Tag Archives: army

HANNAH SNELL

A RESOURCEFUL WOMAN OF NOTE

Parson James Woodforde

I have told you before about the antiquity of the pubs in Costessey including the White Hart. The pub has been rebuilt twice since the eighteenth century, though it has retained its name. It was still called the White Hart when I first remember it, though recently the name has been abbreviated to The Harte. In the morning of May 21st 1778 Parson Woodforde and some friends walked to the White Hart in Costessey from Weston Longville (a journey of several miles) to see a famous woman who was staying at the pub. This was Hannah Snell who dressed as a man. While staying at Costessey she was selling laces and haberdashery to provide her with a livelihood, and Woodforde gave her 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) for some buttons worth only 1/4d (just under 8p in modern money). Obviously her celebrity was good for trade! The transaction netted her over £20 by today’s value. But what was her fame? – it was more than just having been a cross-dresser obviously.

HANNAH SNELL

Hannah Snell was born in Worcester on 23 April 1723. At the age of 17 she moved to London where she married. Her husband abandoned her while she was pregnant and she later found out he had been hanged for murder. After her young daughter died she enlisted in the Royal Marines in the sloop-of-war HMS Swallow at Portsmouth. She served in the Marines in India, fought and was injured several times (including being shot in the groin according to her account, though this unlikely story is disputed), but in three years she was never discovered. However on her return to England she revealed her true sex to her shipmates. She could no longer serve in the colours but was persuaded to petition the Duke of Cumberland (the head of the Army) to secure a soldier’s pension. This she was granted for wounds received. She became a celebrity having the story of her exploits written in the Gentleman’s Magazine. She undoubtedly embroidered the events of her life, but as related here they seem to be true. A chapbook (i.e. a cheap popular pamphlet) entitled The Female Soldier was published in 1750 and ran to two editions. Her portrait was painted several times and engravings of her in military uniform and aiming her musket were widely published; her fame even reached rural Norfolk!

She appeared in uniform on stage doing military drills and singing appropriate songs; she was also briefly the landlady of a pub in Wapping. She remarried and had two more children who survived; she has descendants living today. Widowed once again she married for a third time. It must have been after her third husband died that she was travelling East Anglia in 1778, selling trinkets. Later her military pension was increased and she was no longer compelled to travel the country profiting from her name. In the 1780s she was living in Stoke Newington (London) with her son who was by then grown up and working as a clerk. By her late sixties she was suffering from dementia and after being admitted to Bedlam she died in 1792. She is buried at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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THE NINETEEN EIGHTIES

I am showing my age when I say that it all seems like yesterday, though 1980 was nearly forty years ago. In political terms in the UK you can sum up the ten years in just one word: ‘Thatcher’.  She was PM throughout the decade. Although she was a constant feature in parliament, in my personal affairs it was a time of great upheaval; in 1980 I was living in the home I had always known, happily walking my dog every morning and hoeing my flower beds before I went to work. It was a solitary and uneventful life, and my sole source of income was the family firm that I had inherited. By 1990 my world had changed; I was a semi-professional musician, a medic in the Territorial Army and had become a freelance journalist. I even had a Union Card! I was shortly to work as a researcher on programmes for Anglia Television. At the end of the decade I wasn’t living in my old family home anymore, but in my current house. No longer a confirmed bachelor, I was married with two young children. You might say that it was a completely different lifestyle, and you would be right.

