Charles Norfolk and Ethel Brunning

Charles Norfolk was born at "the Cottage" near Martins Farm, St.Osyth, in the district of Great Bentley, Essex, on 27 May 1884. He was the eighth child in a family of nine children and was the second son of that name, the first Charles having died in infancy.

Some time in his early childhood the family are believed to have moved to nearby Harpers Farm (or Harpers Green Farm). Later they moved to Bouchiers Grange Farm at Coggleshall. Some time between 1890 and 1900 the family transferred to Armsey Farm on the Auberies Estate, two miles south of Sudbury, Suffolk. The final move was to the home farm on the same estate when the Father, James, was promoted to Farm Bailiff. It is not known where Charles first went to school but memory prompts that it was either Thorrington or Great Bentley. His school education was completed at Sudbury.

From about the age of thirteen Charles served a seven year apprenticeship with "Joys", a firm of furnishers and drapers on the Market Hill at Sudbury. During that time he worked in each of the departments including furnishings, cabinet making and undertaking. The training was strict and thorough - old Joy being something of a martinet. Charles never regretted those early experiences however and often, in later years, liked to refer to his time at Joys. With a minimum of prompting from his family he would readily recall some experiences - especially those concerned with funerals!

Sometime towards the close of his apprenticeship Charles began a romantic attachment to Ethel Brunning, an apprentice dressmaker, who lived in Sudbury and worked at Boggis's dressmaking establishment at the top of North Street. It is not now known how or when they first met; possibly they may have become associated through church activity, though Charles was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, North Street, and Ethel a member of the Congregational Church, Friars Street (now demolished). The couple became engaged to be married sometime in 1905/6.

Ethel Louise Brunning, the seventh child in a family of ten children, was born in West Hackney on 7 July 1885. When only a few years of age she went to live with her maiden aunts, Harriet and Rosina Brunning, at 4 Garden Place, off Cross Street, Sudbury. Intended as a temporary measure to relieve some now forgotten family crisis - probably illness - the visit became permanent and a happy relationship developed between the child and the aunts; by mutual agreement Ethel stayed over twenty years leaving only on her marriage to Charles in 1911.

To an extent the separation of Ethel from the rest of her family may have created a feeling of detachment but links were maintained at holiday periods and were certainly strengthened in later years.

The relationship between Ethel and Charles was at first regarded with a degree of apprehension by the Aunts - possibly they felt their special responsibility too keenly - but it was not long before he was accepted as Ethel's young man and permitted to walkout with her.

Ethel worked at Boggis's from the time of leaving school until her marriage. From apprentice to improver and thence to the status of fully skilled dressmaker, she had a thorough training and experience. This was ensured because of the quality of the work carried out to meet the demand for high standard hand-made garments in the best Edwardian fashion. It was also a period when an entire family would go into deep black mourning upon the death of a relative and the whole of Boggis workshop would be suddenly switched to a rush order for mourning clothes.

Following the completion of his apprenticeship Charles obtained a post in the sales department of a London firm of furnishers. During that time he lodged with a family by the name of Bowyer, commencing a friendship that lasted many years and only ceased with the death of "Aunt Peggy", a member of that family, some time in the late 1930s. Despite the distance he frequently cycled down to Sudbury at the weekends to maintain contact with his parents and with Ethel.

By 1911, Charles and Ethel had saved enough money to set up home together and they married on 24 June at the Old Meeting House in Sudbury. Charles had previously secured a post with Stammers & Son, an Ipswich firm of house furnishers, and for several evenings toured the town looking for a house. Glancing down from high ground on the last evening he noticed that all the houses in Cemetery Road were lit up except one, number 156. Enquiries revealed it to be vacant and he was successful in getting the tenancy. Stammers & Son supplied most of the furniture and with the home complete the couple commenced married life. A son, Wilfred, was born on 26 April 1916 and a daughter, Joan, on 7 June 1921.

The War of 1914-18 brought army training and billeting to Ipswich and the couple had to accommodate two and sometimes three soldiers during most of those years. Stammers & Son were flooded with orders for blackout blinds and Charles worked excessively long hours during the early part of the War wholly in this occupation. As a result he suffered a setback in health and developed a throat complaint that necessitated some form of radium treatment. He was medically examined in 1916 under the Derby conscription scheme and was classified as unfit for military service and allocated to essential War work. This consisted of making wooden parts and instrument cases for aeroplanes. Which was the firm engaged upon this work is not now remembered but it is likely that it was "Coe's Workshop", an Ipswich woodworking concern with whom Charles was employed in 1921 or 1922.

