Book tells story of a north Norfolk family’s fortunes

Jonathan Spurrell signing copies of his new book Bessingham: The Story of a Norfolk Estate.

Jonathan Spurrell signing copies of his new book Bessingham: The Story of a Norfolk Estate. - Credit: Archant

An author has taken pen to paper to trace the fluctuating fortunes of his family and their formerly grand Norfolk estate.

The bear kept at Bessingham Manor House in the 1890s

The bear kept at Bessingham Manor House in the 1890s - Credit: Archant

Jonathan Spurrell has charted the changing lives of his ancestors throughout two centuries of change at Bessingham Manor.

The keen historian is the great-great-great-great grandson of John Spurrell, who built up the estate, near Cromer, during the 18th century.

Bessingham: The story of a Norfolk Estate 1766-1970 records the eccentricities and achievements of the many and varied characters who played a role in its distinguished past.

Interesting episodes retold in the book include the bear kept at the manor house in the 1890s and the flight to Bournemouth by the estate's then 91 year old owner, Denham Spurrell, in the 1940s.

Denham Spurrell following his flight return flight from Bessingham to Bournemouth in the 1940s.

Denham Spurrell following his flight return flight from Bessingham to Bournemouth in the 1940s. - Credit: Archant

Female family members also feature prominently including Katherine Spurrell, who bred prize-winning daffodils in the early 1900s, and her sister Emily – a candidate in fiercely fought district council election at nearby Aylmerton in 1894.

'Women didn't have the vote in national elections but the 1894 Local Government Act, which established parish and district councils, allowed women to vote and stand for election,' explained Mr Spurrell.

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'There were no official party candidates, but Emily's opponent was the trade unionist George Edwards (later a Labour MP for South Norfolk), who claimed that, as the daughter of a landowner and wife of a clergyman, Emily did not represent the working people of Aylmerton. A lot of strongly worded letters appeared in the local newspapers and the result was Edwards won by 29 votes to 22.'

At its height in the 1860s and 70s there were about 20 men working full-time on the estate, which occupied most of the village's 495 acres.

But its fortunes declined in the post-war period, with the population falling from 124 in 1952 to just 50 in 1966.

The final owner, Ronald Hitchcock, turned tenants away and Bessingham was labelled a ghost village in the EDP.

The Spurrell family's 200-year-old connection came to end when the estate was broken up and sold in 1970.

The Victorian manor house later fell derelict and was scheduled for demolition, but has since been restored as holiday accommodation.

Freelance translator Mr Spurrell, who was born in Colchester, but now lives near Washington DC said: 'I think it's a shame that Bessingham became a 'ghost village' in the 1950s and 60s. If the estate had been sold in 1952 or left to another relative, maybe things would have been different, but this was a difficult time anyway, with the countryside facing the challenges of modernisation.

'Although the manor house is no longer central to village life, it is an iconic part of the village landscape and its restoration was therefore welcomed and seen as a positive sign – the final stage of Bessingham's recovery from its ghost years.'

Bessingham: The story of a Norfolk Estate is available from bookshops and online.

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