When you look through the old Blakes, Hoseasons and Bradbeers brochures, and the town and village maps in the tourist guides of the 1960s, it’s astonishing to see just how many boatyards and hire fleets there once were on the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads. Over the years they began to disappear as the demand for boating holidays declined and it became increasingly less viable for many to continue running a hire fleet.
Whilst some, like Broom’s of Brundall, continued to build boats and lease out berth space to private owners others were sold off to property developers and, slowly, the landscape of Broadland began to change irrevocably. Where the riverbanks were once lined with boatsheds of all manner and size, and the summer months bustled with activity and excitement as eager holidaymakers arrived to start their week or fortnight afloat, one by one, boatyards which had become established names in the hire industry began to be replaced by modern housing developments. Wroxham and Horning are prime examples of this, but possibly nowhere illustrates the loss of boatyards more poignantly than Oulton Broad where the last hire fleet is set to be sold off at the end of this season.
Once a major boat building and boat hire centre, Oulton Broad can lay claim to having one of the earliest, possibly even the first hire fleet on the Broads. Robert Kemp established his boatyard off Commodore Road c1869 and also owned and ran the Lady Of The Lake public house. He hired out a variety of cabin yachts and the pleasure wherry “British Queen“. By the 189os many others had set up business on the broad and the 1891 edition of George Christopher Davies “Handbook of The Rivers & Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk” contained a list of around a dozen places where you could hire cabin yachts, wherries, fishing boats and steam launches at Oulton Broad. Along with Robert Kemp, others listed included G.Smith at the Waveney Hotel, J.Bullen’s general stores, P.H. Stebbings, Dawborn Bros., R.Gooch, K. Johnson and a Mr Tracker.
In 1895, Robert Kemp sold out to Fred Miller who had been working at the yard for several years. Fred continued to expand the fleet at the Old Mill House boatyard and became one of the established names in boat hire during the first quarter of the 20th century. By the 1920s and 1930s, motor cruisers had begun to be added to the hire fleets in increasing numbers and other well known yards at Oulton Broad included W.S. Parker, A. Fuller and Jack and Leo Robinson. William Robinson started the family business there in the late 19th century and by the 1920s his sons Jack and Leo were running their own yards. Sadly, Jack died aged 45 in 1939 as a result of complications during an operation to remove his appendix. Leo Robinson continued to expand his business, running the large general stores along Bridge Road and operating what must have been one of the largest hire fleets on the Broads before WW2. He produced many promotional postcards which proudly showed off his fleet, such as the one seen above which dates from the 1930s.
Oulton Broad also had it’s fair share of day boats during the 1930s – Robert Richardson was one of those who ran a small fleet of rowing boats and motor launches. In the early years of the Second World War his son, Robert Jnr., purchased four rowing boats which he too began to hire out. As the threat of any enemy invasion loomed heavily, the Broads went into lock-down and all hire operations ceased for the duration. Robert Richardson Jnr. was one of the many young men from the region who were called up to fight for their country.
Once the hostilities had ceased efforts to resurrect the hire fleets began, although this was no easy task as many of the boats were suffering from various degrees of neglect having been laid up during the war. A good number had been commandeered by the Admiralty and had been strung together at strategic points around the system in an effort to prevent enemy sea planes landing on the open broads. Some had sunk during this time and those that hadn’t needed a serious amount of work before they could be hired out to holiday makers again. Petrol was also heavily rationed after the war, limiting the amount of cruising which could be done. A few of the pre-war names in boat hire were gone forever – F.Miller & Co. was one such businesses as Fred Miller passed away in 1943 and his son, Martin, had also sadly died in 1941.
One name which is now synonymous with boating in Broadland is also a major part of the Oulton Broad story. William Ballantyne Hoseason had taken up the position of harbour master at Oulton Broad for the Lowestoft Corporation in the early 1930s. In 1944 he began to act as an agent for boat owners, leasing out their craft to be used as houseboats by families who had been evacuated from London during the war. In 1946 he produced his first holiday brochure, a modest affair which covered just four pages, but the agency soon began to expand and grew into the household name we know today. Hoseasons also had their head office at Oulton Broad for many years.