War work brought higher wages and by 1920 the couple had saved enough to put towards the purchase of a terraced house somewhere off the Woodbridge Road in Ipswich. Plans for moving from Cemetery Road were in hand when the passing of a Rent Restriction Act produced complications. The tenants in the new house were unable to move out and Charles and Ethel were denied possession. This was a major disappointment and some years later Charles sold the property at no financial gain.

It was about this time (1921-22) that Charles elder brother Will suggested a move to Essex, offering work in his horticulture business. This offer coming at the time of the abortive property deal and a somewhat indifferent state of Charles' health, was confidently accepted and in February 1923(?) the family moved to "The Homestead", Burches Road, Thundersley. The property of a Mr. Ward of Grassmere Road, this house stood in two acres of land approached by an unmade road - a pleasant spot in summer but in winter a mass of water filled cart ruts! Will paid the rent of this house and in return Charles was required to work for his brother in his nursery and supply produce from the garden and orchard at "The Homestead". Unfortunately the financial return was insufficient to meet the needs of the growing family and Charles was obliged to seek additional work. This took the form of making joinery for, and helping to build, a greenhouse for a neighbour of Will, a Mr. Peace, who was also hoping to make a living from horticulture. It may have been that Mr. Peace thought that he could enter into some kind of business relationship with Will, but if so, this did not materialise.

Before long relations between Charles and Will became so strained that their working arrangement had to be terminated. With the help of a Mr. Climson, a retired architect, Charles obtained employment as a carpenter / joiner with Mr. H. F. Broughton, a local builder who had recently started work in the area. At the same time Charles secured approval from Mr. Ward to become the recognised tenant of "The Homestead". With these moves the dependency on Will ceased and the financial situation greatly improved.

The rift between the brothers lasted many years but the causes - real poverty - were never fully understood by other members of the family. Fortunately relationships between the two wives - Ethel and Minnie were never seriously jeopardised and in later years became fully restored.

Another factor that added fuel to the dispute between the brothers was the transfer by Charles and Ethel from membership of the Wesleyan church at Rayleigh (where Will was a prominent member and circuit preacher) to the Congregational Church at Thundersley, a move that had begun with Wilfred's attendance at the Sunday School there. Previously he had gone to Rayleigh but the journey, across lonely fields, was long and risky and the Congregational Church was found to be a more suitable venue. Will was most upset at what he regarded as a desertion of the Methodist cause, and in this he was supported by his sisters.

The Minister at the Congregational Church at that time was Mr. Whatley White and he and other members of the Church made the new-comers welcome, thus beginning a happy relationship that lasted over forty-six years and ended only with the death of Ethel in 1970.

It was undoubtedly due to the support of the ministers and members of the church that Charles was able in 1924 to obtain the tenancy of "Danehurst", a large house in Kiln Road, owned by a Mr. Potton who was also a member of the Congregational Church.

The move to Danehurst was never regretted although it caused severe financial difficulties at the time: the weekly rent of twenty-five shillings represented almost half of Charles's average weekly earnings. To ease the situation Ethel contributed by taking in dressmaking work, also a room was sublet to a Miss Baker. This lady was obliged to move out after a year or so because of a serious illness but by then the financial position of the family had improved. Building work was plentiful and Broughton was finding a problem in getting joinery supplies on time.

To provide a solution Charles set up a workshop at Danehurst using one of the front rooms as a temporary measure. Shortly after, this was transferred to a back room and thence to a work shed he had constructed to one side of the house. All these working arrangements were completed by 1927. A year before he had taken on a lad named "Gus" Cooper, a son of the family who managed the Kiln Road Post Office Stores two doors away. Gus left by the time the new workshop was opened but Charles was able to get part-time help including assistance one day a week from the local Postman, Mr. Frost.

A piano was purchased from a neighbour, Mr. Steward, in 1926 and Wilfred was sent to take lessons from a Miss Thompson who lived at nearby Badger Hall. Later his sister Joan took lessons from "Libby" Littlejohn.

