Laxfield: Do you remember any of these old shops?

Remember when people bathed in the kitchen, in a galvanised tin tub fetched from the shed, or when a box of Persil washing powder cost 20p?

Thank goodness for folk not so obsessed with de-cluttering that they throw out valuable things! Electrician’s wife Janet Thirkettle was organised, keeping a close eye on spending and recording meticulously her outgoings in a cash-book. Those surviving details give us a glimpse of the cost of living four decades ago.

In 1971, for instance, she was spending 10.5p on a large cut loaf, 13p on ½lb of butter and 9p on a tin of peaches. A dozen eggs was 18p and 1lb of tomatoes 20p. A large bottle of Ribena cost 31p.

They were in a “shopping basket” of goods Janet bought from Ringers’ shop, a stone’s throw from the bungalow in Laxfield she shared with husband Kenneth. The £2.52 cost of her purchases equates to about £27 at modern prices. “Of course, wages and incomes were much lower than now,” says Leslie Larnder, whose book about Laxfield in days gone by includes these reminders of yesteryear.

Janet’s gems also included a list of household expenses for 1975. Car insurance was £24.20 and a TV licence £12. Water rates? Just £8.

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We can’t preserve our villages in aspic but, sometimes, wouldn’t it be nice to have that power? Who wouldn’t want to spend a day or two in Laxfield if only we could travel back in time? It would certainly have been bustling 170-odd years ago, and populated (I like to imagine) with a colourful cast of Dickensian characters. White’s 1844 Directory of Suffolk gives a long, long list of the tradesmen and services to be found in this self-reliant village of 1,172 folk living between Framlingham and Stradbroke. Butchers, a surgeon, bakers and bricklayers, blacksmiths, bootmakers, drapers, wheelwrights, tailors and more.

“An impressive list for a relatively small community,” says Leslie Larnder. “Most of the basic essentials of life appear to have been provided for.”

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The 1912 Kelly’s Directory of Suffolk shows how things changed over 70 years or so. The population by 1911 had dropped to 813 (and would hit about 650 in the 1970s) but Laxfield now had a post office and a resident policeman, William Bickers.

Barclays Bank was now visiting each Thursday (from 11am to 1pm), but the six wheelwrights/carpenters of 1844 were down to two carpenters and one wheelwright. Six boot- and shoe-makers had become three.

The early 1900s had brought the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway. The “Middy” opened for freight in 1904 and passengers in 1908. “Daily newspapers arrived at Laxfield on the 11am train,” writes Leslie in Laxfield, Suffolk – A Journey Into The Past. There was also coal, corn, even agricultural machinery. “A valuable service came to an end in 1952 when the line closed.”

He is still slightly awed by the “little short of remarkable” concentration of businesses that once existed in a stretch of the High Street.

“The number and variety of merchandise and services available in this small area, particularly in the 20th century, range from visiting a hairdresser, purchasing groceries, a pint of beer or gun cartridges to banking money. At one time this was virtually a ‘shopping centre’.”

In the second half of the 20th Century, changes in agriculture, retailing, technology and society took their toll and most of the “once-abundant businesses which were a vital part of the community” became but memories. The buildings they used to inhabit, many now offering few clues to past use, are “an indication of an independent spirit and entrepreneurial ethos among the population”. Looking along the main street (and leaving the pubs out of the equation) Leslie says: “There’s only, I suppose, two that are self-evident as retail buildings: the Co-op store and Grayston Bros’ building. It’s fair to say that everything else in between has gone.

“That’s what I find so fascinating. A stranger walking up that street, looking at all these buildings, would never think ‘That was a butcher’s. That was a grocer’s. That was a cycle shop.’ It’s quite amazing.”

Not that it’s time to turn out the lights! “Laxfield remains self-supporting to a considerable degree; there is a sizeable general store with a post office [the Co-op], a well-stocked hardware store [Graystons’ modern incarnation] and two popular public houses; a modern school is available and religious services are held in the parish church and the Baptist church; a visiting doctor and dispensary service takes place.

“Despite the inevitable changes that have occurred over time, Laxfield continues to be a pleasant place with a friendly atmosphere and a strong community spirit.”

The book seeks to bring some of this history back to life through a tour of the village, explaining what many of the buildings used to be and talking about characters who worked there. Here’s a flavour.

n The impressive Guildhall – home to Laxfield and District Museum since 1971 – was used by wholesale merchants in the 1600s; as tenements for poor people until 1918; as a working men’s club, reading room and games room; as a branch of a GP practice (still is today); by the Home Guard; for sewing classes; as a school canteen, and by visiting opticians.

n The Dairy House was once a sweet and toy shop run by Miss Vida Allum. “The principal use here, however, was as a dairy… Herman Saxby established his milk business here in the 1940s following his demobilisation from the Royal Air Force. He had three delivery vans supplying milk locally and beyond to places such as Wilby, Brundish, Stradbroke, Hoxne, Fressingfield and others. Quite a substantial business.”

n White House Stores has played host to a pork butcher, post office, grocers and confectioners, and had a hairdresser’s salon in a back room in the 1960s. “Around this time there was a small café, complete with a juke box!”

n Barclays Bank opened a sub branch in 1902, in a rented room in a cottage on the High Street. “The rent was £9.10.00 per annum. The sub branch was only open on Thursday from 11am to 1pm. At some point the sub branch moved to the Guildhall; Barclays signed a lease for part of the Guildhall on 10th October 1947 for the amount of £15 per annum… In 1970 the opening hours were changed to Wednesday, 10am to 12.30pm. The sub branch closed for business on 28 February 1989 and a service that had endured for nearly ninety years had come to an end.”

n Grayston Bros: The business started life in about 1850 when William Robert Grayston set up as a blacksmith in Heveningham and extended to Laxfield in the early 1900s. Five generations of the family have owned, managed and run the business since it started. For many years the firm operated as blacksmiths, tinsmiths, agricultural and horticultural engineers and agents, motor engineers, plumbers and heating engineers, and private car hire operators.

