Attleborough Ancestors

St Mary's, parish church of Attleborough, Norfolk.

Whites Directory of Norfolk, 1854, reported that:

"ATTLEBOROUGH, or Attleburgh, is an ancient market town, pleasantly situated on the Norwich and Thetford turnpike, 15 miles S.W. of the former place, and 14 N.E. by E. of the latter, and on the north side of the Norfolk Railway, which has a neat station here. In the Saxon era it was the seat of Offa and Edmund, successively Kings of the East Angles, who fortified it against the predatory incursions of the Danes. These fortifications may still be traced in the ridge called Burn Bank. It was afterwards the seat of the Mortimers, whose ancient hall, (now a farm house,) is encompassed by a deep moat. The parish contains 501 houses, 2,324 inhabitants, and 5,247 acres of land. The Rev. Sir Wm. B. Smyth, Bart., is lord of the manor of Attleborough Mortimer, and its members, (fines arbitrary ;) and Mr. C. Cochell is the steward. S. T. Dawson, Esq., is lord of Chanticlere manor, (fines arbitrary,) and the rectory has two small manors, subject to a fine of 2s. per acre on land, and to arbitrary fines on the buildings. The town is comprised chiefly of one long street, with several good inns and shops ; and the market on Thursdays is well attended. The old market cross was taken down many years ago. Fairs are held on the Thursday before Easter, Whit-Sunday, and on Aug. 15th, for cattle, pedlery, &c. A pleasure fair is also held on the day before the March assizes. A stone pillar on the Wymondham road commemorates the gift of £200, by Sir E. Rich,Knt., in 1675,for the reparation of the road, which is said to be the first turnpike made in England, being formed under an Act passed in the 7th and 8th of William and Mary..."

It was also home to many of our family ancestors - with a recorded family line going back to at least 1577 in this small Norfolk market town.

Here they are, first our Attleborough Ancestors on my late father's side, starting with that line going back to 1577:

My father descended from Attleborough ancestors via his mother, Doris Brooker nee Smith.  When my grandmother Doris was alive, I interviewed her several times.  She was born in 1904 in Norwich, but she remembered her father taking her on a horse and cart to Attleborough, where he visited a pub with a grapevine outside.  I realised that this was his parent's old Attleborough beerhouse, the Grapes, but my grandmother herself didn't pick up on this family history.  Since then, I've revealed a very old family history in Attleborough.  It starts as I said, with an uninterrupted line from Robert Freeman, who had three children baptised in Attlebough between 1577 and 1581.  The family may well have - most likely did have, much earlier connections to the market town - but on record, they start here, not long after parish registers were first introduced by Thomas Cromwell, following the church split with Rome.

The baptism of Ann Freeman in Attleborough, 1577, daughter of Robert Freeman.  Robert fathered at least three children at Attleborough.  He was my 11th great grandfather.

William Freeman, my 10th great grandfather, was the son of Robert Freeman, baptised at St Mary's Attleborough, in 1581.  He was to go on and father a son:

My 9th great grandfather, Robert Freeman was baptised at St Mary's, Attleborough, in 1610, the son of William Freeman.  He married an Elizabeth.

My 8th great grandfather John Freeman, the son of Robert and Elizabeth, was baptised at Attleborough in 1639.  He married Agatha, and they had two sons in Attleborough between 1674 and 1675.

My 7th great grandfather, Thomas Freeman was baptised in Attleborough in 1675.  He married Elizabeth, and they had five children between 1695 and 1707.

My 6th great grandfather, John Freeman, was baptised at Attleborough in 1699.  He married Elizabeth.

My 5th great grandfather, named after his father, John Freeman, was baptised at Attleborough in 1734.  He married Anne.

My 4th great grandmother ends the Freeman dynasty for our tree.  Elizabeth Freeman was baptised at Attleborough in 1779. In 1803 at St Mary's, she married Robert Hewitt, a farmer - but most likely, not a prosperous one.  Agriculture was changing, and many small farmers were losing their land, being squeezed into the ranks of labourers and paupers.  They had five children at Attleborough, between 1805 and 1814.  Elizabeth died age 52, leaving Robert a widower.

My 3rd great grandmother, Lydia Hewitt, was baptised at Attleborough in 1807.  She married Robert Smith at St Mary's, Attleborough, in 1827.  Robert Smith was also born in Attleborough.  He had also farmed land, but the times were changing, and the family fell on hardships.  They had six children born in Attleborough, before Lydia died age 37.

Their son, my 2nd great grandfather, Robert (Hewitt) Smith, was born in the town in 1832.  Although he started out life in poor circumstances, he for many years, ran a beerhouse (the Grapes), and builders yard in the town, along with his wife, Ann (nee Peach) whom he married at St Mary's in 1857.  In 1879, the couple made the local new headlines, when they were burgled by an armed robber:

They had six children born at Attleborough, including:

My great grandfather, Frederick Smith, born in the market-town in 1860.  Fred served an apprenticeship as a wheelwright, and moved to Norwich - ending this part of the Attleborough Ancestors story.


Other Attleborough Ancestors of my Father

My paternal grandmother had other ancestors in Attleborough:

William Hewitt, my 5th great grandfather, was born near to Attleborough, at Great Hockham, about 1742.  However, with his wife, Elizabeth, they moved into the parish of Attleborough itself.  There, they had at least seven children, born at Attleborough between 1772 and 1783.

Their son, my 4th great grandfather, Robert Hewitt, married Elizabeth Freeman, as noted above.  Ten years after Elizabeth passed away, he married again, to Ann Batterby, in Attleborough.

We have a lot of Smith ancestors from Attleborough.  John Smith a 6th great grandfather, was born circa 1700, married Maria, and was buried in Attleborough in 1776.


Their son, my 5th great grandfather also John Smith, was baptised in Attleborough in 1731.  He married Judith Dennis at Attleborough in 1771.  They had four children there between 1771 and 1778.

Their son Raphael Smith, my 4th great grandfather, was baptised at St Mary's in 1775.  He married Mary Smith (yes, also a Smith before marriage) at Attleborough in 1798.  They had seven children born in the town between 1798 and 1813.


Their son Robert Smith, my 3rd great grandfather, was baptised in Attleborough in 1807.  He was an interesting character. He married Lydia Hewitt.  I believe that they had some land to farm, that they lost.  Robert joined the ranks of the labourers, and lead them in a riot during the "Swing Riots".  His mob attacked threshing machines, the local workhouse, then the parson at St Mary's, for refusing to drop tithe taxes.  Robert threatened the parson with a mattock.  The court quoted him as saying:


Somehow, he received a lenient prison sentence in Norwich Castle Gaol, and successfully appealed for early release.  Robert and Lydia raised six children at Attleborough, before she passed away.  He then married again, to a Frances Husk.  In his fifties, they moved to Sculcoates, Yorkshire, and founded more Smith lineages there.


Another Attleborough Smith ancestor - Richard Smith, 5th great grandfather.


and his daughter, my 4th great grandmother, Mary Smith, whom married Raphael Smith.  That wraps up my father's Attleborough Ancestry.  However... I also have some on my Mother's side!


Attleborough Ancestors of my Mother

John Page, my 10th great grandfather, fathered Robert Page at Attleborough about 1630.

My 9th great grandfather Robert Page, married Agnes.  Their son:


Thomas Page, my 8th great grandfather, was baptised at St Mary's in 1664.  He had a son:


Also named Thomas Page - my 7th great grandfather, baptised in Attleborough in 1690.  He married Maria Hynds.  They moved out of the town, to Besthorpe.  The family later moved to Wymondham.

There ends my Attleborough Ancestry - at least, that on record.

23 direct ancestors between 1577 and 1860.  The association still goes on.  We are still in Norfolk not far away.  I had a sister marry in Attleborough.  I work only a few miles from the town today.

East Anglia and the other Low Countries

By en:User:Fresheneesz - en:Image:The Low Countries.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link with modification to include East Anglia in the mini-map for illustration.

Locations of my mother's recorded ancestors in East Anglia.

I've posted on this subject a few times before, by looking at the 16th/17th Century Norwich Strangers at Immigration into East Anglia and more recently at some of my families personal DNA ancestral analysis at Are the South East English actually Belgian?  However, as I continue to see comparisons between our DNA and DNA from samples of Iron Age / Romano-Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Modern Dutch, Modern Belgian, so my interest in links between the Low Countries, and the region of South East Britain known as East Anglia increases.

Here is the latest K36 Oracle map for a member of my family:

I have a Walloon 9th great grandfather that lived in 17th Century Norwich on my father's side.  I have recently been investigating a link on my mother's ancestry.  One ancestral line of hers that lived in East Norfolk, carried the surname Tammas.  I can only trace it back to a 4th great grandfather, born around 1774.  However, I recently became aware that the surname Tammes can be found in the Low Countries, possibly originating in Friesland.  More evidence perhaps, of post-medieval migration into East Anglia.  So there are a few hints of the Low Countries in my recorded genealogy - just there maybe - but do they echo a much older, and wider period?  Just how close are the East Anglians to Frisians, Walloons, Flemish, etc?

The Norfolk coast is as close to the Netherlands, just 113 miles, as it is to London and in medieval times it only took a day to sail to Amsterdam, but four days to travel to London. At that time Norfolk was isolated by muddy marshland and dense forest so we have always looked to the Continent

Source: Visit Norfolk website

‘The Strangers’. Norfolk doesn’t have squares, it has plains. The word is from the Dutch ‘plein’ – a reminder that the language was spoken in the streets of Norwich for many years by ‘Strangers’, the flood of religious refugees and traders who fled persecution by the Spanish duke of Alva in the still-to-be-independent Low Countries in the 1560s and 1570s. Historians still debate the exact impact of the Strangers on the city’s key industry of weaving, but there is no doubting the numbers: by 1582 there were 4,679 of them in the city – more than a third of its population. There was still an annual church service in Dutch in their church – the chancel of Blackfriars in Norwich - until 1921.

