From the Royal Navy to Norfolk Broads River Inspector (1957-2006)

Location : Norwich, Marshes

Gerry’s early working life in the Royal Navy and his second career as a river inspector were bridged by his post as master of Carrow Bridge in Norwich. In 1981 Gerry was awarded the British Empire medal by Her Majesty the Queen.

I was brought up in Norwich and went to the City of Norwich School. I left school in 1957 when I was 17. My first job was as a cost clerk with a big heating and ventilation engineering firm. They were very good and it was a lovely firm to work for, but I must admit it was very boring.

I used to cycle to work from my parents’ house where I passed the Navy recruiting office in Colegate. I’d see the big white Ensign fluttering in the breeze outside and it conjured up thoughts of tropical islands and dusky maidens in grass skirts. My granddad was a long-serving sailor in the Navy. I popped in one day and I thought I fancied being an engineer, but they decided that because of the qualifications I had from school I was more suited to being a Writer. A Writer does many jobs, but basically they’re there to do all the clerical work. Ships of any size from the frigate upwards would have a Writer or two on board and they would conduct all the clerical business and the financial business, including pay for the ship’s company.

Writer in the Navy

Having passed the entrance exams and the medical I signed up for nine years. I started my training at the Royal Naval barracks at Chatham on the 23rd of October 1958. My first stop around the world was at the north coast of Scotland to a big base, RNAS Lossiemouth, where I was a very green Writer. It was a wonderful experience and I loved it.

Two years later I went off to sea in my first ship. We were in the West Indies for a year on a hurricane guard duties. We had to attend the aftermath of many hurricanes in several places. The worst one was at Belize. It was a frightening experience. We’d stopped at Jamaica – which is quite a way from Belize – because there was an army depot there and we picked up about 250 soldiers as well as food, water and medical supplies and off we headed. We passed an American ship who said ‘I’ve arrived 22 miles off the shore of Belize by the grace of God, but I can’t go any further’ and we sailed past them and sailed up to within half a mile of the entrance to the port at Belize. We were there for several weeks clearing up the devastation and the death. It really was a horrible experience and one that will stick with me forever.

I went practically all over the world while I was in the Navy, though I never got to Australia and New Zealand which I regret. My journey to Singapore was quite a life-changing step. I arrived there and my boss decided that because I was the only single person on the staff that I was to get trained in jungle survival so I could then take parties out for experience of being in the jungle. I thoroughly enjoyed it in the end and I think the staff did too. That first night in the jungle nobody sleeps because the noise is horrendous and it’s pitch black so you can’t see anything that’s going on around you.

The Royal Yacht

I had the pleasure of being lent for temporary duty on the Royal Yacht which was a thoroughly wonderful experience. There were very strict working conditions and expectations. I was quite a good typist and we used to do a lot of typing which it was all on Buckingham Palace or the Royal Household stationery and – this was in the days before computers – if you got to the bottom of the page and made a spelling mistake you started again. The Royal Apartments were pretty sacrosanct, but members of the Royal Family used to wander about the ship and you couldn’t avoid meeting them. The Royal Yacht looks like a big ship, but the spaces inside are actually quite small. I served on board with Her Majesty the Queen and also with Her Majesty the Queen Mother.  The Queen Mother was a darling of the ship’s company. In the evenings after they’d had dinner she would go down to some of the mess decks and have cups of tea and sit and have a chat with all the crew and she was almost like an agony aunt really. Despite the strict atmosphere, it was very friendly. Staff respected the royal family and in turn the crew were very much appreciated. A friend of mine’s duty was the second dresser for the Queen Mother and after she had been on board he would receive presents such as cufflinks from one of the royal jewellers. Whenever the royal family were on board the ship’s company put a show on all. It was very comical, very musical; it was lovely. The Royal Family would even help out on deck with the crew when coming into port. It worked well.

On shore: NATO and Records

I went from Lossiemouth to Yeovilton , another Royal Naval Air Station. I worked at NATO headquarters in this country and I was two years in Paris at the NATO military headquarters there. I worked for Commander-in-Chief staff both in Portsmouth and in Singapore. I was on HMS Belfast for a time. I went to work in London at a base called HMS President – which was the accounting base for all the people in the Navy who were detached from on a ship – where I took over the records office.

I started out as a basic Probationary Writer just straight out of training and I progressed through the ranks to be the Chief Petty Officer Writer. I was in the Navy for 24 years altogether, leaving in October 1982. You’ve got to come out at some stage and that seemed to be the right time for me.

The Bridge Master

I had no idea what I would do next. I already had a heavy goods vehicle driving licence in the Navy so I then got the Class 1 so that I could drive articulated lorries. I worked for a company delivering IBM typewriters and small computers and the software that went with them. This was in the early days of computers. I only did that for about five months.

