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Latest book is brimful of facts

PUBLISHED: 17:22 19 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 03 July 2010

The first golf club in Norfolk, situated between Yarmouth and Caister, in 1898

The first golf club in Norfolk, situated between Yarmouth and Caister, in 1898

WHERE next? The question comes to mind when I am enjoying the latest book by Caister-based author and historian Colin Tooke. No doubt, even at this early stage after the publication of his Great Yarmouth: The New Town, he is already mulling over his next offering, but one wonders how many more aspects of our borough remain for him to scrutinise for our education and pleasure.

WHERE next? The question comes to mind when I am enjoying the latest book by Caister-based author and historian Colin Tooke. No doubt, even at this early stage after the publication of his Great Yarmouth: The New Town, he is already mulling over his next offering, but one wonders how many more aspects of our borough remain for him to scrutinise for our education and pleasure.

So far, the two dozen books produced by this most prolific of our local writers have embraced the holiday industry, herring fishery, both world wars, Caister, the Admiral Lord Nelson connection, public houses and brewing, Yarmouth town centre, our entertainment down the decades, the rows and the old town, the 20th century...

One of the strengths of his books is their wealth of old photographs, and there can be only a finite number of pictures of yesteryear in his archives and those of his fellow collectors. My earnest hope, and probably that of his readers who eagerly await his by-now annual publication, is that we have underestimated not only the number of his old postcards yet to be included but also his ability to find subjects he has hitherto unexamined. Long may this author find rich veins of Yarmouth and Gorleston still to mine!

As for his new work, an easy read with no fewer than 67 illustrations, he explains: “Most local history books about Great Yarmouth concentrate on either the area inside the town wall, the old medieval town, or the Victorian and Edwardian seafront. A part of the town that has long been neglected is the northern end... an area that covers the part of the town from the town wall to the borough boundary at White Gates Farm, a distance of about one and a half miles, an area of 447 acres.

“This is almost half the total area of the town on the east side of the river.” New Town evolved into Newtown as recently as 120 years ago.

That land beyond Yarmouth's old north gate and tiny Caister “was for hundreds of years a desolate and infrequently visited area”, flood prone, and with ownership often disputed. Market gardens there provided fresh produce for the townsfolk, windmills - one of which was moved on rollers from near Crown Road - ground the flour for bakers.

Before the denes attracted development, they were a wildlife haven, particularly for migratory and rare birds; dealers shot or trapped them, and Yarmouth taxidermists flourished, for collecting was big business, reports the author. Lime kilns near Garrison Walk converted river chalk into quicklime for building. Cinder ovens by Tar Works Road produced coke for blacksmiths and iron workers, tar being an important by-product.

Criminals were executed there until 1813 (allegedly, once 14 were hanged simultaneously), and the tarred and feathered body of a pirate hanged in London was suspended in an iron cage on the denes as a deterrent to others.

Soldiers trained on its wastes, an anti-invasion battery was built in 1782, and a 1,000-yard 15-target rifle range for military and civilian use was established, its popularity proved by the fact that in 1913 no less than three tons of spent bullets were removed from the site and sold as scrap.

It had all changed towards the end of the 19th century when the town, needing to expand to accommodate a growing population, had to look northwards, and the development of the barren denes began in earnest. There had already been a little building along the main road outside the town wall - for example, the workhouse on the site that became the Northgate Hospital, and the first golf course in Norfolk in 1882, although this sporting enterprise stuttered badly when Thomas Brown, superintendent of the Royal Naval Hospital, received no replies when he wrote to the local newspaper hoping to attract gentlemen to join him, so he founded it alone - and appointed himself to all the executive offices and the captaincy.

As decades passed, there followed extensive new housing in long terraces with corner shops, public houses, places of worship, two recreation grounds (because of the sandy soil's unsuitability for grass, road sweepings and soil dredged from the river had to be spread at 1,000 tons an acre across 25 acres), cemetery extensions, Beach railway station, three schools. Later the Avenues pioneered individual homes and tree-lined roads in the Garden Suburb.

Many of the big houses on Marine Parade North (it altered its name to North Drive in 1934) became hotels, and unobtrusive holiday attractions were created. In 1920, the racecourse moved from South to North Denes. Council housing was provided. After the last war the new Seashore caravan park proved popular with holidaymakers.

Harking back to Beach Station, the book reports that because of its isolation from our other two termini, in 1877 the first locomotives and rolling stock were transported from Vauxhall via the street tramway along North Quay to the Town Hall, then pulled by horses along a portable track up Regent Street, through the Market Place and down St Nicholas Road to the new terminus.

Another interesting snippet is that the Iron Duke public house was opened, despite being incomplete, in 1940 to serve the soldiers manning the anti-aircraft guns on the North Denes. In 1948 it was finished, its counters made from teak from Admiral Jellicoe's flagship, HMS Iron Duke, that led the British fleet in the epic Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The book also details the important role Newtown played in the 1939-45 war, and the damage and loss of life it sustained. On a personal note, for a few months in 1940 I was a pupil at the Alderman Swindell Infants School where accommodation was limited because it was an ARP (air raid precautions) post. At times we joined North Denes children for lessons in the Grammar School buildings - disused because scholars and staff had been evacuated to Retford - but shortage of teachers meant sometimes we attended only mornings or afternoons (and even Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays one week and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the next), with joint headmaster Horace Reynolds trying to be in three places at once.

Much of that scenario is recounted in this excellent publication which is brimful of interesting facts (£8.99 from local bookshops or the author at 14 Hurrell Road, Caister NR30 5XG).


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