I had a couple of canal holidays in the ’80s

The Swinging Sixties or the Dire Seventies were eras that had a certain unity of direction, but can you place any theme on the 1980s? Maybe you can, but I can’t. That is not to say that nothing happened during the period, but the events appeared to be unrelated and came out of the blue. Take the deep recession and the doubling of VAT that marked the first years of the decade; the family business, which had been doing quite well until then, never really recovered from the shock. Then, while I and many others were licking our financial wounds and vowing never to vote for that Thatcher woman again, we were plunged into a war thousands of miles away. The resolute precision with which the Task Force was assembled and dispatched to do the job of recapturing the Falkland Islands produced a deep sense of pride among the nation. After that Mrs Thatcher could do no wrong. Even the deeply divisive Miners’ Strike could not shake our faith in Mrs Thatcher. The effective destruction of our coal industry seemed terrible at the time, but who would now support the widespread use of this dirty and carbon rich fuel? Things have moved on and now we are told that renewables are the future of energy production. Mrs T never lost an election, and her downfall was a result of Tory party in-fighting; the Poll Tax was widely regarded as a debacle, but the tax was abandoned without ever being put to the people in an election. Her attitude to the European Union was broadly supportive, but increasingly reluctantly so. She clearly had major doubts about its ultimate destination.

In  weather terms the memorable event of the eighties was the great gale of the 15/16th October 1987. We were living in a flat in Norwich that was close to a copse of trees, but luckily we did not experience too much damage. Others were not so fortunate. Every decade seems to produce its exception meteorological event; in the fifties it was the East Coast Flood, in the sixties it was the Big Freeze and in the seventies it was the Long Hot Summer of ’76.

In terms of culture this was the decade when the cinema enjoyed a renaissance. The musical became the dominant theatrical experience, largely through the popularity of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The hold of atonal music on Radio Three was loosened, and the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, which had been regularly performed, are now almost never heard. The 80s saw the beginning of this trend. In the graphic arts postmodernism continued to spread its baleful influence. The food we ate at restaurants  grew in international diversity, but the price could be high and the quality mediocre, at least when contrasted with my wife’s excellent cooking. Literature may have developed in all sorts of important ways, but if so it passed me by. You must forgive me; as you can tell, it was a busy decade for me.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

St FELIX

St Felix Church Babingley

The priest Felix was brought over from Burgundy by King Sigeberht to evangelise the East Anglian people. This would have been much more difficult had the king not already been a Christian, but even so it was not a straight forward task as the East Anglians were pagans; their gods have been preserved in the names of the days of the week (the Sun god, the Moon, Tiw, Woden, Thor, Freya and an interloper from the Roman pantheon, Saturn). This daily reminder of a belief system that they were trying to eradicate must have irked the early churchmen, and I am sure they would have changed this if they could; at least on the Continent Sunday became the Lord’s Day in their various Latin-based languages. Here we remained resolutely pagan in this respect.

Felix arrived in England in 630 AD. According to one tradition, he first landed at Babingley on the extreme west coast of the county of Norfolk. Norfolk has coasts to the east, north and west, and that to the west borders the Wash. I can understand why many people doubt the authenticity of the story, as to get there from the south would entail going past all the rest of East Anglia, with much more suitable ports all along the coast. It is the very improbability of Babingley that convinces me it must be true; no one would invent such a ridiculous landing-place. The fact that the  medieval Babingley church (still a place of worship in the 19th century but now a ruin) was dedicated to St Felix is another factor. There are few other churches dedicated to him, so maybe this points in the direction that Babingley had some importance in the life of Felix. The legend goes that Felix was led to safety by a beaver (native British beavers were wiped out 400 years ago).

He was made Bishop of East Anglia soon after his arrival, and we know that the place of his see was in Suffolk. It was called Dumnoc, and for many years this was assumed to be Dunwich because of the similarity of the names. The idea that it was in fact at Walton Castle has gained ground in the last fifty years, although the first recorded mention of Walton Castle being the location of the East Anglian see goes back to the 13th century. This Fort of the Saxon Shore, erected in the extreme south-eastern corner of Suffolk by the Romans, fell victim to tidal erosion in the 18th century. The nearest place to Walton Castle still in existence is Felixstowe, and again the name convinces me that Dumnoc must have been here.

