“A sad tale’s best for winter. . . ” (William Shakespeare)

A garden under snow

Snow and hail, rain and ice are all part of winter, but winter weather may vary from the bitterly cold to the relatively mild. The clock however is inflexible; darkness is the predominant characteristic of winter as far as I am concerned; the lack of daylight is what makes the season. As the nights close in the lights come on earlier and earlier and the mornings are sunk in gloom. From June,when the sun doesn’t set until around ten o’clock at night, to December, when it is dark soon after four in the afternoon, the hours of daylight slowly decrease as the year enters its phase of darkness. It must be strange to live in the tropics, where the length of day and night hardly vary through the year; the long summer evenings are the most magical part of living in our latitudes. The light slowly fading from the sky ushers in a short and warm night.

Frosts may begin to nip the air in the morning in November; the trees are bare of leaves and the grass is gaunt. Meteorological winter begins on the first day of December according to the scientists, who like to impose order on the world, but the world simply is not like that. The winter solstice occurs on the 21st or 22nd of December and that is often called midwinter’s day – but winter is only three weeks old by then, according to meteorologists. In fact winter is a moveable concept: a general term that has different meanings in different contexts. The autumn leaves may have only just fallen, but in my opinion winter has already begun. The beginning of December is too late for the first day of winter. Conversely the meteorologists insist that 28th of February is still winter, which is too late: the birds are already singing their mating songs with gusto well before then, and the earliest spring flowers are out in January.

We have already had our first snowfall in early December this year, but often it doesn’t fall before Christmas. On the other hand it can still snow into April (notably on the 5th of that month, 1986 – my wedding day!). As I maintain, the season is a moveable feast, and different aspects of the seasons occur at different times.

However attractive it might be to an old man like me, it is not possible to spend the entire winter indoors; when it is icy or snowing it takes quite an important engagement get me outside, but I have to make the effort. I must wrap myself up in a warm coat and scarf, and cover my bald head with a woolly hat. My breath comes out in clouds of frosty vapour; the winter air used not to bother me at all, but now I am glad to dive into the car and turn the heater on. At home I can relax by the trusty wood burner, a great boon. All the exertion of sawing logs through the summer and autumn then seems worthwhile. I look askance at those lazy people who buy their logs cut ready to burn – for me a wood stove should entail a certain amount of preparation. Sawing up logs is a fine way to keep the cold at bay  –  as they say, logs warm you up twice.

Winter in the UK is quite a mild season compared to some parts of the world; Siberia for instance, or even Canada. As my father used to say (and in this I think he was quoting C. S. Lewis) you may venture out on any day of the year in Britain. Nevertheless, now that I am of a certain age, I feel the cold. That is when I am grateful for central hearing. I never lived in a centrally heated house until I was nearly forty; and even now I like the friendliness of a real fire.

There: was that a sad tale?  Not really; I am too jolly a person to write tragedies.



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In the past the wheelwright was almost as universal a figure in the countryside as the blacksmith. Almost every village had a smithy; the wheelwright was an equally essential craftsman in the rural economy, but his shop was slightly less common. Poringland (four miles to the south of Norwich) had a blacksmith in 1869 and a wheelwright called Herbert Palmer, but the tiny adjacent village of Arminghall had a blacksmith but no wheelwright. The blacksmith lingered on into my lifetime, but the wheelwright’s shop had disappeared before I was born. In a world of pneumatic tyres and mass-produced transport vehicles, the careful process of crafting a wooden cart-wheel by hand had no place. Unlike the blacksmith, who could turn his hand to other iron products as the need for shoeing horses declined (and there is still a residual demand for farriers), the wheelwright only made wheels from wood. There must be a few wheelwrights left in the land, to mend the wheels of the landaus that are used every summer on Great Yarmouth sea front, and to replace that wheels of the Royal Carriages of State, but they are few and far between.

