Truth behind Norwich mayor's royal 'snub'

PUBLISHED: 10:12 27 January 2018 | UPDATED: 15:53 27 January 2018

Walter Rye in his mayoral robes. Photo: Archant Library

Walter Rye in his mayoral robes. Photo: Archant Library


Anyone who loves Norfolk history will soon come across the name of Walter Rye. A fascinating new biography reveals his extraordinary life for the first time - and the truth behind a famous royal story. Trevor Heaton reports.

You could never accuse writer Walter Rye of ‘sitting on the fence’. He managed to upset the great and the good of Norfolk – and its labouring class. He even – or so the long-standing local story has it – so angered a king that it cost him a knighthood.

But he was also a passionate searcher for the truth, a tireless campaigner for our rights to enjoy the Broads, saviour of such historic Norwich buildings as the Maid’s Head Hotel, and one of the greatest champions of Norfolk history the county has ever had.

He was witty, loyal, annoying, forthright, extraordinarily prolific, kind - and sarcastic to the point of defamatory. And that is only the start. He was, in short, and much more than most of us, a mass of contradictions.

Walter Rye is just the sort of subject to have biographers rubbing their hands in anticipation. And now that gap has been filled with a major new book by archivist Dr Christopher Kitching, which is full of eye-opening insights into one of Norfolk’s most vivid public figures of the last 100 or so years.

How many of us knew, for instance, that Rye was one of the greatest athletes in the country in his younger days, a national champion and record-holder in running and walking? In the latter activity, by the way, he once clocked up 86 miles – in one day.

He had so many ‘lives’, so many careers, that Dr Kitching took the decision to write Walter’s story in six ‘tracks’, or sections, each dealing with one aspect. “And I think it would be quite possible to take any one of the chapters and make a book out of each of them,” he said.

It was one of those lives – Rye the researcher - which first caught his eye.

After a distinguished career at the Public Record Office, the Royal Commission of Historical Manuscripts and the National Archive, Dr Kitching was appointed CBE in 2004. “In my retirement I did some research on the history of the Public Record and the people who had used it,” he explained.

“I came across Walter Rye’s book ‘Records and Record-searching’ [published in 1888 and still going strong] telling people what was around, and which was written in a very witty and forthright manner.

“I thought to myself ‘I ought to find out more about this man’. So I went to the British Library to find out what else he had published, and discovered there was a huge amount of material – 80 or so books. And some of those were gigantic, 1000 pages or more.”

That set Dr Kitching off on a ten-year quest, the results of which - A Passion for Records: Walter Rye (1843-1929) has just been published.

Born into a prosperous family in London, Rye became a clerk in his father Edward’s legal office. But a smooth transition into the legal world was made much more difficult by his cold and distant father’s senility and paranoia, eventually forcing Walter to borrow money to buy out the now-incapable Edward’s business.

Two passions loomed large in Walter’s young life – sport and Norfolk. A natural athlete, he soon proved himself one of the foremost runners of his generation, but was also a cyclist, archer, rower, cricketer and boxer (among other sports). He founded Thames Hares and Hounds running club (still going strong in its 150th year), popularised lacrosse and invented the sport of paper-chasing. He was so well respected that he became a sports journalist and a member of several sporting governing bodies.

The Norfolk element came through Walter’s burgeoning interest in his family’s ancient roots in the county. He made his first solo trip in 1863, aged 19, his modest budget forcing him to travel third-class to Norwich, where he enjoyed ‘the talk and accent of the passing rustics amazingly’ on his arrival. He was hooked.

While continuing his legal career, Rye vigorously pursued his love of Norfolk history, producing a torrent of books and monographs on every aspect of its story. His retirement in 1900 and move to the county of ancestors resulted in another burst of activity.

He was never afraid to start or wade into controversies, without fear or favour, lambasting the great and the good for (as he saw it) bogus claims to family antiquity, and later the labouring classes for (as he saw it) shirking wartime duties. And woe betide anyone who he considered had misread the evidence – and dared to defend their incorrect (also as he saw it) stance.

