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Long-time Bury St Edmunds businessman Robert Butterworth shares his memories of growing up in the town, before sharing some Christmas joy

Robert Butterworth has run several business in Bury St Edmunds including Lorfords and Butterworth Health Food and Herbs.

VISITORS: A recollection

As a boy growing up in Whiting Street, Bury St Edmunds during the 1950’s, life was not all fun and games, but it was mainly.

Robert Butterworth at work in 1999. Artwork by Nick Oldham
Robert Butterworth at work in 1999. Artwork by Nick Oldham

As I look proudly at my grandsons today I do not think they are one jot happier than my sister and I were despite all their material advantages and in one important respect they are more impoverished.

The word streetwise today represents something vaguely cynical and threatening. However, as I will demonstrate, years ago familiarity with a host of local characters was a joy which added to the richness of life.

We have a saying in our house, “All our visitors give us pleasure, some by their coming and some by their going.”

Here are a few which fall into both categories.

The Coal Man

The day the coal man came was really something quite unforgettable.

We lived in an old timber framed house which had a cellar that fronted right on to the street.

In the foot path in front, like every other house nearby, was a hinged and grated coal hole.

The coal man would come with his horse and open flat bed cart and delivery would begin.

Up to twenty 1 cwt. (112lbs) sacks would be emptied down the chute. Each one would be counted and sometimes weighed on scales on the back of the cart.

Although the cellar was closed off with a door to the house the dust that the operation created would give my mother extra work for the next few days.

Not only did this principal heating fuel for our house create much disturbance on its arrival but similarly so on its departure.

By this I mean the annual visit of the chimney sweep.

The White Sweep

The “White Sweep” lived only one street away and would arrive by appointment with the tools of his trade in a hand cart.

Through my childish eyes it all seemed like a wonderful entertainment. Firstly the large well used sheet to cover the floor in front of the fireplace, then a separate cover for the hearth itself, with a hole in it for the brush and vacuum cleaner nozzle.

Then most magically of all the bundle of flexible rods with the circular stiff bristled brush with which to actually clean the chimney. One by one these rods would be screwed together and pushed further up the chimney.

It was often my job to go outside and make sure the brush eventually emerged from the chimney pot. Oh, what fun, but not I fear for my mother. Despite the “White Sweeps” best endeavours there was always much for my mother to clear up afterwards.

The Milkman

The milkman on the other hand was a daily visitor, but of much more refinement. He came with a horse and cart which always seemed very clean, with shelter for both the delivery man and his produce.

This was probably out of the need to protect paperwork & produce from the elements rather than any altruism for the driver. That was normal in those days.

The horse, which I think was called Peggy, knew the daily routine by heart. She was as good as any programmed computer and would move from stop to stop without the driver, just on his whistle. A feat as yet unequalled by modern technology.

Fulcher’s dairy and stables for the horses was only about 100 yards from our house. A site now occupied by Model Junction. Occasionally, with permission from the owner & when the drivers were about, we children could visit and feed the horses in the stables out the back .

The Baker

The baker would come in a horse and trap. Occasionally mother would buy at the door some extra bready delight from the bakers open wicker basket.

My own favourite being Chelsea buns. Often still warm those doughy delights with currants and mixed spice rolled inside & sugary topping can still make my mouth water today.

The Muffin Man

One man who did not have a horse and cart was the muffin man. Mr Pashler I think his name was, came from his bakery in Schoolhall Lane. He arrived on a bicycle with a wicker pannier on the front and would ring his bell. On opening the wicker basket one could see a large cloth of dazzling whiteness and inside that were fresh made crumpets. What a treat for afternoon tea.

The Nun

Near to our house was the Catholic Church and Convent school staffed by nuns. Occasionally my mother would tell me, upon my return from school, in a state of high dudgeon the following tale.

During a busy day she would answer a knock at the door only to find a nun at the door with an open hand asking for financial support. Mother would have to tell them we did not use their church. In our case a very counterproductive visit for the nuns and waste of time for my mother.

The Pedlars

The itinerant gypsy pedlars who came to our door confined their visits to the summer months. Usually a female would turn up on a fine day with a wicker basket on her arm offering “lucky heather and pegs”.

My mother did not believe in luck from them, telling me that the harder you work the luckier you will be! However the pegs were sometimes useful so a deal would occasionally be done. The pegs were made of split willow and the two halves secured by a tin band nailed round the top.

Robert Butterworth, in 1993
Robert Butterworth, in 1993

The women themselves were a novelty to a child like me of infinite curiosity. Smelling of woodsmoke they usually wore long flowing skirts and ostentatious jewellery. Their long dark oiled hair would be tied up. A swarthy complexion and strong hands ingrained with grime seem to complete the picture in my memory.

It all seemed so remote from my normal life at the time. My big sister told me that they would leave a secret mark outside your house to let others of their kind know if you had made a purchase.

The Travelling Paraffin Man

This was a smelly occupation but a vital one in the days before central heating. By today’s standards of health and safety it was a travelling bomb on wheels.

The battered old van would pull up outside our house and within the back doors of the cab would be revealed a large tank with a brass tap at the base.

Our one gallon conical topped receptacle can was filled with the aid of a funnel and the transaction completed. We had an outside toilet in those days which in the depth of winter could get mighty cold.

Those of a sluggish digestion could find their bowels lock solid under such conditions so a paraffin heater could be a great relief.

A man used to come to our door with a battered old suitcase containing a selection of his finest wares. He seemed a sad and unfulfilled sort of character and was probably a damaged ex-serviceman from the war.

Attired in his Trilby hat and demob suit he always did his best to be polite and helpful. Mother often purchased something from him as much out of kindness as of necessity.

The Rag and Bone Man

No list of itinerant traders would be complete without mentioning The Rag and Bone Man.

He would come slowly down the street with his horse and cart shouting out “Rag-Bone”. Always very scruffy as the job demands I suppose.

He rewarded you with very little for whatever he collected. An early form of recycling in fact. When one considers his cart was locally produced from a renewable resource, as was his horse, which ran on locally produced fuel and produced a useful exhaust the whole operation was really quite efficient.

The Knife Grinder

This gentleman made an occasional appearance at the door with his request: “Any knives, scissors or shears to sharpen?”

There was rarely any custom for him at our house as my father regarded it as his duty to keep all edged items in tip top condition.

However, the man’s contraption for performing his task is worthy of mention. Attached to the rear wheel of his bicycle was a revolving grindstone on which he would carry out his commissions.

I last saw this gentleman in the late 70’s. Now very old he came to my shop seeking business.

“Just a novelty these days Guv, just a novelty” he explained mournfully. It is now a source of constant regret that, as in the days of yore, I could offer him no trade.

These are just some of the callers at our house. Additionally one might expect the postman with three deliveries a day, the gas and electricity meter readers, the window cleaner not to mention the dustbin men.

All real characters delivering not only their services to the family but also bringing an undefinable community spirit from our common heritage.

And, as a seasonal afterthought, I cannot omit two of the most important visitors to our family home.

The Spirit of Family Togetherness

The first of these visitors seemed to be ever present and its influence all pervasive. Let us just call it The Spirit of Family Togetherness.

In retrospect and only now many, many years later I can see it touched us all.

My father, my mother, my sister, all now sadly departed this life and me. As we bustled about our daily lives and squabbled about petty things, home was always there. Warm, loving and protective. It’s whole hugely greater than its individual parts.

The Spirit of Christmas

The second seasonal visitor was The Spirit of Christmas. A once a year visitor who came in the depth of winter to bring us joy for the present and hope for the future.

So from all of us here in the Butterworth family we wish you and your loved ones a very, very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.