Sixty years of change by the seaside

LIKE many people, I've got a soft spot for Lowestoft. Maybe it's because my grandfather, a chef, used to make the trip from Cambridge to spend the summer working at a hotel long before I was born.

LIKE many people, I've got a soft spot for Lowestoft.

Maybe it's because my grandfather, a chef, used to make the trip from Cambridge to spend the summer working at a hotel long before I was born. Maybe it's because, during childhood, we rattled up by train to make castles of the kind of sand so rarely found at the other end of the county.

Maybe it's because there's a massive free car park a stone's throw from the beach! Years ago it used to be bumpy and potholed, but is now flat, asphalted, lit and drained - a great asset in the campaign to lure day-trippers.

It might be because Lowestoft had and still has an air of intrigue. It's a bustling town, but like many resorts has clearly enjoyed more prosperous days. Facades hint at past grandeur.

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It habitually appeared in a state of flux. Old buildings were always being spruced up while their neighbours' paintwork continued to peel; roads were repaired, diverted or started.

Ian Robb, Lowestoft born and bred, chuckles at such whimsy. “I think that's an accurate impression,” he decides, kindly.

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“One-hundred years ago, Lowestoft was in transit from being a small town to a big fishing port. The last 60 years have seen the town rebuild itself from the war. It's had clearances in the 1960s; new road systems. It had a good manufacturing/fishing industry basis, and that's changed almost in the last 20 years.

“Nothing's standing still in Lowestoft.”

That's borne out by Ian's new book, the atmospheric Postwar Lowestoft, contains more than 200 black-and-white illustrations of the UK's most easterly community. It charts the knocking down of picturesque backstreets in the 1960s, the building of the controversial spine road the following decade, and the rapid change in the town's industrial landscape in the last two decades of the century.

“Finishing the book, it was quite scary to see how much had changed just in 60 years.”

While it's the evocative images that catch the eye, the captions are light years away from the vacuous labels deemed sufficient in some local history books.

Newcomers to Lowestoft would probably be unaware, for instance, that the site of the Central Methodist Church would by the early 1960s host a modern block. A picture from the late 1970s shows the Millets and Courts shops on the ground floor.

There are dramatic scenes from July, 1964, when fire broke out in the turret of Tuttle's furniture department: the town's worst blaze in 10 years. The store's maintenance manager and a brave soul from the despatch department tried in vain to fight the fire with extinguishers, before 60 firemen and seven appliances managed to limit the flames to the roof.

About 80 staff and 60 customers were evacuated. The roof was later repaired; but the turret, a local landmark for more than seven decades, was never rebuilt.

An image from about 1980 shows British Home Stores in London Road North. BHS, Ian's caption informs, had taken over the bomb-damaged Hills & Steele store in the late 1940s. The shop had opened in 1933 as Universal Stores and in January, 1942, had taken much of the blast from a Nazi attack that decimated the town centre and killed 70 people.

In their entirety, the pictures support my suspicion that Lowestoft has developed, or been developed, in a bit of a hotch-potch fashion. That tickles Ian.

“Being involved in the community, and knowing WDC (Waveney District Council) members . . . erm . . . I'm a bit nervous about saying anything about that!” he laughs.

“Certainly with the old borough corporation, there was no thought about the town's history; and, yes, compared with Great Yarmouth and Ipswich we didn't fight for our heritage. We didn't fight for a proper new bridge. We seemed to be shuffling along. It was unfair to the town itself. It also seemed to do itself down: apologising for its heritage. It shouldn't do; it's a brilliant town.”

When the old china factory area was demolished during the clearances of 1960s - replaced in part by the “skyscraper” of St Peter's Court flats - “nobody really did an archaeological survey of the site”.

The old Beach village went, too. To an outsider, it might seem a shame to see industrial buildings in its stead.

“I don't think they had many options. After the floods of 1953, a lot of people refused to go back down there. The people who did return were quite proud of the area. It was a community in its own right, almost a separate town, but as a historian you read that it wasn't very safe; it wasn't very healthy. It was always liable to flood. We have the two big floods, 1897 and 1953, and the last one nearly killed it.”

War, of course, was a major factor in shaping the area. German aircraft used the resort as a navigation point. Lowestoft was apparently the most heavily bombed town, per head of population, in the country.

“We took a long time to rebuild after the war, because of the amount of damage, and just as we were getting on our feet we had the rapid decline in the 1980s onwards.

“The last piece of postwar rebuilding was The Britten Centre, which replaced the town's old shopping arcade. But after that was built we started having labour problems - well, the whole country had labour problems. I can't remember the first firm to go down, but they seemed to follow each other like a pack of cards. They went about one a year; and considering how many people the South Quay estate used to employ, it was quite scary.”

Huge numbers of people had worked on the south side of the bridge in more prosperous times. “Kirkley was quite a wealthy area. It had about three or four banks. Now it's dilapidated and has lost its glory. I know the town's trying to get it back; I'd like to see it back.”

Communications are key, reckons Ian.

“At one time we were on two major trading routes: the sea and the railways. (The Victorian entrepreneur) Sir Samuel Morton Peto built the railway to take Lowestoft's products out and to bring resources and visitors into the town.

“Now, we're not on a major route. We can get to Yarmouth and Norwich and the Midlands without too much problem, but if we want to get down to Ipswich . . . It's strange we have a county with two very large towns at opposite ends and we've got no really good route to link them.”

Given a magic wand, he'd increase the number of railway tracks linking Lowestoft with the county town, and on to Essex and the capital. He points out that the father of locally-born composer Benjamin Britten originally moved from London to Ipswich before settling at Lowestoft.

“And a new bridge. Two new bridges, actually! The lack of two new bridges is splitting the town itself, north and south.”

Lowestoft always seems to have quite a lot of pluck and optimism, though.

“Oh yes. It's still got that spirit. Gulliver definitely symbolises that spirit. I think it's a badge that says 'Lowestoft is fighting back.'” Gulliver, for the uninitiated, is the name chosen in a newspaper competition for the seaside wind turbine that began generating electricity two years ago.

New people are arriving. There are swathes of housebuilding in places such as Carlton Colville.

“They obviously see something that's working. I'm sitting on the inside looking out; they're coming from the outside looking in, and saying 'Lowestoft's a great place to come to; to work in.'”

Ian's a baby-boomer, born in 1946. His family had a flat in the High Street and he vaguely remembers being pushed about and looking at the damaged buildings.

He's a member of the Capps family that came to Lowestoft for the fishing in about 1780 and built themselves up from deckhands to become boat-owners and town councillors. “The town's history is in the blood,” he says.

Ian himself spent 19 years in the fishing industry - “as a pen-pusher. I'd like to have gone on the boats, but in the 1960s there were quite a few disasters and the family, to make sure I did not go on the fishing boats - I was even threatened with being thrown out of the house at one time! - stuck me in an office”.

The postwar heyday of the fishing scene was in the 1950s and early 1960s, he says. “I think my first year at work was the 1963 herring catch, which was one of the biggest. The following year there was nothing; they couldn't find anything.” When things changed, he retrained as a graphics designer.

Ian's recently been struck by the thought there are now two generations, more or less, who aren't aware of what the town was like in the 1950s, or the impact of that wartime damage.

“The book is trying to say 'This is a great place; this is its history. We've had good days as well as bad days. I hope this book makes people feel good about Lowestoft.”

(Postwar Lowestoft is published in paperback on February 8 by Sutton Publishing, price £12.99. ISBN 978 0 7509 44120)

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