Nigel’s family has a long history of working with wherries and pleasure boats. One of his ancestors worked on the keels in the 1770s.
I was born in North Walsham Hospital in November 1964, to my parents Alan and Janet Royall of Hoveton. I went to Wroxham First School to start with and then secondary school in North Walsham. My interests at school were mostly history and drawing – stuff like that, not mathematics that’s a certainty and when I left school I decided to go into the family business, Royall and Son Limited.
Royall and Son limited
My grandfather, Ernest Robert William Royall, known as Ernie Bob Billy was born in 1909. He went to Carrow School which was supported by the Colman family and when he left school his father, who was in the Carrow Works fire brigade, got him a job in Colman’s sawmill making boxes and stuff like that.
He didn’t really like it and so he went to work on the building sites. He didn’t like that either so during the nineteen twenties his father got him an apprentice job at Jack Powles, in Wroxham, where he was building their little sailing hire yachts.
After a while some chap called Jenner at Thorpe asked him if he had finished his apprenticeship, and when he said that he hadn’t the chap then asked him if he thought that he could build a boat. Ernest said yes and the chap said that he should come over to Thorpe and work for him and that’s how he came to work at Jenner’s.
He then did a stint at Easticks, and during the War he was at Broom’s [boat yard in Brundall] as a foreman building the small pinnaces before returning to Jenner’s after the War. Along with this chap Austin, they built about thirteen boats, all wooden, in two years, about 1948 or just a bit earlier. However, one day old Millbank came along and he said ‘Ernie, I don’t think I like that frosted glass in that boat that you have just built’. Apparently grandfather turned round to him and said, ‘Well you know where you can stick yer frosted glass’ and he picked his old tool box up, slung it in the car, slammed the door to, and roared off. And that’s when he thought that he’d go into having a yard of his own.
My grandmother, whose father owned Howard’s bakery in Old Catton, had been left some houses by him which she used to rent out. So they sold them and everything they could and Grandfather took the letting of the little shed, for five pound a year, that had been the rowing club at the back of the Ferry Boat pub in King Street, Norwich. He built a boatyard there, the family all came from King Street; so they knew everyone along King Street.
In 1949 I think they built the first boat, Royal Times, a wooden hire cruiser in the back of the lean-to of the pub. They were week lettings, not day boats and in those days when most people didn’t have a car, they were handy for the station. Grandfather and grandmother would get the boats ready and shove them across the river to the yacht station and the people would arrive by train and they’d poke them on and get them away down river
Of course he only started with the one boat, but I expect he built one a year as that was the normal way of doing things. As well as having the cruisers he used to do repairs there as well.
The only trouble was that wood was still on rationing then, so they got a permit to come to Taylor’s in Wroxham to buy the hardwood, the oak and the mahogany to build the boats. The boats were about thirty foot long, not much more than that, nowhere near the size of the great big things they have nowadays.
He did fairly well there, there were a few hire firms around at that time but he seemed to get on alright. He was there till about 1960 running the hire fleet and a little longer doing repairs. They were the second boatyard to join Hoseasons.
After a time my grandfather acquired a ramshackle old building in Brimbelow Road in Hoveton. This belonged to relatives who called grandfather ‘Cousin Ernie’. They were related to William Royall – known to all the family as Uncle Billy. The building was pulled down and a boat shed was built there. The last boat that they built in Norwich was the hull of the Royal Tudor, in I think 1960. It was launched with just an engine and a sort of rudder in it, so they could steer her all the way from Norwich – across Breydon – to Hoveton for fitting out.
They brought her all the way round from King Street in Norwich to Brimbelow Road where they finished her up. After that they built two more wooden boats here before they moved again to Riverside Road, in Hoveton, which gave them a bit more space. This had belonged to C&G Press and it gave them a bit more room to spread. My father bought one or two extra bits of land over the years just to expand a little bit more.
