Lowestoft’s Maritime History



Explore the rich and diverse history of Lowestoft’s historic port and its surrounding beaches, where tales of centuries past echo with every tide. From ancient settlements dating back to the pre-historic era to its role as a vital fishing and shipbuilding centre through the ages, Lowestoft has been at the heart of maritime life for millennia. Join us on a harbour history tour aboard our boat to uncover the stories of resilience, innovation, and community spirit that have shaped this coastal town. Whether you’re a history buff or simply curious, let the waters of Lowestoft reveal their secrets as you embark on this fascinating journey through time.

PRE-HISTORIC

Neolithic, Bronze & Iron Ages – 4500BC to 600AD

Human habitation in Lowestoft dates back approximately 700,000 years, evidenced by the discovery of flint tools, indicating early settlement during the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. This period saw migrants from central Europe introducing agriculture to Britain, establishing communities like the small village of Akethorpe, believed to have been located in what is now Lowestoft.

During the Iron Age, Lowestoft would have been situated within the territory of the Iceni, an ancient tribe of eastern Britons. The Iceni encompassed all of Norfolk and parts of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, shaping the cultural and territorial landscape of the region.

Lowestoft’s early settlement likely occurred inland, possibly near the present-day location of Normanston Park. Agriculture was a primary activity, supplemented by fishing and peat cutting, which provided both food and fuel for the community.

This journey through the ages of Lowestoft begins with these ancient roots, setting the stage for exploring its rich history spanning from prehistoric times through Roman occupation, medieval development, maritime expansion, industrialisation, and into the vibrant present-day town.

CLASSICAL

Roman Invasion & Occupation – 43 AD to 410AD

During the Roman invasion of Britannia, the Iceni tribe fiercely resisted before eventually becoming a client kingdom of Rome. Despite this arrangement, uprisings in 47 AD and 61 AD challenged Roman authority, both of which were forcefully quelled. The Iceni’s diversion of efforts towards warfare instead of crops during these conflicts resulted in widespread famine across the region.

In the late 3rd century, during the Roman occupation of Britannia, Burgh Castle became a strategic fortification. Positioned alongside the nearby Caister Fort, it guarded the estuary of the River Waveney. At that time, the River Waveney flowed directly east into the Ocean Germanicus, now known as the North Sea. The landscape was markedly different with no spit where Yarmouth now stands, allowing the Rivers Waveney, Yare, and Bure to combine into a large estuary that emptied into the sea.

The Romans likely constructed a road extending northwards from Colchester, a prominent Roman city, to Burgh Castle. It is also probable that the ancient Mutford Crossing, now identified as the bridge at Oulton Broad, was originally established by the Romans as a crucial route connecting to the fort at Burgh Castle. This strategic network facilitated both military operations and trade throughout the region during Roman rule.

MEDIEVAL

Early & Late Medieval Period – 410 AD – 1485

After the Romans left in the early 5th century, the once-thriving Iceni homelands experienced a period of depopulation. However, this lull was soon followed by the arrival of Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons from the continent. By the 6th century, Lowestoft had become part of the burgeoning Kingdom of East Anglia.

In 879 AD, the Viking invaders made a lasting impact on the region by defeating the East Anglians in battle and settling permanently in East Anglia. It is believed that around this time, the settlement of Lothuwistoft (now known as Lowestoft) was established, possibly built from the remnants of the earlier settlement Akethorpe, which may have been deserted in the late 4th century. The name Lowestoft itself derives from the Viking personal name Hlothver and the word “toft,” meaning homestead.

Fast forward to 1066, the Norman invasion led by William the Conqueror dramatically altered the English landscape. By 1086, the Domesday Book recorded Lowestoft as Lothuwistoft, a modest village with 16 households, including three families, ten smallholders, and three slaves. It was noted as a sub-manor of Lothingland, under the broader manor of Gorleston.

Our next stop is the unique geographical context of Lowestoft. The town was situated in the half hundred of Lothingland, historically an island defined by Lake Lothing, the North Sea, and surrounding river valleys. To the south lay the Mutford Half Hundred, named after its principal village, Mutford. Lake Lothing, thought to be the remnant of a medieval peat-cutting operation, was originally a freshwater lake. Adjacent to it, Oulton Broad, near the village of Oulton, was similarly formed. The small stream known as Oulton Dyke connected Oulton Broad to the River Waveney.

By the early 13th century, fishing had become a common occupation in Lowestoft. Fishermen would launch small wooden boats from the beaches, primarily from the Denes—a large area of beach protecting the cliffs—to catch fish in the North Sea. Commonly caught species included cod, haddock, plaice, herring, and skate.

