I wrote a piece some time ago now about the names of the roads here on the old estate and the possible/probable thinking behind them, and there’s one road in particular that stands out for me above the rest. It stands out not because it’s named to echo the memory of a famous person who once frequented the streets of Norwich eons ago, or out of some sort of pride-fuelled 1920’s civic duty. This particular road name is purely a nod to what was here, in this exact spot long before the estate and its rows of lovely new houses appeared on the scene. This is a lane where the path has been well-trodden by footsteps for centuries. This particular road formed part of a much-longer road than it does now and occupies the southern-most stretch of the only road that cut from north to south across what we now call Mile Cross. Other than the two main trunk roads (Aylsham and Drayton) that now border the estate as they head in and out of old Norwich, it’s probably the oldest road on the entire estate. The road I’m talking about is a short little road, now closed off at one end, just next to the entrance the nineties Lidl Supermarket on Drayton Road, and it’s named “Old Farm Lane”.
As I mentioned above, Old Farm Lane was an extension to another lane going by the name of “Half Mile Lane”, which ran south from Aylsham Road across the fields towards Drayton Road, following the line of the newer Mile Cross Road until the modern-day junction with Half Mile Road, where the original Half Mile Lane angled off slightly, down the side of the valley and straight down towards old Farm Lane, under what is now Half Mile Close and then the lower portion of what is now Shorncliffe Avenue to where it meets Drayton Road. Once you’d reached the bottom of Half Mile Lane, you could carry on across the Drayton Road and down towards what was known as “The Old Hall, Lower Hellesdon”. For centuries this old hall was actually a large Farm, nestling nicely in the flat land at the bottom of the Wensum valley, hence the thinking behind the modern (1920’s) name: “Old Farm Lane”.
What this little bit information also gives us is the thinking behind the naming of the newer (1930’s) Mill Hill Estate roads, Half Mile Road and Half Mile close. The spirit of the old Half Mile Lane can still almost be sensed if you stand at the end of Hansard Close and look North towards Half Mile Close. Admittedly you’ll need to squint your eyes (a lot) and use your imagination, as it’s not one of Mile Cross’s finest hidden gems as it stands now. It’s unsurprising to know that the old Half Mile Lane measured exactly half a mile from Aylsham Road to the Old Hall.
What is now Old farm lane ran from the Lower Hellesdon (now Drayton) Road for a hundred or so meters, passing underneath what is now Havers Road and right into the the Heart of the Old Hall, that from the maps looked like quite a large collection of farm buildings surrounding a fairly sizeable Farm House – or Hall – that sat right on the edge of the marshes, looking out across the river and what we now know as Anderson’s Meadow. Now this is where a bit of map work comes in handy, because as far as I can find out, apart from it appearing in the very corner of one grainy aerial photograph taken just before it was demolished, there are no dedicated photographs or paintings of this old Hall, which is quite surprising when you consider that it had stood there since at least the 1700’s and most likely even longer than that. The maps also tell us the story that this old hall and it’s collection of outbuildings was completely demolished, not long after the Mile Cross Estate appeared on the scene and the whole lot replaced with a single building on the southern side of the newer Havers Road.
This newer structure belonged to a short-lived dairy, imaginatively named the Hellesdon Dairy, which was owned by the Norfolk Farmer’s Association Limited. This building didn’t stand long enough to make much of an impact, as this new venture appears to be very short-lived at this site. By the mid-1940’s the area had been completely swept clear of all farm or dairy-related structures and because of the consequences of war, the site was chosen to be the new home for the replacement Harmers clothing factory that had been destroyed – twice – by enemy action. I can’t find out much information about this short-lived Dairy or the company that owned it, other than a few newspaper clippings that mention the possibility of watered-down milk being sold and the reasons for it – possibly due to issues with the bottle-washing system – and an older incident where one of the company’s horses used to pull their milk-carts, had collided with a lamp-post, smashed the cart and spilled a vast quantity of milk before bolting off down Newmarket Road.
The aerial image taken in 1932 below shows the Dairy buildings at the end of Old Farm Lane on the southern side of Havers Road, running diagonally towards the bottom right. More interestingly, this shot gives us a hint of how the old Hall looked just before it’s demolition. The old place looks increasingly put-upon as the countryside it once depended upon for centuries has been recently dissected, first by the railway (bottom left), then by the Mile Cross Road and it’s two bridges (left to top right), and finally having Havers Road run right through the middle of it all and bringing with it hundreds of new houses. This quiet part of rural Norfolk, well outside outside the city walls was to be rural no more, swallowed up by the need for expansion.
With all that said, there are a few hints of the old farm still here today, mainly in the form of an old flint wall running the length of Old Farm Lane opposite the 1920’s Mile Cross Houses. However, although this wall is a bit older than the newer houses it faces, it is actually the remains of a later addition to the farm, the details of which I will elaborate on a bit later.
