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The Relics of Norton Folgate

April 12, 2013
by the gentle author

James Frankcom holds the Beadle’s staff of Norton Folgate from 1672

For some time now, Spitalfields resident James Frankcom has been on a quest to find the lost relics of the Liberty of Norton Folgate and last week, with true magnanimous spirit, he invited me and Contributing Photographer Alex Pink to share in his glorious moment of discovery.

First recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, the nine acres north of Spitalfields known today as Norton Folgate were once the manor of Nortune Foldweg – ‘Nortune’ meaning ‘northern estate’ and “Folweig’ meaning ‘highway,’ referring to Ermine St, the Roman road north from the City of London that passed through the territory. Irrigated by the spring in Holywell St, this fertile land was within the precincts of the Priory of St Mary Spital until 1547 when, after the Reformation, it achieved autonomy as the Liberty of Norton Folgate, ruled by a court of ten officers described as the “Ancient Inhabitants.”

These elected representatives – including women – took their authority from the people and they asserted their right to self-government without connection to any church, maintaining the poor, performing marriages and burials, and superintending their own watchmen and street lighting. The officers of the Liberty were the Head Borough, the Constable who supervised the Beadles, the Scavenger who dealt with night soil, and Overseers of the Poor. And thus were the essentials of social organisation and waste disposal effectively accomplished for centuries in Norton Folgate.

When James Frankcom discovered that he lived within the former Liberty, he began to explore the history and found an article in Home Counties Magazine of 1905 which illustrated the relics of Norton Folgate including a beadle’s staff, a sixteenth century muniment chest and an almsbox, held at that time in Stepney Central Library.

A year ago, James contacted Malcolm Barr-Hamilton, the Archivist, at Tower Hamlets Local History Library in Bancroft Rd which houses artifacts transferred from the Whitechapel Library in 2010. There he found the minute books of Norton Folgate from 1729 until 1900, detailing the activities of the court and nightly reports by the watchmen. Curiously, in spite of the rowdy reputation that this particular neighbourhood of theatres and alehouses enjoyed through the centuries, including the famous arrest of Christopher Marlowe in 1589, the nightwatchmen recorded an unbroken sequence of  “All’s well.”

In the penultimate entry of the minute book, dated October 1900, when the Liberty was abolished at the time of the foundation of the London County Council, James found mention of “certain relics of the Liberty of no use to the new Metropolitan Borough of Stepney” which the board of trustees gave to Whitechapel Museum for safe keeping. Searching among hundreds of index cards recording material transferred from Whitechapel to the archive, he found three beadle’s rods and an almsbox from Norton Folgate. Disappointingly, the muniment box had gone missing at some point in the last century, possibly when the collection was moved for safety to an unknown location during World War II.

When James put in a request to see the almsbox and the beadles’ rods, they could not be found at first – but eventually they were located. And, last week, I met James outside the Bancroft Library, where the local history collection is held and, although it is closed for renovations, we were able to go in to see the relics. Upon a table in the vast library chamber was the battered seven-sided alms box cut from a single piece of oak in 1600 and secured by four separate locks. It was a relic from another world, the world of Shakespeare’s London, and three centuries of “alms for oblivion” had once been contained in this casket.

Yet equally remarkable was the staff of Norton Folgate with a tiny sculpture upon the top of a realistic four-bar gate complete with the pegs that held it together – an heraldic pun upon the name of Norton Folgate. Since the photograph of 1901, it had suffered some damage but the inscription “Norton Folgate 1672” was still visible. Bearing the distinction of being London’s oldest staff of office, it represents the authority of the people.

James Frankcom could not resist wielding this staff that was once of such significance in the place where he lives and and savouring the sense of power it imparted. It was as if James were embodying the spirit of one of the “Ancient Inhabitants” and not difficult to imagine that, if he had dwelt in Norton Folgate in an earlier century, he might have brandished it for real – apparelled in a suitably dignified coat and hat of office, of course.

Dating from 1672, this is the oldest Beadle’s staff in London and it represents the authority of the people in opposition to the power of the church. The gate is an heraldic pun upon the name of Norton Folgate.