In 1308, the significance of Lothingland grew when it was granted a market charter, allowing it trading rights on the Suffolk side of the River Yare. This led to bitter disputes with the Borough of Yarmouth to the north, which was also developing a robust fishing industry. Yarmouth sought to control Lothingland’s fishing activities, leading to numerous petitions to Parliament in the 1370s.

Our tour continues to December 1445, when King Henry IV granted Lothingland a market charter, allowing it to hold a weekly Wednesday market. This new status brought further wealth and opportunities to the area. The right to hold an additional fair and other benefits of being a market town attracted traders and buyers alike. Locally caught fish became a staple of the market, and the focus of the village shifted towards maximising the benefits of its coastal location.

Lowestoft is beginning to evolve, from a tiny post-Roman settlement to a bustling market town. The transformation of this small town encapsulates the broader changes that swept through Britain during these early centuries, setting the stage for Lowestoft’s continued growth and prosperity.

TUDOR

Part of the Early Modern Era – 1485 – 1603

At this time, the administrative regions of Lothingland and Mutford were combined to form the Hundred of Lothingland & Mutford. By 1524, Lowestoft had become the most highly taxed settlement in the hundred, a testament to its burgeoning wealth and prominence.

As we explore this era, we encounter the recurring disputes with the Borough of Great Yarmouth. In the early 1500s, tensions flared once again when Great Yarmouth constructed a new haven capable of accommodating ships of up to 250 tons. This strategic move allowed the borough to collect tolls from ships, a practice fiercely resisted by Lowestoft, keen to maintain its own maritime dominance.

Moving through the Lowestoft Denes, we find the beginnings of a vital local industry: fish smoking. As early as the 16th century, buildings dedicated to this purpose likely began to appear. The small fishing fleet would land herring on the lower denes beach, and these would then be smoked in smokehouses dotting the Denes. This area was bustling with activity, featuring racks to dry nets, facilities for boat and net repairs, and serving as a communal hub for the local fishing community. A notable feature was a long trench running north to south, filled with copper vats above open fires, where cod livers from Icelandic voyages were boiled down to make oil for lamps.

In 1539, responding to the threats posed by wars with Spain, King Henry VIII ordered the construction of defensive bulwarks in Lowestoft. Consequently, three earthwork structures were built: one at the south end of the town, another at Ness Point, and a third further north. These fortifications were crucial in protecting the town from potential seaborne attacks.

As we continue our tour, we reach the year 1554 when the village of Oulton saw the construction of a new bridge over the area linking Oulton Broad to Lake Lothing. This bridge, however, faced numerous challenges, being swept away several times by floods. Despite these setbacks, the bridge symbolised the ongoing efforts to improve infrastructure and connectivity in the region.

These developments highlight a period of resilience and ingenuity in Lowestoft’s history, laying the groundwork for its continued growth and prosperity.

STUART

Part of the Early Modern Era – 1603 – 1714

Our journey continues in 1609, when Lowestoft got its very first lighthouses. These two candlelit structures were built by Trinity House, an organisation incorporated by Royal Charter in 1514. Situated on the foreshore, these lighthouses served as vital beacons, warning ships of the dangerous sandbanks lurking off the coastline. Mariners aligned the two lights to navigate safely through the treacherous Stamford Channel. Recognising their importance, these lighthouses were rebuilt in 1628, becoming essential navigational aids for boats returning home.

As we move forward to 1659, we witness Lowestoft’s fierce opposition to Great Yarmouth’s attempt to extend its liberties over the town. Lowestoft’s persistence paid off, and the case was taken to the Privy Council. By 1663, a House of Lords order finally resolved this long-running dispute, affirming Lowestoft’s autonomy.

In 1660, a new breakwater was constructed at Lowestoft to prevent Lake Lothing from flooding with saltwater. During this period, a Commission of Sewers was established to determine the fate of Mutford Bridge, the only route into Lowestoft from the south for wheeled vehicles. The decision was made to rebuild the bridge, ensuring continued access and trade.

June 13th, 1665, marked a significant naval event off the coast of Lowestoft. A fierce battle was fought 40 miles east of the town between an English fleet of 109 warships and a Dutch fleet of 103 warships during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The English emerged victorious, destroying eight Dutch warships and capturing nine more, while losing only one of their own.

In 1676, the two lighthouses underwent a reconfiguration. One lighthouse was moved up onto the cliffs above the Denes and became known as the “High” lighthouse, lit by a coal fire brazier. The other, located on the Denes, was referred to as the “Low” lighthouse. These changes enhanced the lighthouses’ effectiveness in guiding ships through the perilous waters.

