Adventures and scandals of Coltishall graveyard 'residents' unveiled

The headstone to Ann or Anne Branton (1747-99), who belonged to the colourful Haylett family

The headstone to Ann or Anne Branton (1747-99), who belonged to the colourful Haylett family; her brother Henry was a prize fighter as well as wherryman. She helped save her husband's life after he was injured while handling a laden beer barrel at one of the village's breweries - Credit: Margaret Bird

Meet Henry Haylett, a wherryman and prize fighter who won a fortune in a boxing match in 1775, and his sister, washerwoman Ann Branton who saved her husband’s life – summoning four surgeons to trek through deep snow to Coltishall to help him. Meet Robert Ansell whose wherry Grampus was the first to pass through Coltishall Lock in 1775 and is commemorated with his mother and brother by a grieving cherub. 

Historian Margaret Bird will be telling the stories of some of the people who lie buried in Coltishall churchyard on Thursday June 24. 

She has researched the lives of farmers, innkeepers, craftsmen and women, labourers, threshers, brewers, merchants, draymen and more, Using parish registers, local newspapers and diaries she uncovers fascinating details of how both rich and poor lived, and died, in the village 250 years ago. 

Coltishall Church from the south, showing the part of the old churchyard where the tour will take place

Coltishall Church from the south, showing the part of the old churchyard where the tour will take place. The architect of King's College Chapel, Cambridge donated money for the building of the tower in the late 15th century - Credit: Margaret Bird

Fine memorials at Coltishall

Fine memorials at Coltishall. The headstones to the merchant and former landlord of the King's Head, Robert Browne, and his wife Hannah are in the second row, left - Credit: Margaret Bird

She found accounts of Henry Haylett’s fights and scandal too when he was taken to court, accused of being the father of a baby which an unmarried maid at the Manor House was expecting. 

His own mother, also buried in the churchyard, lived until she was 97.  

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Although the terrible death rate among young children makes life expectancy seem low Margaret said that many who survived into adulthood in Coltishall were surprisingly healthy. “Many working people lived to good ages, into their 60s and 70s or more,” says Margaret. “Despite outbreaks of illness, notably smallpox, these healthy figures could partly be explained by the pure water in Coltishall’s wells.” 

This excellent water also meant Coltishall became a centre for brewing. In 1780 there were three breweries, each with its own inns across north east Norfolk, and 11 malthouses. “Many lying in the churchyard worked for leading figures in this farming and industrial village; others were self-employed craftsmen and women such as tailors, dressmakers and shoemakers. These were very hardworking people.” Even some of the poor have ornate memorials. “These may well have been paid for by their appreciative employers,” Margaret adds.

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She spent an astonishing 32 years working on the diaries of Mary Hardy, who lived in Holly Lodge, Coltishall, from 1772 to 1781. Mary Hardy and her World was published last year and highly commended in the 2021 Thirsk Prize for the best book on British or Irish rural history. 

The very first diary entry was an account of a boat trip from Coltishall to Yarmouth and Mary continued writing for 36 years, detailing day-to-day life almost 250 years ago.  

“Hers was the world of trade and manufacturing. She was the wife of a farmer, maltster and brewer. Her diary is remarkable for being nearly as long as the Old Testament of the Bible and in portraying a man's world in which she was actively involved.”   

Mary writes about bread riots, disasters at sea, commercial rivalries, religious and political upheavals. There are days out to the theatre and dances, and tragedies too, including the death of Mary’s eldest son, Raven, who succumbed to tuberculosis at 19. Raven, which was Mary’s maiden name, is used by her descendants to this day.  

“I felt an immediate bond with this diarist. I knew her home village intimately, as Coltishall had been the home berth of my parents' small motor cruiser since 1948. I knew the church, the lanes, the waterways - and the public houses - familiar to her." Between raising her own three children and founding a running a business with her husband, Margaret worked on the diaries almost every day. 

Now she has returned to some of the characters and linked them with their final resting places in Coltishall churchyard. 

Today the churchyard is a conservation area, full of wildflowers as well as memorials. Margaret’s talk will be followed by a tour of some of the gravestones. There is no charge but donations to church funds are welcome. 

The Stories behind the Stones with Margaret Bird is free and open to all at Coltishall church at 7pm on Thursday June 24.  

From the cover of the first volume of Mary Hardy and her World 

From the cover of the first volume of Mary Hardy and her World - Credit: Burnham Press


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