Wheel of a Norfolk farm wagon

The circularity of the wheel might suggest that the use a lathe was a central to the wheelwright’s work; in sense it was, because the hub required turning,  but otherwise this did not play a big part in his task. The wheelwright’s trade has left us with the names of some woodworking tools; the spoke-shave for example was used to shape the spokes of the wheel. Some wheels are made from spokes that have been turner on a lathe, but the subtle shape of a cart-wheel, which must combine strength with lightness, require a more nuanced construction technique. Next came the felloes, segments of wood that were used to construct the outer rim of the wheel.

To hold it all together the wheelwright needed to enlist the skills of the blacksmith to fit the tyre. This had to be made to precisely the right diameter: too large and it would fall off the finished wheel, while too small and it would distort the wheel as it cooled. Once it had been welded together the tyre was heated in the forge to expand it. It was then dropped on the wheel. All this required a high degree of precision, but it was all done without the use of complicated technical equipment; just years of experience would develop the eye of the craftsman. In a more primitive age the wheels of chariots were held together by raw hide straps, shrunk on with water.

The wheel was not simply made of any wood that happened to be lying around. Typically the hub with the central axle bearing was turned out of elm; the spokes were crafted from oak for its strength, and the felloes were made from easily manipulated beech. The wheelwright did not just go to the local timber merchant for this material. He would walk the local woods, examining the standing trees and branches with the thought of selecting the timer he would need in future.

A branch of the Rivett family were wheelwrights in the nineteenth century. They were not direct ancestors of mine, but they were close relatives. My great-great-great uncle Francis was a wheelwright in Shipdam in central Norfolk. Edward Rivett was a wheelwright in the nearby village of Shouldham. Born into a world where the wooden wheel was the only way to carry goods across country, the train, traction engine and motor car had already spelt the end of his way of life by the time he died aged over 80. His son was also a wheelwright, but by 1901 trade was already falling off, and his grandson, the third generation of wheelwrights, also kept the village post office.



Trowse Millgate

Autumn 1958, Trowse Mill  & the bridge.

Trowse Millgate is part of the city of Norwich; it lies across the river Yare from Trowse Newton which used to be in the Hundred of Henstead. It has long been on a busy roadway, bringing traffic from Lowestoft, Beccles, Loddon, and Bungay into the City. King Charles II arrived in Norwich via Trowse on his visit in 1671, and Celia Fiennes described the fields there as being covered in woollen cloth laid out to bleach in the sun. In the eighteenth century this way into the city was via a toll bridge, and possibly the river Tas still had its confluence with the Yare before reaching the bridge. There had been a watermill on the river Yare since the eleventh century, and by the nineteenth century this was one of the largest corn mills in the county, being powered by a steam engine as well as water wheels. No doubt it was able to bring coals from Yarmouth directly to its doorstep by wherry. This gave it a commercial advantage over all the other mills in Norwich. Daniel Bloome the miller was certainly a very rich man.

The construction of the railway to Ely in the 1840’s brought yet more traffic to the settlement. Tens of thousands  head of cattle came from as far away as Ireland annually for sale at the cattle market. These were unloaded in the sidings at Trowse Millgate. If they arrived during the previous week they would be grazed on the adjacent water meadows until market day on Saturday. To begin with the railway line crossed the road by means of a level crossing, but the number of trains must have meant that it was more often closed than open. When the railway bridge was built (some time before 1880) the arches were occupied by a number of commercial enterprises. The Pineapple had been the local on the main road since at least the 18th century. After the bridge was built it was on a dead-end road that led merely to the railway station. The station closed to passengers in 1939, but the pub struggled on until 1985. In 1789 the Pineapple had almost two acres of fruit trees on the land between lower Bracondale and the river.

Coal siding at Trowse sewage works

Following the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1867 a sewage pumping station was built between the railway station and the river Yare; the sewage is treated a mile away at Whitlingham before the clean water is discharged into the river. A new pumping station was built in the 1960’s, when the old buildings fell into disuse which is how they remain today. The picture opposite shows the coal siding for the pumping station shortly after closure.

Trowse Millgate was also the terminus of the tramline from Orford Place via King Street. This was built at the beginning of the 20th century, but the line from Bank Plain to Bracondale was lifted in 1918 to be used on the Mousehold extension that carried aircraft from Boulton and Paul’s factory to the aerodrome. Trowse Millgate was without a tram connection for two years until a shorter route was opened from Queen Street along Bracondale.

Whitlingham Broad

Opposite the Pineapple a meadow was developed after the Second World War and this is now where Ben Burgess Ltd established their agricultural machinery sales showroom. All this activity was going on against a backdrop of motor traffic that was a constantly growing flow through Trowse Milligate. This all came to an abrupt halt in 1992, when the Southern Bypass sealed off the road and for the first time in its history turned Trowse Millgate into a backwater.  As well as stopping the road access from the east, the building of the Bypass also required a large amount of aggregate that was extracted from the water meadows along Whitlingham Lane; this has produced two new Broads. These, and the ski slope (also on Whitlingham Lane), have replaced some of this traffic with that intent on leisure activities. On  the whole however Trowse Millgate has never been so quiet.

There is one other way to approach Trowse Millgate, besides by road or rail, and this is by water. There is no problem going as far up the river as the bridge, although this is seldom done because beyond that the mill has prevented further progress along the Yare for the best part of a thousand years. I approached the bridge by motor boat in 1958, and a dozen years later I went under the bridge in a canoe. There is an island between the bridge and the mill arches and the water around it is extremely shallow; although the canoe drew less than six inches we nearly went aground on the eastern branch of the river.




The first tram to operate in Ipswich was a 3ft 6in gauge horse-drawn vehicle which ran for about ¾ mile between Cornhill and the mainline railway station. It opened in 1880. In 1884 an extension was opened from Cornhill to Derby Road railway station, also in Ipswich, but on the Felixstowe line. This completed the system; by then it was being operated by a fleet of tram cars. The earliest ones were single deckers, drawn by one horse, but later double deckers were introduced with two draught horses. The provision of rails made the friction was less than with a horse-drawn omnibus, and this enabled a greater number of passengers to be carried. By 1900 it was becoming increasingly old fashioned however; unlike modern motive power, horses had to groomed, fed and stabled, and in the early years of the 20th century it was resolved to convert the horse-drawn tramway to an electric system. The town Corporation purchased the horse tramway but it lost money and was abandoned to allow the electric infrastructure to be installed.

The electric trams did not last any longer than the horse-drawn trams: introduced in 1903, they were replaced by trolleybuses from 1923, and in 1926 the last tram ran on the streets of Ipswich. The trolleybus lasted a bit longer than its predecessors, and I remember the final years of them; my sister had taken her first job in the town in 1959, and from the aged of ten I made many visits to Ipswich. The trolleybuses survived until 1963, by which time my sister had left Suffolk for a new post in the Channel Islands. Thereafter I no longer frequented the town.

1933 Ipswich Trolleybus: Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies

The first indication that we had reached a strange new world where the buses were powered by electric wires was by the railway bridge on the Norwich Road. There a circle in the overhead catenary was where the buses had to turn around and begin their journey back to Ipswich town centre. At one time the system had gone further to Whitton, but by 1959 the railway bridge was the limit of its northern extent. The Corporation bought its first motor buses as late as 1950 to serve the outskirts. At the time, and for many years thereafter, the bridge had the large sign FERODO painted on it in red. I will always associate these brake pads with Ipswich.

Coming by car I had no reason to use the trolleybuses, but going by train I surely would have done so; my sister had no car at this time. An indication of how normal they were in Ipswich in those days is that  I have no memory of riding on a trolleybus, although I must have used them. This is a pity, but I have plenty of memories of seeing them making their silent progress through the town. Once you were inside the effect could not have very different from a normal motor bus; all the unusual features were outside. If they met an obstruction in the road they could only take limited avoiding action, or the poles would come detached from the catenary wires. This meant the driver or conductor getting out and re-attaching them with a long stick. There was definitely no overtaking allowed with a trolleybus.

Unlike trams, trolleybuses have not made a return to the streets in the UK, and there are no remaining systems in place here. This seems strange, as the infrastructure is much simpler and cheaper for trolleybuses, and they are similar environmental benefits. There is bad quality air in nearly all major cities, where diesel buses are almost the only vehicles still (just about) tolerated. This would disappear if trolleybuses were still in operation. If you are cyclist who has travelled over tram lines you will appreciate that  bikes and trams don’t mix – you will fall off immediately if your wheel gets stuck in the groove of a tram line. This quality of not antagonising cyclists is another advantage of the trolleybus. In other parts of the world these systems still exist.





The Queen, soon to become Queen Mother. Assembly House, 1951. Great Aunt Ruth facing the camera.

I have been watching old films of Norwich in the fifties on Youtube and it is very interesting to me. This is the time when my eyes were first opening to the ‘fine old city’* and its inhabitants. There is even a shot of Aunt Ruth  dressed in her civic regalia in a documentary; she is walking out of a service at the cathedral that opened the 1955 Norwich Assizes . That was four years after her period as Lord Mayor. She was smiling most beatifically at no one in particular. I keep hoping to catch a glimpse of my father-in-law Jack Turner; he was a bobby in Norwich at the time. I may have seen him, but with his helmet on it is hard to say. He was PC 49 in the Norwich force.

District Nurse Aunty Olive was living in Christopher Close and I would often go round to her flat. I remember sitting by her fire while her sons and a college friend told ghost stories, as I gazed into the embers. My father’s shop was right in the city centre, and he would call in for a drink with Jack Hubbard, the publican of the Lamb Inn next door. Uncle Ozzie Osborne’s shop was round the corner in White Lion Street. He sold anything made of rubber: wellies, garden hoses and other under-the-counter items. Uncle Bertie was deputy head at the CNS.

While all this family life was continuing, British Railways steam hauled trains puffed their way into the city’s three railway termini. On the river sea going colliers from Newcastle came up to the generating station and ships laden with timber from Finland plied their trade down on the wharves opposite Riverside Road. River tugs from Yarmouth hauled strings of barges for the gas works on Gas Hill. Varnished wooden motor cruisers threaded their way between this commercial traffic to the Yacht Station above Foundry Bridge.

Four busy breweries filled the air with the delicious aroma of malt and hops. At the mustard factory the Carrow Works steam hooter summoned the workers at ten-to-eight in the morning; if the wind was in the right direction I could hear this as I lay in bed four miles away.  To the west side of the city hordes of shoe workers pedalled their way to the day’s task in the many shoe factories. Two large printing offices which had been in the city since the early nineteenth century were still operating. These were Jarrolds at Whitefriars and Fletchers on Castle Meadow, both now no more, although the former firm remains as the large department store in the city and the latter was bought up by Clays of Bungay.

A smart salute from a Norwich City policeman, 1950.

Norwich had no airport throughout the 1950s; the first aerodrome at Mousehold Heath was opened in 1933, but fell into disuse with the outbreak of war. The current International Airport was still called RAF St Faiths, and was a busy jet fighter base. (It had been a USAAF base during war, when it was built slap bang across the Cromer Road, which had to be diverted along a narrow lane.) Jets were very noisy in the fifties, and the base was right next to a residential area – it must have been hard to get one’s baby to sleep. Along Fifers Lane were the married quarters of the personnel,  the brickwork done in different colours in an attempt to camouflage them! There was also a NAAFI that lasted long after he base closed to supply the airmen from RAF Coltishall who continued to live there. Across the Holt Road from St Faiths airfield was Norwich Speedway, a popular attraction that was redeveloped for housing in the 1960’s and has never been replaced.

Every Saturday the smell of the farmyard filled the air. Sheep, pigs and cattle were driven through the streets, and I don’t mean in lorries. They walked up Bracondale and along Ber Street, having arrived from across the county at Trowse station. They filled the pens of the open space below the castle, while the smaller livestock (chickens, geese and rabbits) were sold slightly further away near the cast iron premises of Panks. Kittens and puppies were also available. Miss Wicks did a good trade selling dog biscuits and fish pellets from her centuries-old shop in Golden Ball Street. At the end of the day the cattle were driven back by men with whippy canes for dispatch to their new owners or the slaughterhouse.

