It is now over a hundred years since the Norfolk and Suffolk broads were commercial waterways, carrying cargoes of agricultural produce up and down the rivers Ant, Bure, Waveney. 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 had been abandoned. The end of the North Walsham and Dilham canal meant that the river Ant had also closed to commercial traffic. Only the the greatest of these rivers, the Yare, kept its trading vessels for another half century.
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 origin and continued success to these customers; 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 boating activity on the Broads. The rivers Bure, Thurne and Ant to the north are particularly popular with tourists. The river Yare is less so, but the Waveney and Oulton Broad take much of this southern river business.
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 sugar beet 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. No powered vessels took the place of the sailing wherries on these minor waterways. Millers took their grain from motor lorries now that these were available instead of by boat. The mills all fell victim to the changing patterns of trade, being converted to residences or left to fall derelict. Saxlingham mill on the river Tas is just about the only watermill still milling commercially. It produces animal feed although not by water power any more. In Norfolk there is one mill left grinding grain by water at Letheringsett on the river Glaven, and this is operated as a tourist attraction.
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 saw the greatest use made of the Broadland rivers, with over a hundred wherries registered at Yarmouth alone. Although the waterways had been the main conduit of trade for centuries, the sheer volume of cargoes had increased exponentially with the Industrial Revolution creating demand for food. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the keel was still the dominant broadland craft. Being dependent on a square sail it was not as adept at sailing the winding rivers as the wherry, with its single fore-and-aft rigged sail. This sail meant it could go closer to the wind than a keel, and one man and a boy could handle it. 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 highest in the 20th century, as a proportion of total freight carried to Norwich the significance of river traffic was minor, as rail and then road took over. Coal was probably the cargo most reliant on river transport and the arrival of colliers from Tyneside were a regular event in the first seventy years of the last century. The closure of the gas works and later the electricity generating station removed the need for colliers to use the river Yare. Grain for Read’s flour mill, 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 Felixstowe remain East Anglia’s principal ports and 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 is more likely to be the port for vessels serving the North Sea energy installations.