Tag Archives: health service



St Matthew from Cawston Church rood screen (16th century).

The earliest mention of spectacles known in England dates from 1328, when the will of the Bishop of Exeter mentions ‘spectaculum oculo’ (spectacles for the eyes). They were valued at two shillings (ten pence), which I gather was a considerable sum of money at the time. Although Pliny mentions that the Emperor Nero used an emerald to improve his vision, spectacles as we know them were invented in Northern Italy, as is recorded by a Dominican friar who wrote in 1306: ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses‘. A painting in Cawston church (dating from around 1500) shows St Matthew wearing a pair of glasses. At this period these still had to be held up to the eyes, although an early form of pince-nez that gripped the nose had already been developed. By 1600 we have a picture of a Spanish Cardinal (by El Greco) wearing glasses with sidepieces extending over the ears.

The  WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF SPECTACLE MAKERS is one of the Guilds of the City of London, whose Charter was granted by King Charles I in 1628. They adopted the motto ‘A blessing for the aged’. My father became an optician by studying under the Spectacle Makers Company. He had to go up to London to take the exam, and on qualification he got the letters FSMC (Fellow of the Spectacle Makers Company) after his name. This entitled him to become a Freeman of the City of London. This was superior to being a Freeman of the City of Norwich (which he was not entitled to), and although he never took up the honour he remained proud of the possibility throughout his life. The term ‘Fellow’ did not however mean that he was a ‘Liveryman’ of the Company; that was restricted to a membership 400 (originally just 60) who were prominent London businessmen. Now that all opticians must have a university degree the Spectacle Makers Company is no longer directly involved in education.

Spectacle frame made by Mason and Gantlett.

Most ophthalmic opticians stuck to testing eyes, but my father took this a step further and really did become involved in making spectacles. This side of his business began in the 1940s and continued for the rest of his life. (Sight testing remained his main occupation except for a brief period when had an optical factory.) In spite of the fact that his qualification was from the Spectacle Makers Company it had nothing to do with the actual making of glasses. This skill he had to teach himself. If you wish to learn more of this side of his life I refer you to an earlier blog – FRANK MASON (PART THREE).

Another Norwich man who was entitled to become a Freeman of London was Jeremiah Colman who started his mustard business in 1814. He did take up the honour, in 1838. Although his business skills had nothing to do with spectacle making, it was as a Liveryman of the Spectacle Makers Company that he was enrolled as a Freeman of London. In the nineteenth century the Guilds of London had ceased to have a sole involvement with the industry stated in their title, their ostensible raison d’être.  Already those with no connection with spectacles had begun to be admitted as members, although their interest in the training of opticians shows that some involvement with the industry remained. As far as the choice of Company was concerned, that depended on which one had a vacancy at the time, and in Jeremiah Colman’s case this was the Spectacle Makers. From starting off as just another minor flour miller in Norfolk, Jeremiah had become a very important businessman in London, whither a regular service by horse and cart delivered his product from Stoke mill. A cart-load may not seem very much, but if the amount was two or three cart-loads a week the volume begins to become quite substantial; you didn’t need that much mustard powder to supply Georgian London. Before Jeremiah’s death in 1854 the railway line from Norwich had removed any barriers to trade.

Although things like contact lenses and lazar eye surgery have made spectacles less necessary today, they are still the commonest form of visual aid. Although they had been about for 500 years, glasses did not reach the whole of European society until the 19th century. The earliest type of eyeglasses were for reading. I will not go into the technical difference between these and distance glasses, but these were a later development. By tradition Pope Leo X became the first person to wear distance glasses for short-sightedness in the 16th century. Dr Johnson only had a hazy view of the mountains on his visit to Scotland, and at the theatre in London he could not see the actors’ faces; I assume therefore that distance lenses (i.e concave rather than convex) were still no widely available. This was no doubt because the correction of myopia (the medical term for short sight) requires a sight test and a prescription tailored to the individual, unlike reading glasses. Distance lenses were common enough by the composer Franz Schubert’s time however, because his severe myopia was treated by wearing glasses.



O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us…

...To see ourselves as others see us.

The Internet has given us that power, which Rabbie Burns could only dream about. I have been listening to the thoughts of foreigners about England on Youtube, and these come from all kinds of people; mostly they are Americans, but they also include Canadians, Poles, and many others. I thought everybody outside the UK pitied us for out health provision, but this is apparently not so; it has been quite an eye-opener to hear how Americans in particular envy us our NHS. Although we have our grumbles about the service (and I am appalled by its growing inefficiency) you can be bankrupted by illness in America. At least this can never happen here. The nation over that side of the Pond spends twice as much on every patient as well. We take the NHS very much for granted, but it was a ground-breaking utility in the 1940s when it was introduced; as an infant I owed my life to it. On taxation too the Americans envy the simplicity of PAYE. There everybody has to fill out a tax return every year – an enormous source of income for accountants, an interest group that ensures the inefficient systems will continue.

