The Waterman’s Arms

Every now and again, a photograph comes along which throws up a bit of a conundrum. It happened last week when I bought a small collection of late Victorian photographs taken on and around the Norfolk Broads, amongst which was a rather intriguing photo of Potter Heigham Bridge and the Bridge Hotel. It’s led me on a trawl through trade directories and contemporary Broads related books and sent me on a flying visit to Potter Heigham itself.

bm1880s_watermans_smlLooking back at old photographs and postcards of the iconic bridge and its surroundings, the Bridge Hotel was a prominent landmark. A quick search online search will tell you that the hotel replaced an old wherryman’s hostelry called The Waterman’s Arms, with most sources stating that the pub was pulled down and the new building erected at the turn of the 20th century. Here is where my photograph threw up not one, but two puzzles. What I purchased, were three pages of a photograph album showing what appears to be a family group on the counter-sterned pleasure wherry Gladys. The clothing and the hats are very much 1880s in style, the clincher for a date of mid to late 1880s being the presence of an invitation to the Norwich Angling Club annual dinner in December 1885. This appears to push the build date back by 10 to 15 years.

Studying the hotel a little closer, I noticed that the large sign hanging on the front reads Waterman’s Arms, meaning that the new building retained the original name when it was built. Interestingly, studying it further, I noticed that the building behind with the chimney had writing on the gable end. It too bears the name Waterman’s Arms. This is clearly the original pub, still in situ. I can’t make out all of the lettering but it reads Accommodation on the top line, followed by what appears to be something about Yachts or Yachting, then Good Sta…. (Staithe perhaps?) and , finally, Bullards Fine Norwich Ales, owners of both the original Waterman’s Arms and the new hotel. This led me on a quest to try to establish a build date. Was it newly built when this was taken, and when did the name change?

bm1880s_watermans_detailMy first point of reference was to haul every late Victorian Norfolk Broads book I have off the shelf and search for mentions of either the Waterman’s Arms or The Bridge Hotel. The earliest record I have in print come from George Christopher Davies who, in the 1882 edition of The Handbook to the Rivers and Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk, wrote: “At the bridge is the ‘Waterman’s Arms’, where one or two bedrooms, and a small parlour, all scrupulously clean, are obtainable.” Incidentally, he also mentions the small thatched building you can see: “Just by the bridge, in a sort of wooden ‘Peggoty’s Hut’, lives Applegate who has good boats, sailing and rowing, for hire, stowed away in a remarkably neat boat-house.

The 7th edition of Ernest Suffling’s Land of The Broads, published in 1895,  lists the Bridge Hotel with William Knights as landlord. In his 1903 guide The Norfolk Broads, William Dutt wrote: “The old Waterman’s Arms has been pulled down and a new inn built, and it will not be surprising if before long something is said about building a new bridge.” I wonder if this is where the often quoted turn of the century date for the new hotel originates.

This gives us a date of somewhere between 1882 and 1895 for the new hotel being built and the old pub had seemingly disappeared by 1903. I turned to the local trade directories which can be found online via the county council’s Norfolk Resources website and also the 1881 and 1891 census returns. I was initially thrown by the fact that neither building was in Potter Heigham, they actually stood within the parish of Repps-cum-Bastwick. The 1881 census places Edward Laws as publican at the Waterman’s Arms, living there with his wife Ann. Kelly’s 1883 Directory also lists Laws at the pub as both victualler and boatman. Whether this means he was a waterman, or that he had boats for hire I don’t know. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to check Kelly’s 1888 directory, but William Whites History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk of 1890 shows that William Knights was now the landlord of The Waterman’s Arms. By the time the census was recorded in the following year, the name had been changed to the Bridge Hotel. William’s wife Elizabeth and two year old son Frederick were also living at the hotel.

The Norfolk Pubs website gives dates of 1881 to c1888 for Edward Laws and 1890 to 1908 for William Knights at The Waterman’s Arms and Bridge Hotel. It also mentions that The Norfolk Chronicle of the 25th of August 1888 reported that Bullards had applied for a spirit licence. It was opposed by Morgans Brewery, who owned the nearby Falgate Inn, and the application was refused by magistrates. Would a small ale house have applied for a spirit licence I wonder. Perhaps this is the biggest clue in pinpointing the build date, with the brewery applying for a spirit licence for the new Waterman’s Arms hotel?

bowmandood_onthebroadsPerhaps the most interesting and enlightening mention of The Waterman’s Arms is to be found in Anna Bowman Dodd’s On The Broads which was published by Macmillan and Co Ltd in 1896. The holiday recounted in the book would probably have been taken at least a year or two before the publishing date, if not more. It paints a colourful portrait of  Potter Heigham during the summer, the old pub, the landlady (Elizabeth Knights?) and the clientèle. It clearly mentions the new, brightly painted inn and being led through to see the old parlour:

He (Renard) led us triumphantly onward, along the the river to the inn. This was a path as crowded as a city’s thoroughfare. Troops of strollers were abroad on the meadows; sailors, skippers, gentlemen, young girls, dogs and mature matrons passed us by. The inn’s timbered structure, close beside a three-arched bridge, was the rallying-point of this motley swarm of cruisers. As we came up to its low door, the babble of voices within made a strange discord. The rough jargon of the Norfolk dialect, the rich, boyish bass of Cambridge students’ tones, and sailors’ boisterous, guttural laughter, came out to us before we had caught a glimpse of the various assortment of figures and faces assembled within the taproom. Renard, however, had come to the inn to see, not the tapsters, but the landlady. She was a friend of his, he added casually.

