by Larry Smith
THETFORD, Norfolk -- Probably few readers will know that the first black mayor of an English town - specifically this town, a coach stop on the way from London to Norwich - was a Bahamian physician named Alan Glaiser Minns.
Of course, the term "black" depends on your perspective. Alan was the grandson of John Minns, who in 1800 "absconded from his apprenticeship" as a baker in Reading to be shipwrecked off Nassau. He subsequently married the African woman who saved his life - a slave named Rosetta. Retired airline pilot Paul Aranha and Exuma civic leader Basil Minns number among their descendants today.
John and Rosetta had several children. One grandson became the first non-white Anglican priest in the Bahamas. Two others trained as doctors in England, and both practised in Thetford. Pembroke Minns died here in 1912. His more illustrious brother Alan (who was born on Inagua in 1858), also died in England in 1930.
Although not many Bahamians are aware of Dr Minns' place in English political history, Susan Ketchell at the Ancient House Museum on White Acre Street here certainly was. During my visit, she recalled a recent lecture and exhibit on the subject. Minns' three-year term as mayor (from 1904) may have been just a footnote to Thetford's 1500-year history, but he was considered an exemplary candidate nonetheless.
Thetford has been a strategic settlement in eastern England since the Iron Age, when the Iceni tribe fortified a site now known as Castle Hill. It developed into an important medieval market town and was known as a seat of learning - Thetford Grammar School having a list of headmasters stretching back a thousand years.
One of the early 20th century graduates of that ancient school was a prolific author of detective novels named Christopher Bush, who also wrote several fascinating books about life in his home village of Great Hockham, just a stone's throw from Thetford. Bush came from a family of poor farm labourers like my grandfather, Herbert Smith, who was also born in Hockham.
They both attended the same village school, but Bush became a local legend by winning a scholarship to Thetford Grammar and obtaining a degree from the University of London - an unprecedented achievement for a poor village boy of the day. He died in 1973 in his 90s, but in a book called Winter Harvest he offered a snapshot of Hockham at the turn of the 20th century, when my grandfather was a boy.
"On all sides we were enclosed by the breckland heaths...there were three large farms and three smaller farms...most of the children left school as soon as the law allowed; boys to be absorbed somehow into the land and the girls to go into domestic service...The village lived by farming and most of its men were labourers...there was something almost of serfdom about it."
During my visit to Hockham I stayed at one of the remaining farmhouses, which doubles today as a bed and breakfast. The proprietor, 72-year-old Trevor Mason, is one of only a handful of people left in the village who were actually born there. The other few hundred residents are recent arrivals. Manor Farm was worked by Trevor's father and grandfather in their day, and the Masons were well acquainted with the Smith family.
"We, in the wilds of breckland, were an island, remote and comfortably self-centred," Christopher Bush recalled in his book. "We grew our own vegetables and reared our own pork, and the heaths and the farm hedgerows provided the rabbits that went with it...There were two places of worship - All Saint's Church and the Primitive Methodist chapel...Our water was drawn from wells and not one house had indoor sanitation...Our village was also unique in having a threshing outfit."
The threshing machine was a marvelous 18th century invention that separated grain from the stalks and husks, eliminating a lot of manual labour. We visited Burrell's engine works in Thetford, now a museum where a half dozen of these early contraptions are on display, looking as if they had been made yesterday.
Originally horse-drawn, by the late 19th century the threshing machine had become a clanking, complex piece of machinery powered by a massive steam tractor. They transformed agricultural production in Britain, until they were replaced by an even better machine known as the combine harvester in the mid-20th century.
My grandfather's father happened to be an engine driver - meaning he operated the steam tractor that towed the threshing machine, a model of Victorian engineering. These machines were hired out to farms by independent contractors, including the Henry Bird outfit in Hockham (which survived until the 1950s). My grandfather's rare ability to drive came from this connection, and he was able to parlay that skill into a job as a chauffeur during the Depression.
