North Walsham & District Community Archive

Hempstead with Eccles 1875 - 1975

"North East Norfolk Country Churchman Centenery Magazine 1875-1975"

HEMPSTEAD with ECCLES 1875-1975

During a tremendous storm on 6th January, 1604, the sea burst through the sandhills at Eccles and inundated over 2000 acres of land. Sixty-six houses with most of their inhabitants were lost to the seething surf and the village church - dedicated to St. Mary - was left in ruins. After further erosion during ensuing decades Eccles was eventually united with the neighbouring parish of Hempstead. Thus in 1875 Hempstead with Eccles boasted of two Churches; one - dedicated to St. Andrew - standing about a mile from the shore amid the comparative calm of level cornfields while the other, St. Mary's, stood amongst sand and surf, constantly battered by the full fury of the North Sea.
The Victorian travel writer Walter White visited the parishes just prior to 1875 during a tour of East Norfolk and, being an acquaintance of the rector Edward Wilkin, was shown the two churches. Thus he saw St. Andrews just before the restoration (which was completed in 1879) and later wrote in his book "Eastern England": "The pulpit is one of those described as Jacobean; but the style of the reading desk can only be described as queer. It has been patched and repaired with panels cut out of the excellent screen so that whenever people look towards the reader they see old pictures of saints, one of the devil with a rope round his neck and a strange jumble of old pew ends."
The men then "crossed fields and went down a loke which became more and more sandy" until they came to the shore and the circular tower of St. Mary's. White wrote:
"On its seaward side a nave and chancel are traceable by the remains of walls half buried in the sand. What a lonely relic and melancholy withal; telling mutely of destruction in days long past."
Indeed, by 1875 the devastation of Eccles was almost complete. A population of under 25 souls now lived in the few remaining cottages barely a stone's throw from the rolling surf while John Clements, the occupier of Manor Farm, worked an estate a fraction of its former size.
Changes, though constant are gradual in rural Norfolk: the Clements family continued to farm at Eccles long after 1875 while a descendant of the Worts family, occupiers of neighbouring Beech Farm, Hempstead in 1875, still owns the property. The descendants of many other families mentioned in parish records 100 years ago still live in or near the village, some following the occupations of their forefathers on local farms.