11 June 2022: Churchyard Wildlife Day at Coltishall

As you walk past lichen-covered headstones in our peaceful churchyards have you ever wondered what these villagers’ lives were like 250 years ago? This free event will be your chance to find out.

Historian Margaret Bird, editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes, will join those celebrating the rich wildlife in the churchyard of Coltishall Parish Church on Saturday 11 June 2022, from 11 am to 3 pm. There is no entrance charge.

This is the village where Mary Hardy wrote her diary for seven years until she and her family moved to north Norfolk in April 1781. She is pictured at the header, along with the bluebells by the tower wall of Coltishall Church. The Hardys lived down the south slope from the churchyard, close to the River Bure.

Mary Hardy was the wife of a farmer and brewer in this large village seven miles north-east of Norwich. Without her daily entries the lives of her fellow villagers would have gone uncommemorated.

The church stands in the village centre at 37 Church Street, NR12 7DW. Parking is available nearby.

“The Stories behind the Stones” among the wildflowers

Coltishall churchyard, conservation area

Margaret Bird will be showing visitors the graves of those featured in Mary Hardy’s diary and bringing the lives of these labourers, washerwomen, craftsmen, merchants and innkeepers to life

For many years the grass around the eighteenth-century graves against the south wall of the church has been allowed to go unmown during the growing season. As a result there is abundant wildlife in this part of the churchyard, with a wide variety of wildflowers.

Margaret Bird will be repeating the event held in June 2021 in her talk and tour, “The Stories behind the Stones”. She will describe the working and personal lives of rich and poor in a series of guided tours to which everyone is invited free of charge during the wildlife event. The arrangements are free-format, with no set time for the start of each tour. Simple refreshments will be served throughout the event. A free, illustrated handout serves as a memento.

For those interested in hearing about some of Coltishall’s most prominent residents from the past Margaret will give potted histories of the men (and occasionally women) featured on elegant wall tablets inside the church.

A small donation to the churchyard fund on the day would be greatly appreciated.

A prosperous, healthy village

These villagers with their ornate headstones were extremely hardworking. They were innkeepers, merchants and farmers, and those who worked for them as farm labourers, threshers, brewers’ draymen and washerwomen. Others we shall meet were self-employed, such as plumbers, carpenters and wherrymen.

Coltishall was a healthy place, with plentiful supplies of pure water in its wells as it had three commercial breweries. In 1757–86 the birth rate averaged 31 per thousand: far higher than the death rate of 20 per thousand. The death rate in London in 1773, in stark contrast, stood at 48 per thousand.

The colourful Haylett family

Even the poor had elaborate, deeply incised headstones. These may have been paid for by their appreciative employers, for there was a marked sense of social bonding across the classes in this part of the world.

The grave in the foreground near the start of this news item is that of Ann Haylett, née Skivens, wife of William; she died in 1804 aged 97. Married in 1735, they had thirteen children.

William died in 1781, having worked as a thresher in his last years. Like most working people he had to keep employed for as long as possible in the days before the Welfare State. Threshing barley and wheat, using a hand-flail, was a task usually given to those who could no longer put in a full day’s work as output could be adjusted to the individual’s physical capacity.

They lie close to some of their children, whom we meet during the talk. Ann or Anne, baptised in 1747, married John Branton, who is also commemorated on her tomb. A resourceful woman, Ann helped William Hardy with haymaking and Mary Hardy with the heavy washing. Ann also organised a petition to have her husband released from bridewell, where he was being held in 1773 for some unknown misdemeanour. He was released a month later.

John Branton’s near-fatal accident

While working as a drayman for a rival brewer to the Hardys in December 1774 John was severely injured in a fall with a beer barrel and his life despaired of. The diarist’s husband William was then churchwarden. A decisive and humane man, he summoned the other parish officers and the Horstead and Coltishall surgeons to an urgent meeting at the Hardys’ house to decide what to do.

The local men were evidently apprehensive about operating. Although snow lay deep on the ground they sent for two other surgeons, from North Walsham and Norwich. The distinguished Norwich surgeon William Donne (1735–1803) took responsibility for the risky operation. At first Branton’s condition deteriorated. But in the care of Mary Hardy and with his wife’s devoted nursing he survived, living to the age of sixty-six. He died suddenly in 1805, in a meadow near Horstead Watermill.

The Brantons were poor working people, exempt from paying church fees when their son William was baptised in 1785. All the surgeons’ fees at the time of John’s fight for life were paid for by the parish ratepayers.

Henry Haylett, waterman and prizefighter

Ann’s brother Henry was baptised in 1754. In 1775 William Hardy, again as parish officer, had to shoulder the burden of sorting out Henry’s affairs when he was accused by the unmarried maidservant at the Manor House of being the father of her baby. The brewer brought him before the local magistrate, with Henry’s brother Robert standing surety so that Henry could be released. Robert, a carpenter who died in 1814 aged 70, lies near their parents at Coltishall.

Henry was a waterman who sailed a keel or wherry on the River Bure. His prowess as a prizefighter was recorded by Mary Hardy and in the Norwich newspapers. He beat a fellow waterman in a bout outside the Swan at Horning in 1774.

He built on this success in a boxing match in 1775, when the prize was the huge sum of 20 guineas. It was held in the marlpits at Trowse Newton outside Norwich, and two of the Hardys’ men went to watch. He fought a Norwich handloom weaver, Thomas Skoyles, for an hour and eighteen minutes before being declared the victor.

Coverage of the 2021 event in the Eastern Daily Press (EDP)

Feature writer Rowan Mantell produced a very lively piece on the 2021 talk and tour, uploaded to the EDP website on Sunday 20 June 2021:

EDP article “The Stories behind the Stones”

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Margaret Bird

Margaret Bird in 2016

The editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes

You can read about the historian Margaret Bird on the link above

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