When Norfolk rector Augustus Jessopp called his parishioners “sullen and discontented,” they got a little sullen and discontented.
Jessop died more than a century ago but a biography has just been written by his great-great grandson.
Nick Hartley said: “I wrote the book because I inherited a pile of Jessopp’s letters and papers and a collection of Jessopp’s many books.”
Augustus was a writer himself, and also headmaster of the Norwich School and rector of Scarning, near Dereham.
He is best known today for his ghost stories, but also wrote histories and essays, including scathing portraits of his parishioners.
“The rustics are not happy; they are sullen, discontented, averse to labour; they are on the alert for any grievance, they are ready for any form of rowdyism; they have no love, but quite the reverse, for those who are only anxious to serve them,” writes Jessopp. “You can never persuade a Norfolk man that it does not matter where he was born or where he is buried,” he said on another occasion, “he is forever connected with his own parish. On the other side of the brook yonder lies another parish; he entertains some contempt, some jealousy, some aversion for the dwellers of that parish.”
A conversation with a 19-year-old man called David, watching aristocrats passing in a carriage, includes Jessopp’s attempts at capturing the Norfolk accent: “Thet du hull-ly pet me aywt, thet du! Whoi, hayw thet should tyake tew men and tew harses to cyart they two women abaywt.”
Jessopp’s obituary in The Times in 1914 reported that Jessopp ‘wrote about his neighbours in terms which some of them resented.’
However, Nick says Jessopp believed ‘the agricultural labourer’s life has had all the joy taken out of it.’ Jessopp’s solutions
included better housing and education and more social facilities, including public libraries.
When he arrived in Scarning he had been shocked at the state of the housing and gave land for cottages and gardens. He also championed the importance of village halls and inspired a donation from a London reader, which paid for village halls in Scarning, Long Stratton and Wicklewood.
But he almost sparked a class war when he failed to defend free education in Scarning.
The village school had been founded more than two centuries earlier, with funds left for ‘the maintenance of one free school, to be kept for ever . . . while the world endure’. It provided free education for all of Scarning’s children but in 1869 the Charity Commissioners suggested the village school should charge a small fee and the bequest should provide scholarships to other schools for the most academic children.
The Scarning School Endowed Charity still exists, recently helping fund a pre-school in the village.
Augustus Jessopp is best known for his ghost stories today. One is about a monk he saw haunting Mannington Hall, near Aylsham, late one night and another about a phantom coach which arrived at Breccles Hall, near Attleborough, one night and vanished, leaving a man dead.
Augustus Jessopp: Norfolk’s Antiquary, by Nick Hartley, is published by M&M Baldwin for £14.