A house fit for a Queen
MERGATE HALL is a fine country house on the southern edge of Bracon Ash. It dates from the the 15th century but has been much altered, re-clad, extended and more recently reduced in size over a period of 550 years or more. Yet in that time it has only had 5 owners - 3 of them in the past 60 years! The different building materials, the types of wall and windows, the varying floor levels give clues on the changes made, although precise dates for alterations and even re-building are impossible to give.
It was once part of a large estate which included another manor house (Flordon Hall), several farms and a number of cottages, but that was broken up in 1948 leaving Mergate Hall with some 12 acres of land including gardens and pasture. The grounds include a yew hedge and some magnificent trees - including what are claimed to be descendants of the first Canadian larches to have been brought to England in 1712.
Mergate was a separate manor in Medieval times. It was sold to Bartholomew Appleyard - citizen and bailiff of Norwich in 1372 and MP for the city in 1374 and 1412. His son, William, was a burgess in parliament for Norwich no less than 10 times, and the first Mayor of Norwich in 1404. Whether there was a house on this site as early as that is uncertain. The Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield claims that William's grandson, John Appleyard (died 1473) 'settled here and built Brakene Hall' which seems to be the source of constant muddles between Bracon Hall and Mergate Hall. Maybe each was built by different Appleyard sons.... We know the Appleyards also owned nearby Rainthorpe Hall and Stanfield Hall, which through sales and marriages then passed to other families.
Mergate Hall passed to the KEMP family through the marriage of the heiress Elizabeth Appleyard to Robert Kemp, some time before 1470 (he had married again by 1474) - and remained in the hands of the Kemps until it was sold in 1948. However, for much of the time it was let out to tenants and in the past 500 years has received some prestigious visitors, too.
Robert Kemp and Elizabeth nee Appleyard had three daughters who are sure to have visited or lived at the Hall. The second, Elizabeth Kemp (died 1536), became Lady of the Bedchamber to Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Among the wider Appleyard relatives was Amy Robsart (1532-1560), half-sister of John and Anne Appleyard. After the death of John and Anne's father Roger Appleyard in 1528, their mother continued to raise her family at Stanfield. She married Sir John Robsart and had another daughter, Amy, who married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I, but died young - rumours abounded that Amy's death from a fall downstairs was no accident....
This must have been very embarrassing for Lord Dudley when Queen Elizabeth herself came to Bracon Ash on her 'progress' from London to Norwich in August 1578. Both Mergate Hall and (a former) Bracon Hall claim to have accommodated her, but Mergate holds the stronger claim and has, of course, been championed by its owners! But it was a small house for a Queen, and her followers, favourites (including Dudley), and retinue had to be accommodated elsewhere. Local manor houses would have vied to host members of the Court, and local houses and commons would have been pressed to accommodate servants in homes and tents. There's more about that royal 'progress' on the Bracon Ash page.
By the time Queen Elizabeth visited in 1578, Mergate Hall would have changed radically from the original medieval hall to become a prestigious Tudor manor house. A brick-clad facade was added round a timber-frame house. It was probably enlarged to be an E-shaped Elizabethan house (much like Flordon Hall still looks today) which faced east, with the main drive in the opposite direction to today. Some of the outside walls are now internal walls as the 'E' was filled in and new rooms added downstairs. The 'Dower House' adjacent to the Hall probably dates from the 17th century - the date 1789 on the end gable almost certainly refers to a refurbishment. Along the side are the initials R K used as tie-bars - presumably for one of the (many) Robert Kemps.
Mrs Berney was living at the Hall by 1797, according to Faden's map. It is probably during her stay that the ceilings of downstairs rooms were raised to make them more imposing - with the result that the first-floor rooms are on three different levels. A beautifully engineered staircase was inserted between the current entrance hall and the old main door. Windows were changed - reportedly using oak from the Hall's own grounds. It is said that Elizabeth Berney was finally evicted on the grounds that trees had been felled without the permission of the owners, the Kemps! She moved back to the (new) Bracon Hall.
The house was also enlarged, with additional wings added. Today it is about a third smaller - the north wing (including Sir Kenneth Hagar Kemp's billiard room) having been demolished in the 20th century. But it still boasts a wonderful south-facing sitting room, a large hallway, a beautiful dining room with a bow window looking onto the garden, with the large kitchen nearby and a study on the ground floor + an adjoining cottage wing. Upstairs are six bedrooms, with further rooms in the attic. Many of the bedrooms have fireplaces designed by Thomas Jeckyll and made by Barnards of Norwich which had close associations with the Hall (see below). Barnards' patent bedroom fire which could be closed off at night feature, along with Jeckyll's logo of intertwined butterflies: there is more about Thomas Jekyll here (including motifs similar to those at Mergate Hall).
Besides renovating and modernising the Hall itself, the current owners have reglazed the greenhouses, tamed the neglected garden, added solar panels and air-sourced heat-pumps and continue to pump their own water.
Although owned by the Kemp family since before 1470, few Kemps have lived here since Elizabethan times until Sir Kenneth Hagar Kemp arrived in the 1880s. Little is known of early tenants, but from census returns and directories we learn of a succession of interesting occupants who followed Elizabeth Berney. Twice the Hall has even housed a school!
PARNELL ROBERT MAILLIARD Esq.
Probably moved into Mergate Hall in the mid-1840s, after Elizabeth Berney finally left - there are records of loans and mortgages he took out. There are also records of Mary Ann Thirkell, widow, who died there in 1845 and Ann Thirkell (presumably her daughter) who inherited £2500. A local newspaper of 1852 records:
'First cargo of cattle ever imported from Ireland via Holyhead took place on Friday.... Left Dublin on paddle steam-vessel Trafalgar... 268 beasts, property of Mr R P MAILLIARD of Mergate Hall near Norwich. This gentleman who bought land.... principally in Queens County has stocked it very extensively and he purposes a monthly sale of Irish cattle at Attleborough in Norfolk. Entered into arrangement with (several) rly companies - 296 miles, 20 hour [another paper has 17hrs] journey this time but should be reduced to 16 hours.'
The following year, in April 1853, the same paper was reporting 'Sale of 'Costly Furniture'.... artworks.... horse, harness & gigs, etc, donkey, cows, farming items... Property of Parnell R Maillard Esq who is leaving England.'
WILLIAM E BICKMORE - and the Hall becomes a school
The 1861 census records the resident as 'William E Bickmore esq, age 55, teacher - pupils away for Easter holiday'. He was the brother of Frederick Askew Bickmore who was appointed tutor to Boileau children of Ketteringham Hall who ran a private school at Hethel Hall as a prep school for Eton. They are remembered by a former pupil:
'As regards history, both Mr. Bickmore and his two brothers, who kept large private schools elsewhere, had a system of their own which greatly facilitated their pupils' memory of what they learned. Mr. William Bickmore, who kept a school at Mergate Hall near Norwich, had written a book called Historical Combinations. In each century some leading historical event was chosen that combined two or three identical figures. To elucidate my meaning, I will give an instance. Alexander the Great's principal battle was the battle of Issus, 333 B.C. Therefore in the list of Combinations we had "The Age of Alexander the Great, 333 B.C.," while, after Christ, we had "The Age of Constantine, A.D. 333." We all left Hethel having a very fair approximate knowledge of the dates of the principal periods of history.'
It is uncertain how long Mr Bickmore's school functioned at Mergate Hall. Sadly, his wife Elizabeth died there on 15 March 1862.
CHARLES BARNARD (1804 - 1871)
In the Post Office Directory of 1869 and the 1871 census (below), the Hall's resident is Charles Barnard, aged 67, 'Engineer & Ironfounder', born Bracon Ash. Charles was the son of George & Mary Barnard who had lived at Mergate Farm until George's death in 1842. Charles was returning to his roots - to the somewhat more prestigious Mergate Hall next to where he had been brought up!
Charles Barnard opened an ironworks in Pottergate, Norwich in 1842, and 4 years later went into partnership with John Bishop. In 1859, Charles Barnard's sons Charles and Godfrey joined the partnership making 4 Bs: Barnard, Bishop and Barnards - using the trade sign of 4 bees, 2 larger and 2 smaller for the sons! Aware of the problems caused by stray animals, Charles snr. set about experimenting with a weaving machine that could make wire netting. Unfortunately he did not live to see the firm's new premises 'over the water' where they moved in 1871. These included a large foundry and a netting mill with powered looms. The netting was sent world-wide and rabbit-proof netting for Australia helped make the Barnard fortune. Their ornamental wrought iron-work designed by Thomas Jeckyll also gained the firm national attention - the intricate 'Norwich Gates' exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition won ecstatic praise. Their work can still be seen at Thorpe Station - and in Mergate Hall, where he lived until his death in 1871. There is more about Barnards here, with photos of their products.
EDMUND BROUGHTON KNOWLES LACON (1842 - 1899)
Eldest son of Sir Edmund Henry Knowles Lacon (1807 - 1888), businessman and baronet, brewer and banker, and MP for North Norfolk. Laycon's Brewery had been a successful Yarmouth business from the mid-18th century. Edmund B K Lacon is listed as a resident of Mergate Hall in 1877 (Harrod's Directory) and 1881. In 1888 (after he had left Bracon Ash) he succeeded his father as the 4th Baronet Lacon of Great Yarmouth. The Lacon family were involved with the Kemps in Norfolk Bank Lacon, Youll & Kemp which later became part of Lloyd's Bank.
SIR KENNETH HAGAR KEMP (1853 - 1936)
When Sir Kenneth came to live at Mergate Hall, he was probably the first owner to live there after several centuries of tenants. He was the son of Nunn Robert Prettyman Kemp, and took his unusual middle name from his mother's maiden name. He was only 6 when his father died and he was sent to the Clergy Orphan School in Canterbury. He had barely graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge when he inherited the baronetcy and estates of Gissing in 1874 through the death of two uncles who had no children. Thus he became the 12th - and as it turned out, the last Baronet.
Sir Kenneth was a cricketer (he played with the MCC and for England on a few occasions); he joined the army and served with several Norfolk Regiments; he trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1880; and he stood (unsuccessfully) for election as the MP for N Norfolk in 1895 and 1899. He was also a partner in the Norfolk Bank of Lacon Youll & Kemp - Lacon being a tenant at Mergate before Kemp arrived (see above).
The first mention of Sir Kenneth as resident at Mergate Hall is in White's Directory of 1883 and he was still there with his family and a large staff in 1901. The Hall was convenient for commuting to Norwich where he had his legal and banking interests. Whilst resident, he restored both Mergate and Flordon Halls and modernised his estate workers cottages. Sadly, his only son, Richard, was killed in the Boer War, and hope of the baronetcy continuing died with him. Did this encourage Sir Kenneth to move? In 1911 Sir Kenneth and Henrietta were living in The Close, Norwich. Soon after World War 1 he was awarded the OBE for 'valuable services rendered in connection with the War'. He died in Sheringham in 1936 but is buried in Gissing churchyard.
In 1904 & 1908 the tenant at Mergate Hall was Edward Fraser; by 1912 it was Robert Wade-Palmer (who was bankrupt by 1913), and by 1916 Walter Cubitt Crawshay (of the brewery family) was a resident 'of Mergate Hall' when his daughter's sumptuous wedding and reception in Surrey was reported in the papers. In the 1920s the Depuis family lived there - and opened the grounds for fetes to benefit the church and village. Herbert Francis Dupuis was chairman of Kirby Rubber Estates & Director of the Cairo (Malay) Rubber Syndicate.
Teddy Moore: 'I knew the old gamekeeper on the Mergate estate. A French family lived in the Hall at one time, named Dupuis.... They had a big shoot on one occasion and when they were in the house having a meal, someone came in and stole all the furs and jewellery upstairs. Another time someone came in and stole all the pheasants that has been shot. That was in the early '20s I would say. The gamekeeper told me that.'
JOHN HOWLETT JEWSON (1895-1975) & ELIZABETH (BETTY) GWYDIR JEWSON nee FLETCHER (1914-1981)
The name 'Jewson' is associated with a nationwide chain of builders' and timber merchants which was founded in 1836 by George Jewson in Earith, Hunts. and passed to his son, John Wilson Jewson. John had a large family, and it was his eldest son - another George - who came to work for a timber merchant in Norwich and suggested the city as a better location for the firm. John's youngest son Richard (20 years younger than his brother George) (1867-1949) married Fanny Howlett in 1891 and the eldest son of their 6 children was John Howlett Jewson.
Known as Colonel Jewson, John served in the Norfolk Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross in WW1:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his platoon until the first line was reduced to a few men and he was the only unwounded officer. He did not withdraw until quite isolated, when he got back to a ridge, which he held until dark. He then collected a few men and spent all night searching for and bringing in the wounded. (Gazette 16 Aug 1917)
Teddy Moore remembers: 'The Jewsons were in Mergate Hall before the war, and during the war Mr Jewson was in the army and Mrs Jewson had something to do with nursing. Mergate Hall was let to Mr & Mrs Andrews and became a private school, where Timothy & Bridget Finch and Robert Bothway and his brother all used to go.'
At first John Jewson and family were tenants of Mergate Hall, but when the estate came up for sale in 1948 he co-operated with the other tenants and purchased Lot 1, Mergate Hall.
Colonel Jewson's work with the family company was on the timber side and he often travelled abroad to buy timber. In Bracon Ash he is remembered for his daily swim in the outside pool and for his cars and his fast driving:
From Teddy Moore's memories: 'The gardener or the groom would come from Mergate Hall to collect the milk and they'd say: "The Colonel has been done for speeding again!" "How do you know?", I said. "Van Dyke [head of police in Norwich] was up there last night!" It was said that Col Jewson did London to Mergate Hall in 1¾ hours in his red Jag....' John Betts remembers the day he drove through the front gates in his impatience when the gardener left them shut - but maybe not in the Jag!
In 1931 in Norwich, John Jewson married Elizabeth Gwydir Fletcher - always known as Betty. She was nearly 20 years younger than him and lived on at the Hall after his death in 1975. She was an accomplished artist, especially in sculpture and painting, and a member of the Women's International Art Club. Henry Moore was one famous name who visited the Hall on a number of occasions: he already had connections to the area, as he often visited his sister Betty who lived in Mulbarton in the 1920s when her husband Rowland Howarth was head teacher of the school there. Other visitors were the siblings Gwen John (1876-1939) and Augustus John (1878-1961), and it is believed that Gwen John stayed with Betty for some time.
Above: Bronze sculpture by Betty Jewson, from the catalogue of the WIAC exhibition 'the feminine eye' held in London in June 1974
Local people remember that Betty Jewson could look very smart, but definitely 'dressed down' at home. Her dogs were named Fortnum and Mason - she'd go out with her old bicycle and if one of the dogs got too tired would pick it up and put it in her bike basket for a ride home!
She died in London in 1981.