Working Lives

The story of Bee’s Boats, Brundall (1950s-2018)

Location: Norwich, Brundall

When Trevor was young he wanted to be a boat builder but living in the middle of Norwich there was no opportunity to get to a boatyard.  However, when his family left the pub business they moved out to Brundall and established Bee’s Boats.

I was born 72 years ago on the Catton Grove estate, which is on the outskirts of Norwich. My mother originally lived in Botolph Street and my father in Ber Street, then they moved out to new council houses, which is where I was born. My father was a self-employed carpenter and joiner. He worked all around the city and eventually got his own little building business.

My great grandfather was a horse dealer. They lived off Botolph Street, which is just down near Magdalen Street, in a little yard. In the yard there were stables where they had horses for hire. The name of their trade was ‘jobbers’. They rented horses out for commercial use.

Early days in Norwich

I went to Catton Grove Infants and Junior School. My father built a couple of houses or bungalows for him and his partner on City View Road just off Boundary Road, near The Whiffler. So I went to Hellesdon Junior School for a little while until we moved into Norwich and then I went to Bull Close School in Norwich. Then I went to senior school in the Alderman Jex at at the top of Constitution Hill.

There weren’t many children who lived in the area, but me and a couple of friends had this marvellous job on a Saturday, when the cattle market was about. We used to walk ourselves down to where they used to unload the cattle off the trains at Trowse and give the drovers a hand to bring the cattle up through Ber Street. There was cattle everywhere. That’s one of the abiding memories I have as a child of living in Norwich.

There was never any money changed hands, they were just farm labourers and we were giving them a hand. They paid us with, well, a Mars bar, or something like that.

My parents had a little business building a few houses around Hellesdon, on spec, but they had to go into voluntary liquidation. And my father was, well, absolutely skint! A friend of his lent him some money to take the Red Lion, St George’s, over. The pub’s still there and called The Dog House I think.

It was tied to Steward and Patteson’s, which is one of the four big breweries in Norwich. There was Steward and Patteson’s, Morgan’s, Young’s and Crawshay’s and Bullards. There were very few freeholds in those days.

I was eight years old when my parents moved into the pub right in the centre of Norwich. Because my parents lived in the middle of the city, there weren’t a great deal to do for a young lad, so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ on the council estate at Catton. In those days, five minutes’ walk over Mile Cross Lane and we were in the country. We used to do a bit of ferreting and mess about in the fields and the woods, wandering up to the back of the aerodrome through Catton.

The Red Lion

I have learnt later on in life that it was very, very hard for my parents because there was no money in it at all. Then they had a stroke’o’luck. It was just about the time, the late or middle-50’s, when rock and roll and skiffle then started to get about. The Art School was just down the road from the pub and we used to get one or two art students come in and they wanted to have somewhere to practice for their little skiffle group. And my father say, well, you’re quite welcome to use the back room, which was the lounge.

Trevor’s parents behind the bar at the Red Lion pub, St George’s, Norwich, 1959

And they used to come and practice and before we knew where we were, we were getting full houses. We were the first pub in Norwich to have live skiffle and rock and roll bands. You know we had them in the pub for quite some time.

The original group was called ‘The Alley Cats’, which was a skiffle band. And we had ‘The Zodiacs’ and various other groups.

Places like The Orford Arms and later on, The Canary, which was a new pub on Heartsease Estate, they used to have a few groups. But there weren’t a great deal of music in pubs. They were all very old fashioned in those days. ‘Spit and sawdust’ really.

When I got old enough my father soon roped me in to serving beer, ‘cos we were very, very busy. I still worked then of course and I used to help weekends and night times. I spent a lot of time behind the bar, pulling pints.

I wanted to be a boat builder

Originally, I wanted to be a boat builder. But of course, living in the middle of Norwich, there was no opportunity to get into a boatyard. The nearest boatyard would’ve been Wroxham, Horning, and that was eight, nine miles away and there was no way I could get there on my pushbike. So I did a five years apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner in the building trade.

I’d no family connections with boats but I just fancied doing it. I thought it was an interesting job and it just appealed to me.

My father was not what you’d call a traditional landlord really, though he was very good at it. He was not a big drinking man. I can never remember him really drinking at all behind the bar and certainly not spirits. He’d have half a beer occasionally. But he was a carpenter and joiner and he was always interested in building things.

When we were in the pub, we built a speedboat from plans, up in the one of the rooms at the top of the pub. And we got it out through my mother’s and father’s bedroom and over the roof of the toilets into the back yard. And then we built a little cruiser in the back yard. The cruiser was about 21 foot actually, so it weren’t little. It was quite a big back yard!