The painted Beadles’ staffs date from  the coronation of George IV in 1820.

Hewn from single piece of oak, the seven-sided almsbox of Norton Folgate made in 1600.

“This box was divised bi Frances Candell for THE pore 1600” is inscribed upon the top and upon the lid is this text – “My sonne defrayde not the pore of hys allmes and turne not awaie they eies from him that hath nede. Lete not they hande be strecched owte to relaue and shut when thou sholdest gewe.”

Title page of the earliest minute book of Norton Folgate 1729

In Norton Folgate, the watchmen recorded an unbroken sequence of “all’s well” night after night.

In the last minute book, on 24th October 1900, the Liberty of Norton Folgate was abolished with the establishment of the London County Council.

The relics of the Liberty of Norton Folgate as illustrated in Home Counties Magazine, 1905 – including the lost sixteenth century muniment chest and the former courthouse in Folgate St.

The extent of the Liberty of Norton Folgate, 1873

Photographs copyright © Alex Pink

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At the Norton Folgate Almshouses

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Glenn permalink
    April 12, 2013

    Great story on local history. Thanks very much.
    It interests me that Folgate Street was once named White Lion Street!

  2. April 12, 2013

    Amazing. Well done James!

  3. Ruth permalink
    April 12, 2013

    Great work, James!

  4. Vicky permalink
    April 12, 2013

    I’m so pleased James Frankom has researched Norton Folgate. I knew it was a Liberty and had looked up what that meant (fascinating!) but didn’t know its boundaries. To find these two items must have been very exciting and its wonderful to see them here. Thank you.

  5. Annie permalink
    April 12, 2013

    What a brilliant entry. I’d love to see that beadle’s staff close up – something about the little
    battered gate is very heart-rending. On a similar subject – Gentle Author, could you shed any
    light on the strangely-named and little known area called Blanche Appleton? A theory goes that it is named after a woman in medieval London but it strikes me as much more likely to be Whitechapel in French. I bet somebody is on the trail.

  6. Peter Holford permalink
    April 12, 2013

    What a great piece of detective work! Well done James. It begs the question ‘what else is lurking, forgotten in storerooms like that’.

  7. James Frankcom permalink
    April 12, 2013

    In answer to Peter’s comment, there are said to be some “relics” to do with the old Vestry of Spitalfields held at Christ Church, which it would be great to get a chance to see.

    Between 1905 and 2013 the Elizabethan muniment chest of Norton Folgate went missing (I am trying to track it down) and the ceremonial beadle’s staff has been quite badly damaged. It would be nice if all things could be protected and displayed in a Museum of Spitalfields one day, let’s hope eh?

    In answer to Glenn’s comment, White Lion Street was named after the “White Lion Brewery”. The brewery building was demolished c.1845 when Commercial Street was put through the neighbourhood. The pub on Folgate Street now named The Water Poet was at this time called The Pewter Pot.

  8. April 13, 2013

    Another classic post.

  9. April 13, 2013

    James is an accomplished historian & researcher, extraordinaire. Best yet, he documents & shares his finds online. Yeah for everyone. Well done, my friend!

  10. William permalink
    April 13, 2013

    Incredible! Thank you.

  11. November 14, 2013

    Having ancestors who lived here in the 1720s, I found this fascinating. Thankyou

  12. Susan Cooke permalink
    February 2, 2014

    I have just come across this very interesting story.
    I would love to see these relics relating to Norton Folgate Beadles.
    My 4x Gt uncle Benjamin Beavis was one of these Beadle’s. (1795-1861)
    He is mentioned several times in cases in the Old Bailey on line.
    There also a great potrait of him held at Tower Hamlets Local History Office but can be viewed on line.
    Benjamin and his family were also Engine Loom Makers at 10 Blosoom street.
    I would love to hear any information on this family.
    Thank you James for helping me a little more with my family research.

  13. James Frankcom permalink
    February 20, 2014

    I’ve recently done some more research and the lost 16th Century muniment chest may be about to be located. I have recently found documentary evidence that it was transferred to a museum in Bedford when Whitechapel Museum was “disbanded” in 1954.

    Watch this space!

