Working Lives

Sailing through work (1960s-1980s)

Location: Broads

Born in Reedham at Ship Cottages next to the river and the swing bridge, Roy left school wanting to work on boats. At age 16 he began an apprenticeship with Bell Boats, Brundall.

I was born in January 1942 in Reedham at Ship Cottages next to the river by the Ship Inn and the swing bridge. A year later, we moved to Vine Cottages, 24, Riverside. It’s now split into three but we lived in the one which is renamed as Podgers Cottage after my father. I attended Reedham County Primary School on the hill overlooking the bridge until I was 14.

I was walking home from school at lunchtime with a friend, John Broom, who lived at Halvergate Road in farm workers’ cottages past Reedham New Hall. (The old hall burnt down and its bricks were sent to Norwich City Football Stadium which was replacing The Nest, and laid under the pitch for drainage.) I turned into the bottom corner of the hill and on the right hand side into Riverside Road and I had to mount a large flint stone to avoid a boy coming straight at me on his bike. He hit me anyway, knocking me off the stone and I cut my chin open on his rusty bike lamp. John ran to my aunt at Ship Cottages and told her what happened. She had just finished washing so she ripped up a sheet and wrapped it round my face to stop the bleeding. We then walked home.

My mother took me to the district nurse after making haste and sorting out some lunch for John. I think the nurse was out, so we went to Mill House (our doctor’s surgery). He was an ex-naval doctor and was tidying the garden. He gave me an injection and waited before he could put some stitches in. He had to stop because the injection didn’t work very well. I was in sheer agony! Not long after arriving home my face was numb. I caught an infection and went on penicillin. I had to go to the old Jenny Lind hospital to have my tonsils out.

In 1956 the headmaster, Mr J O Boast, asked if I would like to go to Holt Hall in North Norfolk. Other children had gone and Archie Rednall was there at the time. He said there was an open day and I could have a look.

I remember the course put on a play based on Rome. In one scene, a sword was thrust into the slave, which sounds really nasty. Everybody screamed as it went in. The drama teacher trained them so the sword went between the arm and the body; very cleverly done. I was intrigued by this and decided I wanted to go. I would be one of 16 boys and 16 girls to spend a term there.

Holt Hall started with two weeks, then to a month and gradually to a term, half a year, then a full year. This was with Mr Hugh Whittaker and the backing of the head of education Dr Lincoln Ralphs. It’s still there today, but it’s reverted back to a week or two with activities like getting close to nature and building things. I had my 15th birthday at Holt Hall. Mother sent a Dundee cake, and the chef cut it this eight inch cake into 32 pieces.

Originally I wanted to join the RAF’s coastal command but I didn’t have the qualifications needed. For some reason I wanted to work on boats. I started working for a firm called A Ward & Son, a subsidiary of Gus Lee and Boswell, in Great Yarmouth down the quay. They did engineering work but mainly contracted to service machinery and other things for Bloomfields’ fishing boats. It was a good local industry in Yarmouth. They built the Silhouette Mk 2 designed by a naval architect. It was a very small sailing boat made of mahogany plywood which needed careful treatment because the wood was seamed rather than painted. We had to watch a guy from engineering because if he spat his Black Boy shag, a tobacco, in the wrong place it would stain the wood and it wouldn’t come out.

The Bloomfields boats were dual purpose: drift and trawl. When they went trawling we had to batten the hatches down leaving one or two for the fish to be dropped through. Often we suddenly found ourselves at sea because the guy was on board to swing the compass to check it was okay.

During the fishing season we had to repair the broken glass in the drifters from Scotland after a weekend. The Scottish boys went out and were worse for wear when they came in; windows were smashed.

I got to see Ove Fundin’s racing bike; he was a very famous speedway rider. His bike was in the workshop being welded because the frame was cracked or something. There was very heavy machinery work at the other place.

