Vernon Castle

During May at the Norfolk Heritage Centre we have been celebrating the life of Vernon Blyth, better known as Vernon Castle. His name is familiar to any regular visitors to the Millennium library as our training room here is named after the Norfolk born man.Vernon and Irene Castle

Vernon went from Norwich to become a worldwide dancing star, was awarded a medal for bravery in WW1 and had his life cut tragically short in 1918.

Castle, was of course a stage name.  Vernon William Blyth was born in Norwich on May 2nd 1887 to William and Jane Blyth. He went on to become a dancing star, appearing on Broadway, in vaudeville and on the silver screen. Vernon was just 30 years old when he died in a training accident during WW1.

Vernon Blyth spent much of his childhood living on the Prince of Wales Road in the Great Eastern Hotel, where his grandfather and father were landlords. He appears on the 1901 Census at this address and .he attended the Norwich School in the City. In his earlier years Vernon had lived for a time with his parents in London, appearing on the 1891 Census at 24 James St in Marylebone.

0 N

Demolition of the Great Eastern Hotel

Vernon left Norfolk for New York in 1906 eventually meeting Irene Foote who was to become his wife. Vernon and Irene Castle had huge success around the world but Vernon returned to England in 1915 to join the Royal Flying Corps. In 1917 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery, he had shot down at least two enemy planes. In the same year he was retired from active duty.

Vernon was sent to the USA and Canada where he trained pilots. He was seriously injured in a flying accident near Fort Worth, Texas and died on February 15th 1918.

Vernon and Irene Castle were played by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1939 film “The story of Vernon and Irene Castle”. Vernon had inspired Astaire in his younger days and the story of the Castles on the cinema screen inspired a whole new generation to dance.

Captain Castle, who had completed 150 flying missions during WWI, is buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York.

The Norfolk Heritage Centre is a partnership of the Norfolk Library and Information Service and the Norfolk Record Office. If you are interested in tracing your WW1 Family History we have many records and subscriptions that may be able to help you.

Orla – Archive Specialist

Until the end of May you can pop into the Millennium Library and see various items relating to Vernon Castle, including his Croix de Guerre

For further Information:

Norfolk Heritage Centre: 01 603 774740. @NorfolkHC,

Norfolk Record Office: @NorfolkRO,

Geoffrey Colman in uniform 1915

Geoffrey Colman during WW1 from a family archive of images related to the Norwich mustard firm of Colmans.

Geoffrey Colman during WW1 from a family archive of images relating to the Norwich mustard firm of Colmans.

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)

Ottoman Coins in the Attic

Our regular Mesopotamian correspondent has been looking at a different aspect of life in the area during World War One for this post

Ottoman Coins in the Attic

Tragically, as we observed in a recent posting, many of the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk regiment who served in Mesopotamia now rest in modern-day Iraq. As the calamity of Kut al Amara unfolds that number will increase dramatically. But the 2nd Battalion were not alone in the Norfolk Regiment in serving in the war against the Ottoman Empire; the territorial and yeomanry battalions, too, saw action in  Gallipoli, Palestine and Salonika (which had been restored to Greece from Ottoman control only in 1912 during the First Balkan War).

Those soldiers who returned to Norfolk would have brought home souvenirs of their service overseas, and hidden away, perhaps unrecognized and unregarded, there might be the coins, the change, that they picked up in Ottoman lands. It can be no surprise that these small treasures are sometimes found particularly by families in Australia and New Zealand, brought home by returning ANZACs, many of whom, like their British compatriots, were in transit through Cairo and later were reassembled in Egypt following the evacuation of Gallipoli.

At that time, Egypt was still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, although in 1867 the Sultan had acknowledged a local viceroy, known as the Khedive, governing in the Sultan’s name, while after 1882 effective management of the country lay with the British.

Ottoman coins fall roughly into two kinds: those minted in Constantinople for circulation throughout the empire, and those minted in semi-autonomous Egypt, which also circulated widely.

A small cupro-nickel coin, 18mm in diameter, value 2 kurush (kuruş), from the reign of Sultan Mehmed V and dating from 1912/13 (AH 1327 Year 3) (image may be freely used)

A small cupro-nickel coin, 18mm in diameter, value 2 kurush (kuruş), from the reign of Sultan Mehmed V and dating from 1912/13 (AH 1327 Year 3) (image may be freely used)

Turkish coins from the  First World War are quite easy to recognise:

  • they have arabic script (Turkey did not adopt Latin script until 1929, as one of the reforms of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk);
  • they do not have any images, in accordance with Islamic practice;
  • they have a tughra on the obverse side of the coin instead of the Sultan’s profile.

