A history of Broom Boats (pre 1945)
The longest-established powerboat builders in Britain were founded during the reign of Queen Victoria. From pioneering the use of the internal-combustion engine in pleasure craft, Broom and their associates Aquafibre have graduated to producing a full range of modern cruisers for inland and offshore use. There is nothing new about management buyouts. As long ago as 1898, the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company were selling off their boatyards to their respective managers. The building shed, dock and slipway at Brundall, on the north bank of the River Yare, was bought by one Charles J Broom.
When Broom first opened for business under his own name, the local scene was vastly different from todays. The leisure potential of the Broads had yet to be discovered, and the Yare was principally a commercial waterway. Heavily laden wherries plied regularly between the seaport of Great Yarmouth and the East Anglian capital of Norwich.
Along the riverbanks and on the fringes of the broad peat workings, men in punts gathered reeds for basket making and thatching. Their produce was conveyed to market on the rivers and Broads, as it had been for hundreds of years. But by the turn of the century this was an industry in decline. Some 50 years before, steam power had helped the tradesmen by providing the means to drain the fens and control the broadland water levels. Now, it had enabled tentacles of rail networks to wrest the life from traditional waterside crafts.
Ancient skills withered, but the expanding railways brought a new phenomenon, holidaymakers, and with them came fresh opportunities for local business. Every summer, hordes of city-dwellers boarded trains for the new-found razzamatazz of Great Yarmouth. A few, in search of more tranquil pursuits, disembarked en-route at quiet broadland stations, and one of these was right next door to Broom’s boatyard. Charles Broom built beautifully crafted sailing cruisers “for gentlemen” (an expression which still finds its way into Broom’s sales literature). These were sold outright, but it was customary for them to be kept moored at the yard, or in nearby boathouses built from timber or reed.
Broom and other local boatbuilders soon realised that these were taking up valuable space, for the sake of only a few days’ use each summer. The alternative of offering yachts for weekly hire throughout the season appeared more cost-effective, with the added advantage of drawing a wider net of customers – those who did not want the responsibilities of ownership. Although dinghies and rowing boats had previously been available for hourly or daily hire, in 1912 Broom as one of the first companies to set up a hire fleet of larger craft. In the same year, Harry Blake offered to obtain bookings for the various Broads boatyards, and founded the Blake’s Booking Agency in London.
The hirers, accompanied by their families and a local boatman or two, would cruise the 160-odd miles of broadland in what were considered extremely upmarket holidays. The practice of having live aboard attendants to handle the boats and do the chores prevailed until well after the motorboats had joined the fleets of sailing hire craft. To quote from a Broom brochure of 1948, £6 a week will be charged for an attendant, if procurable … Attendants will sail the boat, keep her clean, and do the cooking … The hirer has the option of fully boarding the attendant or allowing him £2 a week board money. “Not until the late 1940s did self-drive hire become the norm.
When motorboats first achieved popularity in the early 1920s, as lightweight petrol engines became readily available for marinisation, they presented obvious advantages for use on the Broads. Besides being able to maintain constant speed and direction, regardless of wind, they were easier for novices to handle than sailboats. And the notorious bridges at Wroxham and Potter Heigham could at last be negotiated without the need to lower sails and masts.
Broom were the first builders to offer standard model motorboats for either outright purchase or hire. These 30ft Morris-powered cruisers were of round-bilge carvel construction, built to classic lines, with accommodation under a raised foredeck and a control station aft of midships, where the cockpit coaming curved gracefully down to the transom. In the 1930s the length was increased, with either open or enclosed cockpits and aft cabins. Fitted with single or twin engines, the Broom Standard 35ft Estuary Cruiser remained in production until the early 1950s. Several examples still survive and one rare 43ft version, registered at Lloyds under the name Manya in 1936, was spotted recently in St Peter Port, Guernsey.
Broom started to build seagoing boats in the 1930s. At first, these were ketch or Bermudan-rigged motor-sailers, but with their masts located in tabernacles so they could be lowered, they were equally at home on inland waterways. Charles’ three sons, Charles Jnr, Basil and Bernard (always known as Barney), joined the company between the wars. When Charles Snr died, control of the yard passed to Charles Jnr until he too passed away in 1936, at the early age of 40. The surviving brothers bought the business from their widowed sister-in-law, and between them managed the building programme, the expanding hire fleet and the repair shops.
Following the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, fuel was rationed and all leisure boating came to a sudden halt. But, as was the case with many boatyards, wartime naval contracts were the lifeline and the making of Broom. With the workforce placed in reserved occupations, and additional labour and expertise supplied by the Admiralty, efficiency was markedly improved as destroyer tenders, pinnaces, lifeboats and harbour launches were churned out in large numbers. In one unusual respect, the war placed the yard in an advantageous position in relation to most of its broadland competitors.
From the time of the threatened German invasion in 1940, the Broads were seen as a potential landing area for enemy seaplanes, so hundreds of hire craft were rounded up, lashed together and rafted out across open stretches of water to form floating obstructions. These rapidly deteriorated (many of them sank) and by 1945 they needed considerable repair work before they could be returned to their peacetime role. But the Broom fleet fared much better. Some of the ‘gentlemen’s launches’ had been requisitioned by the Army, fitted with machine-guns and used for river patrols, whilst most remained at Brundall as floating billets. They were well maintained, and required only minor refurbishing to put them back into service.
So the yard was able to resume operations almost immediately in peacetime, and also had the capacity to recommence building programmes earlier than other companies.
Originally Published in Motor Boats Monthly. Reprinted in Sweeping Statements, Spring 2007