Norwich: His name was Billy Bluelight!

BILLY Bluelight was a Norfolk eccentric who – in the absence of a welfare state lived on his wits and his charm. This most iconic of characters was famous for racing the steam pleasure boats along the River Yare from Bramerton to Norwich – hoping for spare change from the passengers on board.

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At half past eleven or so every morning, the tinkle of a bell would intrude upon the cooing of the wood pigeons; it heralded the approach of the Yarmouth Belle or the Waterfly, both deep in the water as a result of their heavy freight of Yarmouth trippers, all bound for Norwich.

As if on cue, a strange figure would appear on Bramerton’s river bank and take up a familiar stance. Clad in shorts and a singlet and hung with a prodigious array of medals, his expansive smile, matched at a higher level by the peak of his gaily-striped cricket cap. From the river bank he would call out:

“My name is Billy Bluelight, my age is 45,
I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive.”

Billy at Boom Tower

With these words, he would sprint off along the river footpath of the Yare. At Woods End he would be no more than level, but once out of sight he always gained by taking a short cut across the Whitlingham Sewerage Farm, to reappear still neck and neck by the time both man and boat had reached the old limekiln at Crown Point. There, Billy would again disappear from view, and while the boat passed very slowly through unsuitable bends and narrow waters, Billy would make a detour over Trowse Bridge. By the time Carrow Bridge was reached, there would be Billy, ready to receive the well-earned plaudits of the trippers and the coppers thrown on to the path by the Boom Tower.”

Year after year this performance was repeated, but Billy’s age remained 45! This may have been for the sake of the rhyme, but there was enough of the Peter Pan in him to have justified it on other grounds.

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Billy Bluelight died 70 years ago but is remembered by a bench at Riverside in Norwich and a statue by the river at Bramerton where he once ran to beat the boats. Picture Credit: Archant

Bluelight, whose real name was William Cullum is one of many interesting ghostly characters that still lingers on the 35-mile route along the Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth. He was born in the slums of his home city of Norwich, eking out a living selling cough medicine, firewood and blackberries. He never received a formal education, but he did however teach himself to read and worked briefly at Caley’s chocolate factory. By 1907 he was already legendary for his racing and street selling activities and continued racing boatsBilly Bluelight (in shorts) into the 1930s, when he was considerably older than 45 – He is said to have remained ’45’ for many, many years. He never married and lived with his mother, until her death around 1930. The two lived at several addresses in the city including Oak Street, Colegate and Pkyerell House at St Mary’s Plain. After his mother’s death, he was reported to have entered Woodlands, part of the West Norwich Hospital. By the 1940s he was living at Palmer Road on the Mile Cross Estate which was built between the wars. In his eighties he entered the West Norwich Hospital and was later moved to St James Hospital at Shipmeadow, Suffolk where he died in 1949. Five years after his death, writer R L Potter wrote this description of him:

“That over-worked term ‘nature’s gentleman’ was never better exemplified than in the gentle, unpretentious character called Billy Bluelight. It may seem astonishing that a humble little man could imprint his personality so widely on a large city, but it was so. ”

— R L Potter, EDP.

Billy Bluelight (Pub Sketch)
The Billy Bluelight Public House, Norwich (Courtesy of JohnWatson)

In 1994 Woodforde’s Brewery renamed their outlet The Freemasons Arms in Hall Road, Norwich to The Billy Bluelight, but since March, 2005 and after a change of ownership, the pub reverted to its former name. However, close to the Woods End Inn in Bramerton and on the Wherryman’s Way long-distance footpath stands a life-size statue of Billy. This particular footpath is named after the men who operated the distinctive flat-bottomed sailing barges that were the HGVs of the 1700s, when Norwich was England’s second city, and a prodigious amount of cargo was ferried between the Low Countries and Norwich via the Yare. This was thirsty work and its legacy, happily, lingers in an unusual wealth of riverside pubs, there to refresh the walker en route – although never Billy Bluelight, who was teetotal.

Many theories have been put forward to how he received his name. In 1907, a reference was made to the ‘bluelight’ of his eloquence; another suggestion was that of his blue nose in winter, or that he sold blue-tipped matches. ‘Bluelight’ was also a Victorian term for teetotaler or temperance worker and William Cullum did speak out against the dangers of alcohol.

 

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My name is Billy Bluelight
My age is 45. I hope to get to Carrow Bridge before the boat arrive. (c) Copyright Evelyn Simak and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There have been several reminders of him in the Norwich area over the years since the days when he graced the River Yare and Norwich, from a pub, a statue and the Apache theatre company’s play about his life in recent times, entitled “Nature’s Gentleman – The Story of Billy Bluelight.”

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Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Bluelight
https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/derek-james-nostalgia-billy-bluelight-jock-the-highlander-1-5849337

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Reedham Ferry and Inn

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.

Reedham Ferry (By Hand)
Hand Operated Ferry

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. Keith Patterson, a past ferryman at Reedham Ferry  spoke to WISEArchive at Acle on 18th December 2017

“……Then in October 1958, I started at Reedham Ferry and was there permanently until 1963 as the ferryman. After that I did the job part-time right through until I retired last year in 2016……… I used to work from eight until five and David Archer, his father and I used to share the shift between us. Now there are several ferrymen, because most of them are quite happy to be part-time, so they all fit into the pattern of the week. “

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.

Reedham Ferry (Inn)
Reedham Ferry Inn taken from the chain ferry.

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.

Normally, the Ferry operates from about 6.30 until 10 at night. It only closes every third or fourth year, when it gets towed down to Newson’s Yard, at Oulton Broad, where it was originally built, for a refit, or whatever needs doing. 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 worked alongside the Broads Authority managing the surrounding marshes, waterways and farm land.

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Reedham Ferry operating in the 1950’s. 

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.

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Reedham Ferry. Photo: (c) Dr Neil Clifton, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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

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Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reedham_Ferry
https://www.norfolkbroadsboathire.biz/map_ReedhamFerry.asp
http://www.wisearchive.co.uk/story/reedham-ferry-and-cantley-sugar-beet-factory-1958-2016/

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