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Checking the sea: geographies of authority on the East Norfolk Coast (1790–1932)

  • David Matless (a1)


This article examines coastal defence in East Norfolk between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. From 1802 until 1932 sea defence between Happisburgh and Winterton was the responsibility of the Commissioners of Sewers for the Eastern Hundreds of Norfolk, more commonly known as the Sea Breach Commission (SBC). This article explores the geographies of authority shaping sea defence, with the SBC a body whose relationship to the local and national state could be uneasy. The article outlines the SBC’s nineteenth-century roles and routines, and examines its relationship to outside expertise, including its early hiring of geologist William Smith. The article reviews challenges to the SBC’s authority following late nineteenth-century flood events, details its early twentieth-century routines, and examines disputes over development on the sandhills. The article details the SBC’s dealings with an emerging national ‘nature state’, around issues such as coastal erosion and land drainage, matters which led to the SBC’s demise following the 1930 Land Drainage Act. The article concludes by considering the SBC’s contemporary resonance in a time of challenges to the role of the nature state, and anxieties over coastal defence.


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1 Dobson, Alban and Hull, Hubert, The Land Drainage Act, 1930 (London, 1931), p. 108; legislation also clarified that: ‘“Defence against water” includes defence against sea water’, p. 106.

2 Cornford, Barbara, ‘The sea breach commission in East Norfolk 1609–1743’, Norfolk Archaeology, 37 (1979), 137–45; George, Martin, The Land Use, Ecology and Conservation of Broadland (Chichester, 1992), pp. 314–16; Williamson, Tom, The Norfolk Broads: A Landscape History (Manchester, 1997), p. 50. For a parallel Norfolk study, see Griffiths, Elizabeth, ‘Draining the coastal marshes of north-west Norfolk: the contribution of the Le Stranges at Hunstanton, 1605 to 1724’, Agricultural History Review, 63 (2015), 221–42.

3 Bailey, Patrick, The Norwich Area (Sheffield, 1971), p. 4.

4 Matless, David, In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads (Chichester, 2014), pp. 195210.

5 Mauelshagen, Franz, ‘Flood disasters and political culture at the German North Sea coast: a long-term perspective’, Historical Social Research, 32 (2007), 133–44; see also Soens, Tim, ‘Resilient societies, vulnerable people: coping with North Sea floods before 1800’, Past and Present, 241 (2018), 143–77.

6 The term ‘geographies of authority’ is also used by Scott Kirsch in his study of proposals for nuclear ‘geographical engineering’ in mid-twentieth century United States, whereby nuclear explosives would facilitate gigantic projects of earth moving. Kirsch explores the scales at which authority is framed, and the territories thereby claimed, monitored and actually/potentially transformed. Kirsch, Scott, Proving Grounds: Project Plowshare and the Unrealized Dream of Nuclear Earthmoving (New Brunswick, 2005).

7 Norfolk Record Office (hereafter NRO) EAW 2/132, ‘Report on sea-banks from Eccles to Winterton’, 30th July 1836.

8 Grieve, Hilda, The Great Tide: The Story of the 1953 Flood Disaster in Essex (Chelmsford, 1959), pp. 165.

9 Ash, Eric, The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Baltimore, 2017); Darby, H. C., The Medieval Fenland (Cambridge, 1940); Darby, H. C., The Draining of the Fens (Cambridge, 1940); see also Williams, Michael, The Draining of the Somerset Levels (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 198209.

10 Ash, Draining of the Fens, p. 7.

11 Darby, Medieval Fenland, pp. 166–7.

12 Darby, Draining of the Fens, p. 123.

13 Kelly, Matthew, Leal, Claudia, Wakild, Emily and von Hardenberg, Wilko Graf, ‘Introduction’, in von Hardenberg, W., Kelly, M., Leal, C. and Wakild, E., eds, The Nature State (Abingdon, 2017), pp. 115 (p. 4). See also Kelly, Matthew, ‘The Thames Barrier: Climate Change, Shipping and the Transition to a New Envirotechnical Regime’, in Agar, J. and Ward, J., eds, Histories of Technology, the Environment and Modern Britain (London, 2018), pp. 206–29.