But his willingness to stir up controversy doesn’t do justice to a man who did much good, both on the page and beyond it. To his considerable credit, for example, he was vigorous in his efforts to debunk the absurd but poisonous claim that Norwich’s Jews had tortured and murdered ‘St’ William in 1144.

Such was his status within the city that – completely out of the blue - in 1908 he was invited to become Mayor of Norwich, despite having no political connections. It was during his tenure that Edward VII made an official visit to Norwich, the first monarch to do so since Charles II in 1671.

Charles’ visit had famously resulted in a knighthood for another polymath, Thomas Browne, but there was no such civic largesse from Bertie. That helped give rise to the most famous ‘Walter Rye story’, that he had offended the king by refusing to wear proper morning dress for the royal visit.

Dr Kitching dismisses the tale, with Rye-like directness. “It’s a lot of rot,” he said. “Walter talks in his autobiography about his ‘distaste’ for the possibility of a civic knighthood.

“Yes, he didn’t wear the right clothes, but he was perfectly respectfully dressed.”

Walter also turned down suggestions that he should be a ‘Lord Mayor’, saying that the ‘old, plain mayoralty of Norwich was more honourable’. But the following year, his successor happily took on the Lord Mayor’s mantle.

Rye’s mayoral term came at a time when he was nursing his fast-declining wife, Georgina, who had borne him 11 children but was sadly stricken with years of ill-health. In his autobiography, he paid this affectionate tribute to her: ‘She was both the prettiest and pluckiest woman I ever saw, and was for many years the most devoted mother and nurse to me and her numerous children. She feared nothing, she was always ready to tackle anything…’ – and here comes a typically eye-catching Rye phrase – ‘fire alarms, burglar or alleged ghost.’

Rye continued to produce large amounts of literary output. He could be latterly, frankly, slapdash about errors, not helped by a combination of a ridiculous workload (he was often working on four projects simultaneously) and terrible handwriting.

The latter inspired this memorable observation from a long-suffering EDP journalist in 1924: ‘Your MS [manuscript] often causes groanings which cannot be uttered in the Composing room, not to mention the Editor’s chair. Sometimes, I think, you use a typewriter. Is it not possible always to do so?”

He was a man ahead of his time, and what his time was lacking was a bit of today’s technology. As Dr Kitching pithily observes at the end of one of the chapters: ‘What he needed was a computer!’.

“He worked very quickly, sometimes almost competitively against other people. At the end of his life he was also suffering from poor eyesight,” he said.

He could also cling to pet theories, ignoring abundant evidence to the contrary. He popularised the – sadly, unfounded - belief that Geoffrey Chaucer had been from a King’s Lynn family.

But Dr Kitching is adamant that we should not underplay his legacy. “He was very much a pioneer. His work is still valuable if you approach it with caution, and his books are still very much circulating,” he stressed.

And in his researches into Rye’s life, was there anything that came as a surprise? “I know it sounds soppy, but he really has his soft side. He was a keen gardener, swapping envelopes of seeds with his neighbours. He is so blustery and boisterous in his written work that you just don’t think of that side of him.

“I would love to have found correspondence about his legal career, but every trace has gone. I would so like to find out what he did on a day-to-day basis.”

We tend to see Walter Rye very much through a Norfolk lens, but ‘our’ Walter was a genuinely-important national figure too. That is why on his death in 1929 tributes flooded in from across the country.

Dr Kitching hopes his work will be a springboard for other researchers, for there is still much to be discovered about this extraordinary man.

As for Rye’s legacy, Tom Copeman recalled in an EDP article in 1973 how he was ‘a great character, a strange mixture of crustiness and friendliness. On his own admission he could be a good hater, but he could also be a good friend.’ And his greatest friendship of all was to his beloved Norwich and Norfolk.

A Passion for Records: Walter Rye (1843-1929), by Dr Christopher Kitching, is published by Matador, £19.99, from Jarrold and City Books in Norwich and other booksellers. Dr Kitching will be launching his book with a free talk at the Norfolk Record Office, The Archive Centre, behind County Hall in Norwich on Friday February 9 at 1pm.

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