Further Twist on Family Quest

YES, one thing does lead to another, but in the case of this column, it takes some twists and turns on the way. I was penning the final reader contribution on Great Yarmouth-born radio soprano Helen Hill, a favourite with listeners to the BBC in the 1940s when this unexpected change of direction occurred.

In recent weeks we have been seeking to establish Helen Hill’s family background hereabouts, with a difference of opinion (the imprecise stuff of nostalgia) over which particular Hill family was hers. Undisputed was her early professional appearance at Gorleston Pavilion in 1928 and 1929, the first two years of the Gorleston Gossips concert party’s 10 summers there.

A telling contribution to the discussion arrived from Mrs Margaret Bowles, of Onslow Avenue, Yarmouth, who writes: “Helen Hill was actually born Nellie Powell, daughter of William and Eleanor Powell, having just one brother, Ernest – my father.

“After the death of their father at a young age, Eleanor remarried into the Hill family. I don’t know the Christian name of her husband but it was not the butcher, Arthur Hill (of Salisbury Road). Nellie’s name was changed to Hill and she grew up with a step-brother and two step-sisters. Her voice was trained locally by Dr Haydon Hare, and she took the name of Helen Hill as her stage name.”

I think Dr Hare was organist and choirmaster at St Nicholas’s Parish Church in Yarmouth as well as being a music teacher.

Then came a letter from Robin Woodruff, of Costessey, near Norwich, reporting that Helen Hill “was my cousin twice removed, once removed from my mother Florence Jay and first cousin to my grandfather, Arthur Jay, of Acle.”

To substantiate his claim, he has sent me family trees, old photographs...and a copy of the cover of the sheet music of Come to Gorleston, a foxtrot featured by The Gossips of 1929, the concert party in which Helen appeared at Gorleston Pavilion, making her debut in its 1928 show there.

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It was that sheet music cover that sent me off at a tangent. The composers of Come to Gorleston were Robert Rutherford and Frank Wilcock, the latter being her husband, the Gossips’ pianist.

Wilcock and Rutherford? That rang a figurative bell.

Down the decades I have been in the audience of umpteen shows, from big-star extravaganzas to humble concert parties at the Pavilion, Wellington Pier in the summer Showtime from 1949-54 before it turned to big names with Ronnie Ronalde starring in 1955, on Cromer Pier, at Lowestoft’s Sparrows Nest and Arcadia...and in many of those the programme included sketches credited to “Wilcock and Rutherford”.

Unquestionably it was the Come to Gorleston composers whose sketches were used in theatres up and down the country. If you have ever been in the audience at an end-of-pier type of show, you will probably have watched a Wilcock and Rutherford sketch. It underlines their contribution to variety that half a dozen of their scripts are included in a massive archive of music hall written material known as the Jimmy Logan Papers, assembled by the late Scots comedian.

A photograph of the Gorleston Gossips cast of 1928, given to me long ago by the late Bertie Tinkler, a local entertainments historian, includes the names of the cast penned on the back. It included Frank and Helen – and also Robert Rutherford. The two men obviously maintained their partnership for many years, and their sketches kept many an end-of-pier audience chuckling.

Now, back to Mr Woodruff, who was sent my column about Helen Hill by his cousin Ruby Shiels, of Gorleston. “I first became aware of Helen Hill as a young boy in the 1940s/50s when my mother would say, ‘Keep quiet! That’s my cousin singing on the radio’, probably midway in the comedy programme Much Binding in the Marsh.”

Helen was the daughter of Ernest Powell (1882-1907) and Ellen Jay (1883-1935) and was born Nellie Edith Powell (1903-1983) in Howard Street North, Yarmouth, and wed Frank Wilcock (1887-1968) in 1928. Possibly she arrived at her stage name by rearranging her mother’s Christian name of Ellen, he writes.

As for the surname Hill, Robin writes: “I believe there is some connection with the Hills in Gorleston as my late mother and grandfather used to eat at the restaurant: I was under the impression they got a free meal! However, I have been unable to establish the connection.”

In fact, Nellie Powell’s father, Ernest, died a young man, and his widow remarried into the Hill family. Frank Wilcock and Helen Hill had two daughters, Mavis and Wendy.

Mr Woodruff denies my suggestion that Helen Hill’s brother was the intrepid aviator, stunt pilot and volunteer soldier Frank Hill, also of Gorleston.

He also tells me: There were members of the Jay family living in Gorleston until a few years ago, among them Fred Jay who worked at the Matthes bakery in Englands Lane – “I remember these from my childhood when I stayed in Priory Street in the summer holidays.”

He would love to hear from anyone with any information whatsoever about Helen Hill to contact him on 01603 743623.

I am also obliged to 84-year-old Cecil Tennant, of Selwyn Road, Gorleston, who worked for the Hill family many years ago. “I did meet her once when she came down when her father died about 1940,” he says. “The family had businesses all over the place.”

He says that in Regent Street was a nurserymen’s shop run by daughter Betty Hill, next to the Scotch Wool Shop where Poundstretcher trades today; this was tied in with the family’s Hopelyn Nurseries in the old Cemetery Lane in Gorleston/Bradwell.

Mr Hill was a master baker and had premises in Beach Road in Gorleston, a restaurant in Pier Walk opposite the Pavilion, another in Yarmouth’s King Street, later acquired by Matthes, and an ice-cream business with men on tricycles going round the streets and holiday areas...

The Hill family home was on Pier Walk, Mr Tennant assures me. Mr Hill’s brother, Arthur, was the butcher on Salisbury Road.