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.
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.
This old town mansion is a fortunate survival in the city. Built over 600 years ago, there are now only a handful of places like it left. The Music House in King Street is one, although it is even older; Dragon House (also in historic King Street) is an impressive late medieval merchant’s home and warehouse; the Curat House is hidden behind a modern facade in the Haymarket and dates from 1501. Strangers Hall is compact and hidden from view. All you see as you walk down Charing Cross is an unimpressive shop window, and the surrounding building is not only unremarkable but quite without merit. The glory of Stangers Hall lies in its interiors. It had fallen into dereliction and would have been demolished had it not been saved in the 1890s by a local solicitor with an interest in history. He was to use it as his home for the last twenty-five years of his life, but it took some time to restore and he did not move into it until early in the 20th century.
Millicent Mason was one of my great-aunts. In 1900 she was still at school, but she was about to embark on her first job. This portrait of Millie was taken while she was housekeeper at Strangers Hall. Her employer was 51-year-old solicitor Leonard Bolingbroke, who lived there with his wife and children. There were two other members of staff, a cook and a nurse (a member of the family must have had health problems). Leonard Bolingbroke it was who bequeathed the house to the council when he died in 1927. It became a pioneering museum of social history, one of the first in the country. Millie had moved on well before the creation of the museum and had begun her lifetime career as a midwife. While she was still working at Strangers Hall my father used to visit his aunt Millie in her living quarters. He was astonished when the same room was later on display as part of the museum. ‘This isn’t to be view by members of the public’ was his immediate reaction; ‘It was my auntie’s home!’
St Mary the Less is a church near Strangers Hall in the centre of the city. You can easily miss it among all the shops, unless you raise your eyes to roof level; there the tower may still be seen. The church was originally closed in 1544, but in 1565 it was given by the City Corporation to the Dutch refugees who were already being driven out of the Netherlands by religious persecution. The Dutch were highly valued for their weaving skills which found a ready market in East Anglia. They appear to have used the church for selling cloth rather than as a place of worship, holding their religious services in the Dutch language in Blackfriar’s Hall, a tradition which continued into living memory, finally ending in 1929. In 1637 the church of St Mary the Less was transferred to the Huguenot community, the French-speaking Calvinist refugees; prior to that the congregation had worshipped in the Bishop’s chapel in the Cathedral Close. They continued to hold services in French in St Mary the Less until 1832.
How is all this connected with Strangers Hall? The house acquired its current name from these incomers or ‘Strangers’ who settled in Norwich, particularly in that area of the city around Strangers Hall. This term ‘Stranger’ included both Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons. These immigrants may have accounted for as many as a third of the population of Norwich at their height, but by the end of the 16th century an outbreak of plague, prompted by their poor living conditions, reduced their numbers to about a quarter of the population. Even this was a huge proportion of the city’s residents.
They had a huge influence on the city. Many of the novelties introduce by these Protestant immigrants from Northern Europe resonate down the centuries, almost to the present day. It was for instance the Strangers who first brought the canary to Norwich, a bird which remained popular into the 20th century, when it gave its name to the local football team. The Florist’s Feasts were competitions held among local horticulturists in the local inns. These were a feature of Norwich life from the 1630s for two hundred years, and these too were an immigrants’ innovation. Anthony de Solempne, a Dutch refugee, became the first printer in Norwich in the mid 16 century and was a successful trader; he was made a Freeman of the city. In the brewing industry the introduction of hops led to the production of beer rather than the English unhopped ale; this was also down to the Strangers.
Augustine Sotherton was born in about 1597. The family came originally from a village of that name in East Suffolk. By the end of the 15th century the Sothertons were successful grocers in Norwich, and by the mid-16th century they were deeply involved in civic affairs. Members of the family served as Mayor, High Sheriff and MP. The Sotherton family were by then living in Strangers Hall in Norwich; their Coat of Arms and merchant mark may still be seen prominently displayed around the house. In 1623 Augustine was knighted and bought the estate in Taverham, moving from a trader to a member of the landed gentry. It was during his father Thomas’s time that Strangers Hall got its name. His grandfather (also Thomas) was the first person to invite the Dutch to Norwich, and provided lodgings for them at his home in Strangers Hall..
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
THE DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS OF A CITY DWELLING
It is a year since I last wrote about the house at 29 Surrey Street that used to belong to my family. Let me remind you; it was used as commercial premises in my family’s time, but until my father bought the house it had been in residential use. Latterly this was commercial hotel called the Angel, followed by a prolonged period of disuse.
