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Norwich’s heroic bellman was our social media man of yesteryear

PUBLISHED: 10:32 26 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:54 26 September 2018

William Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned Bellman.

William Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned Bellman.

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As the waters swirled around him in a raging torrent 140 years ago he stood on a plank risking his own life to help save others...and then he fell. Derek James tells the story of the Norwich Bellman.

The Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his messages. Pictured is Orchard StreetThe Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his messages. Pictured is Orchard Street

As the waters swirled around him in a raging torrent 140 years ago he stood on a plank risking his own life to help save others...and then he fell. Derek James tells the story of the Norwich Bellman.

He was the little man with the big voice and mutton-chop whiskers. It seemed that the whole of Norwich and much of Norfolk knew him. His name was William Childerhouse and he shouted for a living.

William became a hero a year after being appointed the city bellman when the terrible floods of 1878 caused death and destruction, heartache and misery – washing thousands of people out of their homes.

It was the poor families living in the wretched slums in the low-lying streets, courts and yards of Heigham and St Martin’s who once again suffered more than most as the rivers burst their banks and the waters rose to waist level.

William Childerhouse, the Norwich City Bellman, as portrayed in this 1904 portrait by W. AndresenWilliam Childerhouse, the Norwich City Bellman, as portrayed in this 1904 portrait by W. Andresen

The relief work was led by beer baron Sir Harry Bullard but they had to get the messages across to the people. They needed to know what help was available, where the food and shelter was, so it was down to William volunteered to head down to the flooded streets with his ten-pound bell.

He balanced on a plank to shout his messages to the people before the waters knocked him off. He managed to drag himself out to safety, still holding his bell, to continue his work going from one street to the next.

The people never forgot him. A real working-class hero and the voice of Norwich from 1877 until his death in 1905.

William, also a preacher with the Baptist Church, started out as a shopkeeper in Alexandra Road where he used to sell his goods shouting “mussels and water cre-e-ese.”

A celebrity in old Norwich. The Bellman William Childerhouse with his peopleA celebrity in old Norwich. The Bellman William Childerhouse with his people

This was at the start of the 1870s when James Spilling, editor of the new Eastern Daily Press, took a liking to this little man shouting his messages and running errands around the city at brake neck speed.

Who better to spread the word of the DAILY PRA-A-ASS and it worked like a charm. William was put in charge of a dozen newspaper boys and all wore a special uniform. He certainly helped to launch the paper.

Among those listening to William were those at the Corporation who offered him the job of city bellman in 1877 at 13s. 4d a year.

And during the 28 years he did the job he never got a pay rise although his services were always in demand at events and he was also the civic sword bearer at special events and was the toastmaster at banquets. That was another £5 a year.

A celebrity in old Norwich. The Bellman William Childerhouse with his peopleA celebrity in old Norwich. The Bellman William Childerhouse with his people

He would promote tradesmen. Forty calls for half a crown and on Christmas Eve he was 
allowed into The Close where he recited what he called a carol under the windows of the Bishop, Deans, Canons and other dignitaries.

One of Norfolk’s finest writers, Jonathan Mardle (Eric Fowler) wrote many years ago: “At the age of 67 he was still bustling around Norwich as briskly as ever, with his big bell under his arm, and a great badge of the city arms proudly displayed on his chest.

“He calculated that he had walked 70,000 miles and cried 600,000 announcements since he had been appointed bellman.

“And then he caught influenza and died within a few days of it in 1905. He must have been a delightful little man, for it was said that everybody knew him, yet he had not a single enemy,” said Jonathan.

The Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his messages. Pictured is Orchard StreetThe Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his messages. Pictured is Orchard Street

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