14 Blackbourn, David, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany (London, 2006), pp. 3, 6.

15 Ibid., p. 123.

16 Pearson, Mike, ‘In Comes I’: Performance, Memory and Landscape (Exeter, 2006); Pearson, M., ‘Warplands: Alkborough’, Performance Research, 17 (2012), 8795; on Pearson’s ‘Carrlands’ project, see 〈〉 [8th August 2018]. See also the poetic engagement with drainage and flood archives by Griffiths, Hywel, ‘Three poems on flood histories in rural Ireland’, Cultural Geographies, 25 (2018), 369–74.

17 Glavovic, Bruce, ‘On the Frontline in the Anthropocene: Adapting to Climate Change through Deliberative Coastal Governance’, in Glavovic, B., Kelly, P., Kay, R. and Travers, A., eds, Climate Change and the Coast: Building Resilient Communities (London, 2015), pp. 5199; Matless, David, ‘The Anthroposcenic’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 42 (2017), 363–76.

18 Cornford, ‘Sea breach commission’, 142.

19 Marshall, William, The Rural Economy of Norfolk, 2 nd edn (London, 1795), p. 206.

20 Ibid., p. 201.

21 Ibid., p. 202.

22 Ibid., pp. 204–05.

23 NRO EAW 2/39, ‘Resolutions of the Sea Breach Committee’, 29th April 1803.

24 Robert Gurney Archive, Norwich Castle Museum (hereafter RGA) 132.950.24, Box 1, File 3. The Faden map also showed ‘Breaches filled up’ between Eccles and Palling; on the Faden map, see Barringer, J. C., Faden’s Map of Norfolk (Dereham, 1989); Macnair, Andrew and Williamson, Tom, William Faden and Norfolk’s Eighteenth Century Landscape (Oxford, 2010).

25 Riches, Peter, ‘A breach too far? East Norfolk’s place in William Smith’s search for success’, Earth Sciences History, 35 (2016), 145–66; Williamson, Norfolk Broads.

26 Grieve, The Great Tide, p. 31.

27 Francis Hornor, letter to Chair of SBC, 2nd November 1907; Robert Gurney, undated memorandum; both in RGA 132.950.24, Box 1, File 3.

28 NRO EAW 2/26, 15th July 1837.

29 NRO HNR/P 4/1; HNR/P 4/2.

30 NRO EAW 2/135, 26th September 1840; on Eccles, see Matless, David, ‘Next the sea: Eccles and the Anthroposcenic’, Journal of Historical Geography, 62 (2018), 7184.

31 NRO EAW 2/128, ‘Mr. William Smith’s report of sea breaches’, May 1809.

32 NRO EAW 2/133, 25th November 1836.

33 NRO EAW 2/135, 26th September 1840.

34 NRO EAW 2/26, 27th August 1864.

35 Ibid., 18th July 1868.

36 NRO EAW 2/27, 11th March 1876.

37 Ibid., 7th November 1885.

38 Ibid., 30th April 1887.

39 Ibid., 5th November 1892.

40 Eastern Daily Press (hereafter EDP), 28th January 1895, p. 4; Matless, ‘Next the sea’.

41 NRO EAW 2/39, 4th August 1826; NRO EAW 2/26, 12th August 1826.

42 NRO EAW 2/26, 24th March 1838.

43 Ibid., 22nd October 1829.

44 Ibid., 14th March 1874.

45 NRO EAW 2/39, 29th April 1803.

46 NRO EAW 2/120, 1803; Riches, ‘Breach too far’; Winchester, Simon, The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (New York, 2001).

47 William Smith, Description of Norfolk, unpublished and undated, pp. 7–8, online at 〈〉, WS/F/4/3/001.

48 Smith’s diaries, in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, are online at 〈〉.

49 NRO EAW 2/120, ‘Report of Mr. William Smith upon the sea breaches’, 1803.

50 NRO EAW 2/119, letter, Smith-SBC, 6th June 1803. Riches, however, notes that Smith, contrary to what would become SBC policy, did not recommend faggots to catch sand; ‘Breach too far’, p. 162

51 NRO EAW 2/29, 4th May 1805.

52 NRO HNR/P, 4/1.

53 NRO EAW 2/29, 31st May 1806.

54 NRO EAW 2/39, 4th December 1808.

55 William Smith, WS/B/008, 1809 diary 〈〉.

56 William Smith, WS/B/005, 1805 diary 〈〉.

57 Phillips, John, Memoirs of William Smith (London, 1844), p. 53.

58 NRO EAW 2/128, May 1809.

59 Riches, ‘Breach too far’, p. 148; NRO EAW 2/26.

60 Phillips, Memoirs, p. 53.

61 Blake, J. H., The Geology of the Country near Yarmouth and Lowestoft (London, 1890), pp. 71–2; Phillips’s passage also appears, as a quotation from Blake, after the 1938 Horsey floods, in Sainty, J. E., ‘Past history of sea flooding and cause of the 1938 flood’, Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, 14 (1939), 334–45.

