Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

The Nottage Maritime Institute

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.

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.  

The Nottage Maritime Institute, or more simply the ‘Nottage’ as it is affectionately known, serves partly as a museum to the past but especially as a place to learn traditional boat-building and maritime skills.  

The founder –Mike Downes

The Nottage was formed in 1896, as a result of a bequest by Captain Charles Nottage, who was a gentleman, a Victorian gentleman yachtsman. He died at the early age of 42 in 1894, as a result of a lethal injection by his doctor, who thought he was helping him, not killing him! But it all went wrong. Anyway, he had owned a couple of reasonably successful racing yachts, and like a lot of the people at that time, obviously employed people from this area. There were Trustees who were commissioned to find a place for a school for yachtsman, this was Nottage�s ambition, because he wasn�t terribly impressed with the standard of education of the people that he employed on his boats. They were good seamen, but they were fairly illiterate. And eventually, the Trustees settled on Wivenhoe � being fairly central for the area � and it was set up in what we now call the Lucy Dee, which is next to the Black Buoy, and it was there from 1896 till 1947, and then it outgrew the place, and Hector Barr, who built where we are now, as a sail loft, decided to pack up, and the Trustees bought the place off him, and then the Nottage just gradually evolved over the years, to what it is now.

The old Nottage –Rodney Bowes

I went to the Nottage, but that�s different to the Nottage there is there now. John Worsp, who lives on the Quay, his dad was alive then, and they had an old yacht called the Maid of Wyvern, and they used to go off on their expeditions. Well, when we were fishing, the only place we ever used to see them tied up was down Pyefleet. I was encouraged to go to the Nottage anyway, and I went a couple of times, and all I ever heard was the exploits of their sailing trips and I thought, �I�m not learning anything,� so I never went any more � rightly or wrongly.

The Nottage in crisis –Bill Ellis

In the 1960s in the winter, they were having a few short talks at the Nottage Institute. They were just for what I would describe as �an invited few� really. There wasn�t much else went on there. There was a boat-building class going on at the time, run by a very nice man named Billy Woods, who was a local shipwright, and they were knocking up dinghies which took about five or six years to finish, and there were only about four or five boats ever been built! The Nottage was interesting, but nothing much seemed to go on there at all. It was never open to the public.

Anyway, behind the scenes, various things were happening there, because I�m talking with hindsight now, in retrospect, what I found out later. On the 14th November, 1971, the Trustees called the Management Committee of the time together, and said to them, �Well, money�s running out. Something�s got to be done to save the place, otherwise we�ll literally have to think about closing down.� In 1971, the Management Committee were given �700 by the Trustees, and the only actual money ever raised was, they had a �5 donation! So the total was �705! Of course, the trouble is, the money coming in from the Trustees was staying fairly static, but unfortunately, rates and everything else were going up. They were also paying the instructors, and the instructors� fees were not being matched by any fees being charged. All the classes were completely free of charge.

Anyway, they had been given an ultimatum, basically, the dear old Management Committee, so they did nothing! Except they did have one excellent man on the Committee at the time, Captain Horace Chaston MBE, who was an ex-flatiron collier master from the North Sea, and he suggested forming a League of Friends. So a League of Friends was formed in 1972, with 100 members, and these members tended to be vetted! I don�t know why we were thought to be suitable! We were invited to be members of the Friends. And the 100 people got together, by invitation, and you paid �1 per annum, to go to some talks, which were organised on the Friday evening, and so forth.

There was, on the Committee, at the time, a most excellent man, sadly no longer with us, Mr C J M Michael Dunn, who you may have seen in your time, knocking about the place, he never wore any socks, did Michael. Most excellent man. He had been trying, for several years, to get together a little bit of a library. There were about 200 books, and he had tried to get things sorted out, and also there were one or two pictures on the wall and some other artefacts which, sadly, did need a lot of doing to them. But he was doing his very very best. He was a very self-effacing man, and so he was largely getting nowhere.

Really, the whole thing was run, very largely – I can only describe Wivenhoe, at that time, in the late 1960s, as a squirearchy. You were either part of the very small upper Wivenhoe squirearchy or Mafiosi or you weren�t! And there was a great social divide between the two, which was rather sad. But anyway the Mafiosi did, very much, keep everything to themselves, and they wanted things run just their own way. For instance, the mud berths in front of the Nottage, appeared, to me, to be let out to someone, �You can put your boat in there, and don�t forget, you can come and do a little job for me,� something of that sort. This style of thing, you see.

We�d also joined the Wivenhoe and Rowhedge Yacht Owners Association. The Sailing Club is, of course, the old established organisation, and this new organisation suddenly decided they would set themselves up [c. 1970]. The idea was � and this is why we subsequently left them � was to look after the well-being of the riparian owners and the yacht owners. A lot of people, at the same time, rather resented it being set up, and talked of it as very much the �shabby genteel of the place� getting together, and there was quite a gap between them at the time. They were mainly people who owned the cruising boats, weren�t they. We had a cruising boat. And the Sailing Club people were very largely sailing dinghies, a real little Sailing Club.

Treasurer and Secretary –Bill Ellis

Anyway, we retired, and I�d only been retired a matter of weeks when I was suddenly approached by the Chairman of the Nottage, to say would I be willing to take on the job of Secretary? And within about two weeks afterwards, would I take on the job of Treasurer as well? So in an extremely short time, I�d been promoted to Treasurer and Secretary of the Nottage, and I took these jobs on.

And I have to say, we were rather staggered by what we found! When we took on the Treasurer�s job, we immediately saw that things were in rather a pickle really. Income was by no ways matching expenditure. For the previous three years, they had, in fact, spent more money than they had coming in! But they were really only getting money in from the Trustees � an allowance each year � and they were getting, at this time, a little bit of money in from the Friends� Association, which, again, was still on the very small side. There was no book-keeping system at all, to my surprise! Coming from a sort of fairly well-ordered life, I thought this was a bit odd! And I thought, �Well, this really can�t go on!�

The other thing which rather baffled us was that no one seemed to know much at all about the Nottage itself. They knew, for instance, you weren�t allowed to have on the premises round there, any books of a religious nature. You could have no parson, priest, ayatollah or anybody else of a religious faction as a Committee Member. And when I asked the question, nobody had the faintest idea. The only thing they did seem to know was that Charles George Nottage, his father had been a Lord Mayor of London. I did find that Captain Nottage�s mother, Dame Martha, had last been in contact with the Nottage in 1916, and then it had all gone quiet, and I was assured that there was absolutely no family. And I said, �Well, perhaps there�s something in the Will.� Well, unfortunately, the Trustees and the Management Committee, they had had a copy of the Will, but lost it – which was quite a pity, really! There is no Trust Deed, for instance, under which the Nottage is run, it is part of the actual Will. Later through Lord Palmer he found Captain Nottage�s daughter Lady Amy Spink in Monte Carlo.

So, anyway, we were sort of doing our thing and wondering what to do, and there was a most excellent man in the area, a Lieutenant Commander Peter Hunnaball, RN (retired), who was, at that time, teaching at the Colne High School, mathematics, and he was extremely keen to try and get Royal Yachting Association classes going in this area, and he had, indeed, done a little tiny bit of what we call �ocean� teaching at the Nottage � a very limited thing. Anyway, he had approached the Nottage Committee to take on the Royal Yachting Association full syllabus, and they just would not take it on, and he was really upset about this. And he came to see me and said could I use my influence, my sudden influence as Secretary and Treasurer. So I arranged a meeting at the Nottage, at which the Committee came along, and it was really quite good, I enjoyed it very much. I remember the actual words used by Peter Hunnaball were, amongst other things, �Unless you old fuddies-duddies progress, you�re all going to die!�

I wrote a report, round about nine pages, I think, setting out, as I saw it, how it would be a terrible shame for the Nottage, after all those years, to move away from the quayside, to close down, and that all that was needed, was to start running some classes on what you might call a �semi-commercial basis.� They seemed to be extremely worried about the charitable status of the place. And I said, �Well, I�m quite sure that if you go to the Charity Commissioners, you�ll be able to find out exactly what can be done.�

So, anyway, as a result of all this, it was decided that we could go ahead, and, indeed, classes were started. Commander Hunnaball came in, and he started the whole G15 Syllabus, and he worked extremely hard. He used to come down three or four nights a week. He was absolutely marvellous. You can�t speak too highly for what he got up to. He ran the Day Skipper and the Coastal Skipper, and the Offshore, he did the lot! And so we got classes together. The Royal Yachting Association, G15 Syllabus, and these other classes including meteorology, engine maintenance, First Aid, all sorts of things. We used to always go round, in our motor car, covering an area from Felixstowe in the North, down to Maldon in the South, to all the sailing clubs, schools. And it was all yachtsmen, who were coming to the classes, and it really did take off in a big way. Most of the classes were over-subscribed

Nottage expansion –Bill Ellis

We also then decided to expand the Friends of the Nottage and we, by this time, Georgina and I were running the Friends of the Nottage, but we met with a bit of a disaster on this expansion, because the Nottage premises had originally been built by Hector Barr, between the War Years, who was a sail-maker, and while it was quite satisfactory as a sail-maker�s loft, it wasn�t really all that marvellous for anything else. You�ve probably heard of the barquentine Cap Pilar? Well, one of the people who sailed around the world on her, in between 1936 and�38, was John Donnelly, the bo�sun, who came from here, and I got Donnelly to come along and talk about the voyage round the world, and he came, and 150 people turned up. And in the interval, the floor gave way under the weight of the people, which frightened the life out of me!

Now, there were other aspects to the place too. We didn�t have anything, at all, in the way of proper fire precautions. If you needed to evacuate quickly, the only way you get down was, you were going to slide down on a rope, which would be put on a hook which was above the door! So, then, in 1975-7, as a result of all this, a big programme was started: some necessary structural work, the walls were strengthened, new toilets, a little galley, the stairs were moved, and a balcony built on the front.

By this time we�d got ladies coming. Oh, it was a great step forward! Another thing we�d started off very much, getting the children to come. We started having regular visits from the local schools, and so I think we excelled ourselves on one occasion, we actually had a hundred came, in three groups. The museum side started to build up quite nicely, and although I say so myself, we did start to acquire almost an international reputation.

Running the Nottage –Mike Downes

We�re two functions. Like, at the present, being the summer, we�re in �Museum mode,� so we set up a special exhibition � because there�s stuff on show all the time anyway � but there�s usually a special function, which this year is called �Coals to Colchester� � it�s to do with the way the river was used for trade in the old days, sailing barges, and sailing ships, to up until the Sixties, Seventies, motor ships, motor vessels. Then all that trade has now died out, and apart from pleasure use, the only thing that�s left now is really Prior�s sand barges, which go round to London. And in Brightlingsea, the what they call Oliver�s Wharf now, and that�s all the trade there is.

In the wintertime, from September till April, we run evening classes and weekend courses, mainly for yachtsmen, but there are one or two other courses that we do that are of interest to people who aren�t. We also have an Organisation called �Friends of the Nottage,� where we run a series of lectures through the winter, which is not all nautical subjects, on various subjects, and we have a good attendance � between 60, 80, 90 people turn up sometimes, on a Friday evening. So about three years ago we started a Film Club, which had its up and downs, but it�s going reasonably well now. We�ve got some new audio/visual equipment, which means we can show DVDs and videos, computer generated images.

The boat-building, which is done downstairs, that�s been going quite a few years now. That�s now run by a boat-builder from Rowhedge, called Fabian Bush, and he has an assistant which we took on last year, called John Lane, and we take, depending on the number of people working on a boat, between nine and eleven or so students. It takes about 400-450 hours to build a Nottage dinghy, so it�s usually spaced at least over four to five years. That�s all based on one design, but people don�t have to build that one if they don�t want to. As long as we can fit it in, as long as we�ve got the space. For instance, somebody�s building a pram dinghy, which is being built using all modern techniques � plywood and epoxy resin. And a young lady who is also building a canoe, using the same method.

We�re totally self-supporting. No grants, nothing, no. It�s always touch and go. We have to adjust our course fees. There is the Trust Fund as well, which we get a bit from. The structure, the building is the responsibility of the Trustees. We have a Management Committee which are responsible for the day-to-day running of the place, so, like, we have archivists who look after the exhibits, we have a librarian who, obviously, looks after the library � she�s a retired school librarian, so she�s made a tremendous job in reorganising and sorting and cataloguing the books, which desperately needed doing. When I first came here, the library was in what is now my office, but it was impossible for people to use, and I suggested, �Why don�t we put it in the smaller classroom.� It�s mainly used during the tutorial season, by students, but we could always do with more people coming in to use it. It is free, there�s no charge for borrowing books. Basically, all our books are nautical, but cover the whole spectrum. We�ve got fiction and technical books on boat construction, navigation, people�s adventures and trips, about companies and shipping lines, and all sorts of things.

