A Brief History of Simpson's Boatyard by Pat Simpson
On the anniversary of 75 yearsin the ownership of the Simpson family
The businesses at the site of our boatyard have, over the last 100 years been, severally, known as: Southgate Bros; Southgate Bros Yachting Station; Stalham Yachting Station; Stalham Yacht Services; Moonfleet and, now, Simpson's Boatyard.
I believe Josiah Cubitt Teasel (1831-1906) was the first person to run a boating business from the current site of Simpson's Boatyard although the site then was considerably smaller. Teasel was born at Riddlington and was originally a cabinet maker. In 1864 he was working for Richard Southgate, a boat builder at Sutton Staithe. Having learnt his trade there, he went on his own and moved to Stalham in about 1871 with his wife Sophia. He built three wherries at Stalham, the Dorothy, Unexpected and Ceres not at the position of the current boatyard but at the inlet, closer to Stalham Mill, now called Utopia. This is evident in various old photographs and postcards showing the mill behind. Stalham Mill, last operated by Harry Burton, became redundant in 1927 and was reduced to just the stub in 1930.
In 1882 the small piece of land opposite Stalham Staithe, where Riverside and the lodge Solace stand, was sold at auction on behalf of Stalham Hall Estate. Teasel bought that land and moved his business there and then. In 1884 he took out a loan and built Riverside (originally called Staithe House) completing the task in 1886. Teasel had three daughters and after his death in 1906 his wife, Sophia, carried on the business until 1922 when she sold to Ted and George Southgate, Richard's sons. Hence, Southgate Bros. was formed and operated from both Sutton and Stalham.
Richard had died in 1913 and Ted was the eldest son by some twenty years. In 1924 they bought a piece of land next to Staithe Marsh Cottage (later called Brightside and now reverted to Staithe Marsh Cottage). Also in 1924 the Southgates bought the piece of land across the road, where Teasel now stands, from George Sands, the local farmer, and built the corrugated iron shed in 1926. No wherries were built at our site but the Southgates continued as a hire fleet and boatbuilding and repairs. George sold his share in the business to his brother in 1934 and, I believe, emigrated. Ted died in 1935 and his widow, Emma, continued to run the business until 1937 when she sold to a Cpt. Charles Kettlewell RN. Southgates had built up quite a fleet as in 1938 Kettlewell's fleet consisted of:
Playmate 1 & 2
Silver Tip White Admiral Thistle
Lassie 1, 2 & 3 20ft
Bonnie Lass 30ft
Motor Launches –
All available through Blakes
In 1939 Kettlewell bought Vine Cottage from a John Green and the land that came with it is where the main boatshed stands. In 1940 he bought the river bank where the moorings and pump out shed are situated from Robert Ives. So, apart from the houseboat site, Kettlewell put three pieces of land together to form the present boatyard.
During the war the business almost came to a halt. The fleet was much diminished and suffered badly from lack of maintenance. In September 1944 Kettlewell sold the entire business, both yards, boats,
Riverside and Vine cottage to Eric W. Jackson for £2,500. It was just after D-Day, a glimmer of hope was on the horizon and Jackson, obviously, saw a bargain.
My father, Miles Simpson, having served in the R.N.V.R. during the war, came from Nottingham late in 1945 to look for a boatyard on the Norfolk Broads. He found the Stalham yard for sale and began negotiating to buy. He, initially, had an equal partner in Eric Hasselhoun. Whilst negotiations continued Miles stayed extensively at the Sutton Staithe Hotel and became close friends with the proprietor, Basil Hitchin, who later became my Godfather. The purchase of the yard was concluded early the next year and Miles and Eric Hasselhoun paid £14,500 for the entire package that Jackson had only paid £2,500 for eighteen months earlier, a nice margin. They, obviously, set off at quite a pace as the fleet that was presented for hire in 1946 only loosely resembled the list of boats included in the purchase. The 1946 fleet consisted of:
Half Decker –
Motor Cruisers –
Timor 28ft Tasman 27ft
Merry Princess 28ft
Wherry Chloe 55ft
Wherry Rambler 55ft
Wherry Why Worry 51ft
Wherry Heron 39ft
In August 1946 I entered the world and was born at Riverside. In November 1946 my father bought Staithe House from a Gerald Parfitt and it was to remain his home for the next 54 years (and mine for 30 years). He died in 2001. In 1945 there was no decent sized boat building shed at the Stalham yard so in 1947 Miles leased a suitable shed on Cooke's Staithe from Harry Burton which was just big enough for his needs. Also in 1947 the Austrin family arrived. Walter senior, who had been involved in a boatyard in Gorleston, became the manager and moved into Riverside. His son, Walter junior, moved into Vine Cottage with his family. The speed and expenditure which Miles exercised in those early days clearly put the wind up Eric Hasselhoun as by June 1947 he had resigned. Mainly with the help of