Lights out on seafront as world war begins

ILL-FATED: Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier, showing the Pavilion built in 1910 but destroyed by fire

ILL-FATED: Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier, showing the Pavilion built in 1910 but destroyed by fire in 1914.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

A CENTURY ago next Monday, Britain declared war on Germany, a conflict that was to last four years and result in the death of tens of thousands of our servicemen, many from the Great Yarmouth area. One reliable record claims that the British Empire suffered nearly one million dead, two million wounded and almost 200,000 listed as “prisoners and missing”.

GUTTED: fire ravages the previous Pavilion in 1909.Pictures: CLIFFORD TEMPLE

GUTTED: fire ravages the previous Pavilion in 1909.Pictures: CLIFFORD TEMPLE - Credit: Archant

It was, of course, at the peak of the 1914 summer season that the Great War broke out, although it was not given that title until years later. News of the declaration of war “at the height of the holiday season was received patriotically by the townsfolk,” according to one account.

Despite official assurances that the East Coast was in no danger, many holidaymakers either cut short their stays with us or cancelled their planned visits.

Ignoring protests from the borough council, the September race meeting was called off, presumably by the Jockey Club. I cannot ascertain any link between that cancellation and an appeal by the mayor for horses for the Army…

The 1914-18 war has already featured prominently in the Mercury pages, with more to follow. But life did go on with a large degree of normality hereabouts although the war dominated, and this newspaper recorded the highs and lows, in particular the men who gave up their jobs to fight for their country…and those who perished or were injured on foreign fields.

SEAFARERS’ FRIEND: the Cross Sand lightship, being towed by tug from Yarmouth harbour in 1952 on pas

SEAFARERS’ FRIEND: the Cross Sand lightship, being towed by tug from Yarmouth harbour in 1952 on passage to her station off the Norfolk coast. In 1914 Trinity House increased the strength of its Yarmouth depot.Picture: JACK HARRISON - Credit: Archant

According to Great Yarmouth 1886-1936, the extension to Crisp’s chronology compiled by Bill Ecclestone and our local Archaeological Society in 1977, war-linked occurrences hereabouts in the final five months of 1914 included the borough council agreeing to make up the wages of its employees who joined the armed services, the police enrolling special constables to replace the 13 members of the force who were called up, recruits rushing to the York Road drill hall to enlist and 700 joining the Volunteer Training Corps.

Yarmouth’s librarian was instructed to supply reservists stationed here with as many books as he could spare.

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Street lighting was switched off if it was visible from the sea and could enable German ships to target the town, a sensible precaution. But one wonders why it was deemed necessary for Territorial soldiers to guard the Regent Street Head Post Office which had opened in the January.

The outbreak of war caused the official seizure of a German ship, the Fiducia, a schooner berthed in Yarmouth harbour. And the November council elections were cancelled.

Emergency hospitals were set up in the Town Hall, the Shipwrecked Sailors’ Home on Marine Parade, the York Road drill hall, and on the South Denes.

I suppose that after war was declared, any unusual untoward occurrences might have been blamed on our German foes. But four months before hostilities were declared, a new enemy was blamed for the destruction by fire of the Britannia Pier’s four-year-old Pavilion: suffragettes!

That pier, which has suffered various fires and mishaps since it was built in 1858, was back in full swing within a remarkably short time. Fourteen weeks after that blaze, it was rebuilt and open – in August, at the expected high season but coinciding with the outbreak war and its ill effect on tourism.

Nowadays bureaucracy - including planning regulations and health and safety - would doubtless have caused replacing the pavilion to have dragged on for months or even years.

In 1914 a new police station was built for the self-contained borough force, at the junction of Row 76 and Middlegate Street; this Row ran through to South Quay.

The Home Office ordered the council to improve the traditional herring pickling plots because the workers had no chance of getting shelter, food and rest during their breaks. Additionally, the council spent £5000 on paving round the plots with granite setts...subject to the lessees’ rents rising.

It sounds decades ahead of its time, but a century ago central heating costing £1600 was installed in the vast St Nicholas’ Parish Church “instead of the huge unsightly and ineffective stoves.”

A loan was sought to help fund “relief works” - building 100 “working class dwellings”, half in Yarmouth and the rest in Southtown, laying out Southtown Common (£1500), forming a sea-front lawn and promenade from Euston Road to Sandown Road, and providing a plantation near the Roman Catholic cemetery on Caister Road.

At Grouts’ silk mills – more or less the site of the Sainsbury’s supermarket today – there was a strike by workers and a lock-out by management, arousing bitter feelings and creating disorderly scenes.

Trinity House, the maritime lighting and pilotage authority, transferred four lightships to Yarmouth from Ramsgate in Kent, also moving 40 families from there to here. The Trinity House depot on Southgates Road, “guarded” by ancient cannon, was a busy part of the harbour scene for many decades.

Lightships were berthed and maintained there, and buoys were serviced. But the onset of automation meant a steady decline in the depot’s workload and responsibilities, and it closed in 2003.

The harbour channel was dredged to increase the water depth to 16ft. Yarmouth corporation refused to buy the upper and lower ferries (both now long-since closed) for £12,000, but bought a £215 four-seater Belsize car for the use of the mayor and borough surveyor.

Forty thousand Alexandra roses were sold on the borough’s first Alexandra Rose Day, raising money for the needy.

That other invaluable local record is John MacBride’s A Diary of Great Yarmouth (1998) which notes other 1914 occurrences hereabouts including the fact that on Boxing Day the Regent Variety and Picture Theatre was opened – a still-elegant building that this year was reopened as Stars night spot. It had been closed for a few years after Mecca Bingo pulled out.

Also opening in 1914 was Gorleston Links Halt on the Yarmouth-Lowestoft railway line; two years later it closed for the duration of the war as an economy measure.

Trams were in the news: the St Peter’s Road tramway, closed for a decade, was reopened for the summer season, and the Regent Road track was doubled from the Queen’s Hotel on the Marine Parade corner up to Wellesley Road.

Morley’s fish shop and smoke-house was established, a leading name in the town for many years.