Brockdish Greyhound 1902
Brockdish Greyhound 1902

Brockdish History - An introduction

The parish and the village of Brockdish in south Norfolk extend along the River Waveney between the small market towns of Diss and Harleston. Major highways from London to Norwich and from Cambridge to Yarmouth used to cross at the village of Scole just to the west, and the King’s Highway has run from Scole through Brockdish to Yarmouth since at least the fifteenth century.

The village itself is much older than that. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and probably was a settlement in Saxon times, and even before. Scole, just down the road, was a Roman settlement, there are the remains of Roman villas in the vicinity and a Roman hoard was found in nearby Hoxne. In 1994, a well-preserved Roman kiln was discovered in the parish under the field due north of All Saints Church, Thorpe Abbotts. Excavation around it revealed lots of pieces of pot. The pottery was typical of a 3rd/4th century date. Inside the kiln was found a coin of Victorinus (Emperor c 269-71).

There may have been a water mill on the River Waveney between Brockdish and Syleham (on the Suffolk bank of the river) as far back as Saxon times; indeed, ‘existing documentary evidence suggests’, according to local historian Elaine Murphy, ‘that there were two mills in Syleham between the 13th and 15th centuries’.

One of the oldest buildings in the parish is the Church of St Peter and St Paul, built ‘just before or after the Norman Conquest in the late 11th century’, according to the Guide to the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, Brockdish, compiled by Elaine Murphy. The Guide notes that ‘the church is located at some distance from the main village because a mediaeval church was a parish church, not a village church and while it happens that most churches are in the main settlement of the parish, many, including Brockdish, are outside the village of their parish name’.

During the last years of Edward the Confessor’s reign, much of the land in the Waveney Valley still belonged to Stigand, formerly Bishop of Elmham, who subsequently became Archbishop of Canterbury. There were three local manors: Brockdish Earl, Brockdish Hall and Thorpe Abbotts. All were under the direct control of the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds until the early 12th century. Brockdish Earl was the more important and wealthier manor. It was seized from the Abbot in the mid-twelfth century by Roger Bigod, 2nd Earl of Norfolk, whom the Domesday Book records as holding six lordships in Essex, 117 in Suffolk and 187 in Norfolk. His base was in Thetford, which was then the See of the Bishop.

The Earls (the Bigods) continued to hold land and power in the region through the next two centuries. In 1313, the Rector of Brockdish was Sir Stephen Bygod, apparently owing this position to the king himself. The Bigods did not, however, live in the parish and the wealthy Le Grice family held the manor under the Earls, remaining there until they acquired Brockdish Hall in the mid-sixteenth century. The manor of Brockdish Hall was given first by Henry I to Sir Stephen de Brockdish, and he held it for ‘the 4th part of a knight’s fee’ from the Abbey and became bailiff to the Bigods. The property contained a manor house, Brockdish Hall, and consisted of ‘105 acres of land in demean, 12 acres of woodland, 8 of meadow and 4/13s and 10d rents of assize’. The Abbot retained control of the third manor – that of Thorpe Abbotts – hence the name, despite an attempt by Roger Bigod in 1285 to ‘muscle in’, as Elaine Murphy puts it, ‘to rights to freewarren’ – right up until the Reformation.

From 1271, Robert Thorp or de Thorp was given a lease for life to the estate now named the Thorpes, where Elaine Murphy’s ‘moated grange’ is located, which lay between the Manor of Brockdish Hall and the Manor of Brockdish Earl. Virtually nothing remains of the mediaeval houses of Brockdish, but the early history of the ‘moated grange’ during the 14th and 15th century is told in a chapter on the Thorps, who were lords of the manor there from 1271 to around 1470. In fact, most of the ‘great’ houses of Brockdish were built, as was the ‘moated grange’, on the high ground above the River and not too far from the church, whereas the majority of the older village buildings, unlike the more recent post-war development of mixed private and ‘council’ houses to the west of the village centre, were – and still are – closer to the River, and some distance from the church.

Brockdish Post Office
Brockdish Post Office
Brockdish Foundry and petrol pumps
Brockdish Foundry and Petrol Pumps c1930s

Since the earliest times, Brockdish has been a small, mainly farming village, with the wetlands, water meadows and marshy land near the River devoted to reed and hemp production and to pasture for livestock, and the upper slopes above the River to cereal cultivation for the most part. But the patterns of land tenure and land use, and the economy of Brockdish as a whole, have changed significantly over the centuries, as has the structure of local society and culture, as the village has been involved in the wider changes taking place in the region.

These include: the Black Death, the peasants’ revolt, the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, the English Civil War, the Enlightenment, the Napoleonic Wars, the growth of British imperial power, the changes in agricultural technology of the 18th and 19th centuries, the industrial and the transport revolutions (waterways, roads and railways), the coming of the internal combustion engine, the Great War, the decline of local crafts and occupations, the Depression, the Second World War, the Welfare State, social (council) housing, as well as many other more local processes and events, including most recently, ‘the by-pass’, which has left Brockdish (and Needham) quieter, but has led to further loss of local shops and other services.

Many ‘great’ noble families of England have been associated with Brockdish, including the Bigods, and the Howards, but the names of the local aristocracy and gentry who actually lived in the village over the centuries include the Thorpes, the Le Grices, the Spaldings, the Crickmeres, the Wyths, the Cottons, the Dysons, the Doughtys and the Walnes. Many other family names, of more lowly residents, can also be traced from local records, and there are fascinating stories associated with many of them, such as the Gooch family, one of whom (William Gooch the son of a wig-maker and barber) gained a scholarship to Cambridge in 1786, graduated as one of the best mathematicians in the university, was assigned to the Astronomer Royal, took up a post as navigator on a ship which sailed to the Pacific at the same time as Captain James Cook, and, like him, met his death at the hands of natives on the island of Hawaii in 1792.

Today, Brockdish boasts a total of 48 listed buildings, some of which date back to the 15th century, like the Grange, or the 16th century, like Howard’s Place (now number 1 and 2 (Shingle House) at Sheriffs Court on Common Lane and The Street), but most of which are more recent. All of the shops and other businesses that flourished as late as the 1950s are now gone or transformed into residences; a single public house, the Old Kings Head, survives in a village where once there were many drinking places for local people of all stations, and even the local primary school has recently closed. But in the 2011 census there were around 700 residents, and Brockdish remains a vibrant local community, celebrating national occasions like the Coronation, the various Jubilees, and royal weddings, gathering together in the Village Hall for a range of educational and leisure activities and in the new Waveney Heritage Centre (at the old school).