Category Archives: local history

FRANK MASON (PART FOUR)

THINGS FINALLY COME RIGHT

Frank W. Mason

In 1959, at the age of forty-seven, my father was about to experience a year of great upheaval. His eldest daughter was to marry and emigrate to Canada; she had qualified as schoolteacher but was never to work in that capacity, becoming instead a professor at a transatlantic university; but that was far in the future. Nearer to home his second daughter had also qualified as a teacher, and was to start at Ipswich High School that September. His ten-year old son (me) was just about to begin at boarding school. Most alarmingly, he had to leave the building in Orford Place, as the lease had expired. He was willing to pay the much higher new rent, but none of his fellow tenants were, so his whole business future seemed thrown into doubt. Where would he go? Would his customers follow him to his new premises? Or would the abandon him for other Norwich opticians?

The place he decided to move into was 29 Surrey Street; he had limited options available to him, as most shops in the centre of Norwich were already occupied. The property he decided on was fairly central, but had stood vacant for about a decade. It  needed a complete rewiring (it still had a primitive DC system in place) and a complete redecoration too. The walls were covered in centuries of whitewash, which  had to be removed before modern paint could be applied. The most problematical aspect from a business point of view was that it was, in appearance, a private dwelling; it had no shop window. It was a large 18th century former residence with, as I subsequently discovered, an impressive history. Most recently it had served as the Angel temperance hotel. Crucially, he would no longer be a tenant; this property he would have to buy.

THE FITTING ROOM, 29 SURREY STREET. Both the lyre table and the ‘mushroom’ behind were made by my father to display frames.

Very fortunately my father’s patients continued to patronize his practice and within a few years he had paid off the commercial mortgage that he had taken out to pay for the property. In this he was fortuitously aided by the gathering pace of inflation during the 1960s; this was a good time for house buyers in general- a detached house in the city could be bought for well under £1,000! As a result, within a decade-and-a-half of buying the building, its value had increased nearly twentyfold. The initial cost of the property was almost small change by then. As if by accident, he was now a wealthy man for the first time in his life. It was true that he was nearly always overdrawn at the bank, but that was only because his plans for the future always ran a little bit ahead of his current resources. He would never admit to being other than a miserable failure; this was quite untrue, but in comparison to what might have been he had a point. To see what I mean I refer you to the previous post, where his factory appear to be on the brink of success.

In buying 29 Surrey Street he had added the position of commercial landlord to his business interests. He only needed the ground floor for his optical premises; the semi-basement (it had windows to Surrey Street, so it was not a cave) he also occupied. This held a workshop with a lathe, circular saw, bench drill, milling machine, and fly press – in short the whole range of machinery. He even had a printing press! One room was devoted entirely to a model railway; this was nominally mine, but in fact it represented one of my father’s many interests. He was able to let the first floor long-term to an insurance company; Surrey Street is still at the heart of the insurance industry in Norwich, holding as it does the headquarters of the multi-national firm Aviva, still known as Norwich Union in 1959. The upper floors were not so easily let, but a succession of artists, interior designers and marketing companies occupied them.

In 1960 my mother inherited some money and enabled us to buy the family home in Poringland from the landlord Rushmer Howlett, who lived next door. We proceeded to undertake some much-needed improvements; a bedroom for me was included in the plans. Previously I had slept in my parents’ bedroom. Mains drainage was the most radical departure from the only way of life I had known until then; I could now have a bath without boiling kettles and put the tin bath on the hearth-rug. The main sewer had been installed in the road outside a year or two before, and my father no longer had to empty the earth closet or pump out the cess pit. We had rather belatedly joined the 20th century. Until then there was a curious mismatch between our primitive domestic arrangements at our rented home and the palatial facilities (including five water closers) at my father’s workplace that he owned.

The fountain in the back yard. The building in the background is Norwich bus station (still on the same site but now rebuilt).

A very valuable addition to the house at Surrey Street was a car park at the back, which could hold three cars at a pinch. That alone was worth a huge amount, not merely in financial terms but for convenience. The access belonged to a doctor’s widow who lived four houses along, so my father had to keep her sweet. At a bunch or two of flowers a year it was cheap at the price. It also had a delightful courtyard garden that faced south. There one could sit with a drink by the fountain, within yards of Norwich’s busy bus station; climbing roses scented the air, while all around was the bustle of  a busy city. That was luxury indeed. In fifty years my father had progressed from living in a modest terraced house to the be the owner a 20 roomed town mansion; the only trouble was that because of planning restrictions at the time he couldn’t actually live there!

My father was by no means a traditional businessman, always obsessed by balance sheets and bank accounts. Such things interested him not at all. He was at his happiest walking his dog by the riverside or attending meetings of the Nautics, his favourite historical society. As for playing his cello, as a teenager he dreamed of becoming a professional musician; he was certainly good enough, but was warned by Jimmy Pond his music teacher that it would lead to a life of poverty. I am sure that we would never have been as wealthy as an orchestral cellist as he became as an optician. There were several reverses in his career, but he was ultimately a great success in financial terms. He gave me a fantastic childhood, and he provided the best of educations for all his three children.

Frank Mason with the Minihoe, another of his projects in retirement..

He thought that the seventeen shillings and sixpence that he was paid by the National Health Service for a sight test was pitifully small, especially compared the much larger sum charged by a garage mechanic for an MOT. Seventeen and six was indeed little enough for a full professional eye examination; he made his money from selling glasses to customers privately. He thought this was the wrong way round, and it would be hard to disagree with him; the glasses were just a consumer product, whereas the sight of a patient (or even his life) could depend on picking up small imperfections in their eyes. I don’t suppose things are very different today; as a pensioner my eyes are tested free, but my glasses cost me a small fortune.

