BERNEY family

of Bracon Hall

The BERNEY family have good reason to claim that they are the longest surviving family to have had continuous residence in Norfolk. The family has been important in Bracon Ash for at least 270 years. They moved there around 1750 from the next-but-one village, Swardeston, where they had occupied 'Swardeston Hall' (now known as Gowthorpe Manor) for over 100 years.

BELOW are more details about the Berneys of Reedham; the Berneys of Swardeston and the Berneys of Bracon Ash..... 

'The family of Berney, one of great antiquity and of Norman extraction, settled in this county prior to the Conquest, and gave their name both to the manor and parish of Berney [south of Thursford, ENE of Fakenham], in West Norfolk.' - says Kelly's 1896 Directory, summing up the early history of the family. Various medieval members appear in the Norwich records as lawyers, knights and burgesses - one was an MP in the reign of Edward III (1327-77). By the mid-1400s the family were established in Reedham, where we will pick up their story...

Berneys of Park Hall, Reedham

Reedham Church contains a fine monument to Henry Berney Esq erected by his widow Alice nee Appleton (below). On the left is Henry with their 5 sons and on the right is Alice with their 4 daughters and a coat of arms with insignia of the families of Berney, Redham, Caston (earlier ancestors) and Appleton. It was Henry Berney (1524-1585) who moved the family seat from near the church into Reedham Park where he built a magnificent mansion in 1557 with large gardens called Park Hall.

Henry's son and heir was Thomas Berney (1565-1616) who married Julian, daughter of Sir Thomas Gaudy, knight of Redenhall. They had at least 5 children - their 3rd son, Richard survived his father to inherit the Hall. He was mad a Baronet by James I in 1620 and soon afterwards became High Sheriff of Norfolk. The youngest son, Thomas - also a High Sheriff of Norfolk - was the Berney who moved to Swardeston around 1633 when he married Dorothy, daughter of John Smith of Irminghall. But let us stay with the Berneys of Reedham and the Baronets a little longer....

Richard Berney, 1st Baronet, fell out with his elder son, Thomas, who went to Caius College Cambridge and then studied law at Grays Inn. He hoped to become a barrister, but his father wanted him to learn about farming, not law, and called him home to help run the estates. He fell in love with a local girl whom father thought beneath him: he forbade the marriage and later disinherited his son. So Park Hall and other estates went to the younger son, Richard which proved to be a bad move: his son, another Richard held a number of prestigious offices but overspent wildly and Park Hall and his other estates had to be sold off to pay his debts. That was (almost) the end of the links with Reedham....

Meanwhile, Thomas, the older brother, may have lost the estate but he did inherit the Baronetcy and became the 2nd Baronet Berney of Parkhall. Having been forbidden his first love, he married Sarah, daughter of Captain Thomas Tyrell, and they has a large family. Richard, their eldest son and later the 3rd Baronet, married Dorothy, daughter of William Branthwayte of Hethel Hall, creating another link with our area. Richard bought Barton Bendish Hall from the Gawdy family in 1665 (presumably relatives of his great-grandmother); his descendants lived there for around 300 years and the village pub is still the Berney Arms. The baronetcy continues to this day. 

Less fortunately, Richard's younger brother, Thomas, got into a brawl in Norwich in 1684 after drinking too much at the Maid's Head and his sword was used to kill his cousin Thomas Bedingfield (of the Suffolk Bedingfields). Next morning - barely sober - Thomas was arrested and taken straight to the quarter-session judges who were about to close the assizes. He was condemned and hung for the murder. Later it emerged that a companion had used his sword and Thomas was innocent. 

Berneys of Swardeston Hall

Thomas Berney (c.1596-1673) probably moved to 'Swardeston Hall' when he was about to set up home with Dorothy Smith, whom he married in Swardeston Church in 1633 (below)

'Swardeston Hall' is now known as Gowthorpe Manor and is situated quite close to Norwich. This large brick mansion with a walled garden had been modernised and extended in the 17th century before Thomas Berney bought it. He must have altered or extended it again (one gable is dated 1669) and added the barn.  The 16th century main block roof survives to this day, as does the 17th century east wing roof, along with a 17th century gazebo and the barn.

Thomas and Dorothy had at least 4 children: John, their son and heir (1634-1678) who married Elizabeth Onslow; Thomas (baptised in Swardeston 1637); Juliana (1639-1727) who married William Branthwayt of Hethel Hall in 1657 and produced 18 children; and Richard.

