The ladies keeping Suffolk's past alive

Here's a funny thing: two champions of Bury St Edmunds and its history hail not from Suffolk but Yorkshire.

Steven Russell

Here's a funny thing: two champions of Bury St Edmunds and its history hail not from Suffolk but Yorkshire. Steven Russell meets them to hear about the Past and Present Society . . . and a Mexican pop band

IN one corner we have folk like my teenage daughter, who's adamant history is s-o b-o-r-i-n-g. Diagonally opposite are enthusiasts who realise that all those yesterdays make life what it is now. It's also true that the past has the power to connect people in the most unexpected of ways - across the generations and across the oceans. Take a massive project that's been soaking up time and attention like a hungry infant. Hundreds of old pictures of Bury St Edmunds - from Gibb's shop on the corner of Skinner Street to Flashlight Group's presentation of Iolanthe - have been put on the worldwide web for everyone to enjoy. Meanwhile, committed volunteers dig away, unearthing richer detail to make the captions more informative than simply “Lady on horse outside Norman Tower”.

About 850 images can be called up at the click of a mouse, so it's not surprising folk doing Google searches around the globe have stumbled onto paths that led to Suffolk.

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“We've had emails from Australia, and from a New York art dealer a couple of months ago who had a picture of George Gery Milner-Gibson-Cullum,” says Betty Milburn, chairman of Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society. (He was a town mayor before the First World War and former High Sheriff of Suffolk.)

“It's very nice to receive messages from people, writing in from Australia, perhaps, to say 'I once lived in Bury St Edmunds . . .', or their parents did, ' . . . and it's nice to see these old pictures.' It brings back memories for them.”

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“And there was an academic somewhere in the States who was writing about prisons and wanted a picture of the Sicklesmere Road gaol,” adds president Margaret Statham.

“There was even,” laughs Betty, “a Mexican pop group who wanted a cover for their CD! Actually, what they wanted was the dancing bear, which we haven't got. Mr Jarman did take a photograph of a dancing bear on the Buttermarket, but I think the family have kept that one because it was very special.”

Ah yes, the Jarmans. But first, the Spantons.

By 1864, William Spanton was running his Repository of Arts and West Suffolk Photographic Establishment in Abbeygate Street. Unfortunately, he died prematurely in 1870, in his mid 40s. Son William Silas Spanton, an art student in London, came back to Suffolk and ran the business until retiring in 1901.

The Spantons weren't the only local photographers. John William Clarke and son John Palmer Clarke were on Angel Hill. In 1890, Harry Jarman started as an apprentice. He stayed with John Clarke junior until WS Spanton retired and then bought the Spanton business and its negatives.

In 1903, when John Palmer Clarke moved to Cambridge, Harry Jarman bought the firm's collection of negatives of local views. The business was later run by Harry's son, Oswald.

What's become known as the Spanton Jarman Collection - some 4,000 glass negatives amassed by three local photographic businesses and taken mostly between 1860 and the Second World War - was safely stored in the environmentally-controlled record office in Bury from 1975. Then, in 1998, Oswald's son, Michael Jarman, presented it to the Past and Present Society.

The group agreed to keep the negatives in the best possible condition and help make the images available to a wider audience. Top of the jobs-to-do list was cleaning and repackaging the collection, as the existing packaging was worn. A £5,000 grant from the Awards for All Lottery Fund helped no end.

A group of volunteers received training from Dominic Wall, conservation officer for Suffolk County Council, and gave the fragile negatives some tender, loving care. “We were advised to buy squirrel-haired brushes - I think that's what they were - and the volunteers carefully dusted each one with their white gloves on,” remembers Betty. “The excitement of seeing the negatives was tremendous. There were oohs and aahs as we were doing them.

“They” - the negatives - “were all lying on top of each other in boxes, and had what Margaret called sweetie papers between them. That's just what they looked like. So we unwrapped them and the £5,000 paid for beautiful high-quality envelopes and they all went into boxes on their sides. Physically handling the plates was fascinating, because they vary from postcard size to this size.” (About six inches by eight inches.)

That job was completed in 2003. Major task number two was digitising more than 1,000 images and creating a website to display them. News came through in the summer of 2005 that a National Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £9,845 was on its way.

The first batch of glass negs went to a firm in Rougham that September and the final 154 images were digitised the following Easter, bringing the total to 1,062. About four fifths are online, while photographs were also printed out, filed in ring binders and lodged in the record office for those who prefer to look at traditional copies.

Writing full captions has proved a challenge and a half, “and is taking much longer than we had anticipated . . .” the society concedes.

The first sifting - akin to a triage nurse making a broad assessment of an A&E patient - happened way back in 1964. A little bit of money was found from somewhere and a young history enthusiast named Clive Paine spent a summer between school and university numbering and listing the negatives so people knew roughly what they showed.