We had a big shed opposite, that used to belong to Dawncraft boatyard, and he also bought a little property next door ‘Red Roofs’ which we had as a hire property.
When they moved to Riverside Road properly, which was I think in 1964, they changed the company from E Royall to Royall and Son Limited. The little pennant on each of the hire boats had been a green pennant with a yellow circle in it. We think old Ernie had just looked across at the football club from the King Street, seen the colours and thought ‘oh a ball’ and put that into a flag. But when they came to Hoveton and turned it into a limited company the pennant changed to a red pennant with a yellow crown in it.
Training and Oulton Broad
I helped out at the Riverside Road site on a Saturday morning and when I left school I used to help out with the wooden repairs and stuff like that. Then when I was sixteen I was off to Oulton Broad for a year for a bit of training at the centre there for a while. I stayed in Oulton Broad but came back at weekends to do the turnarounds and then when the training finished I came back and I went full time.
There were a lot of hire boats so it was very busy, most of the customers probably came from up north. There were a lot less private boats and those people who had private boats had a little bit more money. We used to do the hire boats and then work on the private boats during the week. We also used to do a lot of work on the Broom’s Boats, wooden ones, when grandfather had been at Broom’s he’d built several of the big Admirals before the war.
In January 2017 we sold the hire fleet side of the business to Barnes Brinkcraft, who were next door.
The Solace is one of the very few remaining big pleasure wherries; she was built in 1903 by Halls of Reedham and is sixty foot long, without the rudder, sixty seven foot overall.
She was built on speculation so she could have been finished as either a trading or a pleasure wherry. Commander Rogers from Ingham Hall came along and wanted her finished as a pleasure wherry, and she has only every had three families own her since she was launched sometime around August 1903.
I do all the maintenance on Solace, apart from the engineering, if I look at an engine it just conks out, so we have a chap come in and do that work.
Generally speaking the maintenance is mostly varnishing, but of course she is so old now that there is a fair amount of other work to do. The odd windows and her decks have all been done over a period of time. The decks, the whole way round, that’s two inch oak and two inch teak on the fore and after deck. Last winter I did the cabin sides, putting in a great long section of cabin. There is always something to do, quite a bit of planking has also been replaced over the years along with a few frames.
Solace is used as a family boat, she is moored on Wroxham Broad during the summer and she comes back here late September time. She goes into her winter shed where we dismantle her and pull her apart. Every third year, sometimes fourth we have her out of the water, check the bottom over and do any planking that needs doing. Nowadays we go to Goodchild’s at Burgh Castle and they lift her out, set her up on chocks and then we have a good look and make sure she’s alright underneath. The family then have her back again in, I suppose, early May time.
The hard bit is getting materials, because a lot of materials for wooden boats is absolute rubbish. A lot of people are using weird old stuff like European oak and the like because they can’t get anything else, but it isn’t half as good and won’t last half as long either.
A few years ago we got two massive oak trees, they were sawn up and we got loads of inch and a half oak, great long boards, grade A1 stuff.
Royall family history
When I was a child I used to go and stay with grandmother and grandfather Ernie and Gladys on a Saturday morning and so there would be odd times they’d chat about stuff. My grandmother was very good on all the family history and especially about my great grandad because obviously she used to chat with him when he was alive. And she was very good on dates and background stuff. But grandfather wouldn’t say much ‘
Robert Malster’s book had come out and they mentioned the Royalls doing a bit of smuggling in there. [Malster, Robert. Wherries and Waterways: Story of the Norfolk and Suffolk Wherry and its Waterways. Published by Terence Dalton Ltd (1971).]
Well, around that time grandfather was up on the bridge in the village I think looking at the wherry Albion laying there and Major Forsyth, who also lived in the village, came along. He was big in the old Wherry Trust. He started on to grandfather Ernest about this smuggling business and of course he took that amiss, he didn’t like that one little bit. And since then it was very difficult to get anything out of grandfather at all, he sort of clammed right up on the wherry side of things. His father never took him wherrying when he was young as he’d seen too many terrible accidents.
