Early days in Norwich and two weeks holiday a year
We lived in Norwich just off Riverside Road, right close to the river. I was born in April 1947, after a harsh winter. I had one brother who was a year older than me, though we were so different and did our own thing.
My father was a night worker at Laurence Scott Electromotors. My mother sometimes had a part-time job just to help things along in the house and for expenses.
As far as I know, there was nobody at all in my family involved with boats except for one guy who was a carpenter. I was the only one who decided I wanted to be a boat builder.
We used to spend a lot of time playing up in Mousehold [Heath]: hide and seek and exploring: climbing trees, cowboys and Indians. We also used to play up behind the gas works. We had what we called ‘outings’ where we used to go off and finish up right close to the Ring Road. It was quite popular in that time to take bits of cardboard with us and slide down St James’s Hill. Mousehold was a favourite place even in the winter time. We used to sledge down Gas Hill, which is very steep, and then across the road at the entrance to the path and then swing round into the side road. Luckily we didn’t injure ourselves. We didn’t think about the dangers.
The first two weeks in August is when Laurence Scott’s shut down for the fortnight and that was it for holidays: two weeks a year. The family would go to Reading to see friends and family and to the South Coast, places like Littlehampton and Bognor. We used to go down to Brighton on the steam train ‑ the Norfolkman, the Broadsman or the Oliver Cromwell. I was fascinated by steam. I even got a little job at a laundry filling barrows up with coke and taking them to the boiler and delivering laundry to various places round Windsor, Sunningdale, all that area. I really enjoyed that.
When I was about twelve or thirteen I started to get involved pulling things to pieces. I got a wreck of a bike and pulled it to pieces and just found out exactly how it went together and assembled it again. I did make up a fixed wheel bike later on. I needed one because I had an accident.
Early interest in boats and Riverside, Norwich
Riverside at that time was a bit of a rundown area. Up near the Bishop Bridge end there was talk about putting a riverside walk in. That did come around eventually, but to begin with most of the yacht station was right down from Foundry Bridge down to the cafe. Sometimes in the summer it used to be just full up with boats. They used to be moored two abreast for a long time. As far as I know they were all holiday makers. There were several boatyards down at Thorpe, and at Brundall not very far away as well.
Every night I used to watch the boats. After school if I wasn’t fishing I’d go out and watched the boats come in. My father was very strict and he didn’t want me to play near the river. He said, ‘If I catch you near that river, I’ll give you a damn good hiding.’ I was leaning on the rails further up Riverside Road, near St Matthew’s Road and I could see my father crossing the road at the end of Lollards Road and when I saw that I went back across the road and up St Matthew’s Hill and along Rosary Road behind him and just continued watching the boats.
At the Bishop Bridge end the Sea Scouts had a boat opposite there and when it came to breaking it up it was dragged across the river and hauled out and cut up.
I got to know Fred Fiske who owned an ex-Gorleston lifeboat and I used to row up the river in his dinghy. He did river trips from Bishop Bridge down to Surlingham on a Sunday and Bramerton on a Saturday. He asked if I wanted to come and make the tea for him and I started to make the tea on all the trips.
There weren’t no other boats there doing anything like it and he didn’t charge too much for it. Holiday makers and local people came. It was advertised so there was quite a load.
It was a big clinker, what they call a beach lugger, because they used to lay on the beach. To launch the boat they had these skits. It must have been about 40 feet and could have been longer. Fred Fiske, he bought it and converted it over time. He used to work in Australia on the rocket range in Woomera and when he came back he found this boat and decided to live on it.
Starting in boat building
I liked woodwork at school and I took extra maths because I thought that would help with getting a job. But I just liked doing woodwork and using tools basically. When I was 15 the employment officer come round and asked if anybody wanted to be a boat builder. I was the only one in the class who put their hand up. Of course, the boats were all fibreglass now but I took the information and started to look for a job.
I went down to Thorpe to have a look and see what was possible. There was Wards, Jenners, Harts Cruisers down there but nobody wanted to take me on. The next place was Brundall, and had a look down there. I went to Bell Boats; Brooms, and Harvey Eastwoods, but no one wanted to take me on so I thought the next move is to go to Wroxham. In those days the hire fleets were just making a living but not in a big way.
If I hadn’t got a job I did think about going in the Navy.
