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Rev Robert Forby 1759-1825 of St Martin's, Fincham, Norfolk

Born: 1759 and died 1825.
Son of: Thomas Forby and Susan Forby nee Harvey (1732-1824).
Brother of
1. Martha (1761-1828).
2. Susan Webb nee Forby who married Capt Webb.
3. Mary Millers nee Forby (17??-1845) who married Rev George Millers.
Robert never married.

We know about Robert Forby from the following sources:
1. The Diary of his niece Eliazabeth Jones (nee Helsham).
2. The book 'Stoke Ferry' by Doris Coates, published 1980 (see below).
3. The book 'Historical Notices & Records of the Village & Parish of Fincham in the County of Norfolk' by William Blyth (Rector of Fincham), published by Thew & Son, Kings Lynn, in 1863.  A copy of this book is available on the internet at
4. The book 'A General View of the Agriculture of Norfolk' by Arthur Young.
5. The book 'Forty Norfolk Essays' by Robert Ketton-Cremer.
6. An entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
7. A recent article written by Stewart Waterston (see below) for the Parson Woodforde Society.

The following note is taken from the book "Stoke Ferry" by Doris Coates, published 1980.

Robert Forby, who was born at Stoke Ferry in 1759, is thought to have been the grandson of Jane Forby, who left land in Wretton for a charity in 1711.  He was educated at King's Lynn, where George Manby, the inventor of the rocket for life-saving at sea, was a fellow pupil.  He then graduated at Caius College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow.  He left Cambridge and moved to Barton Bendish with his mother and sisters and became tutor to the sons of Sir John Berney.  When the Berneys lost a considerable amount of money, they dispensed with his services.  He then took in pupils at his home to earn money to support himself and his relatives.  As the number of his pupils increased, he moved his private school to a bigger house in Wereham (probably the Hall). 
In 1801, his finacial affairs became more secure when he was appointed Vicar to the rich living at Fincham.  He was very active in public affairs, holding positions of Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk and Commissioner of the Land Tax.  But he had other, more academic, interests.  He was a keen botanist and spent much time studying the flora of Shouldham Common.  His claim to fame lies in his one published book on the vocabulary of East Anglia.  Its title was "An Attempt to Record the Vulgar Tongue of the Sister Counties of Norfolk and Suffolk as it existed in the last Twenty Years of the Eighteeth Century".  He was afraid that dialext words would disappear as local craftsman and labourers were enabled to acquire education at the Mechanics' Institues then being established.  Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1825 before his book was quite finished.  It was completed by his friend, the Rev George Turner an published in 1830.


Robert's name is recorded on a list of past Rectors, which is up on the wall on the inside of the Church of St Martin's.  This list includes:
1682-1723 Daniel Barker. 
1723-1745 Joseph Forby LLB.
1745-1787 William Harvey MA.
1787-1799 Joseph Forby MA (Son of Joseph Forby).
1799-1825 Robert Forby MA (Nephew of Joseph Forby).
1825-1846 Arthur Loftus MA.
1846-18?? William Blyth MA.


The following is an article written by Stewart Waterston who has collected together much of the information about Robert Forby.  The ariticle reads as follows:


Many members of the Society will be familiar with the name of Robert Forby as his work, 'The Vocabulary of East Anglia', has been quoted in correspondence and articles in the Journal and in notes to the Diary transcript. He was Rector of Fincham in the Diocese of Norwich from 1799 to 1825. Previous to this he held the living of Horningtoft, a small village near Fakenham. I became interested in his life after moving to his former Rectory in Fincham.  A few pieces of information on Forby's life have been forthcoming, with one or two links to JW, and, they being for some years contemporary Rectors in the same Diocese, some of the information I have on him may be of interest.

Robert Forby succeeded his uncle, Joseph Forby, to the living of Fincham, and in following up references to the Forby name I came across  lengthy references to Joseph in Arthur Young's book 'A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk'. Bearing in mind the close involvement a rural Rector had with the land, and its productivity, especially the Glebe lands, some of the entries concerning Joseph make interesting reading.


Joseph Forby, who became Rector of Fincham in 1787, seems to have taken an active part in farming his lands. We learn under the section on cabbages that 'The Rev. J. Forby was a most successful cultivator of this plant.'