Stowe is defined as meaning just a location in place-name reference books, but it had a more specific use in Anglo-Saxon times. To them it meant the shrine or home of a saint (thus the vanished hamlet of Stow near Swaffham was associated with the veneration of St Guthlac, and the burial-place of St Benedict in the Loire valley was called St Benet’s Stowe in Anglo-Saxon sources). Felixstowe therefore originally meant the dwelling place of St Felix, and surely his Cathedral would have been nearby. At another Fort of the Saxon Shore, Burgh Castle (in north-east Suffolk until 1974, now part of Norfolk) an early monastery was established by the Irish monk Fursey; he was also brought to East Anglia by King Sigeberht to help Felix convert the people. It seems to me that a religious building could easily have been constructed in the corner of an old Roman fort, thus saving the building of two walls! Remember that these were the very earliest years of Christians building in England, before the Church became powerful and rich. Anything that saved resources was valuable to the local pioneers of Christianity like Felix and Fursey.

Bishop Felix established a school to teach the boys who would become the priests he required to educate the people of East Anglia about the Christian message. Thetford Grammar School claims its origins in this school that Felix set up, and as it is by far the oldest school in East Anglia, who are we to dispute this? Other snippets of information about Felix may be gleaned from medieval sources. The Liber Eliensis (the Book of Ely) records that he founded the church at Reedham in Norfolk (the church is dedicated to St John the Baptist). He also built the monastery at Soham in Cambridgeshire, which lasted until it was destroyed by the Danish invaders in the late ninth century and was never rebuilt. Another monastery was built during the lifetime of Felix at Beodricesworth (later to be known as Bury St Edmunds) by King Sigeberht. The growth in christian belief continued throughout this period, in spite of the defeat of the East Anglian army by the pagan Mercians under their king Penda.

St Felix died on the 8th March, his Saints Day. King Sigeberht had abdicated to the monastery in Beodricesworth while St Felix was still living. (I may do a post on the king later, but for now suffice it to say that he was martyred circa 643, killed by Penda’s men.) Felix died in 647 or the next year and his body was first buried at Soham and later translated to Ramsey Abbey. He was the first in a line of East Anglian bishops that lasted until 869, when the Danes killed Bishop Humbert and the position fell into abeyance. Various divisions have been made in the see; first in 673, when Norfolk was given its own bishop. When the bishopric was restored after the Danish period East Anglia had a single bishop once again. The western part of the Diocese was hived off when Ely was made a Cathedral in 1109, but the Diocese of East Anglia continued uninterrupted for almost a thousand years until 1914, when Suffolk again got its own bishop.

Little is known of the life of Felix; almost all that is known is recorded in this article. Nevertheless, as you can see, his seventeen years work in establishing the Church in East Anglia was of huge significance. The influence of Christianity may be waning, but it is still deeply embedded in the fabric of our lives. We may no longer go to church, but the eyes of the nation still turn to Westminster Abbey for great national events.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA

WORLD WAR ONE POETS

RALPH HALE MOTTRAM and other writers

When we consider the poets of the First World War, it is as a part of history that they are now remembered. All through my school career however, when I was I was studying the poems of Siegfried Sassoon (and others) he was still living. So too was another of his contemporaries, Robert Graves. They remain a part of my literary environment, and are not to me historical figures. The poetry is what first drew the public’s attention to these writers, but it is their autobiographical works that I most remember. In Graves’s case this was Goodbye to All That, and in Sassoon’s it was the trilogy that begins with Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

R. H. Mottram

Another trilogy which concerns experiences in France and Flanders during World War One begins with The Spanish Farm. It was written by a local man, Ralph Hale Mottram, who was brought up in Bank House in Norwich. There his father was Chief Clerk and Ralph too began his career as a bank employee. He had already published two books of poems before the war; in 1915 at the age of thirty two he volunteered for Kitchener’s Army.  The Spanish Farm was his record of the war and was published in 1924. It went on to win the Hawthornden Prize* in the same year.  The trilogy was published in single book format in 1927.