My parents had bought a little piece of land down at Brundall by then, the other side of Hoborough’s Dyke, which is now Brundall Bay Marine. We had the boats down there just as a hobby really. Then we started letting the little cruiser. And then we bought another one after a couple of years and we run them from there, just as a sort of a little extra business really, to the pub.

Lady Bee built in the back yard of the Red Lion pub, Norwich. Photo: 1965

Eventually the council did stop us running boats, they weren’t going to allow that at all.

Apprenticeship and the boatyard

I did my apprenticeship with a firm called Ford and Carter, which are no connection to RG Carter, the big building firm. It was a medium sized building firm, but we did a varied amount of work. We covered everything. They had a little yard down in Mountergate which is near Baltic Wharf. We got minor and big contracts as well, and speculative building; that was a varied apprenticeship.

After five years I came out with my papers and I moved about from one or two building firms for a couple or three years until I eventually finished up with my father down at the boatyard.

We couldn’t trade from there, and by that time my father was out of the pub. We bought a house on the Street in Brundall. Which my mother still live in. My father was working full time and we needed another piece of land what we could develop and there was just one piece left on Riverside estate. We managed to acquire that. It was just a marsh. I think we paid around three thousand pound for that. Which seems not a lot of money today, but it was in those days.

We were the last people to buy a piece of land down there. They were all hire fleets. At the peak, there was 13 different yards down there letting boats. And now there’s one.

Starting from the top there was ‘Harvey Eastwood’s’. There was Willow Cruisers, Smiths, BB Cruisers, Alpha Craft, then us, Bee’s Boats, Buccaneer’s Boats, Smith and West, Bounty Boats, Fletchers…

They’re all small, medium sized. I suppose the biggest one probably running about 15, 16 boats, that sort of thing. A lot of them did morph into something a little bit bigger going up to 20, 25 boats. But, I mean, we always stayed round the middles, so I think the most boats we ever ran was round 15, 17 boats, something like that.

Getting the yard set up

When we originally bought it, that was just a piece of marsh land. We couldn’t do it ourselves so we had to get a dredger in to dredge the dyke out and all the soil and the peat. That was put on the land, to raise the land up. And then we put the quay heading in, and that was some little time before we built a shed on there, because we just couldn’t afford it. My father had a friend who used to go around and clear plastic waste from plastic bottle factories. He would come and dump that down there and we always said to this day, it was the best thing that you could ever use. But I don’t suppose they would let you use it today. That formed a kind of bed, and then we topped it up with rubble and then concreted it, for the shed to go on.

We started running boats there with just a very, very small shed which you couldn’t get boats in and we’d just pull the boats onto the land and do them up outside. We could do the engines up there for a couple of years and then we had enough money to put up a shed up, which we did ourselves, of course.

We built it out of asbestos, so that tells you what sort of rules and regulations there were. We had to get planning permission, you couldn’t do it haphazardly. But there weren’t a great deal of building regs around. We built the shed up and then we started building boats for the fleet.

That’s one of the smallest yards down there, it was the last piece of land, so we had to have what was available really.

Very few people lived down there – the council were really, very, very strict about it. The road which was just a track. It was prone to flooding and people getting stuck. My father and several other people down there formed a little committee and from that sprang the Brundall Riverside Estate Association which now maintains the road and have done ever since. I became involved and I was Chairman for about fifteen years. And nowadays it’s quite a nice little road.

Building up the fleet

The first one we built, was a boat called Pamelena Bee, which was named after my wife. In those days, Broom’s weren’t the massive firm they are today, though they were bigger than anybody else down there. To keep their chaps busy during the summer when they weren’t looking after the fleet, you could get a wooden hull built from them. They built the hull for us, and then my father and I put the cabinet sides on and fitted it all out, done all the engineering work. That was the first boat of any size that we built ourselves, apart from the hull, of course. I could fit a boat out because I had the skills from the building trade, but I didn’t have the skills to build a hull, and we didn’t need them, eventually because you were buying fibreglass ones. But I would never class myself as a boat builder.

We had self-employed people come give us a hand with the boat or engineering. There was several people around Riverside Estate who made their living going from different yards doing different work. One of them was Eric Brown who’s still a very, very good friend of mine. He eventually got a yard. We never actually employed anybody till my father had a stroke and no longer worked, and then obviously I had to employ somebody.

Pamelena Bee. Early 1970s.

My wife worked in the office. She did the VAT and what have you. My mother-in-law was always about too, looking after the cleaning.

In the early days people were only too glad to come down there and earn a few pound on a Saturday cleaning the insides of the boats. It was easy. Later on, that became a problem. But we were always very, very lucky with cleaners who stayed with us for years. They became friends of ours really.

We had some good seasons; you could push the business along quite nicely. People were interested in coming down and having a boat. That was a reasonably priced holiday in those days. Sixties, seventies, and then into the eighties, we had one or two hiccups along the way but on the whole that was a reasonable business. We never earnt a fortune, but we managed to keep our families going.

