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A look back at what life in Suffolk was like 50 years ago on Census day 1971




Hemlines were on the way down. Inflation and unemployment were going up. And shoppers were getting used to a new decimal currency.

Census day 1971 – April 25 – came two months after the UK said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence, and hello to what at first were known as ‘new pence’.

Pennies, now 100 in the pound instead of 240, stopped being written as ‘d’ and became ‘p’. It took children a while to stop sniggering when describing a price as 20 pee.

A busy Newmarket High Street in 1971. Picture: Pete Norman Collection
A busy Newmarket High Street in 1971. Picture: Pete Norman Collection

Mobile phones hadn’t been invented. Most people were still watching black and white television, and the majority of the population had never encountered a computer.

As the swinging 60s disappeared over the horizon a new decade was dawning that would bring glam rock, Abba, huge lapels and bad hairstyles.

Trendsetters sported the mullet ... long at the back, short at the front and popular for both men and women.

A street view in Bury 50 years ago
A street view in Bury 50 years ago

While flower power and hippies were still around, the miniskirt was now competing with the calf-length midi and floor-sweeping maxi. Bell-bottom jeans flapped around the ankles of the fashion conscious.

Most TV shows were filmed in colour but the majority of families still had black and white sets.

There were just three channels – BBC One, BBC Two, and ITV. New shows in 1971 included The Two Ronnies, The Generation Game, and the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Dixon of Dock Green, Dad’s Army, Dr Who and Monty Python remained popular.

The Bury Free Press article on the 40th anniversary of the Bury Society
The Bury Free Press article on the 40th anniversary of the Bury Society

In soapland, Coronation Street fans mourned the death of Ken Barlow’s first wife Valerie, electrocuted by a faulty hairdryer. Motel drama Crossroads was still going strong.

Beatles fans were reeling from the break up of the Fab Four the previous year. The Rolling Stones were touring the UK for the first time in five years.

T Rex, Rod Stewart, and George Harrison were riding high in the singles charts but the year also saw some quirky numbers soar to the top spot.

The face of Bury St Edmunds was changing in 1971
The face of Bury St Edmunds was changing in 1971

Clive Dunn – Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army – was number one with Grandad all through January, and comic Benny Hill topped the chart in December with Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West).

Drivers took to the roads in 1971 models including Ford’s Cortina, Escort and Capri, and British Leyland’s Mini, Marina, Allegro and 1100.

Bury St Edmunds in 1971
Bury St Edmunds in 1971

Almost all homes had piped water, and all but four per cent had mains drainage. But around one in 10 still had no hot water system.

More than 60 percent of households had a washing machine, and just over half had a fridge.

In 1971 £100 was equivalent to more than £1,200 today. But the cost of many things – especially houses – have gone up by way more than the rate of inflation.

Prices of everyday items 50 years ago, when the average weekly wage for a manual worker was just over £30, included 34p for a gallon of petrol.

Haverhill Burton Cottage when it was a youth centre 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhill Burton Cottage when it was a youth centre 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhilll Castle Walk in the 1970s. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhilll Castle Walk in the 1970s. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

The average house price was £5,000 and a Ford Cortina would set you back £968. Those lucky enough to afford a colour TV would pay almost £300, with the yearly licence fee £12 for colour and £7 for black and white.

A packet of Golden Wonder crisps cost 3p, a pint of milk 5p, a pint of beer 16p, and a large loaf 10p. Haig whisky was £2.53 a bottle, half a pound of butter cost 11p, a dozen eggs 25p, an 8oz jar of Nescafé coffee 47p, and a can of Coca Cola 6p.

The country had a new Tory government following Edward Heath’s surprise defeat of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party in 1970.

Haverhill High Street 1970s with two-way traffic. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhill High Street 1970s with two-way traffic. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

By June, education secretary Margaret Thatcher was proposing to stop free school milk for children over seven, earning the nickname Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.

The employment boom years of the 1950s and 60s were ending, and a week before the census the UK recorded 815,000 people unemployed – the highest figure since the Second World War. Inflation also hit a 30 year high at over eight percent.

Meanwhile, comprehensive schooling was about to arrive in Suffolk. Schools in the west of the county faced a major shake-up into a three-tier system – primaries for under nines, middle schools for nine to 13 year olds, and upper schools from 13 upwards.

Sudbury Grammar School Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Sudbury Grammar School Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

The days of grammar and secondary modern schools were numbered as they prepared to merge into new co-educational, comprehensive, upper schools.

