Old newspaper reports often provide a fascinating glimpse into the past and are a valuable resource for historians. The Broadland Memories website has a collection of newspaper cuttings from the 20th century which cover a variety of Norfolk Broads related subjects – some relate to serious topics of the time whilst others are just plain amusing!
It’s when you start trawling through news reports from the 18th and 19th centuries though that things can get quite interesting, not least because of the way in which news was reported back then. The coverage of deaths, accidents, criminal trials and scandals was often done in such a salacious way, with every gory detail printed and a smidgeon of local gossip thrown in, producing articles that make today’s tabloids seem rather conservative! From time to time, I come across some intriguing news reports and notices which warrant further research. Such was the notice, transcribed below in full, which appeared in the Norwich Mercury on the 13th January 1776 advertising the sale of Geldeston Staithe and its associated warehouses, granaries, maltings, offices and other ancillary buildings. The Wherry public house was also included in the estate along with a number of dwelling houses, various parcels of land, three wherries and two pleasure boats.
“Geldeston staithe etc. to be sold by private contract. All that well-known staithe and wharf with the sole and exclusive right of navigation belonging thereto, extending to and from the Port of Great Yarmouth, at which is now carried on a very considerable and well established mercantile trade in coal, corn, deal, etc. with great advantage, and in great repute, being so situated that the trade is entirely free from all encumbrances of tonnage, lockage etc. to which most other inland navigations are subject; being a singular and very considerable advantage to the trade of this navigation. This situation for trade is admirably fine, being so entire within itself that no opposers will ever hurt it, lying between the towns of Beccles and Bungay and having a fine navigable canal cut from the River Waveney half a mile up to it, upon which stands a small town of warehouses, malthouses, granaries, etc. all adjoining to the land and locked up every night: with an exceeding fine coal wharf, capable of containing 2000 chaldron of coal, which are landed with little or no expense, with a very quick sale for the same. Likewise alone capable of containing 1000 quarters of corn, built in 1773, adjoining to which is commanded the canal, the wharf and all the buildings etc. upon it. Also an exceeding good brick and tiled malting office, built last summer, 40 comb steep, with two exceeding good work floors, one plaster of Paris, the other brick, and a fine granary over the same, capable of containing 500 quarters of corn, with store rooms and drying chambers for laying dry malt so conveniently adjoining and built over the canal, that vessels may lay under the chambers to receive their loading without expense and the same is capable of containing 1000 quarters of malt. Adjoining is a strong-built brick cinder oven, with large yards boarded in for laying a large quantity of coals and cinders. Also new built stables for the convenience of teams coming to the staithe; also adjoining is a large spacious quay and yard; and near there too stands an exceeding good and convenient messuage with very pleasant garden, orchards with great variety of fruit trees, fish pond etc, pleasantly situated against the road leading from Bungay to Beccles, with a barn, stables and convenient outhouses; and a Public House, known as the sign of the Wherry, let to John Brown at the yearly rent of £5. Also about 9 acres of pasture or meadow land adjoining to the navigation with 6 tenements, four of which are new built, brick and tiled, with large yards and gardens to each, very convenient for watermen etc. employed in the said navigation. The whole is freehold, and upwards of £2000 have been laid out upon the premises within five years, which has rendered it one of the most compact situations for a merchant, that is in the county of Norfolk or Suffolk, and which opens itself into a fine extensive country for trade, which is a large and well established and carried on with great advantage and is in great esteem. The reason for all the premises being to be disposed of, arises from the present proprietor’s intention of going to reside in London, in a capital mercantile business.
Likewise are to be sold three wherries or lighters with their masts, sails, ropes, rigging and furniture now in employ, and belonging to the said navigation, in conveying merchandise to and from Yarmouth. Also a sixteenth part of a ship called “The Shrimp” of Yarmouth (burthen 100 tons, John Moore, Master) an eighth part of a ship called the “Good Intent” of Yarmouth (burthen 100 tons, Simon Smith, Master) and two pleasure boats with sails and rigging. Also an estate in Geldeston aforesaid called and known by the name of the Old Staithe, with a messuage, outhouse and about two acres of land, let to Elias Clear, tenant at will at the yearly rent of £7, together with a Marsh called the Staithe Marsh and the Staithe Dam, and Staithe Fleet belonging, adjoining to the River Waveney, aforesaid, containing about four acres more or less in occupation of the owner. Also a piece of arable land called Gravel Pit Close, containing by estimation one and a half acres and another piece of arable land called the Hall Meadow, containing three acres; and an adjoining meadow of about one acre, now let to John Morse at the yearly rent of five guineas. These last mentioned premises are copyhold. The whole of the buildings and the croft etc. are in good repair and condition, and will all be disposed of in one lot and may be entered upon next Michaelmas or sooner if desired. For further particulars enquire of the Proprietor, Mr Samuel Robinson, merchant on the premises, or of John Kerrick, Esq. at Harleston, John Gay, Esq. at Norwich: Mr Christopher Eaton, merchant at Yarmouth or Mr Joseph Shrimpton and Co. merchant in Mark Lane, London.“
The navigation and staithe mentioned were, of course, the cut which leads up to Geldeston village. The cut was created in the early 1700s to enable trading wherries to reach the village, the navigation on the River Waveney having been improved between Beccles and Bungay after an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1670, opening up an important (and valuable) trade route. It is believed that Geldeston actually exists in the form it does today because of the maltings, granaries and coal wharves which were established at the end of this new cut, the original medieval village having been situated further away from the river around the church of St. Michael which is thought to have 12th century origins. The notice of sale in the Norwich Mercury indicates that a sizable business empire had been created in the intervening years, with some heavy investment and redevelopment having been undertaken in the preceding decade.
