The Norwich Society

Resources The Norwich Society Book Club

Book Club Reviews

The Norwich Society Book Club meets on Wednesday afternoons from September to April and discusses pre-selected books and related topics about Norfolk and Norwich's history. This year, The Book Club is looking at books relating to the 19th century.

Anyone interested in joining the group would be welcome to come to the next meeting, contact us for more details if you would like to join.


The next dates and topics are:

September 21st 2022: the group will discuss and establish their autumn programme.

Book Club Report - April 2022

The discussion in April, the last of our year, turned unusually on place: the place of Poppyland, the area between Cromer and Overstrand, and nearby coastal stretches. The term was introduced and put on the map of holidaymakers by the journalist and drama critic, Clement Scott, in the 1880s. Our session was based on the collection of essays that Scott wrote for the Daily Telegraph (Poppyland: Papers Descriptive of Scenery on the East Coast, 1886; recent reprint, 2016); and David Thornton’s relatively recent, broader book (Echoes of History: Poppyland 1883-1914). Apparently, Clement Scott first walked from Cromer to Sidestrand (contiguous to Overstrand) in 1883, where he felicitously found accommodation in the house of a local miller and his daughter, Louie Jermy.

The subject made for lively discussion. We were agreed that Scott paints an attractive, if romantic, picture of coastal and rural life, and his appreciation of the view from the cliffs beyond Cromer was sympathetically echoed by those of us who had taken the walk from Cromer to Overstrand. Particular interest arose concerning Scott’s account of Louie Jermy, which we gradually came to realise doesn’t quite add up. Thornton goes into fascinating details of her life, the development of Cromer as a sea-side resort, Scott’s work and marriages, and of the buildings and networks that arose in and through Overstrand as it became an exclusive spot. Edwin Lutyens presided over the building at its fin-de-siecle heart, the ‘Pleasaunce’, the large coastal home of Lord and Lady Battersea, as well as other houses in the village. As they variously visited the area, authors, actors, politicians, landowners and royalty are densely interwoven in Thornton’s study, and we had encountered a number of these in previous group discussions. This all brought much of interest and some excitement to our meeting, as well as new resolves to visit and revisit the village.

A summer outing to Ketteringham has been arranged, on the strength of our earlier appreciation of Owen Chadwick’s Victorian Miniature.

Book Club Report - March 2022

The five of us met for a session on the Norwich School of Artists. Its most famous members included the School’s founder, John Crome, and the rather younger John Sell Cotman. The core reading was Geoffrey R. Searle’s study of John Sell Cotman’s first-born son, Miles Edward Cotman: John Sell Cotman’s ‘child, friend and companion’ (1810-1858), and A Vision of England: Paintings of the Norwich School, ed.Giorgia Bottinelli.

The session was particularly lively, and we benefitted greatly from having plenty of illustrations of the artists’ work to hand in a number of further books also. A brief introduction to the School of Artists led to the suggestion that its members’ work, principally of rural life and coastal scenes, had been greatly overrated: duly energised, we hotly debated this issue, the influences on the artists and their travel to London and Great Yarmouth, the siting of the first local school of art in the country in Norwich, and a range of further issues that had been prompted by our reading. Foremost among these was the effects of difficult family life, for we were all struck by the impositions made by the unstable John Sell Cotman on his children, vividly brought home in Searle’s book. It seemed, however, that his offspring mostly weathered his turbulence, more or less productively - so much so, indeed, that it seems study of the Cotman family of artists would prove rewarding. We found the work of the female members of the School particularly impressive and of much interest, as well as, no less, the work of their short-lived and highly gifted relation, Joseph Stannard. Here especially we appreciated being able to check our impressions against reproductions of paintings in books we were passing around: paintings of a fallen robin, a festive day at Thorpe, and an arresting beach scene, are all likely to stay with us.

Book Club Report - January 2022

The five of us met online, this time to consider Harriet Kettle: Pauper, Prisoner, Patient and Parent in Victorian Norfolk, by Andy Reid. While regretting that no new member had yet replenished our group, we had another thoroughly interesting and pleasurable discussion, centred on a study that gave us ‘a vivid picture of the grittier sides of life in Victorian times’.