Europeans say we all have jobs over here, and indeed we have an unemployment rate of around 4%, compared with an average approaching 25% for youth in Southern Europe. We tend not appreciate how lucky we are. With the railways we still look back with remorse at all the lines that were closed under Dr Beeching, but foreigners are amazed that the trains still go everywhere in the UK, and frequently too; in the Americas you are lucky to find one train a day on many routes. One train every two hours tells you that this a sleepy rural route, and on the Tube they now have trains every two or three minutes in rush hour. But everybody admits that the trains here are expensive.

Another thing we in this country deprecate is English cuisine, but people from abroad think Cornish pasties, Stilton cheese and Bakewell tarts are delicious, to name but three; even Scotch eggs and Melton Mowbray pies have their supporters. The English pub we regard as a feature that is rapidly vanishing, but we ought to cherish it, because it has a friendly quality that is quite lacking in the bars that are found abroad. In spite of its endangered status, the English pub is still evolving. In my lifetime it has changed to a family friendly environment, which is a good thing, but the relaxation of licensing hours and the consequent growth in binge drinking has been wholly negative. It was rather amusing to watch some young Chinese sampling Scotch on Youtube. As first-timers I think they might have got on better if they had not tried to drink it neat!

Our weather is characterised as dull and drizzly, but I for one much prefer our gentle climate to Canada’s six months of snow. The narrowness of our roads is undoubtedly a downside as far as driving is concerned, but the twisty lanes can be very picturesque compared to straight highways. Everything, from a simple WWII bunker to the ancient remains at Hadrian’s Wall or Stone Henge, fascinates our tourists. This observation doesn’t apply to Europeans (who have plenty of monuments of their own), but for our transatlantic visitors the history that greets you at every turn is a great attraction. For the more reflective Europeans the fact that we have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years makes our heritage rather special. The small size of our dwellings is a noticeable feature of the UK, even in comparison with much of Europe.

I can now see through foreign eyes the more interesting things we have to offer. The comments of the visitors who spend 48 hours viewing the sights of London are less revealing. The fact that all the great museums in London are free amazes the Americans, and indeed it makes me give a wry smile; I wish our museums here in Norwich were free, but I recognise the fact that someone has to pay for these collections.






The Volkswagen Beetle was the car that our family doctor Heppie – a Scot whose real title was Doctor Hepburn – used to come out to see me when I was very young. I was suffering from those childhood ailments, like whooping-cough, measles and mumps, that have now been largely consigned to the past and banished from our lives. Injections against these diseases were not available when I was a little boy. Although uncomfortable, these illnesses were not regarded as anything other than the necessary adjuncts of growing up, but apparently they were life-threatening. A new black Beetle was a superior motorcar in the early 1950s – the sort of car you would expect your GP to drive in fact.

My earliest experience of riding in a Beetle was on the occasion when my father’s car was out of action for some reason, and he hired a Beetle from Robinson’s. Robinson is still the Norwich VW dealership, but in those days it was located in a garage just opposite Bishops Bridge in Riverside. The garage is still there, now a branch of a tyre fitting company. At one time it was used by a firm called Godfrey’s as a DIY shop. We needed a car because my father had arranged to do an ‘out-test’ (he was an optician and this was his phrase for a domiciliary visit) for Mrs Fakes in Hemsby. Mrs Fakes had kept the village shop in Hemsby when my father had been a regular visitor there before the war. His father (my grandfather) had built a wooden chalet which he erected on the sand dunes. The sands had been under the sea a few years before, so there was no question of  buying the land from the previous owner; I think he just bagged it (Poseidon could not be contacted).

What I recall about the car was my discovery of a narrow slot behind the back seat which was meant for luggage. VW Beetles retained this feature to the end; when I first discovered this narrow aperture I was small enough to crouch inside it. I happily rode home there. I did not need to worry about my not wearing a seat belt in the car – they did not exist then. My father, who was quite safety conscious, had one fitted to our Hillman Husky in about 1961. They were very new at the time, and were entirely optional; most people pooh-poohed the very idea. Whatever do you want one of those silly things for? The first seat belts were just a single transverse strap from the pillar by your shoulder to the floor, and my father only had one put in for the front seat passenger; even he thought one unnecessary for the driver; the steering wheel would protect him in the event of a crash.  There was no strap across your lap, so in a pile-up you could easily have slipped out it the he belt had not been tightened by hand; when you were closely restrained at all times. The automatic tensioner that locks you in if the car suddenly decelerate was a much later development.


Fast forward over thirty years and the VW Beetle was still going strong; it had been phased out of production in Europe, but it was still being made in South America. My father-in-law-to-be had just bought a new  VW Jetta, and he passed on his faithful old red Beetle to Molly, his daughter and my fiancée. He had bought it in 1973 when they were still being made in Germany, and had kept it for a dozen years or so. When I married her about 18 months later I also married her Beetle! My own car was an old Ford Escort estate, and as it had recently failed its MOT. I got rid of it, and we relied on the Beetle as the family car. For personal transport I got myself a moped.

