Street that holds a store of memories

EVERY day thousands of vehicles make their way along one of the oldest streets in Ipswich which was once just a track.

David Kindred

EVERY day thousands of vehicles make their way along one of the oldest streets in Ipswich which was once just a track. Some of the ancient structures have survived the centuries although there have been many changes of use over the years.

Rod Cross, who grew up in Clifford Road, Ipswich and now lives near Southampton, has taken a detailed look back at a street with many connections with his family.

He said: “St Helen's Street, Ipswich, is one of the main arteries to and from the Ipswich town centre. Beginning near Major's Corner, it runs for about half a mile eastwards, before giving way to Spring Road at its junction with Grove Lane and Warwick Road.

It has its own school and church. The church, built of flint and stone, dates back to the late 1830s. This was not the original church: one has stood on this same site since medieval times. St Helen's is the only one of Ipswich's 12 medieval churches to be built outside the old town walls, indicating that the area surrounding it must have been Ipswich's first suburb, probably between 800 and 900 years ago.

“For many years, St Helen's Street was known as St Helen's Wash, as it followed the path of one of the streams which had its source amongst the natural springs in the Cauldwell Hall area of town. This may also explain why it doesn't run straight, but curves gently round the foot of the slope that reaches down from the Woodbridge Road.

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“Over time it gradually increased in size from a track to a major thoroughfare, eventually becoming so busy that the street had to be made one-way westwards from its junction with Argyle Street, before that, it was two-way along its entire length.

“For me, St Helen's Street has a special significance. Not only did I walk its length hundreds of times to and from my home to the town centre, but it is also steeped in my family's history. My great grandmother's parents first met as neighbours in the street in the late 1840s, subsequently marrying at St Helen's Church in 1853. My great grandfather's parents were licensees for 14 years at one of its many public houses, which was also where my grandfather was brought up. In addition, various other relatives have at different times lived and worked in the street and worshipped at the church which, during the second half of the 19th century, conducted at least eight weddings and 15 baptisms of family members. This was well before I first remember St Helen's Street in the late 1950s.

“As now, the Spring Road end was largely residential with a row of rather impressive houses on the right-hand side, which then gave way to McNamara's Garage. This had a workshop and an extensive car showroom displaying such stylish models as the Citroen DS, the sleek, shiny Vauxhall Cresta, all chrome, tailfins and whitewall tyres; and my particular favourite at the time, the suave and sporty Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.

“Almost opposite was Curve Street, which had the Zoar Baptist Church on one corner and the Grove Tavern on the other. The tavern closed its doors for the last time in 1969, becoming the headquarters of the Samaritans Organisation.

“Just past Regent Street was a little, low-ceilinged greengrocery. My great grandmother's sister, Linda Blackwell, ran this shop with her husband Henry from 1909 until 1936. Their daughter, Lily Blackwell, then took over, keeping it in the family for a further 20 years until 1956. Lily was a very small lady and the shop so dark that when I peered through the window she was often impossible to spot!

“Between here and Dove Street was a huge range of shops and small businesses, including Bantam Coaches and Kent's corn chandlery. There was also a watchmaker's and a wet fish shop and a little public house, the Water Lily. On the other side of the street was St Helen's Church and churchyard, and a newsagents run appropriately enough, by a man named Reginald Churchyard! Next door was Gardiner's, a good quality furniture store. Here, my uncle, Lew Fitch, learned his skills as an upholsterer, operating from a workshop at the back of the Water Lily. Later he started his own upholstery business in Cauldwell Hall Road.

“The Dove Inn, a one-time coaching house, stood between Dove Street and Dove Yard. The latter has recently been developed as a kind of mews, but I remember it as an unmade road, muddy and potholed, with a motor repair business at the end. There was a bakery on the corner next to a little snack bar which was very basic, to say the least, and catered for a rather different clientele to the more fashionable coffee bars which were beginning to open up all over town at the time.

“Next door but one was the Olive Leaf public house, which between 1895 and 1909,

was run by my great, great grandparents. In their day, it was known as the Olive Leaf Tavern, but has since totally changed its identity and is now The Grinning Rat music bar. Although my great, great grandfather, James Thomas Cross, was the nominal landlord, he had a full-time job as a printer on the Ipswich Journal in Museum Street and the Olive Leaf was run almost single-handedly by his wife Emma. She also brought up her youngest son Charles there, as well as her grandson, my grandfather Cross, who spent his boyhood in the living accommodation above.

“Between the Olive Leaf and Grimwade Street were two very long-established businesses whose names live on today. The first of these was Elmy's Cycles, established in 1922 and now apparently Ipswich's oldest surviving shop. It has obviously benefited hugely from the current high profile enjoyed by cycling and has, in the last year or so, finally moved to bigger premises a few yards away, but still in the same street. The second, on the corner of Grimwade Street, was Emeny's newsagents. During the 1960s, required reading for any self-respecting teenager was the New Musical Express, known universally as the NME. This was the nearest newsagent to me to sell it, so a favourite line of mine at the time was, 'I got my NME from Emeny!'

“Before reaching Argyle Street, on the other side, was a dark and dingy little dead-end street, where my mother's father was born. There were some 40 dwellings here, terraced, with no front gardens and just a small yard at the back. Wells Street represented the last vestiges of what this part of town must have looked like throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The combined population of the parishes of St Helen's and its neighbour St Clement's, was almost 10,000, mostly living in two-up, two-down accommodation. It was for these people that the shops of St Helen's Street were originally designed to serve.”

- I will feature more of Rod Cross's memories of St Helens Street, Ipswich, next week. Do any of the shops or streets mentioned bring nostalgic memories for you? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP1 4lN or e-mail

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