Working Lives

The Norfolk Boatbuilder (1950s-2019)

Location: Ludham, Stalham

Mike volunteers at the Museum of the Broads at Stalham, after a long career as a boatbuilder and carpenter for Norfolk firms and nationally. He learned his trade after World War II, having worked on airborne lifeboats in the Navy. He is Vice President of the Norfolk Wherry Trust, recognising his work for them which included restoration of the Wherry Albion.

Life and apprenticeship on the Broads after the War

The first job I had, I was 14 years old and I started at Herbert Woods, Potter Heigham. I was going to be a trainee boatbuilder but during the war you weren’t allowed to. You just did your trade and afterwards Herbert Woods gave you the certificate because during the war there weren’t any apprentices.

I went to Herbert Woods because I like woodwork. I started five days after I left school. I was 14 on 22nd March and I started 25th or 26th March. My wages were £1.6d. for a week.

Five of us started that Easter Tuesday morning, and we all got separate jobs in different parts of the firm. My first job was in the stores. I had three months learning about screws and all that sort of thing , which I think was the most valuable part of my life, because even now I can go and pick up a screw and tell you the length – eighths, tenths or twelfths.

Then they moved us into the machine shop and you learned how to work all the machines. Then they put us in a carpenter’s shop and we were allowed to build our own toolboxes. So if you were a good carpenter you got a decent toolbox. By the time nine months was up I’d done two or three jobs.

Then I started working on airborne lifeboats as a boy doing the odd jobs with two boatbuilders who were building these. Towards the war’s end, ’45, we were building the larger type ones. When they finished wanting us boys building the boats, we built boxes to put these 30 foot airborne lifeboats in to send to South Africa.

About two months after the war finished, they started bringing in all the boats which they had anchored out on the Broads during the war to keep sea planes out. Most of them had sunk, so heavy in the back they took water and they had lain with the noses out of the water. So when you got to the waterline the wood had all gone rotten. So the first thing they did, two or three of us boys, we stripped all these rotten pieces out. That was an experience. And then we had one boy with a boatbuilder and we went round repairing these and getting them ready for the new season after the war, 1946. There was no electricity on the boat, only enough to start the motor engines. They still had the hurricane lamps, and they had paraffin stoves, and sails. That was amazing really. In ’47 they put electric lights in.

We all done different jobs Saturdays. Somebody looked after the dinghies. I got the job of working with the electrician, moving these batteries about for him.

So my life went on learning the trade. After the summer when the war finished we repaired these boats for next winter. The summer after that I got put on what they called Herbert Woods’ Norfolk dinghies, which were a special class. I learnt with a boatbuilder there how to make clinker-built boats. They were all 14-foot Norfolk dinghies. Then I got the chance to do another three months on what they called Yare and Bures, which is another thing that Herbert Woods did after the war. White Boats they call them nowadays.

In‘46, they built six Summer Breezes. Herbert Woods bought Southgate’s at Horning and we built two of these. Us boys were helping build them and at the same time we were cleaning all the bottoms off and everything like that.

They got the first one finished in the sequence to go out the first week of the season, the next year – 1947. They moored it down at Horning and lightning came and struck the mast. That blew a hole straight through the bottom of the boat and sunk it.

They brought that boat back and we put new planks in the bottom and new masts on it and I think that went out as number six in the end. I can visualise number one, two, and three standing there, and when number one went out they started number four. They had all the men on then.

Just as they finished, they got short of work. They got rid of one or two boatbuiders. One chap who I worked with, he’d been a fisherman before the war, as well as a boatbuilder; he went back to fishing. He give me a lot of his old tools. He was a lovely chap.

Progressing as a boatbuilder trainee – summer of ’47 and the Navy

Come ’46 winter, about September, October time, the foreman told me I would have a certain section of one shop, up the corner, and patch up anything in the yard..

I was sixteen and a half and I had a young boy with me. We were working till half past six, and – this is the funny thing – half past five every night I missed him. And we found him sitting in one of our dinghies in the dock, fishing!. He didn’t last too long.

