Working Lives

It’s the little things that get destroyed (1960s-2018)

Location: Rockland St Mary

Daphne tells us about life in Rockland St Mary, raising a family, being a member of the WI and how the village has changed over the years.

My husband and I came to live in Rockland St Mary when we married, in 1968. We bought a bungalow on New Inn Hill and have been here ever since.

We moved here because it was a useful place to be as it was close to Norwich where we were both working, me as a teacher and Derek as a printer. We also had a boat so we wanted somewhere where it could be moored, within easy reach. It had been moored in Thorpe where my husband lived and we wanted it locally to us. It was a nice boat and we would go out on it for weekends on the Broad and the river Yare. If we had holiday time we would go up to the northern Broads as well. Going across Breydon was quite interesting especially if it was choppy and windy. Derek was always a fisherman, he loved both river and sea fishing.

At that time the southern area was quieter than the northern area around Wroxham, it was always very busy up there. But it was easy to get around and there was always something to see even if it was just a flock of geese flying over, but it was very pleasant. We used to regularly go and sit down there, after our evening meal, and just sit for the evening, enjoying the peace and quiet as it was then and observe the birds and grumble about the insects biting. But it was very pleasant being out there.

Village life in Rockland St Mary – buildings and small holdings – past and present

Rockland St Mary is a very peculiar village in some respects as it is linear, about three miles in length and we have three distinct areas: The top end of the village, the centre and then when you come down New Inn Hill and Lower Road you have that community too. As we are so close to Norwich we are a bit of a dormitory village in some ways and it is difficult to get people to mix and feel part of a village community.

There is no actual village hub, and I don’t think there ever will be. It is not a village like you would get if you had a village green where everybody lived around it and worked together.

As the village has grown over the years we have seen lots of infill. There was a small development called St Margaret’s Way which began when we came here in 1967-1968. We have had one small development since, Bee-orchid Way and this is being extended much to the chagrin of the people living in the original bit.

At the moment the parish council is concerned as there have been some sites suggested for development, which would double the size of the village and totally change the character too. One in particular would impinge on almost all of us, a proposal of 200 properties to be built on the top of the hill to Lower Road and across the fields.

When we first came here there were lots of gardens, small holdings and orchards which used to supply the fresh produce market in Norwich. A lorry would come round and collect the produce from various places in the village, all these smallholdings have gone; the last one we have is Applebee orchard on the Bramerton border.

Most people never retired and they continued to work until they passed on and if there was no one to take them on the small holdings were sold. Everything seemed to be concentrated on supply and demand to the large supermarkets so the small producer didn’t survive.

They belonged to individuals and were sold off with the properties on them, or sometimes people who had enormous gardens sold parts off and a property has been built on it. One example is a lovely old thatched house which was owned by a Mr Till. It had lovely tar covered barns which he kept all his produce in, ready for collection. We used to buy our tomato plants from him. Mr Till died and the barns have all gone and a bungalow has been built instead.

This all happened at the end of the 1970s beginning of the 1980s. The village started to change, I can remember leaning my bike up against a wall opposite the post office when my children were at school. I bought my fruit and vegetables from a shed there. That and the cottages have all gone and there are flats there now.

There are very few original residents living in the village that were here when we came to the village fifty odd years ago. They were typical country folk, very independent and kept themselves to themselves. There was a lot of rivalry between the villagers, Claxton and Rockland in particular, they were very separate communities and didn’t enter one another’s villages.

Bringing up children in a rural location

My children were born in the 1970s and it was much nicer in many ways bringing them up here rather than an urban area as they could have freedom. Perhaps not as much as I had in my childhood where you would go off out after breakfast and come home for dinner. They were able to go out and play and you didn’t worry about them, they could ride their bikes up and down the village street, there wasn’t the traffic that there is now, there are times when it is like the M1.

We used to cycle to school regularly, everyday, and I did that journey four times a day, come hail, rain, snow and shine. We did have a car but Derek used that for work.

Broads and reedcutting

The characters that lived in the village mainly got their living from the Broad, rivers and marshes. One such was Archie Taylor who lived in a cottage on the marsh with his wife Peggy and their three children. He was a reedcutter and could be seen on the reed beds around Rockland in the wintertime, reedcutting. He also had one or two boats which he looked after as well as the marsh.

One of the smallholders, who was known as Fudgie, had what was called a market garden, where the village playing field is now. I can remember picking strawberries there when we first came.

He was a reedcutter too, and his son could always be seen with him at reedcutting time, knocking the reed into bundles which were then brought along to the landing stage. Norfolk reed of course is very useful for thatching, one of the best types of reed.

The reedcutters didn’t have any particular uniform. Archie did wear a trilby with the feather tucked into the hat band. The work was very hard on the hands so obviously they wore gloves.

The women were traditional housewives, doing the normal things that housewives did in those days. If you had your family you didn’t go out to work, unless you had a small job locally, often that was cleaning other people’s homes.

When we came here the Broads were very much a cowboy’s paradise, but the parish council got to grips with it and the shooting rights are let to the Rockland Wildfowlers Association, which was established in the mid 1970s to regulate the shooting during the season.

