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Dersingham Folk
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Site by Mike Strange
Brookhall Manor and the Pell Family
Elizabeth Fiddick ©
There is certainly one place in this village that still speaks eloquently of its long history.  If you take a walk across the pastures opposite our church, where now sheep quietly graze and rabbits scuttle away, you cannot help but notice the mounds, ditches, mysterious hollows and undulations that fill one corner.  If you look on any ordnance survey map of the site you will see the markings of a square and the word Moat. This was the site of Brookhall one of the seven Manors that made up the village of Dersingham.  A family named Brokedish owned this property in the 13th century.  In 1247 a Richard de Butler had custody of the lands which belonged at that time to Stephen de Brokedish.  Later the manor  was  granted to Sir William Capel , once Lord Mayor of London, who died in 1516.  His son Sir Giles Capel inherited it and from him it passed to a John Pell in 1541.

The site of Brookhall Manor below is seen overlayed by today's satellite view and can be explored here.
(Acknowledgement to the National Library of Scotland)

The Pells, who were descended from a soldier who had come to England with William the Conqueror, came from a village in Lincolnshire.  An Alex Pelle is recorded living here in 1403 and in 1465 one John Pell rented a considerable amount of land including some in the pastures area. There is a document dated 1549 that records that a John Pell bought from Paul Warne houses and lands in Dersingham, Ingoldisthorpe, Sharnborn, Sandringham, Newton and Anmer.  This John Pell had married Margaret Cletheroe the heiress of a King's Lynn shipping family and he and his father-in-law shipped wool to the Lowlands. The wealth of the Pells grew and they made frequent purchases of land in and around Dersingham.  John is listed as one of the prominent merchants in Lynn. 

There were obviously buildings at one time within the confines of the moat and a survey of the site conducted in 1985, speaks of the moat and immediately to the south of it a fine set of fishponds.  However during the reign of Queen Mary 1 (1553-1558) the Pells built a fine house close to the church and the pastures that would over the centuries become known as Pell's “Old Enchanted Mansion” (Haunted as we would say now.) 

But a map of the area drawn in 1720 clearly shows that the moated site was clear of buildings by then and in the tenancy of a man called Dunham.  The area is intriguingly referred to as The Round a bout.  On the opposite side of the road , closer to the church, is the plan of a large house with a substantial walled garden.  When I look at the area now I wonder if that old carstone wall opposite the surgery encircling church cottages marks the area where the old house and its garden once stood.  This then was the Pell's house and the family's wealth continued to increase. By 1601 John had six ships named after his sons William Jeffrey, Valentine, Thomas, John, and Andrew with which he was shipping wool not only from King's Lynn but also from their own port at Wolferton.  This John Pell died in 1607 and his tomb can be seen near the altar of our church with the family coat of arms emblazoned on one end, his six sons kneeling on one side and his three daughters on the opposite side.  During the English Civil War Valentine Pell was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and unlike his Royalist neighbours, the Cobbes of Sandringham, the Hovells of Hillington and the Pastons of Appleton, he served in the Parliamentarian force taking command of a troop of foot.   An Ursula Gawsell of Watlington had married Jeffrey Pell's son John and it was her father who took the surrender of the Catholics in the area at the end of the war.

There are records in Grimston showing five marriages were performed there by John Pell of Darsingham J.P.   The Dersingham vicarage at this time used to stand opposite the house just in front of the church where the memorial cross can now be seen.  Over the years it had obviously been neglected as in 1658 John Pell ordered that the studded clay house should be pulled down as he objected to having such a ruin outside his front gate. As shall be seen later some parts of it remained standing but from that time there was effectively no actual vicarage in this village.  In about 1671 the Pells built the house that became known as Dersingham Hall and has now become Jannoch's Court.

The fortunes of the family changed after Valentine Pell died in 1690 without leaving an heir. Robert Walpole, the Elder, of Houghton, the father of the Robert Walpole who became England's first Prime Minister, was Valentine's cousin and he bought the Pells estates in Dersingham.  An account book of the elder Walpole has an entry for September 1st 1683 when he paid 9s.6d   “given att my cousen Valentine Pells when I had carpe there”  The fishponds mentioned earlier were obviously still very productive.

It appears that the old house had become the accommodation offered to the vicars of Dersingham.  In 1726 Thomas Gill, then vicar, had petitioned the Bishop of Norwich concerning the fact that John Pell had pulled down the old ruinous vicarage many years before . He explained he was now an old man in poor circumstances with children and grandchildren to support and he was quite unable to build a new house at the cost of £200.  He begged to be discharged from dealing with the dilapidations of the old and the building of a new house.  In this he was supported by his patron Colonel Hoste of Sandringham.  It was agreed that Mr. Gill and his successors would be excused from rebuilding the house and so it was that the Old Enchanted House became home to the vicars of Dersingham.