The main developments of his career were effectively over by 1960. For a few years his health remained good, but at the age of 56 he had a coronary, and thereafter numerous infarctions (where parts of the heart muscle are damaged by blood clots) and episodes of tachycardia (heart rhythm malfunction) which led to many stays in hospital. Heart conditions were far less effectively treated in those days. He refused to give up smoking his beloved pipe. Nevertheless he did not die from a heart disease but from another health condition. He was able to retire at the age of 60 to spend the last few years of his life developing an optical instrument which looked set to be a great success by the time he died.  In retirement he was able to retain the building in Surrey Street, together with its workshop and car park, which meant that he still went there almost every day. Besides providing him with a comfortable pension he could still develop his model railway and work on his various schemes. Over his lifetime he built two boats, numerous pieces of furniture and as a young man had done wood carvings as a hobby. He was trained by the army as an instrument mechanic which stood him in good stead throughout the rest of his life. Although his health was failing, I was able to ensure both him and my mother had an enjoyable last few years. Looking back on his life with the perspective of forty years, I can now see him for what he was: then he was just my Daddy. Frank Mason was clearly a remarkable man.

The Binocular Magnifier Frank designed

You can read more about the history of the house in Surrey Street by clicking HERE.  I have written well over ten blogs on the house, and you can access them by entering ‘joemasonspage’ and adding ‘the story of a house’ and a number from 1 to 13 into Google. This should bring up the required result.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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BUNGAY, SUFFOLK; EIGHTY YEARS OF PAPER-MILLING

A SLICE of HISTORY in  the PAPER INDUSTRY

Miniature of Joseph Hooper 1770

In 1784 the mill at the Staithe in Bungay was bought by William Mann; until then the mill had been part of the estate of the Duke of Norfolk. Mann let part of it to Joseph Hooper. A native of the coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Joseph Hooper was a Harvard graduate of the class of 1763, born to a wealthy local family in 1743. Like several other members of the Hooper clan he was a staunch Royalist and following his opposition to the Boston Tea Party he had his property seized. He fled to England in 1775, prior to  the Declaration of American Independence. As a refugee he travelled the country before settling in Bungay, where he converted his part of the mill from grinding corn to a mill producing paper. The rest of the mill stayed as a corn mill and was leased separately by William Mann. Hooper produced among other things fine quality writing paper. In 1790 he complained that the people of Ditchingham had opened up Ditchingham Dam and this had diverted the flow of the river Waveney along Chainbridge Beck; this was starving the mill of water and making it hard to produce paper. The problem took two years to resolved, and it was only after the owner William Mann had threatened those responsible with action for damages that the dam was restored.

Bungay Market Place from the Kings Head

A year after taking the lease on the Bungay watermill Joseph Hooper had married Susannah Taylor in Grantham, Lincolnshire, her home town. They had two daughters, Emily (who was born in Grantham in 1786) and Harriet (born in Lakenham near Norwich in 1788). Joseph Hooper appears to have been successful in business, being recorded as a man suitable to employ parish apprentices during the 1790s, but with his health failing he died in 1812. His wife took over running the paper mill. She died in 1817 and both she and Joseph are buried in Holy Trinity churchyard in Bungay. With no male heirs to take over the business was transferred to William Betts, Harriet’s husband. He was working the mill in Bungay in 1822, but by 1828 James (probably their son) had taken over. Meanwhile William’s brother Lewis was working at the paper mill in Upper Sheringham. James could not make a success of paper making,  and by 1829 both he and Lewis were declared bankrupt. The lease on the mill at Bungay was put up for auction in the Kings Head in the Market Place in 1830, but it did not sell; in 1832 the mill was still vacant.

Meanwhile across the border in Norfolk, in 1810 one John Burgess was the foreman responsible for setting up the first paper making machine in the county. Ten years later Burgess was made a partner in the mill. He was happily working at Taverham while acquiring properties in Costessey across the river, including the White Hart pub which he rebuilt in the modern style. (This was again rebuilt in the 1930’s and is now known as the Harte.) In 1830 the senior partner at Taverham mill retired and transferred his holding to two young men who had their own ideas about running the business. These two eventually drove the formerly prosperous mill into business failure, but by then John Burgess had left Taverham. With his sons he moved to Bungay and reopened the paper mill there. He was already 71 years old, and the work was probably mainly in the hands of his son Charles. Having been pioneers in the technique of modern machine-made paper they had taken a step back into the past to hand-made paper.

Paper making by hand

The principal user of paper in Bungay was John Childs, the printer who had taken over from Charles Brightly, and whose business would become Richard Clay (still in existence as part of the St Ives Group). In Brightly’ time all paper had been hand made, and no doubt Joseph Hooper built up a prosperous business supplying him with printing paper, but times had changed. By 1830 Childs was the owner of a large business, employing over 100 people, and he specialized in large editions of substantial books such as annotated Bibles. These were not restricted to the printers at Oxford, Cambridge and London as the standard, non-annotated Authorised Version of the Bible was. These substantial works required a lot of paper, but his suppliers were not local.  His account book for 1827 shows that he was buying paper from Spicer’s in Cambridgeshire, and in 1834 from Dickinson, whose paper mill was at Apsley in Hertfordshire. I do not know how the paper was transported to Bungay, but I suspect it came by the Grand Union canal (or in the case of Spicer’s paper via the rivers Cam and Great Ouse) to the Wash and then along the coast to Yarmouth. From there it would have gone up the Waveney through Geldeston Lock to the head of the navigation at Bungay.  Although this meant three trans-shipments, from narrow boat to coasting vessel at Wisbech or Kings Lynn and then to wherry at Yarmouth, until the coming of the railways water was the only way to carry heavy loads long distances. Both Dickinson and Spicer were making paper by machine, and the mill at Sawston in Cambridgeshire was one of the first to use a Fourdrinier paper making machine in 1809. It was high quality and high volume paper, quite different from the paper being produced at Bungay by Burgess, which although it had no transportation cost, had no other advantages.