In Bury St Edmunds, King Edward VI Grammar School and the Silver Jubilee Secondary Modern Schools joined together in 1972 as King Edward VI School on the site of the Jubilee Schools.

The County Grammar School for Girls became the co-educational County Upper School.

In Sudbury it would mean the closure of the Boys’ Grammar School - first established in 1491 - and Girls’ High School.

Haverhill Playhouse Cinema as it was 50 years ago. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhill Playhouse Cinema as it was 50 years ago. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

The town’s Secondary Modern School, and those in Clare and Stoke-by-Nayland would also go - their buildings converted into middle schools.

What is now one of Bury’s best-loved streets narrowly escaped destruction in 1971 when redevelopment plans were abandoned.

Bury council had planned to rip out the heart of historic St John’s Street by bulldozing the historic shops on the east side and replacing them with a typical ‘60s featureless facade.

The campaign to save the street led to the formation of the Bury Society which still works to conserve and enhance the town and is now routinely consulted on planning applications.

The Ram pub in Haverhill. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
The Ram pub in Haverhill. Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

It was also the year that work began on the Bury bypass to divert traffic from the A45 (now A14) from the town centre.

Until the bypass opened in 1973, traffic to Ipswich and the expanding container port of Felixstowe had to navigate Bury’s narrow streets.

Other milestones for Bury in 1971, detailed in the online St Edmundsbury Chronicle, included the changing of the gas supply from coal gas to natural gas.

The market in Newmarket High Street in 1969. Picture: Pete Norman Collection
The market in Newmarket High Street in 1969. Picture: Pete Norman Collection

The closure of one of Bury’s longest-established businesses, Robert Boby Engineering, was a severe blow. The farm machinery manufacturer was the town’s biggest factory employing 270 men.

But another employer, flavours and fragrances firm R C Treatt, which would steadily expand over the next 50 years, arrived in town.

In January 1971 the 17th century Ram Inn, in Eastgate Street, was demolished to make way for an office of the Inland Revenue.

In Mildenhall, tragedy was averted in August when an F-100 Supersabre jet crashed just off the runway at the USAF base. It smashed a corner off a cottage at West Row, and burst into flames on top of a 50,000 gallon fuel tank. The pilot was able to walk out of the wreckage.

Inkerman Row in Sudbury, which was demolished in the 1970s Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Inkerman Row in Sudbury, which was demolished in the 1970s Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

The UK population in 1971 was 55,573,956, up by three million on 1961.

West Suffolk was the fastest growing county in the country, due in part to people moving from London under expansion schemes agreed with local authorities in exchange for financial help.

Huge new estates were being built for incomers, including Springlands in Sudbury and Shawlands in Great Cornard.

But the biggest expansion was well under way in Haverhill. Huge areas of housing and new factories had already been built. Haverhill Sports Centre - now the Leisure Centre - opened in October 1971.

Haverhill Sports Centre (now Leisure Centre) in the 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhill Sports Centre (now Leisure Centre) in the 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

People from London began moving into new homes in the town in the early 1960s. Haverhill’s population in 1971 was 12,413, up from 5,200 in 1961.

Integration of Londoners into the local community was not always easy, and some of the newcomers were not happy with their surroundings.

In 1968, Haverhill’s Clements Estate had featured on the TV documentary programme Man Alive on the subject of people versus planners.

A master plan for Haverhill by eminent architect Sir Frederick Gibberd was published in 1971.

Haverhill's Hollands Road industrial estate in the 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group
Haverhill's Hollands Road industrial estate in the 1970s Picture: Haverhill and District Local History Group

It was commissioned when West Suffolk County Council approved the ultimate expansion of the town to 30,000 people - the latest population figure, from 2019, is 27,481.

The plan included the pedestrianisation of the High Street and Queen Street, and also criticised the high density layouts of the GLC estates.

In the town centre the market would be retained on its new 'piazza' site, while Queen Street and High Street would be pedestrianised.

In 1971 most Suffolk towns still had their own cinemas dating from the 1930s or earlier. The days of multi-screen giants were still long in the future.

Haverhill’s cinema goers headed for the Playhouse in the High Street. Mr and Mrs Jennings, its managers since it opened in 1928, finally retired in 1970. Roy Farrant, who had worked there since 1936, took over as manager.

Doric Cinema in Newmarket. Picture: Pete Norman Collection
Doric Cinema in Newmarket. Picture: Pete Norman Collection

Director Ken Russell’s controversial X-rated film The Devils, released in 1971, saw filmgoers facing a picket line of protesters outside the cinema.

