The Wars of the Lichens (Part 1)

Since the demise of commercial lichen farming in Britain at the end of the last century, Soddenham has striven to keep its historical links with lichen alive during the last few years.

We have reported upon the influence of the Murrow family on several occasions upon this website but never in any detail, touching lightly upon the long running feud between them and another once prominent family, the Mulgrews. It is their shared histories that the title of this post refers, and the numerous trials and tribulations over the generations that have shaped our community in many ways.

Although both families can claim direct lineage to the original families that established the village following the witch trials in 1647, their names are not amongst the surviving records for the period. This does not necessarily mean that there is no truth in this, merely that record keeping was not entirely accurate during the time; many small isolated communities existed all of East Anglia, some ancient and others more transient, containing a few hardy folk here and there, living on the land and whatever opportunities arose. Many such settlements may have been grouped together under one name by an expedient clerk or even gone unrecorded in these turbulent times [1].

George Thomas Murrow
George Thomas Murrow (1752 -1823)

Both names appear on Dereham parish records from the mid 1700’s, so it is with George Thomas Murrow (1752 -1823) and Earnest Charles Mulgrew (1749 -1818) we begin our story. It is generally agreed by both families that both George and Earnest, born and raised in the village, were originally great friends for most of their lives up to this point [2].

Earnest Charles Mulgrew (1749 -1818)

Both men were instrumental in establishing Soddenham as prominant lichen producers, enjoying healthy competition in those early years, with little outside interference from other lichen farmers, who were only operating slightly above subsistence. The friends helped and advised each other as they grew their businesses, believing their friendship sacred and that lichen would be the making of them and their families. And so it was until July 1783 when Earnest was introduced to a gentleman named Mr. Lupin Memmitt in the Greyhound Tavern in Swaffham during the summer market where a proposal was made to limit supplies of fine grade lichen, in the hope of inflating the market value [3].

Mr. Memmitt represented a number of lichen farmers just south of Soddenham, between Mundford and Attleborough, who were unable to increase their growing territory and were keen to see a higher return on their annual yields, colluding to entice either Murrow or Mulgrew to align with them in order to create a cartel in south west Norfolk.

Earnest, often referred to as the more astute of the two friends, said that he would consider their offer and after concluding his other business in Swaffham, returned to the village, where he related the meeting to George at their usual Thursday conclave at The Witches Teat in the evening [4].

It is at this point where things becomes unclear. Over the years, both families have insisted so vehemently upon their versions of the story that further disagreements have ensued and fed the long-running feud beyond the living memory across generations and can still be quite a provocative subject today.

One version tells of Earnest trying desperately to enlist George in the plan to restrict the lichen market, sensing greater profits and more control for the pair, with George morally objecting to such a contrivance. The other version has Earnest relating his experience to George expecting him to find the idea as reprehensible as himself. In this story, George is enthusiastic about the plan and insisted that they engage with Mr. Memmitt as soon as possible. Both versions have each friend pitted against each other, both equally outraged with each other and morally against the plan.

Both stories continue in the same vein; that each friend insists that the other should decline the offer and remain as good honest friends and with utmost commercial integrity, but the other chooses takes up the deal with Mr. Memmitt. The seeds of enmity well sown in the damp fetid soils of Soddenham, where things generally deteriorate over time.

The proposal by Mr. Memmitt was recorded by none other than Memmitt himself within his journals, but are also corroborated in part by both Mulgrew and Murrow in theirs. What is not recorded is what deal was then struck (if one was struck at all) and with whom. Certainly, both men were equally outraged at the other with Murrow swearing never to “cross the same threshold as Mulgrew, for fear of the taint of corruption” [5]. Neither man since referred to the matter in any detail throughout their journals, but each denounced each other in their pages on regular occasions, and often made their opinions of each other known around the village.

In Britain at this time, lichen farming was still a small cottage industry, but with a very labour intensive milling process [6]. George and Earnest were like many other farmers in the 18th century and using methods largely unchanged from the subsistence farmers the century before. It may well be that the falling out of the two allowed George to consider his business differently, as it was not long afterwards that he purchased a plot of land next to Candlesmoke Bridge and set to building a new, purpose built mill.


Whilst George began to modernise and anticipate future growth in the Lichen market, Earnest decided to capitalise upon the unrest caused by Murrow’s choice of mule power [7], and vowed to maintain the honest labours of the lichen grinders, sorters and husbandmen, in direct competition for the loyalty of the local workforce. Despite the accolade of being the more astute businessman, this was a very short-sighted move, as Murrows Mill went into full production. As Murrow had planned, the mule powered mill sped up the grinding and sorting processes, and it wasn’t long before the mill was taking in deliveries from other farms and could boast contracts from as far afield as King’s Lynn! He eventually re-employed all the men who had defected to the Mulgrew mill and by 1795 employed more than half of the village in one capacity or other.

An early sketch of the original plan for the mule-powered mill. In reality, the mill had an eight mule capacity, but the principle is the same.