Herbert Smith left Hockham in 1914 to fight in the First World War (at Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Middle East) and never returned to the village other than for a brief visit. His alienation was symptomatic of the enormous changes caused by the war, and the social history of these times has always been a source of great fascination to me. That terrible conflict marked a decisive break with the past, disrupting ancient social hierarchies, unleashing new political ideas and stimulating profound technological changes.
In the Bahamas, for example, emigration to the United States peaked in the years prior to the first world war due to a dearth of economic opportunities at home. Our population in 1911 was only 55,000, with most living at or below subsistence level. Some 1800 Bahamians volunteered for service during the First World War (1914-18), and 700 were posted overseas.
As Tribune publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch recorded following his discharge after the war: "I was a changed person when I returned to my island home at the age of 20 after seeing the people of Europe wallowing in a cesspit of human degradation." Much the same would have been said by my grandfather on returning to his village. I clearly recall his stories about living on the edge of starvation while Britain ruled the world.
In a 1974 letter to the Tribune (prompted by one of Sir Etienne's editorials), he remarked on the poverty he endured in Hockham as a youth: "Our breakfast was a slice of bread with a few grains of sugar, or a small bowl of bread crusts with a nob of dripping upon which boiling water was poured. And this at a time when Britain was the richest country in the world. We were little more than serfs. The empire was fine for the people who controlled the wealth and power - the same breed who prospered so patently in the slave trading days."
At the end of the 19th century more than a quarter of the British population was living at or below subsistence level. In 1895 (the year of my grandfather's birth), the conditions of farming villages like Hockham were appalling. Sir George Edwards, who organised the agricultural labourer's union in Norfolk, described how men worked from dawn to dusk six days a week for a few shillings, often walking miles to and from the fields, and never seeing their children in daylight.
And before 1895 these poor farm workers weren't even able to vote in parliamentary elections.
"The labourer's home is of the worst kind," Edwards wrote in his autobiography, "neither sanitary, water-tight nor wind-tight...But even those cottages, in spite of their wretched condition, the labourer has to hire under such conditions as cannot fail to put him in a position of the most abject slavery, and cause his wages to come down to the absolute minimum, stunt his intellect and affect his morals."
Edwards himself had an amazing life story. Born to a dirt poor family in a village not far from Hockham, he started work at the age of six scaring crows in the fields, receiving no formal education at all. After a long, self-taught career as a labour organiser and Methodist lay preacher, he was elected to parliament in 1920 at the age of 70 and knighted in 1930. When he died three years later, his funeral was the largest ever held in the county of Norfolk.
Conditions were much the same in the Bahamas at the turn of the 20th century. A tiny affluent oligarchy ruled a nation of paupers and serfs with few rights or privileges, most of whom happened to be black former slaves. In their book Islanders in the Stream, historians Michael Craton and Gail Saunders describe homes in over-the-hill Nassau as "boxes of boards raised on boulders or sticks, or crude freestone constructions (that) poignantly emphasize the hopeless poverty of the people and their home environment."
In some respects, Hockham resembles the offshore Abaco settlement of Hope Town, which was the birthplace of my maternal grandfather. Although the Hockham peasantry relied on the land and Hope Town's settlers depended on the sea, the two communities share much in common.
In 1903, according to report by the Baltimore Geographical Society, Hope Town consisted of about a thousand whites and a dozen blacks jammed into a collection of poor shacks with an average of seven to a home. Today, these shacks are sought after by wealthy retirees and professionals, just like the worker cottages in Hockham. Both are now picture-postcard communities that hearken back to a vanished age, while earning their bread and butter from tourism.
What did I take back from my Norfolk vacation? Well, it brought home to me a vivid appreciation of the fact that - in the relatively short space of time since my grandparents were young - the world has changed immeasurably. Geography and racial division may have complicated and delayed our social progress in the Bahamas, but the overall course ran much the same here as it did in Norfolk.