The 200-year-old tale of a child’s death
On July 5, 1819, a storm raged over Sedgeford. As lightning tore through the skies, a bolt struck the church tower and ancient stones tumbled into a school Bible lesson, killing 14-year-old Susan Nobes.
Her death was not just a tragedy for her family and the village – but became known worldwide. Within weeks Susan’s story was being told and retold as a cautionary tale. The village girl from Norfolk became an example of why children needed to live in perpetual readiness for death and judgement.
The following year the thunderstorm was even mentioned in the Annual Register of World Events. However, two centuries on, few had heard of Susan or the storm of her – until Sedgeford men Gareth Calway and Tim Snelling separately came across her story.
On July 5, 2019, exactly 200 years to the day after Susan’s death, they will mark the anniversary with a memorial ceremony and
concert. Susan was the daughter of an agricultural labourer, living in the village’s housing for poor families. Today Washpit Cottage is a holiday home.
“She not only lost her life in terrifying circumstances but suffered the later indignity of being remembered only as the moral point of a lecture about the need for children to live in perpetual readiness for death and judgement,” said Gareth.
Susan’s story was still wellknown enough, 70 years after her death, to be included in a history of Sedgeford, but then seemed to be forgotten for decades.
He takes the story, published by the Religious Tract Society as “The Thunderstorm That Took Place in Sedgeford in the County of Norfolk on Fifth July 1819 with Remarks and Observations for the use of Sunday Scholars, and other young persons,” and gives Susan a voice of her own.
“Come out in the dark lane, experience the ‘real’ Norfolk,” calls Susan’s ghost to a holidaying teenager inside.
Monday, July 5 had been a warm day. As dusk approached a Bible reading class for children was drawing to a close. The final hymn chosen was: Oh let me, heavenly Lord extend, my view to life’s approaching end, and then a prayer, and then the storm struck.
Lightning blasted right through the church, from window to window, and also struck the church steeple, causing huge stones to crash to the ground. ‘The children rushed out of the church nearly in a state of distraction, uttering he most dreadful shrieks,’ the local newspaper reported. ‘Parents in search of their children; the incessant and vivid flashes of lightning, succeeded momentarily by dreadful peals of thunder, accompanied with torrents of rain and hail.’ Susan’s father found her, lifeless on the floor.
Gareth, a former high school teacher, was researching the history of his house when he came across the religious tract, using the tragedy to urge children to be constantly ready for death and judgement. It inspired him to write a poem, put to music by fellow Sedgeford resident and harpist, Vanessa Wood-Davies.
“We seemed to be the only people who knew the story, even in Sedgeford, but in fact Janet Hammond, who had researched the history of the village, had written an excellent poem based on the tract for my creative writing group in Wells in 1989 (which I’d completely forgotten!)” said Gareth. “That said, no other locals ever seem to know the story, not even the resident, and now international, historical and archaeological project, SHARP Tickets for The Penland Phezants’ concert, on Friday, July 5, in Boneyard Field, Sedgeford, are available from sharp.org. uk/events-1/ the-penlandphezants
(Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project) which Janet helped set up 24 years ago.”
Janet died last year, bequeathing her archive, and her enthusiasm for local history, to her son, Tim Snelling.
As the 200th anniversary of the storm approached, Gareth contacted Tim, to ask if he and Vanessa could play a memorial concert for Susan on his land alongside the village church. He was astonished to discover that Tim too was planning to mark the occasion.
Later they realised that Tim’s original family home in Sedgeford was on the site of the
“She not only lost her life in terrifying circumstances but suffered the later indignity of being remembered only as the moral point of a lecture”
former poorhouse, where Susan had lived.
They will hold a private memorial for Susan, including two of Janet’s songs, at the Saxon Ladywells site, followed by a public concert at Boneyard Field, in the village, featuring The Penland Phezants, made up of Gareth and his wife, Melanie, plus Sedgeford harpist Vanessa Wood-Davies and guitarist Andy Wall. It includes their dramatic musical recreation of the storm which killed Susan Nobes, plus lively musical stories of Hereward the Wake, Margery Kempe of Lynn, the English Civil War, and the Littleport and Ely Bread Riots of 1816.
LEFT: Inside St Mary’s in Sedgeford