A very Victorian cruise on the Norfolk Broads

Followers of Broadland Memories on Twitter and Facebook will have seen mention of the recent purchases for the archive of two sets of photographs of the Norfolk Broads from the late 19th century. These fascinating images document family holidays during the early years of the boat hire industry, providing a wonderful snapshot of boating during that era, and they include some incredibly rare photographs of pleasure wherries and the Broadland landscape.

The first collection were bought as a group of three lots of loose pages from an album which had been split apart by a dealer. It’s always sad when that happens, but I was fortunate to be able to buy the three Norfolk Broads lots which means that they will at least remain together. Precise dating has been difficult, but researching the landscape scenes via contemporary guide books, census returns and trade directories, and the subtle changes in ladies fashions during the latter decades of the 19th century, led me to the conclusion that they are c1885-1889. The presence of a photograph of the 1885 Norwich Angling Club annual dinner menu also provided an initial starting point for that date. The collection features a very well to do, probably extended family group aboard two pleasure wherries and a larger steam ship called Phoenix. I think they they were possibly taken during more than one trip. Sadly, there are no names, or real clues to where they came from. Other photos from the pages I bought include three or four which were taken on the Dutch and Belgian Canals, plus a couple of London scenes.

The first wherry is named as The Eagle – not a wherry name that I have come across before, nor can find mention of in the usual book sources, but it looks to be a quite rough and ready conversion from a trading wherry. The family group are pictured aboard The Eagle in the photograph above. The second pleasure wherry (below) which accompanies the family clearly displays the name boards of Gladys, which Roy Clark lists as being a converted trader in his Black sailed Traders book. What is unusual about Gladys is that she has a counter stern, something you would be unlikely to find on a trading wherry, the fitting of which would have required quite a major rebuild. She is rather magnificent and a wherry, it seems, that hasn’t appeared in any previously published photographs, which makes this quite a rare find. The collection also features a photograph of Buckenham Ferry in operation with the now derelict Buckenham Drainage Mill seen clearly in the background, sails intact and painted white, like Thurne Mill. These have now been uploaded to the gallery pages of Broadland Memories and can be viewed here: http://www.broadlandmemories.co.uk/pre1900gallerypage4.html#bm_1880s

The second collection is a virtually complete photograph album, inscribed by the photographer as being “The Cruise of The Mayflower” and dated to August and September of 1895. Although I know nothing about the background of the photographer and his family, I do at least have a name – D.W. Brading. Mayflower was built by Robert Collins & Sons at Wroxham. Once again, it’s another beautiful set of personal photographs of a boating holiday on the Broads which will appear on Broadland Memories in the coming months. A couple of previews from the album appear further down in this article.  A massive thank you to those kind people who have sent donations to Broadland Memories over the last year which have helped towards the purchase of these incredible pieces of the local history which will now be available for all to view online, and will eventually be passed on to the Norfolk County Council Archives.

As always, such photographs require a fair bit of research. My first port of call is usually the contemporary guide books and literature of  the time which give great insight into how a boating holiday was conducted at the time. The allure and attractions of the region were probably not that dissimilar to our own reasons for boating on the Broads today. The adventure, the tranquillity of the rivers, the stunning landscape, the wildlife, the history and architecture … and possibly the odd pub or two along the way. The client base for the boatyards was somewhat different, however, as boating was predominantly the preserve of the wealthy and professional classes. The advertised hire charge of £10-14  per week for a wherry may seem low by today’s standards, but when you put that into context with the extra £1 or so a week paid for the services of a skipper, a cut of which may well have been taken by the boatyard before his wages were paid, you can see that it was by no means a cheap holiday.  There were less costly options available to the Victorian boater, however.

At the bottom end of the scale, an open boat with an awning which could be erected at night plus a couple of mattresses, suitable  for “two young men roughing it“, could be hired for around 30 shillings. Moving up in comfort levels were the cabin yachts which varied in size from a small, two berth yacht with limited facilities up to a large counter-sterned, cutter-rigged yacht like Mayflower which included a foc’sle with berths for a skipper and mate and a stove upon which to cook, two main cabins, a W.C., and storage cupboards. Costs varied from between £3 to £10 depending on the size of the craft and the time of year.

To obtain the greatest amount of comfort it is necessary to hire a wherry, and a Norfolk wherry, let me say, is a wonderful craft;” wrote John Bickerdyke in The Best Cruise On The Broads, first published in 1895. He continued; “Wherries have for years been the trading craft of the district, but now a great many are luxuriously fitted up for pleasure parties, and on our cruise we see many happy family seated on a garden seat on the fore deck.”

Furnished with sprung berths, soft rugs, cushions and blinds, equipped with oil lamps and all the necessary crockery, cutlery, glassware and table linens one would need, the pleasure wherries certainly provided a good level of comfort, although on board facilities were still quite basic by modern standards. The saloon, according to Ernest Suffling in Land of the Broads, was; “nicely carpeted and painted, etc., with a large dining table, and, at the after end, the crowning glory – a piano. After dark, with lamps lighted, and the merry party gathered around this instrument, many a happy hour is passed away.” It should be noted that use of these small, wherry pianos was charged at an extra 15 shillings per week. He considered ladies to be “out of place” on small yachts, a separate cabin was essential, and the larger yachts and wherries were therefore best suited to mixed parties. There were lists of,  and advertisements for, boat builders and owners who would let boats within the pages of some of the tourist guides and one would have booked directly with them. Suffling also offered to act as an agent for procuring suitable yachts for prospective holidaymakers upon written request.

Having chosen your boat, signed the hire agreement and paid the deposit, it was time to turn your attention to planning what to take and how to provision your holiday craft. On the subject of payment, the balance was paid upon arrival at the start of your holiday, although in How to Organize a Cruise on the Broads, Suffling recommended withholding full payment until the end of the trip “until the agreement has been properly fulfilled on the part of the owner, or his representative waterman.

The usual suggested boating attire for gentlemen included flannel trousers, shirts, a blazer and cap or straw boater, rubber soled tennis shoes, two pairs of socks and a change of underwear. Oilskins or a mackintosh were recommended for wet weather … not that it ever rained on the Broads, of course. Little advice was given about ladies clothing, but it must be said that the long dresses, starched corsets and elaborate hats seen in contemporary photographs don’t look the most practical of garments for boating. Ernest Suffling was one who tentatively broached the subject in The Land of the Broads; “For ladies dress (I will say little here, or I shall get out of my latitude), nothing can compare with navy serge made up in a very plain manner, so as to prevent few folds as possible for boughs of trees, oars, etc., to catch in. A little bright colour in the trimming, if you please, ladies! and be sure and wear strong watertight boots in place of dainty, fancy French shoes.

I would add a plentiful supply of hat pins to the list in order to keep that head-wear secure during the sudden, and violent squalls of wind, known as “rogers”, which we were warned we may encounter on the Broads during the summer months.

The subject of food was covered well in the guide books and stocking up on a good supply of tinned meat was deemed to be essential. Fresh meat was difficult to source in all but the larger towns. Whilst villages may have had a butcher, the lack of refrigeration meant that the sale of meat was done rather differently. Orders would be taken for the various joints of meat and an animal would not be dispatched until the whole carcase was sold. A variety of weird and wonderful meats could be found in tins – Ernest Suffling recommended curried rabbit, ox-cheek, hare soup, spiced beef and Australian mutton. Fresh rabbits were one of the few things which might be readily found in the countryside! He also suggested recipes for any freshwater fish you might catch including baked pike, broiled bream and fried perch.  A warning about a certain breakfast staple though; “Bacon, as a rule, is not good in Norfolk; some of the ‘home-cured’ being really not endurable by town dwellers.

Fresh vegetables were difficult to find, but probably didn’t feature too highly on the priority list anyway. Potatoes, however, “must not be forgotten“, and 1lb per person, per day was thought to be sufficient. Bread, milk and eggs could be purchased quite easily from various sources. Another warning came from Suffling about buying cheese, who implored us to “remember that Norfolk is noted for bad cheese. So beware!” John Bickerdyke begged us not to grumble at being charged more for goods as a summer visitor than one would would normally expect to pay in the village shops; “The prosperity of which depends upon the summer influx of visitors.

The photograph above was captioned, “Returning with provisions from Stalham” and is one from the D.W. Brading 1895 album, taken on Barton Broad. Mention was made of shallow upper reaches of rivers and some broads, preventing passage by craft with deep keels, a dinghy was therefore rather essential and was included within the hire of as yacht or wherry. “See that a good dinghy or ‘jolly boat’ is supplied,” Suffling entreated us in How To Organize a Cruise on the Broads, “and that she is provided with a lug sail to fit her, and a good pair of oars; for a vast amount of pleasure is derived by small exploring excursions from the yacht, up dykes and cuttings. The ‘jolly’ is also useful to visit the neighbouring villages for renewal of food supplies, posting letters, and a hundred and one other small services.

The holiday party were not necessarily expected to cook for themselves – this was usually the job of the skipper, or the attendant if there were two crew – although more adventurous holidaymakers were free to join in with both domestic and sailing duties on the boat should they so wish. You were, however, expected to keep the crew in food, beer and possibly even tobacco for the duration of the trip. In Best Cruise on the Broads, John Bickerdyke’s thoughts on the subject were; “It is by far best to tell a man, or men, at the outset that you will give them so much a week in respect of these items, and let them find their own. If you provide them with beer, they will either drink too much, or have a grievance in respect of not having enough. Give them money and they will hardly drink anything.”

Fresh water supplies were sourced from a village well or hand pump. This was usually stored in large stone bottles, as seen above in a photograph which was taken at Ludham Bridge c1900. Bickerdyke noted; “The places where good water is to be obtained are few and far between. Most of the county lies below the level of the rivers, and the water, though plentiful, is not very good. It is as well to take a filter, so that the water, if of doubtful purity, may be both filtered and boiled. The difficulty is surmounted by laying in a stock of mineral waters.” He continued; “It is as well to see that the man really does go to some well for the water, and does not fill the jar out of the river. River water does well enough for washing purposes.

Other forms of liquid refreshment were of great importance too during your cruise. Whilst various riverside hostelries were recommended in the guide books (for the availability of a decent hot meal as much as the ale) you were advised to stock up on your favourite tipples before setting off as the local offerings may not necessarily be to your taste. “Beer, of the peculiar sweet flavour in vogue in Norfolk, but, nevertheless, pure and wholesome, may be had anywhere. Some of the inns keep an old ale in stock called ‘Old Tom. It is exceedingly intoxicating, and costs one shilling per quart.” wrote Suffling. But if you hankered for something stronger still, then take heed; “The denizens of the coast appear to like a new, fiery spirit, be it whisky, rum, gin, or brandy, and they get what they like. Some of the whisky is warranted to kill at any distance.

If you’ve managed to ward off scurvy due to the lack of fruit and veg, avoided succumbing to galloping consumption from drinking well water or eating the local cheese, and haven’t been left insensible (or worse!) by the Norfolk whisky, then you’ll probably be wondering what you can see and do whilst on your cruise.

Angling had become a popular pastime and prospective visitors were encouraged to bring along their tackle, with hints and tips for novices given within the guide books.  Photography too was gaining interest amongst those who could afford the equipment and you may have noticed that the wherry plan further above in this article includes a dark room on board. “The artist may find anywhere, everywhere, pictures ready for his canvas of scenery that is peculiar to Norfolk.” Suffling told us. “To the archaeologist and searcher into things ecclesiastic, there are no end of churches, priories, castles, halls, and old buildings, which will afford him a vast fund of delightful research. To the entomologist, ornithologist, and botanist, I would say ‘By all means take your holiday here, for you may bring back with you specimens wherewith to beguile many a long winter’s evening with your favourite pursuit’.

