Tales of the riverbank: David's new book

MANNINGTREE and Mistley are lovely places to be - particularly on a sunny day when the tide is high and the north-easterly wind absent - but it was a different story for many folk 150 years ago.

MANNINGTREE and Mistley are lovely places to be - particularly on a sunny day when the tide is high and the north-easterly wind absent - but it was a different story for many folk 150 years ago.

David Cleveland realised that when he came upon a report about living conditions in Mistley in the mid-Victorian era.

“It makes gruesome reading, really, because there were no drains. Every bit of rubbish and waste, whether liquid or solid, seems to have been thrown out of the back door, and the place was very smelly and full of disease. People were dying of this, although to be fair it was happening almost everywhere.

“With the manure coming in from the barges and stacked on the quay, and the maltings, the smells must have been terrific. All we're left with now is the smell from Simpsons Malt, which is quite sweet and pleasant. But in mid-Victorian times it was grim, and not a healthy place to be. A glass of water would have things floating in it; but that's all there was to drink.”

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David's hardback book captures in words and pictures local life in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He's aimed to list all the local pubs from Victorian times onwards, for instance, and also explains where the boundary lies between town and village: something that often confounds visitors. Not surprising, really - in Oxford Road, it divides the street.

The publication also brings things bang up to date by acknowledging the thriving mix of shops and businesses, and the folk who run them, that give the area a high degree of self-sufficiency today.

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The project was a true labour of love for a man who moved to Manningtree in 1969 and quickly grew very fond of his adopted neighbourhood. Indeed, he still lives in the same house.

“What I've tried to do is get local information as much as possible. Yes, I've gone to other places” - such as examining Harwich Harbour board minutes - “but I've tried to find new stuff that's not written down or recorded elsewhere: obscure bits of information.

“The dilemma is what to put in and what to leave out,” he laughs, “because you've got to knit it together to make sure you've got a coherent whole.”

It's difficult to say when these twin communities were born. “There are vague references to a place where people lived in sheds, but what does that mean? Manningtree was a port and a market town before the Rigbys settled at Mistley Hall and began to develop the village of Mistley. Since that time the histories of the two places have been closely intertwined, and today it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

“I did look into why they're called Manningtree and Mistley, but there are just so many ideas - from Manny's Place to Many Trees - and with Mistley there's one suggestion it comes from mistletoe, because it used to grow there. Then somebody says something completely different. I've put them down and said 'Look, this is what people think.' There's no answer to it, because I don't think anybody knows!”

David was brought up on his father's small farm at Horstead, north of Norwich. He became interested in film - overcoming the absence of electricity on the farm by using battery-operated projectors! - and “somehow or other, miraculously” got a job making films for the BBC. He was based at Ealing Film Studios, by then owned by the corporation.

He met his wife, Christine, at the BBC. When they got married, they looked for a home between London, where David worked, and Norwich, where he still had family.

“One day, we got out of the train at Manningtree and walked around, thought 'This is a nice place,' and finished up living here,” he smiles.

He was interested in local history right from the start, collecting books and information. He also started taking photographs virtually as soon as he moved to Essex - a hobby that continued over the years. “I've often thought 'Well, one day I'll put them into a book about Manningtree.' And that's how this project started. But then I thought I'd better write a little bit to explain what it is, and it finished up with quite a long book!”

The pace picked up when he retired from his “main job” in 2004 - David founded the Norwich-based East Anglian Film Archive in 1976. “I'd got a lot of information, collected over the years, piled up all over the place. I spent two years basically sorting that out, and taking some more photographs, and putting it together.”

The hard graft was finished last September and then the manuscript went off to be edited by well-known local historian and author Bob Malster.

“The book is a sort of collection of things that interested me,” explains David. “What where the boats like on the river? What went on at Edme's at Mistley? (It makes a range of high-quality ingredients for the baking, cereal and food industries, and has been around for more than a century.) And I was also interested in the local people.”

There was inspiration in the shape of a book published in 1855 and written by Joseph Glass: Reminiscences of Manningtree and its Vicinity. It showed what things were like locally during the early years of Victoria's reign.

“Out of that comes an expanding town depending very much on the maltings, being built up particularly in the 1890s, though it started earlier than that with a man called Norman who owned land and built maltings in the early part of the 19th Century.

“And then in the 1890s almost a mini-industrial revolution took place in Mistley and brand new, very tall maltings were built - state of the art in the 1890s - and for the first time they were sort of automated.

“The old maltings were on one level and men had to shovel the grain in, and the water had to be put in: everything done by hand. The new maltings had about seven floors, and the grain was taken up the top and fed by gravity down to the lower floors. It's not automation as we think of today, because it was still hand labour, but it was easier and there was more throughput, and a large amount of malt was made in Mistley, mainly.

“Then, in 1976, it all changed again, when a brand-new fully-automatic maltings - Simpsons, which is still working - got going at Mistley; and all the old buildings were either pulled down, burned down by accident, or converted into luxury flats.” (Simpsons Malt is the largest independent maltster in the UK; its Mistley Maltings specialises in producing lager malt to international specifications.)

“Then there are the barges. I've tried to mention how they worked, what they did at Manningtree and Mistley, and the barges that went all the way to Sudbury, up the canal.”

There were flat-bottomed punts and dobles on the Stour, too. Families such as the Porters and Lucases made a living from a variety of activities - fishing and working on the barges - and folk would sell fish and winkles door to door.

Interestingly, a Manningtree-based fisherman from the Victorian age is credited with starting the fishing industry in Grimsby after deciding to move his operation north.

David himself has always enjoyed being on the river. He makes the odd catch - grey mullet, bass, flounders, the occasional herring or sea trout - but says there are not the fish about nowadays. “You used to be able to go down the creeks here, when I first came, and there used to be flatfish swimming about.”

Shipping is very much still a part of the story. The tonnage might have dropped compared to the 1980s, but it's still significant, and Mistley Quay has offered a viable alternative for smaller vessels that might find it too expensive to use larger ports.

Some of the cargoes to have passed through include metal from Russia, granite from China, containers from India, and bricks and building materials from both Scandinavia and Holland - along with fertiliser, grain and steel.

“It's a busy port. I think we're very lucky to have it.”

David acknowledges the area has changed enormously in the four decades since he arrived. In 1969, for instance, there was no river wall. “The high spring tides used to come up to the fire station, and up over the road to South Street. There's a picture of that. You realise how quaint it was: people looking out of their doors, seeing if the water's coming up to their house - and it was only 40 years ago.”

The face of the western side of Manningtree has changed. “Photographs reproduced in the book show that end and you can't recognise anything! The 1970s was a time when they knocked a lot down, and I've tried to show both what it was like before and when the new buildings went up.”

David pays tribute to the people who have spent hours gladly sharing their local knowledge with him over the years. “They are the people who should be writing books,” he insists, “not an incomer like me!”

DAVID Cleveland would rather play down earlier work - because he's a modest soul and it was a long time ago - but we can't sweep under the carpet his alter ego from the 1960s and '70s: the iconic Prof.

Those of middle years might remember short films dropped into BBC TV shows such as Vision On and Jigsaw. They featured a white-coated character called Prof, played by David, who had the air of an eccentric inventor but for whom little went right.

Most of the filming was done locally: at Lawford and Manningtree, with other shooting over the border in Stutton or Holbrook, but mostly on a large estate at Lawford.

Wasn't there a segment where Prof woke up in a bed in the middle of a street in Manningtree?

“The bed gag . . . we did hundreds of these things. We did one bed gag where he had a light-switch that hung into the screen and, when he pulled it, the daylight went out. And when he pulled it on again, he was in a different location.

“I know with one of them we thought it would be nice to have a bed in the middle of the road, so we did it just here, took the shot - there didn't seem to be much traffic about then - and that was it.”

David and his colleagues at CAW Films all had full-time jobs at the time. Under an arrangement that was unusual in those days, they contracted to supply the BBC with a set number of short films each year.

The sequences used a lot of special effects and stop-motion techniques, but in those pre-digital days the creative process relied on time-consuming film manipulation. “It sometimes took a whole day to get a minute of film,” remembers David, who still does some part-time teaching at the University of East Anglia, and the National Film and Television Archive in Hertfordshire.

This extra-curricular activity had to be squeezed into the evenings and weekends - with David's wife Christine, who had an artistic eye, helping to make props - and so there was lots of fun but precious little free time.

Having a “day-job” at the BBC was useful, however, as it offered access to the small props department. “I could get something like a giant magnet and struggle home with it on the train! I don't know what people used to think . . .”

PLEASE note that David Cleveland's book, Manningtree and Mistley - The people, the trades and the industries, won't be published until March 28. It will cost £17.50, but a pre-publication offer of £15, if ordered and paid for before March 27, is available by using forms that can be found in Manningtree Library during February and early March.

The book will be launched at Manningtree Library at 7.30pm on March 28, as part of Essex Book Festival. David will give an illustrated talk and signed copies will be available. Tickets (£3.50/£2.50) are available from the box office (01206 573948) or from the library a few days before the event.

The author will also be at the library on Saturday, March 31, from 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, to sign copies.

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