my grandfather, G. Thornton Simpson the company was restructured and a boatbuilding programme was devised. Miles and the Austrins designed the County Class cruisers to be built in Burton's shed and the first, 'Norfolk', a 38ft 6-8 berth, was launched in 1949. This was the first new boat to be built at Stalham for many years and was followed by 'Suffolk' in 1950 and 'Essex' in 1951. After that, a smaller class of two berth 'Prim' class cruisers were built, five in all, over the next five years. In 1956/57 a basin was dug out on the main yard and a 72ft long boatbuilding shed was erected. The lease on Burton's shed was given up in 1957. By this time Walter Austrin senior had died and, also in 1957, Walter junior and family left Vine Cottage. Riverside and Vine were then let as holiday cottages. Ted Piggin became the next manager. One year, probably 1958, we exhibited one of the 'Prim' class at the London Boat Show which, in those days, was held at Olympia. Those were the last wooden boats built at the Stalham yard although we built the 'Islander' at the Sutton yard and she entered the fleet in 1960, I believe. The Sutton yard was sold to John Linford in 1961. John was a very clever man and went on to found Aquafibre, a prolific moulder and builder of motorboats throughout the late 60s, 70s and 80s.
In about 1957, Bobby Richardson moved his boating operation from Oulton Broad to Stalham. Part of the land he bought was the plot where we currently moor our houseboats. That land was then heavily wooded with two cottages on the road end. We still owned the plot next to Brightside on the opposite side of the river which the Southgates had bought in 1924. Bobby wanted that land so a swap was arranged in
1958. The trees were felled, the dykes dug back and the land made up to provide the houseboat site as it still remains. This coincided with the Stalham bypass beginning construction so a large quantity of granite from the railway was acquired to build up the roadways around the boatyard. In 1963 the two cottages were sold to Hardy Arkell.
Ted Piggin left in about 1960 to take a lease on Whispering Reeds yard at Hickling and Billy Andrews took over as manager. Billy began working for Southgates at Sutton in 1926 and, apart from the war years, had been there ever since. Arconda, a prefab condominium, was bought and erected across the road behind the 'Old Yacht Station' in 1960. This was to be Billy and his wife's, Dorothy (Dee), home for the rest of their lives.
Throughout the late sixties and early seventies no new boats were introduced to the fleet. Some second hand boats replaced the older ones so by 1975 everything was very tired. There were too many old wooden boats and only a sprinkling of used GRP boats. Two Caribbean 39s, three small Freeman 22s and a Seamaster 25. Billy was ready to retire and Miles had run out of enthusiasm.
My wife, Jenny, and I returned from six years in the Caribbean in early 1976 with our six month old son, Shannon, who had been born in the USA. Ben, our second son, arrived in 1977. We agreed to lease the boatyard from Stalham Yachting Station, formed the company Stalham Yacht Services and took over in November 1976. We moved into Riverside and lived there for the next twenty years during which time I put on three extensions incuding a fourth bedroom, an extended sitting room and a porch. I have always considered that that was when I went to work. Everything the boats, the buildings, the property were all very run down. With limited funds it was extremely hard work in those first years. I bought a few boats and leased others but the Norfolk Broads were very popular then and you could let almost anything if it floated, and some that didn't! By 1980 cheap Spanish package holidays had been invented and became immediately popular. I remember 1982 and 83 being extremely poor on the Broads. We were very fortunate to be introduced to the BBC in the winter of 82/83 who wanted to make a film based on the Arthur Ransome stories Coot Club and the Big Six. It was very successful and gave us three months of continuous work right through the main summer season. It was, eventually, marketed as the 'Swallows and Amazons' which was a bit of a misnomer as the proper Swallows and Amazons took place in the lake district. However, we built our first boat in 1979 and the Aquafibre 42 'River Medina' entered the fleet in 1980.
We started replacing the houseboats and the 'Isle of Mull' was launched in 1985. Four more followed over the next five years. In 1986 we bought the freehold of the boatyard and cottages. In 1988 we started building new cruisers again for our fleet. From then until 2000 we built, on average, one new boat each year. These included the Rivers Tamar and Hamble, six berths; River Carron, four berth; Rivers Hart and Swift, two berths and, ultimately, River Lovatt, eight berth, was the last we built in 2000. I must mention Roger Grimmer who came to me from Richardson's in 1979 to help me build River Medina - and never left. He had the major involvement in every boat that we built during those years and only retired from the yard in 2020.
