Thursday, 17 December 2015

Magic Lanterns: Reflections on the Past

Barrel rolling at the annual Westleton Barrel Fair

Writing in the late 1970s, the sociologist, Professor Ronald Fletcher, described the genesis of his book, 'In A Country Churchyard', a recreation of the lives of the dead, lying within the graveyards in and around the Suffolk village of Westleton. Having just re-read this work, I thought I would share the first two paragraphs with you here. For me, the journey described here - from archival research, to oral history; putting faces to names; imaginatively connecting with the once living, and the traces of their presence - captures something of the wonder that I feel is at the heart of local history. 

'I stumbled accidentally across some aspects of its history, and began to learn and think more about it, but then - as I studied the records - people began to rise up out of them. Where before I had seen only names on lists, individual characters began to shake their shoulders and stand up. It was as though these dead were being awakened, resurrected. They seemed close, as though they had something to say. And there were reasons for this. 

Besides the historic records, the materials in the county archives, I began to find all sorts of things in the village itself. In an antique shop, in a mouldy old chest on a bottom shelf. I found a whole box full of Victorian photographic plates. Nearby, I also came across many boxes of magic lantern slides (and the magic lantern itself) which had been mounted by the photographer who owned the plates. These slides gave a pictorial history of the village from about the late 1870s to the early 1960s - a span of almost a century. The archive records began to be filled in with details of places, faces and events. I discovered that there were still old people in the village - in their eighties and upwards - who not only remembered them but who also possessed other photographs, newspaper cuttings and objects of various kinds which added many other details. Gradually, the village community and its people came to life.'


Looking towards Stump Cross, Magdalen Street, where the flyover now looms
© Nick Stone* Source: Invisible Works: St Botolph the Traveller

The Magdalen Walks members are also going with me on a similar journey. Our focus is on the inner northern portion of Norwich. Yes, it would be amazing if we stumble upon our own equivalent of the magic lantern slides, but even if it is merely the sherds of a 'bundle of broken mirrors' that we find, that will be plenty enough. Also, whereas, in an urban area, we might not find such a 'rooted' community, what we will have is a richness of diversity. In addition, although the north of the city has had relatively little archaeological investigation, we can still look to this for some hitherto hidden presences (for instance, the Alms Lane and Fishergate excavations) If you know how and where to look, you will find many long-gone lives reflected in the present. 

* Our thanks go out to the phenomenally talented Nick Stone for generously granting us permission to use his photographs in our project. Check out his Invisible Works website (click HERE), which contains several pieces about our locality - and much more besides!

Monday, 14 December 2015

Looking at the old maps of north Norwich at our last meeting, someone remarked on the Borough Lunatic Asylum marked near Magpie Road. Apparently, this had its origin in the Poor Law. It was set up in the 18th century as an infirmary for the nearby Workhouse. In 1828 it was known as the Norwich Pauper Asylum; later as the Norwich City Asylum, not to be confused with the Norfolk Insane Asylum in Thorpe St Andrews. It was relocated in the 20th century to become today's Hellesdon Hospital. There some fascinating stuff about its history here:

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Norwich/ including a link with the Great British Bake Off cook Mary Berry!   
Magdalen WALKS now on Facebook too: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1646851058902941/

Friday, 11 December 2015

Hands-on History


This is a small wooden box. It is exactly the sort of 'prop' I take with me when I'm facilitating heritage walks and exploration. Often, with an object like this, I will hold it so that folk can see it. I may even take a peep inside now and then. It is an Intrigue Object. Just as folk like to walk to the top of hills and mountains to see the other side, so they like to know what's inside something they are excluded from. 

An object like this can be used to enhance the experience of an audience in so many ways. It might contain, say, a letter from the past recounting a dramatic act - only then you reveal that it is a spoof (playful perhaps - but you can make the point that we must approach our sources with caution). It might contain a series of genuinely historic artefacts that relate to different areas of the route you are taking. It might have some sensory materials: things to touch, smell - even taste. It is kinaesthetic, encouraging hands-on history

A box of wonder and intrigue like this can help to activate a group. It can occupy a restless youngling. It can engage someone with a visual impairment. It can prompt people to relate some small thing in hand, to larger events; to a seemingly distant past. Above all else, it helps participants to Relate, and all the evidence shows that where folk relate something to themselves, they engage more actively with the information, taking 'ownership' of it and retaining it more effectively. 


