Working Lives

A boatbuilding family. Growing up on the Broads (1900s-1980s)

Location: Norfolk

Rex is a member of a Norfolk Broads boatbuilding family and he spent his working life in the boatbuilding industry on the Broads. 

My grandfather was Ernest Woods, who originated in Yarmouth, but then he went to Cantley where he had a small boatyard. In 1908 he designed and built the Yare and Bure One design, which is sometimes known as a ‘white boat’, or nowadays they just refer to it as a ‘YBOD’.

In 1926 the Cantley factory expanded and he was asked to move, or given compensation, and he then transferred to the yard to Horning. My father worked for him apart from during the War years.

There were several Woods brothers. The eldest was Walter Woods; my father happened to be the youngest one, but I think they were probably the only ones involved in boat-building. ‘Old Man Walter’, as he was referred to, started the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company at Potter Heigham in the late 20’s/early 30’s.

His son, Herbert Woods, who was born in the 1890’s, had been apprenticed as a boat-builder and also spent some time at Ransomes Ipswich, who made electrical trolleys and that kind of thing. Because of his father’s ill-health and eventual death, however, he took over the company and started to build the Light class cruisers at Potter Heigham. 

Woods original boatyard at Cantley, about 1914 – sugar beet factory in background


Woods yard at Horning 1948 – 1958. Wherry yacht The Goldfinch in background

Rex’s father, grandfather, Don Applegate, and Peter Cox.

The last ‘white boat’, racing class, built at Horning from grandfather Ernest’s design

 Growing up on the marshes

There were several marshes near Ludham Bridge and I remember during summer holidays we used to wander through those. We used to explore what were the old wind pump mills and climb up them, if we could. There were particular marshmen about, who didn’t like us children being about there. I remember one old boy called Dick Gibbs, who was good for a chase. Obviously we were a lot younger and probably jumped over the dykes easier than he could.

We also used to explore the marshes at Horning, down by the River Bure. I also had access to a punt, so we’d sometimes row up the river and occasionally go across on the Ranworth side. This was part of the Cators’ Estate and they definitely didn’t like you wandering about there, so sometimes we’d get shouted at and we’d just run off.

Flooding at Horning Ferry

We also used to ride about on bikes and in the wintertime Horning Ferry used to get flooded to the depth of about two foot sometimes down the Ferry Road. We’d have to ride down there on the bikes and you’d probably get the top of your rubber boots filled up with water.

Helping in the boatyard

During the school holidays if we got bored; with nothing to do, we’d venture down to the boatyard and you would always be found a job. You’d help with either launching a boat, or pulling one out, or bailing out was usually the thing. We didn’t mind that because you could play with the pump and spray water about, so we rather enjoyed that task. Sometimes you were just running errands, for example, shooting down to so and so’s yard and picking up some bolts, or something like that.

Apprenticeship in marine engineering at Loynes & Sons, Wroxham

I suppose from the time I was born until the age of about 22 my life just involved boats, not only on the Woods side of the family, but my mother was a Gilden and my maternal grandfather, Harry Gilden, was also a boat-builder. Two or three of his sons and son-in-laws were too. However, I didn’t have the desire to follow the family tradition into boat-building; I fancied more the mechanical side of things. Therefore, when I had the opportunity, I entered apprenticeship as a marine engineer at John Loynes & Sons at Wroxham in 1958.

I stayed there until I completed my apprenticeship. I was then asked whether I was going to stay on. My reply was that you never stayed at the company where you’d served your apprenticeship, because you were always regarded as the boy. They took this as a sure sign I wasn’t too interested to stay and when the opportunity arose they got rid of me. So you could say I was made redundant before the word was really invented.

Reminiscences of Loynes’ Yard at Wroxham

Sid Loynes was a son of John Loynes who started the yard up. He was extremely active for a 70-year old and dealt with all the rigging and equipment for the yachts and auxiliaries. There were problems incurred with rigging etc. when the bots were out of hire and I would be delegated to take Sid and the replacement items out in the field so to speak. If it was a spar lake a gaff or boom it would be lashed on the roof rack of the ancient Jowett/Bradford van. But if it was a torn sail, jib or damaged shrouds etc. we would drive to Sid’s House in Wroxham. He would open the garage to reveal a gleaming 1948 Austin 16 limo. Sid had told the yard he had given up driving (a little white lie I think). Sid hated riding in the van, so if the opportunity arose we would cruise in the big Austin to Great Yarmouth, Beccles or Loddon. Tea breaks and lunch breaks were strictly adhered to when in the field and these were usually conducted in roadside or riverside hostelries that were abundant in those halcyon days.

Broads marine engineering

Back in those days if you were a Broads boatyard engineer, you weren’t just working on engines; you’d be fabricating bits and pieces which would go on the boat, like the stern gear and the rudder gear; welding bits and pieces up. You would also be involved in the plumbing and electrical side.

Any light wiring would be done and at that particular time when I was working there, a lot of the motor cruisers were converted to hot water systems. We were dealing with Ascot heaters, so for a time we were more like gas engineers as well, in fact, we even had to test them using a water manometer to check for gas leaks and so on. I don’t think you’d get away with it today; you’d have to be Corgi-registered, or something like that.

Self-preservation rather than health and safety

Back in those days the phrase ‘health and safety’ hadn’t really been invented; it was more a case of self-preservation than anything. You just had to be careful. In later life having been on various courses regarding health and safety, I think probably back in those days we had the same idea as the Americans; you looked out for yourself and you were more work-aware.

You did hear tales of the odd person sticking their finger in a circular saw, or something like that, which was a bit grizzly, or another thing which could be rather nasty was the planer/thicknesser. That certainly sprang a few fingernails off for the unwary. The only thing I do remember once, which gave us a bit of a scare, concerned one of the boat-builders. He was going to make a coffee table out of an old dining room table. He’d knocked this thing to bits and it had mortise and tenon joints. He was ripping the thing through on a circular saw and, unbeknown to him, his boy had stuck a glass marble down one of the holes, where the mortise and tenon peg went in. As that hit the saw blade, there were sparks, char and bits and pieces flew everywhere.

Rex returns to his granddad’s old boatyard

When I finished the job at Wroxham I was at a bit of a loose end, so I went to see Dick Mallender who’d taken over grandfather’s yard. He generously said if I’d got nothing better to do I could go and work for him. So I spent the entire winter down there, usually scrubbing the bottoms of boats and cleaning them. I also did one or two little engineering jobs. This was just considered a temporary job, though I suppose I was there about four or five months.

From boats to forklift trucks

After this I got a job at Ross Foods, repairing forklift trucks. People used to say to me that forklift trucks and boats don’t really mix, but actually they’ve got rather similar connections. Coventry Climax built fork trucks; they also built marine engines. They both had masts and the transmissions were very similar as well. I also preferred the factory environment, which was a lot warmer and nicer than being on a cold old boatyard.

Quality of life on the marshes in Ernest Woods’ day

My family members involved in boat-building probably had a better standard of living being tradesmen than the average farm labourer did, let’s say, but it still wasn’t very good by today’s standards. When my grandfather first had the boatyard at Cantley, they used to live in a houseboat. I know nowadays people live in houseboats, but this was an old houseboat pulled up on the riverside. However, as happened in several places, I suppose that was convenience more than anything, but I also think it had to do with finances. In fact, I don’t really know whether they had a house in Cantley, but it wasn’t until they moved the yard to Horning that they built their own little bungalow. This was based on the American homestead sort of thing, because I remember as a child going down there and it had a veranda at the front, which you could sit out on in the evening sun, provided the mosquitoes weren’t biting you too much.

The houseboat where grandfather Ernest lived during Cantley days (often referred to within the family as Rudder Grange)

Granddad Ernest

As a small child, I suppose to me he was a very abrupt and gruff man, but I think most of the Woods family were; perhaps I’m like it now; I don’t really know. Another thing about him was that he never suffered fools gladly. He was also very economical with his words. Well, in fact, he probably didn’t have much to say unless he decided he was going to say it.

