When the potteries packed 'em in

MANY families can trace their family history back to the part of Ipswich now mainly occupied by the Suffolk College.

David Kindred

MANY families can trace their family history back to the part of Ipswich now mainly occupied by the Suffolk College.

Until the 1930s this was the most densely populated part of Ipswich. Some fine old buildings were lost along with desperately poor housing when the area was demolished and residents moved to new council houses on Gainsborough, Greenwich and Whitton, on the edge of town.

The area stood mostly empty until after the Second World War. The college was built on a large part of the site opening in June 1961 with a visit to town by the Queen.

Rod Cross, who now lives near Southampton, recalls this area of town where his family roots are. Rod said: “On my last visit to Ipswich I couldn't help but notice the huge amount of redevelopment around the Rope Walk area. This had a particular significance for me as recent family research has revealed that this part of town was home to at least three generations of my family throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. My great grandmother was one of ten Johnson children who were brought up in Gibson Street, overlooking what is now Alexandra Park, while great grandfather Cross' parents, for a time, ran The Olive Leaf public house in St Helens Street, now The Grinning Rat.

“In those days the area was known as the Potteries, the name being derived from the former pottery which stood near what is now Alexandra Park. The Potteries covered an area bound by St Helens Street, Grimwade Street or Borough Road, as it then was, and Back Hamlet. The land was owned by the Byles family estate. The Potteries was at that time the most densely populated part of Ipswich, having the population of a small town.

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“Its inhabitants occupied 'back-to-backs' in narrow streets or tiny houses around a central courtyard. Their houses opened straight on to the street and had a concrete yard at the rear, or, if they were lucky, a garden of pocket handkerchief-sized dimensions.

“The men were mainly employed as manual workers in the town's agricultural engineering factories like Ransomes Sims and Jefferies, and were unskilled, or at best semi-skilled. The womenfolk, when they weren't producing children or looking after their large families, were likely to be performing repetitive jobs in the rag trade or the local footwear factory of Britten and Banister at the corner of Woodbridge Road and Argyle Street.

“This was certainly how it was in the time of my paternal great grandparents. Almost every single member of the Cross and Johnson families seemed to live in the Potteries. Like everyone else, they rarely strayed from their roots, spending their entire lives within the same small area of town. Families were big, houses small and conditions cramped to say the least.

“As if their homes weren't overcrowded enough, children often married and brought their partners to join the household, sometimes with an accompanying child as well. When they eventually found their own home, it might well be the house opposite or in the next street. Entire families sometimes moved to a house just a few doors away.

“The streets of the Potteries were laid out in an essentially grid pattern. Many had boy's names, Ernest Street, Arthur Street, Alfred Street, David Street; others were less imaginatively named Long Street, Short Street, Hill Street and Curve Street.

“Between the wars, most of the houses were demolished and for many years the area surrounding Rope Walk was left derelict. To me, throughout the 1950s, it was an area of wasteland to be negotiated en route to town from my home in Clifford Road. The old street layout and remains of houses could still be seen, but only two buildings were still standing. One was the John Barleycorn public house, which stood empty and forlorn in Woodhouse Street. The other was St Helen's Church Hall, a grim, grey-brick building with rusted metal grilles covering each of its windows.

“Every year, two bonfires would be built on wasteland between Rope Walk and Woodhouse Street in readiness for Guy Fawkes Night. The larger was always the one built near Grimwade Street, whilst a less impressive one stood at the other end near Milner Street.

“Once the bonfires were lit, hordes of children would quickly gather to wave sparklers, set off bangers and send rockets shooting skywards. For that one night each year, the Potteries came alive again, discarding its air of desolation and echoing to the sound of chatter and laughter just as it would have had years earlier.

“The only part of the Potteries to hold out against the demolition merchants was that closest to Back Hamlet. Here, in Long Street, stood Southgate's', known to one and all as “suggies”. Nowadays, Suggies would be classed as a recycling unit, but in the 1950s such terms were unheard of and Suggies was regarded simply as a waste merchant.

“The premises consisted of two brick-built storage buildings where old rags, discarded clothing and, most prominently, newspapers, were piled high from floor to ceiling. Go there any time of day and you would find a queue of folk holding a bundle of hand-me-downs that could be darned or patched no more, or they would arrive with a handcart or child's pushchair filled to overflowing with old newspapers.

“I remember one Saturday morning gathering up as many newspapers as I could in my arms, carrying them all the way down Back Hamlet to Suggies and earning the princely sum of three pence for my efforts! A few houses were still standing in nearby Stanhope Street and Hill Street. One of these had turned its front room into a sweet shop and it was here that I went to spend my hard-earned pennies on a liquorice whirl, four flying saucers and a gobstopper!”

- Do you have family connections with The Potteries area of Ipswich? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN or e-mail info@kindred-spirit.co.uk

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