Crashing of champagne marked shipyard successes

Mercury columnist Peggotty looks back to an era when starlets of the silver screen occasionally laun

Mercury columnist Peggotty looks back to an era when starlets of the silver screen occasionally launched ships in Great Yarmouth - Credit: Archant

BECAUSE older Yarmouthians like me still refer to the Half-way House, Regal and Tom Green’s Corner and other places yonks after they disappeared from the scene, it is inevitable we will continue to talk about Fellow’s Dock despite the changes of name and function down the decades necessitated by survival, flexibility and viability.

Mercury columnist Peggotty looks back to an era when starlets of the silver screen occasionally laun

Mercury columnist Peggotty looks back to an era when starlets of the silver screen occasionally launched ships in Great Yarmouth - Credit: Archant

The former Southown shipbuilding and repair yard is looking confidently into the future after undergoing a radical £1.6m make-over. It has ceased being shipbuilder Richards, the dry dock basin has been filled in, and the company has embraced a successful new role constructing, servicing and repairing workboats used primarily in the offshore wind-farm industry. To help in this venture a £500,000 200-tonne boat-lift has been acquired.

Fellow’s dry dock and its successors have been part of the industrial and maritime fabric of the borough for two centuries, and it is heartening in these troubled economic times to learn that adaptability and confidence mean it continues to be an important employer hereabouts. Its Alicat Workboats enterprise deserves to prosper.

Lowestoft-based Richards (Shipbuilders) acquired Fellow’s and the adjoining Crabtree engineering business in 1970. Passing Fellow’s dock from the vantage point of the upper deck of a Corporation bus allowed passengers a brief glimpse of the work in progress, like the building and repair of coasters and fishing vessels in postwar decades and, in more recent times, a regular succession of the orange-hulled Putford offshore fleet undergoing maintenance. The erection of a covered facility robbed us bus-borne dock-watchers of a sight of some of the activity but obviously improved conditions for workers.

Time was when Fellow’s built several of the passenger pleasure craft still dear to the hearts of devotees, like the riverboats Yarmouth Belle, Southtown and Cobholm (1892-1900) and the steamers Norwich Belle and Oulton Belle (1924 and 1930). Strangely, despite the fact that pre-war Yarmouth was the world’s biggest herring fishery port, Fellows scarcely figured in building steam drifters although other local yards like Beeching and Crabtree did.

Some of Fellow’s output was building and repairing vessels for the Thames-based coaster, barge and tanker operator F T Everard & Sons; naturally enough, when it bought Fellow’s in the Twenties – but retained the name - it used the yard to add to its own busy and varied fleet as well as undertaking servicing, repairs and new-builds for other owners.

The list of Fellow’s-completed vessels for Everard which went down the slipway into the River Yare included: the coasters Frivolity and Festivity (1960s); barge Greenhithe (1923); Ability and Amenity (1928), Aridity (1931), Actuality (1931), Aqueity (1934) and Adaptity (1935), all sunk by wartime mines; Antiquity (1933) broken up 1975; barges Fred Everard (1926) and Alf Everard, sunk after collisions (1953, 1956); Sonority (1952), sold 1975; Severity (1954), sold 1975; second Frivolity (1963), sold 1976, sunk (1978) in heavy weather; second Festivity (1963), sold 1974; second Fixity (1966), sold 1976; tugs F T Everard (1928), sold 1951, S A Everard (1939), sold 1990, Joker (1944) broken up 1963, and Jester (1949), sold 1990.

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In 1970, when Richards bought the yard, the offshore hunt for sub-sea oil and natural gas in the North Sea was blossoming, whereupon it fulfilled orders to build rig supply and service vessels and tugs. Trawlers for Lowestoft were also built at Southtown.

As a reporter I enjoyed invitations to the launch of vessels there. Recently the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prompted the Mercury to publish a photograph of her, when Leader of the Opposition, visiting there in 1979 to launch the Boston Sea Stallion, a stern trawler bound for Lowestoft, a memorable occasion for all involved (even, possibly, yard workers who gave her a hostile reception and displayed “Vote Labour” stickers).

I admit to being more excited when one of my favourite British film stars from the postwar era, Rosamund John, was called upon to be a stand-in and, perversely, to take centre stage. This “stage” was the platform to perform a traditional launch ceremony at Richards.

This was in 1977, and the £3 million 86-ft stern trawler Boston Sea Vixen was due to be named and launched by her husband, Sir John Silkin, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But he was detained at a Cabinet meeting reporting on his recent negotiations in Luxembourg, fighting in the European Economic Commission for the rights of British fishermen.

With grace and without stage-fright, the retired actress took his place, and was presented with a bouquet by the yard’s youngest apprentice, 18-year-old Mark Bentley.

Recently I watched a television re-run of Green for Danger, a hospital-based 1946 murder thriller in which this star of screen and West End stage appeared with Trevor Howard and, of course, I reflected on Rosamund John’s role in the Southtown launch. Perhaps her most enduring part was with John Mills and Michael Redgrave in The Way to the Stars, centred around a wartime airbase.

The Seventies were a busy time for Richard’s Yarmouth enterprise, with tugs, trawlers and rig supply ships being built there, making use of the under-cover facility.

Launches included the Kinloch, Underley Queen, Lady Howard II, Alison Howard, Ralph Cross, and two rig supply vessels for Cunard subsidiary Offshore Marine. The latter order followed repair work on earlier similar vessels owned by the same company.

On a personal note, my father’s wartime career in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) ended Fellow’s Dock. In 1945, when the minesweeper he skippered was dry-docked there, a senior crew member had to be present for security and to oversee the work and, because he lived in Gorleston, he volunteered so his shipmates could take home leave.

But in the blackout one night, he stumbled over a stanchion, causing his leg to bleed profusely and he was taken to hospital. I believe gangrene set in. Eventually he was sent to Somerleyton Hall, then a home for service personnel convalescing after wounding, injury or illness.

It was ironic, surviving dangerous mine-sweeping duties unscathed but being hurt in a routine accident ashore and having to be invalided out.