Easter saw the Fair take over the cattle market, although it closed on Good Friday. The steam fairground engines rocked gently back and forth as they lit up the gaudy displays; if you paid a bob to enter her tent you could witness the tattooed lady killing rats with her teeth. (Entertainment was more cruel and basic sixty years ago.) For the summer holiday there was no fortnight in Spain, only a trip to the seaside at Yarmouth or Caister; ice creams trumped sangria.The lowly Third Division Canaries finished the decade with the famous Cup Run; they only lost the semi-final to First Division Luton Town on the replay. The excitement that gripped the City football fans is still remembered today by those of a certain age.

Almost all these aspects of the city have changed; only the Yacht Station and the football ground remain in place. Britannia Barracks now contains prisoners, not soldiers. One railway station only remains and the gas works and the power station have long passed into history. The new library has come and gone (gone up in flames in fact) since the 1950s. The Press Office has moved from Redwell Street, Barclays Bank no longer has its impressive local HQ at Bank Plain and the GPO sorting office no longer stands across the street. This now houses Anglia Television, which was not in existence then, and where UEA now has is campus was Earlham golf course. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital still occupied the site where it had been established in the 18th century, until it moved to its new site in 2001.

Much has altered, but the cathedral and the castle still stand guard over the inhabitants, as they have done for nearly a thousand years. The Maids Head hotel has welcomed visitors to Norwich for almost as long. Nevertheless, the rest of the 20th century saw the old city vanish for ever in a way that Hitler’s bombs could never achieve.

*‘A fine old city, truly, is that’ is a quotation from Lavengro, by the 19th century Norfolk born writer George Borrow.                                                   




How to grow vegetables

The young Joe gathering onions.

This is not the season for gardening, but there are still tasks that need to be done. Some pruning still remains; the raspberry canes must soon be cut down, but the opportunity for getting out the garden shears between the rain, snow showers and frost is rather limited. The unheated greenhouse has been cleared for winter; I haven’t used a greenhouse heater since I was a young man, and then I grew decorative (but tender) plants during the cold part of the year. It was a paraffin stove, but it was still very expensive. Now the remaining tomatoes are ripening in the conservatory; they occupy a couple of trays, but I don’t  think they will last until Christmas like they did last year.

Perhaps if my father had been more of an amateur gardener I might have learnt more from him, but although he had many abilities gardening wasn’t one of them. He loved gardens, but I hardly ever saw him on his knees getting his hands dirty. It wasn’t his style. Bulbs and roses that came up every year with little human input, and bedding plants that came ready grown, waiting to be put into tubs, were his kind of plants; vegetables that had to be grown from seeds weren’t. My mother would bend down and pull up the odd weed, but I can’t remember her planting anything. Both my parents must have done some gardening, but, unlike my cousin Tony, it wasn’t something that either of them was extremely keen on.

As a result my knowledge of vegetable growing has been gleaned from reading books and watching television programmes. My father would always listen to Gardener’s Question Time after Sunday lunch, but he didn’t then rush out to put the information into practice. The programme had been going since the Dig for Victory campaign of World War II, although I am talking of the 1970s. I could still tell you the names of the experts who appeared every week on the show; Bill Sowerbutts, Fred Loads and Professor Alan Gemmell of Keele University. On BBC television we watched Percy Thrower on  Gardeners’ World until he lost his job for being too much involved in advertising. I collected a fine selection of gardening books to help me find out the correct way of growing things. Now of course the books stay mostly on the shelves, and the instructions for growing vegetables are found on the internet.


I have improved the land on which we grow the vegetables out of all recognition in the 30 years that we have lived here. When I arrived it was still the sandy soil of the heathland which formed our part of the village until the 19th century. After decades of making compost and keeping chickens the soil on our vegetable plot is now a good deep tilth. Over the same period I have removed all the large stones from the topsoil. These alterations have resulted in the crops grow much better.

