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Wherry Albion’s ‘duckings’ in river delivering beet to Cantley sugar factory

PUBLISHED: 21:16 21 December 2017 | UPDATED: 21:16 21 December 2017

Outward bound: a wherry sails around Gorleston's old pier-head. Could she have been the Albion when, in 1951 she became the first Norfolk wherry to sail from Yarmouth to Lowestoft by sea for 44 years? Picture: PETER DAVIS COLLECTION

Outward bound: a wherry sails around Gorleston's old pier-head. Could she have been the Albion when, in 1951 she became the first Norfolk wherry to sail from Yarmouth to Lowestoft by sea for 44 years? Picture: PETER DAVIS COLLECTION

Peter Davis Collection

You can spot it from miles away across the flat-lands of the east Norfolk marshes at this time of the year – white smoke puffing from the chimney at the sugar-beet factory at Cantley, signifying that the so-called season is in full swing.

The Albion, the last surviving Norfolk wherry, on Breydon Water. Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLE The Albion, the last surviving Norfolk wherry, on Breydon Water. Picture: CLIFFORD TEMPLE

Before atmospheric pollution was tackled, that smoke was probably black from the refinery’s opening in 1912, but we have progressed since then. Today it is, perhaps, simply harmless water vapour.

If your route does not afford you a glimpse of the Cantley emissions, a drive along the main road from Acle to Norwich will soon remind you that it is “the season” because large laden lorries pass to and fro, making their way through the country lanes, delivering the harvest from farm fields to Cantley, then returning for a refill.

In times long past, not all of the sugar-beet was carted by road: some went by water... and 60 years ago, one cargo had to be salvaged from the River Yare at Hardley Staithe when the wherry Albion sank at the quayside there, an ignominious occurrence to befall this dignified veteran of the Broads.

At least, I assume Cantley was her destination because she was ferrying sugar-beet, although it has been claimed that deliveries by river stopped about 1950, seven years earlier. Where else would she have been taking it to?

Selbourne House in Great Yarmouth's Howard Street South being demolished, possibly in the 1970s, so Palmer's car park could be extended. From 1845 the building was the Yarmouth Savings Bank. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY Selbourne House in Great Yarmouth's Howard Street South being demolished, possibly in the 1970s, so Palmer's car park could be extended. From 1845 the building was the Yarmouth Savings Bank. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Thankfully Albion - launched in 1898 and now the sole survivor of the fleet of similar multi-purpose sailing vessels - was refloated at the quayside after being pumped out by Loddon Fire Brigade and was able eventually to continue to be a floating grand old lady and Broadland icon.

Reportedly, she was carrying 40 tons of sugar-beet although I have read a wherry’s maximum load was 25 tons.

Whatever the tonnage, I believe the cargo was still fit for use after a freshwater hose-down.

The maritime mishap occurred when the moored Albion failed to rise from the river-bed on the incoming tide and either leaked through bow seams or tilted as the waters ebbed.

According to the Norfolk Wherry Trust’s Humphrey Boardman, it was not her first ducking. Wherries often used to sink in their working years when they took their first heavy cargo on board.

Recently I wrote about a time capsule discovered behind an ornate fireplace during renovations to Lloyds Bank on Hall Quay in Great Yarmouth. That prompted Trevor Nicholls, Yarmouth’s long retired registrar, to wonder if it was the black wooden one (dated 1898?) he recalls seeing just inside the front entrance.

Hall Quay, for decades the home of various banks, today has only one – the Royal Bank of Scotland, open just three days a week. Trevor agrees that Hall Quay “is now a shadow of its former self with all those closed buildings designed to convey an impression of trustworthiness, reliance and solidity” whereas once somebody described it as “Yarmouth’s Whitehall, Threadneedle Street and St Martin’s Le Grand (Government, banking and the Post Office)”.

A half-century ago he entered the former Midland Bank on Hall Quay, today the only survivor there as the RBS, to open a cheque account to receive his £300 annual salary - not a simple matter because he was quizzed by the manager about his reason for doing so and told to provide two good character references “from persons of standing known to the bank” as guarantors.

Opening hours were the traditional 10am-3pm five days a week, and the atmosphere and style “guaranteed not just security but complete confidentiality, an atmosphere of sobriety, even solemnity.”

Trevor’s application to open an account was successful and he has remained with the Midland and its HSBC successor for 51 years, albeit not at the same premises.

As for Lloyds, as far back as 1821 its premises housed the Lacon, Youell & Kemp Bank, later becoming the Capital & Counties Bank. Possibly that time capsule dated back to the Lacon, Youell & Kemp era.

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