Was the ‘on Sea’ rail stop tag an advertisement ploy?

Breydon swing bridge/viaduct, demolished in 1962, was used to test the safety of a new railway line

Breydon swing bridge/viaduct, demolished in 1962, was used to test the safety of a new railway line to Lowestoft in 1903. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, declared Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet in 1597. Some 350 years later US songstress Kitty Kallen reminded us that “Little things mean a lot” – her 1954 hit record.

A steam locomotive ready to pull out of Gorleston-on-Sea Station bound for Great Yarmouth a century

A steam locomotive ready to pull out of Gorleston-on-Sea Station bound for Great Yarmouth a century ago. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Very perplexing, those differing opinions.

Which brings us to the “on-Sea” suffix added to Gorleston yonks ago: was it unnecessary, or beneficial through announcing to prospective visitors from far and wide that Gorleston – somewhere they had probably never heard of - was desirably beside the sea?

There are several “on-Seas” and variations around England’s coasts, all extolling the same virtue. Allegedly it was an advertising gimmick adopted by the railway companies to emphasise that it was the place to go to be near the briny – and, essentially, was accessible by train..

If so, it was pretty hit-and-miss. Hereabouts, why were Gorleston and Hopton given an “on-Sea” appendage when their two rail terminals – Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft – were ignored, as was Corton between them?

Gorleston-on-Sea, a railway directional sign to the station. Picture: SUBMITTED

Gorleston-on-Sea, a railway directional sign to the station. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

If you follow Shakespeare’s reasoning, any resort would be just as attractive with or without the “on-Sea” description, whereas Kitty Kallen suggested that a little extra could prove a telling factor in drawing custom.

As far as I know, although “on-Sea” appears on maps, it was unofficial and does not appear on property deeds and formal documents, for instance. Presumably this applies to other coastal communities suffixed by “on-Sea” and the like.

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The “on-Seas” include Caister, Clacton, Southend, Westgate, Frinton, Bexhill...and Weston-Super-Mare, its suffix being the Latin for “on-Sea”.

Let us not forget Shoreham-by-Sea and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. Slightly out of step are two North Norfolk places – Wells and Cley, both “next-the-Sea”. The former once had a railway station but the latter was four miles from its closest, Holt. It’s akin to Winterton-on-Sea having no station to call its own, the nearest being Hemsby a mile distant!

As we nostalgic old-timers often recall, Yarmouth once boasted three main-line rail termini (Beach, South Town and Vauxhall) but now only the last of that trio is in operation in a much-reduced role.

But is the railway-linked name Gorleston-on-Sea on borrowed time, bound to fizzle out sooner or later? Any lingering doubts can now be dispelled, even though trains are ancient history.

Why? Because of the appearance of some new official signs!

A few weeks ago the new Bradwell to Gorleston link road opened, enabling people to drive from, say, Belton to the James Paget Hospital or Gorleston cliffs without having to pass through busy traffic in urban streets.

And, as regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls points out, the official directional road signs in Bradwell include “Gorleston-on-Sea” among the destinations to which the new link leads. Hooray! It must be official!

Lowestoft-resident Trevor, long retired as Yarmouth area registrar, writes: “When I began working in local government in Yarmouth in 1965, many people living in that part of the old county borough west of the river, other than in Southtown, would – if asked – had said that they lived in Gorleston-on-Sea.

“That is, too, how they would have written their addresses.

“Is the use of the suffix ‘on-Sea’ dying out? I have not heard it spoken for a long while although I see that it is on a hoarding at the corner of Southtown Road and Malthouse Lane, and also on bus stops in Gorleston.

“Fifty years ago, every letter passing through the Yarmouth postal sorting office was franked with the message, ‘Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, the resorts that have everything. At the time, lawyers would have described this claim as ‘advertisers’ puff’ although in these more litigious days this assertion – presumably conceived by the publicity department in Regent Street, might prove unwise.

“However, was Yarmouth’s more demure neighbour described as ‘on-Sea’ in that postal franking? I cannot remember. Did it not go all over the country in the holiday guides advertised in the Sunday papers shortly after Christmas each year?”

Trevor tells me his old Open University lecturer, local historian R S Joby - whose knowledge of East Anglian railway history was “encyclopaedic” – wrote of the Yarmouth-Lowestoft line: “The thinking in the later 19th century was that resorts developed quickly if they had natural charm or other attractions once rails arrived; if far from rails, they remained quiet places with holidaymakers numbered in dozens rather than hundreds or thousands.”

Trevor asserts that “on-Sea” was added to Gorleston’s ancient name by the Midland and Great Northern (M&GN) and Great Eastern Railways (GER) with the purpose of promoting their new line in London and the industrial cities of the Midlands and North of England which they served.

“I remember ‘on-Sea’ in white lettering on a navy-blue background on the post-nationalisation British Rail platform boards at both Gorleston and Hopton – but not Corton – in the 1950s and 1960s.”

To support that contention, Trevor sends me a copy of a 1903 railway publicity poster advertising summer cheap excursion tickets from North Norfolk stations to Yarmouth (Beach), Gorleston-on-Sea and Lowestoft. The rare and precious poster is privately owned in the United States, he says.

Trevor maintains: “This, and the other materials which would have been published with it – handbills, timetables, guides etc – I believe was the first description of Gorleston as being ‘on-Sea’ (unless your readers know otherwise!)”

The railway company was pushing its luck, adds Trevor, because all the publicity material was prepared for the line to come into operation on July 13 1903 – but the Board of Trade inspector of railways had yet to issue his clearance certificate authorising the line as safe for public use.

Five days before July 13, he tested the line by coupling together six of the heaviest locomotives available and running them across the Breydon swing bridge. The official was satisfied, so the line opened as scheduled.

The Yarmouth Beach to Lowestoft line was axed in 1959, a casualty of the shock closure of the entire M&GN railway; Yarmouth South Town to Lowestoft soldiered on till 1970.