When the Great War was over, we came out to play
- Credit: Archant
Almost a century ago, Great Yarmouth was thriving as a popular working-class resort. Its vibrancy and visitors – and those seeking their custom – made a lasting impression on a local teenager who had just started working.
That youth was Bill Parsons, whose autobiography featured in two successive columns in February, covering his life from childhood to long employment as a porter in Yarmouth General Hospital and involvement in the trade union movement, culminating in the award of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal.
It mentioned his summer working at our Pleasure Beach, but space did not permit the publication of his reflections on Yarmouth’s thriving holiday scene in the 1920s.
“The promenade and beach front abounded with life,” he recalled. “The colourful sights, the hustle and the bustle and the continuous noise associated with the numerous activities going on all added together to create a tremendous atmosphere.
“This could develop a child’s imagination of a magical wonderland, especially in those days when there was not the constant exposure to the sounds of pop music nor the visual images of television and the possibilities of going to the alternatives of theme parks.
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“There were literally hundreds of different types of vendors plying their wares to the many thousands of visitors in the vicinity. Some holidaymakers would be happy to lounge on the beach while others thronged the Marine Parade.
“The summer traders could be divided into two groups: those who provided some form of entertainment and those who sold their wares.
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“Sand artists sculptured horses, which were their pride and joy, and many other things like soldiers out of their two simple materials of sand and seawater. For their income the sand artist would rely on the money thrown down on to a strategically-placed sheet already loaded with a few coins to persuade passers-by walking along the sea wall to add to them.
“There were also the beach photographers, taking visitors’ photographs which became souvenirs to show their family when they returned home. Often a backcloth of something humorous - such as fat people in bathing costumes, clowns and so on - would be provided by the photographer, and sometimes even something live, such as a parrot or monkey, to make the photograph different.
“Then there were the numerous tea stalls spread out along the sea front. From these you could get a fine cup of tea, coffee being a rarity in those days. They also sold sandwiches, freshly made on the spot, and cakes.
“One could also buy fruits, roasted peanuts, monkey nuts and newspapers and periodicals from other vendors plying their numerous wares. These would be balanced upon trays or held in satchels, and the vendors would, all day long, march up and down the promenade or along the beach, trudging through the sand.
“The vendors included shrimp ladies on the promenade, holding shallow baskets filled with their pink delicacies and selling their shrimps by the pint or half-pint. And, of course, there were the ice-cream and Italian “hokey pokey” sellers. Their ice-cream barrows were strategically placed all along the promenade. One could buy cornets of ice-cream for 2d (1p) or a wafer for 1d (½p).
“A number of the regulars vending along the sea front over many years had developed a following and become local personalities in their own right. There was Jimmy Thompson, who specialised in selling nougat from his stall under the Britannia Pier, was known as ‘the Nougat King.’
“Jimmy was a great entrepreneur, having diversified in a number of ways, including running the Derby Racer at the Pleasure Beach and establishing a photography pitch on the beach.
“Then there were the large bathing machines near the water’s edge, with large ‘stage coach’ type wheels enabling them be wheeled in and out of the water, depending upon the tide. The bather, having changed in the bathing machine, would carefully descend the three or four steps into the sea, more or less safely hidden away from any prying eyes looking for improprieties!
“Even the Salvation and the Church Armies’ beach activities were attractions in their own right, providing blustery hymn singing for parents and entertainment for the children.
“On North Drive stood the Revolving Tower which one could ascend for a small charge. Friends who had ventured up this told of spectacular views of sea and countryside that could be seen. Alas, to my regret, I never went up this tower, under which was an amusement arcade.
“Further along, amusement arcades abounded. For 1d (½p) you could play the slot machines, or put your eye to a machine which, by turning a handle, would cause cards to flick through quickly one after another and so create the effect of a moving picture. These featured crude stories on the lines of ‘What the butler saw’ and were considered daring in their day!
“Just off the front was Regent Road. By the time of my childhood its houses had been converted into thriving shops.
“Part of the fun for the regular holidaymaker was the familiarity of the sights, sounds and smells. Visitors would develop their own favourite experiences, such as buying a bag of nougat from Jimmy Thompson just to have a few words with the personality concerned. Or they would walk up Regent Road to the Market Place for a bag of chips from their favourite stall, just as today!”
One of teenage Bill’s early jobs ended when his employer went bankrupt, but luckily it was summer and the lad quickly found work at the Pleasure Beach, helping Joe Mucklow who operated several stalls, including a “film stars” game where he put Bill.
“As the barker, I had to sell 24 tickets for each game – and had to keep shouting loudly so more customers were attracted to join in. I did so well that soon I was given charge of this game and my shouting drew large crowds around what was now ‘my stall’.
“My weekly wage was a fortune to me: £2 10s (£2.50) a week. But as it was only a seasonal job, I was unable to obtain unemployment benefit and would be very lucky to find winter work.”
Bill died in 2005, aged 90.