In spite of my advanced years I am still learning how to grow things, and still learning what I cannot grow. Carrots get the fly and cabbages attract caterpillars. These things can spayed against, but I prefer to keep my use of insecticides to a minimum. Runner beans, parsnips, beetroot , courgettes and potatoes are all reliable annuals. Herbs like rosemary and bay can be picked all year through, while others like mint and parsley are seasonal. Among the perennials are raspberries, gooseberries and rhubarb. Tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse pretty much complete our cropping schedule, although we might try a novelty or two. This year we were given some plants that turned out to be gherkins. They are waiting, pickled, sliced and bottled, for us to sample in the coming months.

It sounds like a massive plot to grow all this produce, but it truly isn’t; we just plant intensively. As the year progresses from the first shoots appearing in the spring, through high summer to harvest time, the pace of gardening changes with the seasons.  The first annual crop to harvest is probably early potatoes, though runner beans can be picked fairly early, if they are planted early enough. I like those plants that produce their fruit and veg throughout the summer months. The farmer may have to gather in his crops at harvest time, but not me.

The important thing to remember for indoor crops like tomatoes is to water them regularly – they get no rain! (The houseplants that decorate our window sills on the other hand normally get over watered.) Even most outdoor crops need watering if they are to thrive. Going on holiday in the summer means disaster for your crops unless you enlist the support of a reliable neighbour. In theory you can arrange watering and ventilation automatically these days, but this is too complicated for the elderly to consider; anyway it would take a lot of the fun out of growing things.

Why do I still grow these edible plants and fruits? Surely everything you could possibly want is to be had down at the supermarket? Well some vegetables just aren’t available from the shops. For the most delicious tomatoes and those with the tenderest skins you just have to grow your own. You used to be able to buy scarlet runners that had been grown in England, but now they all come from Africa and they don’t taste the same. And when did you last see a yellow-fleshed beetroot?




Aunty Olive, Tiggie and Nanny

Why is nobody looking at the camera?  None of these women was shy. Who was behind the camera? These are questions we will never know the answers to.  This photograph shows three generations of my family. From left to right the people are: Aunty Olive Anderson (née Mason, the daughter of the elderly lady), Margaret Mason (my sister Tiggy, niece of Olive) and Nanny, Emily Lound (formerly Emily Mason, née Peachey). They were all examples of what the family call the ‘Peachey women’; forceful characters, and completely dominant over their menfolk, whether Peachey or otherwise. Aunt Ruth was a Peachey woman, and she rose to be Lord Mayor of Norwich, the first working class woman to do so. There are other examples, including some in the current generation, although it would be invidious to name them.

Ruth Hardy (née Peachey). Born Lakenheath 1892. Lord Mayor of Norwich 1950.

Peachey women could be extremely sweet and charming, but beneath the surface was a will of steel. They could say ‘yes’ to you, or they could say ‘no’, but what you could not do was simply not ask them.  They had an opinion on everything, and it had to be known. In many ways the best course of action was to avoid anything that might get their backs up. I can see my Aunty Olive now in my mind’s eye: she was a lovely person, but her jaw would set like a rat trap when she opposed something she was asked to do. Tiggy’s approach to a similar situation was rather different but equally effective (or even more so); her lower lip would quiver and her eyes would well up with tears.

I have puzzled myself for a long time over where the Peachey gene originated. Despite the name, I am sure it did not come from the Peachey side of the family. These hardy sons of the soil had been unobtrusively catching rabbits around Lakenheath in Suffolk for generations. It must have come from an ancestor who had married into the Peachey line: maybe the Phipps. They had enough adventurous spirit to get on the train from Bishops Stortford and move to Mildenhall; there Ebenezer Phipp progressed from a rural smallholding to running the local carriers business and gaining an entry in the Suffolk trade directory in the 1890s. Alternatively it may have come through the Jones family; they had been as placid as the Peacheys, spending centuries living in a small corner of Buckinghamshire, until one of their number took off as a railway navvy and married a red-head from Cornwall. That may have produced the fiery nature of the Peachey women, but on mature consideration it remains a mystery where they came from.

