On the ends of the front pew in the church of St Peter and St Paul, Swaffham, there are two carvings. One is of a muzzled dog and the other of a man with a pack on his back. These were carved in the 19th century and show John Chapman and his little dog. John Chapman is better known as the Pedlar of Swaffham.
The legend of the Pedlar who walks to the London to seek his fortune after a dream, but finds the treasure is in his own back garden, is not only found in Swaffham. There are stories of other men in other places. The word 'Chapman' means pedlar, so this may be why the legend has stuck to him.
Did the pedlar actually exist?
Although parts of the story may not be true, John Chapman, pedlar or merchant of Swaffham, did live. He was a successful businessman. He may well have been a pedlar when young, before becoming a merchant and, as in the legend, he used his money to help his church and local community.
We know this, as we can trace John Chapman back much further than the 19th century carvings. In the 'chancel' of the church there are some old medieval carvings. Two of the carvings are of a man with a pack on his back, with a muzzled dog underneath and two more are of a woman, one in a shop and one looking over a shop door. These carvings come from the family pews of John Chapman and show the Pedlar and his family.
Written records also tell us that he lived. In the 15th century Black Book (still in the Swaffham Church library), there is a list of the people who gave money to the church; it shows that John Chapman, a local person and church warden, paid for the new north aisle and also gave money to the fund for the church spire in 1462, when the church was rebuilt on the site of an earlier one. He also made many other generous gifts.
How is he remembered?
The pedlar is still remembered in shop names
Because John Chapman was so generous, he is still remembered in the town, five hundred years after he died. Although we do not know how much of the legend is true, many businesses and shops in the town are named after him.