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The unlikely bond of a doomed Duchess and a school truancy officer in Great Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 18:34 15 October 2017 | UPDATED: 18:34 15 October 2017

Arthur Patterson was a prolific sketch artist, and an envelope or scrap of paper were often his

Arthur Patterson was a prolific sketch artist, and an envelope or scrap of paper were often his "canvas". Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION

PETER ALLARD COLLECTION

At first glance, so to speak, they would seem to be poles apart, and I do not know how they came to know one another because he lived here in Great Yarmouth while her home was 125 miles away.

Guarding the famous Gorleston whale: Arthur was its custodian when it was exhibited locally and on tour. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARYGuarding the famous Gorleston whale: Arthur was its custodian when it was exhibited locally and on tour. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Socially, they were at opposite ends of the spectrum: she was aristocracy, he was an ordinary, down-to-earth working man, albeit one with superlative and wide-ranging gifts.

But, however they met, they became firm friends who obviously respected one another’s abiding interest in nature and the great outdoors.

He was Arthur Patterson, a man of many talents but especially enthusiastic about his beloved Breydon Water, its wildlife and assorted characters, while earning a modest living doing all manner of jobs, including school attendance (truant) officer for two decades, custodian of the famous whale killed in our harbour and taken on tour nationally, salesman, postman, warehouseman...and long-term prolific Yarmouth Mercury columnist.

His friend was none other than Mary, Duchess of Bedford – yes, the so-called “Flying Duchess” featured in this column recently when I wrote about her De Havilland Moth aeroplane in which she was flying solo inexplicably plunging into the North Sea in 1937. The body of the 71-year-old duchess was never recovered although identifiable parts of her aircraft were washed up along our shoreline.

Patterson in later life, a photograph that could have been taken at Gorleston railway station. Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLEPatterson in later life, a photograph that could have been taken at Gorleston railway station. Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLE

Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Bradwell - another Breydon lover, devotee of Patterson and collector of his books - informs me: “The Duchess was very friendly with Arthur Patterson and he had on more than one occasion visited her at Woburn (Abbey, the family stately home).

“He designed her bookplates (decorative labels at the front of a book bearing the owner’s name) and regularly sent her some of his drawings. Also, she sponsored him for membership of an exclusive London society.”

One of the Patterson books in Peter’s collection is his 1907 work, Wildlife on a Norfolk Estuary, in which the author penned a preface: “To Her Grace Mary, Duchess of Bedford, this book is respectfully dedicated.”

Despite his success, wide-ranging interests and modesty, Arthur Patterson harboured one unfulfilled ambition, for he yearned for many years to be elected as an Associate of the Linnean Society of London, founded in 1788 and dedicated to the study and dissemination of information concerning natural history, evolution and taxonomy (the branch of science concerned with classification).

That ambition was finally to be realised in 1935, when he became one of the society’s exclusive.25 Associates.

According to his great-granddaughter Beryl Tooley’s 2004 book, Scribblings of a Yarmouth Naturalist, an edited selection from his prolific writings: “His name had been put forward by Her Grace the Duchess of Bedford 29 years earlier, in 1906.”

Sadly, Arthur Patterson’s long-awaited association with the distinguished Linnean Society of London was short-lived, for he died before the year was out, aged 78. Two years later, the Duchess was killed when her aircraft crashed.

Beryl Tooley told readers of her book that her great-grandfather’s love of the open air “began on an allotment garden (in Runham Vauxhall) a stone’s throw from Breydon Water.” He was born in the Rows, the youngest of eight children but the only one to survive.

“As soon as he was old enough, he slipped down to Breydon and mixed amongst the wildfowlers and poachers who made their living on the muddy waters,” she stated.

Educated at the Primitive Methodist Day School on Priory Plain, he loved writing and was thrilled when his letter about kingfishers was published in a national newspaper. Thereafter he penned prolifically, not only his Mercury features but books and articles, illustrating them with sketches often done on scraps of waste paper.

Patterson adopted two pen-names: John Knowlittle and Melinda Twaddles, this latter the byline on his gossipy humorous “notions” that entertained Mercury readers for years. He augmented the written word by giving lectures, but also worked in a variety of jobs to earn money to keep his family.

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