Wickham Market’s Roger Rackham: ‘Sharp as a razor, gentle as a giant’
PUBLISHED: 20:00 10 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:32 11 January 2019
Well-known ex-RAF character from family business E.R. & R.T. Rackham Ltd dies at 94. Loved Ipswich Town, Frank Sinatra songs and a flutter on the horses
“My granddad… what can I say? He was literally the most laid-back character I have ever come across. He had so much love for everybody and would never have a bad word to say: always smiling, always laughing. I remember days where we would just sit and laugh at each other. No words were ever needed! I will miss him so much…”
That’s Heidi Rackham talking about grandfather Roger, who died just before Christmas at the age of 94.
Those who knew him will probably associate Roger mainly with the family business at Wickham Market started in 1885 and still there today, selling solid fuel, animal and pet food. But that’s not the whole story.
Daughter-in-law Jane Rackham tells of Roger’s time in the RAF. When the Second World War ended he was posted to Germany. He worked as part of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service effort designed to trace 40,000 or more personnel listed as missing, believed dead.
“They had to exhume bodies of crashed airmen, read their dogtags, and report back so families at home knew what had happened,” says Jane.
“Some nights, they were digging under lamp-light and apparently it haunted some of them for the rest of their lives.
“He never spoke about it, but he never liked graveyards and things like that, and we now know why. He was so secretive about that, and it only came out a few years ago.”
There is also a fund of amusing memories to cherish. One anecdote concerns Roger’s fondness for whisky, and his innate financial prudence.
When he’d ask granddaughter Heidi to pick up a bottle of Tesco Value whisky when she went shopping, the family would point out he had numerous bottles of more expensive whisky stashed away, as folk often gave them as presents.
“Well, I’m saving those for Christmas,” he’d reply. When the family checked, they found no less than 14 bottles gathering dust in the cupboard – but Roger wouldn’t touch those for his regular tot.
Roger was born in 1924 at Lower Hacheston, next to Wickham Market. His father Edward was the son of Reuben Rackham, the man who in 1885 founded a flour-milling business by the river at Deben Mills.
Edward and brother Robert are immortalised in the name that’s endured: E.R. & R.T. Rackham Ltd. Edward and “Bertie” became the second generation to run the business.
Roger attended a private primary school in Framlingham, travelling on the Framlingham Flyer train from Campsea Ashe station.
He went on to Woodbridge School, where he excelled at sports such as football, cricket and tennis. (The early 1950s would find both Roger and his brother playing for Wickham Market Football Club.)
Roger joined the RAF after leaving school. He trained at Durham and Harrogate and, at the latter, was based at the Majestic Hotel.
Jane and husband David, Roger’s son, made his 90th birthday wish come true by taking him back to Harrogate for a nostalgic visit that he enjoyed and found “quite emotional”.
Training over, Roger was posted to Canada, where he trained as a bomb aimer on Avro Lancaster aircraft. He joined Bomber Command and was posted back to England.
By that stage the conflict was ending and he was never involved in active fighting, thankfully. There was, though, that unenviable duty to fulfil on behalf of bereaved families.
After leaving the RAF, Roger was a member of the Royal Observer Corps – for 42 years! (The corps was a national civil defence organisation designed to identify and report aircraft over Britain. It disbanded in 1995.)
Edward and Bertie had handed the reins of the business to Roger and his brother (Bertie staying on as a director and living to 100).
The third-generation brothers were a perfect team. Richard was a natural with office-based administrative duties, so concentrated on those, while the older Roger preferred to be outside.
He drove the firm’s lorries and happily did much of the heavy lifting. “Huge sacks in those days,” says Jane. “It affected his health in later life, though – he had bad knees and had to have both replaced.”
David has found details in his father’s diaries about the regular trips to nearby Campsea Ashe railway station to collect coal. It was shovelled by hand out of the railway wagons and onto lorries. It was this kind of thing: “We did 20 tons today… 15 tons today… the trucks are now clear.”
Jane says: “He’d take his time and chat to people. He was a laid-back, lovable character.”
Roger and Peggy Hudson married in October, 1955, at Little Glemham church. They had sons Alan and David, and both followed their father into the business. David took it over in the early 1980s and both brothers still work there.
Home for Roger and Peggy was, for a long time, Mill House – cheek by jowl with the business. They moved to a bungalow in Wickham Market in 1990 and Peggy died in 1998.
Roger lived there on this own for another two decades, having live-in carers for the last couple of years or so. He died in his sleep on December 22.
“He was a very proud man. Kind and generous. If he could help you out, he would – but he’d skimp on things for himself,” says Jane. “He’d buy the cheapest stuff! When he could drive, he’d make a trip to Morrisons, instead of Tesco, if it was cheaper.
“He always did the football pools and he loved a flutter on the horses. He was a lifelong Ipswich Town fan. When he couldn’t go, he carried on paying for my season ticket – he wanted me to keep going.”
Roger also loved growing vegetables, though the family suspects he probably developed skin cancer on his head at one point because of the many hours he spent in the garden without a protective hat.
He liked having fun. For his 90th birthday party, at Ufford Park Hotel, he wanted a disco, a quiz and bingo – and the family ensured he got them. What’s more, Roger had a bop, too. There was also a cake with a depiction of the mill. Above it flew a Lancaster.
Pictures of the plane will adorn his coffin. With Roger having been a Frank Sinatra fan, his service will feature My Way and New York, New York, with music from The Dam Busters at the end.
Roger had five great-grandchildren all under the age of eight. “He loved seeing them, even late on. If they turned up, he’d have a new burst of energy.”
‘Always a smile’
Roger’s grandsons joined granddaughter Heidi in paying tribute to him.
Michael, manager at the family firm, said: “He never had a bad word to say about anyone. Extremely laid-back, yet he was a grafter. He loved ITFC, food, Frank Sinatra, Bell’s whisky and his pipe.
“Very family-orientated. His favourite catchphrases were ‘champion’ and ‘Yes please’. Sharp as a razor but gentle as a giant.”
Anthony summed him up as “Quiet, kind, caring, resilient; always a smile.”
A family affair
The business founded in 1885 by Reuben Rackham is still run by the family.
Flour-milling came to an end at Deben Mills in 1970, after the death of Reuben’s son Edward, but the production of animal feed for farms and smallholdings then grew for some years.
However, with the number of smaller commercial livestock farms falling, and local livestock markets closing, production eventually stopped in 1990.
Sales of feeds for horses, poultry, pigs, sheep and goats have since proved strong, though, as have sales of pet foods and wild bird feed. All that today complements the fuel business, which ranges from solid fuel and wood pellets for bio-mass boilers to bottled gas.