Our family and the Broads. Boardmans, Colmans and Reads (1800s – 2019)

Location : Norwich

Bryan was president of the Broads Society which was set up in 1960 to help promote the Broads. He talks about this role and the strong connection his family has to the Broads.

I was born in Norwich and have lived here all my life. My mother was a Colman and my grandmother was a Boardman so I am very well integrated into Norwich life. I went to Town Close School in Norwich, then to Bishop Stortford College followed by Cambridge University.

My father was born in Beccles and was connected with the Sayer family, the farming family. His father had a flour mill at Beccles which was burnt down in 1896 and he then moved to Norwich originally in Westwick Street and then in the 1930s moved the mill to King Street. I took over the running of the mill in 1963.

My father also had a mill at Horstead, which was unfortunately burnt down in 1963. At one point we had a wherry which we used on the rivers for carting goods between the three mills.

One of the reasons why the mill was moved from Westwick Street to King Street was that although they are both on the river you could only get wherries up to Westwick Street. There was a quay at King Street which could get the larger, coasters up there.

Family connections with the Broads

My father had a lot of connections with the Broads and he loved sailing. We have a bungalow at Horning which he bought in 1940, at which time it wasn’t possible to put boats onto the Broads. It was obviously a very attractive price to buy at that time.

We have quite a lot of boats, sailing boats, motor cruisers. One particular being the Harrier, a sailing cruiser which was built in 1900 and bought by my uncle in 1917, who handed it to my father in 1945. It is now mainly being used by my grandchildren and great grandchildren.

So as I say the Broads and rivers have been very much part of our lives.

My father – Port and Haven commissioner

My father was a Port and Haven commissioner, representing Norwich. Commissioners had responsibility for the operating and maintaining of the port of Great Yarmouth. They also had responsibility for ensuring that the rivers, the Yare, the Waveney and the Bure, were properly maintained so that they could be navigated. In the early days this was by commercial traffic, and then the holiday traffic and the hire boat industry took over in the beginning of the 1900s. So it was a very important part of the commissioners’ responsibilities.

When my father died in 1963 I succeeded him as one of the representatives of the Port and Haven, which was important as in those days we were importing a lot of grain by coasters up to Norwich.

Read’s Flour Mill, King Street, 1968. Copyright George Plunkett.

A lot of the grain was animal feed, maize and barley. In the pre-war days it would have come from Argentina to Antwerp or Rotterdam in large ships and then transferred to smaller coasters, about 300 tonnes and they would come right up to Norwich.

As I said previously, we moved the mill from Westwick Street to King Street as there was a quay there and the larger coasters could get there. There was also a bucket elevator which was used to discharge the grain.

In 1936 there were 660 coasters coming into Norwich, bringing in coal, grain and timber. The only export from Norwich was scrap metal which was loaded at the Corporation Quay just above Carrow Bridge.

Maintenance of the waterways and the Broads Authority

The waterways, particularly after the war, hadn’t been properly maintained and had become very polluted and the banks were eroded.

The problem in those days was that there were different organisations with different responsibilities. The Port and Haven had responsibility for navigation and the waterways. Anglian Water Authority was responsible for maintaining the banks. Each local authority overseen by the county council had responsibility for various aspects of the use of the rivers.

In the 1980s there were discussions about developing a unified authority so that all the functions could be brought under one roof. There was considerable conflict between agriculture, tourism and other environmental interests. These discussions went on and in the end it wasn’t felt that there could be such a unified authority.

Over ten years there was further, considerable discussion about how this could be done and there was quite a lot of opposition to it, particularly from the Port and Haven as they didn’t want to lose their navigation powers. I was involved with the discussions as the member of the Port and Haven and in fact as a result of this I lost my seat. I was able to continue to advise the predecessor to the Department of Environment, the Department of Shipping.

In the end common sense prevailed and against significant opposition the formal Broads Authority with statutory powers was formed by an act of parliament in 1988.

I was involved with the appointment of the Chief Executive. We had 1,500 applications and we looked through every one. We appointed Aitken Clark who had a lot of experience and was considered to be the best candidate and was appointed.

Broads Authority

The Broads Authority has very wide powers and it is now called the Broads National Park, although for legal reasons it can’t be used in any formal documents, but it is used for the promotion of the Broads Authority. There is still an awful lot of opposition to it being called a national park.

It is responsible for the navigation which is quite a responsibility now with the number of hire boat and private boats using the Broads. It is of course of national importance that it is maintained for environmental reasons.

