Downham Heritage Centre
I finally found time last month to visit our new centre that has been created in the old fire station. It is not a large place, there is room to add further exhibits as they become available and there is a room for meetings, for historical research, talks or classes. Nevertheless, although small, I found it very easy to spend an hour there looking at the exhibits and learning something of Downhams past. I feel a little bit awkward writing about local history when many of the readers that have grown up with it know so much more. But there are some newcomers like me I am sure that have never had the time or opportunity to find out about Downham’s past.
There are some very good displays: A wall map has pictures around it of large and/or interesting houses and buildings around the town and their position is indicated on the map. Another shows the Bexwell airfield as it was when it was RAF Downham during the war, it also shows the runways superimposed on an up to date map. It is easy to forget that when the airfield was in use the A10 still went through the centre of Downham and it is difficult to imagine the end of one of the runways where Hillcrest school is. I read a book recently about the operations from the airfield titled ‘Strike Hard’ by John B Hilling and published by Budding Books in 1995. Much of the book consists of short pieces written by airmen who served there, it gives a very clear picture of the way in which operations were carried out and of the very high risk experienced by the crews, their fears and their bravery in facing a very probable death before completing thirty operations. One feels it should almost be a duty to read such books. There are some nice models in the display of Stirling, Lancaster and Mosquito, the planes that flew from Downham. We can still see some evidence of the existence of the wartime airfield but I wonder for how much longer.
I knew nothing of the revolt by the people of Downham in the nineteenth century. There is quite a lot about it in the centre. A combination of events lay behind the riots, the end of the Napoleonic wars resulting in increased taxes and the enclosures of common land being the major factors. The story of the ruthless manner in which the protesters were dealt with is told. In recent times the story was told in a short film with the title ‘Bread or Blood’ with most of the cast being pupils from the Downham Academy, this film is available from the centre on DVD. There is also reference to an uprising by the poor in the sixteenth century, led by Robert Kett. The rebels met by an oak tree which still stands in the grounds of Ryston Hall and is known as Kett’s Oak, the oak was said to have been 300years old at that time which would make it over 800years old now. As in the nineteenth century the uprising resulted from the poor being deprived of means of making a living and as in the nineteenth century the uprising was brutally dealt with. There is the history of the Downham clock, I was surprised to learn that during the nineteenth century it was lit by gas that was lit automatically, surprised in particular because the clock is still there. I would love to know how they did that.
There is information about the workhouse that used to be in the town. There is much more besides, older visitors will find a variety of nostalgic memorabilia and will find themselves saying ‘I remember ……
My advice is go have a look.
Echoes of the past
Probably as long ago as 14years I wrote a piece for the ‘Pump’ with this title. I was spurred on to write it after reading of the scandal associated with the Andover workhouse in the early nineteenth century and the way in which the workhouses had come to exist. In essence workhouses came about because the taxpayers of the time felt that the poor were costing too much to look after and thought the workhouse was a cheaper solution. I couldn’t help reflect on how many taxpayers today complain about the cost of supporting the poor. Many workhouses were run in a severe manner and some of those appointed to run the workhouse exploited the inmates, food rations were pitifully small, men were often given work to do crushing bones for use as a fertiliser and they would eat the scraps of meat that might have been left on the bone, women would be pressed to give sexual favours in order to increase their food ration. It was as though to be poor was a crime. Not all workhouses were that bad and there was no evidence that the Downham workhouse was that badly run, but it was clear that even there the food ration was fairly meagre and that men folk were separated from their women folk and the women separated from their children when they were above a certain age. The reputation of many workhouses was such that some people would commit suicide rather than enter.
Of course there is no comparison between the plight of the poor now to the plight of some of those unfortunates that found themselves in the workhouse, and, of course, there will always be some who are rich and others who are poor. Nevertheless it does appear that our society has become divided by the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and that division is greater than ever in my lifetime. The ‘have nots’ are very often hard working people in reasonable jobs but, because of the scandalous housing situation and the rent they are forced to pay, they find themselves barely able to buy enough food for them and their family and truly they must be regarded as poor. The ‘haves’ on the other hand may be anything from those in the aristocracy who own large swathes of land and are worth billions (and who receive more millions in farm subsidies), to those with jobs in the city being paid millions, to those who have benefitted from the explosion in property values over the last few decades (often charging rents that the ‘have nots’ cannot afford). Since 2008 the ‘haves’ who have been able to invest in the stock exchange or in property have seen their investment increase by over thirty percent. In the same period the ‘have nots’ have seen the value of their wages go down. Today the ‘haves’, whilst living comfortably, gripe about any increase in taxation that might arise in trying to give the ‘have nots’ a better deal, as they did in the past. Governments in recent decades have tended to make policies that favour the ‘haves’, they have hesitated to take action to curb the housing market for fear of upsetting those who are benefitting from it. Just as in the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries the ‘have nots’ can only look with amazement at the wealth displayed by many of the ‘haves’. It is a very unequal society and one can understand how Jeremy Corbin’s slogan of ‘Government for the many and not for the few’ struck a chord. The problem is that the ‘haves’ are not so few in number. It is a nonsense for the government of this wealthy nation to say it cannot afford to pay a reasonable wage to our public servants, it is down to them to take the necessary actions to reduce the inequalitities.
This is an idle thought of an idle fellow: The trend internationally has been to use electric traction on main lines in particular, using fairly high voltage overhead cables to supply the electricity. This will also apply to that wasteful HS2 line. The problem with electric trains supplied by overhead wires is, as we have seen too often, that any fault with the overhead cables will cause the whole line to come to a halt, and the overhead wires are vulnerable to weather, lightning, accidents, vandals and terrorists. Electric trains have been favoured over what was seen as the alternative of diesel engines, one assumes that this is because the diesels were seen as noisy, smelly and polluting, especially when in the large terminals. Much of our electricity is generated by gas fired power stations employing gas turbines to drive the generators. These are large gas turbines operating very efficiently and relatively cleanly. Unfortunately there are energy losses at the power station converting the mechanical energy to electricity, losses in the grid getting the power to the railway and losses in the overhead lines. The temperatures inside a gas turbine are considerably lower than those in diesel and petrol engines and because of that there are far fewer of the undesirable particulates, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide in the exhaust. These days there are gas turbines with power outputs suitable for main-line locomotives. Gas turbines can be relatively quiet, yielding a low whistle sound when idling and producing an exhaust with very little smell. When pulling a train a gas turbine loco could be operating near to its design power output and should be fairly efficient. What I am saying, in effect, is why not take the gas turbine with you rather than leaving it in the power station. It is a bit late now to suggest it, but think of the saving from not having to install all those overhead cables and the advantage of having far fewer interruptions in the service.