This article is based on an interview with Jack Cates by David Bray and an article from the EDP dated 1st October 1949.
One character who played a large part in the story of the Norfolk Wherry Trust is Jack Cates, who was skipper of Albion from the inception of the Norfolk Wherry Trust in 1949 until 1951, during which time she was sailing in trade. With both his father and grandfather being wherry skippers is was perhaps no surprise that Jack was one of the last of the professional wherrymen.
Jack’s association with wherries started when sailing with his father Alfred in the wherry Stella. Jack was about eight years old at the time. (Stella was a small wherry owned by Mrs Gibbs of Coldham Hall). Jack subsequently had a lifetime of experience on the river, in wherries, lighters, tugs and as pilot of cargo steamers between Yarmouth and Norwich.
After leaving school Jack sailed with "Clubs" Rudd in the wherry Mildred, engaged in carrying bulk tar and liquor from the gas company at Norwich to the chemical works at Yarmouth. These wherries were in effect small tankers, loaded at Norwich by hosepipe, just by opening a valve and letting the tar run in. The cargo was unloaded at Yarmouth in the North River above the railway bridge, steam ejectors being used to discharge the cargo. Jack‘s share of the freight was about 14 shillings the trip. Being fitted with tanks, the wherries could not take a return cargo.
Jack then sailed as mate in the Mildred and later with Walter "Skeweye" Tyrrell in the Emerald. A short period later Jack and his father Alfred took the wherry Macadam, carrying road stone for J Edwards. At this time most wherries were company owned and freight was paid on a share basis, two thirds going to the wherry crew, the remaining third going to the owner; the owner paying for maintenance etc. Cargo was loaded and discharged by the wherrymen themselves. A small number of wherries were skipper owned at this time, these were mainly the smaller North River craft.
After the war Jack went as mate in the steam tug “Jeanie Hope” towing large steel lighters between Yarmouth, Norwich and Lowestoft.
Around 1920 Jack returned to wherrying, sailing as mate in the Malve (formerly Ola) with his father Alfred once again skipper. A while later Jack’s brother George took the mate’s role on Malve and Jack moved on to the 30 ton iron wherry Crystal as mate.
While Jack was working in the Crystal, his father took over the Fir (formerly Crowhurst) and loaded barrels of fat in Lowestoft destined for Norwich . Having drawn the freight money and travelled home by train to Norwich Alfred was taken ill leaving Jack to go to Lowestoft and sail the Fir home. This was his first trip as skipper and with no pay ! Jack stayed in the Fir for 16 or 17 years working for the General Steam Navigation Company.
The wherries were on the decline between the wars. The Fir was the last wherry built in Yarmouth in 1912. Trade was increasingly being lost to the railways, and many wherries were in use as lighters with steam tugs to tow them. Despite the decline in trade, Jack remembered occasionally sailing in company with a dozen or so wherries between the wars.
Wherrying under sail finished in 1935 and Jack worked at Cantley during the sugarbeet season of 1936. The pay was £1 per day which was far more than could be earned in the wherries. After the season he then went "dydling" or dredging around Buckenham, Reedham and Surlingham. Old wherry hulls were used as mud barges, the mud would be dydled aboard from the riverbed and than unloaded onto a stretch of designated riverbank using deals and barrows. The "freight" was a shilling a ton and they could work one wherry load a day. Heavier work cannot be imagined !
In 1937 Jack went to work on airfield construction, working on St Faith's aerodrome – now Norwich International Airport and later became foreman at Hethel aerodrome. When war broke out Jack joined the navy. During the D-Day landings he served in LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and went ashore at Gold Beach during the invasion. Prior to this he helped man Thames lighters carrying ammunition from Southampton. After the war Jack worked for the Air Ministry as foreman for a year and then worked for Carter the builders.
