Farewell to Ferryside long-time register office

DURING the past six decades, most of the residents of the borough of Great Yarmouth have had reason to visit it, sometimes in good times or alternatively at low periods in their lives.

I refer to Ferryside on High Road in Gorleston, the official register office for births, deaths and marriages. In its grounds stands the fire station...which also has a life-and-death connotation.

Possibly this week, the register office is relocating to the Central Library in Yarmouth, leaving Ferryside almost empty.

A man wth an intimate knowledge of Ferryside is Trevor Nicholls who worked there for 43 years until his retirement in 2008 as registrar and was so fascinated with the property that he extensively researched its history, passing his entertaining findings to me for dissemination before he entrusts them to the Norfolk Record Office.

For the sake of accuracy, he refers to “the buildings and parcel of land known as Ferryside situated in High Road, Southtown...but known previously as Stone Cottage, then being in the county of Suffolk.”

Stone Cottage – in fact, a substantial three-storey building – housed the South Town Academy whose pupils included the future Sir Samuel Bignold (Norwich MP, secretary of the Norwich Union Fire and Life Company), marine artists William and John Cantiloe Joy, and Sir Edward Hall Alderson (a distinguished judge who gave his name to a Yarmouth road, ruled in benchmark cases, and was father-in-law to Lord Robert Cecil destined to become Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister).

Old reference works mention “Mr Wright’s Academy for young gentlemen”, a long-established boarding school “delightfully situated in tastefully laid-out grounds.” The property included “a variety of plantations and parades laudably appropriated for the amusement and exercise of his numerous pupils.”

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A 19th century owner was Charles Colwell whom Mr Nicholls calls “a living embodiment of the maxim that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” He maintained that the Gorleston side of the river got a bad deal on municipal reorganisation and campaigned for it to secure a fairer share of rate income.

Also, “he went to law, and won, to retain public access to the quays at Yarmouth, the court ruling that they were not to be obstructed by port activities so as to effectively exclude the public; 150 years later, the Port and Haven Commissioners promoted a private Act of Parliament which had the effect of nullifying this decision.

“Colwell, slumbering in Gorleston cemetery, must have been turning in his grave,” he wryly comments.

In 1874 Stone Cottage was acquired by Edward Combe, part of the Watney, Combe and Reid business whose neighbouring maltings were the largest in the county. He demolished Stone Cottage, replacing it with the current building and renaming it Ferryside which became “probably the grandest household in the town and a focus of Yarmouth life with its parties, dinners and entertaining.”

Combe, honorary colonel of a Norfolk Regiment volunteer battalion, erected a detached building for his billiards and snooker room.

Mr Nicholls writes: “When I came to work at Ferryside in 1965, there were still local people who could remember the Combe family. One old lady, remembering the lovely gardens with a tennis court and flagpole, said spring was not considered to have arrived until the bluebells were out at Ferryside, while an elderly man recalled the boards which Combe put up on the boundary wall to prevent people on the trams seeing into his garden!”

The Combe left Ferryside in 1901, and for the next four decades medical men occupied the property, beginning with Dr James Ryley who had just been mayor of Yarmouth. His son Charles followed him into the profession before leaving for Kent and Harley Street. After James Ryley’s death, Dr William Wyllys – son of a Yarmouth doctor - moved in and his practice endured for half a century in total. He died in 1945.

“Within living memory, his figure could be seen leaving Ferryside as he set off on his rounds, always in a grey top-hat and black morning suit with tails. He was a keen sportsman and had been centre-half and captain of Bart’s Hospital football team. He was president of Yarmouth Town FC. In addition, his sports were swimming and rowing. He loved music.”

William was in practice with his brother Henry, who lived at Lichfield House on Southtown Road, a building later converted into government and commercial offices and finally a restaurant before being demolished to make way for the new Park View Flats.

Local surgeon Basil Adlington once claimed the Wyllys brothers considered themselves upper crust because they had no panel of patients but ministered only to the more affluent citizens of the town, continues the history compiler.

The Drs Wyllys were joined by Dr Richard Ley, destined “to become one of the leading lights of the local medical world”.

He had the distinction of performing surgery on a casualty of the first aid-raid in the history of warfare in which there were civilian deaths – the German Zeppelin bombing of St Peter’s Plain in 1915 that resulted in two people being killed and injury to others.

“A bomb splinter Ley removed from his patient he had made into a tie-pin,” says Trevor Nicholls, adding that Dr Ley - who lived on Middleton Road in Gorleston and died in 1971 - “was unique in Norfolk in refusing to join the NHS although his patients came from all walks of life.”

There were two other Wyllys brothers: Capt Gerard Wyllys RN, Paymaster of the Royal Navy, and G E Wyllys, senior partner in the law firm of Lucas and Wyllys on South Quay.

During the war Ferryside became the borough fire brigade HQ, the personnel sleeping in the house which “had a number of close shaves” when bombs fell nearby. One high-explosive bomb hit the maltings, killing George Banham who was on fire-watching duty.

“The Half-Way House (public house) and a number of neighbouring houses were damaged by blast.

“I have a theory that it was this bomb which brought down the ornately moulded ceiling in what is now the Marriage Room at Ferryside,” says Mr Nicholls.

“This why the room, once the drawing room, has a boxed girder ceiling whereas the corresponding room across the hall – the former dining room – has one of the finest plaster ceilings in the town.”

Next week I will conclude the Ferryside story by looking at its post-war history.