Source: EDP

23andme 120 populations

Well I received my updated 23andme results

Here's the latest that 23andme gives me in their test. First my mother:

Her recorded ancestry is ALL East Anglian in SE England. 225 named in records, some lines going back to the 16th Century. Very localised, rural recorded and documented ancestry. No known ancestry other than British:







What she gives me with phasing:



My recorded ancestry by location:



At Generation 6: 97% SE English and 3% Swiss.

The rest of my 23andme report (V4 after phasing one parent):





A British grandparent? Absolutely, all four were!

A French or German great grandparent. I'm afraid not. At least this is an improvement on my old TimeLine that suggested a French or German grandparent, but still wrong.

Actually I had a Swiss 3rd great grandparent, but he was likely to have only given me 0% to 5% of my DNA.

A Scandinavian 4th or 5th great grandparent? Not impossible, but a little unlikely. Of course, most English get a little Scandinavian. Old admixture.

As for my mother's TimeLine. I know ONLY of East Anglian ancestors on record. Of course, she would have had some other ancestors at some point, but French / German, Scandinavian, in the past four or five generations? No. The African would be very cool. It's always possible - there were Africans around in very small numbers. But likely in rural Norfolk? Unfortunately not.

The new "dots.

I predicted Dutch for both of us. I thought I might also get Belgian or / and French. Not because I have recent ancestry from those places, but because they share much older common links with SE England. We are close.

No Irish - that's true, nor Scottish. So they did okay to eliminate that one. Finally, even though I get only 38% B&I (32% before phasing), 23andme awards me 4 out of 5 dots for Britain!

I guess that if I was to believe the line, then I had Dutch ancestors arrive here over the past 200 years. Perhaps Scandinavian a little further back, between 200 years and 500 years ago.

But I'm afraid I don't buy it.

The Man with the Mattock II

Continuing on from this post about my 3rd great grandfather Robert Smith, who was imprisoned at Norwich Castle Gaol for his part in a swing riot at Attleborough in 1831.

I'd uncovered a Robert Smith who took part in the riot in Attleborough, but a question always arises when researching an ancestor with a common name - was he / she my Smith, Brown, or Jones?.  So I need to look closer.  And I do see a problem:

His son, my 2nd great grandfather, Robert Smith (the junior), was born 15th December 1832.  Yet Robert Smith (the swing rioter), was sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment in January 1831.  How did he do that?  Was Robert Smith the Swing Rioter NOT my 3rd great grandfather, Robert Smith of Attleborough, born there in 1807?

Then a few days ago, on the England & Wales, Prisons &Punishment, 1770-1935 collection at FindmyPast.co.uk, under correspondence, I find this Norfolk Court record, dated 30th November 1831:

I had problems reading even this copy that I had optimised with an image editor, so I had to get help on a Facebook genealogy group.  Apparently it is an appeal by James Stacey, one of the three imprisoned ring leaders, for sentence remission.  It also gives notice that the other two, Robert Smith, and Samuel Smith would also be appealing as soon as they had served one year in prison.  Did they receive remission?

I also found this under the same collection, dated to "1832" under Home Office Registers Of Criminal Petitions:

James Stacey, Robert Smith, and Samuel Smith are all still serving time.  I don't know how early in 1832 they are being recorded there - but, their sentence types are all recorded as "Rem" (remission), so it does look to me as though their original sentences were reduced.  If they were released on remission by late March 1832, then Robert Smith the Swing Rioter had just enough time to return to my 3rd great grandmother Lydia Smith (nee Hewitt), and to father Robert "Hewitt" Smith, the junior.  If so, do you see who the rector was at their son's baptism?  The Rev. Franklin himself.  The guy that Robert Smith held a mattock over, that with the thresher burning, attacks on the workhouse, and general rioting, landed him in Norwich Castle Gaol in the first place!  Two years later he's baptising Robert's son.

Also at FindmyPast.co.uk, I've found more newspaper reports of the case.  In my previous article, I reported:

Times were incredibly difficult for the poor.  I wonder if he was behind the voice that was reported during the Attleborough Riot by a witness:

Above the confusion of the voices one rang out, more stridant and confident than the rest 'We are the strongest party' the man cried. 'We always have been and we always will be.  This is only the beginning.  We have begun at the foot, and we will go up to the head.'.

Well.  One newspaper report stated that it was indeed our ancestor Robert Smith that said this:

Why did he do it?  What was Robert's status?  Around that time, he was recorded as a labourer.  Later, a hawker, and an umbrella maker.  Even later in life, after our 3rd great grandmother Lydia, died, he married Frances Saunders (nee Husk), and they moved up North on the railways, to work in the cotton spinning town of Sulcoates.

But I may have discovered another element to his story?  Why he was angry, and why he was accepted or identified as a ring leader of the riot?

