Thorpe, or Thorpeness, is now a busy seaside resort with a club house and all the up to date amenities.
When I was a boy it was just a small fishing village between the Commons and the Sea.
The Neave cabin stood alone. It had one front room, one bedroom and a small kitchen, and there was a lean-to pony stable on the back. Later on, the building had another bedroom added making the front elevation look like an inverted W.
In the eighteen seventies, there was a scourge of smallpox in Leiston. Father with a family of small children was very alarmed, so he bought a small lumber building from ‘Grandfather’ Bicker who had been a ship’s carpenter. As a youth, he had been a shepherd’s boy in this district and had often been awakened at night to drive his flock of sheep along the sandy lanes behind the smuggler’s carts to cover their wheel marks.
The building was at Sizewell and Bicker used it as a workshop, and Father had it converted into a dwelling for his children and their nurse. After the smallpox had disappeared it became a holiday cabin for our family. Other people caught on to the idea and so several cabins appeared on Sizewell Bentlings.
Mrs Ogilvie, the Lady of the Manor, whose residence overlooked the cabins, objected and turned them off with the exception of ours which she offered to move to any other site on
her property. She had her men load our one roomed cabin onto wheels hitched to horses to
take to the site that father decided on. Father was wise and chose a site just outside Mrs
Ogilvie’s bailiwick in the municipality of Aldeburgh.
The boundary was marked by the piece of an old wreck dug into the sand and leaning at an angle of forty five degrees, so the cabin was dumped just on the Aldeburgh side of this mark and a small bedroom and kitchen added and in it our family spent most of their holidays running barefooted amongst the fishermen.
The Cabin was on a rise with the sea in front and behind a tidal mere fed by the Haven and bounded on the landward side by the high earth dykes.
A narrow wooden footbridge crossed the Haven and joined a path that led on to the cottage and windmill where the Aldeburgh Crag Path began.
Ben Harling had a little grocer shop in Thorpe village a quarter of a mile from the cabin where we spent our pennies on candy and pop. The nearest house to ours was the Alexander’s untidy dwelling about one hundred and fifty yards away and facing the sea.
There were several fishermen’s ‘shods’ along the shore where they kept their nets and boat gear, fastened on the outside walls of the shods were strings of drying flatfish to be used for crab-pot bait. There were no other cabins so we were pretty much alone surrounded by sandy dunes called Bentlings covered with a very coarse grass and whin bushes. There was bedstraw convolvulus and lots of other wild flowers, while nearer the shore grew the
sea-holly and horned poppy. The shingle whin bushes and sea-holly were very hard on a
child’s bare feet which toughened up till the soles got as hard as boards and when school
started getting a shoe on was quite a painful business.
Soft water was collected off the roof in barrels, but drinking water was rather a problem and was carried from a well on the Common by a fisherman’s wife who used a wooden yoke across her shoulders with two pendant chains on which hung two pails. This lady stood inside a wooden hoop that rested on the top of the pails up to their bail handles so
spreading them apart and preventing them from swinging on her legs. We went easy on the water which had a very strange taste to it.
The Cabin bathroom facilities were pretty primitive but we didn’t need much washing as we were in and out of the water most of the time. The W.C. was a small building in the yard with a galvanised bath under the seat that had to be emptied into a hole dug underneath a whin bush darkly at the dead of night.
One time in my youth when I had a date to meet a girlfriend amongst the whin bushes I was elected to take one handle of the bath and the shovel and I believe that was the quickest funeral that ever was, but I got through undetected with romance unblemished.
The lean-to stable had sand for the floor and ‘Rosso’, father’s driving horse, would dig a
hole in it every night that had to be filled up.
The cabin faced east towards the sunrise and in the mornings when the door was opened the sun poured into the room with the smell of the sea that swish swished as it licked at the small shingle on the beach.
The ships were mostly sailing ships or paddle wheelers that you heard going ‘thump, thump, thump’ as you fell off to sleep.
But the Meare was the greatest attraction. It spread up to the Leiston Road and was held in bounds by an earth wall that was generally used as a footpath. A wide ditch led into the mere that nearly reached up to the cabin with bare squares of hard mud alongside where
the turf had been removed and in which samphire grew.
The main channel of the Mere ran inland and underneath the Great Eastern Railway arch and washed over the back road to Aldeburgh under a little wooden bridge and then in a wide ditch across marshes and commons towards Coldfare Green. The water was salty and muddy and we messed about on it and in it and knew every inch of it and generally got home mud up to our eyes.
