In the churchyard at Thurlton, on the north side of the church, is the Wherryman’s Gravestone. Carved with the picture of a Norfolk wherry, it marks the grave of Joseph Bexfield, a wherryman drowned on 11 August 1809 at the age of thirty-eight, leaving a widow and two children.
Local tradition says that Bexfield was one of the wherrymen who plied the River Yare between Norwich and Yarmouth. They used to tie up at night at Thurlton Staithe, halfway between the two places. Near where the track across the marsh from the Staithe met the old turnpike road stood the White Horse Inn. One night, after having a drink there, he was making tracks for home when he remembered he had left some things he had brought his wife from Norwich on the wherry. Though one of his drinking cronies warned him not to return to the Staithe, because the Lantern Men were about in the marsh ‘popping off in hundreds’, Bexfield said he knew the marsh too well to be led astray by a ‘Jack o’ Lantern’, and off he went. That was the last they saw of him, until days later his body was washed up between Reedham and Breydon.
The Fenland storyteller W. H. Barrett says in East Anglian Folklore (1976) that the old Thurlton man who told him this tale ended by saying that a ‘shadow figure’ could still be seen on a misty night wandering over the marshes and vanishing into the river. It was the ghost of the wherryman being led to his doom.
However, in a much sparer version of the story current in oral tradition in the 1940s and 1950s there was no ghost. It is possible that Mr Barrett, who was a relative of the occupant for many years of March Farm (formerly the White Horse), and used to entertain nephews and nieces with his stories, added the ghost for extra measure. The emphasis in earlier accounts was not on what became of Bexfield (whose descendants still lived locally) after his demise, but on the dangers of the marshes, in particular the ferocious Lantern Man, long thought of in East Norfolk as a malevolent being whose attacks were provoked by not treating him with respect.