In the past month the main source of interest in my blog was the United Kingdom (as it always has been), with over 2,750 hits. This was followed at some distance (326) by the USA. Next, and rather surprisingly, my third most prolific source of hits was India, with exactly 200 hits; then came Spain at 91. Australia with 54 is normally higher up on the chain; France, Canada and Ireland followed; they all made a predictably good showing. They were followed by Germany, South Africa, Italy and New Zealand. I could make a chart setting the populations of these countries set against their English-speaking backgrounds, but I will merely note how highly some non-Anglophone countries rate. The Netherlands, Guernsey, Denmark, the Philippines, Belgium and Sweden all come in the high single figures.
Still with multiple entries from four to two are Switzerland, Brazil, Romania, Poland, Norway, Russia, the Ukraine, Jersey, Israel, Cyprus, South Korea, Austria, Belarus, Costa Rica, Japan, Pakistan and the Isle of Man. The places with a single entry are a very mixed bag; Bulgaria, Thailand, Oman, Greece, Chile, Croatia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and a dozen others. I was not even sure where Brunei is (I had thought it one of the Gulf States), but in fact it is in the north of Borneo. There were 72 countries in all in January and 4,000 hits. This may be tiny compared with the big players, but for a blog that is principally aimed at the residents of a small corner of England, viz. East Anglia, that is not a bad cross-section of the world. I would love to know who these people are, but that sort of information is not entrusted to me.
Those countries that have a substantial tourist industry could have a number of internet users logging on to my webpage who are not natives of that country. I am sure this happens, but I have no way of telling to what extent. The time of day affects the source of the hits; when I wake up in the morning the blog reveals a high proportion of readers from the USA, who have been awake while I am sleeping. This state of affairs rapidly turns around as day breaks here in the UK, and by mid morning this country has overtaken all other places. I say this, but just recently the number of people from India has remained in the majority well into the afternoon, when they must be preparing to go bed. What they seem to be interested in is my blog on school uniforms of all things. This blog, that I wrote over three years ago, has had well over 100 hits in the last few days of January, and is still getting hits into February; indeed today it looks as if the interest in my views on school uniforms will exceed British interest in every thing else I have written in the last six years. There are over a billion people living in India, but still it is all very strange.
The stats page on WordPress that enables me to tell you all these facts is one of favourite resources. It is so rewarding to have my words disseminated around the world like this. I am so lucky to live in an age when this possible (thank you, Sir Tim Berners Lee), and that I write in a language that is so widely understood. Even my bland and uncontroversial posts are getting a bigger and bigger audience. My total hits are rapidly approaching 200,000. This is quite a change from my first post on joemasonspage, when I was delighted that even one person had found me. I must be doing something right, and saying what people want to hear. And as I always point out, this blog has never cost me a penny in publicity.
My blog is two-way street; you can email me on email@example.com, and providing it isn’t just spam I always try to reply. In have had all manner of people online in this way. I have been reacquainted with old friends whom I haven’t spoken to for decades, made contact with relations I didn’t even know I had, and met many new and interesting people. And all from the comfort of my own fireside.
THE BLOG FOR THE FUTURE OF COMMUNICATION
EAST TO WEST AND BACK
On Tuesday 6th January 1981 I got up when it was still dark and my sister Tig cooked me mushrooms and bacon for breakfast; there would be no more meat on that day, for reasons that will become apparent. It had been snowing the day before, but a thaw had set in overnight. I drove to Aylsham to pick up my friend Laura (not her real name), a middle-aged nurse. She was also a music therapist – it was through a mutual love of music that we first became acquainted. She was moving from Norfolk to Gloucestershire, and as I had a boat trailer I had agreed to take her sailing dinghy to her new home in Tewkesbury. I collected her from the stately home where her job had required her living-in (West Lodge, which belonged to the Cozens Hardy family), and drove to Hickling Broad to collect the boat. I securely lashed it and its launching trolley to the trailer and tied the mast on the roof rack.
