Hero’s timepiece back in Diss

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110934005

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110934005

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A handsome pocket watch presented to a rescuer who saved two men from drowning at Diss 145 years ago has come back to the town from Australia.

And this weekend the inscribed pocket watch will be on show in the town’s museum.

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110944005

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110944005

But although the story of why it was presented is now known, how the watch got to the other side of the world remains a mystery.

A public subscription was raised to present the fine silver watch from the people of the town to Harry Perry after he rescued brothers William and Edward Filby who fell through the ice while skating on Diss Mere in 1870.

Perry, who was only 19, placed a ladder on the ice to reach William, 24, and Edward, who was also 19, and unaided, although the Diss Express of the time reported that there were “numbers present”, pull them to safety.

What happened to the watch after that is not known but several years ago it was bought by a David Brace at a fair in Melbourne. He eventually contacted Diss Town Council to try to discover more of its history, the council passed his inquiry to museum manager Basil Abbott and the story began to emerge.

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110954005

Basil Abbott with a watch that has been returned to Diss. It was given to Harry Penny in 1870 for saving two men from Diss' Mere. ANL-150819-110954005

A report in the Express was full of praise for Perry who was “utterly regardless of the risk he was running” and his brave rescue “elicited much commendation in the town”. It did not result in a grand occasion to present him with his watch, however; because he was working away from home and probably visiting his family when he performed his heroics, the watch was posted to him.

In a letter of thanks in the Express he describes the “silver lever watch and chain” a “very handsome present”.

Much as he appreciated the gift, he said “I felt amply rewarded...by the remembrance that I had been successful in saving life and had only performed what was my duty to do...”

Mr Brace has donated the watch to the museum and this week it is being added to an exhibition about the Mere, which coincidentally is one of the current displays. “It is a very generous gesture,” said Mr Abbott.

The only cost of the new exhibit has been a £38 customs charge the museum had to pay when the watch arrived from Australia.

Mr Abbott was helped to track down the story of the watch by Betty Morley, from the Family History Society, and Norwich researcher Helen Kennett. They discovered that Harry Perry was a house-painter whose family came from Shelfanger Road. The Filby brothers lived in Church Street, one being a brazier and the other a soldier on leave.

Mrs Kennett’s researches show that Harry Perry moved back to Diss with his wife Charlotte. Census records show that he was still living in Diss in 1911.

Newspaper accounts report during December 1869 the weather worsened and the Mere began to freeze. The cold weather persisted until mid-February but as it eased and the ice thinned there had been “several immersions happily unattended by serious consequences”.

The Filby brothers looked like being unluckier than others who had gone into the water until the arrival of a humble hero who concluded his letter of thanks with: “I hope I shall be prompted to like acts of doing good whenever I am called upon or have it in my power”.