Despite the resolution of disputes with Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft’s fishery suffered due to ongoing conflicts, including the recent Civil War, a devastating fire in 1644, and the nation’s wars with the Dutch. By 1678, the townspeople of Lowestoft petitioned the Treasury for port status, arguing that duties imposed on their goods at Yarmouth and the necessity of overland transport from Yarmouth were burdensome.

Their plea was heard, and in 1679, the Lord Treasurer accepted recommendations allowing Lowestoft merchants to import salt for curing fish and fishing gear. Later that year, Lowestoft was granted permission to export grain and import coal, leading to a surge in trades related to the fishing industry.

The fire of 1644, which had destroyed many fishing buildings along the Lowestoft Denes, spurred the development of Whapload Road. Proximity to the Denes made it an ideal location for buildings and industries supporting the fishing trade.

In 1685, a sea survey conducted by Greenville Collins charted the Stamford Channel, later known as the Standford Channel, a critical shipping route for vessels inbound to Lowestoft.

We reach 1706, when the Low Lighthouse was discontinued due to coastal erosion encroaching on its position. This marked the end of an era for one of Lowestoft’s guiding lights, but the town’s maritime legacy continued to flourish.

GEORGIAN

Colonialism and Empire – 1714 – 1837

Welcome to Georgian Lowestoft, a town on the cusp of significant growth and development, reflective of the broader industrialisation that would soon emerge in Britain and its growing overseas possessions. Let us embark on this journey, beginning in the early 1700s.

Between 1700 and 1730, Lowestoft saw its fishing-related trades flourishing. Cod liver oil production likely took place on the Lowestoft Denes and along Whapload Road. Ice was collected from Oulton Broad and stored in thatched ice cottages, essential for preserving the day’s catch.

In 1730, responding to the local fishermen’s complaints about the difficulties navigating the Stamford Channel, the Low Lighthouse was re-established. This wooden tower, which could be moved as the channel shifted, was lit by candles to guide the fishermen safely.

By the mid-18th century, Lowestoft had its own resident customs officers and a small but thriving fishing industry. Fishing boats commonly landed their catches on the beaches, loading them into horse-drawn carts. Cargo boats also facilitated trade with Europe. The town boasted workshops and facilities for boat repair, sail sewing, and net and rope making, laying the groundwork for a bustling maritime community.

In 1760, Mutford Bridge was replaced with a new brick structure, allowing small trading and fishing boats with lowered masts to pass underneath, enhancing the town’s connectivity.

In 1771, King George II approved an Act for the Encouragement of the White Herring Fishery, effectively deregulating the industry. Despite this, wars with France and other countries in the late 18th century made the waters unsafe, keeping Lowestoft’s fishery small-scale and hampered by the lack of a proper harbour. Fishing boats, approximately 50 feet in length, landed their catches by beaching at high tide, offloading into small rowing boats, and re-floating with the next tide. From 1772 to 1781, Lowestoft had about 33 fishing boats, yet the herrings landed were considered superior in quality.

In 1779, the Low Lighthouse was rebuilt on the foreshore, now powered by an open-cupped oil lamp burning sperm oil, providing a brighter and more reliable light for navigation.

In 1781, a review of Lowestoft’s coastal defences found them seriously lacking. In response, three new forts were constructed: North/Cliff Battery (where Bellevue Park stands today), South Battery (where Battery Green Car Park is today), and Beach/Ness Battery. Each fort featured four 18-pounder guns, bolstering the town’s defences.

The late 18th century saw the development of the Beach Village, also known as The Town Below The Cliff or The Grit. Situated close to Whapload Road/The Denes, this new village housed workers in the fishing industry, with the first houses built in 1791.

In 1791, Mutford Bridge was washed away by a tidal flood and subsequently replaced, maintaining crucial access for trade and transport.

For centuries, beach boat pilots and fishermen assisted ships in distress using their own boats. By 1800, the local community raised enough money to buy a purpose-built lifeboat. In 1807, a new lifeboat named Frances Ann was built in Lowestoft. With three sails, 14 oars, and a length of 13 metres, it could navigate in just 1 metre of water, enhancing maritime safety.

In 1808, another Act of Parliament aimed at encouraging and regulating the British herring industry had little impact on Lowestoft. However, by 1806, there were 76 dwellings in the beach village, supporting a thriving fishing industry on The Denes and along Whapload Road. Lowestoft was becoming a fashionable seaside town, poised for significant growth.

For centuries, Lake Lothing, through which the River Waveney joined the sea, formed a natural haven for boats. However, it was frequently blocked by sand and shingle, making it unsuitable for ship passage. By 1814, plans were developed to allow vessels to pass from the North Sea into Lake Lothing and then, via a canal, proceed to Norwich via the Rivers Waveney and Yare. The Port of Norwich supported this due to frustrations with the cost, theft, and logistical issues of goods being transported through Great Yarmouth.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the decline of the Dutch industry spurred significant expansion in the east coast fishing fleets, including Lowestoft, making the prospect of connecting the River Waveney to the sea more profitable.

In 1827, a bill to open up Lake Lothing, connecting it to the North Sea and the River Waveney via a lock at Oulton, received royal assent. The Lowestoft Norwich Navigation Company was formed and began work on a new harbour.

Oulton Dyke was dredged to a suitable depth for shipping to reach the River Waveney. A new lock was constructed at the site of the Mutford Bridge, which was replaced by a new retracting bridge to allow ships to pass. The new lock was 23 feet wide, 60 feet long, and could accommodate vessels up to 150 tons. At Lowestoft, the harbour was constructed, with the link from Lake Lothing to the sea deepened and canalled, and two small piers, the Inner North and Inner South Piers, were built. A new fixed road bridge was constructed over this new canal, allowing foot passage from north to south, and opened in June 1830. In 1831, the harbour opened and received its first shipping, transforming Lake Lothing into a permanent saltwater lake.

In 1832, the Beach/Low Lighthouse was rebuilt, moved from the Denes to the beach. It was described as a lantern on a timber frame with a brick foundation, painted white. A wooden dwelling was built alongside for the keeper.

These developments marked the rise of Lowestoft as a significant maritime hub, poised for further growth and prosperity as the 19th century progressed.

VICTORIAN

Britannia Rule The Waves – 1837 – 1901

Welcome to Victorian Lowestoft, a town that epitomised the rapid industrialisation of Britain and its empire during this transformative period. Let’s continue our journey in 1840, when a pair of houses were constructed alongside the High Lighthouse to accommodate the keepers, marking the continual infrastructural development in the area.

In 1844, significant change came with Samuel Morton Peto’s purchase of Somerleyton Hall and the manor of Lowestoft. This same year saw the bankruptcy of the Lowestoft Norwich Navigation Company, due to issues such as a fixed bridge that prevented larger vessels from passing through, insufficient funds, and failing lock gates. Peto bought the bankrupt company and, a year later, promoted the incorporation of the Lowestoft Railway and Harbour Company to complete the work on the harbour and construct an 11-mile railway line connecting Lowestoft with the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway.

By 1846, a new basin was completed on the north side of the harbour, marking the beginnings of the trawl dock, followed by the construction of new north and south piers in 1852. The fixed road bridge was replaced with a swing bridge, facilitating greater maritime traffic. The railway line opened for goods on 3 May 1847 and for passenger traffic on 1 July 1847, with the line and harbour leased to the Norfolk Railway Company.

In 1848, the Eastern Counties Railway took over the operation of the Norfolk Railway, including Lowestoft. By 1859, the Mutford Railway Bridge was built over Lake Lothing, carrying new tracks from Lowestoft to Beccles and Ipswich via the new East Suffolk Line. Railway sidings were constructed along the new fish markets, and tourists began to enjoy the new South Pier, while large seaside hotels started to develop on the southern seafront, enhancing the town’s burgeoning tourism industry.

The town’s economy flourished with these developments, leading to a massive expansion in the fishing industry. Boats now utilised the newly built facilities at the docks, and freshly caught fish, along with other goods, could be transported to inland markets by train, reaching dinner plates in London and Manchester the same day. The port also facilitated the shipping of cattle, sheep, and oxen from Denmark, and rolling stock and other supplies. Norfolk Steam Wherry’s, traditional sail and oar craft typically used on the Norfolk Broads, were a regular sight transporting goods to Norwich and Bungay via the river. The Wherry’s used on the Waveney were 70′ by 16′ max.

In 1862, the Great Eastern Railway was formed, taking ownership of all railway services, including the port. Four years later, in 1866, the Beach Lighthouse (Lowestoft Ness Lighthouse) was relocated and rebuilt as a wrought iron structure at Lowestoft Ness, powered by a three-wick oil burner. A white building was constructed alongside it to accommodate the keepers, and a fog bell, operated by clockwork, was installed.

By 1870, the High Lighthouse was rebuilt, completed in 1874. Initially planned to be electrified with arc lamps, it ultimately utilised paraffin oil burner lamps. In 1872, a new fish market opened, and in 1874, John Walter Brooke established a foundry in Oulton Broad, J.W. Brooke & Co., which would eventually become Brooke Marine, a significant shipbuilder in the town.

In 1876, Samuel Richards started a boatyard on the south side of the inner harbour, initially building drifters, trawlers, and paddle steamers. This yard would eventually become Richards Shipbuilders, a notable presence in Lowestoft’s shipbuilding industry.

The completion of Waveney Dock in 1883, along with new herring and trawl markets, marked further expansion. By 1892, the fishing industry had grown so much that the facilities at the new harbour were deemed inadequate, leading to the expansion of the small Trawl Dock. The launch of the first steam-powered herring drifter in 1897, such as the Lord Kitchener LT 261, revolutionised the industry, transitioning from wind-powered fishing smacks to steam-powered drifters.

Lowestoft had become a major tourist resort and a bustling port, with trawlers bringing in cod, haddock, plaice, and skate, and merchant ships arriving and departing regularly. In 1897, the existing swing bridge was replaced due to wear, coinciding with the widening of the canal. Similarly, Mutford Bridge in Oulton Broad was replaced with a new swing bridge in 1894.

In 1898, the East Anglian Ice Company factory opened on Riverside Road, eventually becoming the third largest of its kind in the UK, producing up to 75 tonnes of ice a day for trawlers and food processing.

Our tour finds us in 1899 when the Low Lighthouse was moved further inland due to coastal erosion and converted to run on coal gas. These extensive developments throughout the Victorian era transformed Lowestoft into a thriving industrial and maritime hub, reflecting the broader industrialisation of Britain and its empire.

EDWARDIAN

Early 20th Century – 1901 – 1914

Welcome to early 20th century Lowestoft, a thriving port town that played a crucial role in the fishing industry. Our continues in the 1900s when Lowestoft boasted one of the largest fish docks in England, attracting boats from various European ports to land their catches.

In 1903, the construction of Hamilton Dock marked a significant expansion of the town’s maritime infrastructure, followed by the establishment of another fish market in 1906. These developments were instrumental in supporting the burgeoning fishing industry. During the autumn, the arrival of the Scottish drifter fleets, following the herring down the east coast, further boosted Lowestoft’s economy.

By 1911, we see J.W. Brooke & Co (Brooke Marine) opening a shipyard on the north side of Lake Lothing. This shipyard began constructing vessels, utilising engines produced at its Adrian Works in the town. By 1913, Brooke had ceased car production to focus solely on vessels and engines, marking a shift towards maritime manufacturing.

Our next stop is 1913, a landmark year for Lowestoft, which had 350 steam-powered herring drifters and over 300 sailing trawlers, known as smacks. This necessitated further expansion of the harbour to accommodate the growing fleet, whereby the Hamilton Dock was built. That autumn, the fleet landed a record catch of 535 million herring, underscoring the town’s significance in the fishing industry.

As we move closer to 1914, it’s essential to consider the broader geopolitical climate. Between 1900 and 1914, Germany was increasingly seen as the primary threat to the British Empire. This period was marked by a shipbuilding arms race between Britain and Germany, leading to significant advancements, including the creation of the dreadnought class of battleships. Britain traditionally aimed to maintain a navy as strong as the next two largest navies combined. By 1914, the British Royal Navy boasted 29 dreadnoughts in service, while the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) had 17, the second highest number.

The brewing tensions of World War I had a profound impact on port towns like Lowestoft. The town’s strategic location and its bustling harbour made it a vital asset in the impending conflict. As war loomed, the fishing fleets and shipyards of Lowestoft would soon find themselves repurposed for the war effort, shifting from peacetime productivity to supporting national defence.

Thank you for joining us on this tour of Lowestoft in the early 20th century. This period of growth and transformation set the stage for the town’s crucial role during the Great War.

WW1

The Great War – 1914 – 1918

Welcome to Lowestoft during the Great War, a time when this coastal town transformed into a frontline stronghold. As we begin our journey, imagine the atmosphere at the outbreak of the war, with civilians swiftly adjusting to the imminent threat of invasion from the sea. Guarding Lowestoft were HMS Havelock, an Abercrombie-class monitor, and HMS Glowworm, an Insect-class gunboat, both stationed in Hamilton Dock.

HMS Havelock, a formidable presence at 102 metres long, accommodated 198 crew members and had a top speed of 6 knots. Her impressive armament included 2x 14-inch guns, 2x 12-pounder guns, 1x 3-pounder anti-aircraft gun, and 1x 2-pounder anti-aircraft gun.

In contrast, HMS Glowworm, measuring 72 metres and capable of 14 knots, housed a crew of 55. She was equipped with 2x 6-inch guns, 2x 12-pounder guns, and 6 machine guns.

As we proceed, we learn that most of Lowestoft’s fishing fleet of steam drifters were requisitioned by the Admiralty for minesweeping, coastal patrol duties, and submarine spotting. These vessels were outfitted with depth charges, heavy guns, and machine guns. Trawler men were actively encouraged to join the Royal Naval Reserve’s Trawler Section. Despite the risks, a small number of sailing smacks persisted in fishing, although many fell victim to attacks and were sunk. Some of these fishing sailing smacks were covertly employed to hunt down and engage unsuspecting German U-boats, armed with small guns and engaging the enemy when within range.

