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31-foot Four Daughters fishing trawler set to return to Aldeburgh and take pride of place in new seafront museum to recognise town’s heritage

PUBLISHED: 13:34 08 December 2015

Paul Strowger  on Aldeburgh beach.

Paul Strowger on Aldeburgh beach.

Sarah Lucy brown

These days, Aldeburgh is a tourism jewel in Suffolk’s coastal crown, awash with second homes and holiday lets. But it wasn’t always like that. Sheena Grant reports on a project to give the town’s fishing heritage the recognition many believe is long overdue

Fisherman Mick Wilson in Sid Strowger's Four Daughters on Aldeburgh beach Fisherman Mick Wilson in Sid Strowger's Four Daughters on Aldeburgh beach

These days, Aldeburgh is a tourism jewel in Suffolk’s coastal crown, awash with second homes and holiday lets. But it wasn’t always like that.

Sheena Grant reports on a project to give the town’s fishing heritage the recognition many believe is long overdue.

Paul Strowger will never forget the last time his dad, Sid, went to sea in his beloved wooden clinker boat, the Four Daughters, fishing off the coast of Aldeburgh as he had for much of his life.

It was a beautiful October day in 1982 and Paul, also a fisherman, was busy on Sid’s second boat, the Three Boys (named after his grandsons), long line fishing for cod while his dad went trawling for sole.

Nicolas Hill, who formed the Fishing Boat Conservation Fund to preserve the unused fishing boats on Aldeburgh beach, with retired fisherman 
Alan Burrell and one of the newly-painted boats Nicolas Hill, who formed the Fishing Boat Conservation Fund to preserve the unused fishing boats on Aldeburgh beach, with retired fisherman Alan Burrell and one of the newly-painted boats

“It was October but it was a lovely, hot sunny day,” he says. “The Four Daughters was built for dad in the early 1970s and it was his favourite boat - the best trawler on the beach.

“With trawling you usually go off early in the morning with the tide. Dad’s favourite place was Aldeburgh Napes, about four miles off the coast, and he was working on his own that day, looking for sole, plaice and dab.

“I had come back from lining and had several boxes of cod. There were lots of people about and we were selling loads of fish. I looked at my watch and thought it was late for dad to be coming in but just thought he must have gone back for another trawl, although I knew that was impossible really because of the tides.”

At some point, Paul looked out to sea and saw another fisherman from the close-knit community towing the Four Daughters in. Even then he had no sense of alarm, believing the boat must have broken down or had a problem with its nets. It was only as it got closer to shore that Paul learned the awful truth. His father, aged just 51, had been taken ill and died in his boat out at sea. Another fisherman nearby had noticed something was wrong and gone to his aid, but to no avail.

Sid Strowger (left) with his son Paul bringing the Four Daughters home for the first time after picking it up from the boatyard where it was built Sid Strowger (left) with his son Paul bringing the Four Daughters home for the first time after picking it up from the boatyard where it was built

“He came running up and told me: ‘Your dad’s in the boat. He’s passed away’,” says Paul.

It may be more than 30 years ago but the emotions of that day are still strong for Paul, who lives in Aldeburgh but gave up fishing in the early 1990s when construction of Sizewell B was getting under way. The Four Daughters, named after Sid’s four daughters, was sold on after he died. Paul never expected to hear of it again.

And he probably never would, had it not been for maritime historian Robert Simper and boat enthusiast Nicolas Hill, who spearheaded a campaign to safeguard Aldeburgh’s fishing heritage.

Two years ago Mr Hill started fundraising to preserve up to 10 ageing wooden clinker boats on Aldeburgh beach that were no longer in use. By raising money to have them painted he hoped that the town’s proud fishing history, in danger of being lost forever as the boats rotted where they lay, would be preserved.

