The Remarkable Occurrence, herein described, took place in the Norfolk Market Place town of North Walsham in the eighteenth century. It is a story of smuggling, love, hate, murder and, quite literally, skull-duggery.
The first part of the story is simply told in narrative form put together from previous publications and local knowledge. The second part comprises the writer's investigation into the facts and fallacies surrounding the affair.
The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
REMARKABLE OCCURRENCE AT NORTH WALSHAM.
PART 1 : THE STORY.
North Walsham town centre has changed little during the last 125 years. Then as now, the old market cross dominated the market place taking pride of place over the parish church whose crumbled tower lay hidden behind a narrow row of frontage shops. The same shops whose predecessors were squeezed into the 'foreland' of the churchyard by some forgotten lord of the manor who took advantage of the weaving boom to turn what was almost a village into a town. Then as now, the shops lay snugly round the cross and square, each occupying a multiple of seven-foot frontage inherited from the length of a medieval stall, each shop presenting a variety of cladding and fenestration which somehow combine to give strength and unity to confound all laws of modern planning and to startle strangers as they turn into the market place from one of its narrow approach roads.
At the top of the market place a road turns northwards and then westwards round 'God's Acre.' From this road, now called Church Street, a further road, called Hall Lane (because it led to the Hall or Manor Farm), turns eastwards round what is still remembered as Bloom's butcher's shop. This shop still retains its Old Dutch gables, similar to those in Aylsham Road at the other end of the town, clearly showing the limits of the raging fire which destroyed the town centre in the year 1600. In Victorian times this building, known as 'Providence House,' was owned by the Debenne family and housed the haberdashery emporium of two sisters, the last of the family whose male Huguenot blood ran dry in the preceding generation.
The Debennes or De Bennes were once a family of some means. Two are cited as owning considerable property in the North Walsham Inclosure Award of 1812. One, Thomas Debenne, who owned twenty-eight inclosures totalling more than thirty-two acres, was allotted a further five pieces of more than six acres, one of which he exchanged with the young Captain Cooper. The other, John Stephen Debenne (there were three of this name one of whom was the town's postmaster in 1793), was allotted three inclosures of some six acres to add to his eleven holdings of more than twenty-five acres. Many of the holdings were of property rather than land and included several shops, two public houses (The Bell and the White Swan), and one farm. It was Thomas who owned the White Swan and the neighbouring shop which was to become the haberdashery emporium with which my story began.
Tradition has it that sometime after the Inclosure Award, but before the female descendents resorted to 'trade,' the Debennes built their family mansion called Hamlet House. It was pleasantly situated on the outskirts of the town to the north of Bacton Road, and then called Reeve's Lane, where it branches into Crow
Road. This house which everybody knew was haunted is now gone, leaving one oak tree in the centre of the Close which still bears the house's name. True to its haunted guise, the mansion burnt to the ground in 1959 - a mercy to its occupants, real and wraith, who could not long live within its evil walls. How it got the name Hamlet House is not determined. That it did not get it by accident is evident to anyone who reads hereon.
To return to the Debennes, the Town Council have perpetuated their name in a cul-de-sac near one of their former holdings off Lynfield Road. There is little else to recall the former stature of the family other than the memory of a dusty, disarranged pile of black tin boxes, bearing the white letters 'DEBENNE,' which were heaped on the Dickensian shelves of 'Lawyer' Bell's old office when it lay on the south side of Grammar School Road. This late venerable solicitor, and more distinguished cricketer, would give his small measure of smile and a painful gasp when you asked him to recall the gold and silver plate of the Debennes. Indeed Lawyer Bell's old home, called Lyngate House, lies opposite Hamlet Close and its former inmates no doubt witnessed the strange story which I am about to relate.
The Debenne plate and much of their possessions had long been disposed of when the few remaining affects of the late Miss Martha Eleanor Debenne were disposed of by public auction on the 11th November 1887. A photograph of about this time shows the house (partly shown on the right of the picture, as viewed) with only a few articles in the window for sale: just a few pairs of stockings and braces it would seem.
At the sale was an 'Old Inhabitant' of the town who, amongst other things, purchased a curious old oaken box, strongly bound in iron and richly studded with brass nails. He tells us that when he got his chest home he discovered it held a secret panel, containing a bundle of papers carefully endorsed 'The Confessions of John Flaxman, Sexton to the Parish of North Walsham, May 5th 1789.' These confessions, which are now to be transcribed, are taken from an account which the Old Inhabitant later contributed to the Eastern Daily Press dated 19 May 1889. In the interests of accuracy, I have copied them faithfully, shorn only of the old inhabitant's introductory and concluding remarks which I will return to when investigating the veracity of his account.
"JOHN FLAXMAN'S CONFESSION.
