SOME RECOLLECTIONS OF LOWESTOFT DURING FIFTY YEARS 1873-1925
LECTURE
given by
R BEATTIE NICHOLSON, Esq. O.B.E.
on
5th March, 1925
at
TOWN HALL, LOWESTOFT
to the
LOWESTOFT & DISTRICT LITERARY & SCIENTIFIC ASSOCIATION.


In March 1873 Lowestoft had emerged from what may be called its rural stage but had not yet come to its full stride as a fishing town and health resort. There was even then some uncertainty whether or not the harbour could be kept open -some oversanguine speculators had built new houses that stood empty for many years. I remember especially the two large blocks north of the Ravine and the row of semi-detached houses on the left side of London Road South just before you come to Carlton Road. The town had still much of its rural aspect and I passed from the station to the top of Old Nelson Street to my first interview with Mr.William Vince Barnard, who was to be my future partner, under an avenue of trees - continuous on the East side and more or less continuous on the West side.

Mr. Barnard was a typical lawyer of the old school and carried on a small family practice in London Road opposite the top of Old Nelson Street. I remember too that on my first return journey to Carlisle my railway ticket was the first through ticket from Lowestoft to Carlisle that had been issued.

The events of the last fifty years can scarcely be understood without some reference to the history that led to them. It is an interesting story in all its details. It has never been told and to-night I can of course only describe it in barest outline. It is impossible to do justice or anything like justice to the pioneers whose energy and foresight and self sacrifice started Lowestoft on the career, which transformed it into a busy industrial community such as it is today.

I must in fact go back to the eighteenth century. It was a time of unrest in Europe and indeed throughout the civilized world. France was heading towards the first Revolution. England alienated and lost America. Volcanic forces were at work everywhere threatening to overthrow monarchies and empires and every kind of social order. Local Government as we know it did not exist. The County was ruled by the Squire and the Justices of the Peace. A few of the towns had begun to go to Parliament for Local Improvement Acts. Borough Councils acting under their Royal Charters were little more than trustees of Corporate properties - Sanitation there was little or none. Epidemics, cholera and smallpox, came and shewed the need of better sanitary precautions. When I came to it, Lowestoft had just passed through an epidemic of smallpox and I was told that uncoffined bodies had to be taken in carts to the churchyard. Many towns were governed, if at all, by Borough Justices or select vestries with very limited powers.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, Lowestoft was little more than a village. Taking in a radius of three miles the population was only 2,332. Apart from some educational endowments administered by Private Trustees the first step towards local self government was taken by the lords of the Manor and his tenants. By three deeds poll dated 5th April, 1795, the 20th March, 1801 and the 25th February, 1805, about 42 acres of the waste of the Manor were vested in trustees the rents to be paid by the trustees to the churchwardens and by them applied in repairing the streets and providing the town with lamps. These 42 acres were the nucleus of what are still called the Lowestoft Lamp Lands. That was soon found to be insufficient and in 1810 only five years after the last Manorial Grant, the first Lowestoft Improvements Act was passed. It was an elementary attempt at Local Government. There were twenty-four Commissioners - there is nothing to show how they were chosen, possibly at a town's meeting - their names were inserted in the Act and their appointment was for life. Vacancies were to be filled by the remaining commissioners voting by ballot. The churchwardens were to pay over the rents of the Lamp Lands to the new Commissioners.

The Commissioners had power to levy rates, though Parliament was careful then and their rating power stopped short at 10d in the pound. The rate was not then as it is now, paid by the occupier, a one third was paid by the owner. Tenants at less than £4 a year were exempt from the rate altogether, but not the owner who must still pay his third,

Another enclosure of lands was made four years later - this time by Act of Parliament. The Lowestoft Inclosure Act, 1814, About 64 acres were vested in six trustees - the income to be paid to the Commissioners. It is worth mentioning that the 64 acres included what was then the North End Common and is now Belle Vue Park; and that as long ago as 1814 special provision was made for its enclosure and ornamentation as a Public Pleasure Ground or Walk. Sixty years later I saw it still an unfenced Common, covered with furze bushes.

This system of Local Government continued for forty years till it was superseded by the second Lowestoft Improvement Act, 1854, which was in operation when the town received its Charter of Incorporation in l865.

