I am now 60 years old and grew up from the age of 6 months on my parents’ yard, Hearts
Cruisers at Thorpe, so I have seen quite a lot of the rapid advances in technology
that have happened on the Broads, but it goes back a long way before that! I don’t
suppose anyone can put a date on the first boating holidays here, but it would have
been in the early 1800’s and maybe even earlier.
It was a simple matter for a boatyard to strip off the cargo hatches, clean out the
hold, lower in pre-constructed cabin units and put the hatches back onto higher cabin
sides which gave better headroom and had side windows. Hey presto – a pleasure wherry,
which could still haul cargo in the winter.
So now to the “bottom” (and much more commercial) end!
By the mid to late 1880’s the railways had come to Norfolk in force and the famous
old Midland and Great Northern (or Muddle and Go Nowhere) Railway brought the factory
workers of the midlands in their their hundreds of thousands for their week’s holiday
on the Norfolk coast. This “captive” market naturally spread onto the rivers by pleasure
steamers, and firms in places such as Potter and Wroxham were hiring half deck sailing
boats for the day.
The first real motor cruisers as we now know them were built by Jenners of Thorpe
in (at a guess) around 1912. They had a transom stern, a high freeboard and most,
importantly, a centre wheelhouse. This was only a little stand up platform, which
was raised higher than the cabin floors since the engine was installed underneath,
in the centre of the boat. This cuddy was protected by a “Surrey” type top (often
with a canvas fringe round it) which could be swung back down onto the cabin top
by four legs, when going under bridges. Inside it was still much like a yacht. A
short high foredeck with a two bunk cabin and a toilet compartment. Aft of the wheelhouse
was a yacht type saloon with two berths on either side of a central table. Right
aft was the galley, usually with steps going up to aft doors and a sliding hatch.
Now here’s a radical statement – I suggest that the inland waterways holiday boat
hire industry HAS NOT CHANGED SINCE THAT TIME.
The Broads first became known outside Norfolk as a paradise for wild-fowlers, who
were often businessmen from London and who would stand around waist deep in mud for
days and nights and shoot everything that moved. While they were there it occurred
to them that it would be rather pleasant (and a lot more comfortable) to bring the
family and some friends and sail around the rivers. These were rich people, however,
so they weren’t going to do it for themselves! At about this time the railways came
and the wherries began to lose trade. The more astute among them recognised the tourist
potential of their boats
These were very popular and were soon built from new as pleasure wherries. The Solace
is an excellent example in preservation. From there someone designed the wherry yacht
which was a more pleasing shape with a fine entry and smooth, white painted “carvel”
planking as opposed to the overlapped “clinker” (or clencher) planks of the older
wherries. They had a very long overhanging “counter” stern which provided a big aft
deck where the charterers could sit in lounging chairs without being encumbered by
the movement of the rigging or the activities of the crew. As I said, this was the
“top end” of the market! White Moth is an excellent example of a wherry yacht. Quite
a lot had an engine, which was usually the famous Thornycroft “Handy Billy”.
But this paper is supposed to be about design evolution, so let’s consider the Broads
yacht for a moment because they are pretty well unique in the world. They are strictly
a flat water boat and do not like any kind of waves. Given, however, that there are
no waves, they carry much too much sail for a boat of that size, and so are very
fast. In this they are much like the great “J class” yachts which were also designed
in the 20’s and 30’s. Yes they were many times bigger, but the idea was quite similar.
They carried an enormous amount of sail, but did not go “to sea!” They only raced
in protected water such as the Solent, or in Chesapeke Bay. If they crossed the Atlantic,
it was on the deck of a cargo ship. I am sure that Herbert Woods borrowed a lot from
the J class when he built some of his famous racers, such as Evening Flight (ex My
Lady) and Ladybird, to say nothing of the big “A” raters before the war, of which
Madie is (I think) the last survivor.
They are very shallow draft for their sail area and tend to a round hull with a fin
keel, where a sea boat would be deeper and more v-shaped underwater. A large, separate,
balanced rudder gives them the fantastic manoeuvrability that they need on the narrow
rivers. Their rig is simple and most of them can be sailed single-handed. The mast
and rig are mounted on a “hog stepped” tabernacle and can be easily lowered with
a counter weight to pass under bridges. The best river sailers have a gaff rig,
since when the topsail is set it can catch the wind above the trees and draw it down
onto the mainsail. I have even seen them racing reefed, with the topsail still set,
but I think that would be a bit too “hairy” for me!
In the cabin they were all much the same, with two berths in the forepeak, where
an awning could be rigged on the foredeck at night, then two berths in the saloon
with a table down the middle. A toilet compartment on one side, with a little galley
on the other. For more space an awning was also rigged over the aft cockpit. Bigger
boats such as a Leading Lady would also have a cabin forward of the saloon, and so
would sleep six. (This was often known as the ladies’ cabin.) The cabin top could
be lifted up the middle in the evening for more light and head-room.
It is very important to consider this layout, since the early motor cruisers were
all built to this same basic plan, right on into the early 60’s.
The next big step was the auxiliary engine, usually a little single cylinder Stuart
Turner “pop-pop” of one and a half horsepower, stowed under one of the seats in the
cockpit, with a propeller on a little skeg at one side of the hull. Traditionalists
such as Percy Hunter at Womack would not allow them on his yard, and probably said
they “would never catch on” but sure enough, they did, as a boat could still move
from place to place when there was too much, or too little, wind. Some other boats
had a Seagull outboard, on a bracket on the transom.
