When July arrives, I always know that I will be volunteering myself for stewarding the Littleport 10k run which starts off and finishes at the Leisure Centre, writes Cathy Gibb. During one of my stewarding patches for the 2015 run, which happened to be the final stretch of the route on Camel Road, I encountered an enthusiastic spectator who asked if I had seen his brother Harry run past yet after describing him to me. He hadn’t made it to Camel Road at that point, so telling me that his name was Jake we got chatting. I realised then that I was speaking to none other than one of the Coleby brothers from the famous shop in Granby Street, so I just had to find out more!
By the way, Jake’s brother Harry at 69 is an experienced seasoned competitor and he finished the 10k race in a respectable time of 1 hour 2 minutes and 18 seconds. When I met up with them both again they certainly had plenty of fascinating stories to tell and showed me some brilliant tale-telling old family photos including one of their dad Sid in army uniform, and Jake as a cute young boy.
I wondered why brothers Jake and Harry decided not to follow in their parents’ footsteps and run the Coleby’s family business? Jake thought a moment then said; “It was because we witnessed at first hand the sacrifices and the hardship that our parents had gone through and I can tell you they would literally have to count every penny.” He continued; “Nowadays people say they are hard up, but they really don’t know the meaning of the word, never mind what it’s like to struggle. We were poor and we certainly didn’t have it easy either.”
“I remember when my father returning from the war in Belgium opened the front door and came in and I called out, ‘Who are you?’ and when he said he was my dad I said, “You are not my Dad”. And because his dad wasn’t around, it Jake Coleby with his parents when his dad came home for the last time on leave until the end of the war. 19was every Sunday night that “I used to bawl my eyes out because I knew my mum, who worked at the shirt factory would always take me to Grandmother Harley (and that is a story in itself) who brought me up for the rest of the week.
“In fact, I hadn’t seen my dad for 7 years, and being an only a child at the time – I didn’t know any better. My dad got demobbed and came home, and I vividly remember him saying that he had spent the last six years on the receiving end of everyone’s tether always telling him what he should or shouldn’t do. He certainly wasn’t going to put up with it anymore, so he decided to take the plunge and start up his own business and that’s how the Colebys shop came into being.”
The Colebys shop was the front room of the premises, and my dad Sid, ‘El Cyd’ as he was called from that well known Charlton Heston film yet my dad was more sensible than the character Heston played. Dad was trying to stop everyone killing one another by talking to them. You could say he was a bit ahead of his time,” said Jake.
“Dad started off as a barber and I remember how his customers threwa wobbly when he put his prices up from a shilling to one and sixpence. (5p to 7.5p) Then Jake continued; “Dad rented the property from a man called Major Crane, but he only called himself Major because he was in the Home Guard. Dad was an apprentice when he went to war, and we are talking about a grown man – that is how it was in those days. He was born in 1911 so you are looking at a 28 year-old. When he returned home he went back to Mr Dobson who ran the hairdressing business where he originally worked and told him that he was now going to work on his own. Mr Dobson got so angry as it meant that Dad would be in direct competition with him, especially being situated just round the corner. Dobson was old school in that he believed in the master/ servant relationship as they used to have in those days.”
The original name of the shop used to be A.S.G.Coleby and Son Hairdresser and Tobacconist with licence to sell tobacco, but he didn’t even have a board up to say what the shop was selling.
“I will tell you how hard it was! When Dad first set up in business he started by selling a few razor blades and he just couldn’t afford to buy the stock. Our parents didn’t have any money at all, but the branded razor blades in those days was Wilkinson Sword. Well my mother (Margaret) got on her bike and rode to Ely Market and she bought some Wilkinson Sword razor blades which she brought back and father sold at a ha’penny profit. That’s how it was in those days,” Jake emphasised.
‘Now on first visiting the building it was like being on the set of the period drama, The Forsyte Saga.’ “He had a 7 year-old young son and a year old baby boy and just come out of the armed forces. We were living at 24 Wisbech Road at the time until 1954. The building which is now called the Colebys went up for auction as the previous owner Major Crane had died, and I recall my dad telling us a story that he had gone to the bank to try and raise the money and he was given a certain amount which enabled him to bid for the premises. Now on first visiting the building it was like being on the set of the period drama, The Forsyte Saga. It had 16 rooms, two staircases, a servants quarter, plus huge wooden doors with brass door knobs and there were even the old red quarry tiles which was quite the thing in those days. In 1948 dad bought 24 Wisbech Road for £250 and sold it for £800 in 1954.
