Working Lives

Reedham Ferry and Cantley Sugar Beet Factory (1958-2016)

Location: Reedham

Keith moved to Reedham from Freethorpe when he was four years old and lived there for 70 years. He spent his entire school life at Reedham School. In those days you stayed at your primary school, because the secondary moderns didn’t actually open until the year after he finished school.

Learning to swim

The headmaster at Reedham School, Mr Boast, was very keen for all his pupils to swim, knowing that we had a fast-flowing tidal river running through the village. If you did fall in the river off a quay head and you couldn’t swim, you had little chance, but where there wasn’t a quay head, it was just rough bays and banks and you could walk into the river and walk out, so it wasn’t quite so dangerous. He used to take us to Yarmouth swimming pool to give us swimming lessons.

Down the marshes, swimming in the dykes and river

In the height of summer with nothing else to do we would go to the marshes, down Holly Farm Road, and we would jump into the dykes to cool down and to swim. Once we graduated from the dykes, we then moved into the river and we regularly swum there in the school holidays. Some of the big brave boys used to jump in off the swing bridge at Reedham; I can assure you I was not one of them. We thought nothing of it; it was just normal practice you learned to swim and you swum in the river. Nowadays though the thought of falling into the river, they would have helicopters and all sorts looking for you, but in our day it was accepted as perfectly normal.

In those days, if you weren’t swimming, you simply got up the playing field and played football. We also played Cowboys and Indians and so on down the cutting, but you just found your own entertainment and amusement.

Becoming a ferryman at Reedham Ferry

When I left school at 15 my first job was at the Albatross Marine, which was a boatyard at St Olaves, but I didn’t last there long; it went bankrupt. Then in October 1958, I started at Reedham Ferry and was there permanently until 1963 as the ferryman. After that I did the job part-time right through until I retired last year in 2016.

Reedham Ferry 1950s

Original vs current ferry

It was the only working ferry at the time when I started, although there used to be one at Buckenham and one at Surlingham prior to that. On the old ferry you could get three cars on, if they were all small enough. Obviously by the time the new ferry  came along cars were increasing in size, so generally speaking it could only carry two.

Buckenham Ferry

It was the old ferry in those days and it was much harder work. You had two chains, but only one was a drive chain. The other one was a guide chain and because the power drive chain was on the upside of the ferry, when the tide was coming up you had to pull it in on a rope to get it square to drop the ramp for the cars to get on and off. If you couldn’t do that by simply pulling it, if the wind was strong as well, you had to pull it in on a block and tackle, which all took time and was much harder work, unlike with the hydraulic ramps on the new ferry, where you simply wind them up on a wheel and drop them again.

When the new ferry came into operation in 1985 it was different, because there was far less manual work involved. You had power drive on both chains, so if you weren’t in square you could nudge your way in on power instead of pulling it on a rope and obviously you didn’t have to wind the ramps up and down; you simply pulled a lever and dropped them and pulled a lever again and lifted them up.

Reedham Ferry (photo courtesy David Archer)

The till from Mars

Our ’till’ in the early days was two Mars bar boxes, one inside the other, and you threw the change into the middle and the notes you put in between the two sides of the boxes and whatever you put over you wrote down in a book and that was it.

We also used to sell sweets, cigarettes, bottles of pop and so on in the summer to the holidaymakers, or the regulars from Reedham, or living the other side of the river in Heckingham and Norton Subcourse, would pop down to buy a packet of cigarettes, or whatever.

A day’s work on the ferry

I used to work from eight until five and David Archer, his father and I used to share the shift between us. Now there are several ferrymen, because most of them are quite happy to be part-time, so they all fit into the pattern of the week.

Normally now the ferry operates from about 6.30 until 10 at night. It only closes every third or fourth year, when it gets towed down to Newson’s Yard, at Oulton Broad, where it was originally built, for a refit, or whatever needs doing.

Busy Acle market days

Acle Market  on a Thursday was the big thing in the area in those days; sheep, cattle, pigs and all other general stuff as well. You got regular people come over especially to go there.

There was an old boy who had a pony and trap and he used to make these cream cheeses, or whatever they were, little round things all wrapped up in paper. He would come over every Thursday. He would probably stop off on his way to Acle to his regular customers. Then when he’d get to the market whatever he’d got left he would sell and then he’d come chuggin’ back on his little old pony and trap.

Sugar beet lorries and holidaymakers

I can remember sugar beet lorries using the ferry too – traders such as Askew, Kiddener, Hall, Keeler, and so on. These lorries were all empties; you couldn’t get a full one on, because that’d be too heavy for the ferry, but they used to do the return trips. There were a lot of them, because it’s quite a long way round and you could have a sugar beet field more or less opposite the factory within two or three hundred yards of it, but they had to go about 35 miles round to deliver the beet but, of course, going back they would come over the ferry.

The Broads holiday thing was very very popular in the 60s and 70s. The holidaymakers when they were touring round in their cars would come over on it, specially just for the sake of using the ferry. Also, if they were going to the Ferry Inn they would leave their cars the other side and come over for nothing and then you’d take them back. Obviously though if they were our side of the river, they’d park in the pub carpark.