In 1928 Broughton extended his building activities to Pinner, in Middlesex, and Charles was made Foreman there at a salary of seven pounds per week. He lodged with a family named Rousell at Pinner Green and returned home at weekends. Plans were made to move home to Pinner and a plot of land was purchased for approximately £100 in Meadow Way Charles also invested some money (£75?) in the firm. The work proceeded well and the houses, just off Cuckoo Hill, sold without difficulty, the selling being in the hands of a Mr. Rogers, an estate agent type who had moved to Pinner from Westcliffe to manage the financial affairs. Something went wrong however and within two years Broughton was made bankrupt. Charles lost almost all of the money he had invested and in the autumn of 1931, just as Wilfred commenced his first employment, he found himself out of work. The next six months on the dole at ten shillings per week were extremely worrying and frustrating but by the end in the Spring of 1932, thanks to the help of friends from the church Charles had accumulated enough work in the form of furniture repairs and odd building jobs to set up on his own account, using his workshop as a base.

Once established Charles had no difficulty in obtaining work. During the seven years up to 1939 he built a number of houses and bungalows in Hadleigh and Thundersley, a garage at Victoria Corner, the Memorial Rooms at the Congregational Church, as well as meeting the local demand for a large amount of general building maintenance. Among the regular workmen he engaged George Hammans and Sidney Broadbridge, the latter continuing long after the War. Wilfred was serving an apprenticeship in building elsewhere but in the two years prior to hostilities gave periodic assistance in the business.

The period of the War was a very difficult one for building business but Charles carried on as best he could with such materials and labour as were obtainable. All new building work other than for essential purposes was banned but the demand for maintenance continued as before. Being practically the only builder in the locality Charles' services were in great demand. His over-conscientiousness in trying to cope with his customers' needs undoubtedly undermined his health and he developed attacks of migraine and bronchitis.

By the end of 1945 Wilfred had returned from War service and an attempt was made to return to normal business activity. The immediate post-war period saw many problems however. The demand for builders' work rose steeply but for a comparatively long time supplies of materials and skilled labour remained in chronic short availability. Building work above the value of a few pounds was subject to licence under a monthly quota system controlled by the Local Authority. Licences also had to be obtained for the supply of timber. For several years the building of new houses in the area was non-existent. House building for private customers was geared in the ratio of 1:4 to council houses and as the Benfleet Urban District Authority declined for quite a long time to undertake municipal construction, private licences were just not granted. As a consequence, for many years the work of the Norfolk business was limited to war-damage repairs, minor alterations and general maintenance.

The shortages of materials resulted in many jobs being only half completed and this in turn created a cash flow problem due to the difficulty in getting payment for work done. Further, the cost of carrying out the work rose sharply and some customers, used to the low prices of pre-war years looked for excuses to avoid or delay payment. There were also instances where the cost of the work exceeded the limit set by the licence. One client in particular used this as a reason for avoiding full settlement and Charles was obliged to suffer what was for him at that time a fairly large loss.

From 1950, with the easing of government restrictions and improved supplies of materials and skilled labour, the work of the building business progressed much more smoothly. Charles' health on the other hand deteriorated further. A throat infection in the early 1950s necessitated a small surgical operation that unfortunately left him with a near loss of voice. In 1952 Wilfred decided to leave the business and take up technical teaching and Charles, now 67 years of age, began to consider retirement.

Sadly, retirement was never reached. At 5:35 pm on 6 May 1953, while cycling home from work on a house in Kenneth Road, carrying some magazines, he was involved in a collision with a lorry driven by Mr. R.N. Chandler in Kiln Road near its junction with Kenneth Road. Charles suffered severe injuries and died on the way to Rochford Hospital. No-one could be found who directly witnessed the accident and it will never be known with certainty who was to blame. The road was narrow and the lorry, which had slowed to allow a "Benfleet" bus to pass in the opposite direction, was in the act of overtaking Charles when the accident occurred. This was the evidence given at the Inquest and from which the Coroner returned the verdict of accidental death. Several questions remain unanswered: was the lorry too close to the cyclist; did the cyclist contribute by swerving; what part if any did the bundle of magazines play? Family grief and loyalty presses the blame on the driver of the lorry for not giving the cyclist more room. Perhaps the real culprits were the County Authority for not providing a more adequate main road - as they have since done.

