shore? This is the question that Shakespeare asks us in his contribution to a play that was not performed until about 360 years after he wrote the words of what is sometimes known as “the Strangers’ speech” in The Book of Sir Thomas More. The play was the combined work of several authors and the subject of a great deal of censorship and revision by other writers. The original version can be dated, tentatively, to between 1591 and 1593. It varies in quality as can be expected from a work that has been through many hands and most of it is of little relevance to this subject, except that I have taken the title from it. The “Strangers speech” is now acknowledged as the work of William Shakespeare. The British Library suggests that Shakespeare was brought in, with others, to revise sections of the play in 1603 and he contributed this speech, in which More asks anti-immigrant rioters to put themselves in the position of the stateless, refugees, the people he calls the “wretched strangers.”

The action of the play and the xenophobic rioting that forms the context of the speech took place long before the play was written. In reality, Thomas More, in his role as an undersheriff of the City of London, was addressing rioting apprentices who had physically attacked foreign workers on what became known as Evil May Day, on the evening of 1 May 1517. London apprentices turned to violence because of their resentment of what would today be described as “economic migrants,” not refugees. They were, in the main, Europeans who had come to London from places like Lombardy and Germany, merchants, bankers and tradesmen who were attracted to the City of London because of its significance in international trade. It is estimated that “64,000 foreigners, from wealthy Lombard bankers to Flemish laborers, arrived on English shores between 1330 and 1550”. [1] At the time that the play was written and revised, between 1592 and 1603, there circumstances were very different. For several decades, people had been arriving on British soil because they were fleeing religious and political upheaval on the mainland of Europe.

Thomas More’s speech in the play, in the words that Shakespeare puts into his mouth, seems to be addressing a different issue from the one that sparked the Evil May Day riots. The people he is talking about are quite obviously refugees, not merchants or skilled artisans settled in the City. In the years leading up to the time that the play was written, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, thousands of people had fled from religious persecution in France and the Low Countries and it seems to be on the behalf of these people that Shakespeare is appealing. In the words of the critic, Jonathan Bate: “More asks the on-stage crowd, and by extension the theatre audience, to imagine what it would be like to be an asylum-seeker undergoing forced repatriation.”

It is this meticulous use of language, which still speaks to us across the centuries, that makes the voice most convincingly Shakespeare’s. Just as he persuades us to feel empathy with the much-maligned Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (which was written around 1598), he asks us in this case to put ourselves into the position of the Other, the refugee, the “wretched stranger”:

whither would you go

What country, by the nature of your error,

Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,

To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,

Nay, any where that not adheres to England,

Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? this is the strangers case;

And this your mountainish inhumanity.

It is a rebuke aimed at all of those throughout the centuries whose “mountainish inhumanity” has denied help to the most vulnerable of all, the stateless refugee. Sadly, it was never heard publicly until 1964 when Nottingham Playhouse revived the play to celebrate Shakespeare’s quattrocentenary . Edmund Tylney, who was the Master of the Revels from 1569 to 1610 and therefore in charge of theatrical censorship, did not allow The Book of Sir Thomas More to be performed. The reason was almost certainly the perennial fear of civil unrest and insurrection that obsessed the reigning monarchs (Elizabeth I and James I) and their courtiers. It was the same fear that plunged Shakespeare into boiling hot water when supporters of the Earl of Essex performed his Richard II – which depicts that monarch being deposed on stage – on the eve of their disastrous attempted coup d’état against Queen Elizabeth I in 1601. Sir Thomas More depicts rioting on the streets of London and Tylney’s vaguely threatening instructions – written on the same manuscript as Shakespeare’s verses, were clear:

Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor’s sessions, with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards – only by a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils.

E. Tilney.

Whether Tylney was concerned about the portrayal of civil unrest generally or the more specific anti-immigrant context is uncertain. There was an influx of refugees from Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp in 1584/5 and this had followed other large groups of people fleeing religious persecution from the Low Countries in the 1560s through to those French Protestants who survived the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. The decades since Evil May Day had seen the flight of many thousands of Dutch, Flemish and French people from the European mainland. Thousands died in the most brutal circumstances. Many of those who escaped came to the British Isles particularly after the accession of Edward VI in whose reign Protestantism became more firmly established. Immigrants were generally known as aliens or Strangers (“Straungers”). The word “refugee”, from the French word réfugié meaning “gone in search of refuge”, did not come into common use until the later influx of Huguenot Protestants from France in the late seventeeth century. The first recorded use of the word Huguenot was in 1560, but it became much more widespread after the second wave of French Protestant refugees came to England following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. In the sixteenth century, although the Dutch, Flemish and Walloon (French speakers from the Low Countries) “Strangers” were generally welcomed, they were nevertheless subject to quite stringent laws as to their rights and obligations in their new country.

There had been immigrants from what was known as the Low Countries (most notably Holland and Belgium) for centuries before they began to arrive in vast numbers, fleeing persecution. Some of these earlier immigrants, who came for other reasons, to ply their trades or because of natural disasters such as flood or famine, are recorded in the database England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550: Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages. From this, derived from taxation documents and other records (mainly alien subsidy returns and letters of denization), we can identify individual migrants, many of whom settled here. Some of these came from Florence, Genoa and Venice and settled mainly in the capital and had been attracted to the mercantile opportunities provided by the City of London. Immigrants from the Low Countries, described variously as “Dutch,” “Hollanders” or “Flemish” settled in the east of England particularly, mostly in London and its environs, of course, but there were also significant numbers resident in Suffolk (213), Cambridgeshire (172) and Norfolk (159).

Some, such as the Dutch householder, Adrian Berbrewer, who paid taxes at Walberswick in Suffolk in 1440, brought European expertise to trades, such as weaving and brewing. There are a high proportion of names related to the brewing industry among them (Berebruer, Brewer, Bruer, Couper), but many other occupations are recorded, often related to clothmaking or the clothing industries for which the Netherlands was famous. Along with the many immigrants called “Wever,” Webber or Webster, there were those such as Henry Clokmaker (cloakmaker or, possibly, clockmaker) of Devon, Hermann Cordewaner (cordwainer) of Norwich and Alice Coryour (currier) of Cambridge. Other names denote the immigrants’ places of origin, from the many spellings of “Dewcheman” (and also several instances of the surname “Duchewoman”) and “Flemyng” to Nicholas Delff, Christina de Friseland of Lincoln, or John Utreght of Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Although these people would be a fascinating study in their own right, they were not present in great numbers until the refugee crises of the sixteenth century. The database has identified 3,102 from the Netherlands and 1,908 from Belgium resident in England between 1330-1550 and there is undoubtedly some overlap. A few thousand arrivals from these countries during two centuries does not constitute a significant influx of people, even in a country with a population of only three million. Nevertheless, in some areas, there was a impact on the culture of the places where immigrants gathered and settled.

What changed everything was the Reformation and in particular, the efforts of the dominant Habsburg monarchy to stamp out what they saw as a threat to both their power and that of the Catholic church. It is far from being as simple as this, of course, but for the purposes of this essay we only need to know the reasons why there was an exodus of Calvinists from the Low Countries in the sixteenth century and why so many of them chose to make their home – some temporarily, some permanently – in the British Isles.

The French settled in England in large numbers, doubtless because of the proximity and longstanding financial and familial connections between the two nations. Shakespeare himself was for a time the lodger of a French immigrant family, the Mountjoys, who were tire-makers, that is, makers of elaborate head-dresses. As they were French Protestants it is quite likely that they came to England as refugees although they do not appear to have been either particularly religious or political. As Charles Nicholl, whose book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street [2] gives us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of this small group of Strangers at this time, writes: “Whatever the precise dates and details there is this hidden chapter of emigration in the Mountjoys’ story: a chapter of upheaval and trauma. They arrive in England as asylum-seekers, indeed as boat-people, crowded into one of the over-freighted little pinnaces and fishing-boats that brought the refugees across the Channel to the south-coast ports…”

Shakespeare’s world (or, at least, his London world) was filled with foreigners, whether they were immigrants, refugees or temporary visitors. In the middle-class, artistic milieu he inhabited, he would have come across many incomers and it is possible to wonder whether some of the many foreign influences in his work, might derive from this, as they undoubtedly also did from the literature he read. The almost “documentary” feel of some of his lines in Sir Thomas More feel like they were based on first or second-hand experience, perhaps told to him by refugees who knew what it was like to be:

… the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.

Another Londoner who was known to Shakespeare was the playwright, Thomas Dekker, who also had a hand in The Book of Sir Thomas More. He appears to have been a Dutch speaker, and although – according to his own account – he was born in London in approximately 1570 and his first language was English, it’s likely he had Dutch ancestry. It isn’t possible to trace him in Subsidy Rolls or parish registers of the time. The Thomas Decker, son of William Decker, who was baptised in 1578 at St Botolph’s in Aldgate is probably too young. It would have made him only about fourteen years old when he contributed to the earlier version of Sir Thomas More. He first appears as an author in his own right in theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe’s diary of 1598, which would make him twenty years old if he was the same person. Even if it does not refer to him specifically, it is quite possible that the family mentioned in the Aldgate registers was related to him. Although there are no references to them being aliens or strangers, they were living in an area with a high proportion of Dutch, Flemish and French immigrants and a short walk from the Dutch church at Austin Friars.

Thomas Dekker’s family may well have been refugees from the Low Countries but it is not possible to prove anything about his nationality. His origins appear to be undocumented which may indicate something about them. It is generally believed that he was born in London but this is because he makes several metaphorical allusions to the city as his “mother” etc. In his romantic comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599) Dekker has one of his characters masquerade as a Dutch shoemaker and uses the opportunity to have fun with the mangled Dutch-English language that he speaks, but there’s little evidence to support the view that Dekker felt any connection with the Netherlands or any sympathy with the plight of the refugees, in the way that Shakespeare did. Apart from his vigorous anti-Catholicism, and his fluency in the Dutch language, there is little in Dekker’s work to indicate that he came from a refugee background.

There were other connections between English theatre of the time and the Low Countries. Playwrights George Chapman, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Cyril Tourneur all served at one time or another in the armies there. After 1586 English acting companies were frequent visitors to the Netherlands “where they would almost certainly have seen Dutch performances of plays about Spanish tyranny and heroic local resistance.” [3] Dutch influence came from many directions and the toing and froing of both English and Dutch people between the two countries meant that there was a considerable interchange of artistic and cultural ideas.

In 1522, only five years after Evil May Day, the Habsburg King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Romans, King of Italy, King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy and Lord of the Netherlands instituted an Inquisition in the Low Countries for the suppression of heretics. An imperial edict, in 1535, condemned all heretics to death. Even if they renounced their heretical beliefs, there was no escaping the violent repression of any unorthodoxy. Repentant males were to be executed with the sword, repentant females were to be buried alive, those who refused to recant, of either sex, were to be burned to death. Most of those accused had become Protestants following the Reformation: Lutherans, Anabaptists and Calvinists, in particular. In the same year (1535), Britain began to receive the first of its refugees. Between 1535 and 1550 five thousand Flemish and Walloon refugees from the Low Countries were granted citizenship and settled in Britain. [4]

When Edward VI had succeeded his father to the English throne in 1547, the somewhat ambivalent attitude of the country to the Strangers improved. The new king was under the influence of the Regent Somerset, who wholeheartedly supported moderate Protestantism, and allowed the establishment of the first “foreign” churches in England for the immigrant French and Dutch refugees [5]. In 1550, Edward VI, granted foreign Protestants a Charter allowing them to practise their religion and giving them the use of the church of St Augustine Friars (known as Austin Friars) in London. Several of the most learned among the refugees were given positions in the Church of England or at the universities – Martin Bucer (Bucerus) – exiled to England from Strasbourg in 1549 – was given the chair of Divinity at Cambridge University and Peter Martyr was appointed to the same position at Oxford – and following what one writer, with considerable understatement, described as the “reverses” during the reign of Queen Mary, the arrival of Elizabeth I on the throne brought a much more welcoming atmosphere for Protestant refugees from Europe.