Mother didn’t mind the water but hated the mud, so if I was too muddy I would often climb into the soft water barrel to get the worst off when no one was looking, but if Mary was in charge I went in mud and all.
Very few visitors came along, just a few people for a swim on a Sunday. Ben Marling had a bathing machine on wheels that could be shoved out or pulled in as the tide dictated, and this my mother and sisters used when they wanted to bathe all clothed in heavy serge garments with white braid trimmings. The bathing machine had a long rope on each side so the ladies could walk out with it beyond the breakers and jump up and down.
My earliest recollections of bathing is being carried out by either my mother or a sister with
promises that they wouldn’t duck me - and then getting totally immersed.
The old yawl was beached in front of the Cabin; and a stove-in ship’s boat with ‘Trixiwee’
painted on her stern.
There were no other houses until a large stone and concrete dwelling named the ‘Haven House’ was built close to where the Haven ran into the sea. It was some distance from the Cabin so didn’t bother us much: we still thought ourselves and the fishermen owned Thorpe. Then it happened and progress butted in with an old railway carriage dumped where Seacote now stands. It had a corrugated iron yard built onto it and belonged to a man named Tarrel. They were quite nice friendly people but Mother was furious and we looked upon them as intruders.
Close to the Cabin was a hollow known the ‘Hol’ where we played cricket and rounders and
one day two gipsy looking caravans were drawn into it and Winnie and I were most
intrigued. In the caravan was a stout man and a worn looking little woman, two grown sons, a girl in her teens and another girl of about our own age. We watched from a distance: the older girl stood in the doorway and juggled two water tumbler throwing them up and
catching them alternately.
We ventured to become acquainted and found the outfit to belong to a Colonel Moorehouse with the Mild May mission and had come to Thorpe to convert the fishermen.
Jack, the oldest son, was a carpenter. They first built a reading room on the other side of the Alexanders’ house; then a Bethel on the Meare side of it where religious services were held.
Jack went to work for Botwright at Aldringham and then came home and built the ‘Shanty’ next door to the Cabin on the Thorpe side. The fat Colonel got up a cricket team and played proper cricket with the village boys with pads and all accessories and the reading room had magazines and newspapers.
The services in the Bethel went with a swing and even after the Moorehouses had left they were still carried on by the different denominations in Leiston. Father would take the
service occasionally with Joe Harling on the fiddle sawing away with his beard getting in the
strings and bass fishermen’s voices roaring out ‘Jesus Saviour pilot me’, ‘Will your anchor hold’ and ‘We are out on the ocean sailing’. Father used to say this was his favourite hymn.
After the Moorehouse’s departure, Thorpe started to settle up. A London jeweller named Cross came and built a real house with concrete foundations and a well. He was a very generous man and gave the fishermen watches and rings. The weekend parties there were pretty lively, one of the sisters had no legs and when the family went swimming one of the brothers would carry her down and dump her in the sand like a sack of coals. Mr Cross bought a small steam launch in London and took Alfred Alexander up with him to bring her down to Thorpe but somewhere off Felixstowe she caught on fire so Mr Cross and his small son swam ashore leaving Alfred who couldn’t swim with the launch. Alfred got the fire extinguished and they all continued on to Thorpe Haven where all the inhabitants had gathered to watch them come in.
The sand bar at the Haven mouth was too shallow for them to come in, so she had to be dragged across the bar with a rope and beached just inside the Haven mouth close by the Haven House. She was a nice little craft with a nice cabin with a small piano in it and a collapsible dinghy on her deck. That was her final resting place. She never went to sea again, she just lay there and rotted away and years after I gave her boiler a poke with a walking stick and it went right through.
Mr Cross also had a beautiful little canoe on the Mere that sailed like a charm and Harry
Harling, then a boy, could really sail her.
Then all the Crosses disappeared and we heard that he had gone broke and the house changed hands.
Most of the fishermen had two boats, a large one around twenty feet long used for dragging a trawl and a smaller one for attending their lobster pots.
I would sometimes go out with Alfred Alexander or William Marling and his partner Harry Spindler. Alfred bought himself a brand new boat, all a yellow varnish, she was twenty feet long and cost him one pound per foot, that was over sixty years ago and she is still in use on Thorpe beach with an engine in her.
It often puzzled me how in a fog they located their own string of corks marking their pots
and find their way home again without a compass. I don’t think any of them carried one.
The lobsters were measured on a piece of stick and the small ones thrown back; they often gave me some small ones to take home. The crabs had little wooden pegs driven into their claw sockets so they couldn’t nip, and the lobsters were kept in a floating box called a cauf and this was anchored close inshore until it was time to ship them.
The coastguard station was on a low cliff overlooking the Ness and once in a while they would all turn out dragging a cart up to where a high pole stood dug deep into the sand on the Bentlings. The cart was stopped about one hundred yards from the pole and a rocket would be fired at the pole carrying a light cord, then some of the men stationed beside the pole would haul in the cord to which was attached a double rope which was rove through a block at the top of the pole and a ‘britches buoy’ which was a pair of pants inside a round lifebuoy. This britches buoy ran on the double rope. A man would climb the pole and get inside the buoy and be hauled along the rope to the cart, the men alongside the cart would run out and grab him and drag him up to the cart and roll him backwards and forwards in a blanket and then give him a good swig of brandy. This practising life-saving was good fun watching.
Ted had a duck punt (that he had made himself) on the Mere and afterwards I had a small skiff, and I thoroughly agreed with the water rat when he told the mole ‘There is absolutely nothing more worthwhile doing as simply messing about in boats’.
The Haven was a favourite spot to swim in, and one time a lot of our friends were swimming there when along came one of the Leiston Geater girls with her small sister to join them for
a swim, so I sailed then up to the Haven in the skiff, and when the boom came over the little girl started to howl. Years afterwards she became my wife, and I have often teased her about our first boating trip.
Mrs Cleveland lived in a cottage close to Harling’s shop and kept geese on the Bentlings. The geese’s home was an old inverted boat resting on sod walls and full of fleas. She knew Grandfather Clark when he was at Dunwich. Her cottage had a spare bedroom that we rented when the Cabin was overcrowded.
William Alexander lived next door to the Cabin and was coxswain of the lifeboat that was kept in a shed half way between Thorpe and Sizewell. He had all kinds of medals for life saving and could tell some really good smuggling yarns. He couldn’t swim and one time when the lifeboat capsized on the shoal and I asked him how he got ashore he told me that he walked along the bottom.
His shod was full of nets and boat gear, and was between his house and the shore, it was a great place to sit in and yarn and the strong smell of Stockholm tar and Irish twist tobacco made a lovely overall aroma.
When Alfred Alexander and his brother Armond came in from a night’s fishing they wouldn’t sleep on the nets but straddle a hard bench with both feet on the floor then lay back and go to sleep and I used to wonder why, until I realised that was the way they slept on the thwart of a boat.
Alfred gave up a lot of his fishing and gillied for one of the young Ogilvies looking after his guns and taking him wildfowling on the Marshes. He owned a clever little English black spaniel that was always with him. The fishermen were very poor and glad to make an extra shilling wildfowling and selling the birds at Leiston work’s gates on a Saturday noon when the men were paid.
Old William’s gun was a single barrelled muzzle loading fowling piece. One autumn when he took it off the hooks, he didn’t think it was loaded and held the nipple against a candle and blew down the barrel with no result - it was blocked up. Then he put a percussion cap
on the nipple and snapped the hammer and off it went taking the back off a chair and all his
old lady’s geraniums off the window sill on to the beach.
When old William was too old to cox the lifeboat, young Ogilvie appointed William’s son Alfred in his place and the crew were sure they would most likely have elected Alfred anyway but objected to having him wished on them, so next time the gun went off at the Coastguard Station signalling a wreck and all the young folk for miles around ran to the lifeboat shed to help launch the boat, there was no crew; only the Coxswain had turned up.
He collected a scratch crew mostly of young men from Leiston works. The boat was run down on greasy skids. There was a kedge anchor out at sea with a rope ashore which was a running block with a short line attached to the bows of the boat to hold her bows into the breakers. The crew in cork life belts took their places and everyone shoved taking her right out till all the helpers were wet to their middles, and the boat floated clear and the oars dipped and took over.
There was a lot of bad feeling about the crew not turning up, and the next time there was a wreck the crew did show up but there was an ill feeling and fighting amongst themselves over the lifebelts so after that the Lifeboat Association took the boat away.
This boat was what was called a surf boat, propelled with oars or two sails, a lug and a misson. There had previously been a self-righter that if capsized righted herself, but the men didn’t like her; when I asked them why they said they wanted one that wouldn’t turn over at all.
