On the Origins of the Northern River Pirates

The Flag's Story & The World's Whopper

Peter Roche

The trouble with writing about The Northern River Pirates is that there's very little original material from which to glean.

Everyone knows who they were and that they sailed on the Norfolk Broads with Arthur and Evgenia Ransome in the late thirties, and flew their own Jolly Roger's – I know this because all AR's Biographers mention them; Hugh Brogan in The Life of Arthur Ransome, Christina Hardyment in Arthur Ransome & Captain Flint's Trunk, and Roger Wardale in Nancy Blackett: Under Sail with Arthur Ransome. Naturally, AR makes no mention of them, but that's not surprising as his Autobiography ends rather abruptly in 1932, before Coot Club was published.

The Northern River Pirates was the name given to a small group of children and adults who holidayed on the Norfolk Broads in the late thirties. The Admiral, or Barnacle Bill, as the pirates called him, was Uncle Arthur, a brute of a man – as can be seen in the photograph opposite p161 of the 1984 original of Capt. Flint's Trunk - ably abetted by his wife Evgenia, his 'whistle-blowing mate', a Russian renegade from the Revolution of 1917, whom he had smuggled out of the country from under the noses of Red Russian guards. Following the Revolution Evgenia became Leon Trotsky's personal secretary.

The name Northern River Pirates was an allusion to their practice of only sailing the waters above Great Yarmouth, or, which seems more likely to me, they were a later embodiment of the Death & Glory boys from Coot Club. They spent their days sailing separately and meeting-up for supper at some pre-arranged point.

These days were spent in attempting to score points from one another by 'acquiring' each other's boathooks or other bits of sailing equipment; the top prize being the Jolly Roger. Coincidentally, during their first week on the Broads in 1938 George Russell, Josephine's brother, discovered the old chapel on Horning Hall Farm, the venue for the 1997 Arthur Ransome Society AGM.

Quote from the Log of the Fairway, c Jill Goulder:
We beat the Whippet and arrived first and prepared for the night after a tea with the Arnold Forsters. R. read while I went for a quick half an hour walk, discovering a very old building which looked as if it had been a Norman chapel but which was now serving as a barn.1
Arthur and Evgenia spent many holidays on the Broads in the thirties, accompanied by George Russell, his cousin Raymond Hubbard, the Busk family, neighbours from Pin Mill, Thomas, John and Roger Young2, and, on one occasion, Taqui and Mavis (Titty) Altounyan.

They hired their boats from two boatyards, Herbert Woods of Potter Heigham, also known as Broadshaven, and the Wroxham firm of Jack Powles, established, or rather, born out of the firm of Alfred Collins and Powles in 1925. Sadly, Jack Powles died earlier this year on the 21st May 2009, aged 88; he was working at the boatyard up to the day he died.

Every crew had its own Jolly Roger; the Young brothers still have theirs, but who made them remains a mystery, probably Evgenia.

I was given AR's original Jolly Roger by Brian Field, better known as the Maldon Knotman because of his ties with the International Guild of Knot Tyers, he was also a past President; sadly Brian died in 2004. This is now displayed at The Museum of The Broads in Stalham – and the story of how its history and how it came into my possession is a story of its own, which follows – but nowhere can I find any original evidence of their formation! So where did the Northern River Pirates enter the world of Arthur Ransome?

When AR was asked about the writing of Swallows and Amazons he said
I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginning long, long ago when, as children, my brother, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of Coniston. We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in and wish, as if we had seen the new moon. Going away from it, we were half-drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and as grown-ups, we dreamt about it. No matter where I was, wondering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my minds eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it. Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.

AR, Haverthwaite, May 19th 1958.
It almost wrote itself? I wonder if the Northern River Pirates came about in a similar fashion. We didn't invent them; they (almost) invented themselves?


And this is that flag's story as told to me by Philippa, the granddaughter of Sir Richard and Lady Wells of The Grange, Felmersham in Bedfordshire.
Sir (Sydney) Richard Wells (Conservative MP for Bedford between 1922 and 1945) and Lady Wells kept their sailing boat at West Mersea, on the Essex coast. One day in the early 1950s a dinghy drew along side with an elderly couple in it, asking whether my grand parents had any spare milk – which they had. As an avid reader of his books my grandmother was thrilled to discover that it was Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Ransome she was giving the milk to and a friendship was made and the Ransomes became regular visitors to my grandparents home, The Grange in Felmersham.

After my grandparents died, the Ransomes continued their visits to The Grange with my parents, Peter and Mary Milburn. My father spoke Russian and was a keen fisherman as was Mr Ransome. They – we all did – would spin for pike in the gravel pits. My abiding memory of their visits was of Evgenia's disgusting pike soup that she made from Arthur's catch.

