9 . Weston Longville Church, Norfolk: the Custance family pew

Weston Church Custance box pewThe Custances' capacious high-sided pew is tucked away in a side aisle at Weston Church [photo Margaret Bird 2014]One of the most striking aspects of Woodforde's diary is the close friendship which existed between the two Woodfordes at the parsonage and the Custances at the 'big house'.

The affection the diarist and his niece felt for the local squire John Custance (1749–1822) and his charming wife, which extended to their large family as well, was very real. When the Custances uprooted themselves from Weston to live at Bath for five years from October 1792 the raw grief of the rector and Nancy is hard for readers of their diaries to bear.

Both Weston House, the seat the Custances built soon after their marriage, and the thatched parsonage house have long been demolished. But the box pew of the Custances remains in the church, at the east end of the south aisle. Its high sides would have prevented young children from seeing much of the service – and the congregation would not have seen them.

The squire's pew had to contain quite a bevy of children. Frances Custance (1758–1836) gave birth to eleven children between 1779 and 1791, three of whom died in infancy. Charlotte, the last born, died at Bath aged four.

John and Frances Custance: a most united couple

John Custance married Frances, daughter of Sir William Beachamp-Proctor, 1st Bt, in St Marylebone Church in London in 1778. The bride had been brought up in the capital. Although the groom's grandfather John Custance had bought the Weston estate in 1726, the year he became Mayor of Norwich, none of the family had lived there. The John Custance of the diary was the first to move to Weston.

The newly married couple lived at first at nearby Ringland. They decided not to make the Old Hall of the Rokewood family, previous lords of the manor, their base at Weston. Instead they commissioned the Norwich architect Thomas Rawlins to design a somewhat brooding, austere family home. It survives only in archive images, having been demolished in 1926. A full account appears in Lost Country Houses of Norfolk by Tom Williamson, Ivan Ringwood and Sarah Spooner (2015), with two photographs.

The Weston estate inherited by John Custance on the death of his father Hambleton in 1757 consisted of about 1000 acres at the time of its purchase in 1726: 400 acres of arable plus meadow, pasture, wood and heath. John and Frances created beautiful grounds much admired by James Woodforde which are now a golf course and a dinosaur park.

Two paintings of John and Frances Custance emphasise their happy union and domesticity: by Benjamin West at the time of their marriage, and by William Beechey in the company of their daughter Frances in about 1786.

The Journal of the Parson Woodforde Society contains a large number of articles on the Custance family. These can be identified by searching the index of names downloadable from the top of the Journal page. The Society also published a supplement to the Journal entitled The Custances and their Family Circle (by L.H.M. Hill, 1989).

The Custances' children

The Custance children enjoyed the same close links with the parsonage as their parents. Woodforde, not generally much given to displaying a taste for the company of young children, records a succession of happy visits and chance encounters.

The parents evidently cherished their offspring. They valued their companionship and chose not to send the boys to distant boarding schools – as had been James Woodforde's fate.

Norwich Mercury 21.5.1785 Palgrave SchoolPalgrave School in north Suffolk, under the Revd Mr Philipps, was a most enlightened establishment. Some of the Custances' sons were taught here [Norwich Mercury, 21 May 1785: Norfolk Heritage Centre, Norwich]The Custances took a most interesting decision in the case of their three eldest sons. They chose the non-endowed private school at Palgrave, on the Norfolk–Suffolk border. It had been established by the Barbaulds along most enlightened lines. These included a wide curriculum, as detailed in the newspaper advertisement placed in 1785 by the new owner, the Revd Nathaniel Philipps. He was determined to continue his predecessors' approach.

Martin Brayne's article in the Journal for Autumn 2008 describes the liberal regime enjoyed by the children: vol. 41 no. 3.

James Woodforde was much struck by the appearance of the three Custance boys as they came home for the holidays, Hambleton having started at Palgrave in 1786:

16 June 1791  Mr and Mrs Custance came [to Norwich] . . . to meet their three sons Hambleton, George and William on their return from Palgrave School for their summer holidays. I saw Mrs Custance and the three young gentlemen who looked extremely well and exactly as schoolboys should.

Commemorative art: the Durrants of Scottow

Unlike many noble and upper gentry families, the Custances of Weston did not choose to thrust themselves forward as a dominant presence in their parish church. Three nineteenth-century Custance memorial plaques were erected on the walls close to the family pew, but their size and number are surprisingly modest given that these were the local squires for two centuries 1726–1926.

In keeping with this apparent reticence over drawing attention to their elevated social status John Custance and his wife are buried not in splendour inside the church but in the churchyard, under the east window – admittedly within a partially railed enclosure. Two simple ledger stones, with no elaborate tributes, commemorate John and Frances (on the right) and their eldest son Hambleton (on the left).

