Norfolk's American connections
Norfolk with the Earl of Leicester, Holkham
Like so many coastal English counties, Norfolk could be relied upon to supply many of the original colonists to North America - Norfolk was the county that had the largest percentage of known passengers on The Mayflower.. The county’s motto is ‘Do Different’ – and in the past so many Norfolk people wanted to do just that. You can read some of their stories here, and see the transatlantic link is alive and well. An exploration of Norfolk’s towns and villages will unearth many links between the USA and ‘Nelson’s County’.
Four hundred years later during the second world war, the flow of people ‘across the Pond’ reversed as thousands of men and women of the United States Eighth Army Air Force flew missions from bases across Norfolk in support of the allied war effort.
Saved by Pocahontas
Legend has it that Pocahontas saved the life of one of the leaders of the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith. He said that the Indian princess laid her head down on his as her father was about to deliver a killing blow with his war club. There is some debate about the truth of Smith’s account – he was known to exaggerate.
Smith, born to a farming family in Lincolnshire in 1580, had left his apprenticeship in King’s Lynn and signed on as an Adventurer on a Virginia-bound voyage in 1606, after fighting for the Hasburgs against the Turks. According to Smith, he was captured and enslaved, sent to Istanbul to serve his captive’s sweetheart, but the girl fell in love with him, so he was sent to a brother to train him for the Turkish Imperial Service. The brother was cruel so Smith killed him and escaped, eventually returning to England in 1605.
On the voyage, Smith was arrested for mutiny, spending most of the voyage in irons and was nearly hanged. In Jamestown he was chosen to serve on the Colonies governing Council, mutiny but a future governor of Virginia, George Percy, described him as ‘an Ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe’. The onslaught of disease and starvation led to him being asked to trade with the Indians… which is how he was captured.
Smith became president of the Jamestown Colony and, perhaps because of Pocahontas, he worked with the Native Americans, in contrast to the massacres being perpetrated by the Spanish conquistadores.
He returned to England in 1609 having written prolifically about the natural abundance of the New World, whetting the colonising appetite of prospective English settlers.
America's first inter-racial marriage
Native American Pocahontas (c1596-1617) was the daughter of Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacah, who controlled much of what is now Virginia. She has entered history through her association with the early Jamestown settlers and marriage in 1614 to a Norfolk man, John Rolfe of Heacham - America's first inter-racial church wedding.
America's first entrepreneur
As well as marrying Pocahontas, John Rolfe, from Heacham in Norfolk, is widely regarded as America’s first entrepreneur. An astute but humble farmer, he had a vision of success across the ocean in Virginia and ended saving the state financially and assured north America became a British colony. Were it not for John Rolfe, Americans might now be speaking Spanish, French or Dutch!
Abe Lincoln - the 16th President
In April, 1637, a 15-year-old boy left his native Norfolk for a new life. Samuel Lincoln’s descendants would go on to make history. Born in 1622, Samuel was baptised at St Andrew’s Church, Hingham, near Norwich. He emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, along with his employer Francis Lawes, a weaver from Norwich and his family. Like many of the Hingham congregation he was a Puritan, and found a safe haven in New England. His new town must have felt familiar; founded only four years earlier, south of Boston, it was called – Hingham. Samuel went on to have 11 children, and lived until 1690.
The family moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, Virginia and then Kentucky.
His great-great-great-great grandson Abraham Lincoln became the 16th American President in 1861. A bust of Abraham Lincoln sits in Hingham church today, and the village sign depicts a group of emigrants waiting for a ship on a quay.
He led the United States through the American Civil War, famously abolished slavery in American, and delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches which began: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.
America's first titled lady
Daughter of Anthony and Martha, Temperance Flowerdew (c1567-1628) left Hethersett, near Norwich, to sail to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609. Known as the first titled lady of America, she was wife of two Governors of the colony, sister of another early colonist, aunt to a representative of the General Assembly and first cousin to John Pory, Secretary to the colony. After the death of her first husband, Governor Sir George Yeardley, she was one of the richest women in Virginia.
