Ditch Crawlers, 1953

Working and life on the Norfolk Broads in the late 19th Century

My pal Malcolm Woods has just found a new online collection of Victorian photographer Peter Henry Emerson’s atmospheric shots depicting the Norfolk Broads.

They’re stunning – though I can’t help that despite the dreamy tranquility they do seem to depict a hard and narrow-looking sort of life. There would be work and the struggle of getting by all week and on Saturday, of course – and then on Sunday there would other duties for many, often listening to fiery sermons in the chapel.

When novelist LP Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,’ he could so easily have been writing about these folks.

A history of Broads cruisers

A history of Broads hire cruisers

This charming and illuminating history of the Broads cruiser by hire company family member Vaughan Ashby is packed with anecdotes and memories of a time when ‘Blakes was very much a “league of gentlemen”, who all wished to help each other’. (Even as a kid I remember being struck by the way the Broadland yards seemed to cooperate… )

Ashby’s story about the combination of a petrol engine and gas fridge with a pilot light that hire operators tried for a while is particularly scary. ‘Most hire boats still had petrol engines. So if you had a petrol leak, the vapour went down into the bilge and rose up over the galley floor, until it reached the pilot light low down at the back of the fridge. Boom!’

Do check out the rest of the wonderful Broadland Memories website while you’re there…