Young continues with a detailed account of Joseph's husbandry.

 'Two acres produced 28 tons per acre, carried off the land , a strong wet loam on clay;    two adjoining acres of turnips were fed off with sheep; the  whole sown after three earths  with oats, to the eye perfectly equal, and the whole produce 90 coombs, or 12 quarters per acre. Seeds took well, and he cut nine tons of hay. No manure for either cabbage or turnip. Cabbages never exhausted his land, which always worked better for barley or oats than his turnip land. No cattle could do better than his cows when on cabbages and the cream and butter free from any disagreeable taste. The seed was always sown as early in the spring as possible, on land well sheltered, dunged and dug. The moment he perceived the fly on the young plants, he sowed the beds with wood-ashes, which instantly destroyed the fly, and so far from hurting the plants, that it was astonishing to see how they were invigorated by it. They were planted out in the third week in May. Mr. Forby always mucked the land intended for the crop soon after Michaelmas, which he found far preferable to doing it just before planting. In a very severe frost which destroyed all the turnips, Mr. Forby's cabbages escaped and were of immense use.'


At a later date Joseph communicates to Young the claim that 'he had never seen any piece of land at Fincham planted part with cabbages and part with turnips, where the former did not exceed the latter four-fold at least.' He gives details of an experiment he did to see if claims that cabbages impoverished the land had any basis. He rotated cabbages, oats and wheat on a piece of 'middling land' and found that no person in the Parish had cleaner oats or wheat, nor any such large crop.

'Mr Forby's experiments on cabbages' are elsewhere quoted by Young in a section where he writes:

'The universal system in Norfolk, whatever may be the soil, of sowing turnips, and cultivating them on flat, or nearly flat, lands, must, without hesitation, be condemned . . .'

In the section on rotation of crops on 'stronger land', Joseph's rotation is given as-


1,  Cabbages,dunged for, and worth, on an average, £5 per acre;

  1. Barley, 9 and a half coombs;
  2. Clover' mown twice, produce three tons;
  3. Wheat, dibbled, 8 coombs;has had ten round;
  4. Oats, fifteen coombs.

[ a coomb is a dry measure, equal to four bushels]


There is more evidence of Joseph's initiative and innovation. The section on cabbages ends:

'This gentleman tried the red garden cabbage, and found them very hardy, and come to 14lb, but they  demand more time for growing than the green sorts; of which those streaked with red veins are best, and most durable. He hung those up for seed for two months after Christmas. He did not approve of setting the stalk only, as the side branches were apt to break off; each good plant yielding 1lb of seed: he dried it in hurdles raised on stakes: and if the ground was fine under them and dunged, it  became a seed bed.'


And again, this time on the humble carrot:-

'Mr Forby of Fincham, for some years kept carrots without suffering from the severest frosts, by forming a platform of earth, six inches above the  level and two and a half feet wide: on this a sprinkling of dry straw, and then a row of carrots, with their tops all on, and turned outwards, the tails overlapping one another; so that the width covered with carrots was  about two feet; the small one stopped and laid in the middle: on every two or three rows a little dry straw, and thus to a height of four feet, the tops well covered with dry straw; another row parallel,  with room for a person to walk between: these alleys at last filled with straw, and the outside guarded with bundles of straw, staked down, or set fast with hurdles, to prevent the wind blowing the straw away.'


In his Presidential address to the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society in 1914 the President, in recalling the friends of the naturalist, Sir James Smith, mentions  the Forby family. He quotes Arthur Young:-

' Mr. Forby knew well the value of osier plantations for various purposes. Osiers planted in small spots, and along some of his hedges, furnished him with hurdle-stuff   enough to make many dozens each year&ldots; well as a profusion of all sorts of baskets, especially one kind that he used for moving cabbage plants, and for which purpose they were much better than tumbling the plants loose in a cart. The common osier he cut for this purpose at three years, and that with yellow bark at four.'


At some point in time Joseph discovered  a fine basket osier which was named Salix Forbyana. Sir James claimed that this was in honour of Robert, as well as Joseph, Forby.  Clearly Joseph Forby was a Rector who took his farming seriously. At a time when there was a good deal of innovation and careful thought put into farming he was not content to live off his tithes alone but desired to improve the  husbandry of his own land.


