PUBLISHED: 18:31 10 July 2008 | UPDATED: 11:22 03 July 2010
HAVING lived in Great Yarmouth for almost seven decades, and chronicled its multiple facets for half a century, I was confident of possessing at least a smidgeon of knowledge about our borough.
HAVING lived in Great Yarmouth for almost seven decades, and chronicled its multiple facets for half a century, I was confident of possessing at least a smidgeon of knowledge about our borough. So imagine my surprise when I was hit by three important items completely new to me, a trio as diverse as comic-book hero Dan Dare, Jaguar cars and our medieval fortifications.
I was past comics and into Picturegoer in 1950 when The Eagle was launched, introducing youngsters to Dan Dare, a futuristic spaceman destined to become the most successful character in the history of British comics. His iconic status is confirmed by being featured in an exhibition in London.
A former Peggotty, Steve Snelling, now editor of the Eastern Daily Press Sunday magazine, has told its readers “the nation's most illustrious space traveller owes his existence…to one man's remarkable moral crusade which...can be traced back to his brief spell as a junior curate in wartime Yarmouth.”
The 1940 arrival here of the Rev Marcus Morris, who became the inspiration behind the comic, “was the beginning of a 10-year odyssey that would transform not just his own life but the lives of millions of others around the world.”
Morris, 25, was a chain-smoking, flashily dressed Oxford graduate and a talented dancer. On his journey from his native Lancashire to Yarmouth, his third choice for a curacy, he learned that the woman he hoped to marry had jilted him.
The youth club he established at St Paul's Clergy House was an instant hit. At St Andrew's he formed a children's church. Also, he became a hospital chaplain and, as the German blitz intensified, a fire-watcher.
An article he penned for the Mercury “represented the first stirrings of what would prove a lifelong interest in journalism as well as revealing a rebellious streak and a willingness to challenge authority,” according to Steve Snelling. It was a thinly-veiled assault on churchgoers whom he found “smug, self-satisfied, inhibited, concerned only with attending church on Sundays, and totally uninterested in and incapable of acting as apostles, of spreading the Faith to those they came into daily contact”.
His daughters, Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood, wrote in a biography that their father felt “the practice of Christianity seemed conventional and impotent”. His unconventionality was typified by the fact that during a brief visit to his parents in Lancashire, he had a whirlwind romance with a beautiful actress, Jessica Dunning. The Daily Mirror carried a photograph of their wedding, reporting: “He met Miss Dunning three weeks ago and they became engaged a week later.”
Within a month of leaving Yarmouth, he returned with his new bride, ignoring the disapproval of some churchgoers and enjoying their life in a Wellesley Road flat, visiting the theatre in Norwich and swimming nude in the Broads.
Morris applied to become a forces chaplain, and became a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. According to Steve Snelling: “His Yarmouth curacy had lasted less than a year, though there seems little doubt that those formative months went a long way towards helping shape his thinking, with his focus firmly fixed on the young.”
Soon resigning his commission, he resumed pastoral duties, and in Southport began to hone the editorial skills first evident in Yarmouth. He transformed a parish magazine into a lavish publication circulating across Lancashire, and mused about turning it into a national Christian magazine to wipe out his debts - but that idea was overtaken by another venture eventually to transform not just his life but the lives of millions of youngsters.
“His vision was to create a Christian comic, full of clean and exciting adventures and featuring wholesome heroes as a counter-weight to the flood of ghoulish horror comics pouring in from America,” writes my colleague.
To Morris, much of their content was “deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene”, and he commented: 'It was clear to me that the strip cartoon was capable of development in a way not yet seen in England…and that it
was a new and important
medium of communication...a form which could be used to convey to the child the right kind of standards, values and attitudes, combined with the necessary amount of excitement and adventure.”
So Morris and graphic artist Frank Hampson devised a national newspaper strip whose hero was a tough fighting parson in London's slums; that never passed the dummy stage but developed into a space-age hero.
Dare Dare began as padre of the Interplanetary Space Fleet but abandoned the clerical collar to become a space pilot embodying the Christian values of their new comic, “showing a clear difference between good and evil, with Dan Dare prevailing by intelligence, common sense and determination.”
The first issue of The Eagle sold nearly a million copies and became a publishing phenomenon, with countless commercial spin-offs. The comic endured until 1969, just short of its 1000th edition.
“Morris and Hampson had long-since baled out, though their greatest hero - born of a crusading passion that had its roots in war-ravaged Yarmouth - would re-emerge to enthuse a new generation,” reports Steve Snelling.
The Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain exhibition at the Science Museum in London runs until October 2009. Entry is free. For more information call 0870 870 4868 or visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk
From very British hero to very British car - the Jaguar. Cromer-born designer Malcolm Sayer, who died in 1970, aged 54, joined Jaguar in 1951 and created cars that became the world renowned, including the iconic E-type. In May, a special celebration was marked with a ceremony in Cromer followed by a procession to Yarmouth Grammar (now High) School where a plaque was unveiled; young Sayer learned maths and science there.
My ignorance of Malcolm Sayer is particularly woeful because his father, Gilbert (Sammy) Sayer, was my first form master at the school in 1946 and also taught me - unsuccessfully - art and woodwork! His son and his
family used to spend Easter and summer at his parents' home in Crab Lane, Bradwell.
Gilbert Sayer, who died in 1985, had an austere military bearing and a twinkle in his eye as he inculcated us into grammar school life. His imperious “Stop!” in woodwork class when he spotted a boy using a tool incorrectly brought our activity to an instant halt.
Once, demonstrating how to use a chisel safely, it slipped and cut him badly. Unabashed, he wrapped a handkerchief around the bleeding wound, and the class continued.
Finally, never in my life until recently had I seen the clearly visible medieval tower between Alexandra Road and Deneside, yet it has stood there for seven centuries! It is the Pinnacle Tower, one of the 11 remaining towers of the original 18 in the
1.2 mile town wall.
Its roof was added in 1542, topped by a weather vane in 1680 to announce that it was insured against fire, I understand. Windows were also a later addition. The ancient tower is behind the Deneside premises of BHS that once used it for storage.