'He cared about people.' Tribute to former Horsham St Faith crematorium chief Douglas Smith
PUBLISHED: 13:02 19 January 2019
Copyright Archant Norfolk 2014
Douglas Smith was just 14 when he followed in his father's footsteps and started work at a crematorium. He proved himself a good listener in a challenging job - "sympathetic and understanding", says his son.
The Norfolk crematorium he later managed would witness the final farewells to many thousands of people during his 40-year spell in charge, but he never forgot that each one was unique and special. There were ceremonial occasions (for folk who had been in the police, fire department or military, for example) and goodbyes for famous faces (actors and politicians among them). In Douglas’s eyes, they all deserved the same dignity and professionalism. As did those with no-one to send them off.
“In fact, on numerous occasions, if there were no mourners, he would ask someone to attend and pay their respects,” says son Nick of his dad, who died just after Christmas.
Douglas Smith had definitely been the right man in the right place at the right time. As the superintendent of an increasingly-busy Norfolk crematorium, he was a supportive presence for many mourners.
“He was very kind, and very generous with his time. He had time for people and was a good listener – sympathetic and understanding. It was almost like a bedside manner. He cared about people.”
Douglas and his family had lived on-site, in the lodge at Horsham St Faith, and he worked “unbelievably long hours – almost 24/7”.
“If somebody came round in the evening, knocked on the back door and said ‘I’m ever so sorry; I’ve driven from Leicestershire and my car broke down. I’ve only just got here. Can you come and turn the Book of Remembrance over?’ he would do it. He was very obliging.
“The pages were turned over every day, to show the date. If somebody visited on June 15 and their mum’s name was in there under February 3, Dad would unlock the cabinet and open the book up at that date. There was that personal touch.”
Nick also says his dad had “the amazing ability to both recognise and remember people – and, more significantly, where their loved ones’ memorial roses or plaques were positioned.
“He got to know families. There would be ‘repeat visits’ over the years and he had a tremendous memory for names and faces. He would say ‘I’ve had a chat with Mr Brown… his wife is over on bed 17 and her sister is bed 23.’ I’ve always been impressed with that. It illustrates his depth of interest and ‘ownership’ of the place.”
Douglas also had a heart for those requiring help – and did something about it. For more than 40 years he chaired the trustees of the village fuel charity, giving money to the needy “long before the Government’s Winter Fuel Allowance was introduced!”
When he retired from that role in 2014, Douglas said: “I look at myself as a village boy, so I have always tried to help the parish people.”
Douglas Smith was a Suffolk lad, born in 1925 at Ilketshall St Lawrence, between Halesworth and Bungay.
Father Walter was the farm manager of a large estate, but lost his job after a change of ownership.
There’s never a good time to be out of work, but the late 1920s/early ’30s were particularly challenging, economically. For a time Walter ran the Royal Oak pub in Ilketshall St Lawrence. Then the family moved to Norwich, and it seems ran a boarding house on Unthank Road.
Walter worked in a shoe factory and as an electrician, and young Douglas went to school in Essex Street. When they moved to Horsham St Faith they bought the new bungalow in which the family still live. Douglas then went to school in Hellesdon – one of the pupils lent a bike by the authorities so he could get there.
“One of his memories was coming first in his class one year and being given a big tin of sweets. He shared them with everybody. It was the nature of the person,” says Nick.
The boarding house, though, was pivotal to Douglas’s future, for one of the paying guests was an architect responsible for crematoria built in Horsham St Faith and Cambridge in the 1930s.
Walter was offered the chance to help get things started in Norfolk at St Faiths. When he was subsequently offered the post as superintendent of the new crematorium at Cambridge, the family moved.
Douglas attended a boys’ school in the city, left at 14 and joined the Cambridge crematorium as an assistant – paid about 10 shillings a week.
Douglas later met Patience, who hailed from Oakington – north-west of Cambridge and close to the crematorium. Romance blossomed and they became man and wife in 1947.
(As it was the same year that the Queen married Prince Philip, the Smiths – married for 71 years – received congratulatory messages from the monarch on their diamond, 65th and 70th anniversaries.)
It wasn’t long before the directors of the crematorium at Horsham St Faith decided they needed a resident superintendent. Douglas got the job in 1950.
He stayed in digs (probably at Hainford) to start with, returning to Cambridgeshire when he had time off. In 1951 the couple were able to move into a brand-new lodge on the site. Daughter Stephanie and son Nick grew up there.
Their father’s role involved managing the crematorium and its staff, including a team of gardeners. “In those early years he brought to life the landscaping and laid out the rose gardens,” says Nick.
The years that followed brought many changes to the village (house-building and other developments) and improvements to the crematorium (known today as Norwich St Faith Crematorium).
Early photographs show the large frontage of the crematorium, the lodge, “and I think in the 1950s there was a cornfield beside it that was levelled and turned into rosebeds”.
Nick adds: “The importance of St Faith’s progressed in leaps and bounds over the years, from around two to three cremations a week at the outset to 60-plus at the time he retired (in 1990), with staff numbers more than quadrupling over that period.
“The annual Service of Remembrance at the crematorium, which ran for many years every September, attracted thousands of people to the village.”
Life was busy. “He used to have one Sunday off a month, and every other Saturday. So there would be some periods where he’d work 13 days on the trot.
“He took great pride and satisfaction in what he did, and he had the personality to be able to cope with mourners.
“It wasn’t just the initial contact but ongoing contact – he got to know families, and many funeral directors too”. Douglas “knew two, sometimes three or four, generations of some family businesses who shared and appreciated his gentle and appropriate good humour – a feature recognised by the many tributes received.”
There were opportunities to indulge his passions. “He loved his garden; he loved his vegetable patch. The lodge had its own private area.”
Douglas died between Christmas and New Year. He was 93. His family organised a celebration of his life at the parish church of Horsham St Faith, followed by a private cremation at St Faiths.
Donations in lieu of flowers were requested to be sent to Jerry March Funeral Services (28 Holt Road, Horsford, Norwich NR10 3DD) for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the East Anglian Air Ambulance – which reflected his altruism and love of nature.
“My dad’s heart was in the village, though he was born in Suffolk and grew up partly in Cambridge,” says Nick. “He settled in Norfolk and loved the place.”
A countryman through and through
Douglas Smith’s commitment to the Horsham St Faith area ran deep.
He was a parish councillor in the 1960s and 1970s, and more than once served as chairman. He was also chairman of governors of the primary school of St Faiths.
“Very community-minded, as is my mum,” says son Nick. “She was involved with Red Cross, meals on wheels, WI; you name it.”
Patience, now 92, also gave her time and skill to the Fuel Allotments Charity that strove to help people in Horsham and Newton St Faith avoid hardship. She was its secretary for many years, stepping down in 2010.
Douglas had joined the charity in the 1960s and chaired it from 1970 to 2010. He said in 2014 that it was traditionally older people who had asked for assistance, but the demographic had changed over the years.
Nick says of his father: “A long-standing member of the local church, he gave selflessly of his time to other people. He was very proud of his children’s achievements and also those of his five grandchildren; his interest in their varied careers undimmed over the years.
“A beloved father and grandfather, he was also a fondly-remembered uncle and great uncle to many children who always looked forward to visiting him – there were games, fun and fresh fruit from the garden.
“He spent many happy hours growing organic produce, and in his garden birds and wildlife flourished. He drew great strength in his latter months from watching them from his conservatory.
“He was a countryman through and through, and enjoyed the natural cycle of the seasons throughout his long life.”