‘I hadn’t any English money to tip him with, so I gave him a “hand” of bananas off the stem wrapped in my bedding roll’
PUBLISHED: 13:00 11 November 2018
Obituary: He headed Ford dealership Potters of Framlingham, but there was so much more to ‘Mr John’ than cars, trucks and tractors
Some called it stubbornness. He himself might have admitted to “dogged”. But John Potter knew his own mind – and not in a bad way. In the face of rules he thought daft, or people trying to push him in a direction he didn’t want to go, he quietly ploughed on and did what he felt was right. Often with a wry smile on his face.
There’s an example in the handwritten memoirs he’s left us, covering his life slightly beyond marriage in 1950. (The wedding, by the way, had to wait its turn, what with the family business heavily involved in supplying and maintaining agricultural machinery. “We sold between 20 and 30 combines a year and harvest time was a very hectic period. That was why we didn’t get married until September 2 – after harvest!” he writes.)
Anyway, this anecdote is about John receiving his army call-up papers in 1944 and having to report to Fort George – near Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands – three days before Christmas. “I was not best pleased.
“I noticed that my travel warrant was dated the 22nd December, also, so I didn’t leave home till that day – consequently arriving at Fort George on the 23rd – a day late – and was immediately put on a charge as AWOL. Nothing came of it; I pleaded I’d missed the train…”
Arthur John Potter was born on February 17, 1926, at home in Deben Road, Woodbridge – and the location reflects three things that would prove central and dear: the foundation of family life, the motor trade (the works run by his father were a stone’s throw away) and the River Deben just a minute or two from the front door.
John was the second child of Arthur Horace (Horry) Potter, of Framlingham, and Nora Janet Ashwell, of Mill House, Earl Soham. Their first child, Janet, had died at about four months – of pneumonia.
John grew up with sister Pauline. Another, Josephine, died of meningitis at four years old.
The Potters, it seems to me, were resourceful do-ers. It’s how John’s childhood home, Rosendale, came into existence.
“The bungalow was originally a building on Orford Island – an airfield during the First World War, with quite a number of service personnel. I understand it was dismantled by some of Grandfather’s men from Framlingham, shipped round to Woodbridge by barge and re-erected.”
Close-by St John’s Motor Works – “the ‘John’ had nothing to do with me” – was on the corner of the Thoroughfare and Lime Kiln Quay Road. (Today, Suffolk Place retirement housing complex stands on the site.)
It sounds a wonderful place to grow up. The family played tennis on the lawn. There were also interesting outbuildings, used by a man called Fred Smith as a milk distribution point/dairy.
“The milk would arrive in big metal churns. He would then bottle it by hand and deliver it around Woodbridge in a small pick-up-type truck,” says John in his memoirs. “For very local deliveries he would carry a two- to three-gallon container of milk on a strap round his neck and ladle it out into the customer’s own container at the doorstep.
“The empty bottles would be taken back to the dairy, put into a big wooden tub with hot water (presumably with a disinfectant!) and stirred round with a big wooden pole. I was allowed to do the stirring sometimes. Then the bottles were put out to dry and used again the following day.”
The bungalow, behind the garage, was very close to the scrap metal dump, “which we searched for any old ball bearing races (part of the machinery), which we would crack open on a big, old, water-hydraulic press to retrieve the metal balls, with which to play marbles”.
He went to Woodbridge Primary School, in New Street, at about five years old, and began a life-long friendship with Geoffrey Ingram Smith.
They moved on to Woodbridge School at about eight, and that’s where Geoffrey got nickname Gim.
At the ages of eight to 10, John and pals Gim and Harold Alexander spent much time mucking about (his words) in boats on the Deben, near Wilford Quay – “‘harpooning’ each other by throwing oars and generally getting in each other’s way”.
Sadly, Harold later died from meningitis. But Gim and John travelled “all over the place, picking up various boats he (Gim) bought”.
John admits that at Woodbridge School “my academic prowess left much to be desired”, but he earned credits in maths, science, English literature and language in the School Certificate.
