This year of 2018 should be another good year for the foxgloves, which have started their blooms early in June and should still brightening the woods and hills over many weeks to come…….
Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of “folksglove,” associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as “fox fingers,” its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a “gleow” being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.
Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:
“An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one
evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.”
“After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon’s wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians.”
Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)
Foxglove by Christie Newman
From Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist. William Curtis (1746-1799)
Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a domestic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies’ cradles for protection from Foxglove bewitchment, while in Shropshire they were put in children’s shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and pixies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.
In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women’s magic ever since — as well as with “white witches” (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
A lovely old legend told in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.
The thing about waterways is that they have bridges – nothing surprising about that because people and vehicles need to cross them and keep dry at the same time. Very occasionally, when these waterway are diverted, for whatever reason, a second bridge is necessary to span the new cut. What happens to the older structure? Well, depending on circumstances; if the old course is not needed then, presumably, it is filled in and put to other uses. If, of course, water still has a need to flow along that old course then the old bridge remains to do its job.
That was a case in point here, in Norfolk where the River Bure flows near Coltishall at Horstead with Stanninghall. As with other parts along the Bure’s lower reaches, the road crossings here tend to be both large and infrequent. For those travelling up stream, there are various examples of bridges built to connect Coltishall with Horstead and beyond, but the one that we are interested in is Mayton Bridge, or to put it more accurately, Mayton Bridges – plural, near to the now disused Coltishall RAF airbase.
The first and widely recognised Mayton Bridge is the flat topped construction with two cylindrical holes cut in the abutments to increase flood water capacity. This bridge was never part of the Aylsham Navigation although an earlier bridge must have stood on the site. This bridge occurs mid way along a long straight canalised section of the river, with the old watercourse winding off to the west as it approaches Buxton. Many in the past must have spent their summer days swimming or wading around this bridge for the depth of water under the span is rarely anything more than 18 inches, with the bridge itself originally built on a raft of huge oak logs.
It is a matter of pure speculation whether the original bridge collapsed as a result of a past flood, or was torn down and rebuilt during World War II to allow heavy lorries to move between a local sand quarry on the west bank and the RAF base being built on the east – to become ‘RAF Coltishall’. The current bridge certainly seems to sit on top of a huge pile of rubble.
But the real interest of the ‘Mayton Bridges’ lies a couple of hundred yards to the west of the main, straight flowing, river where the road rises over a second bridge; this much older bridge comes complete with a couple of very unusual little shelters. This bridge has two arches spanning what some believe to be the original course of navigation. The bridge itself is very fine and in an excellent state of repair for its age although it was repaired in 1984. It is unusual in that it’s two arches are peaked in a manner not seen elsewhere on the river. Maybe this was how they were all built originally, or maybe this was a one off – it’s anyone’s guess!
Very little seems to be available to describe Mayton Hall and I have not be able to find any photographs of it. For the moment, and until a kind and knowledgeable reader can provide something, I am left with the following brief outline: – Mayton Hall stands on the site of an earlier medieval moated manor and parts of the moat still remains. The earliest parts of the Hall date from the 15th century. This timber framed building was extended to the north in the late 16th century, further alterations were made in the 18th century, and a new façade was built in the 19th century. It was severely damaged by fire in 1984.
As for the old brick bridge, this dates back to around early to mid-16th century; it is a scheduled monument. It has two arches, although it has been suggested that it has four; only one of these now crosses the stream. On west side there is a large central cutwater with a sloping top. The water which used to flow beneath it is thought to have been an outflow from the moat at nearby Mayton Hall, once keeping the water fresh and preventing it from stagnating. The moat inflow was some distance upstream from the bridge. The suggestion that the bridge was built over the original course of the river is considered by some to be improbable. On each side of the bridge and facing the road are small shelters which may have been for the toll collector to sit.
To the more nostalgic amongst us, it is easy to imagine wherries being quanted (poled) up against the current and those in charge thankful for a second arch to relieve the water pressure against the bows – Dream on!.
Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.
In Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern if you prefer, was often to be seen walking around her village before the Irstead enclosure of 1810. Today, Irstead is still an isolated village by the side of the river Ant, but unlike in Mrs Lubbock’s time the village is now a very desirable place, parts of which looking like an archetypal English village. It has held on to some of its thatched cottages and its church is a delight. Up until the 20th century’s better methods of drainage the village and surrounds would have been a very damp and unhealthy place, miles away from towns and the city of Norwich. It should be no surprise therefore that such remote communities were full of tales of the supernatural and paranormal.
Mrs Lubbock’s view of those Will o’ the Wisps was of the spirit of a man named Heard, who turned into this Lantern Man and was frequently seen in and around the village on a misty or ‘roky’ night, but particularly at a spot called Heard’s Holde in the Alder Carr Fen Broad, on the Neatishead side. We are told that it was there that a man of that name, and one who was guilty of many terrible crimes did drown in the peat stained water. In Mrs Lubbock’s own words:
“I have often see it there, rising up and falling and twisting about, and then up again – it looked exactly like a candle in a lantern”. What would be the ignition of natural gas to us was, to her, the unhappy man’s spirit. “If anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when Jack appeared and did not put out the light, he could come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman who made a mock of him and called him “Will o’the Wisp”, was riding on horseback one evening in the adjoining parish of Horning, when he (Jack) came at him and knocked him off his horse”
Mrs Lubbock also remembered that, as a small child, her father had told her that once when he was returning from money spending at the end of the harvest, in the company of an old man who whistled and jeered at Jack, the spirit followed them home and ‘torched up’ at the windows. However, many local folk were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest and did visit the places frequented by Heard when alive. Three men, in particular, tried to exorcise the ghost by reading verses from the Scriptures, but Jack always kept a verse ahead of them! Until, that is, a boy brought a pair of pigeons and laid them down at the apparition’s feet. Jack looked down at those birds and lost his verse, the one opportunity for those three men to “bound his spirit.”
Another tale relating to a Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’ comes from the seaside town of Cromer on the north-east edge of the County, as told by an old fisherman; this appeared in the Eastern Counties Magazine in 1900:
“There’s no saying what that will du to you, if that light on you! There was a young fellow coming home one evening and he see the Lantern Man coming for him and he run; and that run and he run again; and that run again! Now there was a silly old man lived down there who didn’t believe in none o’ them things and this young fellow he run to his house and say “O Giles, for Heaven’s sake, let me in – the Lantern Man’s coming!” And old Giles he say “You silly fool, there ain’t no such thing as a Lantern Man.” But when he see the Lantern Man coming for him, Giles let the young fellow in, and that come for them two, till that was the beginner of a pint pot!”
“And old Giles, he thought he would play a trick on the Lantern Man so he got a candle and held that out right high; and the Lantern Man, he come right low and the Lantern Man he come up above it. And then he held out right steady, and the Lantern Man he come for that and he burst it all to pieces. But they du say, if the Lantern Man light upon you, the best thing is to throw yourself flat on your face and hold your breath.”
Is Norfolk England’s most secretive and strange literary County?
Critics and commentators are always prey to big ideas – the bigger the better, in fact – and so tend to overestimate certain factors in the production and formation of books, preferring to emphasise the influence of some particular social, historical, political, institutional, linguistic or psychological fact or force and to ignore certain others. These explanatory fashions come and go. Thus we currently have cognitive poetics, ecocriticism, and post-colonial theories all being successfully applied to explain various aspects of our national literatures. But as yet – alas – we have no County Theory of English Lit. This is my big idea.
If we were to apply some of the quantatitive methods for analysing literature developed by the great maverick literary theorist Franco Moretti, a map of the UK as a whole adjusted for size according to literary production might produce a hunched, swollen-headed creature with an enormous Scotland, a bulging Northern Ireland, withered limbs, an empty heart, and a vast and protuberant Norfolk.
In popular culture, Norfolk represents nice but naff, a kind of watery, dandelion pleasantness. And yet the literary landscape of this most remote and unassuming of the English counties – just over 2,000 square miles of agricultural land, rivers, fens, towns and forests – is subtly strange and wild. In 2012, Norwich became England’s first and only Unesco city of literature (the others are Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa, Dublin and Reykjavik). The title alone suggests the panoramic sweep of the county town’s literary achievements and associations, extending all the way from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, one of the first books published by a female author, to the UK’s first MA in creative writing, established in 1970 by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. An untiring advocate of the joys and merits of his adopted home county, Bradbury figured Norfolk as a place of writing parsons, farmer-writers and sensitive poets: John Skelton, Rider Haggard, John Middleton Murry, William Cowper, George MacBeth, George Szirtes. Bradbury’s Norfolk rather resembles John Betjeman’s, in fact, in whose poem “Norfolk” the lanes “recall lost innocence” – a land untouched by time.
