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Designed & maintained by Carol Gingell

©  C.Gingell 2015 - all photographs, personal stories and written articles on this site are copyright and should not be reproduced anywhere else without the permission of the copyright owner and Broadland Memories.

© Broadland Memories 2015

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The Wherry Dragon 1901-1970

The Wherry Dragon 1901-1970

My thanks go to Mike Barnes of the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company for passing on to me his extensive notes on Dragon’s history which form the major part of this article.

For over two hundred years the wherry, and its predecessor the Norfolk Keel, had been a familiar sight on the rivers of Norfolk and Suffolk, primarily as a means of transporting a variety of goods around the region. The coming of the railways in the mid 19th century brought many new visitors to the area, but also led to the decline in goods being transported by river as the rail network expanded. Many of the old trading wherries found a new purpose in serving the growing number of professional and wealthy holidaymakers who were visiting the Norfolk Broads in increasing numbers during the summer months. Initially, the traders were swept out and furnished with rugs and cushions for the short summer season before returning to transporting goods during the rest of the year. Guide books written by the likes of George Christopher Davies and Ernest Suffling extolled the virtues of the area and the need for more floating accommodation led to many of the old trading wherries being permanently converted as owners began to realise that more money could be made from the blossoming tourist industry. Boatyards began to produce new, purpose built pleasure wherries and wherry yachts as the demand increased.

The pleasure wherry Dragon was built for hire in 1901 by The Norfolk Broads Yachting Company who were founded at Wroxham in 1898. The foreman at the yard at this time was Fred Press, his grandson Stuart Press confirmed that it was in fact Fred who built Dragon. It is thought that she may have originally been built as a trading wherry but was converted before her launch in 1901. In the early Blakes brochures she was listed as being “a magnificent wherry of about 40 tons. She is fitted up in oak, and supplied with every comfort and luxury experience can suggest. A good piano is fixed in the saloon. All plate and linen of the best. Sleeping berths are fitted up with spring mattresses.

Lloyds yacht register had her listed in 1950 as being 47 tons, 54 ft in length overall with a beam of 15 ft and had 1100 square feet of sail. The 1916 Blakes yachting list gave her interior details as:

Wherry Dragon Horning 1903

Dragon moored outside The Swan at Horning in 1903 - Donald Shields

Cabin Dimensions, - Double Berth cabin 6ft 4in by 12ft 2in, with 6ft head-room, berths 3ft 6in wide. Two single berth cabins 6ft 4in by 5ft 6in, with 6 ft head-room, berths 3ft wide. Saloon 9ft 10in by 12ft 6in; lounges 3ft wide, with 6ft head-room. Sleeps eight comfortably (can sleep ten). W.C. and lavatories.”

Wherry Dragon 1916 Wherry Dragon 1916

The terms for a weeks hire then, including two attendants (usually a skipper and a steward to prepare the meals etc.), were between £12 12s and £16 16s per week with the season running between May and September. At this time the NBYCo were also running three other pleasure wherries - Fairy Queen, Endeavour and Freedom.

The founder of the NBYCo , Mr F.H. Chambers, died just before the first world war and, in 1920, the yard and its fleet were offered for sale by auction. The yard and its assets, which included Dragon, were purchased by the then foreman in charge, Alfred Pegg. In the 1929 edition of Blakes “Norfolk Broads Holidays Afloat” Dragon was listed as being one of the “finest wherries in Broadland” and now boasted a portable bath! It was also noted that the foreword cabin was now divided by a portable partition making two separate sleeping cabins. Terms for weekly hire were between £17 10s and £25 15s depending on the month.

Dragon continued to be offered for hire by Alfred Pegg through Harry Blakes agency until 1934 when she was sold to a Mr G.W Eves of Leigh-On-Sea in Essex who kept her on a mooring off Brimbelow Road in Hoveton. Mr Eves fitted Dragon with a Thornycroft 2 cylinder paraffin auxiliary engine and she was available to hire from him up until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. A late 1930s advert whilst under Mr Eves ownership also mentioned that Dragon had electric light and Calor gas cooking, heating and lighting, and that hire terms included a “Well known, reliable skipper and steward”. The skipper listed was a Mr George Strike. Weekly rates varied between £16 and £23 depending on the time of year. Dragon could also be hired as a static houseboat at Brimbelow Road for £7 per week for up to 6 people, with an extra 2/6 per person for gas, light, heating and laundry. The advert mentioned that the moorings had a private garden with a summer-house and that a bathroom and kitchen were available to use on land.

Wherry Dragon in Blakes 1929

Dragon - as advertised in the 1929 edition of Blakes “Norfolk Broads Holidays Afloat”

During the war itself, Dragon remained on her moorings at Brimbelow road, which was where her next owner, Brigadier H.E. Hopthrow, found her in 1948.  Mr Eves was thought to have been away abroad at this time and the purchase was not finalised until the beginning of 1950. Brig. Hopthrow was a member of the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club and the Norfolk Punt Club, and Dragon spent the next nine years as a much loved and well maintained family boat. She toured the Broadland regatta circuit where she was entered into several of the traditional wherry races. Very little changed in Dragons layout from her early hire days, although John Hopthrow (Brig. Hopthrow’s son) remembers that the double berths in the saloon had become singles, the washbasins in the single cabins had been moved, and that the pantry was their galley: “very small, and how my mother managed with it I don’t know, we had Norfolk China for about 12 people.”

You can read more about Dragon during Brigadier Hopthrow’s ownership in the excerpts from Dragon’s Logs which can be found within the personal memories section of the archive. More photographs from the Hopthrow family collection can be viewed in the 1950s Gallery.

In 1959 she was sold to a buyer who lived in Norwich and it is on record that he took out a marine mortgage to pay for her in the same year. It appears that the new owner moved Dragon to Thorpe where she was used by him as a liveaboard houseboat. Mike Barnes says: “Most of the remaining wherries went to houseboat use around that time, (the cost of keeping them in sailing trim would have been completely prohibitive then) and one by one, they were lost as they became too unsound to be viable. In short, they were lovely, affordable houseboats as long as they lasted and they were discarded when they became beyond reasonable repair.”  


At some point during the early to mid 1960s, Dragon was moved to Brundall where she and the wherry Liberty were both used as houseboats, presumably undergoing very little in the way of maintenance and losing her sailing rig. More details about Dragons final years can be found in a book called “Lowestoft Cruising Club – The First 21 Years” which was written by Arthur Gee and Tommy Thomas. By 1967 it seems that Dragon had moved to Loddon where she was bought for just £60 and taken to Lake Lothing to be used as a floating clubhouse for the Lowestoft Cruising Club. The club also purchased another wherry, “Malve” (originally named “Olga”) for £50 from May Gurney at the same time.  

Wherry Dragon at Burgh Castle 1952

Dragon pictured at Burgh Castle in 1952

It was decided that, out of the two, Dragon would make a more suitable clubhouse whilst Malve would be used as a store. Unfortunately, Malve sank soon after, but work began to convert Dragon for the purpose for which she was bought and she was used as the clubhouse for the next couple of years until another social venue was found. Around 1970, no longer being used and in a condition that was, at that time, unworthy of the expense needed to repair and restore her, Dragon was sold off and taken to Oulton Broad where she was sunk to be used as a jetty by a local landowner.


Mike Barnes recalls: “I was about 13 at the time and I remember being able to canoe into the flooded cabin and see the remains of the furnishing, lights etc. Shortly afterwards her roof was broken open and the boat filled with rubble, today it is a mature riverbank. Somewhat poignantly however, the tabernacle tops are still visible on a low tide and discernable to those that know, as a sad epitaph to a grand old lady.”


A sad epitaph indeed. Unfortunately, during the 1960s very little importance was put on preserving these iconic Broadland vessels and many ended their days being used to shore up river banks, or were broken up and burnt. The costs of restoration and maintenance were just too prohibitive for most people and these once glorious craft were surrendered to what was considered to be their most practical use. Dragon spent 50 years of her life serving the purpose for which she had been built – that of a hire craft. It’s nice to think that during that time, she must have given pleasure to countless parties of friends and families who wished to experience the beauty of Broadland aboard a boat which provided the finest comfort and luxuries that the era could offer.


Carol Gingell 2009

Update: Vaughan Ashby contacted me regarding Dragon and has filled in another little piece of her history and sent me a photograph which dates from c1960 when she was moored at Thorpe St. Andrew.

 

I have just been reading your interesting article on the pleasure wherry Dragon and I can tell a nice little story about her days in Thorpe when she was moored on the quay of the Thorpe Gardens pub. The man who bought her in 1959 (was it really that long ago?) was Tony Webster, who later became one of the river inspectors for the Yarmouth Commissioners, and we became good friends in the 70's when I had my yard at Womack, which was on his "patch". He told a rather nice story of those days.

Thorpe St Andrew c1960

It seems Dragon was not in good condition even then and one night she started making water over the floorboards and Tony had no idea what to do, except pump. Wherries had a canvas pump arrangement in the forepeak, known as a "swipe", and he got going on this and kept at it for several hours as he had no idea what else to do. Dawn came and went and he was getting desperate, when at five past eight there came a knock on the cabin top. Tony went to the hatch and standing there was Russell Newby, the foreman boatbuilder of Hearts Cruisers, "with his tool bag in his hand and ready to start work."

 Russell said "the Commander was up early this morning sir and he saw your lights on and thought you might be in need of a hand".

Tony said that from that day on he believed in the Angel Gabriel!

Dragon pictured at Thorpe St.Andrew c1960  by Vaughan Ashby

Apparently Russell clambered about in the forepeak for about an hour making hammering noises and emerged to say, in true Broads hire fleet fashion, that "that ought to do another week". In fact whatever he did lasted several years as Tony was a young man working in Norwich and had no money to have her properly repaired. When he went to thank my father later, he was not allowed to pay any money as father said he had no wish to profit from someone else's misfortune. Those were the days!

Vaughan Ashby 2012

If you have any memories or photographs of Dragon, or any of the other wherries then please do get in contact.

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