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Norwich Father of modern dance deserves memorial

PUBLISHED: 14:18 17 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:34 17 August 2017

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Philip Yaxley Collection

A campaign is being launched today to get a blue plaque put up in Norwich to remember and honour the city-born father of modern dancing and First World War flying ace who was killed almost a century ago.

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

His name was Vernon Castle and with his wife Irene they took the world by storm becoming superstars.

In the 1930s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in a movie telling their remarkable story.

Norfolk historian and author Philip Yaxley said: “When Fred was a teenager he used to go and watch them performing, so without the Castles we may not have had modern dancing, Fred and Ginger, and even Strictly.”

In his foreword to a book published in 2014 about the Castles, Shall We Dance by Douglas Thompson, outspoken Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood described them as “a couple that really did teach the world to dance. They were real trendsetters encouraging the world to embrace new forms of social dancing.”

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon and Irene in The Whirl of Life, the only movie they made together, though Irene starred in others. The script was written by Vernon and it was shot in the Spring of 1915. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Vernon and Irene in The Whirl of Life, the only movie they made together, though Irene starred in others. The script was written by Vernon and it was shot in the Spring of 1915. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

During the early part of the last century Vernon and Irene toured Europe and America and people said they were also the Posh and Becks of their day.

“It is fair to say they were perhaps the first showbiz superstars the world had ever seen,” said Mr Yaxley.

“When the First World War broke out his income of around £1,000 a week was larger than that of the President of the United States, but he gave it all up to return to England and his beloved Norwich to join the Royal Flying Corps although he didn’t have to,” he added.

Vernon proved himself time and time to be an accomplished pilot, flying some 150 dangerous missions over German lines and was honoured by the French.

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Air ace Vernon. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: Air ace Vernon. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

He returned to America after they joined the war to train rookie pilots.

On February 15, 1918 one of them took off in front of him at Benbrook airfield in Texas. He tried to avoid him, crashed and was killed.

Norwich needs a monument

Blue plaque campaign for father of modern dancing

Historian Philip Yaxley said: “In the City of Benbrook, not far from Fort Worth, stands an imposing monument to Vernon, a true British hero, and also a Vernon Castle Avenue but little in Norwich except for a room tucked away in the library at The Forum and his name on a roll of honour in Norwich School where he was a pupil.”

“We should have a more visible reminder of a great son of Norwich. At the time of his death at the age of 31 the Christian Science Monitor wrote: “his heroism revealed behind the dancer and the aviator, the man.”

Vernon Blyth was born in Mill Hill Road, Norwich, in 1887 and lived with his family at the Great Eastern Hotel at Foundry Bridge which they ran, now the site of the Premier Inn Norwich Nelson. His father William was a great city character.

“Wouldn’t it be good if we could put up a have a plaque there remembering Vernon and putting it up a century after his death would be the appropriate time,” Mr Yaxley added.

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