On thinking about it, this Seagull was a lot safer than some of the early petrol
installations of inboard engines, where cooking was by Primus Stove (which was a
sort of variable pressure Napalm bomb) and lighting was by paraffin lamps in gimballed
brackets. Tilley lamps were also used and if badly used would become more like an
anti-personnel mine. At this stage our modern Boat Safety Scheme is still more than
a hundred years into the future.
The first real cruising holidays were what we would now call Flotilla Sailing (even
that is nothing new) where a party of six or seven half deckers would sail off for
the day, to a pre-determined mooring for the night, followed by a large yacht with
a crew, which would unload the camping equipment and cook a meal. The party would
sleep two to each half decker, under a canvas awning. I suppose this must still be
the best way to cruise the Broads and explains why the River Cruiser Class yachts
are still being built in large numbers and are so be-loved of their owners.
Now that yachts had engines some people got lazy and simply did away with the sails.
The first so called Motor Cruisers were in fact simply yachts, with a bit higher
free-board to give more headroom inside, and a bigger engine, now in a box in the
middle of the cockpit floor. The aft cockpit was still open and steering was by a
tiller on top of the rudder post but sometimes by a small wheel on the aft bulkhead.
Otherwise, they were simply modified yachts.
Only the detail has changed. We now have fibre-glass hulls, diesel engines, fridges,
electric light, hot and cold water, etc., etc., but these are just details. I contend
that the type of holiday that was being offered then is the same as it is now and
has not changed a bit, nor will it ever. It doesn’t need to change – the Broads is
still the same boating paradise that it ever was and people are still enjoying the
same sort of holiday in the same sort of boats, that they have been ever since Jenners,
and ever since Blakes agency was first formed in 1908.
So call me old fashioned if you like! I just say that you don’t have to change a
concept if it is still the best.
Continued on the next page
I suppose the next big change in technology was the second World War, since the Broads
virtually closed down for five years and the business had to be built back up again
afterwards. So let us look at a typical motor cruiser, as hired by Hearts in the
late 1940’s and early 50’s, from a technical point of view:-
Probably the best hire boat engine at that time was the Morris Navigator, a big,
petrol, side-valve 4 cylinder lump, usually driving through a Parsons mechanical
gearbox. This was mounted solid onto the engine beds and was so quiet when running
that the only thing you heard was the little tick of the magneto. You started it
with a handle which stuck out into the forward cabin and there was no electricity
on the boat except for the spark plugs, fed by the magneto. These engines were, above
all, enormously reliable.
Petrol was often stored in a riveted, iron tank re-cycled from an old truck, with
copper pipe going to the engine in several round coils, to take up vibration. In
the galley was a cast-iron gas cooker with oven (by “Valor”) and the gas bottle sat
beside it in the cupboard under the sink! Lighting was by paraffin lamp (which was
a gorgeous light) and if you wanted heating in off season you could hire a paraffin
fire which stood free in the middle of the wooden saloon floor. Spare fuel for it
was also kept in the galley by the gas bottle. Thank God there wasn’t any electricity
on board, is all I can say!
The engine was “direct cooled” that is to say a small pump drew up river water and
pumped it through the engine block and out into the river – not always by the exhaust
pipe, which was often “dry” and had a silencer similar to a small truck.
“Morse” controls would have to wait for another 20 years at least. There was a throttle
lever on the dashboard and sticking up through a large slot in the floor was a four-foot
metal pole that looked like something out of a railway signal box. You dropped the
revs with the throttle lever, waited a few seconds, and then it might take two people
on the lever to persuade the engine to engage astern.
We haven’t talked much about toilets or washing yet, have we? I don’t think they
talked much about it in the old days either. I imagine a gentleman would wander off
with his morning paper and his pipe and find some suitable spot further up the bank.
A dog helps on these occasions since it has to be “walked”. Toilets were usually
the “Baby Blake” which was a Victorian creation of brass pipes, valves, pedals and
handles, with leather washers, looking like something out of “In Which We Serve”.
But it worked! I have seen instructions for its operation which liken the job to
“playing a slide trombone whilst riding a bicycle”. Last time I was on board the
pleasure wherry Solace, she had a Baby Blake (large bowl version) with a Willow-Pattern
porcelain bowl. Whatever you did in it was chased down the hole by Chinese dragons.
The saloon of the Five of Hearts, built 1920’s, looking aft.
In the galley were two brass hand pumps, of the swing lever variety a bit like the
village well, of which one pumped fresh water from a small tank for drinking and
the other pumped river water for washing, and washing up. No – I’m not joking! River
water in those days was crystal clear. You didn’t need a shower – you had the great
pleasure of jumping in for a swim.
Deck covering was brown Lino – the genuine thick stuff from their huge factory in
Staines – long before Trakmark, and hirers were told to mop the decks down every
morning in hot weather, to keep the planking “closed up”. That way, when it did rain,
no leaks! Mattress covers were the same as you would see in a 2nd class railway carriage
but we were starting to experiment with plastic seat covering, called Vydura, and
galley surfaces began to be made in the new wonder product called “Formica”. The
floors were also brightly coloured Lino which was polished, every week, by the cleaners.
My mother had banks of flowerbeds on the island so that every boat went out on hire
with a vase of fresh flowers on the table.
Funnily enough, transistor radio technology was very advanced in those days and portable
sets could be hired with the boats. I remember the “Sky Leader” which became pretty
much the standard hire boat radio, using batteries which didn’t look any different
to those on sale nowadays.
The ex trading wherry Chloe, converted for pleasuring.
The wherry yacht White Heather.
The Stuart Turner auxiliary yacht engine.
A Typical early motor cruiser, from Dawncraft of Wroxham, seen in 1939.
My parents on holiday on Easticks’ Royal Oak in 1946, whilst looking to buy a boatyard
on the Broads.