An extract from Where Are The Fellows Who Cut The Hay? by Robert Ashton, which is being published by crowdfunding publisher Unbound. You can support the campaign here.
To me, Leiston will always be Suffolk’s steam town, first put on the map by Garretts, which when I lived there in the late 1960s was replaced by the power station as the town’s largest employer. People smile when I say this, but I believe that steam defines the town, just as Hay on Wye is known for books or Aldeburgh for music as it was where Benjamin Britten lived and founded the music festival that led to the later transformation of Snape Maltings.
When Evans was a boy, the Abercynon coal mine employed more than 2,500 men, so will have dominated life in that town. His father William had been born in 1866 at Pentyrch, which is now a suburb of Cardiff. As a boy he had worked in a nearby mine as the Rhonda coal seam ran under the hills to the north of the village where he lived. Coal had been dug there since the late 18th Century [i], so it is inevitable that the winding gear that lowered men in and out of the ground will have been steam powered. This innovation allowed mines to be dug deeper.
In fact, according to Abercynon historian Keith Jones, the winding gear at the town’s colliery was steam powered until 1957. He explained that it was not until the early 1960s, when the National Coal Board were investing in a large modernization programme in South Wales, that the banks of steam boilers were replaced with electric motors. The steam boilers had to be manned night and day to be ready when needed.
Demand for coal rocketed during the 19th Century, and by 1850 production from the Welsh mines had increased by 500%. It’s hard to imagine now what it must have felt like to live in a time of full employment and I’d like to say increasing prosperity, but of course working in the coal mines was dirty, dangerous work and wages were far from generous. The mine owners grew wealthy, but the miners themselves just survived.
Visiting old school friend Dafydd Aubrey Thomas in the 1960s gave Evans the opportunity in later life to interview men who had worked underground. One, John Williams, had started work as a boy in 1918, working alongside his father: ‘there was one disadvantage to working with your father: he was not giving you any pocket money out of the pay.’ [ii] Miners’ wages were set by the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage Act of 1912). [iii] Boys under the age of 15 were paid just one shilling and sixpence a day, rising to three shillings a day at the age of 20. Farm workers in Suffolk by comparison were earning around five shillings a day. [iv]
It is also hard to imagine the optimism and hope that defined the 19th Century. Steam power meant greater mechanisation, freeing manufacturers from any reliance on wind speed or water flow. The British Empire was growing, bringing affordable raw materials such as cotton, and creating new markets for British manufactured goods all round the world. Slavery in the British Empire may have been abolished in 1839 [v], but from today’s perspective, much of Britain’s prosperity was the product of the exploitation of other nations.
The UK also saw rapid population growth, tripling in size from six million in 1750 to almost 18 million in 1850. [vi] This was in part due to improving health care and reducing child mortality, but also due to large numbers leaving Ireland in search of a better future. Of course Ireland didn’t gain independence from Britain until 1922, so when the potato famine struck in the late 1840s more than a million people died and a million more emigrated, many crossing the Irish Sea to settle in England. A few years ago I visited the Irish Famine Museum at Strokestown in County Roscommon and was impressed to learn more about how Quakers had played a key role in raising money overseas to fund aid. I wonder if the Evanses had visited when they were in Ireland, drawn as I was by the Quaker connection.
Although in Blaxhall most people still worked on the land, they cannot fail to have been touched by this Victorian expansion. Snape Maltings started operation in 1846 [vii] and Richard Garrett’s Long Shop opened in 1852. [viii] While earlier it had been inevitable that sons would follow their fathers onto the land, perhaps even then young men had the opportunity to choose between farm and factory.
George Ewart Evans also saw his life transformed by new technology. As an oral historian he would have taken notes as those he was interviewing spoke about the past. He had a hearing problem, which must have made this particularly difficult, and of course the broad Suffolk dialect people spoke was very different to the way people spoke in Cambridgeshire, where he had lived before moving to Blaxhall. But his life must have become much easier when he acquired a portable tape recorder.
