Hart of the Matter
Anyone writing or filming a social history of Britain could do a lot worse than focus their attention on little old Haverhill.
Most of the great social changes have been reflected here – from the days when the market dragged the old town from the area around the so-called St Botolph’s Church to the main thoroughfare and its current town centre, back in the 1200s.
Since then we have seen the wool trade boom, the Great Fire, farming decline and riots, the coming of the textile factory, Victorian affluence and an explosion of building, early 20th century isolation and decline, 60s overspill and manufacturing growth, post-Thatcher depression and 21st century technological revival. Not a bad list to begin with.
Rather like geological eras, these waves of change have all left their marks in the landscape, and even the consciousness of the town’s inhabitants. As each recedes it leaves a skeleton behind which is slowly worn away like the erosion of a stone circle, until it settles in the grass.
And that, in rather more mundane and distressing terms, I am afraid, is what is happening to that bastion of recent Haverhill history, HMP.
If you think I mean the prison up the road, then you have not lived here very long. Forty years ago those three letters represented not just a livelihood but an entire social world to a large percentage of Haverhill’s inhabitants.
They stood for Haverhill Meat Products, a huge factory situated in the otherwise almost invisible village of Little Wratting, and within easy cycling, or even walking, distance of the rapidly expanding town whose name it bore.
As nearly as possible HMP had taken the place of the old ‘factory’, by which people a generation earlier would have meant Gurteens, because almost everyone had been employed there for their working life.
As the factory declined from its Victorian heyday of total dominance, and agriculture - the town’s other main employer - struggled with an ongoing depression, post-war civic leaders looked to the London overspill expansion, and the employers who would be required to make it economically viable.
By the merest stroke of good fortune, Haverhill already had an unlikely link with another rapidly-expanding London organisation – J. Sainsbury. Blunts Hall Farm at Little Wratting was owned by the family business, in a pioneering and, from a modern viewpoint, prophetic system for supplying its shops with its own meat.
The rest, as they say, is history, and, although many large employers were attracted to Haverhill’s industrial estate, none was anything like the size of HMP.
It became not just a place of work, but a massive centre of social interaction, with a well-resourced social club and sports fields. It bore the same relation to sport locally that India does now to world cricket, almost complete dominance through economic superiority.
If you have the largest pool of players to draw from, it stands to reason that, if the facilities are there, you will often have the best teams.
But HMP was also a microcosm of Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Like the huge car plants, steel plants, mines and mills, it had a large and powerful unionised workforce.
As Britain entered a period of confrontation between Government and unions, so HMP reflected the national climate with its lightning strikes, its working to rule and its defensive and secretive attempts to avoid any publicity.
When I first started working as a journalist in Haverhill, my old boss Jim Healey had become so unpopular at HMP, through his attempts to report disputes, that he used to try to disguise his very distinctive voice when he rang them up.
Needless to say, he failed completely and receptionists would just answer drily: “It’s you again, Mr Healey, is it?” and he would be left mystified. His next tactic was to get me or one of the other junior reporters to ring up for him, try to get through to a manager and then pass the phone over to him.
I tell this story because I am sure this was a situation which could have been found all over Britain during the 1970s, where an employer had a dominant, and therefore crucial, role within a community.
What happened next is familiar ground. Slowly the power of trade unions was reduced, by compromise or confrontation, and slowly employers began to make bigger and bigger savings on their labour force. Increasing globalisation then led to one of two outcomes – the work went abroad, or people from abroad came here to do it.
The former has been the case with most of Haverhill’s industrial companies, including Gurteens, but the meat factory, because, I suppose, of the limited life of the product, took the latter route.
Meanwhile, the town’s current business vitality has no greater testament than that the sad reductions at the meat factory have not thrown the local economy into the sort of massive recession which would have been envisaged if it had happened two decades ago.
Soon, it seems, there will be a mere 200 workers or so on the Little Wratting site. However serious the current owners are about its future, it surely cannot require the huge footprint it currently occupies, so presumably, the erosion process will now begin in earnest.