We must have kept the Beetle for almost 10 years, all through our children’s childhood. The place to go for servicing and repairs was by then Woolley’s Garage in Hingham. Mr Wooley specialised in Beetles. Once I had a go at removing the air cooling duct myself, to replace some parts, but the fiddling with endless screws while lying on the ground convinced me to leave this job to the experts in future. It is a journey of 17 miles from Norwich to Hingham, so it was quite a trip there and back. We certainly didn’t wait in Hingham until the work on our Beetle was finished. I cannot remember how we got back home again, but I suppose Mr Wooley lent us a replacement vehicle – another Beetle of course! It was pleasant to have an excuse to look round the small market town (more of a large village) of Hingham. In those days it had a splendid old ironmonger’s shop, and a secondhand emporium that was worth a browse. It was from Hingham that Samuel Lincoln, the ancestor of America President Abraham Lincoln, left for a new life in the New World in the year 1637.

Eventually we sold the Beetle. With two children, almost teenagers, we had outgrown it, and it was over 20 years old by then. It still had some years of life left in it, but it was in need of a thorough overhaul. I last saw it for sale on a garage forecourt in the village of Felthorpe.





AUGUST 30 1887 –  AUGUST 25 1958

Millie as a child

Further to my earlier account of Aunt Millicent, I have assembled this picture gallery of her life. The first picture is of Millicent aged about ten; her mother Rebecca had died when she was only seven years old.


She was brought up by her step mother; her father needed help to bring up his young family and he soon married his housekeeper Alice Farrow. Alice went on to have five more children with Millie’s father Charles Mason. At the age of twelve Millicent was still at school, but she was just about to embark on her first job.

MILLIE, 28/5/1911 – 2 before her 24th birthday


This photograph is a portrait of Millie sitting at a table.  She may have been still working as a parlour maid in Norwich at Strangers Hall, where her employer was Leonard Bolingbroke, the solicitor who gave the house to the City. Her hairstyle does not seem suitable for the nursing profession; it would not fit into the hat that was an essential part of a nurse’s uniform. However she was soon to abandon her work in service and begin her ascent to the very heights of the nursing profession.

Millie as Polly Peachum

This next picture comes from her time as a pupil nurse in South London. In spite of her still youthful appearance she was in her early thirties by then. As a relaxation from her arduous occupation as a nurse she is taking part in an amateur production of the Beggar’s Opera, with the lead female rôle of Polly Peachum. The Beggars Opera, first performed in 1728, had a phenomenal professional revival in London in 1920, with a run of nearly 1,500 performances. This photograph was taken at Christmas time in 1923, shortly after Aunt Millie had qualified as a midwife. She was living in Balham in the Wandsworth area, just south of the river.

Balham is well served by transport links, with both Underground and Overground stations. It was thus fairly easy for her to get on a train to visit her family in Norfolk.  The postal service was cheap and efficient in those days, and you could send a postcard for as little as a ha’penny. There were nearly 500 of these ½d coins to a pound, and even if you posted your card late in the day it would arrive at its destination the next morning without fail. Would that this was still true.

Her place of work was St James’ Hospital in Balham where she had been enrolled as a pupil nurse in 1920. (The official title of the Infirmary was indeed St James’ with no final ‘s’, although the nearby street is correctly called St James’s.) It was a large hospital with over 600 beds, which had been opened in 1910 on the site of a former workhouse, and the building included accommodation for nurses. It finally closed after nearly eighty years in 1988. Millie moved to another hospital in 1926 and eventually progressed to working in Harley Street, the top location for medical advice in the country. There she became the favourite midwife of the highest echelons of society.


The picture above shows Aunt Millie in her nurse’s uniform. Always rather short-sighted, she was still wearing rimless glasses, but by the 1930s she had changed to a heavy round black horn rimmed frame, a style that she wore for the rest of her life. Our first picture of her wearing these glasses was taken in 1936 in Trowse, where she had returned for a short break to spend some time with her father who was then in his late seventies. The two are shown here in his garden. She was already becoming well-regarded in her chosen career, and I think you can tell her father was immensely proud of her.

CHARLES MASON and his daughter MILLICENT in his back garden.

In 1953 Aunt Millie was employed by Timothy Colman at Bixley Manor, his home a short distance to the south of Norwich. He had recently retired as Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and was settling down to married life. This was an important appointment as Millicent was to look after his first-born child, a daughter called Sarah, cousin to the new Queen Elizabeth.

Millie in 1953

Millie took the opportunity of living near Norwich for a few months to visit family members in the vicinity. We  went to Bixley Manor to see her from our home in Poringland, and although I was only four I remember clearly what she said to me; perhaps my family reminded me in later years. However I recall her appearance as that of a very old lady, but in fact she was a young looking sixty-something. She also journeyed into Norwich to see the Withams and the Berrys, her half sisters’ families and doubt other family members too; there were plenty of Masons living in the Lakenham area of the city. Unlike today, Council Houses with large gardens were being built in huge numbers after World War I, and the Masons took full advantage of this fact.

Christma 1952

Pilling Park, 1953

For the Christmas of the previous year she had sent out this studio portrait of herself to acquaintances and members of her family. She had made many friends through meeting the parents of new babies, and in spite of being a single woman I get the impression that her retirement in Kent was not a lonely one. She would have chosen this area to retire to because both her brothers who had remained in Norfolk had already passed away, while her two sisters Nellie and Bessie were both living in Kent at the time.

The final picture I have of Millie shows her in the summer of 1953 in the home of  her half-sister Edith Berry (née Mason) in Pilling Park, Norwich.





