Vic tells us about his working life on the water, and that his most satisfying and enjoyable times were spent on the steamboat, on the dredger.
My first job was at Boulton & Paul’s on the riveting floors, they made steel girders and all things like that. I’d be about sixteen then. I used to start at eight and my dad who also worked there used to start at five ‘cos he was a wire weaver on piecework. So I used to have to go in and give him a hand to fill the looms up so he got a bit more money! But you know I used to enjoy it. I’d of thought I was there for about a year and a half but then left that and went on the trawlers down Lowestoft. Silverfish, that was the name of the steam boat I was on.
I started as a deckhand. You would have to do two or three trips before you actually got your ticket. So while I was making these trips I wasn’t allowed to work more than eight or nine hours a day. But as soon as I got my ticket that went up to fourteen hours working both day and night. It would be like two hours trawling, then up to four hours gutting the fish all the while chucking all the lumber [fish guts] over the side. The skipper lived at Oulton Broad and he’d take any of the leftover coal home. And what they call the pit props, the big round poles about four maybe five foot long, well he’d dry them all out and lay them on the side, and he’d take them home when we got back!
I was seventeen and a half, something like that. They did get me drunk one day though! And I came home and I’d got an earring in. I soon took it out I’ll tell you now! That was down Lowestoft. We used to dock at Boston also. We’d sometime take the fish there, unload them and then we’d come back to Lowestoft to ice the boat up again. But we actually took the fish to wherever the best prices were goin’ as we were told before we were a-comin’ in to go either go up to Boston or down Lowestoft. It was fourteen days on but you’d have another day and pass by the dock to see how much money the boat catch had made, because we all crew members got a percentage of this. We needed to check they weren’t robbing us if you know what I mean! And then there’d be another day when they iced the boat up and away we’d go again.
It was the hardest job I’ve ever done, that is the truth that is. Half of the people nowadays wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s a hard life, you’ve got to fish in all weathers rain, storm or anything. We got caught in a bad storm out there one day and when I came home I was near enough crying, telling my mum what that was like. The waves were 40, 50 foot up and they were coming up over and kissing and coming down on the boat. And that was just like white foam coming down on the boat. And when the boat rolled, well you put your arm out of the window of the wheelhouse and could touch the waves as she was rolling over so much. Yet the next day the sea would be flat and calm just like a sheet of glass. I did this work for just over two years. The deckhands had already told me ‘Vic you want to get out of it while you can’ they said, ‘if not that will get a hold on yer’ and you won’t know what else to do’. And I can see what they mean you know ‘cos I missed it when I left. But we had a good cook on there and he used to make us fresh bread. We’d have lovely Sunday roasts and he’d do doughnuts! He used to make us all sorts. Alright that was!
We slept down below in the bunks. When had that big storm, I’ll tell you there were two days when I got in the wheelhouse and I daren’t come out! I told ‘em to put a mayday on it! I honestly thought that was my lot. That was off the Dogger Bank that was. As the ship went up it was really pulling power and you’d hear the engine nearly cutting out. When it got to the top of a wave the propeller used to come out of the water and the boat would shake and then come straight down the wave again out the other way. The boat would near enough stall and but would get on top of the wave and the air would vibrate when the propeller was out of the water. And then it would dive down again and honestly it was, well it was just vertical. The trawler had an arm handrail all the way round it and the cook used to take the wheel. Everyone would be down the engine area cutting the fish. If the cook shouted out either ‘starboard or port there’s a wave’, you would come up to deck put your arms through the rails and lock hold of them. And the water would come over the boat and it would lift you out and bring you back again, tha’s the truth honestly! Your boots would be soaking wet as well as everything else. But I did enjoy it mostly. I never asked any of the others whether they were frightened but I know I was! When I first saw all of this I thought ‘cor’ whatever am I doing here’. However, one day we were there and it was a sunny day. The skipper, I think his name was Ray Payne, well he turned round and he said ‘anyone want to go for a swim?’ The sea was lovely and calm and clear, so we chucked a net over and all jumped over the side and was swimming about, climbing up the net and having a really good time. It was lovely and couldn’t believe how clear the water was.