They make a marked contrast with the Durrant family of Scottow, near North Walsham, who were John Custance's in-laws. In 1772 his sister Susanna married Thomas Durrant (d.1790 aged 56) of Scottow Hall, where the Durrants had been established as landowners since 1555. Susanna Durrant was known to James Woodforde and appears in the diary. Lancaster Adkin, who introduced Church of England Sunday schools to Norfolk, was the long-serving Vicar of Scottow in Woodforde's time.

Scottow Church: part of the towering monument to the parents-in-law of John Custance's sister Susanna Durrant Scottow Church: part of the towering monument to the parents-in-law of John Custance's sister Susanna Durrant [photo Margaret Bird 2015]Seen here in Scottow Church is the upper part of a colossal memorial to the barrister Davy Durrant (1704–59). Matching plaques in Latin commemorate Davy and his wife (and first cousin) Margaret, née Durrant, who had died in 1742 aged 27. The Latin motto In Deo Solo Salus means Salvation [is] in God alone.

The churches of estate parishes in particular became mausoleums to leading families at the Hall or Old Hall. Hatchments, massive monuments, altar tombs and deeply inscribed ledger stones commemorate generations of squires, their wives and offspring. The boar and distinctive cross crosslet of the Durrants are ubiquitous at Scottow Church, the family's memorials making it difficult to move about in the area of the chancel and sanctuary.

Thomas, a magistrate like his brother-in-law at Weston, was made a baronet in 1784. Lady Durrant long survived him, dying in 1833 aged 82. She is pictured on the cover of the Winter 1998 Journal, where she is the subject of a short study: vol. 31 no. 4.

Sir Thomas was a thoroughly public-spirited man who took care to be resident on his family seat and thus available to act in various local capacities. As well as being an active JP, known locally as Justice Durrant, he served as High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1784. From 1772 he was Commissioner and Treasurer of the Aylsham navigation, keeping the careful records held today in the Aylsham Town Archive.

At this time Thomas Durrant was also Treasurer to the trustees and a Governor of the Free Grammar School, North Walsham (attended by the Custances' younger sons John and Neville under the Revd Henry Hunter as master). Again his records, held in the Norfolk Record Office (MC 20/2), are illuminating and give useful insight into the running of this successful endowed school.

Open villages and estate villages

Weston under the Custances can be classed as an estate village: one under the firm influence of either a single or a very few landowners. It was an agricultural parish with little in the way of industry.

Open villages had a wider property-owning base and often a mixed economy. They welcomed newcomers as increasing the availability of labour. Estate villages by contrast favoured restricted settlement as the ratepayers feared newcomers falling on hard times would become a charge on the poor rates.

The Custances were increasing their landholdings, so that by the time of White's 1845 county directory the land in Weston was 'mostly the property of H.T. Custance, Esq., the lord of the manor'. Hambleton (1779–1845) was the Custances' eldest son. Under him in 1822 the parish underwent parliamentary enclosure, a process which tended greatly to benefit the major landowners. His father, Woodforde's squire, had not wished to pursue enclosure.

As a landowner John Custance had numerous tenants. Those with the vote would have been expected to follow their landlord's lead. In Weston's case the squire was a Tory, so it is unsurprising that the county pollbook for 1802 reveals Weston, as it is called in the book, to be predominantly Tory.

Col. Hon. John WodehouseColonel the Hon. John Wodehouse (1771–1846) of the East Norfolk Militia [miniature by W.C. Ross; engraving by S. Cousins: Cozens-Hardy Collection]The two victorious Whig candidates, Sir Jacob Henry Astley and Thomas William Coke, received one vote and three votes respectively. The sole Tory, Colonel the Hon. John Wodehouse (1771–1846), later 2nd Baron Wodehouse of Kimberley and Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, received eight. Only two of the voters did not support Wodehouse, voters being permitted up to two votes each. Had Woodforde been well enough to vote he would as a Tory have plumped for Wodehouse.

Voting was still an open process, with a printed record published. The secrecy of the ballot box was not secured until after the Ballot Act of 1872.

Lack of public houses can also be an indicator of an estate village. Weston had only one, the Red Hart, in a village with an 1801 population of 365. This ratio was markedly lower than the rural average in the county of one public house for every 221 persons. A squire, who was often also a magistrate and able to control the number of outlets in his area, might determine that the workforce should not spend their money on drink.

Given his position of leadership the consequences for Weston were severe when John Custance resolved to move himself and his family to Bath. As the Clerk of the Peace's records reveal, Custance did not take part in the licensing sessions for the years he was away.

Unfortunately by then the rector was in no position to take the squire's place. Woodforde was in a weakened state in the 1790s, and there are hints in the diary that the village was rudderless. The empty pew during the Sunday services was there for all to see.