Mr. Barnard came to Lowestoft from Beccles very early in the last century. I don't remember what Year but it must have been before the opening of the Harbour in 1831. James Wigg Hickling, who was one of the six men who saved the Harbour in 1843 to whom I will refer. Presently I was his first partner. Mr. Barnard's premises were opposite the top of Old Nelson Street and were described in his title deeds as being in the south of Lowestoft. A mile or more intervened between Lowestoft and Kirkley. Of course there was no Harbour, no lock, and no bridge. Occasionally the tide did flow over the main road as it passed near where the bridge is now and at such times men were employed to carry people across. It has been said that London Road - the Turnpike as Mr. Barnard called it - then passed down Old Nelson Street and across the Battery Green. That I think is doubtful. There has always been some confusion about it, but the mansion where Squire Everard lived in Old Nelson Street still stands and my impression is that the grounds and gardens of the mansion extended westward as far as where the London Road is now and southward as far as the Marina. In the Marina, St.Margaret's still stands, the grounds and gardens of which continue to the Grove in which Mr. Roddam lived and the Grove extended to what is now Waveney Road. These two estates - St. Margaret's and the Grove - lined the East side of London Road with trees and gave to it its picturesque appearance when I first saw it.

Whatever its direction was the Turnpike passed south between the sea and Lake Lothing - then really a lake, south of where the Harbour is now the land was waste, probably part of the original Lamp Lands. The land on which pier Terrace stands and the quays and wharves behind it were let by the Commissioners to merchants and others for 100 years. These leases now belong to the Railway Company. Now it is called the Town quay Estate and bye and bye when the leases fall in somewhere about the year 1950, this Estate will be a valuable freehold asset to the town.

For its development and prosperity - for its position as one of the foremost health resorts of the East Coast and as one of the most prosperous fishing centres of the United Kingdom, Lowestoft owes more to Sir Morton Peto than to any other man. To his genius and enterprise and foresight we owe - not the beginnings of the Harbour - but its salvation when it was abandoned by its creators. He first saw the possibilities in the waste south of Lake Lothing and bought it of the Commissioners. How he bought it was told to me by the late Mr. W. R. Seago who had been Clerk to the Improvement Commissioners at the time. It was at Somerleyton Hall where Sir Morton Peto then lived, when he enquired after lunch what they would sell the land to him for, the Commissioners were so staggered by the idea that there was any value at all in the waste that Sir Morton was asked to name his own price and they eagerly accepted with both hands what they considered to be his munificent offer of £200. They were taken into his library and were shewn his plans of the Esplanade, the Marine parade and the Wellington. They were not the first houses built for the accommodation of visitors for James Fisher and his enterprising wife who was a daughter of Squire Everard and whose story was something of a romance had already built Marine Terrace on London Road North. But it was Sir Morton Peto's building that started Lowestoft as a watering place on a large scale.

THE HARBOUR AND NORWICH NAVIGATION.

It was the construction of the Harbour and Norwich navigation that made possible and gave scope for Sir Morton Peto's plans. Before that, fish were landed on the open beach. Mr. Barnard had an oil painting of the scene, carts waiting on the beach, each cart with four horses yoked to it, for the fish that were being brought on shore in small boats from the fishing vessels anchored in the roads.

It was not for the fishing that the Harbour was built. Nor was it built by Lowestoft men or by Lowestoft capital or mainly for the benefit of Lowestoft. The whole scheme arose out of the quarrels between Norwich and Yarmouth. So the story of Lowestoft becomes linked with that of its two larger neighbours. We are told that Norwich was itself once a seaport. The Hutch Map as it's called is kept in Yarmouth Town Hall and is said to have been copied in Queen Elizabeth's time from a much more ancient map. It shows a great arm of the sea right up to Norwich. Gorleston, Lorton, Lowestoft and Kirkley are villages on the coast. Yarmouth doesn't appear as a town. The site where it now stands is shewn as a sandbank across the mouth of the Estuary. The date of the original map is given as the year 1,000 A.D. If in fact the coastline ever existed as it is shewn the date of it is more likely to have been 1,000 B.C. At any rate the Ordnance Department has recently issued a map of Roman Britain as it is believed to have been from the first to the fifth century A.D. In that map the sea is no further West than Burgh Castle as it is now.

At any rate all Norwich goods both to and from the sea had to be transhipped and pay Harbour dues in Yarmouth Harbour. And Norwich chafed and started the idea of opening a way to the sea through Lake Lothing. Lowestoft Harbour (the Inner Harbour) was built by Norwich men and for the benefit of Norwich trade. You all know how in the early days Lowestoft fishermen had to fight with the Yarmouth men - not always without bloodshed - for right to deliver their own catch of fish on their the own beach. Of course the new adventure for building an Harbour for Lowestoft brought no increase of goodwill between the two coast towns. There was a great fight in parliament over it. But Norwich won mainly with the help of the Admiralty who wanted to make Lowestoft a Harbour of Refuge.

More than £150,000 was spent on the undertaking. The Government lent £54,000 of it. The Bridge was opened on the 9th June, 1830 - the sea was admitted 19th May, 1831. The collection of dues began in August 1831. In five or six years time there should be some celebration of centenaries in Lowestoft. If the scheme had succeeded more intimate relations no doubt would have sprung up between Lowestoft and Norwich. But it was not to be. It failed from the beginning. Yarmouth had spent £8,000 in opposition to the Bill in Parliament. They didn't prevent it passing but they killed the enterprise by a clause that stopped the waters of the Waveney at Mutford Lock. There was no back water to keep the Harbour clear. No dividend was paid. Neither interest nor any part of the principal was ever paid on the Admiralty loan. The Government lost altogether over £70,000. The Norwich men lost the whole of their capital and after the Harbour had been open about seven years the Government took possession, closed it and left an Engineer as caretaker.

It would be impossible for me now to describe, even if it were known, what took place during the next five years. It was a crucial time for Lowestoft and a time of the greatest anxiety for Lowestoft men. Its whole destiny hung in the balance. The navigation from Mutford Lock to Norwich was the concern of Norwich more than of Lowestoft; but let the Harbour go and the fate of Lowestoft was sealed both as a health resort and as a fishing centre. And Lowestoft was left alone to grapple with a, problem abandoned by Norwich and the Government. They were six brave Lowestoft men, whose names deserve to be remembered - James Cleveland, George Everitt, William Everitt, John Salter Lincoln, James Wigg Hickling and William Bradley, as well as their Engineer, George Edwards, who came to the rescue and on 7th September, 1843 bought the undertaking from the Government for £4,935. If it had been given to them they could not have carried it on, and a year later Sir Morton Peto came on the scene and bought it from the Lowestoft men and a year after that sold it to the Railway Company. To carry on the Harbour alone as a separate undertaking without the Norwich Navigation and the scour off the River Waveney was impossible. Only as a feeder to the Railway system was it worthwhile to create the fishing industry as we know it today.

THE CREATON OF A NEW LOWESTOFT .

In conjunction with the revival of the Harbour, Sir Morton Peto started his great scheme for creating the Town as a self-governing community.

It was a great enterprise even for the Railway Company to take over the Harbour alone. Some of the Shareholders became restive and the action of the Directors was freely criticised at Annual Meetings. Yarmouth was still jealous and hostile and but for the weight on the Board of men like Mr. Parkes and the late Lord Claude Hamilton there might have been a different story to tell. The salvation of the Harbour was the salvation of the town.

The Charity Act of 1846 settled the Town Charities and gave increased powers to the Trustees. The Water Gas & Market Company was created by an Act of 1853 and the second body of Improvement Commissioners by an Act of 1854.

Strangers began to come to the town and population increased steadily though for a long time building was confined principally to the main streets. Immediately behind London Road was what was known as the Ten Acre Field - a footpath ran across it by what is now known as Milton Road to Love Lane and on to Rotterdam Road. Raglan Street was the first to be built running parallel with London Road. London Road itself both North and South of the Harbour began to fill up. Lowestoft and Kirkley began to draw together and the Act of 1854 made them one town.

The Railway Company restored the Harbour - strengthened the quays and extended and improved the accommodation and the fishing became a great industry. The pictures will give you the best idea of what the town was and how it grew.

Its growth and the coming of strangers had rather a singular effect on the old inhabitants - or at any rate some of them. Strangers were not welcomed they were intruders and came to take what legitimately belonged to natives. Even as late as 1673 ', 'natives,' and "foreigners" were two distinct classes. I had an amusing instance of it in my own practice after I had been here about eight or ten years. A very prominent townsman - a typical native - flatly refused to attend the County Court to give evidence in a case in which I was concerned. I issued a subpoena and in Court he still refused until he was told by the Judge that he must. The reason he gave for his refusal was that he had lived in Lowestoft all his life and Mr. Nicholson had only been here twenty minutes.

