Postcards from the edge: Leiston life

“THAT'S my pièce de résistance,” smiles Frank Huxley, as he hands over a sepia postcard of ladies in wide-brimmed hats sitting at a long tea-table. “Guard that one with your life!”He bought it on eBay.

“THAT'S my pièce de résistance,” smiles Frank Huxley, as he hands over a sepia postcard of ladies in wide-brimmed hats sitting at a long tea-table. “Guard that one with your life!”

He bought it on eBay. Taken in Leiston on June 25, 1913, it shows the Women's Unionist Association gathered at Newhaven - then the home of a branch of the Garrett family. Fourteen years later it would become Summerhill school.

The three women at the front, to the right of the tea-urn, are Frank Garrett junior's wife; the elderly Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - the first women to qualify as a doctor in this country - and her sister, Millicent Fawcett, who married a Liberal MP and led the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

“Blow Mrs Pankhurst!” laughs Frank, for Millicent was president of the NUWSS for more than 20 years, up until 1919, and thus played a huge part in the battle for women's rights. She was a suffragist - a moderate campaigner - rather than a suffragette: open to more radical action. “Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was both, until they got too militant for her and she backed out; though her daughter (Louisa) went to prison.”

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Elizabeth also had the honour of being the first female mayor of a borough: Aldeburgh, to which she retired in 1902.

Frank suspects the person selling the postcard wasn't aware of the august line-up. “I think he thought it was a Women's Institute event. When I showed it to dealers in London at the Royal Horticultural Society postcard fair, they asked what I'd paid for it” - he can't remember now - “and said 'Well, you can put a nought on the end of that - at least.'”

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It was about 20 years ago that Frank was rooting around at a London stamp fair - stamp-collecting being his principal hobby. He looked at some postcards, and pulled out one showing his then home in Leiston High Street.

The image was taken no later than about 1912. “That was the heyday of the postcard - before the first world war. I don't know what a postcard would have cost - a hap'penny or a penny, I expect - but it only cost a hap'penny to send. It was like the telephone of the time. You'd get postcards where the message on the back said 'See you for tea this afternoon'; because there were four collections and four deliveries.”

But, of course, things changed. “After the first world war you had telephone kiosks, and you could use telephones inside shops. I can remember signs, when I was a boy, saying 'You may telephone from here'. And the price went up - I think it was during the first world war ­- to a penny to send a postcard.”

Frank now has more than 500 old views of Leiston and Sizewell. Most have been bought at postcard fairs; some now come into his hands via eBay. “When I started, you could buy postcards for about tenpence. You're now lucky to find anything under a fiver. There's a lot more people collecting them; a lot more interest in social history.”

He paid £45 for the postcard of Leiston station packed with daytrippers, while that showing an ice-cream seller was £30 a decade ago. Frank laughs. “When I picked it up and said to the woman 'It's got little holes in it - drawing-pin holes', she said 'Yes, and it's priced accordingly!'

“Some showing Leiston station you won't get from a dealer for under £30, especially if there's a train in the station.”

He enjoys reading what's on the back. “Most postcard collectors want them in perfect condition, so they don't want them used; which means that if I ever wanted to sell them it would be more difficult. But I'm not bothered; they'll probably all go to the museum anyway.”

Frank, who moved to Leiston in 1961 and taught Latin at the grammar school, says his interest is far from an obsession. He spends much more time editing the magazine for a big international stamp club, and is also its auctioneer; “and I'm heavily involved in the museum here - I'm chairman of the Friends of the Long Shop museum - and I edit the newsletter as well.”

The museum is on the site of the former engineering works. Leiston was a thriving town in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries thanks to Richard Garrett & Sons. The business made steam tractors, cast and machined metal items, and turned out munitions during wartime.

So, what's the magic of these picture-postcards?

“The history of Leiston. I'm a foreigner, from Stockport, but we've been here 46 years now. I'd become involved with the museum before it opened and I was fascinated by the family and what it achieved in this little place here - all from a firm that had been making sickles and scythes and things like that, to a firm that at one stage employed over 2,000 people.

“They had agencies in Riga in the 1850s and by 1860 were exporting to 16 different countries. The fitters would go to eastern Europe and they couldn't even read English!”

Garretts made the first all-British diesel lorry, and then the first multi-speed, multi-cylinder diesel tractor in the world.

Frank's hosting a slideshow later this month. It's at Leiston United Church, in the High Street, on Tuesday, March 27. Start-time is 7.30pm and entry costs £1.

He's got a quick answer to suggestions that his hobby might be an excuse to wallow in nostalgia.

“About the time we got engaged, my wife and I, we went to a couple of shows in London. I can't remember which one it was - I think it was Salad Days - and there's a song 'We said we wouldn't look back,'” he smiles.

“It's dangerous looking back too much, although you've got to have an understanding of history because we learn so much from it - which is what so many politicians fail to do.

“Go as far back as Julius Caesar . . . they assassinated him, but they didn't have anything to go in his place; and so there was chaos. And this has happened over and over again in history, hasn't it?”

WHILE it's interesting enough looking at Edwardian scenes - noting the fashions and picking out buildings still recognisable today - the experience is much richer when you hear the story behind the picture.

Take the proud ice-cream seller in his horse-drawn cart. “Many people say he's Peter Testoni, but his daughter said it's not. It's the man before,” explains Frank Huxley. “And it's the day he took delivery of his motorised ice-cream cart. We don't know exactly when, but it's the early 1920s, because Peter Testoni took over after that.”

Peter, he says, enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a great fellow.

“He really was. When the Garrett works shut for the first time, in 1932, and nearly everyone was out of work, he fed lots of people from his fish and chip shop, for nothing. But the story goes that they all paid him back when they got back in work. Apparently he also used to go down to Sizewell and buy up all the fish the fishermen hadn't sold.

“There are lots of other stories. A couple of people who used to work for what was then the gas company were digging up the road outside the shop, and it was very, very hot. They were sitting down” - taking a breather and wiping their foreheads - “and he came out with a huge bowl of ice-cream for them.”

Another postcard Frank plucked out of his collection shows the passengers packing the platform of Leiston railway station like sardines. He has a theory. “It's got a hap'penny stamp on it, so has to be about the beginning of the first world war. There's a long train coming - they weren't normally as long as that - and I think it's Aldeburgh they're going to, for the carnival.”

Then there's the 1914 St Trinians-esque picture of a girls' tug-of-war at Leiston Higher Elementary School - now the middle school.

You wouldn't have thought girls would have done such things, would you?

“Well, they had tug-of-war teams at the works, and lots of women in the works, and they were real tough cookies. There's a story about women in the shells department, (producing) a thousand every week; they had a woman foreman and they chased her off. She went into hiding on the station! I don't know what it was about her they took a dislike to, but they chased her off the works.”

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