This wall is actually part of a later addition to the farm in the form of a new Manor House, which was built by the Gowing farming family in about 1890-1895. As a building, the manor house managed to survive for about a century, first as a home, then as a short-lived hotel before, becoming the well-known pub going by the name of “The Manor House”. It was finally demolished in 1995 to make way for a new Lidl Supermarket that has taken over the site ever since.
The Manor House, just before its demolition in 1995:
And the same spot today can be seen below in this slightly wider shot:
Before I delve into the history of the Gowing Manor House, I’ll talk a bit about what I could find out about the seemingly-mysterious Hellesdon, Old Hall.
To start with, the old Hall appears on every old map I’ve looked at, going all the way back to the 1700’s, and on Faden’s Map of 1797 it’s there as “Hellesdon Old Hall”. It appears to be the only building of any merit along the entire length of what we now call Drayton Road outside of the City Gates at St Augustine’s and St Martins. The fact that it is referred to as ‘old’ even back then gives us a clue that it had already been stood there for some period of time. Interestingly, there is another nearby Hall on Faden’s map named “Hellesdon New Hall” about a mile or so further out of the city, on the aptly, but confusingly named “Hellesdon Hall Road”, which is actually named after an even older hall which belonged to John Fastolf but was destroyed during the War of the Roses in the 1460’s.
Back to our old hall here, in what what was to become Mile Cross. In the absence of any useful pictorial or photographical evidence of this intriguing collection of buildings, sat at the bottom of the valley and surrounded by perfect pasturing lands down by the river, I decided to do a little research to see if I could shed any light on the old place to bring it back to life.
The earliest reference to it – that I could find – was of a chap named “Robert Marsh”. Robert is referred to as being a farmer residing at Hellesdon old Hall. He’s listed as being born in 1724 and dying on June 23rd, 1762 which fits in nicely with what we already know; the old Hall was a farm as far back as at least the mid 1700’s. Robert was buried at St Mary’s Church in Hellesdon and apparently there is (or was) a tablet to him in the church which reads: “The toils of life, the pangs of death are o’er, And friends and fees can ever vex me more.”. The church is notoriously-hard to gain access to, so I haven’t been able to get in and have a look for it. Going by the text on his tablet, it seems as though Robert went to meet his maker in unusual circumstances (probably a drawn-out illness) and only reaching his late-thirties. The tablet also tells us that if he was deemed important enough to have his own tablet inside the church, he must have been a fairly well-known and respected chap.
The next person – or people – I could find who were linked to the farm was/were a “Daniel Ebbets of Hellesdon Old Hall”. There are two ‘Daniel Ebbets’ mentioned, one dying in 1788 and another in 1823, so I’m going to make a fairly good assumption that this pair were father and son, both farmers in succession who took control of the farm and its hall after the untimely passing of Robert Marsh.
In 1813 a Daniel Ebbets put an advert in the Norfolk Chronicle, reporting that he’d found somebody’s ‘Chestnut-coloured cart-horse’ on or near to his land at The Old Hall, Hellesdon and that if they wanted it returned that they’d have to describe it to him in person and to pay for his advert and expenses.
Two years later (1815) there appears another advert in the Norfolk Chronicle reporting that he’d found a pair of poneys[sic] along with a year-old Colt on his land or nearby. Again, Ebbets states in his advert that the owners are welcome to come and retrieve the trio of missing animals by applying to him at Hellesdon Old Hall and paying him reasonable expenses for his efforts. There’s a cynical (very cynical) part of me that thinks Ebbets was on to a nice little side-earner here!
After the Ebbets’ family era of owning the farm here in Mile Cross/Hellesdon the rest of its history is dominated by a single family for an entire century. When delving into the records, there’s a non-stop flow of stories, news clippings and references to multiple generations of the “Gowing” family who moved into the hall after the Ebbets’. The family history dominates 1800’s and stretches right up until the final days of the Old Hall, when the new Mile Cross (Drayton) housing estate began to spring up all around it. It turns out that the Gowing Family was a large one, and a family famous around these parts for their farming skills, their multiple farms located around Norwich and out into Norfolk throughout the Victorian period and beyond.
Seeing as there’s so much detail to be found out about the Gowing family, you could probably fill a book about the family and its history, but I’ll try and focus in on some of the more interesting and geographically relevant (to Mile Cross and Hellesdon) pieces of information.
Firstly, I found a fascinating reference to the Gowing Farm here at Hellesdon Old Hall in a book written by a Lord Suffield titled: “My Memories by Lord Suffield 1830-1913“. In a chapter titled: “A unique Hunt” he makes reference to a lengthy chase of a stag during a hunt in Norfolk during the early-to-mid 1800’s:
“One of those runs was, in some ways, really unique. The hounds met at Cawston Woodrow, and the deer was turned off about a mile from there, immediately making for Cawston Town. He ran through nearly every village from there to Norwich, keeping to the north side of the river, but when he reached the Wensum at Mr Gowing’s farm at Hellesdon, he passed through Heigham and across the Unthank Road. He turned down towards St Giles Gates, and we expected he would go into the Market Place, but just as he was nearing the gates he turned back and was pulled down by the hounds. Luckily the huntsmen were close at hand and secured the stag, who was sent to the Rising Sun Inn. The run was at least twenty to twenty-five miles, without a single check, and took two hours and a quarter. To see a hunt in the Market Place in Norwich now would certainly be an amazing spectacle, but that was sixty-eight years ago, when trams and motors were unknown in the old town.“.
