Draft: 2ft 6ins
Displacement: 4.5 tonnes
Engine: none at present
Construction: Clinker built larch (and oak top strake) on oak frames. Dipping lugsail
Builder: J. Johnson Sheringham
Bessie is one of the last remaining Johnson-built whelkers. She was built in 1935 for the Cox family (G. H. Cox and Sons) who whelked with her out of Wells-next-the-Sea for 30 years, license number LN 16.
She is 26 ft long and 10 ft broad, built to the traditional double-ended design that was prevalent along the North Norfolk coast, and made of larch and oak with an inboard engine and an auxiliary dipping lugsail.
She was named after George Henry Cox’s wife, Bessie. Later, when the Cox family acquired three Liverpool-type ex-lifeboats she was retained as a reserve vessel. She was well regarded by the family and considered a fine sea boat.
Squeakie Bishop then bought her and used her for angling parties, first from Blakeney and then Gorleston, where she was used as a pleasure and fishing boat until acquired by Rescue Wooden Boats.
In 1940, Bessie was taken from Wells-next-the-Sea to Ramsgate as part of Operation Dynamo to help evacuate the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk.
She was chosen for a special sub-mission to collect a party of men. She crossed the English Channel and had to lie off the French coast in a vulnerable position. There is a detailed and exciting account of this mission in the 1946 book Storm on the Waters by Charles Vince (click on the bold title to read), in which it quotes,
“It was rumoured that he (a VIP within the party to pick up) was Sir Launcelot Oliphant, British Ambassador to Belgium, who was made prisoner by the Germans when trying to get from Bruges to le Havre.” (p. 42)
But the time after the signal passed and there was no sign of the party, so Bessie returned home.
There is also an account of the expedition in local paper The Journal, dated Friday 9th July 1954, an account based on a report written by Dr. E. W. Hicks, dating from 18th April 1944, and we have copies of three dated postcards (plus transcripts) from Billy Cox to his wife, posted from Ramsgate, Dover and Harwich - click on the text in bold to read. Bessie is also listed in Alphabetic List of The Little Ships in Christian Brann's book The Little Ships of Dunkirk (p.229; Collectors' Books, 1989).
During the winter of 2013 and 2014 essential work was carried out on Bessie to repair damage and keep her stable until she has her major refit. At the same time the added wheel house was removed and her decks strengthened, so she looks much more like her original 1935 self. David Hewitt and Tom Gathercole carried out the work, with plenty of help from volunteers.
We regard Bessie as a very important boat. She needs major restoration, a new engine and a new dipping lugsail to return her to her original state. We estimate at least £50,000 is needed for this work, which would need to be done in stages over several years. Now she is in dry storage as she is very fragile. Once restored she will be used afloat.