A history of South Walsham



Kingfisher Cottage by South Walsham Broad in the eighteen hundreds, and as it is today with its newly thatched roof.


The village of South Walsham lies between Norwich and Great Yarmouth, just north of the A47 and two miles north west of Acle. Part of the parish is within The Broads and is well known to holiday makers for its two broads, which are connected by Fleet Dyke to the river Bure at St Benet’s abbey.

Equally well known to residents and travellers passing  through the village by road are the two churches, side by side in the same church-yard on the village Street. Contrary to legend these two churches were not built by two sisters who could not agree on one design so built a church each. They date back to the 11th century when the area was controlled by two powerful landlords whose land joined on a ridge well above the flood level. This ridge proved the most suitable place for each landlord to build his own church to ‘the glory of God’, and so the churches of Walsham St Mary and Walsham St Lawrence were established, each close to, but within the boundary of their own separate parish. 


The village stretches some two miles from west to east and is subdivided into several smaller areas such as Town Green to the west, Pilson Green (best known for its picturesque village pond) to the east, and Low Town down near the broads. The population is spread out mainly over the higher areas of the village and is evenly split in numbers between those parts to the east of the school and those to the west. The great majority of the village’s 3,000 acres are either arable farm land or grazing marsh and farming has been the principal industry here from the earliest times.


Independent Britons

The name Walsham is thought to be derived from ‘Walh’ meaning ‘not conquered by the Romans’ and ‘ham’ meaning ‘home of’. The proud villagers of Walsham were said to be respected as ‘independent Britons’ by the Anglo Saxons.

The two churches played a pivotal role in the development of what we now know as South Walsham, and it is through their documented history that we are able to piece together the development and growth of the village. It is quite evident, not only from the remains of St Lawrence’s church, but also from the records, that it was the larger, more ornate and important of the two. In a deed of 1075, Ralf de Gauder was described as ‘Lord and Patron of St Lawrence’s  church’. Later he fell from the king’s favour and had to forfeit his honour and estates to the Earl of Norfolk, Roger Bigod, who then became the patron. It continued in the hands of the Earls and their descendants until the time of Henry VIII when the advowson, or right to appoint a priest, was bought by Queen’s College Cambridge.


The current church was built largely at the beginning of the 14th century and consisted of a west tower, nave, chancel, south aisle and south porch. Its length was approximately twice that of its neighbour St Mary’s. 



Fire causes tower to collapse

Disaster struck St Lawrence’s in May 1827 when a fire which started across the road in a cattle yard behind The Ship public house spread over the road and ignited the thatched roof of the nave. The resulting blaze, which miraculously did not affect the adjoining St Mary’s, caused half the tower to collapse, together with most of the nave walls. After much discussion it was decided to rebuild part of the chancel and create a new west end resulting in a very much smaller church. The remains of the tower were now separate from the church and stood oddly alone in the church-yard until they collapsed in March 1971 following a sonic boom and just one year after being struck by lightning. The church continued as a separate living until 1890, when by an order in council, the two parishes were linked in a single benefice.St Lawrence’s was used as a Sunday school for some years until it fell into disrepair and was closed in 1946 and finally became officially redundant in 1986.


Restoration of St Lawrence’s

In 1992 efforts were made to begin restoring St Lawrence’s and now the village boasts a wonderful and unique centre for training and the arts, which regularly stages concerts, art exhibitions, music and art classes and serves as a venue which can be hired out for appropriate art, educational and social events. The trustees were honoured when the St Lawrence’s Centre was visited by the archbishop of Canterbury in November 2007.


The first reference to St Mary’s church occurs in a document of 1141 in which Ralf de Criketot and his family granted a considerable amount of land to nearby St Benet’s abbey. By 1146 King Stephen had commanded that all the rights should be returned to Geoffrey the Clerk. In 1258 William de Suffield conveyed the benefice of St Mary’s to the Master and Brethren of the Hospital of St Giles (now known as the Great Hospital in Bishopgate, Norwich).