Next, we visit the northern bank of Lake Lothing, where J.W. Brooke & Co. established a munitions factory by converting their existing yard to bolster the war effort.

During this period, Lowestoft emerged as a pivotal base for minesweeping and minelaying operations, with local fishermen crewing trawlers repurposed for these tasks. Auxiliary Patrol Trawlers were armed with 3, 6, or 12-pounder guns and equipped with 7.5-inch bomb throwers (anti-submarine howitzers). These vessels were manned by fishermen, overseen by Merchant Navy personnel commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve, and supplemented with specialised naval crew, including signalers and gunners.

Amid fears of invasion, the coastline from Lowestoft to Aldeburgh was fortified with anti-infantry machine gun emplacements, commonly known as pillboxes. Additionally, a battery of six 4.7-inch guns was positioned at the harbour entrance and on Pakefield Cliffs to bolster coastal defences.

One of the most significant events during this time was the Lowestoft Bombardment in April 1916. Preceded by zeppelins and u-boats, the German High Seas Fleet bombarded Lowestoft, causing significant damage and widespread fear. The bombardment, part of a broader effort targeting Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth to cripple their port infrastructure, saw four German battlecruisers unleash a barrage on Lowestoft at 04:10. This attack resulted in the destruction of 200 houses, two defensive gun batteries, 12 injuries, and 4 fatalities on the land. The German ships then proceeded towards Yarmouth but encountered poor visibility and nearby British naval forces, limiting the extent of their damage. Ultimately, the bombardment proved unsuccessful, inflicting only minor harm on the ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.

Thank you for joining us on this tour of Lowestoft during the Great War. This period of resilience and strategic importance highlights the town’s vital role in the defence of Britain’s shores.

INter-war

Times of Change – 1918 – 1939

Welcome to Lowestoft during the interwar years, a period of significant change and adaptation for this historic coastal town. Our journey begins in the aftermath of World War I, when numerous mines still lurked in the seas. In response, Britain joined 25 other nations in an international effort to clear these hazards. The Mine Clearance Section was established to remove mines from around Britain’s coastlines and was successfully disbanded by 1919.

As we step into the 1920s, we witness the gradual decline of the fishing industry. The collapse of herring markets in Germany and Russia, exacerbated by the war, led many local fishermen to seek opportunities elsewhere, such as Fleetwood and Grimsby, where steam trawlers were in operation.

By 1920, the historic Stamford Channel, a vital shipping route into Lowestoft, had almost disappeared, rendering it impassable. Consequently, the Low Lighthouse was decommissioned and permanently extinguished for the last time in August 1923.

Our tour continues in 1921, when the trawling smack Excelsior (LT-427) was constructed by John Chambers Ltd in Oulton Broad. Remarkably, Excelsior is believed to be the only surviving Lowestoft fishing smack today.

In 1923, the port and railway ownership transferred to the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), marking a new chapter in Lowestoft’s maritime history.

During the 1930s, we see J.W. Brooke & Co. expanding its operations to construct vessels up to 52 feet in length. Around this time, Richards Shipbuilders was acquired by the East Anglian Ice and Cold Storage Co., and the yard was renamed Richards Ironworks. While primarily focused on ship repairs, they resumed shipbuilding activities in 1935. These new trawlers, known as “Ice Company Boats,” symbolised the future of the fishing fleet.

Our tour concludes in 1939 with the replacement of Mutford Bridge with a new swing bridge. The previous single-track bridge had caused significant traffic bottlenecks. The new bridge, positioned east of the lock, enabled traffic to bypass delays caused by the lock’s operations, greatly improving the flow of traffic. However, an all too familiar shadow was looming over both Lowestoft and all of Europe, once more war was coming.

Ww2

1939 – 1945

Lowestoft’s strategic importance as the most easterly point in Britain made it a pivotal player during World War II. Its proximity to crucial convoy routes for food and coal imports exposed it to threats from German U-Boats and E-Boats, much like the British Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs). To deter enemy seaplanes, fishing smacks were strategically anchored across Oulton Broad.

Our tour begins with Richards, a shipyard that played a significant role in the war effort by constructing 85 small ships for the Navy. These included minesweepers, motor fishing vessels, a torpedo recovery ship, coasters, and specialist supply ships. Richards also undertook repairs for numerous vessels damaged during the conflict. Meanwhile, J.W. Brooke & Co. contributed by building and servicing motor launches and landing craft for the Navy.