I, John Flaxman, Sexton to the Parish of North Walsham, am (through the mercy of God), at the time of writing this, of sound mind and understanding. Feeling that my end is fast approaching, and trembling under the heavy weight of a terrible secret which has long preyed upon my breast, I desire to obtain some relief therefrom by giving expression to my overburdened mind in writing what I dare not speak. This I do, by committing to paper a history of certain events of which I have been a witness, and alas! In which, to a certain extent, I have been a most unwilling actor. If I have transgressed in ought that I have done, I humbly trust for pardon to that Font of Mercy which is inexhaustible, and submissively await the call to that Judgment Seat before which I must shortly appear.
Know then that I was born on the Spa Common, North Walsham, in the year 1716. As I write these lines, therefore, I have passed the span allotted to man by three years. From my mother I acquired what is in these days the rare accomplishments of reading and writing and have regarded, for my position in life, as a prodigy of learning. My earliest companion was Tom Norris, who dwelt in a cottage under the same roof as ours. He was a lad of frank, open disposition, fearless to the verge of hardihood; and when I picture him and myself as youths my sluggish blood seems to course more freely through my veins, and I have bridged for the moment a gulf of seventy years. Neither orchards nor poultry ever proved impregnable to the assaults of Tom. As boys we swam the River Ant together. It is true that to my mature perceptions the River Ant is but a thin, insignificant stream; but to the mind of the boy it was an ocean! A vast expanse of water!
In the fullness of time it became necessary that we should each select our mode of life. As might be expected, Tom Norris took to the sea. I, more prosaic, kept to the land, and followed the profession of a gardener, ultimately receiving the appointment of sexton to the parish, an office I had always secretly coveted. In those days, as also at the present time, smuggling was followed by a large section of our seafaring people, and to smuggling Tom took as if to the manner born. No risks were too formidable for him to run, no danger too great for him to confront; so that in a short time he advanced to a foremost place in the community of smugglers. Now and then he returned for a brief space to the parental roof, to the great profit of the small boys of the Parish, to whom he dispensed liberal largesses; but likewise, it must be confessed, to their great demoralisation, for many of them were seized with an insatiable desire to follow Tom's avocation in life.
Years rolled on, and each year brought Norris additional wealth. The wild glamour, the fierce excitements of the smuggler's life however, kept him on the seas. In this manner he reached middle age and passed it; still unsettled, unmarried, and turbulent as the seas that wash our own wild coasts.
In the year 1774, Norris then being fifty-eight years of age, he determined to run a cargo of English woollen goods to Spain. On this occasion his hitherto unbroken record of good luck deserted him. He was surprised by Spanish authorities, and though taken at a disadvantage offered a stout resistance to capture. In the conflict that ensued, though he escaped with his life and liberty, he received a sabre-cut on the left temple, a cut which would have cleft in twain any skull of ordinary thickness. He succeeded in reaching Gibraltar, though in a state of high fever. These details I had from his own lips afterwards. Here he took lodgings in the house of an old soldier, who had married a Moorish woman, and settled down permanently on the Rock. In a short time, partly owing to skilful nursing and partly to strong constitution, Norris recovered from his wound; but paradoxical as it may appear, the wound in his head healed only to open one in his heart. During his illness he had fallen in love with his landlord's daughter, a girl of sixteen. This girl, though a half-caste, had inherited the Saxon lineaments of her father. To say that she was beautiful is to say what, when applied to her, is common-place. Moreover, she was as wise as she was beautiful. The starry heavens were to her a familiar book, and the herbs of the field were known to her, every one, by name and quality. She mixed freely with her mother's people, and from them she had acquired knowledge of many occult sciences, more especially that pertaining to the composition of deadly poisons.
It is not to be wondered that Norris fell an easy victim to so beautiful creature. After a decent interval he declared his passion to her parents, who cordially encouraged his advances. He soon took the next step, that of proposing to the daughter direct, when to his agreeable surprise, he found her in a consenting mood. Thus it was arranged, to the satisfaction of all, that he should wed the girl and return with her to his native parish.
In due course Norris returned to North Walsham where he set about building for himself a house. The site selected was just off that bye-road which joins the Swafield with the Bacton Road. Here he determined to settle down, to renounce the sea, and to end his remaining days in peace. He planted trees round his house, laid down a lawn, and for a brief period was perfectly happy. For the sake of old time, Norris employed me to attend to his garden and lawn, and in the performance of these duties I frequently encountered Mrs. Norris, who took an overwhelming interest in flowers and herbs. We soon grew to be on friendly terms. I found that she had her own suite of apartments, through which she has frequently shown me. She had a laboratory fitted up for herself. This she filled with all manner of foreign animals, stuffed in cases, stills and retorts. She developed a taste for experimenting on live animals, and it was one of my duties to keep her supplied with rabbits and pigeons whereon to practise. Of the many strange orders which I received from her, the strangest I thought at the time was for a bottle of live ants. Deeming this to be one of her many whims, I readily obtained the ants for her. She invited me into her study to see the use she intended to make of them, and I saw her macerate them in cold water, drain this off, place it in a still, and distil it over a lamp, carefully collecting the vapour. A few days afterwards she called me into her study again, and proceeded to show me the potent qualities of her new product. For this purpose she took a rabbit, and having wounded it in the head, applied a small quantity of the ant liquid (as I shall call it in the absence of a better name) to the wound. The rabbit apparently suffered a great torture under the application, but its agony was short-lived, for it almost immediately fell dead. I observed at the time that the flesh round the wound appeared as if burnt with a hot iron. It was blistered, and, in places, seemed full of small pustules. I ventured to implore her to be very careful with the ant liquid. She replied that she would at once destroy all that she had, and so guard against possible accidents.