One year we run 17 boats and we found that a bit too much, so we sold a couple. Fifteen was just about right for us really.

In those days we would look to running between twenty-five and thirty weeks every year. You couldn’t get a boat for love nor money during the children’s summer holidays.

We had one very, very bad year, and that was really all down to the Esther Rantzen programme on a Saturday night. People suffocated their selves on a boat out at Stracey Arms. That was during the wintertime and they had the heaters on and they’d taped all the windows up and they asphyxiated their selves. That programme tore us to bits, they really did. It was from a boatyard at Wroxham if I remember rightly.

A good thing that came out of it was we had a code of practice with ventilation on the boats. We did it ourselves in connection with naval architects and ventilation people. All the boats were of a standard ventilation, and still are today. And on from that eventually we had the boat safety scheme which you’ve got today really.

Being a small yard, we got the boats out of the yard because we took them on a trial run. We had enough room to moor all the boats up and get them out. Obviously when people came down and they were inexperienced, they wouldn’t have got them out, but then again, they didn’t have to, because we used to take them on a trial run up the river and show them how to moor up.

The original yard was called Bee’s Boats. And that came about by my mother’s name is Beatrice, but she was always known, when we had  the pub, as Bee. And so, we just carried that name on.

To start with we named the boats after family members, like Pamelena Bee, Christina Bee and my niece. And we had a boat called Blonde Bee which was really named after my mother. She was a blonde sometime or another…

Blonde Bee. First fibreglass boat owned by Trevor. Early 1970s.

The name Harnser Marine was a name I dreamt up. Harnser, is the Norfolk name for a heron. When we finished with the hire fleet I had to change the name, so I just came up with the name Harnser.

Changes in the boat business

I packed up the business, round about twenty years ago now, or the hire fleet anyhow. I still carry on running the yard, just for moorings.

We sold all the boats. I had a young fella working for me at the time and I’d always promised him he could have a little go at it on his own. His name is Simon Welling. I leased him a bit of the yard, and half a dozen boats to start with. He ran them for about three years and then wanted to finish, so I finished completely and I sold the other ones privately. That all depended if people wanted to buy them as they were or if they wanted them done up.

There’s very few small yards now. It’s so expensive now to put a boat on. I think we made a mistake by putting too much on them and it ceased to be a holiday where it was one step up from camping. It became a ‘glam’ thing. We started to put central heating on and God knows what and coloured televisions and then all of a sudden they want WIFI. Some of these boats they’re producing now are very, very luxurious but a small yard is really hard pushed to raise that sort of money to build them really.

That finished the small yards off, and the expectations. A big yard can give a big service, can’t they? They don’t get the personal touch – when our customers come down, I was there having a chat to them and probably running ‘them out up the river and showing them what’s what. It became necessary to have a 24-hour callout service and as a small yard we struggled to do that sort of thing. I used to go out on call-outs when necessary. Or we used to get self-employed people to do it for us. But I was quite capable of doing the callouts.

Now I just have moorings in the yard, and basically the moorings we have in there are people who live on the boats. We have about half a dozen people who living on the boats down there. I just maintain it the best I can now. I don’t have to spend every day down there. It keeps me occupied.

Harnser Marine, December 2018

Some incidents

Fires on boats – we did once have one completely gutted right out. It was a glass fibre boat and a petrol engine in it. They were really quite lethal.

There was lads on it and they were having some problems with getting it to run. We think they played about with the carburettor to make it go faster. We went out to it and set it all up again and left them to it. We have a sneaky suspicion although we could never prove it, that they had another little go at it again.

The carburettor developed a leak. We were at Horning and there was petrol in the bilge and they went to start the engine and the spark from the starter motor that all ignited and went up. No one hurt, luckily enough. But that was burnt down to the water line,  that was.

I remember one story of boats getting lost at sea. That was from Harvey Eastwood’s yard, they had some very, very nice boats called Santa Catalina class and they were near enough a sea-going boat. And these people came down and they hired it out. And that didn’t return back to the yard. The following week, they searched all the Broads, it would have been the Port and Haven Commission in those days.

They searched all over and couldn’t find it anywhere. I got a feeling that had to put in at Brightlingsea and that was spotted there because it had the fenders hanging down. And sea-faring boats just wouldn’t have the fenders hanging down. They were going to take it across to the continent but that never made it. I mean they were stealing it, virtually.

