A Life at Sea – Fishing and Lifeboats

Jackie Mitchell, a volunteer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage East of England hub at Norfolk Record Office, explores the audio memoirs of Wells-next-the-Sea fisherman and lifeboat coxswain, David Cox.

An interview with Mr Cox was conducted and recorded by Wells Local History Group in 2002, forming part of an archive of oral history recordings made and collected between 1976 and 2004. These recordings have now been digitally preserved by Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

David was born in Wells-next-Sea, Norfolk in 1926 into a fishing family. His father and uncles were fishermen, so it was perhaps inevitable that he would follow in these family footsteps. Steps that would take him on transatlantic cargo trips to America, fishing for whelks out of Wells harbour, and becoming coxswain of the Wells lifeboat.    

Wells-next-the-Sea harbour and quay from Beach Road. Source: Photograph, Laurence Mitchell (2021)                                                                   

His early years: David began recounting his life story by saying that he had attended school from three years old and enjoyed his schooldays with, in his words, his “excellent teacher”. He was at high school at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Being a coastal port, Wells was to suffer from air-raids by German aeroplanes. David remembered vividly putting tape in ‘X’ shapes over the classroom windows to stop them shattering during bombing raids. He recalled being in charge of the local “Spitfire Fund”. The children went around town collecting aluminium pots and pans to be melted down and re-used for the war effort; 1940s recycling.

David left school at fourteen years old with the expectation that he would either enter a trade, or take up an apprenticeship. His first job, which he took over from his cousin, was as a grocery boy. He pushed a wheelbarrow of fruit for sale around Wells. His wage was 2/6d plus commission on sales – “a lot of money at that age”, said David (about 12p today).

With war still raging, David changed jobs. He became an “errand boy” for The Globe Inn.

During the War, a brewery lorry pulled up at the pub laden with wine, spirits and whiskey. The cargo was to be stored at The Globe on behalf of the Brancaster Hotel. It was put ‘in bond’ ,or safe-keeping, for the hotel until the end of the War when it was returned.

Image source: http://www.theglobeatwells.co.uk

Off to sea: Fishing was in his family’s genes, so the urge grew to go to sea. David had a friend in the Navy who sailed to America. David “plagued” his parents to let him go to sea. They relented and a local captain took him on as a “deck boy”. David’s first trip out of Wells came when he sailed to Bristol. Initially, life at sea was not how he had dreamed it to be. He came from “a good home”, and found conditions on-board to be poor.  He could not wait to get home.

Undeterred, he still wanted to go to America but he recalled, “Mum worried” about him. However, his big trip came and he sailed from Belfast to New York over twenty-five days via Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Never seen anything like it”, was his memory of when his boat docked in Brooklyn. He spent three weeks in New York before his ship was loaded and ready to return to England. On another trip he was docked alongside the liner, The Queen Mary.

On reflection, he recalled it being “a good life”, but he came out after a year and started fishing, which became his profession until retirement. David joined the crew of his Dad and ‘Uncle Billy’s’ two boats. These were wooden boats with an oak keel and oak timbers; built by Johnson’s of Sheringham. He recalled, in those days the boats were “built by eye” from the keel up, and were “marvellous sea boats”.  This technique of building resulted in no two boats being exactly the same.

Uncle Billy, like the other fishermen caught whelks, the primary trade of Wells harbour in those days.  They supplemented their catch with mussels during the winter.

There was a reasonable living to be made as the fishermen knew how to sustain their livelihood. They fished by seasonal rotation. Whelk beds were fished for three months and then rested a year to allow stocks to recover, thus keeping breeding grounds alive. David explained how they moved their grounds throughout each season; fishing from near Docking in spring, going further offshore between July and September, and in winter whelks were fished from the Blakeney Deeps. The catch was sold locally or sent to Scarborough, Bridlington, and Billingsgate fish market in London. David spoke proudly of the way the fishermen of his day were early conservationists of the whelk and mussel fishing beds. By the time of his retirement in the 1980s, whelk fishing from Wells was no longer the mainstay of the industry. He blamed “newer” fishermen from further around the East coast working their fishing beds and caring little about conserving stocks. Some were large trawler boats with nets that scraped the seabed, disturbing the spawn. They fished all they could catch, to make “a quick pound” and move on.

Today, the primary catch in the fishing grounds surrounding Wells Harbour is crab and lobster. This catch is sold mainly to local shops, restaurants and supermarkets. The Wells Harbour website states that seventeen boats still fish all year round, with vessels from other ports visiting to fishing grounds too. This map shows the areas fished today: Docking Shoal, Race Bank, North Ridge, Dudgeon Shoal and Lynn Well.