It is natural to want to know the cause of this tragedy but even if a clear answer were forthcoming it could neither alter nor reduce the family feeling of unhappiness. Nor would it reduce the sense of injustice that a man who had always done his best to help other people in a quiet thoughtful way should have his life ended in such a violent manner. One final note of sadness was the finding and breaking the news to Ethel who that afternoon was visiting her sister-in-law Minnie at Rayleigh and could not be contacted for some time.

Ethel survived Charles seventeen years and for most of that time continued to live at Danehurst. Except for one short spell in hospital she enjoyed remarkably good health. She felt the loss of Charles very keenly - it had been a very happy marriage, but found true consolation in her children and, especially, in her increasing number of grandchildren. She was also helped in a number of ways by the good services of local associations and the kindness of her many friends. It was in 1969 when arthritis affected her mobility and she agreed to spend the winter at Grosvenor House, Westcliffe. She did not become well enough to return to Danehurst and died at Rochford Hospital on 10 March 1970 in her eighty-fifth year. Ethel and Charles are buried together in Benfleet Cemetery.

The tragic death of Charles in 1953 brought to an untimely end a truly happy marital partnership between two people who were in so many ways ideally suited to one another. Both were highly competent craftsmen who understood and enjoyed the satisfaction of practising creative skills. Charles, who never gave up working, even as an employer, was painting the exterior of a house on the day he died. Ethel continued her dressmaking almost into her 80 's and only gave up when, as she said, "I can't see any longer to thread my needle properly". Both were brought up in the traditions of non-conformist Christianity which, for them, meant Sunday austerity and regular church going, and a daily pattern of living which included hard work, thrift, and service to others, but banned such excesses as extravagant spending, gambling, intemperance and waste. These were the standards by which they regulated their lives and which they endeavoured to pass on to their children.

Both partners respected fully the sanctity and obligations of marriage and regarded the blessing of children as its true fulfillment. Each understood and respected the other's feelings, strengths and weaknesses, and gave loyal support when it was needed. Differences of opinion were regulated by discussion and, as far as is known, never by quarrelling. Temperamentally each complemented the other: Charles, shy, sensitive and retiring; Ethel tending to be forthright and outspoken. In a disagreement with a third party his instinct would be to withdraw while Ethel would be tempted to stand and argue. Fortunately both had well developed, but different, senses of humour. His was dry, gentle and sometimes almost boyish at heart; hers more theatrical, often taking the form of excellent impressions originating from a natural gift of mimicry. Frequently the children, Wilfred and Joan, would prompt a repeat performance by asking, "what did he say, Mum" - usually with hilarious results.

Before bringing this brief narrative to a close mention should be made of other personal interests of Charles and Ethel mainly during their married life. At Ipswich, Charles had been a keen supporter of the temperance movement being at one time a committee member of the local branch of the Independent Order of Rechabites - a combined band-of-hope and friendly society. Between 1918 and 1922 he shared the use of a workshop and in his spare time made additional furniture for the home. He also maintained an allotment at the rear of Cemetery Road. Gardening was almost certainly Charles's greatest interest. As a boy at Armsey Farm he had his own cultivated patch (some roots of his early rhubarb still exist at Botley in 1978, having accompanied the family all through the years).

At Danehurst Charles filled the large garden and orchard, where it was not taken up with builder's materials, with shrubs, soft fruit bushes and flowers to such an extent the he had to borrow a strip of land from a neighbour, Mr. Shearing, on which to grow vegetables.

In church affairs at Thundersley he was made a Life Deacon and was, for many years until his death, secretary to the Diaconate.

In her Sudbury days, Ethel was a regular member of the Congregational Church choir. She had a fine clear singing voice and became familiar with many sacred and secular compositions popular at the time. This choir occasionally took part in national music festivals at the Albert Hall, London, but Ethel never went being unable to afford the cost. She often expressed regret about this in later years. She should have joined the choir at Thundersley but it seems that she felt the family needed to have greater priority. Later when the pressures of family life began to ease she gave considerable help to the Ladies' Working Party in their many efforts to raise funds for the church.

No one should entertain doubt that the Norfolk home life, despite some difficult times, was anything but happy and effective in terms of quality of upbringing, parental example and tolerant good humour - facts for which Wilfred and Joan have ever been grateful.

Wilfred Norfolk
December 1978