Coastal Ketches and Inside Barges (Andy Wyke)

14 January 2012

‘A sewn boat? What’s that?’ ‘Well, it was a way of constructing boats in the Bronze Age, about 2500 BC, before nails had been invented. With the tools available at the time, bronze axes and adzes, logs would be split and fashioned into planks, to be stitched edge-to-edge with fibres from yew branches. Moss was used for caulking.’

Our speaker, Andy Wyke, was well qualified to tell us. As Boat Collection Manager at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, he has been one of the prime movers in a project which will use ancient tools to build a 60ft replica Bronze Age boat at the museum this summer (Apr – Sep), in an open workshop on view to the public. An example from the period was discovered in NE Yorkshire. Propelled by about 20 rowers it could have crossed the North Sea; and boats of this type may have been used to transport tin, which was a commodity traded with Europe during the Bronze Age. The Salcombe Hoard (over 300 items of copper, gold and tin discovered in 2009 and now in the British Museum) came from a sunken Bronze Age boat. Of similar age, the Sky Disc of Nebra, found in Germany, was a bronze disc with inlaid gold shapes representing the sun, moon and stars. The gold was traced to the old Carnon mine.

In Romano-British times, edge-butted planks were fastened onto ribs using iron nails; and the boat carried a square sail, Scandinavian-style. Gweek was a Roman trading port. By the 11th Century a distinction was developing between boat builders and ship builders. Boats were built ‘by eye’, from experience, using hewn planks and clinker (overlapping) construction. Ship building involved plan drawings, planks from saw mills and carvel (flush) construction.

Records indicate that since post-Medieval times, from about 1500 AD onwards, there have been around 39 quays in the Helford, Merthen being one of the oldest. They enabled river and sea-going trade in coal, spars, limestone, granite and a variety of other commodities, carried by ships and boats that were built at Helford or Gweek, or built elsewhere, such as Penryn and Fowey, and registered in the Helford. A table for 1786 to 1861 shows that their sizes ranged from 17 to 69 tons. Some of these vessels had long working lives. The Hobah, for instance, was a 70ft x 19ft, 56 ton ketch, built in 1879 on a creek near Mylor, which traded to the South Coast and France with cargos such as coal, manure and granite for lighthouses. It ended its activities in 1945. Ships’ masters, such as Capt. Will Lamey, were not required to have paper qualifications; they just had to be competent to do all the jobs on board. The captain’s proficiency in running his ship was the key factor in the success, or otherwise, of a trading vessel.

Diverse craft would have been seen in the Helford during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, from the impressive 125ft x 25ft barquentine Waterwitch, which was built in 1871 and operated in the coal trade until 1948, to the more workaday 25 ton sailing barge Little Industry, which was built in Truro in the 1880s and traded from Porthallow. An evocative painting by local artist John Whale (who was in the audience) showed her resting on the mud at St Antony at low tide, offloading cargo into a horse-drawn cart alongside. Goods would be transferred to barges and lighters when deep-draught sea-going vessels were unable to dock at quays. A notable craft was the 1880’s brigantine Lady of Avenel. A photograph showed her loading granite at Porth Navas, where a quay had been constructed in 1830 to serve about 8 granite quarries in the Constantine-Mabe area and handle returning limestone. At times, piles of granite blocks on the quay would be 40-50ft high. The trade subsequently moved to Penryn and Lady of Avenel was sold to Frank Worsley, who famously was captain of the Endurance in 1916 and navigated the small boat in which Shackleton sailed for help to South Georgia after Endurance was crushed by Antarctic ice. In WWI Worsley commanded a Q-ship, a U-boat killer. In 1925 he took Lady of Avenel on an Arctic expedition. She returned to Bridlington, then Poole Harbour and ended her days in 1965 when she was towed out to sea, set alight and sunk.

In 1848 around 200 boats operated from Gweek in the fish trade. Pilchards were the target catch, as they had been for about 400 years. The season ran from mid-summer to March and the fish were taken to cellars at Helford, Gweek, Durgan and Gillan, where they were cured on floors and then packed into hogsheads, containing 3000 fish and weighing 450lb, for export to Italy and other destinations. Over 50 million fish were caught annually, 63,000 hogsheads were noted for 1864 and the catch from 1815 to 1914 exceeded 1 billion tons. The boats were mainly luggers, such as the 35ft Ganges and the Mystery (a replica of which was used by Pete Goss and his family to sail to Australia a few years ago). Gig-type rowing boats could also be used for fishing. A lesser, but still important, trade was in oysters, associated with Porth Navas. These would be dredged from craft ranging from a 14ft rowboat to the 43ft Rob Roy, a fast sailing boat owned by the Tyacks of Merthen. Unusually this had a wet hold for transporting young oysters to the beds as well as containment for mature shellfish to market.

A perhaps unexpected part of shipping in the Helford over a century ago was linked to emigration. From 1815 to 1914, 50 million people from Europe, 10 million from Britain and ¼ million from Cornwall (a high proportion of the resident population) left in search of a better life in Australia and the Americas. The ‘Penny Emigrants Sheet’ advised them to take spades, shovels, etc, but ‘any clothes will do’. The West Briton advertised a sailing from Gweek to Philadelphia. Fares of £4 for an adult, £2 for a child, were administered by the mines, government agents and shipping agents. As cargos came in, people went out, packed into cramped holds where death and disease were commonplace.

What remains today of this past activity? Gweek has SeaCore and a boatyard, oysters are still farmed from Porth Navas, there is a small fishing fleet and commercial shipping has been replaced by leisure boating. Possibly the most enduring link is the ferry. Crossing from Helford Passage to Treath from about 1023 and Helford Passage to Helford from the 1880s, it has been owned at different times by the Godolphin family, the Duke of Leeds, the Grylls family and is now privately owned. It has been a continuing part of the Helford scene for over 1000 years.

The HMCG wishes to thank Andy Wyke very much for his wide-ranging and absorbing talk; and for editing the above report.

Paul Garrard

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area