16 Mar. 2022: An ‘indoor walking tour’ of Georgian Holt

All are welcome at the Holt Society’s March event: “Mary Hardy’s Georgian Holt”.

Entry to this illustrated tour, which takes place in the comfort of the Holt Community Centre in north Norfolk, is by pre-booked ticket only. Payment is at the door on the night. Details are given at the foot of this page.

Myth-busting: daily life and work in the town

The speaker Margaret Bird, editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes, will describe the town known so well to the prolific diarist. The Hardys lived only a mile away at Letheringsett from 1781.

Everyone attending will receive a free copy of this eight-page tour handout:


The cover of the eight-page leaflet given to all attending the event. Its compiler Margaret Bird will be the tour guide.

In the popular imagination Holt is often seen as a genteel Georgian market town, of the sort featured in the novels of Jane Austen. The talk will dispel some of these myths.

In the 1794 Universal British Directory only four families are listed as gentry. Everyone else was a worker, whether in the professions, in various trades or as manufacturers and labourers. The tour will focus on the world of work. It will also try to answer the question: “What made Holt special?”

Inns and alehouses

In 1801 the town had a population of 1004 and nine public houses, Seven of these were supplied with the Hardys’ beer: the Angel, Black Boys (formerly owned by the Hardys’ 16-year-old son Raven), Bull, Dolphin (later the Star), Feathers (no. 1 on the tour), King’s Head (no. 2, and seen at the banner), and White Lion. Four of these were also tied to the Letheringsett brewery.

Two others, the Phoenix and Three Mariners, were supplied by other breweries. Turnover was very high in all these outlets, with the innkeepers regularly enduring illiquidity, debt and bankruptcy.

The military authorities in the French wars 1793–1815 designated Holt as the defence hub for north Norfolk, when invasion was threatened. Some of the larger inns had massive stabling for up to 100 horses, to accommodate cavalry and the Royal Artillery billeted in the area.

A sessions town

Two institutions gave Holt the edge. It was one of only four towns in Norfolk to host the county quarter sessions by adjournment. The other three were Walsingham, Swaffham and King’s Lynn.

The quarter sessions brought huge numbers of people to the town, and much business to the inns. Aping Norwich in Assize Week, Holt would lay on festivities and balls for “Sessions Week”.

It was also renowned for its sample market in corn. The other principal sample markets in the county were Fakenham, North Walsham and Norwich. On market day at the inns farmers, millers and maltsters would bargain into the small hours.

Leisure opportunities

Occasionally the townsfolk and those in the immediate area had time off. Holt Fair, held on 25 April and 25 November, was a landmark event in the calendar. It was often the only holiday working people were granted.

And sometimes the travelling players came to town. They fitted up an outbuilding behind the White Lion as a playhouse, and like the soldiers they lodged in people’s homes.

In one winter season William Scraggs’s company gave 58 performances, many of the works being only recently premièred in London or Dublin.

Children and clergy

The tour will also cover the town’s children and their education at the Free Grammar School (now Gresham’s). Here the boys had access to some amusing and beautifully illustrated books written by the inspirational headmaster John Holmes; his memorial is in the parish church.

Margaret Bird will explain that Holt was very unusual in recording only public baptisms in the parish register. Most Norfolk clergy entered the date of private baptism, which followed within a day or two of birth.

Since parents liked to economise on christening party costs they let their children accumulate before bringing them to church for the public ceremony at the font. Hence the registers appear to contain improbably high numbers of twins and triplets!


The zealous Evangelical George Barrs. While Curate of Warham All Saints 1799-1800 he preached at Holt, but felt uncomfortable at being lionised by the locals.

Passionate Evangelicals added to the vitality of the town. St Andrew’s Church would be crowded out as these young men’s lively sermons drew congregations from across the area.

Details of the venue and pre-booking

The talk will be held at The Venue, Holt Community Centre, Kerridge Way, NR25 6DN, in the centre of Holt off the A148. The link shows a street map.

Doors and the bar open at 6 pm; the talk follows at 7 pm.

Entry is by pre-booked ticket only. To book please e-mail the Holt Society membership secretary Keith Gosden at:


Payment is at the door on the night, using contactless card: £5.00 for society members; £7.00 for non-members.

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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

See inside…