Old Hall Farm - Forncett St Mary

Old Hall Farmhouse is undoubtedly one of the more notable farmhouses in Forncett. It takes the form of a late 16th or 17th century timber-framed house with an early 17th century wing, a small extension added in about 1700, and 17th and 19th century brick cladding. The house was of sufficient significance to appear on Faden's map of 1797 where it is referred to as "Forncett Great House". 

Some authorities have suggested that it stands on the site of the original manor house described by Frances Davenport in her 1906 treatise on Forncett "The Economic Development of a Norfolk Manor". However, the consensus of opinion now appears to be that the manor house stood further south, adjacent to St. Mary's church.

Old Hall Farmhouse is mentioned in Pevsner's classic architectural handbook for Norfolk, where mention is made of the notable plasterwork ceilings and friezes. One ceiling has motifs of Tudor roses, fleur-de-lys and artichokes and is evidence of a wealthy owner of the house in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century.

The lush water meadows of the Tas valley mean that, like most Forncett farms in the valley, Old Hall Farm has probably always been primarily a dairy farm, and this is still depicted today on the farm sign.

The 1817 map of Forncett St Mary shows Old Hall Farm to be owned by Henry Birkbeck Esq. (1787-1848) who came from a wealthy Norfolk banking family. He was born in Kings Lynn and married Jane Gurney, daughter of another Norfolk banker, Joseph Gurney, in Wymondham in 1820. In 1817 Henry Birkbeck owned around 200 acres of land in Forncett St Mary but it's not clear that he ever lived at Old Hall Farm. His wife Jane died in 1821, shortly after the birth of her first child, Henry Birkbeck jnr. and Henry remarried in 1823 to Elizabeth Barclay who bore him eight more children. Their primary home was Keswick Old Hall on the outskirts of Norwich, which had been bought by the Gurney family in 1747. Henry Birkbeck died in Keswick in 1848.

Old Hall Farm shown on the 1817 map of Forncett St Mary

The 1839 tithe records show Old Hall Farm to be occupied by Michael Beverley and his wife, Bridget. The farm comprised a total of 172 acres. Michael was born in Tibenham in 1789 and was recorded as farming in Forncett St Mary in the Register of Electors for 1832 and in the 1841 census. Michael Beverley died in Forncett in 1849 and he was buried in Tibenham. By 1851 Old Hall Farm was occupied by Samuel Gardiner (age 24) and his wife Jane (age 26). Samuel was born in Hethel where his father ran Hill Farm which was owned by Hudson Gurney, a cousin of Henry Birkbeck's wife, Jane. In 1851 Old Hall Farm was 250 acres and Samuel employed 8 men. However, ten years later, in 1861, Samuel had moved to a much larger farm at Wheatacre All Saints nr. Beccles and Old Hall Farm had been taken over by his younger brother, John (age 26) and John's new wife Clara (age 27).

John and Clara Gardiner lived at Old Hall Farm until the late 1880s. They had four daughters and in 1886 the family was recorded in two photographs taken by William Rayson Smith who lived in Dickleburgh, near Diss (seeThe Photographs of William Rayson Smith Volume I: Norfolk and Beyond by Jennifer and David Boxall). The photos (reproduced here with permission of the authors) were taken during a visit by William, his brother Sam and his brother-in-law Henry Hudson. The reason for the visit is unknown, but Sam and Henry were both millers by trade and it may be pertinent that John Gardiner's sister Ann was married to the miller, James Blomfield, who had run the Black Mill in Forncett End in the 1850s. 

One of the photos above shows a substantial duck pond opposite the farmhouse. The pond no longer exists but the farmhouse itself is remarkably unchanged today. 

John Gardiner was an important member of the local community. He served as churchwarden at St. Mary's and he would often lend out one of his meadows for community events, such as the local athletics event held in May 1874.

Extract from a report in the Norfolk News 30th May 1874

John Gardiner retired from farming in 1887 and moved to live in Norwich. He died in Beccles in 1903 but is buried in Forncett St Mary churchyard.  

The next owner of the farm was William How who had moved from a farm in Kimberley. The 1891 census lists the occupants as William, his wife Eliza, their three children, a governess, a general servant and a nurse maid. William How didn't stay at Old Hall Farm very long and around 1893 the farm was taken over by Alfred William Salter. Alfred was born in Pulham in 1846 and, after marrying Eleanor Youngs in 1870, he farmed at Beresford Farm near Forncett station until 1882. He then farmed in Bramerton and Loddon before moving to Forncett St Mary.

Alfred Salter (second from right) with his parents, brother and sisters at Crow Green Farm, Long Stratton, in 1863 (courtesy of Simon Miller)

Alfred was church warden at St. Mary's for a number of years and was also a valued member of Depwade Rural District Council. His farm was primarily a dairy farm, with a herd of Friesians, but he also bred pigs. Alfred Salter died in 1930 and the farm was eventually put up for sale in 1935. It was bought by Henry Utting, who was born in Fakenham in 1895, and his wife Sybil, the daughter of a farming family from Roydon near Diss.

Old Hall Farmhouse in 2003 viewed from the south east (photo courtesy of Historic England)

Henry farmed at Old Hall Farm until his death in 1958 when the farm was bought by Basil and Violet Highton. Basil Highton originally worked for the Shell oil company and the couple had lived in Angola, Africa before moving to Wiltshire where Basil retrained in agriculture. At Old Hall Farm they ran a dairy and arable farm. In addition to caring for four children, Violet Highton moved into local politics, and in 1968 she was elected as ward councillor for Depwade Rural District. In 1976 the couple retired from farming and moved to Wattlefield. They moved again to New Buckenham in 2001. Basil died in 2012 and Violet in 2021.

When the Hightons left Old Hall Farm it was taken over by Roydon and Dianne Burridge. As their son Jonathan joined the business in the 1990s they were seeking to expand the dairy herd and sold the farm in 2004 to move to Manor Farm, Fundenhall where the herd has more than doubled in size. Old Hall Farm was then bought by Roger and Jennifer Ranson who had had a farm at Debenham in Suffolk. It continues as a farm with the Tas Valley meadows grazed by dairy cattle and horses - as they have been for centuries - and the arable land benefiting from various environment management schemes.

With thanks to Jennifer Boxall, Philip Davey, Simon Miller and Roger Ranson for help in researching this page.