Gorleston pub mural hidden to preserve it

GENTLY DOES IT: artist Malcolm Bennett-Smith removing nicotine stains and varnish from the mural in

GENTLY DOES IT: artist Malcolm Bennett-Smith removing nicotine stains and varnish from the mural in the Belle Vue Tavern in Gorleston in 1972. - Credit: Archant

It has been far from plain sailing for the Great Yarmouth sailing drifter Edward Charles Bonney since she was launched 135 years ago. Well, not the actual fishing boat: a painting of her that seems to have suffered as many ups and downs as the Edward Charles Bonney herself did in rough seas.

EARLY DAYS: the Belle Vue on Gorleston riverside in the 19th century when it was still a hotel.

EARLY DAYS: the Belle Vue on Gorleston riverside in the 19th century when it was still a hotel. - Credit: Archant

Her picture spent its existence inside a public house, for it was once a centre-piece in the bar of the Belle Vue Tavern on Quay Road in Gorleston, familiar to regulars and fascinating to visitors.

The real Edward Charles Bonney had been fishing from Yarmouth for only two years when she was the subject of this sizeable mural painted in oils in 1883, showing her heading out of the piers, her dark sails billowing in a stiff wind.

The artist was an impoverished local resident named R Lowry Lomax. His fee? Apparently he was not bothered about receiving money for essentials like housing and food: all he asked for was unlimited free pints of beer!

How many he supped as he executed his mural was not recorded. I wonder if he made the work last as long as possible while the pints kept flowing...

IN FULL SAIL: the Yarmouth sailing drifter Edward Charles Bonney leaves harbour in this 1883 mural.

IN FULL SAIL: the Yarmouth sailing drifter Edward Charles Bonney leaves harbour in this 1883 mural. - Credit: Archant

Down the decades the picture gradually became obscured by nicotine from customers’ pipes and cigarettes in the busy bar and also by nine coats of varnish brushed on liberally to try to preserve it.

In 1972 the Mercury’s veteran staff photographer Les Gould and I visited the Belle Vue (French for “good view”, an accurate description as it looks directly out of the harbour’s mouth) to record the painstaking skills of amateur artist Malcolm Bennett- Smith as he did restoration work on the oil-colour after removing the rogue nicotine and varnish.

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Thirty-five years later, during refurbishment work, the mural was discovered behind a brick wall at the Belle Vue; it had been hidden during earlier renovations but someone obviously was anxious not to destroy the picture by knocking down the interior wall.

Like many other pubs, the Belle Vue closed in recent years but reopened eight months ago under new ownership and a new name – the Celt Free House, a title that appears to have little or no local connection. There has been a thorough transformation to give it a light, bright modern and comfortable look.

But, is the Edward Charles Bonney mural still on the premises? If it is, is it on show despite being a bit out of kilter with the swish décor?

“When we undertook the renovation we did find the mural that you are referring to,” I am told by The Celt Free House’s Shane Shanahan. “It was painted directly on to the chimney breast and had been exposed by a previous owner of the pub who, I believe, was working on funding and donations to have the painting fully restored.

“Unfortunately this never happened.”

Subsequently a couple took over the Belle Vue but their stay was only short. Before leaving, they vandalised the mural, he alleges.

Shane continued: “When we first started the work we found the vandalised painting covered by a fixed sheet. After doing some research of our own, we found out about the painting and its history. Keen on the history of the building, we would have liked to have kept it and made a feature of it but, sadly, it’s in a bad way - the damage was caused with gloss paint, and the expense involved in restoring it would have been far more than our budget could stretch, so we had to make the decision to close it in, which we took great care in doing to avoid any further damage.

“We have many photos we took during the renovations of the mural and the damage that was caused.

“We also partly renovated the original Belle Vue sign that was hanging outside which is a very similar painting to the mural. We have hung it on the wall as a little reminder of the history of the pub and a small consolation for losing the main painting.”

In his final few years Father Peggotty – retired fisherman and later skipper of the Eastern Princess pleasure tripper - moved house to Pier Road and used the Belle Vue a few steps away as his local, enjoying his pint of mild and a game of cards – cribbage and euchre, I believe – with his mates.

In his 2006 book Time Gentlemen Please, local historian and author Colin Tooke records that originally the building was Belle Vue House in 1876 but soon dropped “House” for “Hotel” and became a lodging house but swiftly changed “Hotel” for “Tavern” in 1883.

It was 67 years before it obtained its full licence, in 1950, taking that formerly held by the Ferry Hotel on South Quay in Yarmouth until 1941.

Colin records that one landlord, Wilfred Burgess, was also a member of the Gorleston Rocket Company, “often being winched by breeches buoy to wrecks off the beach.”

There was another name change for the pub: in 1981 it became the Belle Vue Singers, but it reverted to Belle Vue Tavern.

I cannot resist passing on Colin’s titbit that: “The famous clown, Whimsical Walker, lived next to the Belle Vue for many years where he ran a shooting gallery called Peggotty’s Hut. He claimed to be the oldest working clown in the world.”

By complete coincidence, from his home in Australia ex-Gorlestonian Arthur Bensley e-mails me a photograph of the 1907-08 Gorleston St Andrew’s football team which includes his relative, Wilfred Burgess, “landlord of Belle Vue Tavern from 1936 until his death in the early 1960s.”

“Aussie” Arthur also mentions a Gorleston public house I had never heard of: the Earl Grey, which sounds more like posh tea rooms. It was in the High Street, closing in 1934. The site is now occupied by funeral directors Arthur Jary & Sons.