An introduction to the Norfolk Trading Wherry

Maud was built in 1899, at a time when wherries were still an important part of the Broadland cargo transport system. They were recognisable by their black sails, brightly-painted hatches and tarred hulls, adding colour and movement to the idyllic waterways. Roads were poor, and the only way to carry heavy loads was by water. Wherry cargoes traditionally included corn, bricks, coal, sugar beet and timber, and sometimes a wherry could be seen laden with reeds or straw, looking like a floating haystack.

Wherry hulls were clinker-built with over-lapping planks, and were among the largest craft in the world constructed in this way. Usually they were pointed at both ends or “double-ended” but some of the earlier craft had pointed bows and a small squared-off “transom” stern – a relic of their development from the Norfolk Keel, the trading vessel which they superseded.

Wherries were built to a traditional design, but the size varied to suit the conditions where the craft had to work. Those operating on the Ant, Bure and Thurne were generally smaller than those of the Yare and Waveney, and on the canalised sections of the Ant, Bure and Waveney they had to fit between the two sets of lock gates.

One regional variation was the “slipping keel”. Parts of the rivers and broads were so shallow that they were impassable to a wherry. The problem was solved by making the keel removable. The bolts attaching it to the hull were withdrawn, the keel removed and the bolts quickly replaced, leaving the keel itself either tied alongside or left on the bank to be collected on the return journey. This was not a feature of the larger wherries, such as Maud. Their work was confined to the main rivers with occasional sea trips to unload coasting ships anchored in the Yarmouth Roads.

NorwichRiverFyeBridgeSome wherries were designed for a specific purpose, that of carrying timber imported into Great Yarmouth from the Baltic. The mast-carrying structure or “tabernacle” was made higher so that timber could be stacked above deck level and the mast still laid down on top of the stack to pass beneath bridges. Maud was designed for that trade. This old postcard shows a timber-carrying wherry being unloaded near Fye Bridge in Norwich. Note the hatches stacked at either end of the hold and the timber laid across the forward end of the hold to form the basis of the stack.

When the railways came and the roads were improved, the wherries were hard-pressed to compete. The distance between points by river was often much greater than by rail or road, and the wherries were at the mercy of wind and tide. One or two wherries were fitted with steam engines, and later many went over to petrol or diesel power. Others were used as “dumb lighters” being towed by tugs or by motorised wherries.