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Axes of stone, axes of bronze, burial urns, Roman coins and pottery etc - all have been unearthed (See Finds) within Cawston’s boundaries, revealing the presence and progress of man in this area over several thousand years. We can picture the first inhabitants, working hard with primitive tools to clear a living-space on the high ground East of "Salle Beck”; and we know that our first highway ran near Botany Bay Farm, where it can still be traced, and on to Bawdeswell and Worthing, then by Castle Acre to Peterborough.
Britons and Romans used this road from the coast, and Saxon and Danish invaders followed, during the "Dark Ages” of which we know little, although it was then that Cawston probably gained its name. Was it originally KALP’S TUN or CASTLE TOWN? Ekwall’s Placename Dictionary refers to the Danish leader Kalf, but there was possibly a Roman "castellum" nearby, and certainly a "Royal Castle", little more than a hunting lodge, in the Middle Ages. More over, our first Rector (1189) was named Henry de Castello.
By the eleventh century there was a Royal Manor here, held for a time by Harold, and Cawston men may well have supported him at Hastings. In the Domesday Survey (1086) the Manor was described as "very large", with "a wood so large as to feed 1500 hogs", - incidentally, the biggest piggery in the county! Cawston Wood is now small, but has its oak trees, and in an old Log Book at the School we read: "18th. Oct. 1878: Many children absent gathering acorns"!
There was a Royal Park on the East side of the parish, and extensive hunting grounds beyond, where King Edward I came in 1294 - our only certain record of a Royal visitor to Cawston,
In various rolls of the 12th.and 13th centuries there are references to the “lawlessness" of the inhabitants of the Park”.
The importance of the village increased as a result of the woollen industry which developed in the Middle Ages, and continued for some 500 years. Even in 1850 it was reported that 30 to 40 looms were still in use. The increase in prosperity is reflected in the great and beautiful Church of St. Agnes, built in the late 14th century Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk . Its 119 ft. tower dominates the surrounding country side, possibly with austerity, but surely with great dignity and strength. Its well-preserved Rood Screen and fine hammer-beam roof are wonderful examples of medieval art and craftsmanship. Here we find also, surprisingly, the sign of the old Plough Inn, reminding us of the when Plough Monday was one of the great days of the year, and the plough was drawn through the streets.
There was a "Dance of Sygate" for this occasion before the Conquest, and the name Sygate originates from the Anglo - Saxon” sulh - geath" - ("plough lane").
There was a Tuesday Market dating from 1263, and fairs in January (St. Agnes-tide) and October. The Cawston Sheep Fair was first held in 1725, and is described in Marshall’s "Rural Economy "(1787) as "the greatest sheep show in the country". West Norfolk lambs were bought by East Norfolk graziers, and “there was scarcely a woman or a townsman to be seen"! This Fair was held on “the Fairstead”, the field opposite the Woodrow Inn. (SeePublic Houses)
The School Log Book once again produces evidence, this time of the importance of the fairs in comparatively modem times, in the entry 3rd. Feb. 1873: Few children in consequence of Cawston Fair dismissed very early, gave holiday".
Cawston's story is largely one of steady toil and slow change, but there are some surprises. For instance, on Ascension Day , 1676, when the "beating of the bounds" was proceeding according to custom, one Mr Hirne, who occupied a house on the border with Haveringland, rushed out and "laid John Lombe (Churchwarden) over the pate with an oaken stick". The Rector, Rev,John Hildeyard was next attacked, and "throwing away his cane, boxed him in the King*s highway". And so the Boxing Parson entered local history.
Better known is the story of the Cawston Duel of 1698 when Oliver le Neve, a Witchingham lawyer, killed Sir Henry Hobart of Blickling. A stone near the Woodrow Inn commemorates the occasion.
Along the wild stretch of road leading North to Holt there was good cover for highwaymen and smugglers, and records of both appear in early newspapers. The village seems to have been on a regular route for smuggled goods, and "Smugglers” Hole" is shown on our maps today, while there are still vague tales of "a man with a horse and cart who lived at Eastgate" departing on strange journeys by night. For more concrete evidence we read in the Norfolk Chronicle a serious affray occurred at Horsford between two Excise Officers, assisted by two privates of the Dragoons, and thirty smugglers. The Officers had seized a large quantity of smuggled goods at Cawston. One of the soldiers was shot. Several of the smugglers were desperately wounded, and two died. So much for the "good old days".
William Cobbett, the political writer, records that he was "much pleased with our reception at Cawston"; apparently they offered to ring the bells for him, and he was suitably impressed. In 1832 the village suffered as a result of the cholera epidemic, and there were 24 deaths.
The most important development during the nineteenth century was the coming of the railway. This new link with the outside world does not appear to have produced any striking changes, but doubtless proved an advantage to farming and other local occupations, apart from providing a certain amount of employment at a time when the final decay of the woollen industry occurred. Some of our weavers went on the land, but others were compelled to dig clay at Id. a yard, which meant hard work to bring in 4/- a week.
Near the turn of the century the present Cawston Manor was built by George Cawston of London, who had purchased the Manorial rights from the Bulwer family. Recently Cawston College has been established at the Manor, by the Woodard Foundation, and this growing community is an important feature of Cawston today. In the village, the "Old School" opened in I87I was replaced by a new building in 1953, and Juniors and infants have occupied these since reorganisation in 1957.
Among Cawston’s many organisations the Cawston and District Prize Silver Band is noteworthy, having been formed in 1886. The Institute was built in 1912 in memory of Lieut Cecil Cawston, killed in the Boer War,
During the past ten years the village has changed a great deal as a result of demolition and rebuilding. But in its centre, as a symbol of the need to preserve what is best in the midst of change, stands the Church, by far the oldest and largest building in the parish, with a clock that baffles the experts by continuing to tick away the seconds as Cawston' s history continues.
By John Kett about 1985
Related Links: Timeline & From 2004
Brief History of Cawston