Bigamy, bankruptcy and poisoning lurk in the history of one of the oldest houses in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 09:45 08 November 2018
A baroness has uncovered a thousand years worth of stories at a beautiful Waveney valley manor house
Bigamy, arsenic and a tragic wartime pilot are all part of the story of a stunning Waveney manor house.
One tenant was accused of arsenic poisoning, another was a convicted bigamist.
Monk’s Hall, a beautiful manor house in Syleham, near Diss, has seen 1,000 years of history and could be the oldest continually-occupied house in Suffolk.
Now it is the star of a story told through the lives of its owners and occupants, by present-day admirer, neighbour and historian, Elaine Murphy.
She was looking for a new project after writing the history of her own home in nearby Brockdish.
“I happened to be at Monks Hall with the new residents, close friends called Philip and Stephan, when Philip said, ‘Well why don’t you do something on Monks Hall?’” said Elaine. “It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision. But I had been driving past for 40 years and admiring this wonderful ancient building and I often wondered about its name and how it came to be there.”
Elaine was given access to its unusually detailed records, going back to the time it was owned by the monks of Thetford Priory. After looking through boxes of papers, photographs and family memorabilia the dramas she discovered became Monks Hall: The History of a Waveney Valley Manor.
In the 19th century, the hall was rented out to a series of tenant farmers. George Bullingham had various brushes with the law – including a prosecution for bigamy. His wife, Maria, had left him for another man – and then left her lover too. In an era when only the very wealthiest could afford to divorce, instead of trying to trace her, George remarried five years later.
Then Maria returned, moving in with her parents in Thornham Parva. When she heard about George’s new marriage she complained and the case was heard by magistrates.
George was sentenced to a single day in prison, his second marriage to Eliza remained on the marriage register and their 10 children were registered as legal.
Monks Hall was linked to another court case, early in the 20th century, after tenant James Backhouse had been accused of attempting to poison a landowner’s game birds. “In fact the case was so complicated the magistrates gave up trying to work out what happened and the case was dropped,” said Elaine.
Richard Winn owned Monks Hall for just a year, from 1935-6. Elaine calls him ‘romantic dreamer,’ and tells of how he moved from one beautiful historic house to another, leaving several bankruptcies in his wake. “He was one of the earliest pilots in the fledgling Royal Air Force but was invalided out because of a nervous breakdown after a horrifying crash in the sea. He went to the States but returned at the outbreak of the second World War war to serve bravely in the Air Transport Auxiliary and was tragically killed while flying, delivering a plane in 1942,” said Elaine.
Her previous book released centuries of stories and crowds of characters from her own historic house, which was once home to a medieval knight, then to a man trusted by both Parliamentarians and Royalists, also a Victorian feminist and, Elaine was amazed to discover, one of her personal heroes, an influential 1920s public health doctor.
Elaine was a doctor, and worked as a community psychiatrist before becoming a National Health Service manager, university visiting professor and chair of a London health authority. Her two history books are not her first - she has also written about the psychiatry of old age.
Today she is a life peer but Baroness Murphy grew up in a normal suburban house and her father’s first job was down a mine.
Her first husband, John Murphy, was the branding expert responsible for naming Metro cars, HobNob biscuits and Homebase stores, who later set up St Peter’s Brewery near Bungay. She is now married to theoretical chemist Michael Robb.
Monks Hall: The History of a Waveney Valley Manor, by Elaine Murphy, is published by Poppyland Publishing for £14.95.