Oh so humble an abode - for Peggotty!
- Credit: Archant
MY fictional humble abode, an upturned boat on the South Denes in Great Yarmouth created by novelist Charles Dickens in his David Copperfield in 1850, continues to attract attention 165 years later. It was the home of a principal character named Ham Peggotty.
Last month, revealing my great surprise at learning that the original author of this column in 1936 was not a professional staff journalist as I had always been led to believe but a Yarmouth Corporation bus driver named Arthur Bishop, I included a photograph of a Peggotty’s Hut, a mock-up on Kessingland beach for a film.
It is no secret that there have been other locations and claims of originality – an impossibility, of course, because it was all a a figment of Dickens’ imagination...unless he spotted something similar that influenced him when he paid a short visit here before putting inky quill to paper to start writing David Copperfield.
I vaguely recall an alleged Peggotty’s Hut (linked to a bakery?) in the Camden Road area of Yarmouth, and there were definitely two across the river in Gorleston, and one in Gravesend in Kent, the county in which Dickens spent his last years and where there is a school and a theme park named in his honour.
And although he made only that one brief visit here, subsequently featuring our town in David Copperfield, we did acknowledge him by naming roads on a housing estate after him and his characters, and we boasted two Peggotty pubs – the former St George’s Wine Vaults in King Street and the Ship on Gorleston’s Pier Walk (now the Bar 1 Restaurant).
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A new correspondent, Henry Simpson, a resident of Milton Keynes and a great lover of Yarmouth for many years, writes: “I’ve been coming to Yarmouth every year since 1965 and still love it. Now that my wife and I are retired we spend most of the summer up here - March to November. That may sound boring to most, but not to us.”
Visiting Yarmouth annually since 1965? So 2015 marks their golden anniversary of holidaying with us. Welcome back, both of you!
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Henry’s passion is deltiology – collecting old postcards – but preferably those of his favourite resort. “Postcards were the texts or e-mails of the day,” he points out.
“Some years ago I found a very old postcard that depicted a hand-drawn Peggotty’s Hut. Strange looking dwelling, it’s an upturned boat. I normally only collect cards with people on, but I was intrigued by this one. It doesn’t look very liveable - I think this must have been after a fire!”
Henry relishes both sides of postcards, not only the picture but also the written messages on the reverse. “Both give a wonderful slice of Great Yarmouth life over 100 years ago. Postcards of 100 years ago carry so much interesting information about life in Yarmouth so long ago that it fires me up,” he explains.
“For example, when the Irish came over they brought with them the habit of letting their children go without shoes. Poorer folk over here soon adopted the habit. I have a postcard of children outside the Tolhouse and you can clearly see that some are without shoes.
“A quick look through shows changing fashions, from knicker-bottomed velvet trousers for boys and to the ankle and beyond dresses for women, to cloche hats for women and bare-headed men - without even ties!
“I have a postcard stating, ‘We are on the beach and we are not even wearing our hats’ (two girls on holiday). Another says: ‘It’s so hot we are going to have to buy beach trousers’ (two men).
“Plus some strange goings on – for example, one says: ‘Tell Bert to bait up tomorrow night. He will know what I mean.’ Another says: ‘As soon as your wife gets on the train, jump on your machine and meet up the road.’ Or another: ‘I hear the Black B was asked after.’
“And stranger still: ‘Come down tomorrow if it doesn’t rain. If it does, don’t. Buy yourself a shirt.’ Or even stranger: ‘Thank you for the potatoes, I will bring the meat.’”
“Whenever I looked for postcards, I particularly looked for night-time pictures of the pier. I found two cards of Yarmouth night scenes with just a couple of words on, and over some time I collected six, each with just a few words. One was posted on Christmas Day 1905.
“Intrigued, by laying them side by side in order, they read: ‘I will come round tomorrow at 6 30’ - a secret liaison, no doubt... I kept looking and found two more eventually. Each had a message saying, more or less, ‘ I have been busy; will come round. Bill Bailey’ - a saying at the time.”
Nowadays we complain about “snail mail” and the sluggish postal service, but Henry tells me: “Any card sent at eight o’clock in the morning would be expected to reach its destination by the last post on the same day, Christmas Day included.
“Postcards were sent from the trenches during World War One. The sender could not write anything on the card but could only tick boxes or cross out statements - for example, ‘I am injured but OK now’.
“I have one. I wish I had more.”
Henry, now 71, is a retired senior executive for a London Brick subsidiary who then became a carpet retailer. Hereabouts the Simpsons always stay in a caravan. On their first visit, they were on the Caister Beach site.
“When I retired, I decided to stay most of summer, returning home every two weeks or so, staying home for a week or two then returning to Yarmouth. Why? We really like the area, and more importantly, the people.”