Sunday, 29 April 2012

Fred Bowes of Beccles

Beccles. I thought it was high time I wrote something about my beloved Beccles. After all, it was my home for the first eleven years of my life and to this day, a large piece of my heart still belongs there. For reasons I cannot fathom though, writing about Beccles is extremely difficult and some days I am so choked to the core of my being I find it impossible to write in a way that would do the Beccles I know and love proper justice. My mind is so richly veiled with nostalgia and sentimentality, sometimes I can't see the wood for the trees. For the most part, I confine my more reserved jottings on Beccles to my family history writing and anecdotal "tweets" about the history of Beccles and its people at @RelicsofBeccles (on Twitter).

My maternal grandmother Freda was the only one of my grandparents who was born in Beccles. Her mother came to Beccles at a very young age, from Loddon in Norfolk, and her father and grandfather were both Beccles born and bred. I grew to appreciate and love Beccles from the stories I grew up hearing from Freda. One story she told me was when I was around ten years of age. I remember that I was quite keen to learn to play the piano and the local Methodist Church held a Friday Club for children, so I always sat at their piano. I was happy to tinker at the keys on my own, teaching myself popular tunes as I went (being left-handed I was conscious that most grown-ups were intolerant of my cack-handedness so I didn't want to bother them with teaching me), until one day a lady came and sat beside me and gently coaxed me into learning "When The Saints Go Marching In". When my grandmother got wind of my new-found "talent" she exclaimed that I was following in the footsteps of her uncle Fred. Who was he? I asked.

Frederick William Bowes,
my great grand-uncle
Frederick William Bowes was born in 1889 in Beccles, son of Robert and Mary Ann. As a boy Fred was fond of chemistry and medicine so he combined these and trained as a Chemist. The 1911 census shows he was "Qualified to Dispense Medicine" - sounds rather posh! I have no idea where he worked but there were three dispensing chemists in Beccles in 1911, including my favourite chemist shop, Boots. In Fred's day Boots was known as AW Rayner and (Archibald Walter Rayner) had operated as a chemist business for over 40 years. However, Fred could have worked at the Beccles Hospital which was then situated in Fair Close. Erected in 1874, it cost £1,500 to build and by 1900, it had a total of fifteen beds available.

Beccles Hospital circa 1914 (now private residences)

When the First World War broke out in 1914 Fred was keen to learn skills in another key area of medicine, first aid. In February 1916 (after conscription for those born in 1886 to 1896 inclusive) Fred joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was immediately dispatched to the frontline. There he served until the end of the war when he returned home to Beccles, his vision terribly impaired from the effects of trench gas. In December 1918 he received a Silver War Badge after being discharged under King's Regulations in view of "being no longer physically fit for war service".

Despite this, Fred continued to work and he developed his love for playing the piano. He embraced the feel of the keys under his fingers and loved to play every day, right up until the end of his life. He joined many local dance and music troups and concert parties as pianist and, for a time, was employed by the Beccles Cinema to play the piano for the silent films. I was told he also frequently played the piano at nights for the patrons of The Fleece Inn in Blyburgate Street.

One concert group he joined were called "The Leggettonians". This song and improvisation group, who gave countless concerts to the Poor Law institutions & charity events in the local area as well as entertaining thousands of servicemen during the Second World War, was the brain-child of Beccles man Jack Leggett. The group were made up of the following:

Mr Jack Leggett (compere/comedian)
Miss Hilda Mann (soprano)
Miss Dorothy Snelling (accordianist)
Messrs Pearl & Leslie Balls (comic sketches)
Mr Edgar Brown (animal & bird mimic & impersonator)
Mr Alfred Ling (Tambo)
Mr Lennie Stevens (drums)
Mr Fred Bowes (piano)

Fred Bowes, on the far right

I never knew my great grand-uncle Fred, he died in 1950, but whenever I heard him spoken of, it was with such a fondness that a part of me felt I had known him. Fred never married or had any children of his own. My grandmother used to tell me that he lived out his life playing the piano and living with his spinster sister Winnifred (Winnie) Bowes. When I researched his life for this blog, I felt even closer to him somehow. He is a part of my ancestry of course but he is also a part of Beccles, where he lived all his life. He has left a part of himself in Beccles; in the concert halls and cinemas and possibly even Boots chemist (It's hard to explain but I sense him around me whenever I go in there).

ADDENDUM: 10 September 2014.
@RelicsofBeccles on Twitter no longer exists.
Instead I have another blog 'Relics of Beccles'


  1. I just happened upon your blog and I'm writing from America. Beccles is the birthplace of my 11x great grandfather, George Downing (1556 - 1611). His son, also my ancestor, Emanuel Downing came to Salem, Massachusetts in 1638 on the "Thomas and Francis".

    1. Thank you for your comment Heather; what a small world we live in. Well done you, tracing your family back into the 1500s. xx