The Young Sudbury Lamplighter
A fascinating account of a teenage Lamplighter in Sudbury just after the Great War.
by George Boreham. Foreward by Steve Scott
My uncle, George Boreham, was born at Glemsford on 10 October 1904, son of Charles and Eliza (they were at Brook St 1901). He left c.1925 to live in Halifax, Yorkshire and in 1928 moved to Keswick, Cumberland where in 1931 he married my Grandmother's sister, Elsie Robinson. He was a great story teller and never lost his Suffolk accent, some of his stories he wrote in a note book, and I thought you might be interested in this one, it is as written by him. He continued to work as a gas fitter until his last few year when he was sexton of St John's Church, Keswick where he is now buried.
The First World War was over and I was fifteen. I had served two years of my seven year apprenticeship with the Sudbury Gas Company. The air was pregnant with the expectancy of things what’s (sic) going to happen now that peace had come. The better place for heroes was being launched and the town’s progressive group were demanding that the street lamps should be lit: their slogan was “the Zeppelins are gone, don’t keep us in the dark any longer ". The two fitters and myself at the gas works felt the impact of this demand as we were urged by the boss to overhaul all the street lanterns and public lighting equipment as quickly as possible. This urgency was exciting for me we had laid low during the war and veiled everything from the Zeppelins, and now suddenly we had become important, now we could make light, as much as possible and as quickly as possible. I worked with enthusiasm caught up with the land fit for heroes to live in. It was hard work as the four years of neglect to the lanterns was not to be put right in 3 or 4 weeks and besides the old pre-war naked light were (sic) to be replaced by the new incandescent mantle burners; the heroes were not to have died in vain! Although we were in a hurry, the progressives were in a (sic) even bigger hurry to have the streets lighted, as I was cycling home from work one evening I saw a motor car going slowly up the street, stopping at each lamp post, on top of the car was a coffin with two hooded figures sat astride, as they stopped at a lamp post one of the figure bent down and from the coffin brought out a little lighted Chinese lantern which they hung on the lamp post - these lanterns were all different colours and looking back down the street the effect was picturesque and fairy like . I did think them very daring and cheeky to hang them on our lamp posts, what would Grimwood our boss at the gasworks say? This was the first public protest I had seen, a new way to get things done, “the war had liberated the slaves ". Next morning at the gasworks was all hustle and bustle, my mate told me to get the big handcart and fix the lantern rack onto it, it held a dozen lanterns, we were to get some Lamps ready for lighting that week-end. The hand cart was loaded with a dozen repaired lanterns, dozen new mantles and burners, ladders and tools for the job. What a load it was, typical of those days if it could be loaded on a cart then a man could pull it. By the end of the week the first lamps were ready; these were the ones on the outer edge of town, crossroads and market square. It had been a busy week and I was glad when Saturday came with its half day off work. My enthusiasm had been sorely tested by the hectic week with the lamps so as I entered the workshop on Saturday morning my mind was pleasantly occupied with thoughts of freedom to do what I liked, I was suddenly brought down to earth when as soon as I stepped inside the workshop my mate said
“The boss wants to see you”.
"What does he want to see me for?"
"You’ve got to light them lamps tonight."
"What me, light them lamps?"
"Yes, you lights them about half past four and puts them out starting at ten o’clock."
"What? Ten o’clock at night!"
"You’re not afraid of the dark are you?"
"No I’m not afraid of the dark."
"Well that’s settled then, you tell the boss you’ll light them lamps and you’re not afraid of the dark, any way you’re the only one who knows where they all are and you’ll get paid extra."
So at the age of fifteen I was the first Sudbury lamp lighter after the First World War, I did this for the whole of that winter but by the next winter with many more lamps lit they employed a full time lamp lighter. This was one job I was not sorry to lose as I was often afraid when I put out the friendly gleam and left myself in the dark and isolation on the edges of town, and especially on Saturday nights when the pubs were turning out, the drunks would stand arguing and brawling round the lamps you can imagine the reception I got when turned up to put the light out!