Five Yarmouth men were seen no more...
PUBLISHED: 15:01 11 November 2016
Today being Armistice Day, when we commemorate those who gave their lives for their country in war, it is appropriate to dwell upon a tragedy that befell an unarmed vessel off our coast exactly a century ago. It links with my recent topic about attacks by German aircraft on unarmed lightships in the North Sea during the 1939-45 war.
I was browsing through the 1916 Mercury file seeking significant events that year when I came across a report of the loss of the Corton lightship off our shores through a bizarre accident.
Her crew were heaving up her anchor chain and had hauled in about 20 fathoms (120ft) when her skipper, Captain William Rudd, “looked over the bow and shouted: ‘There’s a mine!’ The next moment it exploded, blowing the fore part of the ship to atoms, like a mass of matchsticks.”
The Corton sank almost immediately.
The mine had become entangled in the anchor chain. I doubt if it was ever ascertained whether it was a German or British one, but there was no disputing that “five Yarmouth men were seen no more”, according to the Mercury. Their two crew mates had “a miraculous escape.”
One hundred years ago this month, Norfolk was battered by “a great gale” resulting in numerous shipwrecks and rescues, particularly off Gorleston. There were “thrilling scenes, and many lives were saved,” the Mercury reported.
In the early months of the year, there was “a terrible blizzard”, fierce gales and high tides that caused the Breydon bank to breach, the sea to cover the central beach to Marine Parade, the river to overflow on both banks, and North Quay, St Andrew’s Church, Cobholm and Southtown to be flooded.
This led to calls for anti-flood prevention measures in Cobholm and Southtown.
The year began with the implementation of the national Defence of the Realm Order prohibiting external lights after dark from homes and shops and even demanding “the drawing down of blinds in railway carriages.” Striking matches outdoors and using flash lights were also covered. Vehicle lights were the subject of a separate order.
This resulted in court appearances for people accused of showing lights in windows after dark, resulting in fines of between 2s 6d and 5s (12½p and 25p today).
That same year, William Hardy, of Hillside, Gorleston invented an illuminating car number plate “allowing easier identification in the dark.”
Every week the Mercury was full of news of servicemen enlisting, writing home, and being killed or wounded in action. There was also detailed reporting of the frequent military tribunal hearings at which men produced reasons why they thought they should be exempted from military service.
The Great Yarmouth 1886-1936 diary compiled in 1977 by historian and prominent local citizen Arthur (Bill) Ecclestone reported: “As many as 20 cases were dealt with weekly but were rarely allowed – in most cases a deferment for two months only.
Efforts were made to keep up the spirits of those on active service, including over 100,000 cigarettes plus tobacco given by members of the Hall Quay and Theatre Plain Conservative Clubs – maintaining “a splendid record,” said the Mercury. Thirty-five parcels had been sent off for prisoners-of-war.
Charity was also incoming. The Queensland Government in Australia sent 18 lamb carcases and 12 of beef which the Yarmouth distress committee distributed in the St George’s School to “those suffering hardship and poverty.” Bones and other pieces of meat were passed to the Wesleyan Mission, the Great Yarmouth Boys’ Home in Belfort Place, and to soup kitchens.
The borough was bombarded for a second time by German warships but the populace had “a miraculous escape, coming bravely almost unscathed through the ordeal. Not a person was injured, and damage to property very slight.” But another report said damage had been inflicted, and shrapnel had been picked up in Camperdown.
Two bizarre incidents caught the headlines. First, “a Gorleston mystery” after a black cloth peaked cap was found on a post at the lower ferry landing stage at Gorleston early one morning, and remained unclaimed. Later it was learned that it probably belonged to Charles Rogers, a well-known musician who had long been entertaining at the Coliseum Cinema in Gorleston, had left as usual the previous night to walk home to his Devonshire Road lodgings in Yarmouth. Presumably he was never seen again, for I found no subsequent report in the Mercury.
The other unusual incident, a tragic version of the old banana-skin joke, was the death of Police Constable James Brown, of Alderson Road, Yarmouth, “under tragically painful circumstances.” Said the Mercury: “He was one of the biggest among the police and well-proportioned physically.
“He was on duty in Middlegate Street and stepped on a piece of orange peel or banana skin and pulled himself up with a jerk to avoid a fall. The strain caused internal mischief.”
An emergency operation took place but he collapsed and died of heart failure, leaving a widow, son and daughter.”
Another funeral was that of Milly Barber who died in hospital of shock after falling into a vat of boiling dye at Grout’s silk factory.
On the sporting front, “Bandsman” Jack Blake boxed his way to become the English middleweight champion.
But the borough and its residents had problems on the home front: the town coffers were running out of money! The council revealed “our parlous financial position” at a specially convened meeting. Despite the dire situation, the council agreed to spend £25 on advertising in a bid to boost the summer holiday season.
One might think that a royal visit would have been a gala day, and one for celebration at a time of war and local financial stringency. But it was a private visit and attracted little publicity or attention from the townsfolk.
The Mercury told its readers that it was a brief private visit by King George V who came by motor from Lowestoft and left by steam train. His Majesty wore the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, and despite the low-key nature of his visit, “great numbers” of people turned out to cheer him.
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