In 1998 the old shed next to the Staithe, so synonymous with pictures of the Staithe from the 1920s onward, became redundant so we took it down and built a holiday chalet on the same spot. We initially called it 'Teasel' after the founder of the boatyard but, unfortunately, my later tenants changed that and it is now called 'Solace' and has become an extremely popular holiday home. Billy Andrew's wife, Dee, died in about 1994 and Billy followed in 2003. We let Arconda on a long let after that but I was in Scotland in January 2005 when my agent called to say that there had a fire in Arconda. Fortunately no one was hurt. Eventually, we got permission to demolish the bungalow in 2006 and build a nice three bedroom house looking south. This was completed in 2008 and we called it Teasel, a name that will remain. In 2009 we also built another workshop that side of the road next to the Old Yacht Station which has stood since 1926. I had acquired the field next to Teasel in 2000 and that is now the camping site.
In 1984 the condition of Vine cottage had deteriorated to the point of having to consider whether to demolish or rebuild. It was a close call but, in the end, we rebuilt. We stripped it out to four walls, took down the back lean-to, added a bedroom and bathroom at the back and rebuilt the front open plan. The nett result was lovely and we let it for holidays for a few years until Jenny and I decided that we wanted to move off the boatyard. So in 1995 we sold Vine Cottage which allowed us to buy Pear Tree Farm in Lessingham where we moved to in 1996. Riverside then reverted to long term lets.
In 2000 Jenny was diagnosed with cancer and we had to rearrange our lives. We decided to fulfil a promise we had made after our years sailing in the Caribbean in 1975 to go sailing again once the boys had flown the nest. So in 2002 we sold all the boats and leased the boatyard to the two Phils who had been Belaugh Boats, and they called themselves Moonfleet. We bought a yacht, a Northwind 50, and went sailing in the Med for the next eight years. In 2010 we sold the yacht, in 2013 Jenny died and in 2017 Moonfleet gave back their lease.
From about 2005 to 2015 a great transformation took place on the Norfolk Broads. In it's heydays of the eighties there had been as many as 3000 hire boats on the Broads. With the popularity of the package holiday and the introduction of numerous new destinations, the attraction of the Broads wained. By 2015 the number of hire boats had reduced to about 800.
Hire Fleets from the following boatyards disappeared during those years:
Aston Boats - H E Hipperson - Alpha Craft - Swancraft - Alexander Cruisers - Bees Boats - Fencraft - Pearson Marine - Hampton Boats - Topcraft - Sabena Marine - Connoisseur Cruisers - Brister Craft - Royall & Son - Belaugh Boats - Sutton Staithe - Russell Marine - Norfolk Broads Y. Co. - VIP Harvey Eastwood - Harbour Cruisers - Kingfisher Cruisers - Highcraft - Castle Craft - Maffett Cruisers - Anchor Craft - Moore’s - Fineway Cruisers - Wood’s Dyke Boatyard - Kingline - Neatishead Boatyard - Moonfleet - Broom Boats
However, those ex-hire boats did not leave the Broads. Some were absorbed by the larger hire fleets but the majority went into private hands and instead of being used for, say, 20 weeks of the year were now used for 2 or 3 weeks. Hence, private moorings came at a premium and the opportunity to provide repair, maintenance and servicing for these boats appeared. This is what happened at our boatyard and the fleet of some 20 cruisers that Moonfleet had in 2002 disappeared over the next 10 years. At the same time a substantial repair business had grown up to take it's place.
With my sons' influence we decided to take the yard back in hand in 2017. It was obvious that much neglect had to be put right and that the management structure had to change. All this took a couple of years to put in place but now, on our 75th anniversary, the majority of the business is owned by my sons, Shannon and Ben, and we offer Holiday Cottages, Houseboats, Day launches, a Camping site, Canoe hire, Private Moorings and Full Repair and Maintenance Facilities on a sub let basis. We are into the fourth generation of family ownership now and, since I have six grandchildren, perhaps it may go to five.
If I could remember the names of all the lovely people who worked for us and helped us throughout all those years, I would like to mention and thank them. But I can't and I would not want offend anyone by missing them out. They know who they are and some remain good friends. Especially, Andrea Addy, who came to us to babysit my boys over 35 years ago and still remains with us as our Head Housekeeper.
I look back and see those years as hard work yet happy, for the most part, and fulfilling.
Stalham, February 2021