the story the vessels the artist contact

by Patrick Kearney
written in 1962

In the last Century and early days of the present one numbers of sailing vessels sailed regularly from the North Norfolk ports of Wells and Blakeney, and to a lesser extent Cley.

Seventy years ago a visitor to Blakeney would have found the Quay lined with small vessels moored stem to stern, mainly ketches and topsail schooners, with such names as 'Bluejacket', 'Minstrel' and 'Mary Ann'. The steam tug 'Comet' could have been seen puffing her way up the channel with lighters from the outer harbour, while the quay inn ('The Crown and Anchor') would have been blue with shag and with the racy stories of the sailors refreshing themselves after a wet trip from Sunderland with coal. Some of the men would have been cleaning the holds of their coal dust, ready for a new cargo of grain which had been hauled to the quay in wagons drawn by a team of cart horses. In a bend of the channel there would probably have been a ketch being scraped and repainted in a coat of black and grey, gulls would have been mewing from the wet sand and there would have been a clean smell of tar and cordage.

There were commonly five or six sailing coasters in port at one time, either moored in the outer harbour (or Pit, as it is called locally), or tied up alongside the quay. For night work a series of tall wooden beacons surmounted by lamps showed the channel through the mudflats. A few of these remain to the present day, useful only to dingy sailors or motor boats running to and from Blakeney Point with visitors.

All the vessels were small, ranging from 25 to 90 tonnes or so, and were usually manned by two or three men. The brigs were of course considerably larger and did not enter the harbour, sailing from the large ports of Yarmouth and Lyn. A typical deck arrangement of a ketch consisted of a forecastle hatch forrard, a winch just aft of the mainmast, then a central hold, to the hatch cover of which was lashed the ship's boat. Aft of the mizzen mast there was usually another small hatch and then the tiller.

Hulls were as a rule black and perhaps some gold filigree work at the bows. Inside the bulwarks, hatches, companion-ways, etc., were painted in bright colours, red, blue, or ochre, according to the owner's fancy. Lines varied very considerably in vessels of the same type, as did the set of mizzen topsails, so each had her own definite character by which she could be readily identified.

Contemporary paintings and photographs often show two place names on the transoms, one being the port of registration and the other the ship's home port.


Up to the First World War ketches still came up to Blakeney, but by then many had been sold and were used to carry coal from this country to France at £6 per ton freight charge. Coal at this time was fetching £7 a ton in Paris.

Now all that remains of the one time fleet of ketches, schooners and brigs, which once gave colour to the North Sea, are a few pieces of rotten timber in lonely salt-marsh creeks, forgotten by man and mourned by curlew and redshank. A large hotel stands in place of the quayside inn, the Quay itself is lined with undistinguished lifeboat conversions and instead of the old traders, dinghies make their way up the harbour to rest on their trollies, surrounded by trippers who eat their ice-cream and imbibe their lemonade at a mobile stall.

Temple and Broughton, Breeze and Thompson: sleep sound you old captains! The old ships have gone, but in many coastal cottages their pictures still hang, owned by grandsons and granddaughters of their captains, and one can still find ageing men willing to talk at lengths of the good (albeit hard and dangerous) old days before Subtopia and The Bomb.

It is impossible to mention here all the craft registered in the North Norfolk ports, but it may be of interest to give details of the four different types, together with their pictures. The latter are all from paintings by the author, based on originals which in many cases had seen better days, but with which their owners, understandably, were loath to part.

The earliest vessel, the pretty little top sail schooner 'Duke of Wellington' of Cley (90 tons) was a French prize taken in the Napoleonic wars and renamed after her capture. The picture shows two views of her, passing a fort on the Danish coast. She was manned by Captain Robert Mann, whose great granddaughter lives in Cley and owns the original picture. This particular painting really inspired the writer to discover as many other pictures as possible, and was responsible for many an interesting hunt and consequent discovery. There was also, alas, some failures. Strange as it may seem, some old pictures had been thrown away or even burnt by their unappreciative owners.


The Brig 'Tweedside' was registered at Wells from 1865 to 1875 but her home port was Cley, which name appeared on her transom. Built in Nova Scotia in 1854, of 255 tons, she was owned by the writers great grandfather William Porritt, who with his brother James owned several sailing vessels, some employed on coastal trade and others plying to the Baltic ports. The 'Tweedside' had painted gunports, carried studding sails, and usually sailed from Yarmouth to St. Petersburg, Riga or Helsingfors with general cargo.

The speedy looking Ketch 'Hopewell' of Cley, port Lynn was built in Wells in 1846 and was 46 tons. In the picture she is shown passing Flamborough Head in 1885, and it will be noticed that she was carrying a large boom, lowered at the time, on which a square sail could be set when running before the wind.

The Billy Boy ketch 'Bluejacket' of Wells, port Blakeney, was a curious vessel in appearance, but was very fast when running light. When laden she was, however, very ' wet', and in the words of one who sailed in her, the crew 'were wet up to their arse most of the time!' The 'Bluejacket' had her back broken when loading coal for Blakeney, when a coal truck, which normally tipped the load into the hold, itself fell in - this in a spell of severe weather. She was eventually brought back to Blakeney in fine, calm conditions and repaired. Her large tiller was dubbed the 'rib crusher'. On one occasion she apparently took 'about three months' to reach the Humber from Blakeney because of unfavourable winds, being very slow at going windward because of her bluff bows. At the same time another Blakeney Ketch, the 'Mary Ann', a much faster vessel, had done the round trip three times. The 'Bluejacket' (57 tons), was built at Walsoken in 1850, captained in 1908 by Robert Pells of Stiffkey, and owned by Edward C. Turner of Blakeney.

According to one old sailor, it was a fine life on these little vessels. 'We did live then', he said. Dirty cramped quarters, contrary winds and rough seas did not deter boys from going to sea in them, or from remaining there until being forced to retire by old age. After all, beer and tobacco were cheap in those days, and often after a trip the captain and crew would 'Share a pig between them' and not suffer from indigestion afterwards! Often when watching the occasional Thames barge beating her way up to Kings Lynn one is reminded of the vanished fleet of sturdy little ships and the equally sturdy men who sailed them.