Copyright © 2017
Dersingham Folk
All Rights reserved
Site by Mike Strange
Memories of Dersingham
Katie Thorpe © and Mike Strange
Katie Thorpe wrote to us during February 2021 and generously shared the 'Dersingham Memories' that her late father, Harry Thorpe (1916-2015 ), wrote in his 85th year. He had spent several years of his youth here, along with his mother, after his grandmother, Mary Ann (Smith) Rainbow, died in 1922.  We are delighted to be able to make this available with some photographs, both from Katie and from our archive, to illustrate just a few of the places that Harry Thorpe wrote about.
"I came to Dersingham early in the new year of 1923, when I was six.  My grandfather, Mr. J.G. Rainbow, had come to Sandringham in 1868 as a representative of the firm of Hollands, to furnish the recently purchased and renovated house of the Prince and Princess of Wales.  Subsequently he was offered a position as tapissier, and he remained in that position until the death of Queen Alexandra in 1925.  In 1872 he married Mary Ann Smith, daughter of Catherine and John Smith of West Newton, and some time in the 1870’s built his house, the Retreat, on Heath Road in Dersingham, which is the first house on the right as you leave Manor Road.

Harry Thorpe with his sister Catherine c1922
[From Katie: The people in The Retreat photo are likely (and it's based only on a shrewd guess) Alice (Thorpe) Sayer ( L), Daisy Rainbow (R), and Joe (L) and Pearson (R) Sayer, Alice's children. I'd guess around 1911, Alice is Daisy's sister-in-law to be.  The Rainbows had a cottage on the shingle at Snettisham and as far as I can tell from pictures there were a lot of visitors.]
When I started living there, the corner lot, which is now a motor dealership, was a carpenter's workshop and yard, with piles of lumber.  I don’t remember the name of the owner at that time. Moving along Heath Road, on the right, there were two houses adjoining Grandfather’s.  In the first one lived a widowed lady, Mrs. Annie Ralph, and her three children: Winifred was a girl of 11 or 12; the son Raymond was my age and soon became my best friend, and there was a smaller boy, probably aged 4, called Donald. In the next house a Mr & Mrs F.W. Bunn lived; Mr. Bunn was an employee of the Sandringham post office.
There was then an open field, and in the next house with a large barn, next to the open common, lived a Mrs. Mann and her daughters, one of whom was named Grace.  On the other side of the road, the house at the corner of Manor Road was occupied by Mr. Terrington, the butcher, and the area around the corner of Manor Road, which is now occupied by a funeral home, was the entrance to his holding pens and slaughter house.
Directly across the road from Grandfather’s house was a yellow brick house occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Jabez Chambers and their daughters.  This was an adult family and except for seeing them I never really got to know them.  A little further up the road there were a row of cottages, standing back from the road with nice gardens in front of them.  At these there was a Mrs. Petrie, who was the widow of a retired army officer or colonial administrator, who had travelled extensively in the Middle East and Egypt and India.  She was a most interesting lady who could tell you the most wonderful stories that would impress a six or seven year old, about her life in those countries, and had rooms full of  things she had obtained and brought back.  I used to love to visit her.  Unfortunately, I believe she died before I left Dersingham.

There were probably one or two other houses up to and adjoining the closed common; in one of these lived a very large, overweight man.  I don’t remember his name, but to us – the family, and us kids- he was known only as “The Fat Man”.
One of the first things I had to do when I came to Dersingham was to go to school.  I was duly enrolled in the school, and my first teacher, I believe, was Miss Catlyn.  She taught in a large room adjacent to the road.  The centre part of the school, running across the yard, was where the second level was taught, and I remember a Mr. Stanley there.  Mr.Wheeler, the headmaster, taught in the left-hand side of the school.  I never reached his grade as I was transferred to Lynn Grammar School when I was 11 years old.

