From the Old House (1930-2019)

Location : Ranworth

Mrs Jacquetta Cator of the Old House in Ranworth tells of her children growing up by and on the Broads, legends and stories about the house, which has a very special atmosphere, and her role as a magistrate.

My father was Member of Parliament for Sunderland, his family came from there. Then he went to live in Northumberland. Then after the trains sped up a bit – the flying Scotsman and the Royal Scot – he moved to Yorkshire because it was an awful long way to go from Northumberland back to the House of Commons. So we moved to Yorkshire just before the War started, in about 1938.

In those days if your family were any form of army officer, the pension was so small that they all retired to the south of France. That’s where Mummy was born so she became fluent French and she wanted me to do the same. So she took me away from school just before the equivalent of A-Levels in those days. Then the government decided that the only way to save foreign money at the time of the Depression, was to not allow anybody to travel abroad. Which was rather a disaster from my point of view!

Working on newspapers

I was left without a job really, so I decided that it would be interesting to start working on the newspapers. I found it so interesting that when the time came to go to university, surprise, surprise, I didn’t wish to go. I had a ‘matriculation exemption’ that allowed me to go to university, but I had to let people who had been in the War in first. So I started on the newspapers nearby in West Hartlepool, where Daddy could keep control of me I suspected.

That’s where the tale of the monkey came from. Nobody in those days travelled the world at all; they just stayed put where they were born. And West Hartlepool is pretty well on the point of no return to almost anybody who wanted to go to the North of England. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, a ship was blown up and one of the only parts that arrived off the ship was a monkey on a piece of timber that had obviously broken away from this ship. And the West Hartlepool people thought that that he was a Frenchman. So forever after that there’s the story of the monkey, that he was a Frenchman. Shows how little people travelled.

As a young reporter on the newspapers I did basically general work in County Durham. Most of the work would be amongst the shipyards, round about the streets. I think it was just general reporting to start with. I advanced a bit, and then did some reporting in the courts. My aunt suddenly appeared one day – which gave me a bit of a shock – dressed in a hat and gloves, very smart, as a magistrate. And once whilst I was waiting for the magistrate to come in, I gazed out of the window and below me was the local policeman chasing his pig round his back garden. In those days people still had pigs in their gardens and grew their own vegetables and fed themselves.

Coming to Ranworth

I came to Norfolk, which as far as I was concerned was a foreign country in those days. North of the Humber was definitely a different race of people from those who live south of the Humber. North of the Humber they were definitely Vikings. I’ve learnt more about this when finding my DNA is Viking. The language was different, and I couldn’t understand a word they said in Norfolk. Then I discovered that south of the Humber there were Anglo-Saxons. So my Dutch friends would understand the Anglo-Saxon, and I could understand the Viking, and we used to translate for each other.

My husband came from Norfolk, although basically we lived in London because my brother-in-law owned the estate at Ranworth and he had worked in London. When we first came here, the house was given to us and the estate by my father-in-law with an overdraft of £15,000. Doesn’t sound that much these days, but it was a hell of a lot of money when you didn’t have it. So we had to go on working in London, because he had an extremely good job at Schroders. We came down weekends, and we moved into this house in about ’69. Even in those days it hardly could be described as very nice inside. It was a completely basic house.

They were two cottages and when we moved in nothing had been done at all. There is the 1500 piece with the thatched roof and the front is Georgian. My mother-in-law lived here when she was first married, so that would have been in about 1925. She said she literally used to have to put three layers of newspaper or wool under the carpets to keep them dry.

They were pamment floors and it was quite an extraordinary set up. The entrances on either side of the fireplace were still open. The original houses had a room the other side, which is the sitting room, and then you came round the fireplace and there was another cooking and living space on this side. We eventually shut off the two side bits. When we first got married you got your lunch, or your dinner brought to you through the drawing room. It was pretty cold by the time it got to the dining room. But inside they hadn’t done any Georgian work on it at all. It was just latched doors and a square box inside. It obviously was a pretentious farmer who wanted to show that he was rather bigger and better than anyone, but didn’t want anybody to see what the inside looked like.

In those days it was called The Old Hall. And we changed it to The Old House because we could hardly describe it as a Hall. The garden was completely derelict. The walls had all fallen down and the brambles grew solidly from the bottom of the lawn right up to the top of the house. It had been a lovely garden in the days of my mother-in-law, but during the war my father-in-law got rid of this, got rid of that, to dig for victory. The whole thing fell to pieces.

So when we moved in, we had a really great deal of work to do. We raised all the floors and let the air go underneath in an effort to stop the damp penetrating everywhere.

We are very close to the water here, right on the edge of where the debris washed down ahead of the melting ice fetched up during the Ice Age. So it’s all different soils. This house is actually sitting on clay. Our builder told us never, ever build outside the existing base of the house because he didn’t know where the clay finishes and where you might fetch up. In Acle nearby where the houses have been added to without people realising this, when we had a drought they split apart. But here we are very close to chalk. Hence the story of monk Pacificus who would have come down the river here, and got off and would have walked up to the church to do his repair jobs on the [rood] screen.