Salem witch trials
William and Joanna Towne left their native Great Yarmouth, and settled in Salem, Massachusetts in 1640. Three of their daughters were caught up in the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692. Two of them, Rebecca Nurse and Mary Eastly, were found guilty of witchcraft and executed. A third daughter Sarah was also arrested, but released. She later sued for unlawful arrest and the killing of her sisters; she was awarded three gold sovereigns for each of them.
The founder of New Hampshire
New Hampshire was founded in 1629 by John Mason, born in King’s Lynn in 1586. In addition to later becoming Governor of Newfoundland, he published the first reliable maps of the area and is buried in Westminster Abbey. He died in 1635.
The first Mayor of New York
Thomas Willet (1605-1674), the first Mayor of New York, was the grandson of a Great Yarmouth man. William Towne from Great Yarmouth settled in Salem, and two of his daughters were accused of sorcery during the infamous witch trials.
Protection from the natives
Also from Great Yarmouth (and buried there) was Sir William Gooch, 1st Baronet (1681-1751), who became Governor of Virginia after negotiating the Treaty of Lancaster, which insured protection from the native Indian tribes to the north and west of the colony.
Speaker of the first assembly
John Pory (1572-1636) was baptised in Thompson in Breckland, and emigrated on the ‘Third Supply’, a fleet of 9 ships carrying stores and immigrants. He became the First Secretary of the Council of Virginia and was elected speaker of the first representative assembly held in America in July 1619.
How Lynn, US came to be
Samuel Whiting (1597-1679), a rector of St Margaret's church in King’s Lynn, emigrated to New England in 1636 and Lynn, Massachusetts is named in his honour, changing from its original name of Saugus.
The inspiration for independence
Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737 in Thetford, Norfolk. The son of an artisan, he was well educated at Thetford Grammar School but soon chafed at the constraints of his home town. His chequered career eventually led him to the American colonies where he emigrated in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin. There he found his calling, as a revolutionary writer. His famous Common Sense pamphlets, written in 1776, supported American independence against the British Crown.
The man who mapped Canada
Naval explorer George Vancouver (1757-98) was born at 23 Conduit Street in the port of King’s Lynn in west Norfolk on June 22 and batptised at St Margaret’s in the town. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of 13 as a ‘young gentleman’ midshipman, and sailed with Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages of global discovery. In 1791 he was dispatched to the Pacific with orders to survey every cove and inlet. This task took the best part of four years, by which time Vancouver and his crews had mapped North America’s west coast from San Francisco up to Alaska. Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver in British Colombia, western Canada, are named after him. His statue stands outside Lynn’s iconic 18th Century Customs House.
Taxes that led to Revolution
Raynham Hall in Norfolk was the home of Charles Townshend (1725 –1767), Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth from 1747 to 1756, and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1766 to 1767. His introduction of taxes (known as the ‘Townshend duties’) on the American Colonies was one of the factors which led to the American Revolution. The town of Townshend,Vermont, was named after him in 1753.
Fighting for the abolition of slavery
Olaudah Equiano (c1745-97) was a prominent African involved in the British campaign to abolish the slave trade. Enslaved in his youth, he bought his freedom and worked as an author, merchant and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, Arctic, American colonies and England. He spent two months in Norwich in 1794.
The Gipsy King fighter
Bare-knuckle fighter Jem Mace, the ‘Gipsy King’, was heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Born at Beeston-next-Mileham, Norfolk, in 1831, there is a memorial stone beside his father William’s grave in St Mary’s Church. In 1870, on the banks of the Mississippi, near New Orleans, he fought a celebrated bout against American pugilist Tom Allen to see who would be world champion. A hard-fought scrap ended in the 10th when Allen’s arm was dislocated. In a gesture of mutual respect, the English boxer walked to the opposite corner, clapped Allen on the back, and said: “Tom, you are a game man and I wish you well.” He died in poverty 40 years later in Anfield, Liverpool. There is a display about Mace at Swaffham Museum, and a life-size statue of him and Allen at LaSalles landing, 12 miles from New Orleans. Mace was the last licensee of the long-gone White Swan inn, Norwich, where you can view a plaque marking the spot.
