Working Lives

‘Banjo’ restored (1985-2019)

Location: Buckenham

Philip had many jobs through his life. His passion has been restoring a 1897 wooden steamboat, Banjo, which he runs on the Broads. Banjo has connections with the Colman family.

I was born in Norwich in 1939. Shortly afterwards we moved from Poringland to Ruskington in Lincolnshire as my father was at RAF Cranwell; strangely enough he was there for both World Wars. Like a lot of people he signed up when he was fifteen, despite being so close to RAF Cranwell we saw very little of the War.

I do have the memory of what I think was a Spitfire which had come down just across the road. We went and had a look at it, of course it was just a burnt out wreck.

I have a brother who is two years older than me and a younger sister who was born in 1945 after the War. I started school in Ruskington and then my family moved back to Poringland in 1944 as my father left the RAF because of his age.

Of course I couldn’t remember our home before the War, but it was an enormous house with a grass tennis court. Father was an absolute fanatic for tennis. I earned all my pocket money cutting that grass.

I left school and my first job was with Kidner’s Farm at Stoke Holy Cross hoeing strawberries. That didn’t last very long.

I had anticipated going into estate management and applied to agricultural college but when they found that I had dropped Latin they didn’t want to know so I had to change courses rapidly.

This was just at the time that National Service was coming in so the possibility of being called up made finding a job difficult. I signed up and was in there for five years, three of those in the Far East, which was wonderful and I didn’t want to come back.

I was in the Royal Air Force [RAF] because as I was partly colour blind the Navy and Army wouldn’t have me. The RAF would take me as long as I kept my feet on the ground. I did manage to get some unofficial flying in though, and I loved it.

In the RAF I worked mainly on the fourth line, which was repairs and modifications. It was more or less following on from what my father did, he worked on Merlin engines in Spitfires. Funnily enough I trained on Spitfire engines.

I returned home and I wanted to fly but the only aircraft in Norfolk at the time were crop sprayers and you couldn’t work on those without experience, so the only thing going was work in a garage which I didn’t particularly like. I worked for Norwich Motor Company and moved to Busseys where I was for several years working as a motor mechanic.

I got absolutely fed up with it and fancied something different. My work in the RAF was very technical so I tried factory maintenance and moved to Fibrenyle, a plastics factory in Beccles. I quite enjoyed that up to a point, but it was a three shift system, earlies, lates and nights, which I could not adapt to, so I gave that up.

When I got married in 1966 we built ourselves a bungalow at Denton, which was great fun. After working at Fibrenyle, we decided to sell up, buy a little place and have some pigs, which seemed a jolly good idea at the time.

I had no real experience. Father had a pig at the bottom of the garden so that was my experience of pigs. I knew the basics, but I very soon learnt the details.

Things changed so quickly, the price of feed went through the roof and the value of pigs went down the drain. By the time we got sorted and established with pigs coming out of our ears the market dropped and everybody was going bust and so we sold up before we went bust.

I had enough money to buy a little cottage in Broome, for £8,500; this was in about 1973. It hadn’t been lived in for many years and we had to cut our way in, there was lilac all over the door.

I then had many jobs, hundreds of them. I had jobs with garages, anything that came along. I hated working in a garage, filthy job, it’s a lot cleaner now. These days you see garages with polished floors.

My ideal job was to work at Clays in Bungay, so I did various jobs until a job came up there. One did in the development department, in engineering development, which suited me to the ground, absolutely perfect, I loved it.

I was there for eleven years and then St Ives took over and I was made redundant, we were given our freedom! By now I was well into my forties so finding a job, even getting an interview was difficult.

The best thing was I got a job in a boatyard in Loddon, in the hire fleet, being jack of all trades which suited me down to the ground. I was there for a couple of years before getting a job with Norfolk Vending as a service engineer of vending machines. I was there for nine years then I got away in 2003.

Banjo the steamboat

A connection with the Colman family

The Loddon job was really my first connection with boats and water. Whilst I was there I met a chap whose father ran Broadway Cruises and was retiring. He said to me one day ‘Phil you like old boats. Dad’s got one he wants to get rid of, why don’t you buy it?’