The gruesome spectacle of a terrified stag being hotly-pursued through the streets of Hellesdon and Heigham must have caught the attention of many local people. I can’t begin to imagine the stress that poor beast must have suffered as it was chased half way across Norfolk by a pack of hounds and gentry on horseback right up to the gates of the City, before finally meeting its fate at the hands of those bloodthirsty hunters. Edit: There is some doubt whether they would have actually killed the stag or not, as pointed out by one of the readers of this piece, thanks. No doubt the labourers working the farm at the old Hall would have witnessed the spectacle as the terrified Stag leaped, ran and swam for its life, closely tailed by the privileged hunters as it bounded through the farm, crashing through hedges, corn and turnips and over what must have been a fairly shallow part of the Wensum, most likely at or near Heigham watering.
It seems that this particular farm and it’s accompanying fields was no stranger to people encroaching upon its land and there are numerous reports in the papers about thefts, trespass and even arson, a few of which I’ll refer to below. Unsurprisingly there’s no mention of the gentry being pulled up for their trespasses, only the working men and boys from the poorer parts of Norwich seemed to get their collars felt.
The earliest references to a George Gowing of Hellesdon Old Hall is quite an introduction. In an 1832 article published by the Norfolk Chronicle and it reports that an unsuspecting George was making his way back to Norwich through Bixley when he was attacked by two “footpads” (highwaymen without horses). They jumped out on him and tried to snatch the reins of his pony whilst attempting to strike George in the head with their bludgeons, luckily George was able to parry the first blow with his large stick, before the second attacker narrowly missed his head and instead catching George on the shoulder, disabling his arm. Luckily for George, the speed and ferocity of the attack had spooked his pony which subsequently bolted meaning that George could escape his attackers.
The next story of interest which is the start of a continuous theme is in an 1850’s paper clipping simply titled “Felony” – On the 7th instant, Jeremiah Francis underwent an examination at the Castle, before S. Bignold, Esq., on a charge of having stolen a bushel of Swede turnips, the property of Mr. G. Gowing. Early on the 12th of January, the prisoner, in company with a man named John Cotterill, was seen by John Palmer, one of Mr Gowing’s Labourers, in a turnip field of his master’s at Hellesdon. They had each of them bags, which they were in the act of filling with the produce of the field. The witness waited till the bags were filled, when he went up and asked them what they were doing, to which they returned no answer, but walked away. Cotterill had been previously sent for trial, and Francis was now similarly committed. Both prisoners have since been held to bail.
In 1852 the Norwich Mercury ran a story that showed a compassionate side to George Gowing of Hellesdon old Hall, who was by now used to having invaders coming on to his land to steal his wares. Two lads had been captured with two sacks filled with swede-tops that had been stolen from a farm building at the old hall, which they were intending to take back into the city to sell on the streets. These young lads hand been caught bang-to-rights and were going to be sent down for at least two years apiece for their crimes, which would have no doubt put them in debt for their foreseeable futures. Victorian Prisons were far from holiday camps and were notoriously hard places for the poor, who could (and often did) end up being trapped in them for the rest of their lives. Mr Gowing knew that if he was to proceed with the charges against these poor souls he’d be most likely consigning them to lives even more miserable than they already were. After a period of some consideration he decided to drop the charges against them, stating that he only wanted to protect himself from repeat offences of this nature in the future and that he had little desire to see these youngsters punished so severely for their crime. There’s also a similar story from 1855 where a child, one of eight boys plundering his fields that day for turnips, was caught red-handed. Luckily for the boy, George Gowing’s compassionate side got the better of him again, opting not to have him punished by the full weight of the law. He mentioned again in court that this was a constant problem that he suffers considerably from on his farm here.
A paper clipping from 1860 continues the with the theme of trespass and theft: William Rose, Shoemaker, of Magdalen Street, was charged by John Palmer with trespassing on the lands of Mr G Gowing, of Hellesdon, in search of game. Mr R. Cooper appeared for the prosecution. From the evidence given, it appeared that Mr Gowing occupied land at Hellesdon and in consequence of being greatly annoyed by persons trespassing in search of game, he had set watchers upon it. On Sunday morning last, about four o’clock, two men were watching when they saw prisoner come upon Mr Gowing’s land with a dog – a lurcher. They went up to him and asked him what he wanted there with a dog, when he said he wished to sell it, and, to make more valuable, he had brought it there to teach it to pursue game, adding that he would give them 1s, if they let him off. They, however, took him into custody. Mr Gowing had never given him permission to come on his land with his dog. Fined 10s., and 15s. costs, or one month’s imprisonment.
In 1862 the Norfolk Chronicle tells a story of a Labourer named William Cullow living in Philadelphia, St Clements (Catton) who was found hiding in one of George Gowing’s haystacks in Hellesdon by a local policeman, he failed to give a good account for why he was there and resisted arrest. The prisoner denied having any bad intentions and although suspicious of the man’s intentions the bench had to let him off with just a caution.
In an 1863 clipping, a Mr Atkinson was fined £2 and costs of 18s for taking game with his lurcher off land under the tenure of Farmer Gowing at Hellesdon. It seems that because this farm was just a short walk from the St Augustine’s area it was seen as an easy target for some of the City’s poorer residents who were struggling to feed their families.
It’s not all theft and trespass in the news and in 1873 The Norwich Mercury reported that as a treat for the children of the the St Augustine’s school, Mr Gowing of Hellesdon had let the school use of one of his nearby fields so that the students could play cricket and various other games.
In a Norfolk Chronicle article from 1882, A carter from Horne’s Yard named Jonas Bowles was fined 20s and 8s costs for trespassing on the farm at Hellesdon Old Hall with his dog with the intention of catching game. A labourer who was cutting wheat on the farm asked Bowles to leave twice, but was told to “shut up” before disobediently releasing his dog after a pair of hares, the dog was unsuccessful, as the second hare escaped through the wire fence between the farm the nearby railway that was currently being built. Two of the railway navvies working on the new line managed run the dog into the nearby marsh, enabling them to capture it before it could do any more damage to the corn or itself.
In 1884 The Thetford and Watton times in what must have been a slow news day for them, reported the theft-turnip tops to the value of 10s belonging to George Gowing, Hellesdon. A pair of men living in yards of Stump Cross and Botolph Street, who Gowing had caught before doing the same thing were both sentenced to 14 days hard labour for their troubles. I know life in the yards was hard, but imagine being so poor that you were willing to risk a spell in the prison for some turnip tops.
In 1886 the same story was reported twice by two different papers, both of which took a differing approach to the actual facts involved with the story. Initially reported by the Norwich Mercury that “An atrocious act of Indendiarism” was perpetuated in a field next to Drayton Road belonging to Charles Gowing. A stack of hay had been “feloniously, unlawfully and maliciously” ignited and although the fire brigade were called the blaze spread to two nearby stacks. They decided to abandon their attempts to quell the fire because of the strong winds and the fact that the only way of getting water to the blaze would be to lay a hose into the nearby Wensum across the tracks of the newly instated railway line. The heat from the fire was said to be so intense that the roadway was made physically impassable. After the fire had burned itself out, destroying all three haystacks in the process the total cost of the damage was estimated to be £150 (a fair sum of money for the time), but luckily Gowing was Insured with the Norwich Union.
The Thetford and Watton times took a more mature approach to the story reporting that a chap suspected of being the arsonist was questioned at the scene by a Mr Strike (remember that name for later) who was one of Charles Gowing’s employees, after he had found him climbing back out of the field near to the haystacks, however, the suspect protested that he had nothing to do with the fire and left, continuing his journey into Norwich. About an hour later, the same culprit – a 31 year old chap named George Marsh who was a horse-slaughterer by trade, turned himself in at the Guildhall, admitting that he had lit his pipe in Gowing’s field and that it was his carelessly discarded match had caused the fire. He had tried his best to extinguish the fire himself but was spooked when Mr Strike arrived on the scene. He said that he was handing himself in so that no innocent person would suffer. George admitted to being a regular patient of the Asylums at Thorpe and Drayton and was prone to suffering with temporary bouts of insanity but was adamant that he hadn’t started the fire on purpose and had no ill-will towards Gowing. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty and he was set free.
In the July of 1897 the Norfolk Chronicle reported a tragic story when a particularly nasty thunderstorm raging over Hellesdon that had killed two unfortunate men were killed when they were both struck by lightning, Their names were a William Goldsmith and the tragically ironically named James Strike (mentioned in an earlier previous article as being an employee of farmer Gowing). I must admit that I almost chuckled at the irony of the tragedy when I read his name, but thankfully for his wife and children Mr C.G Gowing and two local reverends, Rev. Hampson and Rev. Wright were not quite as cold as me and had decided to start a charitable appeal for the wives and children of those two poor souls so tragically killed whilst working the fields somewhere nearby here in old Hellesdon. By the time the advert had made its way into the paper the trio had already managed to raise £131 for the families.
It wasn’t just bad news, trespassing and theft that made the papers though, there are more interesting little details to be gleaned form the hundreds of references to the Gowing Family over the years, including; The Gowing family had owned a windmill close to the river between Hellesdon and Drayton that had been destroyed during a “hurricane” (more fanciful reporting). Another point of interest is that the Hellesdon Golf Course was built on land that was previously let out to Gowing for the grazing of his sheep by the Gurney family and he was compensated handsomely by the Gurneys for having to find alternative land on which to graze them. The Gurney family donated the fields to the golfing community so that Norwich could have a fine golf course. I doubt it would have been too hard for Gowing to relocate his sheep as it appears that the family had pockets of farmland all around the northern fringes of Norwich, and beyond. There are newspaper clippings about Gowing buying land as far away as Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast. There’s also countless adverts trying to hire staff for the farm and it’s hall or manor throughout the years, including maids, cooks, a housekeeper, cleaners, shepherds, cowmen, boys, dairy-workers, Wheelwrights, Carpenters and more, showing that there must have always been a fairly large number of people employed here at the old hall.
