Review Number 74 – October 2015

The Robwoods of Walsham

Detail from the Sunnyside frieze
Detail from the Sunnyside frieze

Robert Robhood appears in a Walsham document of 1283.  In this list of  villagers he is one of the poorest, living in Walsham’s less affluent east end, though wealthy enough to pay tax. The family were mentioned as petty offenders during the early 1300s, digging for clay on the common land, and damaging crops with their animals.

The name ‘Robhood’ is in itself interesting. ‘Robhood’ or ‘Robhode’ appears in documents from all over England and even Scotland, and the name sometimes indicates an outlaw. Tales of the outlaw ‘Robin Hood’ appeared in the 14th century, mostly in doggerel ballads set in northern England.  Of particular interest for East Anglia is a letter written by Sir John Paston in Norwich in 1473.  This concerns a ‘pleye’ of ‘Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notyngham’.  It was to be performed at Caister Castle near Great Yarmouth, and shows that the northern stories were current in our part of the country.

Not all tales describe Robin as robbing the rich to feed the poor.    Despite later attempts to ennoble him as the Earl of Huntingdon, he was essentially an outlaw who got into various scrapes.  He wore the common man’s hood, hence his name, and in our own day ‘hoodies’ have acquired a similar bad press.

Walsham’s early Robhoods may also have had a questionable reputation. Over the years, however, the family became more respectable and assumed public office in Walsham town.  Even the name changed slightly to ‘Robwood’.  It was usual in the middle ages for the eldest son to use his father’s Christian name, and several generations used the name ‘John Robwood’.  Audrey McLaughlin’s 2007 book “Who Lived in Your House?” summarises the records of the Robwoods. The John Robwood of 1457 moved from Walsham’s east end to the centre of the village and began to build the large house now known as The Beeches.  In the will of a John Robwood who died in 1537 we have the first mention of the old town of Walsham as being ‘in the Willows’.

According to recent reckoning, the fifth John Robwood is the one mentioned in Sir Nicholas Bacon’s ‘Field Book of Walsham le Willows’ of 1577.  In this list of Walsham property owners, John Robwood is the first to be mentioned, indicating his wealth.  He had the largest acreage and three houses.  He died in 1599, leaving to his widow Dorothy at least two properties, now known by their relatively modern names as ‘The Beeches’ and ‘Sunnyside’. John’s wealthy widow then married a rich vintner who had considerable property in Bury.  This second husband died in 1616 and two years later Dorothy married a third time.  The properties now called ‘The Beeches’ and ‘Sunnyside’ passed into other ownership.

Recently a layer of plaster was removed from an upstairs fireplace at ‘Sunnyside’, revealing an earlier chimney-breast frieze. Simply rendered in soot-black paint on lime white, the lively freehand brushwork shows large letters ‘I’ and ‘D’ set in a shield framework, as shown in the illustration at the head of this article.  Speedily executed, it has a vivacity which is immediately appealing.  The letters are typical of late Elizabethan or Jacobean ornamentation. The right-hand central nodule of the ‘D’ had to be omitted through lack of space. The crude roundel has been painted with one hand movement, and the hatching behind the shield is typical of a right-handed worker.  The roundel, part of a frieze, is surrounded with winged cherubs (‘putti’), ‘dolphins’   (fantastic fearsome creatures, quite unlike the natural animals) and cornucopias, according to the Italianate taste of the time.  Henry Peacham, in The Gentleman’s Exercise of 1612 wrote ‘you may, if you list, draw naked Boyes riding…upon Goates, Eagles, Dolphins etc. . . after your owne invention, with a thousand more such idle toyes, so that herein you cannot be too fantastical.’  Similar ‘Dolphins’ can be seen on a black and white 16th century frieze at West Stow Hall in Suffolk.