Mottram lived into my era, although as a young man I did not appreciate him. His star was no longer burning brightly in the literary firmament compared to other writers of the wartime years.  Everybody has heard of Wilfred Owen, but few beyond Norfolk know the name of R. H. Mottram, and fewer still are familiar with his work. This a great shame because he wrote most engagingly. This lack of recognition may have something to do with the fact that, although he had been friendly with the author of The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy (and even wrote his biography), he never fully joined the metropolitan literary establishment. He preferred to spend his life involved in the affairs of his native county. He was of the same generation as my great-aunt Ruth, and became Lord Mayor of Norwich four years after her, in 1955. He died in Kings Lynn in 1971.

The Spanish Farm is a novel, although it draws heavily on Mottram’s experiences as an officer in the Great War. There is one small point that would not be worth mentioning, had not the centenary of the Royal Air Force recently been celebrated; he mentioned members of the RAF being among the crowd at horse show held in 1916. He was two years too early. How careful authors must be to avoid these little mistakes! This small error in no way detracts from the pleasure I take in the unfolding story, though pleasure is perhaps the wrong word. With the horrors of war always lying in wait, the proper description would be anticipation, tempered with a sense of dread. (A horse show might seem a strange thing to occur within a few miles of the Front Line in Flanders, but that is to ignore the position held by the horse in the affections of the English Officer Class.)

The three parts of the trilogy begin with the war as experienced by the civilian residents of Spanish Farm, especially the youngest daughter of old Vanderlynden, Madeleine. She was about twenty-one when the war broke out. This volume is grim, but the story is not as awful as that of life and death that occurred on the Front. This forms the plot of the second book. I can relate to a few (very  few) parts of this, as the main character returns home for a week’s leave, after many months in France. The place is obviously Norwich, and home is  the Cathedral Close and the architect’s practice there. A few decades later my cousin was that architect; the frisson of recognition is mixed with a sense of the continuity of life. Wars may come and go, but the architectural demands of the diocesan church buildings will remain.

Why was the conflict so prolific in producing great writers? As well as those already mention there was the playwright R. C. Sherriff (Journey’s End), and we should not ignore that great comedic production, written under the appalling conditions of the Front Line, The Wipers Times. They were mostly British authors, but we must not forget Ehric Maria Remarque. This German novelist’s best known work is known in this country by its English title, All Quiet on the Western Front. No war before the Great War had produced anything comparable, nor did the Second World War repeat the example. The poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee is the aviator’s favourite poem, and that was written in the Second World War, but that was a one-off. Was it the horrors of the trenches or the large number of literate young people who were thrown into them that led to this outburst of creativity? It was certainly both of these things, but it was something else as well. It was the last flowering of the Victorian age, and the war both revealed this great literary tradition in its awful climax, and destroyed it for ever.

*The Hawthornden Prize was established in 1919; authors to have won it include such well-known names as Graham Greene, Vita Sackville-West, Lord David Cecil and Henry Williamson. Both Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon also won the prize, but Mottram was one of the first to do so.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIANS

ANCESTRAL CONNECTIONS with TROWSE

The row of terrace houses along White Horse Lane in Trowse Newton is called Russell Terrace. The terrace was built in about 1880 by the Colman family who developed Trowse as a model village to house their workforce from nearby Carrow Works. It was named after Russell Colman, born 1861, the grandfather of the current head of the family Sir Timothy Colman. The view from the front room looks out over the common; the land had been given to the parish by Jeremiah Colman (Russell’s father) in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Until then this land had been an area of slum dwellings. The Post Office was only a short distance from Russell Terrace, and a baker’s shop used to be on the corner of White Horse Lane. It is now a vegetarian café.

Whitlingham became part of Trowse parish 400 years ago when the church was abandoned.

