Saturday, 22 October 2011

An ancestral town remembered : Bungay

Bungay is a market town of much significance to my ancestry. Three of my family lines came from Bungay, the earliest record of which is a marriage which took place in 1771, at St Mary's Church.

Bungay is rich with history:  Bigod's Castle, a Benedictine Priory, two parish churches (St Mary's and Holy Trinity), secret tunnels, and perhaps more notably, the legend of the Black Shuck. For lovers of gothic tales and the macabre, Bungay is the town for you.

Bigod Castle
Elizabeth Bonhote (1744 - 1818), wife of Daniel Bonhote (an attorney), was born in Bungay and wrote novels and essays. Her most gothic novel Bungay Castle was written in 1796 and is still in print today. Set during the War of the Roses, Bonhote's novel included gothic themes of mystery, wicked uncles and long-lost sons.

In August 1577 while the congregation of St Mary's Church were assembled for worship, a thunderstorm blew up suddenly, plunging the church into darkness. Then, before the terrified congregation, appeared a black dog. Described as "the divel in such a likeness" it ran along the body of the church with great swiftness and incredible haste, seizing upon two people who sat praying for mercy. Known as a "Straunge and Terrible Wunder" the Black Shuck is still an ongoing legend in the town of Bungay and there are several shops in the town named after the legendary dog, one being Black Dog Antiques on Earsham Street.

St Mary's Church
My ancestors lived and worked in Bungay from the late 1700s, my first ancestors gaining their living in Ostlery and Agricultural labouring. One family line, the Jolly's, originated from nearby Laxfield. My 3 x great-grandfather Josiah Jolly arrived in Bungay in 1829/30 with his new bride Susan and they remained in the town, having at least 13 known children! Another family line, the Preston's, didn't come to Bungay until the late 1890s from Norwich (formerly Holt) but they also remained in the town.
Bungay must have been a particularly cold place to live in as two of my family lines were kept busy raising large families. Josiah and Susan had 13 children, as I have already mentioned, and another family line, William and Eliza Ward were also kept busy with a family of 12. Jokes aside, it would have been more common to raise large families in Victorian rural areas, as the eldest children usually worked on the land alongside their parents, whilst the middle children invariably stayed at home with the youngest infants. Given time, the entire family would be out working, side by side come rain, hail or shine. Their livelihood would have been dependent on the seasons. More often than not, my male ancestry spent their "leisure hours" esconced in a local publichouse. Two known favourites were 'The Swan' and 'The Three Tuns'. Life was hard, money was scarce and children were prone to infant death or crime. Indeed, there is at least one known ancestor of mine who was transported to Australia in 1847, after stealing from a Butcher in Earsham Street. Before leaving England for good, he was sent to Millbank Prison for 3 years. He was 22 years old.

Earsham Street circa 1910
I remember Bungay with a deep fondness. I have always been attracted to the gothic feel in Bungay and its familial connection with my dearest grandmother Lilian and dearest great-grandmother Nellie Jolly. My grandmother worked in the Buttercross Tearooms (known in her day as Alfo's) during the 1960s and my great-grandmother ran a Boarding House for single working men in Lower Olland Street during the 1940s and 1950s. Both women were strong, fiercely independent, loyal to their faith, and family-oriented.

As a child I remember walking through Bungay town with my mother, bicycling to nearby Earsham, Mettingham and Ditchingham, walks through the churchyard  of St Mary's and nearby ruins of the Priory, the Outney Common, and Falcon Meadow.
The last time I visited Bungay I was pleased to see so much history still alive and well in the town, especially with the Castle and the Museum. Fisher Theatre in Broad Street is open once again (originally opened by David Fisher in 1828) and Bungay can still boast many literary people such as George Crabbe, Henry Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Bonhote, Ethel Mann, and Parson James Woodforde. Even Chateaubriand, during a period of exile, resided in Bungay in the 1790s (rather reminiscent of the more recent exile of Julian Assange!).
In recent years the continued efforts of people such as Frank Honeywood, and Christopher & Terry Reeve keep the history of Bungay very much in our hearts and minds.

Song of "Old Bungay"
(First Stanza of Eight)
Written by Samuel Taylor in 1816
Sung at the Theatre, by Mr Fisher, to the tune of: "The Roast Beef of old England"
Of London and Plymouth, and fifty more such,
Enough has been said, aye, and some say too much:
Of all the fam'd Town's this fam'd Island can boast,
Where's the like of Old Bungay? search thro' the whole host!
Then of all places, this is the place of renown;
Oh, what a place is Old Bungay!
Old Bungay's a wonderful town!

Aerial view of Bungay showing both Churches: St Mary's Church (left) and Holy Trinity (right)


  1. Very enjoyable read Debra. I've visited many times and it still retains it's sense of history.

  2. Thank you Ann, as always I really appreciate your feedback. Next time you visit, give Bungay a big wave from me! xx