Although it is not known for certain when the area of Surlingham was first settled, there have been a number of archaeological finds showing habitation; a Neolithic axe head was discovered in a sandpit near Surlingham Wood, a Bronze Age axe head in Surlingham Brickyard, a Roman coin in Hangman’s Lane, early Roman shard on Pratts Hill, Ipswich Ware shard (middle Saxon) on Walnut Hill, and a Viking axe head dredged from the river at Surlingham Ferry – so it’s clear that Surlingham’s history goes back a very long way.
Surlingham in Norman times
At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 Surlingham was part of the most densely populated region of Britain. The population has been estimated at around three hundred and spread over an area “one league by half a league”. (Although today a league is defined as 3 miles, we can’t be certain that the same definition applied during Norman times.)
By 1086 the village was listed as Sutherlingaham in the Domesday Book and the village church must have been in existence at around that time though experts differ on whether the tower is actually Saxon or Norman, built by Saxon craftsmen.
Surlingham in Mediaeval Times
Surlingham Broad came into being as a result of peat digging; peat had to be used for domestic fuel as by mediaeval times timber was getting scarce. Reeds and rushes were in demand for floor coverings, thatching and stable litter.
The river was also important as a source of trade and prosperity. Norwich had jurisdiction over the river and had to keep it clean and viable: in 1203 a fine of half a mark was levied on five men because they were catching small fish and probably selling them as bait. Fishing for fresh water fish and eels was a livelihood, not a leisure activity, and as late as the 1841 census 5 inhabitants of Surlingham were listed as fishermen.
Boatbuilding and the maintenance of river craft were part of the life of the village throughout much of Surlingham’s history. The remains of the old wherry slip can still be seen at Coldham Hall. Indeed, boats of all sorts were important to Surlingham. As far back as the 14th century craft were used for fishing, carrying peat, hay, and litter for animals. Animals were conveyed by boat either across the river, or to and from marshland meadows. For 250 years, until the coming of the railways, the Norfolk Wherry was the workhorse of Broadland; it was a very safe and cheap method of transport. Both the riverside public houses catered for the wherry trade.
Surlingham in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Surlingham Floods: In 1607 Surlingham suffered a lot following a flood and in 1609 an Act of Parliament was passed “for the speedye Recoverye of manye thousand Acres of Marshe Groundes and other Grounde in the Counties of Norffolke and Suffolke, lately surrounded by the Rage of the Sea in divers parte of the said Counties; and for the prevencion of the danger of the like surroundinge hereafter.” The salt water penetrated the Yare valley and affected the fishing in the river – “whereof there was greate plentie, and whereby many poore Men were maynteyned, and the Markette served with freshe Fishe are greatlie decaied.” The salt would also have contaminated the grazing marshes, which were a very important part of local farming.
At the time of Cromwell’s death (1658), Surlingham was still a self-contained community. The yeomen farmers were the backbone of the village, growing cereals. Sheep were everywhere, while cattle grazed on the marshes and enclosed meadows. Norwich offered a ready market for Surlingham milk, cheese, poultry, and fish from the Broad and the river.
In the 18th century there was a tremendous increase in the population of England and food became more expensive. Any available land was enclosed and when a man could get 4 or 5 acres together he would set a whitethorn hedge round it and plant an oak tree a little short of every 6 yards. The churchwardens had to pay 8 shillings for thorn to make the hedge at the Smee (lying between The Covey and the river).
Surlingham in the 19th Century
Surlingham is referred to as “Toun” or “Town” in some early documents, and today there are “Church and Town” lands including the Fuel Allotment and Town Marsh. In 1822 The Charity Commissioners entrusted land and marsh with the object of providing reed, rush and marsh litter; part of this trustee land was exchanged in 1916 for land near Hill House and let to parishioners as garden allotments. The “Town” also owned the Parish Staithe.
The population of Surlingham remained fairly constant at about 450 up to the 19th century and many would have lived in very poor circumstances indeed. The cost of food at the time was high and many of the labourers on the farms would have found it difficult to support their large families. Those who could not support themselves had to “go on the parish” or, in the last resort, to one of the workhouses that were built following the “new” Poor Law which was passed in 1834.
Attempts were made to look after the needy who became “chargeable to the Parish”, and land and property owners had to pay a Poors’ Rate. Surlingham had its own Overseer of the Poor who was responsible for identifying those entitled to benefit and who doled out the small amounts of money for their relief – in the region of 3 shillings per week. In addition, the Church owned the “Town Houses” (near the Staithe) able to house 4 destitute families. The Church “Vestry” would have to decide who should live there, but it would have been widows, the sick, or even a poor labourer with a large family. The building has been a private dwelling for many years, but in 1834 it is described as being owned by the “Feoffees of the Church of Surlingham”, and at that time it housed 6 residents and their families. How so many souls could have been accommodated in the one building is somewhat of a mystery.