But there’s more to literary Norfolk than the merely bucolic. My own first encounter with Norfolk in literature came in the form of the heroic and crime-solving adventures of Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club, a plucky little gang of boys and girls who live around Horning on the Norfolk Broads, in the Swallows and Amazons series of novels, a world as far from my own upbringing as was imaginable. For me, Norfolk became a place of fantasy, derring-do and detection – a place of mysteries and obscurities. In perhaps her greatest novel, Devices and Desires, (1989) PD James sends off the lugubrious Adam Dalgliesh to a fictional remote Norfolk community, Larksoken, somewhere on the coast between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, where he has inherited a windmill – but of course! – and is on the trail of a serial killer known as the Norfolk Whisperer. James dwells not only on the conflicts between the people of Larksoken but also on the continual interplay between sea and sky, where the “never-ceasing moaning of the tide” can be forever heard below lowering clouds. Norfolk-based writer Henry Sutton explores similar dark territory in his novels, which one might describe as droll Norfolk gothic. Sutton’s Bank Holiday Monday (1997) should be required reading for any middle-class couples considering renting a holiday home in Norfolk this summer. Ditto Ali Smith’s characteristically odd, delightful and polysemic The Accidental (2005).
Even more off-putting and alluring is WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), where the mysterious narrator begins the book in a “state of almost total immobility” in the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, and so begins to write his great account of his wanderings through East Anglia. His memories and musings begin with a lengthy discourse on the fate of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull. In Sebald, Norfolk is never the focus but rather the beginning of a digression.
There are writers, however, who have made the county explicitly their subject. The excellent Ruth Galloway series of crime novels by Elly Griffiths are all set in Norfolk, with Galloway, the head of forensic archaeology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, digging deep into Norfolk’s past to solve the crimes of the present.
But perhaps the Norfolkest of Norfolk novelists, the Norfolkiest of them all, is DJ Taylor. Born in Norfolk, living in Norfolk, often writing about Norfolk, Taylor has waged a one-man campaign against smug, shiny literary metropolitanism since his first non-fiction book ‘A Vain Conceit’: British Fiction in the 1980s (1989). Proud to be a “provincial” writer, in his novel Kept (2006) Taylor begins with a bravura passage describing his home county: “A land of winding backroads and creaking carts and windmills, a land of flood, and eels and elvers and all that comes from water, a land of silence and subterfuge, of things not said but only whispered, where much is kept secret which would be better laid open to scrutiny.”
In my own new novel I hope to contribute in some small way to the subterfuges of what may be England’s most secretive literary county. My protagonist, Swanton Morley, is named after a Norfolk village. Morley lives in Norfolk, in a house called St George’s – which I suppose is intended to suggest all of England. The novel is titled simply The Norfolk Mystery in honour of the many hours of dark-bright pleasure that the county and its writers have given me. “Do different” runs the Norfolk motto: I have done my best.
Ian Sansom’s ‘The Norfolk Mystery’ was published by Fourth Estate
The cold fact of the case is that George Granville Barker was born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England in 1913; he was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. George was raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London and was educated at an L.C.C. school and at Regent Street Polytechnic. Having left school at an early age he pursued several odd jobs before settling on a career in writing.
Having said that – George Barker’s birthplace is not a place of pilgrimage, simply because Barker is one of those forgotten poets – well at least for the last decade or so. During all that time and possibly to the present day, hardly anyone has read him, most of his work is out of print, and has been barely mentioned in literary histories. Yet he was no minor poet. His work was passionate, intellectually challenging and highly original. At 22, Barker was a literary phenomenon. T.S. Eliot declared him a genius and Yeats thought him the finest poet of his generation.
Apparently, many critics thought the young Barker a better poet than the young Dylan Thomas, who had called Barker’s poems “masturbatory monologues”, a term which may have been a clue to the possibility that Thomas was madly jealous. Barker’s output never flagged for he regarded poetry as a full-time occupation and, save for a few visiting university lectureships, never had anything resembling a full-time job. He composed poetry until the day he died.
If you like your poets to be wild, irresponsible and dangerous then Barker would make you feel ecstatic! He was a prodigious drinker, womaniser and an habitual user of Methedrine and Benzedrine. He never owned a home – his sole attempt at property purchase ended when a fraudulent estate agent absconded with his entire savings – and he scarcely had a fixed address. As a young man, he accidentally stabbed his brother’s eye out while they were fencing, an episode that haunted him all his life. Also, for years, he was at the heart of the bohemian crowd in London’s Soho. He fathered 15 children by four different women. One of them, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, determined to marry him and bear his children when she discovered his poetry in a London bookshop in the 1930’s – long before she met him.
He quarrelled bitterly and sometimes violently with friends as well as lovers and once threw one of his works on the fire – because, he said, his then partner had read it with a sneer. When a visitor tried to rescue it, he hit him over the head with a shovel. The same partner threw an ashtray at him and broke his teeth. Another bit his upper lip so firmly he required 40 stitches. A third partner, who left him for his nephew, was so terrified of the consequences that she settled and married in Birmingham. In America Barker wrote pornography with Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. His poems, read on the BBC Third Programme, were criticised for obscenity, and he never lost the capacity to cause outrage. Brought up a Catholic by his Irish mother, he took confession not long before he died, for the first time in 30 years. He had broken every commandment, he told the priest, except the sixth, “thou shalt not kill”.
So why did he fall so out of fashion. Why, despite settling for the last 24 years of his life in the idylic hamlet of Itteringham, Norfolk, just 15 miles or so miles from Norwich, the University of East Anglia and pioneer of creative writing courses, never invited him to take a single class? His second wife Elspeth once said:
“he never did anything to promote himself, never went to literary parties, and was too difficult and argumentative to belong to anything like a literary school”. He was, she said, “a very perverse poet who would often bugger up a perfectly good poem with a pun in the last line”.
By the mid-1950s, he was out of tune with the age. “He remained “mystical and mythical” when the new mood among poets stressed common sense,” wrote his biographer, Robert Fraser. Despite his neglect of church attendance, and frequent assertions that he didn’t believe in God, Barker feared hellfire and damnation; he was “a very superstitious Catholic,” observed Elspeth. Even at the age of nine and inspired by Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”, he first resolved to be a poet: “While other urchins were blowing up toads with pipes of straw stuck in the arse, So was I, but I also wrote odes.”
Barker was also conscious that “I had been cast a little low in the social register.” and, after he left school at 15, was never very comfortable with better-educated writers. Writing of Auden he said “behind the poetry I discern a clumsy interrogatory finger questioning me about my matriculation certificate, my antecedents and my annual income”.
Discovering his girlfriend Jessica was pregnant, he married at 20. Since she, too, was from a Catholic family, the child was born in secret and given up for adoption, another source of lifelong guilt. Though they lived apart from the mid-1940s, she and Barker never divorced. Only when Jessica died, two years before Barker’s own death, did he marry Elspeth, his last love.
Barker had little time for politics and was apparently only dimly aware that Japan was allied with the fascist powers when he agreed to take a university lectureship there, starting in March 1940. His lectures were attended by only three students.
Then, when receiving fan mail from the affluent and well-connected Elizabeth Smart, Barker appealed to her for financial help in escaping to America. She readily agreed and so came about their first meeting, which forms the celebrated opening passage of “By Grand Central Station”, a fictional re-creation of their turbulent and passionate affair. Barker’s account of it was less nuanced: “I stepped down into your lap, just as truly as I stepped down from my mother, and I have loved you completely and perfectly from that moment.” Cynics would say Barker really fell in love with the freedom of classless America and that Smart was an infatuated groupie. But their on-off affair ranged over four countries and 18 years, and produced four children.
Barker didn’t formally leave most of his women. Rather, he drifted off, seeming to believe they should wait patiently in the kitchen while his absences grew longer. “Poets are terrifying people to live with,” wrote one daughter, then 15. “They rush off at odd moments and are neither seen nor heard of for months. Then . . . they suddenly appear on the threshold as if nothing had ever happened.”
From 1959, Barker lived in Italy with Dede Farrelly, estranged wife of his friend John Farrelly. Then he met Elspeth Langlands, a 22-year-old from the Scottish Highlands, on a visit to London in 1963. “He asked me what I thought of his most recent volume,” she recalled, “and I said I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as some of his earlier ones. He flew into a rage.” But his relationship with Dede was deteriorating and, when Elspeth arrived in Italy with a young painter called Tony Kingsmill, Barker prised her away.
