A Manor House at Bessingham was noted back in the Domesday book, although then it was known as Bassingham due to it being originally colonised by an Anglo-Saxon tribe known as the Basa’s people. The lordship of the manor has been held by several families over the centuries including the Repton family, who had the famous landscape architect, Humphrey Repton as a member. We are unclear as to how many manors have stood here over this time, but we know of at least three.
The relatively small estate in Bessingham was bought by Johnathan Spurrell in 1766 after his elder brother William inherited the family estate at Thurgarton (the family home still stands and is now known as Thurgarton Old Hall). Johnathan built a new manor house for himself at the southern end of the village in the early 1800s and founded the village that now exists. Upon his death in 1837, the estate passed to his second son, the 20 year old Daniel Spurrell, who after coming into some money in around 1869, decided to build yet another manor house, the one which now stands. The house that his father built was destroyed by fire as the new one was being built. The remains can still be seen on the adjoining farmland to the house.
Bessingham Manor has certainly provoked interest over the years not only for its demise but also for its colourful occupants including Daniel’s youngest child Edmund Denham Spurrell (1858-1952), to whom the house passed upon his death. Often described as a ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ character due to his erratic driving, Denham (as he was more commonly called) returned from India upon hearing of his father’s death in 1906 with a bear. The bear was thought to have been kept in the outbuildings and also the cellars of the house and brought out to entertain guests. Some of the more elderly residents in the area remember it ‘rattling’ on the bars of its cage from across the fields. On more than one occasion it escaped and stories have been heard of unsuspecting villagers finding the bear rifling through their kitchens. However, the poor bear’s escapades ended in disaster when it escaped and sadly attacked a member of the household. Denham had no option but to shoot it.
Denham who was the youngest of Daniel and Sarah’s seven children, apart from running the estate was also a member of the Norfolk Yeomanry, local councillor, a magistrate and Master of the North Norfolk Harriers. It is reported that Denham’s beloved horse is buried (standing upright!) in the grounds of Bessingham Manor. Denham also had a keen interest in aviation and had flying lessons. It is thought that Amy Johnson (a pioneering aviator who was the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia) was a regular visitor to the manor. Denham chartered a plane at the age of 91 so that he could fly to a friend’s house in Bournemouth and his return landing was met with villagers cheering.
Emily Fanny Spurrell (1849-1905)
Emily married Rev. William Woodward Mills in 30 April 1879, who was Rector of nearby Aylmerton with Runton from 1872 to 1915.
Blanche Elizabeth Spurrell (1850-1931)
Blanche died unmarried and is said to have lived all her life at Bessingham Manor.
Katherine Anne Spurrell (1852-1919)
Katherine lived all her life at Bessingham and was a keen horticulturist and hybridizer of daffodils producing new varieties for which she won awards for some of them at RHS shows. We believe a couple still exist today. There is one that was also named after her. She married in March 1912 to her cousin Flaxman Charles John Spurrell, who was a geologist and archaeologist. He also worked with Egyptologist William Petrie, whom he helped to record discoveries in Egypt. He retired to Bessingham, largely withdrawing himself from the world and died in 1915 aged 72 at The Den (the dower house to Bessingham Manor). He published a large number of articles in various archaeological journals, and many of his artefacts including some from North Norfolk, can now be seen in the Natural History Museum or at Norwich Castle Museum.
Sarah Maria Spurrell (1854-1855)
Died before her first birthday and is buried in her own grave at Bessingham.
Robert John Spurrell (1855-1929)
Robert joined the army and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He served in Afghanistan, India and South Africa and during the First World War commanded the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. Having forged a career out of the army, when his father died, it was decided that the estate should pass to his younger brother and instead Robert bought Glandyfi Castle in Wales where he lived his remaining years after he was invalided out of active service in 1917. Robert is buried at Bessingham.
Mary Isabel Spurrell (1857-1948)
On 13 April 1882 Mary married Frank George Armstrong Hitchcock (1858-1930), a solicitor, with whom she had six children.
When Deham died in 1952, Bessingham passed to his nephew Ronald Hitchcock. Living in Hampshire, Ronald found Bessingham rather an inconvenience and it was reported that he would only appear once a year to collect rents etc. It was also reported that once an estate worker died, he would have the remaining family members removed and their estate house boarded up. A far cry from the earlier Spurrells, who were noted to be incredibly kind to their workers. This in conjunction with the family’s opposition to modernisation, by the time Ronald’s death came in 1970, Bessingham had become a ‘ghost’ village. The estate was split and auctioned off. Bessingham Manor and 52 acres was bought by Robert Gamble and his wife Mary L’Anson both of Yorkshire origin.
Following Denham’s interest in aviation it seemed fitting that Robert was a WWII fighter pilot who during his service, trained pilots in the Middle East and as his nephew Mr Eames reports, also an eccentric. Mr Eames recalls “Robert told me a story about flying up from Farnham in Surrey in a Phantom Jet fighter. He had the ground crew smuggle Mary on board where he then flew her back to Norfolk via a course over France”.
Mary I’Anson was of Swedish blood but her family had been settled in Yorkshire for some time. Her grandfather was the first beneficiary of the now acclaimed St James Hospital in Leeds.
Robert brewed wines from plants in the gardens and Mary collected animals including cattle and horses, many of which would escape. When Mary died in the 1980’s, Bessingham Manor and its upkeep became too much for Robert. Together with cowboy roofers who came and stole lead from the roof and failing eyesight, the house soon fell into a state of disrepair forcing Robert to move into a mobile caravan in the grounds.
In 2007, 47.5 acres were sold off. Bessingham Manor with its remaining 4.5 acres was sold in 2009, whereupon, it was considered to be in too bad a state and planning permission for its demolition and the building of a new pastiche manor house was granted. In March 2013 we bought Bessingham and started its restoration.
Sources & thanks: Jonathan Spurrell, Paul Eames, Tim Scholfield.