Then in 1949 the Wherry Trust came along. Jack was appointed full-time skipper of Albion and was a source of invaluable expertise during the restoration of Albion by The Trust. Once back in the water Albion was put into trade carrying cargo with Jack as skipper. Unfortunately this venture failed partly due to lack of cargoes and also because of the requirement to use registered dock labour for loading and discharging. This was a serious problem because many of the cargoes were timber, and the dockers had no idea as to how to stow a timber cargo. Timber, being relatively light, fills the hold up before the wherry has 25 tons aboard. Since she can carry 40 tons or so, it is essential to carry as much as possible on deck since freight is paid by the ton. Skill is required to make a proper deck stack, since the stack rests on a timber platform extending twice the width of the wherry. A wherry stowed like this is said to be "boked".
Jack left the Albion in 1951 and went back to the General Steam Navigation for a few years and then moved on to become the Norwich Rover pilot before retiring.
Another interview with Jack by John May can be found at :- http://cottagepie.net/timjen/albion.html
In the twenties there was still an ice trade, with ice houses in Norwich and elsewhere. Jack remembered taking the last cargo of Norwegian ice from a ship in Lowestoft to the ice house in King Street in Norwich . This was in 1921 or 1922. The ice was in 2 cwt blocks. Even in the height of summer surprisingly little was lost due to melting in the hold, provided that the hold was tightly covered over.
Fir was built with a high tabernacle to allow her to carry a deck cargo of timber. This allows the mast to lower with the deck cargo aboard; however, after a cargo of cinder ashes for Potter Heigham the unladen wherry proved too high to pass under Potter Heigham bridge and the hold had to be flooded to set her down enough to get her through. (Cinder ashes were used as foundations for the summer riverside bungalows).
A number of cargoes of granite were carried for road building, some to Horsey (25 tons at half-a-crown a ton). On one occasion three cargoes were taken from the same ship at Yarmouth . The ship was the Belgian steamer "Reindeer" with granite road-stone for Stracey Arms. It was Easter time; the first cargo was loaded on the Thursday. The following day was Good Friday and there was no work on the ship. Fir was back on the Saturday to take another load (40 tons). Loaded and away, the ship was idle Easter Sunday and Monday, so there was yet another cargo waiting on the Tuesday.
Sometime during 1928 Jack had a cargo of flour from Yarmouth for Norwich. About 3am with a fair wind and flood tide he and his brother Walter set sail. At the start visibility was good, but soon after passing through Breydon swing bridge it came down thick-a-fog. They couldn’t see the stakes marking the channel and when one of them loomed up they couldn't tell in the dark whether it was black or red. Walter dowsed sail but soon found themselves on the ground at the top of high water, with a full load on board ! She sat there for three tides and eventually the steam tug "Opal" came and took about 6 ton of flour out of her to lighten her and then pulled them off. After towing back to Yarmouth and re-loading the cargo, they carried on up to Norwich . There was not much profit out of that trip !
Another trip from which there wasn't much profit occurred in 1930 or thereabout. Jack had taken a cargo of cocoa beans, cases of milk and chocolate out of a ship in Yarmouth for Norwich. They left at about 7pm on about quarter flood, with a light easterly wind and brought up above Buckenham when the tide went slack about 2am. With a road anchor ashore, Jack and Walter turned in for a for hours kip. They were rudely awakened at about dawn by a loud crash. The steam coaster “Norwich Trader” had run into them. Fir sank in about 5 minutes with Jack & Walter scrambling to safety up a rope to the coaster’s foredeck. The steamship had lost steering control on the bend after sliding on the mud. Jack didn’t say what he said to the ship's captain ! The pair of them took passage to Yarmouth in the ship and then had to tell the “Guv’nor” what had happened and he wasn’t too thrilled either ! Fir had been struck in the forepeak, about seven or eight strakes of planking were stove in on the starboard bow between the timber heads. Some of the cargo floated out; much was salvaged and used for animal feed. The wherry was raised by Hobrough’s by mooring two wherries over the casualty, one either side, building a platform across and raising her with crab winches on the platform. One of the wherries used in this operation was the John Henry. It took about six weeks to repair Fir at Hobrough’s and during this time Jack and Walter were employed "dydling" or dredging.