  14. Susan Cooke permalink
    February 23, 2014

    I will be very interested in anything you find out about any items you may locate in Bedford
    museum relating to Norton Folgate, and will indeed be watching this space.

    Susan Cooke.

  15. Colin Beavis permalink
    September 25, 2014

    Interesting that Benjamin Beavis was in the Engine Loom making business at 10 Blossom St.
    My 3xgt grandfather, John Beavis, was a watch motion maker , and his father who died in 1809, (not sure of his occupation but possibly also a watch motion maker) lived (or worked?) at 15 Blossom St.

  16. Susan Cooke permalink
    September 29, 2014

    Colin that is very interesting, I have been trying to link the watch maker Beavis’s to the Engine loom maker Beavis’s. I know they lived in the same area I did not know there were any living at number 15 Bpossom street. Have you searched for other watch maker Beavis’s. I know of William who made silver and gold pocket watches mid 1700s and George who made longcase clocks from late 1600s. These families have got to be related. Benjamin’s father was also a John it was his loom making buisness. If you search in images Benjamin Beavis Norton Folgate you will see a potrait of him, might give you an idea of how your Beavis family may have looked. Any other information you have on this family I would love to hear from you. Sue.

  17. Stuart Beavis permalink
    March 26, 2015

    I am the cousin of Colin (above). I have discovered George and William Beavis, watchmakers during the 1700s and that they were brothers. Their father, also George was also a watchmaker who lived and died in Norton Folgate. I have found that there was an earlier George, another watchmaker who died in 1717, who could be the George you referred to (whose mother was Barbara), but I cannot link him to the ones I mentioned above. I, like you, am sure they must be related to your Benjamin, but do not know how. I am still not able to find a connection between these and the John that Colin referred to above, born in 1741 (approx. we have no proof of his birth, nor who his parents were). You seem to have found out something about George (1600s) and William (1700s). I would be pleased if you could point me in the right direction to that information, as every little helps. Stuart.

  18. David Pear permalink
    October 2, 2015

    During my USA military service, I was stationed in Watford, Herts at Bushey Hall. On one of my subsequent trips back to the U.K., I was visiting some friends in Winchester and wandered into G.H. Bell Antiques Ltd. and discovered a beautiful antique grandfather clock that was made by William Beavis of London which I purchased. The folks at Bells told me that relatively little was known about Wm. Beavis but it was believed he had died in a debtor’s prison in the later 1700’s. They also said that it was believed that only three of these clocks had survived, their whereabouts unknown.

    About 20 years later I was reading an article in Forbes Magazine that featured an interview with the then current American Ambassador to Canada and mr. John rogers, the CEO of Rogers Communications. The article included a picture of the two gentlemen chatting in Mr. Rogers library. For some odd reason, I was drawn to this picture and kept glancing at it. In a eureka moment, I realized it was a Wm. Beavis clock similar to mine.

    In a search at the National Archives, we found a will of a William Bavis/Beavis dated 11 Aug 1760. The will reference a brother George and a wife Sarah.

    I would enjoy hearing from anyone in the U.K. that could ann any insight into the history of my clock by Wm. Beavis.

  19. Michael Ward permalink
    December 10, 2015

    I think that the Liberty of Norton Folgate was abolished by the London Government Act of 1899, which established the Metropolitan Boroughs, rather than by the creation of the LCC.

    See Hopkins, AB, The Boroughs of the Metropolis; London, Bemrose & Sons; London, 1900; pp 49 & 147

  20. Carrie permalink
    January 3, 2016

    I have read this article with intense interest, knowing that my relative
    once ran a business in Elder St in the later part of the 19th century. Imagine my delight when I find he was one of the trustees on the final committee of the Liberty of Norton Folgate. His name was Robert Rayner. So pleased that all this information has been made available to the general public. I would like to go to Tower Hamlets Library and if possible, read some of the minutes recorded by the committee which may give me some idea of my relatives character.
    Thank you so much.

  21. Jean McKern permalink
    March 29, 2019

    A great article and some interesting follow up comments. Robert Rayner, one of the trustees, is also a blood relation and, like Carrie, felt your research had indeed added flesh to the bones of the Norton Folgate community. Thank you.

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