How have the Broads changed in the last 70 years?

Racing yachts, owned by the rich in early Broads years.

Racing yachts, owned by the rich in early Broads years. - Credit: Submitted

I first heard about the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and boating holidays this month - 70 years ago! Little did I know how important they would become to me – and millions of people who came to love them over those years… bringing great success to this region. Ages before, only the rich with posh yachts they raced, had enjoyed leisure there.

In 1951, in East London, I passed my 11-plus exam – the equivalent of today’s GCSE - winning free schooling. My parents offered me a prize. I asked for a holiday on the Broads – they had never heard of them. But we came to Reedham, hiring a week on the three-berth motor boat Lady Pamela via Blakes Norfolk Broads Holidays.

It was wonderful. Despite my age I took charge of this little boat, steering her down the river. Mum and Dad thought we would come back to the boatyard the same evening but no, I knew we had to go new places – in this case the wonderful Reedham Ferry moorings and pub. A bit early for me to get into pubs, but today the Ferry Inn still means much to me. We had lots more holidays, particularly enjoying the charm of the northern rivers including to Barton Broad, where, I was told, Nelson learned to sail. So I tried too! 

A painting of racing yachts on the Broads

A painting of racing yachts on the Broads - Credit: Submitted

The Broads then were still warming up. At 16 I became a London cub reporter, and at 27, after Fleet St journalism, started my own Norwich publicity company – including publicizing the Broads…. And Blakes. Early in their pre-war growth, founder Harry Blake proudly claimed that 100,000 brochures had been printed as the boat hire industry boomed. As the season progressed though, the threat of war in Europe was looming and the Broads came to a standstill as the entire system was taken over by the military and declared a no-go area.

The threat of a possible German invasion led to Britain being turned into a fortress, and the Broads were felt to be a major weak point that needed defending. Private and hire boats were requisitioned to form blockades on open stretches of rivers and broads to prevent enemy sea planes landing. Many of the old trading wherries sadly met their fate in this way. The boatyards now found themselves helping the war effort, by building military vessels.

A painting of boats racing on the Broads

A painting of boats racing on the Broads - Credit: Submitted


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By 1944 the threat of invasion began to fade, restrictions were lifted and people were once again allowed to visit the Broads. Now we were enjoying the start of a major new holiday industry. A new name entered Broadland history when he began hiring out boats at Oulton Broad.

William Ballantyne (Wally) Hoseason had become harbour master at Oulton for the Lowestoft Corporation in the 1930s. In 1944 he began to arrange boat hire for owners by letting moored cruisers as houseboats to families who had been evacuated from London. Petrol was rationed which meant motor craft could not be moved, obstacles like sunken vessels still covered the system which meant that cruising was too hazardous.

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Hoseason produced his first holiday brochure in 1946 which covered just four pages, but the company he formed would go on to become a household name for boating holidays and a major rival to Blakes agency. Harry Blake retired and his agency was sold to a group of boatyards. Years had always been good for the firm as it grew with little competition but then early in the 1970s, Blakes headed into bad times.

Hoseasons was now their prime competitor and they bid to take over Blakes. The deal was refused. A week later I got a call from Jimmy Hoseason who was driving his father’s firm into new growth. He told me that he wanted us to publicise Hoseasons. That was 1973. A client that grew with us till 1999 – when the Hoseason family sold it, for £22 million!

Jim Hoseason was one of the three wise men in my life - I am proud to have known him well. A gentleman, genius, friend, someone who always listened to you – was strong, usually right yet always keen to hear others’ views.

I learned much from Jim – like using people’s names; the classic that people who talk about themselves are bores; those who talk about “others” are gossips – but it’s right to talk about “you” – always he was interested in other people. The key factor of Hoseasons’ success was his assertion that 70% of holiday-taking decisions were made by women and you played to that – he staffed his call centre mostly with women. It worked. More wisdom was the opportunity to convert a complaint/complainer into a positive successful future by saying sorry, putting whatever was wrong, right.

Paul Albion out on the Broads

Paul Albion out on the Broads - Credit: Submitted

We all knew Jim as the holiday providing entrepreneur, appointed OBE in 1990 for UK tourism. He was head of an organisation that developed holidays for a million people a year.

Today Broadland has changed – with more people coming but mainly for short breaks – and a total fleet of only about 900 boats by comparison with the 1980s and 90s when there were up to 3,000 holiday hire craft doing week-long or fortnight holidays.

Now days out flourish with small motor boats hired for a few hours, and hundreds of young people come to pump up paddle-boards, plop them in the rivers and paddle solo, from river banks for an hour or two.

Reedham village and wing bridge on the way to Yarmouth and the northern rivers

Reedham village and wing bridge on the way to Yarmouth and the northern rivers - Credit: Submitted

More families now own their own motor and sailing boats and those fleets have probably tripled. Hire boats today are for weeks but mainly short breaks on modern, more luxurious cruisers, with sophisticated cruising equipment.

Today the Broads attract around 7.6m visitors each year creating around £600 million for the region. And they are still the greatest waterways in the world for many – me included.


Paul’s biography, MY LIFE MY WAY, telling much of Norfolk business growth over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from: paul@paulgwynthomas.co.uk

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