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Sailing on the Norfolk Broads 1930s Memories of 1930s Broadland 1900-1949 History 1900-1949 Memories 1900-1949 Gallery

By Ken Harrison

About 1930 when I was seven years old my father took me and my older brother, he was about twelve, for a weeks holiday sailing. We started from Oulton Broad and I always remember the first night, we moored alongside at Somerleyton, during the night a train came rattling across the railway bridge waking me up. We then went on through Haddiscoe Bridge, paying a shilling, I think at that time.Of course at that time very few sailing sailing boats had engines, if any, so we always had to do a lot of tacking and hoped we would have a favourable wind through the "Cut'. Power boats were rather looked "down upon" among the sailing fraternity in those days! At Reedham we had to wait for slack water so we could sail through the bridge, we would throw a small piece of paper into the water to see how strong the tide was. Then on to Coldham Hall where we enjoyed ourselves, my father knew everyone there.

Then to Bramerton Woods End and to Thorpe and Norwich. My father had to go back to Lowestoft by train for a few hours to attend to some business. Before he left he told my brother that should a suspicious looking man come near them, he was to pick up an oar and threaten him. Later a man came along and spoke to us, my brother picked up an oar and shouted "Go away or I will hit you with this." The man quickly retreated looking very puzzled. When my father returned we wasted no time telling him what had happened. He laughed and said "I asked him to keep a eye on you" then we all laughed.

My grandfather had kept his houseboat at Thorpe during WW1. There was a grocery store at Thorpe by the name Frosts, we went there my father knew them from the past (I wonder if the store is still there). Time was running out, we had to be back by the weekend, alas the wind dropped of on the way back, we managed to get a tow from a kindly owner of a power boat. Who said anything about engines! A good time was had by all.

It was the summer of 1939 when everyone knew that before long we would be at war with Germany. My friend’s father had a sailboat, about 20ft long, sloop rigged with a small cabin and painted black. It had a full keel, not the usual fin keel of the typical Broads sailing boat, a sturdy little craft that liked a good breeze of wind.


Grandfather's houseboat at Thorpe

He must have known war was not too far away. He said, “You two take the boat and go sailing for a week all over the Broads.”

And that was what we did, most of it anyhow.

It was a long time ago. My friend and I were sixteen at the time so I can’t remember all the details I’m afraid. We set sail from Oulton Broad and sailed to St. Olaves, across Breydon Water to Yarmouth. We were aware of the strong tide at Yarmouth so we were very careful to work with the tides. Arriving at Yarmouth under the full ebb tide could be difficult with a sailboat with no engine. Once whilst sailing through Yarmouth with my father, we were going too fast with the tide. He said, “We must tow a bucket to use as a drogue to slow us down.” I threw a bucket over the stern attached to a line, and “snap”, all that was left was the handle!

Getting back to my story, we sailed up to Acle, Potter Heigham, to Hickling Broad and to Horning. During this time our resources were limited, the cost of staying overnight at the yacht stations was too much for us. Some times we would stay just long enough to get some food and a cheap meal and then take off again before we had to pay. We would tie into the reeds overnight whenever it was possible. We then sailed back to Reedham and Coldham Hall and finally Oulton Broad.

War did break out in September. I remember vividly that Sunday morning when Neville Chamberlain declared war. That Sunday my father and I went over to the Commodore boatyard and pub where he kept his boat. His friend was the owner. He went into the pub, the radio was on, I sat in the car and could hear the radio, then at eleven o’clock war was declared. I knew that would be the end of sailing for a long time to come. Later the Navy seized a lot of sailing boats and anchored them on the rivers and broads to prevent the enemy landing there by plane. My friend’s father’s boat was taken, we did not know where. My father’s boat, a 20ft sloop, was also taken, the Navy moored it alongside a jetty and it got caught under the piles and was sunk. We then went to refloat her using pumps and buckets and brought her back to The Commodore where she was hauled up for the war. No damage was done to the hull fortunately.


After the war my friend’s boat was returned to him.

Sailing on Oulton Broad in the 1930s

Ken Harrison 2008

Ken’s older brother, Mowbray Harrison, contacted Broadland Memories to add the following information; “The friend's sailboat he refers to I think must have been the 'Rella' (probably miss-spelt but sounds like). I remember he and his friend asking me to help them take it out of Lowestoft harbour for a sail.  But when outside I was not happy about how the boat behaved or, perhaps, about my competence so soon took it back. That night I was told the trip had opened the boats seams and the two friends sleeping on board woke to find themselves floating in water.”


Mowbray also included the two photos below of himself and Ken which were taken whilst on a sailing holiday with their father in the 1930s.

Mowbray & Ken Harrison 1930s Mowbray & Ken Harrison 1930s

More Memories of 1930s Broadland

About 1936, when I was thirteen my father had a chance to buy a sailing boat about 20ft long lying at Coldham Hall. It was in need of some repairs and fitted with a lug sail. A typical fin keeled Broads boat, it had a two berth cabin and a lifting top. He decided to buy it. He said we would fix it up and change it to a sloop rig, jib and mainsail. We didn’t like the lug rig. This sounded very exciting to me and I was looking forward to it all. My father had arranged to have it hauled out at St. Olaves and put into a shed so that we could work on it during the winter, carry out the repairs and change to a sloop rig. My father and I drove over to Coldham Hall and met the two owners of the boat and made final arrangements to purchase the boat. After all this was done he said, “Go along with these two and sail to St. Olaves and I will meet you there”.

So that was what we did. On the way we put our bow into the reeds and had lunch. We then carried on, they let me take the helm all the way to our destination. We were lucky and had favourable winds. The boat was then hauled out. It was late in the sailing season and it was time to decide exactly what repairs and alterations we had to do. The decks needed recovering and the toerail and rubbing strake needed to be renewed also. The cockpit seats needed to be rebuilt and, of course, the change from lug sail to sloop rig. I remember it was quite exciting to do all this and my father was also very keen.

Ken Harrison 1930s

We had to change the mainsail to a gaff rig and purchase jaws for the gaff and a gooseneck for the boom, a new mainsail, mast hoops, main and peak halyards and also a new mainsheet, blocks etc. Also we had to fit a new bowsprit, jib halyard and jib sheets for the new jib. We also fitted new standing rigging of galvanised wire. I found a rigger in one of the local boatyards who told me how to splice wire.


Then there was all the work to be done on the boat. We went over every weekend during the winter months and renewed the deck coverings with linoleum (as was the practice at that time) and new toe rails and rubbing strakes. One time my father was so keen to find out if we had the right size wood for the rubbing strakes, we went over to the boat in the dark and lit candles to see if it was the correct size.


Eventually all the work was done, the hull painted and the bottom coated with antifouling. The mast and spars had been sanded and varnished and the new sail bent on. All was ready to try her out. The weekend came for the trial. It was cold, cloudy, very windy and it felt as if we might have some snow flakes, but we had to go. My father and I started out. He took the helm and mainsheet and I looked after the jib and was handy for anything else.

We took off down the river at top speed, but we had to tack back against a strong wind. As we were tacking the mainsheet got twisted and a blast of wind put our decks under and water in the cockpit. However, we soon sorted that out. My father was a very experienced sailor and we were not bothered with it at all. We had the boat for many years after that. It gave us a lot of enjoyment and fun. He gave it to me eventually and bought a bigger boat for himself.

Ken Harrison 2010

Ken Harrison later became a Naval Architect and Surveyor, and went on to design three wooden cruisers for the Richardsons fleet between 1947 and 1951. His original plans for those boats can be found in the archives Paper & Ephemera section, listed under Boatyards & Boats.