Tributes: John Lown, of Norfolk coal merchant family, has died at 88
PUBLISHED: 19:09 29 May 2019 | UPDATED: 01:54 31 May 2019
John was told he wouldn’t live to 21, but he worked for family firm for 50 years and almost reached his 89th birthday
He lived through some times, did John Lown. He experienced the era of big deliveries of coal arriving by train and having to be shovelled into sacks weighing a hundredweight each (eight stone or 50-odd kg). He was there, too, when lorries from far-off pits (including Wales) queued by his village green at 7am, waiting to drop off their loads.
He witnessed the end of the halcyon years, as economics and environmental concerns saw sales of solid fuel fall. By that time he'd put in a lot of hard graft, and had a lot of fun.
John was a partner in the family coal merchant business started by his grandfather when Victoria was Queen. He was only 14 when he started work full time. Then, the firm had two lorries and one horse. At 15, he began doing a delivery round.
With his father dying within the next couple of years, John took on more responsibility at home (where he had a mother and three sisters) and at work.
He'd also become a married man before the 1940s were out. He and wife Rene would have five children and the company became the largest independent coal merchants in East Anglia.
Time would have been in short supply, and his now-grown-up children wonder how he managed to remain so laid back when thoughts commercial and domestic must have been swirling around his head. Many of us would probably wilt under the pressure of having to pay a workforce each week, yet his family have happy memories of life at home, holidays in Cornwall and day-trips in a rather overloaded car that would today give police patrols a scare…
One of John's grandsons, Terry Harper, describes him thus: "Always with a smile, a positive comment, and never heard to do anyone down. On the rare occasion he'd get angry, he'd forget it and move on within five minutes. A cheeky smile and onwards..."
Horse and cart
John's grandfather James Lown - Jimmy - was the man who got it all up and running in Martham, north-west of Great Yarmouth. When the firm launched in 1890 it sold greengrocery, confectionery and meat as well as coal.
The business initially operated from a site at the (now-gone) railway station in Rollesby Road. Jimmy's sons James Richard Lown (John's father, known as Dick) and George joined the enterprise after the First World War, as did the founder's son-in-law, Sidney Grimes.
In those days most villages had their own coal merchant. Martham had two - possibly more. There definitely was Rusts, in Staithe Road. It was later taken over by JD Lown & Co.
Coal was delivered by horse and cart, as well as motorised transport. Lown's bought its first lorry in 1928. The company also ran a pork butchery by The Green and was involved in the market gardening trade. The coal business grew, with Lown's taking over firms such as Brooks of Hickling, Hovells at Winterton, and Miles of Catfield station.
Life was full-on
John started at 14, in 1944, and would spend half a century working for JD Lown & Co.
He was born in Martham. His family lived in Black Street before moving to Hemsby Road, where grandfather had had two pairs of semis built. The coalyard was behind and to the side of the house.
John was plagued by asthma from childhood. Daughter Susan remembers their Aunt Janet saying John was told he'd not live to 21, "and we were told he'd never make 40 or 50". Those gloomy prognoses proved spectacularly wrong.
His wife Rene was a Winterton girl. "All the boys and all the girls used to mix," says Susan of the time in the 1940s when her parents met. "Boys from Martham used to cycle to Winterton or Rollesby. That's what I heard told. And the girls would sometimes come to Martham."
The couple married at Winterton church in early 1949. They went on to have five children - Michael, Susan, Sandra, Rita and Keith - though Rita died, unfortunately, a few years ago.
It meant family life was full-on. "It was hard work, if you think of the washing and the ironing, and the coal, and the food prep, for five of us," says Sandra.
"We all used to help out. One would set the table, one would clear the table, one would wash up, one would dry up and one would put away. We'd just all split the jobs."
It all worked. Phyllis, who years later would become John's second wife, knew the young family back then. "You all used to go down to the shops together, and looked lovely," she remembers.
"Everyone used to say 'Those children of John and Rene's look as if they've stepped out of a bandbox." It's an old saying that equates someone's smart appearance with the out-of-the-box freshness of a hat.
Overnight from Wales
John's cousin Roy Grimes joined JD Lown & Co after the war and Gerry Nichols followed in 1953. This trio, with their complementary skills, would jointly own and run the business. Gerry tended to concentrate on the paperwork, the yard was John's domain, and Roy focused on the engineering side.
It was hard work. No question. Until the very end of the 1950s, when the Beeching cuts closed miles of rural lines, the firm's coal arrived by rail, in large loads. It then had to be shovelled into one-cwt sacks.
After Martham station closed, Lown's moved its base to Hall Road, using land that had housed its piggery and market garden site.
With the railway gone, fuel came by road. The company used private hauliers, and also bought a couple of bulk-tippers - most days travelling to the coal pits of Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire to buy supplies.
