Royal visitor to ‘most splendid building’ of South Town Station

MAINPRINCELY PASSENGER: Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria, dri

MAINPRINCELY PASSENGER: Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria, drives ceremoniously from Yarmouth's South Town Station after arriving by train for a private visit in 1882. This is captured in this new specially commissioned watercolour. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

YARMOUTH South Town Station, one of the borough’s three rail termini for many decades, was just a place to catch or disembark from a train for most of its residents and visitors. Enthusiasts saw it in a different light, studying not only its role in the great railway national scheme of things but also its attributes – its fixtures and fittings, as it were.

But for Trevor Nicholls, a “furriner” with a deep affection for our town where he spent all his working life, the station was “one of Yarmouth’s finest buildings” and, it seems, a symbol of all that made Yarmouth great. His passions for Yarmouth and South Town Station spurred him to commission a painting of the terminus.

“This picture creates for possibly the first time a professionally painted depiction of one of Great Yarmouth’s most impressive and distinguished examples of Victorian industrial architecture - alas, long gone: South Town Railway Station,” explains Trevor, now retired after long service as the borough’s registrar of births, deaths and marriages.

“Although I was born in Cambridge amidst a multitude of fine buildings, here at Yarmouth was the first neo-Classical building I could remember. In the early years of the railways, for some people the prospect of rail travel was still scary, but South Town Station spoke solidity, trustworthiness and reliability.

“The building was demolished in 1977. I saw it in ruins.”

Demolition for road improvements was “philistinism”.

The building escaped serious damage during the last war when a high-explosive bomb which fell on the track was defused by a naval officer waiting on the platform.

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Last month Mrs Peggotty and I were guests at the Ferini Art Gallery in Pakefield, near Trevor’s Lowestoft home, to see the unveiling of this watercolour of the station in all its pomp. “My an affectionate tribute to a town I have know since early childhood, in which I spent all of my working life and which I know intimately,” he tells me.

“Here, in this painting, is one of the town’s most handsome buildings on one of its ‘high’ days. Was, after 1859, any building erected in Yarmouth equal to it in either pedigree or simple good taste? And is it not a pity that it has gone?”

The picture shows Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived on a scheduled fast train from London Liverpool Street in May 1882, moving off by open carriage to head for sea-front Shadingfield Lodge – home of John Nightingale, owner of several hotels and entertainment venues - where he stayed during private visits to the town.

In the doorway stands station-master George Dowey, resplendent in his Great Eastern Railway uniform, “proud of his responsibilities, a pillar of the community and no doubt a force to be reckoned with by those working under his supervision at this, a focal point of Yarmouth life as the station assuredly was.” His family watches from first floor windows, and there are observers on the roofs of Plevna Terrace.

The Yarmouth Independent reported that as Honorary Colonel of the East Norfolk Militia, Royal Artillery, the Prince was received by a guard of honour and military band - “with the dignity, panache and circumstance exemplified in this painting,” according to Mr Nicholls.

Norfolk dignitaries and militia officers accompanied the Prince as he left the station forecourt, cheering crowds lining bunting-bedecked Regent Street, Regent Road and The Drive when he passed. Flags on quayside buildings and ships in the river made a fine sight. The bells of St Nicholas’ pealed a welcome. After dining at the Shadingfield, the Prince attended a variety show at the Aquarium.

The next day he formally opened the new Yarmouth Town Hall, the ceremony followed by a meal for 350 guests in the Assembly Room, “one of the finest interiors in Eastern England and a measure, like the entire building, of the town’s prosperity in the late 19th century.”

His visit was chiefly in connection with the militia encamped on South Denes and it was only when the corporation realised it would coincide with the completion of the new municipal offices that he was asked to declare open the town hall.

He left by special train three days after the town hall ceremony for the Trooping of the Colour in London.

Ferini Gallery manager Michaela Barber introduced Trevor Nicholls to Suffolk artist Geoff Harmer, a master of architectural painting and depiction of uniforms. Trevor briefed him on required detail, like plumes of steam and trees authentic to the time (the foreground trees augmenting “country house” appearance of the station began life in the gardens of the two 18th century dwellings on the site). Geoff’s research resulted in fine-tuning, like horse harness configuration, and the sky on what they knew was a bright early evening in May.

Artist and commissioner agreed on “a little licence” in the positioning of the dominant 132ft Press’s High Mill, supposedly the tallest mill in Europe, so as to be included in the picture - “a little poetry at the expense of fidelity to topographical detail.” The station’s Suffolk White brickwork “is excellently painted and is as I remember it from after the renovations of the 1950s, and as it would have been in 1882 when the station was 23 years old.”.

According to Trevor: “Geoff has executed exactly what I wanted. I hope he will remember ‘the Yarmouth picture’ as an unusual but worthwhile commission. From the moment I took delivery of it, it became my most valued possession. I am most grateful to him.

“I am also grateful to the Yarmouth Independent journalist of 1882, whose thoroughness, precision and attention to detail in his account of Prince Albert Edward’s arrival - which was, after all, ancillary to the events of the visit - facilitated the execution of this painting.”

Whether Yarmouthians will be able to share my pleasure in seeing Trevor Nicholls’ painting remains unclear, for he has no immediate plans to display it in the borough. I hope he devises some method of giving the townsfolk the opportunity soon.