The Formation of The Norfolk Wherry Trust
By the 1940s the Wherries, once a common site on the waterways of Norfolk and Suffolk were in decline. Pressure from road and rail transport had starved them of their cargo, and many were being sunk to shore up banks or used as barges or dredgers. The total demise of the wherry tradition could not be allowed to happen. The reality that the last of the black sails had vanished from the Norfolk Broads prompted some leading local figures to gather at Roy Clark’s bookshop at Augustine Steward’s House in Tombland, Norwich to consider what could be done.
A letter in the Eastern Daily Press in February 1949 proposed the forming of a trust to preserve at least one wherry. Such was the reaction, an open meeting was called a few days later on Wednesday 23rd February in the Stuart Hall, Norwich. Humphrey Boardman’s motion to form the Norfolk Wherry Trust was unanimously agreed, and he was elected chairman. Lady Mayhew, Hector Read and Lewis Storey were appointed the first trustees, with Roy Clark, James Forsythe, Lieut.-Col. Glendenning, Mr W. Clabburn, Mr M. Miller and Mr Percival elected as committee.
The Trust is born
Never before had a voluntary society been established with the sole purpose of owning and operating a sailing craft so that a particular type should not become extinct. By the end of the meeting £524 pounds had been raised. Lady Mayhew of Felthorpe Hall, an accomplished yachtswoman and chair of the meeting said it was tragic that there were some people who had never seen a hansom cab, and it would be dreadful to think that there were children who might never see a wherry sailing: “I feel positively enthusiastic tonight about this plan. I have had several letters from friends assuring me that it is a most hare-brained scheme – perhaps it is! – but let us have plenty of constructive criticism as well as support.” Explaining the objectives of the Trust, Roy Clark stated that; “We visualise a live, active vessel, plying the waters and on which the younger generation can set their feet and learn something of the sort of life, the sort of craft and the sort of men who raised our city and county to its current standing.”
At first, there was some confusion over exactly what wherry they were going to purchase. Since the youngest wherry was 37 years old it was suggested that a new wherry was built for the Trust at a minimum cost of £1,750. However, the short-term policy was to recondition an old wherry and get her in sailing trim for the summer. A sunken wherry, thought to be Hilda had been offered but the refit estimate was too great. Within weeks of the public meeting a more suitable restoration project was identified. The fifty-year-old wherry, Plane, formerly Albion was made available. Mast-less, she was owned by Colman’s and moored beside the company’s works near Carrow Bridge in Norwich. Vitally, her hull was still sufficiently sound to carry dry cargo. Lady Mayhew of the Colman family was instrumental in the securing of Albion. That summer, work continued apace, with restoration costs totalling £1,033.
History is made
On 11 October 1949, the unshakeable faith of the founders of the Norfolk Wherry Trust turned a dream into a reality as Albion – she had been given her old name back – sailed from Yarmouth to Norwich. By October the following year Albion had sailed 2,065 miles, carried 1,133 tons of cargo and earned £460. However, the Trust had made a loss of £300 and there was still £500 outstanding from the refit. The first week of trading saw a pattern the Trust hoped would continue: Timber or grain from Yarmouth to Norwich and sugar beet from Surlingham to Cantley on the return trip, making two cargoes a week. But luck was not always with Albion – quite often days would be lost as a result of bad weather. From that first week until November 1952, Albion was in full-time commission with a skipper and mate.
After three years of trading however, it became clear that Albion could no longer support a full time crew. Almost from the beginning, freight was hard to obtain such was the dominance of road transport. She was often idle in spring and summer, so from 1953, during the height of the holiday season, her hold was swept out and she was chartered out to groups of young people, often scouts or sea scouts who slept in hammocks.
The cargo changes
For the Trust it was not plain sailing however. Albion sank twice in her early Trust years, and more members were needed to pour money into the coffers. As a result, in 1961 it was decided that Albion would never carry “dirty” cargo again. People would be her cargo from now on.
A momentous day for the Trust came in 1981 with the digging and building of the new wherry base at Womack Water, near Ludham, where a plot of land and 18m of river frontage was leased from Norfolk County Council. In spite of all the rough passages Albion and the Trust are as strong today as they have ever been.
Albion carries hundreds of passengers every season, and is seen by thousands more. Charterers of all ages come from far and wide, learning the art of the quant, lying on the hatches and looking up at the Jenny Morgan, some spending nights afloat, sleeping in the bunks in her hold and getting as close as anyone can to the lost age of the black-sailed traders.
The trust, now past its 60th anniversary, has shown that Albion’s appeal transcends the generations. Sailing on her through her native wetland is a memorable experience whether one is drawn by the sailing, natural history or novelty. The invitation is there: As a member of the Trust you will receive regular updates on Albion’s work and get the chance to meet and sail with other people eager to support the wherry.
But you do not have to be a member of the Trust to charter Albion either for a day or a longer cruise. Up to twelve people can sail on her, accompanied by an experienced skipper and mate who sleep in the cuddy. There are twelve bunks, a cooking area and a large table in the hold – basic yet comfortable accommodation.