In 1555 Charles V began to abdicate from his various Habsburg thrones and his son Philip II of Spain took control of the Spanish Netherlands. Charles’ persecution of Protestants had resulted in the executions of over 1,300 people in the Spanish Netherlands between 1523 and 1566. [6] The enforcement of Charles’ edicts had not been so stringent towards the end of his reign but Philip II – via his representatives Margaret of Parma and the Duc d’Alva – was much more zealous and in the 1560s – another wave of Dutch refugees from Spanish rule came to Britain, mainly settling in Kent and the Sussex Weald. A measure of how welcome the Strangers were is that the administrators of the city of Norwich – a city that was so multicultural in the middle ages that some claimed that someone was just as likely to hear French spoken on its streets as English – actively poached the Dutch refugees who had settled at Sandwich. [7] Norfolk had benefited in the past from the skills of weavers and other artisans from the Low Countries and was keen to boost the local economy by attracting more. The Strangers’ church in Norwich was founded in 1565.

Queen Mary had, of course, married the very person whose policies have caused the refugees from Spanish Netherlands to flee their homes in the first place. According to Andrew Pettegree [8] “… abortive attempts to raise an armed protest against Mary’s foreign marriage in other parts of the country had shaken the régime very badly; the loyalty of London was in doubt to the last moment and the Queen and her advisers needed little convincing that the foreign Protestants who lingered in the capital were in a large measure responsible for the unreliability.” On 17 February 1554, all “seditious and non-denizen aliens” were given twenty days to leave the country. Philip II dragged his wife’s realm into his war with France and evetually, England lost its last possession in that country, Calais. By January 1558 a further proclamation ordered the arrest of any non-denizen Frenchman who had not left and soon afterwards a bill was introduced to Parliament enabling the repeal of Letters of Patent by which the remaining French residents held denizen status. Anti-French feeling was running high. It was only Mary’s death later the same year that prevented the situation for Protestant strangers from deteriorating further.

Many of the accounts of the persecution of Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands are partial and indeed were used as anti-Catholic propaganda for centuries afterwards, so accounts of atrocities on both sides should be approached with caution, but there is no doubt that the Spanish Habsburg rulers of the Low Countries, and their representatives such as the Duke d’Alva, at that time were determined on some kind of religious genocide and the threat of extermination was made quite clear. In July 1566, for example, a placard or proclamation was issued directed against those people considered to be a heretical to the Catholic faith: “preachers, teachers and ministers, and their followers shall be liable to death and execution by hanging, with confiscation of all their goods. All who entertain preachers, ministers, etc., shall be brought to the gallows and executed, and fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, masters, mistresses, and other relations shall be responsible for their children, all those under them, should they take part in any of the meetings…” This produced a “vague terror” among the dissenting population but – given the background of persecution, including burnings and torture at the hands of the Inquisition- it would appear that for any Protestants who were unwilling to renounce their faith the writing was on the wall. For many people, however, leaving their homeland may have been a reaction to the extreme violence committed by both sides. What has been described as an “Evangelical Militia,” – bands of Calvinists “went openly through the country beating drums and flying colours,” and also attacking churches and monasteries [7]. Caught in such a terrifying atmosphere, many refugees, far from being activists for their religion, may have simply wanted a peaceful life.

The resulting exodus was huge, resulting in “the largest uprooting experienced in early modern Europe, and the number has been estimated at a total of circa 180,000. Of these it has been suggested that perhaps 10,000 would be found in England by the 1570s, that number peaking at roughly 15,000 in the 1590s before falling back again to around 10,000 generation later.” [9]

Following Mary’s death in late 1558, the new Protestant monarch, Elizabeth I, declared that as long as the refugees were worshipping the same god, differences in the way that religious services were conducted would be tolerated. This presumably only applied to Protestants. When Walloon refugees started to arrive in 1567, settling at Canterbury, Norwich, Southampton, Sandwich, Colchester, Maidstone and elsewhere, they were welcomed and it was particularly noted that the new arrivals had greatly-needed skills in the manufacture of high-quality wool, linen and silk, and related industries.

The first of the “Stranger” churches was established by Royal Charter at Austin Friars in London. Both French and Dutch refugees were allowed to hold services in the nave of the church there. The site had been an Augustinian priory until its dissolution in 1538. French-speaking refugees (at this time usually Walloons from the Low Countries) gravitated towards a church of their own at St Anthony, Threadneedle Street and the churches became known as the Dutch Church and the French Church respectively. Other Stranger churches grew up around the areas where the refugees settled, in Norwich, Colchester, Canterbury and Sandwich all has Strangers’ churches, for example.

In 1568, an order was issued that all Strangers must become members of a Strangers’ church or leave the kingdom. [10] Strangers were obliged by law to be part of the congregation: “A French immigrant in London had by law to be either ‘of’ the French Church or a member of the congregation of a local parish church. This was certainly the case from 1573, when it was decreed that anyone set down as ‘of no church’ in the immigrant lists should be repatriated.” [2] By 1568 the Dutch Church had 2,000 members and the French Church 1,800.

Shakespeare’s French landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, who was quite successful in the small artisan business he and his wife set up in Silver Street, near to what is now London Wall: “In late-Elizabethan London you might hear the same resentments towards immigrants that are expressed today – they took houses and jobs away from the local population; they were flooding in so numerously that they threatened ‘our way of life’; they did not attempt to integrate. ‘They are a commonwealth within themselves,’ complained a group of petitioning Londoners in 1571. ‘They keep themselves severed from us in church, in government, in trade, in language and marriage.’ ” [2]

The government’s response to this was to keep a close eye on the newcomers. They took regular censuses or returns of Strangers in London: between 1562 and 1593 (and beyond this date). There were also proposals for a scheme in which local citizens were made officially responsible for foreigners in their area. “Strangers ought not to take any lodgings or houses within the city,’ it was argued, ‘but to abide at the tables of freehosts, and to dwell in noe other place but with the said hostes to be assigned.” Foreigners were also subject to a double rate of taxation, in addition to other tariffs. Despite this, many traders felt their livelihoods threatened by competition from the Strangers. “They organized petitions and lobbied in Parliament for protection. They were ‘greeved at’ the ‘great number of… straungers settled here amongst us’, and especially at two groups of them, ‘marchants’ and ‘handycraftesmen’ … They [strangers] ought not to sell any merchaundizes by retayle. Contrary heerunto many of their merchaunts are retaylers also, keep shoppes inward, and private chambers, and therein sell by whole sale and retayle, send to everyman’s house, serve chapmen, send to fayres, and utter their commodities many other ways… They ought to imploy the money taken for the commodities of their countryes upon the commodyties of this kingdome, which they do not, for whereas they have halfe the trade of this kingdome in importe they imploy not a twentieth part thereof, but transport the money or make it over by exchange… They ought not to buy and sell merchandizes one to another, which they do freely amongst themselves, and… have ingrossed almost all the new draperie into their hands… ‘ ” [11]

There were further outbreaks of anti-immigrant feeling in 1586. Apprentices of the Plasterer’s Company were arrested and committed to Newgate prison as a result and there were further protests, albeit with less violence, in 1592 when “English shopkeepers” complained that the incomers were illegally retailing goods as well as manufacturing them. A bill was introduced to Parliament to curb their activities. Sir Walter Raleigh spoke “in favour of it, … complaining bitterly of the strangers.”

According to Nicholls, “There were many such petitions, never effectively addressed, and in 1593 anti-alien feeling was dangerously rekindled. It was a time of plague and war – the long-running conflict in the Low Countries, the renewed threat of Spanish invasion. The economy was stretched, inflation was running high, bad harvests drove up food prices. In London the mood was ugly, and the strangers were convenient scapegoats. ‘The common people do rage against them,’ wrote one observer, ‘as though for their sakes so many taxes, such decay of traffic, and their being embrandled in so many wars, did ensue.’ On the street, petitions having proved useless, more militant action began. In mid-April there appeared an inflammatory broadsheet, described by the Privy Council as a ‘vyle ticket or placarde, set up upon some post in London, purportinge… violence upon the strangers’. It is addressed to ‘you beastly Brutes the Belgians (or rather drunken drones) and faint-hearted Flemings, and you fraudulent Father Frenchmen’. It accuses them of ‘cowardly flight from [their] natural countries’, and of ‘feigned hypocrisy and counterfeit shew of religion’. It complains that the Queen has permitted them ‘to live here in better case and more freedom than her own people’. It issues a dire ultimatum: “Be it known to all Flemings and Frenchmen that it is best for them to depart out of the realm of England between this and the 9th of July next. If not then take that which follows, for that there shall be many a sore stripe. Apprentices will rise to the number of 2336. And all the apprentices and journeymen will down with the Flemings and strangers.” [12] The Council drafted an urgent letter to the Lord Mayor, Sir Cuthbert Buckle, ordering that those involved be ‘strictlie examined’ and if necessary ‘punyshed by torture’. But further placards appeared – most notoriously the ‘Dutch Church libel’ – affixed to the wall of the Dutch Church on the night of 5 May, and still picked over today because of its mysterious connections with the playwrights Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. It begins:

Ye strangers yt doe inhabite in this lande

Note this same writing doe it understand.

Conceit it well for savegard of your lyves,

Your goods, your children & your dearest wives.

It rehearses the usual grievances against immigrant craftsmen (‘Our poor artificers starve & dye / For yt they cannot now be sett on worke’) and retailers (‘Cutthroat-like in selling you undoe / us all’), but the note of rabble-rousing violence is more strident than ever–

Expect you therefore such a fatall day

Shortly on you & youres for to ensewe

As never was seene.

Since wordes nor threates nor any other thinge

Canne make you to avoyd this certaine ill,

Weele cutt your throates in your temples praying

Not Paris massacre so

much blood did spill… [13]

It was signed ‘Tamburlaine’, surely an allusion to Marlowe’s play, Tamburlaine the Great (1587). A letter sent from England on 16 May to the Catholic intelligence-gatherer Richard Verstegan in Brussels, gives the following news: The apprentices of London have dispersed many libels against all sortes of strangers, threatning severely that if they depart not spedely to massacre them all… Great fear is thereby conceyved by the strangers. Great companyes of them are already departed, and more daily preparing to follow, so it is thought the most part will away, our Councell not knowing how to protect them. Verstegan himself (writing on 17 May, and thus before receiving the above) says: ‘There are above 10,000 strangers determyned this somer to departe from England… for fear of some comotion to be made by the comon people against them.’ [14]

The “mountainous inhumanity ” that Shakespeare recognized was not very far beneath the surface of English civilization after all.



[2] Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (Penguin, 2008).

[3] Hugh Dunthorne, Britain and the Dutch Revolt, 1560-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[4] Andrew Hadfield,

[5] Christopher Hanson-Smith, The Flemish bond: East Anglia and the Netherlands – close and ancient neighbours (Groundnut Publishing, 2004).

[6] James D. Tracy, The Founding of the Dutch Republic: War, finance and politics in Holland, 1572-1588 (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[7] W. J. C. Moens, The Walloons And Their Church At Norwich. 1565-1832 (Huguenot Society, 1888). See also C. Joby, French in early modern Norwich. Journal of French Language Studies, 27, 3, (2017), pp. 431-451. doi:10.1017/S0959269516000429

[8] Andrew Pettegree, The Strangers and their churches in London, 1550-1580. Oxford D. Phil thesis, February 1983, p.126

[9] Nigel Goose & Lien Luu (eds.) Immigrants in Tudor and Early Stuart England (Sussex Academic Press, 2013).

[10] G. B. Beeman, The Early History of the Strangers’ Church, 1550 to 1561, part of the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, vol. XV, no. 2 (London, 1935), 261-282.

[11] Irene Scouloudi, Returns of strangers in the metropolis, 1593, 1627, 1635, 1639 : a study of an active minority (London: Huguenot Society, 1985), pp. 66-7.

[12] John Strype, Annals of the Reformation and Establishment of Religion, and Other Various Occurrences in the Church of England, During Queen Elizabeth’s Happy Reign (1824 edn.)

[13] Arthur Freeman, ‘Marlowe, Kyd and the Dutch Church Libel’, English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973), 44–52; Nicholl 2002, 47–53, 347–52. The full text of the libel, in a copy of c. 1600, was discovered in 1971 among the ‘residual’ MSS of the nineteenth-century collector Sir Thomas Phillips.

[14] Petti 1959. Anthony Petti, ed., The Letters and Dispatches of Richard Verstegan. Catholic Record Society 52.