We all appreciated the great amount of research that had had gone into the book. Royle’s interest had been sparked by stumbling across an account of one of Harriet’s many transgressions, namely setting fire to her bed and bedding in the Gressenhall workhouse. Royle’s work demonstrates how challenging authority enabled historical visibility: without Harriet’s many transgressions, Harriet Kettle would have faded from view like that of multitudes of her Victorian contemporaries-in-poverty. As it is, we were able to get a strong, quite fascinating impression of a feisty woman whose combative intelligence at times seems to have involved strategic ‘breaking out’ into unruly behaviour that used her experience of particular institutions to work in her favour. Accordingly we considered her ability to time her unruliness - labelled ‘breaking out’ at the time - so as to move between a house of correction and prison to the lunatic asylum which offered better conditions.

After her varied institutional life, she came to benefit from outdoor relief rather than further years in the workhouse. In these years she met and married a farm labourer with whom she settled in Toftwood and had four children. We were amused to see how, during this marriage, she herself took legal action against others, and also challenged the way children were treated in the village school. As all this suggests, through Royle we have learned a lot about this individual’s life and the lower sides of Norfolk life in Victorian times: about her existence in the workhouse as an orphan, then in houses of correction and lunatic asylums, as well as working on the streets in Norwich; and life in the cottages of farm labourers and village schools.

Book Club Report - January 2022

Sadly, concerns over Covid meant we decided to hold our first January meeting online on Zoom. However this format did not prevent lively discussion, prompted by Maggie Cawkwell’s informed presentation that centred on two Victorian clerics. Although these two Anglicans differed greatly in their attitudes and behaviour, both were marked by great energy. In studying them side by side we gained a gratifying sense of the broad spectrum of nineteenth-century Anglican life.

The main focus of the session, Augustus Jessop, (Augustus Jessop: Nofolk’s Antiquary, by Nick Hartley), was far from just a cleric, or even the eponymous ‘antiquary’: a schoolteacher and important reforming headmaster of Norwich School; an author of local colour and agricultural life in Norfolk; a historian of the middle ages and an editor of John Donne’s religious work; a prolific literary journalist, sometime fiction-writer and friend and associate of progressive literary folk. This man of many friendships, talents and interests, much travel, and often compelling presence, achieved some national renown. Our appreciation of his busy life was enhanced by the readability of Nick Hartley’s biography, which skilfully filled us in on all manner of Victorian institutions and characters with a notably light touch. The other main study, on the relations between a provincial parson and squire in the village of Ketteringham (Victorian Miniature by Owen Chadwick) was not one whit less enjoyable a read, expertly contextualising the lives and thinking it deals with and providing a lucid and compelling account of local human interaction. The parson in this case, one William Wayte Andrew, took his pastoral responsibilities no less seriously than Jessop and much of the account details the tension and disagreements between him and the squire at Ketteringham. Whereas Jessop challenged the Temperance movement in his philanthropic activity, and the Ketteringham Squire favoured earthly pleasures, Andrew clamped down on indulgence, causing his parishioners to freeze in their beer-drinking as Andrew approached. Nevertheless, his emotive sermons hit a chord and attracted country folk from far and wide, so that renown came to him too, in a more limited way.

Not surprisingly, apart from interest in the main cast of characters, much of our discussion reflected on the role of the Anglican Church and religion in Victorian times (the topic of the ‘restoration’ of Anglican churches in the period aroused particular interest). Owen Chadwick’s keen understanding and description of the nuances in parochial life elicited high praise from us all.

