Two postcards in the Rita & Percy Beales Archive at the Crafts Study Centre show the village of North Lopham during the last days of ‘Lopham Linen’ in the second or third decade of the twentieth century. 1
The horse chestnuts are in flower so it must be May, but the year is uncertain, perhaps 1913 or 1914. The photographs, by Archie Donald Maling, were taken a few yards apart, looking in opposite directions along the same lane. Made into postcards, they were then sent by the young Percy Beales to Rita Rabone. Rita and Percy married in 1917. Rita Beales would later become one of the most accomplished linen weavers in England, with Percy as a kind of manager and advocate for the craft. 2
On the first postcard Percy wrote the following message:
The house in the centre is the one where you are to stay. The girl with the basket is my uncle Stephen’s maid standing just near his gate. The girl next to the child with the parasol is my Aunt Annie’s washer-woman’s daughter. The child with the parasol belongs to the man who hires out traction-engines and mowing machines, which I don’t suppose however that we shall require. The white blotch in the sky I take to be the sun which hasn’t quite managed to come out yet for I have not yet seen it.
Percy Beales was descended from the two main linen manufacturing families of North & South Lopham. His uncle was the linen manufacturer Stephen Beales, whose business closed on his death in 1915. His grandmother was a Buckenham. The once famous firm of T.W & J. Buckenham made the finest linen in England, had the Royal Warrant as suppliers of Diaper and Huckaback Table Cloths to Her Majesty, and survived until 1925 as the last commercial handweavers of linen in the country. 3
Linen had probably been woven in North & South Lopham for centuries. On 15th February 1839 John Mitchell, a Commisioner for the Parliamentary Report on the Condition of the Handloom Weavers, met some of the Lopham weavers in the ‘Bell’ public house. In his report he described North Lopham as “one green oasis in the vast desert of discontent.” There were then fifty weavers in the Lopham parishes, with nine masters, doing ‘middling business’ making shirting, sheeting and table linen. The material was hemp, grown and hand-spun locally, some of it very fine, mainly across the Waveney valley in Suffolk. 4
The message on Percy’s second postcard to Rita reads as follows:
“The house on the right is my Uncle Stephen’s. The woman who lives in a farmhouse opposite has eleven children, the oldest of which is thirteen. I suspect most of the children in this picture belong to her. I met an old lady on Sunday who had 15; all grown up and doing well. In the distance you can see Jack Shaw (with the pony that will come to meet you) talking to the Blacksmith. The man in his shirtsleeves is one of my Uncle’s old weavers just going home to a dinner of shrimps.”
Jack Shaw had worked for both the Buckenhams and the Beales, first as a weaver and then as a driver of horse drawn vans. He lived until 1949 and was described in a letter from Lopham resident Mary Gooderham to Eric Pursehouse: “I remember John Shaw – a Weaver and a great personality, who entered the employ of Mr. Buckenham as a boy and continued with him all his life, becoming the driver of a linen van and accompanying Mr Buckenham on his journeys which often took them away for three months. John knew his way about London and the Home Counties and went to Buckingham Palace quite frequently – but stayed outside with the van, while Mr B went inside.” 5
The waist-coated weaver on his way home to his dinner of shrimps might be Pipman Keeble or Tip Ludbrooke. Michael Friend Serpell records that they took two of Stephen Beales old looms up to Lancashire after his death, perhaps to teach their craft, but I have no idea what became of them.
Percy’s references to his uncle in these postcards would suggest they were written before Stephen died in 1915. Percy and Rita met while she was studying at the Royal Academy of Music between 1909 and 1913. He had just returned from studying piano in Leipzig. So the postcards must date from the period 1909-1915, probably nearer 1915, presumably on a visit to Percy’s Aunt and Uncle. Percy and Rita lived in Gloucestershire after they were married, but returned to Norfolk when The Limes – the big house in North Lopham owned by the Buckenham family – came up for sale in 1926.
For more about Lopham Linen see my post about the collection of Lopham linen in Norfolk Museums.
- The papers of Rita & Percy Beales, courtesy of the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham.
- Biographical details from: Patricia Baines (1989) A Linen Legacy: Rita Beales 1889-1987
- 1. For more information about the linen industry in the Lophams, see: Michael Friend Serpell (1980): A History of the Lophams, and: Eric Pursehouse (1966) Waveney Valley Studies.
- Pursehouse, p.187.
- Pursehouse, p.189.