Sea-change: Wivenhoe Remembered - Ernie Vince and the River
Ernie Vince's fascinating memories of a life on the water
Page created by Peter Hill, copied from the earlier Wivenhoe Encyclopedia website
The Colne at Wivenhoe has been a working river for centuries, and it was above all the riverside which made the village such a busy and distinctive place. Fishing, shipbuilding, and also less continuously the port, can all be traced back to the late middle ages. There were two ferries across to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe, and cargo boats heading up to Colchester’s Hythe. Wivenhoe was also a key centre for laying up and crewing the great steam yachts, with up to 40 laying downstream for early 20th century winters. The skipper of George V’s ‘Britannia,’ Captain Albert Turner, was a Wivenhoe man; and Ernie Vince (story below), was the last professional ocean skipper of that era. His life story encapsulates all the main branches of Wivenhoe’s activities on the water.
In the last fifty years nearly all that has gone. The regular ferries had both ceased by 1961, although now a summer weekend ferry has been revived by volunteers. Both shipbuilding and the port finally ended in the 1980s. A century ago there were more than 200 fishermen in Wivenhoe, today under five. With the closing of the Hythe port in 2005 you no longer see great cargo ships slip silently upstream. Today the Colne lives primarily as a pleasure river, for dinghy and cruiser sailing.
Ernie Vince: a Life on the quay and the Water
I was born in 1911 at a little farm between Elmstead and Crockleford. Then I came to Wivenhoe when I was six years old, and lived on the Quay. My father was in the First World War but before then he worked at Parry’s Oil Mills on Hythe Quay. We lived next door to my father’s parents – their name was Vince – grandfather was a farm worker. My mother’s parents – you know the Round House at Little Bentley? Well, they lived there for many many years. Yes, I used to go there for my school holidays! Her father was gamekeeper for Bentley Hall. I used to enjoy going there. And then, unfortunately, the family broke up, and my mother took the children down to Wivenhoe and left my father at Crockleford.
I didn’t see him after that. No. No. Well, I must add, he treated me terribly. I used to have beatings galore, had a terrible time. At first, the authorities wouldn’t let Mother have me, they made me stay with him. But I ran away. And then, by chance, I found an old gentleman who told me where my mother was – and I went straight down to Wivenhoe. Then the authorities came and grabbed me and took me back to Crockleford, but I wouldn’t stay. I ran again. They had to let Mother have me. That was the end of the family story, in that sense. Then eventually my father passed away, of course. I was in the Mediterranean in a big yacht when I got a telegram from my mother to say he was passed on, and that was that.
When I started school, I used to have to walk from Crockleford to Ardleigh School every day, four miles and back. For a five year old, that wasn’t bad! There weren’t any buses in those days! Then I came to Wivenhoe, went to Wivenhoe School. In Wivenhoe, first I lived in one of the cottages on the Quay they call ‘the Folly.’ Then my mother was able to get a house on her own, and we moved into Alma Street. I had three sisters and one brother, and the house was only two bedrooms. My mother worked for a private family, as a house cleaner. And then when the fish factories opened up, she got a job there, sorting the fish, and that went on for quite some years. Oh, she was very nice. Very small person. Much different to me! But Mum was awfully good, yes.
From school to sea
Then I almost immediately, from the time I went to live on the Quay, I made my mind up I was going on the water. Well, my old Uncle Charlie Sainty on my mother’s side kept the ferry then, and I used to get the ferry boat, and if he wasn’t about, I’d go off across the ferry and get a passenger. He taught me how to row properly, he taught me how to scull, all sorts of boat work, yes. So I got to know how to use a boat quite early. And I really made up my mind I was going to sea.
Before I left school, when I was about 11 years old, the Nottage Institute was then held in a room over the house next door to the Black Buoy pub, and Captain Abraham Harvey, he lived up Anglesea Road, just above the railway bridge, he was the Delegation and Seamanship Master, and I started going there. He taught me an awful lot, he taught me all I knew about navigation and seamanship.
I’d made up my mind I was going to sea, and our local doctor then, Dr Kevin, owned a cruiser/racer yacht. I made up my mind I was going to see the doctor and see if I could get a job as a boy seaman aboard. And I went to see him, and he was agreeable to do that, provided my mother would sanction that I could go – because I was only 14. And so it was accepted, my mother said `Yes,’ and I left school on the Friday, and went to sea on the Saturday! Then we raced at Ramsgate on the Sunday! I’ll always remember that! And then we carried on round the coast for the summer, doing the various races. That was really my start in the yachting business.
