Mysteries of the Brockdish diary


24 September 2020
Inspired by the article on diaries and their uses for family history, Family Tree reader Philip Thompson got in touch to tell us about a remarkable diary relating to his local area, and the heritage centre set up locally by those passionate to preserve the heritage of Waveney

The article on diaries in the July 2020 edition of Family Tree reminded me of one such diary written in the late 1700s /early 1800s and presented several years ago to the Norfolk Record Office. The author lived in the Waveney Valley on the Norfolk/Suffolk Border and writes of the area around the villages of Brockdish and Syleham on either side of the river Waveney.

One of our members, Timothy Brook, obtained copies and proceeded to transcribe the diary adding various notes as he proceeded. Unfortunately Tim died before he could finish it and we are attempting to complete his work.

The Late Tim Brooks’ Words:

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Mysteries of the 'Brockdish' Diary

“I first learned of the existence of the Brockdish diary at a local history exhibition, staged by David and Anthea Case back in 2005. The diary was in the news around that time as it had only recently been donated to the Norfolk Records Office. It was rescued by Mr. John Hall from a waste paper facility in Portsmouth. Just how it got there is only the first of the mysteries surrounding the diary. He kept it in a drawer for 40 years, double- wrapped in brown envelopes. His widow, Kathleen, returned the diary to Norfolk in 2005.

"Local historian Stephen Poulter read a photocopy of the document last year and found himself challenged by the 'anonymous' label in the NRO [Norfolk Record Office] catalogue. In the diary entry for 1816 the diarist wrote, "My daughter the wife of S Reeve was safely delivered of a son".

"Stephen (a resident of Needham) researched records from St. Peter in Needham showing that S. Reeve and his wife, Phoebe (maiden name: Souter) had a son who was baptised in August 1816. Charles Souter was Parish Clerk in Syleham (not Brockdish) and died aged 92, in 1828. He is quite properly buried in Syleham churchyard. So the Brockdish Diary is really the Syleham Diary!

"For a recent visit made as part of our local heritage project, the excellent Norfolk Record Office prepared a collection of documents from Needham and Brockdish and I was immediately gripped by the diary for, as I wrote at the time:

" sit quietly and read the words of an 'anonymous' local farmer from the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the mundane day-to-day things he chose to write about in his beautiful script was real time travel...

"One part of my project is to transcribe the whole diary but, for me, one mystery needed to be solved urgently - where did Charles Souter live? “

Our group, Waveney Heritage was formed in 2017 by five local people to conserve the heritage of the Waveney Valley and the Villages in the area. We were lucky in that when the local primary school closed we were able to rent the premises to use for storing our archive material and artefacts. The building has a large meeting room which is used for talks and lectures. We were also lucky that our Patron, Baroness Murphy of Aldgate, has much experience in investigating the histories of houses (see The Moated Grange ISBN 978-1-910298-54-1, Monks Hall ISBN 978-1-909796-54-6) and the history of our Parish Church St. Peter & St. Paul. The Church history is a small private publication which I think is unavailable.

Over the course of the next three years one of the original beginners left and one died. On the death of Tim Brook, Mary Thompson became the leader of the group and with the help of Jill Edwards has continued to arrange meetings. Unfortunately with the current crisis we have had to postpone all of them and also the various courses for our helpers. The lockdown gave me plenty of time to down load all the census returns for Brockdish and then spiral bind them.

The establishment of Waveney Heritage

 By Mary Thompson

In July 2016, amidst much protest and sadness, Brockdish Primary School closed. It had been a part of the village for well over one hundred years. Not only did the school community die but there was a danger that the building, owned by the Diocese of Norwich, would cease to have a meaningful role to play on the life of the village However, unlike many other small schools which have closed, we still had a stake in the building. Because the school was founded and funded by the rector of the time, George France, (both wealthy and astute!) one of the trustees remains the rector of Brockdish church who has a say in both the running and management of the building as well as of the school itself.

Everyone was determined that the building should not be sold and that it should continue to play a part in the life of the community. After the usual lengthy negotiations, it was agreed that Waveney Heritage, founded in 2018, should lease it as a focus for recording the history of the entire Waveney valley, past, present and future.

Many residents, both local and further afield have donated photographs, books, documents, objects, (including the old village snow plough pulled by a horse!) and reminiscences. We have held exhibitions, twice monthly talks on a wide range of topics, hosted other organisations and provided a home for a group of radio enthusiasts who have accumulated a comprehensive collection of radios, radio equipment, record players, juke boxes and much more. They have just recently accepted the gift of an enormous sound deck, originally the property of Radio Norfolk and donated by the late Stewart Orr. It fills one of the smaller rooms and will be a challenge to reconstruct!

We have a garden and a large car park, room for table tennis, a gardening club and other hobby groups, all in a lovely light, comfortable building with a kitchen.

We were very sad to have to halt all our plans during lock-down but are starting to pick up the pieces and look forward to meeting more people and learning more about our fascinating past over the coming years.

Do have a look at our website and come to visit us when you can!

The history of Brockdish School

By Jill Edwards

The story of a small village, the school and the input of the inhabitants during its life.

Brockdish School, on Grove Road, was the site of the original Poor House for the villagers of Brockdish and its surroundings. In the middle 1800s the enormous workhouse in Pulham was built and our Poor House was no longer needed.

In 1845 it was purchased for £150 by the Reverend George France, rector of St Peter and St Paul's Church, Brockdish, as a school for the education of the children of Brockdish, and so it continued for over 170 years.

For most of that time Brockdish remained a small, self sufficient village on the coach road from Bury St Edmunds to Great Yarmouth, with shops, pubs, two of which were coaching inns, a forge and all the other components making up a busy agricultural community.

During WW2 though things changed dramatically with the arrival of evacuee children from London, accompanied by their teachers and also of course the construction or more-or-less wall-to-wall airfields in East Anglia. To add to the upheaval, the nearest base, Thorpe Abbotts, was home to an American Bomber squadron, no doubt causing great excitement for all age groups, not least the children!

After the War things quietened down a bit but the school continued to flourish with several updates and extensions until the number of children began to reduce as families got smaller. There were several attempts by the Education Authority to close it, fought by the local inhabitants, but finally in 2016 it succumbed, completing the now common catalogue of shop, pub and school closures which have haunted so many villages. At the time it was the smallest school in Norfolk and possibly one of the smallest in the country, but with more forethought could have remained open to reduce the massive overcrowding in Harleston School, only four miles down the road!

We are happy that it now has a new life, still supporting the local community and upholding the principles of the founder George France.

Originally published September 2020. Reviewed April 2023.