There were two large houses standing on the hillside across the schoolyard [below].  I don’t really know too much about them, but was told at the time that they were quite old, probably dating back to the middle of the 17th century. [Pakenham Manor]
The way to school was of course along Manor Road.  On the right hand side I remember a red brick house, I believe on the corner of Centre Lane [Senter's Road]. This house belonged to the Insley family, another adult family who had been longtime friends of my grandfather’s.  Then there was Playford’s the baker, and two more small shops, and then I remember little else until you came to the corner of Manor Road and the road to Sandringham and up Sandringham Hill.  About halfway up Sandringham hill was the doctor’s house. Beyond the corner were some open fields, and just before you got to the schoolyard was the entrance to a region called the Elmlings [Emblings or Elmlands].
On the other side of the road, immediately across from the entrance to Heath Road, there was a row of houses running at right angles to Manor Road [Asker's Row].  Next to them, just a wee bit further up the road and still across from Terrington’s the butcher, was the home of the Lines family.  Here I remember two girls, Stella and Mary.  They were considerably older than I was, probably in their late teens. A little further along, in the end house of a row of houses just a wee bit further up Manor Road, a family named Chandler lived.  Mr. Chandler was a retired Metropolitan police officer who had come there quite recently, as far as I remember.  He had a son, Tom.  Tom was never at Dersingham School; I only really got to know him after I had started going to the grammar school at King’s Lynn.

The only other building I remember along that section of the road was the Forester’s Hall and then Parker’s store, open fields beyond that with the football fields and the cricket pitch, and some tennis courts, I believe, and the Feathers Hotel.  A favourite prank of us boys, going to school, was to ring the bell at the Feathers and then run around the corner as fast as we could to school.  I don’t believe they ever answered that bell because they probably had become well aware of what it was all about.
Forester's Hall
Parker's Store
The Feathers c1928
Adjoining Grandfather’s garden and with property facing onto Manor Road was the shop and home of a family named Drew.  I believe they were in the saddle and harness business.  Across the road from them was the barber’s shop, now a florist; just before you got to the barber’s shop there was a building standing at right angles to the road that may have been a photographer’s studio, as it was glazed with old glass photographic plates.  A little driveway beside that building led to the home of Dan Grief.  Dan kept horses and a trap, ran a livery stable on a limited scale, and took people about to the station and other places in the vicinity.  He used to take us to our bungalow on Snettisham beach.  The only other person of note on Manor Road was a lady who lived in a row of cottages [West Hall Manor/Workhouse/Laundry Yard] just before you got to the Albert Victor Hotel.  She was a Mrs. Batterbee, who ran a home laundry service, but she would also come to people’s homes to undertake their laundry.  Mrs. Batterbee came at least once or twice a month, on a Monday, to undertake the laundry at home.  Her daughter had married one of the royal chauffeurs named Figg and they had twin boys Douglas and David who were approximately my age.  I never really got to know them very well as they spent most of their time in London but were often down when the Royal Family came to Sandringham for the shooting in January and early February, and they would come down in the summer to visit their grandmother.

Perhaps here I might say a few things about the activities and the playthings we had in the early 20’s.  In the schoolyard, marbles were often a popular game.  We had spinning tops – these required a level surface and were kept spinning by the use of a whip.  We had hoops, either metal or wood or even old bicycle wheels.  In the winter, if there was snow and we were lucky enough to have a toboggan, we would toboggan on the hill on the left-hand side of the Elmlings.  This was the best local hill for tobogganing, but unfortunately we didn’t get snow every winter.

In the spring birds’ nesting and egg collecting was our main occupation.  It was an activity that we generally pursued on our own, for every nest we found we jealously guarded, even from our best friends.  We would collect one egg from each nest, and each egg had to have its contents carefully blown out and the egg preserved. 