MILLICENT MASON was my Grandfather Mason’s sister. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, but I met Aunt Millie in 1953 when she was living at Bixley Manor (just outside Norwich) for the birth of Timothy Colman’s first child. She was a highly respected and competent midwife, who had worked in Harley Street earlier in her career. In this way she had established a reputation for excellence among the greatest in the land (the baby she was looking after was a close relative of the Queen Mother). She had worked her way up from very humble beginnings as a housemaid, working at Strangers Hall in Norwich when it was still a private residence. The owner was a solicitor called Leonard Bolingbroke and he gave the house to the city to be turned into a museum of social history.

Millicent Mason

In 1920 Millicent began her nurse’s training at a hospital in South London. In 1923 she qualified as a midwife and by 1925 she was staff nurse in the maternity ward. It was for her not a job but a vocation, and one she pursued with kindness and humanity. Although the work as night sister was hard, she was able to return home regularly to see her father who was living in a cottage in Trowse, Norfolk. I have a picture of Aunt Millie with my Great-grandfather standing in his allotment, tending his beloved flowers. Great-grandfather was still working as a carter in Colman’s mustard business when she moved to London, but he enjoyed a long retirement which was made possible by Lloyd George’s new Old Age Pension. Colman’s were also good employers, who looked after their old employees.

The outbreak of war in 1939 caused the hospital in central London where she had been working to close, but her fine work around the new-born meant she had no difficulty finding other employment. Working throughout the Second World War presented her with plenty of other difficulties however. She retired to Tunbridge Wells where she died unexpectedly at the age of 70.



OUSELEY ROAD, BALHAM, SW 12   26th February 1925

It gives me much pleasure to testify to the merits of Miss Millicent M. Mason who came to this Hospital in March 1920 as a probationer nurse and is now leaving us. I have had considerable opportunities of observing her work throughout her stay, first as probationer, then as pupil midwife and latterly as staff nurse in charge of the lying-in ward at night.

She has proved herself highly competent in these various capacities and her wide experience of nursing in its medical, surgical and obstetrical aspects makes her a valuable member of any team. I always found her most pleasant to work with. I am sorry to lose her services.

Wm L. Maccormac, Medical Superintendent


OCT 18/39

It gives me great pleasure to write a testimonial for Sister Mason. She has been in charge of the Maternity, Children’s and Infant’s wards of the London Local Hospital for nine years. During that long time she has done her work excellently and to the satisfaction of the Board. Personally I do not think anyone could have done the work of this difficult post in a better manner. She is kindness personified.


To: Mr Charles Hughes, a nephew of Aunt Millie:

28th October 1958

Dear Mr Hughes,

I was very sad to hear of the death of my dear friend Millie, & do thank you very much for letting me know.  I felt there must be something wrong, not hearing from her for so long, the last I heard from her she was hoping to come to Bournemouth. I have known her since my son was born 34 years ago & she came to his wedding just over three years ago, which was the last time we saw her.

I was hoping she would be coming this month to see my little grandson. She would have been so pleased as she was very fond of my son. We do take the Telegraph every day, but I seldom look in the deaths column.

One thing we do know, she did not suffer, and thank you once more for writing.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Y. E. Woodbridge







Originally from the French hôpital ambulant, the word ambulance came into common parlance in the wars of the nineteenth century. At first the word must have referred to the walking wounded, because the root is the same as the verb ‘to amble’. At the time of the Crimean War horse-drawn waggons referred to as ambulances were used to carry the wounded from the battlefield to the primitive field hospitals set up by Florence Nightingale.

The motor ambulance came to England in the aftermath of the Great War; with the coming of peace ambulances became available to the general community, but it was a gradual process. The lack of communication made contacting any provider of first aid (not just ambulances) difficult to say the least. This was certainly true until phone boxes began to appear across the country in the 1920s. Then contacting the local doctor (who would have been one of the few individuals to possess a telephone) became easier. The infrastructure of emergency care still had to develop, and without a National Health Service this was inevitably patchy, and there was always the matter of payment hovering in the background.

Before the Second World War ambulances scarcely existed, especially not in rural areas; the possibility of summoning any kind of medical assistance in an emergency was remote. If some kind of assistance eventually arrived it would certainly not have done so speedily. In the days before the phone it was difficult to contact help, but it was not utterly impossible. Since the latter half of the 19th century an increasing number of rural Post Offices had access to the telegraph system. In theory someone could ride on a horse to the nearest Telegraph Office and the local hospital could be informed of the medical condition of the patient, but at that point the hypothetical system would have broken down.  The hospital had no way of bringing the casualty in from the countryside for treatment, although in the city it might have been possible to help.

Consequently it would normally be the nearest doctor who would be summoned for assistance. Day or night the long-suffering physician would attend to the critically ill, travelling on horseback or by an early form of motor car. Unlike now, doctors were always available ‘out of hours’. You may read in the book Black Beauty of the journey of a doctor on the galloping horse in the dead of night, to an ill patient. On arrival the doctor was good at looking concerned and taking his stethoscope out of his Gladstone bag, but his ability to help the casualty was severely limited by the lack of the high-tech resources we rely on today. People were resigned to their fate in those times.

It may come as something of a surprise to some people, but the ambulance service in England was run entirely by volunteers well after the formation on the National Health Service in 1948.  It was manned by St John’s and the Red Cross.  I cannot tell you exactly when paid ambulance staff took over this emergency service, but in 1964, when my friend had appendicitis, he was taken to hospital from Holt to Norwich in a Bristol ambulance driven by Harold Cook, a St John’s Ambulance volunteer. The Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance no longer attend emergencies, which is done by the professional Ambulance Service, but they still perform a valuable scontribution in transferring non-urgent cases between mefical establishments.  The sight of a St John volunteer is still a common one at public events.

The early ambulances had no blue flashing lights; there was no siren either, but as with fire engines these vehicles rang a silver bell when on emergency call-outs. You might think the sound of a bell was less noticeable than that of a siren, but there was scarcely a more alarming sound than an ambulance speeding along ringing its bell. The colour scheme has changed from white to yellow, and the provision of medical equipment in the vehicles has increased enormously. These however are minor changes compared to the arrival of ambulances in the first place; today we complain if an ambulance takes a minute longer to reach us than the statutory eight minutes. There are those still living who would have been lucky if they had (for example) broken a leg, to have seen an ambulance within an hour, if one came at all.

Childbirth, which nowadays always merits a visit to the maternity ward, was previously undertaken at home, until almost within living memory. The local midwife (completely unversed in medical terminology but steeped in age-old lore) was still a common feature of Edwardian England. Childbirth was, in spite of its everyday occurrence, a dangerous time. The regular use of anaesthetics, let alone the use of ambulances to transfer pregnant women to hospital, has occurred only relatively recently. The world has certainly changed; we really don’t know we are born!

[My sister writes: As you probably know, Auntie Peggy drove an ambulance  at night during the war. (In the day she ran the wool shop which kept the family business going). They would park their cars on the quayside [at Kings Lynn]– no walls to prevent them from falling into the water, and Elsie did– she drove her car over the edge and ended up upside down in the mud. She put her finger out of the gear shaft to show she was alive, and was rescued before the tide came in. Elsie, Auntie’s friend, lived to be over a hundred and died within the last few years, I believe. Auntie Peggie could tell you more. . .  I remember her coming down to breakfast in her dressing gown, having been up most of the night.]






iom-db-festOn Monday 16th my sister Tig and I set off from our home near Norwich in the Fiat Panda. My double bass was in its cover on the roof rack. My dog Fido was also coming with us all the way to the Isle of Man. We had lunch at a pub near RAF Cranwell. Bill had travelled from his home near Whitby to see us for the day, and having shared the driving we arrived at the house of Marie Wragge (Bill’s mum) in Prestbury at four o’ clock.  We three younger ones took the dog down to the Bollin river for a walk. The river had lots of Himalayan Balsam plants growing on the banks, and I enjoyed surprising Bill with their exploding seed pods. That evening he drove us all out to a village called Wincle, where we had smoked trout at the Ship Inn.

On Tuesday Bill had to catch the train back to Yorkshire, and we bade farewell to Mrs Wragge and drove off to catch the ferry at Liverpool. We had been to the Isle of Man two years earlier, with Bill on that occasion. We gave Fido a run in a disused railway yard beside the terminal and then boarded the RO-RO ferry, Mona’s Isle. The dog got on free, although I think he was supposed to have a ticket. He was able to walk round the ship on his lead. While Tig went to the bar I chatted to a Manxman who was returning to his birthplace after 20 years. After the crossing we drove round the island and saw the Viking longship Odin’s Raven at Peel. She had sailed to the IoM from Norway three years earlier.

Rodney Slatford & PUPILS .IoM

Rodney Slatford & his pupils, Isle of Man

We were staying in Tiggy’s friend Elly Cadell’s cottage near Port Erin. Elly, who was away as resident nurse at a sanatorium, was not then living in May Cottage. This pretty property had previously belonged to Ronnie Aldrich, the former bandmaster of the Squadronaires. We drove south from Peel to find the cottage; it is very picturesque but very damp, although not as bad as it had been in 1980 when Bill and I slept there. In spite of it being summer we had to light a fire, which began to dry things out a bit. There is a lovely moor nearby, with flowering grasses and heather, and so were able to exercise Fido. We had shepherd’s pie and apple tart for tea.

On Wednesday 18th I enrolled for the Festival and bought my ticket for the final concert. There is a newspaper for the competition called the Daily Scroll. Then with Tig I went to see the Glen Maye waterfall near Peel. We took Fido for a long walk and met a sheep in a pigsty. Then we had coffee and Tig bought me a deerstalker hat for 95p! I promptly left on Odin’s Raven, but Tig got it back. To Douglas and saw the horse-drawn and electric trams. We bought a ticket for Fido so he will be legal on the boat back.

In the evening I went to a concert by Rodney Slatford and 12 of his pupils from the Royal College of Music. Frances Dorling, a young bassist from Norwich who is studying at the Guildhall School of Music sat with me. She intends to be a professional musician.* She will be competing in the Festival later. I sent a postcard to our mutual teacher Colin Boulter to tell him the news.

