Social History...

Local Characters

The following article from the Eastern Daily Press is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. Keith Skipper.

Magic from the Mardler

Keith Skipper pays tribute to natural storyteller
Fred Wigby who found fame on the radio

Fred Wigby

The Grand Old Mardler will be 76 next week. He is a one-man resistance movement against mournful acceptance that the age of the true Norfolk character must be over. He is still picking holes in a dull blanket of uniformity smothering so many facets of our immediate past and insecure present.
He twinkles where others are prepared to ponder. Chuckles to drown sighs of regret from those who shared those hard old days. Draws comparisons to make points, not to score them.
As the eulogy gathers strength, let me declare an interest. I knew Frederick C. Wigby was exceptional as soon as I met him in September 1982. But how best to deploy his talents?
He presented himself as the author of three books about his exploits from the agricultural land of his youth to the high seas as a stoker in the Navy. Just as much as home on a cruiser or in a Chinese rickshaw as behind the horses at harvest-time in his native Norfolk.
Travels round the globe gave him a telling edge over other candidates seeking auditions for the role of resident raconteur on BBC Radio Norfolk's Dinnertime Show. I was anxious to avoid too many criticisms about being parochial in the extreme. Fred agreed to a couple of Tuesdays on trial. The rough format was village memories one week, challenges after signing on in 1933 the next.
Asides, anecdotes, home-grown proverbs and a love affair with the microphone added five wonderful years to those two Tuesdays. Fred proved himself a natural storyteller, one character introducing the next, one yarn tripping over another, one laugh spawning near-apoplexy as I tried to follow his rustic drift. I dubbed him The Grand Old Mardler as he arrived each week with a cavalcade of characters bursting to share their simple philosophies and funny little ways . . . Miss Milly, Master Billy, Dewdrop Higgins, Jimmy and Caleb, Hezekiah Pilbeam, Old John T Silas Gathergood and many others from the Wigby scrapbook.
Letters started coming in for the attention of "that old boy who spins them yarns", many seeking enlightenment on country matters and customs, especially in the field of horses. Fred's naval career won him a big following of "old salts".
Catching up with the post, a considerable amount of which came from way beyond the county borders, led to extra time in a bid to do the Wigby file justice. Extra time simply meant extra post.
A visit to hospital, along with his wife's failing health, brought our Tuesday torrents of laughter to a premature close, although Fred is able to drop in now and again for a mardle.
Radio introduced him to a deserved wider audience, and he took to the medium like a well-trained horse to the plough. If the best pictures are on the wireless - and I suspect this may be the case - characters like Fred Wigby have no trouble painting them.
We enjoyed a reunion the other afternoon in the house where he was born in October, 1912 - Oak Tree Cottage, at Wicklewood, near Wymondham.
Family and friends gathered for tea, cakes, free exchange of memories and the unveiling of a plaque on the wall outside, next to the main entrance. I was honoured to be invited to lead the chorus of praise for this "noted Norfolk author and storyteller".
We all agreed - much better to pay proper tribute now rather than wait till Fred has gone to The Great Mardling Room in the Sky. As he almost choked with emotion, I sensed a fiendish plot to render him silent for once.
The plaque idea came from local farmer Basil Cook, whose daughter Katherine now owns the delightfully-renovated property named after a sturdy oak tree in the garden. This was planted by George Coldham, a farmworker who lived next door to the Wigby family in what was the former home of the famous Miss Milly. George found a very small tree-while hoeing sugar beet, and planted it in the garden during the 1930s. "I have always called it George Coldham's tree, and it shows how one man's planting can give pleasure to others for many years," said Basil Cook as we filed indoors out of the sharp wind, and the oak tree continued to play its own October music.
The rustle of autumn. Misty-eyed but proud, Fred Wigby pieced together a few more pieces of jigsaw from the family past. . . "There was a couch over there, and a grandmother clock . . . coconut matting and a pegged rug ... father's high-backed chair and a table with a lamp . . . used to be a staircase there next to the hearth . . ."
One of eight children, he lived here from 1912 until 1933. Had he been back before? "I did come home after the Ethiopian Troubles." He made it sound like an enforced break brought on by an unexpected illness.
The album in his head kept on providing little snapshots. There was father clearing Polly Flint's chimney with gunpowder - and the chimney pot clearing the road. And what about the village search for Frank Chapman's false teeth,. found in the hedge.
Fred's first full harvest when he was eleven gleaned him a pound for four weeks of work. He wore short trousers and the sharp stalks cut his knees until they were red and swollen. Mother bathed them and covered the inflamed area with wild bees' honey.
Then there was the time Master Billy's trousers caught fire as he dozed off in church next to the well-stocked ancient stove. The sexton dashed out, filled the bucket from the tank outside, rushed back in and threw the water over hapless Billy. The vicar was forced to abandon the rest of the service and drove Billy home in his pony and trap. Well, that was the plan . . . but the pony refused to go any further on reaching the public house - obviously a customary stopping place.
The fact you can guess most of the rest hardly spoils the fun as it comes to a head.
The Grand Old Mardler still savours those little trips down familiar lanes. Happy birthday. Fred.

That plaque at Oak Tree Cottage reminds us how much we owe people like you.

Proud Norfolk stock with a good yarn and an honest smile to share.
The Wicklewood unveiling prompted a line worthy of any Oscar acceptance speech: "I never thought anything like this would happen when I was running about here with the backside out of my trousers."
Fred Wigby, The Grand Old Mardler, a legend in his own lunch-time. On a Tuesday. Keith Skipper