Image source: Wells Harbour Commissioners: http://www.portofwells.co.uk/fishing

Lifeboats: In 1935 David witnessed the arrival of the first motorised lifeboat in Wells; an open boat with little shelter. The lifeboat service maintained its operations throughout the Second World War. David recalled that as a young man there would be a “race to the beach” when the maroon warnings went off signalling danger at sea. He would help launch the lifeboat and, in 1945, he volunteered as a member of the lifeboat crew. Once again, David was following a family tradition as his Uncle Billy was also a volunteer. In 1947, Uncle Billy took over as coxswain of the Wells lifeboat.

One of David’s early rescues was when he responded to the alarm signal and the lifeboat was launched on an “icy night” in 1947. A ship was “disabled” with propeller trouble off Blakeney and was “dragging anchor”. The lifeboat reached the stricken ship at around 11pm. The crew were alright but without power to move. The lifeboat stayed alongside until a tugboat arrived from the Humber the next morning. The tug was able to tow the ship into a safe harbour. David recalls the freezing conditions. An unusually cold winter, all the creeks were iced over, and snow lay until June.

David spoke of another rescue with his Uncle Billy as coxswain. There was a northeast gale blowing and a ship was in trouble 18 miles off Wells. Listening on land radio, it became clear that it was an old vessel en-route from Germany to Immingham [Lincolnshire]. It was carrying a cargo of timber that had shifted in the hold due to the turbulent sea conditions, causing the ship to list [take on water and tilt to one side]. It sent out a Mayday signal, and a joint lifeboat rescue was set in motion.

The Wells lifeboat launched and drew alongside the stricken ship. The list had resulted in the timber beginning to shed overboard.  Five of the crew who were in the stern managed to jump aboard the lifeboat. The Sheringham lifeboat had launched too and picked up the rest of the crew. On land, the men rescued by the Wells lifeboat were handed over to the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Agency and billeted with local families. One sailor was put up with David’s parents. He remembered the man being “very shook up, could only speak broken English, and was covered in oil” from the ship. He stayed with them for a few days until other arrangements were made.

Meanwhile, the ship had rolled over and was posing a danger to navigation and so it was “taken care of” by the Navy, who “blew it up”. By this time, most of the timber had floated off to sea. An easterly wind continued to blow for two weeks, gradually easing. One morning as David scanned the shoreline, he saw that the whole beach was “covered with timber” As news got around the townspeople showed up and tried to salvage what they could. David described some timber being lashed together to make rafts which went up to Stiffkey and Blakeney. Some people arrived with horses and carts to transport timber. David said he salvaged and sold some planks but didn’t make much money from it. He reflected that such impromptu salvages couldn’t happen today as most cargo is shipped in large, sealed containers.

It had been a difficult and successful rescue of the crew and David felt his Uncle Billy deserved a bronze medal, but his uncle was not interested in an award. In his eyes, the job was done.

Source: Photo taken by J. Mitchell. (2021)

The 1953 Flood: After all his years at sea, David had a keen eye out for when bad weather was looming. It was 1953 and the East coast was about to suffer its worst flooding in living memory. David records on tape that as he hauled in his fishing pots, there were “hard westerlies” blowing and he had a feeling that the sea felt “irregular”. There was a westerly gale, and the wind was increasing. He went to watch Wells play football with this father and observed the “ball was held by the wind” and that the tide was nearly up to “Marsh Heads”. He went to East Quay to check on his boats and then to the pub but didn’t stay as he was on lifeboat ‘stand-by’ duty. Did David have some sixth sense of foreboding?

David’s description of that night was both graphic and chilling. The tide began flooding Wells quayside and “by 7pm the sea was breaking on houses on the quay”. Then “the surge” started. There was water in the railway station and at midnight the tide did not go out. By morning, there had been three breaches in the West Bank at Wells; boats had been lifted by the tide and lay on the fields. The bank had been breached at Burnham Overy and water had surged along to Wells. There was “wreckage everywhere”. The surge travelled down the East coast as far as Canvey Island [Essex]. It took a couple of weeks to see the full extent of the damage. Wells beach huts “fell like a pack of cards” and blocked the doors to the lifeboat station.

Wells-next-the-Sea, Flood damage at Beach Road, 1953. Source: picture.norfolk.gov.uk
Wells-next-the-Sea, Beach Road as it is today looking towards the town. Source: Photo by Laurence Mitchell 2021.         

After the flood, a small boat was launched from a local hotel and sailed down the road to rescue stranded people. “An old boy and his wife were rescued with a door used as a make-shift stretcher” to get them onto the boat. The sea was “vicious”. Dead ducks lay in hedgerows, “a terrible sight”. The freshwater marshes were flooded by sea water at every tide for a week after the surge until the breaches could be sealed. About thirty lorries worked “round-the-clock” to plug the largest breach with chalk from the local lime works. Fishermen filled sandbags and with the help of helicopters, the breach at Wells harbour was filled.

