Tanks for the first world war memory

THE name Cecilia Ebbage has appeared umpteen times in the Great Yarmouth Mercury over the years, for she was an indefatigable letter writer to both the editor and to me, her contributions to my column usually first-hand memories of the borough and residents from an era long before most of her readers were born.

Alas, today is the last time Through the Porthole will include her reminiscences because she died last month on the eve of her 95th birthday. Mrs Ebbage, of Lovewell Road, Gorleston, was one of the old school, a description intended in the nicest possible way.

I will miss her regular correspondence and always enjoyed reading her recollections – hand-written by a woman who had obviously been taught penmanship at school, was unfailingly polite, never rancorous but always good-humoured, interesting and largely accurate, although she would sometimes telephone with qualms that she might have been misleading or awry and wanted to amend this or that before I committed it to print for the Mercury readership.

In her last letter to me, published here today, she wrote: “The only snag now with me is that my memory is fading and, quite honestly, I do get a bit muddled.” But seldom did I need to tweak her words.

Besides, not only are there few folk hereabouts old enough to recall that pre-war era so clearly as to be able to contradict her, but also nostalgia is an inexact science, a reminder I often repeat in my columns. Each of us clearly remembers this or that...but with subtle differences.

Using Celia Ebbage’s final letter as the basis for today’s feature is my little tribute to my long-time friend – but, despite correspondence and chats on the phone, we had never met, and I suppose we could pass one another in the street without a flicker of recognition.

“Another little matter,” she wrote, “is the metal first world war tank that stood on the pavement at the corner of Regent Street and Hall Quay in Yarmouth, always a reminder of our then heroes. This was removed in the mid-Thirties. I wonder where it is now. The emplacement where the tank stood was then planted with flowers until a few years ago when new paving was put down.”

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All before my time but, fortunately, Caister writer and historian Colin Tooke was able to answer the query. He produced a cutting from the 1919 Mercury recording the civic ceremony when the Great War veteran – named Kiwi – was formally handed over from the military to Yarmouth and became part of the town-scape.

The 30-ton tank had been ferried by rail to Beach Station and trundled under its own power through the streets to Hall Quay. There had been an early hiccup, however.

“Just as she started, a plate in the endless track was found to be defective but the Tommies soon effected a repair and the uncouth Behemoth waddled sedately along our muddy roads between wondering throngs of townspeople, many of whom saw with their own eyes for the first time the mysterious land-ships which solved the problem of breaking the German lines across Europe,” reported the Mercury.

“There were others who probably had followed the tanks into action, and they watched the unpleasant reminder with mixed feelings.”

On Hall Quay, before the tank was finally settled on to its plinth, its top became a bizarre platform for the handing-over. The mayor and mayoress, their deputies, Yarmouth’s MP and others involved had to clamber up ladders to be in position for the formalities: an Army officer conveyed it to the MP who in turn passed possession to the civic delegation representing the borough. Then the veteran, “bearing shot holes and other scars of action”, was manoeuvred into its permanent position, and later “its valuable six-cylinder engine was taken away.” It did not stand flat, but “reared on the ornamental base as if in the act of moving over the parapet of a trench.”

Near the tank, which once was armed with five Lewis guns, reposed a German gun and mines as a memorial of the Great War and Yarmouth’s part in that vast struggle of the nations.

The Mercury also told its readers: “Upon a brass plate to be affixed will be this inscription: ‘Presented by the National War Savings Committee to the citizens of Great Yarmouth in recognition of the readiness with which they lent their money to the country in the financial campaigns carried out by the local War Savings Committee during the Great War 1914-18’.”

According to Mr Tooke, “In 1929 work started to change the road layout on Hall Quay in preparation for the new Haven Bridge and the tank was taken away for scrap in June of that year.”

He also believes that Yarmouth was not unique in being presented with a tank but it happened in other towns and cities to acknowledge their financial contributions to the war effort.

Mrs Ebbage enjoyed my autumn jottings about Ferryside, the former gentleman’s residence on the Gorleston-Southtown border that served as council offices and the borough register office for years until October; she recalled here seeing Col Edward Combe, who had it built. Although still occupied by local government, the building’s long-term future remains undecided, I believe.

Retired registrar Trevor Nicholls, who worked in Ferryside for 43 years until 2008, has noted that Ferryside and Koolunga – nearby in High Road - “are the last remaining substantial houses in the old county borough west of the river. Built for occupation by large prosperous families with servants, the key to survival into the present century has been adaptability to modern circumstances.

“Down the years Ferryside has been so knocked about, walls have been put up and others taken down, it must be standing by force of habit!

“Other comparable properties, long gone, were Elmhurst on Lowestoft Road which became Gorleston Super Holiday Camp; The Grange, which became Gorleston Hospital in 1937 (the site now occupied by the Newberry Clinic); Woodlands, on the High Street-School Lane corner, the site now occupied by the ‘1970s awful’ precinct; and the house which stood in what is now Priory Gardens, the coach-house alone remaining as a gardeners’ hut.

“All these houses stood on the original main road through Gorleston.”

Trevor’s observation would have sparked memories for Mrs Ebbage...and a welcome letter to me.