It’s always exciting when interesting little snippets of Broads history and memorabilia turn up and I was delighted when one of my Twitter followers sent me a copy of a reference letter from Herbert Woods boatyard which had been given to his father when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940.
Signed by Herbert Woods himself, and typed on the boatyard’s headed notepaper, it’s a lovely piece of both local and social history. Jonathon Fearnley tells me that his father, John, had worked as an engineer at the boatyard, enlisting in 1940 and serving in Egypt with the RAF. Having been commissioned at the outbreak of war to build various craft for the Air Ministry and the Admiralty, employees at the yard would have been exempt from compulsory service as they were engaged in building boats for the war effort. Herbert’s daughter, Jennifer Woods, wrote a chapter on the the yard and the family during the war years in her book “Herbert Woods – A Famous Broadland Pioneer“, still available to buy and a highly recommended read. Between late 1939 and 1945 over 200 vessels were built including airborne lifeboats, high speed rescue launches, harbour tugs, right up to the 115ft Fairmile “D” Motor Torpedo Boats. The book contains some incredible images of these craft being built and transported along the River’s Thurne and Bure to Great Yarmouth. The workforce expanded as production grew during the war and in 1943 there were over 220 men and boys and 80 women working at the boatyard.
The hire fleet was moved to Wroxham and Hickling Broads where they were rafted together in open water in an effort to prevent enemy forces landing. Herbert also relocated his family away from Potter Heigham as he feared the village would be a target for Luftwaffe bombing raids due to the boatyard’s wartime activities. They eventually settled in Derbyshire for the duration whilst Herbert remained at the helm in Potter Heigham, joining the local Home Guard and organising night watch patrols to check for blackout breaches and fire watch duties. The water tower became a strategically placed watch tower and even had machine guns mounted on the top. Jennifer’s book included the memories of people who worked at the yard during that time and it seems there were several instances of enemy machine gun fire strafing the yard and the village as the Luftwaffe passed through. On one such raid, Mrs Powell who ran a grocery store with her husband in the nearby village of Ludham was killed by a stray bullet as she sat at the breakfast table.
By the end of the war, most of the hire fleet which had been left out on the Broads had sunk and were in a terrible state. A major programme of repairs, rebuilds and refits was undertaken and many new craft were built during the following ten years as the hire industry got back on its feet. John Fearnley returned to Herbert Woods yard upon his return from Egypt and was pictured in Jeniffer’s book as one of the yard workers see enjoying a celebratory half pint of beer at the launch of the passenger cruiser Her Majesty in 1950 (second from the left on the front row).
Below is another photograph taken at the launch of Her Majesty which shows Herbert Woods on the right and Charles Hannaford on the left. It’s yet another image from the Charles Hannaford collection which was passed on to me by his great nephew William Allchin. The first selection of his photographs will be uploaded to the website in the next week or two.
The launch was also attended by the entertainer George Formby and his wife Beryl, regular visitors to Broadland who owned both boats and property in the area over the years. Jonathon Fearnley recalls: “My father struck up a close friendship with George because they were both very keen on horse racing and father used to “run” George’s bets to the bookmaker for him! Substantial amounts too by all accounts but he also won regularly too.”
Whilst his place at the yard was secure, with a young family to provide for, John decided to look for a better paid job and moved to Great Yarmouth where many new factories were opening. He joined Erie Resistor and worked his way up to being in charge of the Mallora works. In later life he and his wife ran council care homes in Great Yarmouth and Gorleston. You may be wondering why I am telling you about John Fearnley when the letter refers to an Arthur Fearnley. Jonathon tells me that although his father was Christened Arthur, everyone (including his own mother) always called him John. Ethel Fearnley, John’s mother, lived opposite Powell’s grocery shop in Ludham, and the tragic death of Mrs Powell during the Luftwaffe raid mentioned above was witnessed by Mrs Powell’s daughter, Phyllis. She and the Fearnley family have kept in contact over the years, moving to Great Yarmouth at the same time in the 1950s, and eventually relocating to London.Now living in Kent, Phyllis and Jonathon still exchange Christmas cards every year.
My thanks to Jonathon for allowing me to share a little bit of his family history on here.