I started at Windboats in Wroxham. They had quite a reputation years ago because they built boats for George Formby. He used to whip round to the stores in Wroxham in his runabout to get his newspapers in the morning. He used to come flying into the basin, plenty of wash and then banked it round and then moor up against his boat. There were a lot more little shops and places in Wroxham then but they have been taken over by Roys and redeveloped.
I was earning about two pound, thirteen and five pence then. My mother didn’t want much for keep and lodgings. So I had two pound for myself ‑ or two pound on tools ‑ ten bob for my mother and three shillings to actually get me through the week on other things.
I started to buy one tool a week. They were all different saws and planes. I tried to buy in order of usage. It was nice to have a collection. Frost and Barrett tool company used to come round once a month, and I used to buy one from them or maybe I could afford two or whatever to build up the collection. These were moulding planes and wooden jack planes but basic moulding planes. You wanted concave or convex because sometimes you wanted to make up a piece of moulding and you wanted all sorts of shapes and sizes so it was easier to have the tools.
Windboats concrete hulls
When I first went to Windboats I was put on with another boat builder helping him fit out; they were called Trade Winds and they were 34 feet. Windboats had this idea of making boats out of concrete because they don’t rot and as far as I know we were the only yard to do this. They sold quite a few of them. We used to make the concrete hulls there of course and then we used to fit them out.
There were private boats and also we started to make fishing boats. Some of them went down to the Solomon Islands. I was fitting them out and making the wheel houses for them. Before long we got onto a production line of 24-footers and 26-footers.
They were heavy but they had a good system to move them with the winches and ways of moving boats. You can revolve the wheels 360 degrees on the trolley they used for getting the boats in and out of the water. You can move them sideways, backwards, forwards, any ways so they was well geared up for that. Then they altered the sheds a bit so they could pull boats in. The concrete shed was quite close to the main road at Wroxham so they had to be brought all the way down the yard. They opened up the shed and moved the winch so they could pull them in the shed.
The hulls were set up with frames and strong wire mesh was stapled to them along the full length. Reinforcing rods were then welded to the frames and more mesh put on and stapled on. You could hardly see through them with the amount of reinforcing wire. Then the plasterers come in with the old mixers going and they used vibrating tools to push the concrete through to make sure it was solid all the way through and there were no voids. Then they just smoothed it all down and then they used to spray water on it for about a week just to keep it wet so it dried very slowly.
Windboats was one of the first yards to actually produce fibreglass boats. I had a session up in the fibreglass shop making screens and sliding hoods and the odd day boat, dinghy, runabout, so I had a taste of all that. The smell got in your stomach and I wasn’t too keen on that and moved back into fitting boats out.
I started at Windboats in ’62 but I had an accident on a motorbike in 1966, going home from my girlfriend’s one night from the Heartsease Estate, through Mousehold and a young guy in a Mini lost control. He hit the curb and went through the trees and he came right across the road and hit me sideways. I had a BSA A10 650 and I’d put a side car on it.
Apprenticeship and taking on jobs
As soon as I started mending boats I became an apprentice and went to Potter Heigham Tech, once a week, every Wednesday. There’d be about 18 to 20 apprentices from different yards.
I got a good understanding of how to do joints and how boats are put together. John Loynes who ran the Loynes boatyard at Wroxham took us for theory. In the afternoon Mr Hart took us for maths and he was a brilliant guy: had time to listen to you and understand you. In the late afternoon/evening time we had Billy May from Maycraft take us for some practicals.
I started to do a bit of restoration after work and then in the evenings and weekends. The first job I did was for Dr Lofting who used to have a practice in Princes Street in Norwich. He’d heard I was a boat builder and asked my mother if I could have a look at his boat.
Then my brother saw Fred Fiske on the bus who had heard I was a boat builder. I went down to Griffins Lane in Thorpe. The boat was The Friend of all Nations: the one I did all the trips and made the tea on. The boat was out of the water with a hole in the side. I thought, crikey this is a challenge! I took it on. Of course, there was none of the power tools then. All the planks had to be sawn by hand. They were all oak planks as well. Fred got all the materials and well, I just put them in place. It was in the shed at May Gurneys yard, down in Thorpe.
Later, I tried to trace exactly where the boat Friends of All Nations was. I think it was Paul Reynolds, and he was retiring or leaving the yard. We were on the wherry Hathor and we got talking about it. He said, ‘I believe it’s in this last boat shed at one of the last houses on the way to Wroxham Broad’. I managed to see the stern of it as we were going past. It was painted black and recognised part of it but wasn’t sure who owned it. I didn’t hear any more about it until someone told me it was at Reedham and the people there in the boatyard had got it but it was too far gone to repair it. Eventually it was craned out and taken to Moulton St Mary, to a guy who’s a bit of an artist and he’s turned it into a square rigger as a feature.
On Boxing Day in 1963 it snowed and there was a lot of snow. It was quite a winter right through until about April time and the ice on the Broads was about two foot thick. I was cycling to Wroxham because I couldn’t afford to renew my season ticket. One of the jobs they had there was to saw round the boats that were still in the water so they didn’t get nipped up. There was a fire in the workshop right in the centre of the place but we was working well away from the fire so every now and again we used to have a warm up and carry on working that way.
Luxury boats at Bells
When I got back to work [after the accident] it was ’67 and I was on the lookout for another job. I worked at Bell Boats for about two and a half/three years. I was fitting out fibreglass to start with and the money was a lot better than Windboats.
These were all private boats and that started with the 30-footers and the next thing we knew they’d got a 36 called the Moonraker so I started to get involved doing the engine beds, all the stern gear for them. As time went on I dealt with anything that was below the water line. Some of the people weren’t bedding the fittings in properly and they used to leak when the boat was in the water. Then I got involved with launching as well, and getting hulls in and setting them up.
David Buxton joined and from Bell Boats it went to Bell-Buxton Boats. From that time I was still involved with doing the stern gear and all the fittings and also I got launching. It was a bit of fun and games when we come to launch because the only way to do it was to get this Field Marshall tractor going. That had a big old handle in the side and you had to really, really push that round. It took two of us to get it started and sometimes that didn’t want to know. The brakes didn’t work on this tractor so we had to put it into reverse and slip the clutch to control it. Abbey Transport used to come down to launch the boats. I was involved in lifting the boats out again, taking the fittings out which leaked and then drying the area, rebedding and putting them all back again, then launching again. I could be down the yard any time up to eight o’clock and that wasn’t too good ‑ my tea was ready and being dried up; I wasn’t too happy. And I didn’t like being in the factory. It was dark and when it was spring time that would be nice to be outside.
David Buxton had this 34-foot power boat, just the hull and superstructure, and it needed fitting out. He came to see me one day and said would I like to go and fit it out. I’d have to go self-employed. The boat was taken out of that shed and put in another shed quite close to the river at Brundall where it used to flood. One day I tried to get down to my bench and I had to use some tanks which were ready to put into the boat to float myself down to get my toolbox off the ground because of the amount of water in the shed.
Just before I left Bell-Buxton, Colin Chapman [of Lotus cars] came on the scene. He was still on cars. He set up a different system, more production and a modern way of building boats. I heard that he wanted to change a lot of things. For example, when we were putting screws in, all the slots had to be one way. But he wanted to just put them in and which way the slots were didn’t matter. The guy who I took over from doing the stern gear, he got on well with Colin Chapman. Things started to happen differently with boats and they brought in a boat called the Mystere.
Crab boats and cruisers
From then I was very fortunate to keep in work. After I’d done the power boat I went and saw Vic Bell and I got a job at Bells, fitting out the 27-foot fisherman.
Kingsley Farrington was a foreman at Bell Boats and I heard that he was down at Brundall Gardens so I paid him a visit. While I was talking to him, the telephone rang and it was Rip Martin, a well known surveyor working for insurance companies. This little boat just got crushed by a coaster and he didn’t want to write it off. Kingsley came to see me and asked if I was interested. So I took that on and did that down at Brundall Gardens. That was a little Silhouette. I think it’s about 16/17 foot, something like that, a little weekender, wooden boat, plywood hull basically.
Then he asked me would I like to give him a hand to fit out these crab boats. It was handy because I was living in Brundall and I could just cycle down to Brundall Gardens. So there I was fitting out crab boats. We used to lay the hulls up as well in fibreglass and fit them out. We even had one boat went to Dubai for an oil company. These boats were made in two halves and then we used to glass them together. Bolt the hulls together, two halves and then layered up across and then fitted them out. They are still around.
Stratton Long used to build the 16 footers and we did the 19’s but then I learned that the place was up for sale and Colin Chapman was going to take it over. The only yard at Brundall Gardens was Mr Garrett. One day he came down for a chat and he said ‘If you had come down here about three months earlier I wouldn’t have sold this place.’ That was nice to hear. We had to get out being as we were building the boats for Stratton Long. We went to Blakeney and worked in their yard where we continued doing crab boats. Then I fitted out a boat for Tim Whelpton at Upton for the hire fleet there. It was a fibreglass type of boat called the Kent class. I think there was a fire at Oulton Broad and he bought these moulds. One boat he did acquire was a Sparkman 34 which he made four hulls out of (laminated). He had two for the hire fleet, one for himself and one I did all the sterngear on and sold privately.
Bessie Belle 1975
Bessie Belle was at Wroxham. That was really an introduction to wooden yachts good and proper because that needed a lot of planks, lot of timbers. One of the guys there give me a hand to steam the timbers in. We used to make an airtight box up. They used to heat the water up and they used to create steam and pipe the steam that up into the box. They used to leave them for getting on for about an hour, then hopefully they’d bend and we’d put them in place and that was it. You had to be quick because they soon cooled down and as soon as they cooled down they’d go hard and that’s it, you lost it but you had to really get them in place.
I’ve been looking after Bessie Belle since ’75. In ’76 it came to Upton and it’s been there ever since. Although these days it’s only been since the second owner that I’ve been dealing with the boat and his family were all into boats as well. He keeps it at Coldham Hall now.
Over the years it’s had the keel lengthened, a bigger rig put on, the lino replaced twice, and when we were going to relino for the third time the present owner saw what was underneath. ‘Oh, can we save that?’ That turned out to be a big job, but it did look good when it was done. But I remember when the previous owner had it I relinoed it twice and when he saw the deck he said, ‘Oh that looks expensive, I think we’ll keep the lino.’ Although he would have liked to have that as it was when it was built, back to the original. There’s two boats more or less identical: Bessie Belle being one and Paul Reynolds had the other one.
The Brundall Gardens boatyard was right close to the river. It had a slipway and a long dyke. There were some boats were stored there as well. One of them being Kevin Shortis’s boat. As he was coming across the channel he hit the Rough Towers with his mizzen mast so he was very, very lucky. We had to repair that and there was one or two other big boats in there: like Scots Fifer. When the coasters were coming up and down we had to make sure the moorings were good because as they came up they used to suck all the water out of the dyke and then the boats used to travel one way and then the other when the water used to come back again and the mooring posts in the soft bank used to get pulled out at times.
The Scottish Survey Boat
When I was up at Blakeney we was doing little repairs, bits of a lifeboat and things like that. Stratton Long had this survey boat up in Scotland. It was bought down back to Blakeney but there was a lot of work needed to be done on it so it was put on the Carnser at Blakeney and it was stripped out. Harford Engineering came to have a look at it and had to cut a lot of plates out off the bottom and replate it and then all the inside was completely stripped and repainted. The engines were done, there was no shafts on at the time but after all that was done it was time to put a new wheelhouse on it as well. That was ’76.
I was building a wheelhouse in Norwich in a shed in Kingsley Farrington’s grandmother’s back garden. It was about ten foot long. That was an inch and a quarter by seven teak we were using and all with loose tennons it was quite a big thing. We took it to Blakeney and assembled it on the boat. Then next thing was to put all the sterngear back again: all the shafts and the props and the rudders in; so we had to wait for a big tide to get it off the Carnser and put it in the channel so we could get the shafts in and then that would be afloat again.
When it was time to do the work on the boat it used the big tide to get it on the hard which is on the side of the channel so we can do the work in between the big tides. When it was time to put the shafts up we moved the boat into the main channel on the sand but found that the length of the shafts would not go in because we needed to get the bows down so the stern came up. They had a fire pump in the yard and so we took that down. We used a fire pump to force all the sand away from the bows so the stern came up then we could put the shafts in. We just got it finished when we could see the tide just coming round the bend so we thought: great we done it!
When the time came to fit out the inside we took it to Ransoms Timber Yard in Norwich, opposite Thorpe Station. I hate queues! So I decided to start at nine and leave off at seven when you can go straight there and straight back again so that worked very well.
After the boat at Blakeney we made all the frames up and then found a place to assemble the Star which was an Olympic class. Kingsley had some friends and they had a place out Poringland way. So we assembled it in one of the sheds over there and then built it there. Eventually it got turned into a mould to make fibreglass ones.
Moulds for fibreglass from wooden hulls
Then Kingsley acquired a place at Acle Station and turned that into a workshop and started to do some work there and also connecting with Upton. Also we had the white boat in there, upside down, and turned that into a mould. Everything was turning to fibreglass and you could turn out the hulls a lot quicker than you could the wooden ones.
The easiest way was to find a decent sized, or the right condition, of boat and then let it all dry out and then turn it into a mould for fibreglass. People have made a one-off and they do it by setting the frames up in the same sort of way but laminating with strips of mahogany and epoxy.
All of a sudden yachting took off …
I was working at Eastwood Whelpton’s Yard. They were running a hire fleet so a lot of private boats came in there. Old Edwardian type launches, yachts and old motor cruisers; so I got to work on a few of them bits and pieces. For personal reasons I decided to start at Upton and I got myself a caravan as a workshop, put it in the yard and well the work just exploded. There was so much work it was unbelievable.
All of a sudden yachting just took off. I just couldn’t believe how much work there was. One boat I was doing was up at Thurne, and we finished up working til one o’clock in the morning to get that job done. Then another time I started getting some work with the Green Wyvern Club down in Brundall at Bells .I used to go down to the South Walsham Ship, have a meal there about half past six, get down to Brundall for about midnight so I could get everything done on time. At Bells the water used to come in the shed but after a time they put a pump in there with a float switch. Plus you had to take all your tools across the railway line down to the bottom shed and that was on top of everything else you was doing. Looking back I couldn’t believe I did all that.
Nyanza, Avis and Marsh Harrier
The first boat was a total rebuild of Nyanza. I started that in ‘79, and it was a big job. It used to be in the Wyvern Club and it was a total rebuild. All the frames were bad so I decided to retimber it all with planks, beams, all new cabin sides and deck and everything and so that was a really big job; so it was great to see it when it was in the water and at long last finished.
Avis was also a big project.
I still work in the yard at Upton, I’ve got my own boat down there.
The first boat I had was called Marsh Harrier. One day I saw this boat in the water there and that was craned out. The owner came and said ‘I hear you do repairs? My boat needs retimbering; could you do it for me?’ I said ‘okay’. So he said ‘I just had the planks done at Horning’. I went to look anyway and there was fourteen planks rotten there. The new planks they’d put in were scarfed onto rotten timber, I couldn’t believe it. Got home and phoned him up and told him and he couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t afford to do it and I said, ‘You’ll have to advertise for an enthusiast if you can’t afford to have it done… It was put in the shed for a time and one day about four months later I kept walking past it and all of a sudden it just caught my eye and I went to it and had a look and I decided to buy it. I phoned him up and said, ‘I’ve found a buyer for your boat. I’ll buy it off of you and I’ll do it up’. That took me four years to do. Not only did it have a bit of hog to put in at the back, retimbered, fourteen planks I put in, tabernacle, took all the varnish off, stripped it off completely, stained it and varnished it up and I had it for twenty years.
After that first year of sailing Marsh Harrier which I really and totally enjoyed, I thought it would be nice to stay out for longer and I started to look for a cruiser. I either sold Marsh Harrier and bought a hull to fit out, a fibreglass one, or find a wreck. I didn’t like the idea of giving up Marsh Harrier. One of my customers one day said ‘There’s a boat up at Wayford Bridge. I’ve looked at it but that’s too much for me. You might like to have a look at it’.
I couldn’t do anything at the moment because at that time my father was very ill and I was taking my mother to the hospital, either the Norfolk and Norwich, or Dereham or up at Kelling. He had been ill and after two years he died. After the funeral I sort of wandered up to Wayford Bridge, to have a look. It was an Ernie Woods boat and I thought: oh that’s a good start. It had been neglected and I could see there was a fair bit of work and thought: well, that’s going to take more than four years to do. Anyway I decided to buy it and twelve years later I launched and I’ve still got it, it’s still in commission.
My boats are either at Upton Dyke or Oby Dyke nowadays.
How things have changed
A lot of traditional boats got restored for racing purposes so there’s quite a good fleet in racing and there’s still a lot of keen people. Of course they’re all getting old like myself now and it is getting hard work. I do sail my cruiser on my own because I can then go out when I like but having a boat moored in Upton Dyke helps. If there’s not a lot of wind I take the half-decker out; which belongs to my son and daughter now. I know a lot of the boats at Upton went to the southern rivers but that’s something I haven’t seen for years and there isn’t many people doing the repairs.
Eastwood Whelpton have got one boat in their hire fleet which they’ve had since the fifties. There’s Cox’s up at Barton, theres South River Marine down at St Olaves, Kingsley Farrington whose got a place at Trowse, they do some and of course I’ve been doing it and Paul Reynolds used to do it.
People are spending a lot of money on these boats. It can amount to thousands. You cringe sometimes when you work the bills out because it depends what’s wrong with the boat. I had to strip it out, take the interior out to get to the keel floors to replace them or to retimber it, you know you just have to disturb everything. That’s why it’s got expensive and also today you hope to get some really good wood so that lasts because they’re in a wet environment.
Materials – wood and fibreglass
I use a lot of larch for planking and if I run out of larch I just go and get the best quality joinery I can get and oak is a good timber too. There’s iroko and types of mahogany but teak is very, very expensive, you don’t see that these days.
When we first got using larch for planking I used to buy it as trees two at a time and stick them down at the workshop. After a while I thought it might be a good idea to buy some trees. So I got involved with growing teak trees in Sri Lanka. It’s all run by a British company and so I’ve been growing and they just go up. I got about two hundred trees growing in Sri Lanka. They are for selling there. They are either cut down or transferred. It’s a good investment and the price of teak is really expensive now.
Wooden boats do deteriorate. There’s a lot of wet ropes get left inside and it’s not very good for wood today. It needs to breathe; it needs plenty of ventilation and cleaned out all the time so air can circulate everywhere. If not, it’s bad news.
Fibreglass still need a good old clean out here and there. Some boats get this osmosis. Over a period of time they do sort of soak up the water. It takes a while but then they say it causes blistering in the hull and the only way to cure all that is to get it out of the water and puncture all the blisters and let it dry out.
It was the ’80s when it really took off, really climbed. You know it was just like gone up in the stock market with a hell of a hit. There was a lot of work. There was a lot of boats being restored. Some of my customers kept their boats in Whelptons Yard because they were very close to Oby Dyke where they used to have their boats: the Yare Vallley Sailing Club amongst others, so they went all directions but there was quite a band of them come from Oby.
Well there’s the boat building school at Oulton Broad: and they do train people but it does take a long time to get into that trade. We had a five-year apprenticeship but that’s only the start of it you know. It’s a big job to learn, it really is.
The boatbuilding schools are training people. I forget what the fees are but they’re not cheap. They can learn so much but they need a lot of enthusiasm themselves to get them there because it’s a lot to understand. I haven’t got involved with training myself. One or two people I know have gone down to Oulton Broad but it’s the travelling involved as well you know.
I’ll carry on doing part-time work. I’m nearly seventy two now and the body’s done very, very well. I’ve abused it, had all sorts of problems but I’ve got over it. I’ve got arthritis at the bottom of my spine and I keep on the boat too long and when it comes to putting the antifouling on it’s not too good.
I was quite happy just dabbling around and I got plenty here to do: bits and pieces. Long as I can do something I don’t mind. I can go down the shed, clear up and I’ve got loads of wood down there. I’ve put a wood burner in as well to burn up so there’s all that to tidy up and keep going. All those little bits and pieces and there’s one or two jobs on my cruiser that I still haven’t done after all these years.
A extra bit of history
One of my customers asked if I would be interested in restoring an Italian Riva belonging to one of his customers. I just had to have a look. Wow! What an opportunity, so I took it on. Peter Sellers bought the Riva from Lewis Marine in London in 1967. Also, Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong Jones owned it in the Caribbean and this customer bought if off them. Towing it behind his boat it came adrift and went on some rocks. It was brought back to England and spent 16 years in his garage. Now it’s been restored.
Peter Simpson (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive on 7th February, 2019 at Lingwood