Thursday, June 4, 2020


Boat building in Brixham

By 1850 it would be safe to say that Brixham was probably the richest town on the south coast. This was due to the take-off of the fishing industry on a vast scale thanks partly to the new fishing grounds located at the Dogger bank and the introduction of the railway. It would also be true to say that the Brixham trading vessels, both fruit schooners and general trade vessels, were bringing in as much, if not more, than the fishing industry. This would not have been possible if not for the local boat builders who supplied some of the best designed and highest quality vessels there was at the time.

In 1804 an Admiralty survey identified 95 shipyards in the West Country with 7 of those located in Brixham. These yards would vary in size and manpower for instance the Benjamin Tanner yard in Dartmouth employed 68 shipwrights and 13 apprentices where the Richardson yard in Brixham relied on just 5 shipwrights but was offset with numerous apprentices. By 1821 Dartmouth, Brixham and Plymouth were the nation’s leading schooner builders. In the 1831 census there were more boat builders and shipwrights in Devon than in any other county apart from Kent. The years between 1824 and 1854 there were over 24 boatyards operating in Brixham.



It is not easy to say when boat building started in Brixham. Boats did not need to be registered till late in the 18th century. As fishing was around long before that it could be argued that many boats would be made locally at either Brixham or Dartmouth. Early registration also only denoted what town the vessel was made and not the actual boatyard this was also the case of the owners. An early boat built at Brixham was the ‘Two Brothers’. It was built in 1784 weighed in at 28 tons and was approximately 46 feet in length. In 1795 we see the owner mentioned for the first time and a fishing smack made in Brixham. The owners from new were Thomas and George Moses.

The Furneaux Family were the first to be documented as boat builders with Robert in 1798 located at the Kings Quay. The yard seems to have continued with various family members until ending as the ‘Furneaux Brothers’ from the early 1860s until 1874. The next two families created a local dynasty. The Mathews family seems to have started at Fishcombe Cove around 1815. The Dewdney family started around the same time at King Street upper yard and continued until 1906. The Matthew Family then seemed to merge with the Dewdney family and became the Dewdney Matthews and located beside the Dewdney boatyard at the King Street lower yard.



At the museum we are always being asked by model makers if we have any plans for the boats made at the Brixham boatyards. The answer is that most of the boatyards did not work from plans. They worked to solid wooden half models of the hull for which they scaled up measurements (we have a number of these half models at the museum) or chalked the measurements onto a floor. The hull was finished first and then launched and final fitting of the mast and all other equipment added afterwards.  

Not a lot of capital was needed to set up a boatyard or shipyard. All that was needed was suitable ground facing deep enough water to launch the boat. An old shed or two sheltered stores to work under cover with a partitioned off area to use as an office and even the tools that were used were owned by the shipwrights or carpenters themselves



            One of the main pieces of equipment that was required was an old vertical boiler attached to a long steam cabinet. This was used to steam long planks of wood to be able to bend them straight onto the hull of the boat and attach. The appearance of the yard was secondary it was the work that was produced there that spoke volumes for the yard and how skilled the builder was at choosing the timbers used. The wood was chosen from trees as they stood in the woods as opposed to a supplier’s catalogue. The builder could use his own judgement as to what would be of use and how bent branches or trunks could be used advantageously to add strength or be used more easily and economically. Edgar March writes;

‘’ These graceful curves came from the natural growth of timber, from age-old monarchs of the woods that long ago had stood in summer sun and winter cold, gentle rain and perishing blizzard, living out their lives in God’s free winds. Then, felled at the choice of men steeped in the lore of centuries of woodcraft, handed on from father to son- which fields and slopes provided trees most suitable for their requirements, as texture varies according to nourishment given by the soil-how long the logs should season in the rough before the slender saw ripped through the fibres and revealed the heart of oak, never before seen by mortal eyes, which started to form 120, 150 maybe 180 years before. As the keen blade cut its way through the baulk the very tang of the forest rose when the sweet scented dust fell in a gentle shower on the bottom sawyer.’                                                                                                                                          

Most of the shaping of wood was done with the aid of a tool called the Adze, a large broad bladed pickaxe type affair with smaller single handed ones used for more controlled or detailed work: planes, chisels and hand drills of various sizes were also used.