Had Robert himself recently experienced a loss in status?  Did this finally drive him against the local Establishment?  In 1841, he was living with his wife Lydia, and six of their children, at his father-in-law's farm on the edge of Attleborough at Hill Common:

Maybe we can now understand him, just a little more.  Also on that 1841 census report - you can see his son Robert (Hewitt) Smith the junior, there aged eight years.  He's the guy that became the Attleborough bricklayer, and the victualler of The Grapes Inn, that was held up at gun point in 1879.  My 2nd great grandfather, and another story.

Burglary at the Grapes Inn, Attleborough

A vicious and armed attack on two of my ancestors in 1879.

The Grapes Inn, Attleborough, Norfolk.  I wonder if that is my great great grandmother Ann Smith (nee Peach), standing in front of the beerhouse in this old photograph?

I first heard of The Grapes from my late grandmother Doris Brooker.  She recalled in her childhood, her father, Frederick Smith, once taking her by horse and cart to a pub in Attleborough, that had a grapevine growing in the doorway.  If you look at the above photograph, I think you can see growth on the front of the building.  Was that the same vine?  I had just seen a census that recorded her grandfather, as the victualler of the Grapes Beerhouse in Attleborough. It connected.  She didn't know, but that beerhouse was where his parents had lived.

Here's how they relate to my late paternal grandmother:

My 2nd great grandfather Robert Smith, had been born in Attleborough in 1833, to a local family.  His father, Robert the senior, at one point, lead a local riot against the background of the Swing Riots.  After a sentence imprisoned in Norwich Castle Gaol, Robert the senior made a living as a hawker, umbrella maker, and as a labourer.  In his fifties, he finally escaped the Agricultural Depression by taking a second wife, on the new railways to Sculcoates, a cotton spinning town in Yorkshire.  Robert the junior and other siblings though, remained in Attleborough.  

Robert the junior's wife, my 2nd great grandmother, Ann (nee Peach), had been born at Etton, Northants, in 1835, although her mother, Sarah Peach (nee Riches) was from a local Norfolk family.  When Ann was an infant, her father David Peach was convicted of stealing two steers, and transported to Tasmania.  Sarah and Ann returned to Norfolk.  Ann subsequently must have grown up in a very poor single parent family in the town.  Her mother Sarah, unable to remarry, made a living as a charwoman.

So both Robert and Ann were born into more poverty rather than riches.  They married at Attleborough in 1857.  Robert had become a bricklayer.  

Between then and 1876, Ann gave birth to at least six children - Harry, Frederick (my grandmother's father), Alice, Emma, Samuel, and Nellie Smith.  They must have worked hard to get what they had.  By 1879, they were running the Grapes Inn on Levell Street in Attleborough.  From there, they ran a beerhouse, a bricklayer's yard, a builder's merchant yard, and possibly a pork butchers.  Here they are at the Grapes in 1881:

That's the background.  That 1881 Census shows the family two years after the event that I am now going to retell.

The Attleborough Burglary

It was about one o'clock in the morning on the first of March, 1879.  The beerhouse was closed.  My great great grandmother Ann Smith, was suddenly awakened by a noise and a light on the landing.  As she reached out to the bedroom door in order to investigate, a masked man carrying a revolver pushed into the bedroom, exclaiming "hoi-a-hoi!".  Her husband Robert now awake, the intruder pointed the pistol at his face.  The threat made, the burglar backed out to the landing.  Just then, their eldest son Harry, awoke by the commotion opened the door of another bedroom.  The intruder turned his revolver onto Harry, pointing it at a distance of six inches into his face.  Harry slammed the bedroom door shut, and the gun was fired into it, splintering the door.  The burglar then bolted from the Grapes, running out of the front door.  Robert, Ann, and Harry surveyed the house.  The intruder had kicked over a lamp, which needed to be extinguished.  The house had been ransacked.  Robert's silver pocket watch and chain had been stolen, some money, a carving knife, and some silver from a dresser.

The thief was a 20 year old John Clarke, originally from Shields in the North of England, but who had spent some time himself as a bricklayer, on the West India Docks in London.  He was on a rampage in Norfolk.  Armed, he committed a spate of burgalries at Attleborough, Spooner Row, Shipdham, and Foulsham.

The following Tuesday, he was at Little Walsingham.  It was becoming to risky for him to continue his crime spate in Norfolk, and he was heading for the railway station, to escape back to London.  He was tracked by the Police to a Little Walsingham pub, where they preceded to question him.  He made a dash for it.  As the police officers pursued him through the village, three times he raised his revolver and fired the gun at them - missing every time.

He reached the village of Great Walsingham.  The Police officers had by now commodeared a horse and cart to pursue him.  Locals joined in, including a game keeper's son called Codman.  More shots were fired - one through Codman's apron!  They chased him across the fields.  Another bullet struck a horse in the neck.  The rider of that horse, PC Goll, diismounted and forced Clarke to the ground - the gun fired again during the struggle.  Goll managed to part him from the revolver, and to handcuff him.

Clarke was found with a number of stolen items including my great great grandfather's watch.  He also had a piece of glass, painted with a death skull, that he would use with a lamp to frighten his victims.  The next morning, he gave a full confession.