We got on the road at 10.20 a.m. and stopped in a lay-by at Wymondham for coffee. After making sure the boat was secure it was non-stop to Bedford. There we had our packed lunch. Laura had provided me with Brie and Stilton in wholemeal rolls, but she is a vegan and had an apple and a banana. Laura was very pale in her complexion, which I am sure was because of her diet. It snowed as we travelled through Buckinghamshire. She told me that she had an osteopathic and homeopathic practice in London in her twenties, but becoming disillusioned with alternative medicine she then trained as a conventional nurse. Becoming slightly more traditional in her medical opinions did not extend to her eating habits however; this was fair enough as far as she was concerned, but when she said she had brought up someone’s baby on soya milk I thought she was being positively barmy. She was a follower of Rudolf Steiner, which rather confirms my point.
Beyond Buckingham the road left my well-travelled route to Oxford, going west through Chipping Norton and Stow-on-the-Wold. We got to Tewkesbury at 4.30 and left the trailer at the marina. (I collected it the next day.) We went to her friend Hon’s British Legion flat (she had served as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse on a hospital ship); I must say I met some unusual people on this trip. We had a cup of tea – it was green tea. At 7.20 I left for my room in the Bell Hotel, which had a lovely log fire burning in the hearth; just what I needed after a winter’s day. I walked round town and had a drink before returning to my room to watch some telly. I had a bath before retiring to bed.
Being free (temporarily) of my vegan friend I had sausage and bacon for breakfast. I waited by the log fire for Laura to arrive. We went to have look round the impressive Abbey, where the BBC were preparing to record that day’s Choral Evensong with the Exeter Cathedral Choir. We got chatting to a young man from Ipswich who was repairing the organ. He worked for the 200-year-old firm of Bishop and Sons. Tewkesbury is a charming town, with well restored timber-framed buildings and of course the fine Abbey. We went to the marina, unloaded the boat and hitched up the now empty trailer.
Tewkesbury lies on the confluence of the rivers Avon and Severn, and it is a perilous place in times of flooding. Laura and I left Tewkesbury at 11.30 and had an uneventful journey back through the Cotswolds. From Newmarket we were back on the old A 11; none of the route was dual carriageway in 1981. We talked on the journey, and I heard how she was always moving round the country: before coming to Norfolk she was working with disturbed children in Stroud. I heard more of her unorthodox ideas as we drove along; her friend Hon obviously does not share all these, as she had made me some ham sandwiches for lunch. I took Laura back to Aylsham and drove home to my sister and the dogs; Suki was the only one who heard me coming, which delighted her enormously, as her wildly wagging tail showed. All in all this was an extraordinary round trip of nearly 500 miles.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF THE PAST
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Yarmouth was a major naval base in the age of sail, before becoming a thriving fishing port on the Yare estuary; with the growth of tourism it was the principal holiday resort for Londoners on the East Coast. It was not by accident therefore that it was the first place in East Anglia (not just in Norfolk) to get a train service in 1844, and following this Gorleston was the first place in East Anglia to get a tram service. After four years of work this was opened in 1875, and it used horse-drawn vehicles. A grand scheme for a tramway to link the towns of Lowestoft, Southwold and Halesworth with Gorleston did not see the light of day, and only the Gorleston part was realised. Southwold and Halesworth were linked by a narrow gauge railway in 1879 and Lowestoft got a separate tramway in 1903. With frequent stops the horse-drawn double-decker tramcars in Gorleston could take over two hours to complete the journey from Yarmouth South Town railway station to the area near the pier. At first it ran on a standard gauge track of 4’8″, but this was reduced to 3’6″ after a few years, in 1882.
The Haven Bridge which joins the two towns was not suitable for tramlines, so Yarmouth and Gorleston had two separate systems. Yarmouth was slower off the mark to install tram tracks. It had a horse-drawn omnibus service, but the intention to provide tramlines for an electrified service had to be delayed in 1899 because the price of steel, needed in large quantities for the project, was rapidly running out of control. It peaked at £10 a ton, but by 1901 the price had dropped to under £6 and the Yarmouth tramway was hastily completed and opened in 1902. The Gorleston tramway was electrified three years in 1905. The Yarmouth tramway was extended to Caister in 1907; this completed the network.
