LADY Norah Docker and her husband Sir Bernard were the Posh and Becks of the 1950s. And nothing symbolised their flamboyant lifestyle more than Shemara, their private yacht, which was frequently moored in Poole Bay. Now, as Shemara undergoes a refit, Faith Eckersall talks to photographer Jake Sugden, who has produced some haunting images of a ship locked in time...

WITH her sombre panelling, quaint fireplaces and retro-but-not-in-a-good-way curtains, the interior of Shemara is more 1950s bungalow than floating gin palace.

Could the imagination of the masses, ground down as they were by the unrelenting grimness of the austerity years, really have been captured by this tired-looking vessel?

Looking at these images, taken last year as she lay alongside in unglamorous Lowestoft, it is hard to imagine Shemara ever reverberated with the clink of cocktail glasses, shrieks of laughter, and the occasional splash of a man overboard at one of the Dockers’ legendary parties.

But she did. On one occasion King Farouk of Egypt stayed aboard. In 1954 Lady Docker invited 80 Yorkshire miners for a party.

“What a pity there isn’t a Lady Miner to entertain the dockers,” mused one national paper.

And then, of course, there were the Mediterranean cruises – to Cannes, Italy and Monaco where Norah was banned from the principality for 25 years by no less a person than Prince Rainer. She had slapped the face of a casino official and torn up the Monegasque flag in an apparent fit of pique over her son, Lance, not being invited to Prince Albert’s Christening.

“She was probably a bit drunk at the time,” says Sugden, who has become fascinated by the lives of the pair who were described as ‘gracelessly gaudy’. And they may have been, but with their wealth – industrialist Sir Bernard was chairman of Daimler – and with Norah’s showmanship – her gowns for the Poole Harbour Yacht Club ball were so lavish she would hold press previews to show them off – they were the perfect antidote to post-war gloom.

Sugden first boarded Shemara by night, after being given permission to photograph her by her new owner.

“It was 10.30pm and she was more or less in darkness but it didn’t feel like I was going on to an old wreck, rather, something special; there was the scent of teak and leather and opulence,” he says.

Lookswise he felt as if he was stepping into ‘an old, 1950’s bungalow that no one had lived in for a long time’.

Shemara had been tied up for a good 30 years after the Dockers were forced to sell her in 1965.

“She was a time capsule,” says Sugden. “It was quite amazing to walk down the corridors where the guest accommodation was, to find all the beds still made up. Because she was an ocean-going vessel, much of the furniture, like the coffee tables, was bolted down. The only thing that had been removed was the artwork.”


At the time she was commissioned in 1938 Shemara was, says Sugden, “the last word” in luxury. Following a stint in World War II where she was commandeered as a fighting vessel with guns mounted fore and aft, she was refitted again and it was during this time she became synonymous with the Dockers’ party lifestyle.

Yet, for all the intricate woodwork, the kitchens and the engine room, the dining rooms and the bathrooms, which seem so old-fashioned now but which were the height of modernity when installed, there were still some incredible quirks.

According to Sugden the beds were conventional, not cabin style, which meant that guests on this millionaire’s plaything sometimes had to place their mattress on the floor and sleep there, to avoid being jettisoned in choppy seas.

“There was a rumour that the bath taps were all solid gold but had been chrome plated so that people didn’t steal them, but the new owner had them assayed and the gold colour underneath was definitely brass,” he says.

There was also a safe on board but sadly that didn’t contain anything exciting, either.

Perhaps Shemara’s greatest asset was her owners, in particular the irrepressible Norah.

Sugden cheerfully admits to becoming ’a bit obsessed’ with ‘Naughty Norah’ as she was dubbed. But who could blame him? With her hard partying, monumental extravagance – she designed cars with zebra cushions (mink was ‘too hot’) – a gold-plated Daimler, and her common touch, she was the darling of the gossip columns and could always be relied upon to do or say the unconventional thing.

Swanage visit

Daily Echo writer George Willey recalls the friendship she struck up with an elderly Swanage pensioner who had written to her to express his admiration. She replied and he invited her to the Day’s Home at Ulwell where he was living.

“On the appointed day the yacht brought them ashore and they took a taxi up to the home and spent an hour with Charlie,” recalled Willey. “When they proposed getting a cab for their return Charlie said ‘the bus is due any minute, you don’t want to spend money on a taxi’.”

And so the villagers of Ulwell were treated to the sight of millionaire Sir Bernard and his lady wife paying two-pence to travel back to Shemara on the Hants and Dorset bus.

According to Willey, who visited Shemara: “Sir Bernard told me she cost him £250 a week to maintain – a colossal sum in those days.”

Certainly it became too much after he was forced out of Daimler and the Dockers found themselves having to downsize.

They quit their Canford Cliffs mansion and moved to Jersey, where disappointed Norah described her fellow islanders as: “The most frightfully boring, dreadful people that have ever been born.”

They then moved to Majorca before Sir Bernard returned to live in a Branksome Park nursing home where he died in 1978. Five years later it was Norah’s turn to depart this planet.

“The party is over,” she’d said. “On to the next one.”

Her family told the undertaker to expect anything up to 200 people at her funeral in the tiny village of Stubbings near Maidenhead. In the event only 29 people turned up – less than the number who crewed her yacht, although the ship’s company sent an anchor-shaped wreath to be placed at the graveside.

Jake Sugden is keen to talk to anyone who visited Shemara or who has memories of the Dockers, as he prepares a memoir of the vessel for her new owner.

“Lady Docker and Shemara were completely interlinked,” he says. “But Shemara will become a great yacht once again.”

Norah would raise a glass to that. Pink champagne, of course.

l If you can help Jake trace more of the history of Shemara and the Dockers, contact him on: jakesugdenphotography, or call Faith Eckersall at the Daily Echo on 01202 411310.