Can you imagine this mighty beast heading for you on Ipswich Waterfront today!
PUBLISHED: 19:01 16 January 2019
‘With a hiss and a pfizz it shot off like a rat up a drainpipe...’ Do you recall the sights and sounds in ‘Ipswich: Memories of a Special Town’?
Barry Girling’s love-letter to his hometown of Ipswich (well, it’s a book) built a head of steam in the lead-up to Christmas. With a second edition printed, a nostalgic Steven Russell agrees it’s likely to have wide appeal
The blurb on the back sums it up perfectly. ‘Ipswich: Memories of a Special Town’ is about “Powerful local families, enterprise and hard labour. The coming of the dock, followed by the great works, giant mills and maltings, the arterial railway system and a home fleet of sailing vessels. Not forgetting the change in provincial culture…”
It is one of those trips down Memory Lane – a portrait in words and evocative not-so-old photographs about a fast-changing county town from the middle of the 20th Century.
(Where did those years go? I won’t be the only person who looks at the image of Tower Ramparts and remembers when the central area was a car park and one side was dominated not by Sailmakers shopping centre but the imposing secondary school.) Barry, now in the second half of his 70s, was born and raised in Ipswich. The barge yard, lock, Orwell Works, quayside and Holy Wells were “my personal playground”. And they’ve left their imprint. “It seemed that, at a young age, wherever we chose to wander was something of interest taking place, often coloured by age-old practices.”
After “years of procrastination” he resolved to commit to paper his memories and those of others – recollections of the time factory sirens summoned workers back from lunch (something else I remember) and plenty of other aspects now part of our history.
Barry wrote every day for a year – sometimes for a few minutes; sometimes for hours – and clearly enjoyed it.
In his conclusion, he admits it doesn’t seem long ago that he and his pals were children.
“Now our children’s children are in that same position but times are vastly different. Some would say better, some would not. The entertainment that we so actively sought can now be bought off a shelf in the form of a device, a sad panacea of our times.”
Ipswich: Memories of a Special Town is available from the local WH Smith, the tourist information centre and Waterstones. This revised edition costs £12.99
Here are a few pieces plucked from Barry’s pages by way of a taster
With a hiss and a pfizz
The Co-op department store, which came to dominate the Carr Street area, is prominent in Barry’s memory.
“My mind recalls the smaller things rather than the large. For instance, the lift attendant, who sat on a stool and was forever reading a book. The vacuum system of payment, whereby the money and the docket were put in a shuttle, which in turn was inserted into a tube.
“With a hiss and a pfizz it shot off like a rat up a drainpipe to some unknown cashier’s office. In a few moments the shuttle would be back, the assistant would remove the change and receipt, enabling the customer to go on his or her way.”
Yes, we’re envious
“Mid-century Ipswich was a vastly different place when compared to today, and as yet unaware of the notion of pedestrianisation. Vehicle owners and cyclists could park unhindered and free of charge in the main streets.
“Those with means could park their limousines outside the store they owned or of their choice. Those not so fortunate would cycle to the centre of Ipswich and leave their bikes incongruously propped up on the kerb, secured by a single pedal even in Tavern and Westgate streets.”
The bike, Barry explains, was the average working man’s mode of transport, with folk on two wheels pouring out of the big engineering works at clocking-off time. “Indeed, there seemed to be so many that it was like bicycle city.”
He mentions the late Peter Underwood, founder member of the Ipswich Society (and who coincidentally was my geography teacher at school). According to Peter, “in the 1950s the town was supposed to have more bicycles and motor-cycles per head of population than any other in the country”.
On Bishops Hill, says Barry, “it was not unusual to see cyclists at least six abreast struggling up the hill”.
‘A veritable Aladdin’s cave’
Ipswich was blessed with many vital stores in the Fore Street area – invariably staffed by knowledgeable characters. There was Sneezums – “pawnbroker, seller of sports goods and army surplus, along with photographic equipment. It was here that quarter-inch-square elastic could be acquired for catapults”.
Much missed still is Martin & Newby: general ironmongers, electricians, hardwaremen and more.
“The walls were lined with cupboards and banks of small drawers containing everything under the sun,” recalls Barry. “As if that wasn’t enough, an assistant would very often have to resort to the ancient stairway to find something in the basement or elsewhere in the labyrinth.
“This was still the time when you were served at a counter, gloriously aged by the dealings of grandfather, father and son… The assistant knew instinctively where to turn; there was no need, like today, to buy some large pre-packaged assembly.”
Martin & Newby shut in the summer of 2004, after more than a century of helping the people of Ipswich.
What? No wi-fi in the ’40s and ’50s, then?
Barry remembers how Sunday afternoons in particular could be “desperate occasions” for youngsters. “There were no sporting events, no television, all the shops were closed and consequently there was little to do.”
He adds: “When we were little, anything by way of entertainment was seized upon. A circus would regularly come to town and the animals, especially the elephants, would be paraded along the streets, from the railway station to the showground.”
Chipperfield’s and Smart’s seemed to use a site in the London Road/Ranelagh Road area, while Bertram Mills put up its big top in Christchurch Park. “For a small fee it was possible to visit the menagerie.”
The changing Waterfront
It’s surely hard for younger folk to imagine trains and suchlike operating around the Ipswich dock area. It happened, though. It was something young Barry “found most fascinating, with its marshalling yards, goods station, convoluted track layout and tramway.
“In its heyday, I celebrated the maze of bridges (and) level crossings, along with sidings of which barely a vestige remains. To our eyes, a railway through the heart of the borough only served to enrich the fabric of the town.”
A two-piece phone… in 1957
Barry talks about the industrial area by the Orwell at “Over Stoke”, the neighbourhood on the south side of Stoke Bridge.
“Mike Farthing commenced work a few days before his fifteenth birthday in 1957, at the princely sum of £2 12s 6d per week. He started as a ledger clerk in premises unaltered since Victorian times.
“The fixtures were antediluvian – for instance, the rooms were heated by coal fires in the winter and the telephone was a two-piece arrangement fitted to the wall. The earpiece had to be lifted from its cradle whilst speaking into the mouthpiece.
“All the ledger entries had to be made in ink, whilst any errors had to be scratched out with a sharp blade…”
Ticket to heaven
“Several youngsters, of which I was one, would regularly congregate at Ipswich railway station and prowl the platforms, intent on recording engine numbers… Hours could be spent courtesy of a 1d platform ticket…
“I liked the drama of a named express emerging from the tunnel with a great cloud of smoke, such as ‘The Broadsman’ on its way to distant resorts such as Cromer and Sheringham.
“It never ceases to amaze me that two ordinary working men, without the benefit of a so-called superior education, could work a steam train carrying hundreds of passengers from Liverpool Street Station to the eastern outback. They would have had to keep the locomotive up to pressure, and deal with junctions and signals – all of this was real responsibility.”
Caring for the workers
Among Ipswich’s many industrial philanthropists was Lilian Cowell Cranfield, a member of the milling dynasty whose premises were down by Stoke Bridge.
Barry explains how she built and endowed Cranfield Court in 1939. It’s in Valley Road – rentable accommodation for “retired people of good character”.
He adds: “The majority of the premier works valued their employees and provided recreational facilities in the form of company clubs and sports grounds.
“Ransomes and Rapier (engineering) was no exception regarding workers’ welfare as they had a dentist, doctor and nurse on the payroll. The company had its own concert party and children’s activities were arranged at Christmas.”