Photo Gallery: Life on the Norfolk Broads in the 1880s

14:35 16 April 2014

Beccles, as pictured in 'Fourteen Days Afloat' by H Brittain (1885)

Beccles, as pictured in 'Fourteen Days Afloat' by H Brittain (1885)


If there’s anything more beautiful than the Broads themselves then it just might be the books written about them. Trevor Heaton previews a new exhibition which begins today.

From 'On the Broads' 1886From 'On the Broads' 1886

It was the sort of price which would make anyone sit up and take notice.

A copy of Victorian photographer Peter Henry Emerson’s ultra rare Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads made the headlines back in September when it sold at Aylsham auction house Keys for an astonishing £75,900.

But David Clarke, bookseller and Broads book collector, remembers when things were very different.

“You used to be able to go into bookshops 30 or 40 years ago and see copies of Emerson’s books on sale for pounds or even shillings. They used to be piled up - even holding up the tables!”

Another photograph from 'On The Broads'Another photograph from 'On The Broads'

David doesn’t have a copy - “if only” - but many of the other gems from his collection will be featured in an exhibition running at his City Bookshop venue in Norwich from today until May 18.

So what was behind that extraordinary price? “Well, it’s mainly the worldwide boom in photography that has made it so sought-after. Emerson’s books were produced in very limited numbers and he often destroyed the printing plates to make sure of their rarity.”

With regard to Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, for example, only 25 deluxe versions of the book were printed in 1886 with a further 175 copies of a standard edition, including the one sold in September. Many have since been broken up and the photographic pages sold separately.

But for those of us who are rather less well-heeled, there are plenty of Broads books out there which can be bought for a few pounds. And there’s quite a choice too. “They must run into hundreds,” David said. “And it depends where you draw the line - a town guide about North Walsham, say, will have something about the Broads too.”

'The Crew' - the Norfolk crew of a wherry used on a 1889 cruise'The Crew' - the Norfolk crew of a wherry used on a 1889 cruise

David’s love affair with the subject began in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he used to visit the Local Studies section of the old Central Library. “The plates [of these books] are fantastic - I spent hours in there looking at them and gradually got drawn into it. You just get into things, don’t you?”

Books about the Broads have changed over the years too, to reflect the change in people’s holiday and leisure habits.

In the early years - the 1870s and 1880s - groups of well-heeled gentlemen would seek out the quaint wherries (and the quainter locals who did all the hard sailing work) while they lounged around shootin’ and fishin’. And writin’ - they would often write up their holidays in privately-printed memoirs which circulated among family and friends. “These sort of things still turn up from time to time,” David said.

As the word about the Broads began to circulate more widely in the 1880s, there was a need for more general guide books. One of these is David’s very favourite - Ernest Suffling’s The Land of the Broads was first published in 1885, and you can often see copies for sale. David has an illustrated edition published in 1887 which he particularly treasures.

The Lorna Doone, pictured in 1889The Lorna Doone, pictured in 1889

One look at the cover, with its elegant Victorian typography and colourful great crested grebe and pike and you can see why: it’s exquisite.

It features in David’s own contribution to the genre, his beautifully-illustrated book The Broads in Print, looking at many of the titles produced between the early 1800s and 1920.

As well as the intrinsic beauty of the books, David is fascinated by the process of change they represent. “This discovery and tourist thing - to see things develop from the Clement Scott days.”

And, of course, the Broads themselves, of course?

David laughs, and confesses: “I’ve only had one cruising holiday on the Broads in my life...”

Your secret’s safe with us, David.

Norfolk Broads Afloat - The Victorian Age is running upstairs at City Bookshop, Davey Place, Norwich, from today until May 18.
David’s book The Broads In Print: The Days of Discovery: Early 1800s to 1920, is available at £10.95.


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