The Maid of the Mill - Sidestrand - Norfolk

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography
The village of Overstrand was once known as the 'Millionaire's Village.' Back in the late 1800's it was a magnet for the rich and famous of that time. Indeed, before the First World War, several millionaires had houses within the area. Names such as the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), the Duke of Marlborough, Lord and Lady Battersea, Sir Edgar Speyer and even Winston Churchill's father owned a house thereabouts. Many of these fine residences and large manor houses, built by the rich and famous, have unfortunately over the years either been demolished or been claimed by the ever encroaching hungry North sea.
Driving round the coast to Sidestrand you will find the church of St. Martins located on the A149 coastal road. Here amongst the overgrowth is a granite, overgrown grave, containing a number of individuals.
This is the final resting place of a key figure of that era, who has been immortalized both in film and memorabilia. Within one of these graves lies the remains of Maria Louie Jermy, who in 1883 was a young nineteen year old country lass, daughter to the local miller at Sidestrand.
Back then her circle of acquaintances included the well known and the famous of London society. This is her story as well as the story of the birth of 'Poppy Land.'

In the 19th century the coming of the railways opened up areas of England which had previously only been accessible by horse. These new railways meant that the Victorians could now 'get away from the hurly-burly stresses of London life.' So it was that travel writers began to explore these previously hidden parts of England looking for new and interesting places to write about for their hungry readers.

One such writer who wrote for the Daily Telegraph was Clement Scott (1841-1904); a drama critic and travel writer. His previous travel articles had included the 'fashionable watering holes' on the continent but now he had turned his attention to this green and pleasant land.

The Great Eastern Railway Company had completed their line to the northern coast of Norfolk terminating at the city of Norwich but in 1882 they extended this line all the way to the small sea fishing port of Cromer. At that time Cromer was rarely frequented by holiday makers, save for local Norfolk folk. So it was on a bright and sunny morning in August 1883 Clement Scott found himself on the station platform at the small seaside town of Cromer. It was a warm and balmy day so Scott decided to leave his baggage at the station and to explore the vicinity on foot. He started at the seafront of Cromer and found himself on the cliff path. As he strolled along this path he left behind the noise of the hustle and bustle of Cromer. Breathing in the bracing north sea air he marveled at the wonderful peaceful scenery that was opening up before him. 

He wrote "So great was the change from the bustle of fashion to this unbroken quiet that I could scarcely believe that I was only parted by a dip of coastline from music and laughter and seaside merriment; from bands and bathing machines..." Further along on the horizon he saw the ruins of an old church tower. Turning his steps in that direction he came to the ruined tower of St. Michaels, all that remained of the old church. The main body of the church had been dismantled brick by brick in 1881 to save it from coastal erosion and the cold embrace of the North Sea. However, the tower had been left by order of Trinity House as it acted as a landmark for shipping. The graves and coffins had also been left within the confines of the graveyard though the gravestones had been moved. They now ring the wall of the new churchyard edging the boundary wall.

Scott was completely entranced by the tranquility of the place and wrote:- "It is difficult to convey an idea of the silence of the fields through which I passed, or the beauty of the prospect that surrounded me - a blue sky without a cloud across it; a sea sparkling under a haze of heat; wild flowers in profusion around me; poppies predominating everywhere ..." 

Scott decided to explore further and wended his way across the field of poppies towards the near-deserted village. Again he wrote:- "Looking across the fields there was no sound but the regular click of the reaping machine under which the golden grain was falling. It was just the time of day when an English farm has such a sleepy look. No-one seemed about anywhere as I surveyed the farm buildings, no voice broke the silence ..."
He came upon an old four-sailed windmill and nearby a red-bricked cottage. Entranced by the engaging picture the cottage and garden made, Scott leaned on the white gate of the cottage and gazed in. 
Louie Jermy aged 19

It was then that he spied Louie Jermy in her long country dress and large shady bonnet trimmed with poppies. Totally captivated by the charming scene Scott decided to enquire about the possibility of lodgings. Louie Jermy did not hesitate. She and her father the miller would be happy to accommodate the fine gentleman from London during his stay. So it was that Clement Scott came to Mill Cottage. 

Louie Jermy, the miller's daughter, was a shy girl, a country girl of limited education but of keen intelligence. She was a plain but good cook with a reputation for excellent housekeeping. Clement Scott settled into the mill house and 'Poppy Land' was born.

