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Politics resulted in riotous scenes

PUBLISHED: 13:54 02 October 2008 | UPDATED: 11:55 03 July 2010

GREAT Yarmouth became accustomed to unruly behaviour, running skirmishes and thuggish confrontation between rival factions when invading Mods and Rockers threatened the family holiday and day trip industry in the Sixties by running amok on the beach and Golden Mile as they clashed with one another.

GREAT Yarmouth became accustomed to unruly behaviour, running skirmishes and thuggish confrontation between rival factions when invading Mods and Rockers threatened the family holiday and day trip industry in the Sixties by running amok on the beach and Golden Mile as they clashed with one another.

But that was misguided youth becoming involved in a gang culture and had no sinister undertones, in sharp contrast to the events exactly three-quarters of a century ago when a combination of politics and parlous conditions resulted in events headlined in the Mercury in a type size probably bigger than it had ever used.

The front page carried five banks of headline to emphasise the gravity of the story reported beneath them: “Riotous street scenes; Unemployed demonstrators and police in conflict; 13 men arrested; Constable's leg broken; Bicycle thrown at Chief Constable.”

The location was outside the Town Hall and the “exciting and riotous scenes” resulted from the refusal of the public assistance committee meeting there to receive a deputation from the National Union of Unemployed Workers demanding a new scale of relief. The demonstrators had been warned by the Chief Constable that they would be banned from the Town Hall or holding any protest gathering outside it, and his stance was reinforced by a strong body of police.

The NUEW officials ignored the warning and heavy police presence, and determinedly sought to get into the building. “The result was that they came into conflict with the police and a series of wild scenes followed. At one time the outlook was very serious, a number of the men adopting a violent and threatening attitude,” according to a Mercury reporter.

“In the end some 13 men were arrested and on the following morning were taken before the bench and remanded on a charge of riotously assembling to disturb the public peace.”

The injured constable was PC Sharpe who was taken to hospital. The Chief Constable was unhurt by the thrown cycle. “Throughout, the police faced a difficult situation with great tact,” said the Mercury.

Eventually 12 accused were convicted at Norwich Assizes, five imprisoned for six months with hard labour for rioting, and seven jailed for nine months for rioting and assaulting police. At their trial there was reference to “instructions from Moscow” to stir trouble and cause strikes and unrest.

Times were hard for the jobless and their families, and there was a daily increase in the number of poor and hungry families applying to use the Gorleston soup kitchen that was serving 60 gallons a day. An unemployed centre on that side of the river was opened by the mayor.

In a bid to provide work for the married jobless, the borough council initiated a series of relief projects. Husbands were hired for four days a week to level the North Denes at a cost of £4500, lay out the Middleton Road housing estate and rebuild Sutton and Middle Roads. Soil removed from Middleton Road was used to extend Suffolk Road across Southtown Common.

Other significant political occurrences in Yarmouth in 1933 were two Labour leaders being summonsed for using “offensive and threatening language” during speeches at a Market Place rally; several hundred unemployed men causing the abandonment of the first public meeting of the British Union of Fascists; and the opening of a new Labour Party headquarters and club on South Quay resulting from a split among Socialists in the town.

As for the police strength, the Mercury told its readers that the borough force had one constable for every 767 residents. I wonder what the ratio is in 2008…

Seldom does a year pass without drama at sea off our coast, and 1933 was no exception. A major incident was the blaze that broke out on the steamer Porthcawl as she sailed past Yarmouth on passage from North Africa to Scotland laden with 4400 tons of esparto grass. Her crew could not contain it despite hosing millions of gallons of water into the seat of the conflagration, the heat was intense, and the master made for the shore and beached her between Yarmouth and Caister.

Lifeboats from both stations were launched, and burning esparto grass raining down on them hampered their mission to rescue the crew, but the evacuation was achieved without any casualties. The fierce heat prevented fire-fighting craft from getting close enough to the Porthcawl.

Crowds lined every vantage point to watch the excitement unfold, and at night it was a spectacular sight, particularly when explosions rocked the stricken vessel. Even when the fire had subsided, sightseers continued to inspect the hulk.

When the Banff drifter Olive was wrecked on Yarmouth South Beach near the harbour's mouth, her crew of ten was rescued by the breeches buoy rocket brigade. Although the drifter broke up, part of her boiler is possibly still near the site where she ran aground 75 years ago, although it might have been removed to facilitate work on the outer harbour.

There was a sad reminder of a maritime tragedy three decades earlier when astute port enthusiasts noticed that the steamer Birma in the harbour was none other than the renamed F E Webb that in 1903 sliced a small Yarmouth pleasure tripper in two, causing six fatalities.

The New Skylark was cruising in placid water in Yarmouth Roads a mile and a-half out when she was run down by the steamer looming through the heavy haze, and a happy summer's trip was transformed into a deadly nightmare within seconds. The steel bows “tore through her like so much brown paper”, said the Mercury.

Six lives were lost -the crew of three (James Sutton, Arthur Beckett and George Shreeve) and three passengers - but seven of the trippers were rescued. The tug Gleaner salvaged the stricken New Skylark and brought the wreckage into Yarmouth harbour.

A Ministry of Transport inquiry ruled that the Vauxhall Suspension Bridge was unsafe for vehicles of over one ton, and the council decided to replace it at a cost of £6350. A traffic island was built for £250 near Gorleston Parish Church - the first roundabout in the borough.

Gorleston postman Arthur Halfnight, 60, retired after 43 years' service and reckoned that on his rounds he had tramped a total of 276,000 miles equivalent to 11 times round the world.

For the subscribers who signed up to have the new Radio Relay service in their homes, the days of oscillating signals and poor reception were over…for 1s 6d (7½p) a week. The Yarmouth innovation was formally inaugurated at the company's offices on Hall Quay.

Failing sight caused the retirement of Charles Burgess, the Port and Haven Commissioners' pile-driver and diver, after long service without a single accident. For 55 years he drove piles, and for 35 years was also diving, being the chief man at both specialities when he had to give up work.

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