Chamberlin’s of Norwich: “Value and Reliability!”

There was a time when Norwich had, along with Bristol, the honour of having a Mint. There even was a time when Norwich had an importance which was second only to that of London. There was also a time when this City had its best forgotten days, when it lost its famous old weavers and saw the break-up of textile trade. There was also a time when its transport links to the capital city were poor and stage coach journeys were long, tedious and at times dangerous. That once famous ‘Punch’ magazine, in a sarcastic thrust at the slow methods of reaching East Anglia from the Metropolis, wrote at the time: “ On Friday last a young man was heard to ask for a ticket to Norwich. No reason can be assigned for the rash act.”

On one hand, there was that glorious year of 1815 when Napoleon was finally beaten at Waterloo; then, on the other hand that same year had its’ drawbacks. There were no railways, penny postage, morning papers, matches or gas, to say nothing of electric light; without a thousand and one inventions that were to give comforts to the masses, it was a time ripe for enterprise and progress. It was a time when a certain Henry Chamberlin, a Scotsman from Edinburgh, opened a business on Guildhall Hill which was to become known by the diserning as “ Chamberlin’s of Norwich,” a title that signified the hall-mark of excellence.

Henry Chamberlin (born 1777 and died 1848) never was one to entertain the selling of low quality goods; he went for the best, and the firm which he founded in 1815 never swerved from the principles of “value and reliability,” during perplexing years which saw, just like today, the rise and fall of the craze for cheapness. On this basis the Store became firmly established and grew. Then, in 1823, Henry the founder was joined by his son, Robert Chamberlin and continued to prosper. Some years later became known as Chamberlin, Sons & Co. and then quoted as a Limited Company under the title of Chamberlin & Sons, Limited. On 4 March Henry Died and was buried at Thorpe St Andrew Cemetery.

Chamberlins (Henry's Grave)1

Robert took over the Company’s reigns and just like his father, not only oversaw the business, but was to occupy a variety of civic office rolls during his life. On the domestic front, he found time to have seventeen children from two marriages. Then, following his death in 1876, his son, George Chamberlin, became General Manager of the family business. George would himself have a large family too, fathering ten of his own children. All four of his sons were to serve in the First World War. Throughout his life, George, just like his father and grandfather, also occupied a variety of commercial and civic posts, as well as having a very active personal life – his favourate sport was shooting. He was Mayor of Norwich three times, and in that capacity took the review of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment on their return from Mesopotamia after the First World War.

 

Chamberlins (Portrait Notes)

The Chamberlins were good people; good to work for and good in the community at large. While looking after the needs of the well-heeled citizens of Norwich and Norfolk they also help those living on the breadline in the mean courts and yards across the city. Their story is told in the book ‘Men Who Have Made Norwich’ in which members of the present Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society have re-printed articles written by Edward and Wilfred Burgess in 1904 when the Chamberlin Store and factory were in their prime. The two authors had a wonderful way with words when describing the scene before them when they walked into the shop on Guildhall Hill some 114 years ago, when it had been rebuilt following the fire of 1898 which was reported in the Norwich ‘Evening News’ at the time describing the blaze as “an irreparable loss.” It went on to say:

“The blaze had started at Hurn’s ropemaking business and spread to the library. Sixty thousand volumes, many rare and valuable, were lost including the important Norton collection of foreign dictionaries. Chamberlins – the big, upmarket department store on Guildhall Hill – was also damaged in the blaze.

Chamberlins (Fire 1898)1

If the wind had been blowing in a different direction much of Dove Street and Lower Goat Lane could have gone. It was also said later that if the fire brigade – the Carrow and the Anchor brigades also helped – had had longer ladders, they would have more chance of saving the building and many of the books.

The library reopened a year later at a cost of £1.719.

But back to Edward and Wilfred Burgess’s dissertation of 1904:

“Spacious and elaborate as were the premises of Messrs. Chamberlin, Sons, & Co., prior to the year 1898, an event then occurred which was regarded at the time as most disastrous to the city but which has turned out to be a blessing in disguise — we refer to the destruction of the premises by fire. The fire was of a most serious character, devastating the whole of one side of Dove Street, and part of the other side. From the ashes of the old premises arose — phoenix-like — a building, compared with which, the previous establishment — extensive as it was — was quite a modest affair. The disastrous experience of the fire has resulted in elaborate preparations being made for fighting or preventing a fire in future. At the end of each floor hydrants are fixed, giving a copious supply of water, while in the immediate vicinity of each hydrant lengths of hose are placed within easy reach. The present edifice, imposing in its external aspect, is positively palatial within its walls, and all the appointments are a marvel of sumptuousness. From the ne entrance lobby facing the Market Place right away to the utmost limits of the establishment, the display of the riches of the world’s drapery marts is only broken by the elegance of architecture and decorations on every hand. The ground floor saloon is devoted to the various retail departments under the management of Mr. George Waite, and they are the admiration of every visitor. So and agreeable tints pervade the whole place, and the lighting of the spacious area, from concave lights on either side, is perfect. Comfort and luxury are conspicuous features of the saloon, yet the space allowed to the display of goods appears to be almost unlimited. e further end of the saloon is artistically furnished with ladies waiting and reception rooms, while close by are the Fitting and costume departments. The upper floors are occupied by the counting houses and the wholesale departments; and the extensive basement, which is nothing less than a huge warehouse itself, is also utilised for the latter, especially for heavy goods.

Chamberlins (Shop)4

The area of the establishment is enormous, extending as it does from Dove Street — one entire side of which it occupies — up Guildhall Hill to the other side of the square facing the public library. Bearing in mind the numerous departments, the elegance of the appointments, the care devoted to ensuring the comfort of customers, the large and varied stock, and the unremitting attention given by assistants, it is no exaggeration to say that few establishments, either in or out of London, equal “Chamberlins,” and none surpass it. The Furnishing Department is of comparatively recent origin, but it is already a very extensive business of itself. The building appropriated to this branch is the last one of the series up Guildhall Hill, and the entrance is at the corner of the Public Library Square, almost exactly facing the entrance to the ancient Guildhall. Here is to be seen one of the largest assortments of carpets, linoleums, floor cloths, and furniture of every description, to be found in the Eastern Counties. The managements in the capable hands of Mr. T. Morpeth, a gentleman of wide experience in carrying out furnishing contracts. The comprehensive range of this department may be judged from the fact that it embraces the manufacture of bedding, all kinds of cabinet making and upholstering — in fact everything which goes to constitute a full equipment of complete house furnishers.

 

Chamberlins (Shop)1

Even this latter does not exhaust the variations of Chamberlins, for in Botolph Street the firm runs a modern clothing factory of large dimensions, which, has quite recently been rebuilt, and now provides cubic space of over 300,000 feet, with ample accommodation and motive power for about 1000 workers. On these premises are manufactured various kinds of clothing and shirts, but judging from appearances the main output is in uniforms and waterproof clothing for the Army, Navy, Yeomanry, Volunteers, Colonial Service, Postal Departments, Railway Companies, Police, etc. The motive power of the machinery, in the new section of the works is electricity, while in the remaining portion of the old works the machinery is still driven by steam power. Chamberlins are contractors for several of the principal railway companies and police forces in the country, while the variety of military uniforms indicates that the clothing supply of a considerable branch of the Army is catered for here. In the pressing room, the temperature is decidedly high, but here, as in every other department of the works, the ventilating arrangements are as perfect as modern science can make them. In the cutting room are to be seen some really wonderful machines, viz., the machine cutters. Driven at a terrific speed each of these cutters, by means of a rotary knife apparently as sharp as a razor, must do more work than any dozen hand cutters. Garments are cut and shaped by the one, two, or three dozen — according to the resisting qualities of the material – at a surprising rate. In one case layers of cloth, to a thickness of three inches, are cut to a pattern drawn on the top layer, as easy as a lady would cut muslin with scissors. In another cutting and trimming room, a numbers of hand cutters are engaged shaping garments which probably were not required in such large numbers as the uniforms are.