Click here to see photos of Roy’s life: Sailing – Roy Forder photos

Learning the craft

In 1957 our local river inspector told me about a job vacancy at Bell Boats for a boat building apprentice, and he put my name forward. They asked would I like to go for an interview, so I went with my father. They accepted me and said they would teach me the trade. I started when I turned 16 years old.

I worked on Broads cruisers, which vary from 27-foot to 52-foot in length. We looked after private boats and there was other work beyond the yard because they had caravans and bungalows. It was a general job because with a small yard you’re not just boat building. When I could drive I went to service broken down boats here on holiday. A boat in Wroxham had a hole in the front and was slightly pulled out of the water; I had to repair it quickly. A fibreglass boat had sunk up the Cut (a canal between Reedham and St Olaves) which we had to patch up and pump out.

At Reedham by the bridge was an RAF base with guns; one on top of where the school stands overlooking the bridge I’ve been told. There was a searchlight field (where the village hall is now) and a base. I’m told a German aircraft came over to bomb the bridge, but seeing the guns they turned away, went up the Cut and dropped three bombs there instead.

We built 27-foot to 50-foot long boats for our fleet and for sale. Later we would use fibreglass for the Shark 8 (a 27-foot fishing boat) and the Aquafibre Broads (32-foot). We built a few Shark 8s; some had a steadying sail with a Z drive (an inboard engine with a propeller mounted on the outside) or a conventional shaft drive.

We sold a Shark 8 to a guy in Littlehampton who sent their son, an oil tanker captain, to collect it. You could get several Shark 8s on an oil tanker. He left Brundall and the foreman drove to Yarmouth to watch him go out to sea and all we could see was the mast once he left the harbour. He went to Littlehampton without stopping to refuel because of a storm and was in hospital for three days from being thrown around. The boat was fine. He said he’d take it anywhere; similarly from a guy in Ireland too. We used the information from a fisherman in Cork to enlarge the boat to 30-foot so they could get a grant from the Irish government .

We built a 32-foot Aquafibre hull for an army captain based in Germany. The army were to equip this boat with gear to surprise drug smugglers and search their boats. Unfortunately he died halfway through the build and it was put up for sale in the end.

A Mr Bertie Buxton looked at this boat and asked why it wasn’t furnished with crockery, linen and utensils. We told him they were for the owner to decide for their own requirements. He would form his own company, Buxton Marine, which bought boats from Aquafibre and equip them to sell. We occasionally helped; even built a shed for him. The boat, called Moonraker, was redesigned to become a different shape and bigger; we made the moulding for it. He named the company Moonraker after the original boat he bought. The company was sold to Lotus who renamed it as JCL. Lotus formed another company, Horizon, who tried to make boats using concrete moulds and tried to quicken the process by pumping water to keep things cool; it wasn’t successful.

Broom Boats and Eastern Glaze, a double glazing company, now occupy the premises at Brundall. Bell Boats is still there and his son has taken over. They do repair work, take boats in and out, quay work; it’s very diverse work.

Back to Reedham

I left Brundall in 1972 and worked with a motor company in Reedham where I lived. They built fibreglass boats for themselves and other companies; their main boat was called the Seahawk. They had a hire craft department but I wasn’t involved. The company moved to larger premises, Brit House, when the opportunity to buy it came. If you’re in Reedham and look towards Norwich there’s a massive crane with a  house behind it; that’s Brit House.

After relocating we fitted out boats, like Oyster and catamarans, from other organisations. The engineering side developed more and we had a rep for it. We became involved with the oil industry in Yarmouth by adding and repairing the cabins of oil rig supply vessels. We also had boats come and stay at Reedham.

One boat needed new steel plates on the hull: 20-foot one side; 30-foot the other. fuel emptied and steam cleaned – because the outside and back were either water or fuel tanks. The boat was listed over slightly; we removed the plates, replaced them, then welded and painted them. We’d roll it back again and do the same. That’s where I was taught some welding.