I haven’t really gone into the history too much but this is just what has been passed down through the family. We know that Christopher the older was on the keels in the 1770s, he was the one who was the smuggler. Of course a lot of them had the same name, so then we had Christopher senior, then Edmund who was born in 1818. He was Uncle Billy’s father but unfortunately Edmund got crushed at Great Yarmouth, between the quay and the wherry and he was killed.
Next came Christopher junior, who was born in 1861 and died in 1934. He lived up Ber Street until the last year of his life when he moved in with Uncle Billy at Number 5 Rayner’s Yard King Street. Billy’s wife Mary Ann had just died so I expect they were a bit of company for each other. He was my great grandad’s father so my great grandad was Christopher Ernest Royall born in 1885 and passed away in 1970, his son Ernest was born in 1909.
I knew more about Uncle Billy really because his granddaughter lived with him and I used to go and see her, obviously when she was an old lady, and oh the stories she used to tell about him, he was famous with the older generation of the family.
When I was about fourteen, fifteen I was on the river and saw an old wherry sunk at the back of Old Woman’s Pulk near Salhouse Broad. The tides were so low that year and she stood out of the water. It turned out through talking to an old wherry man called Jimmy Gorbould that she was the Cornucopia. I used to then visit a lot of the wherrymen and one would say ‘have you met so and so’ and I would go on to see him, and so it would go on. I was picking up a lot about the wherries but a lot about the family as well because obviously a lot of these old boys knew the family on the river. So what with all that and grandmother told me everything linked in.
I believe that there is a slight family connection to the Boleyn family, but I have only been told that by the family. Uncle Billy’s granddaughter, who lived with them, told me that there was a link between the Bullens and Anne Boleyn of Henry VIII fame.
Uncle Billy’s wife was Mary Ann Bullen and she owned Number 5 Rayner’s Yard on the King Street, Rouen Road junction by St Ethelreda’s church. It actually looked onto King Street. There are flats there now. Initially they weren’t married but they had children or as he called them childers. Later on they did marry but the children remained Bullens; one of their sons, young Billy, unfortunately drowned off Billy’s boat shed by the Ferry Boat pub. He fell in and they couldn’t get him out in time.
Apparently Mary Ann was fairly well off so what she was doing with Uncle Billy I don’t know, because he only ever washed twice in his life and one of those was when he was dead. So she must have liked a bit of a rough old character I think. The first time he washed was when Aunt Polly (Mary Ann) made him. ‘I’ll catch me cold,’ he said. ‘I’ll catch me cold!’ and he did and was laid up so he didn’t bother again.
Wherries and wherry trading
You had two types of trading, north river wherries and Norwich river wherries. The Norwich river wherries which my family were involved with traded basically the line between Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Great Yarmouth to Norwich. The northern river wherries were going from places like Aylsham to Yarmouth, they didn’t cross over that much, but Uncle Billy also traded up to places like Bungay as well.
Wherries are all English oak and come in various sizes. Take the wherry Spray, Uncle Billy’s wherry, she was built in about 1860 and lasted through until 1936 and was to all intents and purposes a classic wherry. She was all oak, sixty foot long, with a seven foot rudder. She had a little snug cuddy with two bunks, one either side and a little stove in between. She would load forty tons.
When Uncle Billy bought Spray she was sunk at Great Yarmouth harbour in 1901, she was loading granite off a ship, sprung a leak and sunk right in the harbour. He bought her the day Queen Victoria died. He took her to Allen’s at Coltishall and she was repaired and paid for all in nine months.
Some wherries were made of steel. Woods, Sad and Moore had one or two built in the late 1890s by Fellows at Great Yarmouth. They were alright but apparently they were very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Some people said that they were ugly and didn’t sail well but in the photographs they all looked fairly shapely and nice and if they were ballasted right they were alright and did get along okay. They called them iron pots. Great grandfather Chris and Alice had their honeymoon on one in July 1907, called the Vega..
