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The large market town of East Dereham (or Dereham as it is more commonly known) lies at the exact centre of Norfolk: 15 miles east of Norwich and just off the busy A47. It is particularly important for its connections with the troubled poet William Cowper and the novelist/travel writer George Borrow. It was also the birthplace of the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss.

William Cowper Memorial Chapel

Cowper Memorial Congregational Church

William Cowper (1731-1800)

The poet William Cowper is buried inside St. Nicholas' Church where, in the St. Thomas of Canterbury chapel, there is a commemorative stained glass window. It was installed in 1905 and depicts the poet in a long purple dressing gown standing next to a sofa. At his feet are his pet hares that he used to keep when he lived at Olney in Buckinghamshire. The window also contains a picture of his mother who died when Cowper was a child.

William Cowper

Cowper moved to Norfolk in 1795 with his companion Mary Unwin. At first they stayed at North Tuddenham rectory and this enabled Cowper to visit his cousin Anne Bodham at nearby Mattishall. The couple then moved to Mundesley - hoping that the sea air would be beneficial - but unfortunately it enflamed Cowper's eyes. From here they moved to Dunham Lodge - but Cowper found this dreary and rambling so, finally, they settled in Dereham. On 17th December 1796 Mary died leaving Cowper grief stricken. (She is also buried at St. Nicholas' Church.)

Cowper moved one final time to another house in the Market Place. This has now been demolished and replaced by the Cowper Memorial Congregational Church. By this stage in his life he was suffering from chronic depression verging on insanity. A memorial stone outside the church bears lines from The Task: 'I was a stricken deer, that left the herd/ Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt/ My panting side was charg'd, when I withdrew/ To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.'

His harrowing poem The Castaway was written during his last years in Norfolk. In it he likens himself to a sailor who is cast overboard in a storm and is facing death by drowning. The poem may have been inspired by his visits to Mundesley where he used to sail down the coast to Happisburgh. Happisburgh churchyard is full of graves of shipwrecked sailors. The final verse of the poem sounds a note of terrible despair:

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
  No light propitious shone;
When snatch'd from all effectual aid,
  We perish'd each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulps than he.

Read complete poem

However, his work was varied and also contained a number of satires such as The Sofa and humorous poems such as John Gilpin.

Cowper Memorial Window

Cowper Commemorative Window

Tomb of William Cowper


George Borrow (1803-81)

In the opening lines of  Lavengro George Borrow describes how he was born in Dereham:

'On an evening of July, in the year 18-, at East D - -, a beautiful little town in a certain district of East Anglia, I first saw the light.'

However, many people assume that he was actually born at Dumpling Green - a hamlet just south of Dereham - although this may have been due to an error perpetrated by his first biographer Dr William Ireland Knapp. Borrow's mother Ann Perferment was certainly from Dumpling Green but it is thought that by the time of her son's birth in 1803 she was living in rented accommodation in what is now Dereham High Street.

George Borrow by Henry Wyndham Phillips

In any case, this confusion serves to highlight one of the characteristic problems with Borrow's work - namely the blurred line between fact and fiction. In fact, Augustus Jessop once said of him: 'Scrupulous veracity was hardly a characteristic of the late George Borrow. A man of great memory, he was also a man of fertile imagination.'

The house at Dumpling Green is quite hard to find. It lies at the end of a long unmade up road (opposite a thatched cottage with grass growing on the roof). When the track splits in two, you need take the left hand fork. There is a plaque above the door commemorating the link with Borrow.

George Borrow's Birthplace

George Borrow's Birthplace?

In Chapter 3 of Lavengro there is a charming description of Dereham:
'I love to think on thee pretty, quiet D--, thou pattern of an English country town, with thy clean narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place, with thine old fashioned houses, with here and there a roof of venerable thatch'.

There then follows a fascinating section in which he pays homage to William Cowper - who lived and died in the town. Although not explicitly mentioned - it is obvious from the description that he is talking about the famously troubled poet:
'Pretty, quiet D- -, with thy venerable church, in which moulder the mortal remains of England's sweetest and most pious bard.

Yes, pretty D- -, I could always love thee, were it but for the sake of him who sleeps beneath the marble slab in yonder quiet chancel. It was within thee that the long-oppressed bosom heaved its last sigh, and the crushed and gentle spirit escaped from a world in which it had known nought but sorrow.'

Borrow, who had a manic depressive character himself, would undoubtedly have felt great empathy with Cowper's debilitating fits of depression.

On the wall of Church House, there is a plaque commemorating the fact that Borrow featured James Philo, the Parish Clerk of Dereham from 1779-1829, in Lavengro.

Borrow Plaque Dereham

Plague on Church House

See also Norwich and Great Yarmouth


Benjamin Armstrong (1817-1890)

Armstrong was the vicar at East Dereham from 1850 to 1888 and, during these years, he kept a diary of his daily life. He was educated at Cambridge and was the incumbent of Little Stanmore in Middlesex before moving to Norfolk.

His diaries provide a fascinating insight into the parish life of Dereham during the second half of the 19th Century. Here are a couple of extracts:

Jan 1st, 1854 - Drove to take service at Hoe in a sleigh, the snow being too deep for wheels. Had some difficulty in getting through a drift where the horse was above his knees in snow. There were 19 communicants, and I can hardly tell how they got through the snow to church.

April 17th, 1859 - Buried Benjamin Tolladay at Hoe. He was nearly 100 years old - one of those righteous peasant patriarchs. With all our education and advancement, will the next generation to them be as good as they?

The diaries were published in 1949 by his grandson Rev Herbert B.J. Armstrong of King's Lynn. Although not as well know as Rev Woodforde's diaries they are nevertheless an important piece of Norfolk's social history.

Benjamin Armstrong is buried in the graveyard of St. Nicholas' Church.
Sir John Fenn (1739-1794)

The antiquarian Sir John Fenn also lived in Dereham and was the first editor of The Paston Letters - publishing the original collection in 1787. His house, which is now the Hill House Hotel, stands at the north-east end of the town.
Hyam Plutzik (1911-62)

During WW2 the American poet Hyam Plutzik was stationed at nearby Shipdham Airfield - where he worked as the Information and Education Officer for the 44th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. While based at Shipdham was inspired to write two poems about the airfield - namely Bomber Base and On the Airfield at Shipdham. However, in his first collection Aspects of Proteus - there is also an intriguing poem about Dereham. It is likely that the characters in the poem are fictional.

Mr Ingleshot of Dereham

They say there are words to everywhere,
But I know somewhere where no word goes.

The thoughts are swifter than Arab horses
Or slow as the oxen and their wain.

They have beaten a pathway deeper down
Than the track of the Celt beyond the farms.

Love and death are the wayside flowers­—
The old rose and the loving poppy.

Them I have trampled over the bank
To the thicket between and what grows there.

Here from my eyes let the fire speak....

Though they laugh at me and Peg of the Brook,
Glum John and his little brother.

(Copyright by the estate of Hyam Plutzik. All rights reserved.)


More Dereham photographs





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