We don’t read Parson Woodforde for the grand sweep of history but for the finer grain of his daily life. His diaries are history slowed. We hear in detail what ails his parishioners and of his small kindnesses but we are left to infer the causes of rural poverty for ourselves. When, in 1781, the American War of Independence depressed the export of Norwich textiles Woodforde noted laconically, ‘Trade at Norwich never worse. Poor no employment.’ It is easy to get the impression that James Woodforde is at the still centre while history crashes about him. He is, however, more forthcoming about the minutiae of his comfortable living as vicar of Weston Longville. From the ten-mile excursions he took into Norwich we learn about the texture of life in a provincial Georgian city.
In April 1775, when he and his companions arrived in Norwich at night, Woodforde had to rouse the gatekeeper to let them through St Stephens Gate and on to their accommodation at the King’s Head in the marketplace . For their journey from London they had arisen early and hired a post chaise and four through Epping Forest. This was not without peril for this is where a coachman, who shot three out of seven highwaymen, was killed by the gang. Woodforde’s party changed coach and horses at ‘The Bull-Faced Stagg’ then proceeded to Harlow; onwards to Stanstead, then to Bourne Bridge with fresh chaises to Newmarket where they dined. In fresh chaises they drove to Barton Mills (where they changed yet again) and on to Thetford, Attleborough and Norwich. I mention this to underline the effort and expense to get from the capital to what – a century ago – had been the nation’s second city. The journey cost the party eleven pounds, fourteen shillings and fourpence, of which he paid half – little more than what he was to pay a young servant maid per annum (five guineas).
The slowness of travel made vilages more isolated than they are today. In the days before the standardising effects of railway timetables, communities were necessarily more self-sustaining to the extent that cities across the country kept their own times. Woodforde evidently required more than Weston Longville could offer and was willing to drive his horse and cart the ten miles to Norwich.
In 1791, Woodforde replaced his ‘old little cart’ with ‘a new little Curricle painted a deep Green and without Springs – 9 guineas’ … like it much.’ . There were five coachmakers listed in the city around that time but it was from Adams and Bacon of 3 St Stephens Road that Woodforde made his purchase. Their premises were near the St Stephens Gate that had barred him from entering the city in 1775. The gate was demolished in 1793 but the nearby Coachmakers Arms survives – its name derived, no doubt, from the coachmaking business.
Woodforde is known to have stabled his horse at the Woolpack (he calls it the Wool-pocket) in St Giles . The Norfolk Pubs site gives the address as 25 St Giles Street from 1814, after which it became known as the Norfolk Hotel . The photograph above shows its appearance in the late nineteenth century but the building was demolished in 1904 to make way for the Grand Opera House, which then became a theatre and cinema – The Hippodrome.
George Plunkett’s photograph illustrates The Hippodrome at a time when it was showing ‘The film that London was afraid to show’. This was Morgenrot (Dawn), directed by Gustav Ucicky (which he had changed from Gustav Klimt) and approved by the Nazi minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The film depicts the lives of German sailors trapped in a U-boat during World War I. In World War II, The Hippodrome took a direct hit from a German bomb, which killed the theatre manager, his wife and a sea lion trainer. From 1966, the site was to become the St Giles car park.
The hotel on St Giles Street was only a few yards from a wine shop and druggists where Woodforde was a frequent visitor. Peck’s Norwich Directory of 1802 gives this as ‘Priest, John Fox, Chymist and Druggist, 1, St. Giles’ Broad str’. The building was approximately opposite where the City Hall (1939) now stands .
James Woodforde was friendly with the Priest family. When in the city, he would call in for tea or dine with them (when ‘dining’ meant a meal at 3pm). Once he stayed after election night and, on another occasion, paid for John Priest’s ticket when visiting the theatre. The parson was a good customer of Priests’s wine business where, in preparation for the arrival of his relatives from Somerset, Woodforde, ‘tasted some Wine and ordered a Quarter of a Pipe [a pipe of port is 60 gallons], –with 3 gallons of Rum and 3 gallons of the best Holland Geneva [gin]’ . These are staggering quantities but then Woodforde would drink a pint of port with a meal .
