Working Lives

Sparkes on wherries (1951-2019)

Location: Norwich

Mike grew up by the river in Trowse near Norwich and played on the Whitlingham marshes. His great grandfather was a skipper on the old tar wherries working out of Norwich and his four times great grandfather the master boatbuilder Stephen Field. As archivist for the Norfolk Wherry Trust he tells about the history of wherries and their place in the Broads today.

Growing up in Trowse

I was born in Norwich in 1951, but grew up in the village of Trowse our home since 1949. My three brothers, and also our sister the youngest child in the family all attended Trowse Primary School. At the age of 11 years we caught the bus to Framingham Earl Secondary Modern School which was three miles away. On leaving school I became an apprentice at the engineering firm of Laurence Scott and Electromotors in Norwich; it was the thing to do during the 1960s to go into apprenticeships. Two of my brothers also served apprenticeships at the same firm. My youngest brother however became an engineer in the motor trade.

The Trowse Rivers of the Yare and Tas

Our village is located at the end of the navigable River Yare at Trowse Mill, where once a large water mill stood. Sadly this lovely mill was demolished in the late 1960s. Trowse has a smaller stream the River Tas also running through the village. This stream branches off the River Yare near Old Trowse Hythe and is only navigable up to Trowse Church Bridge. As a child, I spent a lot of time playing in Trowse woods and on the hills of Crown Point. The estate of Crown Point and the woods were next to the River Yare marshes of Whitlingham. This land was all part of the Colman Estate.

In Trowse during the 1950s, the village children learnt to swim in a shallow ford which crosses the River Tas just behind Trowse church. In this shallow clear stream we kids named ‘Trowse Beach’ the low sloping banks were made up of sand. It was here we spent long summer’s days just splashing about and playing boats using a large cut down wooden log. This was a special place for me: it was here I first learnt to swim in the two foot depth of water. This lovely river was bordered during the summer with wild flowers, and along with us kiddies a family of coypus lived just a few yards up upstream. this family of coypus consisted of two parents and two youngsters, they spent much of the day just cleaning themselves close to the river bank

On the river Tas just upstream of Trowse Beach was a grand waterfall (weir).This weir branched off the larger River Yare on the upstream side of Trowse mill. The weir allowed flood water coming downstream from Lakenham Cock Bridge from causing flood problems at the mill just half a mile downstream. The access flood water would run safely through the River Tas and re-join the River Yare below the mill.

Whitlingham marshes was another area we played this was a large area stretching from Trowse Church Bridge to Whitlingham White House, some two miles away. I remember the marshes of Whitlingham being dug out for shingle. Those shingle pits were so deep all you could see was the long arm of the crane digger arm showing above the deep pit. The shingle they took out, was once large rocks pushed along by the glaciers as they passed through, grinding the ground rock into shingle. The Yare valley is a complete shingle bed ground out through the chalk, which makes up the hillsides of Crown Point. Later after the shingle was extracted the pits filled with water to make the lakes we have today called Whitlingham Lakes, a wonderful place for people to go for sailing and bird watching.

In my childhood playing along the rivers, I had always dreamt of owning a boat to go exploring, I remember a friend having a canoe and I was so envious of him paddling along on the River Tas near Trowse Church. In those early days it just felt like I had a connection with the river; I definitely wanted to own a boat of my own.

Coxing the eights and fours on the River Yare

In the 1960s my oldest brother, myself and a friend joined the Norwich Amateur Rowing Club in Whitlingham Lane close to the famous Whitlingham White House on the river Yare. I don’t remember how we joined the rowing club as I was only a young lad at the time, Jack Sursham was manager of the rowing club at that time, Jack lived in the old white house close by the boat sheds. Strangely there was another Sparkes in the rowing club a young lad called Roy, but we weren’t related. However both Roy and myself became cox’s. The club house for the rowing club was on Whitlingham Reach as I said next to Whitlingham White House. Sadly today this is just a car parking area with the White House close by. In the 1960s this site had two big sheds, in which the rowing eights, fours and sculls were housed.

During the evenings, and at weekends we lads often went rowing, Jack Sursham was a lovely chap who never stopped us taking out the training boats. These training boats were nicknamed tubs by the rowers, they were large rowing boats of about 16ft in length. These boats had two rowing sliding seats fitted one on either side of the boat, on which you could use a proper size rowing blade (oar) to learn how to row. The person steering the rowing boat (the cox) sat at the stern, on something like a park bench. The cox steered the vessel using two ropes. Being the smallest at that time I did the steering with my brother and another friend, who was quite a big lad doing the rowing. Later the friend called Clive went on to become a very good rower. Some of our weekend trips in the tubs were made from Whitlingham Reach to Coldham Hall and back; mostly we rowed into Norwich or down to Bramerton Woods End.