The ‘I’ in the painting is probably the initial letter for ‘John’, as was the usual practice in the 16th and 17th centuries.  While there were plenty of ‘Johns’ in Walsham at this time, no appropriate person in Walsham had a surname beginning with ‘D’.  It is likely that the letter D stands for ‘Dorothy’.  The ownership of ‘Sunnyside’ is recorded as being in John and Dorothy Robwood’s names from 1562.  John died in 1599, and his will bequeathed the properties now known as ‘The Beeches’ and ‘Sunnyside’ to Dorothy, ‘Sunnyside’ being occupied by a certain Henry Osborne.

To the right of the frieze there is the beginning of a formal inscription, unfortunately incomplete.  The first word is ‘God’, the ‘G’ being in the old ‘secretarie’ hand, still seen today in the ‘G’ of the musical treble clef.  The inscription is clearly from Protestant times, in that the English ‘God’ rather than the Latin ‘Deus’ is cited. There was a vogue for biblical quotations, usually from the Psalms, painted on walls, domestic as well as ecclesiastic, in the second half of the 16th century, during John and Dorothy’s ownership.  The frieze has been stabilised and will be professionally restored.

Brian Turner


Works consulted

  1. Dobson R.B. & Taylor J.: Rymes of Robyn Hood 1976  ISBN 0-86299-610-4
  2. Dodd K.M. (Ed.): The Field Book of Walsham-le-Willows 1577,  S.R.S 1974
  3. Gairdner J. (Ed.):  The Paston Letters 1983 ISBN  0 86299 002 5
  4. McLaughlin A.: Who Lived in Your House? ISBN 978-0-9551267-1-0


  1. I am indebted to Sally Johnston for showing me the frieze and for the Henry Peacham quotation.

One hundred years ago…

The war in Europe continued with many of Walsham’s menfolk involved in the fighting.  In July 1915 the Bury Free Press reported:

‘Like many other Suffolk villages, Walsham le Willows has been doing its bit for Britain.   Out of about 1000 inhabitants, 76 are in our armed forces.’

Private Cyril Firman, Chief Stoker Frederick Sharman, Captain Harold Bennett, Private Albert Smith and Sgt. Charles Hayward had already lost their lives in the first year of fighting.   Six were prisoners including Harry Moore, George Smith and William Rust.

At the end of July 1915 another death was reported when the wife and three children of Sgt. Frederick Rosier received news that he had died of shrapnel wounds in a French hospital.   Frederick was a veteran of the Boer War where he was decorated for his bravery.   The Bury Free Press reported that “A muffled peal was rung on the bells of St. Mary’s in his memory.”

On August 9th 1915, exactly one year after the date of his enlistment, Lance Corporal Herbert Davey was killed whilst fighting in the Dardanelles.   He had lived with his parents and six siblings in a cottage at Four Ashes and had recently written home saying that he would soon be “sent forward to do his bit.”    His name is on the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli, Turkey.

At the end of August a letter from the Admiralty was received by Mr. Arnold Robathan at Woodlands on the Finningham Road.   It was the news that his son Allan Keith Robathan had died of sickness in Rio de Janeiro.   The Bury Free Press reported:

‘The deceased was studying farming but after some years expressed a desire to travel, subsequently visiting Australia, China, Japan and South America.  He arrived back in England on the ship Otranto as war broke out.   The ship was rapidly converted into an armed merchant cruiser and Alan offered to join it on its return to South America.   He was involved in many engagements with German warships off the Chilean coast.   During a period at home his parents became concerned about his health, but so great was his sense of duty that he returned to his ship.’

He was 24 years old when he died.   He was buried in the British Embassy Cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Two years later his brother Lawrence was killed in action.

In September the Bury Free Press reported

‘The ladies of Walsham have gathered in the Priory Room and made 225 sand bags in response to an appeal by the Suffolk Regiment”.

In October 1915 Lieutenant Richard Lee was on the Western Front with the 7th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.   They attacked German trenches under the cover of smoke.  Unfortunately the smoke lifted before they reached their target.   Platoon Officer Lee was among those killed.   He was the son of Arthur Lee who had been vicar of Walsham.   The Press reported that he was

‘beloved by all who knew him, and was married to a Danish lady.’

James Turner
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