Parson Woodforde had befriended Old Mr Priest who was evidently succeeded by John Fox Priest. John had hoped that his son Alfred (b.1810) would follow him in his profession but Alfred left home. He returned to study with local artists Henry Ninham and James Stark and, like them, became a member of the Norwich School of painters .
The next street north of St Giles Street is Pottergate where St John Maddermarket is situated. This church was in the gift of New College Oxford, where Woodforde and his friend Henry Bathurst (1744-1837) had been undergraduates. Bathurst didn’t serve this Norwich church but he received the living, presumably leaving the day-to-day business to a curate. We previously encountered Bathurst: first, as the Bishop of Norwich who gave name to Bathurst Road, off Unthank Road ; and as the recipient of an order for £137 drawn on Kerrisons Norwich Bank . This large sum had been sent through the post by Woodforde who, on behalf of his friend, had collected the tithes* from Great Witchingham, a parish three miles from his own. The diary records that when he was at Oxford in 1775, Woodforde himself received a Norwich Bank bill from his curate for £150, ‘being part of money for Tithes received for me at Weston.’ In 1777, on his ‘Frolic Day’, when he received money for ‘tithe and glebe’, he entertained about 20 of his parishioners and fed and watered them handsomely. He received two hundred and four pounds, seventeen shillings . (*Tithes represented one tenth of the produce raised on church-owned land. Later, the monetary equivalent was paid to the Pope but when Henry VIII became head of the Church of England he fixed the cash value of tithes. When the Crown sold church land to secular institutions the tithes came with it. After 1836 tithes became replaced with the tithe rentcharge).
The Church – or more specifically the living from the parish of All Saints, Weston Longville – afforded James Woodforde the life of a gentleman and a respectable position in a hierarchical society.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the first Norwich house he visited after arriving in Norfolk in 1776 was Number 3 Surrey Street. This was the address of Robert Francis and Son, attorneys, who administered New College’s Norfolk livings, and where Woodforde, ‘called on Mr Francis Junr and talked with him a good deal.‘ Surrey Street is a fine Georgian thoroughfare, part of which was designed by the architect of Georgian Norwich, Thomas Ivory. However, the street was badly damaged by the Baedeker Raids of 1942 and by insensitive twentieth century additions (making an exception for George Skipper’s Marble Hall for Norwich Union). We must thank George Plunkett for recording Number 3 in 1936.
After the religious upheavals of earlier centuries the late 1700s were a time of relative stability; Norwich emerged into an Age of Reason in which its polite society, with time to spare, would meet in coffee houses, promenade along Gentleman’s Walk and in Chapelfield Gardens, which had been laid out for walks since 1746. In addition to the theatre (built by the architect of Georgian Norwich, Thomas Ivory), there were lectures, pleasure gardens, subscription to an increasing number of libraries and – the centre of gravity for the city’s fashionable – assemblies held at Chapelfield House (renovated by Thomas Ivory) . It would probably have been unseemly for the parson to attend public dances but in the evening of December 1785, Woodforde went to an ‘excellent lecture on Astronomy etc.‘ at the Assembly House. This is said to have been delivered by Adam Walker (c1731-1821) – a well-known scholar whose lectures at Syon House Academy and Eton had instilled in the poet Shelley a love of science . To instruct enlightened Norwich on the motions of the planets, Walker was aided by his eidouranion – a large mechanical orrery, some fifteen feet square, that seems to have been back-projected onto a screen. The device was still in service in the early nineteenth century when one of Walker’s sons, Deane Franklin Walker, carried on the family tradition.
The Norwich lecture may, however, have been given by Walker’s son William .
Adam Walker was sufficiently famous to have had his portrait painted by the most fashionable artist of the day, George Romney, and to be portrayed by the great caricaturist, James Gillray. In the background of Gillray’s cartoon we see a portrait of Joseph Priestley FRS, top left, while Adam Walker delivers a lecture at his house in Conduit Street, London. Priestley was a natural philosopher (nowadays, a scientist) famed for his writings on electricity and his experimental chemistry.