The next move onto the Broads
I got a job and I met the wife. I was friendly with a chap and his dad worked at May Gurney as a general foreman. And he come and see me and soon after I started at the dockyard down at May Gurney’s. They did a lot of piling work down Yarmouth Harbour, the groynes and the roll on roll off. Also at the lifeboat pen and up near the Breydon Bridge. We piled all round Stonecutters Quay. But then I had to go in hospital to have an operation and I didn’t feel like doing all this no more. So I went and see Mr Weller who was the governor, and he let me go back down the dockyard as a fireman, and that’s when I started with Billy and all them other characters on The Broads.
Billy! Well, there ‘aint another chap like him. He was a really really nice old boy, him and his wife. They’re all gone now but he’d do anything for you, anything. His father ran all the wherries for carting the sugar beet. He was the agent and he’d hire this and that and tell them where to go and what to do. His dad and John’s [John Fox] dad were brothers and they married two sisters of the same family. So one couple lived in a little bungalow down the yard and Billy lived on the other side. Archie was the name of John’s father and his mother was called Ethel. Never did have no electric down there in that yard. It was all coal, or perhaps paraffin. And the outer house, well they had that built with the old fashioned wherry hatches. Now the Broads Authority have got it but whether they are looking after it I don’t know.
Well when I worked with Billy we there were eight or nine ships that would come up to Norwich with coal, grain, steel, wood, bricks all year round. They would start at Reedham and come up the river right to where they docked at the stop at Thorpe Station. And then they’d go all the way back again. It had to be 10ft 6 at low water, so that’s what we’d got to dredge to. And the all the dredgings we used to put on the shore wherever we could or they would have to have them wherried away. Well, I don’t think they’ve done this for years. Nowadays you’ve got the cruisers if you know what I mean! These are like Devonshire cream. It is the income for the Broads. Rockland Broad and others, the lot, well everything is now grown up and the waterways are not dredged But I may be wrong.
I was quite involved with the wherry Maud. But we then started to get the steam wherries in. The first one I think was the Queen Mary, because it came over from Germany at the same time the Queen Mary liner was launched here. But apart from the Dora and the Bell we used sink them in the dyke because they’re better preserved under the water than they are up top. That is if you wanted to keep them to use. So if and whenever we got busy and needed one, we’d pump them up out of the water, put another engine in and then start using them again. We never had one, well I can’t remember one, that had a sail. There was The Lord Roberts which had about a ton of lead in it. We picked that up and we had to put it in the Albion to make that buoyant. More ballast was needed. I was not involved with raising the Maud. That was done by Amis and they had nothing to do with us lot. But there was nothing apparently wrong with it once they got it up. They even took the bung out of the end where the propeller would go round. This is how they would be sunk by removing this bung. But no there was nothin’ wrong with that wherry at all although they had to redo it later.
Billy Fox knew that wherry from years and years ago. He always told us that the Bell, the Dora and the Maud were the best wherries when he used to do the sugarbeeting. Well the farmer would save them sugarbeet from around Blofield area, and then these they’d ha’ to go all the way round Breydon and down to Yarmouth, across Yarmouth up to Cantley to get there. But it was Billy’s father who was the agent. So he’d say. right I’ll have a wherry at so and so, and Billy had to get it there. And he would often sleep on it! Now if they were sleeping when it was loaded it up the wherry would rise up and start twisting all ways. So Billy would lay there with one foot out of bed and his sock off. And when the water touched his foot – I am serious about this – when the water touched his foot he knew that it was time to get up and pump the water out. Yes, Billy told me that himself, and Bob Paine, well he’s another old wherryman, he told me that also. This would be in the ‘58’s 60’s something like that. That’s before my time, before I was involved in it but old Bob told me all about it. One day they were waiting in what they called the North End in Yarmouth with the old tower there, where you would cross over the bridge. And Bob was in his boat waiting to catch the tide to cross over to Breydon. So he put a mark on the quay but he thought to himself well that river ‘aint flowing yet. Well unknown to him Billy and all of ‘em went past. But I know him what he’s like, and he put that mark on a piece of wood so the bit of wood was coming up with the tide. If he’d have laid there for three days that wouldn’t have made no difference!! And Billy said Bob would never ‘a gone. He couldn’t believe it!
At work on the Norwich rivers
Norwich, in them days you used to have seven or eight coasters come up. I was a mate with Billy so we used to go from Reedham Ferry up to Norwich, and Basil Codling was going down the other way from Reedham to Yarmouth and across Breydon so as to keep that all clear. And then it had to be 10ft 6 at low water. That is what the ships used to draught coming up. And if it were more than that then they couldn’t get through because there used to be a big cast iron sewer pipe at Colman’s. The coasters couldn’t get over that because that was at 10ft 6, which was why we had to dredge to that depth all along.
And they used to bring orange juice, lemon juice, honey and all sorts up to Colman’s. There was coal and wood to Boulton & Pauls as well as bricks. Near enough any cargo you like. We had several occasions when we had to pull them off the horseshoe bends at Surlingham. They would come round the corner but couldn’t steer ‘cos it was too deep and they would run up the bank. So we would to take the dredger down beside it and grab it. Say the load was coal, we would grab so much coal out and put it in the old wherries so that the coaster could finally float itself and come up to Norwich. We would then go and take the wherries up and upload the coal back onto the coaster. That is how it used be like. And we used to help to unload the wooden boats but mostly we dredged up at Whitlingham here. There was a cut up there where the young Colman’s used to live. And we used to dredge them out of there and do other little jobs for them. We used to always get a drink unbeknown to the other guvnors and so we looked after them and they us. We were actually servicing a lot of the industry and businesses in Norwich.
There’s another one which we had when we were down the dockyard. The Thorpe Hospital was behind us and I was always told that if we ever see any patients nearby we’d got to quickly ring up as we’d got a phone down our yard and we’d got their number. They’d then have someone come down in white coats and march them back again. But some of them people managed to get through and they’d chuck themself in the river. And you know that was our job, well that wasn’t really our job, but we used get them out of the river and they’d be taken back up the hospital. They used to bury them beside the wall up there. There’s no marks up there now but oh the bell used to ring. Anyone died and you’d hear the bell ring. But we used get ‘em come into the yard. They were right nice as pie some of them. Couldn’t read or write like, but they used to tell us that at least they got three square meals day, clothes and a bit of money to have a fag or something like.
We helped to do the sewer crossing across at Thorpe and that was fairly deep in the water there. And Siddy Bear well he was a May Gurney diver. He had a hard brass hat and all the gear but we used to have to give him a hand to get down in the water. The worst thing he used to do was when he stood on you with them lead boots on. I remember John Woolley and John Fox once had to help Siddy to put his brass hat on and they got it cross threaded. When he went in the water he was actually struggling so had to come up right quick. He didn’t half get on to them. Siddy’s dad was also diver down there. Once they were up there at Norwich and were doing somethin’ with a river pipe. And they had things on board for pumping air into them. This air pipe got hooked up on a bollard which was stickin’ up, and when they took the weight of whatever they were lifting that nipped the pipe, unbeknown to all, but the bloke who was doin’ this didn’t see the pump weren’t working and never said nothin’. That’s what Billy told us, he never said nothin’, and he left it. And when they got Siddy’s dad up he was alive but he was blue, he couldn’t get no air.
So to the future
Well how I can remember it, everyone was helpful. And if there were problem, if you had to stop one night with your wherry or your boat alongside a property, you’d knock on the door and they’d say ‘yes, course you can’. But I don’t know what they do today. To my mind the Broads ain’t gonna be here much longer. They don’t do the dredging they used to do. I can’t remember the last time they did that at all round by Brundall. Surlingham Broad, well we done that as well as Ranworth Broad and Salhouse Broad. Years and years of doin’ that. Horsey Mere, that was another one we did for five or six years more. But they aren’t doing any of that now. Barton Broad, that was another one we did but no, they aren’t doing nothing like that now. Well The Broads are getting completely clogged now. I mean it’s just getting weedier and weedier. You never see a bit of weed then but now you go down Norwich, down Riverside Road and you see all the bottom of the reed and everything else. Never see that at all in my day! They just aren’t spending the money where they should spend it. I don’t know what I can say really apart from that in years to come there won’t be suffin’ on the Broads, the Broads Authority don’t seem to want boats on the river.