However there is evidence that the Burgesses, father and son, did supply paper to Childs. In 1833-36 there are entries for the buying of both brown paper and drab from Charles Burgess, and in 1836 and 1837 for brown paper from John Burgess. Brown paper would have been used merely for packing, but drab was used in the bookbinding process. Although there was also a printing industry in nearby Beccles, it is clear that the majority of Burgess’s custom would have been for wrapping paper, and it would not have been economic to transport it very far. It was not a particularly good position to be in, when all his success had been based on the modern paper-making process, and the enterprise did not last for many years after John Burgess’s death. Paper-making in Bungay finally came to an end in 1864 with a serious fire, after which the mill was rebuilt as corn mill. It had passed out of the Burgess family’s hands in the 1840s. In its final years it was operated by a number of paper makers.

John Burgess died on the 21 May 1838. In his will he lists his properties – the public house and a double cottage in Costessey, and three more cottages in Norwich. His reference to his business is rather downbeat; he instructs his executors to continue his business ‘until such at time as it shall be beneficial to discontinue it.’  The most affectionate mention is for his daughter, Sophia Ann, who is to take her pick of his furniture to the value of £24 (about £4,000 in today’s money), ‘in regard to her kindness & attention toward me’. His executors were Spooner Nash, a paper dealer and stationer of Charing Cross, Norwich, and Henry Barnard, a merchant of Bungay. So ends the story of John Burgess, and paper making in Bungay. The mill itself survived into my lifetime, producing animal fodder under the auspices of Hovis. The mill finally closed in 1955, although it has ceased to use water power some fifty years earlier. The mill building of 1864 is still in commercial use, in 2003 as a consultancy and training centre.

JOSEPH MASON

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

joemasonspage@gmail.com

NORWICH IN WARTIME

RED LION STREET 1940

I have been informed that the air raid siren had just gone when this picture was snapped. Am I mistaken, or can I see people beginning to hurry towards the air raid shelters? It was a false alarm this time – the real thing would come a couple of years later, with devastating results for this urban scene.  Petrol and meat rationing had already come in, and would lead to nearly 15 years of shortages. On this early wartime day it was certainly sunny. I am sure that the little kiosk was left over from the Norwich tramway service. The triangle of  pavement where it stood was Orford Place itself, and that was the centre where nearly all the tram routes terminated. The conductors could obtain fresh books of tickets from the kiosk if they had run low. The last tram had run just five years earlier when this picture was taken. It was used by bus drivers and conductors after they took over the city’s transport service.

The view that heads this page is looking towards Red Lion Street. This was taken from John Gantlett’s testing room on the second floor of Frank Mason’s opticians shop. The address was 3 Orford Place. The building is still there as a burger joint, after many years as a branch of Pizza Hut, and before that as fashion retailer Fifth Avenue. The internal arrangements have been completely opened up, and the whole building is now one outlet. When my father Frank was there he only occupied the end shop. Here the Air Raid Precautions sign is prominently displayed. This was in 1940; you can tell it is early in the war because Curl’s department store has yet to be destroyed by Nazi bombing; this happened in April 1942. The site where Curls had been was a gaping hole down to basement level, and was used as a car park when I first became aware of my surroundings. During the rest of the war it had been used as a static water tank to provide plenty of water for fire engines in the event of another incendiary bombing raid. The store, which changed its name to Debenhams in 1973, was rebuilt in 1955. This was hailed as the largest department store in East Anglia at the time. Once rebuilt it had lifts to all floors, escalators and even air conditioning – the height of modernity.

Besides Curls another store was fire bombed in the same raid. This was Buntings, and it was not so badly damaged; after being repaired it was used as a NAAFI while the war lasted. After the war it became the city centre branch of Marks and Spencer, which it remains. Also devastated was Bonds of Norwich which included the Thatched Cinema. This store too was rebuilt after the war, and was later bought by John Lewis.  Escaping the destructive fury of the bombing, St Andrews Hall was open every day for off-duty servicemen, both British and American, where they would play billiards, drink tea and eat rock cakes made by the young ladies of the city.

The BOARS HEAD was on the corner of St Stephens and Surrey Street. Destroyed in the Baedeker raid of April 1942.

The wartime bombing in Norwich left much destruction. Some historic buildings were lost, including the Boars head hotel in St Stephens Street, but compared to the postwar redevelopments, that saw Queens Road, Grapes Hill  and Magdalen Street (among others) carved up to make way for the inner link road, it was relatively minor. Now the great dual carriageway, that was planned to cut a swathe right through the city centre to encourage traffic, is now mostly reserved for buses and taxis to discourage people from driving in the city.  The bomb sites have nearly all been filled up with new building – one the last to be restored was in the area round the ruined tower St Benedict’s, the church that was also destroyed in 1942. This now contains a block of flats. The picture below shows the immediate aftermath of the wartime bombing raid.

St Benedicts Gate. War damage.

The car park that had been a temporary measure on the bomb site in Timber Hill has been fenced (in Google Maps) and redevelopment now seems immanent – its about time! (I haven’t been there for a while, and it may even have begun – please tell me if you know.) Ber Street has never regained it bustling character that had existed before the war. Even today the car parks and single storey temporary-looking properties along the north side show the results of the Nazi bombing raids of 75 years ago. It always was a wide street, but the children who played there during the day and the drunks who staggered along it by night were banished when their homes were destroyed by the Germans.

JOSEPH MASON

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

joemasonspage@gmail.com

HAVE WE GONE BATS?

The first four miles of the Northern Distributor Road are now open. It is a week or two since the first cars were let on the new tarmac, and I can make my first assessment of the NDR. It will save us few minutes going to Spowston (where Molly sings at a concert two or three times a year) but otherwise it seems of little use so far as we are concerned. This is not just my opinion; when I went along it there was very little traffic; one or two cars  at most, except for the five hundred yards where the Holt Road has been diverted onto the bypass. I suspect that most of the few cars that we encountered were using it to drive along to have a look at the new road. There was no commercial traffic at all. Articulated lorries still approach the roundabouts from the Fakenham and Reepham Roads, but continue along their old accustomed routes into the city or the Newmarket Road. Why would they not? Even when it is finished only lorries going east to Yarmouth from North Norfolk will use the road, and I don’t anticipate a huge number of them; not enough to justify all the expense and upheaval of building the new road anyway. Anyone going west-abouts from the North already has all the new road they are going get, and it doesn’t appear to have done them much good. Whatever the road signs will say, no one is going to go on a detour of almost 25 miles to end up on the A 47 at Easton, a couple of miles from where they started. Have we been sold a pup? Time will tell.