From 1967 he settled with Elspeth at Bintree House in Itteringham, Norfolk, a flint and brick house which lies just off the main street – close to the River Bure. The couple were able to acquire the house with financial support from the novelist Graham Greene who was a long-term admirer of Barker’s poetry. In her essay ‘Thoughts in a Garden’, Elspeth Barker describes the watery location of the house.
‘Mine is a riverine garden, and even indoors one is aware of this, not just by gazing through the window but by simply sitting still, committing words to paper in the intense cold, while a great numbness seeps up through feet and lower limbs. Hemlock and the death of Socrates come forward in the mind. The tiled floor is laid straight on the earth in the manner of 17th century folk, and beneath this floor and a thin layer of earth lie the black sullen waters of an underground lake.’
They had five children and, for the first time, Barker lived with a family more or less uninterruptedly. According to Elspeth he became disciplined enough to stay off drink and rise at six to start work. She flushed the drugs down the lavatory; only on Saturday nights, when it was open house for friends and relatives, did he indulge and fight as of old. “People wanted to sit next to him,” Elspeth recalled. “Then they knew they wouldn’t have anything thrown at them.” It seemed that he prided himself on being an outsider.”
It seems the Barker was a notoriously uneven writer and in describing the difficulties in writing his own biography, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve stirred the facts around too much ……. It simply can’t be done.” In 1969 his visit to All Saints Church, in the village in Thurgarton and only a short distance from Itteringham, inspired George Barker to write one of his finest later poems “At Thurgarton Church” (see below). The poem concerned Barker’s sense of sin and his fear of Judgement day.
On his grave at St Mary’s Church in Itteringham, Norfolk, a stone book – erected by a young bank robber whom Barker had befriended – states: “No Compromise”. It was a phrase Barker often used, and it is a good epitaph for both his extraordinary life and his attitude to poetry.
At Thurgarton Church
by George Barker
To the memory of my father:
At Thurgarton Church the sun
burns the winter clouds over
the gaunt Danish stone
and thatched reeds that cover
the barest chapel I know.
I could compare it with
the Norse longboats that bore
burning the body forth
in honour from the shore
of great fjords long ago.
The sky is red and cold
overhead, and three small
sturdy trees keep a hold
on the world and the stone wall
that encloses the dead below.
I enter and find I stand
in a great barn, bleak and bare.
Like ice the winter ghosts and
the white walls gleam and flare
and flame as the sun drops low.
And I see, then, that slowly
the December day has gone.
I stand in the silence, not wholly
believing I am alone.
Somehow I cannot go.
Then a small wind rose, and the trees
began to crackle and stir
and I watched the moon by degrees
ascend in the window till her
light cut a wing in the shadow.
I thought: the House of the Dead.
The dead moon inherits it.
And I seem in a sense to have died
as I rise from where I sit
and out into darkness go.
I know as I leave I shall pass
where Thurgarton’s dead lie
at those old stones in the grass
under the cold moon’s eye.
I see the old bones glow.
No, they do not sleep here
in the long holy night of
the serene soul, but keep here
a dark tenancy and the right of
rising up to go.
Here the owl and soul shriek with
the voice of the dead as they turn
on the polar spit and burn
without hope and seek with
out hope the holy home below.
Yet to them the mole and
mouse bring a wreath and a breath
of the flowering leaves of the soul, and
it is from the Tree of Death
the leaves of life grow.
The rain, the sometime summer
rain on a memory of roses
will fall lightly and come
among them as it erases
summers so long ago.
And the voices of those
once so much loved will flitter
over the nettled rows
of graves, and the holly tree twitter
like friends they used to know.
And not far away the
icy and paralysed stream
has found it also, that day the
flesh became glass and a dream
with no where to go.
Haunting the December
fields their bitter lives
entreat us to remember
the lost spirit that grieves
over these fields like a scarecrow.
That grieves over all it ever
did and all, all not
done, that grieves over
its cross-purposed lot:
to know and not to know.
The masterless dog sits
outside the church door
with dereliction haunting its
heart that hankers for
the hand that loved it so.
Not in a small grave
outside the stone wall
will the love that it gave
ever be returned, not for all
time or tracks in the snow.
More mourned the death of the dog
than our bones ever shall
receive from the hand of god
this bone again, or all
that high hand could bestow.
As I stand by the porch
I believe that no one has heard
here in Thurgarton Church
a single veritable word
save the unspoken No.
The godfathered negative
that responds to our mistaken
incredulous and heartbroken
desire above all to live
as though things were not so.
Desire to live as though the
two-footed clay stood up
proud never to know the
tempests that rage in the cup
under a rainbow.
Desire above all to live
as though the soul was stone,
believing we cannot give
or love since we are alone
and always will be so.
That heartbroken desire
to live as though no light
ever set the seas on fire
and no sun burned at night
or Mercy walked to and fro.
The proud flesh cries: I am not
caught up in the great cloud
of my unknowing. But that
proud flesh had endowed
us with the cloud we know.
To this the unspoken No
of the dead god responds
and then the whirlwinds blow
over all the things and beyond
and the dead mop and mow.
And there in the livid dust
and bones of death we search
until we find as we must
outside Thurgarton Church
only wild grasses blow.
I hear the old bone in me cry
and the dying spirit call:
I have forfeited all
and once and for all must die
and this is all that I know.
For now in a wild way we
know that justice is served
and that we die in the clay we
dread, desired, and deserved,
awaiting no Judgement Day.
In the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine’s brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to
gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell — all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done — running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men — except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)
This was one of my favourite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm’s way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.
I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: “common nettles” or “stinging nettles.” I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking — and although they’re actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women’s arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.
According to the Anglo-Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm,” recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against “elf-shot” (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and”flying venom” (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles,” said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, “I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
“Nettles have numerous virtues,” writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. “Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.
“Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient’s name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits.”
The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:
“Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle’s high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as ‘Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.’ This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.
“Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica ‘syringes’ of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful.”
Bumblehill Nettle Soup
Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.
Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.
Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.
Preparing nettle soup.
Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)
Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.
Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.
The illustrations for “The Wild Swans” above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: “Swan’s Wing” and “The Folklore of Food.”
It was one of the most exciting, turbulent and transformative eras in history, but the Middle Ages were also fraught with danger. Here are ten of the biggest risks people faced…
The plague was one of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages – it had a devastating effect on the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also known as the Black Death, the plague (caused by the bacterium called Yersinia pestis) was carried by fleas most often found on rats. It had arrived in Europe by 1348, and thousands died in places ranging from Italy, France and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Wales, Spain and Russia.
The deadly bubonic plague caused oozing swellings (buboes) all over the body. With the septicaemic plague, victims suffered from skin that was darkly discoloured (turning black) as a result of toxins in the bloodstream (one reason why the…
There is a grave in Halifax – a humdrum, unadorned marker, modest in comparison with many of its fellows, victims all of the RMS Titanic disaster. The stone at Fairview Lawn cemetery in Nova Scotia bears the number 227, the date of the epoch-making disaster, and the terse inscription of a name: “J. Dawson.”
For years it was just another name, a headstone and a footnote. Until a 1997 cinematic blockbuster that propelled the Titanic catastrophe back to the forefront of public consciousness. J. Dawson didn’t matter until James Cameron made the fictitious character of Jack Dawson a vehicle for his ice-struck love story. Leonardo Di Caprio broke more than the heart of his screen sweetheart, the equally fictitious first class passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet).
Were Jack and Rose Based on Real People?
You won’t find Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater on any passenger list (Jack only won his ticket at the last moment!
They were both fictional characters. As this articles explains there was a J. Dawson on the Titanic, but his life was very different to the one portrayed on the screen. There was even a Rose travelling in First Class… but Rose Amelie Icard was only a maid to one of the wealthy passengers.
A modern generation of young females pined for the young vagabond – and allowed their tears to blur their perceptions of reality. Websites like Encyclopedia Titanica were plagued with questions asking whether Jack and Rose were real people. The grave marker suddenly became a focal point for adolescent emotion. The nondescript body fished from the sea by the Mackay-Bennett and buried in Canadian clay on May 8, 1912, was now a “somebody.” Floral tributes sprouted in front of the J. Dawson stone.
Admirers left photographs of Di Caprio and of themselves, tucked cinema stubs beside the granite, took photographs and clippings of grass, even left hotel keys…….Movie director James Cameron has said he had no idea there was a Dawson on shipboard back in April 1912. There are those who don’t believe him, choosing to see instead the hint of an eponymous “jackdaw” plucking an attractive name – and subtly creating an extra strand to the myth.
So who was the real Jack Dawson?:
A Discovery channel documentary aired across the USA in January 2001 addressed that question, drawing on new research in which I have played a part through my book, The Irish Aboard Titanic, the first text to draw attention to the real identity of body 227. Many more details have been unearthed in further research since.
