26 & 27 July 2022, Holt Festival: Walking tour of Mary Hardy’s Georgian Holt

The Holt Festival of 2022 in north Norfolk will include “A walking tour of Mary Hardy’s Georgian Holt”. It will be led by Margaret Bird, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and editor and author of the Mary Hardy volumes.

Mary Hardy was the wife of a farmer and brewer who lived at Letheringsett, down the hill from Holt. A prolific diarist, she recorded events in and around the area from 1781 until her death in 1809. The commercial vitality and social stimulus of Holt drew the Hardy family to visit the town almost daily, giving us an unrivalled opportunity to learn about daily life and work in this period.

Margaret will lead tours on Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 July, starting at the parish church at 3 pm by kind permission of the rector, Father Howard Stoker, and the PCC. Each tour should end by 4.10 pm. The events are sponsored by the Holt Society.

Advance booking is essential, by e-mail or phone:

e-mail   standrewsholt@btinternet.com

tel.   01263 713479

Numbers are limited to fifteen people on each day. The £5.00 cost will include an eight-page full-colour handout depicting twenty sites of significance in the 18th century, with a map:


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

A gentle stroll

The walk will not be physically demanding. We shall meet in the chancel of St Andrew’s Church, Holt.

Refreshments and toilets are available at the church, which stands at the east end of the town centre.

After a short introductory talk inside the church Margaret will lead the tour around the town centre only. The handout will describe other sites on the outskirts of the town which people can visit on their own, either that day or on a later occasion.

Myth-busting: daily life and work in the town

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.

The Devil on Two Sticks

Until turning against the playhouse in 1792 Mary Hardy liked to attend performances by the travelling players. The Devil on Two Sticks was a popular show at Holt

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.

Visiting Holt

The tourist information centre is at Nelson House, White Lion Street, close to the church. The walking tour leaflets will be on sale there after the end of the festival.

The bus timetable is at


Holt has a number of car parks. The most central are at

Albert Street, NR25 6HX

Budgens, NR25 6AR

Station Yard, NR25 6BS


Update, August 2022: two successful tours

The two tours took place in warm sunshine and were oversubscribed. The walkers were uniformly most friendly and enthusiastic participants.

Councillor Rodney Smith, the former Mayor of Holt, accompanied the second tour and took a series of first-class photographs of the group as they paused in quiet spots in the town centre. These included three of Holt’s ‘plains’: Star Plain, Shirehall Plain and Obelisk Plain.


Star Plain, Holt: Margaret Bird talks about the town’s nine pubs in the 1790s, many being in this immediate area [photo Rodney Smith, 27 July 2022]

Other places where Margaret explained Holt’s 18th-century past were inside the church, in front of the former grammar school on the site of the boys’ playground and in the burial ground of the Methodist Church of 1838 built by William Hardy junior. This last is now a peaceful memorial garden.

A further update, February 2023: the tours will be published in book form

Following the success of the tours the Holt Society invited Margaret Bird to compile an illustrated booklet based on her commentary. It will be published on 3 April 2023 as Georgian Holt at Work and Play, price £5.00.

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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