I cannot go any further along here without mentioning Mr. Dowdy, or “Old Dowdy”.  He had his home in a red brick building beyond the very far corner of the closed common.  This was actually a pumphouse and was connected to the watertower at Sandringham.  This was a precaution against fire because heath fires were a fairly common occurrence.  I remember seeing it used once when a rather large heath fire in the closed common was threatening to spread into the woodlands along the Lynn Road.  Dowdy was a sort of a loner and nobody seemed to bother him; he just made his home in this old pumphouse.  He would get quite noisy and raise his arms and shout at us if we boys got too close to the building.  We would wait to see when he had left and gone down into Dersingham – he did all sorts of odd jobs to make a living – and then we would go and peer in at the windows to see how he lived.  He had an old chair – it looked quite comfortable, I suppose – and a huge heap of bracken in one corner that was his bed, and a few other utensils and things stood around.  He used to come to Grandfather’s house to mow the grass, do some gardening, chop the firewood, take the refuse away  and generally make himself useful on Fridays.  Every Friday he would turn up and do his work in the mornings; he would then appear at the back door and receive a large dinner, which he would take to a little shelter that stood at the far end of the garden with doors that led out onto Manor Road.  I believe he was paid half a crown.

Now a few words about the Dun Cow Inn.  In the 1881 census my great-grandfather and grandmother, John and Catherine Smith, are shown to be innkeepers, together with a niece. Also living with them at that time was my eldest aunt, Harriet Kate Rainbow, at that time aged 7.  How many other children of Grandfather’s lived with Granny and Grandfather Smith at the Dun Cow I don’t know, but I know my mother (Daisy) did because she told many little stories about her life there.  In the early 1920’s, a Laura and Tom Magness were the innkeepers;  they also had a daughter whose name I have forgotten.  They were my Grandmother Rainbow’s (nee Mary Ann Smith) cousins; I think Laura was the actual cousin. 
Today the landscape of the commons and the fen have greatly changed.  Then they were open, there were no trees.  The closed common consisted largely, especially on the far side, of heather, with a small amount of bush growth up against the woodlands. 

The other side – the Dersingham side – was not so much heather but covered with rough scrubby growth and small bushes.  There was a very large rabbit warren which no doubt kept the growth of the invading birches at bay.  The open common was completely covered with grass and gorse and at the very heart of it there was the remains of a World War I searchlight base. [or gun mount]
The fen was completely open, there was no obstruction right across to the hills that led down to Wolferton Station.  The remains of the old firing range were there, the butts that held the targets and a barrier of brush and sand that stood behind it, in case a stray bullet might have reached Wolferton.  The firing positions were rotting away, and the whole area was very flat and covered with patches of white sand and rough marshy growth. 

When I was transferred to the grammar school at King’s Lynn, this of course entailed a daily trip on the train and arrangements had to be made for a lunch.  A small group of us – not all from Dersingham but from the Heacham, Hunstanton and Snettisham area – travelled on the train.  Some took their lunch, but an arrangement could be made with Ely’s restaurant on Norfolk Street for a boy’s lunch for a shilling a day.  Ely’s restaurant was on the left-hand side of Norfolk Street, probably 8 or 9 shops up from the High Street.  We were given a very reasonable lunch, sometimes sausages and mash, sometimes pieces of beef, whatever was on the menu for the day.  Except on Tuesdays.  Tuesday was market day, and we were relegated to an upstairs room with the hired hands of the farmers and dealers and other people who occupied the main eating rooms downstairs.  The service up there wasn’t very great. 

After the lunch – we generally had about two hours for lunch at the school – we would wander through the Market Square and past the Globe Hotel, down the the quays.  In February, of course, Lynn Mart was in full swing  and I am afraid there were times the shilling we were given for our lunches was spent on the attractions of the Mart and on Thurston’s entertainments.

On long summer evenings, we often on a Sunday would take a walk.  This would involve Mother and myself, my sister, and visiting aunts and uncles, whoever in the family who happened to be living with or visiting Grandfather at the time.  One of the favorite walks we had was across the common, towards Sandringham.  After passing through the little wood – that was the area between the common and the Princess’s Drive – we would walk along the Princess’s Drive towards Wolferton.  Now the Princess’s Drive – it is rapidly today being obliterated and overgrown –started at the  top of Sandringham Hill, and ran along the crest of the hills overlooking the fens and marshes, until it exited at the Wolferton Road.  It had been constructed quite early in the Prince and Princess of Wales’ residence at Sandringham  and at that time a number of overlooks had been cleared through the trees so that there were excellent views across the fens and marshes to the distant Wash.  At the time we would make walks along there some of the overlooks were being overgrown. 

