Was Blunderstone a blunder, or whimsy?

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens stayed at the Royal Hotel on Marine Parade, pictured here in the

Victorian novelist Charles Dickens stayed at the Royal Hotel on Marine Parade, pictured here in the 1970s for promotional purposes, while researching his David Copperfield. - Credit: Archant

For a change of scene this week, let us slip quietly across the Norfolk border into Suffolk, within the circulation area of the Mercury’s sister newspaper, the Lowestoft Journal. We are on a mission...to the village of Blundeston.

An illustration in a late 19th century book of Yarmouth views, the caption stating: “Immortalised by

An illustration in a late 19th century book of Yarmouth views, the caption stating: “Immortalised by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield.” - Credit: Archant

Why? Well, “Blunderstone” - as novelist Charles Dickens spelled it in the mid-19th century - was the birthplace of his fictional hero David Copperfield in the book of that name. Nobody knows why Dickens misspelled the village name. Was it whimsy, or did he fail to check his notes after a brief sight-visiting and fact-finding visit to Great Yarmouth in 1848, staying at the Royal Hotel on Marine Parade?

Yarmouth acknowledged the enduring international fame this novel gave us by naming six neighbouring roads near the South Beach after the author and five of his book’s characters; all are but a stone’s throw from the alleged location of Peggotty’s Hut on that seashore.

Several of the novel’s characters bore the surname of Peggotty, the pen-name signature on this column for about eight decades.

Recently I was able to re-acquaint myself with David Copperfield because Hollywood’s 1935 faithful film version was screened on television’s Film4 channel. The picture collected two Academy Awards (Oscars) and is included in a list of the 100 greatest movies ever made,

The star-studded cast of names familiar to my generation included Freddie Bartholemew as young David, WC Fields, Basil Rathbone (later, Sherlock Holmes) Maureen O’Sullivan (to be Tarzan’s Jane), Lionel Barrymore (TV’s Dr Gillespie), Elsa Lanchester...

Peggotty’s Hut on Yarmouth beach, supposedly an upturned boat, was not the rough and ready make-shift home I had envisaged: it was spacious enough for the enlarged family and seemed too cosy, well-furnished, neat and comfortable.

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The dramatic storm scene was exciting and spectacular, and I suspect that it was shot in the MGM studio tank, augmented by special effects, as rescuers on “our” sands strove to save the crew of a sailing schooner breaking up in a gale and savage waves, in danger of being driven ashore and putting her crew in peril.

Heroic Ham Peggotty dived into the breakers, a rope around his waist, in a bid to swim out to the beleaguered ship and help the rescuers.

At least, I presume that the storm scene was shot in the studio tank and not on location on a wave-lashed California beach, although a scene purporting to be a character’s cottage on the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover was actually filmed at Malibu in California...

At one point Yarmouth’s pebble-free sandy shore also had some wave-washed rocks, but it helped the dramatic effect. We also saw a couple of shots of a swinging inn-sign, a grizzled sou’wester wearing fisherman depicting the fictional The Yarmouth Skipper public house. But overall, it receives my seal of approval.

Also, I vaguely remember Pauline Quirke, cast as the Copperfields’ housemaid, Peggotty, driving a horse-and-cart from “Blunderstone” to Yarmouth in a television serialisation in 1999.

As for the actual village of Blundeston, rather than Dickens’ Blunderstone, its enviable rural community identity must have been shaken when the new prison was built there in 1963. Blundeston became synonymous with that jail, and no doubt many residents were unhappy if it affected their lives and property prices.

Apart from enjoying a couple of meals in the Blundeston Plough, I had not visited the village for ages and surreptitiously checked a road map earlier this month when Mrs Peggotty and I had occasion to go there. Our destination? Blundeston Prison!

Bragging to friends later that we spent our Sunday afternoon in jail was a du-different Norfolk-style example of one-upmanship that raised the odd eyebrow. Also, we enjoyed a cup of tea there and chose from a delicious selection of home-made cakes.

Of course, we were not incarcerated in a bleak cell but were visiting the empty, disused and forlorn Blundeston Prison for a guided tour before it is demolished to make way for a major housing development by Badger Building which paid £3m for the site.

It closed in 2013 as part of an extensive reorganisation of the prison service by the Government.

Our visit was an eye-opener, our guide showing our party the awesome accommodation and other facilities, taking us through the procedures a convict underwent from reception and induction onwards. I am sure we were all impressed and sadly chastened by the experience. It was another world, frightening, and not as most television dramas depict it.

In my years as a reporter, I spent long hours in criminal courts and saw many people sent to prison, some hardened recidivists but others first-timers terrified at the prospect of incarceration. Now, after the Blundeston experience, I felt a modicum of sympathy for those given their first custodial sentences.

On a Blundeston corridor wall is a small circular painting of a Christmas robin, allegedly the work of the infamous Reggie Kray, which had led to idle speculation about trying to cut it from the plaster to sell on-line. It seemed like a worthwhile idea, although I have since been reliably assured that despite claims to the contrary, neither of the Kray twins was ever held in Blundeston.

One of its famous inmates was the late John Stonehouse, the disgraced Labour MP and former Postmaster General who allegedly spied for the Czechs, was investigated for creative accounting, and faked his own death by leaving a pile of his clothes on a Miami beach to give the impression that he had drowned.

The two or three parties enjoying this enlightening tour of the former prison were Parkinson’s Disease sufferers and their families who belong to the Lowestoft-based support group, plus friends, and money raised was added to its coffers.

Three years ago, I mentioned Blundeston Prison in this column, recalling the Mercury main headline half a century earlier: “THE ‘GAY LOOK’ PRISON OPENS.” In that era the word gay meant light-hearted and carefree and had not acquired any sexual connotation .

The Mercury described the new jail as looking “more like a modern school, in its setting of wooded parkland and flower beds leading down to a lake.”