The Victorian man who turned Great Yarmouth into a leading resort

A CENTURY after his death, Great Yarmouth still owes him a debt of gratitude for his anticipation, imagination, investment, integrity and acumen that together helped to mould the town into a major popular holiday resort.

Although leisure patterns have altered immeasurably since, and the legacy of his involvement has largely eroded, John William Nightingale was a driving force for good, even if his name and achievements are probably unrecognised in the holiday industry in this 21st century.

Despite the gravitas of the prose in his Mercury obituary in 1911, the writer felt justified in bestowing upon him a soubriquet more in line with current styles.

He wrote: “So closes a career of remarkable foresight, sound judgement, untiring energy, infinite capacity, and princely powers of organisation.

“If ever the term Prince of Business was deserved by any man, it was by Mr J W Nightingale whose achievements have been on great and spacious lines. His enterprises were vast, yet the cares of his position were seldom displayed. Whatever was pressing upon that active vigilant brain, there was always the cheery word and the pleasant smile. He was never idle and never beaten.”

Mr Nightingale was 60 when he died after a protracted illness. By his death “the town today is considerably poorer.” In less than three decades in Yarmouth, his contribution was immense.

The Mercury editor penned this tribute: “It is not too much to say that he was one of the men who made Yarmouth what it is today as a seaside resort. One does not overlook or deprecate the efforts of the corporate body (borough council) in this direction but, unless they had been seconded by Mr Nightingale and others, they would not have been so effective in results as has been the case.

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“To Mr Nightingale belongs the credit of it being possible that large excursion parties could visit Yarmouth with the certainty that the necessary catering arrangements would be all that could be desired. Then, too, he has provided our visitors with just such amusements as holiday folk demand, and so in this two-fold direction it may truly be said that Mr Nightingale was largely instrumental in bringing Yarmouth to the position it occupies today as a seaside resort.”

Mr Nightingale’s Mercury obituary read: “Death has removed from our midst the most active, vigorous and alert personality of our time. As refreshment contractor and hotel proprietor, and as director of theatres and other places of amusement, he had few equals, and his fame is known all over the country.

“His ability was striking, and in a little over a quarter of a century it has carried him into a position of eminence in the theatrical and business world, for he died possessed of the Aquarium and Theatre Royal, and the Victoria Hotel, into all of which he infused the life-giving elements of his resource, talent and activity.”

He arrived in Yarmouth in 1882 from London, where he had been associated professionally with major catering enterprises.

His move to the East Coast was to take over the ailing Aquarium as lessee, but he transformed it “by wise changes and a quick perception of the public taste,” buying it outright after nine years. It was the springboard to his wider success.

“Next he acquired the Theatre Royal and modernised and it, and soon became as widely known as an entertainment provider as he was already in the realms of feeding the multitudes of Yarmouth patrons, and serving exotic banquets on great occasions.

“He was now an indispensable part of Yarmouth’s life both on the civic side and the pleasure side. A man himself of very rare moments of relaxation on holiday, and as tough as steel, he devoted his energies to catering for the pleasure and holidays of others, and he was always abreast of the wonderful growth of Yarmouth as a visiting resort.

“And there has been no important function that the municipality has not confidently relied upon his great skill and knowledge to engineer their hospitalities. In years gone by we were more of a military town than is now unfortunately the case, and with the late King Edward, then Prince of Wales, as honorary colonel of the Artillery Militia, there were often great doings here.

“For many years Mr Nightingale catered for the officers’ mess at the Royal Assembly Rooms, Albert Square, and in that capacity he, of course, had the honour of providing the table for the Prince who was destined to have so short and brilliant a reign. On the occasion of other royal visits his was also the genius behind the menu, and these Mr Nightingale looked back on as among his greatest successes for he gained the goodwill and appreciation of the future King of England.

“At banquets and social functions for years past Mr Nightingale has been the man to whom all turned with perfect trust that the thing would be well done and in accordance with the canons of good taste. His name was universally recognised as synonymous with the best.

At the Aquarium large parties have been regaled in a way which has contributed greatly to the enjoyment of their visit to the seaside.

On a busy summer’s day when outings great and small have been dealt with, it has been marvellous to observe the ease with which a task, bewildering to an ordinary man, has been successfully coped with, and it is not too much to say that the possession of such a Napoleon of affairs has been an asset of great value to a rising seaside resort, for much depends upon the feeding.

“He has long carried on the Queen’s Hotel and in recent years he has added to his establishments the Royal and Victoria, all on Marine Parade. He was, from the opening of the new Britannia Pier, its managing director.”

John Nightingale was also prominent in public life, campaigning for a Parliamentary candidate who was elected three times, town councillor, president of the local Licensed Victuallers Protection Association, involved with the Yarmouth Yacht Club and the Marine Regatta, Freemason...

His son Walter took over many of his enterprises, and the family’s interest in the Queens Hotel endured until the 1950s.