Walker and Priestley agreed upon the importance of dispelling ignorance by educating the public about the composition of the world and its place in the universe. Walker’s lectures on planetary motion inspired Romantics with a sense of the sublime – that they were part of something greater. Woodforde’s terse comment was that he ‘was highly pleased with it’, but beneath his anodyne words darker forces ran. The toleration of Nonconformity and the rise of Evangelism – all quite alien to an Anglican parson – had created a climate of intellectual and political Dissent such that, ‘Norwich was the most active intellectual hotbed outside London in the 1790s’ . Contemporary events in France were dividing loyalties between the wealthy and the industrious poor; there was fear of revolution and Norwich was known as the Jacobin city – the city of radical republicanism . Epitomising the city’s radical spirit, Amelia Opie went to see the results of the French Revolution for herself. This mixture of discovery and political ferment threatened this country’s established order. The same cartoonist who drew Adam Walker (with Priestley in the background) was also caricaturing the sans culottes of the French Revolution and there was fear that the disease could spread. Priestley publicly supported the revolution and in response his house in Birmingham was burned down by the mob, leading him to escape to the United States.
Parson Woodforde’s diary is not entirely silent about the mob. On the evening of June 9th 1778 he witnessed ‘a great Riot upon the Castle Hill between the officers of the Western Battalion of the Norfolk Militia and the common soldiers and Mob.’ The officers had refused to pay the men a guinea each; some of the soldiers had refused to take up arms and were put into the guard room. When the mob insisted on hauling them out a great riot ensued: the mob threw stones, some were wounded by bayonets but no-one was killed. Woodforde left around 11 o’clock. Next morning, a great riot was expected when the mob reassembled but Woodforde saw the militia march out of town, peaceably enough.
Circling back to the St Stephens Gate, Woodforde’s port of entry to the city, we know that the parson visited a pleasure garden on what is now the south-west side of the roundabout. Before Marsh Insurance, and before that the Victoria railway station, the site was occupied by Quantrell’s pleasure gardens that we saw in a previous post , and which the parson helps brings alive for us. It was here on June 20 1780 that Woodforde:
near 6 o’clock ...walked to Quantrells Gardens by myself, heard a sad Concert and saw the Fireworks which were very good and worth seeing gave on going [one shilling] for which you have 6d worth of anything at the Bar. I supped and spent the evening there and stayed till 12 o’clock. For my Supper and Liquor pd [one shilling and sixpence] A very heavy Storm fell about 9 o’clock. A prodigious number of common girls [i.e., prostitutes] there and dressed. The Fire Works began about 11 o’clock and lasted about an hour. In it, a representation of the Engagement between the English and French Fleet under Sir George Rodney.
The owner, Quantrell, was originally employed as a fireworks engineer so the pyrotechnics are likely to have been spectacular. This was part of the competition between the city’s various pleasure gardens that tried to ape the post-Restoration venues in London. In Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, Becky Sharpe visited the capital’s fashionable Vauxhall Gardens but Norwich had its own Vauxhall; also, Quantrell’s Gardens were at one time named Ranelagh Gardens after the London venue . Woodforde’s visit was in 1780; in the 1790s the Ranelagh/Quantrell’s Gardens were to erect a version of London’s Pantheon but this was a pale copy – a country cousin of the glorious structure in Oxford Street .
In 1795, on the riverside near King Street, Parson Woodforde visited the New Spring Gardens that was renamed Vauxhall in the late eighteenth century. There he saw the Sons of Neptune go down the river by boat, accompanied by ‘a very good band’ . But it was back in Quantrell’s that he saw Mr Decker and Major Money ascend in their lighter-than-air balloons. This was the age of Balloon Mania. When the intrepid local aeronaut, Colonel Money (whose military career had started in the Norfolk Militia), took off, he ‘… went almost over my Head’, wrote Woodforde, as he saw it over Bracondale. This was some seven weeks before the colonel’s balloon famously deposited him in the sea for several hours off Yarmouth .
Joseph Decker (or Deeker) visited Norwich before travelling to Bristol then taking his balloon to America. His balloon was 25 feet in diameter, beneath which was suspended, not a basket, but a gold and silver gondola (which became the name for the passenger compartment). The high ground with the windmill in the distance could be Mousehold Heath.