I�ve been restoring a wooden folk boat over the last five and a half years. It�s a classic, it�s called a �folk boat,� �Nordic folk boat.� It was designed as a result of a competition in Sweden in 1941. I actually bought it as a restoration project that somebody had abandoned, but it was basically a bare hull. I understand mine is most probably one of the first six built in the UK, actually at St Osyth.

Traditional skills –Nick Baker

I�ve sailed since I was pretty young, about 13, 14, I�ve sailed, really, most of my life. I�m actually quite a cautious sailor, whereas I think, some people, they go aboard big modern yachts, and they think it�s very easy, and then suddenly, when they are at the sharp end, they suddenly realise it�s not so easy. And we�re getting a lot of that nowadays because people have more disposable cash, and they buy big boats, and so that�s why I�m involved with the Nottage, with teaching, and I feel quite seriously, that there is a need to teach people. And one of our projects at Rowhedge called the �Heritage Project,� is to build a museum, but it isn�t just a sort of museum of artefacts, it will be a museum where, hopefully, this boat, and possibly another, will be able to show people traditional sailing skills, so it�ll be a very active museum.

Teaching boat-building –Fabian Bush

I run the Traditional Boat-building Course at the Nottage. I�m a boat-builder, professionally. I have a yard/workshop allied with our house in Rowhedge, so I build boats there, professionally, but I also come over as a tutor to the Nottage Institute.

I have actually done an apprenticeship. I did it in my mid-twenties. I�m a graduate, a university graduate, but I couldn�t find a white-collar career that I liked so I became a boat-builder in 1978. I build boats on commission and I design too. So it�s building to order, and then bread and butter work is repair and restoration.

The course is really similar to an evening course, except that it�s a whole day, Saturday course, in the winter, so there�s no great pressure on the students to meet any targets, they�re not working for qualifications, they�re simply building their own boat under our direction. Some people are retired and fulfilling an early dream when they�ve got more time. We have quite a few younger people too.

There�s a stock design, which I did for the Nottage, which are the boats we�ve seen racing today, but under construction at the moment, there�s a canoe, and a clinker plywood pram dinghy, which is also another of my designs. So people have a choice, except that the boat, normally, can�t exceed about three metres in length, just because of the pressure of space at the Institute.

Because I�m a professional boat-builder, I just simply supply the wood as part of my business. So when I first started, people used to buy their own logs of larch and buy their timber, and I used to help them do that, but now, most people don�t have the resources or the time to go out buying stuff, so as I�m working in the business, professionally, I simply keep stocks for the students, and they just purchase them from me when they need them. I order whole trees, sawn up, and keep them in stock at my yard, and obviously I use that stock for my own work too. With the traditional clinker boat-building, seasoning is not actually that important. In fact, it�s usually helpful if the wood is fairly green, it bends more easily, it steams more easily, so that isn�t really a problem. And in a way, as the boat is being built, the wood that�s being used seasons during the building process.

The shortest people have taken on the course to build a boat is about four years, some people take six or seven years. The tuition fees are about 300 quid a year at the moment, so there�s that cost, and then the materials probably run to about �1,000-�2,000 for a sailing dinghy, because you�ve got costs like sails and rigging and so on, which is quite expensive.

I do make sails for myself, usually out of old sails. You can re-cut old sails, which saves you a lot of the handiwork involved. But most of the students aren�t experienced enough to do that, although Jimmy Lawrence is running a sail-making and general sail craft, technology class, at the moment, so it would be possible for people to make their own sails.

I�ve got a rather unusual 36-foot cold-moulded yacht. She�s 36-foot long, and seven-foot beam, with a lifting keel, and she�s moored at Rowhedge. She was built by my former employer, actually, in 1974. I have sailed as far as Cornwall, in the present boat. And I lived on a boat at one time, and she was a 30-foot sailing yacht, and I sailed her right round through the Orkneys and round to north-west Scotland, and down to the Scilly Islands, but most of my sailing is very local.

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