As a boy seaman, I had to scrub the decks in the morning, and clean the brass, then get the sails, get ready for racing, if it was a race day. Captain Cranfield of Rowhedge was the skipper. There were a crew of three. The doctor always sailed the ship, when he was aboard, for racing. When the doctor was sailing the ship, the captain kept a general eye on things, advised him about tactics, which was usually what racing skippers did do if the owner sailed. And all I did was keep quiet! Did what I was told! Mrs Kevin did the cooking. She was a Rowhedge lady. Captain Cranfield sailed with the doctor for a year or two, then eventually he went into Sir William Burton’s yachts, which was much bigger, Rendezvous was her name, she was a beautiful ship. She used to lie at Rowhedge in the wintertime, and had a Rowhedge crew.
We sailed all around the British coast, as far up as on to the Clyde, the usual cruiser racing season, amongst all the big classes. We started off at Ramsgate, then continued on down to Cowes. We got down to do Cowes Week, and from my memory, we didn’t race after Cowes. Then Bournemouth, down to the West Country, Dartmouth, Plymouth – no, we didn’t race at Penzance – and Torbay, Brixham and Torquay. Then up round, up and on to the Clyde. After the Clyde we came down the east side, when we came home at the end of the season. We came home, and laid
the yacht up.
Fishing for sprats
So I had the season there, and then in the wintertime, I went fishing and sprat catching in one of the local boats. With two brothers named Gunn – that’s one of the old Wivenhoe fishing families. My first winter’s fishing was with them. They had an ordinary smack, with the auxiliary motor, they’d all got engines in by then. Crew of three. I was working the nets, shooting the nets, getting the nets, unloading the fish if you got any. They called it ‘stowboating.’ Brightlingsea was the main port, then, because most of it was barrelled and pickled and exported to Russia and Germany. There were several pickling firms at Brightlingsea then.
The next summer I went into – you’ve heard of the Rosabelle, no doubt, haven’t you? Yes. I went in the Rosabelle, and I was in her for two years then. The captain was Captain Harvey, Wivenhoe man. She was a big steamer, 600-ton steamer, but she always laid up at Wivenhoe at the end of the summer season, and at about the end of March/early April, we put all the equipment back aboard, and we’d be fit out for the Mediterranean cruise. That used to be the usual thing. Then come back about the end of June, so they were back to go to Cowes, which was the favourite thing to do in those days. And then we cruised Mediterranean, African coast, and then came back home, laid up. And, of course, it was back to fishing again in the winter. So I had two seasons into her. I went back after I went to fishing.
There were a crew of twenty-eight on Rosabelle. I was AB – Able Seaman – in the first year I was there. Deck scrubbing, cleaning brass, and keeping watch when you were at sea, keeping watch for your spell at steering and look-out keeping. Four hours on and four off. I remember one time I was frightened. We got caught out in Rosabelle for 72 hours, hove to about 60 miles off the Portuguese coast one time. And again another time later on, in Sunbeam, oh, she was a terror, she would roll! Terrible, yes! But Sunbeam had three big steel masts, they weighed 13 ton each, and, of course, when you got beam to it, oh, she was rail to rail! We got caught about 40 or 50 miles off Gibraltar, we were bound in to the Med and we got caught this night – and it was bad, I must admit – she was all awash. We lost one boat overboard, washed out the
davits, on the quarterdeck. But anyhow, we got over that. They were about the two worst moments, I think.
Rosabelle was split up into sections. There was a fo’c’sle (forecastle), where the deckhands, the ABs and so on, and the fireman, slept, lived in the fo’c’sle. They had their own fo’c’sle cook. Then the officers in the Mess Room next door, they had their own steward and their meals were all cooked in the main galley. The owner and his guests were in the dining saloon. There were always probably half a dozen aboard, different friends of the owner. They had a music room, and Mrs Pim used to play the piano sometimes.
Then, unfortunately, Mr Pim, the owner, passed away. He was one of the founders of the English Stock Exchange. He was a lovely old gentleman. He would talk to you. Not all owners would talk to the crew. No, you were just somebody who they had to pay to work for them! But Mr Pim would always talk to you on the deck. And she was a home job, as well as sailing, that was nice. But, of course, that all came to an end. When Mr Pim died, we were all left in his will, everybody.
