A word or two about Southtown...

During 2010 this column has enjoyed several perambulations around Southtown and Cobholm while examining various aspects of the neighbourhood, including the vexed question of whether Southtown and the long-gone railway terminus that bore its name should be one word or two.

Today we are back on Southtown Road, figuratively speaking, my interest generated by a staunch friend of this column, nonagenarian Mrs Cecilia Ebbage, of Lovewell Road, Gorleston,. She wrote to me about renowned artist John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), a famed water-colourist and etcher who was a member of the influential Norwich School and lived on Southtown Road in the 19th century from 1812 to 1823.

“Vaguely, I remember that one of the plain terraced houses in Southtown Road, between Station Road and Albany or Anson Roads, had a plaque or brick insertion on the wall saying he had lived there,” she writes. “I was being taken to Yarmouth one evening recently and, as we got past Anson Road, my friend said: ‘Cotman lived along here’.

“As we drove on a few yards (he couldn’t pull up because of traffic) he pointed to a house set back, to the south of where a typewriter and office equipment company used to be. As far as I could see, it had an unusual bracketed porch, I believe painted pink/blue, but it was dark so I may be wrong.”

Her friend added that two sisters named McBeth/Macbeth had also lived there. Says Mrs Ebbage: “When I was going to work on the bus in the Sixties, I could see the upstairs window open, with canvases laid out from the windowsill, obviously drying before painting, or perhaps it was watercolour paper, to stretch and dry it.”

I was certain there was a Cotman plaque on a property roughly between Tollgate Road and the former drill hall, but every time I passed by bus, I failed to spot it. But recently, when the autumn leaves fell, I did glimpse it through sycamore boughs.

Also, I thought I could recall it being placed on the white frontage in the Seventies or Eighties...but it has been there since 1935!

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That commemorative plaque is not blue, like our Local History and Archaeological Society awards, but is brown, the colour of a metal etching plate to acknowledge Cotman’s skill as an etcher.

The current owner of the Georgian house, Aaron Liddiment, a 44-year-old survey engineer who works mainly abroad, informs me that he bought the grade two listed building in 1989 “because of the Cotman connection”. His family background engendered that appreciation of John Sell Cotman, for Mr Liddiment’s parents both studied at art college and his father was an art lecturer. But, confesses Aaron Liddiment, “I am the only non-artistic one in the family.”

Trying to restore the house (built between 1792 and 1802) while retaining its original character is, he acknowledges, slow and painstaking, particularly is he often working away from home for long periods, and also must rigidly adhere to the official rules about listed properties.

Time and nature have not been kind to the former Cotman residence, and the previous owners, the Philpots, “were living here when the 1953 floods occurred and the hall was under water.”

The interior doors are original but have been stripped for renovation. Some other original features have survived, including “hooks under the stairs from which they used to hang fish!” That, of course, was many a decade before air fresheners were invented...

Mr Liddiment has a 1937 book about Cotman written by Sydney D Kitson, an acknowledged art expert who campaigned for the heritage of the Southtown house to be acknowledged by having official listing status bestowed upon it. Occasionally he does have people call at his home because of the Cotman connection.

As for the tree that screens the plaque, Mr Liddiment likes its presence because it affords some privacy and also reduces the constant noise of heavy traffic along Southtown Road; but intends to cut it back.

Cotman, Norwich-born, went to London at 16, hand-colouring prints for a book publisher but left to work with a patron who fostered his talents.

In 1806, he returned to Norwich and joined the Norwich Society of Artists before moving to Yarmouth where the patronage of local antiquarian Dawson Turner enabled him to make three visits to France to produce a magnificent book of etchings. Cotman became professor of drawing at King’s College, London, where he remained until his death.

His sons, Miles and John, were also skilled artists and members of the Norwich School.

That should have resolved for Mrs Ebbage the mystery of the location of the Cotman house and plaque, although they were number 83, opposite the ex-Palgrave Brown quayside timber yard that is now an open storage area. But it does not clear up where the McBeth/Macbeth sisters lived.

The Eastern Counties Typewriter Company and electrical contractor Bowers and Barr once occupied 32 Southtown Road, a long way from the Cotman residence and five doors from Lichfield House that used to house the Ministries of Pensions, National Insurance, Labour and National Service, succeeded by Norfolk Radio and then Mr T’s restaurant which was badly fire-damaged and demolished; a new block of 16 two-bedroom apartments there is about to be occupied. Mrs Ebbage was right that number 32 was once the home of Edward Keable, the local gas company manager.

The artistic McBeth/Macbeth sisters? My 1937 directory lists a Mrs Amelia McBeth as a “fancy draper” at 105 Anson Road off Southtown Road, although in my 1972 edition that is the address of shopkeeper George Bartram. In 1952 and 1957 the directories list a Mrs M Macbeth-Raeburn as living at 33 Southtown Road.

Puzzle solved? Perhaps not.

At the Southtown Road junction with Waveney Road is a former shop long-since converted into a house but at one time a “beer off” advertising ales – some with German-looking names, I recall – on its frontage.

As a little lad, seeing it from the bus during the war, I worried that a German spy lived there, facing the river used by Royal Navy vessels and telling Hitler about all their comings and goings.

Directories list two post-war owners as Arthur Muffett (1952) and George Applegate (1961), but no wartime directories were published. So I retain a lingering doubt seven decades on that something subversive had gone unnoticed by the authorities throughout the war...