Hidden scrapbooks reveal secrets

AND THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST...the Great Yarmouth mayoral limousine drives across the new Bure Bridge

AND THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST...the Great Yarmouth mayoral limousine drives across the new Bure Bridge in 1972, formally opening it to traffic. But the Mercury credited civic chauffeur Fred Benge as the first person to cross because he was sitting in front of mayor Alfred Harvey. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

THEY have been out of sight, out of mind, for many years, probably gathering dust and serving no apparent useful purpose. Although valueless, to me they were like treasure trove, a store of delightful material prompting my memory to flit back to decades past.

This discovery was three or four scrapbooks that came to light in Great Yarmouth town hall when a massive clear-out took place to prepare for recent major building works. Construction services manager Glen Holmes wondered if I might like to browse through them “before they go back to the strong room.”

I jumped at the chance, although curious as to why decades of comprehensive press coverage of the council had not produced umpteen scrapbooks, not just a handful. Why keep them in a strong room - where few would know of their existence – when they contained only historic information in the public domain anyway? Would they ever be opened again? Indeed, have they ever been consulted? Had potfuls of Gloy and lowly clerks’ time been wasted?

Alas, we shall never know.

Print journalists relish perusing past publications, even old cuttings. For me, they brought back memories not just of events and council decisions but of my old colleagues – most of them dead – who had written the reports.

Two cuttings immediately caught my eye because they reflected this weekly column. First was a 1970 feature by a John Chisholm about Yarmouth architecture, headlined “The Town Peggotty Loved” and illustrated by a drawing of the “decaying” St George’s Church.

The writer claimed the town was being “choked to death by motor-car and lorry,” and the solution was currently exercising councillors’ minds. “If 20th century Yarmouth can resolve its undeniably taxing problem in a manner which will restore some of the qualities which caused Peggotty in David Copperfield to declare it ‘the finest place in the universe’ it will deservedly earn the gratitude of all those who care about our rapidly diminishing heritage,” he declared.

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The other cutting mirrored my recent items about the borough’s exclusive EX vehicle registration series. In 1968 the mayor acquired a new official limousine, a Daimler Sovereign (JEX500G) bought from the local branch of Mann Egerton. It replaced a nine-year-old Humber Super Snipe - with 58,000 miles of civic journeys on the clock - that became part of a local taxi fleet.

“Signed, under-sealed and delivered,” said the clever Mercury headline over a picture of mayor Mrs Ethel Fleet receiving the logbook from Mann Egerton’s general manager.

Two years later the mayoral chauffeur and other council drivers joined 35 dustmen (that’s what everyone called them) who had been on strike for three weeks, spearheading a demand for a 55s (£2.75 today) weekly pay rise. While mayor Ken Hammerton resorted to taxis, the council was warned that if the wage demand was not met, “men will leave for better-paid jobs” - which says something about the labour market then compared with today’s.

The mayoral limo was also in the news in 1972 when it was the first vehicle to cross the new Bure Bridge the day two lanes were opened. In the back seat was mayor Alfred Harvey – so the Mercury bravely and pedantically gave the credit to his driver, Fred Benge, for being the first person to cross the bridge, not our civic head two feet behind him.

Trying to repair the ravages of severe beach erosion at Gorleston, caused by the highest tide in 17 years, £1 million was being spent in 1970, including sand-feeding. Remember that? Orange quarry sand delivered by the truckload was spread on the narrow strip of surviving shore – and, as predicted by local experts, was swiftly washed straight out to sea, its orange path clearly visible on the water.

Three new groynes were built to try to restore and then conserve the beach (also allegedly a waste of money, according to those tide-wise experts because the flow was in and out, not lateral). It cost £250,000 to strengthen the seawall. A new-look promenade was built, too.

Up on Gorleston Marine Parade, it was reckoned that reconstruction from Bridge Road to Yallop Avenue to remedy a patchwork of potholes would cost £20,000.

Middlegate postwar reconstruction began in 1954, and Yarmouth Way was built linking South Quay with King Street, following the pattern of newly-constructed Nottingham Way.

The scrapbooks included an aerial photograph from a 1947 Daily Graphic (a long-gone national newspaper) of the Shrublands estate, “one of Britain’s biggest prefab towns” with 711 of the quick-build bungalows in which 1400 children lived.

“Future of the Jetty in doubt” proclaimed a 1949 Mercury headline, reporting that the historic pier was closed because it was dangerous. It was demolished last year. On the plus side, the outdoor roller-skating rink was opened along the promenade in the Wellington Pier Gardens. In 1950 progress was continuing on building the huge Magdalen College council housing estate.

“Where a King’s death was plotted” was the headline over our report in 1952 that the Elizabethan House (4 South Quay) was now open to the public. It was the scene of many secret meetings resulting in the signing there of the death warrant for King Charles I. The building, to be furnished in the appropriate period style, was bequeathed in 1944 by Miss Blanche Aldred to the National Trust which later leased it to Yarmouth Corporation. It is now a museum, of course.

Aside from the town hall scrapbooks for a moment, 4 South Quay survived not only a story I penned as a fledgling journalist in 1955 that death-watch beetle had been found in its roof but also a 1947 plan by the council to demolish the whole South Quay block (numbers 1 to 8), scuppered when the Mercury raised the alarm and protested at the disgraceful statement by senior councillor Frank Stone – later to hold the mayoralty twice – that the borough had “too many old buildings” members did not want to preserve.