Those readers who have visited Berthon by sea will have passed our friends and neighbours at the Royal Lymington Yacht Club to port on the last stretch of river before docking with us, just slightly upriver.
Last year the Club celebrated its centenary having supported and encouraged yachting in all its forms, offering facilities for sailors from the very young to the more mature and providing that unique camaraderie that is at the heart of all good yacht clubs. Like all old friends, the Club and Berthon have a symbiotic tapestry of past and present and a story that will continue to unfold for the coming generations.
Being both Berthon archivist and Royal Lymington member, I thought that you would be interested to read something of the story so far, but it merits a little history prior to the Club’s birth; other chapters written to mark the Club’s centenary was a task for archivists other than me.
The Reverend Berthon is a key figure in the history of Berthon Boat Company as the inventor of the stout Berthon Collapsible lifeboats, made from waterproof flax canvas soaked in a concoction of turpentine, soap, linseed oil and paint, and stretched over thinly laminated frames hinged fore and aft, developed after the PS (Paddle Steamer) ORION foundered in 1850 drowning 41 of the 200 souls aboard. One of the survivors was his clergyman Reverend Clark, who encouraged the cleric to solve unnecessary tragic drownings. Sadly, their purpose was eschewed for decades, with discerning customers buying them as tenders for yachts, exploration adventures, and bailey bridges before these little boats eventually served their original purpose after the loss of the Titanic; subsequently, the Lusitania’s crew refused to board her until the board sanctioned enough Berthon collapsible lifeboats to be purchased, for the crew; however, none for the paying passengers!
Before WW1 Harry May and Frank Morgan Giles started Morgan Giles & May in London and then moved to Hythe on the west bank of Southampton Water, building sailing dinghies, 6meters and the Felixstowe Sea planes, eventually trading as May, Harden and May as Frank moved to Teignmouth.
Subsequently, The British Aircraft Association bought the Hythe operation in 1916 to continue building the sea planes, which freed Harry and Frank May to purchase the well-known Berthon Boat Co Ltd based in Romsey; they then bought the Lymington site, Courtneys, and chose to use the well-known Berthon name for the Lymington Shipyard that had provided nine ships of the realm for Edward the Confessor in the 13th Century.
Next came the West Solent One Design, a restricted design conceived by Harry May to commemorate the new Royal Lymington Yacht Club building, delivering five to Royal Lymington Yacht Club members in 1923 and a further five to the Argentina Yacht Club. One of the first production racers, they were laid down in batches with apprentices learning their trade – nothing changes! I bought W-8 in 2013 to maintain traditional shipwrighting skills by restoring her; RIPPLE attracts much attention in the big blue shed, and doubtlessly she’ll race here shortly. Yes, the timeframe is long, but we must always put our clients first!
The Lymington Scow is another iconic little boat with dozens of them on the Lymington River, many of them sailed from the Club. By 1927 Berthon was advertising them at £40 using elaborate jigs for the standard boat that was planked with wych elm and larch, with pine thwarts. The iron fittings were galvanized. There was also a ‘deluxe’ version in mahogany with gunmetal fittings at £10 more. By 1948, Berthon had delivered over 200 scows around the Solent and beyond, many of them to RLymYC members.
The next associated relationship was born out of the design and build of a 12-ton Gauntlet by Harry May, the result of an enquiry for a yacht from Mr Berge who decided on a different design from Philips of Dartmouth. Harry was furious, threw down the Gauntlet, building his design challenging the Phillips yacht and won handsomely. They became a popular class, and Gauntlets were commissioned by a number of Club members.
World War II saw Berthon 100% busy with MOD work, building 215 boats between 1939-45, including a variety of 72’ minesweepers, 72’ harbour Defence launches, motor fishing vessels for undercover work, and assault landing craft. Many of Berthon’s current crew had grandparents who were employed by Berthon.
W (Bill) M Martineau, who became the Club’s commodore in 1954, commissioned the first Gauntlet to be built after the war when the restrictions on leisure boating lifted. The life of the river slowly returned to normal and Harry May (known to all as Puffer May because of the ever-present roll up between his fingers or hanging from his lips) was eventually delighted to be invited to be a member of the Club in 1949. Being ʻTrade’ it was an honour which came towards the end of his life. He died in 1952 at the ripe old age of 79.
Just before my father David took control of the yard in 1960, Berthon built him and Jack Bryans, Club Commodore from 1958 to 1963, the first 2 of 16’ Finn class racing dinghies, David called his FINNIGANS WAKE and Jack’s was DEFINITION. By 1966, Berthon had built and launched CHEEMAUN, a 52-foot TSDY commissioned by Jack.
David was an enthusiast and skilled racing yachtsman, participating in Club regattas. Berthon fitted out a series of winning yachts for him, the most successful was one of the two Nicholson 43’ hull’s, winning almost every silver Cup that Solent yacht clubs could offer! I recall my mother employing a silver cleaner because in those days the winner literally held the Cups until the prize giving the following year.
Others were the successful Ron Holland designed one tonner WINSOME BLUE and then WINSOME GOLD in 1979, a Dubois design masthead version of POLICE CAR that narrowly missed UK’s Admiral’s Cup Team but ended up chartered to the Argentinian team after a mast break in race one.
When my brother Dominic and I took the helm in 1990, the Club was again interwoven. As a youngster I had sailed on Club adventures in a mirror dinghy to the Solent north shore, Hurst Castle and Newton Creek before moving up to club regattas. Dominic sailed in J24s, Etchells and then bought X-18 originally, built by Berthon in 1927. Berthon apprentices rebuilt her and he competed in the Royal Lymington Yacht Club and Cowes week XOD racing calendar in 1992/3.
I then created the Berthon Source Regatta, with Don Wood, under the auspices of the Royal Lymington’s dedicated Race Officers, Judges and Mark Layers. This event ran for a decade attracting Admirals and Commodores Cup race yachts from all over the world to practice with locals in the tidal waters of the Solent, racing with the world’s best sailors.
Today, the collaboration and friendship between us and the Club continues with J-80s and Folkboats dry sailed out of Berthon. We are pleased to provide the infrastructure of onshore cranage and berthing, whilst the Club continues to provide the race management, clubhouse and social events. We also provide trailer storage for dinghy Club events, and the friendship between these two stakeholders on Lymington River remains as strong as it was a hundred years ago.
Celebrating the Centenary Royal Lymington Yacht Club book is available at the club for just £20, and if you wish to become a member, drop in; they are very welcoming.