Thursday, 10 December 2015

John Abigail’s just desert.

Following Colin's blog post, I also went on the St Augustine’s Church walk and am very grateful to Stuart for truly guiding us. For an hour or so, I was engrossed in the hidden stories that have moulded cherished corners into the texture of the building.

Stuart drew our attention to the memorials located throughout the church, each one eulogising a local resident. There are dozens, spanning several centuries, and we discussed how displaying such plaques may have been intended, to some extent, to peacock; a way of ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Each plaque is a shop window for a remarkable story and all it takes is a little research or the guidance of someone like Stuart who has done a lot of research!

By following the questions in Stuart’s pop quiz, we reflected upon the nature of the inscriptions. For example, only two depict the acts of women beyond ‘mother and wife’; another was born in America yet came to Norfolk in 1778; a textiles manufacturer, Thomas Clabburn, was remembered by “upwards of the six hundred weavers of Norwich”.

Visualising the individuals behind the words, I imagined the clothes of the day, the housing these people occupied and the motive behind the celebrated achievements.

Of all the dedications, one in particular stood out for me. In the whole of the UK there are only a dozen instances where a WWI soldier, shot for desertion, has their named listed among those who died from active service.

The name of Private John Henry Abigail appears although he was executed at the age of 20 by firing squad in 1917. We can only speculate as to exactly why Mr Abigail deserved his place among the traditionally mourned but hearing his back story it becomes easier to imagine.

Born into abject poverty and sleeping on soiled sackcloth behind a distillery, John was often responsible for younger siblings during the father’s incarcerations for neglect and drunkenness. After joining the forces, possibly as a means of getting regular food, John was injured and sent to recuperate in Great Yarmouth. During his absence both parents had spent time in Norwich prison. Learning of his father’s pending release, John visited his siblings. He was arrested and sent back to the front but after deserting a further three times, he was eventually consigned to the firing squad.

Regardless of your stance on desertion, this is surely a poignant story. John had just three years of so-called independence and it was spent either on the run or in the trenches. If I hadn’t spent time in St Augustine’s church with Stuart, this story would have remained unknown to me. So, what? Well, so nothing, maybe, but I feel a little enriched for the experience and it certainly made me question my judgement on desertion.

This is why I believe heritage should matter to everyone. We don’t exist in a sealed year, immune to the past and oblivious to history - what we are is shaped by what we were and taking time now and again to reflect on the people who occupied our place before us can allow us to live our own lives a little more mindfully.


Tuesday, 8 December 2015

In Oscar Wilde's Footsteps...


I just Googled 'Magdalen Walks' and was tickled to find the following Oscar Wilde poem heading up the page:

Magdalen Walks


Oscar Wilde

The little white clouds are racing over the sky,
   And the fields are strewn with the gold of the flower of March,
   The daffodil breaks under foot, and the tasselled larch
Sways and swings as the thrush goes hurrying by.

A delicate odour is borne on the wings of the morning breeze,
   The odour of deep wet grass, and of brown new-furrowed earth,
   The birds are singing for joy of the Spring’s glad birth,
Hopping from branch to branch on the rocking trees.

And all the woods are alive with the murmur and sound of Spring,
   And the rose-bud breaks into pink on the climbing briar,
   And the crocus-bed is a quivering moon of fire
Girdled round with the belt of an amethyst ring.

And the plane to the pine-tree is whispering some tale of love
   Till it rustles with laughter and tosses its mantle of green,
   And the gloom of the wych-elm’s hollow is lit with the iris 
Well, maybe we can't conjure up such a rural idyll from this part of the city of Norwich, but we certainly will be exploring natural history - nature of the city - as part of our project. It's good to know that we are walking in the footsteps of poets.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Exploring St Augustine's Church


On Thursday 3rd Magdalen Walks member, Stuart McLaren, led an exploration of St Augustine's Church with the other volunteers. One of the (many!) things that I learned is that the church is associated with folk bearing some remarkable names. For instance, the brothers who founded the church and who were also priests were called, Herbertus & Wlfrac (pron 'Wolf Rack'). Fast forward to the 1870s and the Diocesan Surveyor was one, Richard Makilwaine Phipson. Brilliant! 