So I went and had a look and found Banjo, liked the look of it, twenty two foot long, four foot six wide and very streamlined. It was cheap although I didn’t really know what it was. I bought it, borrowed a trailer, brought it home and started writing letters. I had a letter from a chap at the Steamboat Association who said he knew exactly what Banjo was and it’s registered in the Lloyds Register of Boats. It’s an 1897 wooden steamboat, so I thought ‘oh better go back to being steam, that’s a bit of fun.’

At that time I was unaware of Banjo’s connection with the Colman family. Finding out about this connection came about through letter writing, all written by hand, this was before I got my computer.

I have letters from Timothy Colman and Lady Mayhew, and photos including a lovely one taken in 1902 of Russell Colman, with his brother Alan and sisters on Wroxham Broad.

Banjo used to belong to Russell Colman who left it to a friend who had no use for it. He sold it to a boatyard, on Lake Lothing I think, and they used it as a harbour service launch for several years, by that time it had petrol engines in. After a few years Broadway Cruises got it and they also used it for many many years as their harbour service launch. It would pull cruisers off the mud in Breydon, that sort of thing. It had a big Scamell two litre engine which had been converted to run on paraffin, which just after the War was much cheaper than petrol.

On Oulton Broad is Colman’s boatyard where all the family’s boats were stored during wintertime. Just inside the door, first one on the left is written ‘Banjo’. They were the only people who sailed socially and for sport. Banjo towed the fleet through Lake Lothing up to the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk, where they would sail.

Banjo acted as a rescue boat as well. I have a letter from a chap who was rescued from a dinghy off Lowestoft on a choppy day. I’m glad that it wasn’t me. At that time Banjo was powered by steam, it was converted to petrol in 1946.

Russell Colman, with his brother Alan and sisters in Banjo on Wroxham Broad, 1902


I got Banjo in the mid 1980s and it was an empty hull, no engine, no boiler, the only machinery in it was a prop shaft, no prop just the shaft, which was a great help.

The basic mechanics of making a steam boat move through the water are: steam pushes the engine round, pushes the pistons down on the engine and turns it into rotary motion and the rotary motion turns the propeller.

The propeller, that’s a story on its own. I hadn’t got one and a friend from Acle gave me a propeller and blow me I’m sure that it’s the original. It fitted perfectly, it’s the correct pitch, it goes very well and we are still using it.

I kept Banjo at home and it was several years before I did something positive with it. I knew a lot about the petrol and diesel engines but I’d never touched steam in my life. Father hated steam, he grew up on a farm where they had steam and when they transferred to petrol engines it was a great liberation for him. So ‘steam engines’ was my retirement project.

I got it steaming and 1995 was the first time we got it on the water steaming. There were several years of development. I started off with a gas fired flash boiler and converted that to paraffin and then I scrapped all that and went to coal.

Banjo’s first outing in 1995

The engine is about two foot long, eighteen inches high and fourteen inches wide. I should say that a third of the length available inside the boat is machinery, the engine and boiler. We use six horsepower and at a squeeze I can take eight people.

I have a crew of two or three, they are good pals. I have a regular helm, who likes doing the helm, the reason being is that he is the only one who can concentrate long enough to steer a straight course. I like to be busy all the time so I’m engineer, stoker. John is in the galley, we have a very well appointed galley nowadays. We have a salon at the stern where we can have guests.

Getting ready to go on the water

The first man on board lights the fire and checks that there is water in the boiler. It usually takes about half to three quarters of an hour to get up to steam. The maximum we can run at is two hundred pounds per square inch but we usually run at about a hundred and fifty. You control this by the way you fire it and how you adjust the throttle.

We average five miles an hour wherever we go and we do that quite comfortably. We have only got three hundred rpm on the engine, very sedate and we’re slipping through the water, hardly a ripple.

Our longest journey is when we go up to Stalham which means going through Breydon and will take us eight or nine hours and we will use fifty kilos of coal. With the price of petrol and diesel these days it’s cheaper to run a steamboat.

