There is little documentary evidence concerning this Norwich character, and not much anecdotal either, and yet he must have been a very colourful sight on the streets of Norwich over 100 years ago. The bare facts that follow are the result of local newspaper articles over the past 40 years.
His real name was William Potter. He and his wife lived in Whalebone Square, adjacent to The Whalebone Tavern at the bottom of St Clement's Hill. They made a living by street busking and selling bedding plants, some reports say from a flat-barrow mounted on a penny-farthing. He obviously paid a lot of attention to his image and dressed in a tail or cutaway coat, with a tall green top hat or bowler. He would sometimes play the accordion while his wife, fully dressed in elaborate Victorian fashion, would dance beside him.
Any more information about him will usually be anecdotal, but occasionally an item turns up, like the one I'm showing here, that maybe gives a clue to his lifestyle as the people of Edwardian Norwich would have seen it.
This postcard from 1906 is sometimes to be found, but the example I have is signed by the man himself, which makes it very rare, and rather intriguing. The postcard has no inscription on the back, only the somewhat cryptic one on the front. The back is addressed in his own handwriting to an address in Earlham Road. I suspect that William Potter responded to what must have been considerable local fame, by having these postcards printed, by Woods of Fye Bridge, which he then sold, or gave away, to people he met on the street. This entrepreneurial spirit seems in keeping with his extravagant busking attire, and reinforces the idea that he took his image seriously. If I'm correct, the lady on Earlham Road who received the postcard probably asked him for one in the street, and he promised to send one on. This would account for the inscription which simply identifies himself and his wife, with 'sugar' in brackets. This further suggests that this was the way he was usually addressed, and not by the longer version of his nickname.
As a footnote, I believe that, with the tireless help of my son Sam, we have identified the exact location of the photograph. The pair are standing outside the gates of Levell's stonemasons yard at 52 Magdalen Road, at the corner of Shipstone Road which is just behind them. A few hundred yards further back can just be seen the outline of Magdalen Road Congregational church, demolished in 1971.
This leads me to the anecdotal evidence. Why was he called "Sugar My Sop"? In passing it should be said that most people who know of him usually refer to him as "Sugar Me Sop", but this would simply be a local corruption of the correct name. I've seen a few proposed explanations, none of which are convincing, and all of which are pure guesswork. The explanation I'm going to give sounds plausible, but as with so much about these strange characters, it's impossible to prove definitively.
Some years ago, an old lady whose family I was connected with, told me this story.
Her name was Alice Knight and she was born in Shipstone Road in 1894. She died at the age of 108 in 2002, and her memories were fresh until the end. She remembers as a young girl, often seeing William Potter and his wife as they made their way from St Clement's Hill towards Magdalen Street and the city, where they would do their busking. She told me that on a number of occasions he would have a board hanging around his neck bearing the proud slogan: "Every morning I sugar my sop with Dodson's sugar". The Dodson's in question was a grocer's shop, one of seven John Dodson shops in Norwich, at 128 Magdalen Road, and only a few doors from the Potters in Whalebone Square. Dodson's obviously took advantage of Sugar's fame to indulge in some enterprising street advertising, which would in turn help the Potter's probably limited income.
The information I've given here adds to the story I think, but part of the enduring fascination surrounding these Norwich wraithes is that they are essentially unknowable, which add to their potency as we peer through the mists that shroud old Norwich.
Eccentric, entrepreneur - character. These people throng the streets in every era, sometimes visible, sometimes not; and I will share my memories of those that I have known, and some like 'sugar' that I have not, on my blog over the next year or so.
William Childerhouse reigned as the splendidly named Norwich Bellman for some 30 years, until his death at the age of 67 in 1905.
He became a local hero during the devastating floods of 1878, when he braved the flood waters all over the city, relaying the latest news and public information advice in his renowned stentorian voice, despite at one point having to drag himself out of the waters after falling off his makeshift raft.
I don't have any new information on this rather obscure character, whose life remains in the shadows while his image is much better known., but I do have a very tenous connection with him. About 40 years ago I had a great friend, Alfie Goose, who was a well known Mile Cross character in his own right. Alfie had some interesting memorabilia about The Bellman, but also the unbeatable distinction of having been introduced to him when he was a young lad, and even sat on the old gentleman's knee. Some of these figures are so far in the past, and so little known about them, that it seems hard to believe they were as real as the rest of us. Through Alfie Goose I've always had the knowledge that The Bellman was once among us, and not just an image on an old postcard.
The photograph shows The Bellman in his familiar pose, and any Norwich resident will easily identify the historic backdrop