Working lives: choices, opportunities and that beyond our control

As I reflect on a tumultuous year in which Your Local History has gradually grown from a idea into a successful business; in which my old career was shattered by the spending review; in which I have spent many months in an 'un-chosen' job and finally achieved my longstanding dream of working full time in an archive; I have come to reflect on how lucky I have been to have had so many career opportunities - and how the working lives of my ancestors differed. 

Leaving aside the fact that, until relatively recently, as a female I would have had a very different education – if much at all – I have already had a far more changeable career than many of my ancestors, and much more choice over its direction. The old adage ‘a job for life’ has had little relevance to my personal experiences.

A country girl to the core, my first job was working for a local lady who wanted help to muck out her horses. It is perhaps the only job I have held which would be immediately recognisable to generations past. There are many in my tree who worked as stable hands, ostlers, horsemen or teamsters (driving a team of horses on a farm) who would have been as familiar with horse muck as I became! 

Later I worked in a veterinary surgery as a ‘Saturday girl’. My ancestors would have been acquainted with some form of veterinary medicine, even back as far as the years BC. However, the rapid advancement of the profession since the end of WWII means that injuries and diseases which would once have been fatal, even endemic, were treatable and preventable by the time of my employment. The face of veterinary medicine had changed a great deal within a century. For the history of veterinary science, try, a blog I discovered while researching for this piece. 

My last foray into what might be called a ‘rural’ career was my time at a Farm Park where I manned reception and the gift shop and on occasion was able to spend time with the beautiful Suffolk Punches (the horse, not Ipswich Town Football Club). ‘Tourism’ and ‘leisure’ would have been foreign concepts to a good proportion of earlier inhabitants of the Country. Back then, the horses were a common sight pulling ploughs across the East Anglian countryside for their keep; involved in food production, not entertainment and education.

By the time I moved into more new-fangled jobs things become far removed from my forebears. What on Earth would they have made of selling CDs and DVDs for a Top Dog? The idea of chain stores and branding didn’t really boom, regardless of product, until the expansion of the railways. And what about promoting sustainable travel through major developments and behaviour change in schools and businesses? What other choice did people originally have than their two feet, a boat or perhaps later, a train? This one is a prime example of how ‘progress’ can backfire! As for business continuity, wouldn’t that have been called ‘using your common sense, and trying not to injure yourself – or worse’!? 

The generations before me show a gradual shift, as with most families, from the traditional ‘job for life’ to the likes of me - moving from one job and organisation to another as opportunities arise, choices make themselves available (perhaps as qualifications and experience grow) and decisions beyond an individual’s control force their hand. 

Not that these influences are purely a new phenomenon. While ancestors did regularly pass a trade from father to son for generations – be it shoe making, weaving, farming (you’d never guess much of ancestry was East Anglian!) – there are plenty of examples of ancestors who changed their occupations. 

The following characters from my family tree illustrate a few of these changes: 

  • Sisters Alice, Florence, Jane and Kate all moved with their families to Saltley in Birmingham from Suffolk. Many of their family members worked in local munitions factories from around 1900 where a generation earlier their families had been farmers and agricultural labourers. Did they choose to migrate, or was there really little choice as demand for agricultural workers reduced? 
  • A father believing in education was able to pave the way for three of his sons to become doctors where previously the family had lived from their lands. These sons went on to ‘sponsor’ the children of their cousins who were similarly able to take up the opportunities of further education and even an associated Grand Tour while their own father’s fortune declined. 
  • A clergyman found a way to get his son a position as an Officer in the Bengal Army, perhaps as a way of elevating the family’s influence and the son’s standing in society. Sadly the individual in question died at just 19. 
  • A distant uncle became a ginger-beer maker as the weaving industry in Wymondham on which he had previously relied collapsed. Ten years later he had made the move to London to work in a factory as part of the tide of movement during the industrial revolution. 
  • The son of a labourer entered the police force and worked his way up to Sergeant, retiring to a farm of his own while his father had been at the beck and call of another man. 

The difference between myself and these people has much to do with the balance of choice and necessity. I have been lucky enough to make several informed choices about the direction of my career. My journey to this point perhaps began in Primary School when my teacher put ‘excellent work – a future village recorder?’ on a research project about the history of Peasenhall. However, the path my ancestors followed was often ‘decided’ before birth, or at least decisions might be taken by their parents before they were adults.

The level of choice we have, in education and in career, might be very different to that of our predecessors, but what we do have in common is that we are not immune to external influences. A decision made in the corridors of power, a change in the economy or a social upheaval can still have an impact on individuals, just as it did a century or a millennium ago. I have not been immune to this – the spending review forced my hand on one occasion, but unlike Ezekiel Coman, the weaver mentioned above, I was able to find another post relatively easily as skills for one customer-focussed job were transferable to another. In Ezekiel’s day, the tertiary sector was hardly a big employer.

A family history means more if it is placed in the context of the time in which it was played out. I am where I am - in my work and more generally - because the decisions I have made, the forces exerted on me and the choices available to me have brought me here. It was no different for my ancestors, and understanding these influences on their lives also helps me to understand them.

A drink on them: Pubs and Breweries of Norwich past

It was with sadness that I noted another pub - The Marquee in Norwich - closing its doors a week or so ago. Once the Shirehall and then the One & Only, the Marquee provided a haunt for me throughout university and since.

Unfortunately it’s not such an unusual occurrence these days to hear about a pub closure. However, although greater numbers seem to have been suffering in recent years, hundreds of others have disappeared since the Victorian era, not least due to the Licensing Act of 1904 and damage during WWII.

Norwich was once known as a city with a pub for every day and a church for every Sunday of the year - indeed, at one time there were almost enough for two pubs for every day of the year (and even then not including beer houses!). This is no longer the case today, but it has been great to uncover my own family connections to pubs not just here in the city but across the land.

It wasn’t at all a shock to find ‘pub people’ in the family. My grandmother lived in a pub in Aldeburgh while growing up, starring as the town’s carnival queen one year - driven to the Moot Hall on that occasion by none other than Benjamin Britten himself.

My ancestors’ occupations span brewing, ‘landlording’ and barrel making (coopering) and I know several others enjoyed a drink or two even if they weren’t employed in the industry – I recently heard a distant cousin described as “a drunk who left to make his fortune in Australia”  - so I imagine some may have liked three or four! Let’s hope he wasn’t slurring his words on census night.

Starting with brewing I introduce you to Thomas Massey, my 5x Great Grandfather, who was born in Norwich in 1772. Thomas went on to own the ‘St Stephen’s Gate’ brewery which operated from the Champion on Chapelfield Road (still open today) and which was tied in 1845 to both the Champion itself and the London Steam Packet on St Catherine’s Plain. According to, The Champion was named after boxer Daniel Mendosa who visited Norwich in 1790. I would recommend this website for anybody with Norfolk pub connections – they have been incredibly helpful to me and ever so friendly with queries when I’ve been in touch.

Incidentally, in Thomas’ time, St Stephen’s Gate was still in place, being taken down in 1793 (for more see The gates once stood close to the engraving that will be familiar to commuters heading into the city from the A11. In my own humble opinion, the roundabout and multi storey is hardly such an impressive entrance to the city proper as the gates which once stood there must have been.

Over the decades, smaller breweries were consolidated and larger breweries, like the famous Steward and Patteson, went on to dominate by the end of the 1800s. The Pockthorpe area employed scores of coopers, many of whom lived in the local yards and housing such as that at Weeds Square which once stood at the bottom of Gas Hill near the old gas works.

Licensees litter my tree. Perhaps one of the most intriguing was John Miller - one of three successive John Millers through my maternal Great Grandmother. Most likely born in Carleton, near Poulton le Fylde, Lancashire, John settled in Norwich on retirement from the 9th Regiment of Foot. In 1851, he can be found at the Yarn Factory Tavern at 152 Cowgate. Again thanks to Norfolk Pubs it seems the pub was compulsorily purchased for road widening and served it’s last pint in 1950, almost 100 years after John left, probably around 1856.