‘Lock her up’: the miserable fate of Frances Sarah Barlee (1781-1854)

Frances Sarah Barlee should have led the slightly dull and unremarkable life of any other wife of a Suffolk gentleman in the early years of the nineteenth century and disappeared into the oblivion of the past, barely remembered. It was surprising then to find her name in the records of Ipswich Gaol. I was looking for background material about the lives, sometimes the very wretched lives, of the poor women who ended up imprisoned there and it was extraordinary to find the name of this wealthy and privileged woman among the poor and often extremely degraded females who were locked up there. Even more striking was the reason. She had been sent to prison for contempt of court. The court was an Ecclesiastical Court known as the Court of the Arches and the contempt was that she refused to return to live with her husband, Charles William Buckle Barlee and restore to him “his conjugal rights”. Sarah was kept in gaol for three and a half years, from June 1821 until she was released under Habeas Corpus in late 1824, despite her allegations that her husband was cruel and even violent towards her. Barlee claimed that Sarah (she preferred her middle name) was mentally unstable and he had the support of many – but not all – of his friends and relations in this, most of whom were lawyers, magistrates and clergymen. It is the stuff of fiction, of the Gothic novel or later works such as Jane Eyre or The Woman in White. The power that a husband had over his wife in England at this time was overwhelming.

Sarah Barlee’s story is difficult to unpack. It is very much a case of Sarah’s word against her husband’s but whatever our understanding of the merits of her case, it is difficult to understand how it was considered to be justifiable to imprison someone for years in these circumstances. Sarah and her husband were cousins and she was dependent upon his relations for help, as both her parents died before she married, so she was completely dependent upon her husband and his family for everything.

How had this woman, wealthy in her own right, found herself in such terrible circumstances? The answer is that the marriage laws of the time gave married women no control over their own property. On top of this, her husband was prepared to be utterly ruthless in his claims to his wife’s fortune.

Sarah was born in Deptford in 1781, the daughter of George and Frances Mitchell. Her father was a solicitor, based in Deptford, and he was obviously a very successful one. Both of Sarah’s parents died in 1803, when Sarah was only twenty-two years old and presumably in quite a vulnerable position, as a single woman of good fortune. George Mitchell the attorney had made what he must have thought were excellent provisions for his only daughter in his will. In fact, by doing so, he made his daughter vulnerable to a rogue like Charles Barlee. If she had not married, Sarah might have lived a happy life, as a woman of independent means, but in that era, the unmarried woman, the spinster, was a subject of ridicule and patronising sympathy, even if she was able to support herself.

George Mitchell left his daughter £5,000 as personal property and £500 a year income from properties in Suffolk and Essex. This made Sarah quite an attractive prospect as a wife and it wasn’t long before her cousin from Suffolk turned up with a proposal of marriage, which Sarah turned down. Charles went off and joined the East Suffolk Militia, for some reason signing up under the name of Charles Buckle.

Charles William Barlee was the son of a clergyman, the Rev. Charles Buckle, Rector of Worlingworth in Suffolk. All the Rev. Buckle’s children adopted the name Barlee in 1811, as a condition of an inheritance. This was a fairly common practice among their class at this time, but I suspect it was less common to then revert to the former name when it was convenient. There is a suggestion here of lack of honesty, or straightforwardness at least. Although they were an eminently respectable family in many ways – many of them were clergymen and magistrates, rather harsh magistrates – reading what little material is available about them gives one a distinct impression that they were rather more keen on the material than the spiritual. They loved money and property and the acquisition of more of it appears to have been a preoccupation of most members of this family.

Whether it was because of lasting feelings for Sarah or for her fortune, Charles Barlee reappeared in Sarah’s life in 1814. By this time, Sarah had moved from her family home at Broomfield Place, Deptford to a house in Park Street, near Grosvenor Square in the heart of Mayfair, surely an indication of exactly how rich she had become. Charles told her he’d left the army because of ill-health and proposed to her again. This time, aged 33, Sarah must have felt that her marriage prospects were diminishing and she accepted him. They were married on 19 July 1814 at St George’s, Hanover Square.

St George’s, Hanover Square

The marriage settlement “brought her husband £20,000”, according to one report, but Sarah was allowed to keep the bulk of her property in trust, plus £100 a year from her father-in-law. The trustees, Rev. Edward Barlee and Mr. Charles Clarke, were her cousins, but they were even closer to her husband. Edward was Charles’ brother and Clarke was a close friend as well as a relation. This was quite a conventional arrangement for an heiress in Sarah’s situation but the marriage appears to have gone wrong almost from the moment she and Charles left the altar. According to one newspaper she “conceived a dislike” for her husband immediately. It seems quite reasonable that she did. Charles told her that he’d only married her for her money and that far from ill health being the reason he left the Militia, he’d been court-martialled “under a fictitious name and dismissed the service”.

Using his wife’s money, Barlee bought the Vine Street Brewery on the banks of the Thames, south of the river, close to where Waterloo Station would be built in 1848. Although it was a marshy, semi-rural area before the railways came, in 1815 the Lambeth streets alongside the river were busy, noisy, dirty, foul-smelling and mostly populated by the offices of merchants – timber, coal, potatoes – as well as ship’s brokers, foundries, breweries and small factories. It was a long way from the refinements of Mayfair. Sarah claimed that her husband kept her prisoner there for several years and given his subsequent behaviour, it’s not hard to believe. The money Charles used to set up the brewing business, didn’t last long. Fifteen months after their marriage, in November 1815, Charles was declared bankrupt. Later, in a letter to Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, Sarah made serious allegations about the mental and physical cruelty he had inflicted upon her: “A mutual verbal agreement to live separate took place, but C. W. Barlee [Sarah always refers to her husband in this way] afterwards kidnapped and confined me in a small place in Vine Street, Lambeth … he put me in the charge of a man, without any female attendant, I have a Wen upon my head which arose from an Act of violence committed by him, July 21st 1815”.

After his bankruptcy, Charles disappeared for a while – at least Sarah couldn’t find him – and she went to court and she was advised to seek the protection of her Trustees, but her Trustees were Charles’ brother Edward and his friend, Charles Clarke. She thought they were conniving with him. She took apartments in Chapel Street, Great Yarmouth, where, she wrote, “I was molested by C. W. Barlee in May 1817.” Sarah became convinced her Trustees were hindering rather than helping her and legal wrangling continued until matters came to a head when Charles Barlee began a Suit for the Restitution of Conjugal Rights in January 1819. It was this that led Sarah to the Court of the Arches, the contempt charge and her indefinite imprisonment in Ipswich Gaol.

Ipswich County Gaol and House of Correction was built on the south-west side of St. Helen’s Street between 1786 and 1790. Before that it had been in Black Horse Lane. The original layout of the building shows “a central building in the shape of a truncated or chamfered square, with four radiating wings in the shape of a saltaire.” The central building contained the keeper’s house, magistrate’s room, chapel and infirmaries. The wings had three stories and six main bays, and may originally have had open arcades on the ground floor. The prison was extended in 1821 by the addition of two wings and a treadwheel, just before Sarah was imprisoned there. It was a grim place where public executions were held, including the hanging of seventeen-year-old William Aldous for arson, when Sarah was there.

By the time of her appeal to the Court of the Arches, on 16 November 1822, Sarah had been in prison for eighteen months. She petitioned the Court for help and described her conditions in Ipswich Gaol. Her husband has refused to supply her with “food and raiment”, meaning she had to live on the normal, frugal prison diet of “bread and water, with a small portion of cheese”. There was no ceiling on her cell and she was exposed to the elements, a situation that exacerbated some health problems, including rheumatism and a liver complaint, leading her to fear “that another winter’s imprisonment under her present privations would be fatal to her.” She was 41 years old.

The County Gaol, St Helen’s Street, Ipswich by Claude Nursey (1816-1873)

A twenty-first century view might be that Sarah was subject to “gaslighting” by her husband. She certainly made allegations about her husband’s cruelty and Charles in return declared that his wife had a “disordered mind”. In 1820, the couple were still living apart and Sarah began writing letters making allegations about her husband’s violence. Sarah Barlee wrote a great many letters, some of which are in the National Archives. She was articulate and reasonable for the most part and they don’t seem to me to show any evidence of irrationality, let alone insanity. But it should be remembered that in the 1820s, the men who were making decisions about her life genuinely believed that the female sex was weaker in body and mind and less rational.

Sir John Nicholl, the judge at Sarah’s appeal

Sarah believed that she could persuade the authorities of the merits of her case, by writing to them. It was, after all, the only “voice” she had. She was successful in that a letter she wrote to Sir John Nicholl , the eminent judge who presided over her appeal, was endorsed by “the High Sheriff and nine Magistrates of the County” but this letter turned out to be a grave error on her part. Having been miserably incarcerated for fifteen months, she was obviously distressed and may have exaggerated her privations to the extent that the letter was to provide evidence that she was not in her right mind.

Sarah’s letter to Sir John Nicholl, reprinted in the Royal Cornwall Gazette, November 1822

Despite the support she was receiving from the public and from many in the legal profession, Sarah lost her appeal and had to wait until the end of 1824 to be released. Even then, there was no respite from C. W. Barlee. Having obtained her writ of Habeas Corpus, she, as the Ipswich Journal describes it, “quitted the miserable abode which she had so long endured, and, accompanied by her Solicitor went to Town [i.e. London] where her discharge was immediately directed by three Learned Judges who had heard the case. On this occasion, we understand that the husband, accompanied by two Bow-street Officers attended at the Judge’s House, with a view to take his wife as soon as she should be liberated, but the lady immediately obtained the protection of the Officer of the Court.”

C. W. Barlee made it clear that he would now pursue his wife on the grounds of her alleged insanity. Along with the Trustees, Rev. Edward Barlee and Charles Clarke, he attempted to “take proceedings that a commission in the nature of His Majesty’s writ de lunatico inquirendo should issue against her”. In other words, he wanted Sarah to be confined again, this time on the grounds that she was a “lunatic”. Sarah’s response was to take out a suit claiming that the three men had conspired “to falsely charge” her “with being a lunatic or person of unsound mind”. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

John Longe, the vicar of Coddenham, whose diaries have been published by the Ipswich Records Society, was a friend of Charles’ brother, who was also a clergyman. His diary entries for 8-11 March 1826 include brief references to his appearance at the trial at Chelmsford where he was one of 106 witnesses to appear. Although he was a friend of several members of the Barlee family, Longe attempted to be impartial and told the court that he had visited Sarah in prison and considered her to be of sound intellect. The defendants were cleared of the charge despite the fact that there was now national sympathy for Sarah’s plight. The problem was that the laws of the time did not allow a married woman to be independent of even the cruellest husband.

Sarah continued litigation for years afterwards in an attempt to reclaim some of the money C. W. Barlee had taken from her. She spent her remaining years living quietly, in lodgings such as the King’s Head in Beccles and Duke’s Bridge House in Bungay, where in 1841 she was living with two servants, Harriet Girling and Mary Ann King. The census records her age as 55, although she was closer to 60. She was not living in poverty, but for a woman who had inherited such a vast fortune, it must have felt like it, albeit it in a genteel form. She continued to write letters to public bodies such as the one she wrote to the General Board of Health in 1848 recommending opium and sage tea for the treatment of cholera. At the 1851 census, she was still living at Duke’s Bridge House but, the enumerator wrote, “Barlee refuses to make a return. There are …. females living in this house.” Sarah died “on 31st ult. [October] in her 74th year, Mrs. Frances S. Barlee, of Duke’s Bridge House, Bungay, relict of Rev. Chas. W. Barlee.” [Suffolk Chronicle, 11 November 1854.]

C. W. Barlee died in 1849, never quite having succeded in defeating his wife or having her locked up again. Nor did he ever quell her spirit. Frances Sarah Barlee remained a strong, determined, rational and independent woman to the end.

Reader, she outlived him.

Note: for those interested, below is a transcription of two letters that Sarah wrote to Viscount Sidmouth in 1820, which unfortunately I can’t reproduce for copyright reasons. The reader can make up their mind as to the state of Sarah Barlee’s mental health.

Kings Head Inn, Beccles, May 6, 1820.

My Lord,

I take the liberty of requesting your attention, not only to a case of very great distress, but one in which offences of very great enormity have been committed.

I was the sole heiress of both my parents – my father, George Mitchell of Deptford, Kent – was a Solicitor who practised in the Conveyancing line – he was the only surviving issue of his parents that attained the age of 21 years – he left me by Will all his real & personal Estate. I inherited my mothers property, under her marriage settlement – she was the only issue of the marriage of William Pell of Bungay, with Anne Clarke of Henstead, Suffolk.