As well as decent coal our latest thing is scrap pallets, chop those up and burn them, it goes like stink on wood, but of course it soots up the tubes a bit more quickly. These days what I try to do is go away with it on coal and then after lunch get home on wood, I save about a third of a bag of coal.

Banjo 2009

Maintenance, requirements of running a steamboat and finding that Banjo had sunk

Maintenance costs more than the fuel. Boiler tests, insurance, river toll and compliance certificates have all got to be paid for annually. You have to have pressure vessel inspection every fourteen months, by law, and I wouldn’t want to operate any steamboat unless it was perfectly sound. I have just had the inspection this last week and passed with flying colours I am glad to say. The amount of power in a boiler is phenomenal, if anything goes wrong the only thing to do is go over the side.

We try to clean the tubes of the boiler on the first Friday of every month as they get sooted up of course which knocks the performance down. So we do that and then go and have a short trip and lunch in a pub. We’re getting quite organised these days.

Wooden boats take a lot of maintenance, this year we are back on stream as you might say because the last two or three years we have had a little bother.

One day I went down to Banjo and there it was, sunk, there was about a foot showing above water. ‘That’s not right,’ I thought, because I’m quick like that you know! Anyway I pumped it out, got it up, couldn’t find a leak, brought it back to shore, got it in the workshop and turned it upside down. Now, previously I had coated it in fibreglass and polyester over a previous coating of tar, not pretty but it had kept us afloat for several years. It was time that that all came off, so I stripped her right down to the wood, had a poke around and finished up putting about ten foot of planks in. I hardened it up with epoxy resin inside and out, coated the outside with fibreglass and ordinary epoxy and then painted it and put it all back together again. I put it in the water and it doesn’t take water at all, it’s beautiful.

I keep her at Buckenham Ferry on the Yare at Buckenham Sailing Club, where I have been a member for the last fifty years. I don’t sail now and actually at the minute we are very short of sailors as all us youngsters have grown up and we have run out of youngsters.

Banjo is not the only steamboat on the Broads

There are a lot of steamboats around. In the steamboat list there are over a thousand. There is a handful the age of Banjo, built in 1897, but not so many, most of them now are replicas.

The Museum of the Broads has got a boat which they regularly take people for rides in and a couple of weeks ago another one turned up.

For the last twenty eight years we have been raising money for Waveney Stardust, and we were doing our regular charity day, where we give disabled people rides. I also helped to start and run the Triple B race from Buckenham to Breydon and back.

Anyway during this charity day another steamboat went puffing past and I thought, ‘You know that looks familiar.’ So we chased after it and caught it up. It turned out to Chris Thomas on the steamboat Ermintrude and this was the very first steamboat that I had a ride on and I hadn’t seen Chris for about thirty years.

That first ride was on the river Waveney, up to the locks, I can remember it very well and I was bitten by the bug and that was just after I got Banjo. So now we shall see Chris again once a year. Another boat which has arrived recently in the bay where I am is Bess.

Keeping Banjo on the water for as much of the year as possible, attending steamboat rallies

We do have rallies, but they are held mostly in the Midlands, on the canals. A lot of the boats are kept in garages, they get polished and looked after and they come out once a year to go to rallies. We are on the water and we use Banjo every week, which is good for her as the engine can soon seize up and go rusty. We use Banjo every Friday.

Banjo was originally an open boat, but now I have sides up and a canopy and all rigid windows, so we are all totally enclosed which enables us to use it all year round, we’ve been out in hail, rain, blow and snow. There is always noise on a boat but you can talk quite comfortably and especially now that it is enclosed, anybody on the shore thinks that it is absolutely silent.

We always like to use her all year round. Sometimes if there is no winter at all and no jobs to do we will go 365 days. But as a rule you get some weather in January and February so we will come in. But we always like to go up to New Year’s Day if we can. It’s very pleasant and sometimes a bit snowy.

Changes in river traffic and wildlife over the years.

Over the years I have definitely noticed a difference in the wildlife that I am seeing. I am still waiting to see a coot on the river Yare this year. We’ve got a few in the pits across the road but no youngsters, we haven’t seen any youngsters. They have just been dropping off over the years and I have no idea why. At one time there were thousands, I can remember them having coot shoots at Rockland Broad in 1950s.

There are a lot less of all birds on the river. The RSPB now has land beside the river from Brundall right down to Great Yarmouth and I just wonder whether their conditions are far more enticing to the birds than the river with the boats going up and down, I’ve no proof of that but it could be a possibility.

The river traffic now is not as bad as it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, it was horrendous then. I was sailing dinghies up to about fifteen years ago and there was so much cruiser traffic that sailing a dinghy was difficult. There was always a cruiser in the way when you wanted to tack, but it was good fun.

There is nowhere near as much traffic now, partly because more people go abroad for their holidays than visit the Broads now and so consequently there are a lot less hire cruisers. A lot of the redundant hire cruisers have been bought privately and so are used less often. So there is still probably the same number of boats about but they’re not used as much.

I think that just recently they have got to use white diesel instead of red diesel and as they use a lot of diesel that is going to make a lot of difference.

Being blown onto shore, encountering steel posts and drama in Norwich

Three years ago, during our day when we give disabled people rides on the boat, we were on the last trip of the day. We came home to terrific winds from the north, which blew us on to shore. As we came into the moorings there was a steel post in the water and it gouged two holes in the side, just above the waterline, fortunately, which saved the day. So we had to hurry to get it ashore again bring it home, mend the holes and put it back in the water again. This year we didn’t get any problems, so we’re on top form at the minute.

I have many memorable moments, one in particular was when we were with my friend Mike Wickenden on the helm. We went up to New Mills in Norwich and got impaled on an underground spike.

The history of why we got stuck was because prior to 1910 wherries came up the Wensum quanting all the way to New Mills Bridge with these poles, because of course you couldn’t sail up there. They put their bow between two posts tied up in the quay at New Mills Bridge.

On top of the bridge there are some railway lines and the trucks full of Norwich’s rubbish came over the bridge and tipped it into the wherries, which then sailed down river to Great Yarmouth where they tipped the rubbish into the sea. That was Norwich rubbish disposal until 1910 when they opened Harford Bridge’s.

What we had done was put our nose in between the two posts, one of which had rotted off below the surface so we didn’t know that it was there. We couldn’t move, we were stuck, we shouted and nothing happened. A friendly policeman came along and asked if we were alright. We gave him a rope and he gave a good pull and he couldn’t shift us either.

The tide started to go down and there was an almighty crack and this post came up through the bottom of the boat and I thought ,‘We’re in trouble,’ and we were bailing like mad. We phoned the fire people to see if they had a pump for us, they came eventually and pumped us out. We had two fire engines, a NAFFI wagon, a crane, frogmen, boat builder and they patched it up. The crane lifted it off the post, patched us up and they got some floatation bags and then off we went down the river at a weird angle.

This all started at about midday and we got away at nine o’clock at night. I got down to Thorpe and stayed there the night and next morning brought it home and got it mended.

The Broads Authority came and helped us and we were mentioned in their magazine Broad Beat. It was all good fun.

The future for Banjo

I became 80 this year and although I don’t feel 80 you have to be realistic and I have thought a lot about what to do with Banjo and I do not know what to do, whether to leave it to somebody.

I would absolutely want it to go to someone who would keep it in the water, but I shall certainly keep using it until I can’t. At the moment it’s not too tiring at all. I mean we have got things sorted out now. I’ve got a trailer that pulls it out and a car that will pull it easily. We’ve got a nice new slipway at the club and it goes in and out with no problem at all.

The boat itself is now in good order both physically on the hull and the engineering side having been honed over the years and it’s now pretty good. I have spent a little money on it which has helped.

It gives everybody a lot of pleasure, it’s still an unusual sight and wherever you stop you have got to go over the history, but that’s more of a pleasure than a problem.

Philip 2019

Philip Webster (b. 1939) talking to WISEArchive on 21st August 2019 at Broome.

© 2019 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved