Remembering a local legend

Following the success of his first book, renowned Wells Harbour Master Robert Smith has put pen to paper once more to tell the tale of town legend Dr E.W. Hicks

For 600 years, the port at Wells-next-the-Sea has remained both a haven for ships and boats and a key characteristic of the town’s charm. It was a major harbour for maritime industry and shipping in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as a significant port for grain, malt and fishing. Today, the coastal gem continues to host a vibrant fishing fleet and support the livelihoods of many local families. Commercial vessels from across the UK and Europe sail alongside the fleet, often joined by leisure boats making the most of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

The man responsible for this smooth sailing is Robert Smith MBE, who has been the Harbour Master at Wells since 2000. Born and bred in the town itself, with family lineage dating back to the 1700s in the area, Robert has long served the community. He started working at the harbour in 1989 and volunteered as a lifeboatman for the RNLI for an impressive 26 years, only stepping down from the latter in 2010 to dedicate more time to the harbour.

Robert has observed considerable growth and change within the harbour and the town over the years. He has played a key role in enhancing the stunning setting, receiving an MBE in 2016 for his work on transforming the port. His remarkable journey has seen him meet with many interesting characters and learn of evocative tales, prompting him to share a sea of captivating stories with the people of Norfolk and beyond. 

“In my first book ‘Crossing the Bar – Tales of Wells Harbour’, I explored the characters and events that have helped to shape the spirit of our historic coastal town,” Robert explains. “I had just stepped down as lifeboatman when I started writing and was doing talks across the East of England, so it was a perfect time to recount these tales.” A second book entitled ‘Doctor at Sea,’ hit the shelves last year, arising after Robert’s uncle came into possession of the memoirs of a legendary local figure.

“When I was handed the memoirs and mementos of Dr E.W. Hicks, known locally as Willy Hicks, I instantly knew I had to tell his story,” says Robert. “His experiences as a doctor and lifeboatman are fascinating, made better by the fact he was a real character. He was formidable and unconventional but highly respected by the townspeople. What made writing about him even more special was my personal connection to him; he was the doctor who brought me into this world.”

‘Doctor at Sea’ was released in 2023 to mark the 360th anniversary of the current Wells Harbour, which was formed in 1663 under King Charles II. Brimming with captivating anecdotes of Hicks’ life as a working doctor, lifeboat crewmember and proud local resident, it’s a must read for anyone with a love of the sea and a passion for North Norfolk. The powerful work also recounts the bravery and courage of fellow Wells lifeboatmen, many of whom heroically set sail in their small fishing boats to aid in the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War. 

“Hearing the stories of bravery, drama and rescues by the local men who answered the call to Dunkirk always enthralled and excited me,” says Robert. “I’m thrilled to be able to share their experiences with a wider audience using E.W. Hicks’ memoirs. Writing about them has been an absolute privilege.”

Robert’s book is available to buy from several shops in Wells, including the harbour office, as well as outlets in Holt and Fakenham and Jarrolds of Norwich. It can also be purchased online at All profits from sales go to Wells Harbour Maritime Trust, local charities and good causes - giving back to the communities that make Norfolk’s charming coastal towns so vibrant. 

As for Robert, you can find him at Wells, fulfilling his duties as Harbour Master with pride. “It’s an absolute honour to serve the people of the beautiful town I call home,” he concludes. “I’ve always had an affinity with the sea and my grandad would often tell me tales about nautical exploits when I was a small boy. Working as Harbour Master is incredibly rewarding; I look forward to continuing to protect and enhance this special part of Wells for years to come.”

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