I was intrapped into a marriage with Charles William Barlee – By which he obtained several thousands of pounds of my property & ill-treated me, as soon as the ceremony had passed – his mother is one of my nearest relations – my great grandfather, John Clarke of Henstead, having been ancestor in common to Mr Barlee & three other of the parties against whom I complain – his father, the Revd. Charles Barlee held Church Preferment in & was a Magistrate for the County of Suffolk.

The parties to whom I accuse of Conspiracy, fraud, cruelty, & injustice, are C. W. Barlee, his parents, & the Trustees under my Marriage Settlement, viz. the Revd. Edward Barlee of Worlingworth, & Charles Clarke of Hulver, in whom they have acted in Conspiracy & connivance.

A mutual verbal agreement to live separate took place – but C. W Barlee afterwards kidnapped & confined me in a small place in Vine St. Lambeth, which he had previously made for my prison, where he put me in charge of a man, without any female attendant – I have a Wen upon my head which arose from an Act of violence committed by him, July 21, 1815 – through the interference of the Magistrates at Union Hall, I was unable to appear there, against C. W. Barlee – He could not be found, & and as I was informed that I had a right to claim the protection of my Trustees, I was induced by the persuasion of C. Clarke to go to his House at Hulver. W. Sparrow & W. Farr as Beccles magistrates granted me a Warrant against C. W. Barlee . I soon found that C. Clarke was acting in connivance with the Barlees, & as I was not properly treated in his House, I took Apartments, in 1816. I went to reside in the house of W Robinson, Chapel St, Yarmouth where I was molested by C. W Barlee in May, 1817.

In June 1815, W. Reynolds of Yarmouth, was appointed my Solicitor & Solicitor to my Trustees & upon their refusing to place my affairs in Chancery, a refusal which no oldest Trustees could have made, he advised me, to employ W. Sales as my Solicitor, which I did about June 1817 – he only trifled with me & as C. W. Barlee had commenced a Suit for Restitution of Conjugal Rights in January 1819, I employed Robert Cory Junior of Yarmouth, as my solicitor. He said, that I must secrete myself until I had the Protection of the Court of Chancery – he told me I had that Protection & I ventured out in Yarmouth, & was assaulted by C. W. Barlee (A severe illness ensued, in consequence of colds caught in the improper place in which W. Cory had secreted me) after much evasion, & some altercation, W. Cory confessed that he had never applied for the protection. I felt indignant at his breach of veracity & as to such a matter of fact & as soon as I was able I came over here, July 28, to place myself under the protection of the Magistrates of this Town, until I could obtain that of the Court of Chancery. I found that W. Cory had so involved my affairs that no Solicitor could take them out of his hands. I wrote to the Lord Chancellor who was pleased to direct me to apply to a Counsellor at the Bar. I wrote to the attorney general who said that it was quite impracticable for him to render me any assistance without I employed a Solicitor in this neighbourhood to conduct the Proceedings. As I could not do this. I told him so – sent him an Affidavit of my Pauperism & requested that he would not only allow me to name him as my Counsel but that he would be pleased to conduct the Proceedings for me himself. More than six months has elapsed since I have heard from him, though he is aware of the necessity of immediate Law proceedings in my behalf & the state of want, misery & distress in which I am in.

The property settled for my sole use, previously to marriage, is about £500 a year. I appointed in June 1815, Messrs. Gurney, bankers, Yarmouth to receive my settled property. They were to keep my accounts & receive my rents in this part of the Country & there Agents, Messrs. Barclay to receive them at Deptford & Croydon. My Trustees signed a Power of Attorney for them to receive my Dividends. I received about £1000 when payment of my draft was refused , as my Trustees had taken away all my property there ought to have been there about £1000. The last money I received was £10, January 9, 1819. I have ever since subsisted upon what credit I could obtain.

C. W. Barlee was tried by a Court Marshall, & turned out of the 52nd regiments in 1813, in the name of Buckle. Soon after the marriage, he avowed his intention of concealing my property, obtaining all the money & credit he could & then causing himself to be made bankrupt & which he accomplished, with the assistance of Mr. Nelson, my Trustee, who was appointed Solicitor to the Assignees, as he would have taken Apartments within the Rules of the Kings Bench for three months & have shown himself there for two or three times. He used to place loaded pistols where they could only have been put with the intention of destroying me. My danger was the greater as I am extremely shortsighted.

He sold all my family plates & pictures. My poor father’s Books, my Jewels, valuable as having been worn by my mother, even a chain & Bracelets made of the hair of my parents & my poor mothers wedding ring and all these things were done in the most deliberate & cruel manner & with the knowledge of the whole family. Soon after the marriage he dismissed my servant at a moments notice, without my knowledge that I might not have any Witness of his cruelty, et cetera. He has threatened to put me in a Mad house – take me out of the Country, et cetera.

Owing to my not having a proper means of defending myself in the last Term he obtained an order in the Court of Arches for me to return home to him. He has announced his determination of having me sent to prison & excommunicated. I know not what the Law may permit to be done to a female who is deprived by the Conspiracy of the Parties of the means of defending herself, but I do know the parties & am aware that everything in the power of villainy, conspiracy, & fraud to affect will be done against me.

From fear of personal violence I am totally deprived of air & exercise & my health is injured by confinement, distress, deprivation & anxiety of mind.

The objects I solicit your assistance to obtain our redress for my injuries to establish my right to live separate from C. W Barlee & recover my Estate.

I cannot comply with the order of the Spiritual Court – nor have I any right so to do – if I could procure a proper hearing of my Cause in Chancery but if the Spiritual Court, would compel me, for the good of my soul to either live with C. W Barlee as in a Prison I could not hesitate in my choice but it would be unjust to condemn me to a prison for life upon account of the extreme wickedness of others. Religion, morality & self-respect point out to me one line of conduct. I never can become the willing associate of vice, depravity, & infamy, a Villain, a Vagrant, a Swindler, even if I were not in fear of my life. He is expelled all society & with him, I must be expelled too, even if he were willing to allow me to see anyone & they driven into seclusion. I have not done anything to forfeit my situation in society, for I was deceived into the marriage. I have the honour to be, my Lord with great respect, your very obedient servant,

F. S. Barlee

Valentine Kemp of Metfield, Suffolk

Valentine Kemp was from Metfield in Suffolk. His name appears in a report on long-term workhouse residents published in 1861. The report gives little information about him, simply stating that he was living in the Blything workhouse, which was at Bulcamp near Blythburgh. He had been there for seven years in 1861 and the “reason assigned why the Pauper in each case is unable to maintain Himself” (as the report states) was given as “age and infirmity.”

Despite the scant information in the report, his unusual name makes it quite easy to trace Valentine Kemp. We can find that he was born in Metfield in around 1791, that he was 5 feet 4 ¾ tall and had dark hair and hazel eyes. We can find out that he joined the army in 1812, but for most of his life he was an agricultural labourer. We can find out that he married a woman called Mary Rayner in 1820, moved to the nearby village of Huntingfield and that he was in Blything workhouse as a young man – and possibly periodically throughout his life – and that one of his children, David, died there, only a week old. And we can find out about his involvement in a story that was to deeply affect not only his life, but the lives of several other families in Metfield.

Metfield is a small village, close to Fressingfield and Halesworth. In many ways it is a typical, pretty Suffolk village, in the heart of the Waveney valley, with a lovely church, B&Bs and a shop selling local organic produce. The Huntsman and Hounds, the inn that was the centre of village life for centuries is long gone along with three other pubs. There were about 550 people living there when Valentine Kemp was born, including a number of skilled workers – carpenters, tailors, weavers – but the vast majority of Metfield people had precarious employment on the land for a very basic living and for this they depended upon the ten or twelve landowners/farmers in the area. They depended on them for work but if they couldn’t get any work, they depended on the very same people to help them survive. Those same landowners took turns as the Churchwardens, Overseers and Guardians of the Poor that had control over what happened to the poor, whether they and their families were allowed to stay in the parish, or receive assistance, or whether they starved.

Meetings of the Guardians were held at Metfield poor house, a cottage-sized affair that was closed around 1835 when the parishes of Hoxne hundred formed a Union and built a workhouse at Barley Green, near Stradbroke. The Guardians’ records show that they spent more than any of their neighbouring parishes on entertaining themselves, including lavish evenings at the Huntsman and Hounds. As well as giving assistance to the very poorest of the parish, they sought legal means to remove anyone who didn’t “belong” to the parish elsewhere, brought bastardy cases to force the fathers of illegitimate children to pay for their upkeep and had a great deal of control over the daily lives of the labourers in the village. All parishioners were obliged to work on local roads for twelve days each year or be fined. They took action to prevent families from letting their animals graze on public land bordering their own farms and to stop single women from gleaning at harvest time. They published lists of village children who did not attend Sunday School and in 1794 “ordered to Do up a notice for all Boys who are found at any Illegal play on Sundays that they will be Sett in the Stocks.”

The Guardians of Metfield were especially keen on pursuing the poor of their village, using laws developed from the Poor Relief Act of 1662 to make them prove their right to settlement there and, if they couldn’t, ordering their removal to the parish that was responsible for them. In 1826, the wife and children of John Burleigh were ordered to be removed to Reydon because he couldn’t (or more likely, wouldn’t) support them. His wife, Ann Burleigh appealed the order. It seems that she was successful because she was still living in Metfield a few years later, as we shall see.

If you could avoid the poor house, you might be allowed a subsistence income, known as outdoor relief. This could be in the form of a cash allowance, but the Guardians also bought commodities like coal and grain in bulk and sold them at low prices to those in need, sometimes giving them away. They also provided clothing, equipment and even beer, if they felt it was needed. Not that the Guardians didn’t take advantage of the access to cheaper fuel and foodstuffs themselves. This system existed for a long time in Metfield as the Guardians’ Minutes Book shows. There were a great many paupers in the parish in the 1780s and this seems to have been the case for many decades. The 1851 Census of Metfield includes an extraordinary number of people who were described as paupers, presumably in receipt of outdoor relief, in exchange for which they were all “picking oakum”, something which is mainly associated with prisoners. This is not a coincidence. To many of the wealthy residents of Suffolk in the early nineteenth century, poverty was a crime.

Kemp’s employer, Robert Thain, was a blacksmith and not very wealthy but he owned some land in Metfield. He served as an Overseer, appointed in April 1810 and was a member of the Metfield Society for Prosecuting Felons – which was very active over at the Huntsman and Hounds and involved all the same men who were Poor Law Guardians. In 1828 Thain was 83 years old and almost completely blind. He could only recognise people by the sound of their voices. He lived with his wife who was an invalid and a housekeeper, Anne Waller.

Events on the night of the 8th of May were to change the lives of many people in Metfield. Shortly before that date, Thain sold some land and was keeping the money in a chest at the end if his bed. According to the evidence presented to the Suffolk Assizes at Bury St Edmunds the following August, two men, Joseph Bullen (“dark complexion, dark hair, green eyes” and 5 ft 6 ins tall) and Augustine Bush (known as Osborne Bush), broke into Thain’s house, beat him badly with a pole-axe and robbed him of “divers articles of wearing apparel, and plate [five small spoons and a table spoon] and money, his property.” Bush and Bullen (who’d been to prison before) denied any involvement.

Feelings were running high. The defence lawyer, Mr. Prendergast, succeeded in his request that the witnesses on both sides should leave the courtroom and wait outside to be called. The prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Eagle, presented his case by describing a version of events on the night of the burglary:

“[Thain] recollects Thursday, the 8th of May last; he had lately sold some land, and received the money for it, at that time in his house; he kept it in a small box which was placed in the chest that stood at the foot of his bed; he went to bed between eight and nine o’clock on the evening of the 8th, and about twelve, or a quarter-past, two men came into his room; there was a candle light in the room, and one of the men came up and took it in his hand; he gave a great alarm in consequence, and on doing so another of them came to his bed’s head and said, “D__n you, lie down and hold your tongue” he had scarcely got the words from his mouth, when he struck him a violent blow on the head, which cut him severely; he bled very much.”

Thain was unable to say what he was struck with because he could not see, but according to the prosecution “he was present when the prisoners were brought before the Magistrate; he then heard the voice of one of them (Bush) and said, ‘I know that voice,’ Bush replied that he was not there.”

Thain’s housekeeper, Anne Waller, gave evidence of seeing “two people, one leaning over the banisters and the other coming up stairs; one of them appeared taller than the other, and the other was dressed in darker clothes, One of them said ‘go back, I’ll soon quell them.’ ” She was unable to identify the intruders but added that as a pole-axe was kept in the house which she had placed in a corner, but “did not see it again until brought in by one of their workmen named Valentine Kemp.”