Most games he enjoyed – played at school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons – though cricket “dragged on for hours, with very little activity for most of the players”. Rugby, in contrast, was great fun. John played for the 1st XV, later in the army, and at Ipswich Rugger Club afterwards.
After school there was Scouts and Officer Training Corps. He always had jobs to do at Potter’s Garage, too, during free time and at weekends.
Scouts: “One summer camp, Gim and I were sent off down a river in a canoe for two days. When we stopped for the night to pitch our tent the place was full of cows. We weren’t too happy, but in the middle of the field was a telegraph pole with a protective barbed wire fence around it. So we climbed into the small enclosure and pitched the tent there.”
When Josephine was ill with meningitis, Pauline and John went to stay with Margaret Creasey and her family in Pytches Road, Woodbridge. (The families were friends.)
With Margaret’s mother often ill, the children were looked after by housekeeper Faith. “John used to raise his cap, to say ‘thank you’, as he left to walk back to school,” remembers Margaret, who would become his wife.
John’s family moved further along Deben Road to a house called Riverland. He writes that “the river and river wall area was our happy hunting ground as children. In the summer there was sailing and swimming, and – other times – generally messing around, and a bit of duck shooting in the winter”.
Once, scanning a stretch of beach for flat stones at low tide, he found a half-sovereign. “Mother made me take it to the police station, where they kept it for some time; then I eventually got it back.”
There was Robertson’s salt-water swimming pool. It would be filled by the flood tide, topped up by pump if needed, and emptied and scrubbed two or three times a week. A season ticket for children was 7/6.
In the summer of 1940 John, Pauline and their mother were evacuated to the edge of the Cotswolds – Horry wanting his family away from the vulnerable east coast. “I think he put a pin in the map and we finished up at Hook Norton”, with a couple who ran a B&B and had a chicken farm.
“We stayed there for several months, doing nothing really, but mother decided to teach us all Pitman’s shorthand (she trained as a shorthand typist). I could manage it very, very slowly!”
John was a member of Woodbridge Air Training Corps, and stayed with it after leaving school.
“Like all young lads then, I wanted to be a fighter pilot! I could do Morse code at 15 words a minute, and aircraft recognition. I knew the lot! I was big-headed. I volunteered for the RAF at 17, went down to Torquay for aircrew selection – tests and medical, which I passed – and was immediately sent home to wait to be called, as they had sufficient ‘cannon fodder’ at that time.
“I was at home for just over 12 months when I was sent my discharge papers from the RAF and told to await army call-up papers. I didn’t think much of this, so eventually went and volunteered for Fleet Air Arm, was verbally accepted, but the army papers came through first…”
After leaving school he went to work at the family garage. Behind the petrol pumps by the main road were showroom and offices, a place where tyres and punctures were dealt with (cars, trucks and tractors), a parts section, and workshop.
Most apprentices started on the pumps and progressed through the departments. “Having lived on the premises, so to speak, I was allowed to start in the stores and soon graduated to the workshop. Most of the work was on Fordson tractors, with some commercial vehicles but few cars, due to petrol rationing…
“We were the only petrol station for several miles around and all the contractors’ lorries – which were employed in building Woodbridge and Bentwaters airfields – came to fill up at least once a day and things got very hectic.
“Most of my time in the workshop was spent repairing tractors, reboring and rebuilding engines etc, and the working week was 54 hours.”
It might have been a family concern, but Margaret mentions a director, “Gee” Williams, who was very strict. “John received no favours.”
John wrote: “One memorable day – I think it was a Saturday – the whole sky was filled with planes towing gliders and everyone stopped work to go out and watch. They stretched as far as the eye could see and just kept coming.
“Every so often a glider would detach itself from the tow plane and come down at Woodbridge air base. He was the lucky one, as they were off to Arnhem.” (A major Second World War battle in the Netherlands in September, 1944, with the Glider Pilot Regiment supporting a big allied push.)
John’s call-up came that December. The first few weeks in the Highlands were a bit of an eye-opener – route-marching in snowstorms; walking barefoot in the sea… “I protested, but to no avail!”