At the end of the 19th Century, it appears that the Gowing Family were to make a large investment on their farm at Hellesdon and decided to build themselves a new Manor House, closer to the road. The building was to be a Victorian statement piece to show off their wealth and most likely as a more modern alternative to living in the Old Hall, which buy now must have been very well lived in with it being at least two centuries old and built upon low-lying fields that were always liable to flooding. Perhaps the proceeds of their successful farming efforts meant that they could now afford to build an expensive new show-home at the farm or perhaps they had received a handsome pay-out from the railway company that had recently laid the City’s latest railway right through the middle of their farm. However the financial means were sourced to build it, moving it a few hundred yards further up the side of the valley and next to the Drayton Road (at its junction with Half Mile Lane) would serve two useful purposes; firstly it meant that passers-by traveling in or out of the city could marvel at the luxury of their new show-piece home and secondly, moving the family’s main residence out of danger of being flooded on a regular basis which by going on what it was just like across the other side of the river in Heigham must have been a regular occurrence. Something that would ring true a few years later when this part of the Wensum spread itself right across the floor of the valley from New Mills to Drayton during the great flood of 1912. No doubt moving their home out of the way of those noisy and dirty steam locomotives powering past just meters away from their home would have been a bit of a bonus as well.
This new Manor House was built circa 1885 and it was obviously built to show off wealth. It was a large, multi-gabled building commanding great views over the valley from it’s lofty viewpoint close to the road. The exterior walls of the upper floor were decorated with ornately detailed, dark-red Victorian tiling. Entrance to the manor was via large semi-circular driveway entering at the top of what is now Old Farm Lane and exiting again at the bottom and the beautiful home was sat amongst a large and sprawling collection of gardens that had been complimented with by the planting of many expensive and fashionable trees, including the recently ‘discovered’ (by Europeans at least) Californian Giant Redwood trees that had been made fashionable by the famous Victorian botanist, or “Plant Hunter” William Lobb. Seeds and Saplings were brought back to England from the Americas and were often bought or planted by the wealthy and particularly favoured by people who considered themselves to be “Gentlemen”.
What better way to announce yourself upon your landscape by building yourself a grand new manor and planting something next to it that could live for over 3,000 years and grow to a height of over 300ft? That’s the same height as the City’s own lofty showpiece, the Norman Cathedral, the spire of which reaching an impressive 315ft. Gowing didn’t just plant one of these, he planted at least two. Quite a statement indeed.
Just beyond that only surviving man-made relic of the Old Farm, the flint wall pictured earlier, still stands the two fantastically named “Sequoiadendron giganteum” that were planted well over 100 years ago. This already-towering pair of Giant Sequoia trees, more commonly referred to as Giant Redwood Trees are still little more than saplings and only about 5% of the way through their possible, incredible lifetimes. These mighty trees are now considered endangered with fewer than 80,000 trees remaining across the entire globe, so its nice to know that because of the Gowing Family planting them as status symbols way back in the late 1800’s, we now have these glorious trees to admire right here on our own doorstep, and will serve to highlight the location of Mile Cross from afar for at least another three millennia. Potentially, these trees could stand here for longer (and end up taller) than the city’s towering cathedral, so long as they’re not chopped down or killed off by climate change and at the rate we’re going at the moment they could very possibly outlive humanity itself. Now there’s a sobering thought.
For whatever reasons, this new Manor House appeared to be short-lived as a home built exclusively for the Gowing Family as by the early 1900’s its listed as a Hotel. Perhaps the family realised the grand home was too large to run solely for the purpose of being a home. As with many halls and manors across the lands during this era, buildings such as these were proving to be expensive follies for the wealthy and had become pointlessly expensive to run and maintain. There was an obvious need to reconsider and re-purpose homes of this size to make them financially viable once again and perhaps that was the reasoning for it being transformed into a hotel. How viable a Hotel would have been out here in the fields only about a mile or less from the City Centre is open to conjecture, but what we do know is that it wasn’t to stay a hotel for very long. By 1927, the expensive Victorian manor house had became a public house, imaginatively named “The Manor House” and the timing of which ties in rather conveniently with the arrival of the new estate. What better way to make money than to open up a pub to the hundreds of thirsty residents of a brand-new housing estate right on your very doorstep. The house was issued with its first public licence on the 4th January, 1927 and the first landlord was an Arthur Edward Brown and as far as I can ascertain this is where the references to the Gowing family end, which makes me think that the Manor house must have been sold off by the family for it to become a pub and retreated back down the hill and back into their original hall by the railway line. It’s a loose end that I can’t quite tie up.