I have dealt with the NDR in previous posts, but what I really wanted to talk about are ‘bat bridges’. There are two of the things in just four miles on this first part of the NDR. What are bat bridges? They are netting structures strung across the road to prevent bats from flying into passing vehicles. Does that sound strange? Yes. Do they work? No. What will encourage the nocturnal mammals to use them? Nobody knows.  Have they cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds? Yes. Have we lost our senses? Definitely.

As far as I am aware a bat has never been observed to fly anywhere near a ‘bat bridge’. It doesn’t surprise me in the least: what self-respecting animal would?  In spite of the ineffectiveness of bat bridges I do not think the roadsides are littered with the corpses of battered bats; could it be that they have rather more sense than conservationists? I never thought that bat bridges were anything but a crazy idea. No one will admit to inventing them, and bat bridges are now universally derided as a massive waste of public money. What I find odd is that they are still being put up on brand new road schemes like the NDR. It can only be as a sop to the influential wildlife lobby. The pathetic highways department would rather erect these pointless and expensive monstrosities every few miles than face the wrath of the friends of the bat. It is for a similar reason that the one thing that would make the NDR a genuine part of the Norwich traffic management solution, the construction of a road bridge across the river Wensum, is still as far away as ever. It is stated to a priority of Norfolk County Council, which means the earliest we can hope to see it is about 2035; a bit late for me. In this case we cannot blame the bat; we may never get one at all if the friends of the newt get their way.

Interior of Paston barn; this fine view us now reserved for bats!

Do not get me wrong; I quite like bats (rather more than newts as it happens), or a least I like the idea of them, but I think they get rather too much attention. Never mind the fact that bats have the run of Paston tithe barn for the next fifty years at least; what about the congregations of country churches who can do nothing to stop bats from urinating on them as they pray for fear of disturbing the creatures. What with that and all those useless bat bridges, I think our priorities might have gone a little bit astray.

joemasonspage@gmail.com

 JOSEPH MASON

 THE BLOG FOR EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

THE 1950s

The pub in Drayton. See how little traffic there was!

There was virtually no road building in the 1950s until the M1 was constructed right at the end of the decade; the only improvement I can call to mind was the straightening of a short length of blind bend outside Ditchingham Hall. This was in about 1957; you can still see the lay-by which this created on the Bungay road. The traffic was still relatively light; many of the cars were prewar, and those that were not were all painted black; you were lucky to get a car at all, and the colour wasn’t important. The lorries were of the fixed chassis type – there were no articulated juggernauts then. The country folk who had to go to town went by bus, otherwise they travelled round on their bikes.

In Norfolk the railway network was already beginning to shrink. The lines from Cromer to Mundesley and from Heacham to Wells closed completely in 1952, and the stations at Hellesdon and Whitlingham stopped serving passengers early in the decade.  Also in 1952 passenger traffic was ended on the Wroxham to County School branch; however most of the rural branch lines remained open. For a few more years Hunstanton, Holt, Dereham, Watton, Swaffham and Fakenham (all of them substantial country towns) had regular train services that carried passengers as well as goods. Trains stopped crossing Breydon Water en route from Yarmouth Beach station to Lowestoft in 1952; the swing bridge remained in place but permanently open to shipping.

There were still a lot of sea-going freighters threading their way up the river Yare to Norwich. Coal was one their main cargoes, and it was universally used to produce electricity, gas and domestic heating all across Britain. The miners toiled day and nigh to extract this invaluable commodity. Many coal-fired steam drifters tied up along the Yarmouth quayside every autumn herring season, ready for the Scottish fisher girls to pack the fish away in their millions. The London Docks were still at the hub of the nation’s trade in 1950, and Southampton was still the place you went to catch liners for overseas destinations.

As for aircraft, the skies were full of them; not commercial airliners (there were none of these outside London) but fighter jets. Never a day went by without vapour trails appearing among the clouds, and sonic booms were often heard. There were still over a dozen RAF air bases in Norfolk at the beginning of the period, including at Coltishall, St Faiths, Swanton Morley and Marham; there was a major USAF presence at Sculthorpe near Fakenham. All through the decade the RAF held open days to commemorate the Battle of Britain. In the less mean-spirited nature of the times these festivities were free to attend, although the members of the public who flocked to them would support them generously in a voluntary capacity. The threat of Nazi invasion was still a recent memory and those who fell in resisting it were honoured annually.

Norfolk is a sparsely populated county; in a hundred and fifty years the population of Norfolk doubled to stand at around 600,000 by 1961. Even with the huge increase in recent years it is still estimated at under a million, which is tiny for one of the largest counties in the land. It has always been an agricultural economy, specialising in arable crops. All across the country the horse had vanished from the farms by 1950, and everywhere the ploughing and reaping was done by internal combustion engine: the tractor was king. Things are still much the same for now in Norfolk, but the most thriving communities are increasing becoming centred on the digital world. We had no idea what the phrase ‘the digital world’ might mean in the 1950s. The first massive mainframe computer arrived at Norfolk County Hall in the 1960s (it was about the size of a small bungalow), and the data was carried on magnetic tapes between there and Norwich City Hall in a little blue Daf van. Even electric typewriters were almost unknown in the 1950s, and calculations were largely done with pencil and paper; the very advanced firms (like Norwich Union) used mechanical comptometers with their highly trained female operators.