Just days before the war began, senior naval ratings arrived at Sparrows Nest Gardens, establishing HMS Europa as the headquarters of the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). Initially intended as a temporary base to organise fishermen for the Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Section and requisitioned trawlers and drifters, HMS Europa eventually coordinated a fleet of 1,637 craft from 1942 to 1946. These included trawlers, whalers, drifters, motor-fishing vessels, luxury yachts, and motor minesweepers. These vessels were crucial for mine-sweeping, anti-submarine, and other duties. HMS Europa also served as a training centre, instructing approximately 70,000 men during the war.

Our journey continues as we learn that some inshore fishing continued under military supervision, with local shipyards tasked with constructing mine-laying boats, motor torpedo boats, RAF sea rescue launches, and converting trawlers and paddle steamers into minesweepers. Additional naval bases were established within the docks.

We then visit HMS Martello, which operated as a local auxiliary patrol and minesweeping base in Trawl and Waveney docks, hosting five flotillas of MTBs comprising around 60 boats. HMS Minos was responsible for defending the Port of Lowestoft, while HMS Mantis served as a base for Coastal Forces’ motor gunboats and motor torpedo boats. HMS Myloden, located on the south side of Lake Lothing next to Brooke’s Peninsula, functioned as a landing craft training centre for Royal Marine Commandos and combined operations, housing workshops with torpedoes for MTBs.

Recognising Lowestoft’s vulnerability, extensive defences were installed at the port, Denes, surrounding beaches, and cliffs. Emergency Coastal Defence Batteries (ECDBs) were strategically positioned to fend off enemy ships, complemented by anti-aircraft and inland defences to bolster security.

In 1942, the MMS class motor minesweeper MV Probe was built on the opposite side of Lake Lothing by East Anglian Constructors. She saw service in WWII and was sold to the Royal Norwegian Navy in 1944, where she was renamed Vefsna. After the war, the Norwegian Government converted her into a hospital ship.

This concludes our tour of wartime Lowestoft, a town that demonstrated remarkable resilience and adaptability during one of history’s most challenging periods. Thank you for joining us on this journey through its heroic contributions and strategic importance during World War II.

POST-WAR

The Era of Oil, Gas and Renewable Energy – 1945 – Present

Welcome to a journey through the remarkable history of Lowestoft following World War II, a coastal town whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the tides of change. Our tour begins in the aftermath of World War II, a time when the nation grappled with significant losses, including 177 merchant ships and two-thirds of the Royal Navy, leading to an economic crisis amid the dismantling of the British Empire.

In 1948, the docks of Lowestoft were placed under the control of the British Transport Commission, a state-owned entity established in the post-war period. Concurrently, the railways were nationalised, becoming part of British Railways.

Our next stop is 1959, when Britain sought new sources of income and fuel, leading to the significant discovery of gas in the Groningen area of the Netherlands. This was followed by the British discovery of gas in the West Sole Field off the coast of East Anglia in 1965. The offshore gas industry in the Southern North Sea rapidly expanded, with Lowestoft emerging as a central hub. Specialist construction and engineering firms, including Sembmarine SLP established in 1967 in the outer harbour, flocked to the town to support the burgeoning oil and gas industry by manufacturing components for offshore platforms.

In January 1953, a catastrophic storm surge struck the east coast of England, as well as the Netherlands, North West Belgium, and Scotland. Sea defences were overwhelmed, and Lowestoft was extensively flooded. Among the tragedies was the loss of the wooden motor trawler Guava (LT 73) and all 11 of its crew.

Continuing our tour to 1954, we visit the shipyard by J.W. Brooke & Co., now known as Brooke Marine, with a new site on the south side of Lake Lothing, today recognised as Brooke’s Peninsula. The old yard on the north of the river was sold shortly after and demolished by 1975. This shipyard produced over 300 vessels, including trawlers and naval vessels. That same year, Richards expanded by acquiring an adjoining shipyard and was renamed Richards (Shipbuilders) Ltd., which subsequently built coastal tankers for molasses transport. By the 1960s, Richards’ repertoire included trawlers, drifters, minesweepers, and seaward defence boats.

We now arrive at 1955, where the former vibrant Beach Village, a long-standing fishing community, began to be cleared away by the local council due to flooding and poor construction standards. The process was completed by 1968.

In 1962 saw the return of the Lowestoft-built MV Probe, which searched the North Sea for oil and gas reserves. She was sold for scrap in 1969 and now rests east of Brooke’s Peninsula in the river.

Our journey proceeds to 1963, when Boulton & Paul opened a joinery factory on the south side of Lake Lothing, relying on wood imports through the port. That same year, the Lowestoft Ice Co. opened a new factory on Battery Green Road, replacing the East Anglian Ice & Co on Riverside Road, which closed down a year prior. Management of Lowestoft Harbour transferred to the British Transport Docks Board, a state-owned entity, and in 1964, the Mutford Lock wall collapsed, leading to its closure and reduced usage.