Duties and purpose of the Broads Authority

The Broads Authority has three main purposes:

  • Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of wildlife and cultural heritage of the Broads.
  • The second is promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the Broads by the public and others.
  • And finally it is protecting the interests of navigation.

Why the Broads Authority cannot be a national park

National parks have two purposes – conserving and enhancing the natural beauty and promoting opportunities with the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area.

After national parks had been established for many years a body was organised and chaired by Lord Sandford. The Sandford Principle was established and it was passed into law so that if there was a problem between the priorities of conserving or promoting that conserving the natural beauty should take precedence.

There must be at times conflict between conservation and navigation, because there would be those who would argue that navigating is disturbing wildlife.

Under the Act of 1988 it is made quite clear that navigation has the same rights as conservation and promoting. Therefore as it is not possible to adopt the Sandford Principle it is not possible for the Broads, legally, to be a national park.

Hoveton Little Broad, Cockshoot Broad and Toad Hole Cottage How Hill

Mud pumping was used as a way of dredging the Broads. Hoveton Little Broad was successfully mud pumped and is ostensibly used by Horning Sailing Club. I and my family use it as it’s very near our bungalow.

The Broads Authority has restored Cockshoot Broad, it’s not a navigational Broad but it had virtually filled up and even the birds and other livestock couldn’t use it

I was also involved with How Hill and particularly Toad Hole Cottage which is just on the river below How Hill, it is one of the Broad Authority’s main information centres.

Toad Hole cottage. Photo Broads Authority.

How Hill – a family connection

How Hill was built by one of the Boardmans, one of my relations. When they had finished using it as a residence it was sold to the county council who used it for a youth area.

When they could no longer maintain it I got involved, through The Broads Society, and went and talked to the Norwich Union. They actually bought the property and let it at a peppercorn rent to the How Hill charity, which had been set up. Later the successors of Norwich Union actually gave the freehold back to the How Hill Charity. This was something that was very much appreciated by the local area.

How Hill is now a very successful environmental centre.

Other projects

In the 1980s there was a problem with intensive agriculture and negotiations were ongoing to arabalise Halvergate Marshes, which would have been a disaster from an environmental point of view. The Grazing Marsh Conservation Scheme set up in 1985 was regarded as a turning point in conservation history. It paved the way for other environmental incentives which extended nationwide and into the European Union.

The Broads Authority also undertook the clean water project at Barton Broad. It mud pumped part of the Broad and set off other parts of it to reduce weed growth and that has been very successful.

Speed limits

In the 1970s there was an overall speed limit applied but it wasn’t entirely satisfactory. The wash from the cruisers, some of them much larger than the original ones, was causing considerable damage to the banks.

The Port and Haven commissioners tried to enforce the limits, but it was difficult as they didn’t have the equipment. They had to set a line across the river at different points and when they were broken they timed the difference between it being broken at one end and the second one.

This was before the days before radar guns. Now technology is such that they can detect speeds down to two or three miles per hour, making it much easier to do.

Speed limits have improved, some are as low as three miles an hour, and the overall limit is seven miles an hour.

This has meant that water skiing is now prohibited on the Broads except for certain designated areas. There are still some people who feel that it should be prevented all together but we have to allow those sort of sports access where there is reasonable ability to do it.

Norfolk Windmill Trust

I am involved with the Norfolk Windmill Trust and a lot of our responsibilities are the maintenance and if possible restoration of windmills. We have been involved in quite a lot in the area. We would have liked to have maintained Stubbs Mill at Hickling but Norfolk Wildlife Trust has taken over responsibility for it as it is in the middle of one of their special area.

Stracey Arms mill. Photo Norfolk Windmills Trust.

We are at present in the process of restoring Stracey Arms Mill, not to a working condition but we are putting new sails on because it is very much a key feature of that particular area. As are many of the other mills.

There are of course a lot of windmills in the Broads, but they are actually pumping mills. These windmills, or pumps are normally situated close to the river bank and are always connected by a smaller dyke which collects the water off the marshes. They pump the water either by a wheel lifting or sometimes there is a turbine.

The mills were originally wind driven and the flat area of the Broads is ideal for collecting drainage water to pump back into the river. There were occasions in the 19th century where steam power was used, but none are left now, but the pump houses have been maintained. Then of course they were taken over by electric pumps. There is one particular area at Seven Mile House which is seven miles above Great Yarmouth on the river. Two windmills have been restored and can demonstrate the turning and lifting of water into a dyke. There is also the chimney and boiler house of a steam mill which was built in the 1800s, and  on the same site there are now electric pumps which are still operational, pumping the marshes dry in that area.