Just after you left the entrance to the Drive at Sandringham Hill you came to the home of Mr and Mrs. Boughen and their son Leslie.  Mr. Boughen  was the estate’s forester. 

Somewhere along the Drive toward Wolferton  and standing a little back from the road there was a fine stand of edible chestnuts.  I can assure you we raided them regularly in October.  They weren’t great big chestnuts, but they were sweet little things with a very spiny outer cover. 

There were occasions we – that is my mother, my sister and myself – would visit Grandfather at his office at Sandringham House.  Sometimes when his duties did not allow him to get home every evening – perhaps this would happen on a weekend – Mother would say “Well, we’ll go to visit Grandfather today.”  We would walk up across the common and through the woods, and up to where the memorial is, and then walk along the road and past the Norwich Gates until we came to the entrance to the back of Sandringham House.   I don’t really remember much about Grandfather’s office.  He had a little living room beside it where he could stay at night.  We would always end up being taken into the servants’ dining room to have a little light refreshment.  Here I met a number of the senior servants of the household, but I only remember Miss Noon, who was the housekeeper, by then a rather stately and middle-aged lady, in fact probably quite an elderly lady.  Ultimately, after the death of Queen Alexandra in 1925, she was put in charge of York Cottage in a form of semi-retirement.  We visited her there once or twice but it is not something I remember very much about, except that she had a young lady who looked after her requirements – and ours – and served us whatever refreshments were offered.

As members of Grandfather’s household, we were invited to the Christmas tree and celebrations that were given for the staff.  I think we attended that function in 1923 and again in 1924.  There wasn’t one in 1925 because Queen Alexandra had died.  I still have in my possession a small doll that was given to my sister Catherine at one of those functions and a permanent desk calendar that was given to my mother.  We conveyed to Sandringham probably by Mr Hyner’s taxi, because it was wintertime, and refreshments would be served.  Finally we would assembling the ballroom. A huge Christmas tree would be standing in the middle, all lighted up.  We stood around in a huge circle around tables, and a present was found for each one of us.  We had a number, and when the number was called we would indicate where we were, and one of the members of the Royal Family or the Household would come and present us with this present.  Of course we had to be very polite and say a very nice thank you.

The highlight of the Sandringham year of course was the flower show.  It was held toward the end of August every year, just adjacent to the church.  This was a highlight, not so much for the flowers, from a boy’s view of it, but for the opportunity to sneak into the grounds of the House itself.  We would then go around to the back of the lake and climb up into the little summerhouse that overlooked the lake.  This had been built by the King – the Prince at the time – for Alexandra and was lined with blue Danish tile.  He had built it just to remind her of her Danish homeland. 

Even after the flower show was over, we could sneak into the grounds through the gates, because they were open.  I’m not sure quite how we did it, but Raymond and I were able to find a way into the grounds to sneak up and play around that summerhouse.  We did it quite a number of times and were never intercepted or challenged.

Now I will turn my attention to Snettisham Beach.  In 1908, or maybe 1905,  Grandfather built a summer cottage, always called the bungalow in the family, on the shingle ridge overlooking the Wash, in sight of the end of the road to the beach.  Before the development of cottages along that stretch of beach there had been a number of huts.  Most of these, I think, had been day huts, because the beach, in  the late Victorian period and through the Edwardian period, had remained a popular watering place for the villages of Snettisham, Dersingham, West Newton and Wolferton, etc.  As far as I know, only one of these huts was used year round.  I will come to that in just a minute.

The road to the beach started in Snettisham and ended at the beach; it passed over the shingle ridge and down onto the cockle flats.  These were beautifully clean sandy flats and were used for both commercial cockle gathering and for those people who went out to gather them for their own use, which we did frequently.  There were two or three other beachfront cottages built at approximately the same time as my grandfather’s; the first one was owned by a family named Knight.  It was later sold to a family named Spaulding.  Next to it was an inhabited hut lived in by a man named Bob Pepys.  Bob Pepys was a year-round resident of the beach.  He lived by gathering cockles, gathering mushrooms, acting as a refuse removal man for the cottages that were being developed, and by beachcombing and by whatever odd jobs he could get.  He did some of the shingle work as well.  Next to Bob Pepys was Grandfather’s cottage; the next one to that was owned by the Insley family of Dersingham.  I think that was probably all the cottages that were built before the first world war.  There may have been one or two others.

