Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome back Sarah Doig, professional genealogist and Suffolk based local historian, to tell our thirty plus audience some of the many examples of strange, quirky and mysterious happenings over time in our lovely ‘Curious' county.
She began by quoting Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century who compiled “A Dictionary of the English Language”:
Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last
This was followed with a reminder of the ‘Visit Suffolk' campaign of some years ago entreating people to visit the ‘Curious County'. As many remembered, this slogan was dropped soon after some unfortunate and negative comments from one of East Anglia's MPs, with whom Sarah (and I) disagreed. As she put it, “our county is special; there is always something new and interesting, alive and thriving, with a rich legacy for us all to enjoy today”.
The A to Z of Curious Suffolk, which she was approached to write by The History Press, took her around our curious county on her researches; as she said, there was a good mix of people, places and happenings, of which the following were just a small sample for our enjoyment.
B for Bang
Sarah's first example was that of a now extinct Suffolk hard cheese, called Suffolk Thump or Suffolk Bang, the latter perhaps because thumping or banging made little or no impression on it. Daniel Defoe reported in the 1720s that Woodbridge is a “considerable market for butter and corn… they are famous for the best butter and perhaps the worst cheese in England”.
The cheese was made from thrice-skimmed milk and supposedly the worst in England. It was said that Hunger will break through stone walls, or anything except Suffolk cheese, that knives wouldn't cut it, fire wouldn't sweat it, and even that dogs couldn't eat it, it was however eminently suitable for making wheels for wheelbarrows. Suffolk Bang was also liked by the Royal Navy, probably because it was cheap and lasted well, though it was eventually replaced by Cheshire and other cheeses, following the many complaints from sailors.
F for Follies
Sarah reported that Suffolk has its fair share of these, primarily for decoration or as a suggestion of something else.
Freston Tower is a six-storey Tudor folly looking out over the River Orwell, possibly built to coincide with Elizabeth I's visit to Ipswich in August 1579 as part of her ‘Progress'. A single room on each floor now has a sitting room at the top to take advantage of the unrivalled views.
Legend has it the tower was built by Lord de Freston in the 15th century, for his daughter Ellen, to study a different subject on a different floor six days of the week. Allegedly the 1st floor was dedicated to reception, the 2nd to tapestry working, the 3rd to music, the 4th to painting, the 5th to literature and the 6th to astronomy, complete with instruments for taking observations; however, as this was taken from a novel by Reverend Richard Cobbold (Freston Tower), it cannot be taken as fact.
Sarah advised the building is now owned by The Landmark Trust, who believe the most likely builder was a wealthy Ipswich merchant called Thomas Gooding, who bought Freston Manor in 1553. Built both to admire from the outside and to look out from on the inside, there are 26 windows dotted over its six storeys, so it may well have acted as a lookout tower for Gooding's returning ships, or simply as an extravagant folly (if so, one of the earliest in England).
The Tattingstone Wonder is at first glance a second church in the village, which is located on the Shotley peninsula; it is some distance to the south, stands in splendid isolation and is actually a folly. Converted from three terraced cottages still used as a dwelling, the ‘church tower' was built in 1790 for the local squire, Edward White, to provide a point of interest when viewed from his hall in the valley below. View it from the back and all is revealed, for the tower consists of just three sides; its purpose appears to have been to give the neighbours ‘something to wonder at.'
C for Crankle
Or in East Anglia, crinkle crankle, as in a serpentine, ribbon or wavy wall. These economise on bricks, despite their sinuous configuration, because they can and usually are made just one brick thick; unlike normal walls, which require buttresses to support them against lateral winds, alternate convex and concave curves in the wall provide stability without need for pillars.
Crinkle and crankle are both defined as something to do with bends and turns, but the term is also thought to come from Old English meaning zig-zag. The earliest reference was apparently in 1598, but it was not until the 18th century that the term began to be applied to wavy walls; at that time such garden walls were usually aligned east-west, so one side faced south to catch the warming sun, historically used for growing fruit.
Sarah told us that Suffolk claims at least 50 examples of crinkle crankle walls, twice as many as the rest of the country, which are attributable to the Dutch engineers who drained the fens from the mid 1600s - in Dutch they are called slangenmuu or snake walls. The estate village of Easton has one of the longest, originally stretching 2.5 miles. The listed wall was badly damaged in 2013 by a hit and run driver, leaving a 20 foot gap, which was happily rebuilt in 2014, using some 3,500 hand cleaned original bricks, along with a further 500 old bricks bought to match.
L for Lines
Sarah then told us about Samuel Hart, a mid nineteenth century Kettleburgh shoemaker and also a part time herbalist and poet (clearly a man for all seasons), who advertised himself as follows:
Curer of bunions, Scab heads, Rheumatism, Scrofula,
and various other complaints incidental to the human frame.
Poems and Pieces composed and arranged on any occasion!
In the event his ‘cures' did not work, which was probably quite likely, he would then write an epitaph for their gravestone. An example of his ‘literary genius' lies chiselled in the local gravestones, including the following, for Hannah, wife of William Farthing, who died in 1854:
Her last words when on her deathbed lie,
She spoke plain and not bewilderin:
She said dear husband I must die;
Pray provide for my poor children.