He was taken later that day to Norwich Shirehall.  Angry crowds beseiged the building and a force of police had to keep order.  There he was charged, and Robert, Ann, and Harry gave their accounts, and identified their stolen properties.

At the May Assizes, John Clarke was sentenced to twenty years penal servitude.

Norfolk News 10th May 1879

Eastern Daily Press 8th March 1879

Norwich Mercury 8th March 1879

My great grandfather Frederick Smith with his son Lenny.

My Walloon Ancestor of Norwich

I'm going back a bit with this one.  I've written about the Norwich Strangers before (known elsewhere as the Elizabethan Strangers).  Well I may have traced one on my family tree.  On my paternal grandfather's side, back on his maternal line a bit, to a 9th great grandfather:

The Strangers were invited to Norwich during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Protestant refugees from what is now the Netherlands and Belgium.  They were fleeing persecution from the Roman Catholic Spanish Crown.  They were invited to Norwich, and to other towns in South East England, partly in protestant solidarity, and partly as an economic measure, to poach their lucrative skills and trades, particularly in the production of fine cloth and linens.  It was a brain drain event.  Eastern English towns and cities had been economically waning ever since the 14th century, and cloth production was in decline.

Most of the Norwich Strangers were Dutch-speaking Flemish, but a minority of the Strangers were French-speaking.  They were known as the Walloons.  In 1637, they opened their own French-speaking protestant church in Norwich, in a disused medieval church, St Mary-the-lesser.  The Walloons were known for their dry, colourful clothes, that in Norwich, developed into a style known as Norwich Stuffs.  I cannot yet say, that my 8th great grandfather John Rosier, was without doubt, the son of the Norwich based Walloon, Jean Rosiere, but it looks highly likely.  The surname Rosiere has elsewhere been associated with British Huguenot families - a slightly later emigration event.  That John Rosier appeared to move around Norfolk somewhat, suggests that he had a trade other than the usual farming.  Jean Rosiere of Norwich had a son baptised at the French Protestant Church in 1667, also named Jean Rosier - just the right age for my 8th great grandfather.  I can find no other references to any other Jean Rosiere nor John Rosier in Norfolk at that time.

This is only the second non-English born ancestor that I have so far traced, out of some 420 direct ancestors.  I feel enormously proud to have found a link back to the Norwich Strangers.

The Rosiere Family appear to have been a French Protestant (Walloon) family living in 17th Century Norwich.  I can see references to a Jean Rosiere, and a Philipe Rosiere.  Both appear to have had children in the City, that appear to have married into English families.  There is a later reference to a Rosiere in Norwich, listed as a wool comber, so indeed, they appear to have been involved in the cloth and linen trade.  My reference to the baptism of Jean Rosier in 1667, is unfortunately only a transcription, but it does state Walloon.  An earlier baptism in 1662 of Ollende (Holland) Rosieres to Jean Rosieres is however available online, and comes from the registers of the French Protestant Church in Norwich.  This looks like an older sister of John Rosier.

The next record for my 8th great grandfather, John Rosier, appears over in Swaffham, Norfolk in 1696.  It was his marriage to Elizabeth Fen:

Both John and Elizabeth were recorded as widow and widower.  I have not yest found their earlier marriages.

He moves again.  Their daughter, Rachel Rosier, is baptised at Watton, Norfolk, in 1709:

That is currently my last record for John and Elizabeth.  But Rachel is my 7th great grandmother.  She appears to move to East Dereham, Norfolk - the last move for this line for several generations.  But for some reason, she marries Allen Bradfield of Swanton Morley (just outside of Dereham) several miles away at Necton, Norfolk:

They have a daughter named Elizabeth Bradfield, born 1745 at Dereham:

Elizabeth Bradfield, goes on to marry Solomon Harris at nearby Swanton Morley in 1767:

For some reason, her parish is recorded as Holme Hale.  The family appear to have some sort of connection to the Necton area.  Perhaps inherited property?

They have a daughter named Elizabeth Harris, at Swanton Morley, in 1768:

In 1800, Elizabeth Harris gives birth to an illegitimate daughter, my 4th great grandmother, Jemima Harris:

In 1825, this daughter, Jemima Harris, married my 4th great grandfather, James Alderton Barber at Swanton Morley.  They lived there, and Jemima had no less than eight children.  James was a farm labourer.  Their oldest child was my 3rd great grandmother, Harriet Barber.

Harriet Barber gave birth to an illegimate daughter that she also named Harriet Barber, at the nearby workhouse at Gressenhall in 1846.  I have a copy of her birth certificate.  Harriet the younger, was my 2nd great grandmother.  The family line appears to have fallen on hard times.  In later years, a William Barker was named as her errant father.

My 2nd great grandmother Harriet, ended up back in Gressenhall Union Workhouse as a young mother herself.  She gave birth to two illegitimate daughters herself, before marrying their father, William Bennett Baxter, whio had also been born illegitimately in that same workhouse himself.