‘A friend made since noon,’ maliciously explained Miss Violet.

‘The friend of an hour, but true as steel, as you’ll see,’ retorted Renard; and his boast, we found, was no vain one.

The inn landlady was as busy as a woman could be with ‘five dinners, a lawn tea, an’ ten to give beds to’; but she came forth with composure in her smile. There had been no mistake whatever in Renard’s estimate of her feeling on his behalf. White flour paste to her elbow, she was yet eagerly anxious to learn the wishes of the tall gentleman with the masterful ways.

Renard was merciful; he merely wished to engage in the agreeable traffic of a brief conversation. He had liked the looks of her kitchen, the old one, he remarked, with its dark interior and brown walls; he had bought his friends to see its fine colour. This was clearly a severe blow to the amiable landlady’s pride in the newer room beyond, ablaze with light and the whites of its new walls and ceilings. But she led us to the old chamber with a smile. Presently she sent her own eyes abroad on a quest of discovery. What indeed could there be to admire in this dark, dull room, with its high old settles and its worn deal tables! Two old men, with pipes in their mouths, sat motionless on the benches. Renard looked at them with a covetous eye. Such models as they would be, in their faded corduroys and dingy vests and kerchiefs, and in the rich gloom of this old kitchen, for – well, for a dozen pictures.

‘See, beyond, what a bit of perspective! Those lights, and the blonde girls, working about, and those bentbacks reaching for the brasses hung on the walls – that head there, rising out of the steaming pots on the range, and the yellow sun flooding the walls.’

He had found the perfect Dutch interior, one to his liking; and to retain his hold on the picture, he kept the landlady answering the questions which he artfully plied her.
‘Lonely in winter?
Oh no sir; its never lonely in this inn. What with being so near to the bridge, there’s such a lot of callin’, both winter an’ summer. Sometimes, perhaps, of a winter’s night, we’ve time to sit down, but never in summer.
Go to church at Martham?
We’re Heigham Parish. We goes to Martham once a year, at Christmas maybe. It’s a fine sight, Martham Church. It’s as big as a town. The noise out yonder? It must be the boys and the men at bowls.
‘Let us go and see the men at bowls1’ cried Renard, with characteristic faithlessness deserting an old picture for the sight of a new one.

A bit of a garden and a longish strip of turf lay between the back of the inn and a low mass of shrubbery. On the greensward were a dozen or more rustics. A huge pitcher and some beer-mugs were at rest on the ledge of a side-porch; and over the beer-mugs three fair-faced girls, under broad-brimmed hats, were looking forth upon the rural gamesters. There was another group of cruisers close to the water’s edge, with their eyes on the game. To the stranger’s gaze and their comments, these players of bowls were supremely indifferent. Their cries and shouts filled the air; and each throw was greeted with groans or a salvo of applause.

I can’t recall seeing a photograph of the original Waterman’s Arms before. Searching on the Picture Norfolk website I came across the photograph of Potter Heigham bridge below, which was taken from the old rail bridge.  ( Image courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service – enjoy thousands of images of Norfolk’s unique history at )

On the left, you can see the same, distinctive chimney which is seen behind the new hotel in my photograph. It is thought that this was probably the work of Acle photographer William Henry Finch and would have been taken c1870s when the Waterman’s Arms was run by Robert Miller. The holiday industry was in its fledgling years, the little boathouse on the right, beyond the bridge, was soon to become the first boat hire business in Potter Heigham under the ownership of George Applegate.

It seems, from photographic and documentary cross referencing, that the new Waterman’s Arms was built somewhere between 1882 and 1890, although a date 0f 1886 to 1888 seems most likely. Sadly, any further clues to help pinpoint it which might have been gained from an intact photo album disappeared when the dealer who sold them decided to break up and sell off individual pages to maximise profit. It’s a pet hate of mine. Photos are a valuable historic record, a snapshot of a time and a place. By orphaning photographs away from that album, you destroy the archaeology which could have provided so much important information as a whole. The date when the old inn was demolished is still unknown, but it sounds as though it may have stood for a few years.

The newly christened Bridge Hotel was obviously a popular watering hole for locals and holidaymakers alike in the 1890s. It’s popularity continued through the 20th century and there are many people who have fond memories of drinking in the bar or attending discos there in the 1970s and 1980s. The last pint was pulled in September 1990 when it was sadly destroyed by a fire, thought to have been caused by an electrical fault. The aftermath of the tragedy was captured by John Chesney in the photograph seen below.

The fire damaged Bridge Hotel at Potter Heigham, September 1990The remnants of the building were shored up with scaffolding and remained that way for several years until it was finally demolished. The land on which the hotel stood is now used as a car park by the owners of the riverside bungalows which line the banks of the River Thurne, but the footprint of the building can still be seen. You can make out rooms and corridors amidst the floor tiles on the surface of the car park, the curve of the entrance foyer. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the clack of bowls on the lawn, the clink of beer glasses behind the bar, and laughter from within the brightly painted walls.



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