Lots of interest still in autographs of long-gone stars

WHAT links these people: Alexander Graham Bell, Sarah Bernhardt, Beau Brummell, Grace Darling, Charles Dickens, Walt Disney, W G Grace, Bela Lugosi, Harry Houdini, Martin Luther King, Horatio Nelson, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa, The Three Stooges, Glenn Miller, Leon Trotsky, Andy Warhol and Orville Wright?

I could have added dozens more, all famous, but even if I had included everybody listed, I guarantee that the answer would still have eluded every reader. For the only common denominator is that in the past two centuries they had signed letters, photographs or historical documents that were lots at an autograph auction in London in March.

Until I spotted an advertisement in a national newspaper, I had not realised that there was at least one auctioneer specialising in the authenticated signatures of the famous. One can but speculate on how autographs keep coming to light in sufficient quantities for there to be regular auction sales.

I doubt if many – indeed, if any – of today’s youngsters receive an autograph book as a birthday or Christmas gift whereas in my day nearly all of us had one, usually with pastel-coloured pages of varying hues...and the donor writing on page one: “By hook or by crook, I’ll be first in this book” - with somebody else penning a similar one at the back but swapping “first” for “last”.

And there was the inevitable classic: “2YYUR, 2YYUB, ICUR2YY4ME” - decoded, it reads: “Too wise you are, too wise you be. I see you are too wise for me.”

There are plenty of autograph hunters still around, of course – just watch any red-carpet event involving celebrities, or a top sporting fixture, to see them thrusting programmes or scraps of paper and a pen at the passing stars. Do the hunters just collect them, sell them on E-Bay, or submit them for inclusion as a lot in a specialist auction?

My autograph book, long gone, was smudged by oil, grease and cinder dust as postwar Yarmouth Bloaters speedway riders scribbled their indecipherable signatures. One page contained legendary Gorleston ex-international footballer Bert “Sailor” Brown. A disgruntled airman stationed at the barrage balloon site overlooking Gorleston railway station during the war penned: “Two months here – two months too long!” It could have been worse, I would have told him today, but I was only a little lad then and obliged not to be cheeky to my elders and betters.

Most Read

Although my old autograph album is long gone (unless it found its way into an autograph auction), I still have a book of autographs. Well, to be truthful, it is a published book about Great Yarmouth’s history in which people left their signatures on pages.

Yarmouth is an Antient <<SUBS, CORRECT SPELLING>> Town was written by borough librarian and curator Alfred Hedges and published by the Corporation in 1959 to commemorate the granting of a charter to the town by King John in 1209. I believe a copy was given to all borough schoolchildren as a keepsake.

A revised version – expanded, glossier and updated – by Michael Boon and Frank Meeres was produced in 2001, copies being given to older pupils as a Millennium gift; the then mayor, Bert Collins, hoped it “will encourage future generations to learn about Great Yarmouth and, perhaps, inspire young people to further their own cultural development.”

That later edition was already on my bookshelves, but I could not resist spending a couple of quid on the original when it was on sale in the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Gorleston High Street, not only because I wanted to complete the pair but mainly due to my fascination with the fact that the the inside cover (a picture of a busy river scene near the Haven Bridge 200 years earlier) and an otherwise blank page were covered with autographs.

There were about 40, many in pen-and-ink, others in ball pen, one in pencil. Most were adult signatures, one or two were children’s. A couple were spoof – like “Fred Crun (a Goons character, if I recall correctly) of Caister, alias R Waller” and “Lord Hacon of Caister.”

Those two concoction signatures pointed a Caister connection...but in 1959 Caister was still outside the borough of Yarmouth and part of the Blofield and Flegg rural district; it did not become part of the expanded Yarmouth until local government reorganisation in 1974. Alfred Hedges’ original was reprinted in 1962 and 1973 – both before Caister, along with other villages across the borough border, were incorporated.

So, why was this 1959 copy autographed prolifically? To whom did it belong? I have faith in Porthole Power to produce answers from readers.

My guess, for what it is worth, is that it was a copy given to a schoolchild as part of the original issue in 1959, and was signed by classmates - and perhaps teachers too, which might account for the fact that some signatories used ball-point pens while others wrote with fountain pens.

Or perhaps it belonged to a member of a youth group, with adult leaders autographing it (the name Fortescue, one of the signatories, might well have links with the late Bill Fortescue, a prominent local youth worker and leader who was a Caister resident).

If everyone in class or club had a copy, did they all sign one another’s?

The book was autographed by (so far as I can decipher signatures): P L Mancini, G Wong, P Seamens (“Satch”), ? Bullen(?), J Welsby, ? Hacon, P Hayes, G Harvey, A D Nicholson, G B Masters, Bert Haylett(?), R T P Sheen Esq, B C Wall(?), Ricky Budd, W G Gladden, A G J Lane, Duncan Stephens, C Fortescue, R Farman, C Watson, Terry Blyth, T Moore, B D Bland, Ivor Hacon, Lord Twitchett, Lord Hacon of Caister, J Welsby, Fred Crun alias R Waller, Mary Bane, G Emmett(?), ? Powell, B C Ward, Janet Poston, Wendy Godsell, ? Lister, A J (“Daddy”) Batley and Catherine Neald(?).

The solution to my poser is likely to be within the knowledge of whoever gave Yarmouth is an Antient Town to the British Heart Foundation shop in Gorleston to be sold for charity.