Alan Pickard

Alan Pickard

Thursday; after breakfast I was taken to the Falcon’s Nest in Port Erin where they were holding a Junior Bass School. The warm-up studies were excellent; I suppose I should have been playing, but I would have been out of my depth even in a junior class! Alan Pickard who had taught music at Gresham’s when I was a pupil there has now returned to his native IoM where he has a music shop. I was talking to a couple of locals who were helping out at the concert. They knew Alan very well. After Fernando Grillo’s concert at the Art Centre I went to Alan Pickard’s bookshop and we reminisced on old times. He says that he wrote the Lt. Governor’s introduction in the programme for him! After lunch I went to the Railway Museum- Bill would have had a field day buying souvenirs, old tickets and crested crockery. Next I went to a lecture by a husband and wife who make bows for basses; they are going to show us rehairing later. Then to a Master Class by Barry Green. At cocktail hour I got talking to a student and an army trombonist who plays bass as a sideline. The evening concert was given by the prizewinner of the first competition in 1978. I chatted with Frances Dorling again and met another competitor, a young man called Mike Woolf [an American who is now Professor of Double Bass at the University of the Arts, Berlin].

Friday, August 20th; today I fluctuated between despair at ever being able to play and enthusiasm. I walked Fido towards the Chasms after breakfast of fish fingers; the first class was at 9.30 so I did not have to rush. It was bowing exercises today, followed by a video of the BBC  The Great Double Bass Race. Heard pieces by Mozart, Capuzzi and Bottesini. Had a drink with Frances in the Bass Bar and chatted to Joan, a bassist from the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra. Returned to the cottage to find Elly had arrived with her dog Honey, who Fido was very interested in.

Saturday; drove into Port Erin for a lecture by Rodney Slatford on Koussevitsky (1874-1951), the Russian born conductor, composer and bass player. He spent most of his career in Boston, USA. After going round the Motor Museum I came home for sherry before lunch with Tig and Elly. The dogs get on well except when they are eating, when Honey gets the upper hand. Back for a class on bass maintenance; things like bass bar repairs and the fact the sound post always falls down when the strings are removed – all bass players know that. Then it was a very special Master Class by František Pošta (1919-1991), the Czech virtuoso. On the way over I was chatting to Barry, a bassist who plays with the Bournemouth Symphony who knows Colin Boulter very well – he bought his five string bass from him, a fine instrument by Benedikt Lang. František Pošta’s English is just adequate; his most memorable saying; ‘play in tune then add VIBRATO, play in time then add RUBATO‘. Back for a concert by Leonard Woolf. Barry tells me that Colin got a fellow bass player so drunk he had to be held up all though a concert!

Colin Boulter in 2012

Colin Boulter in 2012

When I got back Tig and Elly were out with Elly’s friend Marie and I was locked out, but the back door was open. Apparently Honey had eaten Fido’s supper again;  she will be getting enormous and poor Fido will fade away.

Sunday; Elly drove us to the Laxey Wheel, and told us to buy something to eat at the pub before going on the tram up Snaefell. We took rolls and cans of drink with us. We went to the summit, leaving the dogs behind. It was sunny, but the haze prevented us seeing any of the four other countries you can see on a good day (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). We descended and I saw two bassists on the tram going up. Elly took us to Tholt-y-Will Glen, and we walked down past the waterfalls to have a cup of tea at the bottom. We drove south to Fleshwick Bay where I gathered a lot of driftwood for the fire (although we had earlier bought some coal). Back to the cottage to burn some of the wood. This evening Fido was able to eat his food before Honey got to it.

Monday morning Tig and I went to a secondhand bookshop in an old barn. The owner had died three months before and it was being run by his widow. We got a lot of books, a Wodehouse, Pick of Punch etc. I went to a recital at 2.30, it was by the eventual winner. I asked Frances what she did yesterday and she told me she spent it playing quartets with three other bassists. At May Cottage I sawed up some logs. The evening concert was by the Nash Ensemble.

Tuesday; a lot of walking in the rain; things kept getting cancelled but eventually I attended a lecture on position playing. At 10.30 there was a Jazz bass concert. Home, and Tiggie and I went to the Nautical Museum at Castletown. There we saw the armed yacht Peggy  built in 1791 by an eccentric called Quayle. It had been walled up in its boathouse in the early 19th century and was rediscovered in 1951. At Port Erin I heard the lecture on hairing bows. On my return to the cottage I found the ladies having a bonfire in the garden and the house full of smoke. The recital this evening was by a Japanese competitor.

Wednesday. Tig took Fido to Ramsey and nearly ran into another car which pulled out into her path; she braked so suddenly Fido fell off the car seat. I did not go into Port Erin until 10 o’clock and watched a video of two members of the Berlin Phil playing cello and bass in pieces by Rossini, Mon, Paganini and Romberg. I sat through another recital with Joan, Frances left after two items. There was also a concert of Dragonettis and Bottesine pieces written for instruments other than the double bass. As it was such a lovely bright afternoon I skipped the Jazz recital and went round the open air museum, saw the train arriving but returned in time for cocktail hour. I had taken my copy of the 1978 competition programme for Joan to read.  The František Pošta recital was well received by most of the audience but the music was not to Frances’s taste. Colin would say that the job of a professional musician is to play what is put in front of him, not to like what he hears. Afterwards I had a drink in the Bass Bar.

