Introduction

This book is the result of several, initially unrelated, incidents and
coincidences. Its earliest beginnings date back to childhood. On
holiday, in Hemsby, my father bought me a comic book called Jack
Thurtell – Gentleman Thief. I have no idea what happened to it, but
I wish I still had it.
Two things about this book amazed me. Firstly it was American,
published by the ‘Thriller Picture Library’ which, to me, made it
very glamorous. Secondly, it was about somebody from Norwich.
A nineteenth century murderer, in a world-wide circulation
American comic, and he was from my home city? I was enthralled.
I remained so, and for years I would seek out snippets of research
on this unsavoury, but dashing, character.
Years later, and in Norwich, I bought a drawing of Mousehold.
It was by a lady called Catherine Maude Nichols. I was intrigued
by its style and I wanted to find out more about her. Early research
indicated that she was more famous for etchings than for her
drawings and that she had been the first woman member of the
Royal Society of Painter Etchers. As I did more detective work,
and acquired some of her etchings, I discovered that that was not
exactly true. I also found out that she was born in Norwich, lived
there all her life and had a rather complex relationship with the
city.
When, much later still, I began writing for my living I wrote
some pieces on both Thurtell and Nichols. At around the same time
I was researching other people from Norwich’s history who had
gained national significance, and published some articles about
them. These included Simon Wilkin, George Borrow and George
Skipper.
At face value these five people had little or no connection with
each other, so it came as a surprise when I began to see that these
five lives had overlapped and linked together in many ways. And
more than that, the fabric that their stories wove formed a backdrop
to a century or more of the history of Norwich. It was a time when
the city would often find itself in the national news, in no small
part because of one or more of these five people.
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All of these five are well documented figures, with biographies
and studies of them in print and on the internet. My purpose has
not been to write the definitive biography of any of them, nor to
produce an in depth or conclusive study of any of their works.
Rather my aim has been to examine their lives and put them into
a new setting; to look at them afresh and bring into focus how
the lives of these five extraordinary individuals were, perhaps
surprisingly, connected.
Just before completing this book I was eating a meal with my
wife in The Forum. Looking out from this wonderful modern
building in the heart of Norwich it occurred to me that all five of
the people I’d written about would at some point have walked
across the very spot at which we were sitting. That’s very much the
spirit of this book. It’s like time travel.

Setting the Scene

These are the stories of five people. Each of them was destined
to play a leading role. At first glance they all appear to be
performers on separate stages connected only by their association
with Norwich. Closer examination reveals that these characters
were linked together, often in surprising ways. These five lives
span the decades from the late 18th to the mid 20th centuries,
and they embrace the worlds of art, literature, science, politics,
commerce, religion, architecture and the underworld.
The first to take the stage is Simon Wilkin. Born at Costessey in
1790, the son of the splendidly named William Wilkin Wilkin, he
had a complicated childhood. Orphaned, taken in by a friend of
his father and separated from his sister, Simon went on to build
his own business. Directly responsible for the development of
museums in Norwich he also became a renowned scholar and
publisher. In that role he was to take on a client who found even
greater fame, George Borrow.
Borrow, forever linked to Norwich as the man who coined the
phrase ‘a fine city’, was born in 1803 at Dumpling Green near East
Dereham. The son of an army recruiting officer he had been moved
around a lot as a child, perhaps sowing the seeds for a wander lust
that would remain with him all his life.
As a boy he would often abscond to wander around Mousehold
Heath, where he met the Romany folk who would fascinate him
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for the rest of his days. With them he would watch the bare knuckle
fights on Tombland. He had some knowledge of fighting, having
been taught the rudiments by a neighbour. He met that same
neighbour on several more occasions; in the taverns of Norwich, at
the house of a prominent citizen and finally on the gallows.
As an editor of the Notable Trials series George Borrow wrote the
account of the execution of John Thurtell.
Thurtell’s life is a wretched tale of wasted opportunity. Born in
1794, just outside Norwich at Harford Bridges, he was the son of an
established and respected citizen. His father became an alderman,
and mayor, of Norwich. By 1824 John Thurtell was dead; executed
following a trial that had excited the entire country.
George Borrow would outlive him by almost 60 years. When
the city belatedly celebrated the life of the great writer with a
souvenir book, many of its illustrations were the work of the artist
Catherine Maude Nichols.
Born in 1847 Nichols lived in Surrey Street, Norwich, all her life.
Like Thurtell, her father became mayor of Norwich; unlike Thurtell
she led a blameless existence, acquiring fame and recognition
rather than notoriety. For all her achievements Nichols only ever
received little formal artistic education. It consisted of two terms
at the Norwich School of Art. That was in 1874. Nichols had a
near contemporary at Norwich, a younger student called George
Skipper.
Skipper had been born in 1856 at East Dereham. From an early
age he had wanted to be an artist. His father was a builder and
whilst he supported his son through art school he was unsure
of the artistic life as a promising future for him. George took his
father’s advice and went to London to embark on training as an
architect.
All five of these people would go on to acquire places not just in
local history, but in a much wider sense. Their work, or in Thurtell’s
case infamy, is still talked about, still read, seen or experienced.
Some of them actually met each other, others simply overlapped
in the greater narrative. But, played out against the backdrop of
national events, their stories reveal the importance of Norwich as
a cultural and political centre. Their lives touch not just on each
other’s, but also the national consciousness.
Borrow became a Victorian superstar, illuminating the world
with a strange hybrid of autobiography and travel writing, laced
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with a religiosity that at times sat uneasily with his waywardness.
One of his earliest subscribers, helping to raise money for
publication, was none other than Thurtell, famous solely for his
criminality. And Borrow was to write Thurtell’s page in English
legal history.
The streets and alleyways that both Borrow and Thurtell had
haunted would become an inspiration for Catherine Maude
Nichols. Using them as the subjects for her drawings and etchings
she made her mark on the art world, becoming important as one of
the first women in the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers. Her
work would sell internationally and her fame would lead to media
interest which she would use to confound attempts to characterise
her as a proto feminist.
Those same Norwich streets became the setting for some of
George Skipper’s finest work, gaining him a national reputation
and considerable critical acclaim. His career would develop
rapidly in North Norfolk with the advent of seaside holidays,
once again linking these people with unfolding social change and
development.
The stage is set then for these five characters to act out their
lives; for each of them to walk the streets of Norwich, to become
part of its life and, strangely connected, play their separate parts
in a wider story.

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