This letter also appears on the Victorian Web

Catfield, Norwich, Norfolk, 1837

This letter was written by William Newton on 23 October 1837 and is a good example of how these old letters can be traced to records still held in Record Offices. It concerns the 'Inclosure' of the land in the Parish of Catfield in Norfolk. Not many people nowadays know about the enclosures, but they were a major event for many villagers in the 19th century, and were very controversial at that time. The principle behind the enclosure system was 'Bigger is Better'. It was more efficient to farm in larger units, rather than the method then used by the peasants of farming strips of land, and using common or waste land to graze their animals. However, it was expensive to carry out the Enclosures, which involved surveys, fencing and hedging etc, and the costs could not be met by the small farmers. Many of them simply sold out and joined the landless labourers.

Enclosures were not new, but they escalated between 1750 and 1780 to such an extent that more than three million acres of strips, waste and common land were enclosed as a result of 1200 Enclosure Acts being passed by Parliament. As they coincided with an increase in the population, the effect was increased poverty in the countryside, because the smallholders were deprived of their land, and their common grazing rights, so they were unable to feed themselves.

Now to this letter which is addressed to The Revd. John Prowett, Catfield and is dated inside Norwich October 23d. However, he must have taken his letter to the post office after the closing time, because the envelope (left) shows the single-arc Norwich datestamp of the next day OC 24 1837. The 'single arc' dated townstamp was in use in many provincial towns after 1829. The single arc replaced the mileage number in the 'mileage mark' — in this case 117. The image on the right shows this single-arc datestamp compared with the Norwich mileage mark on another letter dated 1821. Neither of them is a really good mark, but as they are on complete letters, there is no doubt as to the identity of the town.

To show that it had missed the day's post, and to cover themselves against any complaint the post office applied an unboxed "TOO LATE" mark. The 'too late' postmarks first came into use in the larger provincial offices at the beginning of the 1800's. They were in use right up till about 1879, and came in all kinds of shapes and forms. They make a really good 'specialist' study.

The postage was one penny, (shown by the pen marked '1' across the address panel). But by the postage rates in force from 1812-1839, the least amount charged was 4d for a distance up to 15 miles. This shows that the letter from Catfield must have been within the Norwich Penny Post area — there were 11 penny post offices Norwich.

The letter is beautifully written and very easy to read

"Dear Sir,

I regret that my absence should have prevented my answering your note respecting the Map of the parish of Catfield earlier.

The one which was in the possession of the late Mr. Cubitt was I presume his property as Lord of the Manor. Mr. Unthank Colonel Cubitt's Solicitor desired it might be placed with his Writings.

I must refer you to Mr. Unthank who was Solicitor under the Inclosure and can give you the required information.

I am, Your most obedt Servt.
Willm. Newton."

I contacted the Norfolk Record Office in Norwich, and the Archivist kindly supplied me with information about the people and the map mentioned in this letter.

Usually two copies were made of an Inclosure Award and its accompanying Map. One was deposited with the Clerk of the Peace and the other in the parish chest. Sometimes the parish copy was kept by the major landowner in the parish and this seems to have happened in the case of Catfield.

The Norfolk Record office holds two copies of the Catfield and Sutton Inclosure Award. The one deposited with the Clerk of the Peace (C/Sca 2/67) and subsequently deposited in the Record Office by the Clerk to the County Council unfortunately does not have a Map. The other copy was deposited with them by a firm of solicitors called Foster, Calvert and Marriott (presumably the successors to Unthank, Foster and Unthank) and fortunately does include a Map — the very document about which the Rev. Provett enquired in this letter of 1837.

At their request, I have sent a photocopy of this letter to Norfolk Record Office, to go with their holdings of the Catfield Inclosure map. Most of the County Archivists are only too pleased to have copies of my letters, which in some cases forge a link between other records held in their vaults. If and when digitalisation of records becomes a reality, there will be no need to have the original items, but there is no substitute for the real thing!

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