Hunter’s Yard

Percy Hunter was a boat builder who worked for a firm in Potter Heigham. In the 1930s he decided that he would like to set up his own business so he and his brother literally dug by hand a basin at Ludham. They built up a fleet of sailing boats, sailing cruisers, two, three and four berth. They had a reputation for being extremely good boats for sailing.

When Percy retired he sold the business, the fleet, to Norfolk county council and they ran it as a sailing school. When it was indicated that the business was for sale again there was an outcry, the Eastern Daily Press [EDP] ran reference to it on their front page for a week. There was a worry that the boats might be lost, either sold to private owners or possibly taken over by one of the commercial yards which would lose its character completely.

The Broads Authority was concerned because these boats were very much part of Broads area. But the Broads Authority is not a commercial organisation and couldn’t justify taking it over themselves much as they would have liked to.

I was a member of the Broads Authority at the time and Aitken Clark, the Chief Executive, asked me if I thought that there was any chance of getting group together to buy the fleet, operate it and save it from losing its character.

I got together about ten people who I knew were interested, there had been a lot of interest generated by the EDP’s promotion. In fact we started getting some money, some of it just a few pounds from a little old lady, that sort of thing.

I got a steering group together and we decided that it was something worth saving. We set up a charitable trust and produced a business plan, and with the help of two women who worked for the county council we produced a nine page plan.

We sent it off to the Heritage Lottery. It was 1995 and the early days of Heritage Lottery. We invited them down for a visit to see the fleet and they came back to us indicating that they would be interested.  We had negotiated with the County Council that we could buy the fleet, boats, property, basin and the sheds for £285,000. We were confident that we could manage half of that so applied for £140,000. We launched our appeal on the 1st April, ten days before that I received a letter from Heritage Lottery saying that they were favourably impressed , but they didn’t think that we had provided enough for working capital, so they offered us £200,000. We couldn’t believe it.

The difficulty was that we couldn’t say anything before the 1st April. The county council asked us to run the fleet for that summer and we did and it was successful. The settlement date was 28th September, we handed the cheque over and assumed that we would be asked for a proportion of the takings, but that never came. I later discovered that the county council staff had been extremely helpful in ensuring that we would not only run the fleet but would take all the takings too. This provided the working capital that we needed.

We ran the fleet successfully and were able to make a surplus virtually every year.

Millennium boat

We decided that we could do with another four berth boat and as it was a millennium project it was called the Millennium boat. The staff could only work on it in the summer because we pull the boats out in October and during the winter they have to work on them doing any repairs necessary and maintenance.

When the boats were built by Percy Hunter there were no plans or drawings, so with the help of an expert we have had some drawn up using modern techniques, don’t ask me what they are, and so we now have very detailed drawings of the three types of boats and millennium boat was built exactly the same as the other boats.

I think that it took four or five years but when it was finished it was very much welcomed. People liked the newest boat so she was very much in demand.

Lucent. Photo Hunter’s Yard.

Looking for an additional income stream – creation of Read Dyke

We had a bit of land adjacent and after some surveying and planning we established that there was room to put another basin which would hold about 30 boats, which would bring in a very nice additional income stream.

So we dug that basin and when it was finished and the last sod cut to my surprise it was to be named the Read Dyke which I was very pleased about. I have got lots of records of the work that went on, you can imagine moving all that mud took an awful lot of work, fortunately we were able to do it without upsetting the main yard.

We put a small bridge across to cart the mud to the adjacent dyke, which wasn’t on our land but we had permission to use. So that was a very successful operation. I retired in 2014 and I still keep in touch with them and they are doing very well.

Pods and quants

The Hunter boats are all wooden, in fact it was a rule that they wouldn’t even allow fibreglass boats into the basin. I don’t think that applies now. The boats have no engine but they’re propelled by quants if there is no wind. A quant is a very similar sort of thing to a punt, but they are bigger and heavier.

On the Hunter boats there is a small free board on the side, a small deck so that you can walk along it. As you push the quant in you walk to the front holding the quant, you push it into the river bed when you are up by the shrouds, which is nearly where the bow is.

You either then lean on it or push at it and walk back towards the stern, and when you reach the stern you have to be careful to pull it out with a little twist and a jerk. If not you’ll be leaving the quant behind or possibly you may stay with the quant and leave the boat, that’s happened on many occasions.

