Weird Norfolk: The year Norfolk folk thought the world was going to end

Abstract apocalyptic background - burning and exploding planet Earth in red sky, hell, end of world.

Prophets shared some bad news to people in Norfolk in March 1844: the world was ending...in three weeks time - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It had been a strange 12 months in Norfolk, and as you might imagine, this is not a phrase which Weird Norfolk uses lightly.

Shortly after two mysterious men had arrived in Norfolk and started to spread the word that the world was due to end, the Devil was seen dancing on the walls at Norwich Castle.

Cut it how you will, the omens were not looking good.

Swathes of the county’s population began to prepare for their world to be consumed by apocalyptic flames on March 21, 1844, many stopping work, eating all their stored food and generally living every day as if it were their last.

Spoiler: On March 2, 1844, nothing happened.

The two men who informed the people of West Norfolk that the end was nigh were followers of the Rev William Miller, an American preacher who became well-known for his belief in the Second Advent of Christ.

Miller was convinced that Christ was planning an imminent return in order to take believers up to heaven and leave the rest of Earth and its sinners to burn in hellfire.

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He had based his doom-filled prediction on complicated mathematical deductions made from taking information from numeric data in the Books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelations.

The Last Judgement, a picture by Peter Van der Heyden from 1558

The Last Judgement, a picture by Peter Van der Heyden from 1558 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1843, Miller had a large following and was predicting the world would end on March 21, 1843, but when the date passed, the prediction was extended to a year later.

When asked what would happen if another date passed by without incident, Miller replied: “I shall be a poor, miserable, despised creature and ought to be” – this turned out to be one of his only correct predictions.

His devotees across the pond began to prepare for the End of Days, selling their worldly possessions, settling their differences, withdrawing their children from school, stopping work, spending their last penny and killing their livestock.

By the beginning of March 1844, two prophets who had returned to their home land from America, were about to share very unwelcome news.

The Norfolk they returned to was in a state of flux as the tradition of working on the land came under threat from machines, gang workforces and travelling labour.

In 1841, 66 per cent of Norfolk’s agricultural workforce was out of regular work and workhouses were springing up across the county to house the poor.

With the enclosure of common land and the poor’s loss of pasture rights, there was a growing sense that the working class were losing control: and many sought to find what they had lost in religion.

Almost 30 miles away in Norwich, the population had doubled in 50 years and there had just been strikes in the textile industry against low wages: by the 1840s, one in five of those who lived in the city were paupers.

In short, Norfolk was ready for a shake-up, particularly if it involved sinners getting their just desserts while the righteous were rewarded, an early form of levelling-up, mercifully not involving Michael Gove.

Karl Bell from the University of East Anglia wrote in Social History: Vol 31, November 2006: “References to Judgement Day were frequent around this period…An anonymous address made to the people of Fakenham, Norfolk, in 1832 associated the recent outbreak of cholera with failures to observe the Sabbath, to drunkenness, adultery and parental failure to provide adequate religious instruction to their offspring.”

Writing in Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia From Prehistory to the Present, Bell added: “As late as 1910, Charles Kent noted how Norfolk folk were ‘devoted Bible readers, and at the same time, firm believers in witchcraft’.”

Returning back to early March 1844, the prophets held court in Walsingham and told those that would listen that the apocalypse was imminent.

They said that the end of the world was due to people’s sinfulness, Sabbath breaking and alcoholism and people were so terrified – and convinced – that many decided to act accordingly.

The incredible story is told in a ballad, The Humbugg of the World at an End, which reveals how the bad news spread like wildfire, causing mass hysteria as it snaked towards Norwich.

“From St Stephen’s to Pockthorpe, go wherever you will, there is nothing to be heard but this humbug of a tale…”

Street ballads are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to historical fact, but they often reflected a hint of truth, the full story often lost in the pursuit of the far more important business of finding words that rhymed.

But Bell notes: “Had these sources not been supported by references from Revd Mayers’s 1844 sermon ‘The Second Coming of Christ’, it could have been dismissed as just another ‘catchpenny’ fiction.”

Mayers told his congregation that: “For my own part, I can no more doubt, from what I observe…that the kingdom of heaven is nigh at hand…the Son of Man is coming in a cloud, with power and great glory and the sun is darkened and the stars are falling…”

He added, to the great and good of Stiffkey, that after the world had burned, the Earth would return to “one vast paradise”.

The Second Coming of Christ from 1475 in the Walters Manuscript

The Second Coming of Christ from 1475 in the Walters Manuscript - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, the end of the world did not feature in the newspapers of the time, even when the prophets were arrested and thrown into Walsingham Bridewell, even when right-minded Norfolk folk began to act as if there was no tomorrow, or at the very least, no next week.

To make things worse, Satan appeared doing a dance on Norwich Castle’s walls (according to reports from prisoners) which seemed to seal the apocalyptic deal.

The panic was said to be on the same scale as that which had gripped Leeds in 1806 when a hen had allegedly started laying eggs with ‘Christ is coming’ inscribed on them.

When March 21, 1844 came and passed, the Millerites recalculated and lit upon April 18 1844 and then, when the fiery lakes failed to appear, one last stab was made and another date set: October 22, 1844.

Less a case of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and more a case of ‘Apocalypse at Some Point. Probably’.

The ballad noted that people were “…quite disappointed when the 21 came, because this poor world was not all in flame”.

Quietly, the talk of Judgement Day died down as those who had believed sheepishly calmed down and carried on.

Miller, however, never gave up on the end of the world being near, even when hordes abandoned his church on October 23 1844, a day that became known as ‘’The Great Disappointment”.

Five years later, on December 20, 1849, Miller had his Judgement Day, of sorts, he died, still fervently believing the apocalypse was days away.