Broads heritage – Hunter’s Yard history. Early days. (1940s-1980s)

Location : Ludham

Tom recounts his working life at Hunter’s Yard, and tells of how things changed over the years at the yard.

I was born in Fleggburgh in Norfolk in 1929, but we only lived there for about a year, and then we moved to Ludham. During my early school days we lived in the council houses before moving to Malthouse Farm, right near the old airfield.  My father was a gardener at The Grange.

I went to school in Ludham until I was 11 and from then I went to Stalham secondary modern school. When I first left school, at 16, I went to work at a private house as a sort of gardener and odd job man, looking after everything really.

Royal Marines

I worked there for just over a year and when I was 17 I volunteered and joined the Royal Marines. That took me down to Deal in Kent to do my training and from there I went to Lympstone in Devon to do the commando training. From there I got medically discharged out and I finished with a month in the Royal Naval hospital in Gillingham in Kent.

Demobbed and return to Norfolk, finding a job

After I got demobbed from the Royal Navy hospital I came back to Ludham and had to look for a job.

I went down to Hunter’s boatyard and saw Stanley Hunter, the younger of the two sons. He said that he would give me a job but only as long as I joined the local fire service, Stanley used to run the local volunteer fire service. So I finished up with two jobs on the same day.

Hunter’s boatyard pre- and post-World War Two

The yard had 12 boats of the original fleet and they were built before the war. The first two four berths were built in 1932 and they went on to build about two boats a year onwards up until the war.

During the war the yard was closed up and the Hunter family went to work at Potter Heigham doing essential government work, making motor torpedo boats (MTB) amongst other things.

They came back to the yard after the war and in 1945 they were allowed to relaunch their yachts and let them out. But the boats had to be blacked out and so for about two years instead of having white canvas on the side they had to use dark green to keep the lights out.

Working at Hunter’s boatyard

When I first went there they gave me odd jobs to do. You had to turn your hand to anything because apart from the Hunter family there were only two of us working there.

Percy Hunter was the governor and he had two sons, Cyril was the boat builder and Stanley did more or less all the painting and varnishing that sort of thing. So when I came along Stanley used to give me jobs to do, more or less whatever came along. I didn’t do an apprenticeship I learnt on the job, and did the jobs I was given to the best of my ability.

When I started they were building the boat the Wood Anemone at the time. I got the job of holding on the nails while Cyril Hunter turned all the nails inside, so my first job was helping to build the Wood Anemone, in March 1947.

The boats were all built of mahogany, and all the ribs work and inside were oak. Some of the mahogany was Brazilian and some just ordinary mahogany. Mr Hunter used to go down to Taylor’s at Wroxham and he used to pick out the trees that he wanted and they used to cut the trees to the thickness of planks that he wanted and then deliver them to the boatyard.

We would then have to lay the wood all out and we used to put little splines of wood in between so that the air got between the wood. It used to take two years before we could use it.

The wood then could go through the planer and other machinery and then once the job was finished and the boat built it would have the stain put on and after that the varnish. We used a light oil stain, and then to get a really good job we used to put five or six coats of varnish on, rubbing down between each coat.

Every boat built had its own dinghy. After the first boat built, the Lustre, they decided that they needed a dinghy for it. So Percy, the old man Hunter as we called him set to and built one in a fortnight.

Percy Hunter learnt his trade by starting off as the manager at Wroxham for Norfolk Broads Yachting Company before going to Potter Heigham and managing George Applegate’s. He then decided that he would like to have a yard of his own and was very friendly with a farmer at Ludham, who sold him the land where the yard is now and he established Hunter’s Yard They built a number of boats, too many for the one shed, so they set to and built a second shed.

There wasn’t really any aspect of work that I preferred most. I didn’t mind anything, as you weren’t doing the same thing day in day out. One day you’d be rubbing down and varnishing, another day you’d be scraping the hulls all up and bringing them up to scratch again. To make a really good job of a boat that had been freshly scraped you had to put at least five coats of varnish on. The varnish would dry overnight and you’d come in next morning, rub it down and put another coat on. Once it was all restained and varnished it looked like a new boat again.

Letting the boats to people from all over the country

By the end of the war people were coming back to the Broads for pleasure trips, including some of the old customers they used to come from all over the place, I got to know people from all over the country.

The majority of the cabin boats were let for a week from Saturday to Saturday, and the customers would sail the boats themselves. We had to take their word about how competent they were, anybody who we thought a little bit dubious I used to take them out for an hour or so, until you could see that they were capable of going off on their own.

Once or twice we had a few problems, but in the main people were very careful. The people who used to come to the yard who had done a lot of sailing they were the ones who used to knock the boats about and do the most damage, and the people who came down and had done very little sailing they were the most careful and brought the boats back without a scratch.

They could go more or less anywhere on the Broads. In a week if the tides were right they could get down to Oulton Broad, but they would have to get the tide right at Great Yarmouth. They could sail down there, hang on at Yarmouth until the tide started to come in again. Then they’d take the tide across Breydon water and they could go down the river Waveney to Oulton Broad or along the river Yare to Reedham and right through to Norwich.

