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The Haven of Dersingham
Elizabeth Fiddick ©
One of the pleasures of living here in West Norfolk is the closeness of the sea. It is a constant delight to walk the coastal path, enjoy the salt marshes, linger on the beaches and watch the birds as they wheel and soar above the waves. The sea is our friend but one that needs to be respected.
Alfred Tennyson wrote of the sea in summer, ”drawling up the beach, brushing the shingle with coquettish lips, so gentle, so harmless...... “ But he warns in winter when it, ”is cold and grey , when fishermen stand helpless on the beach besides their little boats and the wildfowl chatter uneasily........come back then and see how dreadful is the change from meekness to ferocity.”
However, the Norfolk coastline has changed considerably over the centuries as seen in this map of medieval Fenland (source unknown). The waters of The Wash came much closer to the village than they do now. The rising land behind the village is in fact the ancient cliff line of the Wash. Ingoldisthorpe, Snettisham, Heacham, Wolferton all had thriving ports.
There is a document in the Record Office which gives,” a survey of all the ports, creakes and landing places within the countie of Norfolk.” It describes our village in this way,
“There is a haven or cricke called Dersingham Haven to which sayde town adjoyneth and belonging having habitation and householders therein to the numbers LXXV and ye shippes and other vessels yt lade or unlade there are licensed by warrent.”
Armstrong’s History of 1781 describes the area in a very picturesque way.
“Beside the Ouse there are several rivulets of less note which trickle down the cheeks of
this rustic vale and influx themselves with the sea at or near Lynn. A small brook rises
and passes into the Lynn Channel in Dersingham parish”.
Armstrong also noted that a much larger stream ran near Castle Rising and that it had at one time been navigable for large vessels. Sir Henry Spelman referred to Castle Rising as a “famous port.”
In 1328 Edward 111 ordered one of his Admirals Walter de Mauncey to return a Dersingham boat he had seized unjustly.
In 1338 fishing protection was granted to one Martin, son of Peter Scott of Dersingham and another villager, Adam, for” two little ships of Martin and Adam made for fishing in the port of Dersingham.”
Henry V in 1415 included a Dersingham captain John Goolde in a commission to police the seas and attack the King’s enemies.
Henry V1 granted sailors from Dersingham the freedom of the seas. A licence was granted to, “Alan Lawrys of Dorsingham “with one “dogger”. A dogger was a two masted Dutch fishing boat as shown below.
In 1560 a ship called “William” based in Dersingham was employed in transporting corn to the North and returning with coal. The same document records another boat belonging to John Bary and William Nevet employed for the same purpose. There are an additional 3 mariners and 2 fishermen listed here. We know that the John Pell the wealthy wool merchant of Dersingham Hall had six ships, each named for one of his six sons, which operated not only from the port of Lynn but also from Wolferton.
On maps of the 17th century the creek can clearly be seen snaking its way into Dersingham and coming into the village somewhere in the region of The Drift. Faden's map of Norfolk, printed in 1797, still shows a substantial creek coming through towards the Common. However it would seem that the sea began its retreat from the village in the second half of the seventeenth century.
For centuries the tower of the church had always had a lantern with a lead covered spire rising from it in which hung a little bell. This acted as a guide to sailors coming across The Wash into Dersingham Haven. But in 1798 the decision was taken to remove it and William Johnson received £41. 17s.6d as settlement for his work on the steeple. Thomas Kerrich the vicar at the time drew a pencil sketch of the church with its spire before it was demolished. (See below)
In White's Directory of 1854 the entry for Dersingham records John Daniel and Thomas Green as fishermen. In 1874 Samuel Daniel, William Daniel, and Thomas Green are listed as fishermen. In 1883 James and William Daniel are listed but 1890 is the last time they appear. The family business of fishing does not appear again.
In 1898 there was a report in the Lynn News of a Robert John Brown of Dersingham who was fined 15 shillings under the Eastern Sea Fisheries by-laws for using a trawl net in fishing for shrimp and prawns at Snettisham otherwise than from a boat and not clearing it every half hour and sorting and sifting the contents in at least six inches of water. So there was still a Dersingham connection with fishing.
Originally, during the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a harbour at Wolferton from where coal was shipped. The Pell family also used the harbour there for some of their shipping business. Ingoldisthorpe at one time had a thriving business in boats bringing in coal as the names Coaly Lane and Coaly Hill in that village recall.
"This coastline had a reputation of being “infested with pirates”.
Snettisham beach was much used by smugglers and in 1737 soldiers caught smugglers trying to land a consignment of tea there. In 1784 William Webb, from Snettisham, a Dragoon in the 15th Light Dragoon Guards, was shot from his horse by smugglers on Old Hunstanton beach. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard.
In 1822 Revenue Officers lay in wait on Snettisham beach to intercept a gang of smugglers. About 80 tuns of gin and brandy were landed on the beach from the boat. 100 locals, armed with bludgeons and fowling pieces, were ready to help to carry it away on the 20 or 30 carts they brought down to the beach. All the smugglers were seized but I understand that most of the contraband was never found! I find it hard to believe that Dersingham held itself apart from such activity!
The retreat of the sea gave the village many more acres of marshland and Arthur Young , Secretary of the Board of Agriculture commented in his report on agriculture here in Dersingham in about 1780 on the bullocks that were fattened on the marshes. A wiry grass called “FLAT” was grown of which the cattle were very fond. Canals drained the black, soggy soil and pumps turned by windmills forced the water into certain channels.
Although the sea had retreated and the haven of Dersingham was no longer viable the village would always have a strong but uneasy relationship with the waters of the Wash as subsequent history will show.
1798 - Thomas Kerrich the vicar at the time drew this pencil sketch of St Nicholas church with its spire before it was demolished leaving to look like the engraving on the right.
Courtesy of Tate Images - Photo © Tate
This work is released by Tate under Creative Commons Licence CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
Title: Fishing Boats, High Tide
Artist: Jean Le Capelain 1814-1848
Year of creation: not specified
Presented by D.C. Fincham 1939
Source: Web Site