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At the age of 91 his eyes still light up and his face creases into a smile he starts talking about his life-long passion.
Eight decades on from buying that boat, MacNab, for the princely sum of ?175, he remains fully involved in the family business, coming into his office every day, including weekends. While his sons Clive and Paul today oversee boat building and boat sales and Greg Munford has been brought in as chief executive, everything around them at their Stalham Staithe marina is testament to the hard work and vision of Robert Richardson and his father Robert senior. For it was his father, a trained marine engineer who  had worked for many years at Chambers shipyard on Lake Lothing in Lowestoft, who started the business by buying Old Mill House Boatyard in Commodore Road, Oulton Broad in 1944. Robert recalled how he bought four rowing boats for ?36 in the early part of the war from a Mr Dunnett – “before I was called up to the RAF” – and his father let them for him. By 1957, the hire fleet was outgrowing Richardson’s Oulton Broad sites, which by then had extended to Parkers Yard, later to become Hamptons, two boat dykes in Carlton Ham and a boat building yard on Lake Loathing as well as Old Mill House Boatyard. Robert Richardson, who had taken over running the business from his father, started looking for larger premises on the northern Broads, which even then were the busy hub for boating holidays. Buying it for ?7,500 heralded the beginning of the modern era for Richardson’s, an era with Stalham very much at the heart of it. His father recalls how the move immediately boosted trade for their hire fleet, which by that stage had reached 33 boats, mostly built in their own yard. Once sheds had been put up at Stalham, a fresh boat building programme began and classes of boats that became Broads legends – Pacemakers, Sunways, Broadsventures – became holiday favourites. Some of the 1960s fleet remain today in private hands and Clive Richardson fondly retains a restored Broads Venture for private use.
Over the next 15 years Robert bought extra plots of marshland surrounding the original site to create the largest boatyard on the whole of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. Although motor cruisers had first started appearing on the Broads in the 1930s it was not until the 1960s when they became greater in number than sailing cruisers. In 1969, a new company Aquafibre Ltd was set up to build hulls for Broads hire boat firms with Robert owning a 30pc share in it; eventually he set up his own building operation at the Stalham yard under the name of Horizon Craft. The 1970s era, captured by the iconic Hoseasons advert set to the tune of Messing About on the Water, can be seen as the heyday for the Broads boating holiday. Paul says: “By that time there were 2,000 boats on the Broads and we had 10 to 15pc of them.
The Richardson’s story is one that was interrupted in 1974 when Robert Richardson sold the Stalham marina to Rank.
He set up a new boat hire operation at Acle bridge – still run by Richardson’s as Horizon Craft – and could not resist the possibility of buying back the Stalham marina in 1984. He proudly recalls that, by the late 1980s, Richardson’s had 700 hire boats with yards in Thorpe, Horning and Acle as well as Stalham. The turnover of Richardson’s boating division now stands at ?5m, while its holiday parks, villages and family entertainment centres turn over an even more healthy ?10m.
Greg says success has been achieved by focusing on what they do well and selling off inns and restaurants acquired in the 1990s.
As well as a new fleet of ?250,000 Broadsman cruisers – coming with such mod cons as three ensuite bedrooms, satellite television, electric toilets, LED lighting and electric canopies – their other striking new designs include the Carousel, Broadlander and the 38ft, single-level Broadway.

Boatbuilder Nigel Smith, 64, who started as an apprentice at Richardson’s 49 years ago, working on wooden boats, is proud to have played his own part in the evolution of the boating holiday – from a very basic to a luxury experience. But he still marvels at the luxury of Richardson’s most recent designs, such as the Broadway, which “have every conceivable concession to the modern age, from microwaves and electric everything to wi-fi and even solar panels”. Robert Richardson emphasises the fact that the industry is far less profitable than the post-war years. Lake Lothing is the tidal access (via Mutford Lock at Oulton Broad) of the River Waveney to the North Sea at Lowestoft. This information will evolve over time, as we continue to catalogue the various twentieth century wooden boats from the Broads that have ended up on Irish inland waters.
The Broads is an area in eastern England from Thorpe St Andrew, near Norwich, to the west, Beccles and Oulton Broad near Lowestoft to the south, Wroxham, Stalham and Sutton to the north, and Great Yarmouth on the east. The area consists of inland, water-filled broads (shallow lakes), most of which it transpires are not natural but were dug out in mediaeval times for peat.
Unfortunately, it took some time to appreciate the quality and beauty of these boats and scores of them ended up in boat graveyards. The original boatyards where wooden boats were built were in the main, family run businesses. The number of builders grew to over 100 in the 1960s, creating sailing, rowing and motorized wooden craft, in all 2000 boats during this era. Both one-offs and series (usually 4 to 6 of a style) of boats for both the private boater and the boat hire businesses came from these boat yards. In the 1970s, when boatbuilding methods had changed to incorporate the GRP revolution (another chapter in the history of boat building on the Broads), mergers and takeovers took place and most of the small boatyards disappeared. Alfred G Ward, based in Thorpe St Andrew near Norwich, Norfolk on the Yare River established the business in 1929.
Robinsons, based in Oulton Broad near Lowestoft, Suffolk was established prior to the 1930s. There were probably as many as 50 hire boat yards and a far bigger proportion on the southern rivers. Having not built any new boats of their own design since the early 1980s, Richardson’s took the bold decision to design and build a new generation of Broads cruisers in 2008 and have since added 18 to the fleet. The Northern shore at the Oulton Broad end has several small boat building an repair businesses.
They are connected by over 200 miles of navigable rivers, dykes and cuts (canals) where boats can cruise at 5 to 7 mph, lock-free.
The area has been consistently popular with holiday makers for the past two hundred years and time spent boating there is remembered by both young and old as a magical experience.
Because of the terrain, boats in the area up to the 1920’s consisted mostly of rowing boats, sailing boats, steamers and working Wherries. Many boatyards created their own unique style of boat, but they all had some things in common, constructed of wood, shallow draft and low clearance to get under the low bridges in the area.
But due to a few enthusiasts, some of them have survived and been refurbished by their owners.

Boats were not just built and maintained but they were also hired out, as featured in the Blakes and Hoseasons catalogues. There appears to have been a healthy competition between the boatyards which resulted in some beautifully crafted vessels.
The boatyard produced a series of cruisers with the prefix Sea between the years 1929 and 1951. The landscape of fens, marshes and water-logged woods has many villages and some restored windmills.
Wherries, sailing barges, were originally built of wood with a small cabin, a hold and one sail. Today as well as in their native England, wooden Broads Cruisers can be found participating in vintage and heritage events in places like Canada, United States, France and Ireland.
This did not indicate they were all the same, just that they came from the same boatyard and design team.
Among them were Sea Hawk in 1929, Sea King in 1930, Sea Prince Y78 in 1946, Sea Queen in 1946, Sea Heron Y44 in 1950 and Sea Curlew Y538 in 1951, Sea Duke, Sea Earl, Sea Wolf and Sea Rover. They were used to carry goods to and from the sea at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth into Norfolk and North Suffolk. In this way an owner’s boat was maintained on a regular basis, the costs were underwritten and the owner still could have several weeks of boating on their own boat in a year.
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