It must have been on one of those visits that the flag was given to us by Mr Ransome, and for some reason or other it was in my possession when we were living in Maldon where we ran a bookshop.

We – or rather, my husband – gave the flag to Brian. He was a frequent visitor to the bookshop and our kitchen and was starting an Arthur Ransome association, or something like that. I believe we must have given it to him in about 1996/7 or thereabouts.

A more enduring memory than the pike soup is of Arthur telling us the Anansi stories. These stories came from the West Indies, originally from West Africa. They all started with, "In a long-before-time-before-we, dere lib in de bush ........." or sometimes, "In a long-before-time-before Queen Bictoria ...."

A.R. was a dear, Evgenia a bit scary.

I hope this is of interest to you. (By the way, I was born in Felmersham Grange, and in June, celebrated my 70th birthday canoeing down the Ouse from Odell to Felmersham and back. My sister lives in Odell).
Felmersham village today gives the look of being stuck in the past. Unfortunately, The Grange, like so many of our country houses has been converted into flats and the current owners know nothing of Arthur and Evgenia's visits.

Sadly, only the lake remains to remind us, now being run as a nature reserve owned by Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire Naturalists' Trust. AR's connection with the village remains in the name of the Ransome Road Lake.

When Brian passed the Flag onto me it came with instructions: that it should be well cared for; that it should not disappear into somebody's private archive; and that it should be displayed in a place accessible to the public.

I believe that by placing the Flag in The Museum of The Broads I have fulfilled Brian's wishes. I also believe Arthur would have approved and applauded the Flag's return to its rightful home.


While you are in the Museum take a look around and you'll see a pike in a display case. This is reputed to be the World's Whopper, the "Thirty pound and a half" fish caught by Joe, Bill and Pete, the Death and Glories and taken to the Roaring Donkey where the landlord expected it to make the pub's fortune after he had paid "The best part of a fiver" for it to be set up.

The history of the Roaring Donkey – if it ever existed, which is doubtful – is somewhat sketchy; it was said, according to the story I heard, to have been hit by enemy action in 1943, and consequently demolished. The display case, complete with fish but minus the details the Roaring Donkey landlord had put on it, was discovered amongst the ruins. It was given to the landlord of The Swan at Horning where it proudly sat over the Bar for 40 years until the TARS AGM in 1993.

That particular AGM was unique; some bright spark, John Sanders, Brigit's husband, had come up with the idea – never to be repeated – that just because a Region was devoid of AR locations should not prevent them from organising an AGM, so the 1992 Lakeside AGM voted that the South-West Region should, under the Chairmanship of John Cowen, organise the 1993 AGM. John was to be in overall charge and whatever Region was selected that Region's Committee would act as back-up and arrange the local details. John, or the AGM, I cannot remember now, chose the Broads and consequently the job of back-up fell to the East Anglian Region and me as Committee Chairman.

As I lived the closest to The Broads common sense dictated that I should do the leg-work, and it was on one of my sorties to the Broads that I went into The Swan for lunch.

We needed a venue for the post AGM National Committee Meeting – the idea of becoming a limited company had not yet emerged – so I asked the landlady if she could help. She was pleased to and offered us the use of an upstairs room, at no charge, and at the time asked me if I would like to take charge of the display case with its pike, which was by now just gathering dust on the shelf above the Bar, with nobody apparently, aware of its importance! Well, what would you have said? Despite its details being missing I knew of the pike's provenance and accepted her kind offer, taking it home to do some badly needed restoration.

As part of AGM festivities I had arranged for the coach trip to call at the newly opened Museum of the Broads in Herbert Wood's boatyard in Potter Heigham.

I decided that to satisfy Brian Field's wishes the pike should be with them. They were very pleased to have it and when the Museum moved premises to Stalham it went with them. I later donated the Flag to the Museum.

Peter Roche
The Northern River Pirates

1More about the Northern River Pirates may be found in the sources that Peter mentions above, and also in the Logs of Cochy and Fairway, the logs kept by George and Josephine Russell in 1938 and 1939, which involve the Northern River Pirates.

2Christina Hardyment, in Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk, identifies Roger Young as the youngest of the four Young brothers. Apparently "Rogerishness" rubs off: at one point in the Log of the Fairway Roger "...had fallen in without his jacket on and been rescued fully clothed by Titty. Famous last words: 'I could not help it. Where is my choc-bar?'"

This article is ©2009 by Peter Roche, and is posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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