In the meantime Norris, deprived of the accustomed excitements of a smuggler's life, and thrown on his own mental resources for killing time, took, as is often the case with those of deficient education, to drink. For his beverage he selected his own smuggled brandy, and his potations were frequent and deep; so that in a short time his old wound, inflamed by drink, became painful again, and ere long reopened, converting him to a confirmed invalid. Nothing could exceed the attention the sick man received from his wife. She was constant in her attendance at his bedside, mixing his draughts and dressing his wound with her own hands.
To decrease the accumulation of proud flesh that persistently grew round the wound, Mrs. Norris suggested the application to it of a strong caustic solution. The doctor in attendance readily fell in with her view, and, despite the cries of the sick man, she succeeded in a few days in burning away the flesh even till the skull was laid bare. It now became evident that the cause of Norris' relapse was due, to a certain extent, to a fracture in the left temporal bone, which had been partially sundered by the stroke of the Spanish sabre. This fracture, though small, was of lance like sharpness, and fully accounted for the refusal of the wound to permanently heal. This discovery appeared to redouble the wife's attention, and her applications of the lunar caustic solution became more frequent. But in spite of her assiduity (or rather in consequence of it, as the sequel shows), the life ebbed slowly from the body of her husband, till at length on the 6th June, 1776, he died.
This event apparently prostrated Mrs. Norris. She retired to her study, and for a whole day gave herself up to her grief.
Now it so transpired that in the exercise of my duty as sexton of the parish, I had occasion to view the dead body of Norris. In the examination of the wound which I made, I was struck by the resemblance it bore to that of the rabbit which his wife had killed with the ant liquid. Upon communicating these views to the widow, she became greatly agitated, and fell down in a fit of hysterics. I was deeply affected by this display of affection, and attributed her agitation to the full consciousness of her having been forced suddenly upon her mind by my inconsiderate words. I upbraided myself severely for my bad taste, and resolved that I would do my utmost to befriend her in her loneliness. Accordingly I took charge of the funeral arrangements and afterwards assisted Mrs. Norris in the disposal of her house and effects. She ordered a tombstone for her husband's grave, and with her own hand prepared the inscription which it bore, viz:-
Beneath this Stone is interred
The body of
Who fell a Victim to a Strange Malady.
His grieving widow mourns her loss.
Which is Science's gain A.D. 1776.
The widow left North Walsham and retired under an assumed name to London, where 1 lost sight of her. Six months after her departure I received an order from a surgeon in Norwich for a body for anatomical purposes. I opened the grave of my late friend Norris and abstracted his body, thinking how strangely true was the inscription borne on his tomb, for here was he now about to serve the advances of science, though hardly in the way meditated by his wife. I was struck by the excellent state of preservation which the body was in, all but the head. Accordingly, I preserved the head as a memento, forwarding on the trunk to Dr. Crosbie, in Norwich. When I had completely separated the skull from the remaining particles of flesh that adhered to it, I noted particularly the sharp fragment of bone on the left temple, made by the fracture of the sabre cut.
Twelve uneventful years rolled by, and my recollection of the Norrises had all but vanished, when one day I was summoned to the theatre to arrange about posting some bills announcing the arrival of a famous London Company, which would perform the play of the "Fair Penitent." A rehearsal was in progress when I arrived and just as I entered, a lady, whom I at once recognised as Mrs. Norris was performing the part of Celesta. I retired without being observed by her, and having ascertained that she now went under the name of Mrs. Barry, I duly placarded the town with play-bills. At about seven o'clock that evening the stage manager again sent for me, this time to ask me to procure a skull for him. He explained that it was to be used in the play that evening, but he did not mention in what manner or by what character. Nothing loath, I lent him the skull of Norris, which I had carefully preserved in my own house.
What immediately follows I do not know of my own knowledge. I had it from the lips of Mrs. Norris (Mrs. Barry) herself, who after the accident that befell her on that eventful night, confessed the whole circumstances of the case to me. It appears that the skull was placed on the table with its empty sockets turned full on the audience. In the fourth act Celesta enters, and catching sight of the skull, places her hand upon it delivering at the same time an appropriate oration on the transient character of mere good looks and the lasting qualities of those of the mind. The house that night was full; the youth and beauty of the neighbourhood, attracted by a London Company, thronged every available inch of space, and loudly applauded the various actors according quite an ovation to Mrs. Norris, who played the part of Calista.