The tramcars were all double deckers and were painted in a livery of maroon and cream. (You can see one in the hand-coloured postcard illustration which accompanies this article.) Telephone wires were run along the tram poles, and with regular contact points the driver was able ring up the control centre to report any problems he encountered on the line. This use of up-to-date technology shows that Yarmouth was still a place of innovation, as it had been throughout the previous century. The town has since fallen on hard times, with the loss of its Royal Naval presence, the disappearance of the fishing industry, the closure of two of its three railway termini and the growth in popularity of overseas holidays. It is now one of the most deprived areas on the East Coast. The growth of North Sea gas gave the port some business, but even this has declined in recent years; there was hope that the offshore wind turbines might bring prosperity back to the port, but this business is due to go down the coast to Lowestoft.
The period before the First World War marked the high point of the Yarmouth and Gorleston tramways. In these yeas the Corporation purchased a pleasure steamer to run trips that commenced with a tram ride and culminated with a return journey to Norwich, all for the price of sixpence. In 1920 the Corporation purchased its first motor buses and the trams were progressively withdrawn from 1924. The Great Yarmouth section was closed in 1930 and the Gorleston section three years later. Some of the tramcars ended up as holiday chalets at Caister holiday camp.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The loss of Colman’s mustard to the city of Norwich finally ends a tradition that goes back two hundred years, but it has been inevitable since the company of Reckitt and Colman sold out to a faceless multi-national. One of the first things the new owners did was to sell off the collection of silver mustard pots that the Colman family had built up over many decades, and which should have been left to the Castle Museum. The amount raised by the sale was insignificant in comparison to the company’s annual turnover, but it showed that only money mattered to Unilever. I for one will be glad to see the back of them in Norwich. I wonder what Sir Timothy Colman makes of it? In spite of his directorship, the family had no real control over the company that bore his name by the time the end came in 1995.
It is sad for the remaining workers at Carrow, but the factory is but a shadow of its former self. In the seventies I knew a manager at Carrow and he showed me round the works. Mustard was but a detail of what they then produced at the site. Besides mint and horseradish sauce they had Robison’s fruit squashes, made from juices imported from South America and brought to their doorstep by freighter up the river Yare. Tonic wine was a major product at the site. That was after the company had acquired the similar sounding Coleman’s, of Barn Road Norwich in 1968, makers of Wincarnis.
Before 1862 the mustard had been made at Stoke Holy Cross, the village a few miles outside Norwich. Before the arrival of the railway at nearby Swainsthorpe station in 1847, the mustard was taken to London by a fleet of five horse-drawn wagons. Tins were first introduced in 1851, and until then smaller quantities were supplied in bottles; larger amounts were sent in casks. The growth of the company to such importance could never have occurred without the railway. The sidings to Carrow Works from Trowse station, with their bright yellow mustard wagons, started the journey that spread the condiment throughout the British Empire. It was a brilliant business strategy; the milling of corn produced just flour for bread making, but the pounding of mustard corns produced a powder that could be sold for many times more. How did such a strong flavour become the essential addition to the roast beef of old England? The phrase “keen as mustard” is recorded in the seventeenth century, so the condiment was appearing on our tables long before the Colmans started milling it. Before the Colmans started selling the powder, it was a difficult sauce to make. Even if the plant was available locally, it was used in such small quantities that I can’t see that it was worth your local windmill producing it it. Perhaps you pounded up mustard seeds as part of the preparations for Sunday dinner. That was of course roast beef by tradition, if not always in fact.
Unilever have made a sort of’ promise to retain a mustard milling facility in Norfolk. This is put forward as a sop to local opinion, but it cuts no ice with me. Without Carrow Works at its heart, there is no mustard in Norwich. In fact when I first remember mustard it was always mustard powder, and this we are told will remain a local product; it was mixed fresh for every meal, and then thrown away. Hence the saying that Mr Colman was made rich by the mustard we left on our plates. I don’t think the way of preserving mustard ready mixed had even been invented in the fifties.
I wonder what my ancestors would make of the news that mustard was to desert the city? My great-grandfather spent most of his working life at Carrow, and his eldest and youngest sons followed him into the mill. It had an important part in my ancestral past, but times move on. Mustard making is but a quirk of history, like shoemaking, silk weaving and woollen cloth making, trades that once defined the city but are now no more. We still have an insurance industry, but even that may pass into history.