Whatever the circumstances it’s also around this time that it appears that the Old Hall and its farm was about to be scaled back and/or sold off and the references to it rapidly disappear from both the records and the maps. Not long after, the maps show just a smaller building on the site of the old farm erected or more likely a repurposed outbuilding of the old farm and it sat on the southern edge of Havers Road, opposite Old Farm Lane. It’s this building that was used by the seemingly short-lived Hellesdon Dairy mentioned earlier, run by the Norfolk Farmers Association Limited.
It appears that after the turn of the Century that the Gowing Family’s influence over the fields in the area had begun to wane and an advert in the Norfolk News in the October of 1902 referred to an important agricultural sale, by the executors to the will of the will of the late Mr George Gowing, at the Hill House Farm, Hellesdon (The New Hall, Hellesdon Hall Road, now Hellesdon Barns Garden Centre). The sale catalogue advertised large numbers of various livestock and a large assortment of implements and machinery used for the purpose of farming. Not too long before that advert printed there was another story printed in the Norwich Mercury (1902) that talks about the late George Gowing and the farming legacy of the Gowing Family:
“We regretfully record the death at Hill House, Hellesdon, on Friday Last, of Mr George Gowing, in his 79th year. He was held in general respect, and will be long remembered as one of the keenest and most successful of the older generation of Norfolk Farmers. On starting out in life he succeeded his father in the tenancy of Hellesdon old Hall, where he established a big dairy and did a thriving milk trade. He took various other Farms, at Horsford, Taverham, Plumstead, Thorpe, Frettenham and elsewhere, and in all of them, by the exercise of remarkable business faculty, he added rapidly to his fortune. At one time he was farming considerably over 3,000 acres. He was a sheep-breeder and a grazer of cattle on a large scale, but he was not accustomed to compete for show honours. Mr Gowing had six sons, all of whom were well known in local agricultural circles, and four daughters, of whom three survive.”
Seeing as I had a day off work, I decided to visit St Mary’s Church to see if I could find the tablet dedicated to one of the earlier farmers mentioned in this piece but it turns out that this little church is notoriously difficult for the casual visitor to gain access to, so whilst I was there I thought I’d take a stroll around the picturesque little graveyard to see if I could spot anything of interest. It was only a matter of moments before I found the grave of George Gowing mentioned above.
George was buried here, not far from the church doorway along with his wife, Elizabeth who had passed away just three and a bit years earlier. Her death in 1898 also managed to make the local papers, Elizabeth being remembered as “a good wife, kind mother and friend to the poor“. The article also went on to mention that her funeral was attended by many notable people of Norwich, including Sir Harry and Lady Bullard. Sir Harry was a Conservative Politician from a famous Norwich Brewing family and had lived at the rather grand Hellesdon House, next to Hellesdon Mill only a couple of hundred meters down the road from the church. Harry was also the Deputy of Norfolk and a Justice of the Peace, and was knighted in 1887. It seems that with the wealth and respect the Gowings had earned over the years they had been rubbing shoulders with some of the wealthiest and most influential people in Norwich.
After spending a few moments at the grave of George and Elizabeth I continued along the rows of headstones, scanning them as I went to see if I could spot any other recognisable names and surely enough, only a few graves beyond theirs I couldn’t help but notice a rather substantial burial plot dominated by a large remembrance stone, one of the largest in the graveyard. The inscription upon it read: In Loving Memory of Harry Bullard Born March 3, 1841 Died at Hellesdon House December 20, 1903. Also of his beloved wife Sarah Jane Born October 19, 1844. Died at Hellesdon House March 13, 1906. Thy will be done.
So, it seems that not long after attending the funeral of Elizabeth, all four of them were to be buried in close proximity to one another in this fascinating and quiet little corner of Hellesdon This quaint little church and its graveyard is probably the only part of old Hellesdon (part from the Briar Marshes) that hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 100 years and it’s a nice place to visit, especially on a crisp and clear autumnal afternoon when the low sun is beaming through the orange and red leaves still clinging to their branches in a vain attempt to deny winter.
As I continued along the rows of headstones, now lit so wonderfully by the low but still bright autumnal sun, quietly scanning for the names for the farmers I’ve been writing about in this piece, my eyes caught upon a name that I really wasn’t expecting to find, and one that almost knocked me for six. By the wall, near the road and within feet of the gravestone pictured above was a small, modern headstone belonging to a David Lane, my own grandfather. Although I’d attended his cremation at Earlham back in 2006, I hadn’t realised that he was to have a stone placed here at St Mary’s. It may seem odd that I was unaware of this, but due to the complicated nature of my own family (he’d left my Nan long before I was born and I don’t think my mother ever forgave him) he had lived in Hellesdon as a distant figure that I was never really given the chance to get to know. Other than at very occasional family gatherings for weddings, births and funerals and a handful of vaguely-remembered and fleeting visits to see him when I was very young, I never got the chance to speak to him other than to say “hi”. After splitting with my nan back in the 1960’s and moving away from Tuckswood, he spent the last half of his life as a Hellesdon boy and this is why his ashes must have been interred here at St Mary’s at some point after his cremation.