The Victorians seem to have had an enormous appetite for shooting and stuffing anything that moved. Guns could be brought along, but the guide book authors attempted to discourage such practices. In The Handbook to the Rivers and Broads of Norfolk & Suffolk, George Christopher Davies appealed; “Let me earnestly entreat visitors not to fire off guns either at birds or bottles above Acle Bridge. The sport to the visitors is nil, while the annoyance to the riparian owners is extreme.” The Brading Family clearly ignored this advice as the photograph above shows. It is one of a series of the yacht Mayflower which were captioned as having been taken at Barton Staithe in 1895.

Ernest Suffling suggested that yachting parties bring lawn tennis and archery sets, quoits and cricket equipment with them to set up on the riverbanks, obviously with little concern for the landowners. George Christopher Davies dismissed such notions, telling his readers: “Pray don’t take such absurd advice, all riparian owners adhere strictly to their just rights.” For evening entertainment and wet weather days where the party were confined to the saloon, there were various recommendations. We’ve already mentioned the piano and, according to Suffling; “Frequently one of the party brings along his banjo …. He is usually the funny man of the party, the buffoon, the human ass..

Chess, backgammon, cards, book reading, sewing and “wool-work” were typical pastimes, along with compiling a scrapbook of your holiday. It was also suggested that you may use the time to take stock of the items you’ve collected during the trip for your botany collection. Various parlour games were included in the list too. In “Fill The Basket” one could make use of the abundant rations of potatoes which had been brought on board at the start of the trip. “Two players kneel on the floor opposite one another, three to four feet apart, in the centre a basket is placed, whilst in front of each player is placed a dozen of the largest, most ugly, and knobbly potatoes procurable.” Each player was then given a table spoon, or dessert spoon and by using only the spoon, the potatoes were transferred into the basket, the winner being the first to clear their pile.

Once your holiday had begun, there were a few “hitherto unwritten rules” of the Rivers and Broads from George Christopher Davies to adhere to:

Do not, in the neighbourhood of other yachts or houses, indulge in songs and revelry after eleven p.m., even at regatta times.

“Bathe only before eight o’clock in the morning, if in sight of other vessels or moored in a frequented part of the river. Ladies are not expected to turn out before eight, but after that time they are entitled to be free from any annoyance. Young men who lounge in a nude state on boats while ladies are passing (and I have known Norwich youths to do this) may be saluted with dust shot, or the end of a quant.

Do not throw straw or paper overboard to float to leeward and become offensive but burn, or take care to sink all rubbish.

Steam launches must not run at full speed past yachts moored to the bank, particularly when the occupants of the latter have things spread out for a meal.

Ladies, please don’t gather armfuls of flowers, berries, and grasses which, when faded, you leave in the boat or yacht for the unfortunate skipper to clear up.

You’ve made it to the end of your holiday and it’s time to depart. You may not necessarily be departing from the same place where you picked the boat up of course. A man with a horse and cart will collect your party and luggage and transport you to the nearest train station for your return journey home. In 1895, a return first class”Tourist” ticket from London to Wroxham Station (as seen above, photographed by Donald Shields) would have cost 34 shillings,  whilst a 3rd class ticket could be purchased for a more modest 20 shillings. The train journey would have taken a little over three hours.

The boats, the clothes and the availability of foodstuffs may have changed, but the appeals of the Broads and some of the advice given in the Victorian guide books still hold true today – with the exception of trying to sink your rubbish perhaps (lack of riverside rubbish bins notwithstanding). The facilities were somewhat basic, sourcing food and water needed greater patience and stamina and you made your own entertainment. But step on board your holiday craft, leave the cares of the world behind, cast off on your Broadland adventure and “one feels the glamour of it stealing over you.”

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