A tughra is the monogram of a sultan designed in fine calligraphy. It has a special meaning for each sultan (see

The tughra of Sultan Mehmed V (1909-1918) (public domain image)

The tughra of Sultan Mehmed V (1909-1918)
(public domain image)

The basic unit of the Ottoman currency was the lira which was issued in gold. The lira was subdivided into 100 kuruş issued in silver, but by the time of the First World War mostly in cupro-nickel like a modern British 10 pence piece. One kuruş was further subdivided into 40 para issued in copper and later in cupro-nickel. (For more detailed information see

A gold 500 kuruş, ½ lira coin, minted in Constantinople in AH 1336 Year 1 (1918/19) and displaying the tughra of Sultan Mehmed VI (public domain image)

A gold 500 kuruş, ½ lira coin, minted in Constantinople in AH 1336 Year 1 (1918/19) and displaying the tughra of Sultan Mehmed VI (public domain image)

The gold coins are quite scarce and it would be unusual to find them among family keepsakes, but we can tell a lot about the lower denomination coins which might turn up by understanding a little of the inscription or legend on the coin. We can find three pieces of information fairly easily:

  • the currency amount or denomination;
  • the year it was minted;
  • the sultan in Constantinople at the time of minting.

The last of these is the easiest, since the tughra on the obverse of the coin (where HM The Queen’s head would be on our coins) is as distinctive as a portrait, because each sultan had his own. A good reference for this is the list of Ottoman sultans at:

The dates on Ottoman coins were shown according to the Islamic calendar in years AH, that is ‘Year of the Hejira’ (anno hegirae) or the year when the Prophet Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina, which we take to be AD 622 in the Christian calendar, or CE 622 as it is sometimes now written.

The coin below is a cupro-nickel coin, 28 mm in diameter: the tughra is of Sultan Abdülhamid II, and the date can be calculated using the numbers shown circled in red on the reverse of the coin and in yellow on the obverse.

(image may be freely used)

(image may be freely used)


Firstly, we need to recognise the Arabic numbers minted on the coin:

mes coin 5

The number circled in red gives the AH year of the accession of the sultan: in this case 1293. The number circled in yellow gives the number of years into the sultan’s reign when the coin was minted: in this case 32. Thus, by adding the regnal year (32) to the accession year (1293), we get a minting year of AH 1325. Converting the AH year to the AD year is best accomplished by using this converter recommended by the U.S. Middle East Librarians’ Association:

Entering a date of 1/1/1325 and converting from Islamic to Christian gives a date in 1907, which is the year of this coin, and which would certainly have been in circulation when troops from Norfolk were in the Near and Middle East.

There are many complications in computing the precise date, so the result should be seen as 1907/08, since the first day of the Islamic calendar (1 Muharram) does not coincide with the 1 January, and the regnal year of the sultans began at various dates.  Here is a list of the years mostly likely to appear on coins brought home by servicemen:

AH year AD year AH year AD year AH Year AD year
1298 1880/81 1311 1893/94 1324 1906/07
1299 1881/82 1312 1994/95 1325 1907/08
1300 1882/83 1313 1895/96 1326 1908/09
1301 1883/84 1314 1896/97 1327 1909
1302 1884/85 1315 1897/98 1328 1910
1303 1885/86 1316 1998/99 1329 1911
1304 1886/87 1317 1899/00 1330 1912
1305 1887/88 1318 1900/01 1331 1913
1306 1888/89 1319 1901/02 1332 1913/14
1307 1889/90 1320 1902/03 1333 1914/15
1308 1890/91 1321 1903/04 1334 1915/16
1309 1891/92 1322 1904/05 1335 1916/17
1310 1892/93 1323 1905/06 1336 1917/18


Converting between Gregorian AD and Hejira AH years is complicated because the Gregorian calendar is based on solar cycles and the Hejira calendar on lunar cycles; the Gregorian year has 365 days whilst the Hejira year has just 354 days. If you really want to convert manually, here  is one way:

where G = Gregorian year and H = Hejira year:

G = H + 622 – (H/33)

So, for the coin above: G = 1325 + 622 – (1325/33) = 1907

H = G – 622 + {(G – 622)/32}

So, for a coin minted the year war broke out: H = 1914 – 622 + {(1914-622)/32} = 1332

This 1 qirsh (kuruş) coin was minted in Egypt. The design of Egyptian coins of this date includes the denomination mark on the obverse below the tughra, with the regnal and accession years on the reverse. In this case the mint mark for Misir, the Turkish name for Egypt, is also shown on the reverse. It was minted in 1914/15.

(image may be freely used)

(image may be freely used)

NB ش in Arabic script means qirsh or  kuruş.

This is a tiny Egyptian 1 para or 1/40th qirsh coin – the lowest denomination of the time, about the size of a modern British 5 pence piece but in copper. It would have been in the change of every soldier shopping in Cairo. In this case the regnal year is on the obverse, and the accession year on the reverse. The mint date shouldn’t be difficult to calculate.

(image may be freely used)

(image may be freely used)

Coins do not have the personal intimacy of letters and medals, but they can be a link with times past and places to us unknown but which were familiar and important in the lives of the men who served in distant lands.

War Loans Appeal Poster

War Loans PosterThis is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)

Changes to Family Life in Thetford

By May 1915, the war was starting to have a profound effect on family life in Thetford. Many men had joined the forces and there was a lack of painters,decorators,joiners, plumbers and the like;as yet no one had been trained to take their places.

Many mothers had to take on additional domestic chores as their husbands were away fighting and some received additional income from taking in washing from the troops. Unfortunately,this impacted on some boys school attendance as they had to collect the laundry from the soldiers and return it.

Many in Thetford were making sacrifices to reduce the consumption of resources such as fuel, food and other essentials and many noticed an increase in food prices.

Voluntary work in Thetford continued. The Red Cross held “Our Day” appeals, getting donations from street collections, house to house collections,sales of work and the occasional music concert in the Town Hall.

The Mayoress of Thetford (Mrs Charles Burrell) held a “Pound Day”on behalf of Belgian soldiers in the trenches. The idea was that Thetfordians would gift at least a pound or fraction of a pound of any suitable goods.Over 300 contributed and the Mayoress sent 350 lbs of groceries, 170 tins of preserves and £42 in money to London.

The Norfolk Regiment in May 1915: Gas Warfare

Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.

A German gas mask

A German gas mask

“It isn’t war as we have been brought up to think of it. There is no honour in this kind of thing.”

These are the words of Major Cowie of the Dorset Regiment, writing in May 1915 to Captain P. V. P. Stone of the 1st Battalion, Norfolk Regiment about the Second Battle of Ypres.

In April 1915 the 1st Battalion had been stationed at Hill 60, a large man-made mound about three miles south east of Ypres. The Germans were determined to capture Ypres, and deployed a new and particularly vicious type of weapon to do so. On April 17th and 18th, the German artillery used gas shells for the first time.

Cowie describes the horror of the attack in his letter to Stone: “I have never seen such a ghastly sight… men died like poisoned rats, fire and communication trenches were choked with men dying in agony from no apparent cause… poor fellows they crawled along and died in every hole or corner they could crawl to – we are still finding their bodies.”

Cowie ends his letter with some advice: “As soon as the presence of gas is detected there is only one thing to do and that is to man the parapet and open rapid fire. This makes the men keep their heads up where they can benefit by the fresh air, distracts their attention from the effects of the gas, the burst of fire helps to disperse the fumes and checks any attempt of the enemy to advance.”

Soldiers of the Norfolk Regiment wearing gas masks.

Soldiers of the Norfolk Regiment wearing gas masks.

At first the British men were without gas masks and suffered large numbers of casualties during gas attacks. Initially, men followed instructions to urinate on handkerchiefs or fabric gas hoods in an attempt to neutralise the fumes. This proved ineffective, and by October 1915 the P.H. gas mask was introduced. Click here to watch a War Office film showing the changing gas masks of the First World War.

The helmet pictured above is from the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum’s collection and is a German gas respirator and container. The British Army soon retaliated to the use of gas, and in September 1915 launched their first gas attack against the Germans at the Battle of Loos. By the end of the War almost 30,000 soldiers had died from the effects of gas alone.

War Diary May 1915

War Norfolk
Sinking of the Lusitania 

U-20, a German submarine, sinks the passenger liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. 1198 die including 128 US citizens.

Norfolk Troops Torpedoed 

The ship Manitou, carrying British troops, was attacked by a Turkish torpedo. Two Norwich boys relate their experience home in a letter. ‘At the time the 3rd round was fired there were many of the troops in the water. They were 2 or 3 hours floating about in the sea amongst all kinds of timber before being rescued’.

Airship Raid on London 

7 people are killed and 35 injured in the first German airship raid on London

War Relief Fund Fraud 

A Norwich citizen was summoned at the Guildhall for obtaining £3 by false pretenses from the war relief fund. The defendant’s husband was out of work sick and applied for assistance at the Guildhall. Later her husband enlisted but the defendant still claimed assistance.