I occasionally pause to ponder how odd it is that I spend so much time delving into the history of the families of people that I don’t know, but rarely consider looking in to my own family history, probably because it is a complicated affair and something that I’ve been successfully avoiding in case I manage to stir up emotions that I’ve buried deep within for far too long now, but it is comforting to know that, in some way, my ancestors are also rubbing shoulders with the very same people I’ve been researching whilst writing this particular piece and I often find it amazing that all these stories of people on their journeys through life tend to have a way of becoming tangled together in one way or another as we all tread our way through time.
Although on my quick visit to St Mary’s church I’d only managed to find one, there are actually at least five separate George Gowings buried here in this small graveyard along with many more members of the extended Gowing family. Not only are they all buried here but so are the farmers that preceded them. Somewhere around here resting in the same ground as the Gowings are Robert Marsh and the two Daniel Ebbets, father and son mentioned earlier. It seems that Hellesdon Hall Road has over the last 300 years been a constant funeral procession of Mile Cross and Hellesdon Farmers as they made their way off of the land that they had farmed for centuries and in to the very land they had so proudly and succefully been the guardians of. I’ve often unwittingly retraced their footsteps as I walk about this part of Mile Cross and out along Hellesdon Hall Road during our many family walks and from now on I’ll certainly be looking at it all a little differently, hopefully I’ll be picking up on some of their energy on my future travels.
When looking briefly into the history of the Bullards’ here at Hellesdon it also helped me to scratch an itch that I’ve had for a long time. I’ve always been a little curious about the history of Hellesdon House as I walk down the lane to the Mill, past its fantastic-looking arched entrance gateway and the secrets hiding behind those high walls. It’s always been a fascinatingly mysterious place to me since I was a child, and its a place that I’ve always kidded myself that I’d try and buy if I were to ever win the euromillions. I wouldn’t of course, as it would be far too large for my small family and I’d also need to start buying lottery tickets to be able to win it in the first place.
As time marched on well into the 20th Century I found another news story from 1929 referring to the death of a Noted Norfolk Agriculturist, Charles Gowing (one of 6 brothers) a member of one of the most popular agricultural families in Norfolk. His Father was George Gowing who in his day was one of the largest farmers in Norfolk. The Gowings having been extensive farmers and well known graziers, fattening large quantities of livestock for the Norwich and other Markets for many years now. Perhaps this article marks one of the final chapters of farming by the Gowings here at the Old Hall, Hellesdon. With 1929 being shortly after most of the farm had been surrounded by the new Mile Cross Housing Estate and being just before the Old Hall disappeared for good, the timing of events do seem to match up rather conveniently.
Not that the Gowing name and Farming disappeared entirely here in Norwich after then. One of the many legacies of the large Gowing family name living on until at least 1973 with the the locally-famous World War One Fighter Ace named Cecil George Gowing, 1898-1973. After attending the Bracondale boarding School in Norwich he joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was to see action in WW1, serving with the 98th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps in France in 1917-1918. Somewhat amusingly, the young Cecil is credited with being the only pilot of the era to have shot himself down. He was tired of returning from his sorties with a face covered in soot from the exhaust of his DH9 so had his flight engineer make some modifications the the exhaust system on his airborne fighting machine. After taking off with the intentions to head out over the western front to fight the Germans, it was customary to test the machine guns. After pulling the triggers, the bullets deflected off his newly-modified exhaust and straight into his engine, destroying it in the process. With no engine and his DH9 rapidly losing altitude he had to make a forced landing, luckily for him he survived unharmed and the unfortunate series of events had taken place in the skies above friendly territory.
After the war he maintained an interest in flying and was a member of the Norfolk and Norwich Aero Club based at Mousehold Heath. In 1934 he married his wife, Pauline and the couple carried on with the running of the family farm and dairy in Sprowston. An opportunity arose in 1950 when the estate of Sir Edward Stracey was to be sold off after his death for Cecil and his family to purchase Home Farm, Rackheath, the land of which adjoined those of his own farm named White Hall Farm. Cecil gave up the tenancy of White Hall Farm in 1964 and he and his wife Pauline were then to spend the rest of their days at Home Farm. He passed way in 1973 followed by Pauline in 1995. With such a large family footprint in the area I wonder if any of the extended Gowing Family are still involved with farming here in and around Norwich or if any of the family might read this piece. If you are, I’d love to hear from you.
Since 1927 the Manor House had remained as a pub right up until it closed its doors to the public for good in 1993 and in 1984 the pub was to go through one final transformation, losing what little there was left of its old character when it was rebranded as “Maxwells”, a type of neon-clad disco-pub that was becoming popular in the 1980’s. At about the same time the gardens and the famous bowling green that sat to the rear of the pub were sold off to make way for a new cul-de-sac of housing off Old Farm Lane.
