In 1998, the BBC produced a documentary about Norfolk wherries as part of its Matter of Fact series. “The Last Wherry” told the story of how the trading wherry Albion survived and of the people who saved her, featuring interviews with Norfolk Wherry Trust founder Roy Clark, skipper Kim Dowe, archivist Mike Sparkes, former wherryman John Fox and others, including Vincent and Linda Pargeter who were in the final throws of restoration of another trader, “Maud”, at that time. It’s a program which, sadly, is unlikely to be re-shown, but it has recently been uploaded to YouTube and I thought I’d share it here as it is a great piece of local history.
Roy Clark had known wherries from a young age, but it was whilst serving in France during the Second World War that his interest in them was rekindled. Amidst the chaos and destruction he witnessed on the beaches of Normandy, he stumbled across a small dyke where a patch of yellow flag irises were growing, instantly reminding him of home. His thoughts drifted back to the wherries which were still trading on the rivers when he was a young lad and he wondered how many, if any of them had survived. He vowed there and then to seek out what remained, with the aim of preserving one of the black-sailed traders. On his return, he managed to gather support for his venture and, in February 1949, the Norfolk Wherry Trust was formed. There were no longer any traders still sailing and J.S. Hobrough’s civil engineering yard at Whitlingham became the final home of many of the former cargo vessels. Some were fitted with engines, some being used as unpowered lighters for dredging and piling work. When their condition deteriorated to a point where it just wasn’t viable to keep them afloat they were fated to become props to shore up the riverbank, lost forever beneath the rhond. In Norwich, the Wherry Trust found a suitable candidate for preservation and restoration in “The Plane” which was being used as a floating warehouse by Colman’s. Funds were raised, repairs were carried out and on the 13th of October 1949, having had her original name of “Albion” reinstated, she sailed from Yarmouth to Norwich.
“The Last Wherry” commemorates Albion’s centenary, having been built by William Brighton in 1898. It covers the evolution and eventual decline of trading wherries as rail and road transport superceded these graceful giants of the waterways, and also the development of pleasure wherries and wherry yachts as holiday’s afloat became popular. It highlights the fantastic work done by the trust to keep Albion afloat and to raise awareness of this iconic piece of the region’s maritime history. It’s a story which is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, the Norfolk Wherry Trust continuing to maintain and sail her, and still very much requiring the necessary funds and volunteers to enable them to do so. Please do visit their website for further information and, if you’ve got half an hour to spare, the “The Last Wherry” is well worth watching.