There were young Teddy Boys with Brylcreemed hair, jeans and bomber jackets, and their female counterparts, but many of the working population had been alive when Victoria was Queen. They had been through two World Wars, many of them as combatants in both. National Service was still in force, and this all made for a less effete nation. It was a hard life – for example there was virtually no central heating, and  double glazing was completely unknown. The ice would form inside the bedroom windows as you slept. The only insulation was made from asbestos, and that was treated with gay abandon by everyone, but fortunately we seemed to survive without succumbing to the material; visits to the doctor were for other ailments.  The GPO phone box was always there for use in emergencies; you pressed button B and heard the money drop into the machine, when you would ask the operator to connect you. There were two visits a day from the postman who rode his red bicycle round the village. The local Bobby rode his black bicycle to keep a beady eye on the world. All these things were common throughout the land; in the 1950s there was a sense of national identity that is largely lacking today. The very idea of Scotland splitting away was almost nowhere on the political agenda back then. It is true that there were voices raised against the new queen’s title. Even a few post boxes with the monogram EIIR on them were blown up in Scotland. This was not from republican motives, but because she should have been called Elizabeth the first in Scotland – it had been an independent country when Good Queen Bess was on the throne!

Hard though it is to believe, in the 1955 General Election the Tories received more than half the popular vote in Scotland. The Tories governed the UK for most of the 1950s, but it was a very different country sixty years ago.

joemasonspage@gmail.com

 JOSEPH MASON

 THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

FRANK MASON (PART THREE)

THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

JOHN GANTLETT

Before the war was over Frank was again looking to move outside the city and by chance the bungalow that the family had been living in at the beginning of the war was again to let.  They returned to Poringland.  After VE day peace returned to Europe, and after the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945 the Second World War was over. In 1947 an optician called Alfred William Oxbrow had died at the age of 74, and my father bought his stock and business goodwill from his executors. The Oxbrows hailed from Essex where they had been a family of watchmakers: Alfred was born in Kent. He had started his employment as a watchmaker in Canterbury, but in 1900, having qualified as an optician, he set up in business in Norwich. My father was able to sell his stock-in-trade to various opticians for a good price, so that he effectively got the goodwill for nothing. The additional records he now possessed brought him a useful amount of extra business, as he wrote to all his patients every two years to remind them to have their eyes tested again.

MICKEY: the family car  & my sisters

Six years of total war had reduced the economies of Europe to tatters. The Marshall Plan directed billions of US dollars to the UK and other devastated Western nations, but even so things were difficult. The war was over but the hardships of wartime continued. Rationing remained, and in some cases got even more restrictive in the immediate postwar period. In 1946 even bread was rationed, although it had been not been during the war. This lasted for two years. The last commodity to come off ration was meat, which finally became freely available in 1954.  This was nine years after the war ended, and fifteen after it had been introduced. In the hard winter that began towards the end of January 1947 the coal shortage meant the people could only shiver. Potatoes perished in the frost.

Nevertheless the Labour Government was pressing ahead with transforming the land. Nationalised industries were being created to produce a new socialist utopia in Britain. They have almost all been privatised again in the years since then, and even some which had always been in public ownership (like the postal service) are now no longer National Industries.

Spectacle Frame by Mason and Gantlett Ltd

Who now remembers British Road Services, whose red trucks and green vans, with their BRS roundels, used to carry freight along our highways? It was hard to run any kind of road transport business as a private concern after he war. The travel agent Thomas Cook and the furniture repository Pilkington’s used to be part of the great Nationalised Industry sector. Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution called for the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. Electricity supply had already come under national control before the war. The concept of nationalisation was not fully developed as the Socialist agenda until the late 1940s, but many services like water, gas and electricity were under local authority ownership (rather than private companies) almost from the start. In these cases public ownership makes sense; it may have its inefficiencies, but at least we are not in hock to a capitalist oligarchy. For example Anglian Water is owned by a Jersey based company; why does it have to hide itself away in a tax haven? The idea of something as basic as water being sold for private profit still seems shocking to me. We say ‘free as air’, but if only someone could devise a way of making us pay to breathe they surely would. Virtually the only Nationalised Industry that still remains is the greatest of them all: the National Health Service. This behemoth, with well over a million employees, was created in 1948 and it had a pivotal role in my father’s business career. It was into this world of grand schemes and practical hardships that I was born in February 1949.

The WORKS

Foot care and chiropody are among the latest areas to cease to be financed by the NHS, but it has been withdrawing from its responsibilities almost from the start. Prescriptions and dentistry used to be free at the point of use, whereas now we have to pay for these services as we need them. For the first few years everything was free in the optical business; glasses were supplied gratis to whoever needed them. This led to a huge increase in demand; members of the public, who had formerly seen but dimly, queued up at their local optometrist to have their vision restored. As you can imagine, everyone took part in this frenzy, customers and suppliers alike. My father was rushed off his feet. Not one to let a good chance pass him by, he had already begun to make spectacle frames before the end of the war. His workshop was in the basement of his shop in Orford Place. He was soon employing two or three young men to make them, while he tested eyes upstairs. There were many more frames being produced than he need for his own use, and these were sold far and wide. The postwar boom was getting under way; John Gantlett bought a boat which he sailed on the Norfolk Broads.  After the war my father was able to buy a car once more, the first since he had been forced to sell his Morris in the 1930s. He invested in a Wolsey. It was an elegant car, but he could not drive it very far as petrol was still rationed, and it only did 14 miles to the gallon.

Brochure for THE VERSATOR machine

The introduction of free spectacles meant my father was not content with merely making spectacle frames; he turned his attention to making the lenses too. He began to do this in the basement too, but it was too small to accommodate his growing ambition, and he had a factory built in Hall Road (where Homebase now has a store). At the Menistor Works (as he named it) he employed many more people, busily producing frames and lenses in a full range of shapes and powers for short sight, long sight and astigmatism. While all this was going on in Lakenham, he and John Gantlett (who was now a partner in the limited company they had set up) continued to test eyes at Orford Place. Still not content with business activities, to the making of frames and lenses he added the manufacture of lens cutting machinery. His first machine he called the Versator. In designing this he found his wartime training as a hands-on instrument mechanic of great value. War, horrible and unnecessary as it is, leads to many technical and social changes that have great relevance in peacetime. War had once again thrown up unexpected advantages for my father.

The Versator had just gone on the market and my father was planning his next move when the government started to charge for spectacles. That was in 1952, and sales came to a complete standstill. Once again in his career the ground was cut away from under his feet and business collapsed. My father had a nervous breakdown and John Gantlett had to leave his employment in Norwich. The Works had to be sold and my eldest sister, who had just reached the age of fifteen, was to leave school to work as a secretary. The prospects were bleak, but my father was soon back on his feet. The business of sight testing at Orford Place soon revived, and within a few years he was running his family about in a succession of brand new cars, while my mother had a little Austin Seven for her own use. Instead of working as a pen pusher at Norwich Union my sister had begun a degree course at Oxford University. Things had again turned out well for my father and his family.

Next time we will follow my father as the lease expired on his premises at Orford Place, and he purchased an eighteenth century townhouse in the city centre. These years saw his sight testing business continue to grow, and he finally became financially secure.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

FRANK MASON (PART TWO)

THE TRIALS OF WAR

Frank as a young man

In 1938 my father had set up as an independent trader in a shop in the centre of Norwich. Everything must have been going quite well, because he had employed another optician called John Gantlett; but with the outbreak of war in September 1939 everyone’s attention was grasped by the coming conflict. Such mundane considerations as getting one’s eyes tested went out of the window. He had not been in business long enough to build up any financial reserves, and at the age of 28 he was staring bankruptcy in the face.

He was saved by his reaction to an announcement on the wireless that, because of the blackout, in future all bicycles had to display a rear light. It is a sobering thought that until then it had been perfectly legal to ride a bike in the darkness with only a headlight and a reflector at the back. My father correctly thought that all the rear lights in the country would immediately sell out, and that this would provide him with the opportunity to step in. He made a batch of rear lights from copper tube for the battery, a piece of red perspex and a light bulb, and immediately sold them to Norwich shopkeepers. He was quick off the mark – he had to be – and was soon selling them further afield, as it took firms like Ever Ready some time to catch up with demand; by then people had to some extent returned to their prewar concerns and realized that they didn’t see very well. They returned to the optician to get their eyes tested, and bankruptcy was avoided (for now).

Things were still very tight and the family had to give up their bungalow in the country. My father moved in with his parents in their bungalow in Thorpe St Andrew, and my mother returned to her profession of mid-wife. This was her contribution to the war effort; her pay must also have taken a small amount of the financial pressure off my father. She was sent to work in Peterborough, taking her youngest daughter with her, and woman from Sheringham called Ruby Nurse to help with child care. The eldest daughter Christine remained in Norfolk with her father, being cared for by her grandmother. However her Nanny soon tired of looking after her granddaughter and she too was sent to Peterborough where things became very complicated. Ruby Nurse proved to be an agoraphobiac who locked the children in a room in the house. Tiggie, the younger daughter, had made friends with young Johnny Smith next door, but  on her arrival in Peterborough the elder daughter came between them. My father had given his children the Red Letter- written in red ink, to be posted to him if things got intolerable in Peterborough. Unfortunately for them this was kept on the mantelpiece, and was quite out of the reach of young hands. Moreover, locked in their room they never saw a post box. Things obviously weren’t working out, and my mother returned to Norfolk.

My family would have been homeless, but they were taken in by the rector of Poringland and Howe, the Rev. Claude Trendell. They were put up in Howe Rectory, and my mother was given the job of teaching the villager First Aid, in preparation for the imminently expected German invasion. My sister Christine was stood on a table while the application of various splints was demonstrated on her limbs by my mother. In Howe church you may see my father’s name on the war memorial; none of the residents of the village were killed in the war, and consequently those who served were remembered instead. Among these was Frank Mason.

Illustration from Frank’s RAOC notebook

The introduction of conscription was to give my father a way out of some these difficulties. As a health worker, he was not compelled to serve in the armed forces, but he volunteered and joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in 1940. There he was trained as an instrument mechanic, looking after the many kinds of equipment like gunsights that the army required in the 20th century. He was sent to Woolwich Arsenal, just as the Blitz was descending on the East End of London; night after night the sky was lit up by fires as the bombs fell. On one on occasion he went  AWOL: he had heard that Norwich had been flattened by bombs and simply took off to see if his family were OK at Howe– of course they were: it was a false alarm. Perhaps it was on this occasion that daughter Christine remembers her Mummy fainting– she probably thought her husband would be court-marshalled. In the event he was just put on fatigues, nothing worse than that. Against all the odds he enjoyed his time in the army. He made many good friends, and found the technical training invaluable in his later life. This branch of the service was transferred to the newly constituted regiment REME (the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) in 1942, but by then he had left the army. After his training, during which time he was a private soldier, he would have been promoted directly to Sergeant Instructor, but he was retired on medical grounds; his flat feet made him unable to march.

Mt father had returned to Norfolk but the family were still living at Howe Rectory. My eldest sister began her schooling at Brooke Primary School while living at Howe, and would have progressed through the State system, had not Claude Trendell remarked to my father that Norwich High School was a better school. My father took him up on this suggestion and transferred Christine to the High School. She had to wear a passed-down uniform. Thereafter all Frank’s children would be privately educated.

