The Suffolk Trinity and The Norfolk Union

This week, my blog takes a turn into equine genealogy. 

First things first, I introduce you to the Suffolk Punch, in case you’ve not come across one before. This is Mum Ruby and nine week old son Trojan, currently summering at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse just north of Dereham in Norfolk: 

If you’ve not seen a Suffolk before, the first thing that will probably strike you is their size. Weighing in at around a tonne and up to 17.2 hh (this means around 70 inches from the ground to the withers – in other words getting on for six foot before you take the head and neck into account!). These are powerful, beautiful animals. It was their strength which made them perfect for agricultural work in the days before mechanisation. All Suffolks are chesnut (traditionally spelt deliberately without a ’t’). 

I’ve been a fan of the Suffolk Horse (also sometimes known as the Suffolk Sorrel) for a very long time. A few weeks ago, Mum sent me a scanned copy of a letter I wrote as a teenager which was printed in the East Anglian Daily Times. The letter was in support of their ‘Save the Suffolk Punch’ campaign which was launched in 2001 when the stud at Hollesley was under threat. I was 15 at the time and a typo lives on to haunt me to this day: 

Did you spot the mistake I was referring to? If you’re not ‘into’ Suffolk Punches, you probably didn’t, because you would need to know that every Suffolk Punch alive today can ultimately trace its ancestry back to one male, named Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, who was foaled in 1768 – now that’s some well recorded family tree! Although the breed has origins further back, Suffolk Punches have really been ‘devoted to us’ for less than 500 years. Norfolk and Suffolk’s relatively isolated position meant that breeds that were developed here were unique to those elsewhere in the country. 

Thankfully, ten years on from writing the letter above, you can still find Suffolks in stables up and down the Country. However, to the best of my knowledge, they are still rarer than the Giant Panda, as indeed they were in 2001. I’ve even been privileged enough to spend time with a few of the gentle giants, my favourite of whom was Major, who once met the children at Easton Farm Park on a regular basis.

Once a common sight on farms across East Anglia, numbers crashed in the 1960s. With the advent of mechanisation, there was simply much less of a need for horses in agriculture. With a concerted effort, numbers of the Punches are now slowly growing again. Just this weekend I visited Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk. Despite having lived close by for many years, I have only ever visited for work, either for meetings or manning stands. Taking advantage of the weekend’s special event – harvesting by the heavy horses – I have finally put this to rights. 

Gressenhall is interesting for many reasons. It is home to the only House of Industry open to the public in Norfolk, built in 1776 for the hundreds of Mitford and Launditch and becoming a Poor Law Union in 1836 (see photos below with a less-than-glamorous assistant real ominous skies). The site is enormous and included Union Farm which provided work and produced food for the residents. The register for Gressenhall St Mary, not to be confused with the work house chapel, is particularly useful for researchers because reputed fathers were regularly named on the baptism records for illegitimate children. St Mary itself is a slightly unusal church because of its central tower (as opposed to a tower on the end of the nave).  

However, this is not a post about the workhouse – although I would definitely recommend a visit to see it for yourself. If you are interested in finding out more, many people have already written about it, and of course Peter Higginbotham’s website, provides a wealth of information. 

Crossing from the Workhouse to the Farm, Sunday was really about the horses. A little Lightroom wizardry to remove bystanders and a combine and you might be able to fool the occasional person that this is an old photo! As will be no shock to everybody reading this, I actually took the photo below at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon last Sunday. Harvesting with heavy horses is actually a surprisingly fast activity….for as long as they can travel in a straight line.

A lot of people seem to have a bad habit of saying their ancestors were ‘only ag labs’. Did you think your ag labs were boring? Going to see something like this makes you realise how much skill they needed to possess and how hard they had to work to make a living. You can’t just put a horse in front of a plough and hope for the best (like you would a tractor!?). Years of care and training are necessary in order to bring in a successful harvest, and the bond between man and horse is a very close one.

Suffolk Punches make up a third of the Suffolk Trinity. The other legs on the tripod are the Red Poll cow (pictured below) and the Suffolk Sheep. Additionally, there is also the the Large Black pig (also pictured) which some might argue is a fourth ‘Suffolk’, or at least East Anglian, breed – a similar pig was bred at around the same time in Devon/Cornwall however.

So, there you have it. The Suffolk Trinity at Norfolk’s Union Farm. I’ve said it many times, but if you can visit places like this, see the buildings close up and meet the breeds your forebears tended day after day, you can really bring your family research to life. For more photographs, visit my facebook page

This is not supposed to be a blog about the ins and outs of the different breeds – I do not own any of the trinity! If you are interested you may like to visit some of the following websites: 

The Suffolk Horse Society

The Suffolk Punch Trust

Red Poll Cattle Society

Suffolk Sheep Society

Large Black Pig Breeders Club

Let’s hope scenes like this will be around for some time to come….

0 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I am a horse lover at heart (but with little experience handling horses). The Suffolk Punches in this post are beautiful animals. And I so much agree that to experience a living history farm or other environment will help us learn about the lives of our ancestors, perhaps not in their own specific location but at least in the general activities of the time periods in which they lived. Great post. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful post. My grandfather was born in Attleborough and was an "Ag Lab" at Great Ellingham. He was a teamster, handling the teams of horses used in agriculture. After migrating to Australia he ended up teaching the trade at an Agricultural College just outside Narrogin in Western Australia.

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