62 EDP, 5th February 1895, p. 6.

63 NRO EAW 2/27, 30th November 1895.

64 EDP, 13th February 1895, p. 5.

65 Ibid., 25th February 1895, p. 3; Cooke, W. H., Eccles Next the Sea, Norfolk and the Erosion of the East Coast (Stalham, 1908); Hewitt, W., An Essay on the Encroachments of the German Ocean Along the Norfolk Coast with a Design to Arrest its Further Depredations (Norwich, 1844).

66 NRO EAW 2/27, 30th November 1895.

67 Grieve, The Great Tide, pp. 42–50, discusses the impact of the 1897 storm in Essex, with over 30,000 acres flooded. On the more extensive 1938 flood at Horsey, see Matless, In the Nature of Landscape; Matless, David, ‘Accents of landscape in GPO Country: The Horsey Mail, 1938’, Twentieth Century British History, 23 (2012), 5779. On the EDP as paper of record, see Matless, David, ‘Original theories: science and the currency of the local’, Cultural Geographies, 10 (2003), 354–78.

68 EDP, 30th November 1897, pp. 4–5.

69 Ibid., 1st December 1897, p. 5.

70 Ibid., 2nd December 1897, p. 3

71 Ibid., 3rd December 1897, p. 3; on the same page the newspaper reprinted a letter of 26th January 1895 from S. Waters Spelman (perhaps a relation of William) arguing for SBC action.

72 Ibid., 2nd December 1897, p. 5. On 22nd December further extracts from Hewitt’s 1844 essay were reprinted as ‘Our Sea Defences – Records of Old Breaches’, p. 5, extracts from Hewitt, Encroachments, p. 50.

73 Ibid., 7th December 1897, p. 5; a further letter from Wilkinson on 10th December refers to their land and ‘a large house’ at Eccles.

74 Ibid., 11th December 1897, p. 6.

75 Ibid., 2nd December 1897, p. 4.

76 Ibid., p. 5.

77 Ibid., p. 5; on 9th December the EDP reprinted a telegram sent the previous evening by Spelman on the state of the breaches during gales, effectively using him as a reporter, p. 5.

78 Ibid., 8th December 1897, p. 5.

79 Ibid., 20th December 1897, p. 5.

80 Ibid., 7th December 1897, p. 4.

81 Ibid., p. 5; James Hooper also wrote suggesting varieties of dune grass in Holland had greater strength, and might therefore be used, 4th December 1897, p. 8.

82 Ash, Draining of the Fens, p. 309.

83 EDP, 10th December 1897, p. 3.

84 Ibid., 3rd December 1897, p. 3.

85 Ibid., 14th December 1897, p. 3.

86 Ibid., 6th December 1897, p. 5.

87 Ibid., p. 4.

88 Ibid., 8th December 1897, p. 5.

89 Ibid., 4th December 1897, p. 8.

90 Ibid., 6th December 1897, p. 5; Ibid., 11th December 1897, p. 5.

91 Ibid., 6th December 1897, p. 5; Rising would write again on 18th December against ‘alarmist’ and ‘irresponsible’ critics, p. 3.

92 Ibid., 7th December 1897, p. 5.

93 Ibid., p. 4.

94 Ibid., p. 5.

95 Ibid., 13th December 1897, p. 5.

96 NRO EAW 2/27, 11th December 1897.

97 EDP, 1st January 1898, p. 4.

98 Ibid., 13th December 1897, p. 5.

99 Ibid., 14th December 1897, p. 3; the EDP’s report that a proposed appointment of an engineer was met with ‘general disapproval’ was itself corrected by a letter the next day from the Clerks to the Commissioners, who stated the Executive had been given full power to call in an engineer ‘whenever they deemed it necessary’, 14th December 1897, p. 3.

