We lease the buildings we occupy from their owners, the Town Council, at a peppercorn rent, while paying for their upkeep and maintenance. These buildings accommodate the Fishermen’s Lifeboat Museum, the Peter Coke Shell Gallery, a small first floor office for the society and below that a craft shop which is rented out. They are not listed (there are only two listed structures in the whole of the town of Sheringham) but, having been sensitively restored, are an important feature of the Conservation Area.
The buildings occupy a site which was once part of the grounds of a school. When Abbot and Charlotte Upcher purchased the Sheringham Estate in 1812 they immediately took an interest in the welfare of their tenants. Only three years later, mainly through Charlotte’s influence, a school for girls was constructed in Upper Sheringham, a radical provision for the time. Ten years after that, in 1825, a boys’ school was opened in Lower Sheringham for the sons of the fishing community there. The school building is now a private residence (10 West Cliff). The site the school occupied, measuring approximately 70 by 28 metres and including a playground and a garden, was on the eastern edge of the land owned by the Upchers where the cliff is relatively low. Because of coastal erosion during the 19th century when there were no sea defences, much of it was lost to the sea. The school closed in 1875 to move to larger premises*.
Soon after 1875 the Upcher family constructed two buildings on what remained of the site. One was a boatshed for the Augusta lifeboat (B on the plan below). Since her construction in 1838 the Augusta had been kept on the beach close to the school, where her coxswain, Robert Long, was a resident teacher, as was his wife. Exposure to the weather was not good for an already ageing boat. Keeping her under shelter prolonged her life to 1894, when she was replaced by the Henry Ramey Upcher (HRU), which still resides there. This new home did add to the effort of launching, however.
A School, 1825 to 1875, now 10 West Cliff
B Lifeboat Shed, constructed approx. 1875, now part of Fishermen’s Lifeboat Museum
C Coal Store, approx. 1875 to 1890, Fishing Shed I, 1890 to 2004, now Shell Gallery
D Fishing Shed II, constructed approx. 1900, now part of Fishermen’s Lifeboat Museum
E Fishing Shed III, constructed approx. 1900, now Craft Shop below, Society’s Office above
1 Original entrances, no longer in use
2 Openings for doorways, made 2005 (2a and2b)
3 Opening for doorway, made 2007
The second building was a coal store (C on plan), in what is now the shell gallery. Coal ships from Tyneside would be beached below the store to be unloaded onto horse-drawn carts at low tide. What is now the Fishermen’s Slope in front of our premises was formed at this time to both allow the coal to be carted up into the store (through the double doors on the seaward side which are still visible, though no longer in use) and for the launching of the lifeboat. The construction of the railway, reaching Sheringham in 1887, enabled deliveries by rail. Coal could then be unloaded and distributed from the goods yard near the station. The coal store having been rendered redundant was made available to the fishing community. A loft was constructed over the full length of the building and a fireplace was installed at first floor level. The ground floor was used for storage of equipment and fishermen and their wives used the loft mainly for making and mending nets. In the winter months it provided a cosy space for such activities and for warming up after a fishing trip.
As the fishing community grew during the late 19th century more working space was required. The space between the lifeboat shed and the former coal store (D on plan) was covered in to form a further self-contained storage area and now forms part of the lifeboat museum. This too had a wide entrance on the seaward side, no longer in use. The extension consisting of the craft shop at ground level and our office above (E) was also added around this time.
The HRU lifeboat remained in service until 1935. Until World War II she was also used for taking visitors on sea trips, as a way of raising funds. The last such trip was at the end of the war, to celebrate VJ Day; this came rather close to potential disaster, putting an end to such activity and for several years the HRU remained locked away out of sight in her shed. The lifeboat shed and fishing sheds, although originally belonging to the Upcher family, were later handed over to the Sheringham Urban District Council (SUDC), the forerunner of Sheringham Town Council. During the 1960s the SUDC rented the lifeboat shed to the Coastguards, who had abandoned the former Coastguard cottages in the Driftway in the 1920s, and the fishing community continued to use the other sheds.
By the 1970s the condition of the lifeboat shed had deteriorated, with extensive repairs needed to preserve the building and the boat it contained. The local branch of the RNLI offered to finance the repairs through a benefactor and to subsequently open the shed to allow visitors to view the lifeboat. The negotiations eventually fell through, however, and the newly formed Town Council paid for the necessary repairs. Arrangements for viewing the boat were patchy, however, until the Sheringham Preservation Society (as we were then known) took over organising them in 1983, establishing the Henry Ramey Upcher Lifeboat Museum. The lifeboat was the main exhibit, of course, but information about other Sheringham lifeboats and the town’s fishing community were also put on display.
By the time of the new millennium it was the turn of the Fishing Sheds to fall into disrepair. By then fishing activity had reduced considerably and the buildings were no longer in use as before. Various options were considered by their owners, the Town Council, and eventually the proposal devised by this society to open them as a visitor attraction was accepted. Through local fundraising, grants from official bodies and emptying of the society’s reserves, approximately £130,000 was raised and building work started in 2004.
By analogy with similar schemes which had been successful in other fishing communities, it was planned to make the former coal store available to local artists and craftspeople in which to work and sell their wares, and for members of the fishing community to demonstrate skills such as making crab pots and mending nets. The floor installed during the period when it was in use by the fishing community (together with the first-floor fireplace) was removed because of its poor condition and restricted headroom and the building was restored to its original height. The second smaller shed between the former coal store and lifeboat shed provided extra exhibition space to supplement what was in the lifeboat museum, with information and artefacts about the Upcher family, the fishing industry in Sheringham and the private or fishermen’s (non-RNLI) lifeboats. The museum, together with this room, was renamed to become the Fishermen’s Heritage Centre. Toilets for the convenience of volunteer stewards and a new pedestrian entrance from the top of the Fishermen’s Slope were constructed at its seaward end (2a on plan). A doorway was also opened in the wall separating this space from the former coal store (2b on plan).
When it became clear that the former coal store was not in demand by local artists and craftspeople, the shell gallery was opened there instead in 2006. During the first season of operation it was found that visitors to the lifeboat shed often left it without exploring the additional exhibition space provided in the adjoining room, because it had a separate entrance. Consequently, with the permission of the Town Council, a doorway was opened between this space and the lifeboat shed. All the individual spaces which had previously been self-contained were now interlinked. These arrangements were found to be successful and have remained unchanged to the present day.
* Information about early schooling in Sheringham is taken from The Divided Village by Peter Cox, Courtyard Publishing, 2000.