Other amusements mentioned in the diary include the ‘Man Satire’ (satyr) that the parson saw on Castle Hill with his friends, the two Priests. Having laid out sixpence he was most disappointed: it ‘was nothing more than a large Monkey … It did not answer our Expectations at all.’ He was, however, ‘highly Astonished’ with the life-size wax doll on show in St Stephens since the automaton could answer, and pose, questions . But the highlight is to be found in the entry for December 19th 1785. This was the day the parson attended Walker’s lecture on astronomy in the evening but that same afternoon he ‘went and saw the learned Pigg at the rampant Horse in St Stephens.’ In bracketing the sublime and the wonderfully ridiculous, Woodforde’s day illustrates the uncritical nature of public spectacle in the Age of Enlightenment: ‘the desire for mystery rather than elucidation, and the accompanying perception of science and technology as magical rather than empirical disciplines’ .
We have encountered the Rampant Horse Inn several times in this blog – a large medieval building to the rear of where Curls (later Debenhams) store was to be built on Rampant Horse Street.
There have been many clever pigs but this animal, ‘Toby, The Amazing Pig of Knowledge’, was the pig trained by Samuel Bissett . After Bissett died as a result of being assaulted by a man with a sword, Toby was bought by a Mr Nicholson who brought him to Norwich.
For his shilling, Woodforde saw the animal ‘with a magic Collar on his Neck. He would spell any Number from the Letters and Figures that were placed before him.‘ But advertisements suggested Toby was capable of much more than typographical tricks: he could reckon the number of people present, tell the hours and minutes of a watch, distinguish between the married and unmarried and divine any Lady’s Thoughts.
The Learned Pig achieved fame. Putting England’s most famous scientist in his place, the poet Southey (1807) said that the pig was, ‘a far greater object of admiration for the British nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton.’ The animal gained a mention in Wordsworth’s Prelude (1805): ‘The horse of knowledge, and the learned pig’. He even crops up in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr Bennet says that their pig is not related to the Learned Pig of Norwich (except these words do not belong to Jane Austen but to screenwriter Deborah Moggach).
©Reggie Unthank 2021
- The Parson Woodforde Society (2008). Walks Around James Woodforde’s Norwich
- James Woodforde (1978). The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802. Edited by John Beresford. Pub: Oxford University Press.
- Angela Daine (2004). An Enlightened and Polite Society. In, ‘Norwich Since 1550. Eds Carol Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson. Pub: Hambledon and London.
- Jan Golinski. ‘Sublime Astronomy: The Eidouranion of Adam Walker and his Sons‘. https://www.academia.edu/34412704/Sublime_Astronomy_The_Eidouranion_of_Adam_Walker_and_his_Sons
- Charles Boardman Jewson (1975). The Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich in its Reaction to the French revolution 1788-1802. Pub: Blackie & Son, Glasgow.
Thanks. This post was inspired by the booklet, ‘Walks Around James Woodforde’s Norwich’, copies of which are available from firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Parson Woodforde and the society in which he lived, visit https://www.parsonwoodforde.org.uk. For permissions I am grateful to the British Newspaper Archive, Clare Everitt and Richard Bristow. Thanks, also, to Jonathan Plunkett for allowing access to his father’s photographs of Norwich and Norfolk: www.georgeplunkett.co.uk
Pat O'Halloran ♞ (@sealdriver) said:
Thank you, another fascinating insight into the city
reggie unthank said:
Thank you Pat
Thanks! Just going to find my copy of the abridged diary, which I bought second-hand when Parson Woodforde cropped up in an A-level History lesson …
reggie unthank said:
Strangely, our original copy of A Country Parson went walkabout when I needed it and had to buy yet another.
John Fielding said:
Wonderful. Hugely entertaining and enlightening. Thanks for sharing.
reggie unthank said:
Thank you for the kind words, John.
Don Watson said:
I had forgotten how often Woodforde visited Norwich.Like you I find my copy of the abridged edition of Woodforde’s diary has gone missing, probably in our last house move. I remember him as having a very interesting ‘outsiders’ view of his piece of Norfolk and there was some wonderfully descriptive writing. Must find another copy though I believe the original cost me about 2/6 in real money.(I expect to pay more today.). Once again you have reminded me of things which I explored long ago.
Keep a troshin bor.
reggie unthank said:
Thanks Don. I picked up a ‘reading copy’ of the parson’s diaries on Abe Books for a few pounds. All best, Reggie
Huw Sayer - Business Writer said:
Fantastic – thank you.
reggie unthank said:
I appreciate your comment Huw. wWuld be good to know how much trickery, if any, was involved in the Learned Pig’s performance.
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