Working sail to pleasure boats: Norfolk wherries

The lakes, rivers and man-made channels of the Norfolk Broads are today primarily a centre for pleasure boating. Although the larger rivers enable small coasters to penetrate some 30 miles inland to Norwich, the miles of other navigable waterways have long been the preserve of smaller craft. Trade was facilitated by the development of shallow draft sailing boats which could move goods and livestock, serving the small village communities well. With the coming of the railways, the working boats became obsolete and skippers began to diversify.

Norfolk keels and wherries

The early Norfolk keel, was a square rigged clinker built boat derived from designs which could be traced back to the Vikings. However by 1800 the keel had given way to a new design, the Norfolk wherry which was to become the main trading vessel of the Broads. The wherry differed from the keel in having the mast set forward and gaff rigged with a single loose footed sail, as opposed to a centrally placed mast carrying a typical square Viking sail. Traditionally the sail was black having been treated with a rather unsavoury mix of tar and fish oil to make the canvas weatherproof. The hull was also painted black but with white panels, known as ‘eyes’, on the bows which was intended to aid manoeuvring in bad lighting conditions. Although there was no standardisation in construction most of the wherries were clinker built and could transport around 25 tons of cargo. Designed for use in the shallow rivers and lakes they were also able to venture a short distance off the coast to allow their cargoes to be loaded upon the larger seagoing ships and coasters.

Norfolk Wherry Trust
Norfolk Wherry Trust

Demise of the working fleet

By the late 1800s the wherry could be regarded as obsolete as the coming of the railway which linked Norwich to Great Yarmouth in 1844 resulted in the boat owners losing much of their traditional cargo. However the wherry continued to be built for some considerable time with records showing that around 30 of them were built after 1890 and indeed the last trading wherry to be built, the ‘Ella’ was launched in 1912. However rail transport was seen as the way forward and the number of trading wherries still in operation declined fairly quickly. In 1908 there were 67 still working in the area but by 1929 only 16 remained under sail.

However the boat owners who had relied on transporting cargo around the waterways did attempt something of a fight back. By the mid 1800s the area was becoming increasingly popular with visitors keen to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Some skippers cleaned out the holds and installed a few tables and chairs and offered passenger excursions around the Broads during the summer months. When the season was over they reverted to their more traditional business. By the early 1900s the first purpose built pleasure wherries were being built with their owners keen to take advantage of the growth in the new tourist industry. However the basic economics were against them as the summer season was short and good weather could not be guaranteed and these new boats were expensive to build and costly to maintain. Like the trading wherry they too slowly disappeared, old boats being allowed to rot away while others were bought privately and customised. Only seven wherries have survived to the present day and one of these, the ‘Albion’, is unique in being the only carvel built trading wherry.

The ‘Albion’ was launched in 1898 having been built for W D and A E Walker a firm of Maltsters in Bungay who intended to operate her on the River Waveney and the Bungay Navigation. The original plans had called for a steel built vessel which would be less costly to maintain but in the event she was built as flush planked, or carvel wherry. Built by William Brighton whose yard was on the north bank of Lake Lothing between Oulton Broad and Lowestoft the new wherry, built with oak planking on an oak frame, measured 58ft in length, 15ft across the beam and had a draft of 4ft 6inches. She cost £455 and unlike the typical tar coated finish of the traditional wherry she was tuned out with a green painted bottom and a brown oxide top.

Apart from her carvel construction and distinctive paint scheme her other features were more traditional. The counterbalanced mast was made from Oregon pine, set well forward and supported by a single stay from the stern. With the mast in such a position it maximised the space for the cargo hold in the centre of the hull and the crew quarters in the stern. The vessel was steered by means of a rudder and tiller with the skipper standing in a small, deep well deck towards the stern and from here the sail was also handled.

The ‘Albion’s first crew was skipper Jimmy Lacey and his nephew Jack Powley who was his mate and their first cargo was a load of coal from Lowestoft to Bungay. Designed to carry some 36 tons of cargo the ‘Albion’ proved to be well able to handle much heavier loads and records show that on more than one occasion she carried 41 ton loads of cattle cake. In 1900 Jack Powley succeeded his uncle as skipper of the ‘Albion’ and he remained with her for almost 20 years.

However her later commercial life was fairly eventful and in 1929 she sank near Great Yarmouth Bridge but was successfully raised three days later. In 1931 she lost her mast and was fitted with one from another vessel, the ‘Sirius’ and shortly afterwards she was bought by the General Steam Navigation Company. They changed her name to ‘Plane’ and with George Farrow as skipper she worked the river route to Norwich, still under sail, right up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Then her gear was stripped out and she became a simple lighter continuing in this role until 1949 when she came to the attention of the newly formed Norfolk Wherry Trust.

Published with permission from the archives of Norfolk Wherry Trust
Publicity officer: Henry Gowman