Published Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 42 (2021)
Richard Jemmett, always known as ‘Dick’, was born in Ilfracombe, North Devon, 17 months after his elder brother John. His parents had a greengrocers’ shop in the High Street, and an extensive nursery outside the town. His mother, Elsie, was a trained florist, often ordering flowers from Covent Garden for wreaths that she continued to prepare for many years after they retired from the shop. His nurseryman father, Arthur, tended the produce in the greenhouses.
Dick was educated at Ilfracombe Grammar School between 1933 and 1939, and on leaving school, he was articled to A.J. Westway, Engineer, Surveyor and Water Engineer to Ilfracombe Urban District Council. Completing his articles in 1942, he married his teenage sweetheart, Avice Phillpots (born 1923) who he had met at Grammar School, and they moved to Calne. There he qualified as a municipal engineer while Avice completed her training in Bristol as a primary school teacher.
By 1948 they had moved to Watford where daughter Claire was born, and from there the family moved around the country as Dick obtained increasingly senior positions with local councils. At various times, they lived at Grimsby, Wroughton (near Swindon) and Dorchester where initially the family lived in a flat in a grand old house, with bedroom windows that rattled when the trains on the nearby railway line passed by. In Dorchester, Dick designed a house which was built for the family situated immediately next to Max Gate where Thomas Hardy had lived. This was where Claire often enjoyed hearing Dick play a favourite piano piece while waiting for Avice to get ready to go out.
Another treat for Claire at this time was when she was allowed into Dick’s darkroom while he was developing and printing photographs. “The eeriness of the faint red light added to the mystery as each image was slowly and magically revealed by the gentle rocking of the developing solution”, she recalls.
Early in the 1960s the family moved again, to Wells in Somerset and then to Wellington, Telford. In 1969 Dick successfully applied for the position of Borough Engineer in Saffron Walden. In his application he listed his skills and experience under seven headings: Organisation and Administration; Planning and Development Control; Highways, Car Parks, etc.; Open Spaces and Recreation Grounds; Housing and Industrial Development; Sewerage and Sewage Disposal; Refuse Collection and Disposal, providing a detailed summary of his past responsibilities in each area. No wonder they gave him the job in Saffron Walden!
Dick started work in January 1970, and one of his first and most controversial tasks was to supervise the demolition of the fire-damaged facade of the Rose and Crown Hotel, which had been declared unsafe. His employment with the Corporation, however, only lasted four years, as the Corporation was abolished with Local Government re-organisation in 1974, and many of its powers and responsibilities were transferred to the newly create Uttlesford District Council, and Dick was offered and accepted early retirement., although he retained his interest in the infrastructure of the town, especially anything involving waterworks.
In Saffron Walden the family lived at 9 High Street, a narrow-fronted building with a brick facade that concealed its 14th century timber-framed structure – part of which had been incorporated into the building next door, originally a brewery, but then part of Raynham’s garage with its massive art deco showroom. Dick delighted in recounting how, when the garage was demolished, the workmen had great difficulty in cutting through the iron-hard timbers. Number 9 runs back from the road, and is a comfortable jumble of corridors, staircases, half-landings, alcoves and attics, which provided plenty of space for his beloved magazines and growing collection of photographs and slides.
Retirement enabled him to pursue his many interests. Avice had retired from teaching by this time but helped look after the retired clergymen at St Mark’s college near Audley End and joined local women’s groups.
Dick meanwhile belonged to the Camera Club, the Historical Society, the Museum Society, the Library Society, the Friends of Bridge End Gardens, and the local area Residents’ Association.
Dick played an active role in the Historical Society, as Treasurer from 1985 until 2013 and when he retired afte 28 years he was made an Honorary Vice-President of the Society. As treasurer, he kept most of the Society’s financial records in a tiny notebook, which he would refer to during committee meetings, and in the early days, he made notices for meetings by hand and wrote subscription receipts, often using his skill in calligraphy. He then delivered them by hand to members.
In 1984 the Historical Society played a major part in promoting a special Essex History Day held in Saffron Walden. Dick was one of a small sub- committee that took responsibility for arranging a ‘history fair’ in the Town Hall as the main attraction of the day. Over 3,000 people attended the History Day, most of them going to the History Fair, which was packed throughout the day. Dick also made a photographic record of the Fair.
Dick also helped with the production of the first series of Saffron Walden History, preparing precise drawings for use as cover designs, while in more recent years his photographs have been used in the ‘Saffron Walden Historical Journal’. He also frequently contributed photographs to ‘Essex Countryside’ magazine in its heyday, and some of his photos were selected for two books of photographs published by the magazine. He was interested in the minutiae of everyday life – researching odd objects that had been left behind by history, such as parish and telegraph boundary markers, but the only article he wrote (as opposed to illustrated) for Saffron Walden History Journal was in 1981 – entitled “A Wall-Builder’s Joke”, about a flat iron inserted into an old brick wall.
Photography was his main hobby, and he saw his retirement as an opportunity to take hundreds of photographs while he and Avice explored different areas of the country on holiday, usually sporting a jacket with large pockets to accommodate various cameras and lenses. Sadly Avice died in 2004.
Dick was a member of the local Camera Club from the time it was restarted in the early 80s. In the days of film he used quite basic camera equipment to good effect, keeping up a steady stream of entries to club competitions. He gave several fascinating talks to both History Society and Camera Club members over the years, based on his enormous collection of prints and slides of the town, and the History Society relied on his rather elderly projector which he would trundle up the High Street to the Quaker Meeting House in his shopping trolley, both for his own talks and for visiting lecturers.
He joined Royal Photographic Society in 1982 and gained his Licentiate the same year, becoming a member of the Historical, Archaeological and Heritage, and Visual Art special interest groups of the Society.
Although he didn’t have a computer, Dick embraced digital photography, and was the only camera club member who printed directly from his camera without use of processing software. Fellow-member Dominic Davey remembers that:
At studio portrait sessions he would wait for quiet moments to take his pictures without benefit of flash, unphased by the wealth of camera technology used by other members. Dick’s last Camera Club competition entries were in 2014 and he won the Saffron Plate for the ‘Members Choice’.
A quiet, reserved and learned man, Dick’s archive of several thousand photographs and slides reflects his interests in photography, engineering, buildings and local history, recording many now lost buildings such as the Ashdon Road Convent, and changes in the local townscape, such as the felling of the horse chestnut trees in the churchyard. It was his dear wish that the local part of his archive should be conserved for others to enjoy after his death, so with the agreement and support of his daughter Claire, his collection is being sorted and transferred to the Gibson Library, where it will be a fitting tribute to his memory as someone who made Saffron Walden his home, and played a quiet but active part in its civic life.