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The basements of the two buildings are very extensive and in one of them a powerful dynamo, by Laurence, Scott and Co., provides the electric light for the establishment. In the other basement, long rows of bales of material — probably scores of tons — are awaiting the handling in the dissecting and cutting rooms, and for the purpose of more easily moving these bales from floor to floor, a new lift has been erected which runs from the basement to the topmost floor. Here the preparations against fire are most complete, including an outside re-proof iron staircase, which has an outlet from every floor. Of course in works of this description the management is divided and sub divided, but the sole responsible manager for the entire Clothing Works is Mr. G. S. Barnard.

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It is worthy of observation, in a review of this nature, that in re-opening the Market Place premises, a new departure was made in giving a musical treat to the public. The Blue Hungarian Band was engaged on that occasion, and the experiment proved to be so eminently successful and so generally appreciated that the precedent has since been followed on several occasions.

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In closing and appreciation in which we have clearly established the right of Chamberlins, Limited to be bracketed with the “Men Who Have Made Norwich” it is interesting to note that the enormous number of persons attending a recent sale was quite unprecedented. In the first few days the rush was so great that it became absolutely necessary to keep the doors closed and customers were admitted in batches, as they could be dealt with; an authority on crowds estimating that there were at least 1,200 customers in the shop at a given’ hour on one afternoon.”

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George Chamberlin in his uniform as Deputy Lieutenant, 1911

When WWI broke out in August 1914 Chamberlin’s factory, situated in Botolph Street, was entirely devoted to the manufacture of civilian goods for the home and foreign markets. Almost immediately the call had come for help with the war effort, and George Chamberlin’s response was so prompt and efficient that within a month the business was almost entirely transferred to war productions. The importance and notoriety of the business rose, and although the difficulties faced were vast, they were tackled successfully. In a very short time the eight hundred employees roles were reorganised to satisfy Admiralty and War Office requests for an ever-increasing output.

Chamberlin’s produced vast quantities of waterproof material for use by the army, as well as suits for soldiers in service and after demobilisation. For some years the company had been the sole concessionaires for Great Britain and the Colonies for the manufacture of Pegamoid waterproof clothing. In pre-war days the authorities had subjected this material to a severe test in all climates, and it was held in such high esteem that, with the exception of a certain quantity which went to the army and to the Italian Government, the Admiralty claimed the bulk of the Company’s output during the whole period of the war.

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Another important aspect of Chamberlin’s activities was the manufacture of East Coast oilskin water-proof material, and throughout the war this was used in many styles of garments for the sea and land forces. The demand became so pressing that not only was the entire output requisitioned by the Admiralty and War Office, but it was necessary to build and equip a new factory in order to cope with it. In addition to these services Chamberlin was contracted for the supply of clothing to meet the requirements of the G. P. O, Government munitions factories, and other departments. At the request of the Government large quantities of standard clothes were also made, as well as suits for discharged soldiers. The war work of Chamberlin & Sons totalled close on one million garments, and they received from the authorities’ official recognition of the value of their services to the State in the years of WWI.

One hundred and twenty-five members of their Norwich staff enlisted and eight died in the service of their country. Many others served with distinction and obtained commissions and decorations for gallantry.

Chamberlins (Shop)2

In 1935 the post-war years brought fresh demands and challenges and, although maintaining traditions, Chamberlin & Sons had moved with the times and established a modernised store fully equipped to provide in all departments of drapery and house furnishing. Their factory, with new modern machinery, produced speciality men’s sports clothing under their registered brand ‘Sartella’. They remained a large manufacturer of oilskins whose largest customer continued to be the British Government.

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Some of Chamberlin’s Staff (undated) Do you recognise any of these ladies – and Gentleman?

It was said to be a great treat to shop at Chamberlin’s in the thirties and forties, with staff to welcome you and lead you to the desired department. The female assistants were apprenticed and generally lived over the shop, but were not allowed to serve customers for the first year of their training. They would instead act as runners for their superiors and later they would be allowed to assist the seniors. Only in their third year they were allowed to deal directly with the customers. Unfortunately, even tradition and the finest charm could not withstand modernisation, different shopping habits and changes in retail. The grand old store was eventually taken over by Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1950s the Tesco Metro now stands in their place next to the Market.

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From the days of ‘Value and Reliability’ to the present day ‘Every Little Helps’! This says much about the seismic shift in marketing, business provision and consumer demands

THE END

The S T Sheraton: Hunstanton’s Mystery Wreck.

Norfolk has a long history of shipwrecks; most are victims of storms, some due to error and a few maybe subject to intent. Whilst most wrecks can be plotted along the whole length of the East Coast of England and particularly the eastern extremities of Norfolk, a few lay along the north coast of the County.

Two wrecks in particular lay quite close to each other; well, if you consider 7 miles apart being close. The SS Vina lays at Brancaster, whilst the S T Sheraton, the subject of this tale, rests on the beach at St Edmund’s Point near Old Hunstanton, just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins. Time, sea and weather has ensured the this once proud steam trawler now resembles little more than a large and rusty rib-cage; a carcass which retains a half digested meal of brick remains and concrete.

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The S T Sheraton was built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull and began its working life by fishing out of Grimsby, her home port at the time. It was of a specific design and just one in an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of which was built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught. This ship represented an historic phase in deep water trawler construction as metal replaced timber. No design drawings remain nowadays, but the one surviving photograph of the Sheraton at sea, plus contemporary steam trawler plans indicate a vertical stem, counter–like stern and finely drawn underwater section. Its hull was constructed with ferrous metal plates over ferrous metal runners and ribs, held together with rivets, and with some internal wooden framing, possibly to support the decks and superstructure. All in all, these features were legacies of a great sailing era which contributed to the fine sea keeping quality of this type of vessel. The Sheraton was indeed a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.

The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the growing military power of Germany. Nothing made Great Britain’s sense of unease more stronger or acute than the thought that the Royal Navy itself – the mightiest in the world – might be challenged any time soon. In the same year that the Sheraton was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, “to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.”

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Not the Sheraton but an example of a similar steam trawler converted for wartime duties with 6pdr gun at the bow.

When what became The First World War began in 1914, as many as 800 trawlers from both Hull and Grimsby were requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties. One of these was the Sheraton which became an auxiliary boom defence vessel involved in net laying and patrolling anti-submarine booms. This she did for some considerable time, only occasionally undertaking trawling work. After peace was declared, she returned to fishing from Grimsby.

Then, following the outbreak of the Second World War the Sheraton was requisitioned in January 1942 by the Royal Navy, this time to serve in the ‘Nore’ Command, a major Royal Naval unit established in Kent during the 17th century. The Nore’s operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea, in addition to looking after the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas. This Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War. At its height, the Nore Command was overseen by an admiral and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth which also had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels.