During the days Scott roamed the Norfolk lanes drinking in the aura of peace and serenity of the area. His writing in the Newspaper painted a haven of peace and tranquility far from the madding crowd where people could enjoy the simpler things in life; all within walking distance of the sea and the healthy sea air. His newspaper articles were read by millions of readers all of whom wanted to experience this 'idyl' for themselves.

Even the old church tower went down in history in verse and also in song. The tower held a particular fascination for Clement and he immortalized the place in a poem entitled ' 'The Garden of Sleep'. In later years, until his death in 1904, he would visit the place every New Year's Eve spending the last moment of the old year within the church tower's shadow. The church tower and the remaining tombstones were eventually claimed by the sea after a violent storm in February 1916. 
Clement Scott's enthusiastic description of the Mill House, surrounded by poppy fields, resulted in London's literary and artistic society descending upon the place and the Mill House became a fashionable place to stay. Louie Jermy, dubbed 'The Maid of the Mill', became known for her 'blackberry puddings.'

Famous and titled people began to buy land nearby and build large, magnificent seaside homes. The railway companies also cashed in on the area's increasing popularity by issuing posters of idyllic cottages in the Norfolk countryside and posters with 'Welcome to Poppyland' were printed off in ever increasing numbers. There was a flood of guide books and articles printed. Poppyland china was even produced by local firms and there was a Poppyland perfume marketed which was sold all over the world between 1890 and 1930. The Mill house became known as Poppyland cottage.

The writer of 'Mustard and Cress' which appeared in a Sunday periodical, George R. Sims, was also a visitor to the Mill House and he referred to the Mill House and its occupants on many occasions in his writings. This resulted in Louie herself becoming something of a celebrity. She was taken to London and wined and dined by the celebrities who frequented her cottage by the sea. She was even given elocution lessons, though she never lost her Norfolk burr.

The concert organizer and composer, Isidore de Lara (1858-1935), put music to Scotts' poem the 'Garden of Sleep' which he retitled 'The hush of the Corn'. It became a great success and was sung all over the world resulting in even more tourists including those from overseas flocking to 'Poppyland'.
Clement Scott came to regret his publicity of the area and the loss of his 'country paradise'. His rural haven had now turned into, as he termed it, 'Bungalowland'. 

Louie Jermy who had returned from the bright lights of London to her beloved Mill Cottage took to serving cream teas to day-trippers in her cottage garden. She would follow the lives of her famous guests by reading newspapers and carefully cutting out press cuttings which she pasted into large scrap books.
Coach tours were arranged using the new petrol-driven buses which had just begun to appear in Edwardian England. Even the train to Cromer was named the "Poppy Line", a name it bears to this day. Businessmen were quick to jump on the band wagon and hotels and boarding houses were built all over that part of Norfolk. As Joe Public descended upon the area in ever increasing numbers, so the notables moved out and stopped coming to the now 'over popular' area.

Only the advent of the Great War put an end to 'Poppy Land' popularity when the whole of the East Coast was taken over by the military. Then officers were billeted in the Mill House and became the recipients of Louie's blackberry pudding and kind hospitality. After the war the character of the guests at the Mill House began to change. New visitors arrived, survivors of the Great War, who were looking for fun and late-night parties. Louie found it hard to keep these new guests in order.

Alfred Jermy, her father the miller, died in 1916 and Louie was given notice to quit the cottage by the landlord. Few people owned the freehold of their homes in those days. Louie, now aged fifty-five, had never married. She had been born in the mill cottage and had seen first her mother and then her father die within its walls. As the auctioneers moved in the loss of her beloved home and her treasured possessions caused Louie's whole world to come crashing down.  

She purchased as many of the possessions as she could afford and moved out of the Mill House into a small terrace house in nearby Tower Lane. Such was her grief that Marie Louie began to lose touch with reality and became something of a recluse.

She was seen around the streets pushing an old pram, in which were contained those possessions she had been able to save from the auctioneer's hammer. To supplement her meagre existence she would sell blackberries from door to door. Gone were the days when she made her famous blackberry pudding for the leading-lights of stage and shows.

She passed away quietly in September 1934 at the age of 70. Four local fishermen from the village carried her coffin and laid it in the church of St. Martin at Sidestrand.

For Clement Scott a 'water trough' was erected by friends some five years after his death. This stands on the main Cromer to Overstrand road; all that remains of the author of 'Poppy Land'.

Pictures kindly supplied by the Jermy family. Top Pictures Louie Jermy aged 19 - Sidestrand Mill - Miller Jermy - Old Mill House Sidestrand.  Bottom Pictures Louie Jermy 1890s - Louie Jermy in later years - Louie Jermy last home. 

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography