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The History Of The Boatyards Of Robert Collins, Ernest Collins and Alfred Collins   

by Roger Wilson

The Collins Legacy

The start of the pleasure boating business on the Broads is often associated with Loynes of Wroxham, but another family started a hire craft business which can claim to be the second oldest on the Broads and subsequently, one of its most famous – the Collins family.

The founder was Robert “Lamper” Collins, who was born in Horstead in 1849.  At the age of 14, Robert was articled to Coltishall boatbuilder Samuel Press, for which Samuel was paid £15 – a substantial sum in those days. Under the terms of his apprenticeship, Robert was forbidden for seven years from marrying, fornicating, playing cards or dice and visiting what were described as “playhouses”. It seems Robert negotiated a slight foreshortening of the rules, as a son, Ernest Collins, was born in 1869! Robert’s apprenticeship was successful and by 1881, he had 2 men in his employment in his small wherrybuilding business in Anchor Street, Coltishall. In 1886 he moved his family of 6 children to Wroxham and it is believed that he worked for or with John Loynes for a time... his second eldest son Alfred married Maud Loynes, so there was some family connection!  

Robert subsequently built up his own pleasure boat business with his sons Ernest and Alfred in Wroxham and by 1899, “Robert Collins and Sons” offered 13 wherries and yachts to hire. The pleasure wherries were available from £8 and single yachts from £2 10s. The highest price was “Mayflower”, a 39ft rigged yacht, with accommodation for 5 - 7 people, and 2 attendants, all for just £8  10s! In November 1900, Robert bought the land at the bottom of Staitheway Road, Wroxham from Robert Mason, and this is where the boatyard was to remain until the late 1980’s.  When Robert died in 1901, aged 52, he left the business to his 2 sons, Ernest and Alfred Collins, but they subsequently fell out and decided to split the company in two. One brother formed Ernest Collins and Sons (Wroxham) Limited and the other Alfred Collins and Co Ltd.

Collins Yacht Iverna

The well known 40ft cutter rigged yacht “Iverna” was the foundation upon which Ernest Collins built his successful fleet, and he was responsible for a great portion of the research work in designing boats suitable for the shallow waters of the Broads.  In the times when the Norfolk wherry was considered a sound proposition for conversion to pleasure purposes, Ernest also handled many such outfits. The wherry “Reindeer” was regarded at the time as one of the finest of Norfolk’s pleasure wherries. In 1903, Ernest bought the wreck of a clinker-built beach yawl from Yarmouth. He re-built her with a counter stern and converted her into the wherry yacht “White Heather” with accommodation for 10 people. She continued sailing until 1932. He must have been very pleased with her because when he designed “Olive”, his first wherry yacht in 1909, he used the exact plan of the interior of “White Heather” for “Olive”.  “Olive” was named after Ernest’s youngest daughter, who appeared proudly on her deck on launch day, wearing a sailor suit and holding a life belt!

The Ernest Collins built “Iverna”

For years, thousands of people enjoyed holidays on her, and she sailed her last season in 1958, before becoming a houseboat. However, she was fully restored in 1975, and can still be seen sailing on the Broads today, under the watchful eye of her owner, Peter Bower, of Wherry Yacht Charter.

In 1906, six Londoners from a London tennis club applied to the railway company for a list of boatyards and eventually hired a wherry yacht from Ernest Collins. Finding arrangements more than a little haphazard, one of the party, Harry Blake, offered at the end of the holiday to become Collins’ agent in London, and double his bookings. In his first year as agent, business was such that Blake was able to write most of his bookings for Ernest Collins in his tiny pocket diary, but in the following year, he gambled 4s 6d (about 24p) on a three-line advertisement in the Daily Mail. It brought over 400 replies and Blake’s Agency was born. The first catologue in 1908, called “H Blake and Co’s Yachting List”, offered Ernest Collins’ 34 cabin yachts and 9 pleasure wherries for hire for a six week season.

One problem Ernest must have encountered with “Olive” was that she could not pass through Ludham Bridge and could only get through Potter Heigham Bridge with great difficulty. So when his next wherry yacht “Norada” was built in 1912, she was specially designed to pass under Ludham Bridge.  This turned out to be a needles effort, as the bridge was damaged in the August floods that year and rebuilt with more headroom.  “Norada” was named after a famous racing vessel of that era. She was chartered out until 1950 when she became an early casualty of the rising costs of providing a skipper and steward with a vessel.  She was sold into private ownership and renamed “Edith”, but in 1964, Barney Matthews, a former skipper at Ernest Collins’ yard, bought her. She was extensively restored, and on her 75th anniversary in 1987, she reverted to her original name, “Norada”. The ceremony was performed by Betty Ames, grand-daughter of Ernest Collins and the new name boards were made by John Collins, Ernest’s grandson. Ernest built the last ever wherry yacht, “White Moth”, in 1915 for a private owner. However, the firm bought her back from her first owner in 1921, and remained in the hire fleet until 1956. She is still sailing today, as part of the Wherry Yacht Charter Trust fleet.

