Great Yarmouth’s tale of the unexpected which has remained a secret - until now

PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 February 2019

The painting of the vessel

The painting of the vessel "carrying stone for the new municipal building" aground near the Gorleston breakwater in 1881.


Tales of the Unexpected was a popular television series between 1979 and 1988. But a few years later, Great Yarmouth experienced its own tale of the unexpected - but for real, not for fireside entertainment.

The substantial Devonshire stone blocks still round the Town Hall base today.The substantial Devonshire stone blocks still round the Town Hall base today.

However, it has probably remained secret until now.

On the South Denes, during preparatory work on our Outer Harbour in the early 1990s, a Dutch-led team of contractors was driving steel-sheet piles into the sand when something hard and unyielding was struck. Work stopped immediately as a precaution in case the object was potentially dangerous.

After discussion, the gang decided not to report it because if it turned out to be something of interest to local historians or archaeologists, for example, it could result in the work being suspended indefinitely while they investigated.

So the task resumed and, immediately that mystery obstruction became visible, one team member recognised it.

An aerial view of Great Yarmouth's South Denes air station in 1918. The two slipways for flying boats can be seen jutting from the sands into the sea.An aerial view of Great Yarmouth's South Denes air station in 1918. The two slipways for flying boats can be seen jutting from the sands into the sea.

Stephen Curtis, now 62, of Banting Close, Gorleston, told colleagues they had found some Devonshire stone blocks resembling those around the base of Yarmouth Town Hall walls, built a century earlier and still there today.

Each reddish one measured perhaps 4ft by 2ft by 18in, with a jack-hammered design. Unused spares? If so, why were they taken to the South Denes for disposal?

Five years after our £35,000 Town Hall was finished in 1882, the South Quay side began subsiding. There were fears that the new building might have to be demolished, a prospect avoided by those foundations being strengthened and underpinned.

So, were the slabs found on the South Denes perhaps those replaced in this remedial work, or spares?

Also, Stephen wondered if they had been deliberately laid as a runway for flying boats based at the South Denes airfield during the 1914-18 war to taxi to and from sea and dry land.

However, local historian and author Colin Tooke’s 1999 book Great Yarmouth and Gorleston: Front Line Towns, noted that two slipways were purpose-built there for seaplane use.

When the 1914-18 war broke out, up to 30 aircraft were based there. The air station was disbanded in 1920 and the land was eventually bought by the council and developed for holiday and recreational use, and now is part of the Outer Harbour site.

Another friend of this column, Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Gorleston, has a picture of a painting by “W.K.H” of a sailing ship aground near the Gorleston breakwater in 1881.

On the back an old caption - in politically incorrect terms nowadays - says she was “carrying stone for the new municipal building, manned by blacks who all jumped overboard and were saved.

“The captain was hit by a spar, and drowned.”

Yet even if those stones were meant for Town Hall work, it still does not explain how they reached the South Denes.

Local newspaper accounts of the havoc to shipping caused by a mighty storm in January 1881 mention two vessels drifting ashore at Gorleston - significantly with the loss of only one life - and the collier Edith Mary, of London, beaching between the Wellington Pier and the Jetty.

Five of the Edith Mary’s crew of ten - eight of them coloured - were rescued by rocket-firing brigade but the other five were lost. There is no mention of her cargo.

A coincidence? Nobody knows.

Those Outer Harbour contractors made another discovery buried in the South Denes sands: several cannonballs! Each was roughly 4in to 6in in diameter, and all were badly pitted and part-eroded.

How or why they were there is another conundrum, but in centuries past the South Denes was the location of many military camps.

Despite their awkwardness and weight, several cannonballs were taken back to Holland by Dutch workmen as mementos, says Stephen Curtis.

I presume they were not flying home with a weighty cannonball in their luggage but used alternative transport.

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