A neighbour, Robert Saxby, gave evidence next: “I live at Metfield; the prisoner Bullen is my next door neighbour, and sleeps in a room which is only separated from mine by a thin partition. On the night of the 8th of May last, I went to bed about nine o’clock, and about twelve or one o’clock I heard Mr. Thain, the prosecutor, cry out ‘Murder!’ I immediately got up, and striking the partition as hard as I could called out to the prisoner Bullen, but received no answer. I then put on my clothes, and proceeded downstairs, but while I was doing so, I heard some person into the house of Bullen, and walk upstairs with a heavy step. I then proceeded to the house of Mr. Thain, where I found him bleeding profusely, and he told me that he was robbed and very badly used. I saw Bullen the next morning, but had no conversation with him. I mentioned to some persons, in the course of the morning, about hearing Bullen coming in after I had heard the cries of murder. About ten o’clock he came to me, and asked me why I had been saying such things about him, and said he would split my skull if I said so again.”

Saxby’s story was corroborated by his wife Sarah, but under cross-examination, he was unable to explain why he didn’t report all this to the “proper authorities and to get the prisoner taken up.”

Valentine Kemp was the next witness. He said, that on the morning after the robbery, he noticed the footsteps of a man and boy underneath the window where the burglars had broken in, He traced them to a rick-yard, in the direction of Bullen’s house. That was the extent of Kemp’s “evidence” along with the fact that he found the pole-axe – a short hatchet with a hammer attached to it. The local constable, Mr. Sparkes, then showed it to the court. The front edge of the axe was badly stained with blood, and he also held up Thain’s shirt and nightcap, which were according to the Suffolk Chronicle report of the trial “completely saturated with gore. This exhibition,” the reporter continued, “created a shadow of horror throughout the court; even the prisoners themselves turned away their heads from the shocking scene.”

The next witness was George Burleigh, described as “a sullen, dogged looking boy, of 14 years of age”. He lived with Bullen as his mother, Ann Burleigh, was co-habiting with the defendant. He answered “no” to every question that was put to him. His brother, James, who was only ten years old, was more forthcoming.

James said he went to Thain’s house one night with the prisoner [Bullen]. In getting there, Bullen broke some glass in the window, and, putting in his hand, opened it. He then put James through the window, and asked him to let him in through the door. There was a key in the door at the time, and it was bolted. When he opened the door, the prisoners came into the house, and told him he could go home, which he did, leaving them behind him. Shortly after his arrival at his mother’s house, Bullen came home. The prisoner Bush went round the house, and waited at a stile until he opened the door.

James claimed he had been threatened by “a prisoner in gaol” into giving his evidence. His older brother, George was brought back to be cross-examined by Mr. Prendergast, and said that James told him, in bed, that he knew nothing of the robbery at Master Thain’s and that he was “threatened to be hanged if he did not say that he opened the door.”

There appeared to be a considerable discrepancy in the evidence George gave in court and a deposition he made before the Magistrates earlier, and there was some discussion about whether the deposition could be admitted as evidence. A protracted argument ensued at the end of which the judge declared that if any doubts had been raised in his mind, they were now removed. He advised the jury to dismiss the discussion from their minds, as if they had never heard it.

The defence case consisted of alibis for the defendants. James Taylor, who shared lodgings with Bush at Withersdale, provided one. It’s interesting as it gives a glimpse into the life of a working man at this time: “The staircase of the house is in common; he saw him on the evening of the 8th of May; it was about nine o’clock when he returned from his day’s work; he lives three-quarters of a mile from Mr Thain’s; he went to bed at a quarter past nine; Bush was then in bed; he could hear him talk in his chamber; he saw him the next morning at a quarter before four o’clock, when he was going to plant potatoes, he was then also in bed; the prisoner could neither come in or go out without his hearing him; he did not hear him stirring on the night of the 8th of May.”

Ann Burleigh gave Bullen an alibi, telling the court they were both at home in bed, that she didn’t hear any knocking, or any cry of “Murder!” Despite this, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. Bush and Bullen were both sentenced to death.

Shortly afterwards, Valentine Kemp was attacked in the street by Ann Burleigh. The report in the Bury & Norwich Post on 22 October 1828 gave the following details: “At Ipswich Sessions on Friday … Ann Burleigh, for an assault on Valentine Kemp, who was a witness at the late Assizes against Osborne Bush and Bullen, with one of whom Burleigh cohabited, three months’ imprisonment and to find sureties.”

The Suffolk Chronicle added, more accurately, that she had been living with Bullen, whose death sentence had been commuted to a sentence of transportation for life, adding Kemp’s witness statement that “on the morning after his return from [giving evidence at] the assizes, a neighbour called to him in the road, and asked how he had got on at Bury, and whilst he was telling him, the prisoner came from her house in a violent passion, and struck him three times on the face, saying ‘how can I bear to see persons near me who have forsworn themselves.’ ”

The trial of Bullen (32) and Bush (20) appears to have created a division among the local community. The key witness was Ann Burleigh’s son, James, a ten-year-old boy. Documents in the National Archives reveal that the report from the gaoler at the prison where they were kept awaiting transportation regarded Bush and Bullen as “bad” characters (Bullen had been in prison before) but in their favour a local magistrate, Augustus Cooper, wrote a letter containing a statement by James Burleigh, saying that the prisoners were convicted through false evidence. Eighteen people signed a character reference for Bullen and eleven people “of Stradbrook” signed one for Bush. Nevertheless both men were transported for life on the convict ship, Lady Harewood, on 24 March 1829 (some Australian records say they were on the Waterloo.)

Neither of them ever returned from Australia. We can trace Osborne Bush because he received several tickets-of-leave (a document giving a convict parole), meaning he had proved himself trustworthy and giving him limited freedom of movement. Bush’s first ticket-of-leave had been cancelled in 1840 due to his presence in a “disorderly house”at Hyde Park Court in Sydney. A second ticket-of-leave was issued at Mudgee, in the County of Wellington, New South Wales on 3 January 1842, allowed him to “proceed to Bligh and Liverpool Plains in the service of Mr. Edwin Rouse for 12 months.” In November of that year, the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Sydney granted Osborne Bush a pardon. He then seems to have disappeared into rural Australia, first living in Mudgee and later at Wee Waa, 571km from Sydney, where there is a Post Office record of unclaimed letters addressed to him in the 1860s. Bullen got his ticket-of-leave as early as 1837, after which there doesn’t seem to be any trace of him.

What of the people they left behind? A great deal has been written about the undoubted hardship faced by the convicts who were transported but their families remained to face equally-hard lives of poverty, hard labour and deprivation. In Metfield they also had to live with the fall-out from a trial that had divided their community. Ann Burleigh was probably not alone in feeling anger towards Valentine Kemp for giving evidence against her partner. The Bullen, Bush and Burleigh families were closely connected and there were quite a few of them in the village. A year after he was transported, another Augustine Bush was baptised in Metfield church. The mother was Mary Ann Bush who was Mary Ann Burleigh before she’d married Augustine/Osborn in 1827 and must have been pregnant when he was sentenced to death. By 1841, Mary Bush, “pauper ag”, was still living in Metfield with her eleven-year-old son, his name now shortened to Austin, and four other sons, none of whom could possibly have been fathered by Augustine/Osborne.

James Burleigh, the boy who had given the evidence that condemned two men, can be found in Metfield in 1851, living with his wife and three children. He’s described in the Census return as a “pauper ag lab picking oakum” and by 1861, he had been an inmate of Hoxne workhouse for nine years.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Valentine moved, with his wife and child, to live in Huntingfield. Compared to Metfield, there appears to have been full employment there. It is not hard to see that Valentine Kemp may have had other reasons to move away from Metfield however. Life would have been difficult for him after the trial. Three families had lost loved ones and breadwinners on his inconclusive evidence and that of a child who had then rescinded it. Did he move away because of the hostility and resentment giving evidence caused? Whatever happened, both witnesses had the same fate awaiting them.

The Heart of the Matter

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer & slave owner

Benjamin Greene of Bury St Edmunds, brewer and slave owner.

The recent revelations in our media about the treatment of British subjects that has become known as “the Windrush scandal” has rightly shocked many people. What decent person could fail to be horrified by the degrading and inhuman treatment of fellow citizens who should be approaching their later years as respected members of our society, not facing poverty, fear and deportation?

Something else has intensified my personal feelings of revulsion however. By coincidence, I have been researching and writing an article about the conduct of some slave-owners in the West Indies. Most, if not all, of the “Windrush generation,” are, almost certainly, the descendants of slaves who worked on British-owned plantations in the Caribbean. Having spent the last few weeks reading about the horrors of slavery in the Leeward Islands, I have watched my government treat them, not with the humility and contrition that might be expected, but with hostility and aggression. I never thought I would ever read about a British citizen fearing “the knock on the door in the night.” That fear, until recently, firmly belonged to people living under oppressive, totalitarian regimes.

Anyone who has read about the atrocities of the slave trade will feel that we owe the descendants of slaves a great deal. Citizenship, certainly. Arguably, Britain also owes them compensation in some form. Yet, just before this scandal broke, the Treasury revealed that although compensation had been paid, it was not to the victims of slavery but to its perpetrators. Last February it tweeted: “Did you know? In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40% of its national budget, to buy freedom for all slaves in the Empire. The amount of money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Which means that living British citizens helped pay to end the slave trade.”

The government department clearly thought this was the cause of celebration, but the tweet was deleted the following day after it was received with some anger. As the historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian: “… the £20 million was paid out to the 46,000 slave owners, to compensate them for the loss of their human property. By one calculation that is the modern equivalent of about £17bn. Is this really something we should regard with collective pride?”

One of the families that received compensation for the loss of their slaves was the one I am researching. The Greene family were an important and respected dynasty in the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. Benjamin Greene, the man who founded the famous Greene King brewery there in 1799, produced some distinguished descendants, including his eldest son, Benjamin Buck Greene, who became Governor of the Bank of England, and his great-grandsons, Hugh Carleton and Graham Greene, who were Director-General of the BBC and a highly-acclaimed novelist respectively.

By 1830, the Greenes had acquired several sugar plantations in St Kitts, Montserrat and Antigua, which they either owned or managed, eventually running eighteen estates. They made a great fortune out of sugar and, far from being ashamed of their involvement – the prevailing atmosphere in Britain at that time was in favour of abolition – Benjamin Greene dedicated himself to arguing the case for slavery to continue, claiming that slaves had better lives than the agricultural labourers who worked on his Suffolk estates. He even bought himself a newspaper in which to put his views forward. In contrast to the thousands of words in print debating the subject from the point of view of both slave-owners and abolitionists, the slaves themselves were forced to remain silent. They were rarely given a voice in either the official records or the printed media of the time. To catch a glimpse of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean, we must go back to a few decades before the Greene family became involved, to The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789):

“When I was in Montserrat I knew a negro man, named Emanuel Sankey, who endeavoured to escape from his miserable bondage by concealing himself on board of a London ship, but fate did not favour the poor oppressed man; for, being discovered when the vessel was under sail, he was delivered up again to his master. This Christian master immediately pinned the wretch down to the ground at each wrist and ancle, and then took some sticks of sealing wax, and lighted them, and dropped it all over his back. … It was very common in several of the islands, particularly in St Kitt’s, for the slaves to be branded with the initial letters of their master’s name; and a load of heavy iron hooks hung about their necks. Indeed, on the most trifling occasions, they were loaded with chains; and often instruments of torture were added. The iron muzzle, thumb-screws, &c, … were sometimes applied for the slightest faults. I have seen a negro beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over… I grant indeed, that slaves are sometimes, by half-feeding, half-clothing, over-working and stripes, reduced so low, that they are turned out as unfit for service, and left to perish in the woods, or expire on the dung-hill… It was almost constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations of the chastity of the female slaves… I have even known them gratify their brutal passions with females not ten years old.”

The official abolition of slavery in St Kitts did not immediately improve the situation for what were supposedly now “free” slaves. For several years, slavery was replaced with an “apprenticeship” system in which slaves over the age of six had to work for forty-six hours a week, scratching out a subsistence living in the time that was left to them. The resulting rebellion, when black labourers refused to work, was ruthlessly suppressed by a regiment of British soldiers shipped in from Barbados. British newspapers reported: “We regret to learn that an insurrection has broken out in St Kitts. The particulars we have not heard; but it appears the deluded wretches, on being fired on, charged en masse with the intention of overwhelming the military. They were, however, received with coolness, and bayonetted on the spot.”