Throughout the play it was evident that Calista was in very indifferent health, and that nothing but her inflexible will enabled her to sustain her part. This of course only increased the good-will of the audience to her, and cast additional interest on her every word and action. In the fourth act, the excitement of the audience, had reached an extraordinary height; a pin might have been heard to drop in the theatre, so great was the silence. As Calista approached the grinning skull, every eye followed her actions, every ear drank eagerly in her words. She held the audience spell-bound through the influence of her art, swaying it at her will. But suddenly a piercing shriek resounded through the theatre; Calista was seen to fall insensible on the stage. The reaction produced by this dramatic incident was painful to behold. Women in the audience fainted away and even men were affected strongly.
After the first astonishment had passed away, and people had regained their presence of mind, attention was turned to Calista, to whom remedies were applied with the view of bringing her out of her swoon. It was noticed that she had a small laceration on the right thumb, from which blood slowly trickled; but when she had revived she explained away the wound as having been received from a pin, improperly fixed in her costume. Mrs Norris, or as I shall in future call her, Mrs. Barry was conveyed to her lodgings, where the best medical attention was provided for her The next morning she sent for the stage-manager and questioned him as to where he had procured the skull used in the performance last night. He replied that he had obtained it from the sexton of the Parish. Thereupon Mrs. Barry desired to see me. When I entered the room she dismissed the attendants, and with a glance that told me I was recognised and remembered, she bade me explain all I knew about the skull. With great reluctance 1 confessed that the skull was that of Mr. Norris. I concealed the fact that I had exhumed his body and sold it to a surgeon, and told her instead some plausible story about his grave having been inadvertently opened. She proceeded to cross-examine me, as if desirous that I should be shaken in my conviction as to the identity of the skull; but finding that I still held to me original opinion, the colour fled from her cheeks, and she fainted.
When she recovered she besought me, in a voice scarcely audible, to draw near, as she had something terrible to reveal to me. She entreated me to keep her communication secret, as she felt she had not long to live. She said she experienced already a difficulty in articulation, and that she would in a short time lose altogether the power of speech. She knew only too well to what to attribute her constantly recurring fainting fits, and that tetanus was setting in caused by the wound she had received in her thumb. Upon my expressing astonishment at this she sighed deeply and remarked that the wound was poisoned. She then asked me to carry my mind back to the time I had seen her macerate the ants and carefully distil the liquid. This liquid, she went on to say, was in reality formic acid, a virulent poison. With this poison she had wilfully washed her husband's wound, under the pretence that it was a solution of lunar caustic, and that some of the acid crystals had remained in the bone, even to the present day; so that when she had lacerated her thumb on the lancet like fracture of the temporal bone of the skull she had inoculated herself with the self-same poison with which she had killed her husband. Under ordinary circumstances she might have recovered from this attack of poisoning, but in her shattered state of health she knew that her doom was sealed, and she was prepared to face it with indomitable will-power, and to meet death without despair. She further explained that she had married again, and that her name was now "Mrs. Barry."
She then passed rapidly in review the chief incidents of her life after she had left North Walsham. She had gone to London, but even there she could not escape the compunctious throbbings of her guilty conscience. She found it impossible to bear her own company in solitude, and sought relief in all manner of excitements. Thinking that the glare and bustle of the stage would enable her to overpower the remorse that rankled in her heart, she adopted acting as a career. The wholehearted way in which she pursued her new vocation soon earned for her, if not fame, at least notoriety. She married again, more from a desire for companionship than from love, but the marriage did not prove happy. This circumstance added to the exhausting nature of her new work and the ceaseless upbraidings of a conscience that would not be suppressed, soon undermined her health and all but shattered her constitution. Thinking that a stay in the country would be beneficial, a provincial tour was decided upon. It was thus that she came to be once again in North Walsham, where her destiny apparently was to be worked out and her cup to the brim.
At this point she became so deeply affected by the narrative that she was bathed in tears. When she once more regained self-possession she repeated her entreaties to me to preserve her secret for yet a little longer. She mentioned her belief that I had suspected her from the very first of having had a hand in her husband's death, and reminded me of the comparison I had made between her husband's wound and that of the rabbit killed by the formic acid Against this I indignantly protested, and assured her that I never suspected her of so foul a crime, as God knows I never did. I promised to respect her secret, and shortly afterwards our interview terminated. The unhappy woman passed through the various stages of sickness which she had marked out to me. Tetanus quickly supervened, aggravated by pyaemia, and so her earthly career was speedily terminated.
It devolved on me to dig her grave, which I did on a secluded spot, twenty yards from one wall and fifteen feet from the other, on the west side of the churchyard. The night following her interment, as if to complete the chain of horrors, a violent storm arose, which destroyed a large portion of the already mutilated church spire. The wreck fell with a terrific crash over to the westward to the great consternation of the inhabitants. It was noticed, when day at length broke, that an immense pile of debris was gathered on the new grave; and there were not wanting some persons who drew unhappy omens from this. But to me, who knew the whole secret of the life of Mrs. Barry, the event took the shape of a visible mark — wrath — Almighty — misdeeds in this life — as evidence — metred out to her guilty — other world —
Signed, John Flaxman, Sexton, North Walsham.
