The story of Glala, the National Historic Fleet-listed Dunkirk rescue vessel, currently undergoing repairs in Ipswich’s Haven Marina
Sat on a marina in Ipswich is a little slice of history: a 109-year-old boat.
Built in 1914, Glala has survived world wars, explosions and collisions. It has seen numerous upgrades, name changes and a slew of prominent owners – and was even there during one of the Second World War’s most miraculous moments.
Glala is one of about 200 ships listed on the National Historic Fleet.
Today, it sits in Haven Marina on Ipswich’s waterfront, which it has called home since 2002.
Since 2017, Glala has been under the ownership of Kathy Norris, 69, and Andrew Robson, 59.
The pair, who are based in Colchester, said it had always been Andrew’s dream to live on a boat, and they bought the vessel despite already owning a 1927 gentleman’s yacht, which they then had to sell.
Kathy said Glala started life as ‘Doris’ in 1915, and was built on the River Hamble near Southampton.
Doris was commissioned by a wealthy Argentinean diplomat, Aaron de Anchorena, to cruise the Amazon.
At the time, it was among the first diesel motor boats, featuring twin-screw propulsion and a wooden design.
Kathy said: “We took it on as a stalled project about six years ago after the old owner ran out of money. It hadn’t been worked on for about three-to-four years at that point and was no longer seaworthy.
“Since then, we’ve rebuilt the stem, undone some other previous work and started a major rebuild. We work nearly every weekend.
“There aren’t many boats in private hands that are like this. Its design and story, make it one of a kind. When Andrew and I first saw Glala, we fell in love at first sight.”
Through the years, Glala has gone by many names, including Doris, Grey Mist, Cupid and Mahalia.
It changed hands numerous times, counting industrialist Sir William Verdon-Smith and MP Ronald Nall-Cain among its owners.
Mr Nall-Cain had a collision with a coal barge, which damaged the stem, damage that was only fully repaired 80 years later.
But arguably its most famous former master was Sir Alan Cobham, who christened it Glala, by combining the names of himself and his wife, Gladys.
Engineering firm AEC bought Glala in 1938, before it was requisitioned by the War Department at the onset of the Second World War in 1939.
“Glala started the war as a harbour defence vessel in Sheerness and patrolled the Thames estuary,” Kathy said.
However, the vessel’s finest hour was during Dunkirk in 1940.
Glala made a number of trips during the evacuations, and came back home loaded with men from France.
Peter Magnus, whose son Paul founded Magnus Group, and whose grandchildren are business owners in the town, served aboard Glala during Dunkirk – and Kathy said the pair hope to show his daughter, Nicki, progress on the boat.
Kathy, whose uncle was at Dunkirk, said the fighting was horrendous, and a list of suitable ships were drafted before the evacuation took place.
After Dunkirk, Glala became a hospital tender in Belfast before she ended up in the Mersey Fire Service.
It was while patrolling the river through Liverpool where her top sides were blown off during an explosion, and were later repaired by the Royal Navy.
After cruising the Mediterranean during the 1960s, Glala weighed anchor back home in Southampton, before ending up in Ipswich at the turn of millennium.
Kathy said the pair really got to work making repairs in 2018.
Andrew trained as a carpenter but restores vintage cars for a living, while Kathy works as a graphic designer.
He said restoring ships and cars required the same mentality.
Andrew revealed that, just five months after their custodianship of the vessel started, he had to undergo life-changing surgery.
He credited his recovery, both physical and mental, to working on Glala.
“I had a project to throw myself into, and want to see my goal of making her seaworthy complete, by the both of us. Sitting at home would not do me any good,” Andrew said.
Kathy said they want to make Glala seaworthy ‘within the next nine of so months’, which would involve caulking, the process of making the boat watertight.
They hope to take her back to all the places she visited or was stationed at during the war.
To this end, the pair set themselves a goal of returning her to Dunkirk’s waters by 2025.
Kathy said Glala was unique, but was one of a few ships from Dunkirk moored at the quays in Ipswich.
She added: “We want to be able to cruise and use her. She’s a ship with such a wonderful history – she’s also quite old, which makes her story all the more interesting.
“Covid got in the way, but we hope we can meet our goal of getting her back in the water.”