When he was recruited into the army his business in Norwich had been left in the hands of his co-worker John Gantlett. When my father returned to Norwich John Gantlett volunteered in the Royal Navy and was at sea for the rest of the war. He was stationed in the Far East. Back in business, my father could again afford the rent on a house, which was just as well because Claude Trendell returned to his home county of Derbyshire. The family moved into a property in Norwich. This was convenient situated for his work, but also for the German bombs which began to rain down on the city almost as soon as he had moved there in 1942. It was time to move once more, and this time the family found an abandoned railway carriage in a field about a couple of miles outside the city in a hamlet called Markshall. This is across the river Tas from Caistor St Edmund, as has been part of that parish since the seventeenth century. The railway carriage had been used by seasonal workers on the local farm before the war, and had no mains services. Oil lamps and a stove provided light and heat, and water had to be brought from the well at a nearby cottage. I suppose for baths they used the nearby river. It could hardly have been more basic, but it was an idyllic way of life for my young sisters in the summer of 1942. The only black cloud on the horizon for the younger of my sisters was the coming onset of education. “Why can’t I stay at home with Mummie?” she would bitterly complain.

NORWICH in WARTIME: Orford Hill from the optician’s shop

When the Blitz abated my family were able to move back into Norwich (Aurania Avenue), and when the Doodle Bugs and V2s began to fall on the country, the completely random nature of the bombardment meant that no avoiding action was possible. The war in Europe came to an end with the death of Hitler, and the Atom bombs falling on Japan ushered in peace on a devastated country.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

FRANK MASON (Part one)

My grandfather William Mason and family 1911.

YOUTH and EARLY ADULTHOOD

Frank was my father; he didn’t like the name and (to be frank) neither do I. We do not choose our names, and we have to stick with what we are given. I cannot find another Frank or even a Francis among his ancestors. (I, by contrast, can find several Josephs in the family tree going way back to the early years of the 19th century.) Frank was born on September 21st 1911, the second and youngest child of his parents William and Emily. His father spent his life making packing cases for the electric equipment manufacturer Laurence (and) Scott. They were a working class family, but (especially Emily my grandmother) they were ambitious for their children.  The family portrait above shows Frank as an infant on his mother’s knee.

When he was nearly three the Great War broke out, and this affected his earliest years, not always for the worse. Because the school he would have attended (Lakenham Council School) was requisitioned for treating the war wounded he was sent instead to Carrow School. This had been set up by the Colman family as part of their paternalistic care for their employees. My grandfather was not a member of the staff at Carrow Works but non”etheless his son was able to benefit from a rather higher standard of education than would have been available in the Council School. He remembered his earliest teacher ‘Olo’ with respect and gratitude; his name was Mr Olorenshaw.

FRANK MASON AGED 4

When the war ended he did indeed go to Lakenham School, before winning a scholarship to the recently opened Grammar School, the CNS (City of Norwich School). He remained disappointed throughout his life that Latin was not on the curriculum at the CNS; this made it very difficult to apply to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, which required the language in those days, although one of his friends managed to teach himself Latin and went on to Cambridge and a distinguished academic career in America. His parents must have made great sacrifices to support their children beyond the normal school leaving age. Frank did very well for himself when he left Grammar School. Aged 16 he got a job as an apprentice optician. Now the training for such a health professional demands a university degree, but then it was all done on the job. His ability as an optician would certainly be regarded as university level today. His employer was Cecil Amey, a man not many years older than my father. It is a name which survives in the Norwich optical business community. My father was well treated by Cecil Amey, who let him ride around Norfolk on his BSA motorbike in his spare time.

Father (left) in his teens.

Frank had to go to London to be examined by the Spectacle Makers Company, one of the historic Livery Companies of the City. He was awarded a fellowship of the company (FSMC), though this did not qualify him for membership; that was reserved for the most influential businessmen. It did however entitle him to be elected Freeman of the City of London, an something he was rather proud of although he never took the honour up. By the time he was twenty one he had qualified in  the profession. He worked for a time in Stamford in Lincolnshire and back in Norwich he was employed by the firm of D. R. Grey. D. R. Grey (in spite of his style as ‘Dr Grey’) was not himself a qualified optician, and had to employ those like my father who were to carry out the sight tests. The firm specialised in going out into the countryside seeking business; my father hated going unannounced from door to door like this. He called it ‘going on the knocker’ and regarded it as very unprofessional, but it did give him reason to drive around in a Morris car.

The pastime which Dad loved the most of all was flying; remember that this was less than thirty years after the invention of powered flight; it was not the everyday experience that it has since become. He did not fly as the pilot; he would take the controls in flight but not in take-off or landing. His companion was his friend Henry Stringer, who owned a two-seater de Haviland Gipsy Moth. They would take off from Mousehold Heath (the City’s first airport) and fly to places like the Isle of Wight and the River Humber.

The wedding at Thorpe St Andrew, 4 June 1935.

We have nearly forty more years of his life to record, and already it had been an eventful one. He had married in 1935 and by 1938 he was living in a bungalow in Poringland with two young daughters. My parents had been forced to leave the Old Hall in Alpington where they had first set up as a married couple; in spite of the elegant environment it was infested with fleas, which proved immune to all attempts to eradicate them. With £300 from his father in law he had established himself as a self-employed optician in 1938. In his shop in Orford Place he was a successful professional with a growing business, and all this before he was thirty years old.

The next part of the Frank Mason story will cover the wartime years and the difficulties of that time.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

TIDAL DRIFT ROUND THE NORFOLK COAST

The effects of tidal drift can be seen all along the coast, and are especially interesting in Norfolk; at least I find them so. You must forgive me if the subject I am about to discuss is rather technical, but I will not be using technical language. This is principally because it is not a language I understand, but also because I have no wish to blind my readers with science. Some examples of this technical jargon are ‘littoral transplantation’ and ‘distal accretion’; at an academic level the study of tidal drift can be complicated, though I think the jargon makes this worse. I, on the other hand, will be using simple terms and simple concepts.

Blakeney harbour

But what is tidal drift? From studying the tide tables it is evident that in all down the East Coast high water comes earlier in the north than in the south. High tide is about an hour earlier Yarmouth than it is in Lowestoft. This is not merely a matter of timing; the current that is dictated by the tide also flows in a southerly direction.  This we call tidal drift or longshore drift, and its effect can be seen wherever there are breakwaters on the beach; on one side the sand builds up, while on the other side it is carved away. So far it is all relatively straightforward, but it now gets more complicated. Somewhere between Bacton and Sheringham the tidal drift divides; past Winterton it continues to the south, but along the North Norfolk coast it goes west.

Let us examine the direction of the sandspits around the East Anglian coast. At Orford Ness there are many miles of sandbank; this spit goes goes from Aldeburgh in the north to Shingle Street in the south. At Blakeney the sandspit goes from Cley in the east to Blakeney Point in the west. This gives the clear indication of the direction of the longshore drift. So far so understandable, but now we come up with a puzzling fact; further along the Norfolk coast, in the north-western extremity of the county, the sand spits run from west to east! Why is this?

To explain this we must go back and examine what has been going on down the the Lincolnshire coast. There the longshore drift has also been continuing in a north to south direction. It then loops through the Wash, where it briefly goes south to north past Heacham; at Hunstanton it turns east. What happens when the drift that has come down the Lincolnshire coast meets the drift along the North Norfolk coast? At Holme Dunes the sandspit runs from west to east, showing that the tidal drift that has been flowing down Lincolnshire is still the dominant force; but when this current comes up against the North Norfolk current it has nowhere to go. This is not a problem for the North Norfolk longshore drift as it just moves off shore and eventually recirculates. The west/east current just stops and dumps the sediment it has been carrying. The result is the island at Scolt Head; this is how I interpret the situation, though experts might pooh-pooh the suggestion. For much of the North Norfolk coast the action of the tides has caused coastal erosion, but in the area between Brancaster and Wells-Next-the-Sea the ebb and flow of the tides have resulted in the opposite effect. The shifting sands do not rigidly stick to a predictable pattern, but over time (hundreds or even thousands of years) this has been the net result.

Snettisham on the Wash

The tide tables paint a much more complicated picture and one which reflects the complicated currents that swirl around the Wash and other river estuaries. All along the coast of South Lincolnshire the deposition of estuarine mud from the Wash to the south and longshore drift sand from the north have left the ports of Boston and Wainfleet several miles inland. Boston is still a seaport (just), but Wainfleet is now an inland market town with virtually no craft left on the river Steeping; only a sunken hulk holds any memory of busier times. On the Norfolk side of the Wash the village of Snettisham has similarly been the recipient of much silt and the increase in sandbanks continues.

JOSEPH MASON

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF NORFOLK

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GMT and the HOUR CHANGE

18th century clock still tells the time.

The Royal Observatory was established in 1675 by King Charles II on a site at Greenwich selected by Sir Christopher Wren. From the 17th century the meridian at Greenwich became the basis for astronomical calculations, led by the English Astronomers Royal. As Britain became a great maritime nation through the 18th century this was increasing adopted by other countries as the Prime Meridian. The process culminated with the International Meridian Conference of 1884, held in Washington D.C. (The French continued to use Paris as their prime meridian until 1911.)

We can trace the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time as the effective navigational standard to the award of the prize for an accurate chronometer to John Harrison in 1773. Although GMT may have been important for navigating across the globe, every town across England had its own time. The local clocks were all set to the midday sun by using the sundial. This changed with the coming of railways, which made a nationally agreed time essential for timetabling purposes. When travelling in a north/south direction this made no difference, but the journey from London to Bristol produced a time slip of several minutes. The clock on Bristol Corn Exchange had (and still has) two minute hands, one showing GMT and one showing local time.  ‘Railway Time’ (i.e. GMT) was introduced by the by the Great Western Railway in 1840; as you can imagine there was much opposition to this innovation at first. The adoption of GMT as the national standard time was only recognised by Statute in 1880.

Daylight saving, which is the rationale behind British Summer Time, has no relevance for most of the year. In midwinter the hours of daylight are so short that it makes little difference how you fiddle with dial on the clocks; you will rise and retire in darkness anyway. Similarly in summer the nights are so short that the few hours of darkness will not impinge on your daily life. It is only for week or two during the spring and autumn that the correlation between the brightness of the sky and the time on the clock-face has a minor effect on your activities. Yet for this reason we have go through the whole disruptive apparatus of the hour change.

The reason for the clocks changing is all to do with our natural sloth and laziness. If we all got an hour earlier there would be no need for the clocks to change. The government knows it could never tell everybody to get up an hour earlier in the day, so the changing of the clocks is just a clever ploy to get us to do it anyway. The first person to mention that getting up an hour earlier in winter would save money on candles was Benjamin Franklin. This famous American thinker and diplomat was talking about the Parisiens of the eighteenth century.

Germany was the first country to introduce Daylight Saving Time in 1916. The reason was to save coal during wartime, and I suppose it must have worked, though they still lost the war. Their enemy Britain followed suit, and since then Daylight Saving has become widely used across Europe and North America. The countries nearer the equator have little to gain from Daylight Saving Time, as the hours of day and night change but little through the year. The economic argument of saving energy is much less clear-cut today than it was when Daylight Saving was introduced in the First World War. The use of air conditioning, digital equipment and the need for artificial light in modern buildings regardless of the time of day make the the use of electricity less of an issue than it was. The most persuasive argument in favour of the hour changing is the increase in leisure opportunities during the lighter evenings of British Summer Time; but against this must be set the increase in accidents to children while going to school in the darker mornings before the clocks go back. There are arguments for and against the hour change.

Why can’t we just keep GMT (or BST) throughout the year? Do we really gain anything worthwhile from this tinkering with the clock? During the years 1968 – 1971 they didn’t change the clocks and kept BST all year round. For this experimental period British Summer Time was renamed as British Standard Time. There was of course an outcry from the people about losing the hour change,  just as there had been when it was first introduced, but I rather liked the slow progression in the seasons, without the sudden onset of winter darkness. Before I retired I used to enjoy the extra hour in bed in the autumn when the clocks went back, but the effect only lasts a day. This must be repaid in the spring anyway, when your sleep is reduced by the same amount. Now that I no longer work on a daily basis the arrival and departure of Greenwich Mean Time doesn’t make much difference to me.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF TIME