The last sentence of the manuscript is practically illegible. It will not yield up its secrets, even to the most powerful chemical applications. What the writer really meant must be left to the imagination of each individual, and everyone may fill up the blanks as fancy pleases or superstition dictates."
PART TWO : THE INVESTIGATION.
To begin this investigation into the truth of the forgoing story we must first attend to the Old Inhabitant's preliminary and concluding remarks previously omitted from Flaxman's Confessions. The preliminary one begins with a note which may well be editorial. It simply gives the basic facts of the story taken from Denney's Almanac. This adds nothing to the information in the Confessions. It is followed by a rather long, high-written and verbose introduction which, apart from its style, which we will return to, adds nothing to help us. However the concluding remarks are interesting. Here the Old Inhabitant tells us that 'the parish records furnish collateral proof of the authenticity of the confession.' He adds, 'Every name mentioned in the papers [found in the box] is to be found in contemporary parish history. That the names have been altered in this publication is the result of a desire not to inflict pain on any of the posterity of the principal actors in the tragedy who may survive in our midst at the present day.'
Way back in 1976 the late Stanley Watts, the then leading Town's historian, made a quick search of the Parish Registers to test the point. He checked the burials listed for 1776, the given date of Norris's death and found they comprised: April 12th. - Robert Wells. May 20th. - Robert Stamp. August 9th. - John Love. September 25th. - Stephen Sutton. November 5th. - John Cooper of Burgh, Suffolk. November 10th. - Henry Weeds. December 3rd. - Jonathan Bonifoy. Whether any of these were suitable is not known but Mr. Watts also found an entry in the marriage register in 1774 recording the marriage of Thomas Norris and Sarah Groom. Could this be our man and had the Old Inhabitant tricked us when he said he had changed names? Furthermore Mr Watts said there was a sexton of the parish called John Flaxman but he did not give any authority for this or, if he did, I failed to note it at the time.
George Grant's Account.
There is evidence, by an eye-witness to the affair, which tells us 'Norris' was the real name The witness styled himself 'Veteran Stager,' a pseudonym of the dramatic performer, George Grant. In his Essay on the Science of Acting, published in 1828, he writes as follows:-
Tt occurred in the town of North Walsham, county of Norfolk, in the year 1788. We were vagabondizing, under the management of the facetious Billy Scraggs; the Fair Penitent was performed, much to the gratification of the bumkins in a crowded -BARN. In the last act where Calista lays her hand on the skull, a Mrs Barry, who played the part, was suddenly seized with an involuntary shuddering;' she fell on the stage, and was instantly conveyed to her lodgings, and during the night her illness continued, but the following day, when sufficiently recovered to be able to converse, she sent for the stage keeper and anxiously enquired if he could tell her from whom or whence he procured the skull used the preceding night; he replied, "he procurred it from the sexton, who informed him it was the skull of one NORRIS, a player, who twelve years before was buried in an obscure corner of the church-yard" That same Norris was this lady's first husband; the poor women never recovered the shock; she died in six weeks.'
While this confirms the names of Norris and Barry it does deviates from the Old Inhabitant's account in two aspects. .. Firstly, and most importantly, it says Norris was a player, not a swashbuckling smuggler and, secondly, but of little significance, is the suggestion that Mrs Barry is said to have lingered six weeks before she died.
Letters to the Press.
The publication of the Old Inhabitant's story brought forward a number of letters to the press. One was from Alfred Palmer of the Curiosity Shop in Tombland, Norwich (more recently better known as the Samson and Hercules House) who said that at the same Debenne sale he had purchased something which he thought the writer of the story would be glad to see. What that something was is referred to in the East Anglian Handbook for 1890, page 207. The writer who calls himself 'Si Quis' says 'As for the skull, I have been told that it is the same which appears in the photograph of Mr Palmer's house and the curiosities thereof which we saw one day in his window on Tombland; and I have been told it is not -although the old caldron on which it rests came originally from the sexton who buried the good lady in North Walsham churchyard.
Further news of the skull was reported in an undated news cutting written by 'Rambler' entitled In an Old Curiosity Shop. He says that the skull was found in the cauldron when Palmer's assistant prized off its lid. He also makes the difficult to believe claim that Mrs Barry died 'in a house at North Walsham, occupied by the de Bennes, a French family with whom she lived.'
Palmer was certainly at the sale which was a miserable affair. Only 91 lots were offered which raised but thirty-two pounds nineteen shillings.Palmer only purchased four lots - a set of six and two antique chairs, 'two pieces of needlework framed and a portrait in a gilt frame,' a Dresden figure and an antique set of drawers. There is no mention of the skull or cauldron in the sale catalogue although it might have been part of the 'sundries' sold from. These were not bought by Palmer but by one 'Barcham' although it might be the case that they were part of a 'dickey deal' after the sale as was often the case. In passing I cannot refrain from adding that when the company I worked for bought the late Doctor Holdstock's house I was startled to find a skull staring at me when I opened an upstairs bedroom cupboard. This is absolutely true but equally quite irrelevant!
