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The blank stony face that looks down on the people of Great Yarmouth - but sees nothing

PUBLISHED: 07:00 29 September 2019

Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, sculpted above the doorway.

Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, sculpted above the doorway.

Archant

For more than eight decades traffic on Hall Quay and across the Haven Bridge, and activity in the River Yare, have been "monitored" through unblinking eyes... that see nothing.

A packed Market Place listens to a General Election address in 1959.A packed Market Place listens to a General Election address in 1959.

Important occasions, like formal announcements outside the Town Hall opposite, have similarly been ignored. That fixed stare continues to watch the mundane and the extraordinary.

In my lifetime, despite working round the corner at our newspaper office in Regent Street, I had never noticed those sightless eyes under an ornate helmet despite passing them almost daily.

So I am indebted to regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls, Great Yarmouth's retired registrar living in Lowestoft, for drawing my attention to that sightless "onlooker" who resolutely maintains a persistent stony silence.

It just fits into my occasional topic of "ghost signs" - advertisements and other items still on public view although the businesses they represented are long gone.

Yarmouth Town Hall balcony from which the General Election result was announced in 1964. Sitting Conservative MP Anthony Fell retained the seat, beating Clinton Davis (Labour) and Liberal David Spreckley.Yarmouth Town Hall balcony from which the General Election result was announced in 1964. Sitting Conservative MP Anthony Fell retained the seat, beating Clinton Davis (Labour) and Liberal David Spreckley.

The latest to be added to that list is... Winged Mercury. No - nothing to do with this newspaper, let me hasten to assure readers. It is a reference to classic legend.

An encyclopedia informs us that Mercury was the Roman god of shopkeepers and merchants, travellers and transporters of goods (and of thieves and tricksters) and is often identified with the Greek Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods.

"Ghostly allusions to long-gone businesses are a delight to those with a nostalgic eye," writes Trevor. "Usually these glimpses are words, but on Hall Quay there is a symbolic one, a reference derived from antiquity and now the sole clue as to the premises' former original use."

Presumably the designers of the new telephone exchange in the Thirties were classicists, although Trevor whimsically notes the image's mundane role - "It is there, ever watching the traffic on Hall Quay."

The entrance to Great Yarmouth's former telephone exchange on Hall Quay, built in 1936, with the sculpted head above the door.The entrance to Great Yarmouth's former telephone exchange on Hall Quay, built in 1936, with the sculpted head above the door.

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Time was when Hall Quay bustled, with much for those blank "eyes" to observe, but the provision of a the Breydon Bridge and bypass in 1986 meant most traffic used that route instead of the Haven Bridge.

The face, sculpted from concrete (or marble?) is above a street door to a building that older generations of Yarmouthians will recall as the GPO telephone exchange, adjoining the head post office at the Regent Street corner.

Perhaps only a minority of the countless thousands of passers-by down the decades noticed it because it is high above steps and a distinctive doorway.

"There must have been a classicist in the architect's office 80 years ago," Trevor muses. I can think of no other explanation, unless you equate the "messenger" reference with the telephone exchange and messages being conveyed by phone and telegram.

After all, Hall Quay was a hub of business and commerce for much of the 20th century but, as we have noted here recently, foot-fall and vehicle numbers there have markedly slumped since all five busy bank branches that dominated this short stretch of road have now closed.

When traditional red telephone boxes were the norm because few homes had a phone, we relied on the public ones with their press buttons A and B.

Trevor recalls "the row of red telephone kiosks which stood in a row in front of the telephone exchange on Hall Quay", linking them to memories of Yarmouth's General Election votes, traditionally counted the following day.

"The ballot boxes were locked in a cell at the police station overnight, if I remember correctly," he writes. "The result was announced at about midday from the Town Hall balcony.

"At that time, all those red telephone boxes had been commandeered by Press men, standing half in and half out, ready to relay the Yarmouth result to their news rooms."

Local journalists had no need to commandeer a phone box - we just scurried a few paces to our Regent Street office to transmit the election outcome. And news agencies and national newspapers probably relied on local freelances rather than sending a journalist here.

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