Whilst trying to discover more information about the staithe and its large complex of buildings one family name kept cropping up, that of Dowson. Indeed, Bryants 1826 map of Norfolk shows it as being called “Dowsons Staithe”. The Norfolk Chronicle of October 26th 1793 reported the death of one Benjamin Utting Dowson of Geldeston Staithe and it was presumably he who bought the estate. Reports elsewhere, however, seem to indicate that the Dowson family did not move to the village until 1788, some twelve years after the original notice of sale above. Whenever that purchase was made, it is evident that the Dowson family continued to expand the business, which was subsequently passed down through several generations. The Dowsons became prominent figures within the village and, it seems, were also generous benefactors to local good causes..
Limited time for research and a current inability to access the appropriate resources to discover more means that, at present, I have just scant fragments of the story. I think a visit to the Norfolk Records Office might be in order at some point! What I have found through a quick search of census records, trade directories, newspaper reports and other online resources has given me a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of a family who apparently played a prominent role in the history of Geldeston. Having first moved to the Old House in the village, the rather grand Greenbank was later built as the family home. It’s very difficult to piece together family relationships and history without delving further into the census returns, but the White’s Directory for Norfolk of 1854 lists three separate business being run by the Dowsons in the village. Henry Gibson Dowson was listed as a Maltster, Brewer and spirit merchant – Geldeston Brewery operated between 1828 and c1858 and at one time owned around 30 pubs in the area. A second maltings complex was situated behind the Wherry public house which is where, I presume, Henry conducted his business from. Benjamin Utting Dowson and Sons were listed as maltsters, corn and coal merchants and were presumably working from the granary and matings complex down by the staithe. Edward Utting Dowson and Septimus Dowson were also listed as merchants, whilst a Miss Emily Dowson was recorded as being a school teacher – the Dowson family had funded the building of a schoolhouse in the village in 1825.
It seems that little survives of the of the large buildings which once dominated the staithe and village centre. The Wherry Inn and the Old Post Office are thought to be the only surviving buildings from the large maltings complex which stood on that site. The Rowancraft boatyard is now situated where the other large maltings and granary complex once stood – I believe a few of the smaller ancillary buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries survive there.
As I said, this really needs further investigation if time allows in the future, so I may revisit the Dowson family story at a later date. Whilst searching through newspaper reports, I came across a rather sad article from the Beccles and Bungay Weekly News of January 11th 1859 regarding the inquest into the accidental poisoning of of Alfred Dowson – one of Henry Gibson Dowson’s sons. It’s a tragic tale, but does illustrate my earlier comments on the way news was reported at the time:
“A painful sensation has been created in Norwich by the announcement, on Saturday, the 1st January, that Mr Alfred Dowson, son of H.G. Dowson, Esq., late of Geldeston, and brother of Mr Arthur Dowson, resident surgeon to the Norwich Dispensary, had been accidentally poisoned through taking a dose of aconite in mistake for tincture of orange peel.
The circumstances connected with this case will be found in the following evidence, which was given before W. Wilde, Esq., of this city, coroner at an inquest held in the Dispensary on Saturday evening: The housekeeper at the Dispensary, whose name is Billyard, stated that for the past few days the deceased had been officiating during the absence of his brother, the resident surgeon. Deceased was in apparent good health up to Friday evening, with the exception of a cold of which he complained. He was a way from the Dispensary in the early part of the evening, but returned at eight o’clock and sat in his own room till nearly eleven, when he requested witness to get some ale and gin, and make him some flip, which he wished to have as it was the last day of the year.
Witness procured a quart of ale and a quarter of a pint of gin. Deceased drank two glasses of the ale in its cold and unmixed state and ate heartily of some bread and cheese. Witness made flip of the remainder of the ale and a portion of the gin, and deceased drank half a pint of it, afterwards conversing freely with witness as to where he should like to go and what he should like to do in the new year. About twenty-five minutes past twelve, deceased took his chamber candlestick and went to bed, bidding witness good night.
About an hour afterwards he came to witness’s bedroom and begged her to get up immediately, saying, “I am very bad – I think I have taken something wrong. Get me some hot water.” He added that he added that he had been into the surgery and taken something just before supper, and he was afraid there must have been a wrong label on the bottle. He repeated that he felt very ill, and said his pulse was beating violently. What he had taken was, he said, to give him an appetite. Witness procured some hot water, of which he took about half-a-pint, but he appeared to get worse. Witness then went for Mr Spatchett, chemist, who came immediately.
Mr James Spatchett stated, that on being called to the deceased, the latter said, in a frightened tone, he was afraid he had taken something by mistake in the surgery while intending to take some tincture of orange peel. He described to witness the situation of the bottle, and witness found the tincture of orange peel in the place mentioned by the deceased. Deceased asked witness to give him some spirits of ammonia and ether, and said he had taken some of that mixture already. He described his feeling, stating that he felt a sort of pricking sensation from his lips and mouth through his stomach. Witness procured some ether and ammonia, but when he returned deceased was unable to take it – he was, in fact dead, although only five minutes had elapsed since witness was called in. Witness produced two bottles of the same size, and having the same shaped labels. One contained aconite (a poison) and the other contained tincture of orange peel. They stood almost two feet apart on the same shelf in the surgery.
Dr Eade said that he was of the opinion the sensations described by the last witness as experienced by the deceased were such as would have been produced by an over-dose of aconite. A dose of aconite might have been taken in a hurry in mistake for tincture of orange peel, as they were nearly of the same colour. The jury returned a verdict to the effect that death was occasioned by taking a dose of aconite in mistake for tincture of orange peel.“
More information abut the history of Geldeston can be found on the Geldeston village website