Former James Graven & Sons employee, Joan, 96, recalls her time at the Ely firm in the 1930s

These signs in Ely prompted 96-year-old Joan Awbery to take a trip down memory lane - to the time wh

These signs in Ely prompted 96-year-old Joan Awbery to take a trip down memory lane - to the time when she worked for James Graven & Sons in 1936. - Credit: Archant

A Norwich woman took a trip down memory lane on a recent trip to Ely – thanks to spotting an old sign.

Joan Awbery, 96, was visiting the city when a sign attached to a Broad Street building caught her eye – the sign advertising first ever employers, James Graven & Sons.

James Graven founded his agriculture engineering business in Ely in 1860 before going bankrupt nine years later.

However, the Gravens returned to business, manufacturing steam tractors - and it was during this time that Joan worked there as a shorthand typist, aged just 15-and-a-half in 1936.

“I started my first job there after training at the Cambridge Tec,” she said.


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“The Gravens, at that time, were still involved in the age of steam. Mr Charles – and always known and addressed as such – was the son of founder, James, and now owner of the business.

“His second-in-command was his son, always addressed as Master Tom.

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“I operated the heavy ancient typewriter and answered the telephone fixed high up on the wall in Mr Charles’ office and had my lunch at Vernon Cross’ Restaurant on Fore Hill. It cost me 1s 6d a day.”

After a pre-war meeting with Henry Ford, James Graven had ventured into the motor vehicle industry for a brief spell, selling cars alongside steam machines at the business’ Broad Street base.

“Steam engines and parts of engines filled the workshop and yard in various stages of repair and renovation,” Joan said. “My memory – a bit hazy – recalls that a Ford ‘8’ could be bought for £100.”

But – like many business during the 1940s – the Gravens’ attentions were turned towards war production, and Joan’s time in Ely was cut short.

“After five years there and two years into the war, women were about to be mobilised for war work,” she said.

“I volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, so I led a completely different way of life for the remainder of the war years.”

After the war, Ernest Doe took over the tractor and agricultural engineering side of the business and in recent years, James Graven has been specialising in locally-produced food and runs shops in partnership with M&S, BP and Spar.

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