The house where Charles Mason (my great-grandfather) lived was number 25 Russell Terrace. It could hardly have been more conveniently situated in those pre-motor transport days. A short walk would have brought Charles’s and his family to Trowse railway station, and from the beginning of the 20th century, the tram stop was adjacent to the railway station.  A short bike ride would take Charles to his place of work at Carrow, where he was a carter at the mustard mill. A Sunday afternoon stroll down White Horse Lane would have brought them to the ancient walled Roman town at Caistor St Edmunds, while travelling a similar distance in the opposite direction would have brought Charles to the river Yare at Whitlingham staithe. This was still a place of great industrial activity in 1880; a short tramway ran from the kiln to the riverside to transport lime to the wherries at the staithe, from where it was carried to the Norwich builders. A rowing boat ferry service was on hand to transport workers from Thorpe St Andrew, across the river.

Terraced houses in Trowse

Trowse Newton was a country village in spite of its proximity to the City, and it was quite possible to get lost in the woods around. Charles Mason did just that, and was eventually found by a local who heard his desperate cries of “Lost! Lost!” This gave him his nickname, and forever after he was called “Lorst” Mason by his friends. Charles Mason always spoke in his native Staffordshire accent, and I cannot tell you how they pronounce the word ‘lost’ over there, but in East Anglia it is always said like this: “lorst”.

During the First World War two Scottish soldiers (twins) were billeted on the Masons at Russell Terrace. Sixteen year old Edith, one of Charles’s daughters, took quite a shine to one of the brothers! At the start of the war there were still several children living in the three bedroomed house; it must have been a bit cramped with the soldiers sleeping there too. However it was all part of the war effort, and the extra rent must have come in handy for the family.

Charles Mason’s family of ten children were all brought up at 25 Russell Terrace.  The eldest children had moved out by 1921, but his two youngest daughters remained there with their aged father. After the foundation of the BBC in 1922 (with Norfolk educated Scotsman John Reith at its head) Charles Mason acquired a crystal set. These early wireless sets required no mains or battery current to power them, and were operated merely by the radio waves themselves. It would however have required a long aerial in the back garden, to pick up the signal. As a consequence of the low power there was no loudspeaker and they had to be listened to using headphones, so wireless listening was not at first a group activity. The broadcasts were initially limited to an hour a day, but radio grew with incredible speed, and before Charles Mason’s death in 1938 an experimental television service was being broadcast in London.

CHARLES MASON

Charles Mason belonged to a fortunate generation; unlike his forebears he was literate and well housed. He was able to retire in his mid-sixties. Only a few years before most people had faced the prospect of working until they dropped, or starving in their old age. The great reform had come shortly before the First World War, when people were able to retire at the age of 70 without having acquired any savings first. This happy period of a pension for life from the age of 65 lasted less than a century, and now the age of retirement is creeping up again, and inevitably will again reach seventy at least. Charles was able to enjoy a long retirement at Russell Terrace, and after his death his daughter Florence (and her husband Billy) carried on the tenancy.  During his years of leisure in retirement Charles spent much of his time in his beloved garden and allotment in Trowse. While virtually all of his fellow gardeners used their allotments to simply to grow vegetables, he used his to grow flowers as well. This puzzled and amused his contemporaries.

Summer holidays were family affairs, going to one of the local coastal resorts on the train. Compared to his father or sons (who died in their sixties or earlier), he enjoyed a long retirement of nearly fifteen years. I have no reason to believe it was not a happy one, but there had been tragedy too in his life; his twin sons John and Joseph had died as infants in 1892, and son Alfred had been killed on the Western Front less than a week before the Armistice in November 1918. Charles’s first wife had died aged only 38, and his second wife before she was sixty years old.

JOSEPH MASON

THE STORY OF NORFOLK

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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

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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

SOME RAILWAYS I HAVE USED

Czechoslovakian railway engine in Communist era.

Barnstaple, Devon 1958. My first long distance trip, starting from Norwich Thorpe as the station was then called, to distinguish it from the other two termini  in Norwich. Steam engines ruled the tracks in those days!

Glasgow, Scotland, 1962. With my sister Tiiggie we stopped off at Glasgow en route to Malaig, where we were to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye. We had gone up to Edinburgh on the night sleeper.