Titanic folklorists long held to the oddly unshakeable belief that J. Dawson was a James, but this is now shown to be just another false assumption. His dungarees and other clothing immediately identified him as a member of the crew when his remains were recovered, and it is ironical that there are indications that Dawson had gone to some length at the time of deepest crisis to assert his right to an identity. Because off-duty when the impact occurred, crewman Dawson had time to root through this dunnage bag to equip himself with his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – before finally being allowed topside with the rest of the black gang when all the boats were gone. It appears the 23-year-old was determined that if the worst should come to the worst, then at least his body might be identified for the sake of far-flung loved ones.
And so it proved – Card number 35638 gave the key – the corpse was that of one who signed himself J. Dawson. The name duly appears on the Titanic sign-on lists. J. Dawson was a trimmer, a stokehold slave who channelled coal to the firemen at the furnaces, all the time keeping the black mountains on a level plateau, so that no imbalances were caused to threaten the trim, or even-keel of the ship. The sign-on papers yielded more – that Dawson was a 23-year-old, much younger than the estimated 30 years of age thought by the recovery crew who pulled him from the Atlantic’s grasp. His address was given as 70 Briton Street, Southampton, and his home town listed as Dublin, Ireland.
But the man whose body wore no shoes – many firemen pulled off their heavy workboots on the poop deck of the Titanic before the stern inverted, hoping to save themselves by swimming [Thomas Dillon was one of the few who succeeded] – was to leave no footprint in Southampton. Later researchers would wander up a dead end, for there was no number 70 at Briton Street in those days. The numbers did not go up that far, and the trail was cold.
It is only through his Irish roots that the true J. Dawson begins to emerge.
A little over a mile from my house in Dublin there is a nursing home, where the oldest surviving member of the Dawson family lives out a feisty twilight at the age of 88, surrounded by crosswords and puzzle books. May Dawson was born in that year of 1912. She remembers tales of Joseph Dawson, the family member who went to sea aboard the greatest vessel of her time. The trimmer who signed with a modest and economical first initial, instead of the Christian name that pointed to Catholic upbringing, identified with a plain “J”, just as he had been when voyaging on the RMS Majestic, his first ship before Titanic.
How Joseph Dawson, a trained carpenter whose toolbox survived in the family for many years, left his home city and found a berth on the ship billed the “Queen of the Seas” is a story in some ways more fascinating than even that woven around his invented namesake, Jack Dawson. The similarities between fact and fiction are striking however – both were young men, both largely penniless, who “gambled” their way aboard Titanic. One a serf to coal, the other a character who wielded charcoal to woo; and both were intimately bound up with beautiful sweethearts.
Yet the Joseph Dawson story has more with which to amaze and enthrall than that of the Di Caprio portrayal. There is more to it, indeed, than can be told in an hour-long documentary tailored for a TV mass market. Charlie Haas, Brian Ticehurst, Alan Ruffman and your essayist herewith all contribute interviews to the programme, “The Real Jack Dawson” which was made by BBC Manchester, and aired in 2001. While others touched on varying aspects of the disaster and the vessel as it affected a lowly trimmer, I hope here to tell the extraordinary personal story that shaped Joseph Dawson. He was a child born in a red-light area to a father who should have been a priest.
Joseph Dawson was born in the slums of Dublin in September 1888 – at the very time when Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror among prostitutes was at its height in the gas-lit cobble lanes of neighbouring London. The mewling infant that came into the world in the sordid surrounds of “Monto”, the inner-city Dublin demi-monde whose trade in a myriad predilections was later to provide the backdrop for the Night town chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses, could not have known the circumstances of his birth. Those details are indeed obscure – and deliberately so. The birth was never registered. The mother was a widow. The father was a widower who had once simply “jumped the wall” in family folklore to escape an o’er-hasty decision to enter as candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood.
If Patrick Dawson, Joseph’s father, was ever married to Catherine Madden, there is nothing now to say so. This union – a union that begat Joseph – was itself never registered. There is nothing to show the parents were married at the time of birth, not in the records of Catholic inner-city parishes where tenements bursting at the seams provided an endless succession of tiny heads to be wetted at the font, nor in the ledgers of the State which, since 1864, had been dutifully recording every marriage and each new citizen of Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.
The failure to comply with the dictates of colonial masters is hardly surprising – up to five per cent of recalcitrants avoided official registration in those days – but the dispensation with Church sacrament for the wailing whelp is indeed extraordinary. It suggests an impediment, as indeed may have existed in the marital stakes. Perhaps Patrick Dawson had burned his bridges. As a “spoiled priest,” his choices in personal relationships were strictly limited in a society deferential to its clergy. And Patrick Dawson’s family was steeped in the faith. It provided a living for many of them in uncertain times. And it had done so for the extended Dawson clan since the days of the late 14th century, when proud kinsmen had been stripped of their lands around Tullow, Co Carlow. This vengeful scattering of the once-wealthy forebears followed the assassination of Richard Mortimer, Earl of March, heir to the English throne, ambushed and slain by the leading MacDaithi at nearby Kellistown, on July 10, 1398.
MacDaithi, in the Irish language, means “David’s son”, pronounced MacDawhee – and the native phonetics would later engender a simple Anglicisation to Dawson. From a place as patriarchs, the Dawsons were reduced to the status of beggars, mere tenants on their former pastures. Thus the Church would become a refuge. It provided a living. One Dawson established an entire convent, and a tradition of Holy Orders grew through the centuries. In 1854, the father of the man fated to die on the Titanic was born in Tullow. Patrick Dawson was one of four sons born to slater Thomas Dawson and his wife Mary. All four of these sons would enter the seminary. Only Patrick blotted the family escutcheon by “jumping the wall.”
Patrick’s three brothers – who became Fr Thomas, Fr William and Fr Bernard – were versed in Latin and Greek and moved up in the church. Patrick, the sole escapee, reverted to his earlier training as carpenter. He moved to Dublin. He married a widow, when he was 24. The spoiled priest was lucky that any woman would have him. Maryanne Walsh, a maker of corsets, from Fishamble Street, where Handel had given the first-ever performance of his celebrated “Messiah”, agreed to be his wife. After all, she already had a daughter, Bessie, to care for, and could not afford to be proud.
Patrick Dawson and the Widow Walsh were married in St Michan’s Church, North Anne Street, in the heart of Dublin’s markets area, on June 23, 1878. They lived at Dominick Place in the city. The Widow Walsh bore him two sons, Timothy and John, bound to become a slater and tea porter respectively. Timothy, who would later serve in the Boer War with the Dublin Fusiliers, arrived first, in 1879, and baby John two years later. Tragedy would strike with the third child.
The Widow Walsh developed complications in delivery at the couple’s cramped rented rooms in Copper Alley. She was rushed to the Coombe lying-in hospital where her child was born stillborn as its mother lapsed into coma. She died six days later, on February 22, 1883. She was only thirty.
Life was cheap, the pressures intense. The family had already hurtled from one rooming house to another, surviving on the piecework Patrick found as a coachmaker. One of the streets on which they lived had no fewer than three pawn shops, a sign of the widespread misery in a city long-before swollen by a tide of famine fugitives from the countryside.
Patrick was down on his luck when he fell in with Catherine Madden – another widow, again with a child of her own to rear. Soon they were living together in a room in Summerhill, close to the yard where Patrick worked. They moved again and again, ever downward it appeared. Joseph Dawson, the focus of this article, arrived in 1888, followed by a sister, Margaret, four years later. This time the birth was registered, the parents formally identified.
By 1901, all the other childen save Joseph and Margaret were sufficiently grown up to have moved away or into the homes of other relatives. It is in the Irish Census of the turn of the century that we find Joseph Dawson listed for the first time – and the record, in the Irish National Archives, is the only piece of contemporary paper to list his full name.
Patrick Dawson, described as a joiner, aged 44, is found living at a tenement in Rutland Street, north Dublin. Catherine, a year older and listed as Kate, is described as his wife although no certificate was ever issued. Here are the children – Maggie Dawson, aged 8, and Joseph, 12.
It is April 1901. In eleven years, Joseph Dawson will be the 23-year-old trimmer from Dublin who signs aboard the RMS Titanic. For now however, the family must live in just two small rooms, one of nine families compressed into the four-storey tenement. And they are among the lucky ones – other families of eight and nine members make do with a single room. Determination drove them on through a widespread squalor, now thankfully consigned to the past. Joseph received an education, learned his father’s trade of carpentry, was taught lessons by Jesuits who brought a crusading zeal into the community from nearby Belvedere College – later home of Fr Francis Browne SJ of Titanic photography fame – and grew to manhood. Then an event, in March 1909, catapulted him towards his fatal encounter with the White Star Line.