When requisitioned by the Navy, the Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night. The following entry appeared for the Port of Grimsby at the time.

“Auxiliary Patrol Vessels – trawlers WARLAND (armed with 12 pdr gun), SHERATON (6pdr), EVERTON (3 pdr) repairing to comp 7 Jan, ORVICTO (3 pdr), French MONIQUE
CAMILLE (65mm), naval auxiliary boats GOLDEN ARROW III laid up in care and
maintenance, NORMARY, all vessels at Grimsby.”

In addition any other convertions that may have taken place on instructions from the Navy, the Sheraton was also fitted with an Echo Sounding Device.

 

Sheraton (with gun)
No photographic record of the
Sheraton in war-time has been found but
this is another image showing the location of the gun
mounting in a steam trawler in WWII
service.

Soon after the Second World War had ended in 1945, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow ‘daffodil’ colour. This was intentional, because the next phase of her life – which was obviously meant to be final – was to be a Royal Air Force target ship. This was no different a role to that of the SS Vina, laying just seven miles east of the Sheraton.

It would also appear that, following the end of hostilities, references to the Sheraton and details relating to the Grimsby fleet as a whole disappeared. The ’Loss List of Grimsby Trawlers 1800-1960’ does not mention the Sheraton, nor does ’Grand Old ladies: Grimsby’s Great Trawler Stories’, by Steve Richards. Maybe she changed ownership after the war and was re-registered in another port? Possibly, when the vessel came to the end of her working life and ended up as a hulk for target practice, such re-registration, or de-registration occurred. Maybe use as a target involved more than simply towing the vessel to a suitable position in the Wash? If a full de-commissioning took place then the engine could have been removed; this may explain for the concrete ballast in the present wreck.

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It was in the Wash off Brest Sand, Lincolnshire where the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored; she was to remain there until the night of 23rd April 1947 when severe gales drove her to break away from her moorings and drift across the Wash, eventually settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton.

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The stranded ‘Sheraton’ whale.

By the next day, anchors had been laid in preparation for an attempt to refloat this 130-ft RAF target vessel. That effort clearly failed and it was left to a firm of King’s Lynn scrap merchants who, reputedly, bought the beached ship and began stripping her down, almost to its ‘bare bones’. Thereafter, time and tide took over and what one sees today is what one gets – a large section of a partially ribbed hull.

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The Sheraton wreck as it used to be at low tide

The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having been wrecked itself on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry. The only option left was to call in the receivers. So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars, and helped to feed her in times of peace, still lingers on.

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The Sheraton wreck as it is now at low tide

With every year that passes onlookers continue to come and go, some will probably contemplate the possible circumstances surrounding the wreck and take photographs to post on social media; others will be preoccupied elsewhere and, in their minds, on more interesting objects. Those who have seen it all before get older and the youngsters copy the beach habits of their elders and simply paddle in pools and dig sand castles. Whilst all this goes on, the remains of the once proud S T Sheraton continues to be weathered towards ultimate oblivion.

THE END

Reedham Ferry and Inn

By Haydn Brown.

Reedham Ferry (By Hand)
Hand Operated Ferry

The Reedham Ferry is a vehicular chain ferry which was hand operated until 1949. It continues to operate on the River Yare in Norfolk, crossing the river near the village of Reedham and forming the only crossing point between the city of Norwich and Great Yarmouth and saving users a journey of more than 30 miles. The ferry carries up to 3 cars at a time with a maximum total weight of 12 tonnes. This contrasts to the original ferry which was called the Norfolk Horse Ferries which, unsurprisingly, carried horse drawn wagons – the main users of the ferry boat at the time. The current ferry was built in 1984 and was designed and built at Oulton Broad by the late Fred Newson & the present owner David Archer.

The Reedham Ferry has been operating this service since the 17th century, supported by the nearby Reedham Ferry Inn whose licensees have been responsible for running the river Ferry to present day. Since the 1770’s the Inn’s licensees have been:

JOHN SHEPHERD pre 1773

JOHN HOGGETT 1773 – 1803

MARY HOGGETT 1803 – 1829

JOHN HOGGETT 1829 – 1831

JEREMIAH HOGGETT 1831 – 1843

MARSON MANTHORPE (marsh man) 1861 – 1865

JOHN BENNS 1865 – 1881

GEORGE FOWLER HALL 1881 – 1884

GEORGE FORDER 1884 – 1917

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CHARLES EDWARD STONE 1917 – 1944

ARTHUR JOHN BENNS 1944 – 1949

NORMAN ARCHER 1949 – 1969

DAVID ARCHER 1969 – Present

Norman and Hal Archer took over the Reedham Ferry Inn, then a small ale house, in 1949. They came from London, along with David their son soon after the Second World War. Right from the beginning the family were to demonstrate a true commitment to the task of operating a ferry which required Norman to winch it across the river by hand. However, within 12 months, in 1950, he had the ferry fitted with a diesel engine. At that time, he had no way of knowing that this would be the start of the family pioneering the last working chain ferry in the East of England. There had been numerous other ferries over the river Yare in those days, principally at Whitlingham, Bramerton, Surlingham, Coldham Hall and Buckenham, but these disappeared.

David Archer took over the business in 1969 at a time when the pub was showing true sustainability and making waves in the hospitality world; it won the ‘Broads Pub of the Year’ in 1973. With the Reedham Ferry Inn flourishing and a small campsite for holiday makers planned, the ‘old ferry’ under the Archers, was now nearly 60 years old; it was getting tired with the amount of traffic on the roads and David knew that it was time for a new ferry. In 1983 boat builders from Lowestoft were given the task of creating a new vessel which started operating in May 1983. This was followed by touring park, and the transformation of the pub from a small 1940’s ale house into the large bar and restaurant it is today.

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The Reedham Ferry and Ferry Inn

The Reedham Ferry Inn remains a destination for drivers and holiday makers alike with mooring also available, along with a carp lake for holiday makers to enjoy some fishing as well. As for David Archer, he also works alongside the Broads Authority managing the surrounding marshes, waterways and farm land.

Operating the only working chain ferry in the East Anglia does, however, have some drawbacks. Being so unique means that everything surrounding the ferry maintenance is more challenging and costly. The ferry has to be lifted out of the water every 4-5 years to check the hull is sound and secure whilst also going through thorough testing. Whilst all this goes on, those who use the ferry have to drive the 30 miles or more detour. That apart, it would appear that David Archer has kept true to an old way of life, barely seen in any other parts of the country. When travellers board the Reedham Ferry they are transported back to a time when that was the only mode of transport for crossing the river Yare. It is a much quicker trip now than back in the days of winching by hand but there is always enough time to get out of the cars and look around and down the river to experience a feeling ‘of the past.

FOOTNOTE: When the rivers were the main arteries of communication within the country Reedham was once a much more important place. It was known to the Romans, when the estuary of the river Yare was much wider and Reedham was almost a sea port. Fragments of Roman brick still turn up in the village and appear in quantity in the church walls. Reedham is mentioned in a story by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) about St Edmund and although the legend may be pure invention the place was obviously well known to these medieval times. Even before the time of Edmund it is said that Reedham possessed a church that was founded by St Felix around the year 640. Felix was the first Bishop of East Anglia and gave his name to Felixstowe. This church at Redham survived until it was destroyed by the invading Danes on their way to murder Edmund in the year 869 – this information comes from the Liber Eliensis or the History of Ely Abbey, written in the 12th century.

