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Racing on Wroxham Broad 1880s

Pre 1900 - An Historic Overview

Pre 1900 Photos Pre 1900 Memories

The waterways of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads have for many centuries been used as a method of travel and as a means of transporting goods. Pin-pointing the exact time that boating for pleasure began though is probably an impossible task but, according to Nicholas Everitt in his 1902 book “Broadland Sport”, the “water frolics”,or regattas as we now know them, could certainly be traced back to the early 19th century and it seems likely that pleasure craft would also have been seen in Broadland during the 18th century.


At that time, Norfolk was primarily a farming county with most of the land being owned by the aristocracy and farmed by their tenants. Many of the regions great houses were built and extended during this time and villages, churches and schools sprung up around them as the need for workers increased.  The rivers and broads became a playground for these wealthy inhabitants and their friends, taking to the water in rowing boats and small sailing craft. While some were content to explore the waterways at a leisurely pace, others were keen to pursue more sporting pastimes on the rivers and the development of pleasure craft began as yacht racing became a highly competitive affair.


Crowds would gather at the water frolics to watch the yacht and rowing races on decorated boats and wherries, many bets would be wagered, musicians would play and it was generally an event at which one could eat, drink and be merry. By the 1830s water frolics were being held at locations all over the Broads and the desire to have faster and better sailing craft led to the development of “lateener” yachts, based on a Mediterranean design. The most famous example of the lateeners, “Maria” which was built in 1827 survives today and is on display at The Museum Of The Broads in Stalham.  The lateeners were later to be superseded by the Broads “cutter” yachts which had a very large gaff sail, long bowsprit and were unique among cutters in having just one large foresail rather than the usual two. By the mid 19th century boating for pleasure had extended into the professional, middle classes. In 1859 the first sailing club was formed – The Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club.


Thorpe Regatta by Joseph Stannard c1824

Thorpe Regatta by Joseph Stannard c1824

It was the coming of the railways, however, which heralded the dawn of the Broads becoming a destination for holidays. The first railway line in Norfolk was laid in 1844 and ran between Norwich and Great Yarmouth soon to be followed by the Lowestoft to Reedham line. By the 1880s a network of railway lines connected the Norfolk Broads and coast to London and the Midlands with Wroxham station being a popular alighting point. It was this that led to Wroxham becoming known as the “Capitol of the Broads”, a title which it still holds today. Whilst the railways opened up the possibility of travel to other parts of the country they also brought with it the decline of the trading wherry as goods could be transported far more efficiently by rail. In 1860 the first use of a wherry for a pleasure trip was recorded when the Revd T.A. Wheeler, a Norfolk parson, temporarily fitted out a trading wherry as a liveaboard to make a three week cruise of the Broads.


The riverside was becoming a popular destination for day trips as the Victorian middle classes developed a passion for “al fresco” eating.  The landscape was very different from that which we know today. The banks were largely cleared of any trees, cut down by the wherrymen to allow as much wind as possible to reach their sails as they plied their trade along the rivers.  Those areas with small pockets of woodland such as Bramerton and Postwick Grove became popular local beauty spots where afternoon strolls and picnics could be taken. Steam boats were also starting to be used for pleasure cruises. The first steamers appeared on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast during the early 1800s, mainly used for carrying cargo and as tugs for the fishing industry, but there were also steam packets which carried passengers between Norwich , Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft  Many of these also suffered a decline in their trade as the rail network became established and some were converted into pleasure cruisers which ran day trips out of Norwich and Great Yarmouth. Small steam launches and larger passenger steamers began to be built and became a common site on the Broads.


Launched in 1879, “Jenny Lind” was a day trip vessel which would run excursions between Norwich and Bramerton Woods, C.C.Cooke in Wroxham also ran day trips in steam launches and you could hire a launch for 30s a day from A.Sabbertons yard in Norwich. The steam passenger cruisers began to get larger and larger to accommodate the increase in demand. Probably the most famous of these steamers was “The Queen Of  The Broads”. Launched in 1889, it would make regular trips from Town Hall Quay in Great Yarmouth to Wroxham carrying up to 180 passengers at a time. She continued to provide day trips for holidaymakers on the Broads right up until 1976 when she was finally decommissioned. Her sister ship “The Pride Of  The Yare” ran similar excursions from Yarmouth to Reedham and Oulton Broad.

The passenger steamer Queen of the Broad

The passenger steamer Queen of the Broad

At this time the villages of Broadland were very small in comparison to those we know today. In the 1881 census the population of Wroxham was recorded as just 374, Horning having 435 and Potter Heigham 414.  Whilst some villages were well served, having their own butchers, bakers, ironmongers etc., most had just one shop where anything from a shovel to a loaf of bread could be purchased. The Broadland villages were, of course, geared up for servicing the wherrymen and there were far more riverside and village inns than there are today. As holidaymakers began to flock to the area these establishments began to serve a new clientele.


On the rivers themselves the interest in boating for pleasure and sport was increasing.  In 1876 The Yare sailing club was formed with the Rovers Rowing club being an offshoot. Regular events were held and were usually accompanied by riverside picnics attended by the families and friends of the competitors. The wives of the members often sailed too as well as taking to rowing boats, although this was largely confined to quieter backwaters such as the river Wensum where it was considered to be safer for ladies away from the busy main river traffic. However, a new revolution in pleasure boating was about to happen, one which was to spark the birth of the hire boat industry.


Local man, John Loynes, had undertaken an apprenticeship in carpentry in Bungay later moving to work in London for a short while. The lure of country life drew him back to Norwich where he set up in trade as a master carpenter. During his spare time he spent many happy hours sailing on the river Wensum eventually building his own small boat.  It is reputed that, keen to try other waters, the boat was placed on a handcart and taken to Wroxham so that he could explore the Northern rivers. He went on to build himself a larger boat and it was when asked by friends whether they could hire that boat for holidays that the hire industry began c1878. He began to build further boats which he hired out from his premises in Norwich, but most of his customers preferred to head to the Northern rivers and the boats were often left at Wroxham for him to collect after the holiday had ended. This was to become a common practice amongst those that hired out boats for a few years – a later advert for the Press Brothers at North Walsham stated: “Parties are required to go on board wherever the owners may desire, but can leave the Yachts at any place convenient to themselves by giving a weeks notice.


Loynes was obviously a shrewd businessman as, recognising the advantages of publicity, he took to making models of the boats he had for hire on the Broads and displayed them at exhibitions as an advertisement for his holidays.  In 1882 he charged clients between £1 10s and £2 5s a weeks to hire boats ranging from between 13 and 20 feet in length, a cost that was beyond most peoples means. By 1888 he had moved his business to Wroxham and was building cabin yachts with full sleeping and cooking facilities that also had raising and lowering roofs – an innovation which you can still see in Broads yachts today. Throughout the 1880’s many other boatbuilders were following John Loynes example and began to build and hire out cabin yachts. Some of those who began in the early years went on to become very familiar names in the hire boat industry. Robert Collins had a business in Coltishall, his son Ernest eventually taking over after it had moved to Wroxham, John Hart hired boats from Thorpe, Robert Kemp at Oulton Broad and George Applegate at Potter Heigham.


John Loynes

John Loynes

The first guide book to the area was published in 1881 and was written by George Christopher Davies, a member of the Yare sailing club.  Often credited as being “The man who discovered the Broads”, he certainly did a lot to popularise the region and encourage others to visit, and his “Guide to The Rivers and Broads of Norfolk and Suffolk” was revised and republished many times in the following years. In it he recounted a two week sailing trip, covering the rivers and most popular towns and villages. The guide included a map and featured advertisements for some of the yards which had boats available for hire. The navigable area of the Broads in the late 1800s was greater than it is today – Aylsham could be reached on the River Bure via five locks, although passage was restricted to vessels drawing no more than two and a half feet. The navigation on the River Waveney extended up to Bungay via locks at Geldeston, Ellingham and Wangford. Just beyond Wayford Bridge on the Ant was the branch for the North Walsham and Dilham Canal which covered nine miles up to Swafield with six locks to negotiate. In the 1880s, Edward Press was hiring out the wherries “Bertha”, “Elsie”, “Kate”, “Diligent” and “Lucy” to holidaymakers from Ebridge on the canal.


Many other guide books were published extolling the delights of the area and, with the development of photography, picture books were produced.  Guides to fishing on the Broads were also being written as angling began to be promoted as a suitable sporting pastime for gentlemen. Businesses soon became aware of the power of advertising and were also keen to use the medium of photography to sell their holidays. In the late 1880’s the Great Eastern Railway commissioned the photographer Payne Jennings to produce a series of photographs of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads which were then displayed in their carriages promoting rail travel to the area as a holiday destination. These photographs were also published by Jarrolds in a book entitled “Sun Pictures Of The Norfolk Broads”

As the demand for boating holidays increased, trading wherries were being temporarily converted for hire during the summer months, reverting back to carrying cargo in the autumn. The wherries and larger yachts were hired out with two crew members on board, a skipper to sail them and a steward who would cook, clean and attend to the needs of the party on board. Some crews began to build a better reputation for reliability and honesty than others and this became yet another marketing tool for the owners when advertising their boats for hire. Some boats were described as being suitable for mixed groups of ladies and gentlemen while others were deemed suitable for all male parties only. Boating was still largely a male dominated pastime, and there were strict rules on decency set down should females be present, with separate cabins for ladies and gentlemen. George Christopher Davies wrote: “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.”  He adds: “Young men who lounge in the nude state on boats whilst ladies are passing may be saluted with dust shot, or the end of a quant.”  Houseboats were also becoming a popular choice for holiday retreats, some being quite lavish affairs whilst others were little more than the hull of an old ship with a shed built on top.


The Pleasure wherry “Rambler” pictured at Horning

The Pleasure wherry “Rambler” pictured at Horning

n the second edition of his “Land Of the Broads” book, published in 1887, Ernest Suffling documented a two week trip on board a cruiser which was powered by a steam engine. At 30’ in length, with a 7’6” beam, the “steam yacht” had a small American stove in the forepeak, a saloon/bedroom which slept four, and included a skipper/attendant. The Broads were promoted as being an area where poets and artists could find plenty of inspiration, where yachtsmen could find no better waters on which to sail, and where gentlemen sportsmen could fish and shoot to their hearts content. His guide paid particular attention to the architecture of Broadland churches and houses, local history and antiquities, and also included notes on angling and the flora and fauna which could be seen. He also gave advice on hiring a boat and what the holiday would entail. A two man yacht, without a man, could be hired for around 30 shillings per week. A decked cutter to accommodate four or five, with a man, would cost £4, whilst a large wherry for twelve, complete with a crew, would be £12-14 per week. “Ladies on small yachts I consider out of place” he wrote, and recommended that they should only holiday on larger yachts and wherries which were suitable for mixed parties.  


On the subject of provisions, Suffling advised that certain foodstuffs would be difficult to obtain whilst out on the rivers and recommended that plentiful supplies of tinned meats, tinned fruit and vegetables and boiled, salt beef should be taken on board at the start of the trip. Fresh meat could not always be found in the villages and would not keep for much longer than a day anyway. Ice could be purchased from Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Oulton Broad, where it was used in vast quantities by the fishing industry, and this would help with the preservation of perishable foodstuffs. He wrote: “At most of the villages, bread, excellent butter, toothsome sausages, doubtful cheese, new laid eggs and fair water may be obtained. In the summer, however, dependence cannot be placed on getting them, as the hungry occupants of a large wherry, when they run short, will often clear a whole village of everything edible.


 What was “doubtful” about the cheese I’m not sure, but he also mentions elsewhere that: “Norfolk is noted for bad cheese, so beware!


Both Suffling and Davies listed riverside accommodation for those who wanted to be land based. Many of the riverside inns had a few rooms which, although not luxurious, provided comfortable accommodation for visitors. Some of these included The Kings Head and The Horseshoes at Wroxham, Buckenham Ferry Inn and Surlingham Ferry House, The Falgate at Potter Heigham, The Watermans Arms at Stalham and the Wherry Inn at Oulton Broad. The Wherry also provided light refreshments or substantial meals. As Broadland began to adapt to cater for this new tourist market, enterprising villagers and farm owners also began to let out spare rooms to guests during the summer months and provided breakfasts or tea for yachting parties. Some of the inns also hired out rowing boats, cabin yachts and steam launches.


The other attraction of these riverside establishments, as now, was the liquid refreshment they provided after a long day’s cruising. Ernest Suffling wrote: “Some inns keep an old ale called ‘Old Tom’. It is exceedingly intoxicating and costs one shilling per quart.”  He also mentions a sweet ale produced by the Lacons brewery at Yarmouth in the autumn which had: “a decided taste of malt and hops which is so hard to distinguish in the London production”.


The original Wherry Inn at Oulton Broad c1890

The original Wherry Inn at Oulton Broad c1890

As has already been mentioned, the attractions of visiting the Broads were seen to be sporting pursuits such as angling and shooting, the bird watching, the architecture of the many fine churches and buildings, and the beauty and remoteness of the region. However, there were other attractions opening as Broadland began to adapt to meet the needs of the many holidaymakers and day trippers who were visiting. The Woods End at Bramerton was set in 7 acres of grounds which had been landscaped into pleasure gardens where picnics and strolls could be taken. Brundall Gardens were created by Dr Michael Beverley between 1882 and 1887 and covered an 18 acre site, planted with many rare shrubs and trees. Fritton Lake became another popular spot with tea rooms and rowing boats available for hire from the staithe, as did the Trinity Broads of Rollesby, Filby and Ormesby where rowing boats could be hired from the Eels Foot Inn. Somerleyton Hall was opening its doors and grounds to the public during the summer months, at Norwich you could take a tour of the Colman’s factory, or visit the theatre and museum. The castle here was used as the county gaol until the 1880s, but in 1887 it was converted into the county museum and many of those original exhibits can still be seen there today.


No trip to the area was complete without a visit to the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth which had seen massive development once the rail network was established. Both the Wellington and Britannia piers had been built in the 1850s and the Marine Parade was completed by the 1860s. The towns Aquarium building, a forerunner to the modern Sealife Centres, was opened in 1875. By the 1890s numerous attractions were springing up along the seafront including, in 1897, the Jubilee Exhibition which, with its slot machines and rifle ranges, can probably be seen as the towns’ first amusement arcade. Also opening in 1897 was the Revolving Observation Tower which was an incredible feat of engineering for the time. After paying the admission fee, one would walk onto a platform which would slowly rise in a corkscrew fashion over 130 feet into the air. This was in the days before hydraulics had been invented and, from the description, it sounds like a giant nut and bolt! Once at the top you were rewarded with magnificent views out to sea, across the town and inland over Broadland. It was said that on a clear day you could see the spire of Norwich cathedral. A walk to the fish wharf, especially during the herring season, was also popular, as was a stroll around the Yarmouth Rows.

Whilst the railways brought many trippers and holidaymakers into the region, the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft were also an entry point for many hundreds more as paddle steamers began running from London and the South east coast. One of the most famous lines to run was the Belle Steamers Company and, amongst others, the “Walton Belle” and “Yarmouth Belle” became a regular sight coming in and out of Gorleston Harbour from the 1890s onwards.


For entertainment on board whilst cruising the Broads a piano could be hired for the larger yachts and wherries, it was also recommended that one brought along books or a hand of cards for rainy days. Suffling also suggested that yachting parties bring lawn tennis sets and cricket equipment with them to set up on the riverbanks, obviously with little concern for the landowners! George Christopher Davies made comment on this, telling his readers: “Pray don’t take such absurd advice, all riparian owners adhere strictly to their just rights.”  Along with angling equipment, Suffling also advised that a gun should be taken as: “Plenty of sport may be had in the early morning and at dusk among the dabchicks, coot, waterhens, pewits, snipe etc.”  Once again, Davies felt need to dismiss this suggestion: “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 Walton Belle entering Gorleston Harbour

The Walton Belle entering Gorleston Harbour

It is interesting to note that in the 1880s bad conduct was being noticed amongst certain groups of visitors to the Broads with reports of drunken, noisy revellers who had no respect for the wildlife or surroundings and steam launches travelling at full speed past moored yachts, causing the fully laid tables to have their contents spilled onto the cabin floors. Reports of similar behaviour still abound today, but it would appear not to be the modern phenomenon that it is held to be.


By the 1890s some 37 boatbuilders and owners were advertising boats for hire in Davies guide book. These included J.Allen at Coltishall from whom one could hire “The Merlin”, a three berth, cutter rigged yacht for £3-10s per week including a man, or “The Bessie” which was a lug sail open boat which came with a camping awning and would cost £1-10s per week. At Thorpe, J.Hart had a selection of boats including the 12 ton cutter “Island Queen” which was suitable for mixed parties, “Augusta” a 5 ton cutter and “Frolic” a 2 ½ ton cutter. W.J.Aldous, who ran the Steampacket Inn in King Street, Norwich, was offering the 6 ton cutter-rig yacht “Fairy Queen” which slept 6 to 8, and was newly fitted out with a lavatory, for £3 per week or £4 with a man, and “The Gipsy” which slept 6 and cost £3 per week.


The demand for boats was ever increasing and, as the railways took more and more trade away from the wherries, many of these were converted permanently and new pleasure wherries were being purpose built. “Claudian” is believed to be the first pleasure wherry to be built solely for the hire industry by Halls at Reedham in 1887. These boats were luxuriously furnished with blinds, soft cushions and rugs, and were lit a night by oil lamps. Small pianos could be hired for around 15s a week and a “jolly boat” was provided with each wherry or larger cabin yacht. As these pleasure wherry’s and wherry yachts developed, they became more and more luxurious, lined with fine wooden panelling, and modern conveniences such as bathrooms, with full sized tubs, began to appear onboard.

The pleasure wherry “Claudian” pictured during the 1950s

The pleasure wherry “Claudian” pictured during the 1950s

In the 1890s another famous Broadland name was to emerge with the creation of the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company who had bases in Brundall, Potter Heigham and Wroxham. By the end of the century they too had amassed a considerable hire fleet of pleasure wherries, yachts, half deckers and other smaller boats. In the mid 1890s Ernest Suffling also decided to act as an agent through whom boats with trustworthy crew could be hired and, within a few years, had a variety of wherry yachts, sailing cruisers and houseboats on his books.


The Broadland Rivers were becoming busier and Davies noted that: “Each year the tourist stream increases” and regular visitors may see: “a dozen yachts where formerly they saw but one, or a score of anglers where in past years but half a dozen might be seen.”  He bemoaned the fact that whilst comfortable accommodation may be found in the inns and private houses within the villages, it was still: “too meagre, and insufficient for the demand.” At the end of the 19th century things began to change rapidly though, as hotels began to appear in the more popular centres such as Horning, where The Swan Hotel was built in 1897. The shopkeepers were also adapting to meet the demands of the holiday makers and in 1895 one of the most famous names associated with the Norfolk Broads began trading as the first Roys shop opened in Coltishall.


As the dawn of the 20th century approached the seeds had been sown for the development of a tourist industry which would change the face of Broadland over the coming decades. An area that had been reliant on the marshes, the land and the wherry trade to provide income was to find a new source of revenue as leisure time increased and the holiday industry was to open up to a wider market.



©  Carol Gingell 2009

Further Reading


The Collins Legacy - An article by Roger Wilson on the history of the boatyards of Robert, Ernest & Alfred Collins


Broads Hire Cruisers, The Evolution Of Their Design & Machinery By Vaughan Ashby

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