Man who captured life through his lens

JS Waddell was still of tender years when his father moved the family hundreds of miles from Stirlingshire to East Anglia - part of the exodus of farmers lured south by the promise of a better livelihood than could be enjoyed in Scotland.

JS Waddell was still of tender years when his father moved the family hundreds of miles from Stirlingshire to East Anglia - part of the exodus of farmers lured south by the promise of a better livelihood than could be enjoyed in Scotland.

The youngster, born in 1870 as the youngest of five girls and three boys, would grow up to take a different path to his siblings - and we can be grateful for that, for he's left a legacy that helps us experience the feel and pace of life in a corner of Suffolk a century ago.

While one of the children eventually emigrated to Canada and started a branch of the family across the Atlantic, the other males all went into agriculture. Four sisters, who never married, lived at Rendham and “were self-sufficient long before self-sufficiency ever existed”, says JS Waddell's grandson, John.

“One did the livestock, one did the garden and one did the house. One ruled the roost over the other three! She had been a hospital matron at one time, so you can see how she knew how to control the troops.”

You may also want to watch:

JS, however, didn't want to be a farmer. “He was slightly entrepreneurial. He had a grocer's in Leiston and a photographic studio behind. He was much more interested in that than he was the grocer's shop.”

And it's good that he was. For his gift to us is a collection of pictures that shows what everyday life was like for folk in Edwardian Leiston.

Most Read

“All his pictures were taken on glass plates, and most were made into postcards. His camera was the size of a television set, all polished wood and brass - a reflex camera like you see in Victorian pictures of photographers. Totally unwieldy; I don't know how he managed! But all his negatives were immaculately boxed and cross-referenced. There were sheds full of them.”

A century on, it's easy to overlook how unique was the town in the years before the First World War. Its population had grown by a factor of four in 100 years - reaching nearly 4,000 people - and there were seven times as many houses as the 100 noted in 1801.

“It happened entirely because the Garrett family started their own industrial revolution in what had been until then a dedicatedly agricultural area of Suffolk. The Garretts' influence grew to completely dominate every aspect of Leiston life as the company's international success increased,” explains John in the photograph-led 44-page booklet he's put together to showcase some of his grandfather's work.

Having rescued images from numerous sources, John hopes the collection will tell the everyday story of life in Edwardian Leiston for the ordinary man and woman - “what it was like when you'd finished work and gone home”.

As John explains: “The story of the remarkable Garrett family and the international success of their Leiston products is better known than the details of the workers' social lives in what was virtually that Suffolk rarity: a company town.”

“The Bull” symbolised this corner of the county: a raucous hooter that no-one in Leiston could ignore. If you were employed by Garrett's, it punctuated your day: time to either start work or to stop.

The sound was as much part of the fabric of the place as the 130-foot chimney that towered above the rooftops.

A picture on the first right-hand page, taken in about 1910, illustrates the importance and impact of the works. It shows five fellows. All wear a cap. All lean on a walking stick. All sport beards. One could be Captain Birdseye's brother. Their combined age is 392 years.

“When they were children,” says John, “the Garrett works employed 60 men and eight to ten horses. By the time this picture was taken, employment there exceeded 1,000, growing eventually to twice that number, and the population of Leiston was already over 4,000.”

The photographs “leave an overall picture of a community in which the workplace rigours of the Garretts' local industrial revolution are counterbalanced by what appears to have been an extensive and vigorous social life as the town emerged from the Victorian era”.

There's the poise of the Leiston Garden Show of 1911, and the simple fun of Leiston United Methodist's Sunday School Treat - a picnic - in July 1913. Leiston Co-operative Society's diamond jubilee party takes place in the shadow of the church, and there's a children's tea party to celebrate the 1911 coronation.

There's a picture of Leiston Scout troop. It started in 1908, a year after the organisation was founded, and Scouts originally met in the Works Hall.

At the beginning of the century there were four butchers in the High Street alone - P.F. Wheeler's, for instance, is where Linda's Fashions now stands - and at the top end of the road you could watch horses being shod by blacksmith J Balls and Son. An estate agency can be found there today.

The booklet also tells of the devastating fire at the Leiston works that awoke locals at about 2am in March, 1913. The thresher department's wooden buildings were at the heart of the blaze, and flames soared to 50 feet.

The work's fire engines were pressed into service. “Draughtsmen were called in to rescue the firm's drawings, which were threatened, and eventually several hundred employees came to help salvage mechanical parts or try to fight the flames. The cause of the fire was never discovered,” writes John.

The rumblings of war were never far away. H Company of the 4th Suffolk Regiment, consisting of Leiston men, was called back from training camp the day before war was declared on August 4, 1914, and on August 5 they were on their way up Station Road for an emotional farewell and a journey to Colchester Garrison.

“By November they were in the thick of it in France. In all, one hundred and twenty-two Leistonians from all branches of the services gave their lives in the conflict.”

The Leiston works quickly became part of the war effort, turning out about 7,000 artillery shells a week and F.E. 2B aircraft.

John has managed to put the book together despite his grandfather's collection of plates being thrown out by the family soon after his death in 1956: “I think because there was probably less reverence for photographs of the past then. I still remember the crash of glass negatives, though I didn't think anything about it at the time.”

Fortunately, because his grandfather turned most of his images into postcards in the expectation of making a buck or two, many of those survive - as do tattered booklets JS Waddell published for the coronation of George V and about the Zeppelin crash at Theberton.

Leiston, reflects John, was in those days a strangely unSuffolk place - in the nicest possible way.

“It was like a North Country town - a company town - it really was. People might think it was grim, but in fact they were on the works earning a lot more than agricultural workers and fishermen - admittedly they worked bloody hard - which if they hadn't been at the works is probably what they would have been, because there wasn't anything else to employ them. Well, domestic service, I suppose, but that was it.

“So although they look 'trouble at mill-ish', they were actually doing reasonably well financially, compared to the other opportunities of the time. There was quite a rich social life in the times when they weren't coming out in their navy blue dungarees, covered in oil and being hooted around the place by this appalling hooter!”

John grew up in the town until going off to school in Framlingham at the age of 10. His father, Frank, used to run the Leiston Observer, and both parents wrote for it.

John went to work for the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich, moved to its London office as labour correspondent, and covered politics and royal matters for the News Chronicle. He joined Beaverbrook's Express group and for a while ran the William Hickey column. In his early 30s he went to work for Ford in Essex as publications manager, staying 20-odd years. He also had a spell in Canada.

After retiring, he moved back to east Suffolk.

Did grandfather's innate curiosity in the world foster his interest in journalism, perhaps?

“Well, you can make a case for that because my father was a journalist, my mother used to write articles for genteel ladies' magazines, my wife is a journalist, one son works for the BBC, one writes music for television, one is the PR manager for a travel company. So it's in the genes, I think.”

With his grandfather being a bit of a character, we can't leave out one of John's stories.

When he was a political correspondent and working in the House of Commons, he smoked a pipe. Reporters would receive verbatim transcripts of what had been said in the House. These were printed on very thin paper, and were known as the flimsies.

“I was sitting there one day and tapped my pipe, which I thought was dead, out into the wastepaper-basket, and carried on. Suddenly there was a smell of smoke and the wastepaper-basket was alight.

“The only thing to do was throw it out of the window. This blazing wastepaper-basket descended into New Palace Yard. Even in those days the security was amazing, and in about two minutes there were people holding me down. But at least I didn't burn the House of Commons down.”

(blob) Life in the town the Garretts built: Leiston a century ago in pictures by J.S. Waddell will be launched at the free seasonal reopening of Leiston's Long Shop Museum on Saturday, March 31.

Part of the £6.90 cost of the booklet will go to the museum. Copies will be available there, as well as in Aldeburgh and other local bookshops.

JS Waddell's biggest scoop virtually landed on his doorstep - although an entrepreneurial idea to cash in on the drama didn't go swimmingly.

“Outside his studio in what has now become Haylings Road (previously Snape Road) he photographed the German Zeppelin L48 as it fell blazing to the ground,” writes his grandson in his new book. It was 600 feet long and crashed at Theberton.

The drama happened early in the morning of June 17, 1917, as the Zeppelin was pursued by two Royal Flying Corps aircraft. Many inhabitants of Leiston were woken by the sound of gunfire.

“The commander and three of the crew of the airship survived but 16 bodies were recovered and later buried in Theberton churchyard . . . It was estimated that 30,000 people made their way, largely on foot or cycle, to see the wreckage. The aluminium structure was broken up and loaded onto a special train at Leiston goods yard, and taken to Farnborough for investigation.”

And that bid to cash in?

“I don't know how he did it, but he acquired a large chunk of Zeppelin which he had melted down and made into ashtrays, which were inscribed 'Part of the German Zeppelin brought down at Theberton, blah, blah, blah',” explains John Waddell.

“I remember in my childhood there was a young corridor down to his photographic studio and there were boxes and boxes and boxes there of these damn ashtrays! Ten years after the war they were still there, unsold. Whether or not they finally got dumped, I've no idea.

“He was entrepreneurial in many other respects. He was a great enterer of contests in magazines and won radiograms and silverware. He was always winning.”

By the way, JS Waddell's initials stood for John Smellie - pronounced Smiley.

PHOTOGRAPHY wasn't John Smellie Waddell's only creative outlet - he was also a “butter artist” of some skill. Using a palette knife he produced pictures by applying butter to velvet.

“I've got hundreds of (pictures of) different ones,” says his grandson. “It started off as an advertisement for his shop, but then other people, like the Halesworth grocers Roe & Company asked him to do one. In the end he was doing them for international exhibitions all over the place. He was hired by the New Zealand government, and at one time he sent one to Japan.”

John says his grandfather “was very sharp-minded and had a broad range of interests, as you can tell. He was always hoping that he would strike lucky with some huge wealth-making scheme, and never did; but that would not make him unusual among the people of his generation.

“He was more interested in his photography and books and postcards than anything else - and his butter-painting. He was very jolly. We got on very well and he would let me play with cameras and fiddle about in his studio and darkroom.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus