Now the untold tales can be told!

Drama and upheaval aren't modern phenomena invented by soap-opera scriptwriters.

Steven Russell

Drama and upheaval aren't modern phenomena invented by soap-opera scriptwriters. Life's always been a rollercoaster of highs and lows and change, as shown by a new book on an overlooked corner of Suffolk. Steven Russell reports

OLD documents tend to be musty, dusty and matter-of-fact, but sometimes pride, passion and heartbreak manage to break through the legal jargon. Valerie Fenwick and Vic Harrup have captured some of that colour in Untold Tales from the Suffolk Sandlings. Their canvas is that eastern side of the county where the land becomes heathy, crossed by tidal waterways. At its heart is Butley, and the neighbouring villages and manors east of the Deben estuary. Between them, say the authors, the peninsulas have evolved their own stories and characters.

For neither collaborator do the Sandlings represent their roots, but it is where they have lived and worked. Retirement brought time to delve into history, find some magic among the vellum and write about some of the people who made the area what it is today - stories of love and disappointment, religious devotion and fervour, bonds made or broken, as well as examining the occupations, pastimes and rare treats of normal daily life.

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Life certainly wasn't always a picture of rural tranquillity. There's a snapshot from 1845, when shepherd James Mac was in The Oyster inn at Butley, watching gamekeeper William Tibbenham grow increasingly tipsy and argumentative. Mace helped take him home to his wife but, soon after midnight, Tibbenham was rattling the casement window of Mace's cottage and lamenting “I have shot my dear Mary Ann.” She had been shot in the head at close range and Tibbenham's pistol was found at the bottom of a closet. He claimed the gun had gone off accidentally.

The gamekeeper was charged with “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil”.

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During the trial in Bury St Edmunds, Mace said that two years earlier Tibbenham's wife had run away and her husband vowed he would flog her when she returned. “The jury considered the evidence for two to three minutes, and decided that Mary's death was not intended by her husband but found him guilty of manslaughter,” report the authors. The judge sentenced him to 12 months in jail.

Here's another episode - one that doesn't quite see blood shed but is more fascinating, perhaps, than outbreaks of violence.

He was Charles Forth, 17 in 1582 and heir to the Butley estates. She was Elizabeth Jernegan, a couple of years older and from an influential family that had played a major part in securing the throne for Queen Mary in 1553. He was a Protestant, she a Catholic, and they were in love.

Charles was at school in Norwich when he met the girl from Somerleyton Hall, whose people were one of the oldest gentry families in the county.

The young man's Protestant parents thought the burgeoning relationship the result of Catholic “cunning and sly practices”. But love won the day and the sweethearts wed - though it was, as the book says, a fateful marriage. Charles and his bride returned to the mansion-house at Butley, though, when she fell pregnant with daughter Catherine, Elizabeth went to live with her sister at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

In the Armada year of 1588, Robert Forth commanded a troop of 500 and with son Charles was camped at Tilbury to protect London. Robert tried to persuade his daughter-in-law to return to Butley to keep her mother-in-law company, but the hope came to naught. There was said to be a “sharpness of air” between the two.

Soon, the separation became something of a scandal and in 1590 attempts were made by various figures to bring about a reconciliation. In March, 1592, Elizabeth was accompanied back to Suffolk by a party that included the Bishop of Norwich. “Unfortunately, when Elizabeth arrived, Robert undid the good intentions of all parties by upbraiding and shaming her in the hearing of his friends. He said that it was 'better to come late than never', that he would forget and forgive her, and that she would be treated kindly if she merited it,” write Val and Vic.

“Not surprisingly, she gave him no words of thanks, by which he concluded this was 'an obstinate person'. Not only that, she with her 'lewd manner, abusage, but wilfully and with stomach, persisted in her disobedience and untruthfulness'.”

Elizabeth stayed at Butley for seven weeks, “continuing to be a trial, according to her father-in-law. She declared herself sickly and ate in her chamber and had a garden for her own use”.

She later became pregnant. While her in-laws were out, friends came and Elizabeth and Charles left with them for Norfolk. Son Francis was born just before Christmas.

The prospect of a Catholic grandson inheriting the Butley estate greatly inflamed the situation.

Then in May, 1593, Elizabeth initiated a law-suit claiming her children were “brought to great distress and in danger to perish” because Robert Forth hadn't provided money for their upkeep during her time away from Butley. Plus, Charles had been disinherited - which in turn would disadvantage Francis.

The judgement restored the line of succession, while Robert Forth was told to pay 100 marks for failure to maintain his daughter-in-law, �30 in maintenance, and return the �300 dowry. He contested it and the repercussions rumbled on for at least another two years. There were scurrilous claims on both sides, including that Charles had “a vile and most shameful disease”, that Francis was illegitimate, and that Charles had gone abroad, “appalled and troubled in his mind”.

Charles's death was recorded in 1597. He died without goods or money. “We cannot be certain what happened to Elizabeth. As coheir with her two sisters to the Somerleyton estate, she will have been a beneficiary when it was sold in 1604,” say the authors. Meanwhile, when Robert Forth died in 1601, Francis was declared his heir.

“The young couple . . . clearly fell in love and paid a terrible price in a society where marriages were arranged by parents,” conclude Val and Vic.

Speaking of land, their book looks at many of the local estates over the years.

The First World War had a catastrophic effect on land prices. Between 1932 and 1938 Sir Bernard Greenwell bought farms on the light land in which only the Forestry Commission had shown any interest. “He was determined to recreate the Butley estate and find work for all the unemployed.”