Of the rooms on the other floors only the butler’s pantry (that opened onto the former dining room on the first floor) still had its built-in furniture. This must have been refitted in Queen Victoria’s time, because it was all done out in teak, not a wood used in Georgian times. It also it had a stained glass panel in door which was similarly of a later date. In the butler’s pantry the superior tea service, the silver and wine glasses would have been kept, together with the current bottles of port and sherry.
The kitchen in the basement was also preserved in its original condition when we moved in during 1959. A late addition to this room was a cast iron range with an oven on either side of the central fire. My sister and I did attempt to light the fire on one occasion but it filled the room with smoke; after years of disuse it would have needed at least a month of permanent fires to dry out the chimney. The basement was never cold anyway; the thick walls kept it at an even temperature winter and summer. (We did use the scullery chimney for a Tortoise stove that burnt smokeless fuel.)
There were four rooms in the basement; a store-room under the stairs (maybe for linen), a large pantry (larger than most of today’s double bedrooms) a scullery and the kitchen itself. There was a wall cupboard about three feet from the range, which probably held the cooking utensils. On the opposite wall was a huge pine dresser with open shelves up to the ceiling, to hold the crockery. Below were two huge cupboards at one end and a smaller cupboard at the other, with two drawers above for the cutlery. There was an enormous pine worktop, three or four metres long and more than half a metre wide; it was made from a single plank of wood. There was a gasmeter on the dresser that took shillings; one lasted for months. We used the single gas ring for making cups of tea or coffee.
Instead of the range, the scullery had a huge open fireplace. From the stone overmantle projected a hook on a swivelling bracket, from which huge joints would once have hung on a clockwork spit. In this room the washing-up would have been done, and the laundry (which would have taken up much of the servants’ time); two servants would have lived in, probably the butler and his housekeeper wife. The attic provided the domestics’ sleeping quarters. Others would have lived out, in the city.
From the kitchen one door opened onto the corridor that led to the stairs, and the other door opened onto the scullery. The walls in the basement were nearly a metre thick. The floor in the scullery was partly of large flagstones, and the rest of the basement was paved with red pamments, about 25 cms square. (All these measurement were of course in imperial feet and inches; the house had been built decades before the French Revolution that had ushered in the metric system.)
Although I have referred to this floor as the basement, it was only slightly below ground level at the front, and all the rooms had windows. The interior doors in the basement were half-glazed, because although there were windows to the daylight they were relatively small, and the doors helped spread the limited light round the working area. In the window to the scullery was a large shallow earthenware sink which must have been put in when the house was connected to the water and drainage systems in the nineteenth century. The house still used many of the original lead pipes.
A door in the scullery opened to the back area, and this gave access to the vaults. One was the wine cellar, and an earthenware flagon from some long-forgotten cider company remained when we moved in. Next came the coal cellar, with a manhole cover to the yard above, down which the coalman would have emptied his sacks. Finally came the longest cellar, which took a right angle bend and then descended a step or two to yet another arched vault. The use to which these last cellars had been put was not apparent; they were too damp to store anything that would rot.
FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA
Pancake Day always falls on a Tuesday – Shrove Tuesday – and it is followed by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday this year will fall on my birthday, the 14th of February. This is Valentines Day, I know; how could I not? All my life it has been for me to go out for a meal on my birthday. Even when I can book a table in the crush of loving couples, all the staff would assume my companions and I were in some way romantically attached to each other; so I much prefer to stay at home and have some wine with my dinner.
The trouble is that year Valentines Day will also be the first day of Lent, when I normally give up alcohol. I afraid it is done more for health reasons than for spiritual ones; I am convinced that over a month of abstinence does wonders for my liver. I know ‘dry January’ is the modern agnostic’s way of fasting, but for me the month is so dreary that I could not possibly make it worse by giving up drinking too. A few years ago, when I first decided to give up drinking for Lent, I knew so little about the traditions that I went for the whole of Lent without touching a drop of liquor. I now know that I can take a day off once a week, if I want.
