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Historian Martyn Taylor looks back over an extraordinary wartime archive.

The Rev Samuel Blackall, honorary Canon of Ely Cathedral lived at Abbey Precincts in Bury St Edmunds’ Great Churchyard until his death in 1899.

During his time here he had in his employment a young lady, Anne Youngs. She was born in Earls Colne, Essex, in 1866, then moved to Lowestoft before coming to Bury.

After the canon died, Anne Youngs worked for his daughter Laura, up to the time Laura died in 1919. It was during this term of employment, when Laura ran a small guest house, that an extraordinary archive was kept at the Precincts, visitor’s books. In two volumes, the first relates to the people who attended the Bury pageant of 1907, names of people from all over the country including the pageant master Louis Napoleon Parker. However, the second is an incredible document that also has pictures of convalescing World War One troops in the gardens of the guest house.

Anne Youngs and right, the page of one of the visitors’ books signed by Corporal Sydney Day VC
Anne Youngs and right, the page of one of the visitors’ books signed by Corporal Sydney Day VC

The visiting troops, over 500 of them from all regiments of the British Army and the Commonwealth, signed their names in the book. Probably the most famous is that of Corporal Sydney Day VC, of the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, which can be seen on a line three from the bottom of the page, right.

Sydney was born in July 1891 in Norwich and spent his early years as a butcher. It was while fighting in a position east of Hargicourt in France that he bravely picked up and threw a stick grenade out of his trench saving the lives of many of his men who would have died as it exploded. Later he was wounded but went on to clear some trenches held by the enemy. His citation of the VC awarded for these actions said ‘his conduct was an inspiration to all’. He died July 17, 1959, and is buried in the Milton cemetery in Portsmouth. Subsequently his VC and campaign medals were purchased at auction in 2018 for £160,000 by the Michael Ashcroft Trust and are displayed in the Imperial War Museum Lord Ashcroft Gallery there.

When World War One finished so did the visitor‘s’ books. Anne Youngs retired, to live at 76 Eastgate Street. During all this time she had been attending services at St James’ before and long after it became the cathedral in 1914.

Anne was collected by car to attend a service on Armistice Sunday, November 1962, but unfortunately she suffered a stroke in the car outside the cathedral. She died a week later in hospital. It is thought she was the longest serving worshipper at St James. Anne is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist Church at Lound, near Lowestoft.

Subsequent to her death the visitor’s books were found amongst her possessions by relatives.