The couple settled at Swanton Morley, after living for a little while at Denton, Norfolk (perhaps chasing work).  They had a total of at least eight children.  The youngest, was my great grandmother, Faith Eliza Baxter, born 1885 at East Dereham:

Faith was the mother of my grandfather, Reginald Brooker.  There is my claim of descent from one the Norwich Strangers.

East Anglian Ancestry for far-away genealogists

User:Ras52, OpenStreetMap, Amitchell125 [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This guide is really aimed at distant cousins with ancestry from the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It's the perspective of a present day East Anglian from the ground.  My ancestors were the ones that usually stayed in East Anglia.

First - definitions of what constitutes East Anglia.  One modern governmental definition: "the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire".  Estate Agents, trying to sell properties in idyllic East Anglia, often go even further, also including Huntingdonshire, Rutland, parts of Lincolnshire, and Essex.  The ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia (see above image), didn't really include these add-ons.  I go with that, but include parts of northern-most Essex.  Why?  Because on the ground, those areas still feel (and sound) East Anglian.  Norfolk, Suffolk, eastern Cambridgeshire, and northern most Essex.  That feels East Anglian.  But it's heart remains the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

East Anglia is situated on the North Sea coast of South-East England.  It is lowland.  A chalk bed lazily slopes down from west to east, with a layer of  boulder clay on top running through mid Norfolk and high Suffolk.  I say high, nowhere in East Anglia is high.  This is Low Country.  Our hills are in the main, very gradual, slight affairs.  To the west of the chalk bed, lays even lower country - the ultra-flat landscape of the East Anglian Fens.  Wetlands that have been drained for agriculture in rich peat and silt soils.

East Anglia is rural.  It is agricultural.  Largely arable, with favoured crops of wheat, barley, sugar beet, and oil seed rape.  Medium size agri-business fields of crops across a very gently rolling lowland landscape, with parish church towers around every corner, and a buzzard in every copse of trees.  Ancient narrow roads with bordering hedgerows, twist around long forgotten open fields and farmsteads.  Mixed farming enters the river valleys, where cattle are fattened on rich grasses.  Intensive pig and poultry broiler units also dot the landscape.

What about the East Anglians?  That is one of the subjects of this post.

East Anglia isn't on the road to anywhere, but East Anglia.  You don't pass through East Anglia on the way to the Industrial North, Scotland, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham, or London.  It's far out on the periphery of Hub.co.uk.  It's main urban centres are the small City of Norwich, and the towns of Ipswich, Kings Lynn and Bury St Edmunds.  They are all, 'small'. Norwich comes in at a lowly 48th in English town by population size.  You see, small.  Far more medieval towers than modern high rise towers.

After the urban centres, most modern East Anglians probably live in or near the market-towns.  These are really tiny "towns" some little more than villages.  Some are lovely, ancient, with unspoiled centres and market places.  Places such as Wymondham, Holt, Diss, Woodbridge, Swaffham, Beccles, Pulham Market, Laxfield, Long Melford, etc.  There must be dozens scattered across East Anglia.

Wymondham market-town centre.

The rest of the East Anglians live in the countryside, outside of the market-towns.  Trying to explain this to American genealogists where the old Roman ideal of planned city prevails, is difficult.  We have villages.  We have lots of them.  Most are early Medieval in origin.  They are set in ancient divisions known as parishes.  Many East Anglians now live in suburbs on the edges of towns - but until a century or two ago, most of them lived further out in the countryside, in these villages.

How many villages have we got in East Anglia?  Would you believe, somewhere around 1,300, with over 700 in the county of Norfolk alone.  They absolutely dot the East Anglian countryside.  Living in the countryside, in farmsteads and villages - that really is the Anglo-Saxon way of Life.  Look at the below snip of a part of south Norfolk.  See all of those red circles.  Villages.  The Blue circle is a market town on the old Roman road (A140).

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Until a few centuries ago, most East Anglians lived in the countryside.  Most of these villages will have a medieval church.  There are more than 600 of them in Norfolk.  They'll also often have a later non-conformist chapel as well.  Over 600 medieval religious buildings in Norfolk!  Possibly the highest density of medieval churches anywhere in the World.  This is because Medieval Norfolk was central.  It wasn't so peripheral before the Industrial Revolution.  The medieval City of Norwich was the second or third largest city in England after London.  All of those empty medieval churches.  Where did the populace go?  Some of them may have been your ancestors.

How about the origins of the East Anglians themselves?  Who are they?

There are very few "Celtic" place-names in East Anglia, other than the Ouse river system.  Most of the villages and place-names in East Anglia are of Anglo-Saxon origin, dating to between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, around 1,200 years ago.  In addition there are a number of place-names that are Anglo-Danish in origin, dating to the 9th - 11th centuries AD, with a cluster of them in eastern Norfolk.  See the map below, of the area called Flegg, an Anglo-Danish place-name in itself.  All of those -by place-names - they were most likely settled by "Viking" Danish immigrants during the 9th to 11th centuries.