During the years when I was growing up no one in my family ever gave up anything for Lent, as far as I can remember; if they did they kept very quiet about it, which is what they should do I suppose. The fashionable thing to say in those days was that, rather than give up something for Lent, you should instead take up some good cause. When I was at school my good cause was to attend the Lenten Addresses every Wednesday evening in the School Chapel. This was entirely voluntary, but they attracted a fair number of listeners. My friends and I would even discuss what we had heard as we walked back to our house. The fact that the Chapel was only about a hundred yards from our boarding house might explain this apparent keenness to attend. We certainly didn’t have long to finish our deliberations before it was time o do our prep.
Although the birds are already starting to sing heartily, there is no doubt that Lent comes at cold time of year. It was so cold in Dereham church in the nineteenth century (before any kind of heating) that few of the old folk used to attend services during Lent, according to the vicar. How the little birds survive with only feathers to keep them warm is a constant source of wonder to me. I suppose many of them must fall victim to the weather. I think the hibernating animals who get nice and fat in the autumn and then find a warm hole to sleep off the winter months have a much more sensible way to get through the season.
The Lent fast was taken seriously in the middle ages. It fell at the time of year when the foodstuffs that had been hoarded up from the previous harvest were beginning to run out, and fasting could easy turn into famine. With improved storage methods famines were largely a thing of the past by the sixteenth century. With the coming of the Reformation the more moderate Protestant churches continued to observe the Lenten fast, but the hard-line Presbyterians took a different view. All the annual Feast Days were anathema to the Puritans as a form of superstition; even Easer was ignored by the most extreme of them, but over fasting they were more conflicted. Fast days were prescribed in many Puritan jurisdictions, although the term Lent had Popish overtones and tended not to be used. It has never regained its former importance, and in today’s secular world it is ignored by most people; but we still enjoy pancakes.
THE BLOG FOR HISTORY
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.
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.
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 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.
THE STORY OF NORFOLK
THE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE
Before the war was over Frank was again looking to move outside the city and by chance the bungalow that the family had been living in at the beginning of the war was again to let. They returned to Poringland. After VE day peace returned to Europe, and after the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945 the Second World War was over. In 1947 an optician called Alfred William Oxbrow had died at the age of 74, and my father bought his stock and business goodwill from his executors. The Oxbrows hailed from Essex where they had been a family of watchmakers: Alfred was born in Kent. He had started his employment as a watchmaker in Canterbury, but in 1900, having qualified as an optician, he set up in business in Norwich. My father was able to sell his stock-in-trade to various opticians for a good price, so that he effectively got the goodwill for nothing. The additional records he now possessed brought him a useful amount of extra business, as he wrote to all his patients every two years to remind them to have their eyes tested again.
Six years of total war had reduced the economies of Europe to tatters. The Marshall Plan directed billions of US dollars to the UK and other devastated Western nations, but even so things were difficult. The war was over but the hardships of wartime continued. Rationing remained, and in some cases got even more restrictive in the immediate postwar period. In 1946 even bread was rationed, although it had been not been during the war. This lasted for two years. The last commodity to come off ration was meat, which finally became freely available in 1954. This was nine years after the war ended, and fifteen after it had been introduced. In the hard winter that began towards the end of January 1947 the coal shortage meant the people could only shiver. Potatoes perished in the frost.
Nevertheless the Labour Government was pressing ahead with transforming the land. Nationalised industries were being created to produce a new socialist utopia in Britain. They have almost all been privatised again in the years since then, and even some which had always been in public ownership (like the postal service) are now no longer National Industries.
Who now remembers British Road Services, whose red trucks and green vans, with their BRS roundels, used to carry freight along our highways? It was hard to run any kind of road transport business as a private concern after he war. The travel agent Thomas Cook and the furniture repository Pilkington’s used to be part of the great Nationalised Industry sector. Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution called for the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. Electricity supply had already come under national control before the war. The concept of nationalisation was not fully developed as the Socialist agenda until the late 1940s, but many services like water, gas and electricity were under local authority ownership (rather than private companies) almost from the start. In these cases public ownership makes sense; it may have its inefficiencies, but at least we are not in hock to a capitalist oligarchy. For example Anglian Water is owned by a Jersey based company; why does it have to hide itself away in a tax haven? The idea of something as basic as water being sold for private profit still seems shocking to me. We say ‘free as air’, but if only someone could devise a way of making us pay to breathe they surely would. Virtually the only Nationalised Industry that still remains is the greatest of them all: the National Health Service. This behemoth, with well over a million employees, was created in 1948 and it had a pivotal role in my father’s business career. It was into this world of grand schemes and practical hardships that I was born in February 1949.