Bookings were always pretty good, despite the weather. I’ve known a time when I got there first and had to brush snow off the boat.

1962 was a very bad winter, the ice was so thick, about a foot,  that we had had job to break it to launch the boats.

Interior of boats and facilities

There were several sizes of boats. The Hustler class were two berths, the five wood class were three berth and then there was the three four berths. There are now four four berths now because in the millennium year we set together, in our spare time and built another four berther. It took a long time to do because we still had all the rest of the boats to look after and maintain so they didn’t get neglected at all.

The interior of the boats were all varnished mahogany, and they all had gimbal oil lamps. As the boat heeled the lamps all kept upright, all at the same time.

There weren’t a lot of facilities on board, there were Blake’s toilets, and the odd wash basin in the four cabin. When I first started, the cooking arrangements were primer stoves, but after two or three years they changed over to gas burners, and the four berths had an oven underneath too. You would have your pots, pans and your kettle too.

The toilet required you to pump the water in from the river and then pump everything out with a separate pump and everything used to go back out into the water. You wouldn’t get away with that today.

Sails

The sails were made of Egyptian cotton in those days, we didn’t get Terylene until 1962. The first boat to have a Terylene sail was Hustler 2 and then as the Egyptian cotton ones wore out they were replaced with Terylene ones.

The Terylene sails were stronger than the cotton ones and you didn’t have to worry about stowing them away wet, with the cotton ones they tended to what we called sweat and then you would get mildew in the cotton. But with the Terylene you didn’t get any of that, you could stow them away wet with no affect to the material whatsoever.

Work throughout the season

Work changed through the seasons. We had to look after the boats during the summer season and at the end of the season the boats were all scrubbed out, dismantled and pulled out in to the shed. We always liked to get the boats in by the third week in October, that was our target. When I first started there we had an old wherry winch and we used to have to crank the boats in and out. Stanley Hunter was friendly with a manager at Laurence and Scott’s the electric motor people and he made an electric motor to fit on to the winch so that we could pull the boats out. We got a gear box out of an old Austin seven and fitted it with the motor to the winch and from then on we used to pull them out with an electric winch. It made an enormous difference because having to crank them out was no easy job.

The boats had to be back in the water just after the first week of March and they were usually let by the third week in March, it depended too when Easter was, but the boats were always out for Easter.

1960s and changes to the boatyard

Mr Hunter’s wife died and he sort of gave up most of the work concerning the paperwork and lettings, so Stanley took it over. But it got a bit too much for him so they decided to sell the yard, and Norfolk county council took the yard over.

They kept the three of us: me, Roger and Graham on. They wanted us to carry on as we had been, looking after the boats just as they had been looked after for years. They wanted everything to be looked after just as it had been.

A lady came and ran the office doing all the paperwork and all the letting work.

It was sad for us the Hunters leaving but from our point of view work wise we just carried on as normal.

When the council took over we also had a warden who was in charge of sailing throughout the county. There was a sailing base at Filby Broad and Kings Lynn, he was in charge of both and made Hunter’s yard his sort of main base. He ran sailing courses for different schools at Filby Broad, they had quite a lot of boats there right from little toppers to wayfarers.

Once they had got to know how to sail they used to come along to the yard with their instructors and take the cabin boats out for a week at a time.

Norfolk County Council selling the yard, Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust

In the 1980s Norfolk county council decided that they wanted to sell the yard. They applied to the lottery people and they came down and looked around and went through all the books to see that it was a going concern. Once the lottery people paid out to the county council Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust took over. All the trust members got together to run the yard, but they left the working side of it to us. It wasn’t very much different to what we’d been doing all the way along. They were trying to keep everything going as it had been right from the 1930s.

There was still just the three of us and the secretary. Roger was the first one to retire and when he left two young fellas came along in his place. When I packed up somebody else came along and learnt the skills as they went along. Graham was the last to retire, he was the boat builder and foreman of the yard and when he left Ian came and took over that role.

Working day, holiday and pay

I started work at quarter past eight in the morning, until half past twelve and then from then to five o’ clock, that was my day. I was on five pounds a day but that was quite a lot because in the marines I was only getting twenty- nine shillings a week, so five pounds seemed quite a good bit at the time.

I had time for a holiday now and again but they didn’t used to like you having a holiday during the summer season.

I had my two boys and we used to take the tents and go camping, from the tents we bought a trailer tent and then we went on to a camper van. We used to go all over the country, up to Scotland and Ireland all over the place in the camper van.

Tom Grapes and son Ian, 1950s

Health and safety

In those days there wasn’t much in the way of health and safety, not the extent there is today, I mean in today’s world we wouldn’t have got away with half of what we did.

Very often there was a high tide and the water might come right through the sheds, it used to be ankle deep in water, and you had to be very very careful if you were using electric drills. Since the floors have been made up you very rarely get water through now.

