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Memories of working on the Norfolk Broads Police Launch in the 1960s

1960s History 1960s Memories 1960s Gallery

By Ray Spinks

My first season as a crew member of the Norfolk Constabulary police launch was in the 1960 season.  We started on the Monday before Good Friday, and continued until the end of October covering the Northern rivers and broads, as well as the Waveney and Yare, as far as Hardley Cross, where it became the responsibility of Norwich City police. If Easter was early the weather was not always kind, and in fact I remember on one occasion going across Breydon water in a snow storm with almost zero visibility. There was a crew of three, with always two officers being on board at any one time covering the hours from 8am to 10pm daily, and each day a different route would be planned in order to cover as much of the area as possible.  Our remit was basically to do the job in the same way that our colleagues did on land, by patrolling the Broads and rivers and dealing with what ever came our way. The launch which had been built by Jack Powles at Wroxham with the registration number A2 was comparatively fast with a top speed of about 15 knots, but I remember the shape of the hull meant it left a sizeable wash at speed, and if we were on our way to an emergency we had to be very careful of moored holiday cruisers which were in danger of being washed up onto the banks!

The Police launch A2, pictured on Malthouse Broad in the 1960s

The Police launch A2, pictured on Malthouse Broad in the 1960s

As now, one of our main concerns was water safety, and very few holiday makers bothered to wear life jackets, one reason being that in those days they were rather bulky and uncomfortable to wear. Because of this, the number of deaths by drowning were much greater than they are today. During the three seasons I spent with the boat, the average number of fatalities was about ten per year on the broads and rivers. In fact in one terrible day three young men died when the boat they were rowing back to their cruiser after a night out in the Swan public house at Horning capsized throwing them into the water. The following morning, a young boy fell off a houseboat just upstream from the pub and also drowned. In those days, there was no underwater search team in the Norfolk police, and consequently we used a rather hit and miss method of dragging for the bodies with grappling hooks which were towed behind the boat at tick over speed eventually covering the whole width of the river for about 250 yards downstream from where the casualty entered the water. I am proud to say that on each occasion we were able to locate the casualties if we knew where they had entered the water. We would also use the same procedure if we were searching for property lost overboard, mostly outboard motors. On one occasion when doing this at Horning we dragged up a weather vane in the form of a swan. We realized it most likely came from the adjacent pub, and on returning it to the landlord, he told us that it had been taken from the roof by a bunch of aircrew from RAF Coltishall during the Second World War. Stolen items such as bicycles were also recovered in this way.

Saturday afternoons were a very busy time, especially on the stretch between Wroxham and Horning, when holidaymakers who had probably never been in a boat before were given the helm of a 25 foot cruiser and after about 20 minutes instruction were left to their own devices. Using our loud hailer mounted on the bows, we tried to persuade them that now they were out of their cars, the speed limit was 5mph, but with no speedometer it was difficult for them to know when they were exceeding the limit. Quite a number of yachts would finish up with their bows high up on bank, and the masts caught up in the foliage. One aspect of the job was passing urgent messages from home to occupants of holiday craft.  Of course all this was before the days of the mobile phone, and a system operated where at a number of locations throughout the Broads area large blackboards were positioned, and when a message was received at our headquarters, very often to say that a loved one had passed away, or was very ill, notices would be placed on these boards with a message asking the occupants of a named boat to contact our headquarters for the message to be relayed,  This was successful in many cases, and was in fact a very good PR result for us.

Ray Spinks at the helm of the Police launch in the 1960s

All in all it was a very enjoyable time for a young unmarried constable, with dances at various village halls on different days of each week.  At times it could be idyllic, mooring up for a cup of tea on a warm summer's evening listening to the booming of the bitterns, of which there were quite a few at that time.

There were of course a few more unusual incidents, such as the time when we were sailing up the Ant, and noticed a lady frantically waving from the river bank. We stopped and she told us that she was cruising with her husband, and he had sailed off without her. Apparently they had moored for a meal and when they moved off, it was her job to untie the stern mooring rope, and settle down in the rear section, but on this occasion she had not managed to get back on board, and her husband sailed off without her. We welcomed her aboard and set off in pursuit of the errant husband. We caught up with him, caused him to pull into the bank, and asked him if he was missing anything.  He said, 'No, I don't think so', but then looking worried replied 'where is my wife'? She emerged from our toilet, and called him some rather choice names. On another occasion, we were in the harbour at Yarmouth, when we noticed one of Richardson's large cruisers, with a family on board, shouting and waving to us.  There was quite a strong tide carrying the boat towards the harbour's mouth.  We managed to get alongside, were informed by a man on board that the engine had cut out, and they could not start it.  I told him to throw his mud weight overboard, which he did, but unfortunately there was no rope attached! By this time we were rapidly approaching the harbour's mouth. I managed to get aboard, and more by luck than judgement got the engine running, and the occupants continued on their holiday.

If anybody knows where A2 is now, I would be pleased to here from them.

Ray Spinks 2013

Ray Spinks at the helm of the Police launch in the 1960s