I guess if the skipper, or the masters as they used to call them, were prepared to shift the ballast around a little bit between when they were loaded and light then they would sail a lot better.
The wherries took everything cargo wise, Norwich was producing barbed wire, and they had paraffin as well, all going to and from Yarmouth, and they brought in matches, all sorts of stuff coming and going – coal, stone, tiles, cement, timber, flour, groceries, grain, ice: this is all from Spray’s toll book, and a lot of other stuff besides.
When Cantley [sugar beet factory] was built in 1912 they used to have sailing wherries delivering the sugar beet from the local farms and Chris did some of that, that was one of his freights. He was mostly beeting in Samuel Gibbs Stella of Coldham Hall – more or less right up until Christmas Eve 1915. Chris’s last freight was cinder muck in Tom Read’s 40 ton Zephyr Christmas Eve 1915. He then joined the prestigious Colman’s Carrow Works Fire Brigade.
The farmer would make a great big pile of beet right by the quay heading where they wanted to load the wherry. They generally put the wherry alongside, chuck the beet on with beet forks. If they could, they’d normally do it one side, so they’d load one side, chuck it in one side, turn the whole wherry round so she was facing in the right direction and then chuck it in the other side and load her up to whatever tonnage they wanted. If they could not chuck it aboard they used deals and legless wheelbarrows.
They just did one farm at a time because of course when they got to Cantley they’d want to know which particular farm had delivered how much or who had delivered so much beet. So they used to use a special tool and go round the quarters on the wherry and measure the gunnels or bin iron down to the water, probably on the timberheads and then they’d already calculated how much she could carry with a certain amount of depth. And then they could work it all out.
Grain, barley and ice
They also carried grain, wheat and barley and once it had been malted they carried that away as well. Of course there were a lots of malthouses in the area. But in the 1920s they altered the way that the malthouses worked and that put a lot of wherries out of trade.
When the Broads froze over, which didn’t happen as often as they would have you think, the old wherrymen used to go round with great old huge hockey sticks with iron bands on the bottom, smash up the ice and then using an ice didle which was a long pole with a hoop on the end with a net, they used to didle that in. So that was some rough old stuff that had weed in it and all sorts. Then they’d take it up to the ice houses at Lowestoft or Yarmouth for the fishing fleet, that ice wasn’t too bad for the fishing fleet. But then ice which had been cut of the lakes in Norway was being brought in and that sort of done them in a bit, because obviously the ships could carry a lot more than the wherries.
Eventually they started manufacturing ice from scratch and that was the Lowestoft Ice Company who Uncle Billy dealt with. They used the crushed ice for the fishing fleet as they didn’t want it to be too special. But the ice that Uncle Billy used to have was made up in three ton blocks. They used to agitate it for a week so that it was crystal clear and didn’t have any bubbles in it and he used go down to Lowestoft on the morning and they used the mast on the wherry Spray, to load about a thirty ton freight of ice. They’d be home the following evening.
This was mostly summer freight you see, because they’d want it in the summer. So they’d cover it with old tilts to try and keep the sun off, hatch over the top, bring it up to King Street, to the ice house at the back of the Dragon Hall, what was the East Anglian Ice Company I think it was. And then they used the mast to lift it out there and then it went to the local morgues, the fishmongers, the butchers, people like that who wanted nice crystal clear ice and not the rough old stuff with all the weeds and probably a few dead old fish and eels and that in it.
The trip would take him two days, he’d go away in the morning and then he’d come back the next day in the evening with the ice. But of course he was on his own, he would go through Mutford lock, quant down the harbour or drift down the harbour on the tide. Lay at the Co-op where the ice house was, load her up, I expect that he got a hand loading her up but then he’d come back all on his own. A lot of the old wherries used to lay up at night at the pubs, but Uncle Billy liked to load up during the day and if the wind and tides served he would like to start getting home, not hanging around at the pubs, he’d keep going.
