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Dersingham Folk
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Dersingham and the Royal Estate
Elizabeth Fiddick ©

On June 19th 1836 at the Auction Mart in London after fierce competition John Motteux bought Sandringham Hall Estate for £76,000. The estate had been put up for sale after the death of Henry Hoste Henley. John Motteux was never to live at the Hall and indeed it is said that although he never furnished the house he did plant many pear trees in the grounds.  These he visited regularly while he waited to harvest their fruit. 

John's forebears had fled from France in the late seventeenth century when civil rights were withdrawn from French Protestants and there was an influx of Huguenots into this country.  Pierre Anthony Motteux arrived from Rouen and quickly established himself in the silk trade.  Four years later after French Protestants had been given official protection by William and Mary Pierre's nephew John arrived here and went immediately to his uncle's warehouse. Pierre had anglicised his name to Peter and gradually handed over the running of his business to John and other family members who arrived from the continent.  John became naturalised in 1693 and Peter began to follow other pursuits.  He translated French books into English and also wrote several plays that were produced at a theatre in Lincoln 's Inn Fields.  By 1700 his name was known to a wide circle of Londoners. On the day of his 58th birthday leaving his wife at home he set out to celebrate with several friends.  It was a boisterous party and it is said his friends decided as a joke to stage a mock hanging.  Peter Motteux was strung up for sport!  All would have been well except that at the precise moment Peter was “hanged” a procession passed by the house.  With delighted cries the friends rushed out to watch and quite forgot the unfortunate Peter.  When they eventually returned it was too late.  Peter was dead.  John continued to run the warehouse and erected a Huguenot hospital for the aged and poor.  He died in 1741 but his successor, also a John, was only 4 years old at the time.  Later this John bought land at Beachamwell.  This was then a desolate hamlet not far from Swaffham with a few poor cottages, a Norman church and a forge.  John turned it into a model village of 22 brick cottages, a stately hall and a well-ordered Church. Several pretty brick cottages still surround the village green and attractive church. John died at Teignmouth in 1793 and the villagers and friends erected a stone memorial still to be seen in the church.  His second son Robert was left the estate in Banstead Surrey while John the oldest inherited Beachamwell.  He greatly increased the family fortune by negotiating army contracts during the Napoleonic wars. He continued to improve the Beachamwell estate and established a village school.  His social position also improved as he was a frequent guest at Woburn and became a firm friend of Earl Cowper who was an influential Whig and very close to the government of the time. 

Motteux spent much time with the family and became very fond of the youngest son. It was at this time that he bought the Sandringham Estate.  However shortly after the purchase the news came that his brother Robert had died in Paris just five days before and was to be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. John now owned not only Beachamwell and Sandringham but also the property in Banstead Surrey.  During the next four years he added a further 1,000 acres to the estate at Sandringham.  The Tithe Schedule of 1839 records his property in the Dersingham which included many acres of the Marsh as well as the woods and plantations at the top of Sandringham Hill.  He owned land and houses along Manor Road close to the present Feathers Inn then known as the Cock and Abraham Gay was the victualler. The Coach and Horses run by Ann Gamble with its surrounding land, and Manor Farm next to the church, worked by Joshua Freeman, were other properties of the estate. Motteux owned the land as you look up towards up Doddshill.  These pastures had the attractive names of Clark's Pasture, Dotshill, Candle Hole Close and Emletts Hill Common. The shepherd's garden worked by George Mann on the Marshes was part of the Motteux holdings.

So, although he never occupied the house he was an important person in many villagers' lives. During his renovations to Beachamwell Hall John took lodgings in King's Lynn from where he went to Divine Service at St. Nicholas Church.  He sat in an empty pew but much to his discomfiture he was politely asked to move so its usual occupants could take the seat.  This he did only to be asked again to move from his new seat.  He discovered that the 3000 seats in the church only allowed room for one fifth of the population of the town.  He promptly gave £1500 for the erection of a new church and subsequently the Marquis of Cholmondeley of Houghton and Lord George Bentinck contributed a further £3000.  The church of St. John was duly built and consecrated on June 14th 1843.  (This church stands in The Walks close to the railway station.) Six weeks later on July 30th John died.  He left his estates in Norfolk to Charles Spencer Cowper the son of his great friend. The plaque to John Motteux in Beachamwell Church erected by Charles reads, “This tablet was erected out of respect to his memory by the Hon. Spencer Cowper.” (This charming church is well worth a visit as it also houses an unusual iron chest designed by John and given to the church in 1835.  If the church is locked you have only to cross the road to the Post Office where a very friendly lady will hand you the fantastic iron key.)

Spencer Cowper sold the Beachamwell estate but divided his time between London, Paris and Sandringham.  He married in 1852 and brought his wife to Sandringham. It must have been quite a change for many villagers not to have an absentee landlord any more.  In 1860 when he and his wife were in Paris there was a report that Harriet had died.  This was quite false but it enabled Palmerston to suggest to the Queen that Sandringham was now deserted and would be an ideal sanctuary for the Prince of Wales.  It was in 1862 that the Prince of Wales and a Mr. White stayed at The Globe Inn in King's Lynn from where they drove to Sandringham the next morning.  The estate had been purchased for £220,000.  The house was not the building we know today.  Although it was a large cemented brick mansion set in a park of 300 acres it was not considered large enough so a new wing was designed and built. Labourers who had been constructing the new Railway line from Lynn to Hunstanton were switched to work on the new roads that were to cross Sandringham Heights. Cottages disappeared, new lodges were built and fresh vistas appeared.