It is curious that there is mention of two pieces of framed needlework in Palmer's purchases as there are reports of other pieces which might be the same. The first account is in a letter which W. P. Hughes of Chapel Field Road, Norwich, sent to the press just after the Old Inhabitant's story was published. He says he has a pair of 'framed pictures of needlework in silk' which were worked by his wife's grandmother or great-grandmother (he was not sure as to which) who lived at North Walsham in the latter part of the eighteenth century. On the back of the pictures were pasted two portions of a play bill for The Rivals or a trip to Bath in which Mrs Barry took the part of Lady Lambert. Also in the cast were a Mr and a Master Scraggs whose name we have already mentioned. It appears, despite some contradiction in the telling, that these two frames are those mentioned by the late Kate Hare in her manuscript history of North Walsham. They were then in the possession of Mr Bertie Fuller who is still remembered as the town's chief draper and leading member of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. Ms. Hare refers to them as samplers but when I saw them in the possession of Stanley Watts many years ago my memory tells me that they were worked on silk not cloth.
The next series of letters to the press reveal a little literary 'set-to' between T. Lawson Sisson who lived at Edingthorpe and is known for his early work in photography and bee-keeping, and the Old Inhabitant. Sisson begins the correspondence and somewhat obscurely casts his doubts on the authenticity of the story. He goes on to say he remembered the sisters De Benne one of whom married when a mature spinster, Jemmy White, a real quackolosus (see later). He dubs the Old Inhabitant 'R. Haggard Secundus' and challenges the claim that formic acid was a virulent poison. He also questions whether North Walsham Church ever had a spire. To this the Old Inhabitant replied in his long high faluting style. Within it he was only able to contradict the mention of the mature spinster Debenne. Using papers which he says came from the same chest which also held the confessions, he points out that Miss Debenne first married a man by the name of Elvin before she married Jemmy White, clearly a widow not a spinster. Sisson was not prepared to leave the matter alone and wrote again to the press. This time he waived nicety aside and charged the Old Inhabitant with 'fine writing. Long words, many adjectives, tedious sentences - it is tall writing.' As to the question of formic acid he points out that another correspondent had already written to the press claiming that formic acid could not be in the crystalline state as it liquefies above freezing point.
It might be thought that too much time has been given to this antagonism between Sisson and the Old Inhabitant but it is necessary as I believe it leads to the Old Inhabitant's real identity. It reveals itself in an article written by N.Phillips of North Walsham entitled Account of a Curious Gin 254 Years Old which was published in the East Anglian Handbook for 1889 pages 127 to 134. According to' local directories, Phillips' full name was Nicholas Phillips, an Inland Revenue Officer who lived at 2, Denmark Terrace, North Walsham and the Gin was situated at Trunch Brewery. This story has so many similarities with the North Walsham account that one is left with little doubt that they are written by the same man. In essence the grandiose writing which wraps around essential facts is common to both and, most convincing of all, Phillips takes two further digs at Sisson whom he tangled with in the North Walsham story.
If then, as I suppose, Phillips was the 'Old Inhabitant,' and, as I have shown, the essential facts of his story were based on earlier accounts, it might appear to be the end of the matter. However these conclusions have only been reached after some fifty years of interest in the affair. Should therefore anyone decide to revisit it, the following notes may be helpful
The Rider Haggard Connection.
The reader will recall, that in one of his letters, J. Lawson Sisson refers to the Old Inhabitant as 'R. Haggard Secundus.' I think he only did so to suggest the story was fiction instead of fact. However, Rider Haggard had associations with North Walsham through his wife, Marianna Louisa Margitson whose ancestors came from the gown and who, as part of her Marriage settlement gave her husband a house and shop in North Walsham just a few doors past the Debenne shop. The Haggards have little to say about the Margitsons but what they do say is interesting. Rider Haggard in The Days of My Life, Volume 1, page 164, says that they were 'originally yeoman in the neighbourhood of North Walsham crossed with Huguenot blood,' and Debenne is, indeed, a Huguenot name. Rider Haggard's daughter, Lilias Rider Haggard in Too late for Tears goes a little further. She traced the Margitsons back to one John Margitson. She writes 'Any enquiry as to John Margitson remains unanswered. Traditionally he is believed to have run away from home as a boy and gone to sea. He finally settled near North Walsham and appears to have married a local lady, a Miss Beckwith or a Miss Taylor (or possibly both), who had considerable property there and he became a successful lawyer.' Certainly he appears to be of some wealth as he bought the Ditchingham Estate for his son James who married Sophia, a daughter of the Revd. Thomas Beckwith. To this we can add that the Beckwiths and Taylors had associations with Dilham. Walter Rye in his Monumental Inscriptions in the Hundred of Tunstaed says that Ann Taylor married a James Shepard whose daughter Harriet married the Revd. Thomas Beckwith, Rector of Crostwight and died in 1844 aged 45. Thomas himself died in 1855 aged 58. There are problems with dates but these we can leave to the genealogists to solve. What is of interest is the tradition that John Margitson ran away to sea and whether such a tradition was known in North Walsham and, particularly, was it known to Nicholas Phillips.
Robert Vincent's Story.
On the 13 February 1897, some nine years after the 'Confessions' were published, the Norfolk Chronicle, in their Notes and Queries columns published a note by one 'Prompter' simply printing George Grant's account of the occurrence. It did however bring a letter from Robert Vincent who lived in Vicarage Street, North Walsham, the street in which the barn and its successor theatre were located. He wrote as follows:-
'1 send you a torn leaf of an old book, which gives a more detailed account of the remarkable occurrence mentioned in note 121. The writer relates the circumstance of Mrs Barry's death in terms identical with those quoted by "Prompter" and proceeds: - Rumour has added that an investigation into the strange affair took place, and upon examining the skull, a long nail was found forced through the ear, and nearly protruding the other side. It was ascertained that the man Norris was an habitual drunkard, who frequently ill-used his wife, and, driven to desperation, she, no doubt, during one of his drunken sleeps, adopted this method of freeing herself from one who made her life a misery. But retribution is sure if slow, and the surprising way in which the remains of the crime were placed before her, added to the weight of a guilty conscious, which needed only self-accusation, speedily brought to a close the life of the principal actress in the drama.' The building later known as the Church-rooms was formerly North Walsham Theatre."
The Christmas Dragon Account.
During the last war the Royal Berkshire Regiment was quartered in the town and, in their Christmas Dragon magazine published an account called When death stalked a North Walsham Stage (a true story). It was contributed by F.T.L.Sheppard. Whether, despite the spelling he was a member of the Shepheard family of North Walsham I am unable to say. The account is quite long and as much of it tells the story we already know it is only necessary to mention any new or conflicting information. It repeats the falsehood that the 1788 events took place in Fisher's Theatre whereas we know in was played out in the barn which preceded it. It also says that Barry (never giving him the name of Norris) was twenty years older than his wife whom he married in North Walsham Church. It also says that Barry built Hamlet House which as we shall see, was not the case. As to the difficulties between the couple, which they account 'the old story of crabbed age and youth', no mention is made of Barry's drinking, only that his twenty-three year old wife missed the life, lights and laughter of the theatre and encouraged further the young bloods of the district who paid her compliments which infuriating her husband. Finally, after the performance in the barn she died only a few hours later.
Some of my readers will recall Mr. Starling who lived in a house in Lime Tree Road, North Walsham from which house his pleasant piano playing was frequently heard. When he did emerge it was usually on his bicycle with his little Jack Russell dog sitting in the front basket. He was a well read man - and ought to have been as he seemed to forget to return some of the books which he had borrowed! He was aware of the Christmas Dragon and Robert Vincent's accounts and wrote two letters to the North Norfolk News dated February 1966 and 20 December 1968 butthese had nothing relevant to add.
Bertie Fuller's Reminiscences.
Bertie Fuller, who has already been mentioned, lived in New Road and kept what many remember as Fuller's Drapery Store. He was a keen local historian but only makes a brief reference to the Norris/Barry affair in his manuscript Reminiscences and that reference is puzzling. After a two line mention of the affair he concludes 'Edward Barry's tombstone is in the churchyard just inside the Church St., gate.' If this is what he saw then so be it. But was this Barry, who we would expect to be named Norris, named Edward? It conflicts entirely with what the Old Inhabitant says was on the tombstone.
Kate Hare's History.
Kate Hare too has already been mentioned. Her account is not very accurate on the subject in hand but does tell us that the affair is quoted in Jones's Biographia Dramatica in 1812. This is earlier than that given by George Grant in 1828.
The Old Inhabitant tells us that Norris built Hamlet House after his marriage which means he must have built it between 1774 when he received his sabre cut and 1776 when he died. This cannot be the case as the house does not appear on the North Walsham Inclosure Award Map of 1814:-
At this time it was a large undeveloped field belonging to Thomas Hammont Cooper who owned the Oaks estate on the corner of Yarmouth and New Road. As can be seen in the detail taken from the map there were three buildings opposite this field of which the northernmost one was also owned by Cooper and was probably a farmhouse. At least, in my youth, it was known as Lyngate Farm the house itself being called Lyngate House, the home of 'Lawyer Bell' who has already been mentioned. When he died in 1981 his son showed me round the house and showed me a brick taken from a fireplace with the date 1745 upon it, which he said was the date of the house.