Wherry Yacht Olive, pictured in the 1970s by John Chesney

Wherry Yacht Olive

In addition to building other well known yachts such as “Blue Diamond”, “Reed Bird”, “Silver Arrow”, “Silver Cloud” and “Silver Queen”, Ernest was also the designer and builder of many successful racing craft, including “Playmate”, “Sayonara”, “the Bugler”, “the Vanity”, and “Queen Mab”.  In 1906 he built “Maidie” (also known as “Madge”) a superb sailing cruiser designed by F H Chambers, which acquired the reputation of being “the fastest Broadland racing vessel of all time”. She sailed her last race in 1937, owned by Sir William Mattinson, at Barton and then passed through various owners, including Herbert Woods, and Mike Barnes, who substantially rebuilt her, so she could race again. (See footnote on Maidie)

On the opposite side of the river, Alfred Collins built up a modest fleet of yachts, houseboats, launches and half decker day boats. It included the auxillary wherry yacht “Goldfinch” which offered electric light, and the 43ft yacht “Palace”, built in 1914 and fitted with Stones patent yacht WC and patent self emptying wash basin!  On 1st January 1915, Alfred took into partnership his Manager, a 25 year old man by the name of Jack Powles, with the intention of calling themselves ‘Alfred Collins and Powles’. Alfred is believed to have died in 1919, and because of the ongoing confusion with Ernest Collins caused by the very similar names, the business changed its name to Jack Powles and Co Ltd in 1925. Alfred would have been surprised to learn that many decades later, ‘Powles International Marine’ and ‘Jack Powles’ would become market leading brand names world wide, for luxury sea going cruisers and modern hire craft, all built in their original yard in Staitheway Road!

Maidie at Oulton Broad c1920s

Maidie (Madge) pictured at Oulton Broad c1920s

On September 28th 1926, Ernest Collins died at his residence “Riverside Cottage” in Wroxham, aged 57 and he left a widow, three sons and five daughters.  All three sons, Percy, Frederick and Robert, carried on working for Ernest Collins and Sons Limited, with Percy as both Managing Director and designer.

In the 1930’s, the yard built a series of yachts, all of which were mahogany-planked and bright varnished, giving a distinctive appearance. These included four 30ft, 5 berth yachts, known as the “Valkyrie” class,  four 27ft, 4 berth yachts, known as the “Pandora” class, and eight 24ft, 3 berth yachts, known as the “Mayfly” class, the last of which was built in 1939. As a departure from the norm, the yard also offered the 16ft, gunter- rig, 2 berth “Whippet” class yacht… this diminutive addition to the fleet proved so popular that twelve were subsequently built for hire. The company did not follow the increasing trend towards motorised craft on the Broads, and the only ones built in the yard at this time were the 30ft, 4 berth cruisers “Tuscan”, “Trojan”, “Talisman” and “Toreador”, adapted from the carvel built mahogany hulls normally used for Collins’ yachts.

Ernest’s widow, Eleanor, was still a major shareholder in the company, and on the outbreak of war in 1939, it was rumoured that the yard had to close, because she would not allow it to take on Navy work. The reality was that the yard was not capable of such work, since it lacked woodworking machinery – all construction up to that point had been by hand! The yard consequently did not benefit from the modernisation that other yards engaged in Admiralty work received, and this might explain why no further boats were built following the war. By 1947, the company was in full swing again, offering 35 yachts, 4 cruisers and 3 wherry yachts for hire through Blakes – the petrol rationing probably played in their favour and the wherry yachts “White Moth”, “Olive” or “Norada”, complete with 2 attendants and a sailing dinghy, could be hired for a party of 10 people for £40 a week.  The 2 berth “Whippet” was available for a more modest £7, 15s!

The motor cruiser Trojan

One of the Tuscan class of motor cruisers

he boatyard needed to modernise and in 1964, Jack Latham, a former businessman in the food trade, bought the business and its fleet of 31 yachts, with a vision of providing top quality cruisers for hire. In the first three years, he invested £65,000 in 11 new cruisers from Suttons and Brooms of Brundall and pulled 16 yachts out of service. In 1967, the yard built and launched its first boat since 1939 - a luxury 35ft glass fibre cruiser “White Emblem 2”.

By 1974, Latham had 22 new cruisers in his fleet, all made from the “Bourne” glassfibre hull, complete with the distinctive metal diamond emblem on the prow and varnished wooden superstructures.  The last remains of a proud yachting heritage in the fleet were the 34ft yachts “Silver Arrow” and “Silver Queen”.   The yard also built many cruisers for private ownership, and to this day, the Latham era cruisers are a distinctive and easily recognisable sight on the Broads. One such boat is “Fortuna”, a beautifully preserved Collins cruiser still kept undercover on the old Staitheway Road premises, which still looks as good as the day she was built.

Ernest Collins boatyard in 1971

In 1979, the yard changed hands again, and Ernest Collins and Sons Ltd was bought by local entrepreneur Leslie Trafford, who also owned Jack Powles and Co Ltd - history had now gone around full circle and the two businesses of the Collins family that had originally gone their separate ways were back again under common ownership. Ernest Collins did not remain under Trafford’s ownership for long as in 1981, the company was sold, together with the fleet of Jack Powles, to the Henly Organisation - 160 craft in total. Under the management of David Keable, one of the former directors, the Collins fleet moved from its historic yard in Staitheway Road to the old Powles yard on Riverside Road, on the opposite side of the river.  The old wooden boatsheds in the old Ernest Collins’ yard were demolished to enable a large new boat basin to be built.

The hire boat business on the Broads had had its heyday, and mirroring this trend, the Ernest Collins fleet went into gradual decline. Having failed to make the return on capital predicted, in August 1984 the Henly Group sold the Powles and Collins fleet to Herbert Woods Group plc, who also owned the ageing Herbert Woods fleet of craft.  David Keable moved to head office and Derek James, who had been with Powles for over 30 years, took over as manager. Within a year, the combined fleets of Jack Powles, Ernest Collins, Herbert Woods, Southgates of Horning and Heart Cruisers of Thorpe were trading under the name of “Pennant Holidays”, independently of Blakes and Hoseasons.

With an aging fleet of hire craft in a declining market, Herbert Woods Group plc got into financial difficulty and were bought by Mowat Group plc in 1991. Mowat invested over £500,000 in new craft and also sold the former Powles/Ernest Collins yard in Staitheway Road to George Smith and Sons (boatbuilders) Ltd, who were successfully building the “Sheerline” design of boats.  As part of the deal, a large order was placed with George Smith for a a significant number of Sheerline boats, but although some were delivered in 1991/92, Mowat plc got into financial difficulty and went out of business.  In August 1994, George Smith and Sons sold the old ‘Powles International Marine’ boatyard buildings and part of the old Collins yard to OfferDecor Limited for development, and the enormous boatsheds that for so long had been a landmark on the south side of the river were totally demolished, and replaced with “designer” houses. The last vestiges of the original Ernest Collins boatsheds had gone. Len Funnell, who owned John Loynes yard, bought what was left of the Pennant fleet and the Herbert Wood yard in Potter Heigham, and in the following years, many of the craft that had once been part of the Ernest Collins fleet were sold off to private owners.

By the end of 2003, the only remaining Collins craft still in hire fleets were the three wherry yachts, “Olive”, “Norada”, and “White Moth”.  (See footnote) However, the classic lines of the Collins yachts and river cruisers remain much in demand today - in 2002, a superb replica of the Collins’ “White Emblem” design of river cruiser was built by Peter Applegate of Wroxham Marine, using a Sheerline 950 hull and a mahogany superstructure.


The legacy of the Collins family, and Ernest Collins in particular, lives on through all the proud owners of these fine craft.

Roger Wilson 2003

Footnote: Mike Barnes,  who has owned the sailing cruiser “Maidie” since 1984, has provided some further information from his own research into her history.  Maidie was launched in 1904 under her original name of Nathalie, she was renamed Madge in 1910 and then Maidie just after the First World war.  Her owner at that time was Sir William Mallinson, who was a timber magnate and the Managing Director of Mallinson & Denny.

Mike also mentions that there is still one other Collins craft which remains in hire today. The counter sterned yacht “Zoe” which was built in 1897 is currently part of the Martham Boats fleet. She was originally called “Jubilee”, named after the fact that 1897 was the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

Roger Wilson is assisting the Museum of the Broads by researching the history of the Collins, Powles and Moores boatyards, and if you have any information or pictures, please contact him at: Roger.vertuewilson@tiscali.co.uk


If you have done similar research into the histories of the boatyards of the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads, or any aspect of Broadlands history, and would be willing to allow me to publish the articles on here then please do get in contact. You will, of course, be given full credit for anything you submit.

Top Ernest Collins yard 1970s