When Great Yarmouth was a major naval base in fight against Napoleon

Vice Admiral Nelson addressing the crowd from a first floor window of the Wrestlers Inn, Yarmouth

Vice Admiral Nelson addressing the crowd from a first floor window of the Wrestlers Inn, Yarmouth on returning from the continent on November 6 1800. It was then he exclaimed: “I am myself a Norfolk man and I glory in being so.” - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

A day out in dear old Yarmouth. Perhaps a trip to the pleasure gardens, circus, model village or the boating lake topped off by a ride on those snails.

So many happy memories.

Times have changed since the glory days of the British seaside resort but Yarmouth is fighting back and the future looks good.

But what a past it has… way before the snails started running. A history to be proud of.

Now there is a brilliant new book highlighting the extraordinary events taking place a few hundred years ago.


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When we were at war.

The Roads Anchorage and the Jetty, 1801

The Roads Anchorage and the Jetty, 1801. In this painting local artist John Butcher has captured the essence in the role of Yarmouth in these wars. - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

The days when Yarmouth was a major and important naval base is told so well and in such depth and detail by author David Higgins in his fascinating book Springboard To Victory.

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It looks at  Great Yarmouth’s and the Royal Navy’s dominance in the North Sea and the Baltic during the French wars 1793-1815.

“It took me six years to research and write with many, many hours spent pouring over documents in the National Archives at Kew,” he said.

And that is plain to see as we open the book and the story unfolds revealing this this extraordinary chapter in the long history of the town.

David Higgins

Yarmouth-born author David Higgins. - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

Yarmouth-born David  has written several books about King’s Lynn, East Norfolk and one on the east coast of Norfolk and Suffolk and also a series of local history articles for the Eastern Daily Press and the Yarmouth Mercury in the 1980s and 90s.

So why take on this enormous task?

“Great Yarmouth is best known for being a seaside resort and for its former status as the country’s leading herring fishing port.

“But what has largely been forgotten is that during the French Revolutionary War (1793-1802) and the two Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) it was the main support base for navel and military operations in the North Sea and the Baltic,” says David.

It wasn’t until he researched a book called The Beachmen that he became aware of this dramatic history of the town and the nation.

“Of course, a great many books had been produced on the navy’s involvement in these wars, but most concentrated on the high drama of the six major fleet actions and the exploits of Horatio Nelson rather than the equally important, but more mundane, means by which the navy’s warships were kept at sea,” said David.

The entrance to the Royal Arsenal as it looks today

The entrance to the Royal Arsenal as it looks today. To the right is the Storekeeper’s house, to the left that of the Clerk of the Cheque and in the cetre, the armoury. - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

David lives at King's Lynn now but has an apartment in Yarmouth at the residential complex that had been the Royal Naval Hospital at Yarmouth. It gave him a tangible connection with the men who fought in those now distant wars.

The book  is a great tribute to all those men and women who worked or served at the Yarmouth support base, including several of his own forebears who during that period were shipwrights, keelmen, sea fencibles, volunteer infantrymen and militiamen.

Be warned, this is no light-hearted and weak on facts romp through days of old. It is book which takes us back to a time of bloody wars and conflict and the vital role Yarmouth and its people played in defending our shores.

Springboard to victory by David Higgins

Springboard to victory by David Higgins - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

Its townsmen were involved in wars against the Scots, French, Danish, Dutch, Swedes, Russians and Germans but their earliest confrontation was with fellow Englishmen, the Portsmen of the Cinque Ports.

David takes on a journey through the decades and we discover how Yarmouth was at the heart of the war with revolutionary France from 1793 with the North Sea being a stage for a war on trade.

The illustrations  bring the story alive as we go on a journey through the life and times of the town with part one about the navel and military operations, followed by part two on the support services, ending with part three on victory and the aftermath.

We  go behind the scenes at the victualling, naval and ordnance stores, visit The Roads Anchorage then get down to the nitty gritty of life for the seaman, the sick and the wounded and the prisoners-of-war.

The exploits of the “ordinary” men of the sea and those who commanded them,  such as Lord Nelson and many others, lesser known, who deserved to be remembered are told so well.

The barrel of this 18th century cannon served as a gatepost at the Royal Arsenal until 1983

The barrel of this 18th century cannon served as a gatepost at the Royal Arsenal until 1983 when it was removed and mounted on a replica gun carriage. It now stands on Yarmouth’s South Quay. - Credit: Courtesy of David Higgins

In 1801 the town’s population was given as 14,845, not including men at sea or those with the military. Ten years later it had risen to almost 18,000 and it is likely that during the wars it increased by some 6,000. It boosted the local economy.

While the people benefitted from the spending power of the navy there was a price to pay. Alcohol-fuelled, what today would be described as, anti-social behaviour.

Men of the sea have always enjoyed a drink or three and some of the worst offenders were the Russian soldiers who went as far as drinking the oil from street lamps.

And seaman often decided to hide away in the town rather than be pressed into the navy.

“On balance, though, the presence of the navy was a good thing for Yarmouth and most of the townsfolk were poorer for its departure,” says David..

By the end of 1814 the naval support base had been dismantled. It had fulfilled its main purpose of sustaining warships operating in the North Sea and the Baltic.

So, what is left in Yarmouth to remind us of these times?

The timeless anchorage remains, but where the billowing sails of wooden walled warships could once be seen there now turns sails of a very different character, those attached to the 30 electricity generating turbines of an offshore wind farm.

The Jetty which for centuries symbolised the town’s relationship with the sea was demolished in 2012. Its existence is marked by an interpretation panel and three of its old piles as seen in a flower bed, placed there by Great Yarmouth in Bloom.

Then there is the Norfolk Pillar on Monument Road close to the seafront. Erected in 1819 to commemorate the victories of Norfolk’s most famous son Lord Nelson.

There are a few other reminders of those days, such as a cannon barrel on South Quay, but the most significant survivor is the former Royal Naval Hospital which had had several lives after the Waterloo wounded departed.

Eventually a planning brief was prepared by the Borough Council, the complex was bought by Historic Buildings Rescue and under the guidance of architect Kit Martin was converted into apartments, town-houses and cottages, the first occupied in 1996.

“It now stands as a fitting memorial to the time when Yarmouth played an important part in the defence of the realm,” says David.

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