Even in the dying years of slavery, the Greenes continued their ruthless treatment of their black workers. It does not seem to have ever been a source of shame to them. One of Benjamin’s sons, Charles, was reputed to have fathered thirteen children in his brief time managing the family estate in Nicola Town, St Kitts, before he died at the age of nineteen. In 1970, Hugh Carleton Greene wrote an article about “great-uncle Charles” for History Today, in a tone that now seems repellent:

“In the possession of my family is an inventory of slaves on some of Benjamin Greene’s estates prepared in 1819. On one estate alone there were 43 men, 43 women, 37 boys and 35 girls to a total value of nearly £15,000. Against their names are such comments as ‘ruptured’, ‘infirm’, ‘broken leg’, ‘one eye’, ‘wooden leg’, ‘elephantiasis’, ‘leprosy’, ‘subject to fits’, ‘eats dirt’ and ‘pregnant’. The girls about to be born would have been ripe for Charles fifteen years or so later. Whether the exact number of his children was thirteen one may never be able to find out: some there certainly were. … William’s diary makes many references to their riding excursions and to the nervousness of the negro workers when they broke into a gallop. One likes to think of Charles, like King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, dismounting and bestowing his casual favours on girls working in the fields. … Many of his children no doubt sank back into the great anonymous mass of negro labour.”

Benjamin Greene’s descendants were part of a liberal élite but, at best, they were wryly amused by their family’s exploitation of the black people on their Caribbean estates and almost wholly dismissive of them as fellow human beings. Hugh’s brother, the writer Graham Greene, worked for the Anti-slavery Society briefly, perhaps in an attempt to expiate his family’s sins, but it was hardly enough. The Greenes, along with 46,000 other slavers wanted compensation for the loss of their slave “stock.” The list of compensation claims, listed on the UCL Database of Slave Owners, is an example of how Britain has never addressed the crimes that it committed. As a nation, Britain still likes to think of its colonial era as a time of adventure and endeavour, rather than atrocity and oppression. We prefer to talk about abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson than to recall the horrendous exploits of people like the Greenes. Until Britain starts to face up to the crimes of its past, it cannot begin to repair the damage it has done in the world.

In recent years, people have been forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families and detained without due process. As Hugh Muir recently wrote in the Guardian “Behind the scandal were questionable philosophies, assumptions and attitudes, and it is those we need to unearth.”

We can find some of those philosophies, assumptions and attitudes in the history of Britain’s involvement with slavery.

If you are interested in reading a longer article about this subject, Outrageous Fortune: the Greene family of Bury St Edmunds and Slavery in the Leeward Islands was published in the Suffolk Review, Autumn 2018.

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens: a Suffolk mystery


On 2 March 1901, William Tricker, a man who described himself as “a gentleman of independent means,” but who actually worked as a gamekeeper for the local Suffolk gentry, was walking through his home village of Ashbocking (or Ash Bocking, if you like, the name derived from the ash trees that flourished there and an ancient family of landowners called the Bockings). He decided to take a look at the edge of some land he was renting, which was opposite the pub, the Lord Nelson. He’d spotted some watercress growing at the edge of his pond, he said. The pond was tiny, about twelve feet in width but it was also deep and several of the villagers used it for their fresh water supply. As Tricker looked at the watercress, his eye caught something else, a sight that he would never be able to forget. About eighteen inches below the surface of the water were two pale faces, staring up at him like phantoms, white and bloated, floating there like twin moons.

Something glimpsed on the periphery of his vision, as if it were an incident in an M. R. James ghost story. William Tricker might have been forgiven for not believing his own eyes, but it would have only taken him moments to realise that both of those faces were familiar. They belonged to eighteen-year-old Edgar Hardwick and twenty-three-year-old Robert Richer, who had been missing since the previous Wednesday. The two young men had spent most of their short lives in the village, the Richer family were near neighbours of Tricker, who lived at the White House at Ashbocking Green. The Richer family’s cottage was almost next door.

It’s possible that M. R. James may have, consciously or subconsciously, used a few details from the strange events at Ashbocking in A School Story, published in 1911, ten years later. This typically subtle and chilling tale ends with the discovery of two bodies found tied together in a well in Ireland. A coin on a chain was found “amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been. One body had the arms tight around the other.”

Compare that to this report of the inquest into the deaths of Richer and Hardwick that appeared in the Ipswich local newspaper, The Evening Star, on 4 March 1901: “Standing one in front of the other, the two, after having connected their belts, seem to have wound them around their waists, and afterwards entered the water. Another curious circumstance in the case is, that on Thursday, the morning after the deceased were last seen, a carter named Wood, in the employ of Mr Turner, of Witnesham, saw a watch and chain on the railings by the side of the pond. Seeing it had not been taken when he passed the spot again in the afternoon, he took charge of the watch and chain, intending to give it to Mr Tricker, to whom he believed it belonged. However, on hearing of the tragedy, he handed the watch and chain to the parents of one of the deceased, who identified them easily.”

It is quite likely that Montague Rhodes James read the newspaper coverage of the story, whether he was in the Cambridge University study where he told his students ghost stories on Christmas Eve, or back home in the Rectory at Great Livermere in Suffolk, neither were very far from Ashbocking. The two male bodies tied together has an obvious pre-Freudian subtext – obvious to us in these post-Freudian days anyway. The writer, Anthony Powell, a pupil of James at Eton said that “I myself have heard it suggested that James’s (of course platonic) love affairs were in fact fascinating to watch.” James may have been hinting at something in his story that was never made explicit in any of the newspaper coverage of the true events of 1901. In his story, an exotic inscribed Byzantine coin on a chain replaces the more prosaic discovery of a watch and chain, but the echoes are clear.

But this was no ghost story and the corpses at Ashbocking Green were all too real. Tricker quickly realised that he did not have the strength to pull the two men out of the pond without help, and he ran across to the Nelson, returning minutes later with several helpers. They hauled the bodies out and carried them to the nearby Toll-gate house. It would have taken a very short time to identify Richer and Hardwick. They had left the pub the week before and people in the village said that everyone assumed they’d gone off to join the army. It was the time of the second Boer War and Robert had a bit of form as far as going off without telling his family was concerned. Once he’d disappeared to London for several weeks without “acquainting his parents of his whereabouts.”

Both lads had jobs locally. Robert worked as a labourer, along with his father, also Robert, for the Stanford family who farmed at Ash Hall, and Hardwick worked as a labourer employed by someone called Simper. Edgar’s father David Hardwick was a horseman on another farm. Few people in Ashbocking were not involved with agriculture in some way. Their families would not have been wealthy, but were described as “comfortable” and appear to have been respected by the other villagers. The discovery of the bodies, and in particular the way that they were found, sent shock waves through this remote community. The local press certainly made a great deal of the story, as a “village mystery” and a tragedy, but the inquest, which was held very quickly, appears to the modern reader to be full of contradictory evidence and hastily concluded. Very hastily indeed.

Ashbocking is one of those Suffolk parishes that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Nowadays the old clay cottages, barns and timbered farmhouses have been converted and there is an air of second or holiday homes about it. There are swimming pools in some gardens. It has a peaceful beauty, if only in the sense of the Talking Heads’ song: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It is only eight miles north of Ipswich, but it is quiet and it has always been quiet. The only event that appears to have occurred here, if it can be called an event, was the expulsion of its vicar, Rev. Theodore Beale, by the notorious Committee for Scandalous Ministers in 1644. They were turbulent times. Suffolk’s own William Dowsing was on a mission to smash up idolatrous images in East Anglian churches and in the same year, Matthew Hopkins, of Manningtree, appointed himself Witchfinder-General and started his persecutions, many of them in East Anglia. You could be burnt to death for stepping out of line in 1644. It was a time to keep your head down and keep quiet, even in Ashbocking, but Beale was an outspoken clergyman and had preached sermons that said more than enough to cause the Puritan government to order the sequestration of his living and property. He was thrown out of Ashbocking and some people said that he died in prison.

Ashbocking returned to peaceful ways for several more centuries. Nothing ever happened. The land, owned by the Tollemache family, was cultivated to grow crops: barley, oats, peas and beans. That was all there was in Ashbocking by the beginning of the twentieth century, plus a public house called the Nelson, now closed, and demolished. It was a small parish of 289 residents who lived in 66 dwellings, mostly cottages. Everyone in this isolated parish would have known almost everything about everybody else in the village.

The inquest was not held at the Nelson. It was quite usual to use a nearby public house for an inquest but perhaps the Ashbocking Nelson was too involved, too close. It was very quickly decided to have the inquest in a neighbouring village and it opened a few days later at Pigstye Farm, Witnesham. (Pigstye Farm is called something else now, perhaps it was not an ideal name for a holiday home.) The coroner was Mr. Walter Brooke and a jury was hastily assembled, presumably made up of local people. Were feelings running too high in Ashbocking for a jury to be trusted there? There is nothing to tell us. We do know, however, that Superintendent Hubbard of Woodbridge represented the Suffolk police. The Cambridgeshire Advertiser reported the inquest in full. Could this have been where Montague James saw the story? It’s likely, and perhaps a few of the details stuck in his mind, to be brought out ten years later in A School Story. It’s interesting to try and spot the differences and omissions between the detailed report in this newspaper and those published elsewhere, and so I will give it in full, except where it repeats things that we already know:

Robert Richer, labourer, Ashbocking, identified the deceased, Robert Richer, as his son. Witness last saw him alive on the previous Wednesday morning, about 6.30, when leaving for work. As the morning was wet deceased did not go to work – he was employed at the same farm as witness – and seemed more inclined to stay in bed. Deceased expressed the intention of attending a pigeon match at Otley, and deponent believed he came home about ten o’clock, after writing a letter to his sister, who is in service at Henley.
The Coroner: Have you seen the contents of that letter? – No, Sir.

A Juror: The letter is important.

Witness added that his son did not return home on Wednesday, but he made no report to the police, as deceased on a previous occasion left home and did not return for several weeks. He did not think his son and Hardwick “palled” together much. Deceased had been in good spirits.

The Coroner: You never heard him express a wish that he was out of the world, or anything of that sort? – No, Sir.

You do not know of anybody about here who owed him a grudge? – No, Sir; he always appeared happy and comfortable.

At the conclusion of the witness’s evidence the Foreman (Mr. Fred. Miller) expressed the opinion that it would be best to have the letter written to deceased sister produced.

The Coroner agreed.

George Hardwick, labourer, Ashbocking, said the deceased, Edgar Hardwick, was his brother, and he last saw him alive at the White Hart, Otley, on the previous Wednesday, between 8 and 8.30 p.m. Deceased, who appeared in his usual health and spirits, was drinking hot rum and water. Deceased remained in the house four or five hours. Witness had been with him to the pigeon match, and deceased was in Richer’s company throughout the day. The two deceased men left the White Hart about 8:30 p.m. His brother had been in very good spirits, and, as far as deponent’s knowledge went, he had had nothing to worry him.

The Coroner: Has he ever made use of any expression in regard to his life? – No, Sir.

Was he a drinking man at all? – No, Sir.

The Foreman: Did the deceased man Hardwick lose any money at the pigeon match? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they shoot somebody? – No, Sir.

Witness, continuing, said he lived with his brother, who got up about nine or ten o’clock on Wednesday, taking his meals as usual. Witness notice nothing peculiar in his manner that morning, although during breakfast they had no conversation upon any subject.

The Coroner: Had you and he had any row of any sort? – No, Sir.

Did you often have your meal together without talking? – Yes, Sir.

That is rather unusual proceeding? – Yes, Sir.

A Juror: Did he have much drink during the day? – I can’t say.

The Coroner: Had there been any friction at home? – No, Sir.

Was he a genial and good-tempered fellow? – Yes, Sir.

Mr Geo. F. Meadows, surgeon, Otley, who had made an external examination of the bodies, said he could detect no marks of violence. The cause of death in each case was asphyxia by drowning.

Richard Tack, postman, Coddenham, deposed that he had just finished his delivery in Ashbocking, and was in the Nelson Inn, when informed of the previous witness’s [Tricker’s] discovery. Witness assisted in the removal of the bodies, and during the operation the two belts with which the bodies were strapped together gave way.

Alfred Hatcher, labourer, Otley, said he had known the deceased for four or five years, and met them at the White Hart on the Wednesday evening. They were both drinking ‘mild’ beer at the time, but just before they left the house they had some rum and water.