At least I will feel no compulsion to buy Colman mustard ever again. In future I can use the French variety which I actually prefer. English mustard is just hot, but Dijon mustard has subtle flavours.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
Network Rail places a high safety requirement on all its operations, and as a consequence our railways are the safest in the world. When you consider that last year alone there were 1.7 billion railway journeys undertaken in the UK, the safety record of rail travel is amazing. There have been only FOUR train accidents that resulted in fatalities in the last ten years. Compare that with the almost daily toll on Britain’s roads, in which around two thousand fatalities occur every year. In the circumstances which method of transport ought you to prefer? There is nothing recent about this aspect of British railways either. As the first railway system in the world, we had to find out all the dangerous pitfalls implicit in the iron road for ourselves, but the safety of railways has always been of the highest priority. Our railways are the only ones in the world that must be fenced off from the surrounding countryside; it is rather worrying to our eyes to see trains speeding past lineside houses in France with nothing between them and the railway. These miles of fencing have been required in the UK from the very start. They not only make trespass on the line by humans more difficult, they also keep farm animals away from the trains.
The first widely reported railway accident occurred at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. George Stephenson developed his steam engine The Rocket to operate this, the first real passenger railway. The MP William Huskisson was among the guests who came to witness this major event, but unfortunately he fell onto the track as the Rocket was approaching; his leg was crushed, and with the primitive medical aid available at the time this proved fatal. Railway accidents were common at first; on a journey from East Dereham to Oxford (one that it is no longer possible to make) the Revd Benjamin Armstrong relates how he was delayed for an hour at Winslow station when the locomotive’s boiler blew up. No one was injured on that occasion, but in an entry in his diary in 1855 he mentions that four people were killed in a collision near Attleborough.
One of the major railway disasters occurred on the Norwich to Yarmouth line just outside Brundall in 1874. Twenty five people were killed when two trains collided on a single track section of the line. This accident which is known as the Thorpe Railway Disaster led to the introduction of the tablet system, where an interlocking token must be secured before a train may proceed along a single track. This system is still in use, although the disappearance of the semaphore signal, and with that the closure of many signal boxes (where the tokens used to be exchanged) means that an electronic system of token exchange is now widely employed.
The safety record of the railways is based on the fail-safe principle. It was the proud boast of the M&GN Railway (that ran almost entirely in the county of Norfolk) that during the 80 years in which it was in operation it never killed a passenger.
The use of modern technology makes keeping the railways safe much easier than it used to be. The entire network is regularly checked by a special train that examine the track by ultra-sound for cracked rails, which could fail and cause a derailment. With high-definition cameras they can check the line from the air, and thermal imaging equipment reveals hotspots in the cables on electrified lines that suggest problems with the system. Engineers are then dispatched to the exact location to remedy the problem. It all adds to the safety of the railways.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
In the past the wheelwright was almost as universal a figure in the countryside as the blacksmith. Almost every village had a smithy; the wheelwright was an equally essential craftsman in the rural economy, but his shop was slightly less common. Poringland (four miles to the south of Norwich) had a blacksmith in 1869 and a wheelwright called Herbert Palmer, but the tiny adjacent village of Arminghall had a blacksmith but no wheelwright. The blacksmith lingered on into my lifetime, but the wheelwright’s shop had disappeared before I was born. In a world of pneumatic tyres and mass-produced transport vehicles, the careful process of crafting a wooden cart-wheel by hand had no place. Unlike the blacksmith, who could turn his hand to other iron products as the need for shoeing horses declined (and there is still a residual demand for farriers), the wheelwright only made wheels from wood. There must be a few wheelwrights left in the land, to mend the wheels of the landaus that are used every summer on Great Yarmouth sea front, and to replace that wheels of the Royal Carriages of State, but they are few and far between.
The circularity of the wheel might suggest that the use a lathe was a central to the wheelwright’s work; in sense it was, because the hub required turning, but otherwise this did not play a big part in his task. The wheelwright’s trade has left us with the names of some woodworking tools; the spoke-shave for example was used to shape the spokes of the wheel. Some wheels are made from spokes that have been turner on a lathe, but the subtle shape of a cart-wheel, which must combine strength with lightness, require a more nuanced construction technique. Next came the felloes, segments of wood that were used to construct the outer rim of the wheel.