Wells-next-the-Sea, repairing sea wall, 1953. Source: picture.norfolk.gov.uk

A new coxswain: David took over as coxswain of the Wells lifeboat in 1960 when his Uncle Billy retired. Initially, he was unsure about taking on the role but accepted it after being voted in by the crew. All lifeboat crew are volunteers other than the mechanic.

David spoke of his first launch as coxswain. It was to a boat that had become beached, broadside to the sea. They tried to assist but it was stuck. A helicopter winched the crew to safety, and when they returned to the scene the following day the boat had broken up. David said that many rescues were made due to inexperienced sailors taking on sea trips beyond their navigation skills, or knowledge of local tides and the limitations of the crafts that they were sailing.

David said his most difficult rescue was in February 1979. There was an easterly gale, blowing a blizzard. A Romanian ship had engine failure eleven miles off Wells. Neither the Cromer nor Sheringham lifeboats could get there due to the weather. David and his crew decided to “have a go” at reaching the vessel. The larger Humber lifeboat would be launched from Spurn Point to assist. The Wells lifeboat crew met very heavy seas that “washed over the lifeboat”. “The crew went quiet”. David said their radar froze and the snow made visibility poor. He admitted to being a bit lost when he “glimpsed a huge shadow”. It was the stricken vessel. He had been spot-on course. The Humber boat had arrived too, and became the lead rescue boat. David knew that when the tide changed the gale would cause larger waves. He had lost radio contact with the shore. A North Sea Ferry gave him directions to return.

He recorded that he had “never seen seas like it before”. On shore, the Wells coastguard was concerned for them. They had received no messages from the lifeboat and feared it had collapsed. David steered the best course he could and at 7pm he knew he was approaching Wells. The sky cleared and contact was made with the coastguard who gave him his bearing.

David and his crew made it home. The Humber coxswain later told David that the sea had been so bad that they had escorted the Romanian vessel back out to sea and round to the Humber estuary to dock. The Humber lifeboat and crew were awarded gold and bronze medals for the rescue and David, for his part, was awarded a silver medal.

David retired at sixty years old having passed on his knowledge and seamanship to the crew members who had volunteered under him. He reflected on this when talking about his experiences both as a fisherman and coxswain. He said that the retirement age for lifeboat crew was now fifty-five years which meant less opportunity for younger crew to learn from their elders. There are now training modules for lifeboat crew to learn today’s on-board technology however, David rued that you “cannot learn seamanship sitting at a desk”.  

He was of a generation where fishing and the lifeboat service ran in the families, where skills and knowledge were handed down as relatives and men worked side-by-side. Whilst he acknowledged that today’s technology needed to be taught, he reflected, that “tides still flow by their own rhythm and need knowledge”. Perhaps here, he was thinking back to the tides he watched as they built up to that sea surge in 1953?

Next generation: In the recording, David reflected on how the lifeboat he crewed differed from today’s modern boats, with their safety features and modern navigation. When he was coxswain, the lifeboat had a top speed of 8 knots, depending on weather conditions. The Wells lifeboat cannot be launched directly down a slipway but is launched from the boathouse by tractor. The tractor tows the boat to the adjoining beach at Holkham to be launched into deeper water.

A new lifeboat station is under construction. Photos show the new lifeboat station with a slipway. Source: Jackie Mitchell, 2021

A new lifeboat station, (pictured above), is being built next to the current station. The plan is for it to be completed in 2022 when it will house the new Shannon-class lifeboat. This will make it 153 years that the RNLI has operated a lifeboat rescue service out of Wells harbour and the third lifeboat station in the town. The first lifeboat station was on the Quay. It still stands and is a Grade 2 listed building that is now the Harbour Master’s Office and museum.      

David Cox recorded these stories of his life and times as a born-and-bred lad from Wells and a life at sea about twenty years ago. Times have changed in many ways; few men follow in family footsteps as David did and the skills needed to make a living from fishing or to be a volunteer on the lifeboats have changed. There is the effect of climate change and diminishing fish stocks in our seas, and the modern technology needed to crew a lifeboat. However, the character, determination and bravery shown by David and other seamen of his day are what carries forward the seamen and volunteers of today”

Jackie Mitchell

To view photographs of David Cox (Coxswain D. J. Cox 1960 – 1986) and his Uncle Billy (Coxswain W. Cox 1947 – 1960) visit: https://www.wellslifeboat.org/coxswain.htm

This blog references an interview with David Cox conducted by Wells Local History Group (2002), which is preserved at Norfolk Record Office (AUD097/6-8)

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, volunteers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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