Thursday 26th August. It was the last day of the competition, taken up with recitals by the finalists in various categories. I bought Bill one of the last three dinner plates at the museum shop with the Isle of Man railway crest; it cost £4. The two Dutch bassists who Tig had met earlier in the week gave a very stylish recital. After the final performances (which Duncan McTier won) we went back to the Falcon’s Nest for a farewell drink at the Festival Final Reception. František Pošta shook us all by the hand.


*Frances Dorling has worked as a freelance double bass for many of the professional orchestras in the UK. She played in the Dutch Tango quartet Cuarteto Rotterdam until 2008. For more details of Frances Dorling’s biography click here. To see her and hear her on the bass click here.

For some of my own later experiences playing the double bass click here. A list of the musicals I played in the decade to 1990 is given here.

[I am told by his granddaughter that Colin Boulter died in February of this year- 2017. He had been living in London since 1982.]





GREEN GODDESS parked in Ipwich Rd, Norwich

GREEN GODDESS parked in Ipswich Rd, Norwich

The Green part was because they were painted that colour, and Green Goddess was already a phrase in literature, hence the nick-name. They were fire engines, and the colour for a normal fire engine was red of course. Nowadays they  might be largely silver coloured, but back in the days when the Green Goddess first appeared they were all red. The green colour of the Green Goddesses came from their military origins. The intention was to provide a large number of appliances to deal with the fires that would follow a nuclear attack. The reason they were built had nothing to do with strike breaking, though that was the only thing they were ever used for.

Green Goddesses were introduced in 1953, and by the time they first appeared on our streets in the late 1970s they were already a bit dated. They had first belonged to the Civil Defence which would have operated them in time of conflict, but when that organisation was abolished in 1968 they were transferred to the Home Office. The personnel called in to drive them when needed belonged to the armed services.

In the 1950s when the red fire engines were on call they rung a bell as they sped along the road; the two-tone siren had not yet been invented. The same applied to ambulances and police cars. I never heard a Green Goddess on call, but I am sure that it would have rung a bell too. The flashing light, like the siren, was a later development and I think they both came from America. In the States the flashing lights are often red, but we Brits have always used blue.

The design of the Green Goddess was based on a Bedford army truck and they were intended primarily to pump large quantities of water onto a fire. They also had a ladder for rescuing people, but it was relatively short. The Green Goddesses were called out when the Fire Service went on strike during the Union troubles of the 1970s. I preferred the old term, the Fire Brigade, but they never went on strike under that name. Striking in these services, like health, impacts upon the public rather than the employers, and does not seem to me to be good way of resolving disputes.  Luckily the Green Goddesses never had to deal with a major conflagration, because the training of the ‘firemen’ at the controls (i.e squaddies) was not very thorough.

The ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978 is the time that I remember the Green Goddesses best. We felt the whole of society was falling apart under Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government. It wasn’t only the firemen who went on strike – the binmen went out too, and rubbish was piling up on the streets. The only time that proved to be even worse was Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, and her massive increase in VAT. This killed my business stone dead. I, along with the majority of the  people, resolved never to vote Tory again. She was saved in the eyes of the British public by her firm handling of the Falklands crisis, and after that she could no wrong in their opinion.

I had forgotten that the Green Goddesses made another brief appearance on our streets in 2003. By then they were 50 years old and it is no wonder that they were sold off the following year. They had seemed antiques a quarter of a century earlier when they were first called out. Although they were very old they had not seen much service and had been well cared for. Many of them were sold to African countries where communities had never before had the benefit of a fire engine.





As told by the monk Ælfric

St Edmund, Kelshall church

St Edmund, Kelshall church, Hertfordshire

Click here to hear the story of St Edmund in Old English  as told by the monk Ælfric. Hear how close this comes to Modern English. Whole phrases are spoken exactly as they would be today. You will hear the Old English words spoken, but the Modern English text appears on-screen.

Ælfric wrote the story of St Edmund’s death just over a hundred years after it happened. He was the first to write this event down in English, although the French monk Abbo wrote the story in Latin shortly before. Ælfric acknowledged his debt to Abbo but there are several facts in the English story that do not appear in the Latin version, so it is obvious that Ælfric had other sources available to him; in other words his story was not just a slavish copy of Abbo.

It is sometimes said that we know hardly anything about St Edmund. If that means we are ignorant of the life of the king before he was killed, that may well be true, but about his death and the subsequent elevation of his memory to sainthood we are well-informed. There are those who say that the whole account of his death as recored by Ælfric and Abbo was fabricated, and bears no relation to the truth, but certain topographical features of East Anglia suggest that it is in part at least true. These connections have only recently been recognised, and so they could not have been tampered with long ago to colour the story of the saint. Anyone who wishes to learn more about the geographical context to this history of this period in England should read my booklet (details below).

I now wish to tell you about the parts of Ælfric’s story that are unique to him and do not appear in Abbo’s story. The first significant departure from the account of the French monk comes early on; according to Abbo the Vikings came straight to East Anglia from Denmark, but Ælfric records that the Danes came there from Yorkshire (then part of the kingdom of Northumbria). In this he was correct, as we learn from the pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However there are also significant discrepancies between the Chronicle and Ælfric’s account. The ASC may have been Ælfric’s source for the Danes earlier depredations in York, but in other ways he departs from its account. The method their travel was horseback according to the Chronicle, while Ælfric makes it very clear they came by sea.