I spent all that winter doing all the different types of sailing dinghies; towing dinghies; there was clinker-built type; there was carvel-built type; there was the chine type, which are made of ply. And I think by that time I had done somewhere near 90 dinghies on the yard. Some of them you didn’t have to do a lot, just rub down; another one you had to make the mast for, or oars. Although that was small stuff, that I think really taught me boatbuilding.

There was no divers in them days. Somebody got a rope round the propeller of their motor, they used to ask us boys dinnertime to put our swimming costumes on, go in the river with a knife and cut ’em off. I suppose we made another ten shillings pocket money a week between us. That was enjoyable – we liked swimming in the water.

Every summer they had a regatta at Potter Heigham. I tell you about one swimming contest: they used to have a boat this side, a boat that side. You’d dive off this boat, you’d swim across to the other boat, you’d drink a quarter of a pint of milk and you’d swim back again. You try it! I tell you what, for the first time I didn’t know how I was going to get back. Your tummy’s full of milk.

They had a pole across two boats and you’d sit on that, with a pillow, and you’d knock one off it. You’d jump off Potter Heigham Bridge and have a go. That was the life of us boys, anyway, until about ’47.

In about the August of ’47, I got a notice to say I was going to be called up in the Army when I was 18. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I get in somewhere where I can do my woodwork?’

I didn’t say nothing to nobody. When I had my Thursday off I went up Norwich to the recruiting centre for the Navy on Colegate. I went in there and I tried to get in. He said I’d have to wait till I’d finished my course. I was worried about they were going to put me in the Army. So I said, ‘What else have you got?’ And he started to explain to me about being an airframe fitter with a bit of woodworking. I didn’t tell my mum and dad about it or nothing. I was 17. I went down to London for a medical and back again by train. I joined up at Corsham in Wiltshire where they had the HMS Royal Arthur on 27th November 1947 and did seven years.

We were trained for nearly a year to be airframe fitters, not the engine side. So my next seven years was working on all kinds of aeroplanes ‑Tiger Moths and Sea Furies and Vampires. Spitfires – Seafires, as they called them in those days.

Mike in the Navy

I had one year in Northern Ireland picking up crashed airplanes in the mountains.We were what was called a salvage unit. There were about six or seven crashed in that year. One crashed on the beach and I remember us going on the beach every day when the tide was out, getting near the aeroplane; we broke some off, and brought it back again before the tide come in. We found one on the mountain. We had to walk down, break it up into pieces and roll it down the mountain. That was a bit harsh. The pilot was in the cockpit.

When I was a boy I used to shoot rabbits on the farm where my father worked. At 13 years old they’d given me a twelve-bore. The Navy wanted men who could shoot a rifle and you’d get thruppence a day extra. So I went for it and I passed it with 93 out of a hundred. I amazed even myself. All that practice on the rabbits!

So I got picked for the Royal Navy shooting team at Bisley. I had a lovely three months there. I came third in the 300 yards – against all these shooters, posh men from all over the world, and I come third against them. The Navy was pleased. Later I beat all the Navy team shooting 1,000 yards with my Enfield rifle. You had no telescopic sights. I come out 43 out of 50. I’ve got another medal for that.

Then they put me on an aircraft carrier. My last year in the forces, February to December, we went to Korea and on the way back we shew the flag round South Africa.

Chicken houses to the biggest crab boat!

I came out of the Navy in March ’55. I could get a job with a boatyard but we hadn’t got this house – I was living with my mother. We had got one girl and another one on the way. So I got a job with George Mixer’s woodworking going all over the country building chicken houses and anything what anybody wanted built. I stayed for 13 years.

Then I went and looked for other work. Billy May, who built crab boats and that asked if I would like to get back into boatbuilding. He was a lovely bloke, and he had a boatyard. I said yes. The week after I went back Mixers sold him a new workshop, so I had to put that up!. He was a boatbuilder and hadn’t got a clue how to put a shed up!

I had six lovely years with him and I got all back into boatbuilding. I built five crab boats in Cromer for him, start to finish. Made of oak and larch. The planks were larch. His son-in-law was the other side of the boat, you had two of you. And we built the first one out of this larch and oak. Later I built them on my own. I used to build one a year, same time as I was helping out with the hire fleet.

