Ten Norfolk-Dutch connections...
PUBLISHED: 08:27 09 December 2017
Archant © 2011
As the major exhibition about Dutch artist Rembrandt continues at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Trevor Heaton looks at ten ways the Netherlands connection has shaped our lives locally.
1 ‘The Strangers’. Norfolk doesn’t have squares, it has plains. The word is from the Dutch ‘plein’ – a reminder that the language was spoken in the streets of Norwich for many years by ‘Strangers’, the flood of religious refugees and traders who fled persecution by the Spanish duke of Alva in the still-to-be-independent Low Countries in the 1560s and 1570s. Historians still debate the exact impact of the Strangers on the city’s key industry of weaving, but there is no doubting the numbers: by 1582 there were 4,679 of them in the city – more than a third of its population. There was still an annual church service in Dutch in their church – the chancel of Blackfriars in Norwich - until 1921.
2 The architecture: When film crews have wanted to portray a Dutch setting, then they have often come to Norfolk (it’s all those Dutch gable ends…). King’s Lynn acted as a ‘double’ in the films One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Silver Fleet (for the very practical reason that the real Netherlands were occupied by the Nazis). A few decades later, when film-makers wanted a place which echoed what the Dutch-influenced architecture of colonial New York might have looked like, then Lynn was pressed into service again. The film? The box office flop Revolution. The town (and actor George Peppard) also featured in a ‘Dutch’ scene in the 1965 wartime thriller Operation Crossbow.
3 The landscape: Dutch engineers are justly world-celebrated – you only have to consider the astonishing reclamation of the Zuider Zee in the 1920s and 1930s to realise that – and their expertise was long sought in Norfolk and beyond. The Dutch helped construct Yarmouth Haven, but as early as 1525 there was a resident Dutchman in Norfolk, Peter Peterson of Haddiscoe, with the official title of ‘dike-reeve’. But the most famous name must be Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, who introduced Dutch land reclamation methods to England, including the Fens. In the mid-17th century he introduced the idea ‘washes’ to house excess water in bad weather and won the support of Charles I. He also established the original Denver Sluice.
4 The people: There must be tens of thousands of people in Norfolk with Dutch ancestors, who very quickly became absorbed into the general population. The Eastern Evening News of February 19 1930 has an intriguing mention of someone it described as the ‘last surviving known descendant of the Strangers’, a Mr H J de Boltz, then in his 80th year and clerk to the Norwich Dutch Charity (does it still exist, I wonder?).
5 The art: The great Norwich School artist John Crome’s reputed last words – ‘Hobbema, Hobbema, how I have loved thee!’ (a reference to the ‘Golden Age’ Dutch landscape painter) – gives a big clue as to the considerable debt our artists owed to the Dutch masters of a century and a half earlier. Other big Norfolk names such as John Sell Cotman (and, for that matter, Suffolk’s Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable) also show obvious Dutch influences in their work. There have been various exhibitions over the years which have celebrated that link, including in 1954 and 1988.
6 The canaries: It’s also to the Low Countries that we owe the famous link between Norwich and canaries (the feathered sort). For centuries, city streets would have echoed with their song, as weavers kept and bred the birds to keep them company as they worked long hours in their garrets. Later, Norwich breeders developed their own varieties, such as the Crested Norwich and the Plainhead, and they become a proper city ‘export’. Literally so, for at the peak, the city’s ‘King of the Canaries’ Jacob Mackley sent locally-bred birds all over the world, including 10,000 every year to New York in the early years of the last century. By the way, the very first use of the word in connection with Norwich City FC was on April 1 1905.
7 Gardening and horticulture: Alongside innovations in weaving, cookery and printing - the first printing press in the city was set up by Dutchman Anthony de Solempne – the incomers also are thought to have brought many innovations in gardening, which helps explain Norwich’s old title of ‘The City of Gardens’. The Strangers brought market gardening to Norfolk and, by the 18th century, Norwich had become a major centre for breeding and growing garden plants such as tulips, anemones, roses and auriculas. The Dutch also had a major role in the agricultural revolution, with the famous Norfolk four-course crop rotation system made possible by the introduction of turnips from the Netherlands in the 16th century, and clover in the 17th century. Two-horse ploughing from Holland replaced the heavy English eight-ox plough, and Friesian dairy cows were brought across too, to be fattened on Norfolk’s marshes. And Norfolk’s sugar beet industry owes much to the establishment of the processing factory at Cantley, built with Dutch expertise in 1912 after the land was bought by the Anglo-Netherlands Sugar Corporation.
8 The skating: Before the Dutch, skating was very much a case of putting some sharpened animal bones on your feet and hoping for the best. It was the Dutch who took it to a fine art, with their metal skates enabling them to hurtle round the frozen waterways and flooded fields. It should come as no surprise that the similarly-landscaped Marshland and Fens took to the new sport with alacrity, with thousands turning out in the late 19th century to see local stars such as the Register family of Southery and the Smarts. Races are still held, but recent warmer winters have made them a rarity.
9 The character: Well, maybe. Just read what this 1947 guide book has to say: ‘[They are] sturdy and stiff, with fair hair and grey or blue eyes which seldom become sparkling as they look out dreamingly over the wide flat lands… taciturn, independent, stubborn, reserved, but faithful friends once you have really got to know them.’ How very Norfolk, yes? Only it isn’t – this is a guide book talking about the inhabitants of Friesland (now known as Fryslân), a province in the north of the Netherlands. The province has its own language, West Frisian, which is English’s closest living relative.
10 The Paston Treasure: Next summer the Castle Museum will have another major exhibition with Dutch connections. It’s inspired by the painting, almost certainly done by a Dutch artist, which depicts some of the astonishing range of possessions of this famous Norfolk family. Family members were well-connected to the Netherlands, and several of them had their portraits painted by Dutch artists. These family treasures were sold off after its fortunes plummeted a few decades later but many of them (some now in Dutch museums) will be reunited for the first time in 300 years. The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World will run from June 23-September 23.