Catherine, mother to Joseph and his sister Margaret, succumbed to breast cancer. Her distraught husband Patrick, now 55, turned to his wider family for solace, just as relatives rallied round to provide opportunities for Joseph and Margaret in the wider scheme of things. Fr Tom, Joseph’s uncle, offered to provide them with accommodation and a start in a new life. He was now based in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, England. Joseph Dawson and his sister took the boat for Britain, as so many Irish emigrants before them. Margaret went into service, and Joseph took the King’s shilling, enlisting in the British Army as his half-brother Timothy had done only a decade before. Joseph chose the Royal Army Medical Corps and liked it. He took up boxing in the regiment, and was duly posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England. The magnet of Titanic now draws him closer. Netley is but three miles from Southampton.
Joseph chose to leave within a few years. He had heard about the great Transatlantic liners that promised good pay for those unafraid of hard work. A temporary certificate of discharge was issued at Netley on June 30th, 1911, and survives in the family to this day. It reads: “CertifiedThanks , that number 1854, J. Dawson, is on furlough pending discharge from 1st July 1911 to 20th July 1911, and that his character on discharge will be very good.”
There was another reason for leaving. On previous leave, which inevitably led to the bars and bright lights of Southampton, Dawson had made the acquaintance of a ship’s fireman, John Priest. More importantly, he also came to know Priest’s attractive sister, Nellie. The Irishman and the seaside girl began courting.
It was John Priest who poured into Dawson’s ears the tales of the sea as they sat in pubs like the Grapes or the Belvedere Arms. And when discharge came, Dawson moved in as a lodger with Priest’s mother at 17 Briton Street. The man inking the crew lists for the stokehold of the Titanic would hear the address incorrectly, writing it down as number 70, instead of seventeen. Perhaps Joseph’s Irish accent was to blame; another Irish crew member, Jack Foley, had cried out that he was from Youghal, Co Cork. They put him down as coming from York.
John Priest was fated to survive the disaster. The Southampton Pictorial would report in 1912 that Mrs Priest had “one son restored to her, but her daughters Nellie and Emmie both lost sweethearts.” Poor Joseph Dawson, thinking of his Nellie as he stuggled up from a liner’s innards to a star-pricked sky that night in April. Had it really come to this? But a few months journeying with the Majestic, a glimpse of home again when the Titanic called to Queenstown, and now to face a lonely death in freezing wastes. He began taking off his shoes. buttoned the dungaree pocket in which he’d placed his Union card, and bit down hard on his lip.
There was a belief in the family that Joseph Dawson might have married Nellie Priest. The newspaper report and a search of Southampton marital records for 1911-12 are all against it. Perhaps they had simply pledged their love forever. The idea of a marriage is also suggested by a letter, which also survives in the family, sent from the White Star Line to “Mrs J. Dawson” at 17 Briton Street. It reads:
Further to our previous letter, we have to inform you that a N.S. & F. Union book No. 35638, was found on the body of J. Dawson. This has been passed into the Board of Trade Office, Southampton, to whom you had better apply for the same.
Yours faithfully, for White Star Line – “
…….and a squiggle. The union card was all she ever had. No-one claimed the body of Joseph Dawson, and it appears the relatives might not even have been told that it had been buried on land. But branches of the family in both Britain and Ireland hold on to their memories – and Seamus Dawson, the oldest male relative and a nephew of Joseph, now lives by the crashing surf at Skerries, Co Dublin, looking over the waves to Lambay Island, where the first White Star Line maiden voyage disaster came with the loss of the Tayleur in 1854, the very year of his grandfather’s birth.
Patrick Dawson, spoiled priest, died penniless at the age of 77 in 1931. True to family form, he passed away in the care of the church, under the ministrations of the Little Sisters of the Poor. His son Joseph – carpenter, boxer, lover, trimmer, Irishman – lies half a world away, sleeping in a green slope in Nova Scotia, his grave now more popular than even that of the Unknown Child. It is a must-see site for the passengers of cruise liners that placed Halifax on their itinerary after the success of the highest grossing motion picture of all time. So, Jack Dawson never did exist. But Joseph Dawson was a man of flesh and blood, ripped from the veil of life at a tragically early age. So were’t they all flesh and blood? And their stories deserve to live, those of all the humble headstones serried nearby, tales untouched by a brush with recent fame.
The following text is of Brian Mace talking to WISE Archive on 17th November 2017 at Haddiscoe – with additional photos where appropriate. See Soundtrack below.
Generations of marshmen:
My family has lived on the marshes for generations. My grandfather Reginald Mace was a marshman on the Reedham level and he had a fairly large family. There were eight children: four brothers, four sisters. So times were tight and during the war he used to go out shooting. They used to live off the land. He would shoot starlings. I think, one day, he got 76 in one shot. And he used to take them to Pettit’s in Reedham and get about a penny a piece for ‘em. And during the war he was involved with the American bomber that crashed at Reedham. They helped carry some of the crew off to Reedham on a gate used as a stretcher. And times just were very hard to them in that period of time.
My father became a marshman. He was the opposite side of the River Yare to what Grandfather was. He came over here for a week’s work mowing thistles and stayed all his life. He got the BEM for helping finding copper deficiency in the grass and then the cattle. He had a hard life. He used to live off the land. He used to go shooting and get ducks and rabbits, hares – but we had a good life in all.
My mother Violet was station mistress at Berney Arms and looked after the Post Office and she was like the driving force behind Father. They were hard times. When we lived on Haddiscoe Island, she used to make butter and take it up to Reedham and sell it. We used to have to go to Reedham by boat to get the shopping. We didn’t have a telephone. We used to have to go, either up to Reedham to use the phone box if any of the animals were ill or anything, or later on Grandfather got a phone on his side of the river and we used to go over there and use his phone.
My mother’s grandfather was a marshman, her uncle was a marshman and her father was a ganger on the railway from Yarmouth to Reedham. He used to look after that section of the track.
Childhood by the river:
I was born at Berney Arms. Lived there ‘til I was five. Then we moved over to Upper Seven Mile House on Haddiscoe Island where I had to go to school by boat. The first years Father and Grandfather Albert used to row me up the river to Reedham and then later on we got a little motor launch and when I was about 14 I used to take myself up the river to school. I was an only child. All on my own down here and some of the boys from Reedham they used to walk down the river wall and give a shout when they got opposite the house and we used to set off down the river for the boat and they used to have two or three hours down there with me and then they go back off home.
Winter of ‘63:
I wasn’t keen on school. In the big winter of ’63 the river froze up so I had a bloomin’ good excuse for not going to school. I went shooting nearly every day of the week I think. I had a 410 at the time and I’d go after ducks and pheasants and whatever was about, and they used to end up on the table.
And then there was the coypu. We used to go after the coypu. We had a run of snares on the river wall to catch ‘em. We used to shoot them. I had a little Scottie terrier that absolutely hated coypu and she would swim in the dyke over the top of the coypu when that was on the water and wait ‘til it came up and used to grab ‘em in the back of a net and kill ‘em. So we used to get a lot of coypus like that. That was before the coypu campaign started and the owner of the marshes used to pay us sixpence a tail to kill the coypu because they done so much damage to the banks and what have you. Cattle, you know, they could put their leg in a coypu hole and break it so they were glad to get rid of the coypu. But the coypu campaign then started and they more or less took all the credit for what we done.
Before that, Dad used to skin the coypu and sell the pelts, the nutria, and I believe it used to go into fur coats and hats all such stuff like that. So the actual coypu was being used for what that was brought over to this country for, for the fur. Well we done that for several years. Lots of different things we used to do with them. Well, I once shot one during the hard winter, during the ’63 winter. And the tail had been frozen off. So I was most annoyed I’d missed out on my sixpence!
Life after school:
When I left school I went to work at Browne & Sons Garage at Loddon. From there I went to Corona soft drinks, then they finished in Yarmouth and I got a job with Sacret & Co on The Conge in Yarmouth as a delivery driver. They were general wholesalers – chocolates, cigarettes. And then after that I went to Priory Craft at St Olaves and I was fitting engines and jet units into speedboats and then when they packed up I decided to go self employed and went reedcutting.
We done the reedcutting for several years and that was bloomin’ hard work. You earnt every penny you got out of it. The reed from the Island was some of the best reed in Norfolk and that went all over England and there was even an order for some to go to Disneyland in America. The reed was a good time but that was hard work. When we started doing the reed I think if I remember right it was about three and sixpence a bunch. That’s what we used to get for it and I think now they’re getting over £2 a bunch for it.