The estate later extended into Sudbourne, Gedgrave, Iken and Tunstall, and Sir Bernard lived to see relative prosperity return because of increased food production before the 1939-45 War.

“His son, Sir Peter, while a prisoner-of-war in Colditz, had time to plan for the future improvement of the Butley estate. He foresaw that water management was key and after his release arranged to receive rainwater from the runways of the nearby Woodbridge airbase.

“In addition he had water from aquifers pumped 180 feet to high ground. It could be used to irrigate crops in summer, whilst the powerful floating pump he installed in 1956 lowered the water-table sufficiently for 1,000 acres of marsh land to be under-drained, levelled and ploughed.”

It was more than 700 years earlier, however, that the face of the Sandlings had changed dramatically.

Butley Priory was founded in 1171 by Ranulph de Glanville, courtier to Henry II and rewarded with houses and land - including the manor of Benhall.

The precinct wall enclosed 22 acres and the priory dominated Butley for more than 350 years. Not surprisingly, there were ups and downs - “both able and lax priors”, too. Some struggled with rising debts and one hanged himself in Ipswich, possibly because financial crisis preyed on his mind. Low-lying pastures were increasingly damaged by high tides, income dropped, and the huge old buildings required upkeep that was beyond the priory's resources.

In the spring of 1538, during Henry VIII's campaign of dissolution, the priory was surrendered. A dozen canons were eligible for pensions, and at the time the priory had 67 staff.

The book explains about Butley's association with oysters - one that goes back at least to Anglo-Saxon times and which gave its name to the pub.

Vera Noble's family links with the Oyster Inn are honoured. Her grandfather became licensee in 1916 and she took over just before the Second World War, completing 50 years as licensee in 1988.

“In the Club Room the 'handsome old iron stove' was lit on only three occasions between 1972 and 1988, so fearful was Vera of the pub burning down,” explain Val and Vic. “The meagreness of the fire in the small bar was legendary, and she was quoted in the East Anglian Daily Times as saying 'I can't stand it when people start poking around my fire.'”

In later years her hair was always in a net and she wore carpet slippers beneath her wraparound floral apron.

“She clearly enjoyed adding to the confusion which arose after Richard Pinney opened his Butley Oysterage restaurant. Well-dressed potential diners would sometimes pass between cloth-capped and booted drinkers arguing about the previous day's steel quoits match, to inform Vera they had booked a table. She might delay in helping them by saying they had not booked with her (she sold only crisps and pork pies of doubtful age). 'But we telephoned you,' they might add. 'I haven't got a phone,' she would reply.

“Eventually she would direct them to Orford, and they would have to run the gauntlet of the disputants again.

“She would leave the bar during her favourite TV programme, calling 'Serve yourself, I'll be out directly,' to anyone who entered.”

Untold Tales from the Suffolk Sandlings (ISBN 978-0-9562829-0-3) should be available from bookshops in Aldeburgh, Woodbridge and at Snape Maltings. It can also be bought for �25, plus �3.95 p&p, from Butley Research Group, Church Farm House, Blaxhall, Woodbridge, IP12 2DH.

UNTOLD Tales from the Suffolk Sandlings includes some memories of Reg Snowdon, who was born in 1921. “In Butley, each hamlet had a shop,” he recalled. “The shop at Low Corner . . . sold loose sweets, tobacco and tea. People were so poor they could only buy very small quantities at a time. The shops were invaluable because there was no transport and only youngsters had bikes. People had to walk; many never even went into Woodbridge from one year to the next. Buses did not come until after World War II.

“The Kittles' shop in High Corner never amounted to very much and just sold bacon, sweets, tobacco, tea and so on. The Hazelwoods' shop in the Street could supply everything - boots, clothes . . . If you wanted something they did not have, you only had to ask and it would be there in a day or so.”

THE genesis of Untold Tales from the Suffolk Sandlings can be traced to the beginning of the Millennium, though the precise spark that started it all off is lost in the mists of time.

Vic Harrup remembers he and fellow local history enthusiast Valerie Fenwick had read just a line or two about the “The fateful marriage” in a book or a thesis, and a line or two about a dispute at Orford.

They pursued these teasing nuggets by trawling through original documents. “That's why we feel we can safely say they're untold tales, because we're not rehashing things that have been done before - apart from the odd case, of course. Most of these stories have not been written up in detail at all.”

It was about 2000 when they both thought they could do something substantial with the help of ancient documents, Vic having retired and Val having more time to devote to the enterprise. Though then living in Southampton, she had a cottage at Butley.

Vic moved to Suffolk in 1961, initially to the west of the county and then in 1972 to Butley, where he stayed for 20-odd years. He's now on the edge of the Sandlings.

She might only have moved permanently to Suffolk a few years ago, but Val's links with East Anglia go back about three decades.

An archaeologist - actually a specialist in marine archaeology and founder of the Nautical Archaeology Society - she was asked to write a book chapter on cauldron chains, of all things - one of which was found at Sutton Hoo.

Val came to Ipswich Museum to look at another one, a rusted heap of metal that had been discovered at Burrow Hill in Butley. She went there and spotted bone sticking out of the gravel pit, asked if an archaeological dig had ever been carried out - apparently not - and Peter Greenwell gave permission for a dig involving archaeological students.

“That's how I met her - round about 1978 I suppose - because I lived in the village and took a great interest in what was going on,” says Vic.

Val took a cottage in Butley, where she was able to put up the students, but her main home was on the edge of London and she came to the Sandlings during the summer holidays, essentially.

This was around the time Vic started researching the history of his house in the village - a property he was thrilled to discover had been described as “a complete sporting box” in the 1770s, when country sportsmen rented it during the shooting season.

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