Just like the Marquee (at the time The Shirehall) the pub was damaged in air raids in 1942. As many as 100 city pubs were lost in the raids over the city. The Yarn Factory name is unsurprisingly connected to the textile industry which was once one of the dominant trades of the city – large yarn manufacturies are visible on maps of Cowgate as late as the 1880s.

While John had retired as a Chelsea Pensioner by 1861, his wife Hannah was still living in a public house. Whether she lived away from her husband for a long time or just on the night of the census is as yet unknown to me. The Old Globe on Botolph Street close by was nonetheless her boarding house on the night of the census. Supposedly, the Inn was haunted by the murdered wife of a weaver who was hung nearby in 1701. I wonder whether Hannah had the pleasure of meeting the mysterious Mrs Watts?

The pub, now somewhere under the architectural wonder that is Anglia Square, was a victim of the Licensing Act passed in 1904. The 1908 sessions determined that there were 17 other licensed houses within just 200 yards. Although it was ‘fairly well conducted’ it was ‘small and inconvenient and not wanted in the neighbourhood’ and referred to compensation, closing for good on 1st September 1908. (Again I must thank

It was not unusal for so many pubs to exist in a small area. Some quote that King Street had over 50 (see heritagecity link below) – hardly the same as today where even the Ferry Boat has now changed use (although a very good use it is too!). The market was also a hub of activity for the consumption of alcohol having been a bustling meeting place for centuries. The claim of oldest Norwich pub seems to go the quirky Adam and Eve, first recorded as an alehouse in 1249 ( when it was favoured by labourers building the cathedral. 

However, I digress…

The Old Globe was one of 9801 pubs closed by the Act between 1905 and 1914. I would recommend visiting for more information on the rise and fall of city pubs. You may also be interested to know that Norwich Heritage Projects, previously responsible for a fantastic site on the Norwich Yards, are currently working on a Norwich Pubs and Breweries project for 2011 which promises to be a fantastic resource. The website, under construction and looking for input, is situated here:

While my publican ancestors tend to be focussed in Norwich, I also have connections across East Anglia and further afield – from the old Crown in Kenton, Suffolk to another Crown in Old Dalby, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. The one thing most of the pubs in my tree have in common however is that they are no longer serving local ale, something that this area is very good at producing!

Landlords often leave a very good paper trail and hence the inclusion of a licensee in your family tree can be quite a bonus. I would love to hear from anyone that can tell more about any of the pubs and taverns mentioned in this blog, and especially anyone that can tell me about my Great Grandfather, Louis (known as John) Outerbridge during his time at The Mill in Aldeburgh – there are, I’m sure, many people that remember him.    

With that, I will raise a glass to ancestors past.


The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again (?) of Market Gardens

Last spring, some colleagues and I began a gardening group in the grounds of our workplace growing potatoes, onions, squash and a little bit of everything else we fancied. Some of us were completely clueless (myself included – I entered into the lunchtime activities armed only with an iPhone app) while others already knew a fair amount about the art of ‘growing your own’. The group has developed and prospered, and a year later we are digging a further bed, allocating vegetables to people and looking out for an extra water butt (nb if you’re Norwich based and you can help, let me know!)

I’ve recently come across Norfolk market gardeners in my own family tree, and spotted several listed in trade directories in villages I’ve been doing research on. For this blog, I thought I’d delve into the history of the industry locally in the hope that it may be of interest to others.

While different to modern day land shares and community groups through their commercial nature, employees of market gardens of another age were nevertheless using many of the same skills as modern day gardeners - and doing so far better than many of us. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing to see a return to more localised, seasonal and organic farming, and it would be wonderful to ensure that the East Anglian market garden heritage and skills aren’t completely lost to history.

A ‘market garden’ was historically a term for farming aimed at producing vegetables and berries, rather than grain, dairy or orchards; in other words farming by the hoe, not the plough. Although the word ‘garden’ may suggest a small set up, this was not always the case. Most gardens, especially towards the beginning of their rise to prominence, were necessarily located close to their markets. Those of the mid 1800s were growing all kinds of produce for local consumption and, by the time of the expansion of the railways, urban areas much further away.