Although Stuart knows lorry loads about the church he let us do some of the work and gave us a short quiz challenging us to locate various things of interest. These ranged from a man associated with the American War of Independence to a young soldier from the parish who was tragically executed for desertion. In addition, Stuart also highlighted the memorials to two local women who gave selflessly to their community. It was really interesting to actively investigate the church for ourselves and I had the feeling that we were only scratching the surface. 





We will certainly be returning to St Augustines in the future as we continue to discover the rich seams of history that remain within our community. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Exploring St Augustine's Church


Tomorrow morning we gather at St Augustine's for a short talk about the church by MW volunteer and author, Stuart McLaren. In keeping with our ethos of active exploration, we will also be looking to discover something about the church for ourselves. In addition, we will be thinking about how we turn a talk into a brief stop as part of a walk. 

If we have time after that i've got a great interactive activity that will help us (a) take notice of things most people miss and (b) generates a vocabluary through which to tell the story of a site. 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Octagon Chapel


The Octagon Chapel - one of north Norwich's many historical treasures. The architect who conceived it was Thomas Ivory and this Unitarian chapel - constructed as a perfect octagon - was completed in 1756. Not everyone approved though; detractors described it as, 'the devil's cucumber frame'. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Researching Norwich: recommended reading

Researching the north of Norwich is a key part of the Magdalen Walks project. Here are some initial thoughts about where you might start. There will be lots more to come as the project progresses. 

Whenever someone asks me what books I can recommend to help them gain a better understanding of Norwich's history & archaeology, there are two key works I refer them to. 



Firstly, there is the excellent survey, 'The Story of Norwich', written by Norfolk Record Office archivist, Frank Meeres. It is an accessible and well-organised work that provides a good overview of the city's development from an archival perspective ie one focused on what historical documents can tell us



Secondly, Brian Ayers', 'Norwich: archaeology of a city', provides a great overview of the city from an archaeological perspective. Brian is the former Norfolk County Archaeologist and is, therefore, in an excellent position to offer rigorous and comprehensive insights. 

If you are intending to learn more about your city get your hands on a copy of each of these. In the first instance, why not go to your local library and borrow a copy. Having read it, you might well decide to invest on your own personal copy. 

Finally, I wish to add that, over the years, Brian and Frank have been amazing ambassadors for Norwich's history and archaeology.  Not only do they give of themselves generously in terms of talks and walks; they are also very approachable and prepared to answer questions and listen to different perspectives. I feel very strongly that we should recognise the value and contribution of experts like them. They have certainly helped me in my learning journey and I am duly grateful to them
both for that. 

Colin



Monday, 23 November 2015

Looking Forward to the Journey




I was one of the volunteers that turned up to session described below by Colin. I'll be adding my less than experienced voice to the blog. Colin will talk fact and I will talk fiction. At least until I know a bit more. In many ways I think this is the essence of what we're trying to achieve. Some people think they're not interested in history. That's like saying you're not interested in yesterday. There are stories all around us that we may pass every day without noticing - they're embedded in the old city walls; they are scored in the pathways along our streets. There is surely something to inspire each of us. 

I am interested in history for history's sake because I like to compare the old with the new and the ancient with the old. I've never undertaken an activity like this before however as my history has been confined to books. I'm looking forward to interacting with the elements and learning to take a better look at what exists in front of our noses. To unearth the stories behind the facts and try to create a picture of what life may have been like.


I'm looking forward to the journey.


Matt

Friday, 20 November 2015

Norwich Over the Water

Eighteenth century prospect of north
Norwich, centred on St Clement's Church
This morning volunteers interested in researching and promoting the history, heritage and archaeology of the north of city will be gathering at The Stage along St Augustines. I will be helping to facilitate this project, which we are calling 'Magdalen Walks'. As well as working together to research our area, by late Spring 2016 we will be offering tours of Norwich 'Over The Water'. Walking is a key part of our venture, and this is about encouraging curiosity, discovery and physical and mental health. In addition, we will be working with BBC Voices to make a series of films showcasing this historic heart of Norwich. 

Having lived in the north of the city for 23 years now, getting the opportunity to help promote the history, heritage and archaeology of 'my patch' really excites me! If you're interested in getting involved, email me on howeychoosetouseit@gmail.com. 

Colin Howey
Freelance Heritage Interpretation Trainer