The 150-year love story of Maria, a boat built to win

Maria sailing on Barton Broad when in the Preston family ownership  1892.

Maria sailing on Barton Broad when in the Preston family ownership 1892. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

In his latest column, Robert Paul, Museum of the Broads director and president (and past chairman and vice president of the Broads Society), recounts the incredible story of the lateener Maria. 

‘And I wonder if on moonlight nights
She haunts familiar scenes,
Or has sailed away forever……
The last of the lateens.’

And so ends the last verse of Lady Margaret Preston’s ode to ‘Maria’ written in 1920 at Beeston Hall, the Preston’s Family seat.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the  Broads Society.

Robert Paul, member and past chairman of the Broads Society. - Credit: Supplied by Robert Paul

To begin at the beginning - ‘Maria’ is a lateen rigged racing yacht built in 1826 of carefully selected best English oak, and of a unique and advanced hull design for her day.

She was built to win races which she did in no uncertain way and remained virtually unbeaten for more than 50 years.

Mutford Bridge 'Water Frolic' Engraving by W. J. Cooke

Mutford Bridge 'Water Frolic' Engraving by W. J. Cooke 1827 'Maria's first 'Frolic' - A woman can just be seen sitting at the stern of the boat on the right with 'Maria' written on the transom. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

John Bellamy Plowman, born 1765 became a merchant adventurer at the time of Nelson’s campaigns and lived in London before buying Normanston Hall overlooking Lake Lothing near Lowestoft.

He became quite wealthy trading in ‘exotic silks for fine dresses and furnishings’ and other sought after materials.

Mr. George Thrower, pictured shortly before the removal of 'Maria;' to the Great Yarmouth Maritime Museum.

Mr. George Thrower, pictured shortly before the removal of 'Maria;' to the Great Yarmouth Maritime Museum. - Credit: Archant

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He developed an interest in yachts and racing and was determined to design and build the fastest yacht on the Broads.

And so commissioned the building of a yacht from the best English oak and to a design that was sure to win races.

The builder he chose was Brown of Great Yarmouth and so began a story intertwined with fame and delight but also great tragedy.

Mrs Mary Anne Plowman 1833, shortly after 'Maria's launch

Mrs Mary Anne Plowman 1833, shortly after 'Maria's launch - Credit: Museum of the Broads

The rig chosen was a lateen, thought to be derived from the graceful boats of the Nile, similar to Arab dhows.

It was two masted and featured a massive triangular foresail which added up to a huge sail area for a boat of only 25 feet!

No wonder she was fast. But also needed great skill to sail successfully.

John Plowman had a daughter named ‘Maria’ and so the story goes, the boat was to be her 21st birthday present.

Sir Jacob Preston, third owner of 'Maria'.

Sir Jacob Preston, third owner of 'Maria'. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

It does fit with the evidence available today and a woman can be seen sitting in the stern of a boat called Maria in the famous engraving of Mutford Bridge and Water Frolic - The delightful name ‘water frolic’ was what we know today as a regatta. 

The boat was launched in 1826 and in 1829 beat five other boats at Lowestoft Regatta to win her first silver cup.

Yacht racing in those days was highly competitive with professional crews and valuable prizes, sometimes as much as £10 which in those days was equal to a year’s wages for an agricultural worker.

Sadly in 1832, the year of the ‘Great Plague’ John Bellamy Plowman died of cholera at the age of 67.

Meanwhile daughter Maria had married the son of the Squire of Cantley, clergyman William Gilbert on March 23, 1829.

She continued, it is thought, to sail as part of the crew of The Maria winning every race she entered.

Robert Paul, left, with John Perryman in front of the boat at the museum in June this year. 

Robert Paul, left, with John Perryman in front of the boat at the museum in June this year. - Credit: Museum of the Broads

In fact some boats refused to take part, knowing that Maria was unbeatable! But tragedy was to strike again, and on July 16, 1834 Maria Gilbert died during childbirth aged 29.

Her son, John Bellamy Gilbert survived, and went on to become the vicar of Cantley.

Her heartbroken husband, William Gilbert, had not the strength to continue with the boat and it was sold to Sir Jacob Preston of Beeston Hall, 2nd Baronet, Justice of the Peace, and High Sherriff on Norfolk. And so begins another chapter in the story.

‘Maria’ remained in the Preston lineage, passing to successive generations including son, Sir Henry and in turn his son, another Sir Jacob, being sailed at every opportunity and continually winning races until the outbreak of the First World War which was to be the last time she sailed.

Tragedy struck again when the second Sir Jacob died in the closing months of the war.

The boat stayed in the ownership of the Prestons, Sir Edward being the last owner.

When the Second World War loomed, ‘Maria’ was requisitioned and moored on Barton Broad to prevent enemy flying boats landing.

Towards the end of the war, the boat was given to one George Thrower, boatbuilder, formerly of Wroxham but now with a property at Barton Turf. Another twist in the tale of Maria.

George Thrower’s story is again quite incredible. As a boatyard owner in Wroxham, he had quite a successful business, building and hiring small boats after attending the village school at Hoveton.

His business career was cut short at the outbreak of war in 1914 when he volunteered as a driver, delivering ambulances to France and bringing the injured home.

On the conclusion of the war, he returned home to continue with his business interests.

In 1936 he married and moved to Barton Turf, to build a new boatyard on the edge of the northern end of the broad. In 1939, war struck again, and he joined the merchant navy.

After the war he returned to continue his venture but after his planning application was refused and with financial difficulties he sunk into depression and became a recluse living in his part- built boat shed.

During this time the Preston family had given Maria to George on the understanding he would take care of it and ensure it’s survival which he did.

Maria became his ‘home’ and as his boat shed roof leaked quite badly, he moved permanently into the boat 

One might think that would be the end of the story, but no.

Very few knew of the whereabouts of the boat for many years. Enter the scene, one, John E. Perryman naval architect of Gorleston, who became interested in discovering where the boat might be.

After much research and investigation, he located the boat at Barton in 1969. He recalls the moment he saw Maria for the first time and describes it as his ‘Howard Carter’ moment.

After some negotiation, George Thrower, now aged 76 agreed to let the boat be relaunched and taken to the Great Yarmouth Maritime Museum, on one condition - that he would get a new roof to his boat shed. The deal was done and the boat arrived at the museum soon after.

George was deeply saddened to say goodbye to his beloved Maria so a few weeks later, along with a friend, visited the Maritime museum, had a tour which he greatly enjoyed and of course, saw the boat once again.

He was probably relieved to see Maria safe and secure, but very likely still saddened by it’s loss to him.

He and his companion travelled back to Wroxham by coach and then by bicycle the rest of the way.

But George never made it home, and died on the way.

In the early 2000s, the Great Yarmouth museum was forced to close with the future of the boat once more in doubt.

But thankfully the Museum of the Broads was approached and negotiations were successfully concluded which saw the boat transferred to Stalham, only a few miles from her former home at Barton Broad, which is where she is today, a jewel in the crown of the museum’s collection and available to all, and future generations to enjoy.

She is nearly 200 years old but is in near original condition with much of the timber still sound – incredible.

John Perryman has devoted many years to compiling a detailed history of the boat and it’s various owners and has now donated the complete collection to the Museum of the Broads.

What a journey, and what a legacy Mr John Bellamy Plowman provided for us.

And this is only part of the story – there is much more to be told. She remains perhaps the oldest and only surviving racing lateener in the world with a winning record for more than 50 years - Viva Maria!'