Book Cub Report - November 2021

The Banville Diaries: Journals of a Norfolk Gamekeeper 1822-44, (Wiiliam Collins and Sons, 1986), proved an excellent choice for our second autumn meeting, led by Victoria Manthorpe. Not only did we touch on topics that had been previously covered from different angles, such as the Gurney family and reform, it was a stimulating, rich, wide-ranging book in its own right. Larry Banville was an Irish Roman Catholic immigrant gamekeeper who documented his travels in Sweden and Scotland as well as his more routine work on North Norfolk estates that belonged to the Hoares, the Upchers and the Foxwell Buxtons, principally. As he ranged across a swathe of countryside inland from Overstrand, Cromer Sheringham and Stiffkey we gleaned much of interest across the social spectrum, from the habits and sermons of the clergy to the practices of poachers.

The sheer extent of the diaries, and the introduction’s illustration of Banville’s extremely difficult handwriting and spelling, made us aware of our debt to the editors, Norma Virgoe and Susan Yaxely. Their comments and contextualisation were interspersed with diary extracts in a most helpful and informative way. Banville’s taxing conditions of employment and sometime resentment of local elites, alongside his deep regard for his main employer, Thomas Fowell Buxton, whose beneficence he often experienced, made for a lively discussion. This centred on Banville’s attitude and our own attitudes to his insubordinate, but in small ways privileged, status; and the conditions of nearby local agricultural workers, fishermen and the poor in general.

Book Club Report - September 2021

Five of the six current members gathered in September to discuss future venues and topics, as well as the assigned subject of the plague in Norwich across the centuries. On this as on previous occasions we were indebted to Frank Meeres’ work in local history. There has evidently been much historical revision and debate as to the mortality rates in pandemics in previous centuries, though by any reckoning they were extraordinarily high. The role of the Franciscans in spreading disease, and that of those consigned to deal with the bodies, proved of particular interest.

We had each suggested possible subjects and books before we met and it was relatively easy to establish the group’s programme for the year., which continues its journey across Norfolk and Norwich history with further focus on the Nineteenth Century.

Book Club Report February 2021

The February meeting for the Book Club took place online and looked at the rise of the Chartists in Norwich. We compared this with the growth of the agricultural workers Unions in Norfolk and the mid C19th farm labourer’s strikes for a living wage and a shorter working week. We had to search far and wide for specific texts on Chartists locally and supplemented these with more general reading.

Book Club Report - February 2020

The Book Club reading for February continued our exploration of C18th Norfolk with the diaries of Mary Hardy. They are four large volumes of these diaries starting in Coltishall and moving by volume two, to Letheringsett. The diaries have been painstakingly and brilliantly edited by Margaret Bird. They give a detailed account of the lives of these small farmers and brewers/pub owners but we rather wished that Mary had been a little less focused on the mundane and told us a little more about her feelings and reflections on her life!

Book Club Report - January 2020

The January meeting of the Book Club enjoyed The Amiable Mrs Peach by Celia Miller. An entertaining romp through C18th Norwich society but the tale of a life devoted to trying to keep up with 'high society' without really having the means to do so.

Book Club Report - November 2019

The Book Club continued our winter season with an enjoyable look at the diaries of Parson Woodforde (1758-1802) who was the Parson at Weston Longville from 1773 until his death. The diaries provide an intimate reflection on the life of the Georgian gentry but also opened a window into the lives of the people who lived and worked around him.

Book Club Report - October 2019

Five members were present at the first meeting of the new term of the Society's Book Club. We are concentrating on the C18th this term and began by looking at the life of our first Prime Minister,Robert Walpole. The main text was Bob of Lynn by Chris Boxall. Although this was a book primarily intended for visitors to Houghton it does give a good overview of the life of Robert Walpole and the building of Houghton Hall.This was a time of wheeling and dealing in order to gain power and influence. It was also a time of ostentatious living both in the building of grand houses but also regarding the entertainment therein. The book group discussed the role of women at this time as they appeared to be silent in the book apart from producing quantities of children many of whom didn’t live to adulthood. Walpole, with a broad Norfolk accent, grubby clothes and a penchant for eating vast quantities of Norfolk apples during boring debates would be an unlikely PM for 21 years in today’s media savvy environment!

We particularly enjoyed a local man’s reflection on the suggestion that the ghost of Walpole’s sister Dolly has been seen at both Houghton and Raynham Halls - ‘Hev she got a boike then?”

Book Club Report February 2019

For our February meeting the Book Club read the Welcome Stranger by Frank Meeres, published 2018 by Lasse Press.

This book follows the lives of the Dutch, Walloon and Huguenot settlers in Norwich 1550-1750. The Book Club has been following a time line this term starting with Robert Toppes in the C15th. 'Welcome Stranger' followed on very neatly from our reading on Ketts Rebellion since it was the poverty noted in the city at that time which led to the City Corporation inviting thirty Strangers to kick start the declining cloth industry in the city in 1566 by bringing in new skills and products. Or so it is said - not all the newcomers took up the offer and some of them were already living in other parts of England.

Meere’s book is well presented and clear; the author’s background as an archivist is readily apparent. That being said it is not an easy read! We liked the way in which the information had been organised and the use of both letters and Wills brought the story to life. Meeres has also completed some impressive detective work on the residents of Strangers Hall.

We had a lively debate on whether we should be proud of Norwich for the way in which these, and later refugees, were welcomed and integrated into the life of the city. By 1570 Strangers comprised 59% of the population in parts of the city yet there seems to have been very little resentment towards the incomers who, within two generations, had often married into the local population. There was one uprising in protest in 1570 led interestingly by a member of the Kett family, which was swiftly put down. In order to maintain discipline the city corporation kept very firm boundaries on the activities of the newcomers who had to pay twice as much tax as the locals, were prevented from adding eggs to their bread and could not buy the ingredients for bread in the market before midday. The Mayor’s Court kept order but was overruled on one occasion by the Privy Council over their attempts to stop a baker making gingerbread!

In the C17th the City wrote to the central authorities explaining the benefits the Strangers had brought to Norwich and concluded ‘we think our city happy to enjoy them”. We agreed!

A recommended read for anyone interested in the history of our fine city.

Book Club Report - January 2019

The Book Club had spent Christmas getting to grips with C.J. Sansom’s Tombland. We also read other non-fiction texts about Kett’s rebellion.

Tombland is a weighty volume, over 800 pages, and is the seventh in the series featuring Tudor lawyer and sleuth Matthew Shardlake. On this occasion Shardlake is sent to Norwich to investigate a murder and ends up heavily involved in the rebellion on Mousehold.

Book club members had enjoyed the book. It was very well researched and, apart from a couple of minor quibbles, we thought it was an accurate depiction of events in 1549. The story of the rebellion is so compelling however that the murder mystery element of the plot seems superfluous at times. We had a good discussion about the aims of the rebellion, the roles played by the Mayor and Aldermen, and debated whether or not the uprising could ever have achieved the ‘29 requests’ which were made to the young King Edward and his Protector. We thought it was unlikely!

Book Club Report - November 2018

The Paston Letters

The Paston letters are an extremely rare collection of over 1000 documents including letters, Wills and even shopping lists.

They paint a fascinating picture of C15th life both of rural Norfolk and of a nobility desperately trying to keep on the most advantageous side during the War of the Roses.

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442. The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants. (British Library website)

Book club members considered a variety of different editions, most published during the C20th. Readers found the collections of letters with little or no explanations pretty hard to follow whilst the illustrated and narrated texts made life much easier! Many of the originals can now be viewed on line including the world’s oldest valentine letter held by the British Library.

Book Club Report - October 2018

We had five members attend the first session of the book club as we reconvened after our summer break. The book under consideration was Robert Toppes, Medieval Mercer of Norwich by Richard Matthew.

Robert Toppes, born about 1400, was the owner and builder of Dragon Hall in King Street.

The book was, on the whole, well received although the thematic format did give rise to a degree of repetition. This is a well researched work especially considering the paucity of surviving documentary evidence. The illustrations and maps made this an attractive and accessible.volume

The book gave rise to a number of questions which contributed to a lively meeting ably led by Andrea Oliver. What were Robert’s origins? He first appears in Norwich when he becomes a freeman of the city at the age of about 22.