Inevitably, the success of the Murrow Mill decimated the Mulgrew business, which had been deliberately kept old-fashioned, slow and labour intensive as a snub to his former friends modernisation, and deteriorated as his workforce slowly defected to Murrows thriving enterprise. It struggled on with a handful of loyal staff for just two more years, due in part to some valuable business contracts Earnest had secured during better times, but was also subsidised by selling off parts of the Mulgrew estate, and plundering the savings of his wife’s family, until he could no longer pay his creditors. In 1797 Earnest was declared bankrupt and was ordered to sell the majority of the remainder of the Mulgrew land.

The animosity between the two men never dissipated and while Mulgrew vowed never to let the his estate fall into Murrow hands, Murrow made an equal vow to own all of it and make it more profitable than Mulgrew could ever imagine. It so pleased Mulgrew to see his old friend outbid at each auction and worked tirelessly to make sure that he could not own even the smallest slice of his former estate.

Whilst Mulgrew was taking his great satisfaction, Murrow had become very busy. In the last years before the closure of the Mulgrew business, Murrow had not only developed his own business, but had also bought several other lichen farms, ironically including some of the farms originally involved in the Swaffham proposal [7]. With great foresight, Murrow continued to operate the farms under their original names, modernising and developing them all in line with the main business in Soddenham. He also used them as cover to buy 15 lots of the Mulgrew estate without the knowledge of Earnest Mulgrew.

The Murrow family continued to acquire the remainder of the Murrow estate in the two generations after both George and Earnest has died.

Francis Dorian Mulgrew
Francis Dorian Mulgrew (1797 – 1878)

Inevitably, this continued to stoke the fires of the feud and even marriages between the two families did little to quell the distrust that festered in the bosom of both. When Francis Mulgrew, the grandson of Earnest, married Esme Murrow in 1820, and George Murrow, the grandson of George[8] married Francis’ sister Isabel the following year, many thought that this was a deliberate ploy by the two grandsons who, if not exactly good friends, did not share the total animosity of their forebears.

George Thomas Albermarle Murrow
George Thomas Albermarle Murrow (1817 – 1903)

However, these marriages did manage to return the families to a sort of friendship for a while, but the enmity only remained under the surface, and it wasn’t too long before the old ways crept back in.

In the next part of this fascinating story, we will see how the two families continued to both feud and intermarry right into the twentieth century.





[1] Records for both Dereham and Swaffham Parishes are notoriously patchy and are a real problem for historians. Most existing records can only be relied upon after 1820.

[2] Despite all the disagreements over what happened, this point is the only thing the two families have ever agreed upon. George’s son Henry wrote in his memoirs that “never had there been truer friends than my father and Earnest Mulgrew, a fact that my father was always at pains to make known in his later years.” Some, particularly those who sided with the Mulgrew family, interpreted this line (along with several other similar passages that his son recorded) as evidence of regret, which has long continued to stoke the feud. However, there is no other evidence that either man expressed anything of the sort directly.

[3] The emerging lichen market was keen organise local monopolies on trade, milling and transport in order to prevent Dutch merchants infiltrating East Anglia. Much of the south coast had been crippled by an influx of Dutch profiteers offering cheap imports and offers of an eager European market, but had tied up most farmers, millers and hauliers in highly restrictive deals that meant that their home grown lichen could not be sold locally, but shipped to Antwerp for milling and processing at hugely inflated prices. The Lichen market in the South East was effectively closed down within a few years, and the trend was rapidly spreading along the coast. Many farms and mills in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex created their own consortiums to prevent their interests from this foreign infiltration which were highly effective in stopping the Dutch from doing the same in East Anglia. Although the two men disagreed on Mr. Memmitt’s proposal, this sort of deal was to became the only way to survive in the business, something George Murrow eventually did on his own with much success.

[4] The Thursday conclaves had been held since 1768 and had between 4 and 9 enterprising young men who met to drink and discuss issues of the day. George and Earnest, along with Aldred Drudge and Gilbert Drewery were amongst the regulars.

[5] This is one of the milder outbursts from George Murrow, whose public damnations of Earnest Mulgrew were well-recorded and quite shocking! Earnest was also critical of George, but seemingly not as quotable.

A replica of a traditional lichen mill bed, courtesy of the Murrow Family Collection

[6] Traditionally, lichen milling was a communal activity, its labour shared amongst all those who farmed locally. It was a back-breaking process using huge granite rollers that were pushed and pulled across a slab, usually by two men at a time. Lichen was tossed in at one side and swept out again after three or four passes. This was done several times to grind the lichen into a fine powder. 

sodd-murrows-mule[7] As the mill neared completion, the village was surprised to find a herd of mules stationed in the village. Murrow had imported 39 Spanish mules to power the new mill which outraged those who worked for Murrow at his old mill, a ramshackle collection of wooden buildings built onto the side of his house on Sodden Road. However, the mules required humans to guide and cajole them, as well as tend to their welfare. Working with the mules became the most sought after job at the mill, and a row of houses with their stables was soon built parallel to Early Lane to house those who worked in connection to the mules.

[8] Both families adopted the practice of passing names down the male line, As a result, there are a number of males with the same names, as well as other names introduced later and passed down through the generations. This can make research difficult and confusing.


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