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War veteran that made her mark after ‘demob’

PUBLISHED: 15:20 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 15:20 17 February 2011

Gone but not forgotten! It is a phrase often apt for subjects raised in this nostalgia-orientated column – for example, the herring fishery, the era when top stars in British entertainment spent their summers in Great Yarmouth theatres, and the little fleet of pleasure craft that took trippers on river and sea trips.

One that arrived here in 1950 was a demobilised war veteran, the Golden Galleon, built 10 years earlier at Portsmouth and painted in battleship grey for duty as an Admiralty Fairmile motor-launch ML162. When she converted to her peacetime role in Yarmouth, she did sea trips at first but then changed her strategy and went to the other side of the Haven Bridge to ferry holidaymakers upriver and across Breydon to Reedham.

Another ex-Royal Navy Fairmile launch (ML 347), the Eastern Princess, was one of her competitors for our tripper trade.

Founding owner of the Golden Galleon was John Knight, a former Army officer and veteran of the Burma campaign who did not relish the prospect of an office-bound job back in Civvy Street.

So, fancying a more open-air pursuit, he ploughed his savings into buying her and converting her for pleasure tripping, painting her white and orange.

Now Mr Knight’s daughter, Mrs Elizabeth-Ann Gibbs, has written to me from her home in Wales, enclosing three photographs which today help to illustrate this feature. She says: “I wonder if anyone remembers them, or recognises themselves. I would love to hear from them with their experiences.”

Any reader who can help Mrs Gibbs should pass their information to me, and I will publish it in this column and convey it to her.

I certainly recall the Golden Galleon and Mr Knight, and the sad end that befell her.

In her working days, she courted controversy, and at one time her registration was removed after complaints of “speeding” on the inland waterways (doing 9mph when the legal limit was 7mph!) and creating too much wash likely to damage banks, contravening navigation rules.

It was as if the former Royal Navy launch was trying to relive her reported wartime exploits, although “speeding” on Norfolk rivers was well within her capability.

Not that the passengers minded; they probably had not even noticed her 2mph transgression!

John Knight, who died in 2005, aged 85, enjoyed reminiscing to passengers about the war record of ML162. Indeed, in 2000 I included in a column the following information about her from an old newspaper cutting: “She was engaged in hit-and-run raids on Nazi-held territory on the Continental mainland, and on anti-submarine patrol.

“Off Weymouth in Dorset in 1943, she chased an armed raider, fired torpedoes, and sank her. ML162 was also credited with having downed six German bombers.”

But before I had even broached the topic of ML162’s achievements with Mrs Gibbs, she voluntarily debunked this war record, telling me her father invented the little ship’s heroism to garner publicity, make her more popular and appeal to passengers.

“It was all imagination,” she declared.

“I went to Kew to check the records. She spent most of the war based at Milford Haven, patrolling round there, and on one occasion she picked up a dead body from the water, but nothing more remarkable than that.”

Mrs Gibbs said she gave a large collection of Golden Galleon photographs to our Time and Tide Museum.

Her voyages sometimes included a bonus not offered by her competitors. In addition to her three two-hour trips a day, in peak season she added a night dance trip: all the aft-deck seats were unbolted and left on the quayside, a small band came on board to get the passengers’ feet a-tapping, and she tied up again at 11pm.

A website about the Golden Galleon includes the pleasure one passenger derived on his first visit to the Broads from seeing places about which children’s author Arthur Ransome had written.

Also, the trip inspired him to build a miniature replica of the boat for his model railway, a novelty featured in a model railway magazine.

John Knight sold her in 1968. When the tripping market petered out, the Golden Galleon went into retirement, and there were high hopes that she might be restored.

A £500,000 price ticket was put on her, and the wooden veteran was repainted in her original battleship grey, complete with ML162 and a shark-mouth on her bows.

But no wealthy benefactor came forward.

Again, she attracted headlines because she was rotting away at her riverside berth in Reedham, regularly being pumped out to keep her afloat. After five years of steadily falling into a state of disrepair, Broads Authority members were warned she was in danger of sinking and would then be a serious navigational hazard on the Yare.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that she was owned by a company called Fairmile B based in the Virgin Islands, but the authority was unable to trace the owner and no mooring fees had been collected.

Head navigation ranger Adrian Vernon said: “No-one wants to see a historic vessel broken up but...it will take someone with serious money to keep her afloat.”

No saviour came forward, and the Golden Galleon embarked on her final voyage, ignominiously towed from her Reedham resting place to St Olaves where she was scrapped.

Between the wars Yarmouth was liberally provided with pleasure trippers.

But after the war when holiday-making resumed, they steadily dwindled and today would have stood at nought, but for the timely arrival in 2007 of the Southern Belle, sailing from the old Golden Galleon berth on Stonecutters Quay and plying up-stream through Breydon.

Finally, another request for information: Mautby reader Dave Smethurst writes: “I have three photographs of the steam vessel Wendorian.

“I believe this was the King’s boat, built in Norfolk and given to cadets for training. I know she was scrapped and the engine sold at an Aylsham auction.”

But Peter Allard, of Bradwell, my mentor on maritime matters, says: “Unfortunately this means nothing to me, and I’m sure the Wendorian has no Yarmouth connections.”

If anyone can help Mr Smethurst, please contact me.


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