The massive 16 roomed house we mentioned he paid £2,000 for and remember in those days people were earning roughly £7 a week. It left Dad short and my mother nearly had a nervous breakdown she was so worried about whether they would ever be able to pay that money back. Don’t forget in this neck of the woods our saying is ‘we cut our cloth accordingly’, where we only buy what we need and not what we want,” stated Harry who told me that the Colebys shop was very popular, not only selling fishing tackle when it was in season, but toys during the winter time. People weren’t well off in those days, so their mum set up a Christmas Club Book where customers would pay weekly amounts towards buying presents for their children at Christmas time. Harry also told how the family used to sit in the scullery and his father would place himself in the living room which looked into the shop and where the customers who lived off the land would come into the shop. They were so trustworthy that instead of coming out to serve them their dad allowed them to serve themselves and then put the money in the till, and they could even help themselves to change. That was how it was in those days.
In 1987 Sid and Margaret Coleby eventually retired, and the family business was finally sold to a prison officer from Norwich whose name escapes Jake, but who asked to trade under the Colebys name. Harry is a welder by trade and Jake is a mechanic, and neither of them have had any desire to move from their beloved Littleport. After all Jake, built his own bungalow in 1964, and with the help of his brother Harry dug all the footings out by hand with a spade, while Harry, gutted and refurbished his own home.
If you ever meet up with the brothers, you will find that they are the most knowledgeable people going when it comes to their beloved Fens. You can spend hours learning all about how the Fen accent cannot be copied because it has so many different accents in it. Then there is the often heard ‘Fen Tigers’ name for fenland people. This could have stemmed from when they were draining the Fens using what were usually termed drains and ditches that the Fen people called dykes – hence the workers were called Fen Dykers, who were so fierce in their opposition to the land drainage scheme, sabotaging all efforts, that the name got changed to Fen Tigers.
‘It was perhaps no coincidence that their Mother was into bikes because she happened to be one of the Harleys of Harley Davidson fame’ founded in 1975 is a successful speedway club but back in the day, the Coleby brothers were also part of a successful cycle cross scrambling team called the Fen Tigers and were unbeatable in their heyday. Both their parents were also keen cyclists with mum Margaret becoming the Fen Tigers club’s chair.
At the time the Colebys couldn’t afford a car and rode a tandem to get around. Jake even remembers being put into And Jake piped up; “Yes Sir. I had an ancestor hung in that” a side car so they could take him wherever they went. It was perhaps no coincidence that their Mother was into bikes because she happened to be one of the Harleys of Harley Davidson fame, Margaret Jane Harley in fact. Jake Coleby also explained that if his English teacher had any belief in his abilities and had encouraged him having passed six GCE O levels in English Language, English Literature, French, Latin, History and Maths, that he could have become a very good journalist, but was rather over qualified for the manual labouring jobs going in Littleport.
His history teacher Leon Kitchen who originated from the North of England announced that the pupils were going do an article on the Littleport and Ely riots and asked if anyone knew anything about them. And Jake piped up; “Yes Sir. I had an ancestor hung in that”. Teacher Kitchen said: “Did you really.” “Yes Sir I did”, replied Jake who to this day has never forgotten his teacher’s reply as he walked down the aisle of desks and put his hands on Jake’s shoulders and said” Oh I just touched a part of history”. Harry played football for Littleport Reserves as a defender, but suffereda leg injury off the field, falling off a ladder during work, that forced him to give up the game. He showed me pictures of his parents and one that particularly stood out was his father at the end of 1945 taken in Brussels when the war finished. His father was sent to Belgium to help clean up because of the devastation caused by the Nazis and there is a picture of a coffin of a Belgian resistance leader.
“I have only gone by what our father has told us that on May the 8th World War II stopped in an instant, but they were still fanatical Nazis and still fighting onwards. Apparently when the war finished this Belgian resistance fighter thought it was safe to surface because the war was done and the Nazis murdered him. And so they gave this man a proper military send off.”
Their father Sid Coleby was able to celebrate a special surprise 80th birthday party, but passed in 1994 on New Year’s Eve at the age of 84, while their mother Margaret lived for another six years and passed at the age of 86.
The Coleby brothers have so many tales to tell that it would have taken up all the pages of this magazine, but they are just one of the many whose families make up the history of this village and where so many more people now are coming to live and experience the pleasures of Littleport Life!
Colebys is currently still trading in Granby Street and has a strong internet presence. Plenty of goodies for pets and fishing enthusiasts! It is however up for sale. Phone: 01353 860419. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org