My family’s connections with wherries

In the early 1980s I was told by my mother that the family worked on the wherries. This really interested me as this was the connection I felt for the water; I needed to know more about these wherries, and after talking with both my granny and mother, I soon found out about my great-grandfather Stephen Field being a wherry skipper working out of Norwich. Stephen worked on the old tar wherries. Granny said he would sail down to Yarmouth to Tar Works Road to collect liquid tar. This tar was put into two large tanks built into the hold of the wherry. Back in Norwich the tar was unloaded near the Adam and Eve public house and pumped into two huge tanks. The tar would be fairly warm so it could be pumped in and out. My uncle, then a young boy would go with them. Uncle Stephen said they’d start in the morning as early as 4am sometimes to go out on the tide. Great-grandfather would sail up to Coldham Hall before stopping for a drink at Coldham Hall Public House.

George Gibbs, son of a boatbuilder at Coldham Hall, once told a tale about my great-grand parents on the wherry John Henry. George said ‘Stephen Field would sail up to Coldham Hall, where he would stop for his usual drink. However on this particular day Field went back onboard and decided to have a sleep. Mrs Field realised that they needed to keep the wherry moving to catch the tide, so she got George and his friend to raise the sail and she set off for Yarmouth steering the wherry’. George asked her how she would manage at Reedham railway bridge. Mrs Field replied, ‘He’ll be awake long before then’. At that moment she picked up the bucket with the lanyard and said, ‘He’ll certainly be well awake by then’. Jane Field often sailed the wherry with her husband, except for certain extreme weather conditions; she was a tiny lady.

Mike at Fields Yard.  Photo Phyllida Scrivens

Stephen Field senior the master boatbuilder

My four times great grandfather, Stephen Field senior the master boatbuilder started at the Carrow Abbey boatyard in the early 1840s, where he probably learnt his boat building skills as an apprentice. He worked for Britchers, later Field and Britcher, went into partnership, moving the yard closer to old Carrow Bridge. Later in the 1870s Colman’s took up the land so Field the master builder moved the yard to Water Lane in Thorpe. This boatyard later became Jenners boatyard after Field moved his yard again onto the main river close to the railway bridge near Girling Lane. Stephen Field’s yard looked straight up Thorpe Reach on the River Yare towards Norwich.

Great grandfather Stephen Field and wife Jane on the tar wherry John Henry.

In 1865, while at Carrow on the River Wensum, Field built the Alexandra, the first steam wherry to be propelled by a screw (propeller) on the Norwich river. Previously it was all paddle steamers. The Alexandra worked on the river for many years, though there was once an accident when the boiler blew up.

Field’s boat shed was used as a temporary morgue during the great train crash of 1874, when two steam trains crashed on the road crossing close to his yard in Girling Lane.

Field also built large yachts for prominent people interested in racing and taking holidays on the Broads; He built one in 1886 called the Cigarette for a prominent yachtsman which went off across to the Kiel Canal, between Germany and Denmark.

Some wherry history

Before the coming of the wherries in the early 1600s, another vessel sailed the Broads called the Norfolk keel. The Norfolk keel was a vessel with a square sail with the mast set in the middle of the boat, reminiscent of a Viking longship, and it’s disputed whether the mast could be taken down. We have very few paintings of keels, but I imagine there were keels built with masts that could be dropped down, for bridges. On a wherry the mast is set closer to the bow of the vessel, with the sail behind it; this is called a fore and aft rig. This rigging came from across the continent, probably when people fled across the sea from religious persecution in the Netherlands. These vessels were tiny, probably just one man, and used around the harbour. They could sail close to the wind, by tacking across the river backwards and forwards; whereas the keels were a lot harder to sail with their square sail rig. Gradually over the years, the wherries took over the carrying of cargo as they were faster. The keels fought back by building larger vessels, some up to a hundred tons. However these large keels needed a crew of five to handle such a large vessel, with more wages to pay out. Wherries would take over as the main carrying vessel.These wherries were able to carry up to 40 tons. As the wherries were built larger the rigging also became heavier, so to raise sail they fitted a winch; 40 ton wherries carried a sail of 1200 square feet.

Wherries carried many cargoes from the town of Yarmouth, to the city of Norwich. Timber came down from Scandinavia in large square rigged vessels. Coals from Newcastle arrived in large colliers sailed down the east coast. Wherries in Yarmouth loaded coal and paraffin, for the inland villages. Village coalhouses were built for the much needed coal. The wherries would also carry grain and farm produce from the upper reaches down to Yarmouth. They say about 200 wherries were working on the Broads at any one time in the mid to late 1800s.

