By Steve Smith
It’s very satisfying to have amongst the tangles of your tree, a relative for whom something was named. I am particularly proud that the name of a great uncle adorned a well-known building in Great Yarmouth for almost a quarter of a century. The building was the Styles Secondary Modern School and the relative was Thomas Henry Styles. This is his story.
The Styles family can be traced back to Wicklewood near Wymondham but Thomas Styles’ father –Thomas Sr. – was a Norwich born slater who had moved to Yarmouth with his wife Maud (nee Foxhall) in 1900. Three of Thomas’ older sisters were born in Norwich and the fourth came along in 1901 once they were settled in Yarmouth. Thomas was the fifth child and the oldest of three boys. He was born on the 9th December 1902. I didn’t know him, though his son would become an important figure in my life, and of all Thomas’ siblings I only ever met Lucy, who we visited at her home by the cemetery wall each year when we were on our holiday. She died in 1980. Another sister, Ellen, survived longer (Until 1989) but lived in the USA and I don’t believe I ever met her. However Thomas’ widow was my (Great) Auntie Flo, whom we spent our summer holiday with in Gorleston every year and she was very dear to me.
The Styles family were living at no.15 Row 47 when Thomas was born. Page the Pipe Maker’s row ran between North Quay and George Street. At the time the Styles family moved in, James Taylor the most recent owner of the pipe factory was still alive. His ‘Churchwardens’ were shipped all over the country from the factory in Row 47. Part of the row remains and can be found at the west end of the George Street car park running parallel to Saint Francis Way. It emerges on North Quay next to the St John’s Head.
From what we know, Thomas seemed to move around infant schools attending St Andrews and St George’s before moving to the Daniel Tomkins School, which was the old British School on Nelson Road. Tomkins was a former headmaster of the British School and it was named for him in 1906 following his death – an act that would be mirrored for Thomas fifty years later. Tomkins also started Travers House School on South Quay, an establishment known as Great Yarmouth College and – with his wife – the Sutherland House School for Girls. He was a member of the Great Yarmouth and Norwich School Boards and his dedication to education may well have had an influence on the young Thomas Styles.
Thomas ended his school career at the Great Yarmouth Hospital Boys School which he joined September 1910 at the age of seven, leaving on the 10th November 1916. The records show he had attained his Certificate otherwise, still being under 14 (albeit just) he would not have been able to get a job.
Meanwhile Thomas was only nine when his father died on the 25th June 1913. Thomas Sr. was not yet 40 years old. An inquest found he had died from toxaemia arising from peritonitis during an operation. Maud remarried three years later and Louis Frederick Grey became Thomas’ stepfather.
At the age of 15 Thomas became a Flag Boy for Great Eastern Railways (GER). This presumably involved walking around near where trains were shunting and working with a flag to warn people off. Given that in Great Yarmouth the trains moved along the public quays and highways, this would have been a very busy and perhaps dangerous job. It marked the beginning of a lifelong career on the railways for Thomas. He also got his first real taste of union life when he was admitted into the National Union Railwaymen on the 13th September 1918.
At some point before 1919, the Styles family moved to 36 Tottenham Street, a row of terraced houses between Beach Station and the churchyard. He was still living here when he married Florence Lilian Smith on the 11th March 1926. Flo was my grandad’s sister and this was the event that brought the Styles family into my family tree. It was also the starting place for one of those old family lore stories that got handed down. According to my mum, there was intense rivalry between the Smith and Styles families. The origins of this conflict are unknown. If there is any truth to be had then the enmity peaked with an incident we have not been able to find any evidence for. Both families contained men who were slaters and it is said that whilst working together on a building (One version says the Royal Aquarium), there was a row and one of the Smiths pushed one of the Styles from the roof. One thinks one would be able to find a newspaper report to corroborate this if it were true and as yet we haven’t been able to do so.
There is another family rumour that the wedding was kept a secret for some time afterwards but again, we have nothing to confirm this. It may have been the Styles family kept in the dark as they lived across the river in Tottenham Street but the newlyweds moved into 2 Providence Place in Critten’s Road, Cobholm. This was just around the corner from the Breydon Arms in Tyrolean Square run by Florrie’s parents.
