Time for Norwich to honour Vernon Castle, the grammar schoolboy who teamed up with Irene to become the Posh and Becks of their day.

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A call has been made for a plaque to remember the international superstar and war hero Norwich forgot – his name was Vernon Castle.

He was the publican’s son and Norwich Grammar School boy who transformed himself from a slapstick comedian into an American idol a century ago.

Vernon and his wife Irene were the Posh and Becks of their day. Famous across the world as dancers, film-makers, musicians and fashion icons.

His tragic death, during a flying training session in 1918, made front-page across on both sides of the Atlantic and claimed more column inches than reports of a thousand deaths on the Western Front.

In America there is both a memorial and a street named after him while in Norwich, the city he was born – nothing.

A man campaigning for a plaque to honour Vernon is movie buff and historian Philip Yaxley and he is being backed by the daughter of the film star Fred Astaire.

It was Fred and Ginger Rogers who took the starring role in the 1939 movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

Ava Astaire McKenzie, pictured bottom, opposite page, said she hoped that a plaque would be put up in Norwich to remember Vernon. So does author Philip, who would love to see Vernon remembered by a plaque near the Nelson Premier Hotel Inn on Prince of Wales Road, where his father was the landlord of what was formerly the Great Eastern Hotel.

“I believe Nurse Edith Cavell and Lord Nelson are the only other Norfolk people to have had a full-length feature film made about their lives,” said Philip.

Vernon had a quite extraordinary life which wasn’t long but packed with excitement, fun and such adventure. One which led to him becoming a huge international celebrity.

Born Vernon Blyth at Mill Hill Road, Norwich in 1887, the son of Jane and William Thomas Blyth, he had four elder sisters.

He was brought up at the old Great Eastern Hotel. His grandfather, also William, was the landlord, who passed the licence on to his son.

Vernon went to Norwich Grammar School, leaving in the summer of 1903 to work for an engineering firm in London but always developing his skills as an entertainer.

His sister Coralie Blyth and her husband Lawrence Grossmith were already established actors.

Vernon was getting a few dates as a conjuror, but in those days people were heading for adventure in the United States of America and that’s where he went along with his sister and her husband.

They came home after a spell on Broadway but Vernon stayed – determined to make a name for himself.

He changed his name to Castle, met Irene Foote, a member of a wealthy family, and after a whirlwind romance they married at New York during 1911.

Vernon wanted to show off his new wife and within weeks they were heading home to Norwich where Irene discovered a very different place to swanky New York.

While he was proud of his city, colourful and flashy Irene stood out like a sore thumb. She looked down on the dowdy locals – even refusing a banana Vernon’s stepmother offered from the market because it was “covered in brown specks.”

It was a completely different world to the one she was used to. She later apologised for her behaviour and fell in love with both her husband’s family - and his city.

Back in America they were in various shows, and also in Paris, where they performed a new dance sweeping the country – the Grizzly Bear. People went wild.

The French loved it and they returned to take America by storm.

They made dancing fun performing the likes of the Castle Walk, the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Camel Walk and the Tango.

The richest people in the land –the Rockafellers and the Hearsts – danced at their lavish New York school.

In a short time they became huge stars and toured the USA in their own train.

Wherever they went huge crowds gathered, shouting: “The Castles are coming, hooray, hooray.”

Vernon also wrote a script for a silent movie The Whirl of Life, in 1915, telling their story which also featured their beloved dog and queues formed to see it when it was shown back in Norwich.

They were proud of “their boy.”

Women wanted to wear “the Castle frock” and when Irene had her hair styled thousands copied her.

But the world was at war.

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, by then a captain, was killed on a training flight when he tried to avoid a rookie pilot taking off in front of him.

Reports said he lost his life saving another.

His death shocked America. The coffin, draped with the Union flag, was drawn on a gun carriage to Fort Worth station and all along the funeral’s route to New York thousands of people turned out to pay their last respects to their idol.

In America there is both a memorial and a road named after him.

Surely the time has come for the people of Norwich to remember Vernon Castle.

1 comment

  • And to think the City Council gave permission to demolish the Great Eastern Hotel a wonderfull building with this great association of Vernon Castle and family

    Report this comment

    Albert Cooper

    Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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