To hold it all together the wheelwright needed to enlist the skills of the blacksmith to fit the tyre. This had to be made to precisely the right diameter: too large and it would fall off the finished wheel, while too small and it would distort the wheel as it cooled. Once it had been welded together the tyre was heated in the forge to expand it. It was then dropped on the wheel. All this required a high degree of precision, but it was all done without the use of complicated technical equipment; just years of experience would develop the eye of the craftsman. In a more primitive age the wheels of chariots were held together by raw hide straps, shrunk on with water.
The wheel was not simply made of any wood that happened to be lying around. Typically the hub with the central axle bearing was turned out of elm; the spokes were crafted from oak for its strength, and the felloes were made from easily manipulated beech. The wheelwright did not just go to the local timber merchant for this material. He would walk the local woods, examining the standing trees and branches with the thought of selecting the timer he would need in future.
A branch of the Rivett family were wheelwrights in the nineteenth century. They were not direct ancestors of mine, but they were close relatives. My great-great-great uncle Francis was a wheelwright in Shipdam in central Norfolk. Edward Rivett was a wheelwright in the nearby village of Shouldham. Born into a world where the wooden wheel was the only way to carry goods across country, the train, traction engine and motor car had already spelt the end of his way of life by the time he died aged over 80. His son was also a wheelwright, but by 1901 trade was already falling off, and his grandson, the third generation of wheelwrights, also kept the village post office.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
The first tram to operate in Ipswich was a 3ft 6in gauge horse-drawn vehicle which ran for about ¾ mile between Cornhill and the mainline railway station. It opened in 1880. In 1884 an extension was opened from Cornhill to Derby Road railway station, also in Ipswich, but on the Felixstowe line. This completed the system; by then it was being operated by a fleet of tram cars. The earliest ones were single deckers, drawn by one horse, but later double deckers were introduced with two draught horses. The provision of rails made the friction was less than with a horse-drawn omnibus, and this enabled a greater number of passengers to be carried. By 1900 it was becoming increasingly old fashioned however; unlike modern motive power, horses had to groomed, fed and stabled, and in the early years of the 20th century it was resolved to convert the horse-drawn tramway to an electric system. The town Corporation purchased the horse tramway but it lost money and was abandoned to allow the electric infrastructure to be installed.
The electric trams did not last any longer than the horse-drawn trams: introduced in 1903, they were replaced by trolleybuses from 1923, and in 1926 the last tram ran on the streets of Ipswich. The trolleybus lasted a bit longer than its predecessors, and I remember the final years of them; my sister had taken her first job in the town in 1959, and from the aged of ten I made many visits to Ipswich. The trolleybuses survived until 1963, by which time my sister had left Suffolk for a new post in the Channel Islands. Thereafter I no longer frequented the town.
The first indication that we had reached a strange new world where the buses were powered by electric wires was by the railway bridge on the Norwich Road. There a circle in the overhead catenary was where the buses had to turn around and begin their journey back to Ipswich town centre. At one time the system had gone further to Whitton, but by 1959 the railway bridge was the limit of its northern extent. The Corporation bought its first motor buses as late as 1950 to serve the outskirts. At the time, and for many years thereafter, the bridge had the large sign FERODO painted on it in red. I will always associate these brake pads with Ipswich.
Coming by car I had no reason to use the trolleybuses, but going by train I surely would have done so; my sister had no car at this time. An indication of how normal they were in Ipswich in those days is that I have no memory of riding on a trolleybus, although I must have used them. This is a pity, but I have plenty of memories of seeing them making their silent progress through the town. Once you were inside the effect could not have very different from a normal motor bus; all the unusual features were outside. If they met an obstruction in the road they could only take limited avoiding action, or the poles would come detached from the catenary wires. This meant the driver or conductor getting out and re-attaching them with a long stick. There was definitely no overtaking allowed with a trolleybus.