Great Plumstead (arguably meaning ‘dwelling place near plums’) was one of many Norfolk villages to boast successful market gardens – other locations included Mulbarton and Bracon Ash. All three were within striking distance of regular markets in Norwich. In Suffolk*, one of the most wellknown villages for market gardening was Belton, and the recent discovery of market gardener and grave digger Richard Pole’s diaries (see article here) has reawakened interest in an industry which boomed with the railways and the need to feed an ever-growing population. Richard’s diaries describe growing wheat, barley, potatoes, beet, turnips, peas, lettuce, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries and other fruit….showing just how varied the produce of a market garden could be. Richard, like others in Belton and villages like Filby, further north, were able to sell their produce in Great Yarmouth and later export their goods by train to London. A hundred years after the surge in market gardening took hold, the industry started to decline. The end of the Second World War brought foreign imports into the country and the growing move towards largescale monoculture encroached on previously market garden dominated areas.

(*I should note that Belton was part of Suffolk until 1974, when the border moved and it became part of Norfolk.) 

A key word search in the census for ‘market gardener’ reveals the growth of this type of farming as an occupation across the country during Victoria’s reign. About a thousand were recorded in 1841. This figured tripled over the next decade, and almost doubled again over the next (by 1861 there were 5100). The total more than doubled all over again during the next twenty years to 1881. By 1901, a total of 28,700 individuals were employed as market gardeners – and those are only the ones captured by the census.

Somewhat entertainingly, several of the men recorded also had the surname ‘Gardener’!

On a more local basis, Suffolk, and particularly Norfolk, were strong market gardening counties. Then, as now, being known for their agricultural produce.

During the middle of the Victorian period, Norfolk contributed a little over 5% of the Country’s market gardeners, and Suffolk was about 1.5% behind its neighbour. Based on Norfolk’s population, market gardening rose from the occupation of less than one in every ten thousand people in 1841 to one in every 500 by 1901. In Suffolk, proportions were roughly half that recorded in Norfolk. 

The 1908 map of Norwich South shows acres of Allotment Gardens which are today underneath modern-day developments. Nowadays, the local council has a waiting list chock-a-block with local people wanting to get hold of a piece of land – and what some of them wouldn’t give to have that growing space back!

So many of my blogs have shown just how much history repeats itself – not least where it comes to corsets, first names and vegetables in recent times! As we strive to cut carbon emissions, know more about where our food comes from and support the local economy, we are (hopefully) beginning to learn from the past while moving forward into the future. The tide appears to be turning on some of the processes which we once called ‘progress’ and we are perhaps beginning to appreciate how much better some of our forebears may have understood the environment that we live in.

It seems quite right that the Bracondale Gardeners (perhaps soon the Knucklebone Gardeners – but that will need the honour of its own post!) are making the most of a patch of land which was once in the middle of a thriving market gardening area. Hopefully we will soon be proving that we can produce just as many fabulous vegetables as the original Lakenham vegetable growers. One thing is for certain though. None of the fruits of our labours will find themselves on the train for London’s markets. If last year is anything to go by, they’ll be enjoyed much closer to home!  

Ipswich's links with the Corset Industry

Corsets. I think most people like them. Personally, I love them, although I wouldn’t want to wear one every day. Now with connotations of glamour, weddings, burlesque, lingerie and (dare I say it ) fetish –  we have moved away from the days when scores of women wore them daily. 

This is not a blog post about the development of corset fashions. Alas, my knowledge of haute couture is limited and there are other historical blogs on the web written by people far more knowledgeable about the finer points of stay and corset design than myself. Rather, as a family researcher with a particular interest in Norfolk and Suffolk, I am interested in the industry as it grew in Ipswich in particular. 

Wikipedia opens it’s article on corsets with the following definition: 

“A corset is a garment worn to hold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect). Both men and women are known to wear corsets, though women are more common wearers. 

My understanding of the difference between a ‘stay’ and a ‘corset’ is that they are the same thing. However, a ‘stay’ is the older term for the garment and over time, the name ‘corset’ gradually replaced ‘stay’ in common usage and the latter came to mean a bone in the finished bodice. My research took me through the census records for 1841 all the way to 1901, looking for the numbers of people employed in the industry and in which parts of the country. 