And it was here that Thomas Harry Styles was born on the 13th July 1927. This man grew up to become like a brother to my own mother – as we shall see later – and was an important influence on my life too. To try and reduce confusion, I shall refer to Thomas Jr as Tom.
Meanwhile on the 30th March 1928 Thomas was admitted to the National Union of Railwaymen again, this time listed as a Carriage Cleaner. By now, his employer was the London and North Eastern Railway as the GER and several other old railway companies had merged in 1923. Thomas and Flo (and little Tom) were still living at 2 Providence Place in 1929 but the following year had moved to 37 Tyrolean Square.
The family were still in Tyrolean Square in 1932 when Thomas was caught up in criminal proceedings when he unwittingly bought a stolen radio off a man believing it to be a second-hand traveller’s sample. Thomas was not charged but called as a witness and the man he bought it from was committed to trial over a number of similar cases.
It would certainly have been out of character for Thomas to have been in trouble with the police as he was, by all accounts, an honest and good man. It was around this time that he began getting involved with one the great passions of his life. Precisely what motivated him to be involved in the world of First Aid is unclear but Thomas became a member of the St John Ambulance.
Formed in 1877 the St John Ambulance Association’s mission was to improve the knowledge and training around First Aid. It was followed ten years later by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade to provide trained men (and eventually women) at events where large crowds were expected. The first groups, or ambulances, were focused in mining communities, in the big railway centres, and – in Great Yarmouth’s case – on the Mission Wherries, that provided pastoral care to the Wherry men.
In the late 19th and early 20th century the GER was one of the railways that established ambulances. In fact it had 35 separate ones in 1908. Many other organisations had their own ambulances and there were also Red Cross units and other bodies offering First Aid services.
To bring them all together an Ambulance Centre was established in Yarmouth in 1919 inspired by the pre-war ambulance teams and the work of the VAD during the war. It had its own committee but seemed to be guided by St John; from at least 1927 it was known as the St John’s Ambulance Association Great Yarmouth Centre. They formed a St John Ambulance Brigade in 1928 to attend events. As well this a big part of ambulance life was taking part in competitions.
The first time we see Thomas’ name in this context is when he is the reserve in the Great Yarmouth Division of St John Ambulance team who came third in the June 1932 Dewar Shield competition, a national First Aid contest and the greatest prize in the industry. He received an aneroid barometer for this victory.
However, Thomas’ real First Aid glory was to come as part of the LNER Ambulance team. The Great Eastern Ambulance Centre Cup was established in 1894 and in 1933 Tom was part of the team that came third – with 206 marks – in the annual final. Harwich and Parkeston-A won with Harwich and Parkeston-B also finishing ahead of Yarmouth. The rest of the team – it seems for several years – were Herbert Winter, James Gowan, and William Page, the captain. The same line-up represented Yarmouth the following year when the improved their ranking to second place, once again behind the Harwich and Parkeston-A team.
Another competition, the Borough Bowl was started in 1909 for various Yarmouth ambulances. In 1921 the Bowl and the associated Sir Arthur Fell Cup were taken on by Great Yarmouth Ambulance Centre. The competition now saw teams from the police force and institutions like the LNER competing against companies such as Grouts, Lacons, Johnsons, and Palmers. St John also had their own scratch team. In 1935 Thomas was in the LNER Junior team that took the Fell Cup and the following year was on senior LNER team who took the Bowl from the police, the reigning champions, by 2½ points.
1936 was a great year for the team as they took the Norwich District Cup in the spring and qualified for the Great Eastern Ambulance Centre final in London again. They ended up coming second and took home the Thomas Mein Cup. Each member, including Thomas, received a canteen of cutlery. They were unable to hold on to the Borough Bowl in 1937 and the police took it back with the actual St John’s team pushing LNER into third place. In 1938 Thomas became captain of the LNER Ambulance team and took them to second place in the District Officers’ Cup.
These were not formal written or oral examinations in some musty hall but very practical demonstrations of their skills. One test was as follows:
A passenger suffering from air-sickness staggers from his seat in an air liner. The plane pitches in rough weather and he collapses in a heap on the floor. This scenario took place in a mock-up of a monoplane complete with air crew, stewardesses and passengers. The teams had to diagnose a fractured spine and arterial haemorrhage, treat them, improvise a stretcher, organise a wireless message to the airport to arrange an ambulance and carry the passenger to said ambulance – all in 20 minutes!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of Thomas’ competition successes nor his other work with the ambulances but it gives an idea of his commitment to the cause.
Thomas’ next civic duty appears to start around 1937 when he becomes the first secretary of the re-established Cobholm and Southtown Ward Labour Association. He will later stand for council (See below)
On the eve of war Thomas and Flo are living at 10 Stone Road, not far from their previous home in Providence Place. In the register compiled for the war, Thomas is still listed as Carriage Cleaner but his entry also notes that he is a qualified guard and shunter. His position as an LNER First Aid Warden is also recorded as is his position with St Johns.
From the same register his mum is still living in Tottenham Street but his stepdad was in hospital. He appeared to have a long term condition as he would still be in, or be back in, hospital at his death 9 years later.
It was the war that also brought my mum to live with Thomas and Flo. My grandad, Flo’s brother, wanted to join the police force and since his parents ran a pub it was considered a conflict of interest to join the Yarmouth force so he ‘ran away’ to London to join the Met. Here he met my nan whose family were from Terrington St Clement and my mum and her siblings were born in North London. At the outbreak of the phoney war mum and her sister were sent to North West Norfolk to live with a childless aunt and uncle. They struggled to cope and after my 4 year old mum unchained their dog because she thought it was cruel, the children were dispatched back to Tottenham. When the Blitz actually got underway she was sent to Thomas and Flo where she lived for a time, which was when she got to know Tom so well. Mind you, when Yarmouth started to get bombed they had to ship her out to a bungalow on the river bank at Repps where my Great Grandfather Henry had gone when his wife died and he gave up the pub. Mum would also live with Thomas and Flo after the war when my nan was in the sanatorium recovering from TB.
Thomas and Flo’s son Tom, who, as I have said was like another brother to my mum although actually her cousin, would join the army and train as an officer at Sandhurst. He was fortunate that he was able to do this because whilst a teenager he was playing around on the roller-coaster at the Pleasure Beach when he trapped his foot between the car and the famous wooden track. He was in hospital for some time and was lucky that it didn’t disable him too much. I believe he had a short spell in the Marines before deciding the army was more his thing and joined the Royal Norfolk Regiment serving in the Far East. I imagine Thomas and Flo were exceptionally proud of their son to have risen from his working class roots to earn a commission in the British Army. His post army business career was also successful and included a spell as Personnel Manager at Smedleys in North Walsham. Though he didn’t suffer fools gladly, he had an amazing sense of humour and while we didn’t always see eye to eye he had a major – pun intended – influence on my life. Sadly, Tom had an aneurysm whilst I was on holiday with him and his second wife in New England, and though he survived several months, he died in 2001.
Meanwhile, back to his father. Or rather to his uncle because another event came in 1944 when Thomas must have been feeling proud of his brother. Frederick Styles was awarded the MBE for his part in fighting a fire aboard the Port Fairy, the merchant ship he served as Chief Purser on.
Immediately after the war, Thomas took the next step from his membership of the local Labour party and successfully stood for the Britannia Ward in the Town Council elections. Interestingly, his LNER First Aid comrade William Page was a militant Labour Councillor and one wonders if one got the other involved.
By 1946 he was a member of the Education Committee and one of the gritty problems he was involved with was whether or not to re-establish the pen pal scheme with German children that had run before the war. Thomas was, unsurprisingly, very much in favour of doing so.
In 1947 he lost his seat on Britannia Ward but was moved to St George’s Ward where he was re-elected. Two years later he stood for St Peter’s Ward in a straight fight against the Conservative Montague Middleton in the 5th July elections but it would be 1952 when he was successfully elected to represent Shrublands Ward for three years, a position he would retain until his death, winning again in 1955. There is more about his work as a Councillor below. Meanwhile, what about the man behind all these roles?
At some point in the 1940s Thomas and Flo moved from Cobholm to Gorleston and lived at 44 Springfield Road. Beryl Rowse grew up next door and remembers ‘Uncle Tom’ with great affection. She says he and Flo looked after her on many occasions and that their home was always an open house for anyone who needed help, comfort or accommodation. Beryl says Thomas organised a Christmas party for local children every year. She recalls that he was still a member of St John’s and he encourage her to join, starting her off on a career of nursing. Thomas and Flo later moved to 33 Middleton Road, a house I remember as she remained there after Thomas died.