We had one or two sinkings, which we took in our stride at the time. But we did have one boat go out on a Saturday, and they rang us up on the Sunday morning and said, can you come pick us up, your boat has sunk? And when we got down there, it was at Reedham, all you could see was the top of the roof about three foot under the water. They’d ran aground and they’d ran the stern gear out of it on some sunken pilings. Once we got it up there was very little water coming in. And the people did say to us that it just started to come over the floorboards and they got off and left it, and went on the friend’s boat, that they were with. They didn’t even bother to ring us until the next morning. So, we could’ve saved the boat. Then they had the cheek to ask for their money back!

Insurance wasn’t a big issue with our boats. We had a very, very good relationship, nearly all the hire boats were insured by Navigators and General, which was Eagle Star. It was run in this area by a chap called Dennis Kirkham. He was very knowledgeable man about the Broads, he knew about the hire fleet. If you had a problem you could ring him up and say we got a problem, we got a boat what’s had an accident and straight away he’d say ‘that’s it, get on with it, and we’ll sort it out later on’. So we didn’t lose any revenue from it really. We had a very, very good relationship with him.

Horse matters

As I said, my grandparents come from a horse-dealing background really. My great, great grandfather actually got killed by a horse, on Tombland, which in those days was the horse fair in Norwich. He was running a horse up to a prospective buyer and it ran him into some railings and crushed him and he died of ‘is injuries later on.

I learned to ride as a kid so I messed around on ponies, and I got back in it when I was about twenty and I used ta go over to Ron Fielder’s riding stables and ride a few horses. Ron took me hunting and I got the bug. I bought myself a bit a land at Brundall and have had my own horse down there ever since. I’ve had horses really myself now for about 50 years.

I hunted with the Dunston for about thirty odd years. On a hunting day we were down at the stables about at six o’clock in the morning, and giving them the first feed and then mucking them out, getting  them ready, plaiting them all up, making sure they were all ready to go. Putting the rugs on them and saddling them up. Getting them on the lorry and then off to the hunt, wherever it was. All in different parts of the Dunston country. We had a very enjoyable day, out with the hunt and the hounds. And then coming back to the yard at night times, with very, very tired horses and tired human beings. And tired little children, that was my two boys used to come with me. And the bedding the horses down. Hard work but loved every minute of it.

I stopped because I started to lose my nerve a little bit. I found I was looking for a gateway, rather than popping over a hedge or a ditch, and I thought, the buzz have gone out of it a little bit. I had a knee replacement and asked the surgeon would that be okay if I could carry on riding. He say no problem at all, but if you smash that leg up, that’s a bit of a job putting that back together again. So that was it.

I’d always been interested in driving. So, I got myself a little carriage and broke my old hunter to a carriage and I drove her about for a little while. And then I got myself a couple of little ponies. I thoroughly enjoy it. That’s a very sociable thing to do. You can take someone with you, who don’t know a thing about horses, and you can stop off and have a pint, and very sociable, thoroughly enjoy it.

I have to say that most people are very, very, very, very polite when they see me driving around Brundall. I try not to cause trouble if possible but that’s inevitable sometimes. I try to apologise to people, but most people are very, very kind. I get to know a lot of people by them putting their hands up and it’s same people going past and giving me a wave.

Trevor with his horse and carriage

I had a very good horse, a big chestnut. And he went a bit lame and that was the navicular bone. They had this idea with Warfarin. I’m not sure whether they tried it on humans before, or whether they tried it on animals first. We messed about with this Warfarin business and it was an out and out success. It was marvellous really, because he was a super horse. He eventually came off the Warfarin and never went lame again. Mr Crispin-Clarke of MacClintocks was a very nice man indeed. The only problem was he used to enjoy coming down to my stables because he wanted to get down to the boatyard as well. He was very, very keen on boats and all he really wanted to talk about was, not my horse, but the boats.

I’ve always kept my horses opposite The Yare, which is, a couple of hundred yards really from the boatyard. I can just pop down, look over the horses lunch time or on my way home. That’s only a little patch, but, two or three stables on there, and very, very enjoyable hobby for me.

James, my eldest lad, he’s very interested in horses. He’s got a few now and got a yard at the back of his house. He’s now taking my granddaughter hunting, which I absolutely love to see. She’s now become a nice little rider. He went into hunt service when he left school. He had a season at the Heythrop. He worked for the Dunston as well, and was an amateur whip at the Dunston all during his teenage years. He loved it and still do of course.

I enjoy keeping myself busy and go down to the yard most days. I keep it ticking over. I spend a fair bit of time at the stables, and I like to have a drive out. I have one or two carriages, what I fiddle about with. Though I got a modern one, which I had made in Poland, with disc brakes and all the gubbins. I’m very interested in old carriages. So, I got a couple, which I mess about in. Obviously when they’re antiques, you can’t use them like a modern carriage. That keeps me occupied. And my family keep me occupied. I’ve got eight grandchildren.

Trevor Beales (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 4th December 2018 in Blofield.

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