Ostend, Belgium, 1965. School trip to Eastern Europe.We went by train from Waterloo. After catching the ferry to Belgium we caught the train at Ostend. There were no electric trains on the European railways then, but in the capitalist West the expresses were already diesel hauled. In Communist Europe the trains were still steam hauled.

Cologne, Germany, 1965. Our first change of trains at about midnight. The workers were still busy digging up the road outside the cathedral (a dedication to getting the job done unheard of in England in those days, and even today). We had to stop at the border with Czechoslovakia where we were thoroughly checked by the Communist border guards. The border was heavily defended by machine gun-toting soldiers. It was strictly prohibited to photograph near the railway, but I managed to sneak my camera there to take this picture!

 Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1965. After an overnight sleep in the couchette car of the train we arrived at Prague, our first destination in the Communist East. In the hotel I experienced my first night under a duvet; such things were then unknown in Britain.

Budapest, Hungary, 1965. We spent several days in Czechoslovakia before going on by train to Hungary. We stopped off at the border to view the Danube Bend. In Budapest we rode the ancient electric underground railway which was then still using the original carriages from the 1890s.

Vienna, Austria, 1965. Our last stop was  back in the West, and rather flat in comparison to Communist Europe. It was dire in the East for the inhabitants, but as visitors from the wealthy Capitalist part of the world we were treated very specially indeed, almost like Royalty. They needed our cash!

Montreal, 1969. While visiting my sister in Canada my mother and I caught the train from the suburbs to downtown Montreal. We went with my sister and her children. It was single car train, but it had an observation deck (which I used of course). There was another railway visible from my sister’s house, one with plenty of freight trains going past.

Oxford, 1967. I went to Sheringham from school by bus, to catch the train from the station.  This was already the new BR built halt. The North Norfolk Railway had purchased the adjacent former station, but as yet no trains were running and it stood derelict. This was in December for my interview for a place at university. From Norwich I caught the train to Liverpool Street, and from Paddington I went to Oxford on a train full of fellow candidates. 

The metre gauge Baie de Somme railway

Folkestone, 1977, en route for the  Baie de Somme, France.  With my friend Bill I went on a day trip to ride the Baie de Somme narrow gauge preserved line. The return trip entailed changing trains after midnight at Shippea Hill of all places!

Aarhus, 1982. In Denmark me and my friend Bill travelled from Aarhus in Jutland to the island of Zealand, which at that time involved the entire train being hauled on the ferry for the sea crossing. (Since then a bridge has been built.) The door at the end of the last carriage on the train had a widow, from which you could watch the track disappearing into the distance.

Copenhagen, 1982. Arriving by train, we spent a few days in the Danish capital, where we did all the usual tourist things like visiting the Little Mermaid. We flew back to Manchester airport from there.

Aldershot, 1986. Stopped off for a haircut en route to my RAMC recruitment assessment.

Ash Vale, 1986. To RAMC HQ at Keogh Barracks for basic training.

Windermere, 1986. Just married, Molly and I went on a special to Lake Windermere in the Lake District; on the way we went over the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line. We  stopped off at Ribblehead station for a look over the valley.

Bournemouth, 1996. I caught the train down to Bournemouth where I had a week’s training at the Elstead Hotel as rep for the Union of Postal Workers. Saw the QE 2 at Southampton.

Paris, France,  2001. Our first overseas family holiday; Molly, Peter, Polly and I went by Eurostar from London. This was before the high-speed line was built, and we left from Waterloo.

Bruges, Belgium, 2002. With our children we went on a day trip by train to Bruges from the Midi Station in Brussels.

Estoril, 2005. On a family holiday to Portugal (when we flew to Porto) we arrived at our hotel by train from Lisbon.

Cascais, Portugal, 2005. We travelled to the beach for a morning sunbathing at the terminus of the line. Sunbathing is something I almost never do, and this was not a success. The railway line was lovely though, and runs along the sea throughout its length.

