Stalham couple who sparked nationwide search when they ran off to get married 50 years ago celebrate golden wedding anniversary

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Childhood sweethearts who sparked a nationwide police search when they ran off to get married 50 years ago revealed they are still together – and will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary later this year.

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Jean and Noel Hicks, of Stalham, made headlines when they disappeared from their family homes in May 1966.

They had planned to run off to Scotland, where marriage was legal at 16 without parental consent, but didn't have enough money so ended up sleeping rough in London, where they ate out of bins to survive.

The teenage runaways, who soon secured jobs and a place to stay in the capital, were eventually found 10 days later and returned home to Norfolk where they went on to marry four months later.

Recalling the drama this week, Jean, maiden name Beales, said: 'Everyone said give it six months. I think it was because I was 16 and he was just 18.' But she added: 'It all worked out in the end.'

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Golden wedding couple Jean and Noel Hicks. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

The couple met round the jukebox in a local chip shop, a popular meeting place for youngsters at the time with the Beatles, Billy Fury and Elvis providing the soundtrack, and quickly struck up a romance.

Jean, who had thumbed a lift into Stalham from her home in Sea Palling, worked in a local factory making kites while Noel, from Sutton, who had a bike, was a carpenter by trade.

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They planned their getaway after constant interference from their parents threatened to push them apart.

Jean said: 'I was with a group of friends and he walked with us down the street and nicked one of my mittens. He brought it to Sea Palling the next day and we met the on the beach and that's really how it started.'

But she added: 'We kept getting moaned at by parents and, in the end, we just said: 'Right, we've got to get out of here.''

Attempts by the couple to board a mail train to Scotland had to be aborted and they ended up in London with just a change of clothes and £4 between them.

A kind stranger took pity and offered them a place to stay and they soon secured jobs - Jean cleaning records at Decor Records and Noel at Brixton Hospital.

However, before then, they had to live on scraps of food thrown out by local fairgrounds and beg to survive.

Noel said: 'Our intention then was to get work in London, get a little bit more money and then move on.'

But Jean explained: 'We had to get food and we ate out of bins. We went to fairgrounds at night-time to see them throwing out burgers and we ate them. We just had to. We had no money, it was a matter of survival. To stay there, to get up to Scotland, we had to have more money.'

Back in Norfolk, police had launched a public appeal for information. A report in the North Norfolk News, dated May 20, 1966, begged the question: 'Have an 18-year-old Norfolk youth and his 16-year-old friend found their way to Gretna in a bid to get married?'

However, in the days before mobile phones, the couple admitted they were oblivious to the concerns of their 'anxious' parents.

Jean said: 'Our main fear was getting caught. I knew I was going to get a hiding if I was found. And we eventually did.

'We were up there 10 days and the first we knew was when police knocked on our bedroom door.

'How they found us was I had got a job in Decors cleaning records and Noel had got a job at Brixton Hospital and we gave them our stamp cards.'

The couple returned home - expecting a child of their own - and applied to the magistrates court for permission to get married, which they were granted.

The low key affair took place at the registry office in North Walsham on October 8, 1966 - after a mad dash into Norwich on the bus that morning to buy a ring.

They celebrated with fish and chips but, with no photographer, have only their memories of the day.

Jean said: 'The mothers weren't talking because they each blamed the other for what had happened.

'That's why we have no photos or anything. Because I was 16, that wasn't the thing to do and the mothers didn't like it and they hated it more when they found out I was pregnant.

'No-one let their daughters come with me for quite a while in case I led them astray. But that is how things were 50 years ago.'

Nevertheless, she added: 'We've probably had one of the happiest 50 years compared to those who splashed out thousands of pounds on their wedding.'

The couple went on to have two children - Richard, now 49, and Tracey, aged 46. Jean has worked as a carer for 23 years while Noel worked in the building trade. And they revealed they hope to one day complete their journey to Gretna to renew their wedding vows.

When asked the secret to a long and happy marriage, Jean said: 'We do do a lot together,

'We sort things out between ourselves, give and take.

'A lot of young people today want everything at once.' But she added: 'We have to work on it.'

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