Barker & Sons, Wells next the Sea

Norfolk Carrier: Memories of a Family Haulage Business: Barker & Sons, Wells next the Sea

Wilson, R G

Brian Barker and David Lowe, Norfolk Carrier: Memories of a Family Haulage Business: Barker & Sons, Wells next the Sea, David Lowe (2003), 96 pp., £7.50.

This little book provides a lively account of a small rural haulage business in the eighty years after the First World War. Like most of them, it had the most inconspicuous beginnings as a taxi firm founded by Leslie Barker, a one-time member of the Royal Flying Corps, in 1921. He supplemented his earnings from this source by supplying the locality with logs sawn from tree trimmings on the famous Holkham estate. Expansion was very limited, especially in that its base, Wells next the Sea, enjoyed only half the territory which a motor transport business might rely upon, since it faced the big North Sea arc of the north Norfolk coast. In fact, its natural focus was Norwich, the East Anglian regional capital, thirty-two miles away. By 1940 the firm still only employed two lorries, one of which came to be requisitioned during the war.

Modest prosperity was first enjoyed by the tiny business in the 1950s. The account of the general carrying trade the firm was involved in during the next twenty years is delightfully recounted, often with long quotations from Brian Barker’s lively reminiscences. The keystone of its success was reliability in the delivery of an incredible variety of goods from Norwich to the villages and small towns of north Norfolk. It evokes a lost world with great affection, stressing the diversity of the manufacturing and service trades of Norwich, and recalls the era before the village shop collapsed and the small-scale industries of England’s country towns contracted.

Licensing restrictions imposed by the tight regulations of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, curtailed expansion. By the late 1960s the firm was at a cross-roads. The general carrying trade withered as profound changes occurred in the distribution of goods and services in the countryside. The only avenue for expansion, with the deregulation of licence restrictions following the act of 1968, was to move into the long-distance haulage business. With nine lorries, this seemed to have been successfully achieved until a serious three-months-long strike engulfed the firm in 1970-71. Its long-distance transport side contracted, and was replaced by a warehousing and storage business on a nearby Second World War airfield, and by the distribution of imported fertiliser and feedstuffs which gave rise to a brief shipping boom in Wells during the 1980s. Again prosperity was transient. In 2000 the firm closed.

Norfolk Carrier is an unusual account of a neglected aspect of transport history. Its strength is its evocative recreation of the complexities of distribution in rural areas in the twenty years after 1945. Lacking any financial dimension, or even much on the lives of its owners and employees, it nevertheless possesses both an immediacy and an insight which much academic writing on transport in the period fails to capture.

R. G. Wilson, University of East Anglia

Copyright Manchester University Press Sep 2005

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