It is now over a hundred years since all the rivers of the Norfolk and Suffolk broads were commercial waterways, carrying cargoes of agricultural produce down the rivers Ant, Bure, Waveney and Yare to the mills and maltings that lined their banks. The floods of 1912 closed the upper Bure navigation from Coltishall to Aylsham, and by the Second World War the upper Waveney above Geldeston lock to Bungay and the river Ant above Dilham had also closed to commercial traffic.
As the commercial side of river use faded, tourism had already begun to take its place. Wroxham was already a centre of the leisure boating business in the late nineteenth century and the shop Roys of Wroxham owes its success to this trade. Before departing on a cruise on the Broads, the wealthy visitors stocked up with groceries from Roys. The tourist market grew and grew until today it has completely taken over all the boats on the Broads and the river systems of Norfolk. The rivers Bure, Thurne and Ant to the north are particularly popular with tourists. The river Yare is less so.
In having a commercial use the Yare held out the longest, with the regular passage of trading vessels up to Norwich. Coming through Great Yarmouth from the ports of Europe and as far away as South America this shipping gave an international feel to the Norwich riverside. There is still a small amount of commercial traffic on the river Yare, although not as far upstream as formerly. A barge taking some large machinery upriver to Cantley sugarbeet factory was reported in the Easter Daily Press as recently as December 2013.
The traffic on the other rivers was never international and had already vanished by the end of the first half of the 20th century. Virtually no powered vessels took the place of the sailing wherries on these minor waterways. The water mills took their grain from motor lorries now that these were available instead of by boat. By 1940 most of the mills were no longer water powered and even when powered by oil engine they soon succumbed to the changing patterns of trade. They were converted to residences or were left to fall derelict. Saxlingham mill on the river Tas is just about the only watermill still milling. It produces animal feed although not by water power any more. In Norfolk there is one mill left grinding grain by water power, at Letheringsett on the river Glaven, and this is more of a tourist attraction than a genuine commercial enterprise.
By the end of the 20th century the last commercial river, the Yare, had become almost entirely the preserve of leisure craft. The the 19th century probably saw the greatest use made of the Broadland rivers with over a hundred wherries registered at Yarmouth. The wherry was then at the pinnacle of its development. Although the waterways had been the main conduit of trade for centuries the sheer volume of cargoes had increased exponentially with the Industrial Revolution. In the previous century the keel was still the commonest broadland craft, but being dependent on a square sail it was not as adept at sailing the winding rivers as the wherry was with its single fore-and-aft rigged sail. This sail meant it could go closer to the wind than a keel. Even so it needed its quant, a type of punt pole, to push the vessel along at times when the wind was dead against travel, or had dropped completely.
In the early years of the 19th century steam vessels began to take passengers on the river Yare from Norwich to Yarmouth, greatly speeding up the communications along this important route. By the 1840s the railway had come to Norfolk with first line being constructed along the Yare valley from Great Yarmouth to Norwich. The railways soon took much of the freight and almost all of the passenger traffic from the river.
Although the tonnage carried by steamers and later by diesel freighters along the river Yare was probably highest in the 20th century, as a proportion of total freight carried to Norwich the significance of river traffic was small. Coal was probably the cargo most reliant on river transport and colliers from Tyneside were a common sight. The closure of the gas works and later the electricity generating station removed the need for colliers to use the river Yare. Grain, softwood from Scandinavia and fruit juice for Colman’s from Argentina came into the port of Norwich, and scrap metal left by ship up until the late 1970s, but the increasing size of freighters was making it impossible to use the smaller ports. Kings Lynn, and particularly Felixstowe, remain East Anglia’s principal ports. A new deep water harbour has been built at the mouth of the River Yare in the hope of attracting the larger vessels now in use to Yarmouth, but the poor road links make this an unattractive port. Yarmouth remains a port for vessels serving the North Sea energy installations.