D for Diversion
Sarah then told us some of the myths surrounding wartime goings on at Shingle Street, eight miles south-east of Woodbridge, and a desolate spot.
Until a series of top secret documents were declassified in 1992, well before their official 2021 expiry date, many rumours circulated about Shingle Street, most luridly that of 3,000 German soldiers, who were allegedly part of an attempted invasion force killed in a firefight here. Most of this was wartime propaganda; what actually happened during the Second World War was not that remarkable - Shingle Street was forcibly evacuated in 1940, in anticipation of a German invasion, and three years later became a venue for munitions testing. After the war, because of the number of mines that had been laid on its beach it was deemed uninhabitable, and it was not until the late 1940s that these were cleared and people began to drift back.
Conspiracies included rumours of a German landing, a shoreline littered with burning bodies, schemes to protect the coastline with an impenetrable barrage of flames and the testing of experimental chemical bombs. There were experiments done, very quickly, in May and June 1940, using surplus petrol stocks as an offensive weapon. It was thought that as well as pouring this over tanks on land, the sea could be set on fire, and some beach flame-barrages were created on the south coast.
The Directorate of Military Intelligence came up with the idea to say that we could set the sea on fire. In late July 1940 the story that we had terrible destructive power at our disposal was released quietly ‘underground', as if it were a big secret, and was picked up by the Nazis as the spooks intended. By the end of August contemporary Government documents ‘showing' that Britain could set the sea on fire, and had already defeated a German landing attempt, were in circulation in Europe. The ‘Big Lie' was also given to the American media by British intelligence, and given official credence, to convince the US it ought to stand firm with its transatlantic neighbour. The story went that Britain had set fire to the English Channel to defeat a German invasion, and the story became Britain's first significant propaganda victory of the Second World War, helping to convince America that Britain was worth backing.
British newspapers were not allowed to report these (false) stories about blazing seas, washed-up bodies and thwarted invasions, though the rumours had swept much of southern and eastern England during 1940, helping to raise morale. In the whole course of the war, Britain's chief press censor later admitted ‘there was no story which gave me so much trouble as that of the attempted German invasion, flaming oil on the water and 30,000 burned Germans'. There were some facts to feed the deception, such as the odd Nazi soldier or two being washed up on southern British beaches,and it's almost certain they weren't part of any planned and/or repelled invasion force; nevertheless, the Shingle Street myths seem set to continue.
T for Traditions
According to Sarah, Suffolk is a county with many traditions, one of the most bizarre being that of Dwile Flonking. The earliest known game was played at the Beccles Festival of Sport in 1966 - no one can remember the score, though team members did recall feeling pretty fragile the following morning. There is also a reference predating the Beccles Festival, originating from the fertile imagination of Michael Bentine on his BBC show ‘It's a Square World'. An episode, aired sometime between 1960 and 1964, sees explorers stumble across a group of natives playing the sport in the darkest reaches of the English countryside. Brilliant, and now for the rules:
According to The Friends Of The Lewes Arms, rules are impenetrable and the result of a game is always contested, though less alcohol-centric authorities do provide more clarity. A 'dull witted person' is chosen as the referee or 'jobanowl' and the two teams decide who flonks first by tossing a sugar beet. The game begins when the jobanowl shouts "Here y'go t'gither!"
The non-flonking team joins hands and dances in a circle around a member of the flonking team, a practice known as 'girting'. The flonker dips his dwile-tipped 'driveller' (a pole 2-3 ft long and made from hazel or yew) in a bucket of beer, spins around in the opposite direction to the girters and flonks his dwile at them. If the dwile misses it is known as a 'swadger' or a 'swage'. When this happens the flonker must drink the contents of an ale-filled 'gazunder' (a chamber pot which 'goes-under' the bed) before the wet dwile has passed from hand to hand along the line of now non-girting girters chanting the ancient ceremonial mantra of "pot pot pot".
A full game comprises four 'snurds', each snurd being one team taking a turn at girting. The jobanowl adds interest and difficulty to the game by randomly switching the direction of rotation, and will levy drinking penalties on any player found not taking the game seriously enough, whilst points are awarded as follows:
At the end of the game, the team with the most number of points wins, being awarded with a ceremonial pewter gazunder. It is of course best to watch a game in action, ably demonstrated from the link below by Rory McGrath and friend - please click HERE
I have not (yet) read Sarah's book, but on the basis of the stories she shared, its going to be a great read, full of interesting snippets and humurous asides. As a final plug, Sarah also gave us some of the other A to Z headings which do look intriguing:
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room, Church Road LW on:
18th October: Martin Hedges will tell the tale of ‘The Miser and the Murderess'
A motiveless poisoning by a 17 year-old Acton servant girl just 3 weeks married to her childhood sweetheart. A missing signature on a will leading to a 120 year-long family dispute Recreated by Dickens as Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House. It should be fascinating.
15th November: Gary Edgerton tells the History of Colchester from the Romans to the present day.
Slides will take us on a walking tour of the Castle, the Dutch Quarter, Jumbo, St John's Abbey and St Botolph's Priory; also with an amusing section on Colchester's houses of ill repute. This presentation is going to be really interesting as well as informative.
Both events will be great and we look forward to welcoming guests new and old.
Andy Sheppard 24th September 2017