Unlike trams, trolleybuses have not made a return to the streets in the UK, and there are no remaining systems in place here. This seems strange, as the infrastructure is much simpler and cheaper for trolleybuses, and they are similar environmental benefits. There is bad quality air in nearly all major cities, where diesel buses are almost the only vehicles still (just about) tolerated. This would disappear if trolleybuses were still in operation. If you are cyclist who has travelled over tram lines you will appreciate that bikes and trams don’t mix – you will fall off immediately if your wheel gets stuck in the groove of a tram line. This quality of not antagonising cyclists is another advantage of the trolleybus. In other parts of the world these systems still exist.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
THE CITY IN THE 1950’s
I have been watching old films of Norwich in the fifties on Youtube and it is very interesting to me. This is the time when my eyes were first opening to the ‘fine old city’* and its inhabitants. There is even a shot of Aunt Ruth dressed in her civic regalia in a documentary; she is walking out of a service at the cathedral that opened the 1955 Norwich Assizes . That was four years after her period as Lord Mayor. She was smiling most beatifically at no one in particular. I keep hoping to catch a glimpse of my father-in-law Jack Turner; he was a bobby in Norwich at the time. I may have seen him, but with his helmet on it is hard to say. He was PC 49 in the Norwich force.
District Nurse Aunty Olive was living in Christopher Close and I would often go round to her flat. I remember sitting by her fire while her sons and a college friend told ghost stories, as I gazed into the embers. My father’s shop was right in the city centre, and he would call in for a drink with Jack Hubbard, the publican of the Lamb Inn next door. Uncle Ozzie Osborne’s shop was round the corner in White Lion Street. He sold anything made of rubber: wellies, garden hoses and other under-the-counter items. Uncle Bertie was deputy head at the CNS.
While all this family life was continuing, British Railways steam hauled trains puffed their way into the city’s three railway termini. On the river sea going colliers from Newcastle came up to the generating station and ships laden with timber from Finland plied their trade down on the wharves opposite Riverside Road. River tugs from Yarmouth hauled strings of barges for the gas works on Gas Hill. Varnished wooden motor cruisers threaded their way between this commercial traffic to the Yacht Station above Foundry Bridge.
Four busy breweries filled the air with the delicious aroma of malt and hops. At the mustard factory the Carrow Works steam hooter summoned the workers at ten-to-eight in the morning; if the wind was in the right direction I could hear this as I lay in bed four miles away. To the west side of the city hordes of shoe workers pedalled their way to the day’s task in the many shoe factories. Two large printing offices which had been in the city since the early nineteenth century were still operating. These were Jarrolds at Whitefriars and Fletchers on Castle Meadow, both now no more, although the former firm remains as the large department store in the city and the latter was bought up by Clays of Bungay.
Norwich had no airport throughout the 1950s; the first aerodrome at Mousehold Heath was opened in 1933, but fell into disuse with the outbreak of war. The current International Airport was still called RAF St Faiths, and was a busy jet fighter base. (It had been a USAAF base during war, when it was built slap bang across the Cromer Road, which had to be diverted along a narrow lane.) Jets were very noisy in the fifties, and the base was right next to a residential area – it must have been hard to get one’s baby to sleep. Along Fifers Lane were the married quarters of the personnel, the brickwork done in different colours in an attempt to camouflage them! There was also a NAAFI that lasted long after he base closed to supply the airmen from RAF Coltishall who continued to live there. Across the Holt Road from St Faiths airfield was Norwich Speedway, a popular attraction that was redeveloped for housing in the 1960’s and has never been replaced.
Every Saturday the smell of the farmyard filled the air. Sheep, pigs and cattle were driven through the streets, and I don’t mean in lorries. They walked up Bracondale and along Ber Street, having arrived from across the county at Trowse station. They filled the pens of the open space below the castle, while the smaller livestock (chickens, geese and rabbits) were sold slightly further away near the cast iron premises of Panks. Kittens and puppies were also available. Miss Wicks did a good trade selling dog biscuits and fish pellets from her centuries-old shop in Golden Ball Street. At the end of the day the cattle were driven back by men with whippy canes for dispatch to their new owners or the slaughterhouse.
