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Project to reveal lost lives of the Norfolk marshmen

PUBLISHED: 14:52 20 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 January 2018

January 1949, and 65-year-old marshman Jack Wisken (in the boat) with his mate Edwin Shingles harvests reeds on Colman’s marshes at Woodbastwick. The reeds were destined for thatching on Col. H Cator’s estate.
Photo: Archant Library

January 1949, and 65-year-old marshman Jack Wisken (in the boat) with his mate Edwin Shingles harvests reeds on Colman’s marshes at Woodbastwick. The reeds were destined for thatching on Col. H Cator’s estate. Photo: Archant Library

Archant

A new community project is aiming to tell the story of a fast-vanishing Norfolk way of life - the marshmen. Daniel Bardsley reports.

Ruth Tolland, left, chairman WISEArchive, and Olwen Gotts, Secretary, who are working on the Water, Mills, & Marshes project. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYRuth Tolland, left, chairman WISEArchive, and Olwen Gotts, Secretary, who are working on the Water, Mills, & Marshes project. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The fabled marshmen of Norfolk faced hardships the likes of which most of us can only imagine.

Many lived miles from their nearest neighbour and inhabited homesteads that lacked electricity, running water or road access.

Theirs was often cold and dirty work cutting, bunching, trimming and stacking reeds, clearing dykes, looking after drainage mills and tending hundreds of cattle.

With as many as 1,000 acres under their charge, they might have to walk as far as 20 miles a day, while a visit to the shops in the nearest town or village would typically require a horse and cart journey along a bumpy track.

An EDP column of 1971 illustrated vividly the way that they belonged to another era.

Recalling the lives of Mr and Mrs Gordon Addison, who had lived on the North Breydon Wall near Breydon Water for more than 40 years, the columnist noted that the couple, who by then had died, had had no radio and “hardly ever saw a newspaper”.

“In fact, Mrs Addison once told me that she had never seen a talking film in her life. Although quite content with their lonely existence, they admitted they were living 100 years behind the times,” the columnist wrote.

New technology led to the gradual disappearance of the marshmen, who were found in an area roughly between Acle and Great Yarmouth taking in the Broads and their surroundings.

Large mechanical reed cutters capable of cutting 500 bundles a day took the place of motor scythes, which in turn had replaced hand scythes, which could generate just 100 bundles. Meanwhile, some farmers found more cost-effective alternatives to grazing cattle on the marshes.

Over several decades from about the 1940s onwards, just as the numbers of marshmen fell, so many of their isolated homesteads crumbled.

The gradual extinction of this way of life – although even into the 21st century there are still people earning a living on the marshes – makes a new project by the oral history group WISEArchive, which records the working lives of older people, all the more important.

Entitled “Living and working in the marshes”, the initiative involves the group recording interviews with a range of people, mostly retirees, whose lives were linked in one way or another to the marshes and the associated rivers.

“We have people who have memories back to the Second World War onwards,” said Ruth Tolland, WISEArchive’s chairperson.

“They have stories to tell about life back then and how things have changed on the marshes, and occupations that may have disappeared.

“We think it’s important to capture that … and we see it as a legacy for the future.”

There is plenty of fascinating detail from the times that the project is likely to record for posterity.

Another EDP column, from 1972, notes that the marshmen would know the area under their charge intimately, but this was little help when the weather changed for the worse.

“When fog descended with astonishing rapidity, and within minutes the entire landscape was blanketed with white vapour, even the most experienced marshmen had difficulty in finding their way home,” the column said.

“Troublesome bulls were always a potential danger, sometimes charging at the slightest provocation. A cool head, and perhaps a certain fleetness of foot, were needed to get out of the way.”

WISEArchive are keen for testimony that covers the changing ecology of the area through evolving land management. Boats, boat building and tourism are also areas the group would like to focus on.

“We’re particularly interested in work involving the land – farming, animals, wildlife, ecology. People who have experienced change in the marshes and the Broads and the rivers, and we’re interested in people who grew up in the marshes,” said Ruth.

There have also been interesting recollections about extreme cold weather, with Norfolk having undergone a big freeze in the winter of 1962/63. One contributor has recalled seeing parachutes coming down, and hearing about planes crashing, during the Second World War.

Another favourite subject is the extermination of the coypu, the orange-toothed South American rodent that became a pest after escaping from a farm on the East Carleton Manor estate near Norwich in 1937. Coypu were eventually wiped out locally in the late 1980s.

Previous projects by WISEArchive, which was founded in 2005, have seen as many as tens of people interviewed, and the marshes initiative could be of a similar scale.

The group has about 20 volunteers who carry out duties such as interviewing, transcribing interviews and editing sound clips.

The project is likely to take several years to complete and testimony will be published in a book, while audio will be uploaded to WISEArchive’s website and provided to the sound archive of Norfolk Record Office.

The marshes initiative is part of a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported “Water, Mills and Marshes” scheme run by the Broads Landscape Partnership Scheme and involving 38 projects linked to numerous organisations. Projects range from promoting walking in the marshes areas to getting school children and older students involved with mill restoration.

“It’s generally opening up the marshes to people physically and knowledge wise. It’s a marvellous project,” said Ruth.

WISEArchive’s own projects tend to involve interviews with people in their seventies, eighties and even nineties. Olwen Gotts, WISEArchive’s secretary, said these interviews about people’s working lives were always interesting because “everybody has a story to tell”.

“I’m local so it’s quite interesting to hear, to put into context, the things that I’ve grown up with,” she said.

“One thing about working lives, it’s something … people have a passion for.”

Among the group’s major projects has been one about the Norwich mustard producer Colman’s. This led to the publication in 2016 of a book, “Colman’s of Norwich: Stories of Former Employees 1935 – 1995.”

In recent years, the group has found that people are less reluctant to talk about their lives. It used to be “quite difficult” to find willing interviewees, and surnames were not published.

“With the advent of social media, the attitude to telling the story has changed,” said Olwen.

Often the testimony of interviewees is enlightening for their relatives, who may never have heard much of what is said.

“We have family members saying, ‘We didn’t know the half of this.’ And we’ve also had stories used as part of a funeral. It’s a legacy for the family,” said Ruth.

When it comes to the marshmen project, Ruth said the group has been “delighted” with the response.

However, they are keen to hear from more people, especially those with links to the marshmen themselves.

“We’ve found very good stories and we’ve met some fascinating people – some real Norfolk characters,” she said.

“If there’s anyone related to a marshman or [an actual] marshman out there, we would love to hear from them.”

WISEArchive can be contacted on 07413 445780 and admin@wisearchive.co.uk. The website is www.wisearchive.co.uk.

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