Fighting for feminism
Born in Norwich, Harriet Martineau (1802-76) was an English social theorist and writer, regarded as the first female sociologist. In the 1830s she spent two years in the USA, where her support for the abolition of slavery caused controversy. Her second novel The Hour and the Man, was about Toussaint L’Overture, who led an anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti during the Napoleonic Wars. She also criticised the treatment of women in the USA, claiming they were treated like ‘slaves’.
First to traverse the North-West Passage
Samuel Gurney Cresswell (1827-1867) returned to his birthplace of King’s Lynn after a five-year voyage of exploration, during which he became the first Royal Navy officer to traverse the North-West Passage. Cresswell was the grandson of Elizabeth Fry, the famous prison reformer.
The circus is in town!
Barnum and Bailey’s Circus visited Norwich and King’s Lynn in 1899. A ’40 horse hitch’ – a wagon pulled by 40 horses – damaged a pub named The Mayflower. The pub’s owner was not too bothered; the resulting publicity was so good for business he renamed it the Forty Horse Inn.
From Archie Leach to Cary Grant
Hollywood leading man Cary Grant (1904-86) was born Archie Leach in Bristol. After being expelled from school aged 13 he joined the Bob Pender Stage Troupe as a stilt walker. It was in this capacity that he appeared at the Norwich Hippodrome. The troupe visited the USA in 1920. Archie decided to stay in the States, change his name – and have a go at acting. He didn’t do too badly...
Wartime ambassador to the US
Philip Kerr, Marquis of Lothian, owner of the Blickling estate, north Norfolk, was Winston Churchill’s ambassador to the USA during the Battle of Britain in 1940 before his untimely death in December of that year. Blickling is a Jacobean mansion, dating from the early 17th Century, and one of Norfolk’s finest stately homes. Set in north Norfolk, near the town of Aylsham, it is the supposed birthplace of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife. According to legend, each May, on the anniversary of her execution, her headless ghost is said to arrive at the hall and walk in.
Entertaining the troops
Antoinette Hannent (1905-76) was known in Norwich as ‘Black Anna’. Of Italian descent, she married pub landlord Kenneth Hannent, of the Jolly Butchers pub in the city. On his death in 1947 she ran the pub son her own. During the war her singing drew crowds to the pub, including American servicemen. She learnt blues and jazz from them, and her reputation grew so that people came from near and far to hear her deep, throaty voice. Anna became known as the British Sophie Tucker, in honour of the American singer she admired. The Jolly Butchers closed after her death in 1976.
The best ballroom dancer
Vernon Castle (1887-1918) the son of a pub owner and raised in Norwich, emigrated to New York aged 19, became one of the best ballroom dancers of the 20th century, appearing on the stage and in films, and established a dance school with his American wife, Irene. The couple reached the peak of their popularity in Irving Berlin’s first Broadway hit, Watch Your Step in 1914, and helped promote the Foxtrot, ragtime, jazz rhythms and African-American music for dance. After serving with the British Royal Flying Corps in the first world war, he died in a plane crash in Texas in 1918.
A star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame
Madeleine Carroll (1906-87) was an English actress. She starred in a number of films, including Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, and has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. She married Capt Phillip Astley, of Constable Hall in Norfolk in 1931. The couple divorced nine years later, and in 1941 she became a naturalised American citizen. After the death of her sister in the London Blitz, Carroll quit acting and worked as a Red Cross nurse. She served in Foggia, Italy, where many American airmen were treated. After the war she was awarded France’s Legion of Honour and the USA’s Medal of Freedom.
The greatest guitarist visits Norwich
Widely considered to be the greatest electric guitarist ever, Jimi Hendrix visited Norfolk twice 50 years ago, in 1967. He played at the Orford Cellar, Norwich, on January 25 and the Wellington Club, Dereham, on October 7.