Flam, 2011. On our Norwegian cruise we travelled this steep electric railway line from sea level (the fjord) up to the mountainous country. There, despite it being August, there was still some snow about.

Me on the footplate at March shed, 1964.

Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Molly and I travelled on Eurostar from St Pancras and spent a few days with Peter and Alex in Brussels. It as February, and Peter was due to move back to England later in the month. We went first class (as by then I had  suffered from a stroke) and were entertained to a lavish meal as we were whisked through Kent.

Wymondham, Norfolk, 2015. I went solo for the first time since suffering from my stroke.I got on the train at Wymonham and travelled to Cambridge, where I was met by my cousin William. I also returned unaccompanied to Norwich.

I have been on many other railway journeys, mostly to London. Over my lifetime I have been by train to Wales, March in Cambridgeshire, Weymouth, Liverpool Street (all of these in steam days), to name but a few. I have travelled on lines that were axed by Dr Richard Beeching in the 1960s. This article includes all my travels abroad.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR RAILWAY MEMORIES

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ELSING

When the large parish church at ELSING in Norfolk was built back in the 1340s, what is now a small village was a substantial country town. Maybe it even rivalled EAST DEREHAM in size. A number of stones recording burials are to be seen on the floor of the church, and as late as the eighteenth century one of these still refers to Elsing as a town.  The remains of the guildhall are incorporated into a house in the village, but nowadays the evidence of the formerly bustling town is mostly hard to spot, and not much remains of the once thriving district.

When l visited the church with my wife Molly there was an exhibition of former parishioners who had fought (and in some instances died) in the First World War. This was in 2014, to the mark the centenary of the start of the war. The centenary of the Battle of Waterloo received no such observance (for one thing it fell in the middle of the First World War), but one of the last survivors of that battle is buried in an unmarked grave in Elsing churchyard.

Elsing church was built in the first half of the fourteenth century and has not been materially altered since. The nave has no aisles and is one of the broadest uninterrupted church roofs in the country.  It has lost most of the medieval stained glass, and appears very light and open. Despite the loss of its stained glass a lot of pre-Reformation decorative features remain, including a font cover which has been partially restored, to give some idea of the colourful effect.

Our dog Wesley accompanied us, and we met a man from Lincolnshire on a similar church crawl. He was very taken with the fact that a dog with a Methodist name should be inspecting an Anglican church. But (as he observed) the founder of Methodism (John Wesley) remained all his life a member of the Church of England and, as my wife never tires of pointing out, Samuel Wesley the hymn tune composer remained an Anglican until in 1784 he converted to Roman Catholicism! Wesley is certainly an ecumenical name.

It still has pub just across the road from the church. The building dates from the 16th century and it is called the MERMAID. It retains much of its charm, although modern requirements mean a large open-plan bar area rather than the old-fashioned saloon, snug etc. It has a large old fireplace. It is a dog friendly pub, which is a definite plus in my book. However the meal we had there a year or two ago was rather disappointing. Elsing’s economy was always based on agriculture, even when it was a ‘town’, but it is not all fields. The area is surprisingly well wooded. Even today there are many trees among which you can wander with you dog or ride your horse.

The village lies on the river Wensum, which, before the river was interrupted by many watermills, was a major route for trade. The watermill still stands in Elsing, but the last grain was milled for animal feed in 1970. It was water powered until the last. The final miller was one A. H. Forbes. The mill is now a superior style residence.  We went to a fête and duck race (that used the mill pond to race the plastic ducks) in the summer of 2017.  It was a lovely sunny Saturday afternoon and the surroundings were quite stunning. The mill at Lyng was in  the next village downstream, but it has long gone; for a few years in the early 19th century both Lyng watermill and the one upstream at Elsing were paper mills. So too were other mills on the river, notably the ones upstream at Swanton Morley and downstream at Taverham. Not far away were other paper mills at Oxnead  on the river Bure at Stoke Holy Cross on the river Tas. At Hellesdon on the Wensum and Bawburgh (on the river Yare) other mills produced pulp for paper. Paper making was big business in Norfolk 200 years ago, supplying the metropolis of Norwich and using rags from the same source.

