George Cooper
George Cooper (1832-1898)

Even before the arrival of the railway in both Norfolk and Suffolk in the 1840s, which gave many more people an opportunity to travel much further afield, more speedily and cheaper than before, there has been a long history of East Anglians migrating about the countryside from parish to parish, into the local market towns and much further afield as they sought new employment opportunities. George Cooper who settled in the Suffolk parish of Santon Downham in the 1870s is one of thousands of agricultural labourers who departed from the village of his childhood to seek work and settle elsewhere during the 19th century.

George Cooper was born in the Norfolk parish of Caston in 1832 the 5th of 12 children born to James and Mary Ann Cooper. James was an agricultural labourer who had succeeded in becoming a tenant farmer by the early 1860s. The 1861 Census records the 27 year old George living with his parents at North Acre, Caston. George's occupation was given as agricultural labourer while two of his brothers were described as machineman and engine man. The portable traction engine was already fast becoming a great labour saving machine on many Norfolk farms and by then traction engines were also gradually making their appearance.

Ten years later George, still working as an agricultural labourer which may have involved working steam engines, was living in a small cottage at Wretham, a married man with a baby daughter. His father had died in 1863 and in 1869 George had married Maria Jessup, a domestic servant. The wedding took place at Caston but within a year of the marriage ceremony they had moved on to Wretham where they were recorded in the 1871 Census. The following year another daughter was born.

By the early 1870s at nearby Thetford, Charles Burrell's agricultural manufactory continued to expand as the production of portable steam engines, self-propelled traction engines and threshing machines increased. From the 1850s numerous labourers had drifted into Thetford seeking work in one of the many industries that could be found there. Some were old established processes but others such as the manufacture of steam engines, artificial manure and of course the railway were new ones that required both skilled and unskilled labour. It was the town of Thetford and Charles Burrell's St Nicholas Works situated in Minstergate that next attracted George Cooper. About 1872 he rented a small cottage at number 20 Minstergate, in the midst of the Burrell 'works'. George's experience working with steam engines on farms at Caston and Wretham obviously held him in good stead to gain employment as a labourer/engine driver at the 'works'.

Whilst living in Minstergate amongst the industrial activity, the noise, smells and commotion that surrounded their home,, three more children, Herbert, Rose and George were born to George and Maria. Perhaps it was a lack of living space and the general living conditions in Minstergate that led George and Maria to pack their bags and move from Thetford to the rural isolation of Santon Downham where they settled about 1878.

It is easy to imagine George and his family, sitting together on a horse-drawn cart amongst their possessions, as they travelled across the wide expanse of the barren heathland that then dominated the landscape between Thetford and Brandon. Or did they, perhaps, travel by train to Brandon carrying what hand luggage they could, then walking the few miles back to Santon Downham while their large possessions travelled directly from Thetford by cart?

George, along with most of the other villagers, was employed on the huge 4,944 acre Downham Hall estate then fairly recently purchased by Edward Mackenzie who was also in possession of the Thetford Manor estate.

1881 Census Santon Downham, Suffolk

George Cooper Head of Household Married 47 yrs. Engine Driver Nfk,Caston
Maria Cooper Wife Married 40 yrs. Nfk,Hockham
Harriet M[aria] Dau. Unm. 10 yrs. Scholar Nfk, Caston
Emma? [Ellen M] Dau. Unm. 9 yrs. Scholar Nfk, Wretham
Herbert Son Unm. 8 yrs. Scholar Nfk. Thetford
Rose Dau. Unm. 5 yrs. Scholar Nfk. Thetford
George Son Unm. 4 yrs. Scholar Nfk. Thetford
Edward Son Unm. 2 yrs. Sfk. S. Downham

Sadly, little is really known about the Cooper family and their lives in Santon Downham except a few glimpses that can be gleaned from parochial and national records. George died in March 1898 at the age of 65 years and was buried in the village churchyard. Maria lived in the village until her death at the grand age of 89 years in 1929. Maria was interred alongside her husband.

What of the children? Harriet and Ellen both became domestic servants as most girls did before marriage. They were both married in Santon Downham. Harriet married Fred Winter of Nottinghamshire in 1906 and Ellen married Benjamin Rushbrooke a soldier of Hilborough in the 1917. The first to be married in Santon Downham, however, was George. He married Ellen Green of Santon Downham in June 1898 but sadly his wife died just eight years later. By then they were living in Thetford with their two young sons, Sydney and Victor. Herbert, a gardener, married Jane Shinn in Brandon where they settled. Rose never married and lived in the village for much of her life, spending many years as house keeper to the Reverend Tyrrell-Green. Rose died in 1960 and was buried alongside her parents. Edward Cooper remained a bachelor and also lived out his life in Santon Downham where he was interred. His resting place is marked by a wooden cross inscribed Edward Cooper for 38 years Clerk of this Parish Died 8 June 1948 Aged 69..