Foot care and chiropody are among the latest areas to cease to be financed by the NHS, but it has been withdrawing from its responsibilities almost from the start. Prescriptions and dentistry used to be free at the point of use, whereas now we have to pay for these services as we need them. For the first few years everything was free in the optical business; glasses were supplied gratis to whoever needed them. This led to a huge increase in demand; members of the public, who had formerly seen but dimly, queued up at their local optometrist to have their vision restored. As you can imagine, everyone took part in this frenzy, customers and suppliers alike. My father was rushed off his feet. Not one to let a good chance pass him by, he had already begun to make spectacle frames before the end of the war. His workshop was in the basement of his shop in Orford Place. He was soon employing two or three young men to make them, while he tested eyes upstairs. There were many more frames being produced than he need for his own use, and these were sold far and wide. The postwar boom was getting under way; John Gantlett bought a boat which he sailed on the Norfolk Broads. After the war my father was able to buy a car once more, the first since he had been forced to sell his Morris in the 1930s. He invested in a Wolsey. It was an elegant car, but he could not drive it very far as petrol was still rationed, and it only did 14 miles to the gallon.
The introduction of free spectacles meant my father was not content with merely making spectacle frames; he turned his attention to making the lenses too. He began to do this in the basement too, but it was too small to accommodate his growing ambition, and he had a factory built in Hall Road (where Homebase now has a store). At the Menistor Works (as he named it) he employed many more people, busily producing frames and lenses in a full range of shapes and powers for short sight, long sight and astigmatism. While all this was going on in Lakenham, he and John Gantlett (who was now a partner in the limited company they had set up) continued to test eyes at Orford Place. Still not content with business activities, to the making of frames and lenses he added the manufacture of lens cutting machinery. His first machine he called the Versator. In designing this he found his wartime training as a hands-on instrument mechanic of great value. War, horrible and unnecessary as it is, leads to many technical and social changes that have great relevance in peacetime. War had once again thrown up unexpected advantages for my father.
The Versator had just gone on the market and my father was planning his next move when the government started to charge for spectacles. That was in 1952, and sales came to a complete standstill. Once again in his career the ground was cut away from under his feet and business collapsed. My father had a nervous breakdown and John Gantlett had to leave his employment in Norwich. The Works had to be sold and my eldest sister, who had just reached the age of fifteen, was to leave school to work as a secretary. The prospects were bleak, but my father was soon back on his feet. The business of sight testing at Orford Place soon revived, and within a few years he was running his family about in a succession of brand new cars, while my mother had a little Austin Seven for her own use. Instead of working as a pen pusher at Norwich Union my sister had begun a degree course at Oxford University. Things had again turned out well for my father and his family.
Next time we will follow my father as the lease expired on his premises at Orford Place, and he purchased an eighteenth century townhouse in the city centre. These years saw his sight testing business continue to grow, and he finally became financially secure.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
This pretty village has some dark periods in its history. At the time of the Black Death Ringland was used for burying the dead of Norwich; on the way to Costessey, Ringland Lane used to be known as Black Lane and the Woodland behind is still known as Blackhill Woods. The area was a huge charnel pit, where after more than 600 years this grisly memory is kept fresh. The bodies would almost certainly have been brought here by boat, as this part of Ringland lies adjacent to the river Wensum.
The village has a population of 260; in the year 1845 it was half as big again. In 1920 it was a larger village than its neighbour Taverham, where the major paper mill had closed twenty years before and the non-resident squire had yet to sell the land in the village. Now Taverham has a population of over 10,000 and is a dormitory for Norwich. The nature of Ringland has changed too, from a community of poor farming families and tenants to one of wealthy owner-occupiers.
Ringland Hills are unusually steep for Norfolk and were formed as a terminal moraine in the ice age. My earliest memory involves being taken to Ringland Hills in my father’s Singer car. By the time I was 8 he had bought a brand new Hillman Husky, so I can’t have been more than 7 and was probably much younger. Now the grassy slopes where I used to picnic are overgrown with brambles. During the 1930s they were a popular place for holding both motorcycle trials and sports car events. Since then Ringland Hills have fallen into dereliction; even the assault course which at one time used the hills is now no more. Now cars squeeze along the narrow lanes of Ringland and cut up the verges. They use the road as a short cut to the A47; a sign says ‘NO ACCESS TO TAVERHAM’, but however much the authorities would like this to be true it is a lie. There is no law that I know of which only allows residents of Ringland to use the road; it is either a public right of way or it is not, and Ringland Road is a public right of way.
