Jean’s love letter to the Ipswich of yesterday
- Credit: Archant
Jean Keevil loved her childhood in Bath Street, though is sad the area has changed
Today, Jean Keevil barely recognises the road leading down to the River Orwell. She spent most of her childhood in Bath Street, Ipswich. In the 1930s it had Southgate’s Bakery and a couple of shops, “one of which I was sent to at times with a mug to buy treacle to put over the suet puddings. Some old lady used her front room to sell her home-cooked sweets, where I often bought a farthing’s worth”.
There were pubs, too – like The Engineer’s Arms and The Griffin. They sated the thirsts of men working at the big engineering firm Ransomes & Rapier, where the bull-horn signalled the start and end of the day. There was also a stable, “where we could hear the horses blowing through their noses on a summer’s day”.
Bath Street was a tight-knit community between Wherstead Road and the river. “The lives of my grandparents were played out on this street – the factory of Ransomes & Rapier, and the water, bounded their lives and that of their children,” she says.
Today, bissected and rebuilt, the road is part of the renaissance of the Ipswich waterfront after the heavy manufacturing industries left or crumbled. Now we see modern enterprises such as Ipswich Audi, and IP-City business centre.
Jean, born in 1930, said goodbye to her home town 63 years ago this month as she, her husband and son moved to Kent to begin a new life.
Maudie, Jean’s mother, saw them off at the Grey-Green Coaches depot. “It was only when I turned to wave to Maudie and saw her face that I realised how hurt she was at seeing us leave,” Jean remembers.
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Change was, anyway, coming. Bath Street was knocked down in the 1960s, “and with it a way of life disappeared”. But not the memories. Now in her mid 80s, Jean has written an account of the people and stories of this corner of Ipswich. Children David, Peter, Marian and Paul have pitched in, as has cousin Paul Crane.
Jean hopes Ipswich Lives “will honour all those family members for whom Bath Street was not only home but their world”.
She tells me: “When I first returned to Ipswich with my family I was keen to walk with them down Bath Street to the river: to walk down the ferry steps and be taken across on the ferry. I was most disappointed to find that Bath Street no longer existed, nor the ferry steps or the ferry itself. It seemed a part of my youth had disappeared.”
Jean’s maternal grandma was Henrietta Crane, known as Retta. “The only time she left Ipswich was during the Second World War, when she briefly evacuated herself to the West Country.”
She met Sonny Crane and married at 20. They moved into 35 Bath Street, close to number 40, where her mother and father lived. “Retta was a very capable woman, who believed in making the best of oneself, leading a respectable life, not gossiping and working hard,” writes Jean. Retta’s last words to her, around the time of Jean’s marriage, were: “Always make sure you have a clean apron on, gal, when he comes in from work.”
Jean paints vivid pictures in words of her many relatives – some loving, some troublesome! She recalls the very cold and long winters, when children made icy slides under the street-lights; the skipping games once the weather improved; the way hours of fun could be had simply by throwing a ball against a wall.
Milk was delivered by horse and cart, and Jean even remembers the organ grinder, with his little monkey.
Jean’s mother, Edith Maud Crane, was born in 1894 and “was always good-natured, a generous and simple soul”. Maudie’s life was filled with tragedy. Her sweetheart was killed in France during the Great War. Another chap, to whom she was engaged, died of a heart attack. And then a virulent strain of flu claimed brother Stanley at 22.
Maudie joined Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies to make munitions. Exposure to cordite triggered splitting headaches that would dog her. But happiness arrived when she met Suffolk Regiment soldier Jim Jordan, whose service before and during 1914-18 took him far and wide.
The Suffolks were in Ypres, the Battle of Frezenburg Ridge and more. “It was possible at this time that Private Jim Jordan was wounded by shrapnel which took him out of the conflict for some weeks,” writes Jean. Later came the bloody fighting and huge losses at Arras. “It was at some time in this action lasting 39 days that Private Jim Jordan was awarded the Military Medal ‘For gallantry in the field whilst under fire’.”
Later still, he was captured and marched to a prison camp in Germany, where the inmates grew gaunt and hungry. Many died before the camp was liberated. Jim and Maudie married in 1922. They lived in a council house in Kelly Road and Jean was born in 1930. But further tragedy was waiting for her mother.
“During the First World War my father had been wounded and was left with shrapnel embedded in his shoulder. This had led to a diseased heart, which gradually affected his ability to work,” Jean explains.
In May, 1932, he was trimming a hedge when he suffered a fatal heart attack at 43. “I remember a scratch mark on his face and I tugged his jacket as if to help him get up. I can also remember seeing Maudie standing in the doorway, holding baby Ronnie who was only five months old.”
The bereaved family would spend weekends with their relatives across town. Selfless Maudie took her parents’ and sister’s dirty washing back to Kelly Road on a Monday and washed it. On Fridays it was packed into Ronnie’s pushchair and they’d trudge back to Bath Street, no matter the weather.
