‘Water Frolic’ is a new term for us at Jot HQ. But according to the art historian Trevor Fawcett, who was perhaps a Norfolk man ( he attended the University of East Anglia), these events were common festive occasions on the Norfolk rivers and broads, at least in the early years of the nineteenth century.
In his short article published in Norfolk Archaeology ( XXXVI, Part IV, 1977), a reprint from which we found in a pile of ephemera at Jot HQ, Fawcett writes about the Thorpe Water Frolic of 1824, which was captured in a superb oil painting by the provincial artist Joseph Stannard, himself a keen oarsman and the owner of a skiff—the Cytherea — the following year.
Thorpe is today a riverside place on the Yare immediately adjoining Norwich, whose station is named after it. In 1824, however, it was a picturesque hamlet ( dubbed the ‘Richmond of Norfolk’) on an important trading route to foreign markets; and on this particular occasion all the various commercial vessels on the Yare would have been immobilised to enable the ‘ frolic’ to take place.
Although annual frolics had been common events in Norfolk over the years, the Thorpe frolic had only been established in 1821 by local cloth-merchant and manufacturer John Harvey, who had bought and developed the Thorpe Lodge estate. Originally, it was attended only by the wealthy and influential in Norwich and its vicinity. In 1822 nine cutters had raced for a silver cup and five rowing boats for another trophy. But in 1823 Harvey decided to open the event to everyone—from the humblest loom-worker, farm labourer and shop assistant, to the wealthiest businessmen and landowners. Harvey ensured that all classes were welcome to this day’s holiday from hard labour and business, although, of course, the two classes of spectator never mingled—the gentry kept to the north bank of the Yare, the labouring classes to the south. In 1824 the entertainment provided doesn’t seem to give any concessions to working class tastes. A sailing match took place while two bands played airs from Haydn, Mozart and Rossini. When the match was over and the victor announced Harvey’s guests repaired to two marquees for a lavish picnic and speeches. In the evening there was a rowing match and a novelty event ( two girls paddling skiffs ), the winner being awarded a muslin gown. Fawcett surmises that later on there would probably have been fireworks and certainly waltzes and quadrilles at Harvey’s splendid home—Thorpe Lodge. Harvey may even, Fawcett suggests, have let the hoi polloi peep through his windows to see how the privileged enjoyed themselves.
So why did Harvey go all populist? Fawcett speculates that it was perhaps an effort at bringing about social cohesion at the time of popular unrest in a largely agricultural county. As a former Mayor of Norwich, a present commander of the East Norfolk Cavalry, and most significantly, as a leading manufacturer, he knew the advantages to him of keeping the working classes on his side. On this particular occasion some 10,000 ‘ industrious workers ‘ gladly accepted his invitation to attend. The following year this number was doubled. After a short break the frolic was resumed in 1827 with the same entertainments; the attendance was down in 1828, due to uncertain weather. Poor sportsmanship among the competitors also marred the occasion for some with the result that frolics for successive summers were scaled down in size. In 1835 Harvey decided to celebrate his eightieth birthday by holding what was probably the best frolic to date. Unfortunately, there was no Stannard to witness the festivities. He had died tragically young at the age of 33 in 1830. Harvey himself followed in 1834 aged 87. [R.M.Healey]