What future for our ‘Somerset House’?

FERRYSIDE, a Victorian gentleman’s residence requisitioned during the war, adopted a new role in peace-time when Great Yarmouth Borough Council converted it into a children’s home. And today’s history of the building, which we looked at in last week’s column, continues from that 1947 change of use.

Trevor Nicholls, who became the registrar of births, deaths and marriages there after it subsequently became the borough register office, has compiled the history of Ferryside (and Stone Cottage, which preceded it), situated on High Road in Gorleston/Southtown, and I am grateful for his permission to reproduce some of it.

Incidentally, as the civil servants are now vacating this historic building, one wonders what its future holds. Will it have a new role in local government, or revert to residential use (perhaps converted into apartments). Or will it be sold, or bulldozed for redevelopment?

Mr Nicholls writes: “In recent years some of the ‘children’ had two reunions at Ferryside and I spoke to them about its history. From what they said, the regime in the 1950s was, if not brutal, lacking in compassion. The children left in 1960 but their tabby cat, Tiddles, remained to catch the mice attracted by the (adjacent) maltings.

“It was not unusual to find mice running round and round in waste-paper baskets in the mornings, nor to see the occasional owl sitting in a tree in an autumn dusk. Tiddles became the office cat and spent his old age sitting on a chair in the hall to amuse visitors and add to the general eccentricity of the place.”

Conversion to offices in 1960 was because the town hall was becoming over-crowded, and Ferryside accommodated welfare and children’s departments, registrar, fire, and weights and measures (in a new bungalow in the grounds); these five departments employed no more than 20 staff in total. There was local opposition to the removal of the registrars from the town centre and hospitals, where much of their business was conducted, and the Registrar-General stipulated that any subsequent move should be no more than a mile and a-half from the town hall.

“Ferryside thus became to Yarmouth what Somerset House was for 130 years to the nation – the repository of the records of births, deaths and marriages. I would guess that approximately 20,000 marriages have taken place there.”

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When the youngsters moved out of Ferryside, the chief fire officer returned to his office there; his fire station, a hose’s squirt away in the grounds, was rebuilt in 1970.

“Occasionally the men would use the staircase and landings as well as the cellars for practice with breathing apparatus,” recalls Mr Nicholls. “Thus, members of the public coming in would be baffled to find a single-file of firemen, all kitted up with apparatus, slowly going up the stairs, each man with his hand on the next man’s shoulder, while the rest of us – apparently oblivious to this scene – went about the rather more prosaic business of local government.”

Having survived bombs dropping too close for comfort during the war, Ferryside had another near miss in 1964 when a USAF jet fighter crashed on the riverside Darby’s Hard, strewing the High Street and area with wreckage. “At Ferryside, one member of staff instinctively remembered his wartime experience in London and dived under his desk.”

A flowering cherry that appears in many wedding photographs in the late 20th century was planted in memory of George Shorten, caretaker in the early 1970s, but it died about 2000. A conifer planted in 1999 to the memory of Bernard King, superintendent registrar from 1977-1990, flourishes today.

The high boundary wall was lowered because it was in danger of toppling, but part of it was rebuilt in the 1990s, using knapped flints from the original “but which, like those in many walls in the locality, were probably pillaged from the priory centuries before.”

Mr Nicholls ponders: “What would Edward (who built Ferryside) and Caroline Combe and the doctors (Ryley and the Wyllys brothers) make of their elegant and commodious home if they were to revisit it today? What would the old colonel, and his hunting and yachting friends, and the officers of the regiment, make of the notice at the front door saying that it is forbidden to smoke within? The historian in me hopes that whatever the future holds for these premises, some link – if only in name – is preserved to these colourful personalities, uses and events.”

He chronicles the class demarcation locally, with people’s recollections of “just how elegant the Wyllys brothers were, the amplitude of their life-style and of their establishments compared, for example, with the squalor and poverty in the Rows area of the town, long a thorn in the side of the sanitary authorities.”

There was also a surprise for me in his history of Stone Cottage and Ferryside, an event that had never come to my attention. About the time when the Rev Valpy owned Stone Cottage in the 1830s, “large numbers of people from the Eastern Counties emigrated to the United States and Canada from the quayside opposite which became known as Americas Wharf.

“Perhaps the Rev Valpy and (school principal) Mr Wright’s young people would have seen these people, often terribly poor, setting off from Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Lincolnshire in the hope of a better life.”

Finally, back to 1965 when 16-year-old Trevor Nicholls walked up the Ferryside drive for the first time, little knowing that he would spend the next 43 years there until his retirement in 2008, the last 32 years as registrar of births, deaths and marriages.

“So quaint a place as that rambling old Victorian house with such a long and colourful history which down the years I was to uncover, and the job itself, were a world removed from the mundane surroundings and routines which people tend to associate with municipal administration,” he writes.

“I slept several nights at Ferryside when the winter weather was bad, and also at the time of the 1981 census. I never saw any ghosts – but had I done so, as this history reveals, such a splendidly larger-than-life group of people would have been a pleasure to have met.”