The Old House from Ranworth Church tower. Photo © Ashley Dace (cc-by-sa/2.0)

 Changing interests

When I lived in the North of England I did enjoy my hunting. After my mother died I had to look after my younger brother and my father and I got stuck up in Yorkshire, which is not quite what I wanted at that age, and I took to hunting. It was very different hunting in those wonderful days, the Yorkshire Wolds, so beautiful. There were no cars, there were no people around. I would get my horse fed by Mummy’s groom. I had to ride for two hours and go 16 miles a day. Which meant you were very fit and so was your horse. So when you hunted all day, you weren’t tired at the end of it, nor was the horse. He was a very tough horse, used to hunt three days a fortnight.

When I came to Norfolk, my interests didn’t change but I didn’t have any options as my husband had already thought that the horse was dangerous – what did he say ‘uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends’.

He wouldn’t have anything to do with a horse, so I said, ‘Well look, if I wanted to go to Ireland and hunt, what would you do?’ ‘I wouldn’t come with you,’ he said, quite firmly. So I got the impression really, that I’d better change.

I’d never sailed in my life, or just once, taken out by someone who hadn’t a clue what he was doing on Lake Windermere. I was terrified. Thought I’d never sail again. But it wasn’t the end of the world, because I suddenly realised living in London, and not coming down every weekend, and the children arriving rather fast I wasn’t going to be fit enough to really enjoy hunting anyway. Anyway, they don’t hunt in Norfolk, they don’t know what hunting is. So, I’d done that, been there, better to stop.


For Francis, sailing was the only thing that mattered. When he was a young lad, his mother had polio, and his father was away a lot so I think he lived on the water. He would have started sailing in little boats and then went to Wroxham and they sailed there. When he started working in London, he started sailing somewhere on the Thames. When we were first married we had a very nice sailing boat and it was great fun actually. I decided this was the best way to cope with life. There weren’t many people on the Broads in those days, it was quite empty on the rivers. It was fun. And the children got taught to sail quite young.

We sailed on the sea all the time. My husband got very bored with sailing on the rivers, because he liked something a bit more dangerous. He had a Dragon in the Isle of Wight. And he used to sail up here at Lowestoft. After we’d been married quite a while and the children were getting older they were getting bored too and didn’t think much of sailing on the North Sea, so we took the boat to the Mediterranean. We took it to the Baltic first and said we’d sail it round the entire coastline of the Baltic. Around France, around the Mediterranean. It was just fascinating.

An idyllic childhood

It was an idyllic childhood for the children. They had an amazing time and rowed all over the place. There was nobody looking at them from the conservation centre in those days, so they used to go off at some unearthly hour in the morning. God knows what they did behind the islands that were there before. They disappeared, and we still can’t get them to cough up any information on what they were doing.

They learned to sail on the water. I remember one time going down the river in quite a big sailing boat we had then. The children were sailing behind in little boats. Then down the river came this awful paddle steamer and I’ve never been so frightened in all my life. As it roared past it picked up a wave and slammed into us. I thought the children were going to land on top of us, what an enormous wave. We had a terrible row about that. You don’t have to make it dangerous on the rivers because of the way you send a paddle steamer down them flat out, with a tidal wave a mile high coming behind you.

As the children got older, rather like us they got bored with the rivers and started moving out into the, around the world. This house has changed a lot, but they have I’m sure, got very happy memories of it, and so have my grandchildren, which is the lucky thing. So I’m hoping that stay in the family. I know my eldest son always said it was their home forever. They wouldn’t, couldn’t dream of leaving it.

Terns, the King and reeds

The islands that were here have gone now. I don’t know how much was to do with more people going on the river and churning the water up more. Or if it was to do with what the farmers in those days were putting on the land that ended up in the water and mucked it up. All the way down they had alders growing on them. And at the far end there was a big tern raft which turned out to be an old wherry that was sunk. During the War they sank the wherries on the water here to make sure the Germans couldn’t land by air. And the terns ‑ which is quite unique ‑ moved in from the seashore, when of course everything was wired off and preserved from being attacked from the Germans. Then they moved the tern raft down here so that they could see it from the conservation centre when that was built. It used to be right at the other end of the Broad. And that’s where King George VI used to shoot when he came here.

There is the wonderful story of Dick. The King suddenly shouted for him, ‘Dick, I’m getting cold, will you come and get me?’ So then Dick gets into his punt and rows as they row around here, with great long strokes, very slow, but actually very much faster than you realise. The King said ‘Dick do do hurry up, I’m really getting very cold’. To which he replied, ‘Dinna you bla, Your Majesty, I’m now a comin.’

Not all the reeds are used for thatching. I’ve always understood that they were put on the streets of London in the days when there were horse and carts. And actually I think, even in my youth, even when I was first married, I seem to remember, they were still using them for cab horses. I’m not sure what they do with the reeds now.