In the autumn of 1938 the family moved to a terraced house in Bath Street, opposite Retta. Before they took over the house, though, they stayed at grandma’s. Ronnie was for once listless. He was in terrible pain, spent a week or two in hospital, and died just before his seventh birthday.
Within a year came another war.
Everyone worried about invasion. “I was in Grandma’s garden one afternoon when everyone became very excited, watching as one of our planes shot down a German aircraft. The airman bailed out and landed on the roof of a pub down by the river. All the men grabbed garden forks or a broom, including my grandfather, and ran towards the river. I was ordered to stay put and wondered what an earth this German looked like.”
For Maudie, times often weren’t great. Jean believes her mum’s migraines were becoming more frequent. “Sometimes, coming into the house from school, number 44 would look most dreary: no fire lit, no washing-up done, and a hungry cat crying out for milk.
“On these occasions I would go across to Grandma’s house, where the fire blazed, and Maudie would be in bed, sometimes making awful sick noises.” After a couple of days she’d perk up, they’d go home, and life would be normal until the next bout.
Jean says circumstances forced her mother into asking members of the family to help care for her daughter. “This inevitably had an effect on our relationship, which was not as close as it could have been.
“Like the other members of the Cranes, there was no demonstration of affection between us, although it did exist. In fact, the Maudie who had tweaked my and Ronnie’s noses and carried us piggy-back downstairs for breakfast had died with Ronnie.
“Losing two fiances and a husband had tested Maudie’s resilience, but she was never the same after the death of her son.”
Jean went to Christchurch School for Girls, which she loved, until she was 15. She started work in April, 1945, in Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies’ postal department and later became a shorthand typist.
In May, 1948, Kent-born Peter Keevil was demobbed. It must have been a few weeks later that teenager Jean met him. Peter’s brother, Syd, had married her aunt Phyllis after the jolly sailor arrived in Ipswich one day on a paddle steamer.
Syd later worked at Ransomes and got his brother a job. Peter and Jean began seeing a lot of each other.
It wasn’t long before Peter popped the question. Jean feared she was too young, “but after a couple of days I must have felt quite old and brave enough to cope with this wild young man”.
They were engaged at Christmas and married the following November. Peter gave his fiancee £20 for a made-to-measure dress. The reception was in the church hall. “The caterers made a lovely cake for three pounds and did the food for 28 guests for seventeen pounds.”
Jean reveals: “We did not particularly wish for babies too soon but neither did we really try to avoid it. One day we would try to be very careful and the next it did not matter.”
Married life was good. “Peter had great fun with Maudie, stealing her funny glasses and pulling ugly faces with them perched on the end of his nose. Every morning he stole the cream from her milk, to make her chase him around the kitchen.”
In April, 1951, David was born.
Peter had switched jobs. He was now working at Cranes’ foundry in Nacton Road. When David was 13 months old, his father decided the family should move to Gillingham, seeking better prospects.
It was June 1, 1952, when their coach rolled out of Ipswich and Jean saw the pain on her mother’s face as her only daughter left.
And that’s where the book ends. What happened next?
Another of Jean’s children – named Peter, like his dad – says his father worked at the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain. Then there was “a slightly crazy set of moves”.
Sister Marian explains: “They moved to Lincolnshire in 1969, where Dad kept pigs and chickens, then to Somerset in 1974, where we had a corner shop. Finally to Cumbria, where they had a guest house. Through all that time, Mum looked after Maudie and kept in touch with her uncles and aunts, occasionally visiting them in Ipswich.”
Peter senior died in 1996, aged 69. Jean is now in Sussex.
Son Peter adds: “As kids, we often went there [to Ipswich] to visit relatives. Then, Mum and Dad visited once, to go back to the church they got married in – St Mary at Stoke – and of course to see the Tractor Boys play. She would be over the moon if anyone who knew her ? as Jean Jordan, or anyone from the Jordan or Crane families ? were to get in touch with her.”
Jean herself tells me: “I am very glad to have grown up in such a special town. In all of the many other places I have lived, I have never come across a town with such character and life…”
Mum wants one more visit
There’s still a place in Jean’s heart for her hometown. No question.
“Over the years, Mum and I have visited Ipswich often, and we were there last year for the First World War commemorations,” says daughter Marian. “We visited the exhibition in the town hall, where to my delight I saw Maudie’s signature on the ledger for the shell shop at Ransomes [where she’d made munitions].
“Mum and I have located many family graves in the cemetery, a place she used to visit every Sunday in the company of Aunt Lily. We tried to walk down Bath Street and were very sad to find it swept away.
“Her stories have made us all feel we belong in Ipswich, and we all have a special connection with the place and its people.
“Mum is not so mobile now, but she has told me she would like to visit one more time, and I am determined to make that happen, maybe this year or next.”
• The book can be bought via Amazon, on Kindle, for £4. Suffolk Libraries also hold copies to borrow