Corporation bus driver had the Peggotty knowledge

THE DAY JOB! Great Yarmouth Corporation bus driver Arthur Bishop (left) was the original Peggotty co

THE DAY JOB! Great Yarmouth Corporation bus driver Arthur Bishop (left) was the original Peggotty columnist in 1936. His conductor. L Wiskin, is on the right. The picture was taken at the Racecourse terminus in May 1935.Picture: MALCOLM FERROW COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

SOME viewers enjoy them, but I am no lover of television programmes in which expert genealogists trace someone’s long lost relatives, with the inevitable tear-jerker reunion.

HOME SWEET HOME: a re-creation of Peggotty's Hut made for a film in the 1970s. It was not on Yarmout

HOME SWEET HOME: a re-creation of Peggotty's Hut made for a film in the 1970s. It was not on Yarmouth beach, where author Charles Dickens set it, but at Kessingland.Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLE - Credit: Archant

But I now find a figurative question mark hangs over my own antecedents because my humble beginnings are not as I have innocently proclaimed for a long time. The revelation about Peggotty’s real past came as a rude shock, deserving an explanation.

Former colleagues, long-since dead, had always told me that Through the Porthole was launched in the Eastern Evening News about 1938 as part of a new nightly feature page entitled Over the Tea Table. I have an old cuttings book into which the Great Yarmouth contributors (probably Stanley Bagshaw and Joe Harrison, I thought) pasted their pre-war nightly mini-features for future reference.

All well and good. But recently I visited the Gorleston Marine Parade home of antiques dealer Malcolm Ferrow - and the Peggotty/Porthole past went pear-shaped, as they say.

For Malcolm handed me a similar scrap book of Peggotty cuttings from 1936, two years earlier than I had thought, assuring me that it was compiled by the original columnist to use the anonymity of the pen-name. The biggest shock was that it was not a professional journalist after all...but a Yarmouth Corporation bus driver!

PEGGOTTY'S HUT? Well, the late Arthur Bishop's home on St George's Plain in Yarmouth. A heritage pla

PEGGOTTY'S HUT? Well, the late Arthur Bishop's home on St George's Plain in Yarmouth. A heritage plaque records not his Peggotty past but that famed surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841), son of a Yarmouth vicar, began his apprenticeship there when it was the residence of his surgical tutor.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

February 4 1936 appears to be the date of that pioneering column by Arthur Bishop, of St George’s Plain. Unsurprisingly, his inaugural subject was the fictional Peggotty.

“It is now nearly 88 years since Dickens visited Yarmouth for the first time and created that supreme local patriot, Peggotty,” he wrote. “Something of the spirit of old Yarmouth, fostered by the town’s isolation, with ‘146 miles of hill-less marshy between it and London’, crept into the assertion {by Dickens’ Ham Peggotty} that Yarmouth was then ‘upon the whole, the finest place in the universe’.

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“Better travel facilities, and a little more knowledge of what there is in the universe, may tend to make the modern resident of Yarmouth a trifle less sweeping in his views, but they have not yet driven away all trace of that profound esteem for Yarmouth that must have begun to arise soon after the sandbank that was to become the borough began to push itself up above the water.

“When all that the railways and modern transport have done to remove the feeling that Yarmouth is an out-of-the-way corner of England is carried further, and Yarmouth has become the terminus of the great road from the Midlands (to be later, let us hope, a stage on the still greater direct route form the Midlands to Central Europe) there will still be a place for pride in the old town – a pride justly founded on a Yarmouth that is vastly greater than in Dickens’ day.

“There is a place, too, I feel, for a new Peggotty who, in his wanderings through modern Yarmouth and neighbourhood, may comment, praise or criticise.

“New societies and institutions have sprung up in great numbers in recent years to meet the social and cultural needs of a larger community. It will be the object of this new Peggotty, trudging again over the sands or through the streets of Yarmouth, to chat of their objects and activities, look in occasionally upon our civic heads or upon council meetings, delve now and again into reminiscences, or gossip about local personalities – in a word, try to keep the people of Yarmouth and their friends further afield in touch with the less obvious changes that are coming about, and with the influences and personalities helping to shape the new Yarmouth.

“If, in my gossip every other day, I am to capture the interest of other lovers of Yarmouth, it must be with their co-operation, and for their comment or suggestions I would ask.”

Within a few days, the editor announced: “In view of the interest aroused in Yarmouth, this feature will in future appear daily.”

It did, for the next half century, but in the 1980s the Eastern Evening News underwent a revamp and Through the Porthole was a casualty. By then I was working on the Mercury whose editor indulged me by letting me resurrect the feature for a trial two or three weeks.

I have never missed an issue since its rebirth in 1987.

There is a saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. That principle is applicable to my so-called founding father.

It almost defies comprehension that non-journalist Arthur Bishop was able to commit himself to the discipline of producing a newspaper column six times a week when he had a full-time unsocial-hours job as a bus driver; fulfilled his responsibilities to St George’s Church where he was an active member of the congregation and wrote its detailed history; penned religious tracts; enjoyed a home life; and pursued a keen interest in the borough, its history, its residents and their activities.

Undoubtedly, he needed time to wander around places off the bus routes not only to mardle but also to see this or note that. Remarkable. But I still cannot understand why providing a nightly column was not assigned to a staff reporter from the outset.

On his death in 1942, after prolonged ill-health, one of his successors as Peggotty - a staff journalist - noted the loss of yet another member of “the circle of those whose delight is to study the history of Yarmouth” - without revealing Mr Bishop’s contributions to the column from its outset!

He continued: “It seems that the places left vacant in this circle are not being filled, and that Yarmouth will soon have very few of its people sufficiently interested in its history to make a study of the subject.

“We cannot, of course, live only in the past in these stressful days, but Yarmouth’s history is so full of incident that it would be sad indeed if the time were to come when research into its colourful pages were to cease owing to lack of interest.

“In the past Yarmouth has been well served by its historians, but it does appear that the present is not providing a continuation of this service.”