8th December 1944 - Wisbech
Got away from
Cambridge at 10 o’clock. A dark morning, and icy cold, but thawed a
little towards 11. The train ran on over
the endless Fens, Percheron horses tailing across the black peaty wastes. Went through Histon,
famous for its Percherons, Swavesey, St Ives, Chatteris, and so to March, where
the line to Colchester came curving in. Thought of the trains going to Edinburgh.
Long wait at March, and the rain came swooping across the dykes and muddy fields, bitterly cold. Off at last, through a tiny station called Coldham, and so to Wisbech, running in past mean suburbs to a dirty, dilapidated station. Nearly 2 hours to do 40 miles.
First sight of the town incredibly depressing – the rain was turning to sleety snow – rows of poor houses, half empty shops, many of them shut, a dreadful air of misery. Yet we are always told that the Fens are so rich.
Walked through the streets, past a ruined cinema standing on the banks of a derelict canal, asking people for a direction to the Museum. Nobody seemed to have heard of it. Wandered on, across the canal, across a single track railway, until it was obvious that the town was ending in that direction. Turned back through more dreary streets, and found the church, with the Museum on the far side of it, facing a neat little square of Georgian houses. The front wall seems to have sunk on one side, like so many buildings do up here, owing to the unstable nature of the soil. At the far end of the square is a long low house of yellow brick, with stone dressing, almost hidden behind a high brick wall and stone gateway, called “The Castle”.
Went up the steps and was greeted by a gaunt sad faced man, with a very red nose, looking for all the world like a dyspeptic bloodhound, who was accompanied by an equally sad looking parson. This was Curtis- Edwards, the Curator, and Canon Stalland, the Vicar, who is one of the Trustees.
In the main gallery is a lot of very poor looking natural history specimens, of which Curtis Edwards seemed to be very proud, and some first class ethnological material. What little Roman pottery there is in the place is hidden in an upper gallery in this room.
I asked what was the relationship between the Museum and the Town Council? Curtis Edwards said very bad indeed, yet I notice on the reports that the previous Town Clerk was a member of the Museum Committee.
During the past 10 years the Reports show a variation of income from £1800 to £500 per annum. Anyway, there seems to be ample to pay the not very high salary of £225, and no doubt I shall be able to extract a grant of some sort out of the Town Council, who at present pay nothing at all.
There is a caretaker living on the premises, so that the place is open at any hour. Can't say I like the look of her very much – a cross eyed old woman, with a particularly unpleasant expression.
It was now lunch time, so went off and booked a room at the “White Lion” on South Brink, opposite the wonderful row of Georgian houses on the other Brink. Had a good lunch at a café just behind the Museum.
Back to Museum, and spent the rest of the afternoon there. The variety of exhibits is quite astounding, but a lot of these are rubbish. Among the pictures is an alleged Constable, two Birkett Fosters, a Rosa Benham, and a reputed Richard Wilson. Most of them look very doubtful.
Local archaeology has been almost entirely neglected. Asked Edwards if he ever got anything from street excavations, but he said he’d never seen any.
The worst snag is the occupation of the basement by the ARP people, who have been there quite illegally since 1939. The seizure of the property without any requisition notice led to a question in the House, but there are apparently persons here who can flout the Law, the Commons and the King if they wish. The Museum Committee were terrified to make a stand, in case they were accused of “sabotage”! So, at any rate, says Edwards.
These wretched people have been here 5 years, doing considerable damage, and they not only show no signs of going but only this week have moved in a lot more material. The worst damage is undoubtedly to the Town Library, which was carted away in sacks because some man called Ollard, the ARP controller, could not bear to sleep in a room lined with books. All the books are in the old workhouse cells, and are said by Edwards to be in a shocking condition. A lot of pictures belonging to the Museum have also been sent away. Edwards is not quite sure where.
Find it very hard to believe that the ARP people can sit here and still refuse to pay rent or compensation, but apparently in these areas that sort of thing can happen.
Curtis Edwards asked me to go home with him for tea. We walked through several gloomy sordid streets, lit by glimmering gas lamps, peopled by individuals who looked as if they came out of a play by Chekov or Ibsen – old women, dressed in rags, with shawls over their heads, men in gumboots. As we walked by one shop, the door opened and a can full of filthy rubbish was thrown out onto the street. We crossed the stagnant canal which I saw earlier on and then we walked over what Edwards referred to as “the park” but which appeared to be an open common crossed by a few footpaths. On the far side was a single track railway line, and then we reached his house in
Clarkson Avenue (Named after Clarkson who
worked with Wilberforce, and who was born in this town).
Mrs Edwards, elderly, slight, and very pleasant, made me most welcome and we had tea. Talked a bit, and found that the old man was quite definitely assuming that I should take the job. After tea, suggested we should walk round to the next street and see the senior Vice-President of the Committee, Mr Guy Pearson, which we did, going down some narrow passages and coming out into a road of very modern villas. In one of these we found dear old Mr Pearson. We talked for an hour or so, and parted most amicably. He is the Senior Vice-President, and is more or less in charge of the management of the Committee, as they don't appear to have a chairman. Guy Pearson looks astonishingly like Father.
Curtis Edwards wanted me to go back to his again, but I declined, as I had to be back at the “White Lion” for a meal not later than 6.30, so left him, and he warned me not to go back through “The Park” as I might “get lost in the blackout”. Apparently he has not yet noticed that the street lamps are now lit again.
The evening meal at the “Lion” was pretty bad, in a hot airless room, full of loud mouthed commercial travellers. One rather jolly looking woman with a Welsh accent, was obviously from her talk a schoolmistress.
Afterwards walked out and stared at the river, wandered through a few more streets and lanes. Found the “Old Horsefair”, a wide irregular open space on the bank of the stinking canal, rather reminiscent of some of the “squares” in
North London. Several good Georgian houses about.
There are two cinemas in
Hill Street, both
very tawdry looking, and both surrounded by howling mobs of filthy
children. There was formerly a third
cinema, but that was bombed 2 or 3 years ago.
Three separate attacks have been made on the town, but none recently,
and of course flying bombs and rockets are quite unknown here.