Puffing Billy driver Pop in spotlight

FOR an ordinary sort of working chap, not involved in public life or controversy or fame, it would be hard to imagine that one day, more than a quarter of a century after your death, thousands of newspaper readers would become acquainted with you, not just once but twice.

FOR an ordinary sort of working chap, not involved in public life or controversy or fame, it would be hard to imagine that one day, more than a quarter of a century after your death, thousands of newspaper readers would become acquainted with you, not just once but twice. But that is certainly the situation in which the late Henry Leonard (“Pop”) Gymer has found himself beyond the grave.

In December Mr Gymer was featured in this column as the brother and uncle of two men who perished in mud in the Battle of the Somme, the first world war bloodbath that lasted for 20 weeks and cost the lives of one million Allied and German troops...for no strategic advantage whatsoever.

Mike King, his long-time friend and former neighbour in Lincoln Avenue, Gorleston, was spurred to research the Gymer/Somme episode after Pop's daughter passed to him an archive of artefacts, like campaign medals and photographs. As a result of that column being published, another of my regular correspondents, Robin Hambling, of Lawn Avenue in Great Yarmouth, wrote to me with more information about Mr Gymer whom he called “a sort of adopted uncle.”

According to Robin: “His wife Margaret and my mum Mary worked in service together. My mother came down from Nottingham at a very young age and had no relatives in Yarmouth, so Uncle Len gave her away (when she married). He was a giant of a man, standing head and shoulders above everybody else in the wedding photos, but very much a gentle one.

“I can picture him now when we visited them, sitting alongside the kitchen grate,with Blutcher the cat on his lap. He often was reading Titbits magazine - not a rude one that the name might imply! He never had much to say but always had a bright red face with a big smile.

“I loved going there as he always had lots of books for me to read, many about railways - I was keen even then.”

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Mr Hambling, who lost contact with the Gymer family after Pop's death, added: “Did you know he was normally the driver of Puffing Billy, that big square engine that hauled trucks up and down the quayside?”

These two old friends of Pop Gymer had never met nor heard of one another, but I have put them in touch so they can chat about their mutual pal. I am confident they will have much to discuss, if only by e-mail.

Mr King, who now lives in Lowestoft, confirms: “Yes, Pop did drive the tram locos on the quay but, in his lengthy railway career, he drove just about everything everywhere including the latest diesels!”

And he added that Pop's daughter Lily “had the largest cat I have ever seen and his name was Rhimsky. This was about 1960. I took a photo of it and Lily had it enlarged and framed!” Moreover, just to confuse the issue, Henry “Pop” Gymer was known by many people as Lenny...

As older Yarmouthians will know, there was a network of freight lines laid mainly in roads that linked the Vauxhall and Beach termini with the quays so that fish and other goods could be easily transported to and from the riverside. Most parts functioned from 1847 to 1976. On the way, spurs were built into business premises, like Lacons brewery's bottling store on North Quay, Wenn's box-making premises and brewer Steward and Patteson's premises near Stonecutters Quay.

In the 1990s the late Stephen Brewster Daniels, who chronicled various aspects of our borough, published an account of the quay railway based on interviews with Ivor Davies, aged 92, whose career as a railwayman included driving trains along it. Ivor died soon after the interviews; Stephen passed me a copy of the article.

A track led from Beach Station parallel with North Denes Road before crossing it to run along the embankment bordering Beaconsfield Road and going over Northgate Street by bridge, descending to a level crossing and entering sidings and a coal distribution yard, all in the vicinity of Ormond, Alderson and Garrison Roads, then proceeding past Laughing Image Corner to connect with a line from Vauxhall across the now dilapidated bridge, the future of which is currently in the news.

Time was when all traffic south of the White Swan public house to the Vauxhall connection point had to be horse-drawn or manually handled. The animals were stabled at the coal yard.

Along North Quay the line hugged close to buildings on the river side. Road traffic had to be halted while the trains trundled past the Haven Bridge; there was a branch to the quay area where the London passenger boats used to berth, doubling back to the base of the bridge.

On South Quay the railway broadened into triple-track, with sidings into King's scrap-metal yard and the Trinity House depot. A spur linked with the Fishwharf, but the main line passed the back of buildings, where there was a fish loading platform, before terminating opposite the lower ferry. Most of the lines laid along roads were flush with the surface.

Ivor Davis recalled that in 1919 the trains made six or seven trips seven days a week, but by the 1930s there were only three each weekday and none on Sundays.

In my youth a “flag boy” walked ahead of the trains whose speed was limited to 8mph. He carried a red flag or lantern, plus a bar to lever points. The locomotives were tram engines, latterly diesel-powered, towing trucks often filled with coal for ships and, in autumn, the herring fleet. In later years I believe Birds Eye trucks were regularly hauled between the frozen foods factory and the rail stations.

After the quay railway became redundant, most of the lines were removed in the 1980s although the sharp-eyed might well still spot the odd little length.

As motor vehicles became more numerous on our roads, there were regularly problems with parked cars blocking the quay trains' progress, their owners not realising that the lines were still active, albeit infrequently. Police, railwaymen and willing helpers would “bump” the offending vehicles clear of the tracks, sometimes a hard and long-winded affair often captured for the Mercury by the late Les Gould, our long-serving staff photographer.

In 1970, a new Rolls-Royce defied the efforts of police and railway employees when it parked too near the line between the Haven Bridge and town hall and prevented a train laden with scrap metal from reaching the ship waiting to receive it. For at least two hours police searched for the car owner, tried hundreds of keys and even put on a strong-man act, all to no avail.

In the end the train driver reversed and shunted the wagons into a siding on Hall Quay and took the engine back to Vauxhall Station. Soon afterwards three men got into the car and drove away.