Postcards give clue to past

PORT OF CALL: a London passenger steamer negotiates the Yarmouth harbour bend early last century.

PORT OF CALL: a London passenger steamer negotiates the Yarmouth harbour bend early last century. - Credit: Archant

INEVITABLY the once-strong bond between Great Yarmouth and the Nottinghamshire market town of Retford is becoming weaker as the years roll past. Those around whom that link was founded have either died or are now in their seventies and eighties at least, memories of their Retford childhood dimming daily.

Our borough’s connection with Retford is the fact that it became the home town of many of our schoolchildren who were evacuated there during the war. Altogether nearly 4000 youngsters left Yarmouth and Gorleston to live with families in areas of Britain reckoned to be safer from German bombers or invaders than their home town – about 40 per cent of our school population, a figure officially reckoned to be “disappointing”, according to the 1989 book Great Yarmouth at War by Colin Tooke and David Scarles.

I do not know what proportion went to Retford, but they wrote that our local contingent included three-quarters of the 229 boys then enrolled at Yarmouth Grammar School, leaving here on one of the 97 special trains that evacuated no fewer than 47,000 youngsters from 18 east coast towns on one day – Sunday, June 2 1940.

When I went to our grammar school just after the war, some of the older pupils had been among the Retford evacuees, and Retford always held the curiosity factor for me.

When Mrs Peggotty’s sister and brother-in-law moved there from Sheffield a few years ago, I enjoyed my visits to their new home town which seems quiet, pleasant, nicely-situated and with no apparent razzmatazz. For us it is a 120-mile drive to Retford from Gorleston, and we have been perhaps twice a year since then for brief visits, the latest last month.

It was during that recent trip that we meandered around the flea market in the main square, and while the other three browsed among the stalls, I was drawn to one offering old picture postcards among its hotch-potch of wares. Unfortunately they were not divided into categories, but I had time to spare...but did not need it, for within sifting through no more than a couple of dozen cards, I chanced upon a colour picture I had never seen before, a thronged Yarmouth beach with the Revolving Tower in the background, taken from the Britannia Pier.

Although the stamp had been peeled off, taking the postmark date with it, the scene was around the turn of the last century and before the first world war, I reckoned; the Revolving Tower was erected in 1895, and everyone on the thronged beach was fully clothed, the women in long skirts, apart from a few children minus shoes and socks because they were paddling.

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Although the card had a crease mark, I was delighted by my find. But my elation was doubled when I turned it over to find an informative and interesting message on the reverse.

In those pre-telephone days, with the Royal Mail providing several daily collections and deliveries and almost guaranteed arrival anywhere in Britain the next day, people sent postcards as a quick and cheap way of means of communication rather than letters or telegrams, and many of those posted in seaside resorts tended to convey the simple news of the “Arrived OK, weather fine, digs good” variety.

The one I bought in Retford for 50 pence was sent by John Hartley to his mother in Stratford, East London, and told her of his experience in reaching his holiday destination. He was not among the thousands who took the train but came on one of the famous paddle steamers that plied between the capital and east coast resorts, often using their piers on which to embark and disembark their passengers. Crowds used to wait to greet their arrival.

But John Hartley’s holiday journey a century ago was by no means straightforward.

“Just a line to say that we reached Yarmouth about 11pm,” he wrote. “We lost the only boat to Yarmouth. But we got on a Ramsgate boat to Tilbury. We left Tilbury for Yarmouth at 2.45pm.”

The voyage took more than eight hours, plus the time on the earlier steamer.

John Hartley added: “We are not having good weather at present.”

He does not tell us what steamer he caught from Tilbury to Yarmouth, but it was either one of the Belle vessels or their rival Classical Birds ships.

The Belles were named after resorts to which they plied, suffixed by “Belle” - Yarmouth Belle, Walton Belle, Clacton Belle... In opposition were steamers called after classical birds which ran a direct service to and from London but “were generally slower than their counterparts,” report Gorleston shipping enthusiasts Peter Allard and Parry Watson in their 1995 book Maritime Great Yarmouth comprising nearly 100 captioned old postcards.

The Belles used to land passengers on Gorleston quayside opposite the King William IV public house.

The so-called London boats operated roughly from the late 1890s until the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. As the Classical Birds line offered a direct service from London, perhaps we can safely say that John Hartley was a passenger on Belle boats because of he used two ports of embarkation and presumably two Belle steamers.

But my Retford quest for picture postcards of interest did not end with the North Beach and Revolving Tower discovery. I also found one of yachts and pleasure craft on the River Bure at Wroxham, sent in 1954 to Miss Ella Rate in Leicestershire by “John” who squeezed no fewer than 98 words into the message half of the postcard.

Was there not once a limit to the number of words (25?) or a higher postage rate kicked in?

Anyway, John told Ella: “We are having a glorious time up here on the Broads. Today is our first really fine day and it is very warm and sunny. Our attempts at cooking are really comical, but what we have eaten was very welcome.

“Nobody has fallen overboard yet; there have been narrow escapes. Pop (Brian) is steering today – it is my turn tomorrow.

“We tried to walk into Norwich from Wroxham last night but, after stopping for refreshment, decided it was too late to go any further. We got a lift in an RAF fire engine!”