The wherry Albion

Albion was built in 1898, for the Walkers who were the Maltsters of Bungay at the end of the Bungay navigation. At that time all wherries had been built using the clinker contraction method (overlapping planks), however clinker built wherries sustained damage to their planks when going through the brick locks up to Bungay. So the Walkers asked William Brighton, a very famous boat builder, to build an iron wherry to save on maintenance. Brighton refused to build an iron vessel, instead he built a wooden carvel wherry (where the hull planks were fitted side by side) this was much easier to maintain. Albion was built in Suffolk (on the north side of Lake Lothing, Oulton Broad in an old ice house), she was built to carry 35 tons. Albion is built different from a lot of wherries because she was built with less shear, flatter (shear is the curve of the hull) being flatter makes it easier to quant (move the wherry using long poles).

Wherry Plane (Albion) at Colman’s Works Norwich

Albion’s first skipper was Jimmy Lacey. A young lad called Jack Powley, Jimmy’s nephew worked as the mate. Both Jimmy and Jack had sailed together on a previous older wherry, also called the Albion. Jimmy’s first trip as skipper on Albion was to carry 44½ tons of cattle cake from Lowestoft back to Bungay. The wherry Albion continue working for the Bungay Maltsters right up until the 1920s, then she was sold on to the General Steam Company based in Yarmouth. The new company renamed the wherry the Plane. She would sail under that name right up to the war years.

Like many wherries in the latter part of the war, the Plane was stripped of her sailing gear and used as a general lighter. These lighters were towed in numbers to Yarmouth behind steam tugs; it was important to move goods at speed during the war.

The wherry Plane was lying moored to the side of the wherry Eudora in Norwich in June of 1942. The Eudora wherry at that time was owned by the Walkers of Bungay. During that June night, an incendiary bomb went through Eudora’s hatches during an air raid know as the Baedeker raids. The wherry Plane ( Albion) was saved only by being cut adrift. Sadly the Eudora burned and sunk on the spot.

Formation of the Norfolk Wherry Trust

Roy Clark skippered a landing craft ferrying troops to the beaches during D-Day. When the battle had gone off the beaches Roy went to look, he went to witness a battleground: what he viewed was sickening. He saw death and destruction everywhere, Roy ventured further on to the battlefield to where he noticed a dyke running alongside. In this dyke were lovely yellow water lilies growing. This dyke reminded him of his youth in Norfolk when he use to collect water lilies for his mum, with wherries passing by on the main river. At that moment Roy wondered whether wherries were still being sailed on the Broads! On his trip back home Roy decided he would restore one back into sail upon his return to civilian life.

After the war in 1949 Roy now back in civilian life, opened the Black Horse Book Shop close to Elm Hill in Wensum Street in Norwich. It was here he held the first meeting for the forming of the Norfolk Wherry Trust. At that first meeting was Humphrey Boardman, and Lady Mayhew both of the Colman family along with others to help Roy in his task, to restore a sailing wherry. The Norfolk Wherry Trust was formed after a public meeting at St. Andrews Hall in Norwich, chaired by Lady Mayhew. After the meeting many of the audience attending made donations along with a large donation from Lady Mayhew.

Soon after the formation of the Trust a wherry was found moored on the river at Colman’s works, it was the wherry Plane. At that time in 1949 the Plane had been stripped of her sailing gear, now just a plain lighter. My father, Tony Sparkes worked at Carrow at that time and he remembers her lying close to Carrow Bridge on the Wensum. He said it was near the flour mill he was running. Father said they used her to move sacks up and down the river to other parts of the factory. The Norfolk Wherry Trust acquired the Plane from Colman’s, and using the steam tug Cyprus she was towed to Yarmouth behind the Thames sailing barge Greenhythe. The wherry was restored to a sailing wherry again, and renamed the Albion. She started carrying cargo soon after being restored in the winter of 1949. Sadly over the next couple of years it was harder to find goods for her to carry. As the cargoes dried up, the Trust during the summer months decided to put Albion up for chartering. The winter months she would take sugar beet to Cantley.

Albion sank in 1966. Nat Bircham had moored her near Berney Arms for the night and had gone home on his bike. The weather changed that night and it came on to a strong blow. Sadly in the morning they found Albion sunk with just the mast sticking out of the water. They had to remove the mast and the sugar beet with a crane, then Albion was pumped out and raised. She wasn’t the only wherry which went down that night the I’ll Try also sank just a quarter of a mile up river.

Albion first sank in 1929 during her working career. In Yarmouth they were building the present Haven Bridge, and had built a temporary bridge close by to take the traffic. Wherries would sail down to Breydon Water and on entering Yarmouth, they would drop their sail and mast. Soon after the mast was down and secure, a mud weight fixed to a very long chain was dropped overboard. The wherry would slowly turn on the mud weight and chain to face the last of the ebbing tide. She would now go backwards with the tide down through Haven Bridge. By turning the wherry to face the tide and going slower than the tide, the skippers were able to keep their steerage. On that day in 1929 Albion hit one of the pilings for the new Haven Bridge whilst passing under the temporary bridge. After this incident all wherries were told they were not allowed to drudge or dredge through Yarmouth. This is the name given for going down backwards with a mud weight. Yarmouth Port decided to have all wherries towed through the bridge, after Albion’s sinking. She also sank during the 1950s in Langley dyke. It’s thought she sat her bottom on a spike at low water.

Joining the Norfolk Wherry Trust

I joined the Norfolk Wherry Trust in 1985, after I had found my family had worked on the wherries. In those early days, I used to go out as mate with an excellent skipper called Sid Chettleburgh. In those days Albion was moved only by quant poles, and sail. Sometimes we would put all the charterers on the shore and we then towed her along. I was a mate until 1991 when I was given the chance to skipper Albion. I had asked Sid Chettleburgh if there was a chance for me to become a skipper. Then in September 1991 I received a phone call from Sid stating that skipper Brian had gone to hospital, could I bring Albion back from Barton to our base at Ludham. So that evening my wife dropped me off at Gaye’s Staithe, on Barton Broad. I didn’t have a mate for that trip, but Sid told me not to worry as the young lads there had been on before. So I walked into the Barton Angler pub and there they all were enjoying themselves, they were all scout leaders. I introduced myself and we went back on board. I slept in the cuddy, which is the crew’s quarters, and they slept inside the Albion, but I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep!

Albion 2019

They knew it was my first time and said, ‘Well, you’ll be alright’. It wasn’t even light, it was foggy, and we had to move Albion past these boats about six o’clock in the morning. We managed to quant backwards and got out on to the broad. Suddenly we could hear all the waterfowl coming on to the broad in the mist from their overnight roost, but you couldn’t see them because of the bright orange mist with the sun then rising. On the broad the mist cleared and we raised the sail and sailed down the River Ant. At Ant mouth I should have gone to Ranworth because the tide and also the wind was against us. These youngsters were so good we actually tacked against the tide and wind all the way from Ant mouth to Thurne mouth. It’s only a few miles but we did it in two hours. Later in 1993 we fitted an outboard motor on Albion’s tender to push her along, when the conditions are not difficult.

I became the archivist for the Norfolk Wherry Trust in 1986 just a year after joining, this I still do today. I began researching and collecting information on wherries way back 1985, this was to research my own family tree of the waterman like my grandparents. Later I joined the main committee of the Norfolk Wherry Trust. At one of those meetings, they gave me this box and said, ‘Well, this is the archives’! Today three of us run the archives; we are currently digitising all our photographs. These photographs are now available on the website, our aim is to show it along with some information about the wherry.

Mike the skipper with white hat watches on as the mate Tim steers Albion on the River Bure. Photo Norfolk Wherry Trust.

Our volunteers put the hours in and it’s the reason we can keep things going so well. Our sailing season begins in May and finishes in September. September through the winter to the next May is used for restoration. When I first joined it was originally sailing from March to November. Some of the trips were horrendous, used to be freezing. Trips in March were not very nice at all.

The internet has helped a lot to gain public interest and for advertising. We also hold open days around the Broads which is a great way for the public to see a wherry. It is strange that there are more wherries now on the Broads than there were after the war.

Of other wherries

The other trading wherry is the Maud, she was built in 1899. Maud is a larger vessel than Albion, she is 60 feet long where Albion is 58 feet. It was Vincent and Linda Pargeter who restored the Maud. They had organised a commissioned sail on Wroxham Broad for 1999; this was to be Maud’s first sail after her restoration. I offered Vincent and Linda my services for crewing, however I received a phone call a few days later for a request ‘would I skipper Maud on that day?’ I accept. I turn up on the day before the commissioned sail to take Maud on her first ever sail from the wherry base at Ludham to Wroxham Broad. That morning I got down there early to help get her ready for the trip, it was blowing close to a gale. Vincent and Linda arrived telling me we couldn’t go and there wasn’t even a mast gate fitted yet. The mast gate is the big iron bar going across the bottom of the mast which locks the mast in the vertical position. Vincent fitted the mast gate while I made Maud ready for the trip. I was a bit concerned about how Maud was sitting high out of the water at the stern, so we put a lot of Albion’s spare ballast underneath the cockpit at the back, this certainly helped to lower stern and put more rudder under the water. By about 12 o’clock we set off and it was blowing really hard. In the end we got her towed down to Thurne mouth by a friend in his motor cruiser. As we turned to head up the Bure to Wroxham we raised the sail for Maud’s first ever sail after her restoration. Thankfully the wind dropped during the trip.