Joseph Forby died on April 25th1799. He was followed as Rector of the living of Fincham by Robert Forby, his nephew.

 We know something of his life from a memoir, written by Dawson Turner, as an introduction to his book; Forby having died before publication.

We are told he was born in Stoke Ferry in 1759 and educated at the 'free school' at Lynn, under the master, a Dr Lloyd. From here he went to Caius College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in 1781. He seemed to have had a promising college career ahead of him. However his father had evidently died around this time and he had a widowed mother and three sisters to consider. In a letter years later to Dawson Turner

he explains his change of direction when he writes:-

        'Among my very earliest recollections is a resolution to take charge of my mother; perhaps at as early an age as I was capable of entertaining such a thought. I availed myself at the very first opportunity, stopping short in my probably more promising career in college, and accepting a small benefice, with the curacy and little parsonage-house at Barton.'  (Barton Bendish)  He did indeed 'take charge' of his mother who lived with him until she died at the age of ninety-three, one year before her son's own death. He continues in the same letter:-

  'I am persuaded that I both cheered and lengthened her life; and I am sure that she soothed and calmed many vexations and anxieties to me.' 

In another letter to Turner he amply illustrates this. He is grumbling about his duty as a magistrate; a duty which he does not seem to have undertaken very willingly:                                                                                                                                                                     

'Indeed until you have experienced the heavy drudgery of an acting Justice, Deputy Lieutenant, and Commissioner of the Land Tax, one of two on whom the burthen of a large district lies, you will not readily conceive the fatigue they cause to the mind. Of the fatigue of my daily domestic occupations you are a competent judge: this is to be added to the other; and, when I have left home soon after breakfast, and return at 5 o'clock to a solitary dinner, which I abhor, with my head full of parish rates, surveyor's accounts, vagrants, run-away-husbands, assaults, petty larcenies, militia lists and substitutes, tax duplicates and distress warrants, some or all of these jumbled together in a horrid confusion; and my dinner dispatched, sit down to have my aching head split by prosaic verses, bald themes or abominable lessons, tell me is it wonderful if I take up any slight amusement that lies in my way, kick off my shoes, and lounge by the fireside, or try to win sixpence off my mother at cribbage.'


Turner records that he received the small living of Horningtoft in Norfolk from Sir John Berney; 'but all other expectations from that quarter were frustrated by misfortunes on the part of the Baronet. Mr. Forby, who in the full confidence that he had now found his harbour, had fixed himself at Barton Bendish, in the immediate vicinity of his intended patron, and had taken his mother and sisters there to reside with him, was obliged to have recourse to pupils for his sustenance.'

One of these pupils was Dawson Turner and so began the lifelong friendship between the two .Turner acknowledges the contribution Forby made to his lifelong love of botany.

Apart from his book on East Anglian vocabulary, Forby left a few written records. One of them, according to Turner was 'A Sermon preached in the parish church of St. Peter at Mancroft in the city of Norwich, on Good Friday, April 14,1797, for the benefit of the Charity Schools in that city.' One wonders if he, like JW, was called on to take his turn at   giving sermons at events such as this. JW , of course knew this church well.                                                                                            

'Mrs Custance took us up into her Coach and carried us to Norwich and put us down at St. Peter of Mancroft Church before eleven o'clock and there we stayed till three in the afternoon highly delighted with the Musical performance.' (10/9/1790)


Here amongst the guests was 'Mr Windham' about whose electioneering and political career JW was to record comments several times over the years. A surviving fragment from Robert Forby's pen is the following epigram which appeared when William Windham was standing as MP for Norfolk, having had a reputation as a politician who was not always constant in his thoughts and views.




'When opticians a sunbeam dissect,

Pure and white as it comes from the sun,

What plain folks would never suspect,

They can shew seven tints mixed in one:

There's red, yellow, green, orange, and blue,

For Tories or Whigs, both or neither,

Each to choose his appropriate hue,

And then change, if they please, like the weather.

But such emblems, so stale and deceiving,

Philosophical Windham derides,

And by white, which includes all the seven,

Demonstrates that he's on all sides.'


Another surviving piece of his writing is a letter he wrote to J.W.'s friend of many years, Henry Bathurst, when he was Bishop of Norwich. The reply it induced also survives.

