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Dersingham Folk
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Nathan Coward - A Dersingham Character
Elizabeth Fiddick ©
The British Museum holds copies of a book entitled, ”Quaint Scraps or Sudden Cogitations”.  The book consists of, “Special Valentines, Elegies, Songs, Dreams, Dirges, Epitaphs, Love Letters, Quaint Conceits, epigrams, charms for the ague, and many rare strange, and unintelligible articles”.  It is written by “Nathan Coward of Dersingham, Glover, Breeches maker etc, etc, etc”and published in 1800. There is an addendum to the book where “Nathan Coward also begs leave to observe he has just received a very capital assortment of White Chapel Needles, Fandango pins, Laces, Mouse traps, Jews Harps etc. and informs the public he prepares Epitaphs, Dirges Epigrams, Elegies and Love Letters.  He also gives the best price for old metal, old rags, rams horns, rabbit skins and horse hair.”

Nathan was not born in Dersingham but for an account of his early life I will let him speak in his own inimitable style.  “Be it known that I, Nathan Coward of Dersingham, haberdasher, glover, poet and greengrocer, came forth on Friday the 13th day of April 1735 at twenty eight minutes past seven o'clock in the evening to the great comfort and satisfaction of my beloved parents and to the inexpressible honour of the town of March in the Isle of Ely” His father William kept a small grocer's shop in March.  His parents were very happily married but if anything did upset them, “a squeak of their lovely boy, like oil thrown on troubled waters introduced universal harmony”.  At the age of five Nathan was placed with the Widow Hawkins where he stayed for four years after which he went to the Rev. William Wendall for three years, ”astonishing my school fellows by the brilliancy of my genius and the acuteness of my wit.” He was bound apprentice to his cousin Mr. Coward of King's Lynn.  He was just 20 when walking through Lynn one day he saw a lady in a small shop making wash-leather gloves.  She enraptured him, ”My whole soul was wrapped in the celestial charm of the divine Miss Barbara Green.” Miss Green was over 50 years old at the time but Nathan was captivated,” my eyes lost their lustre, the roses faded from my cheeks” Poor Nathan lost weight and was devastated when in spite of all his entreaties she refused his offer of marriage.  “In despair I left her and thinking it better to have any wife than have none I married the present Mrs. Coward.”  Soon after their marriage in 1773 they moved to Dersingham “remote from the vulgar throng”.

At this time the population of the village was less than 450. The church boasted a spire on top of the tower, which Nathan would have seen demolished in 1798. In 1784 Thomas Kerrich became the vicar and remained so for 44 years.  He lived in Dersingham Hall and I have no doubt that Nathan was well known to him for Nathan wrote sermons, and poems. He had many pamphlets published including the colourful account of his life. “I am conscious that the exploits of my life will be found to be more interesting than the exploits of Tom Hickathrift or Robinson Crusoe.”  For four pence you could buy a copy of the sermon he wrote on the threatened invasion of Napoleon.

Read! Mark! Learn! and Admire!
The Glorious truths that blaze through Nathan's lines.
”They're more than human, nay they're all divine”

Here is a recipe he recommends us to try.
A receipt for Consumption
A pound of lump sugar, a pound of dodmans out of the shells, a pound of honey, a quart of Mountain wine, and a quart of water, all baked together in a pot in an oven as long as a penny loaf takes baking.  Then strained through a cheesecloth and put into glass bottles and let the patient take a teacupful night and morning, the first and last thing they do.  This recovered my wife, who was given over by the doctors.

On December 27th 1793 his daughter Hannah was married to John Wright a widower from Liverpool where they went to live.

In 1799 Nathan achieved national attention when “The Daily News” published one of his letters, which he had addressed to William Pitt the Prime Minister.  Mr. Pitt was trying to raise money to continue the war against Napoleon.  Nathan suggested that all Dukes, Lords, Earls, Baronets, Squires, Gentlemen and rich farmers who had unnecessary ornamental and useless plate should hand it over to be made into money for the support of ”this just and necessary war.” He then made this offer. “I have but little plate yet I am, and so is my wife, in God's name minded, willing and desirous, out of half-a-dozen teaspoons to deliver up half, which you know, mighty Sir, will be exactly three”.   I do not know if Mr. Pitt took up this generous offer.

To Nathan's sorrow his wife died on December 15th 1805 and was buried in our churchyard. Nathan wrote the following epitaph for her.
My wife is dead- she was the best
And I her bosom friend.
Yes she is gone-her soul's at rest
And I am left to mend.

He continued to live in Dersingham for a while but at some time he left to join his daughter in Liverpool where he died in 1815.  He was 80 years old.

When Nathan was in the village the three windmills that were once here would have been a familiar sight to him. He would have known John Stanton and William Smith the occupiers of two of them and may even have been here during the great storm of 1808 when one of the mills was blown down.  Nathan would have known Pakenham Manor House that used to stand where the playground of the old village school is now.  Perhaps the old Pell House behind the Institute was still standing when he arrived here. The village had a Workhouse in Westhall Manor and he would have witnessed the custom each Sunday when 16 penny loaves, the Thomas Loaves, were left on John Pell's tomb in the South aisle for the deserving poor.  He may have served Henry Hoste Henley the owner of Sandringham Hall in his shop.  He was in the village in 1779 when The Little Common, Marsh Common and Badger Fen Common were subject to the Acts of Enclosure, which resulted in a great increase in the number of sheep and a doubling of the production of corn.   During his time here the Great Bustard could be found on the Heath. A flock of 11 were seen near Sandringham in 1803.  So it is not difficult to imagine Nathan on a Sunday morning walking along past the Tithe Barn to the church to attend a service taken by Thomas Kerrich or strolling down Chapel Road, passing many cottages still familiar to us today.  Through his writing Nathan comes alive for us; we are able to glimpse a little of the man himself.  I will let him have the last word in this account because I feel that that would please him greatly. 

“Who knows but the time may come when posterity, enchanted with the effusions of my wisdom
shall pronounce the name of NATHAN COWARD with the most profound respect and veneration.”

Newspaper Article  about  Nathan Coward
(Source unknown)
Every man who has held the position of Prime Minister in this country has been necessarily subjected to criticism and even to abuse, but I imagine that all have them have received thoughtful and quite unsolicited suggestions from correspondents who have tried to be helpful.  If a selection of the more remarkable of these suggestions submitted by amateur statesmen were published they would make an extremely interesting volume.  I have just received from a friendly correspondent in Cornwall a copy of a publication entitled “The Table Book” dated 1828, and it contains a curious letter sent by one Nathan Coward to William Pitt in the year 1799, in which Mr. Coward advises that famous Minister in the most friendly manner, in regard to the “affairs of the nation and the salvation of the Empire” – topics which still exercise the minds of many.

Nathan Coward lived at Dersingham, in Norfolk, and is described by contemporaries as a “glover, poet, haberdasher, greengrocer, and psalm-singer”.   It was in 1799 that he felt called upon to come to the assistance of Pitt, who was then directing the great struggle against France.  There is a charming mixture of respect and friendly feeling in the manner in which the poet begins his letter to the Minister.

    To the Hon. Wm. Pitt First of Ministers -  May it please your gracious Honour, Dear Sir.

William Pitt the Younger was rather a cold and austere man, but at the time when this letter was written he was so anxiously engaged in raising money for this huge campaign that he probably welcomed suggestions from anyone.  And it has nearly always happened that this country has been blessed by the presence of wise men ready to show how revenue can be raised quite easily.

The Dersingham poet and greengrocer belonged to that useful class, and he thus addressed the bothered Minister.

Beloved and honourable sir, be not angry at my proposal, if not approved of, which is to beg of all dukes, lords, earls, baronets, country squires, profound justices, gentlemen, great and rich farmers, topping tradesmen, and others, who to my certain and inconceivable knowledge have so much unnecessary ornamental and useless plate, of all sorts and descriptions, to deliver up the same immediately to Government  to be made into money for the support of this just and necessary war.

As a rule proposals of this sort are made by those who will not be called upon to share in the sacrifice.  Men are more ready to tax the possessions of others than their own, but Nathan Coward, the poet and haberdasher, was not open to any rebuke or taint on that ground, as I propose to show.

In 1799 Napoleon was 30 years of age, he was made Consul and he and Pitt were just beginning the colossal contest in which Napoleon lost, though Pitt did not live to see the end of it.  One may therefore imagine the thrill which Pitt experienced when he read this handsome offer by Mr. Nathan Coward of Dersingham.

I have but little (plate) yet I am - and so is my wife in God’s name – minded, willing and desirous out of half-a-dozen teaspoons to deliver up half, which, you know, mighty sir, will be exactly three.

I am unable to say whether the right hon. gentleman, properly addressed as “mighty sir” ever answered this letter.  It is the fact that Mr. Coward received what purported to be an acknowledgement with thanks and the promise of a reward but it was written in “a scrawling hand  with an illegible signature,”  and is generally supposed to have been the work of waggish friends to whom Nathan had bragged about writing to the Prime Minister.

What is certain is that poor Nathan never received any reward.  Yet his letter may have had important results.  Who can say that this offer of three silver teaspoons from a man who possessed only six would not encourage the haughty Minister to stand up to his formidable foe? I can imagine Pitt reading this letter at his breakfast table saying to himself that the country was with him.  He may have felt rather bored when he found the prolix poet going on to say:

         Honoured Sir, from whence come wars, and rumours of wars, cockfightings and burglaries?

Mr. Pitt had quite enough to think about without answering funny conundrums from Dersingham.

And while he may have been relieved to find that Nathan had to limit the length of his letter this final message probably astonished the celibate statesman.

The limits of one sheet of paper being filled I must conclude with wishing well to out  good and gracious King, the Queen, and all the Royal family; as also to your Honour, Mr. Pitt, your consort, sons and daughters (if any) and family in general.

Seeing that the younger Pitt never married it must have struck him that his admiring and friendly correspondent had not taken the trouble to acquaint himself with his hero’s condition.  It is a tactical error to send polite messages to the consort and the sons and daughters of a bachelor Prime Minister and this little slip may account for the fact that Nathan went unrewarded.

He may have been consoled however, by the knowledge that his genius was recognised in America, for soon after he had published a work entitled “Quaint Scraps and Sudden Cogitations” he received an ode from the other side of the Atlantic containing these encouraging lines;

A mighty sun whose congregated rays/ At Dersingham pour forth their dazzling rays;

Nor there alone, but e’en throughout all nations/ Beam Nathan’s “Scraps and Cogitations.”

Yet he had his critics, nor did he hesitate to face them like a man.  Gentlemen who review books may be interested in this passage which Nathan addressed to members of that ingenious tribe;

It is ye, ye mites of criticism! It is ye alone I fear; for like your namesakes the greater the richness and goodness of the cheese, the more destructive are your depredations.

There is further exhibition of British pluck in the following heartfelt remarks to the public in general.

I shun the general path of authors and instead of “feeling conscious of the numerous defects and submitting my trifles with all possible humility to the candour of a generous public, “ I venture to assert that the public must receive the greatest advantage from my labours; and every member of society shall bless the hour that ushered into existence my “Quaint Scraps and Sudden Cogitations”.

There is a ring of sincerity in that, which is more than can be said of the mock humility of many authors, who apologise for their works while all the time feeling as proud as Punch about them.