Timber was another freight that Uncle Billy used to load, on his own, for lots of firms for example Cushion’s and Colman’s. The timber would come from the Baltic and Russia. The ship would lay in the harbour and he would load it, you had lots of firms down there, in Norwich, Jewson’s, Ranson’s and Porter’s. Originally it was brought up by wherry before they used lighters. It was a very light freight so they used to build it out from the sides of the wherry. It is a bit of a job to explain but they laid the boards cross wise, so that you had quite an overhang either side. Then if they had to quant the wherry they would walk up and down along these massive overhangs on the side and quant along like that.
He was a hard worker Uncle Billy. He also sailed the wherry Leveret for William England, she was about the same size as Spray. I told you earlier that Uncle Billy’s young son Billy had drowned. His remaining sons all had a go at working with him, but he worked too hard for them, so one went to work on the railway and one went to work for the General Steam Navigation Company. Chris went along with him in Leveret. His wife used to say ‘Owd Towzer nigh on kilt the boy Ernie.’ This translated as ‘Old Billy nearly killed Chris by over working him’. Towzer was Billy’s nickname and Chris was known as Ernie – all a bit confusing.
His last freight was ice for East Anglian Ice Company in November 1927 and then he laid Spray along his two old cottages and ran his ferry boat from the Ferry Boat Inn.
He was a bit of an old devil because he used to load her up so much with so many people in there that they all had to stand stock still because if one of them moved just a tiny bit she would have filled up with water and sunk, oh yeah he packed them in alright. I don’t know how much he charged, I don’t know why these people didn’t just walk up and across Carrow Bridge, seems crazy, perhaps they liked it for the josh of it.
Retrieving bodies from the water
Uncle Billy always carried a set of creepers on board his wherry Spray. Creepers are like a grapnel anchor, they have generally got four wrap round stems on them, with a shorter shank and without flukes. He was involved with one or two bad accidents where people drowned, but he also saved several people too. If, unfortunately, they couldn’t get them out of the water they would then use creepers to drag the river for bodies. Great grandad Chris, his nephew, carried this on in his boat the Willing Boys during the 1940s and 1950s.
They got paid half a crown, in the earlier times it didn’t seem to matter where they found the bodies, they would still get their half a crown. But eventually it was ruled that they had to be within the Norwich City limits to get paid.
There used to be several morgues down King Street at one time, and one by Foundry Bridge under the Compleat Angler pub. Obviously that was near the river and that was cold so they used to poke them in there. There was also a morgue where Zaks restaurant now is up at Petch’s corner opposite Cow Tower. In fact the building was the morgue.
Coal, Rotterdam and Uncle Billy, Prince the dog and a very brief spell in the cells
I kind of think now that Uncle Billy must have been involved with the Dutch boats moving coal. There’s no way he could have got on those Rotterdam coal ships and nicked coal out of them, the crew must have been selling him sacks of coal I should think. He would then scuttle across the river with that in the old ferryboat and then take that either into his little cottages at the bottom there at the Ferry Inn or his house opposite at Rayner’s Yard. I believe that there was a room in there that was full of old contraband stuff and then he’d sell that on and that. He’d call it ‘trucking and trading’.
I will tell you one quite nice little story about Uncle Billy and coal.
One night, he had done his deal with this Rotterdam collier and he had the coal and he’d tipped it into Spray’s hold, to then move it around a bit once things quietened down. Well someone rounded on him and told the police that he was up to something no good you see. So anyway it got really late at night and Aunt Polly said to the granddaughter ‘go and get Billy off of that wherry. It’s time he come in.’ Because he’d spend all day long sitting in Spray even if she weren’t going anywhere. He lived on that old boat apart from sleeping on there, even then he’d lie down fully clothed and snore away on a blanket. So she went down to try and find him and couldn’t find him anywhere about down there at all. They were getting really worried because time was plugging on now, so they asked one or two blokes about and they said ‘Yes, someone’s rounded on him and the police have got him and they carted him off up the police station’.
