Sunday, 1 May 2016

industrial history in Suffolk

After our visit yesterday to the cricket bat willow grower we went on to The Long Shop Museum at Leiston, to make a day of it.  The Systems Administrator hadn't been there for a long time, and I'd never been at all.  It is an industrial museum based in what was for several generations the family business of the Garretts, an enterprising lot who count Elizabeth Garrett Anderson among their number, and who from a modest start making rural implements like sickles developed into traction engines, portable steam engines, ploughing machines, trolley buses and the like.  You will still see the Garrett name plate at many a steam fair.  The eponymous long shop of the museum houses the UK's first production line and is Grade II listed.

It is a sweet and slightly jumbly museum, with lots of shelves and cabinets of bits and pieces, and displays about this and that.  I'd have liked a little more of the social history of business, how many people it employed in its peak years and what percentage of the working population of Leiston that represented.  I might have been a little more confused than I would have been otherwise because they were hosting a one day works in wartime and vintage fair event, so some of the permanent exhibits were tucked away behind extra tables holding demonstrations of carrot jam, while lots of volunteers in 1940s clothes and WWII military uniforms wandered happily around.

One advantage of going on a day when they had an event was that some of the engines were in steam.  A traction engine originally built for export to Spain and still carrying her Spanish name stood quietly hissing and dripping, wheels carefully chocked so she was not going anywhere, but the smell and the noise were still fun.  But the high point was the steam shunting engine Sirapite, a strange hybrid between a steam engine and a traction engine and the only one left of its kind in the world.  The company bought it to shunt wagons from their works up their private light railway to the main line, after an unfortunate incident with a horse, and it remained in use until 1962. Yesterday it was in steam, and joy of joys we were given a ride on the footplate for two trips across the yard.  The yard is not very big, but we could still feel how quickly it picked up speed and stopped again, and get a good view of the firebox and the extremely rudimentary instruments (steam pressure.  Er, that's it).  The design is part traction engine because it incorporates a flywheel, and the driver clarified that yes, to go into reverse meant changing the direction of the flywheel and so losing all the energy stored in it.  But as he said, in normal use it wasn't changing direction so frequently.  The museum has managed to buy back some of the original route of the light railway and has just been given planning permission to restore it and run steam and horse driven wagons along it.  I didn't actually discover this during the visit, among the wartime songs and carrot jam, but read about it afterwards on the Ipswich local paper's website.

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Garretts, but I suppose they were of their time.  In some ways they were enlightened employers, making gestures such donating money for instruments so that the works could start a brass band,  and bequeathing funds in a will for every employee to receive a new overcoat.  But when the workforce tried to unionise and bring their working week down from 59 to only 55 hours per week, the Garrett of the day sacked the lot of them and only re-employed those he did not consider dangerous.

Leiston has a tiny role in UK art history, for it was at Leiston that the artist John Piper first met the future Myfanwy Piper, when they were both invited to stay with a mutual friend at Sizewell and he offered to pick her up from the station.  Unfortunately the station is no longer there, but I saw the place where it had been.

Addendum  It was the Radio 2 Folk Awards last week, and to my satisfaction Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman won the award for Best Duo.  I told the SA when I booked our tickets to see them at the Colchester Arts Centre that they were good and there it is, they are the best, officially.

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