We done the reedcutting with an Allen Scythe to start with. And then we went for a Mayfield Cutter which was a bit bigger, bit quicker and by the time we finished we’d gotten an Olympia rice harvester that actually cut it and bound it but the only disadvantage with the Olympia was you had to cut all your strings, clean it all out and then retie it all up again.
It was very hard work on your hands. We had one patch of reed, that was 500 yards from the river wall and we used to have to carry the reed from off the rond over the top of the river wall, stack it at the bottom and we had all sorts of things to try and do it quicker. We used to put about 10 proper bunches into one big bunch, hoist them up on your back and walk. Then I made a sledge out of some old gates and we used to pull that across the rond with a tractor and a long rope. But the trouble was that the tractor used to go half way across the marsh before the sledge moved because the rope stretched. And then that came in rather a hurry when it did come.
It was different when my father and grandfather done the reedcutting they used to have to use a hand scythe. And mow the reed and tie it up and carry it off because they used to take a lot longer.
Travelling around the marshes:
They would have walked round the marshes mainly. Some people had a horse. My uncle he used to have a horse to go round the cattle on and to go out shopping they had a horse and cart. And eventually my uncle, he got a bullnosed Morris Motor car and then that’s how he got about. But life in them days was very hard on the marshes ‘cos we used to, well I can remember Father used to walk two mile to get the cattle off the lorry and then used to have to walk them all the way back down to the marsh. They’d got to go on the island and I can’t remember it but he used to say about the cattle coming by train, by rail and being on-loaded at Haddiscoe. And they used to have to walk them from Haddiscoe down onto the marshes.
Cattle (and some sheep) on the marshes:
After I packed up reedcutting I looked after the cattle on the marshes. The Pettengill family moved out from down the marshes and I took their level over. When they hired the marshes, they hired the marshman with the marsh. They hired me automatically. I’ve been doing it ever since.
These days I start, well, as early as I can, at about six in the morning and go round the cattle. I use a four-wheel drive nowadays to go round the cattle. That’s a lot easier. Some people, like Tony Clarke, he uses a quad and what have you. But I use a four-wheel drive.
We check the cattle to make sure they’re all in good health. Make sure there’s nothing wrong, there’s no colds or pneumonia or anything like that. Or any foul of the foot or anything, and if there is, then we phone the actual owners and it’s up to them then to get the vet in and sort things out or take the cattle home.
The cattle calve on the marshes. Sometimes we have to help with the calving. If there’s a cow in trouble calving then I automatically get the vet in and if a caesarean that’s needed then it’s done down here. We have to cart water and everything down so it’s clean and fresh when that’s done. Well, there’s one particular farmer. The first time he come down here I was out with him until two o’clock in the morning worming cattle by torch lamp. And I quickly told him, if he couldn’t come in the daylight, he needn’t come at all.
I do that 30 weeks a year and in the winter we go round mending the gates and supervising the dykes being cleaned out and posts – we have to put in the digger nowadays where we used to do it all by hand. We used to have to dig the hole and put the rails up and what have you. But that’s a lot easier with a digger. Just give it a push and that’s it.
There are also sheep on the marshes. I got one farmer who actually owns the marshes and he’s got sheep. He has anything from 300 plus, 300 to 500. The marshes are dry enough for sheep.
Future of the marshes:
I think the marshes are going downhill all the time. There aren’t so many cattle to graze ‘em. There used to be all dairy cattle down here but now we got suckler herds and what have you. And there just isn’t the stock about there used to be so the marshes are gradually going downhill and they don’t seem to want to put the money back in to ‘em that they used to. Like the thistle spraying and the cutting of thistles. There’s not so much of that going on as what there used to be.
From coypu to mink:
My grandfather, my father and I were marshmen. My son, Stephen, he works for the mink control, the mink project. He’s still on the marshes. He’s about the marshes. He’s all over Norfolk. You know, supplying people with traps and going despatching mink and all sorts of things you know. They’re getting on top of the mink quicker than they got on top of the coypu. The coypu were about for a long while before they started being controlled.
The mink were introduced for the fur trade and then someone thought that would be a bright idea to let these lovely little furry creatures out into the wild and that’s when the problems start with an non-native species. The mink don’t burrow so much, they just kill for the sake of killing. They will kill stuff and leave it and not eat it. They’ll have rabbits, they’ll have chickens, they’ll have anything and they just kill for the sake of it. They will even get into fish ponds and kill the fish.
It is becoming a bigger problem cos they have spread into places like Bradwell and that and the fishponds and killed people’s fish and Stephen, he’s quite often called out into a town to go and set a trap to try and catch it.
The following text is of Arnold ‘Archie’ Rednall (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive in Freethorpe on 28th February 2017 – with appropriate additional photos added. See soundtrack below:
I was born in London, but my Dad moved to Reedham in 1947. He bought Brick Kiln, which was the old Reedham brickyard, although it was redundant at the time. My uncle, who lived at Ship Cottages, Reedham, told my dad that Brick Kiln was coming up for sale and so dad come down and bought it from a Mr Elvin. Mr Elvin had TB and we weren’t allowed to go and live in Brick Kiln to begin with, so I went and lived with my auntie and uncle in Ship Cottages.
When we stood on the steps of our house ready to move, the telegraph boy came up and told my mum and dad that my cousin Robert from Ship Cottages was missing, presumed drowned. So the young lad, who was to be my playmate, had drowned, which was quite sad. I went and stayed with my Auntie Ivy in London for about three months, before we actually were able to make the move to Reedham.
I can remember the first morning Jim, my brother, and I woke up at Brick Kiln and we went out in the garden, which was two to three acres, and at the back there were lots of apple trees. We made our way through all these and climbed up onto the fence, overlooking the school playing field. I can always remember it; we hung onto the triangular bits of the fence and watched the kids kicking a football about. These were the children we eventually joined at school and then, in due course, I used to kick a ball about too…
Reedham was a very sociable community. For instance, if someone was ill, I can remember my mum used to cook food and take it round to them on a plate with a dish over the top; ‘oh so and so she’s not very well; she’s in bed; she’s got a heavy cold…’ People used to go round and sit with them and cook for them, take them out for a walk, take the dogs for a walk. My sister, who’s now 86, still lives in Brick Kiln and we used to walk to school and other children would join up with us. Also, if need be, a mum would maybe take five children to school.
Reedham School and ‘Larning Norfolk’
I was just seven when I started at Reedham School, my first school, in 1947. When I first joined, as a Cockney kid, I think I was just a bit of a novelty really… Now my brother, who was 6½ years older than me, started at Reedham School and he struggled, basically having to fight his way through school, because they all would try and see how strong London boys were compared to Norfolk boys… I was lucky, because I went to the infant school and we had a woman teacher, who handled me well; she blended me in with the class and taught me to slow down and slowly get to talk Norfolk… It was difficult at first though getting used to the broad Norfolk accent.
We did Christmas songs there and I could sing. I sang solo and that brought me in. I was part of the team, because I could sing all the solos they wanted to sing at Christmas… My mum, dad and granddad were musical. Both my children are musical too, so it’s obviously in the family blood and runs in the genes…
I went to Reedham School originally, but then they decided that one boy from each village school could go to Holt Hall, which was a boarding school, and I went there. It was in the middle of woodland, with two big lakes. I think there were 60 boys and 60 girls and we had four classrooms. I absolutely loved going to Holt Hall and my spare time spent on the marshes with Brian Mace, Keith Patterson and Derek Elvin, my friends, with all the canoeing, camping and so on.
So I moved to Norfolk and grew up here and it’s the best thing my dad ever did. I loved Norfolk. I loved school, going down Reedham riverside and living in the Ship Cottages with my uncle and auntie too.
Reggie Mace, a Marshman:
One of the first boys I palled up with was Brian Mace. He and his two sisters used to walk down the railway line every day to go to school from Five Mile House, which is the last house between Reedham and Berney Arms. I used to go down to Berney Arms with him and play on the marshes and he used to show me round.
His dad, Reggie Mace, was a marshman, and I used to watch him carrying out his various jobs. He had to make sure that the marshes and dykes were clear of harmful plants, thistles and so on, because of feeding the cattle and also that all the gates were in good working order.
Slubbing the Dykes Out:
There were a couple of men who used to work with him. I don’t know whether they were family members or not. They used to slub the dykes out using a spade, shovel and fork, all on long poles. They’d put all the stuff from the bottom of the dyke up onto the edge, forming a little barrier, but the dyke was cleared. Then when the water and all the sediment settled, you could see the bottom of the dyke and the fish swimming.