 

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA

CAMPING

SLEEPING UNDER CANVAS

I remember the small white canvas tent I crept into in those long-lost summers when I was a lad. It was a real tent for two, but I never actually slept in it. However it was fun to do the things that were ancillary to spending the night there, like arranging the ground-sheet and slackening the guy ropes when it rained. These are things that would puzzle most people today. Wasn’t the ‘ground-sheet’ part of the tent? And guy ropes; – why did they need slackening if it rained? I won’t bore you with the answers, but believe me, if you didn’t take these things into consideration you would have spent a wet night under a heap of collapsed canvas.

I didn’t begin real camping until I was a teenager. For most youngsters this would probably have entailed being a Girl Guide or a Boy Scout, but I was never a Scout. Instead my camping was done as an Army Cadet. Things had hardly moved on since Victorian times in terms of the technology employed. Heavy wooden poles held the tent up, and for the larger tents the pegs were still wooden wedges that had to be hammered in with a mallet.  The tents I slept in were bigger than the one I had put up on my lawn at home, but you still had to watch those guy ropes and make sure the ground-sheet wasn’t outside the tent (and so letting in the rain). The canvas of an army tent was very tough, and so they were very heavy. Consequently, on one expedition, the four of us cadets decided to do without a tent at all, and sleep under the stars. It was midsummer, and the worst problem was the heavy morning dew. We did take a ground-sheet with us, and therefore slept under it instead of on top!

Some of my camping took place in Norfolk, but mostly it happened elsewhere. When I was sixteen we went on a three-day exercise from Sennybridge, a large army base that still exists in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. This time we did load our packs with tents. We also had to take a map and a compass, and we were given a map reference to rendezvous with our CO three days later. All our food we had to carry on our backs; this consisted of tinned Compo Rations army style. On the other hand, all our water was provided by the mountain streams.  This was fine until we discovered a drowned sheep a few metres upstream of our watering hole; this was after we had filled our water bottles and taken plenty of swigs!

Much of my camping was done under the auspices of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, but the effect was just the same.  Once I had left school my camping days were almost over, but after I had joined the Territorial Army this part of my life was revived for a short period.  The experience of spending the night outdoors was not an enjoyable one in the TA; I only had a waterproof poncho for protection, and sleeping was out of the question due to fire-crackers being let off all through the night; added to that, the threat of a tear gas attack was not conducive to a good night’s rest.

I returned to the joys of camping when I was over fifty, because by then our children were in their late teens and ready for the outdoor life. We had gone to Sheffield (where they both were to attend university) to spy out the land. We spent a couple of nights at a campsite in Monsal Head. This is a beauty spot in the Peak District, and this is near Sheffield. By then the technology of camping had changed beyond recognition. None of it resembled what it had been in my youth; cotton canvas had gone, and no longer were tents cumbersome but light and compact affairs. Strong but insubstantial tent poles could be erected in seconds and separate rubberised ground sheets no longer existed. Their function was integrated into the tent itself. Sleeping bags, which once had been filled with kapok (a natural fibre that was warm enough but heavy to carry) are now made of man-made material that is both lightweight and easy to stow. I was really far too old to go camping on this occasion, but apart from the fact that my air-bed slowly went down overnight (some things hadn’t changed), it was an agreeable few days. The fact that we had our car with us meant there were no heavy backpacks to be humped across the country; our camping trip wasn’t one of the arduous kind. When we finally loaded up the car for our return home that really was my last night outdoors. I cannot say that I am sorry that this chapter in my life is now well and truly over.

My son and his girlfriend recently spent a few nights camping. We still had the equipment we had used in Derbyshire, and lent this to them. The weather was fine, and they had a good time round the fire-pit as the sun went down. Although she is Dutch, his girlfriend has lived all over the world from Hong Kong to Venezuela, but she found the attraction of North Norfolk very special.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST