During my regular, pre-recycling bin collection day, ‘filletting’ session of the newspapers of the week just gone, I came across a short article about St Clare House, in Greyfriars, Ipswich. Now that the Inland Revenue has departed at the beginning of April, the building is up for sale. The agents state that ‘it is an exciting opportunity for someone to breathe new life into what is a prominent building in an important area of Ipswich’. It is also suggested that the first three floors could retain some commercial purposes.
During the middle 1960s my route home from school would often be changed so that I could watch how the construction of the spiral underground car park next to the New Wolsey Theatre and, importantly, also how the Greyfriars development were progressing. I recall looking at a model of Greyfriars in an on-site marquee prior to construction and thinking how impressive it looked.
Fast forward to 1967. After a year of working in my first job with the Inland Revenue in no. 39 Princes Street, the office was moved, lock stock and barrel, to St Clare House. We were excited by the move, not only was my tax district Ipswich 1 accommodated in floors four and five, but a new district, Ipswich 3 was now occupying floors two and three. The Schedule D section where I worked, together with the tax inspectors, occupied half of floor five, the other side of the corridor was the collector of taxes. Finally, the newly created Land Commission occupied floors six to eight.
The idea of a mezzanine floor was intriguing to us and this was where the lifts commenced. There was a travellator arrangement for accessing the mezzanine from street level, but this seldom worked. It became usual to use the crowded lifts to work; the stairs would have taken a long time to climb up!!.Exiting the building at the end of the day at the mezzanine level, one had the impression of the brave new architectural world first described in the 1930s. The vision had become reality.
The building was not without its interesting idiosyncrasies. There was no air-conditioning so, if the temperature rose, then windows had to be opened which led to papers/documents becoming airborne and swirling around! There were acres of glass, so even a weak winter sun caused the office temperature to rise. Windows were cleaned on the outside by men in a ‘cradle’.The result was often smeared glass and regular complaints to the cleaning contractors. The staff restaurant (beloved by us when working overtime – by buying a meal we could claim a late duty allowance as well as expenses for the food) was on the first floor. The disadvantage was that the smell of cooking (usually fried food) wafted upwards through the building. During the day there was a trolley service for teas and coffees; it was not unusual for some staff to wind up the tea ladies by complaining if they were late, even if they were not.
The best feature, however, was the unrivalled view the office gave over Ipswich. From my window seat I could see clearly the house on Stoke Hill and the railway station, together with the railway yards in the Commercial Road area. At dusk, flocks of birds flew across the sky on their way to roost. I always remember our old filing clerk, Steve, standing by the windows every night and remarking how wonderful this sight was – a sentiment not shared by section head Mike who was trying to work.
The best feature, however, was at the end of the corridor by the lifts: large plate glass windows gave uninterrupted views of the Ipswich Town Football Club ground, because on the Portman Road side of the ground the stand for spectators was low in height. This was excellent as most overtime took place from Monday to Thursday. Tuesday, then as now, was the night for Ipswich Town home games. There was on these nights, first a trickle, then a flood of staff watching football. This continued for a long while, until one Tuesday when the District Inspector, Mr Mason, came back and unexpectedly caught everybody out. The cheering was probably a giveaway. Strict rules were then made to prevent a re-occurrence.
My time at St Clare House finished when I left in June 1969 to go to a job at County Hall. Despite passing an examination for promotion, I was unable to accept what was offered. I opted for another government department, but nothing materialised. My career had suddenly become too taxing.
Then on the last day came one of those memorable career moments. One of the tax inspectors, Mr McGregor, saw me and wished me well. Then he told me that I should have taken the promotion offered as ‘there was a difference between bread-and-butter money and bread-and- marge money’.
He then said: ‘I expect you will be earning a lot less money than if you had become a Tax Officer’. Then came my first ever quick-as-a-flash moment – I was normally quiet and shy – ‘On the contrary,’ I said, ‘I shall be earning more’. His face dropped down from the fifth to the first floor. Priceless.
I swapped a modern building for a historic building with a courthouse where Mrs Simpson obtained her divorce. It was the beginning of a twenty-two year local government career.
The time in St Clare House was enjoyable as it was an optimistic period of great change, utilising ‘the white heat of technology’ when national computer centres were also planned. It was the first office I worked in which had such a tremendous view; the worst was at Romford in the late 80s; our conference rooms were right next door to the Liverpool Street main line.
I am sad to know that changes are being proposed, but hopefully a new compatible use will be found so that the building does not disappear from the Ipswich skyline. No doubt similar changes may occur with the office buildings in Civic Drive; the unavoidable consequence of changes forced on working lives by the pandemic.
Photograph: St Clare House in 1968. Photograph courtesy Paul Smith (Ipswich Historic Lettering website).