Saluting three notable Norfolk characters

The memorial to Norwich School artist John Crome in St George's, Colegate

The memorial to Norwich School artist John Crome in St George's, Colegate - Credit: Archant Library

Just to prove I do get out of Norfolk now and again, even during a lockdown marathon, I’ve been on a fascinating history tour of times and events I happened to miss by a few years.
A whistle-stop tour of this month a century ago, when one of the greatest medical disasters in history still haunted the world, seemed a tragically appropriate place to start in view of our present predicament.
The Spanish Flu pandemic, emerging from the devastating background of the First World War, broke out in February, 1918, and unleashed peril for just over two years. Estimates vary but some suggest it claimed up to a hundred million victims.
Unemployment plagued Britain and topped a million, including 368,000 ex-servicemen, this week a century back. Benefits were raised from 15 to 18 shillings a week for jobless men and from 12 to 15 shillings for women.
What else grabbed my attention? Figures revealed there were over nine million cars on the loose in the United States by 1920. French aviator Etienne Oehmichen was more upwardly mobile the following year as he made the first flight – as opposed to lift-off – in a helicopter.
Winston Churchill became colonial secretary. Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length film The Kid, with co-star Jackie Coogan in the title role, had its US premiere. There were ominous signs of mounting alarm on both sides of the Atlantic over women showing calves of their legs in public.
“Rising skirts spell declining morals!” thundered those convinced the fashion world was hurtling towards the Way of All Flesh. Church leaders in the USA struck another loud warning note about the dangers of “jungle music” jazz.
My appetite for history now properly whetted, I dipped into local waters to come up with three notable Norfolk characters worthy of anniversary salutes – a famous painter, a royal tutor and a Victoria Cross winner.
John Crome, founder and father-figure of the celebrated Norwich School of Painting, died two centuries ago in April, 1821. He learned at an early age to grind and mix colours and to apply oil paint to canvas or panel. He became drawing master to the influential Gurney family of Earlham.
The Norwich School staged the first exhibition by a society of artists other than those held in London. Crome put on show his first two paintings at the Royal Academy in 1806. He was known as “Old Crome” by the time he was 43. He had three sons, all of whom became painters.
It was while working on a sketch for the Yarmouth Water Frolic that he went down with a fever and died within a fortnight. There’s a memorial in St George’s Church in Colegate, Norwich, where he was buried in the south aisle.
John Aylmer, who became a highly controversial Bishop of London in the reign of Elizabeth 1, was born at Tilney St Lawrence, near King’s Lynn, five centuries ago in 1521. He was tutor to ill-fated Lady Jane Grey well before his notorious church antics.
She thrived on his teaching … “One of the greatest benefits God gave me is that he sent me so sharp and severe parents and so gentle a schoolmaster . Mr Aylmer teaches me so gently, so pleasantly”. Sadly, she was doomed to be a pawn in the murderous power game and was executed at 16, spending just nine days on the throne.
Aylmer’s character changed dramatically as Bishop of London. Endearing and enrichening qualities were replaced by intolerance and cruelty vented with equal ruthlessness on Catholics and Nonconformists alike. Few mourned his death in 1594.
Completing my hat-trick of Norfolk anniversary personalities is Arthur Knyvet Wilson, one of the few Royal Navy officers to win the Victoria Cross. He died a century ago in May, 1921, after an illustrious career.
Born and buried in Swaffham, where his grandfather was vicar for 65 years, he won the VC for outstanding bravery in February 1884 at El Teb while captain of HMS Hecla during the British Sudan campaign. 
On returning home to Swaffham he was greeted at the railway station by a vast crowd and shops were closed .
He came out of retirement twice, initially to take the post of First Sea Lord and then in 1915 when Winston Churchill called on him to help lead the Navy through the Great War. 
Retiring yet again, he helped design Swaffham golf course and the town war memorial.

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