Boat building changed over the years. In Oulton Broad a company taught people to fit boats, so instead of boat builders we had boat outfitters. You could tell which boats were worked by one guy who came from railways, because every joint was covered up by a piece of wood. It’s like the old fashioned wooden railway trains and the beading on them. They didn’t make nice joints; they’re put together and have beading on top. The outfitters were like this. We would make patterns using a thing called a dummy, a block of wood, by tracing it on a sheet of plywood; we would cut holes and fibreglass in with some rope in between to hold it there; things like that.

A big private boat owned by a guy in the sweet trade came with his wife and daughter and I had to accompany him as crew and go down to Oulton Broad. We’d moor where he wanted to stay for the week or fortnight and he’d take me for lunch at the café. I walked to the railway station to catch a train to Reedham and be back at work the next morning.

The owner of the company lived in Chelmondiston near Woolveston which is towards Shotley. He had a boat which we painted during the week in the summer. Sometimes I’d finish on a Saturday and go there to take him out on the boat with friends. We went down to Shotley point, where the lifeboats were moored for servicing, and fish for eels. His wife cooked the eels for us for tea.

An ex-matelot friend and I spent a week painting the deck and sorting it out, but after coming back the yacht station told us youths had sunk the boat. We phoned back, bailed it out and got it floating again. We got a call from the engineer who had arrived with an outboard motor, so we had to pick him up. He removed the engine to clean it out. We fitted the outboard motor, a Seagull. It’s very noisy but quite reliable.

We battened the hatches down for the night and went to sleep. During the night there was a storm and the next morning we saw the dinghy but no Seagull. We reported back and returned the next week for our hire fleet duties. The owner contacted the Ipswich aqua diving club to find the outboard. Not only did they find it but also a mine. The area was a mooring spot for British submarines and a lot of the units, now used as sheds, were fuel tanks; it’s where they refuelled. The mine was there to protect the area from German submarines. As far as I’m aware it’s still there. To think we were sitting on top of it…

Another story about this ex-matelot friend. One day we were on the boatyard at Brundall and we knew a couple of minesweepers were coming down. We went outside to look. He said ‘just stand beside this flag for me and just watch.’ I stood there watching as they came up and the crew were on deck cleaning down. Suddenly he moved and the house flag came down. All of the deck just shot round to the back end and dropped their flag in salute to us. It’s the traditional thing to do but quite amusing.

Another time we were re-jigging one of our hire fleet yachts, checking it all at the edge of the river. A steam train went past and the reed bed caught on fire. We carried on because we knew we couldn’t do anything and it was harmless. A police boat pulls up. ‘Come on, boys, come and give us a hand to put this fire out.’ We said ‘you can if you like.’ ‘Come on, do as you’re told.’ We followed them and one of them, Jack Green, charges straight into the field. He was shouting ‘help’ next. It was a bog and he came out smelling… quite lovely. Fortunately there was a houseboat close by and the lady had some spare clothes so he could change; her husband was quite tall. They phoned back to Norwich to organise someone to replace him and for him to go home.

Through this we formed a good friendship with the police. They would pop in every time we went down or came back; always at the right time for a cup of tea or coffee. Unfortunately Jack was hospitalised for a long time when teaching a raw recruit driving skills when they crashed the car. I last saw him at an art class in Hellesdon.

A film star had a Moonraker built and they came with a group of friends to see it launched. At lunchtime they were brought to our department at the main front of the quay to have lunch in one of our rooms, a café run by Norman Chalk who supplied food for the oil rig supply vessels. Jack Douglas burst out laughing at the duck footprints in the concrete we had laid down. You couldn’t keep the animals off after we laid the concrete.

Our clerk came from Potter Heigham where Cliff Richard moored and stored his boat, Pamanda. He persuaded Cliff to store Pamanda at ours. I had to put in a new bilge pump for him. He was seen around the Broads, even acknowledged, but he was treated as someone taking a break even though he was a pop star. He also used Pamanda with the Crusaders who came down on holiday. They had Pamanda and two or three from Woods at Potter Heigham.

During the latter part of my time at Reedham we did some work for Bounty Boats at Brundall. I wasn’t keen with how they worked, instead of taking a boat outside when the fibreglass had to be cut, they would come in and cut with their grinders. The horrible dust gets everywhere.

Meeting Barbara

I met my wife, Barbara, in the 1970s when I was a member of the Norwich Lad’s Club Band. We held a concert for the old people in the Lewis Buckenham Club in Pottergate. We invited guests to sing with us to break up the evening programme. During the half time interval they told us they were looking for a band to march during White Horse Inn. We said yes to it. The secretary said ‘well, you’re on for a start – playing the drum.’ I played the bass drum on marches and some percussion.

We had a music rehearsal at the Hewett School on the Saturday before the dress rehearsal, and it was the first time we went through it. You can’t see the front if you’re standing in the wings near the prompt on the Theatre Royal stage. Being the bass drummer I had to take the beat which I had to pick up from the conductor when he started the beat. It was difficult but we managed it twice round the stage. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

We performed for a Saturday matinee, went out for an evening meal and returned to the Theatre Royal. Our dressing room was a wooden shed outside where the props and costumes were kept; it was where the dancers met for their evening meal. I remember walking through the door and looking at Barbara because she’d been quite friendly during the week. Someone said to me ‘that’s the girl you’ve got to marry.’ It took 11 years before she said yes.

Our last show with the Norfolk Amateur Operatic Society was Fiddler on the Roof where I played Reb Nachum the beggar. I was with the late, great Sandy Kennon – a good singer and a good goalkeeper for Norwich City. I had to say ‘alms for the poor; alms for the poor.’ He’d put his hand out and hand me an American dollar and I’d say ‘one copec? One copec? Last week you gave me two copecs.’ ‘Ah, that was last week’ he said. Then we went back and dance again!

Barbara was a dancer and she’d sing in the chorus with the others. We worked on other shows together: Love from Judy with another group, Showboat where I was Windy the pilot. I would work with the Amateurs for a few years afterwards doing stage work.

Towards the end of ’81 Barbara was in hospital admitted for rest because the baby wasn’t putting on weight. I woke up in the early hours of the morning in absolute agony. I knew it was a kidney stone on the move. I knocked on my neighbour’s door. It was Mildenhall Day and I knew he was going there after picking up his girlfriend. I asked if he could drop me off at hospital which he did. I went to the maternity block but they wouldn’t let me see her. I told a sister who said she’d tell her.

Accident and emergency asked ‘what are you in here for?’ I told them about the kidney stone. ‘Why don’t you go and see your doctor?’ they asked. I explained I just moved and hadn’t seen them yet, but I’ve seen Dr Askin at the hospital before. They thought it was my appendix which was on the opposite side of the pain. While I laid on the bed doing deep breathing, remembering the parent craft training. They gave me a five-litre can with some juice in the bottom; I had to top it up, take it back and get another one for about a week or fortnight. This continued until before Christmas. They would try to remove the kidney stone using the basket method which is where they stick a tube in and try to pluck it out. It went into a layby, so they sent me home for Christmas. I went back after Christmas and they cut me open. A 15-inch long cut. These days it’ll be keyhole surgery.

A changing tide

I married Barbara in June 1981. For our honeymoon I spoke to a company in St Olaves, who we provided winter services, about having a boat at a special rate. After the service I drove there, got the boat and took it to Jimmy Pearson’s boatyard at the end of the Cut in Reedham. We went to the church where our banns were read on the Sunday, and then came back to visit my mother. She handed me a brown envelope which contained my wages for the previous week and redundancy notice. It was technically illegal because it’s supposed to be given to you directly. They didn’t want me because if I returned I would be two days over the date I would be with them for ten years. I did challenge it but was unsuccessful. So I had a boatman’s honeymoon going from Reedham to Wroxham which ended in redundancy!

I was sorting out our house on Heigham Street because there was a poor DIY conversion turning the outside toilet and coalhouse into a bathroom. The builder helped me contact an architect who asked if I had grants for the work. I asked him about them and a guy from City Council came to visit. I got the grants for the work and built it. We lived there until ’86 by which time my brother-in-law moved here from Oxted. He was a landscape gardener and I would lend him a hand. I would tell him what I did and was paid £5 a go. He suggested I use my skills and go self-employed. So I started general handiwork like repairing doors, fences and so on. I did this for 26 years before I retired.

I was hiring audio equipment from Capitol House, which is Brown Brothers old place, at the end of Heigham Street when he asked ‘what are you doing?’ I told him and he asked if I could put up televisions on walls. They were looking for a maintenance man and wondered if I was interested. I said ‘yeah, no problem.’ With minutes of getting home I had to go back because a door closer needed repairing. I did various jobs around Capitol House until the caretaker died. I then took over as caretaker but not full time; I had a retainer. I had work from another guy like going to hospital fitting televisions and projectors, and more and more work came in.

I was at St Barts with another guy removing old equipment and putting in new equipment and cables. I was up a ladder taking cables down when the fire alarm went off. I got down the ladder and followed everybody else across to the main hospital. Four fire engines and the police arrived. After we got the all clear to return there were two men trying to turn the beam off in the room where I was working. Nobody told us there was a beam in the room and I’d gone through it! I still get teased about it.

More and more work was available so this guy decided to take me part time. I did less of my own work because it was dying down. I started fitting audio-visual equipment like projectors and interactive whiteboards; even going with him to conferences and briefings from Southampton to Edinburgh. I still do a bit of work with him. There’s another guy who works with sound and lights who I started helping too; still do.

Rallying through

I became interested in steam engines when I worked in Brundall. I helped with the construction of a steam engine rally with Wesley Key, and during the week I was helping a young boy called Pip. We were working on the old Wootton steam engine and this is when I had my first kidney stone. My doctor in the village gave me tablets for it. I told him about the rally and he said it was a good idea as the ride would help it move down!

It was during these events I became involved in PA work. They bought a PA system and I took over running it; we put up speakers and microphones.

I remember the Anglia announcer who married the antiques guy from Tring and she was opening it up. It was the day the local church choir came. They had their robes on this trailer and when he swung round it hit the mike stand knocking it over!

Marching with the band

I was with the Sprowston Band in 1972. Peter Fenn told us they were making a programme called Backs to the Land for Anglia Television and they required a band for a short march. We hesitated because he told us we had to join a union to do it, but we accepted. We were to play an ordinary march and we’ll be told what to do when we get there.

We were at Anglia Television at eight in the morning. We parked our cars and got on the bus with the actors and actresses to go to Weybourne. The bus got a puncture so they phoned ahead. We began to walk as a mini-bus was arranged to pick up our gear and pick us up. We were behind schedule but were allowed a short break.

We were told to march ‘from here through that gateway, turn sharp right and down as far as you can get down the platform.’ There was a horse pulling a Rolls Royce and when they all lined up we marched the boys off to catch the train to go to war. We pulled up along the railway station, stopped, they delivered their speech and hopped on the train. They panned towards a parked train on the other side and two Land Army girls replaced the boys. We then turned round and marched off again.

After we finished they wanted to record what we did in case they needed to dub over it. So we stood and performed a march with microphones in the middle of us. We were taken to a riding school with a big tent and a lovely chicken salad was prepared for us. When we returned they said they were satisfied with the work and they sent us home. When they sold the programme abroad we got a royalty cheque.

I missed the original broadcast as I was working in Yarmouth on the rig boats. I thought I could see it by going to the canteen but they were watching BBC and not ITV! The others who saw it said it wasn’t very good and complained about it. I did try to get a copy from Anglia Television on Magdalen Street but they wanted £50. Five years ago I searched on Google and Amazon had the complete series for £8, so I bought it.

In 2012 we lost Barbara to cancer and although at the time we were saddened by this, it’s now after four years we feel the hurt of that sadness.

Roy Forder (b 1942) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 23rd March 2016.

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