Frederick Rolfe, The King of Norfolk Poachers
When an elderly, scruffy mole catcher presented a farmer’s wife with a notebook filled with stories of his younger life as a poacher, she could perhaps have been forgiven if she hadn’t foreseen them becoming one of East Anglia’s best loved tales of country life. But when local writer Lilias Rider-Haggard read these engaging memoirs of the self-proclaimed King of the Norfolk Poachers’, she encouraged him to write more. His story became ‘I Walked by Night’, published in 1935.
Seventy years later, Charlotte Paton was struck by the similarity between the poacher’s description of a lodge in which he had lived, and her own house. As a keen genealogist Charlotte could not resist this tantalising coincidence and set out to discover if she did indeed share a home with one of Norfolk’s best-loved rogues. The first step was to find out his name: Frederick Rolfe.
This was to be the unexpected start of a seven year project researching this secretive man. Charlotte has presented her surprising finding in her own book, The King of the Norfolk Poachers.
Rolfe’s reputation is surrounded by as much hearsay as truth; Charlotte’s research reveals a man surviving through poaching in rural communities in Norfolk - around which he moved to keep ahead of the law - and Bungay, Suffolk in the early twentieth century. He left behind him a trail of broken laws, broken hearts and a complex family tree which took years to unravel.
Charlotte is as tenacious as her subject and has left no stone unturned in her hunt for the truth. She consulted court archives, birth, marriage and death registers, and tracked down the people who still remember Fred as well as the surviving members of his family. This has allowed her book to become an enlightening background to the lives of the rural poor and the ways of a poacher around Fred’s lifetime.
This has truly been a labour of love. It is the biography of a difficult and unreliable man who came to an unexpected and tragic end. You will want to dislike him, but instead you may suddenly find yourself willing him to win.
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You may also be interested in these other events and exhibitions which reference our theme of rural life.