From the 1950’s onwards the Manor House was known for being a bit of a rock music venue which every wannabe rocker and groupie was drawn to like moths to a flame, riding the wave of post-war musical and cultural change that was enabling the UK to realise it was time to finally undo it’s top shirt button and remove the scaffolding that had been holding up that stiff upper lip for far too long. I’ve read hundreds of memories shared about the place on the local Facebook groups and it seems as though it was loved and loathed in equal measures. It was well known for being a bit ‘rough around the edges’ at times and was a bit of a marmite establishment. These issues aside, the pub was mostly remembered with a foggy fondness by its regulars and there are many stories of relationships leading to marriage beginning within its walls.
It could have been a different story altogether had a German bomb dropped indiscriminately from a plane during the second world war landed a few meters further to the south. The bomb left a large crater in the nearby Drayton Road the pub was lucky to get away with just superficial damage, unlike an unfortunate chap who happened to be cycling along that part of the Drayton Road at the same time.
Being born in the late 1970’s, the Manor House Pub was one that I never got the chance to visit, as my parents’ local was the Galley Hills Pub a few doors down from our own home and by the 1980’s it had metamorphized into Maxwells which wasn’t really my parents’ scene. By the time I became old enough to start enjoying pubs it had already shut its doors for good, not that I would have ventured in back then, as it always had a bit of a reputation for being a place that you’d go to get glassed.
Not wanting to only rely on lazy and vague anecdotal memories of the place, mostly clouded by time, I decided to speak to my good friend (and fellow Mile Cross man) John Batley, who was just about old enough to have actual memories of the place and to get his take on what it was actually like to visit.
He started working in Maxwells in 1989 as a young DJ and like the stories from the older Manor House days it was still predominantly a music venue aiming to have regular disco nights along with a selection of local bands from various musical genres to mix it all up a bit. John was employed to play disco music but recalls that he rarely got the chance to play the sets he’d been intending to. He was always requested (and often threatened) to play Reggae Music instead. Apparently the dance floor was always rammed with drunken revellers and it could get a bit rowdy, especially on a Saturday night where it was seen as a unique evening if the pub wasn’t visited by at least one police car or ambulance. That said, the majority of the regulars thoroughly enjoyed themselves and John remembers his time working (and drinking) there fondly. John recalled a few amusing moments too. On one particular evening a young lady on the dance floor came over to the DJ booth and asked him for a light and like a true gent, John obliged, but because of the amount of hairspray the girl was wearing (it was the eighties after all) her hair went up like a bonfire. Luckily she was unharmed but her mighty fringe was no more and the whole pub stank of burnt hair for the rest of the evening. On another occasion, John remembers a local band playing on the stage. The lead singer decided he was going to recreate a Freddie Mercury moment by jumping on to a chair, which promptly gave way under the weight, leaving the hapless singer trapped in the buckled metal frame of the chair and floundering in the middle of the stage, much to the amusement of the crowd and the rest of the band. On another particularly lively Saturday evening, John’s musical set was brought to an abrupt halt after an airborne chicken drumstick, launched from somewhere within the heaving mass of drunken revellers packed onto the bouncing dancefloor struck him squarely between the eyes before dropping on to the decks, knocking the stylus off the record. That’s something I would still laugh at now and I can now picture John’s bewildered expression as he struggled to get the music started again. I bet his face was a picture! To top it off I now have the slightly modified lyrics to the MARRS song “Pump up the volume” stuck in my head: “Put the needle on the record, put the needle on the record, when the drumstick goes like this…“. Boom, headshot. Yup, that’ll be my taxi.
Downstairs the pub had little left of its former character as a home or a hotel, but upstairs John remembers the place was still mostly original, with a maze of old bedrooms that were now mostly being used for storage. It must have been an impressive place for the Gowing family to have lived when it was first built, affording the family with a selection of great views from the many windows of their large home stretching along the valley from old Hellesdon to Heigham and all the way into the city.
I can’t help but wonder what that Victorian farming family would have made of how the future of their once-grand home, rich in Victorian opulence and surrounded by miles and miles of farmland and open countryside had panned out a century later, where the entire downstairs of their home was to be regularly filled with fisticuffs, stale farts, flying chicken drumsticks and flaming hairdo’s. It’d be a massive understatement if I said that I’m sure they’d be less than impressed with it all.
They’d be equally unimpressed with what the site is home to now; an aging Lidl with an uncertain future (the site is now deemed too small for Lidl who tried and failed to buy out the newer homes behind it so that they could expand and update the store). This ongoing saga is now being silently watched over by two massive Redwood trees and a crumbling wall which are the only remaining traces of the past left behind, apart from the nod to it’s interesting history in the form of an old road name.
I do find it amazing that a little bit of curiosity about the origins of a road name just around the corner from my home could have taken me on a journey down that little lane and back across hundreds of years of Hellesdon’s history hiding right underneath me as I sit at my desk typing this out. Just a few inches below my feet and a hundred or so years back in time the farmers of the past were hard at work grafting out a living from this very land on which I now live and breathe, living a completely alien life to both them and then.
I’ll say thanks once again to those of you that stuck with it and have read this rather long piece right up until the very end, and as always will welcome any feedback or further details you may have.