So Mary Ann says to the granddaughter,’ Right you’d best go and get one of the men relatives who lived nearby and tell them what’s going on’ and they said, ‘Right we’ll go and get the manager of General Steam’, I think his name was Wigg. He went up to the police station and he said, ‘Come on, you can’t hold Billy in here all night, he’s old’ and there was old Uncle Billy sat there in this cell with his dog Prince and he was saying, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t touch me the old dog’ll have you’ because Prince was a feisty little old thing you see he said ‘he’ll have you’. So in the end this chap Wigg he persuaded them to let Billy go for the night.
They said,’ ‘Right Billy but we’ll be round in the morning, we want the coal and you’re for it’. So anyway next morning they came round to King Street, back of the ferry to Billy’s old cottages, but they couldn’t find the coal, that had gone. They knew what he had done with it, he’d put it in Spray you see, but there was none there so they were hunting high and low for this coal and they said, ‘Right, well, we can’t arrest you for nothing because we can’t find the evidence’. Apparently what Billy had done was as soon as he had left the police station at whatever time at night that was, he got on the old Spray where this illicit coal was and he chucked it all overboard. But what these people didn’t know was there was this concrete platform under the water where Spray was moored and all this coal was piled up on there, it didn’t come to any harm it just sat in the water there you see, under the Spray.
And then about two or three weeks later when that had all calmed down a bit old Billy didled it out, bagged it up and sold it on.
The end of the wherries
Keels came before wherries, they were similar hull shape, normally with a little transom stern. They had what they call a square sail in the middle, if you imagine a Viking long ship, they had a sail a bit like that. Keels hung on for a while, but wherries were faster, so they were done away with by I think the 1880s and wherries took over completely. The wherries were doing alright but then the railways came in and took a little bit of the trade away. There were one or two steam wherries, but the trouble with these was that they had to carry their own coal, which took up a fair amount of hold space. In about 1900 they brought lighters [flat bottomed barges used to transfer goods to and from moored ships] in, they called them ‘hundred ton’ lighters.
Roads didn’t really affect them until after the First World War. The lorries that the Army had been using in France in 1918 were brought back and flogged off cheap. Although the lorries didn’t have a very big tonnage, that was the beginning of the end and the wherries hung on for a while and then Colman’s did away with their wherries and that was really the end of them. Uncle Billy and Spray traded until November 1927 and one or two sailing wherries worked up until the start of World War Two.
Chris Royall, fireman at Colman’s, the boat Willing Boys
When the hundred ton lighters took over the wherry trade Chris kept going as long as he could, but this was the time of the First World War. He was working on and off for Samuel Gibbs on his wherry Stella doing some sugar beet work, in 1915. He also worked for Tommy Read on his big old high stern sheet forty ton wherry, Zephyr. His last freight was taking a load of cinders away from Norwich Christmas Eve 1915 in the Zephyr.
After that he got a job with the prestigious Carrow Works Fire Brigade, on the steam fire engines, one of which is in the Bridewell Museum in Norwich, you can still see it through the window. He was the chap who used to build the little fire up in the boiler ready for when they wanted it. He used to say she pressurised very quickly once the fire was lit.
They would sometimes load her onto a pontoon and propel themselves up the river they would have the intake for the fire pump in the water, and the hoses out the back and they could jet themselves along the river like that. Colman’s gave Chris and Alice a firehouse to live in opposite the works entrance at 278 King Street and they lived there until about 1969.
They were called out when Mountergate went up in the mid 1920s. It was called the ‘great fire of Norwich’, and then of course during the Second World War, when several riverside places went up. They went to Jewson’s at Fye Bridge, with their float, and Porter’s at Foundry Bridge when that went up too, and of course he was on the float when Colman’s own flour mill was bombed and burnt out.
