Norfolk in Brief: Caister’s Watch House.

By Haydn Brown

Thomas Clowes, solicitor and reputed Lord of the Manor, was a popular Caister resident in the mid-19th-Century. He not only had charitable leanings towards the inmates of Yarmouth gaol, but also built, in 1834, the first purpose-built school in Caister, known as the ‘Fear God School’, along with two small alms houses in Beach Road, known as the ‘Widows Homes – that was in 1856.

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The Clowes Alms Houses today. Photo: Minors & Brady, Caister.

Thomas Clowes also seemed to have had a close relationship with the local beachmen. For instance; in 1846, the beachmen asked for permission to build a new Watch House, Store and Lookout on the sand hills north of The Gap. This was the name given to a low point in the sand hills where the track from the village to the beach, now Beach Road, passed through the hills to reach the beach. This area traditionally belonged to the Manor – and therefore Thomas Clowes. He gave his immediate approval, but with the proviso that he should receive a ‘fortieth’ share of the salvage income from the beach company. Now, salvage income traditionally doled out to beach companies was as ‘fortieth’ shares, in what was something of a complicated and secretive system. Members of the company received one or more shares depending on the part they had played in a particular salvage incident. In the mid-nineteenth century the annual income from a company share was often a considerable sum of money.

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This photograph of the 1880’s show members of the beach company on the steps of the Caister Watch House. Photo: Courtesy of Colin Tooke.

As soon as the Lookout and Store had been erected the beachmen bought a 60-foot ship’s mast and erected it next to the new Watch House; the former mast had a small box on the top from where the ‘lookout man’ could keep a watch for shipping in distress during bad weather. In 1864 a writer described the Watch House as:

“the beachmen’s parliament house where the affairs of the nation……… are discussed, accounts settled and business transacted”.

Its ground floor was used as a carpenter’s shop, and it was where a George Vincent made oars, masts and a variety of other items including wooden “goodwives washing tubs”. At the rear of the building, they hung an old ships bell which was used as a call-out signal when the lifeboat was to be launched.

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This postcard image shows the tall mast with its ‘lookout’ at the top; the call out bell is out of sight at the rear of the building. Image: Courtesy of Colin Tooke.

It was said that after Thomas Clowes died his widow, Maria, moved to Yarmouth where, in 1918, she sold the title of Lord of the Manor by auction. The title was bought by a Yarmouth man, Anthony Francis Traynier who, having lived in London for a while returned to live in Gorleston; however, he did not have the same level of interest in Caister as that previously shown by the late Thomas Clowes. By 1924, a beach company’s ‘fortieth’ share of any salvage was almost worthless – nothing more than about £10 per annum. Then there was the fact that in 1924, Caister was fast becoming an established holiday resort, with most of the land at the end of Beach Road, near the Gap, developed.

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This image is an engraving, from the 1880 London Gazette, of the first floor interior of the  Watch House, Image: Courtesy of Colin Tooke.

The old Watch House now stood in the way of any further development and Trainier, in September 1934, gave the beachmen six months’ notice to give up possession of Watch House and Lookout, which they had occupied for some 87 years. The beachmen disputed this Notice, but a subsequent court case decision in April 1935 ruled against them and the beachmen had to move; the building was soon demolished. For his part, Traynier agreed to surrender his claim to any share in future salvage.

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The former Manor House (above) is believed to have once been owned by Thomas Clowes of this story. It was built around 1793 and was converted into a hotel in 1894 – extended to have 36 bedrooms in the 1920’s. However, around 1941 the building was abandoned because of coastal erosion; it was completely destroyed soon afterwards. Today, only its bricks may be found on the beach.

THE END

(Source: The above is based on an article by Colin Tooke; and the banner heading image above is ‘Caister, Norfolk’ by Reuben Bussey, 1879.)