Times we will never see again

THE summons from Mrs Peggotty sounded urgent. “Quick! Hurry up! There’s something about old Yarmouth on the telly,” she shouted from the lounge as I sat in my office, seeking inspiration for a subject for another column.

I scurried through to see what the excitement was about…and Mrs Peggotty was right, for a gem was on our television screen. I watched what was left, and later searched out the full programme on catch-up TV, then repeated the relevant sections about Great Yarmouth two or three times.

It was called Harold Baim’s Britain on Film on BBC Four, a compilation of the work of this specialist in “shorts” for the cinema, mainly travelogues, traditional crafts and pursuits, and work-places. It was billed as “a record of Britain and its people as seen through his lens.” The programme comprised extracts from Baim’s archive of more than 100 short films from the 1940s to the 1980s, “revealing a world that is gone forever.”

Our bit was prefaced by the voice-over recalling that Victorian author Charles Dickens described Yarmouth as “probably the finest place in the universe”, then came shots of some of our holiday attractions filmed in those unnaturally vibrant colours that seemed the norm in the Sixties.

Against jaunty background music and a wince-inducing commentary, viewers were treated to shots of a crowded sunny beach, the Golden Mile lined with cars of 1950s vintage, a passenger craft gliding through the Venetian Waterways and people rowing on a boating lake.

Then came a visit to the Wellington Pier where lines of young women in identical costumes were performing a synchronised routine as the chorus in the weekly roller-skating show on the outdoor rink that used to draw crowds of holidaymakers enthralled by the spectacle, precision and expertise of the local amateur performers led by the resident professionals.

Cut to a variety star, brilliant on stage and television but a complete novice when it came to roller-skating: comedy magician Tommy Cooper. After he and chart-topping Irish songstress Ruby Murray watched skaters while he battled with an iced lolly, Tommy put on skates, strapped cushions to himself as protection, and ventured on to the rink, with Ruby Murray and a fellow supporting him – although I doubt if even their combined help would have prevented the well-built performer from stumbling.

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The pier was also the setting for the next item, a smartly-suited Benny Hill attempting to enter through the turnstiles but jocularly being refused admission by a uniformed attendant. As retribution, the star pinched his cap, the commentator noting that “one of Britain’s greatest funny men can’t get into the theatre for his own show!”

Now, that’s a curiosity. The Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill episodes must have been filmed a year apart because Hill starred at the Wellington Pier Pavilion in Light Up the Town in 1957, with Cooper and Ruby Murray appearing there in Light Up Again in 1958.

The programme proceeded to Portsmouth, after which there was a hard-to-hear introduction we deduced mentioned Albert Botton, who was probably on-screen simultaneously, and that the amusement park attractions and rides we were then watching were filmed at his Yarmouth Pleasure Beach.

Viewers were then whisked to another resort where a long line-up of bathing-suited beauties paraded along the edge of a large swimming pool but, later, the programme returned to Yarmouth during a look at traditional crafts in various parts of the UK, like boat builder, ham curer, carpet weaver, bobbin manufacturer, blacksmith, cobbler, glass blower, yarn weaver (in Worstead in North Norfolk)...and basket maker.

This last trade included a man at work on a circular basket and displaying the finished product alongside an unusual shaped one in darker material - a traditional Yarmouth swill into which fresh herring would be emptied as a drifter “cranned out” its catch along our quaysides. The circular one the artisan showed viewers was almost certainly designed for the herring industry too.

Our local basket-makers wove them by the hundred. A circular version held a quarter of a cran of herring and, once ashore, its contents would be tipped into a wicker swill – unique to Yarmouth – which could take half a cran (roughly 500 herring, depending on their size).

That reminder of the decades when Yarmouth was the world’s leading herring port brings me to the Girl Madge II, a local angling boat recalled in this column recently over speculation in the Eighties that she was once a lifeboat on the luxury liner Titanic which famously rammed an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage exactly a century ago with the loss of 1513 souls.

Arthur Symonds, aged 89, of Briar Avenue, Bradwell, says the original Girl Madge was built at Fellows’ Southtown yard for his uncle, Fred Symonds, who named her after his wife, Martha, affectionately known as Madge. In summer she took holidaymakers on sea trips, and at other times of the year went fishing, either drifting or line-fishing.

“One day Uncle Fred netted an exceptionally large catch of herring off here and was well down in the water as he headed back to Yarmouth with them. Then a Scottish drifter, also hurrying to the market, sailed at full speed very close to her and swamped her.

“The Girl Madge and her catch and nets were lost. Luckily Uncle Fred and those in the Girl Madge were rescued safely, but he was always very annoyed that the Scots drifter came so close while steaming so fast.”

About 1924 Fellows built her successor, the Girl Madge II, for Fred Symonds, and she was licensed to carry 12 passengers.

“In the early 1930s when I was a boy I used to ‘help’ him and often went out with him in the Girl Madge II,” continues Arthur Symonds.

“I used to sit in the stern and was allowed to hold the tiller - under supervision, of course.

“She had a two-cylinder petrol engine which fascinated me as a child, and although my father wanted me to study for a career in the police, I took up engineering instead, all because of that engine!”