In 1853 to 1854 the boats coming out of Brixham yards were as follows;



Name of vessel
year
Boatyard
type
Owners
PET
1853
JOHN RICHARDSON
sloop
John Richardson
TIGER
1853
Sam'l Dewdney Matthews
170 ton
2 mast
Chris. Adams Green + 5 BM. Owners.
SEA FLOWER
1853
ROB'T  FURNEAUX
sloop
John Edw'd.Purchase.
SALEM
1853
JOHN RICHARDSON
sloop
Geo. Buckingham.
PLOVER
1853
JOHN RICHARDSON
sloop
Nicholas Smith Drew & Wm. Drew.
PILGRIM
1853
JOHN & SAM'L DEWDNEY
sloop
Jeffery  & Wm. Jeffery Sanders. BM.
RUBY
1854
JOHN BARTER
sloop
Peter Loye & James Evans
MYSTERY
1854
JOHN GIBBS GALMPTON
sloop
Galmpton & Dittisham owners
 
THERMUTHIS
1854
JOHN UPHAM
240 ton
Brig
Wm. Dart &  F.W. Baddeley
 ( 16/64 ea. ) + 5.
DAUNTLESS
1854
JOHN & SAM'L DEWDNEY
233 ton
Brig
Dan'l. Dewdney Matthews + 10 BM. Owners.
Witch O' The Wave
1854
JOHN RICHARDSON
270 ton
Brig
Bartlett.








Brixham was a small town so when it came to boatbuilding in respect of the intentions of the builder would be shared among the population. How could it not when most of the building was accomplished in the open. The people were well educated with the ongoing procedure and were there to celebrate with the builder the stages of production.

Elizabeth Ann Hall was born into a fishing family in 1895, and in her memoirs writes;



‘I remember how excited we were as children when launching was due to take place. Should it happen to be a vessel made to order by one of our relations, then, of course, we might have been on board for the ceremony. The ship would be standing upright in the shipyard, secured by strong stanchions or heavy planks. We would all be on board waiting for the last retaining plank to be knocked down, the christening ceremony having been carried out by the owner’s wife or daughter. The last blow was struck and the ship started slowly away down the slipway, gradually increasing speed until at last we slid into the sea and the ship was rolled gently by the waves.’



This was by no means the end product. The inaugurate launch was merely the hull which had to be steered into the inner harbour for fitting. The mast had to be ‘chipped’ at a local ‘chip yard’ to a smooth finish and then fitted into sockets on the deck. Next the rigging had to be fitted followed by the canvas. The sail maker would come onboard to measure for a suit of sales that were individual for every boat and also taking into account the shrinkage of the dyeing stage. The sailmaker would make the sails at his sail loft and then when completed they would be moved to the barking yards. The sails were laid on the floor and dyes of various pigments would be spread over the sails with mops. After this they were finished the sails were hoisted onto rigs with pulleys to dry. Blacksmiths were involved to make iron fitments for the mast and rigging. The nets were made by various people, some would be old fishermen no longer actively fishing.




1926 saw the last trawler to be built came out of the Upham yard. The ‘Vigilance' like the 'Pilgrim' she is now one of the heritage fleet still sailing today but for a different purpose. Although 'Vigilance' was the last of the working trawlers, in 1935 Uphams built, along the lines of a fishing boat and is classed in the Upham yard book as a trawler, a boat being a 64 ton yacht called the 'Cachalot.'

The Second World War gave an upsurge in boat building at the Upham’s yard. During the progression of the war 39 boats were produced at the yard for the Royal Navy and the Royal Dutch Navy and the Free French Navy. The Fairmile class boat was cheap to fabricate and could be produced in many variations from the standard motor launch, the motor gun boat and the motor torpedo boat. The most famous of these to come out of the Upham yard was a gunboat of the Fairmile D class the HMS MGB 658 commissioned in April of 1943. Its first Commander was T/Lt. Cornelius Burke RCNVR who was awarded the DSC twice for his service in action but it was under its second Commander T/S. Lt. Leornard Charles Reynolds RNVR where the boat was to see most of its active service in very hostile action. The Boat was operating in the Mediterranean and during its service it damaged or sank over 25 enemy craft.


The last major project was the Mayflower II built in 1957 that was built using traditional methods as far as possible. The Mayflower II proved a great project for Brixham and its boat builders but was not a great financial success for the Upham yard. The yard struggled on for a few years but was sold on and closed finally a few years later. Now in its place is a posh marina with even posher plastic and fibreglass pleasure crafts tied up alongside.  

At the Brixham Heritage Museum we have details of every wooden vessel built, registered and owned by Brixham people as well as photos of many of the craft. We are happy to pass on any information we have and this can be accessed through our Family History service either through our website or at the museum itself when we are able to reopen.

                  Written by Martin Smith

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