John Berney (son of Thomas) was succeeded by his only son Thomas who was baptised in Swardeston in 1674. Thomas married Anne Suckling, daughter of Robert Suckling of Woodton Hall, in 1700. Their son and heir, John (1717-1800) married Susanna Trench (1724-1755) and after she died married Margaret nee Dolens, another heiress. Susanna's mother (also Susanna Trench, 1686-1750) was the first person to be buried in the family mausoleum added to the north wall of Bracon Ash church and within sight of the Hall, followed tragically soon afterwards by a grandson, John (1750-1754) and her own daughter, Susanna (1719-1755), wife of John Berney. It is likely they kept and leased out the Swardeston estates which were eventually sold to the Steward family in 1818.

Berneys of Bracon Hall

John Berney & Susanna nee Trench married in 1745. They had their 2nd son, John, baptised in Swardeston in 1750 but their next child, Anne, was baptised in Bracon Ash in 1751. Later she was to marry Robert Fellowes of Shotesham Hall. The obvious conclusion is that John & Susanna moved to Bracon Hall in 1750, taking baby John with them. Sadly, he died age 4 and was the first Berney to be buried in the new Mausoleum built onto the side of Bracon Ash church. There he joined his maternal grandmother, who had been buried in 1750, and was followed not long afterwards by his mother (below). John Berney remarried, but his second wife, Margaret, was older. When he died in 1800 none of his sons had survived him. 

His 3rd son, Thomas Berney (1753-1786), lived long enough to marry and have a family, but he died in 1786 aged only 33. In 1774 he married Elizabeth, 3rd daughter of Sir George Jackson, later known as George Duckett, a baronet. Thomas left a very long and detailed Will, mainly setting up trusts and  dictating the line of succession should he have more sons but he and Elizabeth had only one son and a daughter. From his Will it seems that at his marriage Thomas inherited land and manors around Hockering and it was the rents from these that would provide income for his widow. Presumably the family lived in the Hockering area - the old Bracon Hall was the home of his father and step-mother, John and Margaret Berney, and  they seem to have spent a lot of time at their London home in Hackney.

The widowed Elizabeth Berney must have decided to bring the family back to Bracon Ash and in 1796 she took out a 60-year lease on Mergate Hall from the Kemp family. Whilst she received a handsome bequest and an assured income from her late husband, all his property passed to their son Thomas Trench Berney when he came of age in 1805. She seems to have taken over as Lord of the Manor of Bracon Ash after her father-in-law died - maybe her son allowed her to keep the title. The print above, owned by the present Berney family, names Bracon Ash as the 'seat' of Mrs Berney and appears to show Mergate Hall. 

Mrs Elizabeth Berney (1755-1839) and her daughter, Miss Elizabeth Berney (1779-1847), continued to live at Mergate Hall until they were forced out after a dispute with the Kemps, and presumably it was during this period that Bracon Hall was rebuilt. All the 19th Century directories call it a 'modern' dwelling and the 1851 census has 'New Hall'. She made a 4-page Will in 1833, and has the longest inscription in the mausoleum! When Mrs Elizabeth Berney died in 1839, she left all her inheritance to her unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, with substantial bequests to her companion, Ellen Jackson, a widow who was presumably from her own family. Thomas Trench is never mentioned in his mother's will. The unmarried daughter had moved into Bracon Hall along with Ellen Jackson by the 1841 census.

Thomas Trench Berney (1784-1869) was baptised in Bracon Ash in 1784 and attended Oriel College, Oxford. He reached the age of 21 in 1805, when he was able to claim his inheritance according to the terms of his father's and his grandfather's Wills. TT Berney was living at Bracon Hall in 1808 when he gave a reception for the Bishop and many neighouring clergy at the dedication of the church after substantial repairs. By the time he became High Sherriff of Norwich in 1813 he was living at Morton Hall at Morton-on-the-Hill (near Attlebridge and what is now the dinosaur park) which he enlarged and modernised: 'a fine mansion, standing on a rising ground, commanding a beautiful prospect.' In 1812 he had married Mary Penrice from Great Yarmouth, so may have been preparing the house for their life together. He inherited considerable estates, including some east of Reedham -  hence Berney Arms! He sold land there to the railway on condition that a station was built and always remained open - it is now a request stop. The Berney Arms windmill was rebuilt to serve the cement works, of which TT Berney is described as the owner. He and his wife had 8 children, 3 of whom are buried with their parents in the Berney mausoleum in Bracon Ash even though they lived at Morton Hall. The eldest son, George Duckett Berney, inherited Morton Hall. Their second son, Thomas, graduated from St John's College, Cambridge, was ordained in 1839 and became Rector of Hockering. In 1855 he took over the living of Bracon Ash, where he was also Lord of the Manor and Patron.

Bracon Hall today - as seen from Bracon Ash Church gate.
Bracon Hall today - as seen from Bracon Ash Church gate.

