Jo'burg? Why it's home from home

PUBLISHED: 17:04 13 December 2007 | UPDATED: 12:01 30 June 2010

THE South African city of Johannesburg has come to the fore at least twice in these later months of 2007, both for hosting international events. In September it staged cricket's Twenty20 World Cup, and a fortnight ago it was the venue for the latest World Aids Day concert headed by Nelson Mandela.

THE South African city of Johannesburg has come to the fore at least twice in these later months of 2007, both for hosting international events. In September it staged cricket's Twenty20 World Cup, and a fortnight ago it was the venue for the latest World Aids Day concert headed by Nelson Mandela.

If any Norfolk folk visiting Johannesburg for either of these had time to meander around its suburbs, they might well have been startled into thinking they had been whisked back to their home county.

But, first, permit me to introduce Ian Thurston, a Gorleston man who emigrated to South Africa in 1981 but returns here to see his parents, John and Monica Thurston, who live on The Walk, linking Lynn and Claydon Groves.

Ian, 65 and their only child, explained: “Maps and geography have always been a bit of a hobby, and I happened to be looking at a map of Cape Town - roughly 1000 miles away from my home in Centurion, which is part of Pretoria - when I stumbled across this mention of Gorleston.

“One day when I got the chance, I flew there, hired a car and found Gorleston Road, on which there was a fire station.”

He snapped the fire station because he knew it would particularly interest his mother, who for nearly 30 years worked in the control room at Great Yarmouth fire station, first in Greyfriars Way behind the town hall when the brigade operated only in the urban borough, then at the current premises in Friars Lane.

In the South African fire station stood an old Dennis fire engine, with the big “cartwheel” at the foot of its turntable ladder still in use.

But that Gorleston Road in Cape Town turned out to be the figurative tip of the iceberg, because in Johannesburg, a half-hour drive from Centurion “on a good day”, he discovered a suburb called Mulbarton where more than a dozen streets bore names with Norfolk links, plus a few across the border in Suffolk. Again, his camera recorded this homage to his home county.

During a roam around Mulbarton, Ian found The Broads, Yarmouth, Walsingham, Blakeney, Kings Lynne (sic), Cromer, Norfolk, Palling, Loddon, Norwich, Bungay, Caister, Methwold...

and Lowestoft. All appeared to be residential roads in good neigh-bourhoods, but in some cases the land was hilly, unlike our flat Norfolk.

He did not know why this was, and I sought in vain to make contact with the local council in the South African Mulbarton (not the one in our own county's village, six miles from Norwich) to enquire about the origins of the suburb's name. My theory was that Mulbarton (SA) was founded and developed by a Norfolk emigrant who bestowed on its streets familiar place-names from “back home” in Blighty.

Probably because English-speaking countries like the US and Canada were settled by immigrants from the home nation, many place names, such as Yarmouth, were duplicated to give their new inhabitants a nostalgic link with their origins. Indeed, Yarmouth was triplicated: for there are three Yarmouths in North America - in Maine, Massachusetts and Nova Scotia - as well as that on the Isle of


As for Ian Thurston, he attended Church Road Infant School and Wroughton Junior School before going to Yarmouth Grammar School but left to enrol at HMS Worcester, the naval training college, then went to sea as a trainee navigator in the merchant navy. When he came ashore, he joined Birds Eye at its central development HQ in South Denes Road, Yarmouth, but moved to the company mink farm and later switched to hatchery management with a major egg producer before responding to an advertisement and heading to South Africa to continue in egg production in 1981.

As the new post gave him little job satisfaction, he changed direction, continuing in management but this time at a factory making filtration cloths that had to be marked and cut before sewing. That is when he became interested in sewing machines, and, after 18 years, he left his job and launched his own business, maintaining sewing machines, which he is still doing.

His three sons and three daughters all live in the East Anglia.

In South Africa he has a friend called Keith Harrison, a contemporary at Yarmouth Grammar. Mr Thurston tells me: “We have always stayed in touch. He too was with Birds Eye and before retirement was in the frozen fish trade in South Africa about 1,000 miles from my home out there.

“He emigrated a year after me in 1982. His South African wife worked at a care home in Addison Road, Gorleston, and he met her during that time, looking after, amongst others, Willie Arnold (a local character), who probably everybody in Gorleston remembers. They now live about 100 miles north of Cape Town, at Vredenburg.”

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