I’m certain we have a ghost in this house. I had a pug when we were first married and he was sitting beside me in front of the fire in the drawing room, which is the old 1500 bit of the house. And he suddenly jumped up one evening, flew down the room barking furiously, stopped, looked up, wagged his tail and came and sat beside me. And I would probably have not have thought about it again but not long afterwards he did it again. Francis always swore there was a ghost in this house.

The monk Pacificus was around all the time. He was left over we think when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. St Benet’s was never dissolved, and the abbot also became Bishop of Norwich. He probably thought he was more comfortable in Norwich than he was in St Benet’s Abbey. He deserted his monks. According to the vicar, they would have been looked after by the village, by the people of the villages. The last monk was probably Pacificus, who my husband always swore he could hear rowing down the cut, with old fashioned oars.

There was certainly chalk in the bay by the house. He could have landed there easily. And gone up to the church to repair the [rood] screen, which is what he was doing at the time. And when my husband died, we made a memorial – the wind vane on the top of the church shows monk Pacificus rowing an old fashioned boat with a little dog in the bows. My husband didn’t see him, he just knew he was there. His mother was a great believer in ghosts as well.

The house has got a very special atmosphere. I always remember being amazed, getting a letter of thanks from one of the children’s friends – 12, 14 – not very old, saying he loved staying here because he loved the atmosphere. And I’m sure it’s something to do with the monk Pacificus coming through the house.

Wind vane on Ranworth Church

There is another story of a ghost-like creature who gallops around, but not down here, I’m glad to say. That’s the Old Hall, which is about a mile away. Presumably it was quite a big house and one day I want to look into the foundations between here and there because I’m sure there was a village of some sort.

The house was inhabited by a Colonel Sidney. He was reputed to have raced his friend home across the marshes and he thought the friend was going to win, so he shot him. Charming man.

He sat down for his dinner. Then the butler came to him in the middle of dinner and said, ‘Somebody wants to see you.’ He replied, ‘Tell him to go to the Devil, I haven’t got time.’ And the voice said, ‘I am the Devil,’ and gathered him under his arm and rode away across the marshes with the sparks flying from his horse’s hooves. The only reason he could possibly have ridden with sparks flying from his horse’s hooves was the fact there actually is an old medieval road running across the marshes. Which obviously fetched up at the house. They probably they did not have boats coming in there at all, but just had this roadway coming across the marshes. It is there now, you can still see it. The house is reputed to have stayed empty for 25 years with the curtains flapping from the windows, and eventually reverted to the crown. How they un-reverted it again I don’t know.

The big freeze of the 1960s – the Great Cold

We never would allow the children to go on the ice on this Broad. It wasn’t safe because the water in those days before the Norfolk Wildlife Trust chopped it up came down the cut and across the top of the Broad. There was quite a current. You could hear the ice cracking right the way down to the bank as the water went underneath. It was always highly dangerous, so they were never allowed on the ice here.

But in the Great Cold, they did skate on the big Malthouse Broad. Wendy lives in one end of the house still, and her parents caught them as children walking on the ice that year. They were called off gently and quietly and then given this awful walloping for being dangerous. It’s not that deep, but even then we never walked on it. But that year it was very ice bound and we went down the flood – which is one of the marshes where they would cut the reed. They skated on the ice, out on the Malthouse Broad and had a whale of a time.

Serving as a magistrate

I served as a magistrate, but not till I was about 50 because in those days it was quite a big area to cover and you did a week at a time. I couldn’t go out and spend a week away from London or the children because there was nobody else to cope. When Francis retired I was able to do a bit. It was very different in those days. I would never want to do it now, that’s one thing certain.

This was in Norwich and it is very different now. A magistrate in those days dealt with cases as appeared suitable at the time. When I was being trained, they said, never give your reasons, which they have to do now. What you’re doing is probably correct, but your reasons will be totally wrong. And that’s how I would say it. But nowadays they’re not giving out judgement on the way that it would apply to the children or the young people who are involved. And it’s a shame. You can’t punish somebody to suit the occasion.

I can give you a couple of examples, where we were much more careful and understanding about what people were doing. A young girl was pulled in by the police for speeding into Norwich. It was night, and she’d been followed by two policeman in an unmarked police car. We reckoned that we could say we didn’t think this was the way they should behave. Although we had to find her guilty, we didn’t give her any punishment. They weren’t at all happy about it. Little details. We could make our own decisions. And sometimes we were wrong. I had a great friend who was a High Court judge, and he always said ‘Don’t worry, if it’s wrong they can appeal and people will deal with it’. The type of law we were dispensing was a great deal more understanding of the people we were dealing with.

After all these years, do I consider myself a Norfolk woman? That’s a very difficult question to answer. Partly because I think you’re always going to remember where you come from originally. And it’s a lot to do with the fact that we were in London an enormous amount, and so I wasn’t here all the time. But I don’t think as a Viking now! Can consider myself a Norfolk person? No I don’t think so.

Jacquetta Cator (b. 1930) talking to  WISEArchive on 20th February 2019 in Ranworth.

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