MY PUBLIC LIFE.

My first experience of Public Life was as a member of the town's Committee for providing school accommodation so as to keep out a School Board. The late Canon Nash was Chairman. The object was accomplished for a time. We made a voluntary rate of 2/6d in the Pound and bought the old Infirmary – converted it into St.Margaret's School and built a new school in Arnold Street. Both the schools were vested in the same trustees - St.Margaret's to be managed as a Church School and Arnold Street by the managers of the British Schools. The members of the Committee were all busy men and our meetings were held at seven o'clock in the morning.

I was co-opted as a member of the Improvement Commission in 1853. The town had begun to experience same of the difficulties of local administration arising mainly from its unaccustomed technicalities and from the rapid growth of the town itself. Not anywhere were the footpaths paved. Even in High Street and London Road were gravel paths like footways in the country. New streets were being laid out and built upon both north add south of the Harbour, all of them unpaved and undrained.

There were several peculiarities in the administration of the Improvement Act. The franchise itself was singular in some respects. Multiple voting was being tried as an experiment. A man's voting power was according to the value of his qualifying property. He might have any number of votes up to six. If the property was in more wards than one he could only vote in one ward but his full number of votes in any ward for which he had a qualification, The voting was open as in old Parliamentary Elections the state of the poll was known all through the day as the voting went on. The six voters sometimes didn't vote till late in the date and then plumped their votes in the Ward where their Candidates were weakest.

Rates were limited to 2/6 in the Pound for general purposes and 6d. in the Pound for special expenses - from which the Commissioners were known as the Half Crown Parliament.

There was no local debt until just before I came. The Commissioners had then taken up their first loan from Mr. Barnard for £6,000 for a new sewer outfall.

I should mention here another old and faithful friend of Lowestoft - Lord Waveney as Sir Shafto Adair. He had for many years fought for the County seat in Parliament though I believe he was never elected and only entered Parliament as a member of the House of Lords. A striking event in those elections - they all happened before I came- was the arrival at the Polling Place in Lowestoft of the Pakefield voters - known as the Pakefield Lambs - collected and headed by the late James Mickleburgh, all of whom voted for Col. Adair almost to a man.

A picturesque manly military figure - with a powerful commanding voice - his broad shoulders always surmounted by what seemed to be the same white beevor hat - Lord Waveney was one of those unforgettable men one occasionally meets with. It was to him more than anybody else that Lowestoft fishermen owed their deliverance from the Belgian devil - a really fiendish implement the Belgian trawlers invented and hung over the bows of their boats to cut through the nets of the Lowestoft drifters. The first gunboat to come to Lowestoft on protective service was obtained through the influence of Lord Waveney at the Admiralty.

The Waveney Dock took its name in his honour. It was opened during the year I was a Commissioner. I went with the Chairman, Mr. T. R. Woods, to invite Lord Waveney to perform the opening ceremony. On entering his residence it was curious to see that the hall was literally decorated with white beevor hats.

LOWESTOFT A MUNICIPALITY.

A dispute between the Commissioners and their Clerk led to his resignation and very soon afterwards to a general demand for a Charter of Incorporation. Two petitions were promoted- one by the Commissioners themselves and another by an opposition party. The Charter was granted on the 29th August, 1885 and the first election of Councillors took place on the 1st November in the same Year. Twenty-one candidates who had been Commissioners of whom I was one were elected and at the first meeting of the Town Council on the 9th November I was unanimously appointed Town Clerk.

The first business of the Council was to put in order the new streets that had occasioned the dispute between the Commissioners and their Clerk. I need hardly say that it took some years to deal with the many miles of streets that had to be paved and drained and lighted and that this led naturally to the paving of the old streets including High Street and London Road.

BATTERY GREEN.

Then came work of a more serious kind. The Battery Green takes us back again to the eighteenth Century. For many years doubts were thrown upon its origin and its ownership and for more than a century it seemed likely that it would be lost to the town altogether. In 1873 it was the only green spot for public use in Lowestoft.

