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Eccentric took over a Suffolk bakery to fund his political ambitions

PUBLISHED: 18:39 23 June 2019 | UPDATED: 18:44 24 June 2019

The man who started it all... This picture from 1887 shows 'freethinker' William Palmer - the man with the white beard. The lady on the left is his second wife, Keziah. The other men are Fred Bullett and Tom Adams  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

The man who started it all... This picture from 1887 shows 'freethinker' William Palmer - the man with the white beard. The lady on the left is his second wife, Keziah. The other men are Fred Bullett and Tom Adams Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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William 'Doughy' Palmer helped organise response to 'The Great Lockout of 1874', when landowners shut out men fighting for more pay

Palmers baker Harry Rutherford in 1925  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPalmers baker Harry Rutherford in 1925 Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

The Palmers story begins in 1869 with William James Palmer. He was known as Doughy, was descended from a "Sir" executed for supporting Lady Jane Grey, and was Kieron Palmer's great-great-grandfather.

William was involved with engineering, followed by milling and baking at Thetford with his father. Then he returned to Haughley, where his family had lived since Tudor times.

Kieron tells us that William took over the bakehouse there - which had operated for at least a century - to fund his political ambitions. It was "to be the place he thought he would change the world".

William was not only a baker and pastry cook but a bookseller and newsagent. He and wife Emily opened on Tuesday, August 3, 1869.

Roy Palmer with some of the artefacts collected over the years  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONRoy Palmer with some of the artefacts collected over the years Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

"His bestsellers were his sticky currant buns, and later that day his first bread round took him to Wetherden, announcing his arrival by horse and cart on the Common by a blast on his cornet!" Kieron's written in a history of the business.

"He was a radical, trade unionist, a 'freethinker', a republican and an atheist in a time that was very different from ours."

Kieron explains: "Through his Haughley branch, he helped organise the response to 'The Great Lockout of 1874', when local landowners locked out labourers fighting for higher wages.

Palmers' fleet of vans in 1965  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPalmers' fleet of vans in 1965 Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

MORE: Palmers today − 18million loaves down the line

"As a 'freethinker' he used the business to fund further protests and strikes and to support his close friend, the controversial Liberal Charles Bradlaugh MP, and his political ambitions in London and Parliament.

"Bradlaugh, who William named his son after, was refused his seat in the House of Commons for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance on the Bible as an atheist; the MP was subsequently imprisoned several times by the House of Commons, then re-elected time and time again, later founding the National Secular Society."

A fascinating souvenir of the William Palmer era  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONA fascinating souvenir of the William Palmer era Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Smallpox tragedy

Tragically, William's political campaigning had deadly consequences. It seems he unknowingly carried the smallpox virus to Suffolk from London in 1885.

Kieron tells us: "His wife writes just before her death, 'Dear Sisters, (teenage daughter) Nellie had another fit in the night and looked so strange I feared that she would die. I hope to send for a doctor from Stowmarket tomorrow morning but I feel so tired and sickly myself'."

Nellie died the following day, and Emily six days later. The other children were put in quarantine and the bakehouse sterilised.

Kenneth Palmer, who runs the business with son Kieron  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONKenneth Palmer, who runs the business with son Kieron Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

William married Keziah Codd the following year, and "she and his children reined in his activities and kept back the money!"

Kieron says one of William's sons, Frederick Archer, became an accountant. His office boy was Sir John Mills, later the famous actor.

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Ray Adams in 1918, with Palmers' first van  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONRay Adams in 1918, with Palmers' first van Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Angry graffiti

In 1903, founder's son William Ewart Gladstone Palmer took over - "obtaining a mill, farm and property side to the business, and more in London and the locality, as well as setting up local businesses such as E Rand & Sons of Wetherden and the Elmswell Bacon Factory".

Father William died in 1915 and was buried, by the National Secular Society, in unconsecrated ground at Thetford, the home of international political activist Thomas Paine.

After breaking off his engagement to another woman (which saw him sued for breach of promise and angry graffiti scrawled on walls in Haughley) William junior married Mabel Woods in 1910.

Kieron writes: "From Alfred Woods (her father), and consequently Mabel, the Post Office, property, rake factory and coachbuilding sides of the business came into the family."

Wonderful Joan

The bakery got its first motor van in 1918: a Model T Ford. The later fleet of lorries and vans heralded the end of horse-drawn deliveries. "Roundsmen, and women, delivered daily to Elmswell, Bacton, Onehouse, Old Newton, Woolpit, Wickham Skeith and beyond till the 1970s, whilst the mill regularly ground flour, feeds and sold fertilisers and poisons."

Meanwhile, the business kept pigs on its farm behind the playing field. Crops grown were mainly barley, potatoes and sugar beet.

"Around fifty household tenants would visit the offices each week to pay their rent, as do some to this day, and all would be met by Joan Grimwood, our clerk of sixty-two years, who would dutifully sign their book, sat at her desk by her tortoiseshell stove," says Kieron.

"A wonderful character, she came 'temporarily' in 1939 and stayed till 2001."

Kenneth and Kieron

In 1943 the business lost its windmill in Station Road. It had been put up by troops heading off to fight Napoleon in 1815, but was wrecked by a fire caused by vandals.

William Ewart Gladstone Palmer's death in 1968, and his brother Frederick Archer Palmer's, saw the business taken over by Roy Palmer, initially with his brothers Tom and Ronnie. Full control soon passed to Roy and his family.

"Roy opened a shop in Stowmarket in 1970 and saw the business through the bread strikes of the 1970s, the end of bread delivery rounds, and provided the village with a Bakery & Village Museum," writes Kieron.

"With his wife Margaret, from Northern Ireland, they entertained many hundreds of people at The White House, raising money for charity with the museum and gardens.

"They also helped try and build bridges between the Catholic and Protestant communities during the troubles of Northern Ireland and introduced the BBC to the bakery to make children's TV programmes with my father 
and I."

Roy's son Kenneth (Kieron's dad) joined him after leaving Ipswich School in the 1960s. Kenneth took over when his father died in 1989, opening shops in Woolpit, Stanton and Ipswich. Kieron joined, too, after finishing his legal career, and the firm continued to develop.

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