What the country parson did to amuse his wife
- Credit: Archant
Village honours clergyman who wrote about a woman spending 12 years in bed and the teacher who couldn’t read or write
He was the gregarious clergyman who watched his neighbours and committed to paper their scrapes, foibles, eccentricities, triumphs and disasters. If he were living today, the Rev Richard Cobbold might be a prolific blogger or scriptwriter for Coronation Street. Back in the mid-1800s, the country parson was simply doing it to amuse his wife.
Richard Cobbold is being remembered and celebrated by 21st Century Wortham, the village near Diss where he was rector for 50 years.
It was in 1860 that he decided to create a beautiful book as a gift for wife Mary Ann. He called it Features of Wortham and it contained 120 watercolour paintings of homes, inns and other buildings, as well as his handwritten stories about some of the locals.
In October, the tales and paintings will be published in new 40,000-word book Cobbold's Wortham: The Portrait of a Victorian Village. Before that - on June 8 and 9 - the village is holding a flower festival whose displays will draw inspiration from those quirky stories.
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The Friends of Suffolk Record Office, who own the original book, have given permission to publish all the paintings to raise money for the very church where Richard Cobbold preached.
In 1860, the rector wrote: "What tales might be told in my village!" and mused "Perhaps some may tell tales of me." That's certainly true nearly 160 years on.
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Cottages and squalor
The book out this autumn is edited by local artist, writer and craftswoman Sue Heaser. It is destined to be 160 pages in full colour. Every watercolour in Cobbold's original volume will be reproduced full-size.
Sue says: "He wrote beautifully and movingly about the poor people of Wortham." She believes the book will have wide appeal - "it shows what life was like in the 19th century in a small, poverty-ridden rural Suffolk village.
"Cobbold makes a great point of painting and describing the homes and workshops of poor people. He paints the mansions as well, but it is the cottages and squalor that he paints that give his writing and painting such an unusual angle on the norm."
So: meet the neighbours
Here are samples of some of the stories - in Cobbold's own words (with some light editing).
Daughter drowned in pond
Judy Fuller of Magpie Green: "Here lived and died James Fuller and his wife Judy, as good old British labourers as ever lived. Judy lost her favourite daughter, who was stooping to dip her pail into the pond - was seized with a swimming in the head, and fell in, and was drowned.
"Judy kept [to] her bed twelve years, and it was a beautiful sight to behold the tender love of her husband who waited upon her, at all times.
"James had the greatest veneration for his wife… [and] waited upon her with all the tenderness of a nurse - a good nurse - and she lay in state and in an old state bed, purchased at Mr Hydes at the Hall - Green and Silver hangings - and gave her commands with wonderful self possession."
The Rev Cobbold reports that after 12 years in bed Judy got up and continued normal life as if nothing had happened. She reached the age of 85 and outlived her husband!
Died in wheel-barrow
Soldier Smith of Union Lane Cottages, The Ling: "Soldier Smith lived in one of the right-hand cottages. He was an old pensioner. His end was very remarkable. He was always to be seen barrowing turf from the Ling, a furze common near his house. He one day sat down in his wheel-barrow and suddenly expired.
"As he was often seen to be seated, many passed him by without noticing any change in him. A pedlar's dog was the first to discover his death - and he would not leave him, until some persons were attracted to the spot by the singular conduct of the dog who, the moment they came up, ran home after his master to Diss."
Cured by pint of gin
Mrs Nichols of Grinling Cottages: "In this Cottage on the right lives a very good woman whose exemplary character and conduct I have great pleasure in recording. She is a good wife - and acts the part of a good Mother towards a poor cripple of a man, her nephew. Yet this poor woman is not a church-going woman.
"She was once very ill with water on the chest - and it was proposed by the doctor that she should have her chest opened and be tapped. She sent for me to see her. She asked me if she ought to submit to the operation. I replied that I would see Mr Harris and would ask him if there was danger.
"He told me candidly that it was a kill or cure case. I advised her not to run the risk - but I added, should it please God that I should be instrumental in curing you - would you come to Church and publicly return thanks to God for his mercy. 'I will' - she said. I sent for a pint of gin - I made her drink it in two draughts and the water was expelled from the chest and she recovered. And is alive now (1860).
"But poor woman she never came to Church - She told me she dare not - That she had seen a vision, which warned her not to go."
'Teacher' who couldn't read or write
Maria Jolly of the Ling Cottages: "Here in the first cottage on your right though at the second door lives the far-famed Maria Jolly of 'Revelenta'* Notoriety."
(Revelenta Arabica was a "health-restoring" food and the manufacturers claimed it could cure many ailments. Maria was included in lists in advertisements of those miraculously cured.)
"An old woman who kept a dame school all whose instruction was, 'Mind your book and be a good girl'. But she taught reading and writing though she could neither read, write or spell herself correctly. But she had, as many vain persons have, the conceit of the thing: and poor people gave her credit for being a very clever person. And so she was: for being very ignorant and very self-willed. She had acquired wonderful celebrity in the village."
