Special feature and picture gallery: Wells Harbour Commissioners prepare to celebrate their 350th anniversary

Wells Harbour are celebrating there 350th Anniversary - Harbour Master Robert Smith on Wells Quay. Picture: Matthew Usher.

With Wells Harbour Commissioners celebrating their 350th anniversary this year, reporter ADAM LAZZARI looks at the history of the organisation and talks to the current harbour master Robert Smith about the commissioners' work today...

Robert Smith and his team enjoy enviable views of one of the most picturesque and well-loved towns in Britain from their office in Wells' West Quay.

Six generations of Mr Smith's family have earned a living from the port and harbour of Wells and he feels it a huge honour to be the town's harbour master, a position which has existed in some form for three-and-a-half centuries.

With that honour, though, comes the burden of governing a harbour which many thousands of people see as their own.

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Mr Smith said: 'So many people have a great passion for Wells harbour and many feel a sense of ownership of it.

'We can't please everyone all of the time, but we do our best to work for the good of the overall majority.

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'Our job is to ensure Wells continues to be a thriving working port. That's the way it was at the start, and, with the wind farm and fishing industries, how it is again now – it's gone full circle.'

From rampaging pirates to the construction of a £1bn wind farm at sea, Wells has seen a lot of activity over the last few hundred years.

The earliest historical references to the north Norfolk ports were in the 13th century, but no firm information from this time is available.

In 1404 there are records that 37 ships out of 70 at Wells were lost to the Dunkirk Pirates.

The Elizabethan era was the heyday and Wells was a centre of a long-distance white fish industry. Many ships of more than 100 tons visited the port.

During these times piracy was rampant and wreckers gained a living, or at least part of it, from the misfortunes of others.

The Wells Harbour Commissioners originated under an act of 1663 in the reign of Charles II.

The Act for Repairing and Better Preserving the Key of the Port of Wells in the County of Norfolk provided, amongst other things, for a levy of 6d – quite a sum in those days – for every ton of goods and last of grain loaded or unloaded, with the condition that these dues should be 'truly and faithfully expended on repairing and better preserving the quay, creeks, channel and landing place of Wells.'

There were all sorts of regulations for the conduct of the harbour, including the appointment of a 'haven man,' the fore-runner of the present day harbour master, who had to provide and maintain buoys and beacons and was entitled to levy 1d per ton 'for his pains and labour.'

Wells continued as a prosperous and busy port during the second half of the 19th century and up to the first world war – handling mainly cargoes of coal, malt and barley – but the construction of the Fakenham/Wells Railway in 1857 decreased the harbour trade considerably.

Between the two world wars the port was reasonably active with cargoes of potash and coal being shipped inwards and sugar beet, malt and barley outwards.

During the second world war only a small fishing fleet was active and the port was used as a base for Air-Sea Rescue and areas of the harbour were mined because of the threat of invasion.

On May 30, 1940, a message came to Wells asking all fishing boats to respond to the evacuation of Dunkirk. Seventeen men from Wells volunteered in seven small boats.

After the war whelk fishing regained its former energy and Wells continued to supply about two thirds of the country's demand.

Shipping movements were very modest, with an average of just 14 cargoes per year. But in the early 1960s shipping improved dramatically and by 1963, 52 cargoes were handled.

In 1971 80 cargoes were shipped, with the emphasis turning to animal feedstuffs coming inward.

Wells Harbour Commissioners' powers and authority are most recently defined in the Wells Harbour Revision Order of 1994.

The commissioners are a self-financing body with no access to government money.

All profits are channelled directly back into the harbour and Wells Harbour Commissioners must balance the books to run the port successfully.

Mr Smith has worked in Wells harbour for 24 years and has been harbour master since 2001.

In that time, he said his work has changed dramatically.

With 14 different bodies, including the Marine Management Organisation, Natural England and the Environment Agency, overseeing the commissioners' work Mr Smith said: 'It used to be far easier to get things done, but we now have much more red tape to deal with.'

As well as managing finances and issues such as health and safety on the harbour, Mr Smith said he has had some very unusual tasks to carry out as harbour master.

He said: 'About four years ago there was a very unusual case where I had to pull an 18-stone man out of the mud.

'He got stuck in the East Quay area and was sinking as the tide was coming in. He had been calling for help for some time until a passer-by heard him.

'He was shoulder deep at this point and it took six of us to pull him out.

'Another time, during the night, a man's boat fell off his trailer into the water and drifted away. He walked to Blakeney trying to find it. In the meantime we saw a loose boat in the harbour and thought we had a missing man at sea. A rescue team and helicopter came out searching for him for six hours. He'd stopped in Blakeney for a sleep and walked back.'

Mr Smith said Wells harbour is now busier than it has ever been in his 24 years, with much of his time spent working with the renewable energy industry including the £1bn Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm and working to attract other offshore wind farm investments to Wells.

But, despite his hectic schedule, the beauty of the harbour is never lost on him.

He said: 'Wells is a magical place and I never tire of the views from my office.

'Every single day it looks different and fresh and new, even after all of these years.'

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