The centre building is of more interest to our story. It was owned by John Debenne and was almost certainly a house. To the east of it a further piece of land was awarded to John Stephen Debenne (probably the same man) as part of his portion of the inclosed lands. It was certainly a house by the time of the 1842 Tithe Map when it was owned and occupied by Mary Debenne. The further piece allowed the Debennes to build and incorporate it into the later Brunswick House.
The southernmost building, nearest the road was the sole property of Thomas Brackenbury which suggests it was a house but it had gone by 1842.
As to Hamlet House, I do not know when it was built only that it was built after the 1812 Inclosure and before the 1842 Tithe In the latter it is scheduled as a house, buildings, yards, gardens, and Lawn owned by Thomas Nash and occupied by one 'Lawson.' As to its haunted guise I knew very little but, in giving a talk on the Occurrence in 1976 I was told by one elderly lady that Mrs Read (or Reed?) who lived there said there was one particular passage which always had a clammy, cold and eerie feeling and her dog refused to go into the passage. Another lady said it was common knowledge that anyone who lived there came to no good.
Nowadays we are told formic acid is good enough to be added to our food and bad, or corrosive enough to clean our toilets. However unlikely it is that it was the cause of poisoning Mrs Barry, it is curious that the blood ran rather thin in the Margitson family. Lilias Rider Haggard tells us that none of the six children bom at Ditchingham 'were strong, possibly because their grand-parents (who were cousins) transmitted some hereditary delicacy of health. Much of their short lives was spent in visiting Yarmouth for sea air, or grandmother Beckwith in Norwich to consult doctors, or to recover from the various complaints from which they suffered.' At North Walsham the situation was worse. Here, the Margitsons, variously spelled Margetson fared much worse. The five recorded children of John Margitson and Alice his wife (she died in 1823) died at the ages of 6, 2, 6, 12, and 33.
There is little doubt that Jemmy White is the man referred to in Ernest R Suffiing's The Innocents on the Broads. I leave you to decide, if you can understand the dialect, whether it is a good example of Norfolk folklore, or whether it is simply amusing.
'Now, master, yew'll think I'm a bit duzzy if I say, I du believe in both 'wise' people and the 'evil eye,' an' I'll tell yew w'y, and mind it ain't no idle golder, because it happened to me.
Last June I wuz in Walsham on Market-day, and hevin' a look round, hu should I meet but old X-, the 'wise' man, as we call him, 'cause he can cure all mander o' things and tell fortunes and read draams like a book.
Well, thinks I, yew may be a wise man, but I 'ont touch my hat to yew, nor pass the seal o' the day like a hape o' silly fules du. Yow don't know me, though I du
So I parst him, and jest gan him a kinder peep outer the corner of my laft eye. In a moment he clapped his eyes onter me, just for a' the worl' like a tarrier dawg from under his shucky brows.
Lor, master, I did feel, some bad tu. I know'd in a jiffy that he'd put a spell on me, and I wint in and had a pinter ole ale to kinder pick me up a bit. This took place at half arter tew on the Thursder, because when he put the spell on me, I reccomember glancing at the blue-faced clock on the old Market Cross. Well, nex' day, on the Frider, jist at that time, I kim over all of a shake and dudder, but I put it down to the throshy wather, 'cause we'd had a storm thet morning,' and it was wheelin' roun' to give us another spell werry sune. Well, there I wuz, doddering like a man with the ager, though the wather was rite hot and close. I wuz that sick and bad, I couldn't kep right- up on my feet, and hed to lay down jest were I dropped.
I'd got it sue enough, the old warmint had cast a spell on me for not a-noticin' him. And so it went on day arter day, so that I rite dreaded half arter tew a-comin. Well, I told our master, and he say, 'Well, bor, I'll tell yew how yew kin get outer that. To-morrow,' he say, 'I'll drive you up to Walsham, and du yew go to old X-(the wise man), and tell him how yew fare ivery day, and ax him to gan yew a bottle o' suthin' to put yew right.' Well, to make my mardle short, I went.
Lor, he fared to know what I'd cum arter. 'Put out yar tongue,' he say. I poked out savirel inches, 'cause I've got a pretty long lolliper, but bless you he hardly look on tut; he clapped his eyes onter mine and mumbled suthin', and I hard suthin' crack in me stummick, and I knowed I wuz cured. He'd atook the spell off.
Course he gan me a bottle o' stuff, but that wuz on'y make-believe, the trick wuz dun when he clapped his eyen on mine. I never felt bad no more arter that.
............I ain't no more supesstitious than other folks, but yew don't perhaps
know that old X- wuz born in chime hours; he is the seventh son, and if that don't constitoot a 'wise man,' the there never wuz one..........
Fower, eight and twelve are the chimes, and folks born in them hours can see hytersprites, and fairies, and ghosts, and such-like. Besides that they are born lucky, and that's better'n bein' born with a silver spune in yer mouth. Yew smile master. P'r'aps yew don't believe in ghosts an' things?'
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dr. Ann Ridler for reading through a draft of my text and making useful suggestions.