On the 10th March 1863 The Prince married Alexandra of Denmark at St. George's Chapel Windsor. Eighteen days later they travelled to Sandringham on the Royal train the engine of which had been painted white and decorated with flowers.  So began the association of this area with the Royal Family.  A small dance was given and visitors were picked up from Wolferton Station. Not all visitors alighted there.   Sir Henry Keppel, who was a frequent visitor, once recorded, “By 10.57 train from Shoreditch.  Arrived Dersingham 3.20.  Carriage to meet us.” On the 22nd birthday of the Prince a feast was held for every village child in the district, and all the building and agricultural labourers.  They sat down to  “roast beef, boiled beef, roast mutton, potatoes, plum pudding, cheese, apples, oranges, nuts, raisin, and plenty of beer.” There must have been many Dersingham villagers there. The local people must have been excited to see the Royal party when they joined the West Norfolk hounds at Snettisham.  By 1866 public interest was so great that at one hunt 200 carriages, and 500 horsemen blocked the roads to see the Prince.  Further interest would have been sparked when the decision was made to pull down the existing house and rebuild.  This was carried out in 1870 and the builders were Messrs J and M Goggs of Swaffham.  The 1871 census records John Goggs, born in Swaffham, a Contractor employing at this time 66 men, residing at Dersingham Hall.  He lived there for several years with his wife Hannah Maria, 7 daughters aged from 6 months to 10 years, and 2 sons aged 4 and 2.  They employed a governess, a nurse, a cook, housemaid and under nurse. 

So the house at Sandringham we know today took shape.  There were much larger arrangements for the domestic staff, kitchen maids' and footmen's rooms, brushing and boot cleaning rooms, laundry rooms, and a pump room with an adjacent tank of 3000 gallons of water.  At a later date the Prince also built a Bothy block to house the bachelor gardeners.  There were separate bedrooms for each man and it was described as, “a street in itself, at least 300yards long.”  Thus the Sandringham Estate became an important employer for many villagers including members of the Mann family. 

Sometime after 1869 Rachel Walker who was to marry Henry Mann of Heath House became a housemaid to Princess Alexandra.  She later became the Head Housemaid and was joined by her sister Lydia as deputy.  Rachel clearly became a trusted employee as she was driven to her wedding at Sandringham Church in a Royal carriage drawn by a pair of greys.  Her daughter Ruby remembered that, ”because the Princess's boudoir was so full of trinkets and ornaments only Rachel was entrusted with its care and cleaning.  She was known to the Royal children as 'Mama's Rachel'.”  Another family member recalled Princess Alexandra visiting Rachel at Heath House.  Lydia's gravestone in the church records,” for many years a faithful servant to H.R.H. Princess of Wales.”  Ruby Mann attended Queen Alexandra's School of Art and Needlework and Henry and Maria's son George worked as an electrician at Sandringham when the electricity was generated on site. It is thought that his health was damaged by working long hours in hot, humid conditions maintaining the boilers and generators.

Another interesting member of the Mann family was William Henry Mann son of Robert, the brother of Henry's father George.   He was placed in charge of the Fire Brigade at Sandringham in 1882.  There was a disastrous fire at the house in 1891 when men on horseback rode through West Newton and Dersingham shouting out the news of the disaster.   It is recorded that a Mr. Mann from the farm organised gangs of men in bucket chains from the lake while the head coachman was at work with the estate fire brigade and an inadequate pump. 

William Henry was also the sub postmaster at the house as the estate then had its own post office.  He was a very busy man as the directories of the time list him as Farmer, Jobmaster and Proprietor of The Feathers where he advertised it as, “a family & commercial hotel & posting house; good stabling for hunters, & first class accommodation for visitors in the neighbourhood; conveyances to meet any train at Wolferton or Dersingham.” Not to be outdone Thomas Magness of The Dun Cow then advertised, ”Seaside visitors can have good accommodation near to Sandringham.

William retired from the Fire Brigade in 1904.  Returning home one night the cart he was driving overturned and he was trapped beneath it.  One of his legs was seriously injured and had to be amputated a short time later.  William was fitted with a wooden leg.  William built several cottages in the village and made many generous donations to the various village charities. He died on Dec. 6th 1932.  The Prince of Wales also made many donations to the Cricket Club, the Athletic Sports Association, and the Clothing Club.  In 1875 he gave the land at the bottom of Doddshill for the village school to be built and donated £500 towards the cost.  Further amounts were always forthcoming to support the various school treats that were organised. The school log book for the early 20th century often records the influence of the Royal Estate with entries such as,”Poor attendance with the Sandringham shooting season.  A large number of boys absent engaged by trippers at the Sandringham Grounds.  4 boys away shot carrying.

In 1896 Theodor Jannoch the nurseryman and florist at Dersingham, Hall stated he was Lily of the Valley grower by special warrant to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

In more recent times Eric Cross recalled being an apprentice cabinetmaker at Queen Mary's Carpentry School on the estate.  He said that many boys from the village worked in the gardens, the carpenter's yard, and the wood yard or were employed as bricklayers and painters. 

Sidney Mitchell recalled that the school was where the stud is situated now.  He worked as a houseboy to the head Keeper when the week was 52 or 54 hours, 6 days a week with a half day on Saturday.  Both men remembered that at 1 o'clock you would see all the workers flying down the hill on their bicycles to get home in time to turn out for the village football or crickets teams. He recalled that the highlight of the Royal visit at Christmas was the distribution of beef on Christmas Eve.  The beef was home produced and all the workers would assemble in alphabetical order.  “Depending on your length of service and position in the pecking order you were allocated the beef.  You took a nice clean towel and when your name was called you would plough through the clean straw on the floor and put your cloth down and the beef was banged in.  You would acknowledge the Royal family as they sat and you'd be on your way with your dinner.

Many villagers must have further memories of the Royal Estate, which would make up another article for the future.

My thanks to Tim Mann for additional information on William Henry Mann.