Wells is an historic port on the North Norfolk Coast. In Nelson’s day it was a place of commerce, vessels using it for travel to the continent as well as English ports, although the Napoleonic wars would have temporarily halted Continental trade. We have a record from the late 18th century of corn being taken from Burnham Market by horse and cart to Wells, and returning with coal, which would have come by sea from Newcastle. Such sea borne trade would have made Wells its centre for North West Norfolk.
In May 1779 Parson Woodforde stayed at at the Royal Standard Inn on the Quay at Wells where he spent the night. It was kept ‘by one Smith, a very civil and obliging man’. He later went for a boat trip out to sea, but found the waves frightening and he was nearly seasick. In September 1787 he stayed at the inn again and had a snack of bread, cheese and porter. It cost him 1/6d (he always recorded things like that). Nelson had a relative who lived in Wells and whom he would visit there from time to time. There was a vigorous shipbuilding trade. It continued to have a sea trading presence until the last years of the 20th century. The final cargo of soya bean meal from Rotterdam was unloaded in Wells in 1996, but by then its principal economic support was from the tourist industry.
Even in its heyday of the shipping trade there were other things going on in Wells. This is the face of a longcase clock (pictured below) bearing the name of John Halsey,and the name of Wells. We know that a John Halsey worked in St Andrews in Norwich in the first part of the 18th century and may be the same person. From the style we can date the clock to the middle of 18th century. Despite the arrival of the railway in the mid 19th century the town was decaying and had reached its low point in the early years of the 20th century. Its revival since then is in no small part due to the activities of that remarkable man Sam Peel.
My wife’s mother (Doris) was born in Wells in 1922, and lived in the town until she was 18. Her youth was therefore all spent in the seaside town. Perhaps time lent a glow to those years, but they seem to have been a particularly happy time, at least until the death of her mother when she was 13. There was the bustle of the town, and the quiet of Holkham Park to explore. Abraham’s Bosom, the area of sand dunes and pine trees by at the seaward end of the creek was a place of peace, quite different from the quay where her brother built himself a Wells “Sharpie” to sail the sheltered waters of the harbour.
At that time the railway kept the town in contact with the wider world. I was recently informed that Sam Peel, the leading Councillor of Wells during the first half of the 20th century, could catch the train up to London in the morning, attend a meeting or two in the capital and be home for tea. He would warm his hands by the fire of the ticket clerk in his office (the post-war shortage of coal meant that there was no heat in the waiting room). I was talking to the former clerk only a couple of months ago, though now of course he is an old man. The railway was the first to be built in North Norfolk, and its loss (5th October 1964) was sad day for the town.
Sam Peel was a staunch Quaker, but a tolerant one. He had been brought up a Methodist but became a Quaker on moving to Wells. The Quaker Meeting House had fallen into disuse before he arrived but with his dedication and charm is soon had a thriving congregation. He would preach down on the quayside where not all his audience found what he had to say to their taste. Doris’s mother did however and became a Quaker although she too had attended Methodist services as a child. Doris was brought up a Quaker, although she seemed to attend the afternoon gatherings where a 16 piece orchestra would play hymns, rather than the quiet Meetings in the morning.
Sam Peel died in the early 1960s, shortly before the railway closed, and his most lasting memorial is perhaps the Alderman Peel High School in Wells. His influence is however still felt all over the town and beyond to the wider community of Norfolk. His determination saw the first Council Houses built in Wells very early, while the First World War was still in progress. This surprised me as I thought the provision of housing was part of the post war effort to provide a land ‘fit for heroes to live in’. In fact it can be traced back to the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. It was not until 1919 that local authorities were required to provide housing and were given subsidies to do so.
Education was a favourite hobby-horse of Sam Peel (being a Quaker he was never known as Mr Peel, although apparently the title of Alderman -and indeed O.B.E. – was acceptable). The building of the Alderman Peel High School, or Secondary Modern as it then was, was very much a result of his personal efforts but he was also active across the county. Lincoln Ralphs, the long serving Director of Education for Norfolk was a close colleague and collaborator on many projects. One of these in which Sam Peel was an enthusiastic advocate was the establishment of Wymondham College. Another was the creation of UEA as Norwich’s own University.