Although Aunt Ruth achieved a great deal in her political career, her elder sister Emily was if anything even more of a Peachey woman. She was so keen to begin her schooling that she started a year early (aged three), so that by the time she was ten years old she had reached the top class and had to leave. Ruth, who was not so impetuous, was able to stay on and become a pupil teacher, thus laying the foundations of her future progress. Another sister was Thirza, also a teacher. When one of her pupils was refused a scholarship on the grounds that he was only a farm labourer’s son, she went furiously to the Guild Hall to address the education councillor. Remember that she was a Peachey woman: the councillor rapidly changed his mind, and the boy went on to a long and successful career in medical research in the USA.

Emily as a young woman

My father used to say Emily should have had twenty children – or been Prime Minister! Her lifestyle could not absorb her intelligence and efficiency with anything less. She was very ambitious and very generous, but never had the chance to use her great abilities. She made life very hard for her family as a result. Her daughter Olive was the only nurse in the history of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital who lived out during training; Nanny insisted on her going home each evening to help with the housework. How she won against the awe-inspiring Matron is a mystery, but it just shows the power of the Peachey women.  And although Olive was good at games, she was not allowed to play on the school hockey team: she had to spend Saturdays doing the cleaning for Nanny. Emily went to work as a children’s nurse, and by all accounts would hold their eyelids shut if the would not go to sleep! After all, she was only ten herself.  With her first week’s wages she bought hats for all her sisters at the village shop. Her mother made her take them all back – she needed the money to feed the family. Emily and her husband William continued their education as adults by reading and going to lectures.  She died quoting an obscure 18th century poet.  Today’s youngsters don’t seem to have the same appetite for learning, but I don’t suppose any of her contemporaries did either. Peachey women were something else.




The term damsel in distress represents a classic theme of literature and folk tales, that of a beautiful young woman placed in a perilous situation. The idea is ancient, as old as story telling itself, but the first use of these exact words “damsel in distress” was in the English version of Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, which was published in 1755. The translation of this work from the original Spanish was by the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. The phrase was used by P. G. Wodehouse for the comic novel he wrote in 1919. He later went on to adapt it as play with A.A. Milne and a musical in co-operation with George and Ira Gershwin. In 1937 and was turned into a successful movie featuring Fred Astaire; it had already appeared as a silent film before audio tracking became available. This is an impressive range of vehicles for a work that is relatively little known today. At one time he had five different musicals in production in the US.

It was one of dozens of books written by the comedy master, and not one of his better known. He had not reached the zenith of his writing style in 1920, and such classics as Right Ho, Jeeves and Heavy Weather, featuring the prize pig the Empress of Blandings, were to come later. Even so, his books were very successful, both in this country and America. After going to New York in 1904 he spent an increasingly large part of his time writing on Broadway and in Hollywood, which was just coming to the fore.

The story of The Damsel in Distress is set among the young adults of the aristocracy, as most of his works are. If not the sons and daughter of lords and ladies, the people in his novels are at least members of the gentry. Few of them seem to have or need a job; instead they rise late before wandering round to the Drones Club for a ‘snifter’. Wodehouse had attended Dulwich College as a schoolboy, so he had some acquaintance with the better off youth of Victorian England, but his readership had no connection with people of this class. The life he portrayed in his books, one of harmless eccentrics thrown into ingeniously worked out plot lines, was far from the harsh realities of life. In 1919 the world had just emerged from the worst war that could be imagined in the application of modern science to mass killing. The Great War was as hard for the gentry as it had been for the ordinary people of Britain, and as a form of escapism what could be better than the gentle humour to be found in a P. G. Wodehouse best seller?

He was in no doubt that in his approach to the world he ignored real life altogether; this was not only in his work but in  his life in general. In spite of his assertion that the world inhabited by his characters really had existed between the wars, it had more in common with the Edwardian period. He laboured hard to achieve his apparently effortless prose. He worked for three or four hours in the late afternoon, but never after dinner. I was in my mid twenties when his long writing career came to an end. His best work was over by then, but he was still capable of writing a book every six months, which he continued to do almost up to the end.





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 £1000! 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 appeared 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 this 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 my mother boiling kettles and putting 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. For a year or so there was a curious and enormous 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.





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.