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....

"Historic Market Town? Not us, we're a Hanseatic Town!"

Many, many times on entering King's Lynn I have pondered just how many people, local or otherwise, know why King's Lynn's urban gateways are proudly branded "King's Lynn - A Hanseatic Town".

Recently, King's Lynn has had a somewhat unfair reputation in my own humble opinion. As a 'west area officer' for several years I grew to appreciate the fantastic contrasts in the west of Norfolk, stark beaches, fabulous architecture, 'big skies', rolling hills (yes, Norfolk has some hills!) and gorgeous villages. Look below the surface and the town of King's Lynn itself is packed with heritage, history and culture. One particular part of this heritage hitting the local press today is Hanse House, the only surviving Hansa building in the UK.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries the so called 'Hanseatic League' united cities and their guilds in Northern Europe trading largely along the northern coasts of modern Europe, but stretching as far as the Baltic and the North Sea. These cities enjoyed their own legal systems and protection and provided each other with mutual aid.

In addition to the major 'Kontors' (trading posts) individual ports had their own warehouses and merchant representatives. There were several of these 'subsidiary settlements' in the UK, including Ipswich, Bristol, Boston, Hull, Norwich, Yarmouth and York. Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn, since King Henry VIII took control of the town in 1537) was one of the latter, and celebrates it's connections in various ways - in 2009 with it's first Hanse Festival.

The town is now also part of the modern Hanse, and since 2005 has been actively linking with other historic Hanseatic league settlements in order to promote cross border working and strengthen social, economic and social connections.

The reason that the town's Hanse House has hit the local headlines is because of a campaign to 'save' the building. Dating from 1475, the warehouse was in use by the Hanseatic League until 1751, after which it moved into private possession. In 1970 the building was restored and is currently the home of a County Council register office. Following relocation of the register office in the relatively near future, it has been proposed that the building is sold off. Prince Charles' visit today will no doubt keep the building's fate in the news. Time will tell how far the cuts bite into our local heritage. 

I hope that somehow the building is retained for local peoples' use and enjoyment. It is after all a relic of a different King's Lynn, where even the name of the town was dissimilar. Despite the passage of time however, the town is not completely removed from it's roots. The docks are still central to the town and many of the landmarks remain in the (dare I say it) 'historic' town centre.

I would encourage anyone to take a wander around the town, or even better run around it in the annual Grand East Anglia Run, to discover hidden gems that even many local people are unaware of.

The more we recognise where we've come from, the more ideas we can have for the future.


The lives and loves of occupants of Rattle Row, Wymondham

A row of weavers' cottages in Wymondham was demolished in the late 1970s following a public enquiry in 1977. The cottages were replaced by retirement bungalows which remain to this day. While the street name has lingered, the houses are certainly very different to those they replaced.

The cottages made up 'Rattle Row' named after the racket of the handlooms operated by the inhabitants. 

In 1851, a household of ten lived in one of the cottages, headed by my 5xGreat Grandparents, James Gooch and Agatha Fisher. Seven of their children (Lucy (my 4x Great Grandmother), Maria, Rebecca, George, James, Mary Ann and Providence) shared their home, together with their three month old grandson, William Coman Gooch, the illegitimate son of daughter Lucy.

I have seen some weavers' cottages of Wymondham described as 'ruinous hovels'. Certainly, the family was poor - Agatha was noted as a pauper in 1851, while James, Lucy and Maria are all recorded as weavers, an industry which, by then, was in serious decline. George, at 13, was already labouring in the fields. Rebecca, otherwise old enough to work, is noted on the census as blind.

A hundred years before, according to Mr Cremer's Census of 1747, almost a quarter of families in the town were headed by a weaver - 155 of 686. By the late 1700s however, competition from the cotton producing north and loss of trade to America and France was having a negative effect on the Norfolk woolen industry.

By the time of the 1841 census the handloom industry was 'in crisis' but the industry still employed a sixth of the male population. The Wymondham Heritage Society's wonderful "Wymondham: History of a Norfolk Market Town" (2006) quotes the following from a local weaver:

"A parent tries to get his boy to anything rather than weaving. There are no boys learning to weave now, nor have been for some time past. Anything is better than weaving. Some boys have taken to agricultural employment"

This certainly fits for my own family - as we have seen, only the girls and their father were in the weaving industry in 1851, while George was employed on the land.

White's Trade Directory notes that there were less than 60 looms in Wymondham in 1845, while ten years earlier there had been 600. 

Twelve households are recorded on Rattle Row in 1851, two of whom are Coman households. The sharp-eyed among you may remember little William Coman Gooch mentioned earlier. Sure enough, William's father, also William, is living just five doors away from Lucy in 1851. William is also a weaver, this time in silk, as are all the other occupants of his home over 11 years old - just five of the 336 weavers recorded in the census that year in the town. The couple married on Boxing Day of the same year at Wymondham Abbey. 

Lucy and William had five more children, the last in 1865. Around the same time the family moved to Norwich, possibly as the weaving industry collapsed around them - 132 weavers remained in Wymondham in 1871 and just 23 in 1881.

It seems the hard life wasn't over for Lucy because by 1871 she is recorded as head of the household, scraping a living as a washer woman to support six children in the yards of Pockthorpe in North Norwich. It is not clear whether William accompanied them to Norwich or not. He disappeared between 1861 and 1871 - I hope one day to discover whether he died, emigrated or started a new life elsewhere, or whether he was imprisoned, transported....the possibilities are almost endless.

Lucy died in 1913 at the age of 82, working as a charwoman and laundress in Norwich almost up until her death. Sadly, she outlived her eldest son William, who died at Norwich Lunatic Asylum in 1905. 

My Great Great Great Grandmother Eliza's life mirrored her mother's to a certain extent. Like Lucy, she gave birth to a son before marriage, and lived next door to her son's father, who she later married, during 1881. This time, rather than Rattle Row, history played out on 'Sidney's Row' now somewhere underneath Sewell Park College's playing field.

Two years ago I moved to Wymondham -150 years after Lucy left with Eliza and her other children. No member of my direct line lived here in the intervening century and a half but in many ways I feel like I belong.

I cannot help but wonder, every time I pass Rattle Row, what life must have been like then. Were she and William happy together, or were they forced to marry? Where did he go? Did she choose to leave for the city? Although only a few miles distant, she could hardly have jumped on the number 13 bus back again if it didn't work out.

Depending on her memories of the place, perhaps most of all, I wonder whether she would have celebrated the demolition of the cottages or mourned their loss....



If you have connections to Rattle Row, or the Gooch and Coman families of Wymondham, please do get in touch.