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

ashbocking

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 his 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:

“DOUBLE DROWNING MYSTERY AT ASHBOCKING: TWO LABOURERS DIE STRAPPED TOGETHER
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 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 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 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.

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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.

image

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.

Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.

Kneller

“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.

Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

One hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking…

Hearing that a small group of far-right racists are planning a march in Ipswich this weekend, I thought I’d remind myself of Suffolk’s history of incoming migrants. We exported a lot of people over the years too, of course, via convict ships, voluntary emigration and the “overpaid, oversexed and over here” USAAF who were stationed all over the county during the Second World War and took a lot of Suffolk women back to the United States as “GI Brides.”

Ipswich has had a thriving port since medieval times and as a consequence has always been a place of entry and settlement for migrants. It was known as a welcoming place for incomers, many of whom settled in the town. As an example, from a brief look through the records of the 1901 census of Ipswich, there were more than 20 Italians, 13 people described as French subjects, 64 people who had been born in Ireland and one Russian. Many people in Ipswich will be descendants of these and other immigrants. Since then, there have been significant arrivals of people from the West Indies, the Indian sub-continent and most recently from Eastern Europe, all adding to the vibrant and cosmopolitan nature of the town and enhancing its culture.

Without immigration, there would have been no Jason Dozzell or Keiron Dyer playing for Ipswich Town Football Club, no Emeric Pressburger (who is buried at Saxtead near Woodbridge), the Hungarian refugee who, with Michael Powell, made brilliant films such as A Matter of Life and Death, One of our Aircraft is Missing and The Red Shoes, no Aspall cider (the Chevallier family were originally from the Channel Islands), no Ickworth House (designed by Italian architect, Mario Asprucci, and two Italian craftsmen, Casimiro & Donato Carabelli, were brought over to live in Little Saxham and create the frieze that runs around the dome, no Peter’s ice cream (produced by Ipswich’s Zagni family). Perhaps the Aldeburgh Festival would not have survived as its success was very much the result of the work of its artistic director from 1956 to 1977, Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav Holst and of Swedish, Latvian and German descent. There are, of course, countless other examples. I have chosen just three more, all eminent people whose families came here from other countries and either settled in Suffolk or lived there for for some time.

Edward Ardizzone, the artist, was born in French Indo-China in 1900, and was the son of Auguste Ardizzone, an Algerian-born, naturalized Frenchman of Italian origin, and his wife, Margaret. Ardizzone spent his childhood in East Anglia, including an idyllic period at his grandmother’s house in East Bergholt from 1905, which he described in his autobiography. Unfortunately he was sent to be educated at Ipswich School where he was bullied so badly that his memories of the town were tainted for the rest of his life. He’s best remembered for his illustrations in children’s books, including The Otterbury Incident and Stig of the Dump, but he also drew a great deal that was inspired by his boyhood memories of the rougher part of Ipswich, including a famous sketch of two women fighting one another outside an Ipswich pub in about 1912.

Ardizzone

Cor Visser    The Ipswich Society placed a blue plaque on the front of 44 Fore Street, Ipswich in memory of Cor Visser, a Dutch artist who spent much of his life living in Suffolk. Attracted by his love for sailing and, presumably – like many painters who settle in East Anglia – because of the landscape and the light, he arrived in 1937. Many of his watercolours are of the River Orwell. He was the official war artist to the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War and his works are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as well as in various British galleries, including in Ipswich. He died in 1982.

Sophia Duleep Singh (full name: Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh) was born at Elveden Hall in 1876, the daughter of a Maharaja and his first wife Bamba Müller, who was of German and Ethiopian descent. Sophia and her sister Catherine were suffragettes and she was a member of the Pankhurst’s militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union. She spent most of her life fighting for minority rights, including as a leading member of the Women’s Tax Resistance Campaign which argued that women should withhold paying taxes until they were given the vote. You can find more information about her by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website (and most public libraries will offer you free access).

Sophia Duleep-Singh

The whole agricultural economy of East Anglia has been based on using the toil of travelling people (many of whom would have had Romani or Irish ancestors) and migrant labourers such as the Eastern Europeans who are still working on the land to this day.  It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that none of us are – to use the gloriously funny words that Galton and Simpson put into Tony Hancock’s mouth in The Blood Donor, in which he indignantly answers June Whitfield’s question about his British nationality with the assertion that he’s “one hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking… .”

I doubt that it’s possible to find someone in East Anglia who has a family tree that is exclusively made up of indigenous Britons and many of us, thankfully, have people in our family from all over of the world. It’s good for our health both in terms of genetics and in the huge number of migrants who have come here, temporarily or permanently to work in the NHS, for example – and as the OECD  [links to the Daily Telegraph] has reported recently it’s good for our economy too.