In 1965, Shell established a major oil and gas base in Lowestoft to support Southern North Sea operations. The 1960s also saw Brooke Marine start constructing oil rig supply vessels and salvage vessels.

We then move to 1969, when the Lowestoft Swing Bridge became stuck open and was demolished in 1970. For two years, Lowestoft relied on a ferry and temporary army bridge for crossing. In 1972, the present bascule bridge opened with an additional third lane.

As we move into the mid-1970s, we observe the decline of the fishing industry due to overfishing, strict quotas, and diminishing stocks, particularly herring in the North Sea. By 1966, commercial herring drifting had ended, and the fleet resorted to trawling only, with 151 fishing vessels registered in the port.

In 1975, the remaining lighthouse in Lowestoft was automated. That year also marked significant developments in oil production, with the Hamilton Brothers bringing the first British oil ashore from the Argyle field, followed by BP from the Forties Field. The vessel Platessa (LT205) sunk in the Hamilton Dock after developing a leak. Built in 1946, she had been a fisheries research vessel before being privately owned from 1968.

In 1976, the 1501 class beam trawler Yellowtail (LT326) was anchored between the Oulton Broad road and rail bridges. Built in 1945 in Cornwall and serving as an armed trawler in WWII, she later worked out of Lowestoft as a fishing trawler. Yellowtail sank in 1979, was refloated, and then sunk again.

By 1977, Brooke Marine had been nationalised and became part of British Shipbuilders. Richards, however, avoided nationalisation and continued contributing new designs to the shipbuilding industry, including coastal tankers, offshore supply vessels, tugs, and trawlers.

In the 1980s, the North Sea’s oil and gas industry flourished, with over 100 rigs producing millions of barrels daily, making Britain a net oil exporter. Lowestoft played a pivotal role in rig construction, crew transfers, operations, and supply ship runs. Many fishermen transitioned to the oil and gas industry, leveraging their expertise to crew standby, safety, and supply ships. Boston Putford operated numerous vessels out of the port in support of the oil and gas industry, including standby trawlers.

In 1982, the British Transport Docks Board was privatised and became Associated British Ports (ABP), the present day owners of the Port.

Our tour now arrives at 1985, when Brooke Marine underwent a private buyout. However, the yard closed the following year due to a lack of orders, soon reopening in 1987 as Brooke Yachts, focusing on yacht construction. Notable vessels like the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, Al Said, and STS Young Endeavour were built by the yard.

In 1992, the Mutford Swing Bridge was replaced by a new bascule bridge, leading to significant infrastructure changes at Lake Lothing’s western end. Yellowtail, now a sunken wreck, was relocated to her present location in Lake Lothing, west of Brooke’s Peninsula. That same year, Brooke Yachts closed permanently, marking the end of nearly 80 years of shipbuilding. The site is yet to be redeveloped.

In 1994, British Rail was privatised, with infrastructure transferring to Railtrack and services to Anglia Railways in 1997. Railtrack would eventually become the state owned Network Rail with Anglia Railways eventually becoming the present franchise Greater Anglia. Richards Shipbuilders closed due to reduced demand, and the site was redeveloped into an Asda.

The lighthouse underwent further modernisation in 1997. In 1999, oil production peaked in the North Sea at 128 million tonnes annually, while natural gas production peaked in 2001 at 10 trillion cubic feet.

From 2001, both gas and oil production began a steady decline. In 2004, Shell closed its Lowestoft base, and SLP went into administration in 2009 due to the energy windfall tax, political uncertainty, and rising costs, significantly impacting oil and gas activities.

Our tour nears its end as we explore the rise of offshore renewable energy. In 2004, the Scroby Sands offshore wind farm was constructed off Great Yarmouth by RWE. SSE Renewables opened a new operations base in Lowestoft in 2009 for the Greater Gabbard Wind Farm, completed in 2013. Crew transfer vessels like “Windcats” began operating from the harbour, transporting technicians to wind farms for maintenance and construction.

In 2019, Scottish Renewables launched their Operations & Maintenance Base in Lowestoft to support the East Anglia ONE offshore wind farm.

By 2021, only 15 boats were landing fish at the port, reflecting the transformation of Lowestoft’s economy away from traditional maritime industries.

Finally, in 2022, major redevelopment began on the eastern end of the former Boulton & Paul / Jeld Wen factory and the site of the former East Anglian Ice Factory, paving the way for Lowestoft’s Third River Crossing, the Gull Wing Bridge.

Thank you for joining us on this historical journey through Lowestoft, a town that has continually adapted and evolved with the changing tides of history.