St Mary’s church is smaller

St Mary’s was rebuilt in the 14th century, and despite being much smaller and simpler than its neighbour, is an interesting and pretty church. The tower was built later, in the 15th century. On entering the porch, visitors can look up and identify panels depicting the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel at the annunciation, and the coronation of the Virgin Mary as the queen of heaven. Unfortunately, the Cromwellians did some damage to the church carvings and to some of the beautiful ‘poppy head’ pew ends. Originally eight of these bore the words of the Ave Maria. The church is fortunate in having one of the best and most complete examples of 15th century seating with plain oak slab benches. The wooden chancel screen is also important and bears the inscription, partly in Latin and partly in old English, ‘Pray for the souls of John Gault and his wives who have had the painting done on this screen’.


Unusual records

Another interesting and unusual piece of history is seen in the church records. Following a dispute between the Scots and Charles I about the use of the Anglican Prayer Book, an order was issued that a ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ was to be read out in every church in the land on 2nd February 1641. All men over the age of 18 were to raise their right hand and swear to keep the Covenant. They then had to sign or make their mark in the church register. This happened in both St Mary’s and St Lawrence’s churches. After the death of Charles I and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, an order was given that all the records of the covenant were to be destroyed. What do we find in South Walsham? In St Mary’s register the two pages have been duly cut out, but in St Lawrence’s they remain to this day! This is thought to be the only case where they remain and a copy of these pages is displayed in St Mary’s church.


St Benet’s abbey - an early Christian settlement

Just across the river Bure from the parish boundary is the site and remains of St Benet’s abbey. The origins of this Christian settlement are thought to go back as far as AD 800. After being plundered by the Danes, the site was re-occupied in AD 978. By AD 1020 King Canute had endowed the monastery with a gift of the manors of Horning, Ludham, and Neatishead. The monks of St Benet’s held rights of turbary - the rights to cut peat from our village marshes. They also held court with their chamberlain here in Walsham at a site now known as Chamery Hall (a corruption of chamberlain’s hall) which lies to the west of Chamery Hall Lane on the outskirts of the village. 

The many close associations between the parish and St Benet’s abbey came to an end in the middle of the 16th century following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.


St Benet’s abbey was the only religious house in England not actually closed by Henry VIII during the dissolution. Instead he united the abbey with the bishopric of Norwich and thereafter the bishops of Norwich have remained abbots of St Benet’s. To this day the bishop of Norwich visits the site of St Benet’s each year by river and holds a service there in August. 


The abbey buildings were allowed to fall into decay and by 1545 had been completely abandoned. Now there only remains part of the gate-house in which a red brick drainage mill was built in the 18th century, and this curious fusion of architecture standing in the flat broads landscape has been the subject of many pictures, from the 18th century to the present day.


How the broads were formed

The cutting of peat throughout east Norfolk to fuel the fires of Norwich in the middle ages resulted in large shallow craters where the peat had been removed  and these pits eventually flooded and this is how the broads were formed. Walsham was clearly a large producer of peat as the size of the village’s two broads testifies.


Navigable water channels were cut to connect the many broads in Norfolk with the rivers and the current network we now know as 'the broads' was formed. These shallow waterways became the main arteries of transport and a unique style of sailing trading vessel - the wherry - evolved to ply the rivers. They carried every type of bulk cargo in and out of the broadland villages and South Walsham had two staithes where these large boats would load agricultural products from the village and in return bring in coal and other necessary goods. The main village staithe is now used only by dingy sailors and holiday makers enjoying holidays on the broads. The last of the wherries have been preserved and still visit the village in their leisure role.


Being partly in Norfolk and Suffolk’s equivalent of a national park, the villagers of South Walsham have access to all the recreational activities of the broads from their doorsteps. Sailing, fishing and walking are popular, and the area has an abundance of wildlife including rare species of animals, birds, insects and plant life in addition to the beautiful and celebrated landscapes with their wide horizons, for which broadland is famous.