Room with a view

You might have noticed the Sailors' Reading Room at Southwold. But you might not have ventured in. STEVEN RUSSELL did - and got a glimpse of historyTHERE was once a young lady called Charlotte Ellis who lived at Hill House in Southwold and who approached a local vicar to ask why more fishermen and mariners didn't come to church.

You might have noticed the Sailors' Reading Room at Southwold. But you might not have ventured in. STEVEN RUSSELL did - and got a glimpse of history

THERE was once a young lady called Charlotte Ellis who lived at Hill House in Southwold and who approached a local vicar to ask why more fishermen and mariners didn't come to church. You'd better go and ask them, he replied.

So she did.

They explained their living depended on the North Sea. If the fish were there to be caught, or if someone wanted a pilot to go out, they needed to be on the spot. If they weren't, there were plenty of other folk who would cash in. So they didn't like to leave the cliffs.

Miss Ellis wasn't one to take no for an answer. If the fishermen wouldn't come to church, she vowed to take religion to the cliffs - and used a redundant lifeboat shed for Sunday evening Bible classes.

The venture was successful, attracting perhaps 20 men. Once the premises were made watertight and more hospitable, she had women and children coming along, too.

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At one stage some local worthies went to see the bishop and asked him if he knew there was a woman preaching at Southwold. She survived this intervention and it was only bad weather that brought a halt to her enterprise in 1862, when the old lifeboat shed was washed away.

The story then switches to Captain Charles Rayley, the son of a naval surgeon, who joined the Royal Navy as a captain's servant in the autumn of 1793. He went on to serve extensively in the East and West Indies - apparently he had a sabre cut across his cheek from fighting pirates - and rose to the rank of commander.

His last ship was the Barracouta and he was appointed captain on the retired list. Home in retirement was Southwold, where his involvement in local life included being a churchwarden. When he died in the early summer of 1863, his widow, Frances, determined to build a useful monument in his honour. The Sailors' Reading Room opened on June 2, 1864.

In those days the beach and harbour were filled with fishing boats and the hardy old salts who worked them. The reading room was designed to be a place of rest and recreation for them - and would also help keep men out of the pubs! In those days there was always the temptation to spend a spare shilling on ale rather than the wife and children.

Bible classes were held at the reading room, and the “no alcohol” rule still applies today - apart from the games finals night once a year (members play snooker, cribbage and dominoes) when it's allowed in moderation. Nothing rowdy, naturally.

Up until the war you'd still find the games and newspapers shut away on a Sunday. Even in the early 1960s the room was noticeably more austere than today, with only a few models on show and a handful of pictures displayed.

There have been a couple of wobbly moments since, when the building was at risk of being closed and sold, but more than 140 years after opening it's still going strong - keeping alive memories of Southwold's maritime history and, if recent entries in the visitors' book are representative, catching the eye of travellers from Tasmania, Germany and Philadelphia.

Today it's essentially a free-to-enjoy one-room museum-cum-reading room run by a charitable trust, though one can join as a member. That entitles you to know the secrets of the door entry code to the back room, where the public don't venture.

There's a snooker table in the members' room, and a couple of intriguing display boards. One features a collection of nautical knots - spot the difference between a fisherman's bend and a Turk's head, for instance - put together in the 1970s by a Petty Officer Young, from HMS Kingfisher.

The other shows old cigarette packets discovered under the floorboards during a major refurbishment about five years or so ago. Not surprisingly, the brands generally follow a nautical theme: Player's Navy Cut, Capstan, Senior Service. There's also Wild Woodbines and Churchman's No. 1.

On a cold February day, the North Sea restless and an unappealing browny-grey, it's easy to gaze at the photographs, models and momentos and imagine a time when the water dominated life here.

There's a gallery of faces whose names are woven into the fabric of the town - names like John Cragie, Charles Jarvis, Fred Mayhew, Phil Jarvis, Ben Lowsey, Jimmy “Cornish” Goldsmith and Andy Palmer.

There's a photograph of “Stout Hearted Southwold Men” - cheerful sailors ready to serve their country during the 1914-18 war. Another picture honours William Herrington, who lived from 1882-1968, served in the Royal Navy in both world wars, and was a member of the Southwold lifeboat crew.

There's an evocative picture of longshore fishing boats in the early 1900s and, leaping forward almost a century, a Royal Humane Society citation in honour of Geoffrey Ladd, who rescued two children drowning.

A Bible presented to the reading room just a few weeks after it opened is on view. It came from the Ladies' Bible Association. A leaflet from the same year, 1864, was for an amateur concert held there in the October. Songs sung included May-Day and Come, Where My Love Lies Dreaming.

You could have won 15 guineas at Southwold regatta on Friday, August 3, 1850, for winning a race for yachts not exceeding 20 tons - although a leaflet warns there needed to be at least three competitors for the prize to be awarded.

In the August of 1866 there were demonstrations, and a parade through the town, to mark the presentation to Southwold of a “Surf Life Boat”. It came from the Royal National Life Boat Institution, aided by money “generously afforded by Quiver magazine”. A notice announced that “A band will be in attendance.”

Of course, while the sea provided a livelihood and a diversion, it also extracted a price. Exhibits tell of some of the shipwrecks off the coast.

There's a dramatic drawing of the stricken Princess Augusta, stranded on the beach in late October, 1838. She had been sailing from St Petersburg, laden with hemp and linseed.

In one of the front windows is half a wheel from the James and Eleanor, which broke up in 1895 between Southwold and Easton Cliffs. Two men were washed ashore alive; another three died.

A name-board over the door comes from the Nordhavet, wrecked in the 1890s, while there is some decorative wood from the last significant shipwreck off Southwold. This was the Norwegian vessel Idun, which fell victim to a gale during the night of January 17, 1912. Crew were rescued, clinging to the mast in treacherous seas and extreme cold. On the opposite wall hangs a small and modest mirror from the captain's cabin.

High up on the same wall are a number of figureheads from old ships. One is thought to be William IV, from a vessel that came to grief at Walberswick in the 19th Century.

John Winter remembers being brought here, just once or twice, as a child. Southwold through and through, he's the long-serving chairman of the committee - in fact, he's worked with a succession of four secretaries - though, having had two strokes in the past, he's looking to step down at this spring's AGM.

He can recall the days when members paid 1/6 a quarter. Even today, annual subscriptions are a modest £12. That's not enough in itself to pay for the two newspapers taken each day, including the EADT, so the committee is grateful for the donations from visitors. At the turn of the century the building had a new roof and floor, so every penny counts.

As an adult, John remembers climbing his ladder to the high ceiling of the reading room and “clearing off a couple of inches of muck”. With the years of smoking that had gone on down below, the damage done to the ceiling by nicotine was pretty awful, he admits.

Nowadays, membership is open to all - men and women - and a link with fishing or the maritime world isn't a requisite. There are nearly 200 current members, including some living in Germany. “At one time we even had someone from Mongolia!” he smiles.

Both the public room and the members-only room have fine clocks whose loud ticking adds to the character of the place. John remembers how Paul Heiney once came to interview him and realised the ticking lent a sense of atmosphere to his piece. Radio 3 also came to make a recording - and asked for the ticking to be temporarily silenced.

On cue, one of the clocks begins to strike. “That's why they wanted it stopped,” says John, wryly. “You wouldn't want the programme going out at 3 o'clock and having the clock striking 11.”

N Southwold Sailors' Reading Room, on the corner of the promenade and East Street, is open daily from 9am-5pm from Good Friday to October 31 and from 9am-3.30pm from November 1 to Good Friday. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

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