George On the Quay

By Robert Simper

George Collins (from The Deben River: an enchanted waterway by Robert Simper)

I suppose the first time I remember meeting George Collins was in about 1948. This was first time I first went afloat and at young age I found nighttime trawling very exciting. We were in the open boat Lassie, built in 1924 and sadly shortly after this her owner died. Jack Garrard bought the boat and was one of first people to have a boat mooring at Ramsholt.

After World War II the boat was given to my uncle John Garrard who used her for family outings and a bit of trawling which was always help as food was still a bit short after The War. It needed two men to haul in the trawl so that George was recruited to help with this heavy work, no doubt in return for ‘a feed of fish’. John was working during the day, so the trawling was done at night. I was put on the tiller — a place I loved and still do — and was amazed how well we could see in the dark on a moonlight night.

George and Billy’s father ‘Old George’ clearly like the water because in the 1930s he bought a gunter-rigged open boat at  Orford, possible the old pilot boat, paid the owner and loaded his bike into the boat and sailed it back to Ramsholt. No doubt a bit of trawling under sail helped to feed his family.

Hustler, an 1890s pilot boat formerly owned by George Collins senior and used for trawling under sail (Julia Jones)

Once I went to Old George’s cottage in Ramsholt, now completely vanished, and asked if I could buy a old schooner half model he had. George said he had had several ship models his uncle had bought home before World War I.  He suggested I could also have another model in his woodshed waiting its turn to be burnt. He said the ship models were worthless and would take any money for them. 

When Ramsholt Fairway Committee was formed in about 1963 Old George was obvious choice to be honorary harbour master. He bought the Newsons’ former Deben bar pilot boat, Delta, for laying moorings. He had three sons, the twins George and Billie and the youngest son, Bob. None of his sons seem to take much notice of his work as harbour master and you can’t really blame Bob because when he was a national service man he had his troop ship sink and he was in the water sometime before being rescued.

When Old George died in 1983, Ramsholt Church had a record turn out for his funeral. I think that ‘Young’ George had just retired from managing one of Fisons’ warehouses on Ipswich Dock. I used to haunt Ipswich dock, then, looking at sailing barges, particularly down near the lock gates when barges went to be repaired in Paul’s barge yard. If he spotted me George would come out of the warehouse and have a boaty chat which made the visit even more interesting.

Barges in Ipswich, 1954 (from East Coast Sail by Robert Simper)

With Old George gone, the obvious man for the harbourmaster job was ‘Young George’ who by then was living in his own house near the Woodbridge bypass. It was an easy car drive to Ramsholt and soon one of the normal sights in narrow Ramsholt roads was of George and Billy driving out to Ramsholt Dock. Billy had a very good memory for facts about the Old Days while George had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the boat owners of the East Coast, particularly the ones who regularly visited Ramsholt. He also kept a record of how many boats visited every year.

My father, Norman Simper, was Chairman of the Ramsholt Fairway Committee and not long before he died, when he was ill in hospital, he sent a message to say he had something very important for us to know. We wondered what his final instruction would be, but only instruction he actually left was ‘Don’t left them change you to use Ramsholt Landing Hard.’ Nothing about the family or the business, father was most indignant that any one should try and take over Ramsholt Hard, saying ‘We paid for it to been done up so it should always be freely used.’

Ramsholt Hard & Quay (from Woodbridge to the Coast by Robert Simper)

Later I approached some Ipswich solicitors and they said, ‘You will be up against one the best right of way experts in Britain, so don’t do this.’ Eventually I took on a lady in Birmingham. We never meet but for years we were in correspondence. The legal bills were mounting so we asked people on the East Coast to help. Just about every yacht club sent some money, but that was soon gone. Even most Ramsholt mooring holders thought the campaign was waste of time and unnecessary. They intended just to go on using the Hard. I pointed out to the boat owners had lost the right to go afloat at Mistley and years later the battle is still going. I asked George if he could get the Ramsholt Fairway Committee on side and they came in very quickly. Without their financial support the campaign could have gone very badly wrong.

Moorings at Ramsholt (from Up the River Deben by Robert Simper)

The battle lasted several years and my Birmingham lady began to lose heart, suggesting I pulled out, but a promise had been made. One day she phoned, very pleased with herself, and said that some government body in Newcastle had ruled that there was a public right of way from the gate of the Ramsholt Arms down to the end of the Hard. Our Birmingham lady said with this win she could get the whole river side area declared a ‘Village Green,’ but George was against that. We had our photographs taken by the ‘East Anglian Daily Times’ and life moved on.

George and Billy, when not sailing or fishing in their small yacht Brio, had established an ‘office’ in old wooden World War 2 lifeboat, which Geoff Ingram Smith had given them. This lay on a mooring off the quay, but was eventually was berthed in the most sheltered place on Ramsholt Quay. By this time George was known all around the Thames Estuary for his longevity and general helpfulness to yachtsmen. George was no pushover; he controlled the moorings, and he would not allow any speedboats or dinghies to launch on the Hard.

George and Billy Collins, 2016  (from The Lost Village of Ramsholt by Robert Simper)

Disaster struck in September 2019 when George and Billy were cooking their potatoes for a meal and the Calor stove burst into flames. A quick exit was made by George and Billy and fire brigade turned up. The fire could be clearly seen from Bawdsey Quay, and their ‘office’ burnt down almost to the water line. The Fairway Committee purchased a fibreglass motor cruiser as a replacement office, but midday potato-cooking by the Collins twins had to take place in their shed under the cliff.

At the beginning of June 2023 George rang the Fairway Committee from hospital. He announced his retirement and named his replacement. Everyone hopes that George, now aged 93, will go on to have a long and enjoyable retirement. He will remain one of the best-known men on the East Coast.

Robert Simper

Robert Simper crossing the Deben Bar 2008 in his Suffolk Beach Boat Three Sisters (from Coastal Suffolk by Robert Simper)

Robert Simper has lived on the Deben all his life. When he left school in 1953, he started work on the family farms where horses were still working alongside tractors. He also took opportunities to crew on some of the last barges still trading under sail. He describes himself as an ‘accidental writer’ but has become a prolific author and notable local historian. His most recent book is The Lost Village of Ramsholt (Creekside Publishing 2020). Robert Simper was a founding member of the RDA and is currently its President.