You didn’t have plan for the boats. You set them up: if they want 22 foot length or if they want 19 foot length you knew what to do: cut your keel and away you’d go. What I used to like, the fishermen’d come down and see you every now and again. They’d walk in the door and they’d stand and look and they wouldn’t do nothing.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of Richard Davies who used to be skipper of the Cromer lifeboat. He come down one day and he said, ‘What about building me the biggest crab boat we ever had. I’d like to be the owner of the biggest one.’ Well, that come out at 23 foot. They were usually about 19 or 20 foot.

He was the first one to have a diesel engine at Cromer. So we done that as well. Richard had this one with an engine. He took that up there for the first year. He was ever so pleased. He said ‘I’ve got a little job for you. I’ve put too much weight in it pulling up the beach.’ They had a big main steel thing from the front to back dragging up the beach. He’d loosened it by putting six tons of cockles and mussels and things, instead of crabs.

That boat’s still about somewhere. His son, I found out a few years back, took a mould off that and made a fibreglass one. They’re all fibreglass now. They don’t use the same shape now, you see. They’ve got smaller boats.

When Billy May was there we started off on ordinary crab boats with no engines in, little ones. Then we put engines in and we had to put a different bit on the back; then they put what they call crab haulers. That’s all hydraulics, worked with handles, and we had to put all them in, that all come later. Then the fishing people insisted we have gunwales on, you never did have gunwales on crab boats till the last, ‘cause they got in the way. That didn’t work too well but they got over it in the end. We made a different type of gunwale so that would still slide up and slip over the top.

I got so I could build a crab boat to the last plank, which was a big heavy one which two of us had got to work on. And then when you put the timbers inside you had four of you working at the same time. Saturdays I was doing hire fleet work for Billy, looking after his launches. I used to wash them down, any repairs, and take them out and show people how to do it. After nearly seven years I went back to Woods’ again.

Troubleshooting for Woods – stuck in the mud in Breydon Water

Woods were building the last three wooden boats they ever built, so I got involved with that. I was only three years there this time, but for some reason, I thought they’d picked me for the troubleshooting jobs. I don’t know why, but I had jobs like going out to Yarmouth Harbour: ‘Our boat is sinking. We’re got water in the bilges.’

Well, they had a hole by the waterline at that side so every time a wave washed that was filling the boat up. There was about two inches, it was just above the water line. That would have been on the bottom if that had been full up, you see! There was an old pair of socks laid there. So I stuck this in the hole till I got back.

I made myself a proper patch, and screwed it all on as usual. I had a special sort of putty and grease what I used for patching. Went outside and got some P38, you know, fibreglass stuff; made the big patch; rubbed it; filled it all in; held my hand in until that had set underwater. And when it was finished you couldn’t see what I had done.

I have known people to walk on Breydon. At high tide there’s five or six feet of water on the mud; at low tide you can walk on the mud, up to your knees. We got a call to a two-berth yacht one Monday morning. By the time we got ready that was nearly dinnertime. Four of us went down there: tools, rubber boots, thigh boots, two spades, four drums, and some big planks and a dinghy, all in this big truck.

We met our towing boat at Yarmouth; he took us out to Breydon, tied us to a post – ‘cause we could see our yacht, right across the mud, alongside there, sitting there. Every time the tide come up the water didn’t go in it, that just went below it. The people wouldn’t come off. They were a young couple. Accidentally, coming from Norwich down Breydon, the wind behind them, he got hooked up with one of his ropes; it came undone and she bounced across Breydon, all the way across at high tide. The tide went out and she sat there in the mud.

So the first time four of us rowed to where the mud started. All got out, walked across this mud towing this dinghy in case the water came back. You’ve got to have a safety valve. Got this all dug out. The boat don’t sink in the mud, the keel sticks so when the water rises again that won’t come up. So we had to dig round there, and we had four drums. We tied two round the front, two underneath the bottom, so once they come up they must lift her out of the water. And we put a big rope round her and took that long rope right back to our towboat and we had a winch. We steadily cranked and suddenly we felt her give.

