According to the 18th century Norfolk historian, the Rev. Bloomfield, the history of the manors of Gambon and Whitwell Symonds (which includes today the areas of Whitwell Hall and Hackford Hall) can be traced back to Anglo Saxon times. The land is listed in the Domesday Book (1086) as being owned by Rolf de Bellofago who was given the land after the Norman conquest.
In 1659 Augustine Messenger held the Manors of both Whitwell and Hackford and in 1680 these were inherited by Robert Monsey who became Rector of Bawdeswell in 1683. In 1689 he was obliged to take an oath of allegiance and supremacy to the new King William but he declined to do this and he was subsequently deprived of the living at Bawdeswell. He was more fortunate than many other members of the clergy in that he owned a small yet comfortable estate and so he retired to Whitwell to live. He was able to indulge in his passion for growing plants particularly oaks and some of the oak trees that he planted at Whitwell during these later years still survive in good order today. It was here that his son Messenger was born in 1693.
It is said that the eighteenth century was rich in “interesting physicians” and one of the most remarkable (and certainly the oddest) was Doctor Messenger Monsey. He is recorded as being uncouth, unwashed, able to deliver the most outrageous remarks and generally to behave in the most unseemly manner, was generally unpopular yet always tolerated on account of his wit and malice. He is mentioned in most of the contemporary records of the time. Messenger spent his formative years at Whitwell being educated by his father until 1711 when he entered Pembroke College, Cambridge. He graduated B.A. in 1715 and returned to Norwich to study medicine. He finally settled down to practice at Bury St. Edmund’s and might have remained there for the rest of his days had it not been for a fortunate accident which occurred when the second Earl of Godolphin was taken ill at Bury, on his way to his house at Newmarket. Monsey was summoned to attend and the patient made a swift recovery although history does not record whether the recovery was fully or partly due to the professional ability of Messenger.
The Tannery building is no longer standing but the Millpond is still in evidence. There were two Tanneries at Whitwell, the one owned by the Leamon’s on the Whitwell Estate and a smaller one owned by the Leeds family set by Whitwell Green, to the south of the Whitwell estate. The village supplied workers and the Tannery provided their livelihood in wages and in kind. Used bark was dried and used as fuel in the workers’ cottages. Scrapings of meat from the skins prior to tanning were sold at a penny a pound and were called ‘tanner’s meat’. Bread baked in tan wood on the hearth is said to have an extra special flavour. There were a variety of jobs at the tannery. Some worked in the yards as Fleshers, Tanners and Curriers, directly concerned with the tanning process. Others ran the Bark Mill, to crush and prepare the bark. Carters had to fetch lime for defleshing and dehairing; loads of bark (usually oak but elm and other woods were used); and carry skins. Skins were collected from Norwich slaughterhouses, usually untreated, although if being retained for longer than a few days, they were treated with salt to preserve them roughly. Completed leathers were transported back to the leather merchants or supplied direct to shoe manufacturers in Norwich. Horses for the carts had to be fed, groomed, shod and cared for. Pits had to be cleaned out and used lime and tan bark shovelled out and carted away. During the tanning process skins had to be turned or removed from one pit to another. The work was heavy, often dirty and always redolent of the inescapable odours of decaying animal flesh. It must be remembered that the out-flow from skin-washing and cleansing of the tan-pits must have been highly polluting to the streams which were used by the Whitwell Tanneries.
The process of tanning is briefly described below:
The skins are scraped clean and immersed in lime and water. The lime must have been used before, so that bacteria have bred in the liquor from contact with the skins. It is the bacteria that work on the roots of the hair, so that it can be scraped away together with surface integuments. Shallow pits are used for this process.
Bark is crushed and mixed with water to make ‘tan liquor’. The skin is first placed in diluted liquor in a shallow pit, being moved progressively along a line of pits into stronger and stronger liquor. This gives a good tan into the heart of the skin. Too strong too soon would produce an impermeable outer layer to the skin, the heart remaining pale and untanned.
The drying room must be well ventilated, usually by means of louvred wall openings
Unevenness in the surface is removed.
Pummelling with oil and tallow to give pliability
A second drying to finish off the process.
All this took many months, the Tanning itself could take up to 2 years. Today, with Chrome Tanning and other innovations, the process has been speeded up. The Tannery processes were basically the same in all tan yards and the quality of the leather depended on the experienced skill of the workmen, who judged when the skins were ready as they moved from process to process.
The extension of the Victorian Railway system enabled hides to be transported quickly and in bulk. Small country tanneries began therefore to suffer from serious competition at this time from the large urban tanneries notably in Bermondsey. Much of the work in the larger tanneries was helped by machinery whilst the local tanneries output was achieved almost wholly by labour intensive means. Robert Leamon knew that his tannery was becoming uncompetitive and with the additional burden of the 1874 fire he decided not to just rebuild and replace his loss, but to modernise the overall tannery enterprise. He greatly extended the Tannery by making additions of other tan pits, drying sheds and by building in 1876-77 an engine house fitted with a steam engine. This was used to grind the bark that was essential to make the tan liquor. The outflow from the skin washing and particularly when the tan pits were cleansed gave off a dreadful odour so Robert Leamon moved the course of the Beck further to the east of the Hall by having a new course dug out. This is still referred to as the ‘New Cut’. Despite all the investment business did not upturn and the whole enterprise was eventually declared bankrupt in 1883.
Old Village Site
Between the stream and the far eastern boundary, signs of the Old Village site can be positively identified. Fadens Map of Norfolk, dated 1797 shows and labels the position of the village, under which there is a footnote, ‘Demolished’. This was investigated by archaeologist Helen Soutermeister in the summer of 1973. Remains of medieval flint and brickwork were found and photographed. Deeper down soil staining indicated the possible remains of the huts of a Saxon settlement.
One of the most interesting features of the Estate appears in the lower eastern corner where the famous Caistor to Denver Roman road runs from east to west. The road can be identified by the rise in ground level and the patchy appearance of vegetation. The road still remains covered, although it has been opened up twice, once in May, 1968, and then again in August, 1970. It was believed to have been used to transport Roman Troops from the capital of the Iceni (Boadiceas tribe) at Caistor to Denver.