100 Ibid., 2nd December 1897, p. 5.

101 Ibid., 29th December 1897, p. 5.

102 Ibid., 1st January 1898, p. 4.

103 Ibid., p. 5; the EDP had published a letter from Taylor critical of breach repairs on 18th December 1897, p. 3.

104 Ibid., 1st January 1898, p. 5.

105 NRO EAW 2/152, March 1898.

106 NRO EAW 2/27, 1st November 1902.

107 Ibid., 19th March 1908, p. 4.

108 NRO EAW 2/27, 19th November 1904.

109 Matless, In the Nature of Landscape.

110 RGA 132.950.24, Box 1, File 3, undated.

111 Ibid., undated, 1917 or later.

112 NRO EAW 2/35, 27th February 1912.

113 Ibid., 9th October 1912.

114 Gurney’s Eccles photographs are held in the Norfolk Photographic Survey collection, Box E-ECC, Norfolk Heritage Centre, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, Norwich, and will be discussed in a further paper on his work. Gurney would for example show photographs of scour at Eccles in reporting to the SBC Executive Committee on 18th December 1915, NRO EAW 2/35.

115 Robert Gurney, Diary, 6th January 1922, pp. 7–8. The RGA holds yearly diaries from 1922–9.

116 Ibid., 9th January 1922, p. 9.

117 Ibid., 26th January 1923, pp. 2–3.

118 Ibid., 28th March 1923, p. 12; Howkins, Alun, Poor Labouring Men: Rural Radicalism in Norfolk, 1870–1923 (London, 1985), pp. 154–75.

119 Winter, James, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (Berkeley, 1999), pp. 231–48.

120 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence and Appendices (London, 1907), Cd. 3684, quotations pp. 252, 249. Grantham gave evidence on 5th February 1907. His list appears in Appendix XXIVa, p. 353. A further list, provided by Noel Kershaw of the Local Government Board, identified sixty-nine ‘Sewers Commissions and Drainage Boards in England and Wales Whose Districts Abut Upon the Coast’; Appendix IX, pp. 133–7.

121 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence, p. 74. Day gave evidence on 18th October 1906.

122 Ibid., p. 75.

123 Ibid., p. 81.

124 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence; the SBC report appears within Appendix XXIII, ‘Return from Local Authorities, Etc., in England and Wales giving certain information with regard to erosion and accretion in their respective districts’, pp. 239–40; see also NRO EAW 2/27, 15th December 1906; NRO EAW 2/27, 7th December 1907.

125 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence; Hornor’s evidence appears on pp. 324–32 (p. 326). Hornor was also appearing on behalf of the Surveyors’ Institution.

126 Matless, ‘Next the sea’.

127 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence, p. 331.

128 NRO EAW 2/34, 30th May 1907.

129 EDP, 31st May 1907, p. 5.

130 NRO HMN 7/319/14, letter, Gurney-Bird, 11th May 1917.

131 Williams, Somerset Levels, p. 230.

132 NRO HMN 7/319/14, 11th May 1917.

133 Ibid., 9th April 1914.

134 Ibid., 11th May 1917.

135 Ibid., 15th June 1917.

136 Ibid., 23rd May 1917.

137 Ibid., 23rd June 1917.

138 Ibid., 17th July 1917.

139 Ibid., 24th July 1917.

140 Gurney would leave Norfolk in June 1928, moving to Boars Hill outside Oxford, and recording in his diary on 31st December 1928: ‘We rejoice too in the change of society. Here we have nice and congenial people all round us, so different from the Norfolk people ... Altogether the move has been a triumphant success’ (p. 41). SBC minutes of 15th December 1928 state: ‘The Chairman reported that Mr Robert Gurney had left Norfolk to reside in Oxfordshire and had written resigning his appointment as Vice-Chairman.’ NRO EAW 2/28.

141 NRO HMN 7/319/13, 773 x 6, 8th February 1917.

142 Ibid., 25th January 1917.

143 Ibid., 15th February 1917.

144 Ibid., 27 February 1917.

145 Sheail, John, ‘The impact of recreation on the coast: the Lindsey County Council (Sandhills) Act, 1932’, Landscape Planning, 4 (1977), pp. 5372; Sophie Hollinshead, ‘“No-Mans Land”? The Contested Landscapes of the North Lincolnshire Sandhills’ (MA Landscape and Culture Dissertation, University of Nottingham School of Geography, 2009).

