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‘Up, please’ - memories of Great Yarmouth’s old elevator etiquette

PUBLISHED: 15:26 01 May 2014 | UPDATED: 15:26 01 May 2014

ELEVATING...Debenhams department store in Great Yarmouth town centre. When it was still trading as Arnolds, a young Trevor Nicholls was fascinated by the lift and enjoyed the views from the restaurant.
Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

ELEVATING...Debenhams department store in Great Yarmouth town centre. When it was still trading as Arnolds, a young Trevor Nicholls was fascinated by the lift and enjoyed the views from the restaurant. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

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A MAGAZINE feature recently listed some jobs that did not survive into this 21st century. Many of them would challenge a pub quiz contestant, particularly those of traditional craftsmen and women whose occupations were rendered obsolete by the 20th century onslaught of automation, technology and computerisation.

RIVAL RESTAURANT: a 1923 advertisement for Hills in King Street.RIVAL RESTAURANT: a 1923 advertisement for Hills in King Street.

An absentee from that list of long-gone situations earning people their living was lift attendant, admittedly a post of very limited potential for promotion or revision of job description.

If there are any lift attendants in employment in 2014, still as fed up as their predecessors over interminable “going up in the world” jokes, I would imagine that they combine it with other responsibilities. Harrods and the Ritz Hotel might still employ them, and I have a feeling that in Palmers, our long-established family department store, I occasionally see a staff member operating the lift for a disabled customer, but it is not his or her only job there.

It is many years since I asked for either “Up, please” or “Down, please” or named a floor to a lift attendant in smart page-boy uniform with pillbox hat. Now we have to rely on television series like Mad Men or Mr Selfridge, set respectively in post-war New York or 1914-18 war London, to be reminded of attended lifts...or, if you are of a younger generation, to see what appears a novelty but which to us was commonplace.

These days you just press a button and automatically are delivered to your correct floor. Blame cost-cutting and progress for the demise of the lift attendant.

ENTICING: a postwar advertisement for Arnolds restaurant.ENTICING: a postwar advertisement for Arnolds restaurant.

Regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls, retired Great Yarmouth registrar, experienced a flash-back moment recently in the bank branch of HSBC which has relocated from Hall Quay into a former clothing shop in our town centre.

“I was standing at the counter at the back of the new HSBC bank in King Street when the thought occurred to me that I was, so far as I could calculate, on the site of the lift in Arnolds store about 1955,” he tells me. “To a small boy in the Fifties, it was a source of unending fascination and ranked in his estimation with the rides at the Pleasure Beach.

“This antique conveyance might have come straight out of a 19th century Parisian apartment block!

“It was big, had large windows on three or possibly all four sides and was operated by an attendant who slammed the flimsy gates and called out the floors. I remember standing enthralled by the counter-weight which, of course, went up and down as the lift moved in the opposite direction.

“My mother, who suffered from motion sickness when travelling horizontally let alone vertically, would not ride in it although I would have gladly gone up and down in it all day long. It was quite a fast lift and started and stopped with a jerk.

“Ascending to the top floor, you came to the landing outside the restaurant. Although it was probably the largest restaurant in the town, I can remember having to wait on occasion for a table.

“The restaurant? I remember acres of dark red carpet with a swirly pattern (very 1950s!), heavy brocade curtains with valances at the many windows overlooking King Street and Regent Street, heavy oak tables and chairs with upright backs which made this small boy sit upright, starched white tablecloths, serving stations round the pillars, solid cutlery, waitresses in ‘nippy’ uniforms (Lyons Corner-House style)...

“I remember egg and chips served with thin bread and butter. There was always a jug of iced water on the table. This convention has long died out in this country although it lives on in exile in quite ordinary establishments in the United States, together with the quaint question, ‘Good morning, Sir. May I help you?’ This I last heard in England in about 1970!

“If in Arnolds restaurant you got the corner table, you could look both down Regent Street and along King Street. You could see all the buses, blue (Yarmouth Corporation) and red (Eastern Counties) ones, swinging round Burton’s corner towards Theatre Plain. I think I am right in saying that in those days, all bus routes but one coming into the town from the south – that is to say, over the Haven Bridge – went this way.”

That odd-one-out might well have been the Gorleston Links to Newtown service on which I used to travel from my Gorleston home near the Green Ace Garage bus stop to Yarmouth Grammar School postwar. I recall it using North Quay, The Conge, St Nicholas Road and North Drive, avoiding Regent Street and Theatre Plain.

But, back to restaurants, for Trevor Nicholls adds: “Somebody has since told me that Arnolds was not as posh as Matthes Restaurant, above the Mercury’s present accommodation in King Street.” I can reveal that “Arnolds Grand Restaurant” was being advertised in 1934, while a decade earlier rival Hills boasted “The largest and finest appointed restaurant in the Eastern Counties,” with an orchestra playing “every afternoon for tea”.

Matthes, which temporarily relocated above Burtons after its King Street premises were blitzed in wartime, had a ground-floor coffee bar with the restaurant upstairs whereas Arnolds had only the top-floor restaurant after it closed its basement American-style soda fountain and snack bar created after the war.

Arnolds (which changed its name to that of owner Debenhams in 1972) and Matthes, both long-closed, shared the local lucrative off-season dinner-dance trade when companies and organisations enjoyed a formal evening, often covered by local reporters, given a free meal in return for reporting the profound words of the after-dinner speakers.

All marriages have their ups and downs, and the first that Mrs Peggotty and I had was within an hour of our 1969 ceremony at Ferryside! With our family and friends we headed for Arnolds where – yes, you’ve guessed it correctly – we took the lift up to the restaurant for an informal wedding breakfast, later descending in it.

Yes, Trevor, I remember the Arnolds cage-type lift very clearly.


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