It can be forgotten, in an age when we all carry mobile phones that can digitally record conversations, that sound recording is a relatively recent invention. It was not until Christmas Day 1932 that the BBC first used a tape recorder to preserve their broadcasts to be shared later. [ix] The machine they used was far from portable, standing almost five feet high with huge reels of steel tape that sped through the recording head at a speed of 60 inches per second. A thirty-minute programme needed almost two miles of tape to record it. The gramophone was then less than 50 years old, and Spotify, to which many of us subscribe today, unimaginable.
It was the BBC that gave Evans a Marconi L2 Midget portable recording unit. You can see the machine today if you visit the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket, where it sits next to his typewriter and hat in a glass case under his photograph in Abbot’s Hall. [x] As Evans wrote in 1987, ‘The Midget had its own battery-power, which was very important 30 years ago as mains electricity was far from being completely supplied in all the villages.’ [xi]
The recorder made it possible for some of his recordings to be broadcast by the BBC. Today they form part of an extensive digital archive of Evans’s work at the British Library. [xii] He did not at first see the opportunity to transcribe the tapes for his books. ‘I recognized at length it was legitimate to translate the full flavor of the recordings to paper. By this time I had become familiar with the Suffolk dialect and had come to appreciate its special quality.’ [xiii]
He would not have wanted to guess at words, so to transcribe accurately he first had to understand the Suffolk dialect. When I was growing up a few miles from Blaxhall, I could tell the difference between the Ipswich accent and that of people living in rural East Suffolk, even though my then home was less than 25 miles from the town.
With his recordings, he took part in a series of radio programmes that were broadcast from the BBC’s Norwich studio. He found the title Through East Anglian Eyes a little ironic, perhaps considering that Through East Anglian Ears would have been more accurate. The programmes were broadcast on the BBC Home Service between March 1959 and November 1960 [xiv] and featured a number of well-known East Anglian characters such as the Norfolk nurseryman Alan Bloom, as well as Evans.
A career in radio could have followed, but as Evans noted, ‘in a short while the whole pattern of sound broadcasting changed drastically.’ [xv] American management consultants advising the BBC on how to become more efficient led to what was to have been an hour long programme about the annual migration of Suffolk farm workers to the maltings in Burton on Trent cut by half: ‘moreover it would be for only half the fee and therefore a poor return for the time and trouble that had gone into it.’ [xvi] At the time, Evans was deriving a third of his income from the BBC, and wrote disparagingly about how this American influence meant that ‘British television and sound broadcasting lost the undoubted cultural centrality and international reputation it once possessed.’ [xvii]
Evans had served for a few years on the ‘Radio Writers committee of the Society of Authors,’ [xviii] and so was in touch with the growing anxiety this group felt about the way things were going, particularly those who relied on writing radio scripts to make a living. ‘Television was now completely in the saddle,’ he wrote, [xix] ‘and the Third Programme was effectively scrapped. Before long it would have only the occasional feature, and would be filled with music.’ In summary, he thought that ‘the word was being demoted.’ [xx]
I wonder what he would have made of television broadcasting today, where with a vast array of channels available, both free to view and subscription, there is once more room for programmes on almost any topic. The difference today of course is that with the exception of the BBC, most programmes are commercially sponsored. Had Evans set out today to make programmes about rural life, he might well have started by selling the idea to a commercial sponsor. That would not have resonated well with his left wing politics, which he did not shout about, but were apparent in some of his writing. He was a regular contributor to Left Review. A piece titled ‘Red Coal’ was published in February 1937 under the name George Geraint, ‘a pseudonym Ewart Evans adopted to protect his by then hard-won teaching post in Cambridgeshire.’ [xxi]
Technological advance has always caused controversy. The increasing mechanisation through the 19th Century saw many lose their jobs, both on the land and in the mines. New jobs were created in factories, causing towns and cities to grow as people left rural England in search of a better life. Most of our towns and cities have street after street of Victorian terraced houses, built to accommodate the growing urban workforce of the day. More enlightened industrialists built model towns for their workforce, for example Saltaire in West Yorkshire, Bournville on the edge of Birmingham and, on a smaller scale, the village of Trowse, which was developed to house workers at the new Colmans mustard factory, which opened in Norwich in 1851.