The statistics shown in three documents give us an idea of the structure of the village at the beginning of the 19th century: The Enclosure Award of 1822, the census return of l841, and the Tithe Apportionment Award of 1843. The Tithe Apportionment Award is of particular interest as it shows who owned what at the time. Even the sizes of the cottage gardens are given. Everyone had a good-sized garden, often with a piece of marsh or orchard land. A few houses were “owner occupied” but most were rented or more usually “tied”.
In 1841 the population of Surlingham was 446, and of this number only eight were born outside the county of Norfolk. People did not travel far afield and very few married outside the village or neighbouring parishes. The number of dwellings in the village was 98, which means that the average household was about 5. Individual families with 5 or 6 children were commonplace.
Employment in Surlingham during the 19th century: The biggest demand for labour by far was in agriculture. The chief crops grown were wheat, barley, and oats, with root crops for animal feed. Flour and meal were milled at the mill, which stood on the Rockland Road at its highest point. The mill was demolished in 1910, but the miller’s house still stands on the corner of The Green and the Rockland road. There were in fact 2 mills at Surlingham, and many wind pumps working to drain the marshes (early examples of wind power).
Second to agricultural employment came the village brickmaking industry and it is likely that this industry had been important to Surlingham for many centuries, the clays in the area being of fine quality. The bricks were transported throughout Broadland by wherry. Boatbuilding and maintenance remained important (see The River and Surlingham Broad), and the wherry continued to be a vital means of transporting goods and animals.
The river remained a vital source of local employment. Boatbuilding and maintenance remained important and the wherry continued to be a vital means of transporting goods and animals. As previously mentioned, the 1841 census listed 5 inhabitants as fishermen (see The River and Surlingham Broad).
In the 1840s there were 4 blacksmiths but probably only 2 smithies – 1 at the top of Coldham Hall Lane (now no trace), and another which formed part of the village shop (now demolished and replaced by 3 cottages). There was also sufficient employment for 6 shoemakers, and for 1 man who described himself as a cordwainer, who all lived in the cottage at the bottom of Chapel Loke called “The Hermitage”. This may be an indication of a cottage industry making footwear for those living locally or perhaps undertaking outwork for the shoe industry in Norwich. Strangely there is no mention of a saddler.
Education and other local services: It is doubtful whether there was any recognised form of schooling in the village until 1834, though there was a small private school at what was Lowen Lodge on The Green. Some children were taught in the second cottage of the row of cottages which stand next to the present Parish Hall, a Sunday School being held there as well. Earlier, in 1812, the Norfolk and Norwich National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church was formed, and eventually, in either 1834 or the following year, this society started a daily school in Surlingham. Money and books were provided by the society and a grant of £30 was made for the building of a schoolroom. There must have been considerable relief in 1907 when the Manor Farm Estate was sold and land next door to the school was bought by the Norfolk Education Committee for the erection of a new school, the building which to-day is still used for the education of village children up to the age of eleven years. Once the new building was in use, the Education Committee agreed to part with the old school building and in April 1911 this was conveyed to the Surlingham Parish Council and is still used today as the Parish Hall.
In 1841 only Coldham Hall and Surlingham Ferry are mentioned as public houses. A third public house, the Brickmarkers’ Arms (to-day a private house), was built on The Street in about 1860 to cater for the booming brick industry.
By 1850 the village had a Post Office (the penny post had been introduced 10 years earlier). Richard Osborne was the first postmaster and the Osborne family kept the post office until about 1916; Osborne Cottages stand today as a reminder of that family.
Until 1888 responsibility for road maintenance lay with the parish and its “surveyor”. Gravel and earth were extracted for road repairs from 3 small pieces of surveyor’s land. One pit was at the corner of The Green, one near Ferry Corner, and the 3rd beyond the Parish Staithe.
The latter half of the 20th century saw considerable changes in Surlingham. Perhaps the two most striking differences between village life in the late 20th century compared with earlier times concern the size of the village and the occupations of its inhabitants.
The 98 dwellings which formed the village in 1841 have grown to the current figure of around 480 and many of these were built in the late 20th century.
The extensive apple orchards have gone, as have the fields of blackcurrants, strawberries and other soft fruit which gave so much employment to both full time and casual labour; buses were used to bring out pickers from Norwich.
There are few inhabitants now who earn the livelihood within the village; now the vast majority of Surlingham inhabitants have employment elsewhere, mainly in Norwich.
However, we are fortunate in that much of the land is still farmed, cows still graze the marshes in summer, and we still have a thriving village school. Many of Surlingham’s footpaths owe their existence to people who walked those paths as part of their daily lives in centuries gone by – tracks people walked to church or to and from their work on the land. Anyone who walks the footpaths of Surlingham is walking on paths that, for the most part, connect us not just with the countryside and wildlife, but also with the past.
All the historical information in this article was taken from “Surlingham – A South Rivers Village” by Jack Points
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