When the First World War came, within a matter of days an officer turned up at the house at Dersingham and demanded the keys in the name of the King.  It was August, and the cottage was furnished; all the bedding and flatware and dishes were in place because this was the holiday season.  The members of the family were certainly expecting to use it.  However, it was requisitioned, and Grandfather was not allowed to go to remove anything.  It had to be exactly as they took it over, and they took it over within days of the outbreak of war.  It was returned to Grandfather shortly after the Armistice in 1918, but, oh dear, the interior had been absolutely, totally wrecked.  Everything that could have been broken up and burned had been, the tables, the chairs; the bedding and sheets had been stolen or destroyed; the cutlery, the crockery – just everything that could have been smashed or broken had been done so.  Really, the bungalow was just an empty shell, and as far as I know no recompense or restitution was ever made.  From photographs that I have, we were back into the bungalow in the summer of 1919.  Some considerable refurbishing had taken place by that time.
At about the same time that Grandfather built his summer cottage, King Edward built a cottage on the shingle ridge on the other side of the road, some two or three hundred yards down the beach.  It was built for the Queen, and was built of the hard red sandstone called carrstone.  It was surrounded by a wall of the same material.  At the end of the beach road, when you made a right hand turn to go to the Queen’s cottage, there was a gate across the road there.  It was on private property, but with the beach access it wasn’t really very private. 

I was taken by Grandfather – on what exact occasion I don’t know – but I was taken to the Queen’s cottage and remember the interior only vaguely, but the part that I do remember is that the interior walls were plastered, and inset into the plaster were all kinds of different seashells.

When Queen Alexandra died in 1925, the cottage was partially demolished and was left standing, as Princess Victoria told Grandfather, as a little ruin by the sea.  I suppose it remained that way until it was obliterated by the tidal disasters of the early 1950's. 
Before you reach the beach, on the beach road, there were two farms, which were of importance to those people who were summering on the beach.  The  first one, which stood on the right hand side of the road, just at the second bend of the road where you cross an old embankment, was where we got our water supply.  Further down, on the left-hand side and just before the shingle beds started, was another farm.  This was owned by a family named Parsons. There was a Mr. and Mrs. Parsons, and a son called Wilfred.  From the Parsons' farm we obtained milk and eggs.  From the other farm we had to fetch our drinking water.  This was a daily routine by some member of the family, who, with a wooden yoke, would carry two pails of water back to the beach.  The actual drinking water was placed in a big crock that was actually a charcoal filter, and there was a little tap where you could draw off a glass of water to drink.

At the very end of the beach, also standing on the shingle ridge and on the right hand side of the beach road, was a Burton's teahouse. They carried small supplies of bread and those sorts of basics that could be obtained by people on the beach.  This was all right in the very early days but as the beach expanded, especially after the first world war, in the twenties and thirties, and especially in the summer months,  delivery systems from Snettisham began to appear. 

Also, in very late twenty-nine or thirty, a small teahouse and shop opened up on the beach.  This was run by a lady named Lemon and assisted by her two daughters, aged about eleven or twelve.  I can't remember their names, but along the beach they were affectionately known as the "Lemon Pips".

Of course there was lots to do at the beach.  We would gather cockles, and we would go shrimping and dab-sticking in the creeks when the tide was way out, in the channels between the sandbanks.  Later, when we got a little older, we would dig for clams and we would gather winkles at the old shore protection piers at the Heacham Creek outlet. 

One of the activities that should be recorded for Snettisham Beach was the shingle industry.  The photographs I have of shingle removal and loading were taken in 1909.  They show little barge-like boats that would arrive and anchor and settle on the edge of the sandflats.  These would then be loaded by a series of trestles set up so that planks could be laid along these trestles level with the hold of the ship.  The shingle would be loaded into wheelbarrows and a gang of men would trundle the barrows out to the ship on one plank, empty them into the hold and return to the beach on the other plank.  The shingle was transported to the loading position on the beach by teams of horses and carts, as shown in the photograph.  I think the early shingle removal seems to have just been removing the shingle from the beach itself.  Later digging for shingle started, and where the parking lot is on the right side of the beach road and into the nature reserve you can still see the heaps and humps of where the shingle was removed.  This was carted and heaped along the shingle ridge just to the right of the Burton's teahouse, and from there it was transported by horse and cart a little bit further along the beach to where it was loaded by wheelbarrow on the little boats.  Sometimes there were as many as three or four of these barge-like boats lined up waiting to be loaded.  This method of loading shingle on that side of the beach continued until at least the 1930's. I remember even small power driven boats instead of the wind powered boats coming and settling down and being loaded in that manner. 

In early August of 1924, I think, we were gathered at the beach cottage.  When I say we, I mean my Grandfather, my mother and father and my sister Catherine, mother's sister Mabel and her husband Fred Bennett and daughter Anne and  cousin Mary Ives.  We decided this summer to build a fence around our property because the beach had become quite busy by then and people used to come right up to the bungalow and peer in the windows, regardless of whether we were there or not.  This fence was being constructed of lumber pre-treated with creosote and was rather a messy proposition.  The fence was being built by my father and Uncle Fred. 

One morning, a messenger came down from Sandringham to tell Grandfather that the Queen, Princess Victoria, Charlotte Knollys and Sir Henry Stretfield would be at her cottage that afternoon, and they intended to come to see Grandfather at his beachfront cottage.  This of course entailed a certain amount of sprucing up and tidying up; my father and Uncle Fred decided they were not going to stop their building project and continued to work.  In due course, the Queen's Daimler, driving down the beach road and turning right through the privacy gates to her cottage, was spotted.  After a while, three-quarters of an hour or so, the Daimler returned.  By now. of course, it being summertime, and relatively busy, quite a lot of people had gathered at the entrance to her cottage to see their dowager Queen leaving her beach.  Instead of making the turn to return to Snettisham they drove straight on and stopped by our cottage.  Grandfather was out to greet his Queen and the Princess, and the first people he introduced them to were my father and Uncle Fred.  Since their hands were soaked in creosote, it was quite impossible for them to shake hands.  However, the Queen rose to the occasion and instead of shaking hands with them she grasped each of them by the elbow and gave it a vigourous shake.  The Princess and Lady Charlotte Knollys followed suit. 
In the meantime the chauffeur had turned her Daimler around and was sitting outside the cottage waiting for her return.  I don't remember how long the visit lasted; we were introduced to her and made our little bows and curtseys, and then were told we could go back on the beach and play.  In due course the party left, and by then the whole roadway from our cottage back to the turn onto the beach road was completely lined with people wondering why on earth the Queen had turned up at our particular cottage.

After Grandfather's death in 1929, the family retained the cottage until the end of the season in 1932.  Since then, I only visited the beach on three occasions:  the first was a short visit just after war broke out, towards the end of September 1939.  The beach was totally deserted at that time except for myself and three friends.  The cockle-gatherers were still busy; we bought a large bucket of cockles and then drove home to Bedford to a feast of freshly steamed cockles. 

The second visit was a very brief one sometime in 1946; the gunnery range was still being dismantled and the only area of access was at the beach road and along to the cottages. There had been considerable erosion by then, and a retaining wall had been built along the front of all the cottages.  The last visit was in August of 1996.  So much had changed, as far as I was concerned, decidedly for the worse.
These are some people I remember well by name, but have no other recollection of: Harry Margetts, and a Mr. W. Asker:  (I have a feeling he might have been the undertaker) and Mr. F. Bridges, and a man called Mr. W. Tupper, who was something to do with Sandringham."
Harry Thorpe 2007
These are some people I remember well by name, but have no other recollection of: Harry Margetts, and a Mr. W. Asker:  (I have a feeling he might have been the undertaker) and Mr. F. Bridges, and a man called Mr. W. Tupper, who was something to do with Sandringham."

Harry Thorpe, 2001