The boat was laying like that, she turned round and faced us and then she stopped. There wasn’t enough water you see. Next minute there was four bangs and the ropes busted and the drums went. We never did see these drums again! That lifted her up and she sit there on the water but she wouldn’t come across the mud.

Now, this was Monday night, we couldn’t do no more about it till next morning, till the tide come up again you see, twelve hours later. So we went home. Come the Tuesday, done the same thing. By the Tuesday night we had broke the main rope and she still wouldn’t move no more.

Then me and this other young chap – he was driving – took the truck, broke into Woods’ – ‘cause that was dark then – and got a new roll of rope, took it back again, and some what we call drop-weights. We got back there about six o’clock the next morning, I think, that was just getting daylight, so that would be six or seven o’clock about September, October time, and me and the old boy (he was there), we hopped in the boat, took all this rope, took it back to the young couple who were still there, happy enough. We put a new rope round the boat, brought the boom out this way, hung about half a dozen or more weights on this side so she tipped just a little bit.

Away we go back and the tide started to come up. We watched the tide come up round the posts. We started to crank and nothing happened. That was the time the tide should have been up. I said ‘We’ll just keep the rope tied like this. Look, that’s now coming above what we had yesterday. And that come up six inches more and away she come. Bobbing across!’

We were singing ‘Here she come, bob bob bobbing along.’ She got beside of us and we tied her beside us and we went into Yarmouth and tied up alongside.

And this is the bit I like the most. And this is the honest truth, we lined up, he got out and he said ‘We’d like to say thank you very much’ and he shook our hands and give us all ten pounds each! You wouldn’t believe it – we don’t want that.

I’ve seen motor boats get just out where the Breydon Bridge is, instead of going round like they should do, took a short cut and they’ve been on about the length of this rope. When that’s dry you get out and you dig and back them out the same way. This yacht amazed me. And that’s one thing I can say: I don’t think anybody else has done that work. They’ve walked across Breydon because they used to have gun shoots, didn’t they? But not to bring a boat back!

More troubleshooting at Powles

After about three years at Woods, I came up here to Powles at Wroxham. I stayed another three years.

I was on duty one Sunday afternoon; they got a boat stuck near Wroxham Church, down the slope there. And these boys, they’d turned this boat – they’d hit an oak stake underneath the water and had put a hole in the bottom of the boat and there she sit.

I couldn’t get across there, they’d got no dinghy. Got me tools, I took my trousers off, left me shirt there, walked out in the water to the boat and found out what was wrong, walked back again with my saw. Got a piece of ply, hammer and nails and I sawed this stump what was sticking through the bottom of the boat – sawed it off as level as I could, got one of their cushions – ‘cause that was sponge – put that on top, put this piece of ply over, stood on it and hammered the nails onto the boat. And another engineer who was on duty, he brought a towboat round.

We pumped her out and went from Wroxham Church, under Wroxham Bridge, to where Powles was then. I drove this boat up the slipway as hard as I could go; jumped ashore, tied it up, put a plank on it. I said ‘You boys can walk across this plank if you want to go ashore. Don’t you dare untie this boat tonight.’ I put two ropes at the back and one up the front and laid up the slipway. Next morning I come back and I put a patch on and she went back in the water.

When I was with Powles, they had some of these concrete boats and – I don’t know whether the other blokes didn’t want to do it, but I got ‘do you think you could put these right?’ I did ten of them over that winter. Put new bits on them where they wanted it, and screws and that. They came out nice and they were pleased with them.

These boats were made of concrete – there is a big one sailing out of New Zealand all the time now – and these were 28 foot long. They were four berths. There’s one or two still on the Broads right now, but you wouldn’t know unless somebody showed you. What they are built of, they are a layer of concrete and a layer of sort of mesh steel and another layer. So you end up with about two inches with three layers of steel inside. So when you drill holes in them, you had to have two drills. You’d have one to drill through the first bit of concrete; when you hit that metal you’d take the drill out, drill the metal and vice versa till you get through and you’ve got a good bolt hole then, see. Then you bolt this wood onto it – what you call a rubber. You bolted the rubber on and the tops were fibreglass. Some of them were coming off, you see. So I bolted these wooden ones round and then screwed the tops and put a proper thing so that looked right afterwards. They seemed to be happy with it.