We used to go straight from Brightlingsea to Cannes, and then get the ship cleaned up, ready for them to join, and from Cannes, and down through to the Greek Islands, and then we’d cross over to Alexandria, come back by Algiers, Morocco, and all along the North African coast. Then it was time to come home. Then we’d get ready again, and they’d be off up to the Baltic for the summer, for the later summer. There, from home, we’d go straight up to Copenhagen. Then from Copenhagen, we’d go across to Stavanger and Bergen, right up to the North Cape, through the fjords, you go inside the islands all the way up, but it was compulsory to have a pilot in those days. It was lovely, beautiful scenery, and we were getting all the pleasures and being paid for it!
Lord Runciman’s Sunbeam II
So after Rosabelle, I went back to fishing again that winter. Then we’d laid up, we’d finished fishing, and I was down on the quayside, and another fisherman friend from Tollesbury was walking along the Quay, and he told me a captain from Tollesbury was looking for a ship’s crew to join a brand new big three-masted schooner being built in Scotland, Sunbeam II – belonging to the Lord Runciman. So we took her down to Southampton, then got ready for the summer cruise. We were a mixed crew, there were three of us from Wivenhoe, some from Tollesbury, some from the Solent. She had a big crew. We had 38 aboard her, because there was sailing most of the time, although she had an auxiliary.
I think the first cruise we did was to Scotland, on the West Coast. Anyway, we did much the same cruising, really, in Sunbeam, as we did in Rosabelle in previous years. And then came back to Cowes for Cowes Week – like most people did with the big ships in those days, it was the thing to be at Cowes, of course! She wasn’t a racing schooner, Sunbeam, oh no, she was a 700-tons cruising schooner. In those days, there was loads going on at Cowes, hundreds and hundreds of yachts of all sizes and shapes, plus all the racing. They went to Cowes for the social part of it. There was quite a crowd of guests aboard, sometimes ten, a dozen, besides Lord Runciman and his wife. There was always dinner every night.
I remember two people who were aboard Sunbeam in the first season, and that was the Governor of Gibraltar and his daughter. You could talk to Lord Runciman – but not very much. He was an old square rig ship man himself, and if you were at the wheel and he’d come along, he’d say, ‘Let her luff up a bit,’ thinking he’s giving you some instructions! But you didn’t take any notice of that, because the Captain was the only man you took orders from.
After Sunbeam, we was back to fishing again, of course, for the winter. That’s all there was to do. North Sea Canners, they’d started up by then – Mr Worsp – and they’d had a new smack built at Brightlingsea, Christine was her name, and he asked me if I’d take the Christine. So we went to the launch of her, and I worked there for all the winter. That’s the first time I had my own smack. And worked there for the winter, spratting again. And then it was back to Sunbeam again in the summer.
Silver Foam, Caretta, and Gifford of the YMCA
Then I met up with the man who I eventually became skipper for, a man named Gifford. He was the International Secretary of the YMCA. He was always travelling all over the world to conferences, and so he didn’t get an awful lot of time for boating. He was always interested in sailing, but he’d never owned a yacht. So he came and saw me and said that he wanted to go in for yachting, and we looked at one or two, and he bought Silver Foam.
I liked her very much, a little 15-ton yawl, she was a lovely little thing. My brother and I had her for a couple of seasons. Well, then, because of his job, he always had to be in a certain spot at a certain day, so the sailing yacht, really, was not quite the thing, and after the second year, he decided that he’d go in for power. So he bought a 60-ton motor yacht, all teak, built in Scotland, called the Caretta. So we started motor boating. Some of his meetings were in the south coast of England, he could go by the yacht, and when he was finished, he’d come back and go to bed on the yacht! But my brother went off into another sailing yacht. He didn’t like motor boats. Neither did I, really. I’m a sailor man, really, at heart, but it was a job, and that was it. That went on till the winter of 1938-39, when he was taken very ill – the owner. He said, ‘I’ll keep you on. But, you’ll have to pay the crew off and explain to them.’ Which wasn’t very pleasant! Having to tell the chaps they haven’t got a job. And I hadn’t got a job, actually, only messing about aboard the boat, there was nothing to do, because she was still covered up from the winter.
Alan Colman and Wishbone: 1939
Then he contacted me one day. He was very friendly with the Colman family – the mustard people. Mr Alan in particular. And he said, ‘I’ve had Mr Alan Colman on to me. His Scotch skipper has left him, and he’s got no one for the season. Would you be interested?’ So I said, ‘Oh yes.’ So instead, I took the schooner – Wishbone – Mr Colman’s yacht, and fitted out at his own berth and boat-building shops on the Broads.
We went all over the place with her, she was a lovely thing. She was a beautiful thing to sail, a gaff rig schooner. She was actually the first all-welded British steel yacht. The very first one that was all welded steel. She was very fast.
So I joined her. There were four of us. Anyhow, we fitted out and set off for the Baltic. Of course, we did some miles! We went all over the place. His object was to get to Petrograd – or St. Petersburg they call it now – that’s where he finally wanted to get to for the end of his cruise. But that didn’t work out! He didn’t sail from Lowestoft with us, out to the Baltic. I took the yacht up to Stockholm, and he flew out to Stockholm and joined us, and then we cruised about the Gulf of Finland. We got as far as Kotka, which is a very big timber port on the Finnish/Russian border. And on this particular day at Kotka, he said, ‘Tomorrow, if everything’s all right, we’ll sail up the last few miles up to Petrograd.’
So off they went ashore on their day’s sightseeing and, and he said, ‘We’ll be back about five.’ But at midday, one of the chaps was on deck and called out, ‘The Guv’nor is on the quay, waving like the devil.’ So I said, ‘All right. Well, get the launch and go and get him.’ So they packed him off aboard. He said, `Ernie, war is imminent.’ He said, ‘We’re advised to get back to England as quickly as we can.’ So he said, ‘I’ve booked a flight from Helsinki. You get underway as quickly as you can, and get back.
So after they’d gone, we packed our lashings down, and got ready to go to sea, and we left Kotka for home. On the way, we called at Copenhagen, and I put a bit more fuel in the tank, in the auxiliary tank, in case we had to do a lot of motoring across the North Sea. As a matter of fact, we did, because it was foggy nearly all the way! And I said, `We might as well have a night in, have an hour or two’s sleep, shall we?’
In the meantime, while we laid alongside the quay, the Copenhagen harbourmaster came along, and I said to him, ‘All right if we lay here for the night? And we’ll push off again in the morning.’ He said, ‘Skipper, I wouldn’t stay another minute if I were you.’ He said, ‘It’s definitely going to happen any minute.’ I said, ‘Well, if that’s your advice, we’ll push off.’ Which we did. And as I say, when we got out in the North Sea, we had a lot of fog and no wind! We had to motor a lot of the time.
We got back to Lowestoft at midnight on the Thursday, and war was declared on the Sunday morning. All the time we were going out to the Skaggerack and so on, there was loads of big German trawlers going out, obviously all off out mine-laying somewhere. Anyhow, we escaped that all right – just.
Then, of course, we put all the gear in the store over the weekend, and all went home. There was nothing, we didn’t know what we were going to do! But very soon somebody roped me in as an ambulance driver. Then the Admiralty decided to commandeer Caretta but offered, if I’d like to join in now, I could take Caretta and command her as a coastal patrol vessel. So I agreed. I spent about 18 months on coastal patrol. We’d go to sea for so many days, and then I don’t know what we were supposed to do if anything happened! They painted her with the old cowpat colour and put a couple of guns aboard her, and there again, was all strange crew, strangers from here, there and everywhere.
Then at HMS Nemo, at Brightlingsea, they set up an air/sea rescue service, under Commander Campbell. I knew him in peacetime, because he owned a steam yacht. Anyway, they gave me what was a high speed American motor yacht. They put five crew aboard, and they’d send us off to sea, three days at a time on patrol, just waiting for people to fall in the sea! Doing a lifeboatman’s job really, under the Admiralty. That went on until we were so advanced in Europe, it wasn’t necessary any more. We picked up a lot of chaps, it’s surprising the number of chaps we did pick up during those years, I picked up 163 chaps who were alive and all right – not too badly injured. But we picked up a lot of poor devils we were too late for. Unfortunately, putting it bluntly, more dead ones than alive ones.