He kept an eye on the levels of the dykes. He controlled the water flow from the river into the dykes and vice versa by the mills. When the dykes got low, originally they had a water wheel operated by a windmill. Very soon that was replaced by a big diesel pump house, for the obvious reason they could just switch it on and off and they didn’t have to worry about the wind.
He looked after the cattle, made sure they were safe, and then they used to take them back down to the farms to milk them, or whatever they used to do. In those days, the marshes were full of cattle. There were also a lot of horses about, because that was still the very early days of tractors and in a lot of cases they still used the horses for pulling carts. I can remember them even ploughing a field with a horse and plough; that’s going back some…
There were, in fact, marshmen all the way from the rond at Reedham right up to Berney Arms looking after the dykes and caring for the cattle.
The windmill, steam and diesel pumps:
There was also a wrecked, derelict old steam pump, but why that was there and whether it ever got used, I don’t know. So there was this, a windmill and a diesel pump all within a matter of yards of each other and I found it all interesting.
I was fascinated by the windmill. The steps from the ground floor to the first floor had been taken away, to stop us climbing up it, but we went down to a local shop and got some six inch nails. We nailed these into a wooden post, about a foot square, up the middle of the windmill and we climbed up to get onto the first floor. Once we got onto the first floor, you could then go up the steps to the very top, the dome bit and that was our den. That’s where we had all our Eagle comics and all the rest of it…
On the back of the windmill there was a big chain and by pulling that, you could turn the sail into the wind, or slightly to the wind, depending on whether you wanted it to go fast, or slow. All that was in operation at first when I was there, but over the years, from the age of 9 right up until I was 14, eventually the windmill finished; that seized up and they used the diesel pumps to pump the dykes in and out.
Spinning for pike:
When I first went down there, the dykes were all straight, level and clear and we used to go fishing. We used to go spinning for pike. We used to tow a piece of string with a spinning hook on it in the water and as you walked down, the hook used to spin and the pike would be attracted by this shining, spinning thing and go after it, grab it and then they were hooked. We’d then pull it out of the water, cook it and eat it.
‘Babbing’ in the river:
We used to go babbing in the river on a big rubber dinghy. You would get worms and sew and tie them all together. Then you’d drop them in the river until they sunk to the bottom. The eels used to suck onto the worms and you’d pull them up. You’d bring two/three, or maybe just one eel into the rubber dinghy, shake it and it would fall off. We used to cook these. I can’t honestly say I was too fond of eating eels, but that was all so much of an adventure…
The 1953 floods:
When we had the floods in 1953, I was in bed one morning and my mum came into my bedroom and she said ‘son come and have a look at this’. She rolled my blind up and I looked down towards Berney Arms and I could see the sea round the edge of Reedham Church. Unbelievable. The whole of the marshes was covered in water and on the high bits, the cows were all up in the gateways trying to get out of the water. It wasn’t deep; I mean it was only about 2ft deep, but it was an incredible sight.
That finished the dykes off and I think all the fish were killed. It never did recover after that and you no longer had the people working on the marshes.
The mill dykes:
The mill dykes were 6ft to 8ft wide and you could row a rubber dinghy down them. We cut a door off one of the derelict mills and made it into a raft and we used to float down the mill dykes on this, which was probably a silly thing to do, but we did it…
When the mills were running, that’s where the water was pumped in and out. They were pumped out from the mill dykes and all the other little dykes used to feed into the mill dykes. The normal dykes were about 3ft wide, but the mill dykes were 6ft or 8ft wide and it was like an artery of water and used to pump the water into the river, or vice versa.
When the mill was working, there was a tunnel underneath, which used to go into the river. If you looked down there, you could see half of it was full of water and the other half was just curved and that’s how they controlled the water. The water was pumped from the river into the dykes, or vice versa, by the water pump on the side of the mill. You could rotate the mill top to speed the mill up, or slow it down, or stop it. Then that was replaced by the diesel pump house, which had a big concrete square outside that was about 4ft deep. We used to go swimming in there and that was like the reservoir to prime the pumps.
Singsongs at The Ship and The Nelson, Reedham:
My mum used to play the piano and my dad used to play the mandolin-banjo down at The Ship, or The Nelson, on a Saturday night. Occasionally somebody with a violin, or some other sort of instrument would join in.
I can remember when Eddie Calvert came on the scene, who was my hero, so I decided to learn the trumpet. Then when Lonnie Donegan came along with skiffle, I decided I’d had enough of the trumpet, so I took up the guitar instead and also played at these two pubs.
People from the boats used to come in and have a drink, sing songs and dance and there would probably be 40/50 and we all used to have incredible times.
“The River Yare Commissioner’:
Mum and dad got very friendly with Jack Hunt, who lived next door to The Nelson. He was a river inspector and he had a boat, which was the River Yare Y90, and on the back was a big flag, which read ‘The River Yare Commissioner’. He used to come in the pub when mum and dad were playing and Jack said to my mum one day ‘would your boy like to come out on my boat?’ I grabbed the chance and he gave me my ongoing interest in boats…
He was in charge of the river. He checked on the boats in the summertime when the holidaymakers came down, making sure they drove safely and that there were no accidents. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for anybody that drowned in the river and had to dredge the river and bring the bodies up, which wasn’t a nice job, but that was part of his duties. All the time we lived there, there was only two or three people drowned, but my cousin was playing with his toy boat on a bit of string apparently and was leaning over the edge of the quay. He obviously toppled in and Jack Hunt found him and pulled him from the river.
We used to call them river policemen, but his proper title was River Commissioner and his area was from Berney Arms to Brundall. There was another person that covered the area from Brundall to Norwich. His boat used to be tied up underneath the swing bridge over the railway line. We used to go across this bridge to get to his boat. Leaving Reedham, just round the corner before you went up towards Berney Arms, there was Dewhurst Quay, which was where the local GP lived. I used to have to hide up in the boat until we got past this quay and then he’d let me drive his boat down to Berney Arms. We used to tie up at the Berney Arms pub and Jack used to go in there for a beer and I used to go walking down the river wall onto Breydon Water and just look round there and watch the birds.
The Wherry Albion:
One of the skippers of The Albion was a chap called Denny, he lived in Reedham and knew mum and dad. He let me go on The Albion and we sailed up from Reedham to Berney Arms…
It was a very large sailing barge, known as a wherry. The hold would be filled with various goods, for example, sugar beet, cattle feed, in fact, anything you wanted to take to Yarmouth, Norwich, or Berney Arms. It had one mast and a great black sail and it was just incredible. I loved the boats and one of my hobbies in the summertime was to go down to the riverside and collect the boat numbers. Some people would keep train numbers; I used to collect boat numbers…
There were reedcutters in those days and reed was another item the The Albion carried. They used to tie the reed up in big bundles to do the thatching and they used to cut the reeds all the way down from Reedham right down to Berney Arms. A lot of houses were thatched and they may even have sold it abroad, but there was certainly a big business in reed cutting.
The first tractor in Reedham and harvest time:
Bertie Dawson was a farmer in Reedham and my mum used to cook for him. There was an elderly lady, who lived with them and nuns used to come down from a Roman Catholic church at Yarmouth and look after her, as she was bedridden. She was a nice old lady and I used to go and sit and talk to her. Bertie had the biggest farm in Reedham and he was the first farmer to have a tractor. All the village went down there to see this tractor…
He had three or four people who used to work with him and they had horse and carts. When they used to plough the field, or load the horse and carts up with sugar beet, or turnips, or whatever it was on the back, they used to let me sit on the back of the horse and cart and I used to pretend I was driving it…
At harvest time, we had the old sail binders, which were originally pulled round by horses, and they had a sail on the side. They flattened the corn to enable it to go through the cutter. They used to go around in a big circle and, as the field got smaller, the whole village used to stand round the outside with dogs, sticks and guns and then when wild rabbits eventually ran out with nowhere else to go, they caught them and then we would have rabbit pie for days afterwards…
There were only two or three little local shops, but a lot of people grew their own vegetables, caught rabbits, shot partridges, pigeons, or whatever else was going and they lived off the land.
The ‘Thunder Box’ and the ‘Night Soil Man’:
We didn’t have conventional toilets when we first moved to Reedham, but we had a shed in the garden, which we used to call a ‘thunder box’. Inside was a wooden seat with a big hole for the grownups and there was another with a little hole for the children and you had a pail underneath.