Ernest Woods, 1930

The Broads and the marshes during the severe winter of 1962/1963

I was still working at Wroxham during 1962/1963 and, in fact, on high tides ordinarily the car park used to flood through the rising water. At this particular time though when the cold weather struck, the entire car park was covered with a layer of about three or four inches of ice. This proved to be strong enough to support an oil tanker, which was delivering some paraffin, or something, to us.

We were also able to go down and walk onto Wroxham Broad; you could walk about the river. It was also said that you could walk from Horning to Potter Heigham, provided you were careful where you put your feet sometimes. The wildlife suffered mostly, mainly because there was nothing much to eat and it was really cold.

One of the things I remember most was when the thaw set in. Round the back of the yard at Wroxham was Broads Tours, which ran the river buses, and they needed to get their boats out to take them to a boatshed down the river for an overhaul. They had to cut a channel-way through the ice and in some places it would be 18 inches thick. What they cut out was then piled on the existing ice and it was nearly mid-April before it all disappeared.

Wartime on the marshes

I was probably only about three or three and a half when the War finished, but I do remember my father talking about a Flying Fortress which landed at Repps on the marshes that crash-landed. The crew survived and they posted some sentries, but some of the chaps in their lunchtime walked across and they allowed them to have a look inside, which to me was very interesting. I also remember there was an anti-aircraft unit on the playing field at Horning. There was also a mobile unit in fields, which actually was the start of Neatishead radar station.

When I was about two and a half, I remember seeing two fellas come floating down on parachutes and they’d bailed out of a B-24 Liberator. Apparently what they used to do if it was a War-weary aircraft and it was a bit knocked about, they used to fly it back to the UK, dump the crew out, turn it round and then put it on auto-pilot and send it out to sea. One of them landed in Horning churchyard and he immediately went into the church. The other one landed near Grove Farm, which was at Horning, and he got taken in by the Tallowins, who we were friendly with, so we went down there and I actually met him. I was goaded to say ‘have you got any gum chum?’, but the most vivid memory I have of him was sitting playing a piano. He looked very much like a musical star of that era called Hoagy Carmichael and every time I see him on an old piece of film, I think back to this airman sitting at the piano.

An inkling to join the RAF

I’d always been interested in aeroplanes. We used to go to the Battle of Britain shows, which were mainly held at St Faith’s airfield, which is now Norwich Airport, but also at Coltishall. I also took an annual trip, run by a coach company in Norwich, to Farnborough Air Show and enjoyed that. I always had an inkling to join the RAF when I first left school, in fact, I even passed the entrance exams. I was eventually supposed to go somewhere for training, but in the meantime I’d got a job, so I’m afraid that fizzled out.

Becoming a marine engineer

I got a job as a marine engineer, mainly because we knew the guy who owned the yard. I also used to do day release at Norwich City College, but back in those days there was no specific course on marine engineering. You either did the motor vehicle technology course, which really only covered car engines and maybe a few gearboxes, or you did the fitting and turning course. I chose the fitting and turning course, which was considered a bit better, because we would use lathes and drilling machines in the course of our work. I do remember some of the chaps on this course, who worked for Laurence and Scott’s and the other big engineering firms in Norwich at the time, were more proficient on the machines, because obviously they were using them every day. I do feel they were a little bit envious of me though, as I was sailing about in a boat, or riding about in a van to do a breakdown; I didn’t really have an indoor eight to five existence like they did. I was out in the sunshine, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time, but I think I do now.

Retiring back to the marshes

I’d have various holidays round the country, but I was always glad to get back home. Also during my working life I had occasion to go to Birmingham, but I was always glad to get out of there as it just seemed so industrialised. When I worked for another company, I had to go down to London fairly frequently and I was always glad to leave there too. The chaps, who worked for this company in the East End, were always enquiring what life was like up here; most of them having been up this way fishing and they always seemed to like coming up here on holiday. So I always thought that this was probably the best place in the country to live.

Rex Woods (b. 1942) talking to WISEArchive on 11th July 2017 at Lingwood.

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