Search

Norwich Weather

Partly Cloudy

Partly Cloudy

max temp: 24°C

min temp: 13°C

New honour for Vernon - the Norwich dancer who inspired Fred Astaire

PUBLISHED: 11:29 01 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:36 01 April 2015

Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Vernon dancing with Irene. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

Philip Yaxley Collection

The superstar who time forgot - an American idol and a First World War hero - has finally been honoured in the city where he was born... Norwich.

Previously it was just called the “Training Room” at the Millennium Library but now it has been renamed The Vernon Castle Room to pay tribute to this extraordinary man and ensure his memory lives on almost a century after his death in an air crash.

He was the dancer who, with his wife Irene, took America by storm in the early part of the last century. They were huge celebrities who travelled the USA in their own train attracting tens of thousands of fans wherever they went.

More than 20 years after his tragic death Fred Astaire played his hero Vernon and Ginger Rogers was Irene in the 1939 movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

But mention his name to most people in Norwich and Norfolk and they will ask: “Vernon who?”

Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection
Vernon Castle honour. Pictured: The Great Eastern Hotel, Norwich. Picture: Philip Yaxley Collection

It was in May of 1887 when Jane Blyth gave birth to her son Vernon at their home in Mill Hill Road, Norwich. He was spoilt rotten.

Little Vernon had four older sisters who loved looking after their little brother. Little did they know he would grow up to be a heart-throb, loved by millions of women across the world.

His parents were William and Jane Blyth and he grew up at the Great Eastern Hotel by the Foundry Bridge in Norwich where his grandfather and then father were landlords.

He went to school in College House, Lowestoft, then Norwich Grammar School and although he left in the summer of 1903 to be an apprentice engineer in London, he was a born entertainer.

It ran in the family. His sister Coralie and her husband Lawrence Grossmith were stars of the theatre.

Vernon turned his hand to conjuring and was picking up a few professional engagements but all those years ago many showbiz folk were looking across the pond – where the bright lights of the USA were beckoning.

In 1906 Vernon, his sister and her husband set sail for New York. Also in the group was the songwriter Jerome Kern and Vernon’s father, William, who took one look at the Big Apple...and headed back to Norwich.

His boy Vernon was hooked. He loved this exciting city and all it had to offer a young man with stars in his eyes.

Showman Lew Fields spotted the lad had talent and offered him work on Broadway mainly as a comedian. Vernon changed his name to Castle – some say after Norwich Castle – and he met, and fell in love, with the beautiful and wealthy Irene Foote.

Vernon was making a name for himself in the States but he was desperate to show off his new bride to his family in Norwich and within a few weeks of getting married they set sail for England.

Norwich came as a shock to the flamboyant New Yorker who hated the place. She complained people nudged each other as she walked past and greeted her with open “guffaws.”

Vernon’s family did their best to make Irene feel at home but she didn’t want to know...at the time.

It was only as they were returning home that Irene realised times were tough for most people in Norwich more than a century ago. Many people lived in poverty. Irene realised how rude and offensive she had been.

She later wrote: “In a town (Norwich), where industrial workers hardly made enough money to feed their families, my clothes must have provoked defensive laughter.”

Irene also grew to love her husband’s home and his family describing his father as a “dear little man with a black suit and a matching bowler hat – straight out of Dickens.”

She added: “He had a gentle manner with no social graces – unlike Vernon, who had great personal charm and impeccable polish, which made him at home in any level of society.”

Soon after returning to America they had another spell on Broadway and were then invited to open their show in Paris where they performed a new dance, the Grizzly Bear, as a finale. The crowd went wild. It was the moment when their lives changed.

They went back to the States and within a short time took the country by storm with a whole string of new, exciting, all-action, fun-filled dances. They was the Castle Walk, the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Camel Walk and many more. They made a silent movie, The Whirl of Life, which was shown in Norwich.

Irene and Vernon quickly became huge stars. They opened a dance academy where those wanting lessons included some of the most powerful families in the land, such as the Rockefellers and the Hearsts, and toured the USA in their own train attracting enormous crowds wherever they went.

The last chance the Americans got to see them strut their stuff was at the New York Hippodrome in 1915. Tickets were like gold dust. They danced. They said farewell...Vernon was off to war and heading for Norwich once more. At the time he turned his back on a staggering £1,000 a week.

But Vernon was a man on a mission. He forfeited a fortune and took the King’s shilling.

He had already been taught how to fly and Vernon came home to join the Royal Flying Corps. His returned home to see his family writing: “Norwich is alive with military. All my school friends have gone and some, unfortunately, have been killed.”

Vernon turned out to be a flying ace with the crack Number One Squadron, and was lucky to escape with his life during dangerous missions over enemy lines in Europe.

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

Vernon, by then Captain Castle, returned to America after completing 150 missions. In February of 1918 he was teaching other pilots to fly when a rookie took off in front of him. Vernon took action to avoid him, but his plane crashed and he was killed. He was aged 31.

Family and fans were heartbroken. America went into mourning. The man inspired them to dance had been killed. His coffin, draped with the Union flag, was drawn on a gun carriage to Fort Worth station. All along the funeral train’s route to New York thousands of people wept as they turned out to honour their Norwich-born idol.

That’s Vernon Castle...a man worth remembering.

Our thanks to Philip...

The fact Vernon Castle now has a room named after him in at the Millennium Library is a tribute to the campaign spearheaded over the years by Wymondham historian, author and cinema buff Philip Yaxley who provided the information and photographs for this feature. Perhaps a road or a blue plaque could follow?

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Norwich Evening News

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists