The Harrisons

Our primary focus revolves around about Wreningham residents and their life and times. However, it is also important we take note of the Harrison family from Palgrave, near Diss.  During the early–mid 1800s, they owned three farms in Wreningham (Burton’s Farm, High Common Farm, and Fir Grove) which amounted to about 40% of our village land.

We know of four successive generations of Charles Harrisons who lived between the late 1600s and 1820.  Wills can be found for the last two: 1721-1804 and 1755-1820. We are assuming it was the senior Charles who bought the Common Land in Wreningham in the late 1700s.  However, we don’t know which Charles bought their other Wreningham farmland – or precisely when. There may have been a sequence of separate purchases.

In 1820, the ‘junior’ Charles died and his widow, Mary, was a principal beneficiary in his Will. Several years later (c1828) Mary died intestate and a court passed all her property to the two daughters: Mary and Elizabeth. This was the point when Mary and Elizabeth inherited the three Wreningham farms. The Wreningham tithe records of c1838 shows how their Wreningham farmland had been divided between the daughters – those possessing a copy can see the listings on pages 168 – 172 in Basil Day’s book. Neither sister ever married.

The 1869 auction documentation describes how the Wills of both daughters gave instruction for the family’s Wreningham and Palgrave etc farmlands to be sold, after their passing.  Following the death of the second daughter, Mary, the auction took place at the Royal Hotel in Norwich.

The 1869 auction raised about £25,000 from the sale of Wreningham farms and a further £48,000 from their other properties near Diss.  Putting those sums into a financial context of the time, the daughter’s combined wealth could probably have afforded the entire lands of Wreningham parish together with all its buildings and businesses – perhaps with money left over!

In Palgrave, several generations of the Harrison family had lived at St John’s House.  In the 1869 auction documentation, St John’s was described as a ‘mansion house  …. with offices, superior stabling, carriage-houses, etc and large enclosed garden with wall clothed with choice fruit trees in full bearing, the whole advantageously placed in a small, beautiful park, thickly studded with timber and other trees and surrounded by ornamental plantations and grounds … the mansion is approached by a winding carriage drive.’  The ‘mansion’ and its grounds were the family home whilst the nearby farmland was ‘in the occupation of highly respectable tenants’.

Charles Harrison’s Will (1820) references his Wreningham properties and also makes specific remarks about his Wreningham tenant, William Burton snr.

St John’s House still exists. In the1900s the house and grounds became a retirement home. In more recent times the house and grounds were extensively developed to create a mental health hospital although this is not currently in operation.

A lucky find

Sometimes, research throws up the unexpected – and this is the case for the Harrisons.  Information about them can be found in a book, written in 1860.  It came from the pen of Richard Cobbold, rector of Wortham from the late 1820s.  Wortham is a small Suffolk village abutting Palgrave. 

Richard Cobbold’s father, John Cobbold, owned the well-known Ipswich brewing company – founded in Harwich, in 1723.  Richard, one of 21 brothers and sisters – his father married twice, was the second youngest so it must have been no surprise that one of his older brothers was chosen to carry the brewery into its next generation.  Richard had been schooled in Bury St Edmunds and went on to attend Caius College, Cambridge before returning to Ipswich. On his own marriage – and much to his regret, Richard’s father bought him the position of Wortham’s next rector.  (It was possible to do that, in those days!) As a result, Richard and his wife needed to leave their comfortable home-life in Ipswich and he became a full-time cleric in the small and “distant” village of Wortham. NB Wortham is only 25 miles miles from Ipswich but the roads in those times were extremely poor.

His father’s funding enabled Richard to build a new rectory and when he wasn’t ministering to his congregation, Richard distracted himself by writing and painting.  Over the years, he also made extensive notes about his many Wortham parishioners and their lives.  In 1860 Richard Cobbold turned these notes into a three volume book; both the book and his original notes and paintings, now reside at the Suffolk Archives, Ipswich.  Richard Cobbold’s texts were ‘re-discovered’ in the 1970s by a researcher, Ronald Fletcher who went on to publish them under the title The Biography of a Victorian Village.  In turn, this 1970s publication became the basis of a BBC television programme.

The Harrisons owned property in both Palgrave and Wortham – farms and homes. (The Harrison daughters, Mary and Elizabeth had been baptised at Wortham church in c1785 and c1790. That suggests the ‘junior’ Charles Harrison and his family may have resided in a Wortham property during the active working life of his father.) Their Palgrave family residence, St John’s House, also had the Palgrave/Wortham parish boundary line running across its gardens. Hence, the Harrison’s feature in the Cobbold book.  One of Cobbold’s many paintings is of the ‘Misses Harrison’: it shows both daughters standing with their mother, Mary, in front of St John’s House.

Richard Cobbold probably never met the youngest ‘Squire’ (Charles) Harrison, but describes how “the Harrison family had always been kind to John Mattox”, a ‘black man’, and who Charles had employed as a servant.  In later life, John Maddox and his wife tenanted a Harrison owned cottage, in Wortham.

Cobbold clearly knew the Harrison daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, very well.  His book describes them as ‘kind, hospitable and courteous’.  He stated that Miss Elizabeth Harrison ‘was indefatigable in her daily rounds to the poor and in her daily rounds distributed greatly to their wants.’  The ‘Miss Harrisons’ also organised a local Clothing Club for the villagers of Wortham.

Taking the above as evidence, we might suppose that all the Harrison tenants – including their farm tenants in Wreningham, would have been treated with the same ‘Harrison’ kindness, courtesy, and dignity.

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