It was at this time that the old house became the centre of attention and its inhabitants the subject of much gossip and speculation.  It was Dersingham's very own soap opera.  By 1728 Thomas Gill, our vicar, was “very aged and infirm”.  He had a widowed daughter of about 50 by name Clarges, who kept a boarding house in Yarmouth and it was her younger daughter Penelope who looked after her Grandfather Gill in the house at Dersingham. Now at the same time Mr Gill had a curate living with him called Seward and apparently Seward and Penelope were very attracted to each other and it was soon accepted that they would marry.  On hearing this widow Clarges rushed over from Yarmouth bringing with her the older sister Suky. Seeing that indeed Penelope and Seward were likely to marry she took Penelope back with her to Yarmouth and left Suky to care for the old man.  She said Suky should have the chance of caring for the old man and share in his favours.  Seward  hastened to Yarmouth in hot pursuit of his love but when he arrived there the Widow declared that she had developed such  an ardent passion for him that” either Death or Enjoyment must be the result of it.”. Seward apparently took pity on the widow and married her leaving poor Penelope to get used to the idea that her great love and prospective husband was now her Father.  This story was obviously the talk of the area as it was recounted by the Rector of Sandringham in a letter to Samuel Kerrich who on the death of Thomas Gill came to be  our vicar. 

It was in August 1729 that Samuel took up his position at Dersingham.  He stayed at first with the Hostes of Sandringham Hall  as he began to prepare the old House for the arrival of “Gentle Jane” the wife he had just married in May of that year but who remained at Cambridge.   While Samuel busied himself putting the old house in order Gentle Jane's health deteriorated steadily.  In March 1730 a daughter was born but died almost immediately.  There are further reports of the poor state of her health preventing her from travelling to Dersingham.  In June 1731 she had a miscarriage and after a steady deterioration she died on August 22nd and so never saw the old house that was to be her home.  However Kerrich was a good-looking popular man of ample means so remarriage was always possible.  He became engaged to Barbara Postlethwayt whose father was the Rector of Denton in Norfolk.  Samuel was determined everything in the old House should please his new bride so he wrote to Barbara about the fitting up of the rooms, the white marble pavement for the hall, the flooring for the bedrooms, the partitions and offices.  They were married in Denton Church on October 1, 1732 but Samuel could not immediately bring his bride to the old house as smallpox was ravaging the area about the village.  (Smallpox was a constant scourge and in fact Colonel Hoste of Sandringham Hall died from it on Jan. 16, 1729.) Barbara remained at Denton while Samuel came here to continue his work and it was not until the spring of 1733 that Barbara came to the enchanted house.

With the arrival of Barbara the old house came alive once more with frequent visits from the Hostes of Sandringham, the Stylemans from Snettisham Hall, Sir Robert Walpole of Houghton  and of course family and friends from Denton.  Barbara herself writes of practising the piano and taking up sewing.

In due course the house and garden resounded with children's voices as Matilda was born in 1742 and Thomas who would himself become vicar here was born in 1748.  There were numerous servants including Martin the coachman and his wife Sarah who had six children so it must have been a lively household.  It is easy to imagine them all making their way from the old house, through the gate and up the path into our church for Samuel's service on a Sunday. 

We know from Barbara's letters that she was very fond of the garden.  She describes making a very pretty Knot garden with help from Martin and Samuel who also demolished a yew hedge and two old trees that grew in front of the parlour windows obscuring the view of the knot garden.   The two sisters frequently exchanged plants such as sweet Williams and stocks for their gardens and Mrs. Hammond who lived in Dersingham Hall once brought two or three bags full of flower roots for the knot garden.  Barbara also kept turkeys and bees and she described rearing a new born calf, and selling a brindled cow.  She lamented that the ducks had to be removed from the garden as they were eating all the lettuces. She speaks often of churning fresh butter every morning for breakfast. The Kerrich's owned  horses and traps and we know from the letters that the Kerrich's stables adjoined those of the nearest house. This suggests that they and the other farm outbuildings must have been part of the complex that now forms our surgery. Some of the present barns look as if they could date from that time.  We learn more about the old house when Barbara tells her sister in 1747 that Samuel is busy “stopping up the windows in this great rambling house” to lessen the impact of the increase in the Window Tax.  Even so they had to pay tax on forty windows.  

It was in 1753 that we learn that difficulties with the house were mounting.  Samuel wrote to the Walpole's agent saying he would gladly stay where he was if the old house could be repaired as some parts of it “ having become in a manner untenable.”  During one particularly wet season the cellars filled with water and Barbara wrote,   ”I am washed out of all ye rooms below stairs, the springs have risen very much in the garden........I mostly sit in ye little parlour and yesterday afternoon as I sat there ye water rise under my chair”   She summoned the servants Martin and Wilson to inspect the house and found the water “near a quarter of a yard deep” and all over the hall and kitchen. On one occasion when Barbara had wished to effect an improvement to one of the rooms she remarked that “they are very slow in getting anything done for tenants.”  So it was no surprise that Walpole would do nothing and in 1753 the Kerrich household moved out and took up residence in Dersingham Hall.

The picturesque old house was abandoned and sadly after a short while it was demolished. A survey carried out by the Houghton Estate in 1800 shows a small house and outbuildings by the church that was William Stanton's farm.  On the opposite side of the road there is still a walled garden.  The 1884 map clearly shows the moat and on the opposite of the road the outlines of the walled garden are clear. But of the Pell's Enchanted Mansion there is no longer any sign.

It was some time after the Houghton Survey that the lands of the old Brookhall Manor  became part of the Sandringham Estate.