A Nelson? Not on my cake compote?

CHRISTMAS cake, Christmas pudding (with or without traditional silver threepenny “joey”) and mince pies will be on offer in abundance in the next few days, but I am not a lover of their dried fruit content.

CHRISTMAS cake, Christmas pudding (with or without traditional silver threepenny “joey”) and mince pies will be on offer in abundance in the next few days, but I am not a lover of their dried fruit content. It is hard to say keep saying no, so a taste will be enough, just to keep in the Christmas spirit.

Rather in the manner of Alcoholics Anonymous, last year in this column I confessed unashamedly: “My name is Peggotty and I am a vanilla-slice-oholic.” I have a predilection for their flaky pastry, icing and cream (synthetic, not fresh), and the icing on the cake is when an inspired confectioner sprinkles coconut on top. Delicious!

I am fussy with cakes, and would choose only a small selection to place on my compote: vanilla slices, cream doughnuts those pastries resembling a cauliflower, the “leaves” made of green marzipan surrounding a cream centre. Yummy!

Certainly a Nelson would never find room on my cake compote. A Nelson? Never heard of it, some younger folk might say. Nor had I until 1990 when the topic was broached in this column and it was established that this traditional cake/sweetmeat was not necessarily a taste from the past but was still being produced in Great Yarmouth.

After their Porthole airing, I forgot all about them. But recently, Nelsons found their way back into a national newspaper feature in which readers ask a question and other readers answer it. The questioner recalled that a half-century ago, he remembered enjoying a Nelson Square after swimming lessons and would love to taste one again.

The cake was about three inches square and two inches thick, with a dark spongy texture that included dried fruit and spice, with a pastry top. And he asked if anyone could supply him with the recipe.

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Various answers had already been published when I chanced upon the subject on a day when a woman correspondent reported that those sold at NAAFIs (forces canteens) were considered the best among servicemen in the 1950s and 1960s. However, those contained stale cake, not bread, and gave excellent value at twopence (under a penny in today's decimal coinage) a slice.

That Wiltshire reader added that it was those servicemen who dubbed it “Nelson” because it contained one of everything, referring to the heroic admiral's physical deficiencies.

That theory is swiftly demolished by the fact that in my 1990 column 70-year-old Wilfred Bircham, of Nuffield Close, Gorleston, fondly remembered scoffing Nelsons in the 1920s and 1930s. Also, he said they were devised by Lord Nelson to use scraps of navy food and stop them being wasted.

Mr Bircham bought his Nelsons at the baker's shop of Watsons in Howard Street, Yarmouth, near St Stephen's Mission and roughly opposite its postwar bakery. He looked forward to that Saturday morning treat, the anticipated pleasure rising as he waited for them to come out of the oven, steaming hot.

A slice cost an old ha'penny, and the lads would retire to the so-called “hot wall” in Row 27 to eat them - the side of the bakery where the oven stood.

One of the many interesting stories in a recent Mercury featured Life and Works of a Grandfather, a book by Pauline Webber in which she examines the century-plus activities of Webber Engineering, a modest family business in Cobholm founded by her grandfather, Arthur, in 1889 but which closed seven years ago. It was one of the scores of small enterprises prolific decades ago but which have succumbed to down-turns and other economic conditions beyond their control.

Reading the Mercury report reminded me that in 1994 I devoted this column to Webber Engineering and in particular to two men who had been mainstays of its workforce for a total of 117 years and were still going strong. Suffolk wheelwright Arthur Webber moved to Yarmouth to work in 1880, bought an existing business nine years later, renamed it, and moved to Breydon Road from Steam Mill Lane in 1916.

Only ten years later, young Charles Mumford was hired...and was still working there full-time when I spoke to him no fewer than 67 years after he joined Webbers. His managing director was Lenny Hall who joined as an apprentice and had already been there for more than half a century!

In the first world war, Webber designed and produced lathes for making artillery shell cases and building compound engines (an early job for Charlie who was painting them); some were exported to Egypt and Ireland.

Lorries and wood drugs were crafted for the nearby timber firms of Jewson and Orfeur and Bellin. The firm designed, built and sold flour and grain mixers for today's equivalent of �3.50. Webber also had a garage, and in the 1930s Charlie worked on some of the first diesel engines in Yarmouth. A 1939-45 war assignment for Webber was producing landing barges in partnership with Southtown-based engineer Burrell. Also, Webber did much of the work on the Pleasure Beach monorail, and had maintained and repaired other complex machinery there.

It survived wartime German bombing and the 1953 East Coast floods. At one time the workforce numbered 50 but had declined to 12 when I interviewed Charlie and Lenny in 1994.

We will all have to beg to differ over the correct way to write the name of that long-gone Yarmouth railway terminus: Southtown or South Town. The probable last word comes from a long-serving railwayman, Jack Stowers, an 84-year-old Yarmouthian now living in retirement in Lowestoft.

He was positive: “The station was always one word - Southtown!

“Correspondence I used to receive called it Southtown, and at one time a wooden platform bench seat with Yarmouth Southtown on the back was in the big railway museum in York.”

Another York exhibit was the signal box from the Fleet Junction at Haddiscoe, added Mr Stowers.