Ludham, the Wherry Trust, and Albion

After working for a small boatyard, I started on my own. The old fire station at Ludham was standing there more or less derelict. The farmer who owned it let me have it for my workshop. My friend next door, he was a retired electrician, and he said ‘I’ll come and put the electrics in for you.’

We set up in the workshop there in the old fire station. That was sort of two parts: one I had my bench in and all my bits and pieces; that side I could get reasonably sized boats in, about 25 foot or something like that.

I spent from ‘83, ’84, until I retired ’95 working for myself. I did everything from boats to putting fences in, windows in people’s houses, roofs on for people. After doing Mixers, I knew how to do that type of woodwork as well.


Mike restoring Ludham village sign 1989


Removing thatch and frame from the boathouse at Wroxham 1991


Mike with thatcher Stephen Aldred and marshman Eric Edwards whilst doing repairs and alterations to stable block at Womack House 1990s

By the time I retired in 1995 I’d done 51 years and two days at work. In between times there, I was working at this small boatyard called Womack Cruisers, down at Ludham. The chap who owned it became chairman of the Wherry Trust. One day, in about ’81, he asked me to be his mate for the day.

He was a good sailor, he could sail anything. So we went – he was laying at Thurne then. We went on Albion and we sailed down to Ranworth Broad. On the way back, he say to me ‘You take her.’ I wasn’t a very good sailor. They aren’t no joke, you know! Albion was a heavy old thing. He said, ‘You put it in there. You know you can do it. Just remember she’s beachhead heavy and you want to think so far ahead.’ So I did and when I’d finished he said ’that weren’t bad for a first try.’ Anyway, I did a few more times with him.

The chap who they called the bo’sun then came along about ’83 and asked me to help. So we started, in ’82, ’83, doing little bits to Albion. I got paid for some and Saturday mornings I would go down for nothing. ‘Cause I realised what it was then. I had seen it on the Broads and thought nothing of it. I had started to take an interest in wherries then.

When they wanted work done officially I done that. In 1984 she wanted what they call a new main beam. Nobody had ever done that one on the Broads. I wanted some 14 by 14, 15 foot long, or something like that.’

We went down to Yarmouth Harbour and May Gurney give us one of the pilings. The barnacles were still on it. You could not lift it, so we had to jack it all up. Scraped the barnacles off, cleaned it up in my shed. I went and made patterns of the old one, what we wanted, out of ply.

We put an iron bar across it to hold it the right width. A friend took all this rot out in handfuls, all round where the beam was. Albion was nearly eighty some odd years old then. When they got to that stage with wherries, years ago, they built a new wherry. Shoved them into the side and used them as banks. A lot of these rivers I can show you where old wherries have been shoved in. Maud came out down Ranworth, there’s three or four down there.

The bolts were 38-some odd inches long. So I went to my friends at Woods’. They lent me these big long drills to do it with. They didn’t charge ‑ ‘No, that’s for the wherry.’

Loading beam from harbour pile to use in Albion restoration 1984

We did this all outside, with no covers or nothing, in winter. We got my friend the farmer again, he lifted it on the boat for us and because we couldn’t move very well, we put two boards on and we put some water on it so that was slippery and pushed it back again if it didn’t fit, and then some more.

It took us three days to fit it. The Friday we started drilling the holes and by the Tuesday night next after that we got all the holes drilled. My friend Sid cut the bolts and made them, ‘cause he was a bit of an engineer. The only difference was the bolts had nuts both ends, instead of a head one end and a bolt the other. They were originally made blacksmith’s bolts. Anyway we put this in and we got it all done and they were pleased with it. Done all the bulkhead and everything and that went out the next year.

The next winter I did some more. I’d got a job with a chap at Barton Turf, Neatishead. I had to do a big fence for him. He had two old army huts there and he gave them to me as long as I took them away and cleared the site. I thought they’d make a good shed for the Wherry Trust.

So a gang of Wherry Trust blokes helped to do the lifting and that. I got the trailer off my mate farmer again. So I took this damn great trailer down there, round all these little roads at Neatishead. We got as far as these two sheds, brought them home and they laid there in a heap.

Nowadays it looks like a nice path, but when we first went down there the Wherry Trust had bought this piece of land and you had to wear rubber boots to get to the river. The farmer had had a barn blow down and gave me the brick rubble and Sid and I put it down and made a nice path. We put sawdust on and got a good track.

This shed lay there, in a heap. Sid said to the Wherry Trust ‘That might cost about three to four hundred pounds to get this put right. Are you willing to do it?’ and they agreed. We bought some sleepers, set these sheds on them and made a nice workshop. Then they got some money together and had a proper steel wet shed put up. We kept on doing little bits.

We got this new shed and got all the framework up, and we got May Gurneys to come up the river – ‘cause you couldn’t get a crane down there – and they lifted all the trusses on for us. Covered with sheets, we had them all down the bottom. We carted them all up.

Funnily enough, Sid wouldn’t go up on a roof over water! He shoved the sheets up to me and done everything I wanted but I done the whole roof myself. I didn’t mind; I am used to the sea. I didn’t mind heights at all but we had a laugh about it.

Sometime the next year, about 1990, the afterbeam had gone. About half the size of the other one. So we put that in and the next year we found a lot of rotten planks in the sides on her. So we got permission, she went to Wroxham, to Peter Powles. They had a slipway there and they pulled her up there and the next Monday I started and we put four hundred foot of plank in the sides. When we looked at the decks of the poor old Albion, she’d got rotten decks; they hadn’t took the wood out, they’d put a piece of tin over the top. Water was coming in and you couldn’t really sleep in there if it was a bit wet.

Sid had bought an oak tree and we used the best bit to put new decks on. They were pleased afterwards, ‘cause that helped to strengthen the boat. With the two new beams on her we’d really got a solid boat to work to.

In the ‘90s we did all this main bit, did the cabin top, a new dinghy and so on. Then at a Wherry Trust meeting, I said, ‘I tell you what I’ll do. I’m now going to retire. I’ll do five years for you for nothing if you supply the wood and the materials.’

I had a friend I met here. He was a retired policeman. He wanted to do a little bit of woodwork. Lovely chap, we got on so well together. And so he come with me and we done them five years together. We pulled her out twice and put some more planks in it where she wanted it and did all that sort of thing over the next five years. You know, I reckon it worked alright.

Come 2000 they wanted a new shed. When you’re 70 years old you don’t want to go on. Anyway, they said ‘What about the shed?’ So l drew them out a shed and everything, and took it to the Council. A friend of theirs at the Wherry Trust put his name to it and the only thing he wanted to change was something with the flooring. Anyway, I was agreeable to it. Cork’s of Acle made the shed. They put it up all for a reasonable price.

After a while, I felt Albion was going alright, and I left.

Museum of the Broads

I knew the Museum of the Broads was going and I wanted to keep in it, but they didn’t do heavy work, did they? No more heavy work. No more great old rudders. I built that big old rudder for Albion.

I went and see the President and he shew me what they called the wherry room. He said, ‘Do you think you could build me a cuddy – a cuddy or the back end of a wherry, on that wall?’

Mike at the Museum of the Broads 2019

My mate, the policeman came and helped me. So we started the week after Christmas 2000. I was nearly 71. And we finished by April. I made it all out of ply and ordinary timber to make it look like oak and they were pleased as punch with it. So I was pleased about that.

I went to the Broads Museum and I’ve been there ever since. Doing little pieces for them, I did that wherry for them.

After a while, the Wherry Trust made me a Vice President!  I can go to meetings and they ask me about things now and again.

Mike Fuller (b. 1930) recorded for WISEArchive at Ludham on 19th November 2012 and revisited at the Museum of the Broads Stalham in June 2019.

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