When Robert Richardson Jnr. returned from the war he and his father purchased the Old Mill House boatyard on Commodore Road from the Miller family. Robert Richardson Jnr. was the great great grandson of Robert Kemp who had established this very boatyard at Oulton Broad in 1869. Along with the Richardson’s, Blake’s represented five other yards here in their 1947 brochure – Leo Robinson, Collins Pleasure Craft, C.B. Darby & Son, A.D. Truman and O. Hefft. The Richardson’s had purchased their first motor cruiser in 1944, and in 1947 commissioned the local naval architect Ken Harrison to design the first cruisers that the yard would build themselves – “Wayfarer” and “Just Jane“. Over the next few years Ken also designed “Fancy Free“, “Care Free” and “Tranquil” for the yard. Copies of those original plans can be found here on the Broadland Memories website. The photograph above right comes from the collection of Ron Harrison and shows Ron and his friends posing for the camera on “Wayfarer” at Richardson’s boatyard in 1955. An account of that holiday, and links to more of Ron’s photographs can also be found on the main website. By the mid 1950s Robert Richardson Jnr. was running the company and had also taken on W.S. Parker’s yard at Oulton Broad to accommodate the ever growing fleet. Despite this, he felt he had reached the point where a larger site was needed and in 1957 he purchased the Brightside Guest House at Stalham and moved the fleet up to the northern rivers. The rest, as they say, is history! I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr Richardson a couple of weeks ago and, as soon as time allows, I hope to talk to him further about his life and work on the Broads.
Moving on another decade, by the mid 1960s there were over 20 boatyards operating hire fleets on Oulton Broad, as the interest and affordability of boating holidays on the Broads brought ever increasing numbers of holidaymakers to the area. The image on the left, originally published in the 1964 edition of “The Broads Book” tourist information guide, shows a map of Oulton Broad which pinpoints the 21 boatyards which were affiliated to either Blakes, Hoseasons or Bradbeers. Interestingly, two of those (Pegg and Fletcher) were situated on the other side of Mutford Lock on Lake Lothing. I’m not quite sure how that worked ….. did they take the boats through the Lock for you at the start and end of the holiday?
I wonder how many thousands of boaters arrived at Oulton Broad for their holidays each year with the likes of Hampton’s, Robinson’s, Fowler’s, Little Ships, Truman’s, Newson’s and Collins to name but a few! Which moves me on to the reason that I started to write this post in the first place, which was to preview a couple more photographs from the latest submissions to the archive from Andrew Day. The first of those can be seen above right and dates from c1963. The boat featured is “Lucky Guide” which was part of the Darby’s fleet and it is seen here moored at its home yard. In the background you can also see F. Newson’s boatyard – as you look towards the Commodore public house from the broad, Darby’s was situated to the right of it and Newsons was to the left.
The second photograph is dated to 1968 and was taken at Collins Pleasure Craft Co. Ltd., looking across the broad to Nicholas Everitt park. The yard was to the right of the old maltings when viewed from the water. The family who took this collection of photographs holidayed on Collins “Swan Lake II” in this particular year. Both photographs are a wonderful record of that era and illustrate just what an important hub of the hire boat industry Oulton Broad once was. Moving on a decade from the Broads Book map posted above, the number of yards hiring out boats at Oulton Broad had almost halved. In 1974 Hoseasons represented five yards (Collen, Kevincraft, Newson, Pye Marine and Truman’s), Blakes had Topcraft/Broadway, Darby’s and Hampton’s on their books, whilst the Helmsman Organisation offered boats from Bell Marine and Orient Cruisers. From here on, my sources of information are somewhat lacking as I don’t have the boating brochures, or much in the way of tourist guides to refer to to work out when the remaining fleets disappeared. The 1986 edition of “What To Do On The Norfolk Broads” lists Kevincraft, Newson, Broadsway Cruisers, Hampton’s, Truman’s and Topcraft, but I can’t confirm when they ceased hiring. Dan Horner’s Boating Pages website contains a list of some of the past fleets & bases of the Norfolk Broads and has the last year of hire recorded for the following; Broadsway Cruisers 1987, F. Newson 1990 and A.D. Truman 1995.
When I set out to write this blog, I did so intending to just post up the photographs of Darby’s and Collins Pleasure Craft from the 1960s but it seems to have developed into a rather long winded affair! This is by no means a definitive list of all of the past hire fleets which operated at Oulton Broad, more a potted history and snapshot of the fleets through the years, and the information contained is correct to the best of my knowledge. I think it may eventually make an interesting article for the main website, although it will need an awful lot more research which I just don’t have the time to be able to do at present. I would certainly welcome any further information, memories, contributions or corrections through the comments section on here though.
More information about Frederick Miller’s boatyard can be found in the book “Norfolk Broads – The Golden Years” written by his daughter Philippa Miller which was published by Halsgrove in 2008. A nice potted history of the Richardson’s Group can be found here on their website.