 Rev Thomas Berney (1815-1895) was Rector of Bracon Ash from 1855 to 1895; he lived in the Hall, rented out the Rectory, and never married. He features rather too frequently in local and national newspapers for his misdemeanours.  In 1866/7 he stood trial before the Court of Arches (an ecclesiastical court) accused of making 'lewd remarks' and suggestive invitations on several occasions to the wife and sister-in-law of Rev Cummings, Rector of East Carleton, to whom he was renting Bracon Ash Rectory. The ladies reported the matter to the Bishop, who set up an enquiry which decided there was a case to answer. It took 2 years to come to court, during which time Mrs Cummings had accepted gifts and replied to letters from  Berney, which he kept as evidence against her. The case hit the headlines and Berney was judged guilty, but his counsel promptly gave notice of an appeal to the Privy Council. His conviction was overturned.
Thomas Berney was frequently in dispute with neighbouring landowners, quickly resorting to the courts, and was described (in 1883) as 'a gentleman who had sustained many lawsuits arising from his claim as lord of the manor of Bracon Ash, concerning which he had very exalted ideas as to his rights and privileges'. In a succession of cases which tried the patience of the judges he claimed sporting rights over much of the land in the area, whether he owned it or not, on the basis of grants made to his ancestors from the 13th century. In one such case, in 1879 he accused 92-year-old Miss Smith of letting her servants shoot game which was 'rightfully' his, and it transpired that he has terrorised the old lady, even on her death-bed.  In another case he locked, barred and put guards on two gates along a track between Mergate Hall and Home Farm to prevent Sir Kenneth Kemp using it - claiming his aunt had added the land to her rightful estate whilst residing at Mergate Hall. That was thrown out in a court case reportedly peppered with laughter. There was even more laughter reported at the hearing when he was accused of trespassing at Bracon Lodge - having been found in the walled kitchen garden where he not only claimed to have shooting rights but to have actually shot a rabbit. The Judge decreed that any rights had been lost when the land was sold to Mr Loftus, the owner (of house, land and rabbit) who received 40 shilling damages. 
In later years, Rev Berney  retreated to write numerous religious tracts, many against the spread of 'popery' and catholic trends within the Church of England. He also sent a 5000-word open 'letter' to all MPs about a possible Channel Tunnel, asking Gladstone to give a copy to Queen Victoria. In this he warned of the wily French who would then invade, take Dover Castle, providing a diagram and numerous calculations to demonstrate how they would decimate our forces. A century or so later he might have put Bracon Ash at the forefront of Brexit debates!!

(Above) Report of the funeral of Rev Thomas Berney in 1895, with some details of his life and beliefs. Note, Bracon Hall is called 'a modern mansion'.

With no children to inherit, Bracon Ash Hall passed to the only surviving son of TT Berney, Thomas's younger brother Augustus Berney (1831-1910) who was Lord of the Manor for 15 years. As the youngest son he never expected to inherit land or titles so he left to make his way in the world. He sailed to New South Wales around 1848 and soon he was involved in customs collection for the government - an area where his future father-in-law (Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes) worked. In 1858 Augustus Berney married Matilda Lavinia Gibbes and they had 4 children, 3 of whom were born in New South Wales, Australia. The family returned to Britain, when his elder brother Rev Thomas Berney died in 1895, leaving Bracon Ash and Morton Hall to him. Augustus is probably the man whose head is carved into the back pew of Bracon Ash Church, for his wife Matilda Lavinia paid for the reordering of the church in his memory. Their youngest daughter, Dora, was an accomplished woodcarver. 

After Matilda Lavinia Berney died in 1916, the estate was put in a trust administered for her children, George Augustus (1865-1952); Eva Constance Elizabeth Fanny (1860-1936) who married  Henry (Harry) Goulburn Willoughby Chetwynd in 1893; and Dora Lavinia (1866-1959). Litigation seems have followed, but from 1947, Richard Trench Berney (1927-2016), son of George Augustus came to live here and acquired the property and all the estate rights from 1961. He gradually sold off various properties and pieces of land to help finance the rest of the estate, including the houses of Lodge Farm and Hall Farm and some land in Mulbarton parish for housing. Richard and Peggy Berney had no children, so now the house and the manor have passed to their nephew, who is restoring the house and estate and developing its potential for the 21st century.

[Compiled by Jill Wright from directories, parish registers & gravestones + on-line information at (family trees, dates); National Archives (Wills); Francis Blomefield 'An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11' at; for the various Halls;; British Newspaper collection at FindMyPast; documents from Dr Legg; an article in 'Norfolk News' December 2022; and information from living descendants of the Berney family. Corrections and more information appreciated!]