Now, a team of volunteers guided by Clive Paine and Margaret Statham beavers away to produce captions of a high standard, often having to consult multiple sources or seek help and information elsewhere. It can be a slow process, though a rewarding one. And more volunteers would be welcomed with open arms.

About 360 captions have been completed thus far. When the total hits 500, the society plans to transfer them to the website. It will make the online collection, which can be searched and examined by the public for free, an even richer source of social and civic historical detail.

Many of the old scenes are remarkably familiar. Margaret says: “With Bury, change tends to be more subtle than in some other places, I think, because Bury, I'm glad to say, was not bombed and was not overly-developed in the 1960s. So it's only when you start looking above shopfront level, very often, that you notice where there have been little changes.”

Betty adds: “Oswald Jarman was a member of the committee of the society, a lovely old gentleman, and he gave several lectures, showing pictures from his collection. I think it was Oswald's talks that alerted me to the magic of this collection and the breadth of it, and what a fascinating insight it gave into life in Bury St Edmunds over a relatively short period of time.

“I think he would approve of what we're doing. He was very technically minded himself, so the idea would appeal to him of having the pictures digitised, put on a website and made available.”

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ITS golden jubilee is on the horizon . . .

Bury St Edmunds Past and Present Society was born in 1960. Current president Margaret Statham recalls the borough council needed knowledgeable guides to help visitors. The museum curator and the archivist usually did the honours, but tourism was on the increase and extra manpower was required.

The council called a public meeting. Margaret, who had come to Bury as an assistant archivist, became a member when the society launched. Her husband, who was in the same profession, was on the committee.

For many years the society itself trained the guides - including the first Blue Badge ones when that nationally-regulated scheme began - before responsibility reverted to the council. In the early days, Margaret organised most of the training.

“We did once appear in the Sunday Times's Best Guides Guide!” recalls Betty Milburn. There was a photograph in glorious Technicolor. “I think it because we were good value! We only charged £2 or something.”

At the heart of the society's life, now as then, are its winter lectures relating to Bury and the surrounding area. Archaeological subjects are always popular, with, perhaps, some medieval history and something more modern in the mix. The society has about 70 members, with a large proportion turning out.

Betty used to be a guide - trained when Margaret was organising things - so they've known each other about 40 years.

She came to Bury St Edmunds in 1963 as a primary teacher and worked at Guildhall Feoffment school. “I thought 'What does that mean?!' (The school opened in 1843, built on land owned by the Guildhall Feoffment Trust. The charitable body was formed under the terms of the will of a local merchant.)

“It was my introduction to the history of Bury St Edmunds. I can't remember exactly, but I probably went into the record office to find out a bit more. As an incomer, working in local schools, I felt it was important to know something about the history of the town - and then got hooked on it, particularly when the idea of having trained guides was introduced.”

Bury, of course, is dripping in history. “One of the things I used to say when I was doing the guided tours was that we could find you, in Bury St Edmunds, any period of architecture you wanted to see.”

The Abbey Gardens are a favourite of both ladies. “Do you remember, we once got locked in?” laughs Betty.

“I remember that!” says Margaret. “We were there with David Sherlock (an English Heritage expert then responsible for the abbey ruins) and he just kept talking and we were utterly fascinated.”

“You really want to be standing in the ruins of the old abbey church on a quiet summer's evening, when there are not many people about, to get the real feel of how it used to be,” says Betty. “It's not the same when people are playing tennis and children are shouting.

“He was pointing out all the little details of Roman brick . . . We hadn't noticed what the time was, and we got locked in. That was quite funny. I think I climbed over the wall by the provost's house. I remember the children asking how I got out and I said I climbed the wall, and they were imagining the one at the front! [Something of a mountaineering challenge in comparison!] I'm not sure I climbed right over; I think I climbed up and then called for help.”

Another of Margaret's favourite spots is the Guildhall. “Of course, there was great conflict between the abbey and the townsfolk, and the Guildhall is the building that represents the other side of the picture, where the townspeople met to plan and plot against their monastic masters. I find that a very fascinating building: a lovely 13th Century building with a splendid 15th Century roof.

“If only it could talk, it could tell us so much about Bury, because so much happened there!”

The Past and Present Society's meetings are held on the first Monday of the month in the Cathedral Lecture Room, usually starting at 7.30pm.

Talks this winter have focused on 17th Century residents of the Great Market; the (Ickworth-based) Hervey family in the 20th Century, and the archaeology of Ickworth Park and other National Trust properties.

The schedule continues on January 5 with John Dahl's “The Bury St Edmunds Post Office”, while Margaret Statham talks about “Margaret Odeham and the Candlemas Guild” on February 2.

The society is named after the 1843 book Past and Present by Scottish essayist, satirist and historian Thomas Carlyle, in which he contrasted the hierarchical society of the medieval abbey at Bury with the disjointed modern world.

Photographs from the Spanton Jarman Collection are appearing regularly in the EADT's “From the archives” slot, which runs on the letters page.

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