In January 2017 a Land Rover ‘Defender’ was reported stolen and later found submerged under the chains of Reedham Ferry. The ferry was forced to close for safety reasons and the fact that it couldn’t moor on the Reedham side of the river. The car was removed from the river by a local resident’s JCB machine and the Reedham Ferry was back in business within one day – during which time travellers had to find an alternative or wait!

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Reedham Ferry stranded on the opposite side of the river from the submerged vehicle. Picture: James Bass Photography
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The vehicle submerged under water and lodged under the chains of Reedham Ferry where the ferry docks on to the quayside. Picture: James Bass Photography

 

THE END

 

 

The Tale of a Vanished Landmark

(Based on contributions from Christopher Weston and other sources.)

This is a Tale not so much about the village of Weybourne but more about a grand Edwardian hotel that was built there to entice the wealthy – but was destroyed by changing times and the fear of invasion.

Weybourne Village Sign

Visitors who come to Weybourne in the hope of seeing where this once-elegant Hotel once stood in the schemes of things would see nothing. Indeed, few would know that it had its beginnings during a period towards the end of the 19th century when there was a spirit of optimism in the area founded on the tourism boom of the 1890s. But it seemed that the building, and its intended purpose, was damned from its inception.

Given Weybourne’s current geography, it might seem hard to believe that in 1900, plans were considered for what later became a large building, variously known as either the ‘Weybourne Springs Hotel’ or the ‘Weybourne Court’, Hotel. It would be located next to Weybourne railway station but on the opposite side of the road. The building project was financed by a Mr Crundle, owner of the nearby gravel pits; he hoped that guests staying in the five-storey upmarket establishment would come from the upper classes.

Weybourne Station
Weybourne Station

When the idea of building a railway line from Sheringham to Melton Constable via Holt was first announced there was much opposition from local landowners along the route, but it eventually went ahead and opened in 1887. However, between Sheringham and the next station of Holt there were no further stations originally planned, but this changed as a result of the late 1890’s tourist boom when the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GN) decided they would develop Weybourne as a holiday resort. So, in early 1900 work began on a new station, the site of which would be a mile from the village of Weybourne; the station opened to passengers on July 1 the following year. The position of the station, some 1760 yards from Weybourne may seem a bit odd, but not when it is understood that the Station was built to serve the nearby “Weybourne Springs Hotel”, not the village and local community! Had the hotel not been built then, maybe, Weybourne might never have had a station at all?

However that aside, the hotel’s arrival was seen by the M & GN as a chance to increase revenue on their line; and it did want to impress, given that the ‘Springs’ was located nearby and both properties would “grow” together. Work to build the Hotel began on what turned out to be a large building with its three reception rooms, billiards room, hotel office, manager’s rooms, guest bathrooms, kitchen, serving rooms, domestic offices, staff bedrooms and outbuildings including stables. In all there were 36 guest bedrooms and due to its size, records suggest the hotel, reputedly named after nearby springs with medical properties, didn’t open for business until 1902. Interestly, included in the hotel’s facilities was indeed a local ‘Springhead Plantation’s spring-fed pool, which flowed under the adjacent railway. At one end was a pumping station and at the other end was a hydraulic ram. This equipment served the hotel.

Whilst popular at first, and with a belief of management in possible further development later, the hotel was to fail to reach its full potential. Certainly in its shortlived ‘heyday’, the Weybourne Springs Hotel was an impressive building with verandas, gables, corner towers and a first floor main entrance which, during the early years of the 20th century, welcomed visitors. Its appearance partly resembled that of the current Links Hotel at West Runton.

Weyborne (Links Hotel) 1
Links Hotel, West Runton

Ironically, when it did open, one of its earliest and largest booking was not by elegant tourists at all. This ‘booking’ was made in May 1903 when the increasing numbers attending Gresham’s School in Holt had outstripped the space for them at the school’s boarding accommodation. So, from May to July that year, boys were boarded at the Weybourne Springs Hotel. From there they would travel daily, by train, to Holt for their lessons until the end of the school’s summer holidays when extra accommodation was provided at the school.

Weybourne (Gresham's)
Gresham’s School, Holt, Norfolk

Thereafter, there were various occupants for the Hotel, including a holiday centre with chalets in the grounds and a private club. Brewery records reveal that on October 19 1908, Percy Newton Mayhew was the third and possibly final registered licensee. No licence application renewal was made either in or after February 1910, suggesting the Springs only remained a hotel for a short time. The Norfolk Pubs Register claims closure was “around 1909”, and two years earlier on June 7 1907, the London Gazette (the official Government journal) had already published Notice that the Springs Hotel would shortly be sold by auction.

First listed by Kelly’s in their 1904 Norfolk Directory, the hotel had been owned by the North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd with its company secretary, Mr S E Harris, as licensee. However, in 1908 the London Gazette announced that North Norfolk Hotels & Catering Co Ltd would be dissolved in the November but the property still retained its name.

Weybourne (Theo School)

In 1910 the “Springs” hotel was the chosen venue for a Theosophical Society Summer School. An international group of like-minded souls searching for divine wisdom in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe. The school ran from 4th to the 18th July and guests were charged 35s per week for those sharing rooms with an extra premium of 5s per week for those who were fortunate enough occupy a room on their own. Up to four people occupied some of the rooms, however there is no record to state if the occupants were of mixed gender or not. There was an overflow of attendees and these were accommodated in tents pitched in the grounds of the hotel and in lodgings at Holt and Sheringham. Some of the folks who attended the summer school travelled from Europe.  This, plus all the activity generated by so many must have provoked a great deal of interest among the locals who themselves had, in all probability, never set foot outside Norfolk.

Then came the First World War which rekindled worries for the authorities who were to heavily defend the whole of the north Norfolk coastline. For centuries Weybourne had been seen as particularly vulnerable to foreign invaders going back to pre-Tudor years when the Spanish planned to invade, followed by threats to invade from the French and later by the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars, One of the reasons for this is that Weybourne has very deep water making it very easy to bring boats in and unload directly from the boats to the shore. That had been a particular big advantage to the Romans when they first came and then the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. The Vikings landed and lived here.

There was a 16th century saying: ‘He who would Old England win must at Weybourne Hoop [harbour] begin’.

 

Weybourne (Beach)
Weybourne – Deep Water and a Gentle Sloping Beach

So during the Great War, when coastal lookout stations between Hunstanton and Sheringham were manned by members of the Cyclist Brigade, two of their companies (2nd & 25th County of London Cyclist Brigade) were billeted in the Springs Hotel, whose corridors now echoed to the sounds of army boots rather than those of hotel guests. But even during wartime there was time to relax: on May 24, 1915 (Whit Monday), the hotel hosted the military’s Cycle Battalion Sports Day. Soldiers from Brancaster, Hunstanton, Snettisham and Wells also attended, camping under canvas in fields around the railway station.