The most satisfying and enjoyable times of my working life were spent on the steam boat, on the dredger. You could actually turn round and do your toast on the boiler, even a kipper. We used to have a little wire netting thing on the kipper, open the boiler up stick it in, then get it out. That was ever so nice you know, really really nice. And Billy as I say you’d never get a better chap than Billy – never argued with no-one. A little yarn I can tell you though, we was dredging up Riverside Road and the pipes from King Street come down and go out. Well we used to blow the boiler down twice a day to get all the muck and out of the bottom of it, and then refill it. I used to get a pipe and stick it up that pipe, turn the boiler on and steam would come up, and the people walking past would wonder what it was. This particular day I done this same thing and pulled it out and after about two minutes this pigeon come out and that never had a feather on it. That was completely bald! Oh, I remember we used to take odd bits of coal home. it was Newstead, what they called Newstead Hard. it was steam coal, and it had to have a good draught if you wanted it to burn. That weren’t a lot of good but we used to bung that on our fire. That bit of coal would last for ages. It all had to be unloaded by hand down at Trowse then put into the wherry. We laid in at Surlingham Broad one day, outside Surlingham Ferry the pub. Simon the publican well he turned round and wanted to know if he could have a little bit of coal. We got up the next morning’ and all the coal had completely gone! The lot had gone and we had to go back and tell Charlie who weren’t very pleased about but any rate we got away with it. Every time we went past we’d get a free pint and a packet of crisps.
More fooling around on the rivers
I hadn’t really been on the Broads much as I lived out in the country. But I got a job with May Gurney on the rivers. Early one morning we were sitting round the boiler on the boat, keeping warm and having a cup of tea like we always did. Now one of the chaps had apparently taken the safety valve off the boiler over the previous weekend for repair but Billy Bugden had to put it back on again. Well we sat there havin’ a cup of tea and the pressure gauge went up to we’ll say about 50. When we looked again it was then goin’ up to 55. But unknown to us the pressure gauge had gone round twice ‘cos Billy had screwed it down tight as he could. Old Sam came over and he was laudy maudy but he got a big stick and hit the throttle which made the engine go right quick. We had to open the boiler doors and that took a good hour or more for the steam to escape out on it. If that boiler had a blown up half of Ranworth would have gone with us an all!
Another time we went to Oulton Broad to fetch one of the pontoons which the cranes sit on because an old one had then burnt out at Horsey Mere. We towed it from Oulton Broad across Breydon, up to the North End, and over to Acle. Someone was supposed to be on the bridge there to tell us not to go any further, but that was foggy that night. We never see no-one, so we just kept goin’. And that must have been midnight when we got as far as Thurne Red Lion. So we jumped ashore, moored the dredger and the tug up on what we thought was a tree. But when we went back there on the Sunday morning to have a look, it was not a tree but a boat which was on wooden pegs. So if there had been a gale or anything blowin’ that would have pulled the boat over as well.
In the late ‘60s there were six or seven of us on the dredger, and if that was a really boiling hot nice day we’d all get in the broad and play water polo. We’d have a couple of old oil drums floating about and you know that was really nice. And when you swam on Horsey Mere you could feel what was like cold spring water and then that would go hot again. My friend John Fox couldn’t swim and despite this he’d still come in with us. He used to have the old cork lifebelt and he’d sit in that and go paddlin’about in there. And his mum had knitted him a pair of black trunks. That was a funny sight when he come out of the water ‘cos his crotch used to be hanging down near his knees! Poor old John he was a good old boy he was, really was.
