JANET and BARNEY WELCH
I FIRST MET Barney Welch and his wife Janet in the summer of 1988 when I went to Old Costessey Post Offic as a part time postman. Barney – his real name was Bernard, but he was always Barney – was the Sub-postmaster, but that was in name only; Janet took control of the running of things. Over the next few years I became well acquainted with the couple, who could be described as mildly eccentric. I learnt much of their history and the history of the village. I got to know some of their friends too, such as Lulu who kept a cattery in Ringland Lane and Fred Barnes. Fred was a great character. Mawther Maggie (Maggie Secker) of Radio Norfolk was his niece or possibly great niece. He was very adept and ingenious and entirely self taught in all his skills. He had been a Costessey postman and before that a bricklayer. At the age of 90 he made himself an electric bicycle as he was getting a bit old for pedalling up the hills! He would cycle over to Horsham St Faith’s from his home in Costessey where he would hear the traditional (Tridentine) Latin Mass, although it was officially banned by the Roman Catholic Church. (I believe the ban has been somewhat relaxed under present Pope.) He was a Norfolkman and a Catholic through and through. His conversations would range from (for example) the Norfolk dialect name for a chaffinch – spink, which he was surprised I knew- to the character of Cardinal Newman (his hero). There is still a strong Catholic community in Costessey as there has always been, back to the Reformation and beyond. Barney himself was a Catholic, although Janet was not.
Barney had been born in 1915 with a hare lip. This distressing condition, which was surgically treated but imperfectly mended, must have blighted his life until he was able to conceal it by growing a moustache. He recalled how he was maltreated by the other boys in the village while out with his father selling ice crams from a tricycle. His Dad had nipped into The Bush, being rather too fond of the odd tipple (Barney himself was not averse to the odd Guinness or three) and had left him in charge of the ice creams. The Costessey lads seeing Barney alone helped themselves, demanding cones and ignoring his protests.
His father was responsible for the Welch Series of postcards. These “Series” were very popular in the early years of the last century, with every village having its selection of picture postcards named after the local Sub-postmaster. (It had recently been allowed to writ the address and message on the same side, allowing one side to have an illustration.) My Grandfather, who was the Sub-postmaster at Cawston had the “Rivett Series” for example. Most of these postcards were provided by an itinerant photographer; my Grandfather’s were provided by someone who even got his name wrong, calling him G. Rivett while his name was in fact Charles. But Francis Welch was his own photographer, which meant he was on hand to photograph his family and interesting local occurrences like the shrapnel from a Zeppelin bomb that fell in a field in Costessey. The pictures he took himself had the words “Welch Series” written on the negative by hand; the professionally produced ones had the name printed. This picture (above) of sheep-shearing in Costessey includes a young lad who I think was Barney’s elder brother Francis. If I am right this would date the view to just before the First World War. The dress of the farm workers would not have been out of place 20 or even 50 years earlier, although their head-gear was perhaps slightly more up to date.
Between the wars, when Barney was growing up, the post was collected by horse and cart from Drayton railway station, and then brought back to the Post Office in Costessey for sorting. When I began as a postman in 1988 the post came by road of course, but in most other ways things had not changed for 80 years or more. We had electric light, but the cycles were still the same as they had been in 1939 with rod brakes and no gears. There were leather straps to hold your postbag on the platform at the front, but we had huge plywood boxes to hold all the mail. These were far too heavy, and if your bike tipped up with its back wheel in the air (which it was prone to do), it was impossible to return it to an upright condition without unloading it first. Eventually the management in Norwich realised what we were doing and removed our boxes. We then had to fill several pouches and wait for the van to come from Drayton. They would replace our empty pouch with a full one, and we could continue delivering the post. But it meant waiting.
READ MY BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA