Working Lives

Civicus – he never turned anyone away (1950-1977)

Location: North Walsham

The story of a civic minded family who were the centre for newsgathering in North Walsham, Norfolk.

Dad was a staff reporter. He also used to write articles for the Eastern Daily Press and the North Norfolk News. And every week he had deadlines to meet. One of his tasks was to write a column for the North Norfolk News and for this he wrote under the pen name of Civicus which he told me was Latin for townsperson. And every week he had to dream up something new about what was happening in the town, the latest news unfolding. I remember him sitting at the dining room table, head in hands and numerous cups of coffee, with the dog nestled underneath at his feet. And he would write and type away as Mum shuffle in and out with bits of news that had come through on the telephone. She was a commercial secretary so everything was written in shorthand and he had to decipher all of that.

Eric and Joyce Harmer

My Dad had been educated at Paston Grammar School in North Walsham and began his career in journalism by biking around the town and villages to get to the breaking stories. Mum was educated at North Walsham High School for Girls (which I also attended) after which she did her training to become a commercial secretary, and this stood her in good stead. The story as far as I’m aware of was that when they first got married they lived up on the Bradfield Road in North Walsham where they rented a bungalow. This would be pre 1953. Then one day my mother was walking into town and she noticed a parcel of land against the railway line which was an old overgrown orchard. There was also a sign in an adjoining garden which said there was a piece of land for sale. So she went back and said to Dad, ‘What about if we were to buy this piece of land and develop it, build a bungalow and possibly work from there?’ So Dad, who was always businesslike and forward thinking agreed, and after buying the land  immediately put in plans. These were granted and the bungalow was built by a local building firm called Barr, Gant and Vincent.

So then Dad thought that rather than go backwards and forwards to Norwich every day to work he would ask them if they would give him an allowance to have an office in a room here and work from home. He had by this time been given a staff car, but it was still a long journey each day. And they said yes straightaway – to his glee. All the equipment arrived, he had a desk, a filing cabinet, and the typewriter, in fact everything he needed. So for many years he actually worked in a small room in the bungalow. Mother, not to be outdone, as she was a commercial secretary, said, ‘Can I do the secretarial side of things: be the one who answers the phone, does all the advertising?’ Hence people used to come up to the house with all their births, deaths, marriages, things for sale and titbits. Every day a succession of people would come to the house, and the phone was always ringing. That was the life I was brought up into. Even as a small child, when people used to come to the door Mother would put a finger to her lips, and I knew I mustn’t interrupt. The television had to be switched off, the radio had to go off and I had to be seen and not heard. So I read many Enid Blyton books in my childhood, because I had to occupy myself. The bungalow we lived in became the North Walsham branch of Eastern Counties newspapers!

Many people passed through those doors over the years, an enormous amount of people, hundreds probably I would say. Local news used to come in late at night, all sorts of different things. There were the floods of 1953 which Dad covered and when the Bacton gas site first opened he took me over there. I often used to go with him as a child if he was out and about reporting. Mum would have to stay home to man the fort so to speak. But I was the one who used to go with him, sparking a lifetime interest in people and community life. Oh, I loved it, I absolutely loved it. I spent a lot of time with my Dad. He was also a lay reader with the church so I also used to get taken out on a Sunday morning, sitting with him in the churchwarden’s pew. He was on the Town Council, and was from 1974 to 1976 the vice-chairman of North Norfolk District Council until in 1977 he was made chairman.

He founded the Good Companions Club in North Walsham which is still going to this day. Many friendships have been forged over the years with elderly people who otherwise would’ve been on their own. He was the sort of person who was very much for the community and in his day was actually able to move families around in the town. Say if someone came to him and said. ‘Could you help me please? I’ve had a big family but now I’m on my own and can’t manage all these rooms in my house’ he would be able to move them into a small property. And likewise people who had a small property and an expanding family would be helped by him to move into a bigger property. This sort of work was carried out in his capacity as Town Councillor which is unheard of now as moves like this are all done on points and bidding. It’s rules and regulations all the time now. It was different then. A lot more social!

He was also the youngest member of a society called Toc H. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of this, and I’m not quite sure what it was all about, but I think he was about 19 when he joined it. [Toc H is an international Christian movement. The name is an abbreviation for Talbot House, “Toc” signifying the letter T in the signals spelling alphabet used by the British Army in World War I. A soldiers’ rest and recreation centre named Talbot House was founded in December 1915 at Poperinghe, Belgium. It aimed to promote Christianity and was named in memory of Gilbert Talbot.]

But he was always very much a pillar of local life as I remember. It was an interesting life really, and he never had set hours. He would work according to what had to be done. Very often he’d do his typing during the day as the news came in. And then he’d have his dinner, have a shave, spruce himself up and off he’d go to a meeting somewhere. Always at meetings in the evenings. He also used to be a governor at a few local schools so there weren’t many nights he was really at home. Deeply, deeply involved in the local community, very much so. They were very busy here all the time, my Mum was non-stop on the secretarial side and Dad with his journalism. I remember as a child, I was sent on my bicycle up to the North Walsham Railway Station with news. Dad had all the proper pre-printed addressed envelopes for the Eastern Counties offices, and he’d put all his stories in one of these every day. I would bike up to the railway station and go to find the guards. They’d be in their room, in their uniforms, and in the winter sitting around a roaring fire. I’d give them the envelope which would be put on the train, collected at the other end, put to print and in the paper by the next day. I used to be the errand boy, or girl if you like! And from the age of about seven I would go down the town with wicker baskets and copious lists on a bulldog clipboard. I’d go all the way around the town and do the shopping, then return with the goods. I was a cog in the wheel.

But unfortunately Dad didn’t have good health. When I was 23 he passed away. I believe he was only 55 at the time. So my mum and I were left to our own devices, and my Mother was actually a widow for longer than she was married! But because she was also so involved in this work she carried on. And she was like the town correspondent but also covered news from the surrounding villages. Mother carried on for many, many years after dad died. Coping with all the different incoming snippets she didn’t need to go out to report as it all  came to her. She gathered it in and absolutely loved it. And she also kept in contact with all the people from the villages. This went on and on and on, and she would get me to run up to Norwich in the car with the copy sometimes (before it was collected in an EDP van). So that it met the deadline, the news was very often put into a brown envelope, and I would have to rush to Norwich and actually take it to Redwell Street or Rouen Road in readiness for print the next day.

Poor mother, she got in dreadful muddles in the end really, but  would not give in. It was her life blood to keep going although she was in and out of hospital and her health wasn’t very good. She’d get confused and muddled, and she had endless address books with all her different contacts in as she could not remember so well. She kept going and going, and because she’d been part of this community for so long I don’t think people really liked to tell her that she wasn’t quite up to it. The modern day standards had arrived and of course Mother didn’t know how to use a computer. No idea how to email or anything like that. But that’s what the printers now wanted. In the olden days, all copy used to go up to the office, everything that had been written would be read, and the editors would go through it in detail. But in more recent times ECN did not have the workforce to go through all of this finely, and they wanted everything emailed directly. Of course Mother couldn’t do this so in the end, although she was very reluctant she had to give in. And the powers that be in ECN had to say to her. ‘look, you are 85 now!’  It was very sad really. And as you can see from the photograph of her she was still clutching her pieces of news and paperwork; still surrounded by everything that she had ever known all those years here. But she was falling asleep, she wasn’t meeting the deadlines. I think it was a difficult thing for the Press to have to tell her that she couldn’t carry on, and it was even more difficult for her to agree to accept it. But they brought her some lovely flowers, and they sent a photographer out and took lots of photos of her. And the photographer who came out from the press was the same photographer who actually did all the filming of Princess Diana’s wedding – how she enjoyed that. Where those photos are, I don’t know. I think they must be at the EDP office somewhere, I would love to find out. She worked right up until then, until Alex Hurrell took over from her.

Mother was very resentful of the fact that this new blood had come in after all those years. It was just very, very hard for her. And when she finally gave it up her health started to decline rapidly. I think she just gave up really. as she couldn’t struggle any more. She had heart trouble, she had kidney trouble, and was failing in so many ways.  She wasn’t able to dress herself, and wasn’t eating or drinking properly. She was quite poorly and I spent my time looking after her. I was backwards and forwards coming over here every day, but she never wanted anybody else. She never really wanted another friend and she never ever wanted to go into any sort of care. So it was quite hard because I used to go home and no sooner was I through the door she’d ring me up in the evenings and want to talk about all sorts of things. Mother had wanted to live to 100 as others in her family did. She was living on her own and living with her own memories. She wanted to keep those through talking with people. I now live here in the bungalow, and I think of all that’s happened here over the years. This was an absolute hub of activity. And I will always remember that as a child every day we’d have a death announcement come through Murrell Cork. I was fascinated by this. I would say to my Mother ‘what did he die of Mum’ or ‘what did she die of?’ And I was always given the stock answer – shortness of breath!  My parents could never really fully explain to me why all these people kept dying. But yes, Mother in her later years was an absolute character. And she would never let anything get the better of her. Nothing, absolutely nothing. She was a very resilient and determined sort of person. In fact I really wish in a way it was her sitting here telling you this story rather than myself. Because she’d have you here for a week, if not a month telling you her life story. She had so much to tell, she really, really did.

Undoubtedly there are many things and particular events that happened in North Walsham that my  father and mother were involved in reporting and developing, but it was mostly the bread and butter they covered. All the local organisations, announcements, advertising, the clubs, and what was happening within them. And as I said, my Dad used to write a weekly column for the North Norfolk News under the name of Civicus. And that column had to be relevant to something that was topical in the town. I would just like to source those old newspapers and those original columns. I suspect I could get them through the EDP but I don’t know how to go about it. Each week he would have written a story on what was going on, in, and round about  the town. And he did that for years. In his study he had an old spare drawer taken from a chest of drawers, and he laid it underneath the window. He used to keep all the back copies of newspapers so he could always refer back to them. At the end of each year Mum would bundle each pile of newspapers up and they could  be put up in the loft. As the years went by you can imagine how many piles of newspapers there were in that loft. Unfortunately someone said to her, when she got to about 25 or 30 years worth, ‘You didn’t really ought to keep them up there, because if there was a fire…’  so of course she got rid of them all, and I never knew where they went. Now I have no copies of his written word. But I have been thinking about it a lot lately and I would dearly love to get in touch with the EDP and ask if they could somehow provide me with copies of his work under the name of Civicus. At the least I would copies of his columns in the North Norfolk News.

Many years ago, way back in 1977 I had a buff envelope come through my letter box. Inside it was an invitation, for me to go up to a garden party at Buckingham Palace to receive a Silver Jubilee award and medal from the Queen on behalf of my father. It was awarded to him for his services to his community. But he was far too poorly to go, so I went up there and received it for him. My mother was so proud to have that, really proud! She always had that up on display, all through the years. It got moved from one room to another and it was her pride and joy. He received it because he had done so much work for the town and its inhabitants, not just through his press work, but church work, council work, school governorships, and work with different organisations. And they actually named the library at the North Walsham High School after him. A road was named after him down on Brick Kiln in North Walsham, so he has left a legacy, he really has. I know from what I’ve been told and from what I’ve read that he was a very well thought-of person. A most wonderful character he was always truthful, never said a bad word, and he had a lot of integrity. What you call a pillar of the community. He truly represented the community, not only through his Eastern Counties newspaper involvement, but also through his church and other local community work.

He never turned anyone away. Never.


Gwyneth Gotts speaking about her parents Eric and Joyce Harmer in North Walsham for WISEArchive on 28th October 2015.

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