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Have you heard about Norfolk’s heroic flying ace who dazzled on the dancefloor?

PUBLISHED: 16:25 23 August 2017

Dance legends Vernon and Irene Castle. Picture: Archant Library

Dance legends Vernon and Irene Castle. Picture: Archant Library

Archant

Almost a century after he was killed surely the time has come to put up a blue plaque to remember a Norfolk boy who became an American idol and a First World War flying ace.

Vernon Castle in 1913. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection. Vernon Castle in 1913. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection.

He was the all-action, all-dancing twinkle-toed Vernon Castle, who died when his plane crashed at the start of 1918.

Two years ago a room was named after him at the Millennium Library in Norwich but now Philip Yaxley, the historian and author, is calling for a more public tribute to be erected to honour a man who took the USA by storm.

“Vernon lived at the Great Eastern Hotel – now the Premier Inn Norwich Nelson – and that would be the ideal place to put up a plaque to honour Vernon,” said Philip.

And he is right – at the entrance to Prince of Wales Road, now the hot-spot for the fun-lovers of the 21st century.

An advertisement from the Electric Theatre in Norwich showing a serial Patria starring Mrs Vernon Castle while her husband was fighting in the First World War. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection. An advertisement from the Electric Theatre in Norwich showing a serial Patria starring Mrs Vernon Castle while her husband was fighting in the First World War. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection.

There was a time when he was THE star of the city – and probably the most famous dancer in the world.

He was a £1,000 a week superstar... and how the people loved him. And he was so proud of Norwich.

Vernon, a brilliant entertainer and dancer with his wife Irene, turned his back on a fortune when the First World War broke out. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and was a skilled and courageous airman. A flying ace.

He was a member of the Number One Squadron and shot down aircraft over enemy lines in Europe. He was awarded with the Croix de Guerre by the French before returning to America after completing 150 missions.

Apart from being a great dancer Vernon, the Norwich boy the American’s took to their hearts, was also a brilliant drummer. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection. Apart from being a great dancer Vernon, the Norwich boy the American’s took to their hearts, was also a brilliant drummer. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection.

Then, in February 1918, he was teaching other pilots to fly in Texas when one took off straight in front of him. Vernon tried desperately to avoid him but his plane crashed and he was killed. Aged 31.

The people of the USA were heartbroken. His coffin was taken by train from Fort Worth to New York and tens of thousands of fans waited, watched and wept as the train passed them by.

More than 20 years after his death Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played their idols in the 1939 movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle - one which was also a “must-see” for the people of Norfolk and Norwich.

The story of his short life was an extraordinary one.

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection
Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Born William Vernon Blyth in Mill Hill Road, Norwich, in May of 1887. He grew up at the Great Eastern Hotel by the Foundry Bridge which was run by his father and grandfather.

Little Vernon had four older sisters and how they loved to look after him. Showbiz was in the blood as his sister Coralie and her husband Lawrence became well known entertainers.

He went to College House, Lowestoft, before moving on Norwich Grammar School. He became an apprentice engineer but was gaining a reputation as a conjurer. In those days many people were looking across the pond for a new life.

It was in 1906 when Vernon, his sister and her husband, his father and the songwriter Jerome Kern set sail for the Big Apple. While his dad came home, young Vernon was spellbound by New York City.

He was offered work on Broadway as a comedian and changed his name to Castle – some say after Norwich Castle. He fell in love with the rich and attractive Irene Foote.

When Vernon brought his new bride back to Norwich she was shocked. She couldn’t handle the poverty with so many poor people around living on the breadline.

Later, realising how rude she must have seemed, she wrote: “In a town (Norwich) where industrial workers hardly made enough money to feed their families, my clothes must have provoked defensive laughter.”

Returning to America Vernon and Irene were appearing together and dancing on Broadway. They were becoming well known but it was an invitation to Paris which turned them into superstars.

They performed a new dance, the Grizzly Bear, and the crowds went crazy. They were the new dance idols. They invented, among others, the Castle Walk, the Bunny Hug, the Camel Walk, the Turkey Trot. Not forgetting my favourite, the Hesitation Waltz.

Their shows were sell-outs, they opened a dance academy which attracted the most powerful families in the States such as the Rockefellers and the Hearsts.

Then, in 1915, Vernon gave up showbiz and a fortune by taking the King’s shilling and returning to Norwich to fight for his country in the First World War.

“Norwich is alive with military. All my school friends have gone and some, unfortunately, have been killed,” he wrote.

Three years later it was Vernon who was to lose his life.

Let’s remember and honour our Vernon. The king of the dance floor.

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