Sedge­ford story:

The 200-year-old tale of a child’s death

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rowan Man­tell

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 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

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