One of Norfolk’s last surviving marshmen dies aged 94
- Credit: Nick Butcher/ARCHANT
He was one of the last marshman who lived and worked on the marshes of east Norfolk - now William George Lacey, who was known affectionately as Billy, has died at the age of 94.
Dedicating more than four decades of his life working in Cantley, Limpenhoe, Berney and Halvergate, he experienced a way of life now saved for the history books.
Born in Reedham on March 14, 1927, Mr Lacey attended school at Burgh St Peter when he was four or five, as his father worked on the river. For six years, the family lived in the public house there, run by his parents, before returning to Reedham.
Later, when his father took a job with the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board, the family moved again, this time to Haddiscoe. They lived on a wherry at Cantley for two years.
While his father was in charge of the board, Mr Lacey attended school in Lowestoft, boarding a train to get there.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Mr Lacey and his sister were evacuated to Barnham Broom where they were still able to see their family. Their mother would visit from Haddiscoe on a Saturday. When his father died, he was left at home with his sister Joyce, while their mother was in Cantley.
Mr Lacey had two older two sisters, and by this time one was married and worked in London while his sister Edna worked in Norwich throughout the war, before she also married. His brother was at sea on the barges.
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He left school in Barnham Broom when he was 14 and started working by helping to look after cattle in Cantley, where he would begin his day at 6am with a cowman helping before undertaking the milk round.
He continued this job until around the age of 30, just before marrying his first wife Mavis, who died in her 30s. He then worked on the marshes in Cantley and when his son Peter was born, he was offered a job by another marshman at Berney Arms – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.
Mr Lacey's days would consist of cleaning and removing weeds from dykes, tending to his cattle and generally maintaining the marshes.
During a talk with Barbara Milton, at Acle, for the oral history group WISEArchive in June 2017, he described the job and living on the marshes in more detail.
He said: “There was some 400 acres and you worked alone. You had your own area and you were really in charge of yourself. The main things we did were doing the dykes and drains in the wintertime and tending the cattle in the summer.
“You would get up in the morning and decided where you needed to be first thing – with the dykes, you would do the middle dyke first and all the little dykes afterwards.”
In the early 1970s, diggers were brought in and subsequently, the marshmen were no longer needed to do the middle dykes.
“It was the beginning of the end of the marshmen, as we didn’t have as much work to do on the marshes.
“There were four houses for marshmen, it was addressed as Berney Arms, but they were on the old roadway, before the A47 was put in. The house was nice, it’s still there today.
“You would walk a fair distance, as you couldn’t drive or ride a bike.
“We had no electricity, we used candles and oil lamps, we did get a generator eventually, and for heating we had a Rayburn.
“We drank rainwater right up until [our daughter] Sue was born and then the nurse said that we had to have drinking water, fresh water.”
Mr Lacey also recalled shopping in Yarmouth once a week and would fill two milk churns with water and cart them back from Yarmouth station. Eventually, they managed to buy a car.
Working on the marshes would mean his day starting at 8am, using a scythe, meg, and shore cutter to clear the dyke. The scythe would need sharpening for 90 minutes. In later years, he would use drain cutters put behind the tractor to drive like a plough.
It was a job that saw him walk in excess of 12 miles every day. He would take a snack with him and his wife would serve him a hot meal on his return. He recalled working during the “hard winters” during the early-1960s when the marshes would be frozen and they had no protective clothing.
At the time, there were a lot of marshmen but when he retired to Acle, there was only one left working.
After Berney Arms, he moved to Sutton’s Executors on the condition that they sold him a piece of land to build a bungalow at Halvergate - they agreed.
He looked after other people’s sheep on the marshes and when they moved to Halvergate, he bought his first sheep and learnt how to shear mostly by trial and error. He then progressed to keeping cattle and picked up other work including checking and mending fences and doing maintenance for local landowners.
During his life, he married twice. He had two children with his first wife. His second wife, Betty, had one daughter of her own.
His family described him as “well-known and regarded around the county as being one of life’s gentlemen”.
He died on July 5 with his family by his side.
As well as his children, he leaves behind his daughter-in-law Sue and son-in law Alan, granddaughters Paula, Tessa, Avril, and Jen, grandsons Nathan, James, and Paul, and great-grandchildren Tilly, Ralph, Stanley, Henry, Robert, Jessica, Sophie, and Theo.
Mr Lacey’s funeral will take place on Tuesday, July 20 at 2pm at Limpenhoe church. Currently, there will be no restrictions on numbers. More than 150 people are expected to attend. Country attire preferable but not compulsory.
Donations to Arthur Jary & Sons Ltd for to Limpenhoe PCC.
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