Business was healthy. The area served stretched north from Martham to Mundesley, then down past Norwich to Belton.
Martham villagers would often see four or five articulated lorries, full of coal, parked by The Green at 7am and waiting to drop off their loads. Some would have driven through the night from Wales.
At times, Lown's offered more than 15 different types of fuel, ran a fleet of 10 lorries and had a workforce of 14.
Susan remembers that on Saturdays, when the firm's lorries were not being used for coal, they would pick up market gardeners and their produce and take them to Great Yarmouth marketplace.
She also recalls how, at the end of working days, her dad would cash up and sort the money the firm had taken. His children would help.
"He could add up just like that. The workmen used to have a book that had the customers' names in and how much they paid. He could run his finger down and add up the numbers as he went. He could do that fast."
The money went in the nightsafe at the village branch of Barclays Bank.
Life was fun. The family used to share a car with the folk next-door. They'd have it one weekend and the neighbours the next.
Sandra remembers them piling in for trips out: no seat-belts put on that she can recall, and some of the children must have sat on brothers' or sisters' laps. "Wouldn't do that now, would you!"
There are also memories of a break at Butlin's in Skegness in the 1960s, with family friends, and caravan holidays in Cornwall (unforgettable because of the knickerbocker glories they enjoyed).
Grandson Terry's right in saying that John was laid-back and slow to anger, they confirm - though there are some stories of being shut in the dark in the cupboard under the stairs for a while if they did anything wrong!
In 1977, at the age of 47, John underwent successful major surgery after being found to have cancer of the gut.
At the coalyard, business was good. To meet growing demand, JD Lown brought in new lifting and bagging machinery.
It began supplying pre-packed fuels, charcoal and related items to shops and petrol stations in the early 1980s. It also developed a haulage operation.
There was heartbreak in 1987, when Rene died soon after the last of her grandchildren was born. (Altogether, there's Terry, Gavin, Andrew, Matthew, Rebecca, Bobby, Duncan and Rachel.)
The family remember how, over the years, children and/or grandchildren would be treated to outings: Great Yarmouth's Venetian Waterways, then Merrivale Model Village, in the summer; Norwich Theatre Royal's pantomime at Christmas.
Something else that sticks in the mind is the way John taught grandchildren the "true use" of an elastic band: to make mini-catapults - ideal for flicking small bits of paper at other people, particularly after family meals at Christmas…
Kind, gentle man
Phyllis had known John "ever since I can remember". She'd been widowed for a decade or so, after her husband died at 48.
One day she bumped into John. "I said 'You should come for coffee.' He kept coming, so I thought I might as well marry him!" she laughs. "He was a very kind, gentle man."
They married about 30 years ago and lived initially at Ormesby before moving to Martham 14 or 15 years ago. That Ormesby bungalow, by the way, they'd called Coalville…
Grandson Terry remembers John saying often that to be lucky enough to have one exceptional wife was special, but he's had two.
His granddad, he says, also treated the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren on Phyllis's side "just as his own".
End of two eras
In 1990 the company marked its centenary with an open day. Shire horses and a dray from supplier Coalite took people on tours of the village and a man from the National Coal Board presented the firm with a miner's lamp to commemorate 100 years of trading.
With retirement approaching, John reduced his hours before stepping back after achieving his landmark 50 years of service.
The years that followed saw the demand for fossil fuels fall - customers moving towards easier and more environmentally-friendly options, such as heating oil. Finally, Lown's closed in May, 2004.
There's more to life than working, of course, and John did manage to squeeze in time for activities he held dear. Bowls was one.
He began playing on the green behind the King's Arms pub in Martham. Later, players built a new green and facilities virtually in his back garden, behind the Lown yard, for the Martham Hall Road Bowls Club.
It was a long-term passion. John was on Norfolk's bowls committee, and a secretary locally. He won the Secretaries' Cup; and tasted success at Great Yarmouth Festival of Bowls, and indoors at Newark in a trophy competition as part of the Norfolk side. He also won many cups with the Hall Road team, and was club president at one stage.
John was also a keen stock-car racing spectator, going down the road to watch at Yarmouth Stadium and to Foxhall Stadium outside Ipswich.
Meanwhile, John's garden was his pride and joy. He learned to "garden properly" as a youngster, where the school's plot supplied produce for the canteen.
In adulthood, his vegetable garden attracted regular glances of admiration. And then there was the Great Yarmouth & Gorleston In Bloom competition.
On my way out from seeing the family, Phyllis shows me a line of framed certificates hanging in the garage, against the white-painted brick wall - accolades for shining in the "best garden with water feature" category and so on.
There's a run of silver and silver gilt awards. "Never got a gold," she smiles, "but never mind. He loved his garden, and it always looked beautiful."
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