In 1952 Councillor Styles was made Vice Chairman of the Education Committee. Thanks largely to the 1944 Education Act (The Butler Act) this was at a time of incredible change and progress in the British educational system. A sharp distinction was made between Primary and Secondary Education; the first Comprehensive schools were being trialled; school meals were being provided as well as free school milk; and the Ministry of Education had more powers than its predecessor the Board of Education. This made for turbulent and busy times on the Great Yarmouth Education Committee and Thomas played a full and vital role.
In 1953 he stood for Chair but was soundly defeated by the extant chair Katherine Mable Adlington by 12 votes to 3. Adlington took the chair in 1952 replacing Mr Harry Thomas Greenacre who had held the position since 1925, and he replaced Edward Worlledge who had been chair since 1888. Two chairmen in 63 years until 1952! Adlington proposed Thomas as her Vice Chair and he was duly elected. I get the impression that despite being on opposite sides of the political divide, they were both passionate about their cause and got on well.
Another friend was Herbert George (Known as Bert) Holmes who ran the H A Holmes building company. Like Thomas, Mr Holmes had a big interest in the schools and education system of Yarmouth.
Thomas was also on the Health Committee from 1952 and by 1956 was Vice Chair of this board too until his death. In 1956 Thomas lost the election for Education chair to Adlington again but now only by two votes. He remained as Vice Chair.
That same year his only child Tom married Audrey and by now Tom was a Travelling Ticket Collector on the railways.
The following year saw controversy at the council. Some councillors felt that the Education Committee was too powerful and wanted to relieve it of some of its delegatory powers. Ironically it was the Labour councillor Leonard Bunnewell, famed for his pacifist stance during the war, who was most vociferous about this. Thomas counter argued that the Education Committee was virtually a council in its own right with 34 subcommittees and boards and it would be impossible for the council to manage it well.
That spring Adlington was elected as Mayor of Great Yarmouth and the position of Chair of the committee opened up to Thomas. In May 1957 he became the first ever Labour Chairman of Great Yarmouth Education Committee. Sadly, it would not be for very long.
I’m not sure how ill Thomas had been and for how long but in photos of him and Flo at my auntie Jean’s wedding in June 1957, you can clearly see a mark on his neck. It is possibly the site of a tracheotomy or possibly some other procedure to his throat. Clearly something was amiss.
And on the 18th October 1957 Thomas Styles, husband, father, councillor and big-hearted man, died in Gorleston Hospital. The cause of death was given as Bronchial Carcinoma, a form of lung cancer. He was just 54 years old.
His funeral was attended by Aunt Flo, of course, and his son Tom flew home from Singapore where he was serving, attached to the Singapore Regiment. There were several other family members present and although his mother Maud was still alive – she died in 1962 aged 85 – she is not listed as attending. Perhaps she was too infirm.
However, the true mark of the man was shown by the fact that representatives from virtually every school in the Borough were present along with several Aldermen and Councillors. The Mayor (Katherine Adlington), her Deputy (Laura Gilham), the Town Clerk (Farra Conway), and Chief Constable (C.F. Jelliff) also attended. The Revd. A. G. G. Thurlow described Thomas as “a man of courage to whom friendship with God was a natural part of life”. Thomas was buried in Gorleston Old Cemetery. His wife Flo would join him there when she died in 1975.
There was still one more tribute to this remarkable man to come. On the 25th March 1958, a new Secondary school was opened by Mayor Adlington in Yarmouth in the buildings in Trafalgar Road that used to be the Girls’ High School and before that the Boys’ Grammar. It was named the Styles Secondary Modern, a name it would retain until its closure in 1982 (it was demolished the following year). My parents were at the opening night whilst staying with Aunt Flo on their honeymoon.
Mr Birchenhall, the current chair of the education committee said:
He was a great friend to education in this town and the present educational position was due in some part to what he has seen and experienced in his time
In fact Thomas Henry Styles was a great friend to all the people of the town and I am proud to count him as a relative.