By the time we got to Wroxham Broad it was totally calm. It was lovely as we came on to Wroxham Broad from the main river, because the pleasure wherry Solace was moored on the broad and her crew gave us a loud welcoming blast, using a hand held air horn. The next day I skippered Maud again, many of the other wherries came, the weather was perfect for that grand sail on Wroxham Broad.

While Albion and Maud are trading wherries, Hathor (once owned by the Colman family), Solace is a privately owned wherry usually moored on Wroxham Broad, and Ardea are all pleasure wherries. Ardea is one of the latest to join the fleet, she came back from France. Ardea is built with teak, where all other wherries were built of oak. Ardea went over to France after the war and became main residence of the British attaché in France, at that time he had nowhere to live, so he lived aboard Ardea on the Seine. It was Mike Barnes who brought her back and put her back into sailing condition.

Olive, Norada (which was Lady Edith) and White Moth are all wherry yachts. I had the pleasure to sail White Moth once, on a charter weekend I took her up the River Ant to Barton Broad.

Mike skippering Albion

Present day Broads

The water quality, especially the River Yare’s, is very good today. This has now brought back the water lilies, which is great for the river, sadly they are so numerous they can become a problem. The sides of the River Yare are so choked up with them, making the river narrower, they can get in your prop if you’re too close to the bank.

In the villages along rivers in the 1960s and 70s the river banks were kept tidy, often trimmed back of scrub. I can remember seeing workmen cutting the reeds, and farmers cleaning out the ditches. When I lived at Trowse the local farmer Mr Chapman, whose farm was at the end of Whitehorse Lane looked after the marshes backing on to his farm; with the aid of a tractor the dykes were dug out, so it never became overgrown. Sadly today the River Tas is so overgrown you can’t even see the river mouth where it joins the River Yare. Every autumn all those leaves are going into the water and causing a lot of problems. It’s like the arteries in your body; if they clog up only trouble will follow. Letting these small streams clog up will cause a major problem for the main rivers in years to come.

They reckon salt spring tides in Broadland were not such a problem in the late 1700s. The Broads were protected by the sand bar across Yarmouth harbour; you can see old newspaper articles of keels from the north bringing coal down hitting that sand bar. Wherries could sail over it, but big ships from Scandinavia couldn’t. So these ships would anchor out in Yarmouth roads, and the wherries sail out to lighten them of their cargoes. In the 1880 they wanted the bigger vessels to come into Yarmouth to unload so they started to dredge the Yarmouth harbour mouth, However this caused the salt tides to push further up the broadland rivers as there was now no sand bar to hold them back. For example on the North Norfolk Coast, Wells harbour has a sand bar which holds back a lot of the tide, that gives protection most of the time for the small streams further inland from the salt surges.

When tidal sea surges come down the east coast, there is nothing to stop them entering the Broads. This Tidal surge comes in, and pushes all the way up the Rivers Waveney and the Yare. On the northern broads it reaches Potter Bridge, which does hold a lot of the salt tide back. The problem comes with the large build up of reeds on the river banks making the rivers narrow, and with certain wind conditions it takes longer for the salt to flow back out again. The problem then gets worse when the next tide comes in on top of the last tide still flowing out. It is the build up of reed that is holding up the water, sadly this problem will only get worse with rising sea levels.

On a more positive note, over the last two years I have noticed more people in canoes and on paddle boards on the Broads, which can only be good for the waterways. When I first started in boats around the 1960s, most holiday makers in yachts would be sailing, these days they seem to motor more often. The waterways really started to get very busy in around the 1980s, increasing more every year. When out sailing Albion, I call St. Benet’s Reach the M25 because of the amount of boats going along at weekends.

Electric boats are coming on to the Broads more often these days, which is good for cutting down noise levels and helping with pollution. There is one drawback, you do need quite a powerful engine when going through Yarmouth, and some of these boat engines aren’t powerful enough if they get the tides wrong. I learnt early in my skippering years on Albion, you really need to know what you’re doing when going through Yarmouth because of the strong tides.

Mike Sparkes 2019

Mike Sparkes (b. 1951)  talking to WISEArchive on 27th August 2019 in Norwich.

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