After the war the Hotel must have reopened, as the 1922 Kelly’s Norfolk Directory listed Frederick George Emms as ‘Proprietor of the Weybourne Court Hotel’ but by 1929, it was unlisted, evidence of its end following a gradual fall-off in trade over the previous twenty years or so. At the time it was suggested that the Hotel’s demise was partly due to subsidence of the light sandy soil on which the Hotel was built. But nearby, and not to be entirely forgotten of ‘The Springs’  was to be the ‘Weybourne Court Holiday Camp Ltd’ complex, built on some of the former hotel’s site. However, in August 1931, the London Gazette advised this too would be dissolved within the following three months – the Company was only finally wound up in 1942. As for the former Weybourne Springs Hotel, this became a home for disabled people in the 1930’s but would experience its end at the outbreak of Second World War. The demise of the former Hotel came in 1940 when it was demolished after being considered a conspicuous landmark which might be advantageous to the Luftwaffe.  The building went through many guises in its relatively short history but all that remained would be a few photographs and fast-fading memories to remind later historians of a hotel which was launched to serve upper-class tourists but which succumbed in the end to the tides of war.

FOOTNOTE: In the leadup to the Second World War a local bylaw came into effect in 1937; this allowed for anti-aircraft guns to be fired in the peaceful village of Weybourne as part of  the County’s wartime defences.  The order, made under the Military Lands Acts and signed by His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the War Department, Duff Cooper, and the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, restricted access around the secret training camp at Weybourne while warning flags were flying. Anyone found to be in breach of the bylaw could be removed from the area and fined up to £5. Although the War ended in 1945, it took until  2016, more than 70 years,  for the Order to be ended.

Weybourne (Station,Gun 1937)
A3 inch anti-aircraft gun being loaded on to a train at Weybourne Station in 1937, destined for the Camp

During the Second World War, Weybourne Camp was a highly secret site and was an Anti-Aircraft Artillery range not too far from the site of the former Weybourne Springs Hotel. The camp, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command in World War II. Here the Norfolk coastline became a controlled zone by the British forces. This controlled zone extended 10 km deep into the North Sea around Norfolk. Weybourne Camp was a vital part of this zone and, as well as firing in anger, it was also to be used as the principal training camp for all the Royal Artillery who were defending the Midlands and London with their anti-aircraft guns. Gunners would come up to Weybourne for two weeks, they would be trained on firing their guns and then they would deploy back to the cities to defend the cities. They were trained by women of the Royal Auiliary Corps, the ATS, who were responsible for training the artillery gunners. It proved to be a popular place to be posted because it was where the lads could meet the ladies; there are a number of records of soldiers who married their loved ones who they had met there. But all that also came to an end when the Anti-aircraft guns themselves became obsolete in favour of missiles. The Camp at Weybourne closed in 1958.

However, while the guns have long since fallen silent at the anti-aircraft artillery range, they can still be seen in position at the Muckleburgh Collection, on the site of the former camp, part of the UK’s largest private display of guns and military vehicles.

As for Weybourne village and the railway, these would go on to benefit from the general holiday rail traffic as folk came to visit the Norfolk coast for their annual holidays after hostilities ended. But, in 1959, the axe also fell on both the railway line and Weybourne station. But, in time, the M&GN Joint Railway Society was formed and secured the Sheringham to Holt section, enabling Weybourne station to remain open today as the North Norfolk Railway.

The Step Dancing Fishermen of Cromer

(By Chris Holderness with photos from various).

In addition to reading Chris’s narrative below, how about clicking on the following Link to see some of the boys ‘stepping out’

 

Now take a breather by sitting back and reading the following:

Cromer Beach 1

‘Nearly thirty years ago a friend and I, in a small boat with the two Suffolk fishermen who owned it, pulled ashore on Cromer beach, below the tall tower of the church.  We were going round the coast recording material for a radio programme. Later that evening, hugging the green box which was that marvellous new thing, a portable tape recorder, we found ourselves in The Albion pub with a bunch of big smart men in reefer jackets and blue jerseys – the Cromer lifeboat crew.  After a pint or two all round someone put a small board on the floor and, to my amazement, one by one these stalwart modern fishermen stood up and step-danced like people from another planet.  Indeed, if they had put on silver suits and flown out of the window I could have not have been more surprised and delighted.  We recorded like mad.

Cromer (Albion Pub)

 

Sam Larner (Philip Donellan)1
Peter Donnellan

I had no idea then that people still did this in England – it just shows how ignorant radio producers can be!’ Thus the BBC radio producer Philip Donnellan, who was instrumental in bringing Winterton singer (and step dancer) Sam Larner to wider notice, wrote in 1982.

 

The north Norfolk town of Cromer has long been associated with crab and lobster fishing. Even once the Victorian railway arrived and brought countless waves of holidaymakers, turning the town into a fashionable spa watering hole, the crab fishing industry continued to flourish and was the main source of employment in the town. It was a hard way of life, as Katherine ‘Kitty’ Lee – daughter of ‘Shrimp’ Davies, erstwhile fisherman, lifeboat coxswain and step dancer – recalled: ‘A typical day in May would start for me when the alarm goes.  Johno (her husband) gets

Cromer (Crabs)
Cromer Crabs

up, calls our son.  Phone will give two rings and then stop, which means John Balls, our crewman, is up.  The time could be anything; say it’s 3 am, 3:30 on the beach.  Maybe he’ll want a different order for bait.  He’ll set the clock for me to get up about 7 am.  I light the gas coppers.  They take an hour to get hot.  If everything is working OK the men should be ashore about 7:30 am.  Home around 8 am.  Put 2 or 3 hundred crabs into the bath of warm water – 8.30 they’ll be drowsy enough to scrub clean.  Two of the men will scrub – we can boil 200 crabs at a time.  The third will cook their breakfast – they take turns – all good cooks!  In June when they go off around 2:30 am, they are home by 6:30 am…’ It was also a hazardous existence, dependent on the tides and the vagaries of the sea, in a notoriously unpredictable area of the coast, as Donnellan made note of in the same article as before: ‘Three months after our recording session in The Albion two of those big dancing fishermen, coming into Cromer beach on a summer day with their catch of crabs, were swamped by a freak wave and never seen again.’

Step Dancing:

image-7
Henry ‘Srimp’ Davies

Side by side with this traditional industry of crab fishing were the two activities of being crew members of the Cromer lifeboat and step dancing in the pubs of the town and surrounding area.  In both of these activities, the Davies family has been prominent.  Probably one of the most renowned of the family was Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies (1914-2002), a long-serving and decorated coxswain of the lifeboat.  He was also a wonderful step dancer.  Philip Donnellan was not the only BBC broadcaster to visit Cromer step dancers, intentional or otherwise.  John Seymour, in conjunction with fiddle player Alan Waller, did so sometime in the early 1960s: ‘Going up into the town, we looked up Shrimp Davies, as the coxswain of Cromer’s No 1 lifeboat is generally called by people who know him.  I’ve known him for some years.  Like the other lifeboatmen, he’s also a crabber and crabbing is how he makes his living.  He’s a smallish man, but wiry and tough, as anyone following his calling must be.  He likes his beer when he’s ashore, he plays the melodeon and he step dances……The earliest extant recording of Shrimp step dancing seems to have been made by Peter Kennedy in 1952, in the town, when he danced to Percy Brown and Bob Thompson playing The Sheringham Breakdown on melodeons.

‘Shrimp’ Davies’ cousins Jack (John James) and Dick were also step dancers, whilst another cousin Bob also played the melodeon.  When Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme visited the area in the mid-1970s to research the step dancing tradition, they found the Davies family members still very active in this respect.  They identified three distinct styles of step dancing still in evidence in north Norfolk, albeit mainly practised by a few members of an older generation: ‘

1) An intrinsic and deep rooted style of dancing which we call Norfolk stepping.

2) The stepping characteristic of the travelling people – as old or possibly older than Norfolk stepping, which we call Travellers’ Stepping.

3) A degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping performed by the Davies family of fishermen in Cromer.’

image-8‘The Davies are an established Cromer fishing family whose association with the lifeboat dates from its earliest days. The present cox is young Richard Davies who succeeded his uncle, Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies. Shrimp’s predecessor was the famous coxswain Henry Blogg, brought up with the Davies. There has been a tradition of dancing in the Davies family for at least seventy years.  This dancing is performed in ordinary leather-soled shoes and is considered by the fishermen and others to be Lancashire dancing.’

‘Unlike the Lancashire stepping of the travellers and the Jearys, the older members of the Davies family danced in eight-bar phrases, comprising a six-bar step followed by a two-bar finish.  The story of how modern Lancashire step dancing came to be found amongst the fishermen of Sheringham and Cromer is well known.  The Morning Advertiser of 1964 relates the tale as told to them by Mr Archie Wright in an article entitled Christmas is a time for Step Dancing. It reads: At The Horseshoes, in the Norfolk village of Alby, the entertainment speciality of this cheerful roadside inn is a particularly vigorous form of step dancing.  The story of step dancing at The Horseshoes is linked with the career of licensee Mr Archie Wright.

His first connection with the local fishermen was in 1924 when he went to The Belle Vue at Cromer, a house he managed for nine years.’

‘In any conversation about step dancing the most frequently recurring name is that of Jack Davies (Sn).  Mr Wright’s sister Rosie is Mrs Jack Davies (Jr).  Her son Richard is an expert step dancer and his grandfather Mr Jack Davies Sn., now over eighty, was until a few years ago one of the finest exponents in the district.’

‘At this point it has to be acknowledged that Norfolk cannot claim this form ofstep dancing for its very own.  It was brought to Cromer by a coastguard from Lancashire over sixty years ago and he showed local fishermen Mr Jack Davies (born 1884) and his brother Billy (born 1887) how it should be done.  When Jack and Billy Davies danced together they did so in perfect unison.  An exponent whose expertise is still remembered and discussed with admiration was the late Mr Charlie Harrison (born 1874). ”Billy Davies passed his talent on to his son Mr Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies.  Jack’s brother Dick is a good step dancer, as is Jack himself and his son Richard.  The Sheringham lifeboat bowman Mr Eric Wink is another step dancer.’

It goes on to say, ‘For a feature of this dance, which over the years has become the Norfolk fishermen’s own speciality, is that it must be performed within a very small space.  It is all done on the toes and ball of the feet and heels must never touch the ground.’

Archie Wright’s daughter Marian Daniels commented, of another public house held by the family, that ‘My parents Archie and Ivy Wright were tenants at The King’s Head, Erpingham.  We moved there in 1948.  All the twelve years we were there Sat and Sunday evenings George Craske would bike over from Sustead and bring his accordion.  Also a chap called Albert would play the piano.  He was a coal man and my mother had to clean the white keys as they were black when he finished playing.’

Cromer (Davies on Horseback))
The Step Dancing Davies

“My uncle Jack Davies, a Cromer fisherman, and his son, my cousin Richard, would step dance, also myself, my father and Jimmy Crane.  Everybody used to get up and dance.  My mother would be up and down the cellar steps, serving.  There was no counter.  She would be singing all the old songs.  Titch and Charlie Lambert, uncle and nephew, loved to dance.  If they couldn’t get a partner they would dance together.  It is such a shame these wonderful evenings are no more.’

To return to the article by Peter Clifton and Ann-Marie Hulme: ‘The Davies’s dancing is of great interest as it demonstrates the absorption of an extrinsic style of dance into the local tradition and how in two generations the dance has degenerated.  We know that the deep-rooted Norfolk stepping existed in Cromer before the arrival of the Lancashire coastguard.  Indeed, old Jack Davies’ father was a Norfolk stepper.  Old Jack Davies, his brother Billy and ship’s carpenter Charlie ‘Casey’ Harrison from Sheringham learnt Lancashire steps from a coastguard stationed at Cromer in about 1905.  The Davies called these steps by such names as the 1st Lancashire Step, the 2nd Lancashire step, etc.  The steps the coastguard brought with him are generally termed Lancashire clog steps.  That is the modern style of Lancashire dancing dating from the 1870s, danced on the music halls and at competitions.  The Davies fitted their Lancashire steps to the even rhythmic hornpipes and breakdowns of the local Norfolk musicians, often dancing alongside the dancers of the deep-rooted Norfolk style of stepping such as the Wards and the Turners from Roughton whom Archie Wright calls ‘farmyard shufflers’ or ‘tailboard steppers’.

image-11

He used these terms in a slightly derogatory sense, considering their style of stepping inferior to that of the fishermen.  The names apparently derive from the farm labourers’ practice of removing the tail boards of farm carts to step in order to keep warm on cold mornings whilst awaiting their orders.’

As to the Davies’ style, the article comments: ‘We believe old Jack learnt eight steps.  He was undoubtedly the best dancer, and we are told was the only Davies to be able to dance the steps off each foot.  The next generation of Davies, Jack, Dick, Shrimp and Bob dance about half that number.  The best dancer and the only one to still use a two-bar finish is Dick Davies.  He learnt his steps from Charlie Harrison.  He insists his 1st Lancashire step must be danced with plenty of spring and on the toes.  Another step involved shuffles followed by a toe and heel – a type of roll.  We note that for a dance which is supposed to be ‘all done on the toes and ball of the foot, and heels never touch the ground’, it certainly employs a number of down heel beats.’

In an area where step dancing was once very commonplace, and to a more limited extent still is, the Davies family – or at least the males of the family – have ensured that this tradition continued in Cromer perhaps long after it died out elsewhere.  The fishing community in the town was notably conservative, in outlook, dress and customs, as Kitty Lee relates: ‘Johno averages a new suit every other year.  Doeskin is out, but he does have the best serge available.  So he generally can rely on having three suits at any one time – working, second best and best.  He has at least seven jackets in the house at present.  He takes a pride in wearing the old style and I doubt he will ever change.’ It is this pride in the traditional way of doing things which may have ensured the survival of the step dancing in the town, particularly although not exclusively in the hands of the Davies family.

Kitty Lee once again comments on the men’s habits which fostered this: ‘Bringing up a family in the olden times they didn’t have a lot of room – 2 up, 2 down – with 7 or 8 children.  It wasn’t so bad when they were all small and sent to bed but as they grew, where did they all sit?  So I guess going to the local hostelry was really a necessity.  It would be more like a wealthy person going to his ‘club’.  What better way to end a day’s work than by sinking a few pints of good ale, replacing the liquid sweated out rowing and hauling, chatting about the day’s events, discussing catches, swopping ‘yarns’, telling tales.  Bit of music from an accordionist, sing an old ‘shanty’, dance a step or two.  Wonderful days.  It was the best way to relax, take the tension out of any worrying situations that might have occurred, discuss prices and decide what time is best to get the tide tomorrow.’

Unfortunately this tradition of self-made pub entertainment was not to last as people’s recreation changed; of the aforementioned step dancing Davies, Richard (1944-2010) was the only one of his generation to continue the practice, as his daughter Fiona relates: ‘There weren’t really many people.  I can’t think of anyone like Billy Davies, or anyone like that stepping.  I can’t remember them doing that … Dad used to get annoyed (in The Albion) when someone would come in and start playing, and then someone in the pub would turn the music up; and he could get really annoyed.’

Singing in the pubs was also commonplace in the town, part and parcel of the evening’s entertainment with the step dancing, as a local newspaper article relates: ‘Shrimp’ learned his many step dances from his father, and from his famous uncle, Coxswain Henry Blogg.  He tells many a tale of the fierce competition which existed in the early days of this century between local step-dancers, tales which involved both ‘Shrimp’ himself and his father. ‘He recalls a man named Gipsy Gray, renowned around Cromer for his prowess both with his feet and his fists.  Shrimp’s father was dancing in a local pub one night when Gipsy Grey walked in and started to deride the Davies’ dancing. ‘Davies determined then to prove his superiority and a fight ensued from which he emerged victorious, uncrowned king of step dance and fisticuffs.  Having heard of these tales I wondered how ‘Shrimp’, who certainly looks a worthy successor to his father, had earned his diminutive nickname.  He laughed when I inquired about it, and told me that being a rather small baby, his Uncle Henry had walked in, taken one look and said, not very tactfully, ‘What a bloomin’ shrimp.’ The nickname has survived some fifty years.

‘The usual venue of the lifeboatmen of Cromer is either The Albion pub or The Bath Hotel.  In The Albion, on a black, storm-swept night in January, I met ‘Shrimp’s’ brother Bob Davies, a giant of a man.  Like the rest of the Davies family he has the sea etched into his face, and also like them he has a warm, outgoing personality.  He is judged to be one of the best accordion players in the county, when he can be persuaded to give a tune on that instrument.’

Cromer (Shrimp Dancing)
Shrimp Davies Dancing

‘When one adds ‘Shrimp’s’ dancing to Richard’s singing and Bob’s accompaniment, one wonders why they did not choose the stage for their career, for they would have been instantly successful.  Richard, who strikes one as the obvious leader of the younger generation of Cromer seamen, does most of his singing in The Bath Hotel on the seafront. The proprietors, Tom Evans and his wife Stella are both keen folk music followers and have encouraged the fishermen to use this pub as their song and dance centre.  Richard has a wealth of traditional song at his fingertips, songs which have been passed on by generations of seamen.  One of his favourite songs is The Bold Princess Royal…’

Clearly there was on occasion a robust spirit of competition as regards the step dancing, although Richard himself did not favour any sort of formal dancing competitions, as Fiona relates: ‘He used to get quite annoyed about the stepping competitions as well…It was just that you shouldn’t have a competition.  I totally agree with him on that one.  That don’t matter who’s better …  But it’s not about how well you do it; it’s being part of it and adding a beat to the music.  It’s not how fancy your steps are.’

In recent years Richard Davies could always be prevailed upon to sing his own idiosyncratic versions of The Foggy Dew and The Worst Old Ship (Waiting for the Day), both, in their rather blunt bawdiness, exhibiting his vivacious and convivial personality which always came to the fore in numerous musical occasions across the county.

One local regular singer and step dancer who was greatly involved in the nights of music but who was not of the Davies family was Frank ‘Friday’ Balls. An occasional fisherman, he tended to earn his living in the building trade, as Jimmy Jeary recalled: ‘He hardly went to sea; very, very rare.  He was a builder more than anything.  He used to sing down The White Horse on Saturday, Friday nights.  Cause he knew all the old fishing songs,’ and Fiona Davies remembered that ‘He was quite a lovely old man’ who sang and step danced.

Cromer (Percy Brown & Dick Hewitt)
Percy Brow & Dick Hewitt

Aside from Bob Davies or George Craske, a regular musician to play for the step dancing was Percy Brown, who lived in and around the town of Aylsham.  Philip Donnellan again: ‘Two of the men that night in The Albion (and what better name for a culture-carrying pub than that?) were not fishermen but countrymen: Percy Brown, who played melodeon and concertina (sic) like an angel, and Dick Hewitt, a slim, straight younger man, who danced like a demon.’ As well as in Cromer itself, the step dancing would take place a few miles inland as, before the advent of synthetic materials, the fishermen would head to Antingham to gather hazelnut sticks for their crab pots, as recalled by Ray Bird, formerly landlord of The Barge in that village: ‘Them down Cromer, the fishermen, they used to come. They used to come to that little old plantation; that’s where they used to cut hazelnut out for crab pots.  They’d just call up the road for Percy: ‘Come on, we’re going down for a drink.’

On 6th October, 1962, Reg Hall, Bill Leader and Russell Wortley recorded an evening’s entertainment in The Bath House on the sea front of the town. Reg Hall

Cromer (Dick Hewitt)
Dick Hewitt

remembers that they picked up Dick Hewitt and Percy Brown on the way and that ‘Shrimp’ Davies lived more or less next door.  The lively recordings showcase Percy Brown’s playing of a variety of popular song tunes, his occasional singing, and quite a few medleys of hornpipes to which Richard, Jack, and ‘Shrimp’ Davies step danced, as did Dick Hewitt and ‘Friday’ Balls, the latter also contributing the occasional song.  As well as Percy, Reg also accompanied the step dancers on several occasions, recalling that he played that evening to get things going, something he wouldn’t always do. As a consequence of this night, Reg remembers that the Cromer lifeboat crew were invited down to Islington Fox in about 1965 and that about four came and there was a night of singing, step dancing and storytelling.

In the 1970s a short film was made for Anglia Television of various Davies family members and ‘Friday’ Balls step dancing to Percy Brown’s playing, showing their individual styles within that ‘degenerate form of what is commonly called modern Lancashire stepping.’  The five dancers get up one after the other to perform their steps, whilst Percy Brown continues to play Yarmouth Hornpipe throughout, very much as is the custom.  The dancers in order are Richard, Dick, Jack, ‘Friday’ Balls and ‘Shrimp’ Davies.

Cromer (Richard Davies)2
Richard Davies

Richard Davies, the life and soul of so many musical nights across the county with his ebullient personality, sadly succumbed to a brain tumour on 5th May, 2010, at the age of sixty five. Local broadcaster and newspaper columnist Keith Skipper wrote: ‘He looked and sounded like a refugee from Treasure Island.  Gingery beard, muscular frame, booming voice, piercing eyes darting from menace to mirth in no time and a throaty chortle …  With great uncles like Henry Blogg and Henry ‘Shrimp’ Davies, the boy Richard had to get used to feeling at home with proud traditions …  We found happy common ground on stage as his extrovert nature and delicious lightness of foot kept traditional step-dancing to the fore.  He answered calls to give special displays at Mundesley Festival and on my Press Gang farewell entertainment rounds.  Our final flourish together came at Waxham Barn on an uncommonly cold May evening a couple of years ago to raise money for the Sea Palling inshore lifeboat.  Richard’s turn culminated in his own distinctive version of Foggy Dew.’ Richard Davies was a highly respected member of his local community, long standing coxswain of the lifeboat until his retirement in 1999, and the town quite rightly came to a standstill for his funeral on 19th May, 2010.