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Previous to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons during the 5th century AD, the region that we know call East Anglia had for centuries,  been a part of the Western Roman Empire.  Even further back than that, at the turn of prehistory to written history, the northern parts of the region were the home of the Iceni tribal federation, and the southern part to the Trinovante.  These Late Iron Age peoples were descended from an immigration event from the Continent into the British Isles that took place some 2,000 years earlier.  Call their ancestors Bell Beaker, Celt, British Celt, or Ancient Briton - their DNA is still the most dominant aspect of the modern British, and even English gene pool.  The Roman occupation appears to have had little impact on their genetic make up.

Then the Anglo-Saxons arrived.  They came from what is now Northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  Early Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in East Anglia, have their closest correlation on the Continent with artifacts in Northern Germany, south of the Danish border.  This was the origin of the Angles - which the early kings of East Anglia clearly identified with.  Saxo-Frisians in what is now the Netherlands were well placed to migrate to the region, and contributed to this migrant community.

The most recent genetic studies suggest that rather than displace the Britons in the lowlands, that the Anglo-Saxons admixed with them in marriage.  Indeed, as I said, genetically, the DNA of the earlier Britons is still the majority component, even in England.  There was no genocide.  However, an Anglo Saxon identity, culture, and language was adopted by all during following centuries.

West Stow reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk.  The birth of the East Anglian village.

Not all of the Continental DNA in East Anglia arrived here during the 5th or 6th centuries AD.  Some may have already been here from the Empire, or earlier.  Some arrived during the 9th to 11th century settlement of Danes in the region.  Then the Normans.  The Medieval saw Angevins from Aquitaine, and other French arrive.  Then during the 16th century, there was a significant settlement of Elizabethan Strangers (protestant refugees) from what is now the Netherlands.  Huguenots followed.  Asides from these noteable immigration events, there would have been a drip-drip feed of foreigners into the region.  Dutch herring fishermen and engineers, Lithuanian timber and fur traders.  Drovers from the Midlands.  Indeed surname studies suggest that during the late medieval and following Tudor periods, there were a number of people moving into the Norfolk countryside - from the Continent, but also from other parts of England such as for example, Yorkshire.  East Anglia isn't on the way to any where, but neither is it totally isolated from ingress of new settlers.

The consequence of the location of East Anglia in the North Sea World, is that Genetic Genealogists looking at their DNA "Ethnicity Estimates" or "Ancestry Composition" results might see high levels of DNA matching the panels for the Continent, rather than for the British Isles.

How did the East Anglians live?

Many genealogists proudly brag of documented descent from early medieval kings and emperors (usually Charlemagne).  The lines that they trace in order to claim this must be those of the minority of the medieval European population - the titled and landed nobles, with their heraldic records.  This elite weren't really representative of the entire population.

East Anglians were mainly rural, untitled, and really didn't have a lot of wealth.  During the feudal Medieval, most East Anglians would have been within the ranks of the common peasantry, owing a range of fealties to their lords, in return for protection.  Not all were particularly free, although there were high percentages of freemen peasants in eastern Norfolk.  Others were tied in levels of servitude to their manors.  They tilled their strips in the communal open field systems.  They grazed their meagre livestock on the commons.  They also worked the lord's land, supplied him with sheep fencing, ale, fuel, and grains.  When called on, the men would have served the lord in wars against the Scottish, French or other houses.  Life was hard, brutal, and often too short.  However, the abundance of medieval churches across the region testify to the wealth that their labour actually created.  It testifies to the success of their medieval economy here in East Anglia.

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter c1325-1335 f74v - BL Add MS 42130

Two men threshing sheaf - Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335), f.74v  See page for author [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Originally published/produced in England [East Anglia].

Most peasant families didn't even adopt hereditary surnames until around the 13th to 15th centuries AD.  Except for brief mentions in manorial records, tithes, and polls, most don't even enter the records until 1538, when parish registers were introduced with the English Reformation.  So unless you tie into an aristocratic line - you are not going to trace your East Anglian ancestry much further back than 1550.  Indeed, many parish registers are damaged, lost, or destroyed.  Many records are illegible.  There is no guarantee of making it back that far.  I find it difficult to trace back rural East Anglian roots with a high degree of certainty much earlier than 1720, for the lack of correlative evidence from censuses, transcripts, etc.
Hoard of 12th century (Henry III) hammered silver coins recovered in Norfolk, and recorded by my late father.

Not all East Anglians worked the soil.  There were skilled crafts people such as the cordwainers, potters, smiths, and weavers.  Some based in villages, others in the towns.  Protestant beliefs and practices spread across Eastern England following the Reformation, particularly in urban areas.  This was re-enforced during the late 16th century AD, when protestant refugees from the Roman-Catholic crown, in the Netherlands, were invited to settle in Norwich, Ipswich, and elsewhere across East Anglia and south east England.  One poll of Norwich at this time suggested that as much as one third of the City population consisted of these Dutch and French protestants.  They were invited not only as allies against Roman Catholic Europe, but to bring their valuable crafts and skills to East Anglia.