Last yachting years
Then when I was discharged, I went back to my original yacht owner Mr Colman. They found Caretta but she was in a such a state he didn’t want her back. Instead he bought a big sailing ketch called Polaris, she was German-built, 65-ton. So we carried on the usual cruising in the summertime, south coast across to the other side – Amsterdam, Ostend and those sort of places, we didn’t go so far then – and pottering about in the boatyard in the wintertime. Then in about 1956 my owner died, and so that ended my yachting career. My owner passed away, and the yacht was put in the market, and sold, and that left me trying to think out what to do. But then Green came along with his offer, they wanted to buy a trawler, and would I be interested in taking it?
Fishing and yard work
The boatyard never did any good much, there was not enough yachting in Wivenhoe, really, to make it a viable concern. People laid up just small boats. Mr Colman had bought the ‘Penny Stores’ [in the late 1930s] so people could store their boats away in the winter time, that’d give you something to mess about and do! There wasn’t enough work about Wivenhoe, repair work and so on, to make it really viable. But we did get a lot of boats to store, we were always full of boats in the wintertime. So that’s what my winter occupation became. I didn’t go fishing any more, it stopped for quite a while. We kept messing about in the wintertime, trying to get people to come and lay up and whatnot. Then in 1955, they decided to give it up, put it on the market.
Then Mr Harding, from West Mersea, he bought it, but only on condition that I would stay there as well. That picture in the paper is his yacht, you can see lying over the Quay. So that went on. But he wanted to start building, that was his aim. So he did, and they built some lovely yachts there too, over the years. Then, unfortunately, he died very suddenly. The buildings were left to his daughter, and eventually they became developed.
When Mr Harding died, then I went back to fishing. The Green Brothers had a wholesale fish business in West Street. They bought a trawler in Ireland, a 50-footer, with a brand new Rolls-Royce engine. I went back over to Ireland and got her, and I stayed with them until I retired, at 65. We were general trawling in the summertime, like for sole and whiting, and anything of that sort, plaice. In the wintertime, we were herring fishing, with a special net, called a ‘Larsen Trawl.’ I was with them seven years.
After I retired, I still used to potter about down at the boatyard, and mess about on the Quay. But I used to go up Ballast Quay farm a lot then, I used to repair implements or repair gates or anything like that, to pass the time away. So I always found something to do. In the house I can do anything. I can cook, launder, what you like.
I married in 1937, to Alice Hatch. She was a local girl, they were ten in family. She worked in what was Cook’s Shipyard for twenty years, cooking in the canteen. Awfully nice. And the day I retired, she retired as well! She said, `If you’re leaving off, so am I!’ We just had two daughters, the one who’s up at the Ballast Quay farm, and the youngest one lives in Brightlingsea. For over fifty years we lived in Hamilton Road. Much later, when I was a widower, I shared house with Mrs Warner, widow of Captain Warner.
On the barges: sail was always my love
For a four or five years in the early 1930s I’d worked on the big coastal sailing barges, beginning as mate for Captain Ted Warner. It was the usual coastal work, London, Ipswich, Felixstowe, Colchester. Mrs Warner spent a lot of time aboard the barge as well. She loved it, yes! She left the house on its own and came aboard the barge! She loved the barge, she loved sailing in the barge.
What sort of cargoes? Mostly any timber, corn, cotton seed, all sorts of things. But it was chiefly cereals, chiefly wheat. Parry’s, the Oil Mills, of course they were always having freights of cotton seed, which they turned out into cotton oil, of course. But it was chiefly grain. We sailed day and night. We had to work to the tides. The tides were your greatest aids as well as the wind, unless the wind was in the correct direction, you couldn’t do much against the tide, especially if you’d got to go to windward, you didn’t make much progress then. I liked the barging, because it was sailing again.
Of course, the yacht was a much better balanced thing in the water, for a start, because they were built for that, but there was a lot of difference in the design of a yacht sail and a barge. And it was marvellous how they would go, if the conditions were right, oh, they would go all right. But going to wind was a bit of a slow job, very often. It’s amazing how well they did sail, really. Sail was always my love, really and truly!
Oh yes, I do miss Wivenhoe. I’m always thinking about Wivenhoe now. Have you met any of the other young chaps who are fishing, in the village, yet? My grandson is still a fisherman down here. Yes, Rodney is still fishing. Good lad, Rod! Yes. But I don’t think they’re earning a fortune.
This is Ernie Vince’s story