Easter saw the Fair take over the cattle market, although it closed on Good Friday. The steam fairground engines rocked gently back and forth as they lit up the gaudy displays; if you paid a bob to enter her tent you could witness the tattooed lady killing rats with her teeth. (Entertainment was more cruel and basic sixty years ago.) For the summer holiday there was no fortnight in Spain, only a trip to the seaside at Yarmouth or Caister; ice creams trumped sangria.The lowly Third Division Canaries finished the decade with the famous Cup Run; they only lost the semi-final to First Division Luton Town on the replay. The excitement that gripped the City football fans is still remembered today by those of a certain age.
Almost all these aspects of the city have changed; only the Yacht Station and the football ground remain in place. Britannia Barracks now contains prisoners, not soldiers. One railway station only remains and the gas works and the power station have long passed into history. The new library has come and gone (gone up in flames in fact) since the 1950s. The Press Office has moved from Redwell Street, Barclays Bank no longer has its impressive local HQ at Bank Plain and the GPO sorting office no longer stands across the street. This now houses Anglia Television, which was not in existence then, and where UEA now has is campus was Earlham golf course. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital still occupied the site where it had been established in the 18th century, until it moved to its new site in 2001.
Much has altered, but the cathedral and the castle still stand guard over the inhabitants, as they have done for nearly a thousand years. The Maids Head hotel has welcomed visitors to Norwich for almost as long. Nevertheless, the rest of the 20th century saw the old city vanish for ever in a way that Hitler’s bombs could never achieve.
*‘A fine old city, truly, is that’ is a quotation from Lavengro, by the 19th century Norfolk born writer George Borrow.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF NORWICH
THINGS FINALLY COME RIGHT
In 1959, at the age of forty-seven, my father was about to experience a year of great upheaval. His eldest daughter was to marry and emigrate to Canada; she had qualified as schoolteacher but was never to work in that capacity, becoming instead a professor at a transatlantic university; but that was far in the future. Nearer to home his second daughter had also qualified as a teacher, and was to start at Ipswich High School that September. His ten-year old son (me) was just about to begin at boarding school. Most alarmingly, he had to leave the building in Orford Place, as the lease had expired. He was willing to pay the much higher new rent, but none of his fellow tenants were, so his whole business future seemed thrown into doubt. Where would he go? Would his customers follow him to his new premises? Or would the abandon him for other Norwich opticians?
The place he decided to move into was 29 Surrey Street; he had limited options available to him, as most shops in the centre of Norwich were already occupied. The property he decided on was fairly central, but had stood vacant for about a decade. It needed a complete rewiring (it still had a primitive DC system in place) and a complete redecoration too. The walls were covered in centuries of whitewash, which had to be removed before modern paint could be applied. The most problematical aspect from a business point of view was that it was, in appearance, a private dwelling; it had no shop window. It was a large 18th century former residence with, as I subsequently discovered, an impressive history. Most recently it had served as the Angel temperance hotel. Crucially, he would no longer be a tenant; this property he would have to buy.
Very fortunately my father’s patients continued to patronize his practice and within a few years he had paid off the commercial mortgage that he had taken out to pay for the property. In this he was fortuitously aided by the gathering pace of inflation during the 1960s; this was a good time for house buyers in general- a detached house in the city could be bought for well under £1000! As a result, within a decade-and-a-half of buying the building, its value had increased nearly twentyfold. The initial cost of the property was almost small change by then. As if by accident, he was now a wealthy man for the first time in his life. It was true that he was nearly always overdrawn at the bank, but that was only because his plans for the future always ran a little bit ahead of his current resources. He would never admit to being other than a miserable failure; this was quite untrue, but in comparison to what might have been he had a point. To see what I mean I refer you to the previous post, where his factory appeared to be on the brink of success.
In buying 29 Surrey Street he had added the position of commercial landlord to his business interests. He only needed the ground floor for his optical premises; the semi-basement (it had windows to Surrey Street, so it was not a cave) he also occupied. This held a workshop with a lathe, circular saw, bench drill, milling machine, and fly press – in short the whole range of machinery. He even had a printing press! One room was devoted entirely to a model railway; this was nominally mine, but in fact it represented one of my father’s many interests. He was able to let the first floor long-term to an insurance company; Surrey Street is still at the heart of the insurance industry in Norwich, holding as it does the headquarters of the multi-national firm Aviva, still known as Norwich Union in 1959. The upper floors were not so easily let, but a succession of artists, interior designers and marketing companies occupied them.
