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Southtown Road and a quelled rebellion

PUBLISHED: 10:34 17 January 2011

THE route has become very familiar in recent months, but I must travel along Southtown Road for a figurative final excursion. It is simply that when I was scouring volumes recently in search of information for a previous column on this subject, I chanced upon a couple of interesting items deserving of a wider audience.

Both came from Palmer’s Perlustrations, a detailed three-volume study of the history of places and properties in Great Yarmouth, published in 1872.

According to Charles Palmer: “The Southtown Road was in 1549 the scene of a singular incident.” Insurgents led by Norfolk rebel Robert Kett, protesting at the increasing enclosure of common land, acquired six cannons at Lowestoft and marched to Gorleston from where they prepared to attack Yarmouth.

“They assembled... at the north end of Gorleston and commenced their march towards Yarmouth but, their intention becoming known, the magistrates of the latter place sent some very valiant townsmen inbued with wisdom, fortitude and discretion into the adjoining marshes where they set fire to a large stack of hay which, the wind being favourable for that purpose, so blinded the insurgents that they could not see the Yarmouth men who, with a great troop coming upon them did, after many bitter blows lent each to other, put the rebels to a total rout, killing many upon the spot and, having taken 30 prisoners, brought them in triumph to Yarmouth.”

Later Kett was hanged for treason.

It is hard to believe in this 21st century that Southtown and its busy road linking the two parts of the urban borough (and, indeed, once the start of the A12 main London highway) was once very sparsely populated, comprising largely marsh and grazing land.

Palmer notes: “At a time when there were no houses between the bridge and Gorleston, this road on account of its loneliness was the scene of frequent outrages.”

There had also been an edict forbidding any tree or bush to be within 200 yards on either side of any causeway “whereby a man may lurk, and do hurt, for nothing of the kind could then be seen.”

He details one of these incidents: “Late in 1748 a man named John Dopson Tongue was hanged for robbing Mrs Haddon on the Southtown Road. To these horrors were added those conjured up by superstition.

“It was currently believed that the Evil One, under the familiar name of Old Scarfe, assumed the shape of a black dog and in dark wintry nights was heard rushing up and down the Southtown Road, making sorrowful moanings and dragging after him a clanking chain.

“An endeavour was made to exorcise this spectre and at one time this was supposed to have been effected, the evil spirit being doomed to remain in a vault under the Duke’s Head Inn ‘until the river should cease to run under Yarmouith bridge.’ Notwithstanding this, however, Old Scarfe continued to be a terror to benighted travellers until at length the increase of houses scared him away.

“It is not improbable that the distant roar of the sea, the surging of the river against its banks, the melancholy sighing of the wind over long tracts of marshes, and the crunching and clanking noise of the ships forced against each other by the wind and tide, joined with the darkness of night, may have combined to produce an impression which became embodied by superstitious fears.

“There are, however, more black dogs than one: for a sulky man is still said ‘to have a black dog on his back’, and in several parts of Norfolk the existence of Black Shank – a large shaggy dog with glaring eyes who trots along roads at night under the shadow of a hedge – was fully believed in.

“A headless dog may sometimes be seen passing by night over Coltishall Bridge while another Old Shunk by name, travels between Beeston and Overstrand (on the North Norfolk coast), to the terror of the neighbourhood.”

Those names have morphed into Old Shuck, or Black Shuck, a familiar fearsome hound in Norfolk folklore which hits the headlines every decade or so with reported sightings. I think it was back in the Seventies that coastguards in their lookout on the seaward end of Gorleston Pier spotted a large black dog several times (time has erased the exact location, but I think it was across the harbour’s mouth on that land beyond the North Pier.

Regardless of the various problems that beset Southtown Road – and the problems it caused – its importance was long accepted, and because in 1775 it was “in a very ruinous condition and unsafe for passengers”, an Act of Parliament was obtained for making it a turnpike on which a toll could be collected, and a lengthy list of prominent inhabitants of Yarmouth were named as trustees.

It was enacted for a century, after which it had to be kept in good repair by the town’s sanitary authority,

In 1801, a record was established on part of the Southtown turnpike that I doubt was ever bettered – or ever will be. For in that year “Edward J Took, a coal-heaver, for a wager of five guineas (£5.25 in decimal terms) walked one measured mile on this road 60 times in 14 hours.”

That is 4.28 miles an hour... presumably without lugging a sack of coal on his back.

Several readers wrote letters to the Mercury about the long-closed off-licence and shop at the junction of Southtown Road and Waveney Road after I recalled my unsubstantiated boyhood suspicion that a German spy lived there.

Long-serving Mercury village correspondent Brian Swan, of Belton, hoped my reference to the Waveney Stores was “tongue in cheek” for the business was run by his father, Cyril, and his first wife Ethel. As well as running the shop for part of the war, Cyril belonged to a fire boat crew on the Yare which, curiously, was under police rather than fire authority control.

Brian Swan confirms that two or three houses on Waveney Road were totally destroyed by bombs and numbers 1 to 6 were made uninhabitable. Their owner, Mrs Hilda Andrews, long-time licensee of the Half Way House public house, told his mother Phyllis (Cyril’s second wife) that they could rent one of them in 1946 provided she could keep chasing the builders to get the repairs done!

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