I saw an advert in the Eastern Daily Press looking for a bridge master for Carrow Bridge and I was intrigued. I sent off an application form and I was called for an interview in front of the Rivers Committee of the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners  and they gave me the job there and then. So I became a bridge master of Carrow Bridge which was another strange step, but it was good. The bridge was on the A47 before the bypass was built so it was a very busy road which made lifting it to let ships through quite interesting. Because you had to stop the flow of traffic we had control of the traffic lights at the junction of the old Riverside Road and Carrow Road and we could stop the traffic lights there,  we had flashing lights either side of the bridge which meant the barriers were due to come down and then we lowered the barriers. We could open the bridge in a matter of couple of minutes. We then closed it immediately after the ship had gone through. The bridge was very near to the football stadium so opening it on match days was especially difficult, but we had some support from the police on duty who would manage to hold the crowd back.

I worked very closely as a bridge master with the River Inspectors and I thought it was something I would like to do. ‘Dead men’s shoes’ isn’t a phrase I like, but really to become a beat Inspector one of the other beat Inspectors had to leave for whatever reason. So when I saw a vacancy I applied and after an interview I was given the post as a relief Inspector. The inspectorate team was headed by the Rivers Officer and his deputy was the Senior River Inspector and then there were eight permanent beat Inspectors for the eight launches which were based around the Broads – four on the northern rivers and four on the southern – and there were four relief Inspectors who used to rotate around the different launches to cover rest days and holidays and sickness and things like that. These Inspectors between them covered all 120 miles of the navigable water which make up the Broads. A lot of people don’t consider that the rivers are tidal. People sometimes found the concept of tidal water which goes up and down in the both directions hard to grasp. The river Wensum is tidal as far as Carrow Bridge and we used to patrol that far into Norwich.

River Inspector – rules and regulations

When I became a permanent River Inspector I had my own beat and my own boat, based at Thorpe. My duties were to patrol the area to ensure that everything was being done as it should be. There are many, many rules and regulations: all the bylaws as well as statutory laws. We had to ensure that boats were licensed to use the waterway either as visitors or permanent boats moored on the Broads. We helped the fire brigade, the ambulance service and the police service if they needed it too. One case in mind didn’t happen to me, but to the permanent beat Inspector on the Upper Thurne launch. He had to transport a lady who lived in the mill upstream of Potter Bridge downstream on her wheelchair on the top of the engine cover of the launch to get her to where the ambulance crew could take her to hospital.

Speed is very, very important and it causes lots of problems on the Broads. People don’t appreciate that. You’re sitting in the front of the boat – lovely day, sun shining, hatch open – and you’re driving along and you’ve got no idea what your speed is because all you’ve got is a rev counter and not a speedometer and the wash from the boat could be causing all sorts of problems with boats moored. Somebody who’s boiling some eggs or a kettle can get terribly injured or little children can get knocked over. People also don’t realise the damage going too fast can do to the riverbanks. Again, they’re not aware of that because that’s the problem they’re leaving behind rather than facing themselves, but it’s very evident when you travel along the rivers to see the state of erosion which is in the larger part caused by boatwash. It’s difficult for people to understand why they are restricted to a certain speed in an area when all of a sudden water-ski boats come whizzing past, but there are water-ski areas where certain boats are allowed to exceed the speed limit and there are also areas where boatyards can carry out trials on boats so again can exceed the speed limit at certain times.

Our policy to try and stop the problem of speeding was to stop the boats. I have a little story about that. We were carrying out radar speed checks at Brundall: a colleague was downstream of me and I was just on the upstream limit of Brundall. He radioed me to say a boat had gone past that was well exceeding the speed limit so I waited for them to come and radar speed checked them and they were still speeding. I pulled them over and got them moored up alongside me safely and then I went on board. I gathered the six crew in the centre cockpit and I told them exactly what they were doing wrong and exactly the things that they were likely to cause. I later learned that they were all newly-qualified solicitors on their celebratory outing. They wrote to my boss and called me ‘Lombrosian’. I eventually found out that this comes from an Italian count called Lombroso who thought that as criminals achieve their criminality through hereditary means you can look at a person and see that they’re criminal. They felt that I’d done this to them. I still never apologised and having found out what they’d called me I flatly refused upon it! Lombrosian was a title which stuck with me my whole career.

I hit the headlines a bit later on. I was quite famous… or infamous is probably the word. Under the Merchant Shipping Act the Union Flag cannot be flown on anything other than boats which are specifically authorised and that doesn’t include hire boats or private launches or even my launch. I was travelling back upstream on the River Waveney and I got to Burgh St Peter and there was a hire cruiser moored up to the bank at the moorings and it had a big – and I do mean a big – Union Flag hanging over the side so I pulled over to tell them that they were actually contravening the Merchant Shipping Act and the penalty if convicted is four figures – quite a hefty penalty – so please don’t do it and off I went on my way, rejoicing. The following day I was in the London papers as well as the EDP for creating this fervour over telling them that their little girl couldn’t wave their little flag. Normally you take a photograph of this kind of offence, but I didn’t on this day for some reason and I was so angry and sad that I hadn’t because I knew that I was in the right and how big the flag had been. Again, I had to report to my boss and was told to apologise and again I flatly refused.

Keeping people safe and conservation

It is such a varied job. Everybody’s got different experiences and no two days were alike. There are so many variables that could make your day good or bad or whatever: the weather, the tide, the boat traffic.

When you are assisting the police and the fire brigade to recover people who’ve fallen in the river it can be very, very depressing. One incident which is always in my mind involved a young boy of about six at Somerleyton on the river Waveney. His parents made him wear his lifejacket all the time he was on board apart from when they were inside. They’d had their tea and some swans came up to the boat and he said ‘Can I feed the swans, Mum?’ and he ran towards the back of the boat and went straight over and the tide took him away. Divers had to recover the body and it was a very harrowing scene. The water is dangerous, but lots of people don’t wear life jackets. Adults are the worst. Children obviously learn through school activities and it’s nice when the children come on the launches for a bit of experience. They all have life jackets on and their teachers have life jackets on. Often you find that when a family are on a boat the children will have life jackets on, but the parents won’t, but of course if a parent were to lose their life it would be just as devastating to that family as that of a child. Whatever we were doing as river Inspectors we always had a life jacket on, even on the banks. While we were cutting down reeds and things in the winter – always alongside the river – or if we were building staging or whatever we’d still be wearing life jackets because you never know. I think I have personally fallen into all the rivers in the Norfolk Broads.

The job also involved working in the conservation aspect of managing the Broads. In the days when the wherries used to sail up and down the rivers if they saw a tree coming up they cut it down because the wherries needed to let their sail right out over the land sometimes when close to the bank and didn’t want trees there to foul the sails. This is why there were vast reaches of the Broads which didn’t have trees, but since the wherries stopped trading on the Broads trees grew up as trees will. Lots of them are willows and they’re growing by the water and when the soil around the roots gets eroded they can fall in the river or lean over which can create problems with keeping the Broads navigable or be dangerous. Some of us were trained with chainsaws to deal with the situation and I was one of those. We did a lot of that work in the winter time when there are less holiday boats. We used to build habitat piles for animals with the wood, but sometimes people used to come along and pinch that wood for their fires at home. We generally used to try to help conserve a bit of nature as well as make it safe and open for navigation as much as we could. There’s lots of reaches on the river which will never get cleared from trees because they’re so overgrown, but it’s not such a problem these days.

As I was the permanent beat Inspector for the Norwich launch when Brenda Ferris was the Lord Mayor – from 1994-1995 – I had the privilege to take her down the route of the navigable river which was in her territory as Lord Mayor. She was keen to see a view the city from the river and I’d take her up to the village of Trowse and then back to Norwich which she enjoyed. She would be in her full regalia which was nice. I also had to do the same thing and escort her when she was on the wherry from the Wherries Trust called the Hathor. I remember one particular evening after they’d had a big civic celebration in Norwich where we sailed down to the moorings at Thorpe where they had a celebratory dinner alongside another wherry which was there with some of the other dignitaries of Norwich. Normally the bridge at Carrow Bridge didn’t opened for boats which could lower their masts such as wherries, but on this occasion the bridge was raised for us.

I did quite a lot of work with schools and Scout groups and any interested party to bring children to the water to learn how to behave in boats and in the environment. With the Norwich boat there’s lots of organisations who know of the river, but never get the chance to actually go on it and that gave them the chance to know how to behave on the river and on the water. As we were part of the Broads Authority we also joined up with the conservation side where we held ‘Fun in the Broads’ days. These were often at Salhouse Broad and we’d have things like a rope and knots display teaching children what rope is and how it’s made and how to tie knots. These days were quite enjoyable and were well-supported.

Photo: Chris Kill Motor Boats Monthly Dec. 1994.

Support for youth organisations. The BEM

I spent the five or six years at the end of my Service career working solely for the naval-sponsored youth organisations. They were sponsored to a degree by naval funds or Ministry of Defence funds and my boss and I fought tooth and nail with the politicians and the civil servants in the Ministry of Defence to maintain support for these youth organisations. It was really hard work and it took three years to actually get all the facts and figures together and to really fight with Whitehall. We were successful though and our efforts were acknowledged. In 1981 I was awarded the British Empire medal by Her Majesty the Queen. When it was presented I had a flypast of small RAF aeroplanes which was thrilling. It was a very proud moment for me.

 Gerry Jarvis (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive on 24th January 2017 in Little Plumstead

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