“A feature of the firm’s business philosophy was that no job was too small or too big to do. A scrutiny of an accounts ledger covering the period April 1934 to March 1937 reveals that B Bryenton of Heveningham was charged 6 pence for charging a battery and Lionel Sillett, tailor of Cratfield, paid one shilling and ten pence for having four pairs of scissors sharpened.

“At the other end of the scale, Grayston Bros, acting as agents, acquired for L Holl of Haddiscoe a 10/20 gear drive International tractor at a cost of two hundred and fifty pounds, plus fifty pounds registration fee, which at today’s values amounts to approximately £10,000, a substantial sum.”

n Cringles: “In the 1920s/1930s Charles Philip Smith established a garage here with two petrol pumps… Charles Smith was an entrepreneur; he earned a living making equipment for horse power and then moved with the times to motor power.”

When the car repair business closed in the 1970s, “Eric Charlson used the building for the repair and sale of antique beds. Rex Grayston recalls the beds being brought to Grayston’s workshop in Station Road for the bed frames to be lengthened so as to be compatible with American mattresses”.

n The front garden of Church Terrace Cottage had a shed in which a Mr Baldry repaired shoes in the early 1930s. “Remarkably, he walked from Brundish (where he lived) to Laxfield and back every day. He was known as Jumbo.”

n Blyth House: “Early in the 20th century a Mr Vincent (nicknamed ‘Fiddler’) ran a shop in a detached building at the front of the house, selling items such as hardware, confectionery and paraffin. Rather unusually, he also sold water from the well at one farthing a bucket!”

n A lean-to shed on Swallow Cottage, Market Street, “was used by Orlando Felgate for cutting hair and shaving local men for a penny or two. This service ceased circa late 1930s/early 1940s”.

Laxfield, Suffolk – A Journey Into The Past (ISBN 0-9537066-4-8) costs £10 and can be bought from Halesworth Bookshop, Grayston Bros in Laxfield, The Weavers Tea Room in Peasenhall, from Elaine Nason on 01986 798531, or by contacting Leslie at Bridgeford, Wood View, Sibton, IP17 2NH (01728 660429).

SHOULD we feel saddened by ‘progress’?

Former fire service divisional commander Leslie Larnder has immersed himself in the history of his adopted county since retiring to Suffolk nearly 20 years ago.

He’s published a clutch of books, including one on Smyths of Peasenhall – the rural firm whose seed drills built a global reputation in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

In 2007 he published a book about bygone Peasenhall, and a few years later Laxfield firm Grayston Bros asked him to write a history of the family business.

Talking to Rex Grayston, Leslie realised there had been many businesses in the village, and most had slipped away. Food for thought…

Rex drew up a list of more than 20 shops and firms that had gone. That list provided the heart of, and impetus for, the new book.

Should we mourn the losses?

“I think the answer is yes, a degree of sadness. It changes the character of places,” says Leslie. “Laxfield’s an attractive place – tree-lined, a variety of buildings – but it’s almost like a dormitory. There’s very little activity going on. Whereas in the past I can visualise, at the eastern end of the High Street, almost a conglomeration of shops there in quite a small area.

“I can imagine that most mornings there would have been people coming and going, standing outside, chatting, and it would have given the place life and a sense of activity.”

FROM ’60s London to ’60s Laxfield

Elaine Nason, secretary of Laxfield and District Museum, helped Leslie no end – particularly by letting him examine its collection of photographs and use many in the book.

She and her husband came to Laxfield from London in 1967, and found it “almost idyllic”.

Elaine writes in the book: “In 1967 I remember the western end of the village, where the new school had recently been built, to be almost surrounded by apple orchards... From the middle of the street there were open views to the countryside.”

She adds: “I suppose the pace of change has accelerated, probably due to the rise in car ownership and a more affluent society, but Laxfield to me still seems a place that can accommodate and welcome change but still keep a strong community feel.”

Elaine does point out: “One thing noticeable today is the decline in the Suffolk dialect now only mostly heard amongst the older inhabitants. I think it is a great shame. I can remember when a child would say a “rove” for a scab and a “bush” for a thorn in a finger, for example.”

NO electric cookers or heaters

Rex Grayston was born in the late 1920s. “Conditions in the early 1930s were still quite tough for our parents, with no mains water or sewer, no electric cookers or heaters...

“Regarding bathing, the galvanised tin bath was brought into the kitchen from the shed; the airing horse was placed around it, with a car rug on it for a bit of privacy.”

Rex joined the family firm of Grayston Bros in 1944. “I worked from eight in the morning until six in the evening and from eight in the morning until one o’clock on Saturdays, for which my wages was ten shillings (fifty pence today) for the week.”

He retired in 1994. The business is now run by son Neil ? the fifth generation at the helm.

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