Fairly early on in the War there was a raid in 1940 on Carrow Hill and the last bloomin’ bomb of the raid exploded above Carrow Hill just as the women were coming out of the factory. I think there were five or six killed and no end of them wounded. He said that it was terrible, terrible sorting the dead and attending the wounded.
Come the end of the War he was getting on a bit and had had enough so they put him on light duties. He then did various jobs for Colman’s, I think they put him on the gate. He was a great old strong chap, over six foot tall, and great old hands, and he finished there in 1949.
Willing Boys – the beloved boat
When he was a young man he used to go on the fishing boats out at Yarmouth, on the herring boats, and Lowestoft. We think that he only went on a fishing trawler once and that was on a boat called the Willing Boys, and her skipper was Skipper Wright. In 1895 the German steam ship Elbe was sunk forty miles off the coast here, there were over three hundred on board and there was a collision, the other ship involved just went off and left it. They only managed to fill one lifeboat and that was mostly with crew from the Elbe, and then one woman they hauled out of the sea. There were terrible rough seas and Skipper Wright was on a fishing boat called the Wildflower which came across this life boat which was just about to go down and they saved it. After that there was a subscription I think in a London paper and they bought him a brand new fishing smack [a traditional fishing boat] and that was called the Willing Boys LT67.
Chris went out on it once, but we don’t think that he liked it much, they stayed out for longer periods than herring boats, not spending as much time in harbour. It must have made an impression on him though because in the1920s he had a little sailing boat called the Willing Boys.
The herring drifter he went on – or at least one of them – was the YH368 Boy Charles, skippered by Tom Lake. Chris was one of the ‘younkers’ or youngsters.
Before the second war the very famous East Anglian beach companies had come to an end, but in Gorleston the Ranger and the Storm company survived until the war’s start in 1939 – but the boats lay idle during the war until it as decided to wind everything up in 1946. . The boats, called the Gorleston four-oared salvage vessels, were twenty foot long overall and were laid in the slip way on Brush Bend. We think the last two left were called the Calm and the Storm. Somehow Chris had got to hear about these boats and he bought them and took them up to Norwich. The Carrow works had their own boat club at the back of Carrow football club, where the Brandford Dyke ran and he had the boats up there. He sold one to a friend in Trowse Eye and with the money he bought an engine and grandfather Ernest fitted up Willing Boys as a motor launch for him, and it’s still going strong now.
He used to do trips up to Bramerton on a Sunday afternoon taking Colman’s workers, and the police would call him if someone had drowned in the river and he would go and drag for bodies, he would do all sorts, he loved that old boat, he was always pottering about on her.
When Chris died in 1970 I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral as I was too young, I remember that distinctly. I do remember that the family were all, I think even Gladys and Ernest my grandparents, on board the Willing Boys and we went up to Wroxham Broad in the first bay on the left and spread his ashes. And they came to start this engine up, which was an old Thornycroft in there at that time, you could start it on the ignition but it also had a handle and that wouldn’t start on the key when they spread his ashes. I remember my father saying ‘come on Chris give us a hand here’ and he swung the old handle and off she went, ticking away like a sewing machine.
I don’t know what will happen to Willing Boys in the end but wherever she goes I expect that her manual and her history will go with her.
Wildwood and the mast
James Hobrough was the river contractor who had a big dockyard at Thorpe, before being bought out by May Gurney. Over a period of time in the 1920s he bought up little parcels of land here at Wildwood. First of all he used to come round with his pleasure wherry Alma and stay on her. After a period of time he had a lovely building put up, I believe it had been one of the scout huts at a London jamboree in the mid or early 1920s, it was smashing building, a summer house. We had two of his relatives come here, and they were telling us about it.
When my father bought the land here we thought that he would like to put up a wherry mast; there was one at Petch’s corner and the wherry Bramble’s was at Beccles. We had tops, heels, mast heads and middles, we even had Spray’s masthead here for a while, but didn’t know it. But we couldn’t get a complete one, they were obviously quite rare then, So we advertised and Rowan Craft at Geldeston rang us and said that they had the mast off the old pleasure wherry Sundog. She had been broken up but they still had the mast, which was actually White Moth’s original mast from 1915.