Marshman’s cottages

This is simply called a marshman’s cottage as they were built on the marsh. There are a number scattered around, but you have to look carefully as a lot of them have been changed, upgraded and turned into riverside properties.

Marshman’s Cottage Rockland 1993


There is one at How Hill which has been kept as a marshman’s cottage.

Toad Hole cottage. Photo Broads Authority.

The one down at Rockland has been razed to the ground in this last year and a large building is being put up there.

From photographs they look like they are wooden buildings, we know that they were lived in as there are pictures of linen on the linen lines and people walking round the side of the dyke that goes down to the marsh.

We haven’t learned much about them, and when they disappeared, I don’t know, maybe between the wars. My neighbour was born here and he is eighty-two and he doesn’t remember the cottages being there.

The New Inn pub

When we came here the pub was still a very old fashioned one. There was a tiny entrance porch and a wooden hatch that you knocked on, it would open and the landlady Ivy Breech would ask you what you wanted. You didn’t see shelves or even the pump handles. She would get you what you wanted and then you’d pay her and either take your drink outside or into the large drinking room, which was always smoky and smelled of ale. It was a very typical country pub of that era.

Most people knew each other, sometimes you would get people come up on the boats. At that time the boat business was really taking off, there was no boat hiring facility at Rockland .if people had a boat they would come down from Brundall or Loddon. Sometimes holiday makers would come and moor on Rockland Staithe, at that time it was just the end of the dyke not the big open staithe that it is now.

Changes in the Broad and marsh over the years and loss of insect life

When we first came you could walk across and round the Broad, you couldn’t see the Broad as you were below the bank. It was wonderful because the bank was covered with hawthorn and brambles, the marsh was not grazed enormously, just occasionally in the summer. The plants were lovely, orchids were growing, the wildflowers were really lovely and the insect life was fantastic.

There were fourteen species of butterfly breeding out there. During the 1990s the marsh was all cleared, and it was destroyed. The banks were rebuilt, as was some of the Broad wall and a footpath was made around the walls, you could actually see the Broad through the trees. The Rockland Wildfowlers lease it from the parish council, and they put in a lot of bits of willow, which soon grows. The footpath is part of the Wherryman’s Way walk and it needs a lot of maintenance to bring it back to what it should be like. The parish council is working on this.

The loss of insect life, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and moths has been enormous because of the destruction of the bushes.

It is so disheartening at times to go out there and not see anything. I have walked it first thing in the morning with my dog and the swifts were fantastic, ducking and diving, swishing past you gathering the flying insects. It was wonderful.

Rockland Marsh 2010


Rockland Marsh 2013

High tides, mole holes and problems with the banks of the waterways

When we have high tides now you see water running down the side of the bank coming out through little holes, these are mole holes. We are getting many more high tides these days and that erodes the bank.

The river Yare is very busy at certain times of the year, particularly with holiday and private boats. I think that there are more private boats on the southern rivers than the northern area. The dykes have to be maintained, the waterways are tidal and we have had extremely high tides recently so the dyke coming down to Rockland Staithe has been maintained. It has recently been dredged again in order to allow the boats to come down because it is an amenity for people who use the Broads. We have almost always got a cruiser of some sort in the dyke moored at our end. We have access for village folk too, as the staithe is owned by Rockland Poor’s Trust.

When the plants and bushes were there this erosion never happened as the roots were a deterrent to the moles. I don’t know what the answer is, it’s very difficult.

My husband Derek has walked out there, kept a constant watch and records on it for many many years, He might have been a printer in his everyday life but in his ideal life he was a naturalist, a very fine naturalist

His particular interest is in molluscs and has surveyed the many areas and it is the little things, molluscs, that get destroyed. The dyke was partially dredged every now and again, but about eight or nine years ago after being sold English Nature said that the dyke had to be properly dredged. They dredged everything out, destroyed it all. It is slowly coming back.

Even the water soldier plants, a brownish water plant that lives in the dykes and one that as an ordinary person you are not allowed to touch, were stripped. These were what the Norfolk hawker dragonfly bred on in those dykes and it has taken a long time before we saw them coming back.

It is a shame that it has completely altered the marsh. It’s been overgrazed and now it looks almost like a bowling green rather than the lovely wild area with its wild flowers and orchids.

Rockland Poor’s Trust

Rockland Poor’s Trust was set up in 1912. The enclosures meant that people couldn’t get their common rights and so the Poor’s Trust was formed to give the poor in the village coal in the wintertime. The Trust still exists but instead of giving coal they can give people grants if they are in need. The elderly in the village who are widowed receive a small grant at Christmas from the Trust if there is some left over after all the bills have been paid.

It is typical of many villages in the county that have these little trusts to help and look after those in need and Broad work was considered poor in the early 1900s.

The rivers were well used

The dyke was well used and the rivers were well used. We don’t get the big trading ships down here now because Norwich ceased to be a port. When it was a port the coal trader used to come down to the electricity generating station. Corn and flour were brought into Norwich, which is why Carrow Bridge is an opening bridge.

When the southern bypass was built they put a big bridge over it and Norwich then ceased to be a port.

Tidal surges, flooding and higher levels of salinity in the water affecting wildlife

There have been floods but I haven’t experienced them too greatly. There have been tidal surges and I have seen water of two or three feet deep around the cottage on the marsh where Peggy and Archie lived. The bank has been breached on the far bank right across the marsh, as far as I know the pub has not been flooded. There are pictures from 1953 of the marshes all covered in water and the water coming over the staithe.

Reed island preservation work, Rockland 2011

There are salt water meters along the river, one at Wheatfen, one on the corner of Short Dyke and the river Yare, which record the salinity of the water.

We are getting more times now that the salinity is higher than it should be and a lot of the things that like pure freshwater are being lost from the Broad. Derek has been monitoring this for some time and the mussels are being affected. Some of the freshwater bivalves and univalves are gastropods and they are disappearing over time as they need proper, fresh water to live in and can’t live in brackish water. Swan mussels are suffering a bit at the moment because of the salt tides.

Salt tides, heavy metals and the decimation of the eel catching industry

Salt tides come because salt water is heavier than fresh water and it travels under the fresh water and doesn’t go out when the tide goes out, it is heavier so the salt lays.

Swan mussels and duck mussels are recovering quite well, but they suffered very badly in the 1950s and early 1960s with pollution that was being discharged into the river Yare, heavy metals particularly.

The muds of Rockland Broad and the surrounding dykes have got a deposit of heavy metals and that is why they won’t dredge the Broad. They have to be very careful when dredging the dykes and the waterways because this disturbs the heavy metal which will damage the water quality.Usually dredged mud is just deposited on the sides of the banks but when dredging here they have to take it to a special place to be deposited.

Smee Loke,  Wheatfen, Surlingham 2012 after dredging

Chemical works were, perfectly legally, putting chemicals into the sewers and water. It has all changed now once they realised what was happening. In some respect European Union [EU] regulations made them clean up their act.

The other thing that happened was that it decimated eel catching, and the eel catcher’s livelihoods because eels retained the heavy metal in them.

I know of someone locally who used to go pike fishing and kept them in their freezer. The health officer came and took one away to check if it had any heavy metals in it. He came back and instructed him to destroy the lot as they were riddled with mercury and too dangerous to eat.

I hope that local people know not to cook them but there are still people fishing and eating the fish.

Water regulation and a welcome increase in number of molluscs

Once water regulation had come in the mollusc life improved and it was doing very well and we are getting reasonable sized swan mussels from the Broad. We were getting the Asian clam coming in which was a bit of a pain in the neck, zebra mussels were doing quite well but the numbers have gone down a bit over the last few year because of extra tides. They prefer freshwater not brackish water which contains salt. The salt levels are being regularly monitored now.

Involvement with the Women’s Institute (WI)

I have been involved with the Rockland St Mary WI for forty-six years, this branch has been in existence since 1920 so next year will be celebrating its centenary. We don’t have any original members now but when I joined in 1972 there was at least one lady who was involved in the start of it.

The original purpose of the WI was to provide the ladies of the village to get together and have a social life. If you think it was the First World War and the men went off to war and the women were left behind to run everything. When the men came back they wanted their lives back and the women would be pushed out.

The WI had been going in Canada since 1897 and Madge Watt who lived in British Columbia was friendly with a gentleman in England who invited her over to England to talk to the Agricultural Association. She came over and talked about the formation of WIs and what they were doing for women, giving them a voice and an education. Colonel Stapleton-Cotton was the chairman of the Agricultural Association and he invited her to come to talk to the women on his estate in Anglesey.

In those days if the lord of the manor requested that wives of the workers come to the meeting they did not dare not attend because their husbands could lose their job.

So all the ladies from the estate and village went along to the meeting in the little village hut and they formed the first WI, this was in 1915, gradually word spread that this was a way of empowering women.

In those days women would go to church, they were not allowed to go into a pub, or go out on their own, you were part of your family. One clergyman wrote a piece about women gadding around the countryside at night which was ridiculous because you would go off to the meeting, meet other people and talk to them.

We still do that, the ethos of education is still going, we might enjoy ourselves and have a good sing song at Christmas but we still have that educational element and also  the public resolutions that we have which we discuss and take forward to our national meetings.

The WI has always played a part in the village. We are primarily an educational movement not a fundraising movement which a lot of people think we are. We did, however, do the fundraising to provide the village sign, we produced the first booklet of the history of the village, provided a seat in the village, and trees. We are involved with things that happen within the church too.

We have been involved with village fetes, we have a reading group, a scrabble group and we even include sessions on how to use your computer, mobile phone and tablet, as well as the basic crafts and things that WIs were famous for years ago.

We don’t do much cookery as we don’t have the facilities, but we do crafts and quilting. Some of us keen on it some of us are not, it’s very much a personal thing, I’ve always been a needlewoman right from when I was a tiny tot and  was taught to embroider by one of my aunts. Some people with an artistic side to them might take inspiration from the marshes, but my artistic side is not very good I’m afraid, but I can follow a pattern and adapt things and I just love sewing. I used to do that to earn a few pennies when my children were small.

Daphne Howlett (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive at Rockland St Mary on 16th January 2019.

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