Their protestant vigour was infectious.  East Anglia became a hot bed of Protestantism.  As the Crown and Establishment turned down the Reformation, opting for keeping Conservative values in their Anglican Church, so the Protestants ... protested.  Some hopped back over the North Sea to the Netherlands, which had for the time being, repelled the Catholic powers.  However, some of these most puritan protestants then asked the English king for permission to set up their own colonies in New England.  Permission was readily granted.  The Puritans left Eastern England en mass.  The point though is that this particular chapter of East Anglians migrating away, was centred in main, on urban classes, skilled workers, and  those that could actually afford the voyage.

Norfolk saw little bloodshed during the 17th century English Civil War, as it was safely Parliamentarian. Except for a riot and explosion in Norwich when the Puritans tried banning Christmas. 

Back to the countryside...

Between the 16th and 19th centuries AD, the descendants of the old East Anglian peasantry had to adapt to a number of economic changes that were not in their interest.  The great land owning families were enclosing and renting out their lands to free tenant farmers, breaking up the old manorial estates.  Some fields were enclosed, and the peasants found themselves replaced by more profitable sheep.  Even the commons were enclosed and privatised.  While the more entrepreneurial freemen rented out land to farm themselves, as tenant farmers, many others found themselves surplus to requirement, and alienated from the soils that had fed their ancestors for generations.  They became farm hands, the great army of "ag labs" (agricultural labourers) of the 19th century censuses.  Not all  labourers were equal.  The more fortunate, loyal, and skilled might find themselves almost in full employment, with a regular wage and a tied cottage.  The less fortunate were the paupers.  Seasonal workers that had to constantly look for work, or beg for parish relief.  The rural poor didn't always accept these changes without resistance.  In 1381, Norfolk and Suffolk peasants joined in a rebellion that threatened London.  In 1549, Norfolk peasants rose into an army that captured the City of Norwich.  In 1830, East Anglia was a centre of the Swing Riots.

Many agricultural labourers and their families still married and baptised as Anglican at the Church of England, but although much of the puritanical fervour had by now swept away from East Anglia, many were increasingly turning to non-conformist chapels of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.  The Primitive Methodists were particularly successful in East Anglia during the 19th Century.

If you had rural working class East Anglian ancestors during the 16th to 19th centuries, imagine them very poor.  Following the Agricultural Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, new machines and technologies replaced much seasonal and manual labour on the fields.  The commons, where the poor had grazed their animals had been taken away.  Poor relief was ceased, and the desperate were forced to enter prison-like workhouses, in order to be fed - families split into separate dormitories, the poor harshly penalised, and discouraged from asking for relief.

How the land owners, farmers, and parsons saw it - the East Anglian countryside simply had a large surplus of unwanted labour.  They were encouraged to leave.  Some to far away colonies - Australia and Canada.  Others to feed the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution in places like Newcastle, Yorkshire, or London.  For many - the railways arrived just in time to escort them away.

Example of East Anglian Accent.

Researching rural East Anglian ancestry

Understand that:

  1. Most East Anglians were not titled, nor recorded in heraldic records.
  2. Parish registers online are incomplete.  Not all parishes or registers have even been digitally photographed.
  3. Some parish registers have been lost, destroyed, or are badly damaged.
  4. The transcriptions of the registers on some online genealogical services are sometimes incorrect.  Always if you can, try to see scans of the original registers online.  Because of these frequent errors, the databases often fail on searches.
  5. If your ancestor was rural, use OpenStreetMap.org and magnify down to get to really know the area that they lived in.  Appreciate distances by foot.  People did sometimes move more than several miles - but very often in East Anglia, didn't!  It's not unusual to see one family in the same small parish for several generations.  Sometimes marrying cousins.  It was the arrival of the railways, that sometimes allowed families to finally escape the rural poverty.
  6. You find Harry X marries Mary Z in a village.  You search the online databases for his baptism (and parentage).  You find a baptism of a Harry X in the same county.  You add him and his parents to your tree.  Problem is ... the baptism was 23 miles away, and you don't realise it, but there were a number of Harry X at the same time, several closer to the place of marriage - you have made an error.  You just saw the one on the database.  More research might have uncovered a more likely candidate, with siblings named like his children, in the village next to that in which he married Mary Z.  Getting to know the area really well may have made you search harder.
  7. Illegitimacy is a surprise to some.  You will see plenty of it in 18th and 19th century East Anglia.  It was generated by poverty, poor housing, poor education, and desperation.
  8. Most of your rural working class ancestors will be illiterate, and sign with an X.  Education of the labourers was discouraged.  However, now and then, you will find one that served as the parish clerk.  Some could read.
  9. Widows and widowers, with children in tow, would frequently remarry quickly.  Support for the children was vital to keep them out of the workhouse.
  10. Infant mortality can be very depressing or sobering.  Expect some high rates.
  11. Don't be surprised to find ancestors listed as paupers, or as inmates in workhouses, gaols, or even the asylum.
  12. Check non-conformist church records, as well as the Anglican.  The Methodists operated by "circuits".