Ipswich had the Gaumont, now the Regent Theatre, and the ABC. Bury had the Odeon and Studios One and Two - which is now back to its earlier name, The Abbeygate. Newmarket’s Kingsway Cinema was also still operating, as was The Gainsborough in Sudbury.

Box office hit of the year in the UK was Disney cartoon The Aristocats. New releases in 1971 also included The Boyfriend, a musical starring Twiggy, and Carry on Henry.

Gainsborough cinema in East Street, Sudbury
Gainsborough cinema in East Street, Sudbury

Like many Suffolk towns, Newmarket’s face was changing. The early 1970s saw the narrow lanes of the Rookery area being redeveloped to form what is now The Guineas Shopping Centre.

“The old Rookery area was a huddle of ancient buildings and small streets,” said Sandra Easom, chair of Newmarket Local History Society.

“Yes, parts were a little shabby but there were certain resemblances, for example, to The Shambles in York which is a popular tourism area today.

“The modernising zeal, which abounded in the mid-20th century, decided to do away with the ancient and quaint and replace it with a modern shopping centre.”

Newmarket Market Street in 1903 Picture: Pete Norman Collection
Newmarket Market Street in 1903 Picture: Pete Norman Collection

Pete Norman, who had a long career working for shops in Newmarket, was behind the counter of Merryweathers menswear in Sun Lane in 1971.

“We sold everything for the older man, and the working man, and for young people as well. We catered for every type of person,” he said.

“On one rack of ties we would have 200, all different. Now shops often have just a few designs.”

For customers, changing fashions did not have to mean abandoning a trusty pair of trousers.

The bird's eye view of Newmarket General Hospital in Exning Road in 1971 Picture: Pete Norman Collection
The bird's eye view of Newmarket General Hospital in Exning Road in 1971 Picture: Pete Norman Collection

“The shop owner was a tailor, and when flares came in he would insert a piece of coloured fabric into people’s trousers to make them into flares,” he recalled.

Newmarket bypass did not open until the mid-70s. Traffic from the A11 and A45 (now A14) was still going through the middle of town causing snarl-ups that were particularly bad on days when racing fans flocked to the town.

In May 1971 two of the greatest racehorses of all time, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard, battled it out in Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas. Brigadier Gerard, ridden by Joe Mercer, streaked past the post three lengths ahead of his rival.

Health needs in the Newmarket area were still being met by the old Newmarket General Hospital in Exning Road which had a full range of departments and 285 inpatient beds.

Sudbury Lucas CAV factory in 1971. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Sudbury Lucas CAV factory in 1971. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

Sudbury’s face was also changing. In the town centre the old police station at the end of King Street had been demolished and a new one built in Acton Lane.

King Street was now dominated by the stark late-60s facade of the newly-built Borehamgate Precinct.

Sudbury still had two hospitals. St Leonard’s in Newton Road had a range of departments including casualty and maternity. Walnuttree looked after elderly patients.

Sudbury's open air swimming pool in the 1970s. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Sudbury's open air swimming pool in the 1970s. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

Factories were major employers in Suffolk but farming was still an important part of the county’s economy, with cattle markets still flourishing in Ipswich, Bury and Sudbury.

The 50 years between the censuses of 1921 and 1971 had been the most transformative - and some of the toughest - for farmers.

Historian Ashley Cooper said: “No half century can have seen such enormous changes to farming.

Sudbury cattle market in the 1970s. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Sudbury cattle market in the 1970s. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

“Horses gave way to tractors, binders and threshing machines to combine harvesters, and the hand milking of cows to milking machines.”

“But the Great Depression had been a dire time for local agriculture. By 1934 the price of wheat was lower than at any time since 1654.”

Farms were abandoned. Tens of thousands of acres went derelict. Village populations plummeted and cottages stood empty.

Gainsborough pub in Sudbury. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
Gainsborough pub in Sudbury. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

The Second World war was agriculture’s salvation, which the U-boat blockade making it crucial to grow more food at home. Post-war, the government resolved to reduce dependence on imports, and subsidies encouraged increased production.

“Farming became prosperous. Mechanisation advanced apace. By 1971 yields across the fields of Suffolk had roughly doubled. Agriculture was a cornerstone of Suffolk’s economy,” said Ashley.

On the sporting front Bobby Robson was in charge at Ipswich Town, where his squad included Mick Mills and Trevor Whymark.

King Street in Sudbury around 1971 after the demolition of the old police station. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive
King Street in Sudbury around 1971 after the demolition of the old police station. Picture: Sudbury Photo Archive

The club was in the First Division, although its major successes in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup were still to come.

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