A Large Parish with a Small Population
Hethel, or Heathill, as it was spelt on old maps and has, until very recently, been pronounced by older inhabitants, covers an area of 1,443 acres in the hundred of Humbleyard. On the east it has a boundary with Bracon Ash - although the two parishes are now joined. In the west it has a boundary with Wymondham. To the north is East Carleton and Ketteringham, and to the south is Wreningham. Although only 7 miles from Norwich, Hethel is a world apart - an utterly rural world around the church with its possible Saxon remains, but across fields full of chickens is the hi-tech world of Lotus cars and the Technology Park. And all around is evidence of a 1000 years of history and ingenuity....
Hethel's manorial history is a complex one since it contained no fewer than seven manors, some of which straddled into adjoining parishes. Today there are still three well-defined moated sites in the parish, a large number even for this area of South Norfolk where they abound. In 1601 and shortly afterwards, five of these manors passed into the hands of Myles Branthwayt, a Norwich lawyer. Two smaller manors were owned by the Corporation of Norwich.
Miles Branthwayt and his wife on their alabaster tomb, Hethel Church
Branthwayt built the manor house of Hethel Hall and his descendants lived the lives of solid Norfolk squires for the next 150 years. On the death of Miles Branthwayt in 1751 the Hethel estate was divided and the hall passed to his sole surviving daughter who had married Thomas Beevor in the previous year. Beevor was made a baronet in 1784. Arthur Young found him in 1770 an ardent advocate of agricultural improvement. When he had stood for Parliament in Norwich three years earlier the Bishop of Norwich dismissed him as a gentleman of "moderate estate and large family". Hethel Hall was then set in an extensive and beautiful park. In the early nineteenth century the Beevor family moved to Hargham Hall and Hethel was sold to Sir John Boileau of Tacolneston and Ketteringham Hall (see Owen Chadwick's Victorian Miniature) and the rest of the old Branthwayt estate was sold to Hudson Gurney, a well-known Norwich banker. About this time the Jacobean house was rebuilt and after being let by the Boileaus to a succession of tenants it was demolished in the early 1950s. Some remnants of the water garden, a clump of trees and the gardener's cottage are all that remain.
The Rectory, now known as The Moat House, was described in the middle of the eighteenth century as "very convenient and much beautified by Mr Ruddington" (ie 1737-39). It was rebuilt in 1866 by the Rev Henry Steward and appeared in the directories of the day as "a large handsome house" with four picturesque bridges over its moat. The house passed into private use on the death of the Rev H H J Steward in 1948.
Reuben Ellis leading his horse up the lane from Church Farm, Hethel
Hethel people have always earned their living principally from arable farming. The generations of farmers who have struggled with its heavy clays - the Brewertons, Cranes, Claxtons, Myhills and Rackhams - are remembered in the names of houses, lanes and in the churchyard itself. One Hethel farmer, James Rush of Potash Farm, achieved national fame. One dark November night in 1848 he donned an unconvincing disguise, made his way to Stanfield Hall and there shot dead his landlord, Isaac Jermy, and his son. The crime, trial and execution caused great excitement in the winter of 1848-9, taking all Norfolk's mind temporarily from the depression in agriculture.
In a meadow to the north west of the church is the Hethel thorn. The hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), now a sad remnant of its former glory (above)... Tradition says that this tree is mentioned in an old chronicle as the meeting place in an insurrection during the reign of King John. Less romantically the thorn is mentioned in a deed dating from the early part of the thirteenth century as a boundary tree. Certainly it is well over 700 years old and is now in the care of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
Boys on a visit to Hethel air base shortly before the USAAAF departed in 1945
During the Second World War, Hethel airfield was an air base for the 389th Bomb Group of the 8th US Army Air Force. B24 Liberator Bombers flew from Hethel in raids over Germany. After the war the buildings provided temporary living accommodation in 'Hethel Camp' until well into the 1950s (photo below). Both uses gave the parish almost two decades of undreamed of activity. Then in the early 1960s the Lotus car factory was transferred from Cheshunt. The famous sports cars built here and the Lotus racing team have sent Hethel's name around the world. But is has not increased the population of the parish.
In 1841 there were no fewer than 211 souls in the parish. Most of these belonged to the families of agricultural workers. Over 80 per cent of the village's population fell into this category in the 1840s. They received some education from the 1850s as Hudson Gurney provided a school for 20 children. Nevertheless, the parish registers sadly reveal that many inhabitants were illiterate before 1870. By 1901 the population had fallen to 153, as the agricultural labour force began to shrink after 1871. There were 27 houses scattered across the parish at the beginning of this century. Today there are only slightly fewer houses but the population has shrunk to less than a half of what it was eighty years ago.
Richard Wilson (Churchwarden 1975 - 2013)