146 Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, Volume I (Part II) Minutes of Evidence, Appendix XXIII, p. 240.

147 NRO EAW 2/28, 15th December 1928.

148 Ibid., 15th June 1929.

149 Ibid., 29th June 1929.

150 Ibid., 26th October 1929.

151 Ibid., 14th December 1929.

152 Ibid., 13th December 1930.

153 Hardy, Dennis and Ward, Colin, Arcadia for All: the Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape (1984, Nottingham, 2004).

154 NRO EAW 2/28, 13th December 1930.

155 NRO EAW 2/28; new boards were thus approved at Raveningham in the Yare Valley in 1915, on the Halvergate marshes in 1923, around Acle New Road in 1928, and on the Upper Bure and Waveney Valley in 1929.

156 Ibid., 21st February 1920.

157 Ibid., 11th December 1920.

158 EDP, 1st January 1921; copy in RGA 132.950.24, Box 1, File 5.

159 RGA 132.950.24, Box 1, File 5; petitions were organised by Robert Gurney’s brother Eustace, of Sprowston Hall, for the upper Wensum, and by C. B. Lucas of Filby House for the lower Bure, Yare and Waveney.

160 NRO EAW 2/28, 26th October 1929; 14th December 1929.

161 Hansard, 24th June 1930, 7.00 p.m.; NRO EAW 2/28, 13th December 1930.

162 NRO EAW 2/28, 13th December 1930.

163 Ibid., 25th July 1931.

164 Happisburgh to Winterton Internal Drainage Board minute book, 1935–43, Water Management Alliance archive, King’s Lynn. The Catchment Board archives are held in the Norfolk Record Office.

165 NRO EAW 2/28, 20th February 1932.

166 Storm, Theodor, The Rider on the White Horse (1884, New York, 2009), p. 258.

167 Ibid., p. 243. On dike law and management on the German North Sea coast, see Mauelshagen, ‘Flood disasters’. On parallels across the North Sea, see Bankoff, Greg, ‘The “English Lowlands” and the North Sea basin system: a history of shared risk’, Environment and History, 19 (2013), pp. 337. On the contemporary resonance of Storm, see Ritson, Katie, ‘Engineering the Anthropocene: Technology, Ambition, and Enlightenment in Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter’, in Wilke, S. and Johnstone, J., eds, Readings in the Anthropocene (London, 2017), pp. 222–42; Ritson, Katie, The Shifting Sands of the North Sea Lowlands: Literary and Historical Imaginaries (London, 2019).

168 EDP, 4th December 1897, p. 5.

169 NRO EAW 2/35, 27th February 1912; NRO EAW 2/35, 9th October 1912.

170 Blackbourn, Conquest of Nature, p. 6.

171 Kelling to Lowestoft Ness Full Shoreline Management Plan (2012), p. 100; see also Kelling to Lowestoft Ness Shoreline Management Plan: Non Technical Summary (2012), pp. 9–10. The plans are available on the website of the East Anglia Coastal Group, 〈〉. See also Matless, ‘Next the sea’; R. Kerry Turner and Tiziana Luisetti, ‘Toward adaptive management in coastal zones: experience from the eastern coastline of England’, in Glavovic, Kelly, Kay and Travers, eds, Climate Change and the Coast, pp. 417–34; O’Riordan, T., Gomes, C. and Schmidt, L., ‘The difficulties of designing future coastlines in the face of climate change’, Landscape Research, 39 (2014), pp. 613–30.

172 Kelly et al., ‘Introduction’, p. 12.

173 Grieve, The Great Tide, p. 1; Matless, ‘The Anthroposcenic’.

174 Graham Haughton, Greg Bankoff and Tom Coulthard note that in the 2007 floods the Internal Drainage Boards set up after the 1930 Land Drainage Act were upheld by some as ‘repositories of historically embedded knowledge’, in contrast to the seemingly remote national Environment Agency. Haughton, G., Bankoff, G. and Coulthard, T., ‘In search of “lost” knowledge and outsourced expertise in flood risk management’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40 (2015), 375–86 (379).

Checking the sea: geographies of authority on the East Norfolk Coast (1790–1932)

  • David Matless (a1)


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