In 1960 my mother inherited some money and this enabled us to buy the family home in Poringland from the landlord Rushmer Howlett, who lived next door. We proceeded to undertake some much-needed improvements; a bedroom for me was included in the plans. Previously I had slept in my parents’ bedroom. Mains drainage was the most radical departure from the only way of life I had known until then; I could now have a bath without my mother boiling kettles and putting the tin bath on the hearth-rug. The main sewer had been installed in the road outside a year or two before, and my father no longer had to empty the earth closet or pump out the cess pit. We had rather belatedly joined the 20th century. For a year or so there was a curious and enormous mismatch between our primitive domestic arrangements at our rented home and the palatial facilities (including five water closers) at my father’s workplace, that he owned.
A very valuable addition to the house at Surrey Street was a car park at the back, which could hold three cars at a pinch. That alone was worth a huge amount, not merely in financial terms but for convenience. The access belonged to a doctor’s widow who lived four houses along, so my father had to keep her sweet. At a bunch or two of flowers a year it was cheap at the price. It also had a delightful courtyard garden that faced south. There one could sit with a drink by the fountain, within yards of Norwich’s busy bus station; climbing roses scented the air, while all around was the bustle of a busy city. That was luxury indeed. In fifty years my father had progressed from living in a modest terraced house to the be the owner a 20 roomed town mansion; the only trouble was that because of planning restrictions at the time he couldn’t actually live there!
My father was by no means a traditional businessman, always obsessed by balance sheets and bank accounts. Such things interested him not at all. He was at his happiest walking his dog by the riverside or attending meetings of the Nautics, his favourite historical society. As for playing his cello, as a teenager he dreamed of becoming a professional musician; he was certainly good enough, but was warned by Jimmy Pond his music teacher that it would lead to a life of poverty. I am sure that we would never have been as wealthy as an orchestral cellist as he became as an optician. There were several reverses in his career, but he was ultimately a great success in financial terms. He gave me a fantastic childhood, and he provided the best of educations for all his three children.
He thought that the seventeen shillings and sixpence that he was paid by the National Health Service for a sight test was pitifully small, especially compared the much larger sum charged by a garage mechanic for an MOT. Seventeen and six was indeed little enough for a full professional eye examination; he made his money from selling glasses to customers privately. He thought this was the wrong way round, and it would be hard to disagree with him; the glasses were just a consumer product, whereas the sight of a patient (or even his life) could depend on picking up small imperfections in their eyes. I don’t suppose things are very different today; as a pensioner my eyes are tested free, but my glasses cost me a small fortune.
The main developments of his career were effectively over by 1960. For a few years his health remained good, but at the age of 56 he had a coronary, and thereafter numerous infarctions (where parts of the heart muscle are damaged by blood clots) and episodes of tachycardia (heart rhythm malfunction) which led to many stays in hospital. Heart conditions were far less effectively treated in those days. He refused to give up smoking his beloved pipe. Nevertheless he did not die from a heart disease but from another health condition. He was able to retire at the age of 60 to spend the last few years of his life developing an optical instrument which looked set to be a great success by the time he died. In retirement he was able to retain the building in Surrey Street, together with its workshop and car park, which meant that he still went there almost every day. Besides providing him with a comfortable pension he could still develop his model railway and work on his various schemes. Over his lifetime he built two boats, numerous pieces of furniture and as a young man had done wood carvings as a hobby. He was trained by the army as an instrument mechanic which stood him in good stead throughout the rest of his life. Although his health was failing, I was able to ensure both him and my mother had an enjoyable last few years. Looking back on his life with the perspective of forty years, I can now see him for what he was: then he was just my Daddy. Frank Mason was clearly a remarkable man.
You can read more about the history of the house in Surrey Street by clicking HERE. I have written well over ten blogs on the house, and you can access them by entering ‘joemasonspage’ and adding ‘the story of a house’ and a number from 1 to 13 into Google. This should bring up the required result.