He moved into barracks in Inverness for a while, and was there on Victory in Europe Day (“nothing much happened”) before being selected for Sandhurst and officer training.
While still in Inverness he caught German measles and was sent to hospital. “One morning I was told to lie on my bed with my pyjama jacket off. A matron came round with a bunch of student nurses. She took one look at me and said ‘There – a perfect example of German measles rash.’ Never felt so embarrassed in all my life!”
Later, at Sandhurst in Berkshire, his father let John have an old Ford car, though there was very limited petrol. “It had loose floorboards and would let in water when you went through a puddle!”
On the evening before the passing out ceremony “we had a dance and I drove over to Aylesbury to pick up Margaret [they were a couple by then, and she was working at Stoke Mandeville] and two of her friends. (Some of my friends were short of partners!)
“There was a thick fog the whole way – a bit of a hairy journey – but we made it.”
John was then drafted into the Suffolk Regiment, billeted in huts in Shrubland Park – northish of Ipswich, near Claydon and Coddenham. Within a few weeks the regiment was sent to Jamaica, mainly to oversee a prisoner of war camp. It held merchant seamen taken off German cargo boats in the Caribbean at the outbreak of war.
“Many of them were allowed out during the day. In fact, one was a qualified architect who supervised the design and building of a new officers’ club and swimming pool etc. He was known to everyone as the ‘Burgermeister’. I spent a lot of time playing tennis and swimming!”
John left Jamaica by boat on New Year’s Eve, 1947, “in charge of a contingent of about 25 men, some of whom had new wives they had married whilst out in Jamaica.
“There was also the brigadier’s wife returning home, and a man from Shell Oil – they were ardent bridge players and, as no-one else played, I and another chap volunteered to learn. We played bridge for about 10 hours a day for 10 days… and I’ve never played since!”
They landed at Tilbury docks “and somehow my father found out where and when, and came on board before breakfast to meet me with a bundle of warm underclothes!”
Margaret explains that her father-in-law was worried about the change in climate. “One of his friends lost his son because of the cold.”
The troops were demobbed that day. At Liverpool Street station a porter helped John with his kit, on a trolley. “I hadn’t got any English money to tip him with, so I gave him a ‘hand’ of bananas I cut off the complete stem of bananas I had brought home wrapped up in my bedding roll. He was very pleased, as there weren’t any available in the shops as yet.”
John took a taxi home to Woodbridge from Ipswich station – “the first taxi ride I’d ever taken!” He returned initially to the garage in Woodbridge, doing general administrative work. With new cars under strict price control, second-hand models were going for more than new ones.
The firm launched a separate arm, Potters Farm Machinery, at Wickham Market. This dealt with bigger items, such as combine harvesters, balers, grain stores and driers, and business was healthy. John helped pioneer agricultural irrigation methods – going to Germany to learn about them, and then showing East Anglian farmers how to operate the systems. He moved back to the Woodbridge garage at the end of the 1960s.
AG Potter Ltd was selling 250-300 tractors a year, and exporting many secondhand units to Denmark, Holland, Turkey and Cyprus. The whole agricultural business was later bought by Dalgety.
“When Woodbridge was sold (to a member of the Hennessey family) I moved out to Framlingham,” John wrote. “Ron Allen was then MD. On his retirement I became MD, having already taken over as chairman when Father died.
“We continued the Ford business until January 2005, when under pressure from FMC (Ford Motor Company) we sold it to Grose of Ipswich, but keeping all the business premises and land, and continuing to run the petrol forecourt. I eventually handed over (as) MD to (son) Allan.”
John ends his memoirs thus: “I have been extremely fortunate in my personal life, having had 56-plus years [68, in fact] of wonderful and exciting life with Margaret and all that a family brings… and if I started to write about all that, there would be no stopping.”
There was, of course, much more.
John had married Margaret Creasey – whose family ran a Suffolk butchery business – on September 2, 1950, at St John’s Church, Woodbridge. He became the proud father of Jennifer (1953), Allan (1958) and Hilary (1961).