During the First World War my father was brought to Ringland Hills for a Sunday afternoon treat. They are fairly close to the city and so Ringland Hills were a popular place for a stroll from Norwich. In those more energetic days when there were no cars for ordinary folk, a hike for a few miles into the countryside from the city meant a few hours well spent. My grandparents and their two young children walked all the way from the last tram stop on the Dereham Road; I think it must have been too far for the little legs of the boy, who must have got over tired. Anyway, he misbehaved himself, and was rewarded by his father removing the leather strap round his waist and giving his son an almighty belting. Corporal punishment was the norm in those days; nevertheless it must have made a deep impression on my father, as he still remembered it fifty years later, when he used to recount the experience to me.
A hundred years ago, when my father was taken to Ringland Hills, the bridge across the river Wensum was just a flimsy wooden footbridge, as it had been for many years before that. A field was rented out to provide funds for its upkeep. Anything heavier than a pedestrian had to ford the river, and you can still see where the road went across the green opposite the Swan pub. This popular Ringland pub is where we took our daughter Polly for a meal on her 18th birthday. The setting was marvellous, but the meal was disappointing. Then it was Australian themed cuisine called ‘The Taste of OZ’. The owners have since returned to the Antipodes, but the quality of the dining has not improved to any extent.
Recently the church held a medieval festival with an exhibits of some of its ancient records. There was a concert of medieval music, and the church was almost full for the performance on Saturday, which was great. (It was well attended for the medieval Songs of Praise on Sunday evening too.) In the chancel was displayed a piece of the medieval rood screen, severely damaged by the sixteenth century iconoclasts, but still hauntingly beautiful. Also on display was the marriage register from the 1780s, where one may see the signature of James Woodforde, parson of the adjoining parish of Weston Longville. The current marriage register dates back to 1843, and the church warden has recently had to buy a replacement! The church was begun after the Black Death, except for the tower which is slightly earlier in date. Some churches are austere and rather forbidding, but Ringland church is a friendly place. It has a peaceful airy quality and has a high number of original stained glass panels. The glory of St Peter’s church is the wonderful hammerbeam roof, and it has many carved angels looking down on the congregation.
THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
I used to regard myself as quite an artist. As an adolescent I even imagined making art my career. I produced many paintings in the 1970s, heavily influenced by my father’s expectations of what a picture should look like. Painting is a solitary activity, and by the time I was thirty I had abandoned it for the more gregarious pursuit of playing in an orchestra. Music also has the advantage that once it has been played it has gone, vanished into the ether, leaving no scraps of paper and paint to dispose of.
I did not leave art behind completely; I continued to doodle a few sketches, but my main artistic endeavours turned to woodcarving. This was a big change; I didn’t use paint brushes or palette knives any more, but I needed chisels and gouges instead. I was fortunate in having a few already, which I had inherited from my father; he was not really a woodcarver (although he did produce a charming scene on the door a grandmother clock that is now in the possession of my sister), but he was an inveterate collector of tools. I could have done with more of them, but I had enough. These tools had to be kept sharp, so a grinder was useful and an oilstone essential.
I had been taught the basics of painting and drawing by my art master Stuart Webster, but as a woodcarver I was entirely self-taught. I worked out a few principles for myself; in doing full 3-D objects the technique was very different from doing low-relief carvings (my preferred method). In this you were essentially drawing in light and shade, and this meant exaggerated undercutting to produce the necessary shadows.
The type of wood used produced very different results. Lime wood was the medium used by that masterly carver of the 17th century, Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721). Some of his best work may be seen at Chatsworth House. I don’t wish to minimise his achievement, but is so easy to carve in lime that it is rather like cutting cheese. The grain of the wood is not an issue, and does not affect the resulting carving in any way. With oak this is an entirely different matter; oak is a very hard wood, and an intractable material; the grain is very important. An oak carving is robust and often you can see the way the chisel was used centuries after the carver laid down his tools. This not the case with lime. Objects in oak and lime are the two extremes, but they are also the most common woods used by the woodcarver. Other woods are also carved, but those with contorted grain (like burr walnut), while giving an excellent surface texture for furniture, are impossible to carve.
