Sea-going vessels 20 miles inland

Loading scrap metal at Norwich

Loading scrap metal at Norwich, in the early 1970s.

The Port of Norwich was not killed off but it certainly faded away.  We can be much more certain when it became a port; by Act of Parliament, 1827. In the nineteen fifties it was still flourishing; in the sixties it seemed secure; in the seventies it was still functioning; but by the end of the eighties it was doomed. What finished it? A number of things. For a start industry deserted King Street and Riverside Road, the area that supported river traffic. The size of coasting vessels got bigger (a trend which is continuing) so that fewer and fewer vessels were capable of navigating the narrow and winding rivers that led to Norwich.

Eventually the nature of industry changed and the moving of heavy goods that could use water transport disappeared from Norwich. Instead we now have  a riverside area dominated by retail outlets and night clubs. King Street was the centre of the brewing industry in Norwich, and although the brewers were not great users of the waterside for river transport, the brewing industry led the way in leaving the area. We had Read’s flour mill, which used water for deliveries of grain, then King’s scrap yard for some years in the sixties and seventies. At Baltic Wharf timber was imported from vessels from Scandinavia. That covered the  reach of the river from Carrow Bridge to Foundry Bridge, the crossing which formed the upper limit of navigation for all but leisure cruisers. Bishops Bridge was too small to let even cruisers past and the river is now very restricted above that point. In the days when wherries used the port they would travel up as far as New Mills.

THE PORT OF NORWICH. JAN KLUVER on her way through Carrow Bridge to Baltic Wharf with a cargo of Scandinavian timber.

THE PORT OF NORWICH. JAN KLUVER on her way through Carrow Bridge to Baltic Wharf with a cargo of Scandinavian timber.

So far I have dealt with the Norwich side of the river. On the Thorpe side Riverside Road meant no direct access to the water from private premises, but on this bank of the river there was rail access. This was provided from the Thorpe Station yard across the road to the public quayside. I never saw a locomotive on this short stretch of siding although I did see trucks, so locomotives must have used it. This siding was outside the Boulton and Paul Works, but the firm did not appear to use the river much in my day.

There was a fleet of lighters named after trees such as OAK and BIRCH.  These brought coal up beyond Foundry Bridge to the gasworks on Gas Hill. Their cargoes were transhipped at Yarmouth to be drawn up river by the steam tugs Gensteam and Cypress. The photo shows Cypress moored on Baltic Wharf and the date must be about 1959. This tug was also named after a tree, obviously. Gensteam was a contraction of the name General Steam Navigation Company which sold her to the Great Yarmouth Shipping Company in 1931. Gensteam was the first to disappear, being replaced by a powered lighter, also steam driven, and named after another tree whose name escapes me.

The steam tug Cypress tied up beside a lighter on Baltic Wharf; cica 1964.

The steam tug Cypress tied up beside a lighter on Baltic Wharf.

So far I have only considered shipping which came through Carrow Bridge. There was also much river traffic that we members of the public never saw, because it only went to that part of the Port of Norwich hidden from the road. This included such things as the shipment of concentrated fruit juice from South America to Colman’s who used it for the Robinson’s brand of squash. Lemon Barley Water was their early product.

While it was still running, Norwich power station used coal brought from Newcastle by coaster to generate electricity. These tramp steamers you would only see when entering or leaving the port, from such places as Whitlingham where a reach of the river runs alongside the road. Here you could stand very close to the foreign vessels while their dogs barked at you from the deck. (This was forbidden by the regulations which stated that any dogs must be kept locked up while in British waters, but the rules were often ignored.) At Whitlingham the river turns away from the road in a 90 degree twist which was difficult to navigate. It must have trapped many ships; I remember a heavily laden vessel on her way up to Norwich running aground on this awkward turn. The picture below shows an Everard tramp stuck across the river on her way downstream, empty.

SONORITY aground at Whitlingham, 16 March 1970. The police launch is alongside.

SONORITY aground at Whitlingham, 16 March 1970. The police launch is alongside.

Sultan being towed out of Norwich by the tug Stalker.

Sultan being towed out of Norwich by the tug Stalker.

There were other hazards too. On February 28th 1962 the ship Sultan, having unloaded above Carrow Bridge discovered she was to long for the usual turning place at the bend just by the bows of the tug Cypress in the picture above. She had to be towed out stern first by the tug Stalker, a vessel that I do not remember. She was plainly a diesel powered vessel, and unlike the steam tugs combined her function of towing with carrying cargo under her hatches. I do not know how far Sultan had to towed beyond Carrow Works, which you can see on the left, but certainly by the time she reached Bramerton she would have been able to turn and proceed under her own power. This happened occasionally, but mostly the length of the ship was checked by the master before leaving the port of origin.  The building of the Norwich Southern By-pass was being planned while there was still river traffic by sea-going vessels up to Norwich. The Port Commissioners were concerned that the bridge at Postwick should leave ample headroom for the masts of boats. I remember Bryan Read  talking to a meeting of the Norfolk Nautical Research Society in the 1980s. He was a Commissioner of then Port of Norwich and a director Reads flour mill on the riverside, and he said that he expected tough negotiations on this subject. In the even the head room was more than ample; I suspect this was because the place selected for the crossing made a high bridge the natural choice, rather than any consideration for a shipping route that was clearly coming to the end of its days even then.



8 responses

  1. Many happy memories of going to school along the river bank in the 1960s. Your website very interesting. I think I remember three coasters like the one loading scrap metal all tied up at the same time. Gave the place character, especially seeing a ship sailing down the river. All gone now, unfortunately. Thank you for your efforts building web page. A very important part of Norwich heritage.


  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this interesting account of navigation on the Yare to Norwich. I well recall on holiday as a young lad of eighteen (along with friends from Scotland) driving a pleasure boat from Yarmouth and being astonished at a ship coming behind us. Panic stricken doesn’t cover it!


  3. does anyone remember tv documentery about last coaster to sail into port of Norwich can not remember.year


  4. My family lived at Thorpe St Andrew in the late 50`s and we used to walk down to the river at Whitlingham to watch the Coasters pass, I remember the John M as a regular. I also did a couple of trips as deckhand on the Rix Hawk to Cantley Sugar beet works with fuel oil around 2002


  5. My grandfather did the ferry during the early 40’s to 50’s, he use to keep his boat in a tiny boat house on the bends where all the coasters use to get stuck coming up to Norwich. With reference to the scrap boats on riverside road, I worked for A King and Son loading the scrap during the 70’s following reading the above brought back some memories and still rate it as the best job I ever had.


  6. Hi Joseph, I’m currently working on an exhibition if artwork that will be displayed at the theatre royal in 2016. One part is a series of 10 paintings that will be 5mtrs long based on the Port of Norwich buildings and boats.. Thank you for your article..really useful info!


    1. Dear Sally, When is your exhibition of artwork on the port of Norwich? I have recently acquired an oil painting, which I believe to be Norwich Port, the new mills, I think, and its dated 1901. It could be Baltic wharf – was this part of new mills? The painting shows what I believe is a coal steamer and other vessels/waterside, including a white cube shaped building with pyramid type roof, possibly visible on some much earlier Crome paintings. I would love to see your exhibition and possibly show my painting to you. BN, Lowestoft.


  7. Thanks for this interesting article. Sunday walks along the riverside was a favourite. I have a photograph of myself with MV Dirk tied up opposite. Memories of rowing at Whitlingham with coastal vessels steaming past.


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