In those days when a lot of people never had cars, they had bicycles and to get them over from one side to the other you would use the sculling boat. This was quite a large wooden boat with one single oar, which went over the stern of the boat, and the oar never came out of the water. You manoeuvred this in a figure of eight and you used to take bicycles and pedestrians over. Because I was only 15 and really quite new to it, David’s father, Mr Archer, trained me. The boat was tied up on the quay head and he used to make me practise doing a figure of eight with this big oar at the back and when he thought I was capable, he let me go.

Wherries and seagoing coasters

I can remember the motorised wherries taking sugar beet up to Cantley. This was obviously a very labour-intensive way of getting beet to the factory; you had to load it onto a lorry, onto a wherry, take it down, then unload it again.

There were also large seagoing coasters, which used to come over from Europe, bringing all sorts – scrap metal, fertiliser, coal, coke. They would deliver coal and coke especially to British Sugar and carry sugar back. You’d probably get five movements a day with these large vessels going up to Norwich.

Problems with the weather

These vessels weren’t supposed to come if it was foggy, but I think some of the old foreign captains thought they knew better and they would try and sneak down if they were on a tight schedule. Of course, you couldn’t see them coming and you had to really be on your guard then, because if that did happen you had to moor up, tie up, and drop the chains to the bottom of the river so they didn’t hit the chains and bust them.

The wind and tide could cause problems too. If the wind was going one way and the tide the other it did tend to balance you up, but if you had a low tide and the wind was howling down with the tide, it was much more difficult to get in and get the ramp down.

In 1962/1963, the river was completely frozen over for about six weeks and that was it; no one could do anything. Well you could walk over if you liked, but that was all you could do.


Obviously the summertime was much more pleasant. You would get holidaymakers and boats everywhere; company, people to talk to. There’d be perhaps a group of women in a car and they’d be absolutely terrified. They’d get to the ferry and you could see they were all nervous and the driver would gingerly get on. If there was another car behind, you had a job to make her go forward to make room for it and I’d say ‘I don’t know what you’re worried about, because we haven’t lost a customer for two weeks’… but then they saw the joke and they were alright and they relaxed and they would drive off quite comfortably.

Characters remembered

I remember some of the names and the characters. There was the Carvers – Old George and Young George. They were poultry farmers and used to go to Acle Sale every Thursday. Some of the lorry drivers had nicknames. Weedy Hall was one. Snowy Gaze was another. I only bumped into them perhaps once or twice after I finished. I’d bump into them perhaps if I was in Beccles, because they were all from that side, but we would always see each other and have a chat.

Cantley sugar beet factory

In 1963 I started at the sugar beet factory in Cantley. It really was very very labour-intensive. There were many jobs, which had to be done manually and it did require quite a large staff, coming from places like Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Norwich. They even used to lay buses on to get the shift there. Over time as technology has taken over, compared to the number of staff when I first started, there’s very few people work there now.

My first job was working as a shunter in the railyard. In 1963 when I started there, they were building four silos and the only way to get the sugar from where it was bagged in the stores at the factory end to the warehouse, where it was stored, right up at the far end was by railway. They used to load trucks, obviously not open ones, and three times a shift that needed the two engines to do it and what a performance that was.

Cantley sugar factory

Sugar stacks a work of art

Huge massive great stacks of sugar were created and bear in mind these were 16 stone sacks; it was a cruel cruel job, but the chaps who worked in there made it look so easy and the stacks when they were done were absolutely perfect.

You couldn’t help but admire them and that was nearly as difficult a job to take them down, because obviously bringing them down in the summer to feed the packing plant, if you didn’t grab hold of the right bag you were in trouble. You were pulling and tugging against loads of weight, but they would know exactly which one to pull and do. It was a work of art, but that’s all gone now; it just rumbles along the elevator straight up into silos.

I was on ‘six ’til two relief’, because in those days when you started the campaign, you started on the first day and you finished on the last day. You had no days off; you worked the lot, but eventually we got one day off a month. You then needed someone to fill in these jobs, so there was a group of us who did ‘six ’til two’ all the while. We, therefore, gained experience in a variety of jobs and when I finished in 1996, I was the process foreman on D Shift.

Family tradition at Cantley

It’s quite common for various families to have worked there spanning the years, but we don’t think anyone can beat our family’s record.

My family has had a long association with the sugar beet factory. It goes back from my son, Alex, who’s there now. He started in 1984; he works in the office and he has had a blood relative of his at the factory every year in the last 105 years, except for four. His great-grandfather, Jack Shreeve, started there in 1912. On 12th December 1913, he lost his arm in an accident at the factory. He then completed his time as night-watchman; he could only do certain things obviously. He retired in 1944 and then my son’s grandfather, Charles Newson, worked there from 1947 until 1971. There was just a bit of a break when the factory didn’t produce sugar for two or three years during the First World War.

Cantley factory in 1912. Picture supplied by Alex Mason.

Sense of community

In Reedham, like every village nowadays, the sense of community has gone. You could walk up any road in Reedham years ago and you would know every single person. It was a community thing; you knew their problems and their strengths and everyone tried to help each other and so on.

Retiring to Acle

We moved to Acle last June and, as I tell everyone, ‘I shall never be an Acler; I’m a refugee from Reedham, who’s living in Acle’ but I’m enjoying it here. I’ve got family in Acle and also once you get to a point where you can’t drive perhaps, moving to Acle was a no brainer and when the opportunity came we took it.

Keith Patterson 2017

Keith Patterson (1942-2019) talking to WISEArchive at Acle on 18th December 2017

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