The ghostly wherry

If you are moored at Oulton Broad on the 24th of June and the night is still, you may hear the creaking of ropes and taste the pungent aroma of acrid smoke in the atmosphere. If you look out of your cabin window, you may notice a distant, phosphorescent glow through the mist and you might, just might, think you hear an unearthly scream penetrating the heavy night air. Close the curtains and get back into bed, for  this is the night on which the ghost of the wherry Mayfly is said to visit Oulton Broad.

It’s a story which has been told many times over the years, and was apparently perpetuated by harbour master Bill Solomon for holidaymakers in the 1960s, but my reference for the tale dates back to the 1930s when author Charles Sampson included it amongst his Ghosts of the Broads. The story is set in 1851 and revolves around Captain “Blood” Stevenson, an experienced sea sailor, renowned for having “a quick tongue, a quicker temper, and quickest of all, fists like legs of mutton. He was a man of about forty-five with reddish hair, a taste for ale, a gammy leg and an eye which could see further than most men’s.

One bloody fight too many saw Stevenson returning to England where he stumbled into a job skippering a wherry called the Mayfly which traded between Beccles and Great Yarmouth.  Four years into the job, he was  called into the office one day and was tasked with carrying £400,000 to the bank at Great Yarmouth for his employers who felt it safer to transport such a large sum by water rather than by road. The chest of cash was loaded on board at Beccles quay accompanied by the owner’s daughter Milicent who, to all intents and purposes, was bringing a chest full of clothes along with her for an extended stay with an imaginary Aunt in Yarmouth. Also on board were two crew members and a young cabin boy called Bert.

The night time sail along the River Waveney was uneventful but, upon reaching Burgh Castle and the edge of Breydon Water Stevenson turned to his first mate, Jack, and revealed his plan to take the wherry, the cash and the young lady and make his way to Holland. Any protests were swiftly curtailed as Stevenson launched himself at Jack and, after a struggle, he threw Jack overboard into the swirling torrent. As Great Yarmouth and Gorleston slept, the Mayfly sailed unnoticed out of the harbour mouth and out to sea. Pleased with himself, Stevenson decided to take his prize of the young lady and disappeared below decks and into her cabin. Later that night the remaining crew heard the ghastly screams of a terrified Millicent as she burst out of her cabin, blood pouring from a gash in her neck and hotly pursued by the drunken skipper. Second mate George tried to wrestle Stevenson to the deck. There was an almighty struggle which ended when Stevenson aimed a jaw shattering punch squarely at George which sent him flying overboard into the icy water. Millicent grabbed a knife and lunged at Stevenson, stabbing him straight through the heart whereupon he fell to the floor. Cabin boy Bert watched though half closed eyes, cowering in his hiding place, as Millicent gasped and then collapsed in a heap on top of the skipper. They were both stone cold dead.

Frightened, alone and unable to sail the wherry by himself, Bert climbed into the ship’s dinghy and set himself adrift. He didn’t know how long he’d been there …. maybe two days … when he finally saw a ship approaching in the distance. He signaled frantically as it drew nearer, but his relief soon turned to horror as he caught sight of two ghostly apparitions struggling on the deck accompanied by the blood curdling screams of a young woman. It was the Mayfly. Bert passed out and awoke days later to find himself in a bed at a hospital in Plymouth. Word was sent to the owner of the Mayfly who arrived soon afterwards to collect Bert to take him home. A few years later, the two men were sitting fishing one night at Oulton Broad when the mist suddenly descended and an eerie hush fell over the broad. In the distance, they could see a faint white light approaching. Bert watched to his horror as he saw the ghost of the Mayfly speeding across the water leaving a trail of acrid smoke in her wake. As she passed, Bert heard the blood curdling screams of a young woman and saw two figures struggling at the helm before the Mayfly disappeared towards Oulton Dyke.

And so it goes on. Every year on the 24th of June, about 12.30am, the Mayfly comes to Oulton Broad, trying to make her home port, but never succeeding.

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