In terms of the figures represented, my counts are based on key word searches. I searched stay maker, machinist, factory worker, manager, shop girl and worker, but only stay maker and stay worker had significant numbers of employees. As with any key word search, there could be issues with transcription so these should be treated with a sensible degree of caution. ‘Corset’ as a less common word was a useful search term. Although there were individuals with the surnames ‘Stay’ and ‘Corset’ these were insignificant totals compared to those employed in the industries. 

Nationally, the number of women employed in ‘stay making’ seems to peak in 1851. It is interesting to see how ‘corset making’ took over by the turn of the century: 

Corsets were one of the first mass produced garments, and while they became popular again in the 1820s (supposedly they were first worn as early as 1550), by the 1850s mass production with steel boning made them more accessible to more women. Originally, workers would have made pieces in their homes, but gradually their production was centralised in factories, like so many other trades. 

So, to Suffolk, and in particular Ipswich. The number of people employed in the industry in Ipswich was typically between 60 and 80% of the total in the industry in Suffolk as a whole. The figures jumped between 1871 and 1881, probably as factories opened and began mass producing garments: 

At the peak of the industry, over 500 people, almost all women, were employed as stay and corset makers in Ipswich alone. Firms such as The Atlas Corset Co. (on Lower Orwell Street), E Brand & Sons (on Tacket Street) and William Pretty & Son (Tower Ramparts) were big employers. The property on Tacket Street is better known to many of my generation as a night club, while the dominating factory at Tower Ramparts with its tall chimney was pulled down in the 1980s. For interested locals, the site is now the car park behind the department stores on modern day Tower Ramparts. A photograph of women working at the factory can be seen here, now being used for retro prints and household items – 

Pretty & Son Photo

At the beginning of the stay’s rise in popularity, Suffolk started small with most ‘stay makers’ doing piece work at home. In 1871, workers in Suffolk were still outnumbered by Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire, London, Somerset, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. With the help of ten year’s local development, by 1881, the number in Suffolk had almost quadrupled to 606, bringing the County to fifth in the country for number of workers in the trade, taking over manufacturers in the north. By 1891 the industry had become even more influential on the national ‘scene’ and while numbers were leveling off, the County was only ‘beaten’ by London (916), Gloucestershire (962) and Hampshire (1084) in terms of employees. 

As noted earlier, terminology changed over the years. ‘Corset makers’ were almost unheard of outside of the capital until the 1881 census. In 1861, no other County could come close to the three figures boasted there. Perhaps this is evidence to support the theory that fashions start in London! The city still dominated the trade in 1871 – Ipswich recorded only six corset makers in that year. Ten years later, while London’s total had more than tripled, Suffolk’s had increased by a similar percentage, but only to 23 (London had 606). 

Change began to arrive by 1881 and by 1891 there were 63 corset makers in Suffolk (and 55 in Ipswich) and the County employed more than 10% of the Country’s stay and corset workers. The change in terminology is largely responsible for the explosion of corset industry workers recorded in the 1901 census (which listed 580 people in the trade and only 200 as stay makers). The peak in Ipswich was arguably the 1890s as as by 1901 several other counties had over taken us in the east , including ('corset' keyword only) Northamptonshire (608), Lancashire (754), Gloucestershire (781), London (1069) and Hampshire (1189). Everywhere showed a decrease in totals employed; likely due to the double whammy of ever increasing mechanisation and, more importantly, changing fashions. 

It is a case of history repeating itself as corsets once again become garments for the minority. Most of the corsets produced in the mid 1800s were white and mass produced. Now we see a resurgence in beautiful bespoke corsetry with hand made beading in a myriad of colours made for smaller markets and high end fashions.

As for Ipswich, the industry may have all but gone, but connections remain. Anyone interested in the historical aspects of the trade could not go far wrong by consulting the Pretty family archives at the Suffolk Record Office. Those who are more interested in having a go at making one themselves are also catered for - with classes available to those wanting to learn the basics (although not at the SRO!).