He was already a young man of considerable means.There are few records of the family being in the area before this and it seems most likely that he moved to Norwich from either Bristol or the Low Countries.

Robert Toppes became one of the richest and most prominent citizens in Norwich becoming both the city’s mayor and its MP.

It was probably his wealth which enabled him to duck and dive his way into and out of trouble on occasions, not least when he was accused of co -leading Gladman’s insurrection in 1437 which led to his exile in Bristol. He was lucky to escape with his life!

Toppes married twice and had up to nine children none of whom appear to have inherited his commercial acumen to found a Toppes business dynasty. He died in 1467 and left a detailed will which took over thirty years to settle. Hopefully the many Masses for his soul which he had provided for in his will had proved effective by then!

Book Club Report - April 2018

We had eight members at our April meeting which will be the last until we restart in the autumn. The books under discussion were Colonel Unthank and the Golden Triangle by Clive Lloyd and Bracondale by the Bracondale History Group. We were fortunate to have three of the Bracondale authors join the meeting. The Bracondale discussion was initially a little confusing until we realised that there are two books both entitled ‘Bracondale' but with different sub titles! The first, Stories from a Norwich Street, was published in 2013 and the more recent book 'A Village in a City' was published late last year. I think we would recommend that you need to read both in order to fully appreciate this fascinating part of our city. Both books are well illustrated and thoroughly researched although some readers regretted that there are not more maps in the more recent publication. Bracondale has been the residence of many of Norwich’s high achievers in business, medicine and the arts and has a reputation for being an area for free thinkers and non-conformists. It is an area clearly much loved by it’s current residents.

Clive Lloyd’s book on the Unthank family and the Unthank Rd area was again very well produced and answered a lot of questions about this popular area.It fits well with an earlier book which we had enjoyed Norwich-an Expanding City by Rosemary Donoghue which also describes how this area of terraced housing was developed on the estate owned by the Unthank family. We owe the Colonel a debt in that he strictly proscribed the design of the houses and ensured that they were built to a quality specification. It is also due to him that the pubs are all on corner plots!

Book Club Report - March 2018

The book group had an interesting meeting in early March. We were very pleased to welcome two new members. We went underground this time with the books Subterranean Norwich by Matthew Williams and, as some light relief, a novel, The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths. A couple of us were already confirmed Ely Griffiths fans but others were less smitten with the Norwich adventures of the left wing archeologist from the University of North Norfolk! It was interesting to compare her research for a tunnel from the Guildhall to the RC cathedral with the facts carefully collated by Matthew Williams. His lavishly illustrated book is almost a geology text book but gives some fascinating facts about what is going on under our feet. He includes much information about the chalk mines in Norwich which were active from the C12th and which moved outwards as the city developed. We wondered whether anyone has come across chalk miner as an occupation in census or other records? The other section of the book which we found most intriguing concerns the lost watercourses in the city. Who knew that that dip in the middle of Newmarket Street was the course of the Golden Triangle river? A fascinating book which we would recommend to a wider audience.

Book Club Report - November 2017

At our November meeting we had a fascinating afternoon discussing our primary text; Norwich An Expanding City by Rosemary O’Donoghue. This was supported by a look at Norwich in The C19th edited by Chris Barringer which is now out of print but available in libraries. The C19th century saw extensive expansion beyond the city walls, the impact of three new train stations, rapid population growth and the development of the streets of terraced housing which are so much a part of Norwich today. It was interesting that the majority of the terraced housing was built as what we would now call ‘buy to let’. The landowners such as Colonel Clement Unthank who made available land for these new developments, put a number of restrictive covenants on the new properties which specified the construction materials, fence heights etc but which also outlawed a wide range of activities from shoeing a horse in the street to keeping pigs, poultry or running an ale house. Even as late as the 1890’s some new houses were being built with earth closets. The provision of mains water gave rise to much debate in the City Council with one councillor arguing that it was not necessary to supply water 24/7- a few hours a day would suffice. Another suggested that people living near the river should not have to pay for mains water when they could get it from the river for free.