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100 years of fun and thrills

PUBLISHED: 17:37 10 September 2009 | UPDATED: 14:59 03 July 2010

The Hotchkiss novelty popular with patrons at Great Yarmouth

The Hotchkiss novelty popular with patrons at Great Yarmouth

BELATED congratulations to Great Yarmouth's Pleasure Beach on reaching its centenary - no mean achievement. Much of its success has been down to maintaining the traditional fun-and-thrill elements while keeping pace with constantly changing public tastes and demands.

BELATED congratulations to Great Yarmouth's Pleasure Beach on reaching its centenary - no mean achievement. Much of its success has been down to maintaining the traditional fun-and-thrill elements while keeping pace with constantly changing public tastes and demands.

The celebration of 100 years of serving the resort and its visitors more or less coincided with my including in a recent column a vivid description of the night-time view from the peak of its famed Scenic Railway in a novel partly set in a Yarmouth summer season between the wars, and a television programme examining the amusement park's equally venerable counterpart in our great rival resort, Blackpool.

That programme was in the Coast series on BBC Television. After looking at other holiday spots in Wales and the north-west of England, it arrived in Blackpool, reported to be Britain's most visited seaside destination, the “Las Vegas of the North for many”.

Then followed an interview with Amanda Thompson, grandaugther of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach founder, William Bean. Londoner Bean visited America's Coney Island fun fair in the late 1800s and returned to Britain, determined to create something similar. With him he brought a fairground-type ride, but could find nowhere he deemed suitable to site it permanently, and eventually settled on Blackpool where, in 1896, he founded the attraction that mushroomed into the famous a attraction.

There is a little confusion over dates and sequence, but Yarmouth intrudes prominently into the Blackpool picture. According to Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopaedia, Bean came to Yarmouth in the first place, intending to open a small business comprising not only various small merry-go-rounds, but also the major ride he imported from the US - the Hotchkiss Patent Bicycle Railroad. But business did not blossom as he hoped, so he dismantled it and moved to Blackpool.

The site on which Bean first pinned his hopes of developing a British Coney Island in the 1880s was on the corner of Euston Road and North Drive in Yarmouth, then moving along to land between Sandown and Beaconsfield Roads.

The late Ted Goate, of Caister Road, a local historian, wrote in a 1970 Archaeological Society bulletin about two rides established thereabouts in the late 19th century on the wide-open spaces north of Euston Road. The 500ft by 30ft site for the Thompson Gravity Switchback was rented out by Yarmouth council on the understanding that there would be no bells or whistles. The ride was an up-and-down affair like a scenic railway but straight and on a smaller scale, relying on gravity and impetus rather than machinery.

Fares were 3d (1p) for adults and 2d for children, and it was reckoned that the ride was so popular with the public that the whole season's £100 rent (paid in advance) was recouped on its opening day! “The owners must have been very satisfied,” noted Ted Goate.

I reckon the best part of 10,000 adults and kiddies handed over their fares in that one day!

As for his imported Hotchkiss bicycle railroad, it opened here in 1895 and comprised a 250ft diameter circle with two rails along which travelled odd-shaped cycles carrying one or two people. There could be racing although the inner circle was obviously shorter than the outer one.

A leaflet about the 2d ride explained: “This system is perfectly safe, conducive to good health, has no tendency to demoralisation and places within the power of all the means of indulging in the exhilarating recreation of cycling.”

In 1909, after 14 years, both rides were closed, dismantled, and removed to a pleasure ground Huddersfield in Yorkshire where they were re-erected.

It was there in 1936 when an old friend of this column, the late Gordon Berry, of Westerley Way, Caister (a lifetime employee of Grouts silk mills, and the company archivist) enjoyed a ride on the Hotchkiss bicycle railway.

“I tried to attain a fair speed but, unfortunately, when I attempted it, the machine left the rails and I was forced to dismount and hoist it back into position,” he told me. “I completed the circuit at a more sedate pace.”

It was Gordon who once related to me the ironic true story that when the liner Titanic sank after striking an Atlantic iceberg in 1912 and 1,500 crew and passengers perished, in her holds were two cases of mourning crape made by Grouts intended for funerals in the US. In the early years of the last century, Grouts - one of Yarmouth's biggest employers until its St Nicholas Road factory closed in 1996 - specialised in producing mourning crepe. The two cases containing 700-800 yards of the material were valued at £108 but were fully insured.

Then, long after in 1993, Gordon read a biography about Captain Smith, the master of the ill-fated ship whose loss is part of maritime legend. It revealed that she was, in fact, carrying not two but three cases of mourning crape, all bound for a New York store named Spielman and Co.

He made inquiries and established that the extra case was probably bought from another UK manufacturer - perhaps Francis Hine or the Norwich Crape Company, both based in the city, or Courtaulds.

There may have been no silk mourning crepe in evidence, but nonetheless his family, friends and fans will have been saddened by the recent death of Renato Pagliari at the age of 66. Millions were familiar with his singing of Just One Cornetto to the music of an operatic aria in a commercial for Walls Ice Cream, although many of them were probably unaware that the anonymous tenor was also the male half of the Renee and Renato duo that surprisingly achieved pop success in 1982, reaching the top of the charts with Save Your Love.

Renee and Renato were the main supporting act to zany comic Freddie Starr in his summer show at the Royal Aquarium in 1985. I believe he also spent the summer of 1982 as a solo artiste at the Wellington Pier Pavilion where the bill was topped by the short-lived comedy act of Cheese and Onion.

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