A media furore around Great Yarmouth refugees

IN 2011, amid concerns that too many Europeans are becoming economic migrants by moving to the United Kingdom almost without restriction, it is sobering to recall that exactly a half-century ago, Great Yarmouth was furious when its attempts to welcome a refugee Polish family to make new lives here without any fuss and bother was thwarted by a publicity-seeking national organisation.

By chance, the 1000th family to land in the UK under the World Refugee Year migration schemes for the handicapped were allocated to Yarmouth. The borough housing committee made a council house in Peterhouse Avenue in Gorleston available to the husband, wife and three children but stipulated that they be allowed to settle in discreetly and integrate quietly.

So imagine the anger and disappointment in the town hall when the British Council for Aid to Refugees over-rode Yarmouth’s commendable stance and encouraged maximum publicity in the national press and on television, including a London reception.

Harry McGee, who was on the housing committee then, remembers the to-do and told his fellow members: “I was flabbergasted! An assurance was sought it would go through quietly with no fuss or bother so we could accept the family quietly into our surroundings. Now, when you have the national press and TV publicity, with the mayor going to London for a bun-fight, things have been made very difficult for this family. I think it is absolutely disgusting. It has completely defeated the whole object.

“They are coming to live near me. I am very pleased and I think we should welcome them. But I deplore the hullabaloo which is going to make things very difficult for them.

“Everyone on the Magdalen Estate would see it in the papers. There is a school near and all the children going along the road will point and say, ‘That’s the refugees’ house.’”

The Polish family became worthy Gorleston residents and, although the parents are dead, some members still live hereabouts.

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In those days, and for subsequent decades, council reports formed a major part of the Mercury’s news coverage – perhaps too much in some people’s opinion, but the local Press was the only way the ordinary ratepayer could learn about town hall affairs, and we journalists were aware of our responsibilities.

These days the ratepayer – sorry, council tax payer – is probably disenchanted by local government with its remote cabinet system, lack of debate and transparency, prepared public statements rather than face-to-face questioning, and supposedly informative costly magazines consigned unread to green wheelie bins...

Reporters used to attend most council committee meetings and every full council meeting, sometimes until midnight. All committees and sub-committees reported to the council, their recommendations debated upon and scrutinised in public. Chief officers were available to the press for questioning and interview.

I do not know how the Mercury keeps track of town hall business in 2011 but I am sure it strives to ensure the public is informed within the restraints of the current set-up, newspaper manpower and editorial space. It is probably also aware that public interest in council activities has waned, the “let ‘em get on with it – there’s nothing I can do about it” opinion of the average citizen.

Browsing through the Yarmouth Mercury file for 1961, half a-century ago, it was clear that council stories were abundant. And although we kept the ratepayers up to speed with developments, this newspaper was far from being a docile town hall mouthpiece, for its journalists were responsibly quizzing and probing and viewed with apprehension by some officials.

The big local government issue of 1961 was the council’s strategy to try to combat a threat to its county borough status after 72 years. So it proposed extending its boundaries to encompass Caister, Burgh Castle, Bradwell, Hopton and its cliff-top part adjoining Hopton.

Also, it asked the Local Government Commission at its imminent meeting on East Anglia to give serious thought to merging with old rival Lowestoft (the Yartoft factor) as a single county borough. Bringing those villages into Yarmouth would increase the population from 52,000 to 60,000; a merger with Lowestoft would lift that figure to 108,000.

In the following weeks, councils of all sizes in the possible extended Yarmouth submitted a host of reasons why that should – or should not - happen, with Lowestoft predictably against the concept.

I cannot remember if the idea progressed slowly or petered out, only to be revived, but 13 (unlucky for some) years later Yarmouth’s boundaries were widened to include neighbouring villages more in line with the borough’s 1961 suggestion, but Yartoft never materialised.

Fifty years ago our town hall agreed to allow tenants of council houses buy their homes...and ruled that no fish-and-chips should be sold on the seaward side of Marine Parade, rejecting a Britannia Pier application. It also decided to a request to review the problems caused by the growing number of car owners parking on grass verges – in 2011 a nightmare in many residential roads.

Norwich education committee criticised the casting of six Yarmouth children in the pantomime Babes in the Wood at the city’s Theatre Royal. The city committee was annoyed that it was powerless because its Yarmouth counterpart had licensed the youngsters’ appearance.

A prominent front-page report and photograph in the Mercury followed local woman Miss Sarah Daniels winning a �5000 windfall when Ernie randomly chose her premium bond.

Thrigby Hall was damaged by fire. A go-kart track at the Pleasure Beach was given the chequered flag. The Cap and Gown was opened on the Magdalen College estate, brewer Steward and Patterson’s first new public house since 1938 (it was recently demolished).

Restoration of 250-year-old Fishermen’s Hospital was completed, all the flats now being on the ground floor flats. Ten remained of the original 20 dwellings. Family department store Palmers acquired shops in Spalding and Holbeach in Lincolnshire.

Twenty-one Yarmouth Grammar School pupils returned after a 4272-mile three-week coach trip to Moscow and back, driving through five countries.

On the sporting front, husband-and-wife team Brian and Pat Colclough were runners-up in the world roller dancing championships in Bologna, Italy. And Cliff Holland, retired resident professional at Yarmouth and Caister Golf Club for 50 years died, aged 75. There had been two clubs but he became the professional on amalgamation in 1910.