Wartime mystery of Norfolk whelker finally revealed ahead of restoration project

The whelker, Bessie, when she was at Morston quay awaiting work.

The whelker, Bessie, when she was at Morston quay awaiting work. - Credit: Archant

For more than 80 years, she harboured a wartime secret.

The whelker, Bessie, when she was at Morston quay awaiting work.

The whelker, Bessie, when she was at Morston quay awaiting work. - Credit: Archant

And despite rumours of the former whelker’s involvement, evidence to link Bessie to Dunkirk remained a mystery - until now.

For the first time, the role the 1935-built vessel played in Operation Dynamo can be revealed.

It comes as she has been officially recognised as a Dunkirk Little Ship.

Following a pledge by a maritime heritage charity to restore Bessie to her former glory, Rescue Wooden Boats spent months undertaking detective work.

Billy Cox. Picture: THE COX FAMILY

Billy Cox. Picture: THE COX FAMILY - Credit: Archant

With help from local residents Geraldine Green and Caroline Cox, who were able to provided invaluable family records to support on-going research, it was discovered that Bessie had been originally commissioned by, and built for, their grandfather Billy Cox.

A spokesperson for the charity said: “Bessie’s Dunkirk story is thrilling.

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“Her skipper, Billy Cox, volunteered to take her as part of a flotilla of four boats on a secret mission to cross the Channel and collect a group of eminent men. The party was rumoured to include the British Ambassador to Belgium, who had been taken prisoner by the Germans.

“Bessie waited in a vulnerable position off the French coast as instructed, for a signal which never came. With her flotilla – all of which were skippered and crewed by the fishermen who owned the boats – she then negotiated the risky return voyage, avoiding capture and attack.”


Bessie. Picture: RESCUE WOODEN BOATS - Credit: Archant

The charity has already successfully restored its first Dunkirk Little Ship and former Wells lifeboat Lucy Laver . It obtained Bessie, who previously worked out of Wells harbour, in 2011.

Her official status as a Dunkirk Little Ship was confirmed earlier this year by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.

Fundraising has began to restore Bessie back to a working life on the water. It will cost approximately £50,000 and take several years. Bessie’s restoration will use skills and materials identical to those in her building and preserve as much of her original fabric as possible.

- To find out more or to become a Bessie Benefactor visit the website .

Bessie’s Life at Sea

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.