Living through World War One in three Norfolk Broadland Villages – Neatishead, Irstead and Barton Turf

As the recently formed Neatishead, Irstead and Barton Turf Community Heritage Group (NIBCHG) comes to the end of its first, Heritage Lottery Funded project,  the open afternoon on 31st January 2016 saw the launch of its website  This will make much of the research available digitally and the group hopes may uncover more information.

Project team and memorial

The research has centred on establishing all those from the three villages who served during WW1 in order to provide a permanent memorial for these men and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Currently there are 136 men remembered on the new memorial in the New Victory Hall, Neatishead.   There are a number of other names who are known to have connections with the villages at that time, but no confirmation has been found that they served during WW1 – this list appears on the website.  If you had family living in any of the villages 100 years ago, please take a look to see if you can give us any more information.

Thomas Watts

In addition the project wanted to explore life in the three villages 100 years ago.  They were certainly busier places with many more shops and trades, more people working the land and the marshes and more children.  This research has been displayed at the events held over the two years and will also be incorporated into the website soon.  To complement this research a new Community Chest has been made for the group and contains many artefacts, toys and reading material relating to WW1 and life 100 years ago.  It is available for community groups to borrow and explore, and will be also used for the group to give talks.

Community Chest

“When I come home” an original scripted drama written by Ray Gedling, presented and performed by the local drama group NABS (Neatishead and Barton Society) and NIBCHG, told the story of two sweethearts, Betty and Davey, born and brought up in a Norfolk Broadland community.  Davey is a sensitive and conscientious agricultural worker; Betty has a wonderful simplistic naivety with a warm and positive nature and has been protected from the harsher realities of the world. She sees David’s decision to go to war as wonderfully romantic, and she is blissfully ignorant of the barbarity of what he is subjecting himself to. Their story is told out in letters they exchange during their time apart……  This moving performance was a poignant reminder and typical of the life of many young sweethearts in rural villages across the country.

Cast and production team

As Neatishead, Irstead and Barton Turf Community Heritage Group comes to the end of its first project, it will now become a permanent local interest group in the villages and hopes to undertake more locally based heritage projects in the future.

Claire Penstone-SmithHLFHI_BLK compact
February 2016


War Diary February 1916

War Norfolk
Conscription Begins in UK


Following the passing of the Military Service Act in January conscription of single men aged between 18 and 41 begins.



Norfolk Air Raids


Four German seaplanes appeared over Lowestoft yesterday (25/2) around 11am. They circled over the south side of the town dropping a total of 17 bombs. Considerable damage was caused to a restaurant’s outbuildings and two dwellings, but there were no casualties. Two naval seaplanes pursued them without result


Battle of Verdun


Following heavy bombardment the German launch an attack on the small city of Verdun. The battle continues until December.


Parcels for POWs


430 parcels of food and clothing were despatched to Norfolk Regiment prisoners of war in Germany.


  Advice for Farmers


With the protraction of hostilities home production of food has become vital especially of milk, butter and meat. Messrs Sutton’s Farmers Year Book for 1916 is recommended as it emphasizes the desirability of growing much larger quantities of fodder for cattle.

The War Letters of a Light Infantryman

When thinking of First World War writers of poetry and prose we often think of people such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Charles Blunden. However, Norfolk has a man who wrote letters home full of warmth, courage and humour to rival the finest of his generation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Edmund Henderson Neville (1897-1982), of the Neville family of Sloley, served in France and Russia during the Great War with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He wrote and received regular letters to and from his family at their home at Sloley Hall, not far from Worstead in north Norfolk.

In a book entitled The War Letters of a Light Infantryman, published in 1931, Neville recalls:

We are under fire. The only time I felt funny was at 6.30am on 17th…. The strafe lasted three quarters of an hour, we got no sleep all night, and I had a terrible shivery feeling and could not control the shaking.

This was in January 1916 in Bouzincourt, France. He and his friend Harry agreed they were shaking because of the cold.  Neither wanted to admit to feeling scared.

There were funnier moments:

The Hun always relieves the front line by day and saunters along with his hands in his pockets from post to post.  On the 18th (January, 1916) a party of them waved to us and invited us over for a beer.  They are never armed.  I simply longed to have a shot at some of them to pay off a few scores.

It was of course very cold.  Their accommodation was just a piece of canvas nailed to upright posts, not waterproof, with nails for hooks.  Mud was his constant companion.  Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed some of the marches through the woods at Fontaine-sur-Mer.  But at night:

The sky and inky trees were lit up every other second by yellow flashes coming from far away, yet not a single sound to disturb the stillness of the night.  And I realised that probably each one of those flashes might mean that some poor man, friend or foe, was being blown to bits.

The book is available at Norwich Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library in Norwich.  The Norfolk Record Office also has a short story written by Neville entitled ‘Boots and Shoes’ (Catalogue Reference: NEV 7/74, 589×9), accompanied by a rejection letter from a publisher in Edinburgh.


First page of the short story: ‘Boots and Shoes’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Told in the first person, the story tells of a murder, where the guilty party is identified by the gumboots he was wearing, rather than the brown canvas shoes of the author.

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. Includes: '' Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry:

Rejection letter from Edinburgh publishers. The letter writer says the story is ‘well written’ but ‘too artificial’. Norfolk Record Office catalogue entry: NEV 7/74, 589×9

Neville finally made it home on 4 October 1919 by ship to Liverpool in the middle of a strike.  He says:

A good many hoots and jeers from the strikers though some people seemed pleased to see us. And we have eaten abnormally, making up for the bully beef and sardines we ate with a rusty penknife. The next thing is leave, aye, LEAVE!

A Shortage of Labour

A Shortage of Labour – Kathryn from Thetford has been looking into how the Homefront was managing for labour 100 years ago – in the month when compulsory conscription looked likely to start and labour issues would worsen further.

By 1916 there was a serious shortage of labour. The Army Council made arrangements regarding the limited number of soldiers serving at home who had been accustomed to working on farms-they could undertake farm work at any season of the year except during the corn harvest. The farmers had to show that suitable labour couldn’t be found locally and had to pay 4s a day to the soldier providing his own board & lodging or 2s 6d if the latter was provided by the farmer.

Although there was prejudice about women taking on paid work, the shortage of labour meant that women took on many occupations previously held by men.

In March 1916, at a meeting of the Norfolk War Agricultural Committee, the employment of women on the land as a war expedient was discussed: the Norfolk Ladies Committee were continuing to canvass and by this time 3,500 women had enrolled to work on the land.


Recruiting poster (from Wikipedia)

The question of women’s hours and rate of pay was considered:

  • Normal working hours should be 8am – 4pm or 9am – 5pm (with a half hour for lunch)
  • Wage per day 2s
  • Payment for shorter periods than one day – 3d per hour.

There was a great deal of work that women could take on in the spring, such as hoeing, weeding, getting the land fit for the turnip crop and later on working on the harvest. They could also undertake work on dairy farms.

Before World War 1, women engineers were unheard of, but by 1916, at Charles Burrell & Sons Ltd in Thetford, a traction engine manufacturing works, approximately 150 women from Thetford and the surrounding villages were trained to use drills, grinders, lathes and other machine and hand tools to produce munitions and military hardware.

munitions worker

This image forms part of Norfolk Record Office holdings from the following archive: Records of King’s Lynn Independent (Congregational), New Conduit Street, King’s Lynn, reference FC 10/18. A note on the image reads: ‘internal combustion engines woman milling a steering arm of motor lorry engine – Labour Supply Department’

These “munitionettes” did shift work alongside a smaller number of men. They were supervised by male employees who had either reserved occupations or were too old for military service.

The Norfolk Regiment in January: Albert

Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.

On paper, January was a month of “rest” for Norfolk’s 8th battalion. The men had been stationed at the French town of Albert for over a month, aiding in its defence, away from front line trenches. A look at many diaries and letters however says little of rest.

The shattered Basilica at Albert, taken from a popular print.

The shattered Basilica at Albert, taken from a popular print. The “Golden Virgin” hangs over the edge.

Albert, which lies between Amiens and Bapaume, became a symbol of Allied resistance when the golden statue of Mary and her infant Jesus, atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de brebieres, slumped to an almost horizontal position after a shell burst. “Protecting the Golden Virgin” therefore, was a task which gained symbolic significance and captured the imagination of people at home. This textile, made by F. W Taverham, goes some way in highlighting the romanticism of Albert and similar churches.


Silk chair cover painted with views of churches at Albert, Arras, Persomme and Ypres

Silk chair cover painted with churches on the Western Front, by F. W Taverham . Clockwise from top left – Albert, Arras, Ypres and Persomme..

For the 8th battalion however, daily life was still hard going. Fatigue duty, or manual labouring – usually digging or carrying equipment, was a constant. Private A E England wrote sombrely,

“sometimes it would be carrying boxes of explosive ammonal up muddy communication trenches or even the top of sapheads, or perhaps we would be wanted by the sappers to work in the tunnel filling sandbags with the chalky soil excavated by the engineers and passing them back on hands and knees along a chain of one’s unfortunate comrades all similarly crouched and listening from time-to-time for the sound of Jerry’s pickaxe engaged in the same fearful activity”. 

Private W H Dunnell noted,

“We badly need out of here, socks more than anything, warm home-knitted socks… Our feet are always wet now, so the more we can change our socks the better”. 

Men of the 8th Norfolks with an Indian soldier. The "Golden Virgin" lies almost toppled in the background

Men of the 8th Norfolks with an Indian soldier. The “Golden Virgin” lies almost toppled in the background.

The evident angst among the 8th battalion men is perhaps best summed up by Private G F Mason. In a fit of rage, he wrote bitterly about men back home who were yet to sign up. In a letter to his sister, he exclaimed,

“Some of them will have to leave their nice little jobs they got, after us first chaps come away… I’ve got the nark and would tell someone off if I could. Well sod the thing am [sic]  going to close now. Love from your loving brother”.

Mason’s remarks, typical of a soldier in poor conditions and bad weather, were soon to ring true. Conscription became the order of the day in the early months of 1916. In the meantime, the 8th would have to make the best of Albert; mud, monotony, weet feet and occasional “rest”.