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....

Big Cats, the Black Shuck and Rampaging Elephants: Norfolk's Menagerie

This week, the local news once again featured a sighting of a Big Cat (capitals added for effect) in Norfolk. Those of us from these parts have seen a large number of these reports in the press in recent years, and indeed going back further – move over Beast of Bodmin! Norfolk and Suffolk have creatures to rival you... 

This time the Norfolk Puma (or Panther, depending on your preference) was reportedly sighted on the Bayfield Hall Estate near Holt. (See Evening News here). Apparently, Norfolk often has more than 50 reported sightings of big cats a year, just ahead of Suffolk, and has one of the highest rates of sightings in the whole of the UK. (For more on this see

Big cats are technically those of the ‘Panthera’ genus – lions, tigers, leopards, jaguar and snow leopards. Again technically, pumas and lynxs are not big cats – they are of the ‘Felix’ genus and therefore small cats. Of course, as you might expect, ‘proof’ of these big cats, whether Panthera or Felix, is hard to come by. Scores of people swear they have seen large felines roaming the countryside though, and I would never take it on myself to declare their sightings false. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before someone with a smart phone manages to film such a beast and prove the doubters wrong!

Keeping exotic creatures in menageries was common well before the advent of the modern ‘zoo’. The Tower of London’s collection was thought to have been in existence as early as 1204. Who knows, with our wealth of beautiful country houses and estates in Norfolk and Suffolk, could any of the local aristocracy have indulged in owning exotic cats like William the Conqueror, or Elizabeth I? Could any of these hypothetical animals have escaped? Later on, could the changing of laws in the 70s, requiring licensing of big cats, really have encouraged less well off owners to dump their pets in the East Anglian countryside? And if so, in either case, could they have survived in the wild?

It wouldn’t have been the first time that an unfamiliar animal had wandered lose in Norfolk. The wonderful book “I Read it in the Local Rag” by Pip Wright includes the following passage taken from the Suffolk Chronicle on January 25th, 1845:

“On Friday evening, My Hylton, owner of the caravans of wild beasts on the Castle meadows, Norwich was showing the elephant to the company; the beast showed signs of insubordination. He was directed to kneel and confess his submission to his keeper, but did not obey….the mighty beast just then aimed a tremendous blow at the side of the booth, which at once gave way…and the giant of the forest walked off in spite of all opposition, going through the streets, out of St Stephen’s Gates, on to the London Road…After about two miles to Harford Bridges, he sought pleasure or food amongst the umbrageous woods and scanty foliage of Mr. Alderman Thurtell as if enjoying his pristine liberty in his native wilds.”

It seems on this occasion that the elephant was recaptured but according to the author there were complaints from the public who had already noted that “a lion had already nearly escaped earlier”.

The Tower of London’s menagerie, mentioned above, did not close until a few years after the Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826. You might be surprised to learn that Norfolk had its links with lions in London at least as early as Victoria’s reign, and not through the local gentry but through a working man born in 1828 in a little village. 

Seth Sutton, born in Topcroft, was one of only a few men recorded as working as a “keeper in a menagerie/zoological gardens” in the Victorian census returns. What’s more, he did the job for a very long time -  the 1861, 71, 81, 91 and 1901 censuses all show him in Marylebone – probably working at the gardens we now know as London Zoo. Seth had begun his life as an agricultural labourer, the son of George and Mary Sutton. Based on his children's birthplaces and the census, he must have left have left Norfolk behind for the city between 1851 and 1857.

The Sutton family lived at 2, Calvert’s Cottages, Marylebone, Pancras. Seth resided with his wife Maria (born in Flixton, Suffolk) and their children, less than ten minutes’ walk from the Zoo. By 1901, aged 73, Seth was recorded as “Pensioner (Lion Keeper at Zoo)” and still in London. As an aside, it seems that the census analysts must have had trouble working out what to class his occupation as in the statistics, which required occupations to be split into somewhat inflexible categories. Next to both his occupation and his son Harry’s (who had by then followed in his father’s footsteps) is written the word ‘Dog’, probably so that he would be categorised along with dog breeders and trainers! 

Of course Norfolk doesn’t just boast sightings of big cats and links to lion keepers, we also have big dogs. 

“And a dreadful thing from the cliff did spring, And its wild bark thrill’d around, His eyes had the glow of the fires below, Twas the form of the Spectre Hound”

At least, we have one in particular: the Black Shuck, known by some through its relatively recent addition in a Darkness track (which also namechecked Blythburgh in Suffolk - the “town in the east”) and by many more through its inclusion in myth, legend and folklore for centuries before a few Lowestoft rockers borrowed our Hell Hound for a song.

The beast has been argued to have been part of Norse mythology and the word ‘Shuck’ is said to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘scucca’ meaning devil or demon.  (For more see Whether or not either (or both) is true, these suggestions nevertheless point to a longstanding belief in the creature. I’ll be watching out for the Grim next time I’m on the road from Overstrand to Cromer as this is where he is said to spend much of his time. Overstrand even used to have a carving of the Black Shuck on its village sign and there is still a ‘Shuck’s Lane’ leading to Runton. 

As you can see from this somewhat varied post, Norfolk’s cat, dog and indeed elephant sightings have taken place over many years and have been discussed by many generations. Doubtless too, they will carry on as the topics of conversations for many years to come.

To conclude, where do I stand on the Big Cat debate? Well, I think that not knowing might be more exciting than knowing the truth!