Today, the wooden clinker boat is a dying breed. Just a handful of fishing boats work from the Aldeburgh beach nowadays and they are made of fibreglass. In Sid’s time there would have been about 20 boats and many of the fishermen also crewed the town’s lifeboat. Even further back, at the start of the 20th Century, there were probably up to 70 clinker boats working from that small stretch of shingle coastline. Bureaucracy, paperwork and rising costs conspired to drive most out of business over the decades.

Mr Hill enlisted retired fisherman Alan Burrell, whose uncle Billy and father John took composer Benjamin Britten on some of their fishing trips, to paint the boats. Now that has been done they have embarked on another, more ambitious phase of the project.

Robert Simper, who lives at nearby Ramsholt and is the author of many books on traditional working boats, learned that the Four Daughters was now part of a collection that had ended up at a museum in Scotland and set about negotiating to bring the boat back home to Aldeburgh. In the last few days those negotiations have come to fruition and preparations are under way to transport the Four Daughters by road back from Scotland, hopefully before Christmas.

It is hoped that the 31ft-long boat will eventually take pride of place in a seafront museum the group wants to set up so that the town’s fishing heritage can have the recognition they feel it deserves.

Paul Strowger is delighted at the prospect of seeing his father’s boat again and touched by role it will play.

“It will be a real source of pride,” he says.

For Nicolas Hill the return of the Four Daughters and plans to establish a museum are developments he never envisaged when he started the fund to preserve the beach’s abandoned clinker boats.

“At that time I just thought it was so sad the way the boats looked and was determined they should not be just left to rot. I got a donation that kick-started the campaign and managed to raise £12,000 to restore the boats, although none of them are actually seaworthy any more and still belong to the fishermen,” he says.

“These wooden clinker boats have such a proud heritage. For centuries all along the coast villages have fished in these boats from the beach. If you came to Aldeburgh 200 years ago that’s what they would have been doing. These boats left on the beach are the last. When they go the whole tradition of that kind of fishing on the Suffolk coast will be gone. There are still a few people fishing from the beach - but not in those wooden boats.

“The campaign was initially just me but when I met Robert Simper we decided what was needed was a boat in good working order. That’s when Robert heard about the Four Daughters.

“The plan is for the boat to be fully restored and we would love for this to be the beginning of a fishing museum on the beach to make sure centuries of heritage are remembered. My initial fund for painting the boats on the beach has all been used up so we need a new fund for the next phase.

“It will be wonderful to have the boat back with all its history that really belongs to this area. These boats were made specifically for Aldeburgh beach and the conditions here. Each beach would have had its own type of boat. They are rather beautiful things.”

Generations of Alan Burrell’s family have fished the waters off Aldeburgh. He retired five years ago after 30 years at sea.

“There were probably 20 boats fishing when I started,” he says. “Rules, regulations, running costs and buying the boats themselves made it hard for most of them to continue over the years. It was a job to make a living sometimes. I packed up because my boats, which were built about 1972, had just about finished their time fishing and the cost of a new one had gone up so much. It wasn’t worth it for the time I had left working.

“I loved the freedom of the job and the fact you could do what you wanted. I’ve still got a shed and all my stuff down there and keep humming and harring whether to get a boat and carry on.

“The wooden boats are the last of a breed so it’s been great to preserve them.”

For Robert Simper, bringing the Four Daughters back to Aldeburgh is a source of huge excitement.

“After learning that it was in Scotland I made contact and started negotiations to bring it back. What I want to do is put it in a seaworthy condition and make it last for next 100 years,” he says.

“We hope to have it back before Christmas. It will go into a boatyard at first and we’re going to have to start raising money for transport costs, storage and returning it to a seaworthy condition.

“A hundred years ago, before the First World War, there would have been 60-70 fishermen on that stretch of beach. Aldeburgh is a fishing town, that is what the community was built on. It’s an important piece of Suffolk history that needs to be preserved.”

To find out more about the project and how to support it, telephone Robert Simper on 01394 411273.

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