All the trips led to the town

TWICE in my fledgling years as a newspaper reporter I covered the annual rally here in Great Yarmouth of members of old people’s clubs throughout Norfolk.

In 1956, for example, more than 4,000 arrived in 150 motor-coaches for eight hours at the seaside on a June midweek day. It was the biggest in the country, and Great Yarmouth did them proud. Lunch was arranged at 21 restaurants in the resort, and 9,000 meals were served to the day visitors. Most sampled our holiday delights and did not stray far from the Golden Mile, enjoying a ride in a horse-drawn landau, amusement arcades, Pleasure Beach, ice-cream and sugar-covered doughnuts, chips, jockey scales, candy floss.

Some got into the spirit of their day by the briny by venturing into the sea for a brief paddle, or sported cheeky “Kiss Me Quick!” hats. One or two elderly men expressed hopes of spotting bikini-clad girls; their wives uttered stern “Act your age! Behave yourself!” warnings.

Mercury photographer Les Gould and I spent the day with them, recording their pleasures. The high-spot of the day’s programme was a show in the packed open-air Marina amphitheatre given by the resident summer entertainers Neville Bishop and his Wolves – a Billy Cotton-type band show – augmented by artistes from Summer Salad at Gorleston Pavilion.

During that 1956 show octogenarians Mr and Mrs George Carter, of Main Road, Fleggburgh, were presented with an alarm clock (a strange choice as neither needed to be up for work) and tumblers on their 64th wedding anniversary. Then they all returned to their coaches and headed home to Norwich and their towns and villages across Norfolk, and the average age of holidaymakers and trippers on our sea-front dropped dramatically.

But those long-ceased annual geriatric invasions of the resort were small beer compared with the four-yearly onslaught by employee of the huge Bass, Ratcliffe and Gretton Brewery in Burton-on-Trent. From 1893 until 1913 there were six excursions to Yarmouth by rail, each organised with the precision of a military operation and planned to the smallest detail so nothing was left to theory, anyway.

It was a logistical masterpiece.

Most Read

Recently I wrote here about John Nightingale who arrived in Yarmouth in 1882 and died in 1911, during which time he was a huge player in the hospitality and leisure industry, running hotels, theatres, catering establishments and other enterprises with such acumen and enthusiasm that he made the resort one of the finest in the country.

Despite his wide-ranging talents, his speciality was mass catering, not canteen style fast food but presented with class and flair.

His experience in London, honed in Yarmouth, equipped him for the big occasion, His obituary in 1911 said: “It was he who made possible the quadrennial Bass excursion when 10,000 came to Yarmouth for the day from Burton.”

For their first visit, on a mid-June Friday, no fewer than 15 special trains were hired to take 8000 employees and their families on the return journey from Burton to Yarmouth Vauxhall, leaving their home town at exact ten-minute intervals from 3.50am until 6.10am, arriving four hours and 40 minutes later. By 10.50am, everyone had arrived and all had 11 hours ahead of them until their return to Vauxhall for their trains home, the first arrivals that morning chuffing out of the station at 7.30pm on the dot, the rest following in the same sequence as they did on the trip to Yarmouth.

In bold underlined red letters on the front of the excursion timetable Bass declared: “Urgent and most important! All persons must travel both ways by their own train. Serious notice will be taken of any breach of this urgent regulation.”

Passengers on each train were from specified departments and work-places, and one train carried mainly customers. The comprehensive 16-page booklet each traveller carried appears to have every aspect covered, even stressing: “It is hoped that none of the men will throw empty bottles etc out of the carriage windows, especially while the trains are in motion, as such a proceeding is highly dangerous to the plate-layers and others employed on the railway.”

Immediately the last outward train arrived in Yarmouth, organising supremo William Walters – the brewery traffic manager - promised to send a telegram to the Bass HQ in Burton for public exhibition on its gate so friends and families back home were kept informed. Information in the telegram would be accurate, he insisted in the brochure, adding: “They are advised to take no notice whatever of absurd rumours of accidents etc (often circulated by unthinking people) but to wait for MY messages.”

As this was the brewery’s first outing to Yarmouth, he told the travellers to ignore “the pretty generally believed fallacy” that Yarmouth was only a fishing village, for it had a 50,000 resident population, making it larger than their home town of Burton!

A full time-table of amenities, points of interest, entertainment and events on offer in Yarmouth was included, everything from organ recital and display by the 8th Hussars to bathing machines, steamer trips to sea or into Breydon, tennis, donkey rides and the times and places the photographer would be present. Indeed, the detailed programme for four band concerts and four organ recitals was in the brochure which also devoted six small-type pages to Yarmouth’s facilities, historic attractions and items like lavatory accommodation.

It promised: “There is ample provision in Great Yarmouth in the Eating Department for all classes of our party. As many as 20,000 persons frequently visit the town in the season on a single day.” And he specified which hostelries stocked Bass!

The success of that first excursion to Yarmouth, due in no small part to people like John Nightingale, can be judged by the fact that the brewery came here five more times, ferrying as many as 10,000 workers and associates on each trip. The last was in 1913, so it seems likely that the 1914-18 war brought the sequence to a close.

The Mercury report of the initial outing in 1893 noted: “The men are of fine physique and portly frames, and the ladies – worthy wives and sweethearts – their equals and companions in all respects.”