Weird Norfolk: The grim discovery at Great Yarmouth Fire Station and the ghosts that haunt the building
PUBLISHED: 09:00 11 May 2019 | UPDATED: 08:16 12 May 2019
Percy Trett Collection/Time and Tide Museum
The grinning skeletons found where Great Yarmouth Fire Station stands today and the whistling, faceless ghosts that haunted fire fighters who longed for late-night call-outs to escape the horror at their HQ.
It was a macabre discovery, a mass grave just a few minutes from the candy-floss and kiss-me-quick Golden Mile of Great Yarmouth, a grim reminder of a medieval disease which wiped out two-thirds of the town, 15 grimly grinning skeletons.
In June 1348, a ship came into Melcombe Regis harbour in Devon carrying a hold filled with fine goods from the province of Gascony in south-west France: but amid the treasure was tragedy: death, and on an unimaginable scale.
The bacterium Yersinia pestis had hitched a ride on the boat, and, passed to humans by the rat flea, the first person to die on British soil was one of the sailors on board who was followed by dozens, then hundreds, then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others.
Bubonic Plague, the Black Death was the greatest ever calamity to reach our shores and, as it raged across town and country in the year that followed, every community was affected in some way - for those that witnessed it, and those who died in feverish agony, it must have seemed as if the end of the world had truly arrived.
In Great Yarmouth, it was the town's impressive wall which contributed to its death sentence.
People lived in crammed rows of houses within the perimeter of the wall which led to appalling standards of living where an enemy far deadlier than the French: around two-thirds of Yarmouth's population were wiped out by plague, a horrifying figure which left the town deeply scarred.
Those who died were buried in plague pits, mass graves dotted around the town including one unearthed as the site which would house the new fire station at Friars Lane, which opened in 1972, was excavated.
Fifteen skeletons were found in the graves where they had been buried, centuries ago in 1348. This area, within the town walls, was where a medieval friary once stood and the skeletons were found buried in lime mortar with planks over the bodies in a haphazard manner - many showed evidence of having been buried at the same time in shared grave pits, with bodies overlapping one another.
When experts examined the skeletons, it was determined that all were men aged between 13 and 30, presumably occupants of Blackfriars at the time of their death, hence the place of their burial - while the bones look untouched by disease, the teeth of victims still harbour inactive DNA from the plague bacteria, a deadly message from the past.
In the Eastern Daily Press of December 18 1970, a report said: "Workmen preparing a site for a new fire station at Friars Lane, Yarmouth, have found a skull and other human bones. This has been reported to the Borough Coroner, Mr L.E.England, who has asked a doctor to examine them to try and ascertain their age. On this will depend whether an inquest is held.
"The site is known as that of an ancient friary and the bones were found about 10ft deep alongside some old flint foundations, 25ft from the main road. The first bones, which included a skull and lower jaw, were unearthed by Mr Norman English of Blofield, while he was working a mechanical excavator. Later arm and leg bones were found. Police visited the site, but it understood the circumstances are not regarded as 'suspicious'."
A few months later, on February 17 1971, a stone coffin with its skeletal inhabitant was discovered at the site between Friars Lane and Charles Street. Later finds included the remains of an undercroft and a stone gargoyle.
Two labourers, Arthur Rogers and Ted Dunnett, found the coffin while digging. "One of our spades hit the corner of it," Mr Dunnett said. He added with a smile: "Being very intellectual, I thought it might be a sarcophagus."
George Rye, secretary or Yarmouth Archaeological Society, and Percy Trett, a fellow member, removed the bones from the coffin. Mr Rye said the coffin was evidently plundered many years ago by people looking for treasure and bones had been moved about in the coffin.
Blackfriars was one of five large medieval religious houses which dominated a seaside settlement at the height of its wealth and power: more than 800 years ago, Yarmouth was among the five richest towns in England, thanks to its port and herring.
The biggest was Blackfriars, founded in the 1270s to help the poor of the borough. The building took up all the land between Friar's Lane and the town walls until it was dissolved during the Reformation in around 1534. The buildings were demolished in around 1600.
Within a fortnight of the opening of Great Yarmouth Fire Station, firefighters reported hearing something unusual at their brand-new headquarters.
The Eastern Daily Press of June 26 1972 reported that firefighters would respond to late night calls in record time… "in fact," said leading fireman Ron Harris, "we just can't get out of the place quick enough."
First to get a midnight shiver down his back was Fireman Jimmy Jones: "Just after midnight I was sitting alone in the dormitory which is directly over the top of the friars' burial ground when I heard what sounded like whistling. It got louder as if someone was walking along the corridor and the sound stopped outside the dormitory. It was a very slow, tuneless whistle, almost like a dirge. I wouldn't have minded if it had been out of the Top Ten."
Fireman Jones went to investigate but found a deserted corridor.
Next on the ghost trail was Fireman Jack Wells, who was also alone in the dormitory when he heard footsteps coming along the corridor: "It was a very quick, almost scampering step, like someone was half running and half walking. The steps stopped outside the door but nothing happened. And, when I opened the door, the corridor was empty. It's not the sort of thing you imagine: there was something definitely walking along the corridor."
Ron Harris later heard "urgent steps" along the corridor at 1.30am, the sound of doors opening and a crash: "I don't mind saying, it's all getting a bit prickly," he said.
Less than two weeks later, a Mrs Nora Hand, 66, who contacted the Eastern Daily Press to recount stories of her childhood, which she spent living in a house that was built on the same site as the fire station - she claimed she had seen faceless monks and the ghostly figures of a young girl and an old woman at the house.
In the Eastern Daily Press of July 7 1972, she said: "People may laugh, but I regularly saw monks, misty figures wearing black cloaks and with no faces, walking about our house."
Mrs Hand, who said there used to be a graveyard near her parents' home in Garden Lane, claimed the appearance of the monks - "terrifying experiences" that always occurred about midnight - were often preceded by the sound of whistling.
The monks' slow footsteps were heard approaching a room, and having appeared, heads bowed and hands clasped inside their cloaks, they vanished into walls. Mrs Hand told reporters that she had been so frightened by the phenomenon she refused to go to bed before midnight, or insisted on sleeping in her mother's bed.
In addition to the monks, Mrs Hand said her mother, Lisa Harris, claimed to have seen the faceless, ghostly figures of an old woman wearing a black frock and carrying a candle, and a young girl with long, golden hair. The old woman used to open her mother's bedroom door, walk slowly in and look round the room before vanishing.
Other strange happenings in the house, said Mrs Hand, included locked doors being found open, a poker rattling in the hearth when nobody was near it and furniture being moved during the night. "The firemen's claims are no joking matter," she added. "I believe what they say because it's true."
Find out more about Yarmouth's tragic past at the Medieval Medicine exhibition at Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life on Blackfriars Road, Great Yarmouth. A human skull from the Norfolk Museum Service's collection and which was discovered at the former site of Blackfriar's Priory in the town is one of the exhibits. The museum is open every day from 10am to 4.30pm daily until October 31.