Norfolk County Hall archives reveal Valentine’s Day gifts from 100 years ago

It was a time before over-priced red roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

When boyfriends and girlfriends took the time to write a verse themselves, rather than relying on a card company to do it for them – and a corn plaster was considered an acceptable gift.

A look through a collection of Victorian love letters, cards and notes at the Norfolk Record Office show Valentine's Day was a very different celebration more than 100 years ago.

Among the many documents in the archives at County Hall charting the lives of some of the area's key families are the tokens of affection sent each year on February 14.

From hand-drawn cards and carefully thought-through poems to a note written in code using a series of pictures in place of words, they reveal a fascinating view of the celebration.

Susan Maddock, principal archivist at the record office, has been looking through a number of collections linked to three prominent Norfolk families.

George Clayton Eaton lived in Norwich between 1834 and 1900 and was a key community figure. His Valentine's notes and cards were found among a variety of documents donated by 'Mr Norwich' Thomas Eaton, a former mayor of the city, who died in 2010. Others are linked to Frank Cresswell, of King's Lynn, the grandson of Elizabeth Fry, and the Bulwer family which was linked to Heydon Hall.

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Miss Maddock said it was clear from the collection of cards, letters and poems, that Valentine's Day was a very different kind of event in 19th-century Norfolk.

'The first thing that strikes me is that it tells us it was seen in a much wider way than it is now,' she said.

'It very much wasn't just a celebration for people who were in love or trying to interest the other person. It was a day for everyone – particularly in Norfolk, where it was a really big day.'

Male relatives would exchange cards and friends would send gifts to each other. A series of small, red, triangular envelopes thought to have contained sweets alongside a short verse were sent to George Clayton as a child.

Late into the 20th century, the mystery character of Jack Valentine would be expected to visit houses on Valentine's Eve to deliver gifts. Miss Maddock said: 'It was very much for children, for anybody. Anyone could send Valentines, it didn't have to be between a man and a woman.'

The cards and gifts exchanged also differed greatly from those sent these days.

Although an increasing number of shop-bought cards were available, many were still handmade with carefully-written verses and messages.

'There is absolutely no sign of a mention of red roses or chocolates. That's not to say they didn't feature heavily, but they tended to be given to children,' said Miss Maddock.

'All these examples were 19th century. People were putting a lot of thought into it, composing their own little verses, doing their own little drawings. Some of these are clearly purchased from a shop but even those have got personalised touches.'

But that did not mean they were all terribly romantic. Just as the sending of cards and gifts did not have to have romantic undertones, the messages and presents could also have a very 'everyday' feel.

In one letter found among the documents of George Clayton Eaton, which are currently being catalogued thanks to funding from the Town Close Charity, a Valentine has composed a poem about a gift of a corn plaster which hopes to ease another's suffering.

Among the four lovingly-penned stanzas, it says: 'Oh, why do you look sad and worn? / Oh, tell me the truth if you can, / Is it anything worse than a corn, / Thy conscientious and loveable man?'

Another note found among the Norwich family's notes was a thank-you note, once again written in verse, from two brothers thanking a kindly Valentine for their gift of handkerchiefs. Apparently they were perfectly timed to help fight a cold.

Documents held at the Norfolk Record Office can be viewed by the public during opening hours. To find out more, call 01603 222599 or visit