I’ve written several blog posts on the subject of Hearts Cruisers in the past and have been very grateful for the information on the boatyard, and many other aspects of Broadland history, which has come from Vaughan Ashby whose father, Commander Ron Ashby, purchased the yard from the Hart family in 1948. The latest additions to the Broadland Memories website are a small collection of newspaper cuttings relating to to the Hearts and Jenners boatyards at Thorpe St. Andrew which were sent to me by Vaughan and have been waiting on my “To Do” list for a while!
The first cutting dates from May 1949 and covers an early trial of the Knave of Hearts which was the first diesel powered motor cruiser to be built on the Broads. In an article Vaughan wrote for Broadland Memories on the evolution of hire cruisers he wrote: “The first engine was a Turner diesel, a V twin with 2 separate injector pumps and was originally designed to power fire main pumps on ships. So the vibration, at low revs, was quite something. To say nothing of the noise! We later became agents for Coventry Victor and most Hearts boats in the 50’s had the “Vixen” engine, a flat opposed twin cylinder diesel , again designed as a ship’s fire pump, and whose vibration was enormous. Hirers had to be shown how to prime each cylinder with an oil pot when cold starting. But they were very economical and very reliable. Petrol prices, post-war, were just as crazy as they are now, but diesel was very cheap, so it was a big selling point for holidaymakers.” The second article, from September 1965, reports on the repairs being carried out to Reedham swing bridge after the coaster Ellen M had collided with it whilst trying to avoid a yacht which had been hired from Hearts Cruisers by four young lads from London. (see photo above left)
Vaughan recalls the incident: “The yacht Four of Hearts had had its trial run done by me but the lads weren’t listening and so forgot how to start the engine. they also lowered their sails before trying to start it. When we took the boat back the engine was in good order. British rail sued the coaster owners, who sued the hirers of the yacht. Their solicitors sued Hearts and my father managed to sue someone or another which turned the whole thing into a vicious circle and so nothing ever came of it.“
The third news cutting dates from November 1967 and records the purchase of Hearts Cruisers by Jenners, a takeover which not only included the 16 craft in the fleet, but also the land and boat sheds owned by the company. The Jenner boatyard had been bought by the Millbank family just after the Second World War. The article mentions that Hearts was the eighth company which had been taken over by Jenners that year, bringing the combined fleet up to over 250 boats. Other yards which had been swallowed up by the Jenners Group included Herbert Woods, Southgates, Herbert Freeman and Easticks along with the neighbouring A.G. Ward boatyard at Thorpe. The news article also mentions the proposed island development scheme which would see an enormous marina with shops and holiday accommodation built at a cost of £250,000.
Grand plans, but the following year saw Jenners being taken over by the Caister Group, under the chairmanship of Tom Watson, having seemingly overstretched themselves financially. The fourth news cutting provides further insight to the story, dating from September 1970, it reports on the sale of the Jenners complex and the shelving of the plans to develop Thorpe Island Marina further. The company’s profits were down and, along with the sale of the land at Thorpe, the Caister Group were also looking to shed 130 boats from it’s fleet. This appears to be when many of the sailing cruisers left in hire were sold off. Questions were raised about the future of the island where some of the proposed development had already begun with a 58,000 square foot basin having been created, a massive wet shed built and a £15,000 concrete bridge erected to connect the island to the main boatyard on Yarmouth Road. Mr Watson envisaged that Thorpe Island could be suitable for conversion to a residential weekend leisure center for both water and land based sports. The Hearts Cruisers site was to be retained by the group and would be run “under the personal supervision of Commander Ron Ashby.“
It’s a fascinating bit of history which sheds a little more light on the long, and sometimes controversial story of Thorpe Island which seems to have been the subject of planning and legal wrangles ever since! It’s also part of the even more complicated “corporate takeover” story which saw many boatyards being snapped up by large organisations such as Rank, Ladbrokes and Guinness in the 1970s as big business diversified and tried to cash in on the Norfolk Broads boating boom. But that’s another story for another day …..
Links to these news cuttings can be found on the Latest Additions page of the Broadland Memories website.