A further point made by Ælfric is that, as soon as they had killed the king, the Danes returned to their ships. This fact does not come from Abbo who just says the Danes left to pursue their activities elsewhere.  Abbo mentions their ships, but only on their arrival, not upon their departure. The story of their leaving by boat is unique to Ælfric. The importance of this statement is that it rules out anywhere not near a waterway as the place for Edmund’s death. Both Hoxne and Thetford (two suggested sites for his martyrdom) are served by rivers, although both are a fair distance upstream and might have been too shallow for the Danish longships to navigate. The recently popular Bradfield St Clare near Bury St Edmunds is nowhere near a navigable waterway.

However, among the suggested sites for Edmund’s death the village of Helledon in Norfolk is on the other hand on a river that was quite deep enough and was also wide enough for Danish boats (see my picture below). The voyage upstream was not impeded by watermills in 869.  Moreover it has the major topographical advantage of being close to the field known as Bloodsdale with its traditional association with Danish bloodshed. Finally Hellesdon is the place where Abbo stated that Edmund was killed; it all seems so obvious to me (and a few others) that I do not know why there is any doubt about the matter.

Yet only this summer (July 2015) Bradfield St Clare was wheeled out again as the place where Edmund was killed, in an article in the Eastern Daily Press. This article concerned a hoard of Edmund pennies found near Wymondham in  Norfolk. The journalist suggested these coins might have been buried by a local Anglo-Saxon  who was killed in  the conflagration that also claimed the life of Edmund the king. The hoard was never reclaimed. I have no objection to this hypothesis, in fact I share his views; but when he goes on to claim this gives weight to a Suffolk village as the place of Edmund’s martyrdom I part company with him. Wymonham is only ten miles from Hellesdon, while it is 40 miles from Bradfield St Clare. By  distance alone this would suggest Hellesdon is the more likely site.

St Edmund's Norfolk

View from Hellesdon towards Bloodsale; was this St Edmund’s place of death?

My booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk is available on Ebay or free as a pdf download by emailing me on joemasonspage@gmail.com

If you do download this please circulate it as widely as possible; I am always pleased to think my ideas are getting an audience. I also have a popular Powerpoint lecture on St Edmund’s Norfolk which I would be pleased to deliver anywhere in East Anglia. Further afield is a possibly; just email me to discuss this if you have a venue in mind.

I have written several blogs on Edmund and related subjects which you may access by clicking the titles below:

St Edmund’s NorfolkViking Coins, St Edmund and the Wolf, Viking Names?,  Caistor St Edmund, Whissonsett, The End of the Kingdom of EA,  St Endmund King and Martyr, Caistor (3),  Markshall Church, The Vikings,  South Creake, Lyng.





Frank Mason, my father.

Frank Mason, my father, before his medication problems..

In many ways this was a difficult year. The main cause was medical – my father’s prescription of Practolol. This little blue pill was given to treat his cardiac arrhythmia (heart irregularity), but what was not known at that time was its highly toxic nature. It has not been prescribed for almost 40 years for this reason. The side effects of the drug included cold extremities, fatigue and depression. The effects on both his mental and physical health were extremely distressing for my poor old Dad and for those around him. Luckily the medical profession soon recognised their error and he was given a different medication. He wasn’t a well man of course, but he eventually recovered from his medicine induced illness. It was bad while it lasted though.

So 1976 was thus an awkward time for me. In his depressed state of mind he wrote a very rude and offensive letter to my mother’s brother (Uncle Eric) and sent me down the road to post it. When he had recovered his wits somewhat he asked me if I had in fact posted his letter. Of course I had not, luckily for his peace of mind.

No everything that happened that year was as bad as that. It was the year of the very hot dry summer. The lawn got completely parched and the flowers and vegetables needed lots of water from watering cans. There was certainly a hosepipe ban. As for our business, it was doing very well and I was kept busy making binocular magnifiers – up to 50 a week. Although there as was a substantial bill for advertising, they were nearly all sold at full retail price. We were feeling quite well-off as a result. We bought our first freezer and also had a new garage erected to replace the old wooden one. We ordered it from a firm in Ashwellthorpe. I had also bought a greenhouse which gave me hours of enjoyment. My sister Christine came over from Canada with her children during that summer.

This year my father got his cello out and began to play it again after many years. I had been practising my guitar much more recently, and together we worked on a piece by Vivaldi. Eventually we were passably good at one movement. I still have a recording of it, now transferred to CD.

My friend Bill had just been appointed manager of Whitby Hospital. The old hospital was being replaced with a brand new one, and he was overseeing the change-over. It was a responsible job for a man in his mid twenties, but Bill took it all in his stride. He was rather unconventional in his attitude however. For example he allowed the local vet to use the hospital x-ray machine on his animals out of hours! He had a nice detached bungalow on the edge of the Moors. June 1976 was my first visit to see him in Yorkshire, one of many such visits.