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John Palmer (1800-1881) and Elizabeth Jessup (1810-1875)

For about a hundred years leading up to the middle of the nineteenth century, Norwich was considered second only to London in terms of prosperity. That success was built on the back of its textile industry but, as the second half of the century unfolded, it faced increasing competition from the Northern mills in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The Napoleonic War brought further problems as the continental markets dried up, so Norwich weavers faced huge difficulties. Robert Hayes, a major manufacturer and government supporter complained about the lack of trade and the doubling of the poor rates; two hundred workers took to the streets to protest; and one commentator described the situation saying '' 'the outbreak of war, in bringing the worsted manufacture almost to a standstill, (plunged) the mass of the Norwich weavers into sudden distress'.

 Amid all this gloom Thomas Jessup married Elizabeth Harper in 1799. He was a weaver, so one would have expected him to have suffered more than most and yet, although there are no records to prove it directly, he appears to have been a successful as his name is on the list of voters for Norwich in 1830, and he educated his children well enough for two of them to become a solicitor and an attorney's clerk. Why was this? One guess is that he was one of the weavers who chose to take advantage of the new fashion. Norwich shawls had started to become popular in the 1780s, some twenty years before a similar style from Paisley became available, and manufacturers of these shawls could look forward to another eighty years of good trade. The shawls were originally long and light with embroidered borders, but gradually evolved into the magnificent Jacquard designs of the 1850s and 1860s. In 1822 Joseph Grout had also designed a special mourning shawl which added to the popularity of the Norwich products.


Whether Thomas made these shawls or not, he and Elizabeth settled in the centre of Norwich near St Swithin's church, just inside the city wall. Much earlier the area had been a desirable address and four mediaeval churches were built very close together to cater for the large number of middle class citizens; but not long after Thomas and Elizabeth lived there, the area would become a slum and the church would become delapidated. By now the city had about 35,000 inhabitants but, like most cities at the time, it was dirty, overcrowded and unsanitary. It had piped water, but it wasn't fit for drinking, and there were regular epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, cholera and diphtheria. To counteract some of this, a dispensary was opened in 1804, where the poor could obtain free medicines and in 1806 an act of parliament gave local commissioners the powers to pave, clean and light the streets.


Norwich Market in 1799


St Swithin's before the tower was demolished

Benjamin Jessup (1817-18  ).jpg

Benjamin Jessup

The Wesleyan chapel in Calvert St where several of John and Elizabeth's children were baptised. It was demolished in 1966 to make way for a road

Between 1803 and 1817 Thomas and Elizabeth had at least five children, at least four of whom survived into adulthood despite the outbreak of smallpox in 1819 that claimed over 500 lives. They were all baptised at St Swithin's and brought up in a home that clearly valued education as not long after their youngest child was born, the eldest, Thomas, was already earning a living as scrivener and clerk; and the youngest, Benjamin, would go on to greater things.


Fifteen miles North-East of Norwich, and not far from the coast, James Palmer was farming 9 acres in the village of Honing. Small as that farm was, it appears to have been enough to support a large family as, by 1820, he and his wife Mary had had ten children, and all of them were boys, although they did go on to have four daughters as well. The farm may have been able to support a large family, but it couldn't when the children had become adults, particularly as James himself was still farming in his seventies. Benjamin, one of the younger chlldren, stayed on to help his father with the farm; but two others who wanted to farm had to move elsewhere. The other sons had to leave home as well: two becoming shoemakers, two whitesmiths and two, including John, moved to Norwich to become blacksmiths.


John married Elizabeth Jessup in 1834 and moved to Heigham, just outside the city walls, which was a popular area with other tradesmen. John was a widow, and already had a daughter from his previous marriage, so would have been keen to re-marry quickly. Elizabeth also brought someone else to their marriage: her father, Thomas Jessup who, together with Elizabeth's sister Ann, joined them shortly after their marriage.As their family continued to grow through the 1840s, Norwich was becoming a much more pleasant place to live in. A police force had been started in 1836 to keep crime to an acceptable level; the railway had reached the city in 1845 which presaged the start of several new industries; and a fresh water supply to the city was soon to be built. John's mother had died fairly recently, but his father was still farming in Honing (and would do so for several more years). Elizabeth's eldest brother, always referred to as 'Thomas Jessup jun, gentleman' was still working as an attorney's clerk, and her younger brother, Benjamin, was practising as a solicitor in the city. Several of John and Elizabeth's children were baptised in the Wesleyan chapel but whether the family were Wesleyan before 1845, or they converted then, is not known.

If the 1840s were a period of growth and stability, the following decade would be not be. Elizabeth's brother, Thomas, died in 1850 leaving behind a wife and several young children; and a few years later, their brother Benjamin emigrated to Queensland in Australia where he was to become an important part of the community in Clunes, but was necessarily cut off from his family in England. Their father, Thomas, was still living with Elizabeth - rather surprisingly working as a shoemaker rather than a weaver - but their sister Ann had moved out to spend the rest of her life working for a solicitor who may have been connected to Benjamin.


Meanwhile Heigham itself continued to grow. An outbreak of cholera in 1849 had forced the city to find a better water supply and the city's water works were opened in Heigham a few years later (some time later, Benjamin, one of John and Elizabeth's children, would become a collector there). Following a collection that raised £1000 locally, a school had been built in Heigham which the children may have been some of the first to attend as, although it was built for 200, it took some years to reach capacity. As well as the water works, Heigham was also home to Norwich gaol. Its only public execution had taken place in 1829 and it would remain the main Norwich prison until that moved to the castle in 1877.

Three of their children remained at home until well into their twenties. The eldest had left home to become an ironmonger and gas fitter, and would soon be employing over a dozen men; but Thomas, Benjamin and William remained with their parents. John continued working as a blacksmith all his life, although none of his sons followed him into that trade. Thomas was a whitesmith, so used some of the same skills, while Benjamin became a clerk and William made cigars before eventually running a tobacconist's shop. All three younger boys would marry, but only John would live to see William's marriage.


Heigham was prone to flooding. There had been a major flood in 1809 when Elizabeth was a girl, and she may have remembered boats rowing up the roads until the water subsided. The next disastrous flood was not until 1878, and Elizabeth had died three years earlier, but John was still alive and would have witnessed the scene. Heavy November rains, followed by snowstorms and a thaw meant that the rivers overflowed. Large parts of Heigham were affected and many of the poorer residents had to be rescued from their houses as the ground floors had all been flooded.


Two years after the flood, John died.


(To be finished)


A flooded Heigham in 1878

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