Norfolk women's Covid 'Plague Journal' attracts attention from all over the world

Margaret Steward and Sheila Gates, the brains behind the Plague 20 Journal which they started togeth

Margaret Steward and Sheila Gates, the brains behind the Plague 20 Journal which they started together on the first day of lockdown in March last year - Credit: Danielle Booden

A 'plague journal', begun on the first day of the first lockdown by Norfolk neighbours Margaret Steward and Sheila Gates now, amazingly, attracts contributions from across the world.  

Every Sunday morning the latest instalment is published online at 

Inspired by the wartime Mass Observation project, and the history of Margaret's house, in South Burlingham, near Acle (whose first owners died of the plague 400 years ago) it is a daily record of life with coronavirus, told by many different voices in many different places. 

As the pandemic gathered pace last year Margaret lay awake thinking of what might happen. “A fog of mostly dark thoughts.” 

“And then I thought it would be good to do something positive and creative with other people during this strange time,” said the artist, playwright and retired teacher. 

Margaret Steward and Sheila Gates

Margaret Steward and Sheila Gates started the Plague Journal on the first day of lockdown in March 2020 - Credit: Danielle Booden

She decided to ask people to record their observations, thoughts, feelings and ideas, initially for 12 weeks, in the style of the Second World War project in which participants kept diaries of their everyday life.  

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Sheila’s husband, Chris, wrote the first entry before they asked friends and acquaintances to have a say. 

Gradually word spread, and medics, artists, academics, teachers, writers, parents, children, poets, pensioners, a vicar, a florist, a former diplomat, business people, shopkeepers, gardeners and many more were adding to the online journal.  

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“We saw it as a 12-week daily journal that contributors would drop in and out of. A social record of unusual times. We didn’t look further than that. But it was clear as it went on that a lot of contributors didn’t want to finish after 12 weeks, and it was clear the pandemic wasn’t over. More needed to be recorded. So on we went, and on. 

“There have been many personal blogs and diaries this last year, but we know of no other project that connects contributors from all round the world, creating an online community and a group commentary.”  

Sheila, a glass artist and retired graphic designer, of Burlingham Green, created the website and said: “We decided that we couldn't just pull the plug as too many people were finding the comfort in reading and contributing to the journal. We still have people joining us as contributors and the core group have formed a bond that I'm reluctant to disturb.” 

Sheila Gates

Sheila Gates, who helped create the Plague Journal - Credit: Danielle Booden

More than 100 people have taken part, with around 45 fairly regular contributors and up to 30 entries each week. They report on their lives in the UK, France, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Spain, Tenerife, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, and across the USA. 

“I know them all from their writings and they have become real friends although most I have never met,” added Sheila. “The journal has been the rhythm to my life. I will stop one day, but I will miss it and engaging with our contributors. People who have found the situation really hard and found solace in our online community.” 

They are considering finishing with a garden party where contributors might be able to meet in real life for the first time. "I have a feeling that will be a noisy and joyous occasion,” said Sheila, Eventually the whole journal will be archived online and they would love to publish an edited book version too. 

Some favourite contributors include 

  • A former diplomat from Washington DC who “steered us through Trump’s last days and downfall with acerbic wit and panache,” said Margaret. 
  • The Macrae children from Sussex who gave a child’s eye view of home schooling and what the pandemic meant for them. 
  • Retired doctors Marie Christine in France and Shirin in Norway.  
  • The many people who shared their observations of the natural world.  
  • “And Mark Waller in South Africa has made us all realise, through his accounts of life there, just how very fortunate we in Europe have been in comparison,” said Margaret. 

Astonishing discovery in Norfolk attic
Old Hall Farm in South Burlingham has its own fascinating story

Margaret and her husband Peter bought the house, boarded up, fire-damaged and at risk of collapse, more than 30 years ago.  

Margaret and Peter Scupham in South Burlingham

Margaret Steward and her husband Peter Scupham who have spent the past 30 years restoring their home in South Burlingham - Credit: Archant

They have been restoring and caring for it ever since – including finding and revealing Tudor paintings of hunting scenes on its attic walls, hidden beneath up to nine layers of lime wash. 

“We had found bits of paint all around the house and I and a friend were up in one of the top rooms, unblocking a fireplace, when I saw a piece of loose plaster and pulled it away and saw a claw,” said Margaret. Soon a vibrant Labrador-like dog was looking out of the picture. Margaret and Peter called in experts and eventually discovered the entire attic gallery had been painted with monochrome hunting scenes, probably when the house was newly-built in the 1580s.  

Tudor hunting scenes in the attic room at Old Hall Farm, South Burlingham

Tudor hunting scenes in the attic room at Old Hall Farm, South Burlingham - Credit: Archant

It was built for Robert and Elizabeth Younger at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne and Norfolk was one of the richest regions in the country. Their daughter married playwright Robert Daborne in South Walsham church, and was living in London when she was due to give birth. Robert and Elizabeth went down to stay with her – but all three died within weeks of each other as  plague raged through the capital. 

For a time the house was called Mermaid Manor, because of the charming plaster mermaid and merman on the porch. “Really it’s just a farmhouse with a grand porch,” said Peter. 

A century ago Norfolk County Council converted it into two homes as part of a scheme to provide smallholdings for servicemen returning from the First World War.  

There is even a ghost story – with an attic said to be haunted by a murdered man, found dead after playing a game of cards with his dog. That mystery might have been solved when a woman contacted Margaret and Peter to say that she grew up in the house, but she died the day before she was due to call round with the full story.  

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