24 June 2021 talk and tour: “The Stories behind the Stones”

This talk is going ahead as planned, despite the extension of restrictions following the Prime Minister’s announcement on 14 June.

Those attending need to wear face coverings while inside the church, please, and observe social distancing measures.

Historian Margaret Bird will describe the working and personal lives of rich and poor in a guided tour of an 18th-century Norfolk churchyard on Thursday 24 June 2021 at 7 pm. The event, “The Stories behind the Stones”, is free and open to all.

As you walk past lichen-covered headstones in our peaceful churchyards do you ever wonder what these villagers’ lives were like 250 years ago? Now is your chance to find out.

Illuminating the lives of those otherwise forgotten

The event will be held at the parish church of St John Baptist at Coltishall, a large village seven miles north-east of Norwich. This is where the farmer and brewer’s wife Mary Hardy wrote her diary 1773–81. 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.


The part of the churchyard where the tour will be held, as depicted in the early 19th century by Mary Turner, née Palgrave, formerly of Coltishall Manor House

The date 24 June is the church’s patronal festival—the feast day of the saint to whom it is dedicated.

A small donation to church funds in the box near the west door would be greatly appreciated.

A prosperous, healthy village

The event begins inside the church with an introduction and welcome by the Revd Chris Engelsen, the rector. This will be followed by a short talk by Margaret Bird, editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes. Warm thanks are due to Mr Engelsen and Coltishall PCC for hosting the occasion.

We shall then explore the southern churchyard, where all the headstones described on the tour are easily seen from the main path. That way we shall not trample the wild flowers, for this is a wildlife conservation area which goes unmown during the growing season.

A free illustrated handout will pick out the life stories of some of these extremely hardworking villagers. 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 ornate, 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 at the head of this page 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.

Ann Branton d.1799, of Coltishall

Ann or Anne Branton, the daughter of William and Ann Haylett, helped save her husband’s life; she died in 1799

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.

A descendant of Henry’s brother Michael Haylett, the late Clifford Bird of Diss, has researched the family’s history. Writing in the Parson Woodforde Society’s journal in spring 1998, he records that Henry thereupon went to sea and made his fortune in the plantations of Jamaica.

Thus the boxer is one Haylett who does not lie in Coltishall churchyard.

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

Update 21 June: Feature writer Rowan Mantell has produced a very lively piece on the talk and tour, uploaded to the EDP website on Sunday 20 June:

EDP article “The Stories behind the Stones”

The printed version was published on page 31 of this regional newspaper for Monday 21 June.

Read more articles

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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