Former Yarmouth youth mayor's memories

REVIEWS of local-interest books regularly feature in this column but Bill Fortescue, known in the Great Yarmouth area mainly for his work with generations of young people, sent me his autobiography on different terms.

REVIEWS of local-interest books regularly feature in this column but Bill Fortescue, known in the Great Yarmouth area mainly for his work with generations of young people, sent me his autobiography on different terms. It was neither for appraisal nor to boost sales - it was penned for his family's benefit - but to allow my readers to enjoy his “take” on subjects that sometimes occupy this feature.

In 1952, he was the borough's youth mayor; as an adult, he was a qualified youth leader in Caister and Cambridge. He sums up his life as one of “value, adventure, love, friendship and many delightful and useful experiences”, a life blessed with “not too many traumatic events, leaving aside the inevitable deaths within the family.”

Bill is a 78-year-old widower living in Midland Close, Caister, and has three children and six grandchildren. He was born in a terrace house in Gordon Road, Southtown, a fourth child; his eight-year-old only sister May was so disappointed to have another brother “that she told my father to put me in the dustbin.” Dad, severely wounded in the 1914-18 war, was a jobbing gardener and a temporary postman at Christmas.

The earliest childhood memory was being taken by his mother to Yarmouth beach in a pushchair, across the long-gone rowing-boat upper ferry. At Christmas the children played bagatelle, a kind of manual pin-ball game. The wind-up gramophone constantly needed rewinding and replacement needles. The accumulator for the radio was re-charged regularly at Bately's Southtown Road garage.

A children's street party in Gordon Road marked the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. He remembers the 1937 opening of the Marina open-air amphitheatre on Marine Parade and the “magnificent sight” of the adjacent coloured changing fountains. His mother took him to the Empire Cinema to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - but Bill had to leave half-way through because of a headache! Later he frequented Gorleston's Coliseum and Palace Cinemas.

When a second dry dock was being built by Fellows on Southtown Road, horse-drawn carts laden with dredged-out mud passed the Fortescue home on route to the marshes for dumping.

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At the outbreak of the 1939-45 war, “we went to Bollard Quay to watch boats arriving with evacuees from London.” An air-raid shelter was put in the family garden but because of the high water table, soon filled with muddy water, and a remedial concrete surround took months to set. He describes the first German raid on the borough when bombs killed four people including Southtown residents Mr Keable and a mother with a new-born baby, and he watched an aircraft strafing grazing cattle.

Schooling was a hotch-potch and at one time Bill experienced the same arrangement as I did then: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays one week, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the next. Going to school sometimes meant passing a heap of rubble that the previous day had been a house.

In 1943 Southtown residents had to cope with other problems when the area was flooded and homes took weeks to dry out. The Fortescues added flood insurance to their policy, a wise move because a decade later came the great East Coast surge.

Among the wartime lodgers the Fortescues took in was a man who had helped to blow a hole in the Britannia Pier as an anti-invasion measure. From his bedroom window young Bill watched a doodle-bug fly overhead before it dropped on Norwich.

His first job was in 1945 as a 12s 6d (62p) a week office boy with solicitors Chamberlin, Talbot and Bracey on Crown Road, his duties including chopping the kindling and lighting the fires, plus delivering mail to other law offices, a routine that enabled him to indulge in hot dough buns at Sid Hewitt's Howard Street South bakery with Post Office telegram boys who also enjoyed the treat.

During his life he was also employed by Divers, the wine merchant at the King Street-Regent Road junction, and Superior International, importer of Dutch fruit and salad produce by boat, before going to college to qualify as a youth leader, a logical step after devoting much time, enthusiasm and energy to young people's activities.

Retiring from the youth service, he completed a full circle in 1987 by returning to the solicitors where he began, this time to run the general office.

At times his early life mirrored mine - learning shorthand (in both cases as the only males in an otherwise all-girl class) and typing, visits to the pictures, skating at Gorleston Rollerdrome to a live band, nights at the Floral Hall, revelling in attending an Erie Resistor Social Club dance featuring the incomparable Ted Heath and his Music with his star singers and instrumentalists, speedway, holiday at the Butlin's Hotel near Brighton, and two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force beginning at RAF Padgate...

But he had joined the Air Training Corps, which broadened his horizons, gave him a seat on the Yarmouth Council of Youth and proved useful during his RAF National Service. Being youth mayor, a post that paralleled the routine of the borough mayor by being a junior figurehead at teenage and adult events and serving on various bodies, offered an insight into the workings of local democracy and helped him to mature into a responsible citizen.

Also, it earned him a Yarmouth Rotary Club award for service to the community, due for presentation at an Arnolds Restaurant lunch in February 1953. “But a great deal was to happen before that event which was to change my life and those of my family and many others,” ends a chapter, prefacing the next dealing with the great East Coast floods of January 31 that year.

Everyone who experienced them can recall them as if they were yesterday. Here again, the Fortescue/Peggotty carbon paper was between the pages again, for the audience in the Regal Cinema to see Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Bali on the night the flood surged into Yarmouth included Bill and his wife-to-be Patsy...and me and mine. His National Service was finished, I was one month into mine and on my first weekend pass.

Like me, he tried in vain to catch a bus home because Southtown Road was under three feet of water.

Next week, the full Fortescue flood memories.