James Caston - Dulcimer maker

Before television entered our homes, people made their own entertainment and music played a major part in village life. Traditional or "folk" music was often played and sung by villagers, especially when they gathered together in the local pub, and in East Anglia in the 19th century the favoured instruments were the accordion and the dulcimer. Throughout Western Europe the dulcimer had been played since medieval times and whilst in the 19th century the instruments were made commercially in Eastern Europe and America, dulcimer-making in England remained a largely informal occupation. Interest in the dulcimer was at its peak in East Anglia from around 1850 to 1930 and the demand for instruments provided work for both skilled instrument makers and jobbing carpenters. 

Much information on East Anglian dulcimers has been collected by John and Katie Howson whose website East Anglian Dulcimers is very comprehensive. The East Anglian Traditional Music Trust (founded by John and Katie, who have since retired) also has information about the instrument.

In 2007 John and Katie Howson bought an old dulcimer at an auction in Diss and during the initial stages of restoration the words "J. Caston, Forncett, Norfolk" were found written in pencil on back of the dulcimer's stand. 

The stand showing James Caston's signature

When the moth-eaten paper was stripped off the back, the same pencilled signature and location were found again. 

James Caston's dulcimer under restoration

So, who was James Caston?

James Caston was a carpenter who lived in Forncett End for most of his life. The son of William and Elizabeth Caston, he was baptised in Tacolneston on 12th March 1782. On 4th December 1810 he married Sarah King (a widow) in Forncett St Peter and six months later they had a son, Charles, who was baptised at St. Peter's church. It's likely that the Castons always lived in Forncett but the first record of the family home is in the 1839 tithe records. Charles was living in one of two cottages, close to Maltings Farm, on what is now called West Road (formerly called Duck's Mud). He was renting about 4 acres of land including the cottages (plot 123), an orchard (plot 124), and three fields (plots 63,114,125), all of which were owned by Nathaniel Weston. 

1839 Tithe records showing James Caston's home

The 1841 census suggests that James and Sarah were living in one cottage and their son, Charles was living next door with his wife, Martha, and their young son, James. Charles (aged 30) had followed his father's trade and was also a carpenter.

By 1851 James Caston was employing two men, so he was apparently quite successful. However, his wife, Sarah, died in 1859 and by 1861 James Caston, who was 79, had retired. His son Charles, who was by now a master carpenter, had taken over the business and was employing two men and an apprentice. James Caston died in June 1863 (aged 81) and he was buried, near his wife, at St. Peter's church.

The graves of James and Sarah Caston in St. Peter's churchyard  (photos - Nigel Battley)

An article in the Norwich Mercury in 1868 reported that Charles Caston was still living in a dwelling on land previously owned by Nathaniel Weston.  

So, it seems almost certain that the Caston's home and their carpenter's shop were on West Road adjacent to Maltings Farm from at least 1839 until when Charles Caston died in 1899. The 1883 OS map shows that one of the original cottages had been replaced by a new building, probably Caston's workshop.

Charle Castons' wife, Martha, was an infant school teacher for most of her life and when a school was set up at Forncett End, in what had been Spratt's shop at Maltings Farm, Martha was the teacher. She taught there for nearly 20 years until she retired in 1892, aged 74.

We don't know the exact age of the Caston dulcimer but it's likely to have been made between 1820 and 1860. Likewise, we don't know whether James Caston made more than one dulcimer or if he played the dulcimer himself but both seem quite likely. The Trowel and Hammer pub on Tabernacle Lane was about 200 yards from his home, so we can speculate that James may well have played there on many occasions. The sound of a dulcimer can be appreciated in a video on YouTube

Charles Caston and his descendants continued to live locally (Forncett St Peter or Spooner Row) until at least 1955. So, it's quite possible that the dulcimer stayed in the family for many years.  

With particular thanks to Katie Howson and Linda Preece for their invaluable help in researching this page.