Keep it in the family
IT was a remote area with a unique character, and the Fens remained that way even after it was opened up by the railway. Fen families stayed in towns and villages where their parents and grandparents had been born. It is that lack of mobility which has pl
IT was a remote area with a unique character, and the Fens remained that way even after it was opened up by the railway.
Fen families stayed in towns and villages where their parents and grandparents had been born. It is that lack of mobility which has played a big part in the survival of many family businesses and trades.
A fascinating new book by Rex Sly called Fenland Families traces the history of some of those businesses which are still going strong in the 21st century.
Mr Sly is well qualified to write on the subject, his own family having lived in the Fens since the 17th century. He has produced a wonderful insight into businesses which are run by names that anyone who lives in the area will recognise.
The book features a variety of trades and businesses from bakers to makers of agricultural implements. All have managed to survive dramatic changes in the way people live and work.
Mr Sly believes the tide may be turning after hundreds of years with consumers turning once again to small, family traders.
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He says: "Like the family silver, a way of life can be hidden away for what seems like an age, but is not forgotten; it can always be brought out, polished and used again."
Talking to family members who now run the businesses has unearthed a wealth of stories and photographs, many never been seen before.
His book begins with harrow-makers, Cousins of Emneth, a firm with humble beginnings serving the needs of a local community, to having customers around the world. Born in Outwell in 1922, Norman Cousins was just 14 years old when he began work with the village blacksmith.
Norman learned the trade and in 1950 bought the forge at Emneth and, helped by his wife Betty, built a thriving business. Today the Cousins still like to be known as harrow-makers, although the implements they supply to farmers have changed over the years.
One of the biggest family businesses is Elgood & Sons Ltd of Wisbech. Although the North Brink brewery was built in 1794, it was not until 1877 that John Elgood bought a share in the business. He had been a maltster in Godmanchester.
By the 1930s Elgoods had 70 pubs as well as the brewery. The Second World War brought a boom in business when East Anglia was awash with airfields, both USAAF and RAF.
Today the number of tied pubs is down to 43 but the output of traditional ales has increased and new beers are regularly introduced.
Pork butchers F Frank & Sons has an interesting history. The family originated from Germany. Frederick Frank moved to this country in the 1860s.
His shop in Peterborough was going well until Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. Angry crowds gathered outside the shop and after three days of rioting troops had to be called in and the Riot Act read in the street.
Frederick's son, George, then moved to Wisbech and set up the shop which exists today, G W Frank.
In life and in death, Fenland businesses have catered for every need. Funeral director, Turner & Son of March, is one of the few independent businesses left in the trade.
Although it moved to new premises in 2002, the nearby workshop where the business started in 1900 has been left as it was. The firm no longer makes coffins but buys ready-made ones suitable for cremation.
Other businesses in the book include Bonnett's bakers; Watsons, clockmakers of Long Sutton; Fowlers, coach proprietors, Gedney Hill; Layton dry cleaners, Wisbech; the Ward family, heavy horse breeders of Gorefield, Hanson's, market traders of Wisbech; Goddard's menswear, Wisbech; Gibbs &Sons, of Wisbech; Barnes Undertakers of Murrow.
The book, published by Sutton Publishing, can be bought from local bookshops priced £14.99.