There were grandchildren Ben, Charlotte, Harriet, Giles, Samuel, Tom, Emily and Joshua, and great-grandchildren Kaela, Adam, William, Finian and Adele.
Margaret and John had many holidays abroad, even in later years when mobility wasn’t that easy. But they did it.
Sailing was a lifelong love. He had a series of yachts (such as Tidesong and Serena of Leigh) moored at Woodbridge and, at times, virtually every weekend was spent on the water – sailing down the Deben to places such as Ramsholt, and up the coast to Aldeburgh.
The couple were active members of Deben Yacht Club. In recent years, when John needed an electric buggy to cover distances, he’d drive himself down to the clubhouse and spend a happy hour sitting inside, looking out at the river.
For many years he appeared in operettas staged by Ipswich Gilbert and Sullivan Society – at least one of his children remembers him singing snippets of fairly nonsensical G&S lyrics at home, such as “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”.
The friendship he found in Freemasonry was also important. John belonged locally to Doric Lodge, Lodge of Fidelity, and Royal York Chapter. He also enjoyed attending reunions of The Old Woodbridgian Society at Woodbridge School.
The business’s long involvement with the farming world saw it have a regular stand at the Suffolk Show. Later, John served as a voluntary steward. He also helped at local point-to-point races. And he and Margaret spent 25 years as volunteer ushers for events at Snape Maltings.
Friendships made within the rural community meant the traditional Boxing Day hunt meet at Saxtead, near Framlingham, was always anticipated eagerly. John didn’t ride, but enjoyed going along and chatting to people before the off, as the horses and hounds gathered.
The Potters story
John’s grandfather was Arthur George Potter – known as AG. He was one of five children whose parents lived in Needham Market. The story of how he started and grew the motor business is told brilliantly in John Bridges’ 1995 book Early Country Motoring – Car and Motorcycles in Suffolk 1896-1940. I’m indebted to John for allowing me to filch some of his material!
AG was an apprentice blacksmith who, for fun, raced penny farthings. In 1897 he married Rose Pendle, from Rendham, and a year later launched a business in Framlingham – making baskets. He also secured the agency for Swift cycles, and negotiated the use of the old reading room in Framlingham as a workshop. His first car was a secondhand Rochet, bought in 1907 – a dark blue three-seater with white wheels and a yellow undercarriage. Later he got a Vulcan and a Rover, which he rented out.
AG got his first Ford in 1909, a Model N bought from a Badingham clergyman for just over £90. The cleric had bought it from Charles Garrard (an established Framlingham motor dealer) but couldn’t keep it because of financial reasons.
AG’s business developed slowly, as there wasn’t very much cash to plough into it. The first cars were secondhand – usually bought from auctions in London.
He decided Fords were well-suited to the local roads and in October, 1913, clinched a sub-dealership under Charles Garrard. This allowed the firm to sell three cars a year.
By 1915 it had risen to 20, though the enterprise had to meet more than 250 requirements! These included advertising in the local papers – spending at least 1% of the retail price of each car bought.
Potters also had to have available a Model T car that could be used for exhibitions and demonstrations.
AG’s showroom was in Station Road, and he had his cycle shop at nearby Tomb House, where he also sold motorbikes.
In 1918 he agreed a deal to become a sub-dealer for Fordson tractors, under Mann Egerton of Norwich. He sold his first to a man from Chediston.
The firm became the authorised local Ford dealer in 1920. A new touring car then cost £240 and a Fordson tractor £260. A delivery van was £225.
In 1921 AG bought St John’s Motor Works in Woodbridge for son Arthur Horace, known as Horry.
Business was varied. For instance, the firm (which became a limited company in 1928) was employed to do the groundworks for the new Ipswich Airport. This opened in the summer of 1930. Working with steam engines from Parham, the Potters team filled ditches and removed trees and hedges so grass could be sown for the runway.
That year, AG bought premises on Market Hill, Framlingham, where the dealership remained until the early 1990s, when it moved to a new building in Station Road.