Situated on the banks of the River Great Ouse, King’s Lynn is overflowing with maritime history. Being the eleventh wealthiest town in England in 1334, King’s Lynn ranked as the third most important port in England during the 14th Century, behind Southampton and London.
The town was considered as important to England during mediaeval times as Liverpool was during the Industrial Revolution. Sea trade with Europe was dominated by the Hanseatic League of ports; the transatlantic trade and the rise of England’s western ports would not begin until the 17th century.
Why not take the Maritime Trail on foot, a wealth of maritime history to uncover as you explore the town with our self-guided leaflet, with every turn revealing a tale from the annals of maritime history – from the trading of the Hanseatic League to the building of the Custom House (an existing and important reminder of King’s Lynn’s maritime prosperity).
Though it may not be the great trading port today that it was in years gone by, Lynn’s marine links are still a defining feature of the town. King’s Lynn was home to Captain George Vancouver, who famously charted the north-west coast of North America, declaring the land British Columbia. The city of Vancouver was of course subsequently named after the great man himself. A commemorative statue of Captain George Vancouver can be found outside the Custom House.
Take a trip to the last remaining fishermen’s yard in King’s Lynn’s fishing quarter (the North End), at the True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum – now fully restored, with a museum, gift shop and tea room, with a new extension showcasing Lynn’s last surviving smokehouse and the fully restored and rigged 1904 Lynn fishing smack “Activity”. The new extension also accommodates Lynn’s first Sound Archive.
Explore Lynn’s rich maritime past in this warm and friendly museum, housed in two beautifully restored fisherman’s cottages, which are all that remains of Lynn’s North End fishing community. The museum captures the harsh realities of fishing life and the traditions and spirit of the close-knit community. The museum boasts two galleries showing a revolving programme of exhibitions, images and artifacts from the Victorian North End of Lynn, and a film show.
Another important historic maritime building, The Custom House, has overlooked the comings and goings of this busy port for over three hundred years. This magnificent building situated in the heart of Historic King’s Lynn has been a landmark since the late 17th century. Now currently home to the King’s Lynn Tourist Information Centre, why not visit the Custom House and discover elegant rooms housing fascinating displays on the merchants, customs men and smugglers of Lynn. Enjoy great views of the river and explore hands-on computer displays to find out about famous mariners of Lynn including Vancouver and Nelson (Lord Nelson’s birthplace being the coastal West Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe).
A glance at George Vancouver’s chart, on which the torturous course along the North West Coast of America and the Canadian Pacific coast is marked, must arouse admiration for the man under whose leadership it was prepared and whose enduring monument it is.
George Vancouver was born in King’s Lynn on 22nd June 1757, the sixth child of a well to do family, firmly allied to the powerful Turner dynasty (who built the Custom House and the Duke’s Head Hotel in Lynn).
John Jasper Vancouver, George’s father, was Deputy Collector of Customs & Port Dues and had other sinecures about the town. It is thought that through his friendship with the famous Burney family (Charles, the musicologist and Fanny, the novelist), he secured the position of midshipman with James Cook for his son. George joined the Resolution aged 14 in 1771.
Young Vancouver showed flair for navigation and sailed the world on Cook’s second and third voyages, witnessing Cook’s death on Hawaii in 1779. After an uneventful rise through the ranks of the navy he was chosen for a diplomatic and exploratory mission to the North West American coast to treat with the Spanish for the return of disputed territory and to chart the dangerous and complicated coast in order to facilitate trade, initially in lucrative sea otter skins.
From 1791 until 1795 Vancouver took his two ships, The Discovery and The Chatham, through danger, sickness and deprivation, notably loosing few men, to complete a most remarkable chart used until the recent era of electronic mapping.
He gained the Island of Nootka back from the Spanish, now Vancouver Island, and provided us with unique insight into the lives of the Native American people from California to Alaska. Around 150 American and Canadian place names, many reflecting his home county, were chosen by George and are still in use today.
His last years were blighted by a dispute with the aristocratic Pitt family. Thomas Pitt, who had been sent home in disgrace while serving as a midshipman with Vancouver, was determined to destroy his Captain’s reputation and the stress of dealing with this unstable and violent man combined with his debilitating and onerous journey contributed to his early death, aged forty, in 1798. He is buried at Petersham near Richmond.
Incorporating text from “George Vancouver” by Alison Gifford