The Aldeburgh surf boat did turn over on the shoal and came ashore upside down with all her crew inside; the onlookers jumped on her upturned bottom with axes and cut a hole and dragged out the crew all of whom were drowned. They were buried in the church graveyard next to our school playground at Aldeburgh.
Starting school from Thorpe was a painful job trying to get shoes on to feet with soles like boards.
The old Cabin still stands looking like a poor relation amongst sophisticated surroundings. The Mere is now an artificial lake, the Haven is filled up, and the old wooden footbridge, with the newer traffic bridge, have disappeared. The Alexander’s house, Marling’s shop and most of the ‘shods’ have gone. And my old fishermen friends - Alexanders, Spindlers, Marlings, Ships and Easys - have gone to pluck on ‘Golden Harps’ and no doubt feel like Kipling’s mariners whose hands were rough and tarred and the tune somewhat hard and wanted their sea back again.
Well, so long and good luck to them all
Hal Neave, 1883-1967
The Neave family
Hal Neave’s father had at least 8 offspring, the eldest born in 1867. Hal Neave married a Leiston girl and emigrated to Canada. In old age he visited England a few times to see amongst others Dick, who lived near us (see below) where as a boy I remember meeting him.
The family was Quaker, and as such knew other Quaker families including the Headleys of Ashford Kent. Quite what the connection was I don’t know, but in due course two of the sisters, Bertha and Wini, married two of my grandfather’s brothers and so moved to Ashford.
Dick (1872-1970) became a pharmacist and practiced in Witney until retirement, when he moved to Kent to be closer to relatives. His first home there was just a few hundred yards from where a nephew of his farmed; and we lived a few hundred yards in the opposite direction. I never knew him well - as a boy I was always a little in awe as he was very deaf and one had to shout into an ear trumpet. In the late 1950s he moved to Ashford, but after a year or two decided to return to his roots, so moved with his one remaining spinster daughter Mary to Leiston. When asked a while later what his next move was going to be, the sardonic reply was “I think my next move is going to be underground”, but that didn’t happen until he reached the ripe age of 98.
Another brother emigrated to Australia. One of his daughters, Mary, returned to England and subsequently married one of my father’s brothers, so ensuring convoluted blood relationships between Neaves and Headleys.
There’s one reference in Hal Neave’s memoir to ‘Mary’. She was a local girl who was
‘rescued’ from apparently unfortunate circumstances and lived with the Neaves for the rest of her days, ending up with Wini in Kent. She brought up three generations of Neave children and became enough of a member of the family to be buried in the Quaker burial ground in Kennington, Ashford despite not being a Quaker.
There are also references to the Harlings, local fishermen. Harry was still fishing when my father was a boy, in boat registration no IH146. He was born at 1 Beach Cottages, but when getting married moved to the other end of the street - but home-sickness got the better of him and they moved back in again some time later. On occasion HH took my father out on his boat - it’s said that on one such occasion when it was a bit rough HH pronounced that my father was ‘proper tarned up’ by the time they got back. He also mended the boys’ model yacht when it needed attention. One way and another the boys formed a fond attachment to HH, and my father carried on calling in on him until HH died, I guess some time in the early 1960s.
The Neave-Headley link ensured that the Cabin was available to Headleys for use. My grandmother took her 5 offspring there during the 1920s (my grandfather didn’t much care for such a lowly life style and if he came at all would stay at the White Lion). Later on, my mother brought Peter and me there every Easter from 1950 (but as it was lambing time on the farm at home my father rarely made it).
During the war the area was threatened with invasion, so the beaches were cleared and mined. It didn’t seem a good idea to keep paying the ground rent on a hut that couldn’t be used and was likely to be flattened, and the then-owners didn’t. The result was that when the 99 year lease expired in (I think) 1976 the family were not in a strong position to keep it on. Mrs Wentworth refused to renew the lease and demanded an exorbitant price for the freehold, the result of which was that the family lost the Cabin, which lay derelict and looking very forlorn for a decade or so before the Wentworths finally sold it into private hands. It’s now very different to the rather primitive hut that I remember very well.
The eldest of the Neave children, Lydia (‘Lillie’, 1867-1958) and her husband Alfred Deane owned (built?) Seacote (next door to the Cabin) which then passed to Wini’s family. I’m not sure of the history; but, as with the Cabin, that too was lost to the family during the 1970s.
Max Headley, 2011