Pulled from well
John Bush of Farrow's Cottages: "He was a Waterloo soldier. He had been to pay his rent to Mr Farrow and had a glass of XX given to him. It is supposed that it made him dizzy - for when John arrived at his cottage, he somehow sat down on the edge of the well, overbalanced himself and fell down sixty feet.
"Wonderful to narrate, he took no hurt. He was cured of drinking by a cold water bath… His own daughter heard the rattle of the chain - woke her husband, saying somebody had tumbled down the well and so was the means of saving her father.
"He is living now 1860 - 45 years ago. He could tell little of the battle, as very few common soldiers can." John Bush lived to 81.
The most voluble talker
Charles Youngman Browne of Wortham Post Office: "This is the Shop of Wortham. The Village Shop! Who in the Parish of Wortham can forget Mr Browne or Mr Browne's Shop? Here all the villagers go to post their letters (1860) for the Post Office is here established...
"I wonder how many villages in England are without a Browne - or how many Browne's Shops there are in this country. Let there be as many as there may be, there are very few more decided characters than Mr Charles Youngman Browne, the respected Shop keeper in this parish.
"He is a man of no mean capacity, and one whose power of speech when he gets upon his favourite topic, human capacity or such, that I wish for once a shorthand writer would take down all he could say in one hour.
"He is a very civil well-behaved and well-to-do man. Light hearted, lively and active, the most voluble talker - and ready for an argument at any time. - He said to me the other day - 'I see no reason why a man such as myself should not live to be a hundred years old'
"I replied: I see many thousand reasons why it should not be so! - In the first place it is thirty years beyond the usual period of life allotted to man - and each day of those years is a reason against it, so there are thirty times three hundred and sixty-five days with a reason against it each day."
The flower festival
June 8 and 9
Church of St Mary the Virgin, Church Road, Wortham
11am to 5pm
Includes displays of traditional crafts and paintings, such as willow-weaving, lace-making, spinning, weaving, pottery and wooden spoon-making
Organised by The Friends of Wortham Church
Proceeds go to the restoration of St Mary's
See Martha Kearney
BBC Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney introduces a concert in the church on the Sunday. Music for a Summer Evening starts at 6pm
It features Matthew McCombie on piano, vocals from Olivia Stone, and Cobbold's stories narrated by Sue Heaser
Tickets for the concert are £10, available from Wortham Post Office or Maureen Ling on 01379 898176 and firstname.lastname@example.org
He wrote a best-seller
It's not the first time I've written about the Rev Cobbold.
Back in 2007, The Cobbold Family History Trust launched an appeal for financial help.
A benefactor had stepped in the previous year with a £12,000 loan to buy 34 of the clergyman's watercolours when they came up for auction and looked to be heading to Australia. The loan needed to be repaid.
Richard Cobbold's reputation was high on the other side of the world because of his best-selling 1845 novel The History of Margaret Catchpole: A Suffolk girl.
It was about the young woman - a prison escapee and sweetheart of a smuggler - who had been transported to Australia as a criminal in 1801 and become something of a legend. She'd worked for Richard's mother Elizabeth in Suffolk and had once saved a Cobbold child from drowning.
In Australia she'd lived an apparently-blameless life as a servant, farm overseer and midwife. She is said to have died in the summer of 1819 after catching flu from a sick shepherd she was caring for.
Richard's novel did seem to depart from some of the apparent facts: he was convinced she married, had children, and died much later!
* Born 1797
* Father John was head of the Cobbold brewing enterprise in Ipswich
* Spent seven years at grammar school in Bury St Edmunds
* 1814: Went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
* 1820: Graduated. Ordained
Curate to his uncle at Woolpit and St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich
* 1822: Married Mary Anne Waller, from Hollesley, near Woodbridge
His father gave him the living at Wortham as a wedding present. The brewer had bought it at a sale in 1819, for nearly £6,500
* 1828: The couple and three young sons finally move to Wortham. Richard had been reluctant to uproot because the family enjoyed life in Ipswich
* 1862: Richard opts to sell the living at Wortham to King's College, Cambridge, and use the money to help two of his children, who were marrying
* 1876: His wife dies on December 26, in her mid-70s
* 1877: He dies on January 5. Both are buried in the churchyard at Wortham
Rat catchers and tailors
Sue Heaser says: "One of the strengths of this new book is that I have identified every one of the buildings in the paintings, which has never been done before. It was quite a task and I found many red-herrings, wrong assumptions in the past, and grey areas, or simply unknown.
"Using the tithe maps and lists, OS maps of 1885, and clues in the paintings, plus Cobbold's descriptions, I have now nailed every home, pub, windmill, workshop, blacksmiths, tailors, wheelwrights, rat catchers, etc.
"We hope that the book will be of huge interest to people who live in the houses in these paintings and those who live in the village generally. Most buildings still exist and many are recognisable today, once you know which they are.
"I am also preparing bird's-eye views of Wortham in 1860 to give a real feel for what the village looked like. There will be specially-drawn maps for each area of the village, as well, to show locations of the buildings in the paintings."