How Harry Carter carved out a name for class entertainment

Two village signs - one for Anmer and one for Hingham - being made by Harry Carter of Swaffham in Ap

Two village signs - one for Anmer and one for Hingham - being made by Harry Carter of Swaffham in April 1957. Picture: Archant library - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper remembers the man behind Norfolk's much-loved carved wooden signs.

It's a clear sign of growing venerability when you're asked what you remember about a colourful Norfolk character born in 1907.

The fact this talented person tried in vain to teach you finer points of art and woodwork might easily render such regular inquiries both embarrassing and rather short on mutual affection.

The truth, however, is that I got on very well with Harry Carter despite our vastly different priorities during a seven-year spell when he continued to carve out so pleasant and distinctive an imprint on the face of Norfolk. I tried to make him laugh and forgive my artistic shortcomings.

Harry, a favourite master at Hamond's Grammar School in Swaffham for three decades, also left his mark on scores of local towns and villages with a series of signs instantly recognisable as his handiwork. Some were made as gifts and many others created for little or no cost.

The first such sign he designed and made is the famous one standing proudly at the entrance to Swaffham Market. It depicts the story of John Chapman, the pedlar reputed to have found great treasure as result of a dream. Harry gave it to the town in 1929.

Shortly after the 1953 Coronation, an approach was made to the Queen offering a sign for one of the villages on the Sandringham Estate. Her Majesty chose West Newton and the sign was carved at Hamond's with one boy elected from each form accompanying the gift when it was presented to the Queen in January, 1955.

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In exchange, the Sandringham agent arranged for a good supply of royal oak to be provided for the school's honours boards. He must have known I was on my way from the Norfolk heartlands a few months later…

My first impressions of Harry Carter as he arrived at Swaffham Railway Station to lead a crocodile of pupils from the Dereham train through town to the grammar school gates proved both accurate and durable.

He was different to the other teachers with his bow tie, flowing locks and flamboyant touches. He told colourful yarns, some with a saucy edge, and seemed prepared to accept some boys would never shine in his art and handicraft lessons.

My artistic prowess bordered on the non-existent and practical skills remain a mystery to this day. Woodwork at Hamond's for me consisted merely of getting through without injuring myself or colleagues with a chisel, saw or spokeshave. The only item I took home from Harry's sessions was a very wobbly stool containing much more plastic wood than the real thing. It gave up the ghost at first sitting in front of our kitchen fire.

For all my blatant shortcomings – and tendency to organise impromptu versions of the previous night's Sergeant Bilko episode on television during woodwork periods – Harry never singled me out for special chastisement. He was fairly generous to all in dishing out his favourite imposition when law and order broke down… 'Procrastination is the thief of time'.

Mr Carter's marking systems for art and woodwork exams were in a class of their own. I once received 23pc for an alleged drawing of a daffodil and 15pc for an abbreviated essay on different types of wood.

My treatise thundered: 'Wood comes from trees – and many of these are found in Canada'. Harry revealed that I collected 12pc of my marks for spelling my name neatly and correctly on top of the paper.

One of my fondest memories of Harry concerns a top-level decision before GCE O-level exams in the summer of 1960 to spare me the indignity of sitting any maths papers I was bound to fail in a very big way. For reasons I could not fathom, it was decided I should take 'Extra Art' instead.

I duly reported to Harry's emporium, next to the physics lab above the school gym, armed with a new-found zeal to make that daffodil come alive after all. Harry thought I might be more gainfully employed reading a few novels and brushing up on my 'William Spokeshave'. It worked a treat with excellent results in English – the subject I went on to take with History in the sixth form.

A cousin to Howard Carter, the famous Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of boy king Tutankhamun, Harry died in 1983. He left behind a treasured legacy of lovingly-carved signs – and a rich reputation for class entertainment.