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The flying ace and the dancing star - new exhibition sheds light on the former Norwich School pupils who fought in the Great War

PUBLISHED: 06:30 25 October 2014

Commemorating WWI at Norwich School - John Walker has built a replica Western Front trench for the exhibition in the chapel crypt. Photo: Bill Smith

Commemorating WWI at Norwich School - John Walker has built a replica Western Front trench for the exhibition in the chapel crypt. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2014

A full-size replica of a trench and a host of war-time memorabilia are at the heart of a new exhibition which aims to shed light on a school’s contribution to the First World War.

The flying ace and the dancing star

• Vernon Blyth was born in Norwich and was brought up at the old Great Eastern Hotel, which was run by his grandfather and father.

However, he went to America and took the stage name of Vernon Castle and became famous for dancing with his wife Irene. They starred on Broadway and in silent films but their last show together was at the New York Hippodrome in 1915 before Vernon turned his back on his £1,000 a week career – a huge sum in those days – and came home to Norwich.

He joined the Royal Flying Corps and turned out to be a flying ace with Number One Squadron. He was lucky to escape with his life on missions over enemy lines.

He shot down at least two aircraft and the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre, proudly recorded in the Norvicension, the Norwich Grammar School magazine.

Towards the end of his time in France he was called on to entertain the troops and raise funds for the men in the blood-soaked trenches.

Vernon returned to America after completing 150 missions and then, in February 1918, was killed on a training flight in Texas when he tried to avoid a rookie pilot taking off in front of him.

• Philip Fullard was just 19 and a captain in the Royal Flying Corps when he shot down 42 aeroplanes between March and November in 1917. He was only 20 when he shot down four enemy aircraft in one day in 1918. An accomplished sportsman - there are rumours that he played as centre half for Norwich City reserves while he was at the school but the club say they have no record of him - it was while playing football on an airfield that he broke his leg.

While the injury finished his football playing days, it probably also saved his life, as it put him out of action for a long time.

He survived the war and his tally made him the 12th all-time ace in the Royal Flying Corps during the war.

The Norwich School sent off about 360 of its former and current pupils to fight, and 52 lost their lives.

Many were officers and were often targeted by the enemy, while a large contingent were in the dangerous Royal Flying Corps, which also suffered heavy losses.

This meant that one in three Norvicensians never returned.

The exhibition, in the school’s crypt next to Norwich Cathedral, has been curated by Norwich School archivist John Walker, who said: “When they charged over the top the officers could be seen by the enemy because of their uniforms and they were the first to be picked off.

Commemorating Old Norvicensions who took part in WWI - Captain Vernon Blyth. Photo: Bill SmithCommemorating Old Norvicensions who took part in WWI - Captain Vernon Blyth. Photo: Bill Smith

“The exhibition looks at the lives of the 52 killed and there were also more than one hundred seriously wounded.

“Around 20pc of those killed were serving in the Norfolk Regiment and mostly they were killed by shell fire.”

Much of the information for the exhibition has been gleaned from the school’s Norvicensian publication, which noted at the end of the war only four members of its original sixth form returned.

Mr Walker has also drawn upon his own extensive collections to bring an extra dimension to the display and to help visitors understand more about what life was like at the time.

Royal Flying Corps 'Ace' Captain Philip Fletcher Fullard. Photo: Bill SmithRoyal Flying Corps 'Ace' Captain Philip Fletcher Fullard. Photo: Bill Smith

Cigarette cards, regimental badges, miniature figurines showing the uniforms worn and propaganda postcards are just some of the artefacts on show.

Mr Walker said: “There’s a lot on about the war but I’m really trying to set it in its context by showing what life was like then.”

The exhibition will be open to the public from November 5 to December 12, 10am to 3pm, Monday to Saturday.

Any schools wishing to arrange a trip to see the display, which could also be arranged outside the normal opening times, can contact Mr Walker by calling the school on 01603 728430.

Do you have a story about the First World War? Email ww1@archant.co.uk

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