Gone forever, our last Great War link

BY its very nature, a nostalgia-orientated column like Through the Porthole is seldom going to be topical, and yet coincidence has now resulted in it achieving just that.

BY its very nature, a nostalgia-orientated column like Through the Porthole is seldom going to be topical, and yet coincidence has now resulted in it achieving just that.

Last month, I criticised a celebrity historian for claiming wrongly on television that London was the first place in Britain ever to be bombed from the air, when in fact it was Great Yarmouth that earned that dubious distinction. Within a week, the death occurred of a centenarian who was here when it was raided 94 years ago and was the last person who could clearly remember it still.

He was Henry Allingham, considered the world's oldest man when he died, aged 113. His death followed a hectic final few years in which he became much-travelled, accorded celebrity status as he formed the last link between the 1914-18 war and today.

He was the final survivor of not only the greatest sea battle of that conflict - Jutland - but of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force, and had experienced the bloody nightmare that was the Western Front.

Despite a life spanning three centuries, he remained articulate and sharp-minded to the end. One place he visited in his “farewell tour” was Yarmouth, which figured significantly early in his life. That visit was in 2005, when he was formally welcomed by the mayor, Michael Taylor, and treated as a VIP at our Time and Tide museum.

During his two years here as a young air mechanic at the South Denes base of the Royal Naval Air Service, that unexpected Zeppelin raid took place, killing a man and woman in the St Peter's Plain area, injuring others and damaging property.

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On his 2005 visit, he said he still vividly recollected the 1915 attack, but added: “There are some things you want to forget but you never forget.”

One museum display chronicled the exploits of Flight Lt Egbert Cadbury, who was decorated after taking off from Yarmouth and shooting down a Zeppelin in a later attack. Mr Allingham remembered: “I did quite a lot with him. He went on to marry a vicar's daughter at Gorleston.” That bride's father was the Rev Forbes Phillips, a controversial, flamboyant incumbent.

Mr Allingham often cadged flights with the pilots. Another he remembered was commanding officer Douglas Oliver, whom he watched winning a DSO for his single-handed attack on German cruisers that were shelling Yarmouth. Also, it is claimed that Mr Allingham helped to strap pilot Christopher Wood into his open cockpit so he did not tumble out head first when he performed the first loop-the-loop!

Mr Allingham was in barracks at South Denes, near the site of the present Greenacre School. While here he met farm worker's daughter Dorothy and they married in 1919 after he returned from the war safely, despite being bombed from the air and shelled land and sea simultaneously. They had been wed for 53 years when she died.

In the Battle of Jutland Mr Allingham was not in one of the huge dreadnought warships but on board the armed trawler Kingfisher, whose seaplane was shadowing the German fleet.

Apparently, he was unaware he had been in this mighty confrontation between the two fleets until Kingfisher returned to her Yarmouth base and he heard a clergyman offering a prayer of thanks for the great victory of Jutland.

He said here: “I have always loved Yarmouth, and some of the happiest days of my life have been in Norfolk. It is just bootiful.”

Incidentally, one of the beach-side air sheds survived on the denes for decades, being used by the borough council for off-season storage of summer items such as rowing boats. It was finally removed some years ago, perhaps because it was in the way of impending outer harbour work. Despite its significance, it had no special protected status.

Another recent death was that of Vince Powell, whose work helped to make the nation in general laugh - and Yarmouth audiences in particular in 1974. He was a scriptwriter with a wealth of situation comedies and soap scripts to his credit, but his most famous creation was Love Thy Neighbour, a blatantly politically incorrect series that was at the time the most viewed show on television. Audiences loved the sparring between a bigoted Englishman and his new, black neighbours.

Yarmouth audiences had the chance to see the stage adaptation of the series through the summer of 1974 at the Windmill Theatre, with Jack Smethurst reprising his role as the bigot and Kate Williams as his wife.

Eleven years earlier, comedian Harry Worth took top billing for the summer at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, returning to the resort in 1970 to star at the Britannia, and he could attribute his national stardom to Vince Powell, who co-wrote the BBC Television series, Here's Harry, that ran from 1960 to 1965 and turned the bespec-tacled comic into a household name.

On the Wellington, Harry's principal supporting turn was Canadian baritone Edmund Hockridge, whose death at 89 I reported here in May. He was a leading man in several hit stage musicals in the West End and on tour.