A voice that was always instantly recognisable
DESPITE wireless sets oscillating and crackling, and listeners twiddling the knob to try to tune them in properly during a broadcast, Great Yarmouthians of my generation and older would seldom mistake the voice of our own Helen Hill for another singer.
I was only a little lad at the time she was regularly featured on the BBC and my musical tastes were more populist and mainstream, but even if I caught her mid-song, had missed the pre-announcement and not consulted the Radio Times, I could identify her voice nine times out of 10.
Helen Hill was mentioned in this column last month when Mr W D Gee, from Felixstowe, sought more information about her, and I recalled hearing her radio broadcasts and said I had been told years ago that she was the daughter of either Salisbury Road butcher Arthur Hill or Gorleston High Street chemist Philip Hill, although both might be incorrect.
Yes, that is so: she was almost certainly a member of a well-known local family that ran the successful Hill’s Restaurant and bakery shop in King Street before and during the war (later Matthes and now a betting shop next to the Mercury office) and possibly Hill’s Marine View Hotel on the corner of North Drive and Euston Road.
When the King Street premises, with its spacious first-floor restaurant and tea rooms where live music was played to customers pre-war, were blitzed in 1941, the cafe moved above Montague Burton’s men’s outfitters at the south end of the Market Place, and I think was acquired by expanding Gorleston bakery Matthes before returning to its rebuilt former spot.
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Regular correspondent Cecilia Ebbage, of Lovewell Road, Gorleston, calls the pre-war King Street tea rooms “fantastic” and said that “if you had a boyfriend he might take you to tea upstairs in one of the alcoves in the restaurant, if you were lucky”.
In 1938 major local businessmen held an emergency meeting there to decide what would happen if war started. “I was working for the gas company and went there to take notes but it was not very good because sometimes everyone was speaking at once.”
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She continues: “Helen Hill had the loveliest soprano voice, so much so that she was taken by the BBC and broadcast ballads and arias. I used to look in the Radio Times to see when she might be singing.”
She believes Helen attended the Edward Worlledge School.
Her brother, Frank Hill, at one time a resident of Warren Lane between Gorleston and Hopton, was the subject of a column nearly a decade ago because he was a daredevil pilot who first came to my attention before the war when my mother called me urgently into our Gorleston garden to see a light aircraft flying past, towing a banner exhorting folk to “Eat Bile Beans”.
It transpired that the pilot was Frank Hill; Bile Beans were a popular health product through most of the 20th century.
That feature led to me being furnished with details about his adventurous career which included flying under a Thames bridge, participating in the Spanish civil war and a conflict in cruelly-cold Finland which was battling mighty Russia in 1941 with the help of mercenaries, being jailed there after he was found trying to escape by boat, and wanting to get to China to volunteer his services but being assured it was an impossibility.
Mrs Ebbage, now aged 94, says in her latest letter: “He had been a flying ace in the first world war after which he went to work for De Havilland Aircraft but unfortunately lost a leg owing to an accident.”
However, 82-year-old Ernie Ives, of El Alamein Way, Bradwell, suggests that Helen Hill’s family might have run a bakery in Beach Road, Gorleston, near NAAFI (forces catering) premises, and possibly a double-fronted outlet in the parade of shops, cafes and ice-cream parlours on the Lower Promenade more or less opposite the yacht pond.
If the Hill family was in the holiday and catering business, it is possible it had a those places in Gorleston.
Now, back to Mrs Ebbage, commenting on my recent photograph of members of the undertaking Jary family enjoying high jinks on Scroby Sands 80 years ago. Her mother-in-law was a Jary, a cousin to Leonard, and she reckons “nearly every one of them” belonged to the local operatic and dramatic society.
“Kitty Jary once told me that the family were friends of Elsie and Doris Waters,” she writes. The two Cockney-style entertainers launched their career at Gorleston Pavilion prewar and became wartime favourites on radio as Cockney housewives Gert and Daisy; their brother was Jack Warner, another national treasure famous on radio and in the music hall but whose legacy is television’s PC George Dixon of Dock Green.
Mrs Ebbage thinks the Waters-Jary connection was a business one.
I leave it to the ever-reliable Caister-based local historian and author Colin Took to write the postscript to today’s column that neatly links everything. For in his 2007 book That’s Entertainment – Theatres and Cinemas of Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, he writes: “Variety continued at the [Gorleston] Pavilion, Elsie and Doris Waters – Gert and Daisy, as they were later known in their BBC radio shows – making their stage debut there in 1924. From 1928 until 1937 the Gorleston Gossips Concert Party, featuring local girl Helen Hill, provided the seasonal entertainment.
“Helen Hill, whose family ran a small restaurant close to the Pavilion, was a soprano who was later to make her name on BBC Radio.
Her first stage appearance had been at the Town Hall at the age of seven, and during a career of almost 50 years she made over 500 radio broadcasts and featured in two films as well as many stage appearances. Helen Hill married Frank Wilcock, the pianist with the Gossips, in 1928.”
When the Helen Hill question was raised here in January, I wrote that although she usually broadcast in more serious programmes, she occasionally stood in as the featured singer in the highly popular and long-running comedy series Much Minding in the Marsh, which was written by and starred Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne.
The only other information I can glean is that in July 1991 a singer named Helen Hill was a soloist in a concert by the Mansfield Choral Society in its home town.