Cromer (Late Richard Davies)
Richard Davies circa 2002

Times have changed in Cromer as everywhere else but the crab fishing is still thriving in the hands of Richard’s son John, continuing the family business although, in the words of Fiona, ‘My brother can step.  But he always says he has a bone in his leg, so he can’t!  But he can step; he was taught to step.  He knows how to do it, but he won’t.’  Fiona however has continued the family tradition, despite the fact that it has been almost exclusively a male preserve in the town: ‘It was male-dominated …  But I can’t remember any of my aunts stepping …  I broke that tradition!’  She recalls earlier years and being in Aldborough Black Boys in the mid 1970s: ‘I can’t remember whether we were upstairs or downstairs, but I can remember my dad saying, ‘Come on, step!’ And I had to, whether I was shy or not.  I was only about five or six. That was one of my earliest memories, I think. And it was great, because there was lovely people and a whole big community of people doing music, and it was interesting, I think, at that age.’  The tradition is in good family hands as Fiona’s children Ben and Emily both step dance too, even if age has temporarily reduced the interest: ‘And when I got to a teenager: I got ‘I’m not doing that anymore!’  Like my children, they’re teenagers; they don’t want to do that. But they will come back to it.  It took me a few years to do it; to come back to it.  But it’s a nice thing to keep going; tradition.  I’ve even got my own little protégées now and my friend’s daughter; she’s six.’

Brancaster and The Fate of the SS Vina

By Haydn Brown

Near Brancaster’s sleepy harbour off Norfolk’s northern coast, three barnacle-coated hunks of metal appear at low tide. The ghostly remains of the SS VINA are enticing to the curious, but pose a real threat to anyone who gets too close.

Brancaster (Ramage & Ferguson)3
Ramage & Ferguson Employees, early 20th century

Some of the finest looking ships ever built came from the shipyard at Leith and the screw steamer SS VINA was one, built by Ramage & Fergusons Shipbuilders. The SS VINA was the first of a two ship order from the shipping company of J.T. Salvesen & Co of. Grangemouth, Scotland. Her sister ship the SS VANA had been launched only four months previous, with the main difference between the two sister ships being the engines used – the SS VANA was to use the steam compound engine while the SS VINA was powered by a Triple Expansion engine.

The SS VINA was a fine lined coaster, built in 1894 as a short sea trader on the East Coast with voyages to the Baltic States as part of a round trip; in fact she spent most of her working life, that is up to the outbreak of World War 2, operating the Baltic Trade.

Brancaster (WW2 Yarmouth)2
Entrance to Great Yarmouth Harbour where the SSVina would have been used as a Block Ship should the enemy had invaded

 

Brancaster (WW2 Block Ship)1
What could have happened had the SS Vina been detonated

In 1940, she was requisitioned as a Naval vessel and brought to Great Yarmouth under the command of Captain Pickering to act as a block ship to prevent an invasion via the port. Included in this plan was for the hull to filled with concrete, wired with explosives and manned by a crew of 12 to carry out any necessary orders. Had the Nazis attempted to invade the SS Vina would have been detonated in the Great Yarmouth harbour to block the passageway. That never happened and in late 1943 she was towed to Brancaster. The following year, in 1944, she was purchased by The Ministry of War and anchored further out at sea, to be used as a target for RAF planes testing a new shell; however, some time later a north-west gale dragged her to her present position full of the shell holes. The ship subsequently sank and the wreck remains on the sandbank to this day.

Brancaster (SS Vina)4

Over time numerous efforts have been made to retrieve the wreckage as the ship was not only a danger to navigation, but also an attraction to the holiday makers on Brancaster beach who regularly walked out to the vessel’s remains at low tide. In 1957 a merchant bought the SS Vina wreck for scrap and cut it into three pieces with an oxyacetylene torch, but he couldn’t safely remove it. Since then, people have scrapped bits for themselves. In 1968 the bronze propeller was blown off, manually floated across the channel and with much difficulty inched with chains up the beach. Apart from these few attempts to salvage, serious efforts to clear the site have long been abandoned due to the excessive costs involved.

Brancaster (SS Vina)2

The wreckage still makes navigating through one of the harbour’s channels difficult, but any efforts to remove it have been thwarted by the wild tide in the area. The tide also creates a hidden danger for those getting too close to the ship. Lives have been lost due to ill-advised actions and the local lifeboats and RAF rescue helicopters have been pressed into service on many occasions each summer. A warning sign on the wreck advises anyone reaching it to return to the beach immediately.

Brancaster (SS Vina Warning Sign)

Sam Larner and his Singing Community

Do fishermen sing nowadays?  They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’  So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”,  but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Sam Larner 1
Sam Larner

Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying

“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”

Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners.  All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.

Sam Larner (Fleet)1
A Norfolk Fishing Fleet from the past

Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen.  He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.”  Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men.  You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.

Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.

Sam Larner Winterton Fishermen 1940)
Winterton Fishermen in 1940

Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring.  This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire.  Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:

“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’.  And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song.  They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song.  That was in 1907.  These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories.  And I got the first prize.”

Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives.  One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:

“That’s my old dad’s song.  I heard him sing it when I was a little boy.  Used to sing all them songs, my old father did.  Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him.  Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone.  Big man, he was.  Oh, and he could do the step dance.” 

Sam Larner (The Dogger Bank)1

If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as  “The Dogger Bank”:

• Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,

• We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;

• We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,

• And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.

Sam Larner (Village)1

An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:

Sam Larner (The Three Mariners)1

“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock.  Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?”  Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister?  No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”

Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time.  We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”

Sam Larner (Dick Green)1
Dick Green

Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston.  In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper.  He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War.  He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of AustraliaCruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat.  The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.

Sam Larner (Tome Brown)1
Tom Brown

Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.”  All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars.  As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings

In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer.  With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.

Step Dancing:

As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing.  Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George.  As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that.  They all had pints of two.  Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they?  So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table.  Beer’d all spilt!” 

Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance.  I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.”  Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.

Cromer (Richard Davies)2
An example of Step Dancing from Richard Davies.

In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed.  And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing.  In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty.  He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’

Sam Larner (His Cottage)
Sam Larner’s Cottage at Winterton, Norfolk
Sam Larner (Philip Donellan)1
Philip Donnellan

Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956.  Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information.  He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958.  Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’.  It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0.  These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.

Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry.  Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring,  which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk.  What a wonderful person he was!  Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life.  His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’

Sam Larner (MacColl & Seeger)
Ewan McCall & Peggy Seeger

McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca.  He never forgot it.’  “They liked them old songs, they did.”  Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All.  The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship.  Peggy and Ewan.  1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.

Sam Larner (Record)1This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961.  This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger.  The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer.  A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.

In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song.  As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover.  It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.

Sam Larner and Villagers
Sam Larner with two other Villagers at Winterton.

By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six.  He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course.  He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six.  This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.

Sam Larner (Neil Lanham)1
Neil Lanham

About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area.  There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them.  This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition.  Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.

Sam Larner (Record)2In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam.  About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.

  • Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958.  There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London.  Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.

By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so.  The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’)  “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather?  Your grandfather Larpin.  Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.”  I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.”  “You can.  You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’.  Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?”  Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence.  The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”

Based on contributions from Chris Holderness and various other sources(See also Rig-a-Jig-Jig: A Norfolk Music History Project)