The house I lived in for most of my teenage years, above and behind Barclays Bank, opposite the Garretts site in Leiston, was surrounded by the terraced homes built to accommodate the factory workforce. The town grew significantly as Garretts expanded during the 19th Century, but never in the expansive way of say Bournville of Saltaire. The houses were tightly packed with small gardens, although there were allotments nearby where people could grow vegetables, keep a few hens and maybe even a pig. My daily walk to the Secondary Modern School took me through the allotments with its shanty town of homemade sheds and greenhouses.
Perhaps the Garrett family were less public-spirited than Titus Salt or George Cadbury, or perhaps local landowners were not inclined to sell the land necessary for a more open townscape. Richard Garrett himself lived on the town’s northern edge, in a grand house that in 1921 become the home of A S Neil’s Summerhill School. Neil’s school was as innovative and groundbreaking as the town centre layout was not. The Garretts did however establish the Leiston Works Athletic Association in the 1920s, with a sports ground, just over the road from the works. The name changed when Garretts closed, and it is now the Leiston Town Athletic Association.
The power station also invested in a sports and social club, which is situated next to the railway crossing on the eastern edge of the town. Trains still cross the road here, although the branch line from Saxmundham to Aldeburgh closed in September 1966, just six months after Sizewell’s first nuclear power station opened. The track remains in place until just past the crossing gates. A massive gantry stands astride the track even today; this is how the 50 tonne lead lined flasks containing uranium are delivered to the power station, and the spent fuel taken away for processing. [xxii] An anti-nuclear website makes the point that each flask contains two tonnes of uranium. Just one kilo of uranium, if allowed to chain react, has the explosive force of 17,000 tonnes of TNT. [xxiii]
It is of course this potential that is safely harnessed inside the reactors at Sizewell power station. Cooled with sea water, which is then pumped back into the sea a few hundred yards from the beach, the power station has always been controversial. The only downside I ever experienced was that the warmed water returned to the sea seemed to attracts jellyfish, so while swimming in the sea at Sizewell was more pleasant than further up the coast, you stood a better than average change of getting stung. We would joke at school about how swimming in the sea at Sizewell meant we were radioactive.
While radiation levels at Sizewell were closely monitored and I’m sure the water pumped out to sea was uncontaminated, there were very real concerns that workers at the power station were, over time, exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Epidemiologist Alice Stewart took an interest in Sizewell as, in her opinion, exposure to low dose radiation was more dangerous than was acknowledged. In the 1950s she had been able to show that fetal x-ray examinations doubled the chances of the child developing cancer later in life.
Steam has once more become something of a hot topic in Leiston as it appears that a new nuclear power station, Sizewell C, will be built by French company EDF and be a sister plant to the one currently under construction at Hinckley Point in Somerset. There are roadside signs erected by protesters that warn of heavy traffic and disruption, and none that celebrate the fact that this will create new jobs and give Leiston a much needed economic boost. Freight trains, each carrying 400 tonnes of materials are planned, and park and ride facilities will be set up several miles away on the A12 to mitigate some of the negative impact.
This I suspect is very different to when the first power station was built at Sizewell half a century ago and people have long memories. Back then a new road was built so that construction traffic did not have to go through Leiston, and the road to the A12 at Yoxford was improved, but there will still have been many hundreds of lorries on the road and 2,000 construction workers [xxiv], many of whom lived in camps close to the site. The new power station will take nine years to build and at its peak, employ more than 5,000 construction workers [xxv]. It’s easy to see why people are a little anxious.
[ii] George Ewart Evans Spoken History, London: Faber 1987 p89
[vii] David Edward, The House that Britten Built. Snape: Snape Maltings Trading pp15
[xi] George Ewart Evans Spoken History, London: Faber 1987 p141
[xiii] George Ewart Evans Spoken History, London: Faber 1987 p142
[xv] George Ewart Evans Spoken History, London: Faber 1987 p143
[xvi] Ibid p144
[xvii] Ibid p144
[xviii] Ibid p144
[xix] Ibid p144
[xx] Ibid p144
[xxi] Gareth Williams, George Ewart Evans: Cardiff, University of Wales Press 1991, p13