I recently asked to see these letters in the Millennium Library archives in Norwich, thinking I might photocopy them for ease of reference. This proved nigh on impossible. The letter to the Bishop was written as a response to two speeches Bathurst made; one to the Church Missionary Society on 27th September 1814 and a second to the British and Foreign Bible Society the following day. In them Bathurst criticized those who did not support the work of such societies - spreading the gospel around the world. Forby took exception to this and wrote the letter. It was published in 1815 and ran to a total of ninety-three pages! The newspaper reports of the speeches, presumably in their entirety, are barely three pages long. The writer who replied defending the Bishop wrote  a mere thirty-four pages. The flavour of the indignant reply can be judged from this extract:

'he (Bathurst) ventured to notice ( and if he did so, he could hardly have done it in a more mild and gracious manner) what he deemed a futile and perplexing opposition (to the societies) and this, forsooth, with no allowance for any palliating circumstance of any kind, is to be magnified into 'very severe and totally unmerited imputations!'


This is most likely the kind of action that Turner had in mind when he wrote in his memoir 'he did not always give time to his judgment to temper his conduct . . . hence he was led into errors, which, venial in themselves, exposed him to the venomed shafts of others.'

The 'venomed shaft' of the letter from the Bishop's man ends with a fine example of the caustic.

'In conclusion, Sir, suffer me to express my humble hope, that THE REV.ROBERT FORBY'S LETTER TO THE BISHOP OF NORWICH as it has, I believe been the first example of an Episcopal Philippic of this nature, will, for the credit of the Diocese of Norfolk (sic), enjoy the illustrious distinction of being commemorated by posterity as the only one.'

Forby's successor at Fincham, the Rev. William Blyth, writing in 1863, says that he was 'especially remembered by his surviving parishioners' and 'was a man of letters, strong mind and brusque manners, a ''clergyman of the old school''.

This summary, and Turners memoirs until recently have been the only available sources on which the character of Forby could have been drawn. Then, recently, I came upon another source on a family website. Elizabeth Jones (nee Helsham) lived from 1801 - 1860 and towards the end of her life wrote some reminiscences of her life.  Robert Forby and Elizabeth's father were cousins. Her father, Henry Helsham, died in 1806, and her mother, Katherine in 1816. During these years and especially after her mother's death when he was guardian to Elizabeth and her four siblings, Robert showed much love and devotion to his young relations. From the reminiscences we learn more of his life and

character. This, for example, on his private life:-

 'Sir Michael Bedingfield was then residing at Oxburgh Hall and, notwithstanding the staunch Romanishe, Lady B. and my mother were great friends. The then Rector of Oxburgh Hall was the Rev. Joshua White whose wife and daughter were very superior people, good and clever, the elder lady rather awful and the younger very lovable, as Mr. Forby found. Indeed they were mutually attached, but their views of duty to their respective parents led them to relinquish all thoughts of marriage.'                               Was this true or was the real barrier an Anglican clergyman marrying into an eminent  Catholic family!

There is some light thrown on his farming activities:-

. 'This was a year (1816) of great commercial and agricultural distress. My sister, Catherine , and myself were under the roof of our kind friend at Fincham Rectory before the 'wet harvest' and the riots in the Isle of Ely and elsewhere. The harvest from Mr. Forby's glebe had been gathered in early and well and his thanks offering was a weekly distribution of the most capital soup, the meat for which was brought every Tuesday from  Lynn.'

The narrow range of people that JW could socialize with as a Rector at the time is touchingly illustrated when Elizabeth writes  'there were in those days no resident Rectors or their families near Fincham and our life was very secluded.' The contrast between this situation and JW's fairly full social calendar is very marked.  There were however some high points in Elizabeth's social life whilst at Fincham. This excursion for example.-

'About the middle of July we all went to Cromer, all meaning Mr. and Mrs. Millers with Kate Alexander, Mr. Forby, Henry and myself and George joined us later. We were all in high spirits and our journey was charming. In what way our detachment reached Fakenham  I cannot recall but I have the most vivid recollection of the next two stages by Thursford Hall, Holt and Felbrigg, my place being on the box from whence I could better admire the tangled wayside by the Park palings, the fine trees and finally the blue sea with its frame of healthy hills.'