Water quality and wildlife

The water was very clean at one point because there were very few motor cruisers. At one time you could see all the water lilies growing and you could see the bottom in places. But once the motor cruiser started going up and down the river they churned the water up and then that got so right cloudy that you just couldn’t see.

There was a lot of wildlife about in those days, more than there is today. There used to be a lot of kingfishers, coots and moorhens that sort of thing. You see the odd coot but not to the extent that you did in those days.

Wherryman’s pub and thatching

My great grandfather ran the last pub at St Benet’s Abbey, on the bend on the grounds of the Abbey. It was maintained especially as a wherryman’s pub, in those days there were a lot of wherries with cargo, sugar beet, coal and corn and there would very often be two or three wherries laying there at a time. I think that they used to brew their own beer at the pub as well. In those days there was a ferry across the pub to South Walsham.

My grandfather was a thatcher and he and his family used to go round thatching houses and churches, one of the churches they thatched was Potter Heigham church.

They used mainly Norfolk reed, and there were lots of reed cutters in those days.

Memorable happenings

We had many different things turn up and happen over time. We used to have a group of bank managers come down and hire out nearly all the boats, they would more or less sail from public house to public house, and were known as the Bitter Boys as they drank pints of bitter.

One day I was out sailing with some students with the half deckers on the river Thurne and we heard this little motor cruiser chugging along. It went too close to the reeds and ran up onto the reeds and toppled completely upside down and into the river. Two men and two women scrambled ashore and one woman was hysterical ‘my baby, my baby is inside the boat’ I no more to do, jumped into the river and a couple of students got in with me. We got hold of the boat and kept lifting it up, trying to rock it and turn it back, but we couldn’t get it over far enough. Fortunately the baby had a life jacket on and as we lifted the boat it came floating out with its life jacket on. It must have been floating in an air pocket.

We handed the little baby to its mother and within a matter of seconds it started to cry so we knew that it was alright. That’s one of the memories I always think about.

During the war before I joined Hunter’s or the marines four of us lads decided to go down to St Benet’s abbey fishing, one Saturday morning. When you go into St Benet’s Abbey from Ludham you’ve got about a half a mile down an old track to the Abbey across the marshes.

We started fishing and then mid morning it started to pour with rain so we went to the Abbey. At this time there was all this high steel fencing round it and there was only one place in the corner where you could shin up, cock your leg over and get inside. Anyhow we got into the mill to shelter from the rain, and in the corner was a load of old hessian sacking, I pulled one out and there was a picture of the huntsman and the hounds on horseback with the red jackets and I got this picture out and was parading around with it, not realising what the picture was covering up.

There was a box underneath and in the box was a transmitter, we didn’t know what it was to start off with  but eventually found out, covered it up with all the sacking and packed up all our fishing gear and came back home.

We went up to the village policeman and told him what we’d found, he said ‘well, it’s my half day off’ he say ‘I’m not going down there’. At the time there was a big army camp at Ludham, and the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry were there.

Anyway he told us to go to the adjutant’s hut, we found the hut, went parading in in our muddy boots. The captain sat at the desk at the end and he said ‘what can I do for you lads?’ and we told him that we’d been down to the Abbey and found a transmitter. He said ‘well you lads haven’t had your lunch yet have you?’ so we said ‘no’ and he said ‘well come back in an hour and I’ll detail somebody and you can take them down there and show them exactly what you’ve found’.

Well we were that excited we were gone and back in less than an hour. We got to the adjutant’s hut and there was a lieutenant, in his uniform with a bike, waiting for us.

We set off and everything was alright until we hit the muddy track towards the Abbey, mud started to fly up his boots and trousers, he began to get in a rare old state. We got to the Abbey and  climbed over the fencing in the  corner , when he come to climb over he cocked his leg over the top and hooked the leg of his trousers on one of the spikes sticking up and of course his trousers split up the seam, well that done it, he was in a right old state.

We eventually got into the mill and showed him what we’d found. He took the picture off and saw that it was a transmitter. He got his torch out and a notebook and wrote down various details, and then covered it all back up and he said ‘now, I don’t want you boys to say anything to anybody about what you’ve found, nothing at all.’ And we never said a word.

A week or so later a sergeant from the Home Guard came up to us and said ‘you boys found a transmitter down the Abbey didn’t yer?’ so we told him that we weren’t supposed to say anything, but he told us that they knew about it. The army had kept a watch out and they saw two men approach and go into the Abbey. One of them must have been keeping watch as as the army closed in and got there they had gone. Unbeknown to us or anybody, in the reed bed at the back of the Abbey they had a little rubber dinghy and they managed to get away across the river in it.

The army put a search out all around and they caught these two men in Wroxham, they turned out to be German spies.

Tom Grapes 2018

Tom Grapes (b. 1929) talking to WISEArchive on 17th November 2018 in Ludham.

Read Tom’s son Ian’s story: Broadland Heritage. Hunter’s Yard today.

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