I had some success with my woodcarving; I entered a carving of a trout in a competition that was run by the Post Office for its employees. Although their number is large (well over a hundred thousand), postmen are not namely for their artistic ability, so perhaps it not surprising that I won first prize. This entailed a trip up to London (on a rail warrant provide by the PO) to the Post Office HQ, which was then still in its historic hub of St Marin’s Le Grand (it later moved to Old Street, which I also had occasion to visit on a different matter). What the prize was I have forgotten (it wasn’t much) but the occasion was special. I was presented with my prize by a man who later became Managing Director of the Post Office. He was a very unimpressive character; he may have had hidden depths, although the progress of that venerable institution into the 21st century suggests that he was as mediocre as he appeared to be.
I subsequently entered another work in the competition few years later, but this time I only came second, and that did not entail another trip to the capital. The winning entry was a sculpture of female nude, which some of my colleagues suggested had more to do with its success than genuine artistic rigour. My declining health gave me other things to think about, and woodcarving was at an end.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
I will start with the letter A, and so I will begin with Dr Andrews. When I arrived in 1959 he had already given up the position of school chaplain – apparently due to a crisis of conscience (as I learnt much later). He was housemaster of Woodlands throughout my school career, and he was succeeded in that post by Steve Benson, who arrived during my time in the 6th form. I was taken to task by Dr Andrews for disposing of a black goldfish I had bought at the Holt pet shop in the Woodlands house pond. Apparently it was spotted by Andrews and caused quite a stir; how did it suddenly appear in the pond? How he found out it was me I still do not know; somebody must have snitched on me.
He taught history, so I came into contact with him quite a lot, being a budding historian myself. His manner was precise and rather formal, and he did not make the subject come alive as David Gregory did for me. Neither Benson not Gregory had yet arrived at the school in 1963, so I will say no more about these masters in this article.
Because it was my poorest subject, my father arranged for me to have extra maths lessons with Dan Frampton. I used to go round to his house in Woodlands Close, where he had a surprisingly elegant study at the back of his large garage. There he would attempt to teach me Pythagoras’s Theorem, long division and such like. He must have been successful, because I passed my ‘O’ level in the subject. Dan developed cancer while I was still at school, although I did not learn the detail of this until after I had left. Although he returned to work following treatment, he died before very many years were up. Before he became ill he was the C.O of the CCF, following Colonel Williams. During my short career in the CCF (I joined in 1963 and left in 1966) I had three C.O.s. Two I have mentioned already, and the third was ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who had been in a pilot in the air force during the war. (He was not of course the real ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who was a night fighter ace during WWII.) The other two leaders of the CCF were army men.
Bernard Sankey was my housemaster when I went into Farfield in 1963. In that year he was also my physics master. I might have passed my physics ‘O’ level had he remained my teacher, but instead we had a man who could not keep discipline among us 15-year-old boys. Almost the entire form failed, so it wasn’t just me who played him up so cruelly. I can remember sitting in the physics lab doing experiments with Bernard Sankey. One involved collapsing a tin in which boiling water had been sealed, and then allowing it to cool. To demonstrate that all objects would fall at the same rate he went up to the top of one of the towers that adorn the Big School building, and dropped a stone and a feather from the top. Of course they didn’t fall at the same rate, as he knew the wouldn’t, and he explained why. Another involved the use of mercury, and this got spilt of the desk in front of me. We chased the little globules of liquid metal across the woodwork with our fingers. This relaxed attitude to such a poisonous element would horrify today’s teachers, but in 1964 the phrase ‘Health and Safety’ had not then entered our physics vocabulary. Nor had it in chemistry; although we wore white lab coats to protect out clothes from spitting acid, we wore no goggles to protect our eyes. This worried my father, who was a little more advanced in his ideas, and he was glad I wore glasses which protected them to some extent.
Mrs Sankey, his wife, was already becoming ill by 1964 – also with cancer – and Bernard had retired from Farfield by 1966. He went to live in a restored cottage in the nearby village of Hunworth. He invited those of his former Farfield boys who were leaving the Upper Sixth to a meal in his cottage at Christmas 1966. This was a memorable occasion. After leaving Farfield I did not see Bernard again for over 15 years, when in 1984 I and Molly (my wife to be) attended the unveiling of the Gurney Clock in Chapelfiel Gardens in Norwich. This was a replica of John Harrison’s chronometer, and this was just up Bernard’s street. He was an old man by then, but he was as delighted as a young boy by the clock. He seemed to remember me.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE