The fashionable world of the Villebois family and the conditions of their poor. Jim McNeill, Stoke Ferr

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The Parish of Marham was once famed for its cherry and walnut orchards. The orchards were felled for use by gun manufactures during the Napoleonic wars, and it was around this time that Marham came under the lordship of the Villebois family (1). The two Henry Villebois’, father and son, had their country seat at Marham House: built by Henry senior (1777-1847) with the fabulous wealth he obtained as a major shareholder in London’s Truman brewery. Henry senior was the great-grandson of William Villebois, a French dance teacher who married one of his pupils. The pupil was Francis Truman, the grand-daughter of Sir Benjamin Truman and the founder of Truman’s Brewery. When Sir Benjamin died, he left the bulk of his estates worth £330,000 (the equivalent today of some £460million) to John & William Truman Villebois who then became majority shareholders. These shares remained in possession of the males of the family until the death of Henry Villebois junior in 1886 (2).
Each generation of the Villebois family showed little interest in their vast brewery empire. Their primary passion was hunting during the winter months followed by spending summers in their mansion houses in Belgravia or Gloucestershire.
It was hunting for game which, in 1803, first brought Henry Villebois senior to our region when he began purchasing recently enclosed lands at Marham where he installed his fox and stag hounds. Each season his fox hounds met in various local villages; Stoke Ferry, Methwold, Barton Bendish, Fincham, Gooderstone, etc., as well as on the Marham estate. Early newspaper notices record: “FASHIONABLE DEPARTURES…Mr. and Mrs. Henry Villebois for Marham, near Stoke Ferry, in Norfolk…”; and “HUNTING APPOINTMENTS…Mr. H. Villebois’s harriers, on Monday, at Oxburgh [sic]; Wednesday, Stoke Ferry Field ; Saturday, at the Town Barn, Swaffham, at eleven.”
After a day’s hunting there were sumptuous feasts with fine wines. Lavish Hunt Dinners and stylish Balls were held at Marham, Swaffham, King’s Lynn, etc. One feast is recorded for 1829; “Mr. H. Villebois’s hunt dinner took place…at the Crown Inn, Stoke Ferry; a large party attended, and after a number of loyal toasts and hunting songs, the gentlemen returned home thoroughly gratified”. As well as fox and stag hunting, the Villebois’ also organised hare coursing and the mass shooting of game birds.
The hunt-obsessed philanderer, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), became close friends with Henry junior and this Henry went on to run the Sandringham Hunt (3), spending summers sailing his luxury yacht (part of the Royal Yacht Squadron) on the Solent. Following the death of his father in 1846, he sold all the livestock and farming equipment in the Marham area and leased off his farms. But his lack of interest in farming did not prohibit him from becoming President of the Norfolk Agricultural Association in 1880!
As well being local magistriates, the two Henry’s were, in turn, the High Sherrif, and the Deputy Leiutennant of Norfolk. Henry junior was an active member of the Conservative Party’s ‘one nation’ Primrose League. He was also a Freemason and was married to Maria, the eldest daughter of the Tory MP, William Bagge of Stradsett Hall (3).
Memorials and contemporary newspapers and journals record the two Henry’s in glowing terms such as, “the perfect model of English gentlemen”, “genial manners and kind-hearted”, “endeared to all classes of society from the Royal to the humblest cottager”. But is that wholly true? And, what happened to those common folk who suffered from the enclosure of their common lands and the imposition of the Game Laws?
In 1869, influential landowners in and around Marham moved to arbitarily deprive the poor of their rights to “cut turves for fuel and of agisment (5) on fens and marshes” on Marham Fen. This Fen was typical of ‘marginal land’ that had escaped enclosure and cultivation to be used instead to provide meger resources for the poor. The landowners’ scheme was that the ‘owners’ of the newly enclosed Fen land were to pay an annual rent and this rent money to be dispursed amongst the poor of Marham. The plan was supported by The Poor’s Allotment, a charity run by the local church wardens along with Henry Villebois, Lord of the Manors of Oldhall, West Acre and Marham, and Sir Thomas Hare, Lord of the Manors of Newhall & Shoudham. Practicly every poor resident signed a petition against the plan. When there was an attempt to mark out the Fen lands for enclosure, two hundred females ‘armed’ with frying pans and tin-boilers confronted the local constabulary and a number of officials who had to stop their work. Twenty-eight of these women were subsiquently charged with affray and taken before the Magistraits at Downham. Eventually, the strenth of local feeling forced Henry Villebois junior to attend a meeting to hear the objections of the poor to the landowners’ attempt to “make Marham one of the poorest Parishes in Norfolk”. As a result, an enquiry was established and twenty acres of land was set aside for the taking of turves, and 40-50 acres was set aside for garden allotments. The land in question is now owned by the Marham Poor’s Trust.
Here are names of just some local males punished for crimes on Villebois property and their hunting grounds: Robert Carter, Watt Mason, William Goddard, George Hobbs; charged with shooting at Villebois gamekeepers, sentenced to transportation for life; John Boughen charged with stealing a Peck of potatoes value 8d, property of Henry Villebois, seven days imprisonment; Richard Hitchings, John Hitchings, Ruben Oats, and William Martis, four little boys, charged by a Villebois’s gamekeeer with poaching for rabbits, each fined 3s.6d; James Hard, 19, stealing a bridle belonging to Henry Villebois, gaoled for one month; Edward Hudson, labourer, of Narborough, charged by a Villebois’ gamekeeper of using traps to take game, fined 6s. and 14s. costs; two Villebois gamekeepers involved in an armed struggle with George Ripper, William Newton and Robert Burton, all of Swaffham, who were night poaching at “The Contract”, near Narborough, sentence unknown; Robert Burton of Swaffham, charged by a Villebois gamekeeper of night poaching at Narborough, two months prison; Robert Brown of Narborough, charged by a Villebois gamekeeper of using a snare to take and kill game, fined 18s. and 12s. costs; Henry Mason, labourer, and Walter Blye, dealer, both of Fincham, charged by a Villebois gamekeeper of poaching near ‘Devils Ditch’, each fined £1 and 11s costs; John Watkins and Edward Shafto, charged by a Villebois gamekeeper with stealing six pheasants eggs, each fined 5s. for every egg and 10s. 6d. costs; making £2.0s.6d each.
End Notes of interest: In the 1930s, most of Marham House was demolished, re-built using original materials in 1937, fully refurbished c.2005. Today within Marham there are nods to the past with a Villebois Road as well as a Walnut Walk and a Cherry Close. A little known fact: the father of Ann Lee of Shouldham Thorpe was the sign-writing artist for many of Truman Brewery’s pub signs.
(1) See also my article referring to the Villebois family in the Village Pump, October 2020, 19th Century Game Laws; complicated and challenging
(2) When Henry Villebois junior died, Truman’s brewery, with operations in London, East England, and Burton-on-Trent, ceased to be family-owned.
(3) Originally there were no foxes at Sandringham, they had to be introduced and ‘preserved’ to allow fox hunting to take place.
(4) Sir William Bagge (1810 – 1880) was a Conservative MP for West Norfolk in 1837-57 and 1865-80.
(5) Agistment, is the right to take cattle to graze.

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