How to sell your wife

Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.

It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.

In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common.  Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!

The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”

In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”

I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.

Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:

Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered his wife in exchange for an ox provided he would let him choose one out of his drove, the grazier accepted the proposal and the wife readily agreed, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”

Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”

Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbour for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”

Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story:  “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).

A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.

Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802),  Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.

An “incident” at the Kesgrave Bell

As anyone familiar with the iconoclasm of William Dowsing knows, Suffolk suffered greatly from Puritanism in the 17th century. This manifested itself in Ipswich in the form of Samuel Warde, Town Preacher from 1605 to 1634, a post for which he received £100 p.a. He had to preach in St. Mary-le-Tower three times a week and his sermons, apparently, often lasted two hours. He was eventually imprisoned for offending the Church of England clergy by calling them “devills in surplices, anti-Christian mushrooms.”

One of his edifying sermons was called Woe to Drunkards, which was published in 1627. He called for the closure of all ale-houses. One example he gave was of an “incident” at the Bell Inn in Kesgrave, Suffolk:

“An Ale-wife in Kesgrave neere to Ipswich, who needs force three Servingmen (that had been drinking in her house, and were taking their leaves) to stay and drink the three Outs first (that is, Wit out of their head, Money out of their purse, Ale out of the pot) as she was comming towards them with the pot in her hand, was suddenly taken speechlesse and sicke, her tongue swolne in her mouth, never recovered speech, the third day after dyed. ”

This, according to Warde, was “a noted and remarkable example of God’s Justice.” So be warned.

The Widow’s Coffee House, Bury St. Edmunds

 On 14th January 1890, the Bury & Norwich Post published the following letter:

MRS. ROOKES OF BURY

A correspondent writes:- “I have long been seeking a clue to the personality of Mrs. Letitia Rookes, of Bury St. Edmunds, a portrait of whom by Bunbury, if I remember aright, is preserved in the admirable collection of engravings in the Archaeological library in the Bury Athenaeum. I had already discovered that the memorial tablet affixed to the wall outside St. James’s Church, near the Norman Tower, is to her memory, but the note in the ‘Jottings from old newspapers,’ in your interesting ‘Memorials of the Past’ has afforded me considerable enlightenment as to who and what this woman was, for there is no doubt that she was the occupier or proprietress of the coffee house which stood under the shadow of the Norman Tower, and between it and St. James’s Church, and that she was probably the proprietress of the ‘Sirop de Capillaire,’ which may have been a medicine in which considerable faith was placed at the time. I may point out that the day of her death was 23rd September, 1782.”

The writer was referring to a snippet of information that had been re-published in the newspaper on 7th January 1890:

“Bury St. Edmunds, 1st of October, 1776. Mrs. Rookes begs leave to return her grateful Acknowledgements to her Friends, for their Favours received during the Time she has kept the Coffee-House; She is very sorry it is not in her power to continue it any longer, but her bad State of Health makes it requisite for her, after this Week, to retire from Business. The true genuine Sirop de Capillaire, so much esteem’d may be had of P. Deck at Post-Office, Bury.”

Sirop de Capillaire was a French liqueur made from the maidenhair fern which was supposed to have medicinal properties. Of course, Mrs. Rookes may well have had the monopoly on sales of the stuff at her coffee house, but other references to her in the Bury Post and elsewhere suggest that she provided the citizens, and particularly the clergy, of Bury St. Edmunds with other things altogether.

Bury & Norwich Post, 24th March, 1887: “There was also a coffee-house called the ‘Widow’s coffee-house’ – in what sense I cannot say… kept by one Laetitia Rookes. .. Laetitia succeeded Felicia, of the same name, and was a well-known character in St. Edmundsbury.”

And, as late as March 1951, the following item appeared in an article about the Suffolk artist, Henry Bunbury, in the East Anglian Magazine: [The Widow’s Coffee House] “was kept by the notorious Mrs. Laetitia Rookes, … who was assisted by her two daughters. It was an establishment never referred to in polite or mixed society. Warren, in his map of Bury had an engraving of this building showing Mrs. Rookes’ two beautiful but frail daughters ogling the passers-by from the upstairs window. The widow remained in business until 1776 when she retired to live in another part of the town for the remaining sixteen years of her life. The caricature is absolutely devoid of offence but the curves of the mouth and face are so cleverly drawn that anybody looking at it cannot be in dount for one moment of the old lady’s true vocation in life.”

Laetitia Rookes was supposedly also buried within the precincts of the church, so grateful were the local clergy for the services that she and her daughters had provided to them. Or at least, half of her was buried within the consecrated ground. According to this story – which may be apocryphal – the other half was buried outside the precincts of St. James’s. I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which half that was.