Then on a Friday night, a man known as Hilton would bring this big horse round with a big metal cart behind, a big square box, and they used to tip all the night soil in the back of that take it down onto the allotments…
Running water and other utilities now taken for granted:
There was no piped water in the village. At the bottom of the garden at Brick Kiln was where they dug the clay out to build bricks and next door, where Keith Sales lives now, there was a sandpit. Down a slight slope there was a well, which was 10ft to 15ft deep. You had a bucket on a long piece of rope, which was used to bring the water up. The water was then tipped into another bucket and brought into the kitchen. This was stored under the sink in a porcelain pail, with a lid on the top. This was the drinking water, which was ice cold and lovely…
We used to have a galvanised bath, which you had to fill with a pail. My mum used to have an electric copper, in which she boiled the water for the bath. My sister would have a bath first, then my brother, then I would have one… So by the time I got in there, that was cooled down quite a bit, but that’s what you did.
They put in sewage and a water supply in Reedham when I was still a youngish lad. A company called Briggs Wall installed a water main and then suddenly we had taps and baths, which was incredible.
I think most houses had electricity, but it was very primitive. You tended to have one plug in the kitchen and you had a light in each room, but when I was very young, a lot of people still used candles.
We had a little narrow kitchen with just a big sink in it, a pail, a table and an electric cooker. ln the front room we had a big black stove. You had a coal fire, or wood fire, one side and then next to that was an oven with a grill on top, so you could cook on it. Before we had a very basic electric cooker put in we cooked on the fire, as did many people in the village.
Many people used to go out and gather wood, to save money basically, but there was also a coalman come round delivering coal, or coke.
Several people had paraffin stoves to heat the house with and paraffin cookers. My school friend Keith, his mum was bedridden, and in his kitchen there were paraffin heaters and a paraffin stove and so they did everything by paraffin. The Co-Op had a big tank outside and I remember you could go round there and get a gallon of paraffin for 10p.
At the top of Mill Road, where I lived, over the railway bridge there was a telephone box, which is still there, but derelict. Nobody had a telephone though, except for the doctor, as far as I know.
Church Road allotments, prize potatoes and water radish:
There was a massive field on Church Road, which consisted wholly of allotments and nearly every household in the village had one and grew all their potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and all the rest of it. Dad had the last allotment and that’s where Hilton spread all the sewage and the joke was that his potatoes were the biggest in Reedham, but nobody would eat them…
At the bottom of the allotments there was a dyke and there used to be a plant growing there called water radish and they used to take it around and sell it to the people on the boats. When I went down Berney Arms one of the things I learned, which probably I shouldn’t have done, but I did, was how to fire rifles. There was a Ray Parrot, who went out with the girl Mace, who he later married, and he taught me how to fire a gun. I fired a 410, a 12 bore and a pump gun, that for an 11/12/13 year old boy was really something, but you did those things then…
Getting out and about:
There were only a few cars in the village at that time. Humphrey’s next door to the railways station ran a taxi service, picking up people from the train and taking them to their houses, or whatever. A local vicar had a very old one with like a canvas roof over the top, which was quite a novelty. The policeman, Mr Flint, had a car. The school master and also the doctor had them, but that was about it.
Everybody else were either on bikes, or the odd one or two had horse and traps, or you walked, and that was it. There were no buses, so if you went out of the village, you went down to the station and you got on a train and you went to Yarmouth, or Lowestoft, or you went to Norwich. If you went to Norwich, you got off at the station there and you had a massive walk up to the marketplace, but you did it, because everybody just did it.
Charabanc trips, carnivals and whist drives:
On special occasions, once or twice a year, they would organise a bus, which they used to call a ‘charabanc’, and they’d all go off to Gorleston, or somewhere, and have a day out, or have a day on the pier, or Pleasure Beach, at Yarmouth, something like that. We also used to go to the circus at Yarmouth. I can remember doing that and really enjoying it.
In the summertime we used to have a carnival on the village green and everybody in the village was there. There would be marquee tents and big tables you’d sit round and have tea, coffee, cakes and so on. All the children used to be in fancy dress.
Then in the evenings, they used to have whist drives in the village hall and mum and dad used to go, in fact, the whole village would. They also held a concert party in the village once a year and I used to go and get involved with that. There was also Boys Brigade, Scouts, Cubs, Girl Guides and Brownies.
Boatbuilding and the tourist trade:
There were two boatyards in Reedham called Pearson and Sanderson, where mainly holiday boats were built. Down at the riverside there was a massive shed, where The Albion was built. This was later used as a mushroom factory. In the holiday season, there were boats two deep and people used to go round with a basket on their arm, selling vegetables and whatever else they could.
There was a little shop down there, selling things like cups of tea and ice cream. Then, of course, you had the two pubs, plus you had the Top House and The Eagle, which was next door to the railway station. You also had The Ferry, by the ferry river crossing. In those days, five or six people worked on the railway, including porters and ticket office staff.
We had Pettitt’s in Reedham and a lot of people worked there in those days, in fact, my sister was there all her working life. They used to do what they called feathercraft; making flowers and so on out of feathers. They also did taxidermy.
Cantley Sugar Factory:
My father was a carpenter. He was what they called a ‘first fix carpenter’. When he first moved to Reedham, he worked with a local builder installing stairs and cupboards. He used to bike to work but when it got to a stage where it was too far for him, he applied for a job as a carpenter at Cantley sugar factory. This was the first sugar factory in the country built in 1912, which was originally the Anglo-Dutch Sugar Company.
When my dad went to work at the factory, one of the foremen was a Dutchman from the original Anglo-Dutch company. His nickname was ‘the farmer’s boy’, because he dressed like a farmer… I met him too, because when I started my apprenticeship as a trainee fitter, he was just retiring. They had a carpenter’s shop with three carpenters.
They had their own brick company and bricklayers and a painting gang, in fact, every trade you can think of.
My brother worked for the Eastern Electricity Company and when he went and did his National Service, they guaranteed him six months’ work when he came back. After he’d worked the six months though, they made him redundant but, fortunately, my dad got him a job at the factory.
I always remember when I first went along to Cantley, I went into the office in front of Frank West, who was the manager at the time, and I sat down there and I was trying to think of something intelligent to say to him, just to get my apprenticeship… He just said to me ‘you’re Bert’s boy aren’t you?’ and I said ‘yeah’. He said ‘alright, well you can start on Monday’ and that was it…
I did a five year apprenticeship and I got day release, one day a week, to Norwich College. I had a motorbike then and I used to drive up to Norwich on it and go to the college. In the morning I’d be in the machine shop learning how to operate the machines, including turners and grinders, and then in the afternoon in the school rooms learning Maths, English, Science and so on. In the evening we’d be doing Technical Drawing.
One of the teachers was a chap from Lawrence & Scott’s and I got on very well with him. He taught me how to do Technical Drawing and I really enjoyed it. You’d do engineering drawing; you’d be drawing machinery notes and I had five years’ day release at Norwich College. I learned a lot and it certainly prepared me for my job at the factory.
I was a maintenance engineer. There were three shifts: A, B, C. rotating 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and 10pm – 6am. I was on A shift. There were three fitters, two electricians, a welder and a plumber and basically our job was to maintain the machinery. I was maintaining mechanical machinery. If a diesel pump went wrong, I fixed it. If an elevator went wrong, for example, I would see to the mechanical parts and an electrician would handle the electrical parts. You also had an instrument mechanic.
There were also people looking after the coal-driven boilers in the boiler house, which supplied the steam running the turbines, which produced the electricity to run the plant. The coal was delivered into the rail yard. The sugar beet came in by rail truck too, or lorry; originally even on horse and carts, also wherries.
The last year I was there they had what they called ‘a two hat’ system. [An electrician had a black hat, and an engineer a red one. ‘Two-hat’ meant multi-skilled.] The Engineering Department and the Electrical Department amalgamated and I had to become a mechanical/electrical engineer and the electricians had to become electrical/mechanical engineers, so we could all work across both areas. As my brother was an electrician, I have quite a good knowledge of this work, because I used to help him with some of his jobs. I learned how to wire up motors and lights, although I wasn’t allowed to work on high voltage cables.
I also did a course on boilers, so I could operate a coal boiler… I wasn’t terribly good at it, but that was okay, because you had more experienced workers overseeing you. There must have been at least 200 on a shift, but everybody knew each other, many of them also related, and worked together. It was like a family firm and everybody pulled together and that was good. Slowly though, unfortunately, as technology came in, employee numbers dropped.
During the sugar beet campaign, which was when they used to grow and cut the sugar beet, they would bring in a lot of casuals and double the crew and you worked round them. When the campaign was over, you’d strip out and overhaul all the machinery ready for the next year.
I worked at Cantley until I was 62, when I was offered voluntary redundancy, which I took. They did say to me though that I could go back in the campaigns and do oiling and greasing. So I used to go back for the duration of the campaigns, going round oiling and greasing the machines and so on, which I was quite happy to do. So working at Cantley was very good, they looked after me and gave me my pension.