The Coroner: Were they quite sober? – Well, they seem to have had a little beer, but they could walk and talk all right.

Were they much accustomed to taking too much drink? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they seem in good spirits? – Yes; they were laughing and talking.

How many glasses of beer did they have in the house? – About two apiece.

Frances Diggens, daughter of the landlord of the Ashbocking Nelson inn, said she occasionally served in the bar, and knew the deceased, who frequently visited the house. On the previous Wednesday they came into the bar at 9.30 p.m. and she served them with a bottle of gingerbeer each. The men remained until closing-time, and appeared sober and very quiet. The deceased had nothing to drink beyond the gingerbeer.

Supt. Hubbard: Was it unusual for them to have ginger beer? – They usually drink beer.

Mrs Emma Daniels, married woman, of Swilland, gave evidence to the effect that both men, while in the Nelson Inn, seemed quite sober; their conversation mainly referred to a bracelet worn by Miss Diggens. On leaving witness noticed that the men did not turn in the direction of their homes, and remarked, ‘That is not your way home.’ Richer turned round and exclaimed, ‘I am going to leave this _____ country.’

The Foreman: Did Hardwick make any remark? – No.

In reply to a juror, witness said she was rather timid at the time, as she thought the deceased men were going to have a ‘skit’ with her; consequently she hurried home with her daughter. Witness and others had thought Richer was not exactly right; he seemed to have had some ‘funny schemes’ recently. On one occasion recently he fired off a gun in front of the Nelson Inn, and slightly injured his hands. Richer then remarked that he would just as soon sink as swim, or die as live; he would shoot anybody who stood in front of him.

The Coroner: Was he drunk at the time? – No, Sir. I have never seen him drunk in his life; he was not even ‘freshy.’

What sort of man was Hardwick? – He was a nice quiet boy.

A Juror: Had there been a row in the Nelson when Richer threatened to shoot anybody? – No.

The Coroner here observed that he thought it would be advisable that Miss Richer, who had received a letter from her brother, should attend the inquiry, together with David Hardwick, the father of the other deceased man.

The Foreman: I should like to see the letter. It is a most extraordinary case.

Some discussion ensued among the Jury as to the advisability of an adjournment until March 18th, and it was pointed out by the Coroner that in the event of this course being pursued it would be possible for the police to make further enquiries. Eventually, however, after a consultation, the Foreman announced that the Jury had decided that the enquiry should proceed as they had already practically made up their minds in the matter.”

Richer had a letter from a Miss Ethel Furnish in his pocket. The Coroner told the Jury that he had seen it and it contained nothing important. They were also told that both Richard and Hardwick had money in their pockets.

“The Coroner, summing up, observed that a person, by the law of England, was considered to be sane unless the contrary was proved, and in this case there seems to be little or no evidence – with the exception of that given by Mrs Daniels – as to the state of mind of either of the deceased men. Mrs Daniels evidence seemed scarcely sufficient to show there was really any unhinging of the mind which would make the men unaccountable for their actions at the time. Unless there was evidence of that kind it was the usual course, by the law of England, to return a verdict of felo-de-se.” [A felo-de-se is an arcane legal term for suicide.]

The jury, after a brief consultation, returned an open verdict of “found drowned.”

Apart from the excessive interest in the drinking habits of the dead men, reminiscent of Hillsborough enquiries in our own time, what’s most interesting are the things that, like the dog that barked in the night, were not heard. Richer’s father claimed that his son was not paricularly friendly with Hardwick, although it seems unlikely in a tiny village that two young men of a similar age were not close, unless they had reason to dislike one another, which was obviously not the case. In fact, when Edgar Hardwick’s brother George was asked if the two young men were “very intimate,” he answered quite unequivocally: “Yes.”

Even if the jurors accepted the Coroner’s opinion that the letter from Miss Furnish found on Robert’s body was irrelevant, it seems astonishing that they weren’t interested enough to wait the short time it would have taken to retrieve the letter he had sent to his sister from Henley, a village just outside Ipswich. It might have explained everything. Even if the members of the jury were desperate to go home, it’s surprising they didn’t have enough interest in the case to wait for this letter.

The story was taken up by newspapers around Britain, as far away as Dundee, and, as these things are, it was altered and embroidered in the telling. The words – only witnessed, allegedly, by people in the Nelson – reportedly spoken by Robert Richer to the effect that he wanted to die and “would be better on the morrow” were soon ascribed to both young men. The jury was instructed to find a verdict of suicide, but it didn’t. You don’t have to be a devotee of Line of Duty to know that the police and court officials would have been destroyed by a Edwardian equivalent of Superintendent Ted Hastings. The most basic enquiries were never made. The rush to a verdict was unseemly to say the least – and there the story ended.

It seems obvious that the deaths of Robert and Edgar were probably suicide. The reason that dared not speak its name being the most likely explanation as to why two young, healthy men, who were described as being happy, enjoying life, and taking a holiday to have some fun, suddenly disappeared to be found dead in this bizarre manner, but I think there may be another explanation. Certainly, if Robert and Edgar were lovers their lives would have been difficult. At the Old Bailey in 1901, consenting adult men were sentenced to periods of between six months’ and ten years’ hard labour for “sodomy.” It was the era of Oscar Wilde, but I doubt somehow that Richer and Hardwick were going about mid-Suffolk wearing green carnations – although it’s clear that Richer (“I’m going to leave this _____ country.”) was unhappy in some way. In backwaters like early twentieth century Ashbocking though, it would have been possible to conduct some kind of illicit love affair in secrecy. There were plenty of hidden places for clandestine trysts. It’s interesting that, unlike the London courts, the Suffolk criminal registers don’t have any records of such offences at this time. In the eighteenth century, homosexual men from Suffolk were forced to stand in the pillory on Ipswich Cornhill, or, on rare occasions, were even hanged, but by the twentieth century, all had gone quiet. It seems that people did not even want to recognise the existence of same sex love – but that doesn’t mean the hostility and hatred had abated.

The only noise in this case was the babbling of the people at the Nelson, who seemed very anxious to brand Robert Richer as a bit of an oddity. The inquest only had the word of the witnesses in the Lord Nelson about what really happened when the pair left that night. It was from those people that the inquest heard that the boys went in the wrong direction on leaving the bar. But what if they weren’t telling the truth, what if everyone in that bar knew what happened but they just weren’t saying?

The police and the Coroner rejected any idea of “foul play” out of hand. It would have been too difficult, they decided, for even a large group of men, to strap the lads together in this way. Would it have been? And what happened to Robert and Edgar between the time they left the Nelson on Wednesday night and when William Tricker discovered their bodies on Saturday morning? We have no scene of crime officers or forensic scientists to help us, but it’s unlikely that the bodies had been lying in a clear pond, habitually used for public drinking water, unnoticed for more than two days.

There is no way of knowing what happened, because no one, not even Robert and Edgar’s families, would have wanted us to know. Ashbocking Green returned to its usual state of rural sleepiness, undisturbed by the presence of violent death in its midst.

Football, war and the meaning of silence


At the end of the First World War, the whole of Britain was in a state of numbed paralysis. After four years of bloodshed and carnage, in which almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out, the only response available to the nation was silence. It was to silence that people turned when they made their first memorials to those they had lost. On 11 November 1919, when the Manchester Guardian wrote of the first Armistice Day commemoration, it spoke of “silence which [is] almost pain … And the spirit of memory brood[ing] over it all.”

The men who survived the trenches also chose silence. For several generations, their families knew that they would not speak of the war, that the father, grandfather or great-grandfather, with the musty box of medals and the Old Comrades’ Association mug in his cupboard, was not minded to talk about it, but preferred to remain silent, although perhaps he might have shared a few memories over a pint if he ever ran into a pal who’d been through the same.

Silence is there in the work of our war poets like a shroud. In Siegfried Sassoon’s The Death Bed he writes of “silence and safety…” while for Wilfred Owen it meant danger (“Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . / Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . . / Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . . / Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, / But nothing happens.” (Exposure)

For all of them, silence is also death.

So it is strange now that we live in a time of such clamour and noise, made for the most part by the overpaid attack dogs of Murdoch and Rothermere, demanding everyone pays appropriate tribute on Remembrance Day. Those shouting the loudest are unlikely to have seen war at first hand. Similarly people who work in what they would probably call the football industry appear to have decided that they too have a role in shaping our collective memory. Only a few days ago, the Premier League posted this on their website, despite there not being one iota of consultation of supporters who are expected to participate in or watch these rituals (which is hardly suprising given the general attitude of the football authorities to fans).

The introduction of the one minute of silence at football matches has been a slow process. I’ve tried to find out when it first began but I haven’t been able to. It’s difficult to know exactly how our football grounds became places where the nation gathered for such commemorations. It’s fatuous to suggest that football has replaced religion but sports events are often the only place where communities come together. I can see that. What I can’t see is who decides who, what or why we remember and how we go about it. We are – at least we’re told we are – “the football family” and like every family we have things that we share, but we also quarrel, squabble and don’t necessarily all agree on very much at all.

Silences were once held to remember former players or club officials who died. Sometimes a silence was observed for a member of the Royal Family who had died, although this was always controversial. Occasionally they were held because of a local tragedy. I remember a particular occasion at my club’s ground, Portman Road, which was both moving and comforting. It felt right. Since then, however, it seems that we are being called upon to hold silences for all kinds of things, without being consulted on whether we agree with them or not. The assumption that we must all agree about these things is contemptible in my view, and I decided long ago that, although I would never be disrespectful if I were present at any such event, I would not participate in it myself unless I happened to agree with it.

This is made easier, of course, by the inability of many people to remain silent for as long as sixty seconds, which has resulted in that interesting phenomenon “the minute’s applause.” We are not a generation that has known much of war or death, and the “silence that is almost pain,” and so, perhaps, silence is difficult for some.

I am told that holding silences to commemorate our war dead at football matches came with the Help for Heroes campaign and that seems about right, at least in the timing of it. The militarism that has become more and more prominent in our public life has been obvious to anyone who has regularly attended football matches in the last ten years. It seems that to even question this will result in accusations of anything from not caring about injured troops to treason, so hysterical has our public discourse become in recent times. However, the imposition of the commemoration of war – rapidly morphing into a celebration of war as this egregious photograph of children in this year’s British Legion press release demonstrates – is simply wrong.


It’s wrong because it forces people to participate in something they may not agree with, or may even find objectionable. It’s wrong because it presumes a social cohesion and shared beliefs that ultimately results in the dangerous mentality that “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” It is wrong, particularly in the context of a football match, because it’s based on a fantasy about war itself, and a fantasy about the relationship between war and football. From the Christmas card imagery of the fabled match between Fritz and Tommy in the First World War trenches onwards, football is increasingly being used to sanitise the experience of war.

In 1914, there was in fact tremendous hostility in Britain towards professional footballers. Football club chairmen, ever with money at the forefront of their minds, insisted that players kept to their contracts and most footballers, understandably reluctant to be blown to bits for their country, declined to join the army. The bravery that consumed some journalists as they sat behind their typewriters encouraged them to attack the players. The Times thundered: “These professional footballers of England are the pick of the country for fitness. Nobody has the right to say that any body of men are not doing their duty… but when the young men week after week see the finest physical manhood of the country expending its efforts in kicking a ball about, they can’t possibly realise that there is a call for every fit man at the front.”

Eventually the pressure was so great that most young footballers did join up and many were killed or maimed so badly that they never played again. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, things were different, players were determined to “do their bit” and were able to carry on playing football as well as serving their country. Aware of the importance of football for public morale, the government made it easy for top players like Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Frank Soo and Joe Mercer to be stationed in England where they could continue to play as guest players for other clubs, if they couldn’t play for their own. Very few star footballers of the time ever saw open warfare.

Unlike now, there were no loud demands for footballers to wear poppies or for commemorative silences to be held at football grounds after either of these wars. Players who had lost comrades or family members did what everyone else did and remembered in church, or at their local war memorial, or alone in silence. They had their own thoughts, feelings and memories and it wasn’t necessary to make a public show of them. So why now? Why do the people who write newspaper columns, or football administrators, feel they have the right to insist that players and supporters participate in such events? It is a compelling part of the romanticisation of war, this conflation of the football player and the soldier, but it is not one that bears much scrutiny when faced with the realities of combat: the severed limb, the pitiless impact of war on the lives and minds of survivors, or – to go back to Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure – “The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, / Pause over half-known faces. / All their eyes are ice, / But nothing happens.”

I have written before about the social pressures associated with poppy wearing and this year the controversy continues but I would question why any footballer should wear a poppy on his shirt while playing. Why has this suddenly become an issue for football when for decades, no one felt the necessity of asking players to commemorate war, certainly not the people who actually fought in one? My answer is that there are people behind it who have political motives to encourage an atmosphere of nationalism  and its concomitant hostility to “outsiders,” and the public celebration of war, rather than the private mourning of those affected by it which is, in fact, more traditional in this country.

I’ve also written about the digitisation project which I worked on in 1999/2000, Picture Norfolk, in which the extant portrait photographs of every Norfolk serviceman killed during the First World War were made available online. These images have had an immense effect on me. In the age of the selfie – the preening and posturing of the shallow and the self-obsessed – they seem even more poignant. The lack of self-awareness, the direct, honest gaze, the unpretentious stance, these were images quite consciously made for the loved ones who were left behind. Each silent face preserved so that it would be remembered over the long years to come, when all that remained of the subject was a treasured sepia photograph, hanging above a quiet fireplace.

Age of Consent

img_2029In the early 1990s I was working for Age Concern in Norwich. Most of my job consisted of giving advice about welfare benefits, providing support for the various extremely acrimonious and seriously misnamed older people’s Friendship Clubs, and reading a lot of social policy documents. I wasn’t there long and the one thing that has stuck in my mind from that time is my boss, an experienced social worker, coming into the office and telling us that a woman had been raped in Great Yarmouth. I misremembered her age. I’ve been thinking she was in her 90s. In fact, as this extract from an article by Linda Grant in the Independent tells us, the victim was 100 years old. Her assailant, whom I’m pleased to see was later convicted, was a 16-year-old boy. What is most clear in my memory, I’ll spare you. It was about the fragility of the woman’s bones.

Most people reading that – even those who have been celebrating the overturning of Ched Evans’ rape conviction – will be sickened. Despite the nastiness and the appalling misogyny that has been let loose by the Evans case, I believe the discussion is missing the point. Rape is not about sex-gone-wrong. It’s all about power.

That’s not to say the issue of consent isn’t important. It is an important issue and young women (and men) need to be protected by society from the victim blaming/shaming culture that fails to recognise that having sex with someone without consent, and that includes being too pissed, stoned, or unconscious to give it, is rape. Date rape is an important issue and I’m not saying it isn’t.

For me, though, we’ll never solve the problem of rape and sexual assault unless we address the fact that it’s rarely (I’d probably say never) about sex. It’s about power. It’s why footballers, who have partners at home and brag about the number of women queuing up to have sex with them, do the kind of things that happened on that fateful night. Forgive me if I’m being a bit naïve, but I still believe most men prefer intimacy with a conscious, sentient being. The Ched Evans case was never about sex. That’s why the debate about consent is a red herring – important in itself, but irrelevant to this case. Unfortunately, making it about consent also meant his conviction was overturned, thereby giving free rein to every keyboard warrior in the country to opine about how much the woman concerned “deserved” it.

Every woman knows what it’s like to live in a society where it’s necessary to think constantly about your own personal safety. Every woman has a long list of the assaults, from minor to major, that they have to put up with, often from people in a position of trust. Most women will also tell you that other women are frequently not supportive when these incidents occur. That the most common response, even from friends, to hearing about sexual assault is to make the victim feel she is somehow to blame. We are seeing this now with the female support for Evans and also in the fact that Donald Trump, who is the archetype of every sleazebag boss you ever had, is a smidge away from becoming President of the United States. The ultimate power trip.

Rape is about power which is why it is a weapon of war. Mass rape has gone on since ancient times and it continues. While girls and women are seen as property, they will remain the spoils of war.

Rape is about power which is why the victims of rape range from babies to, as we have seen, 100 years old.

Sexual assault is about power which is why every woman knows what it’s like to have to fend off the unwanted attentions of your boss, your teacher, your Presidential Candidate, or any other authority figure in your life.

Sexual assault is about power which is why, even in the 21st century, women’s lives are circumscribed by fear. Fear of making a mistake and being in a position of vulnerability. Fear of missing the last bus or train home. Fear of the landlord who you know illegally has a key to your flat and uses it. Fear of the father of two charming children you babysit for. Fear of your neighbour. Fear of your friend’s granddad.

Yes, it’s obvious that a lot of men and women need educating about consent. We need to recognise that the sexual oppression of women is about more than that though.

Evil May Day revisited

David Cameron’s decision to make a speech about immigration in the run up to local elections may be surprising to some. It is unusual for a political leader in Britain, whether a monarch or a Prime Minister, to make such an overt statement about immigration.  Nevertheless, there is a history of violent, albeit short-lived outbursts of anti-foreign feeling in Britain, usually as a result of rabble-rousing by a demagogue like Oswald Mosley

One example took place in London in 1517 and became known as “Evil May Day.” This sudden, and probably terrifying, riot occurred two weeks after an inflammatory sermon by a Dr. Bell, in which he appealed to “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.” Attacks on foreigners began immediately, but events came to a head on the first of May when apprentices, later joined by Thames watermen and city porters (these three groups seemed always to be up for a riot) ran wild in the city of London, attacking foreigners, looting their homes and shops. In this case, the “foreigners” were mainly French, but such outbreaks of aggression took place periodically, aimed at Jews, or the Dutch or other groups who were identified as being an economic threat to the indigenous population.

Here’s a contemporary account from Hall’s Chronicle (ca. 1548) which was sympathetic to the rioters: “[The Eighth year of King Henry VIII.] In this season, the Genevese, Frenchmen and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council, that they set nought by the rulers of the city; and the multitude of strangers was so great about London, that the poor English artificers could scarce get any living; and, most of all, the strangers were so proud, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge.”  … Allegations of assaults and a murder follow before the account continues, “For, amongst others that sore grudged at these matters, there was a broker in London, called John Lincoln, which wrote a bill before Easter, desiring Doctor Sandish at his sermon at Saint Mary Spital, the Monday in Easter week, to move the mayor and aldermen to take part with the commonalty against the strangers.  The doctor answered, that it became not him to move any such thing in a sermon.” Lincoln then succeeded in persuading a Dr. Bele or Bell to give a sermon about the dangers the foreigners posed to those “born in London.”…  “Of this sermon many a light person took courage, and openly spake against strangers.  And, as the devil would, the Sunday after, at Greenwich, in the king’s gallery was Francis de Bard, which, as you heard, kept an Englishman’s wife and his goods.  And with him were Domingo, Anthony Caueler, and many more strangers; and there they, talking with Sir Thomas Palmer, knight, jested and laughed that Francis kept the Englishman’s wife, saying that if they had the Mayor’s wife of London, they would keep her.  Sir Thomas said, ‘Sirs, you have too much favour in England.’ There were divers English merchants by, and heard them laugh and were not content, in so much as one William Bolt, a mercer, said, ‘Well, you whoresome Lombards, you rejoice and laugh; by the mass, we will one day have a day at you, come when it will;’ and that saying the other merchant affirmed.”

The chronicle then goes on to describe the riots of the following May Day: “Then suddenly there was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, that on May day next, the city would rebel, and slay all  aliens …” The rioting involved many hundreds of people and there was considerable destruction to “foreigners’ ” property, although it was not recorded whether anyone was killed or not.

After intervention by Sir Thomas More, the riot was quelled and hundreds were arrested. Henry VIII pardoned most of them but 13 rioters, including John Lincoln, were executed for treason. It is interesting to compare how, even in the 16th century, the authorities were aware of the dangers of allowing tensions about immigration to boil over into violence and hatred.

History tells us that the smallest thing can exacerbate tensions, particularly at a time of economic hardship. Perhaps our current leaders should study a little more history.


I wrote this back in April 2011 and, obviously, attitudes to immigrants and refugees have hardly improved since then. I was reminded of it because I watched an interview that Ian McKellen gave to Owen Jones in which he referred to a speech about Evil May Day, delivered in the character of Sit Thomas More, in an eponymous play, which has now been attributed to Shakespeare. I tend to be very sceptical about “new’ Shakespeare writing, but I can quite believe that he was involved in this speech. Besides which, it’s remarkable in its own right and so apposite to what is happening in Britain right now not to be important and moving. So I have added a link to the McKellen interview, the text of the speech taken from a piece by Sylvia Morris on The Shakespeare Blog and another clip of Ian McKellen talking about and delivering the speech at a film festival. It’s worth listening to the whole thing, because his introduction is important too. Finally, here’s (probably) Shakespeare’s  writing from Sir Thomas More:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.



What the Poppy is not


Some years ago, I was privileged to work for Norfolk Libraries on a brilliant project digitising thousands of old photographs. Amongst these was a collection of portrait photographs of the Norfolk Roll of Honour – those members of the armed forces who had been killed during the First World War. I have written about it before and I still find the images of those men incredibly powerful, and for a short time afterwards, I started wearing a poppy. I remember having to restrain myself on a train home from London to Norwich when an American student made a lot of pointed remarks, directed towards me, about the politics of anyone who wore a poppy, that it was somehow a demonstration of support for the Iraq war. I didn’t. It wasn’t.

Now I have stopped wearing poppies, but for the opposite reason. The current jingoistic, militarist atmosphere that seems to prevail in Britain, led by its cheerleaders in the tabloid press – almost completely owned by people who don’t live in this country for tax reasons – had politicised what was, in fact, always a fundraising effort by the British Legion. It should be comparable to the daffodils people wear when they’ve donated to a cancer charity, but some people with an unpleasant political agenda are attempting to use it as something more sinister.

I’m not a pacifist. I believe in self defence. Although I haven’t agreed with any of the reasons we’ve gone to war, or occupied other countries, during my lifetime, I’m aware that many people join the army to escape poverty, lack of opportunity, and unemployment. The British Legion look after people who have served in the forces, because as a nation, we have never done right by them, and organisations like the BL, SSAFA and Combat Stress have had to step in. From the days when injured soldiers and sailors from the Napoleonic wars had to beg in the streets upon their return to an ungrateful nation, we’ve failed those whose lives are forever blighted by physical injury or psychological trauma incurred by the experience of war.

So why won’t I wear a poppy? Because it is being twisted into a symbol of patriotism, of conformity, of all kinds of things it was never meant to represent. Last week, social networking was full of abuse by Tory supporters who were scanning the shadow cabinet, looking for someone who hadn’t pinned a poppy to his or her lapel. They thought they’d found Tom Watson out until it was clear that he was wearing a small enamel one. It’s only a matter of time until they find someone to attack on this issue. Irrespective of their own personal feelings, no politician or TV celebrity would dare appear without a poppy. The enforced poppy-wearing has now spread to sport where what might have once been a bucket collection will now involve a minute’s silence, a parade of service men and women, and the players having a special strip with a poppy on it. Is it all to raise money for a good cause, or part of the pressure to conform to nationalism, and its corollary, hostility to outsiders?

Now, of course, the fatuousness of the debate, if it can be dignified as a debate, has really come to the fore in our tabloid press. Size really does matter, apparently. When I was growing up, I don’t remember seeing anything other than the one standard, paper poppy, that British Legion volunteers sold on the streets. Now, in order to show the absolutely humongous size of your patriotism, you can buy great big, massive poppies. I expect David Cameron to be wearing one the size of the moon on Remembrance Day.

The reverse of that is the accusations made against people like the footballer James McClean (an Irishman) who has been vilified because he won’t wear a poppy. Yet I know people who have spent decades serving in our armed forces who choose not to wear one. I think they’d argue that, if we are to believe the political rhetoric that we have fought some of our wars to preserve our freedom, then everyone has the choice whether to wear one of not. I’m afraid being called “scum” by Barbara Windsor, actor of dubious ability and friend of gangsters, only served to make up my mind not to wear one.

The British Legion’s website explains the history and meaning of the poppy very clearly:

Importantly, it ends with this statement:

“The poppy is NOT

A symbol of death or a sign of support for war
A reflection of politics or religion
Red to reflect the colour of blood

Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants.”

I am not writing this to discourage anyone from wearing a poppy, or donating to the British Legion appeal, but to raise the question of how disturbing it is that we are now living in a society where conformity to an imagined political and military agenda is not only demanded of people, but that symbolic manifestations of it must be worn. That has happened before in Europe. We should not make the Flanders poppy into a broken cross.

A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.


One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.