Jobs to do
They reckon if we’d a’ dug too deep that would have let the saltwater in, so we were only supposed to dredge to certain depths. The man who actually ran everything used to come and see us every Friday. This was to ‘sound’ the dykes to make sure that we were only digging the right depth.
Now Mr Collier was in charge of the Port and Haven when we used to do all the dredging on the Broads. And he was a real gentleman he was. If he wanted a tree down he’d go and cut it down. He didn’t go and ask like they do now where you’d have to go before a committee and that’s another week gone and another week gone. What he wanted done we’d do it. And while we were round about there we used to go and see Mr Collier at home ‘cos he sometimes needed something done in his dyke or up near his house. So we used to go to his house there, probably be up there for a whole week or more, but old Mr Collier was a really nice chap. He always a had home brew on the go. And when we went round his house which we did bein’s we’d got jobs with him, like his garden, we’d always have a glass or two and then couldn’t drive home! But then on the next day or the end of the week he’d turn round and say ‘make sure you take the dredger back out on the river again, the Queen of the Broads with all the people are on it are coming round to see what you have been doing. So when they come past make sure you have plenty of smoke’ he said ‘and they can’t see too much’. That was before the Broads Authority took over.
Booty and bounty
I was always looking out for interesting things, wherever we went. As we opened the grab to go into the wherry, you’d always see that there was either a bottle or such like. I found many a jug and an actual steam whistle. That do still work so I can give you a blow of it! (blows into the whistle and makes a nice sound). And hot water bottles along with other interesting things.
Oulton Broad was a really interesting place to dig and there was a lot of rubbish down there. It is an old tip apparently. Chedgrave also and there’s plenty of stuff at Ludham, you know old stuff. Well the oldest thing I found was a jug from Fishergate in Norwich. The German monks brought it over when they were in Fishergate years ago you know. It’s really nice, but the top is broken. When I took it up the museum they looked at it and said that there was only two that they know of. One was found near Thetford and this was the only second one they’d seen. But as it was damaged and the top was all broken they didn’t want it. So I kept it, with all the other treasures I’ve got! We actually found where the monastery was. You’ve got the archways and everything down there but that’s all covered up now. I have been told the monastery was founded in the 14th to 15th century so my jug may be that old!
I’ve found many coins including an 1842 half sovereign which I found at Strumpshaw. And I have got one made of pewter with the Battle of Agincourt on it which is from the 18th century I believe that is. That’s in Latin. What else? Oh a big ol’ key I found that at Thorpe. It had a little bit of an old chain or wire on it and a tag saying stores, so I should imagine that was something to with one of the boatyards down there. Now Harts Cruisers, I’ve got some of their actual cups. I’ve got a plate and a jug as well what go with the he cup. Up Norwich I found a Queen Mary coin. That’s our old King and Queen. Dated nineteen thirty seven it is and that h’aint got a mark on it. So someone got rid on it, just chucked it in and that laid on the silt all covered up. And we dug it up! Silt actually stops these things from getting broken. If a jug had been chucked onto a hard surface that would ha’ broke it but there was like mud and everything to protect things. Well the vase I found. I don’t know exactly how old it is but I’d like to take it somewhere to find out more. It’s as light as a feather, in green and so very thin. And at the bottom it’s got a dint like where they broke it off. On the telly the other week there was a programme about how and when things like this were made they can tell how old it is apparently. So I’d love to see how old it is, possibly take it somewhere and find that out.
But it’s marvellous how we used to get the grab to lift all that mud and you never know what would come out of it. I just couldn’t believe what would get out sometimes! Now the hot water bottle, well that was found at Whitlingham. Do you know that there’s two tips there at Whitlingham, an earlier one and then a later one further up. This hot water bottle is quite different though. I should imagine that this was a well to do one if you know what I mean. Not the old common one in lead, this is more of an upgrade. A foot warmer, that’s what it says on it, yes Derby stone earthenware. I also found no end of hot water bottles at Postwick.
Victor Gosling (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 25th September and 9th October 2018
© 2019 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.