So, we bought that off them and through a friend of a friend who had a low loader we backed it up to George Smith’s yard in the village here and then towed it round, did it up, put it up and there it stands now.
Wherry Lord Roberts
The Lord Roberts, I suppose she still belongs to the Wherry Trust. She had done her last job in April 1969 and was the last commercial wherry working, and was owned by May Gurney who had a yard at Thorpe. She was carting railway sleepers from Wroxham to the new walkway at Hoveton Great Broad. They loaded her up one day, left her overnight, and as she was getting a bit tender she sank; they got her afloat, cleared the engine out and finished the job and then gave her to the Norfolk Wherry Trust who laid her out at Oulton Broad for a while before taking her round to Hunter’s yard.
They got her afloat in the 1970s and then in 1983 Hunter’s wanted her out of the dyke, she had been in there a long time. Gordon Archer got involved, he was the one who got her up in the ‘70s. This was around the time that we had been looking for a wherry mast to put in the garden at Wildwood, and had found one. One day we had a call from a chap at the Wherry Trust asking if we would like a mast, we said that we had one but did they have one going spare and he said that he had and that it was off the Lord Roberts and was in a little boat yard down at Womack water. So I wanted it all signed off properly with the Trust, which it was and then we winched it in to the water and I towed it round by boat.
The mast is forty-six foot from heel to top, that’s without the lead on, I think that the lead is actually now on the wherry Maud.
He also said, joking of course, ‘you don’t want a wherry do you? Gordon Archer’s getting the Lord Roberts up, so if you want to give him a hand he’d be pleased of it’ so I said ‘cor, yeah I’ll give him a hand’. The trust didn’t want to know a jot about her and didn’t know what to do with her when she was afloat. There was a meeting and the Lord Roberts was never mentioned so after the meeting I went up to a chap and asked what they were going to do with her and as they didn’t really know I said ‘right I’m going to tow her round to Wildwood then and you can make a decision from there’. So that’s what we did, early one morning, we hooked the line on her and towed her round, she never made a drop of water.
Unfortunately she is sunk now, someone approached me from a group and said that he had pots of money, had rented a shed on Oulton Broad and wanted to know if I knew anyone who could restore a wherry. I gave him the name of someone who had worked on the Lord Roberts and could do it easily. All we needed was permission from the Trust but they wouldn’t give it, they didn’t want competition for the wherry Albion, which was restored in 1949. That was the only reason she was never restored and when people have said to me from the Trust that they didn’t have the money I tell them that they were offered the money and could have done it, but that’s all gone, done with now.
We’ve also got one or two old tillers, off the wherry Gladys, Black Prince’s, Uranus’ which was one of the old iron pots and then went onto Dora, which is where I got it off in the ‘80s. The hull used to lay up on Malthouse Broad, plain as day, a big old wherry the same size as Solace, sixty foot. That had a tiller on and I went to see the warden. He said that I could take it, well it was only held on with one pin but I hadn’t got a hacksaw with me, so he gave me a hacksaw and I went under the water and managed to cut through this pin and drag it back. It was sodden, so it was a great weight.
The most recent thing I’ve been trying to find out about is the history of the four old salvage boats, really because that is something that hadn’t really been gone into at all. Very very few people know about them, but unfortunately I have left it too late, I should have gone to Gorleston back in the1980s when these old clients, real old characters, were still about. I could have gone and had a chat with them found out all about it. Friends of mine have been researching and as they find bits they let me know, about the family stuff as well as the four old boats. You get to the point where you think that you aren’t going to find any more and then then suddenly, you know, something will turn up.
Nigel Royall (1964) talking to WISEArchive on 6th June 2019 at Hoveton, Norfolk.
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