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Regent Road, the home of gentry and the French consulate

PUBLISHED: 15:57 14 November 2013 | UPDATED: 15:57 14 November 2013

GETTING POPULAR: the pier end of Regent Road in the Twenties when tramlines ran along it. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

GETTING POPULAR: the pier end of Regent Road in the Twenties when tramlines ran along it. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Archant

Once, long ago, it was one of Yarmouth’s most elegant roads, the home of gentry. Indeed, the French Consulate was among its properties, a indication of its prestige.

One house was occupied by two doctors in succession before Richard Hammond moved in, a man whose wealth allowed him to be benevolent to local institutions when he died: in his will he left legacies to Yarmouth Hospital and the Priory Schools (£50 each) plus 19 guineas each to five other schools and the Sailors’ Home.

Older readers will be aware that the apparently odd bequest of 19 guineas is one shilling (5p) short of £20.

At number 13 resided Edward Steele, “highly esteemed in Yarmouth society,” born in Barbados and an officer in the East Norfolk Regiment of Militia. Number 20 was the home of Sir Thomas Branthwayt Beevor, according to the diligent fact-finding of historian Chrles Palmer in his Perlustration of Great Yarmouth published in 1872.

As for that French Consulate, Aubin Desfougerais was given the vice-consular appointment for the port in 1861 by Emperor Napoleon III “and was the first Frenchman who ever held office in Yarmouth.” He was recalled to France a decade later.

On one side of this road was a free church and school – and the Roman Catholic Church built with funds raised principally by a Spanish priest, Don Claudio Lopez, who had once made the misjudgement to have been “attached to the cause of Don Carlos, the unsuccessful claimant to the Spanish throne.”

Palmer reports: “After enduring great privations he was appointed to Yarmouth where he laboured very zealously.” On returning to Spain, he became a canon of Seville Cathedral but in 1866, intending to journey to Lozola to pass time in retreat, he was in the act of taking his railway ticket at Burgos “when he fell to the ground and, in a few minutes, expired.”

Of course, the Catholic Church being in this Yarmouth road immediately identifies it as Regent Road, once Old Mill Road, then connecting the Regent Hall theatre to the Britannia Pier. Even in my postwar youth, it had a certain elegance, but change was already on the way.

In the late Forties Vettesse’s ice-creams and hot chocolates were a magnet for the borough’s teenagers. Similarly attractive was Alfredo’s, modelled on American soda fountains we had seen only in Hollywood films, its clientele encompassing US servicemen from the Sculthorpe air base in West Norfolk and local girls eager to embrace their culture and bedazzled by their cars, generosity and spurious claims of Manhattan or Beverley Hills luxury homes...

Today, despite the newish Troll Cart pub at one end and one or two reminders of its past glory – like the baroque-style facade of the boarded-up Regent Cinema - Regent Road has few, if any, pretensions of grandeur or style. It is unashamedly down-market and has accurately judged its customers, although I must admit to being puzzled initially when in summer friends from Essex told me they were off to spend a day at the seaside, drawn to Yarmouth because the family all loved “Tat Row.”

Tat Row? They were surprised that I, Yarmouth born-and-bred, did not instantly recognise the description. Yes, it was Regent Road, it transpired.

Several times this summer Mrs Peggotty and I meandered along Regent Road among the holidaymaking and day-tripping throng, and have lingered over coffee in the sun outside Wright’s Restaurant, a survivor from 1948. Few of the postwar traders, or even those from the Sixties, are still in business. Name changes are regular.

Another notable exception is Pownall’s fishing tackle depot, still happily trading. For older Yarmouthians fed up with the prospect of Christmas television soon, I suggest a little competition to pass a happy (and, perhaps, argumentative) hour, compiling a list of long-gone Regent Road businesses. For starters, how about the mock-Tudor electricity board showrooms, piano-tuner St Quintin, Spalls fancy goods, Black Angus steak house, Savoy, baker Matthes, Doughty’s sports outfitter, Dene billiards saloon...

Time was when St John Motors had a swish showroom fronting what is now a pedestrianised street linking town centre and sea-front. Curry’s traded near a Fine Fare supermarket, as did shoe dealer Hilton and Stone-Dri rainwear (a discouraging reminder that summers are not always as wonderful as 2013’s was). It was hard to believe that the Regent Bowl ten-pin alley celebrates its golden anniversary this year.

So we watched the world pass by as we sipped our drinks, mildly amused by the waitress politely putting us right about our coffee order: apparently our long-standing practice of ordering Americanos with the hot milk separate was wrong because Americanos are black. We have ordered the same in England and abroad without waiter or barista being confused or correcting us.

We like the strength of the Americano with a dash of milk, not a milky latte. The customer is always right?

I was reminded of the now-defunct News of the World slogan, “All human life is here”, as we watched folk pass by us, thoroughly enjoying what Regent Road had to offer. Holiday dress for the long and the short and the tall was “anything goes”, comfortable rather than stylish, perhaps reserved for the seaside and banished to the wardrobe back home.

Despite the sun and heat, there were a few hoodied teenagers. Tattoos were abundant, although artificial ones were sold in the street.

The array of food available at many outlets had perhaps contributed to the chubbiness of some enjoying their stroll along Tat Row, many chomping as they ambled. I doubted if they were put off by the distasteful life-size dummy apparently being sick into a barrel outside a joke shop; it has been there for years and is probably much photographed despite its repulsiveness.

Visitors can hire invalid buggies locally, I am told, and this form of transport – whether owned or loaned – abounded; it was perhaps ironic that they were passing premises long-ago occupied by Wickens, the self-styled “baby-carriage shop.” Regent Road seemed a favourite spot for dog-walking although we saw none fouling, thank goodness.

Then, somewhat bizarrely, among the welter of casually-clad holidaymakers sampling the multiple holiday pleasures of Regent Road (aka Tat Row) stood a small knot of black-suited, black-tie men beside highly-polished limousines...outside the Catholic Church, in which a funeral service was taking place.

In the midst of life...

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