I think this next extract is a lovely tribute to Forby's nature: it concerns Elizabeth's brother, George, who was studying medicine in London under 'Mr Rowe, a medical man in Burton Crescent'. Elizabeth writes:

'George had, with some hesitation, asked for an invitation for a summer holiday at Fincham for his friend Hilditch. The reply was most cordial and he only regretted that he "had not been the first to think of it" .'

We know from the memoirs in his book that Robert died on December 20th 1825. 

According to Dawson Turner's account:-

 'Mr Waddington called upon our good friend, Mr. Forby, about one o'clock, while he was taking his bath, as usual. After waiting a considerable period the family became alarmed; and upon opening the door, they found he had fainted in the water, and had been suffocated, and had evidently been dead some time.

This account is confirmed by Elizabeth. She writes movingly of her guardian at his death. She calls it her 'tale of sorrow' -

'It was in the week before Christmas that I received the intelligence that our beloved parental friend had expired in his bath the previous noon, sinking beneath the water either from fainting or a fit . . . Before Christmas Day we had placed him beneath that   very spot whence he had, with a solemnity noticed by many, in the words of the second warning bade his parishioners to the celebration of the Holy Communion on the coming festival.

From Elizabeth's writings Robert emerges not as a fairly isolated bachelor living alone with his ever aging mother in a large house but as a man, not only having a sister living all the time with him, but having an extended family of in-laws and young relations on whom he lavished much care and hospitality and who was remembered so fondly for his kindnesses decades later. His regular summer and Christmas family gatherings at his house would no doubt have been envied by JW who was so far from his roots.

His book, it could be said, has passed the test of time as it was the subject of a David and Charles reprint in 1970. Robert Windham Ketton-Cremer, descendant of the diarist's Windham, who gave Felbrigg Hall to the National Trust, has a few words about it in an

Essay he wrote on Forby in 1961:-

 'Modern philologists may smile at some of Forby's derivations, and his Vocabulary certainly presents a contrast to the businesslike compilations which embody the results of their learning and research. But the amplitude of Forby's methods, the digressions and speculations and anecdotes in which he constantly indulged, give his book a leisurely charm which is lacking in more recent and more efficient works of etymology.


I have found three portraits of Robert Forby. A painting is held in the Castle Museum, Norwich, painted in 1802, artist unknown. There is the lithograph in his book, done in 1822 and a sketch from life in Elizabeth Helsham's book. All show a kindly face, I think.


Robert, Joseph and seven other members of the Forby family have their memorials within the altar rails of Fincham Church.


Bibliography and other sources

Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk  David & Charles reprint 1969.
Rev. Robert Forby, The Vocabulary of East Anglia, 1830
Rev.William Blyth, Historical Notices and Records of Fincham in the County of Norfolk. 1863
R.W.Ketton-Cremer   Forty Norfolk Essays, Norwich 1961
Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists,' Society Vol. IX, 1909 - 1914
Reminiscences of Elizabeth Jones (nee Helsham)  published privately by her Great Great  Great  Grandson,  J.J.Heath-Caldwell.

Stewart Waterston can be contacted by email at:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


The book 'Historical Notices & Records of the Village & Parish of Fincham in the County of Norfolk' by William Blyth records the Forby family memorials 'within the altar rails' as follows:

JOSEPH FORBY,L.L.B died Aug 14th, 1744, aged 45
MARTHA, relict of Joseph Forby,L.L.B., and wife of William Harvey, died May 20th,1775 aged 80 years
JOHN FORBY (their youngest son) died March 4th, 1745.
JOSEPH FORBY M.A.  died April 25th, 1799, aged 64.
CONSTANCE (his wife), died March 16th, 1789, aged 57.
SUSAN FORBY relict of Thomas Forby, of Stoke Ferry, died May 1st, 1824, aged 92.
ROBERT FORBY (their son) M.A. died Dec 20th 1825, aged 66.
MARTHA FORBY (their daughter) died Nov 10th. 1828, aged 67.
ANN HELSHAM, died July 12th 1822, aged 23.




If you have anything to add to the above, please contact me.


(Elizabeth Jones) (Diary of Elizabeth Jones)  (Early photograph of Fincham Church)