It is actually a very easy way of propelling a boat, I have quanted hundreds of miles in my life, I remember one year we were in Hickling and had to come back all the way down through Potter Heigham to Thurne Mouth and then Ant Mouth and up the Ant to Barton. There was no wind and we had to virtually quant the whole way. There were two other boats, so at least three men and three women and the girls had to take a turn too.

Interestingly enough, last year for experimental purposes they fitted a small electric motor, what we call a pod, underneath the hull. You can’t see it at all and you have to use batteries. So now there is one boat which doesn’t run as a motor cruiser but at least if you’re too old or too young to quant it will get you home and it’s been very successful. We are now looking at the possibility of putting these electric pods on two more boats in the next year or two.

Inside a Hunter boat

As I said Hunter’s boats are built entirely of wood, they have a lifting cabin top so that you can stand up in the main well. It slopes so that there is not much room at the front end. In the two berths there is one on each side, the four berths are slightly longer so that you can get two lengths in.

The cooking is done by Calor gas stove in the well, which is the open part behind the cabin. The loos are primitive and are the type that discharge straight into the river, There is a restriction now and except for boats built before a certain date, around 1970 you are not allowed to do that.  So Hunter’s boats still have the ability to discharge straight into the river.

The charity’s aim to maintain skills to preserve the fleet

It absolutely essential that we have staff who are capable of maintaining these boats in the condition that we want to see them for the future.

We are a very small team, we have two fully qualified boat builders and two others who are skilled in woodworking. We have recently taken on three people who we are teaching. They have experience, two in woodworking and one in boat building.

We have always regarded this as very important and about ten years ago it was very difficult to get you qualified boat builders but I am glad to say that with the three new members of staff under 30 and the two senior members we are confident that we have done what we can to preserve the skills that are absolutely essential.

The Broads Society

The Broads Society was set up in about 1960 to help promote the Broads and keep an eye on what was going on, and where necessary make our presentations to the various authorities that were responsible and which of course in time became the Broads Authority.

I became president in about 2000 but I am afraid I was an active president and made myself unpopular with certain people. I was favourably disposed towards the Broads Authority which I’m afraid some of the members of the committee were not. In one way and another I decided that the time had really come for me to retire.

The Society used to have a much closer relationship with the Port and Haven and other statutory bodies before the Broads Authority was established. It got to the stage where the Broads Authority were not prepared to talk to the Broads Society which was sad but I think that things have improved now.

One thing that did happen out of my contact with the Broads Society was concerning one of our members, a great Broads woman who was actually a Colman. When she died, she was a centenarian, she left £10,000 to the Broads Authority. It was not usual for people to leave money to a statutory body. It was recognised that that was probably not what had been intended. The money had already gone to the Broads Authority but this was the time before the Broads Society had fallen out with the Broads Authority and I managed to persuade them that the money had really been intended for the Broads Society. They agreed and the Broads Society was the recipient of £10,000.

Aitken Clark had reckoned that there was a place for a charitable body which could do things which the Broads Authority hadn’t got the powers to do. So I got one or two people together to try to set up the organisation that Aitken Clark had envisaged, and with some persuading of members of the committee a Norfolk and Suffolk Broads charitable trust was set up.

The only condition that the Broads Society made was that the funds were not used on any project in which the Broads Authority were involved. This worked out well, partly because our relations with the Broads Authority had improved.

We are raising money and we run an organisation called ‘Love The Broads’ where hotels, restaurants and companies  can add say an extra pound to the bill, on a voluntary basis and then that comes to the charity. We get an income of about £20,000, and we have visions that we should be able to get to something like £100,000. We’ve been working closely with the Lake District who have been very successful, but they have been doing it for a long time and have many more hotels.

Supporting projects large and small

We have indicated our support for a major new development, facilities for mooring in the South Walsham Broad area.

We have provided help for a dinghy for the wherry Maud, which  together with the other wherry Albion is run by a trust and they needed some additional help.

We also support quite small projects too, for example one of the bed and breakfasts needed to have a wheelchair with large width tyres so that it can go on soft ground, we felt that this was a very worthwhile project.

So you can see that our projects are fairly large to quite small. But in all cases our aim is to particularly help people to enjoy the Broads more.

Bryan Read 2018

Bryan Read (b. 1925) talking to WISEArchive on 11th December 2018 in Norwich.

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