I have already said that Belle Vue Park was then unenclosed and covered with furze. The Commissioners had just entered into a contract for enclosing and laying it out. Sparrow's Nest was the private residence of Mrs. Davey. Battery Green was then a really pleasant spot. But it was always a disputed possession. The War Office claimed it and the clause in the Improvement Act of 1654 seemed to be more than a tacit admission of their ownership. Incidentally the question of ownership came before the Court in the case of Attorney General v. Reeve. That was an action by the Government against the late Mr. R. H. Reeve as lord of the manor claiming the purchase money paid by the Railway Company for the land out of which Waveney Dock was formed. The Court of Appeal gave judgment for the Crown and as far as the Law Reports are concerned that was the end of the matter, but the late Mr. C. T. Turner, who was Mr. Reeve's managing clerk, told me that the action was compromised by the Crown so as to avoid an appeal to the House of Lords. No decision of course was given about the Battery Green but it may be assumed that the case of the Attorney General v. Reeve led on to the later action of the War Office. That case was decided in 1885 and less than a year afterwards – on the 5th August, l886, the Town Council received notice that the War Office intended to surround the Battery Green with their boundary stones. No effect was given to the notice until four years later in 1890 when boundary stones marked with the broad arrow were fixed in the feriae all round the green and under the instructions of the Council it became my duty to investigate the facts as far as they were ascertainable. I had access with Mr. Reeve's permission to the Rolls of the manor and the very voluminous evidence in Attorney General v. Reeve and submitted a case for the opinion of Mr.H.H.Asquith who was then in the height of his career at the bar. The evidence was by no means conclusive but Mr. Asquith advised that the Council was bound to contest the Crown's claim and that the stones should be removed. That was done and caused considerable flutter among the Coastguardsmen whose houses stand where the Battery stood and produced a threat of legal action by the Treasury. No action was taken but many times during the next thirty years it became necessary to counteract the efforts of the War Office to make good their ownership.

The Battery was one of three that were built in Lowestoft in 1752 during the height of the American and European disturbances - one called the North Battery near where the high light now stands, another the East Battery near the Ness Point and the third the south Battery immediately west of what is now the Battery Green. I think there is no doubt the sea flowed up to where the Whapload Road is though that part of Whapload Road was not constructed till after the Improvement Act, 1654. The glacis of the Battery was formed on the open beach, which the Ordnance Board took possession of for the purpose. It is impossible now to say what their title was. The assumption is that it belonged either to the Crown as having at one time been part of the foreshore or to the Lord of the Manor as part of his Waste. How long it remained in possession of the Admiralty as part of the Battery is doubtful. There is evidence that they were in possession in 1812 - thirty years afterwards - and no doubt the Battery was maintained till after the final defeat of Buonaparte at Waterloo. I was convinced that the matter was one for settlement rather than for litigation and that if possible it should be settled before I went out of office.

The question was brought to an issue by a clause put in the Corporation Bill of 1920 to transfer the Battery Green to the Town Council as part of the Lamp Lands. As a property it was coming into demand in connection with the Fishing and it was growing in value. After a great deal of negotiation first to settle the clause in the Bill and afterwards to fix the amount of the Crown's compensation, it was my pleasure before going out of office to settle this century old dispute and to leave the Battery Green in the unquestioned ownership of the Town,

COAST EROSION.

Then came the sea, which as a friend is the mainstay of our industries, but whose front when it becomes an antagonist is more formidable than national governments. Comparing the sea with mountains the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table says

"You can domesticate mountains but the sea is ferae naturae. It is feline - It licks your feet - Its huge flanks purr very pleasantly for you but it will crack your bones and eat you for all that.”

At one time it washed away the East Battery near the Ness Point. But for many it has been unfriendly to Lowestoft. In 1873 the Improvement Commissioners declined an invitation to a Conference on the subject because Lowestoft did not suffer from erosion. In the same year when I first saw the Esplanade it was covered from end to end to a depth of three or four feet with blown sand which had to be carted away every year at a cost of something like £200 a year.

But the sea showed signs of hostility soon after the Incorporation. The Council would do nothing for protection till they were compelled by the danger to the town. I put some clauses in a Bill for Parliamentary powers which the Council insisted on striking out though we should have got much more favourable borrowing powers from Parliament than we did later from the Local Government Board. No private owner can keep up works of sea defence very long. The late Mr. J.J.Colman spent £70,000 on protection works that are now abandoned, Deputations to Government Departments got no help and little sympathy. It was then that I was instructed by the Council to enquire and advise on the legal question of obligation.