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In the beginning there was the Wondyrchoum Trawling is a method of fishing by towing a net, suspended from a crossbar, across the sea bed. It had its origins in medieval times, and was a development of the dredge used to catch oysters.

In its original form the trawl was called the wondyrchoum. It was a net in

the form of a bag 18 feet long and 10 feet wide, nailed to a cross beam, and

with frames at either end which kept the beam above the level of the sea bed. The first reference to it is in 1376, when in the reign of Edward III a petition

was presented to Parliament calling for it to be banned because of the damage

it was causing to fish stocks.

The problem was that the fishermen who were using this new development

were using so fine a mesh that “no manner of fish, however small, entering

within it can pass out” so that the fishermen “take so great abundance of small

fish that they know not what to do with them but feed them to their pigs, to

the great damage of the whole commons of the kingdom and the destruction of the fisheries.”

But because the sailing vessels of the time were not very powerful the

wondyrchoum was used only in “creeks and havens” (i.e. natural harbours), not in deep waters, and the damage was being done to spawn and young fish, and









endangering the breeding grounds.



Around 200 years ago a revolution began in the small South Devon fishing village of Brixham at the southern end of Tor Bay.

“Sailing trawlers and Gulls� by Arthur Briscoe

It was a revolution that was to bring profound changes to seagoing communities around the coast of Britain. It spread to Europe and over time became global.

It would create an immense new industry,

employing hundreds of thousands of people

directly and indirectly; one that still exists today

and around which communities in Brixham and many other places are still centred. That industry

was trawling.

It began with the development of a type of sailing vessel which enabled a

method of fishing that for centuries had been carried out in estuaries, creeks and harbours to be deployed in deep waters, far offshore.

That vessel was the sailing trawler - the Brixham sailing trawler.

Sailing trawlers once existed in their thousands. Now only a handful remain.

Brixham...Trawling... the Sailing Trawler - this is their story SAILING TRAWLERS


The birth of an industry Nobody knows for certain just when deep-sea trawling began, but certainly by the late 18th century the fishermen of Brixham, keen to overcome the problem of limited fish stocks in South Devon waters, had begun to develop a new design of fishing vessel.

Its sleek underwater lines and very tall gaff rig gave it the speed to make

long passages to and from the fishing grounds in relatively short times. The power that gave them that speed also enabled them to tow large trawls, in deep water and in all kinds of weather.

The result was a great increase in the size of the catch, and a corresponding

decrease in the time taken to make that catch. Nowadays it would be described as a quantum leap forward.

The men from Tor Bay did not describe it in terms of that kind, but they

knew that what they had developed gave them a major advantage and they were sufficiently entrepreneurial by nature to exploit it.

Fishing stocks in the English Channel were now more accessible, but were still

limited. It was not long before they began to go further and further afield to fish. Giving evidence to a parliamentary enquiry in 1833 one of them, Walter

Smith, said he had been fishing off Dover since before the French Revolution of 1789 “the first from Tor Bay to go so far east”. However he also said that by

the 1830's he “had fished from Sunderland, Durham and Hartlepool and all round the coast.”

Meanwhile others had gone west, to the Bristol

Channel and the Irish Sea. From there they could

make a fast run home with their catch, using the

prevailing westerlies. The fastest of them all, Ibex, once made the 140 miles passage from the Bristol

Channel to Brixham between 5 o'clock one afternoon and 8 o'clock the following morning, at an

BM346 “Guess Again” under full sail


average speed of almost ten knots. SAILING TRAWLERS

However, fishing in more distant waters meant living locally, initially for only

part of the year but in due course inevitably led to some settling there permanently.

Two of these pioneers were Robert Hellyer and his son Charles, who left

Brixham in 1854 and settled in Hull. Like nearby Grimsby, and other ports such

as Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, Hull had no previous history of deep sea

fishing, but the discovery of astonishingly rich fishing grounds in the central part of the North Sea led to a Klondike-like stampede of Brixham men.

The Hellyers, and many others, had their boats built back home in Devon.

They became two of the most successful fishing entrepreneurs, owning a fleet comprised of some of the largest sailing trawlers ever built.

But over time many vessels began being built locally to the Brixham lines in

the new fishing ports that had sprung up as fresh grounds

were discovered and opened up: places like Ramsgate,

Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Hull, Grimsby, Scarborough, Fleetwood and Dublin.

Numbers grew steadily, and by the latter years of the

19th century there were more than 3,000 sailing trawlers

in commission in UK waters.

At the end of the 19th century, there were more than 3,000 sailing trawlers in UK waters

Brixham harbour, 1870s



There were 200 at Brixham,

but 375 at Lowestoft, 450 at Hull, 625 at Great Yarmouth and

840 at Grimsby, with smaller numbers at other places. Fleet drying out, Brixham 1868

British-built trawlers were

eagerly snapped up secondhand by fishermen along the coast of

Northern Europe, from Holland to Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands. The Germans ordered twelve as the nucleus for a home-built fleet. A major new industry had been born.

The rise of the sailing trawler coincided with the coming of steam railways,

which were able to transport fish from landing place to markets in distant towns in a matter of hours. That also coincided with a population explosion, which in turn led to a major increase in the demand for fish.

Fishmongers now appeared in every High Street - as did the now

ubiquitous fish and chip shop.

Lowestoft harbour



Long-lining Like fishermen elsewhere the men of Tor Bay originally used a technique known as long-lining for deep sea fishing.

As its name suggests, long-lining involved towing a long line through

the water, with baited hooks suspended from it at regular intervals.

By the 19th century in the North Sea a complete set or “string”

consisted of 180 lines (each 240 feet long) daisy-chained together, with

hooks every nine feet. That meant the string was eight miles long and carried 4,680 hooks, each of which had to be baited with a whelk.

Whelks were big business. Around 150,000 baskets of them were

used up annually.

This was a laborious and inefficient way to farm the sea and make a

living. But help was at hand.The sailing trawler had arrived and the days of hooks and whelks were numbered.

BM321 “Terminist” being launched, 1912



The Sailing Trawler There were several important features that combined to make the sailing trawler ideal for the role.

Of these three were pre-eminent:

l Strength

l Seaworthiness

l Power and speed

The strength came from the marrying of solid oak framing to massively

strong double-skinned hull planking. A typical large trawler would have pairs of

six-inch oak frames (also known as futtocks) bolted together, then a gap of one foot before the next pair. In other words, half of the length of the hull was frames.

Trawler under construction on Breakwater Beach, 1899

Yet it was said that the shape came from the frames but the strength from

the planking. On the biggest trawlers that was three inches thick on the outside and two inches thick on the inside.

Seaworthiness came from a straight stem and long keel, deeper aft than at

the bow (trading ships had keels that were parallel to the deck, so they could 6


if necessary settle on the ground to load and unload). The draught was deep

to reduce leeway. A comparatively narrow hull in relation to its length plus careful ballasting produced a comfortable motion that resulted in a safe working platform and helped prolong the life of gear.

Speed came from a shape that was derived from earlier fishing craft with

what has been described as “cod's head and mackerel tail”, bulbous forward

and narrowing aft. The sailing trawler had finer sections forward - a balancing act between a dry boat (lines not too fine) and excessive pitching in bad

weather (not too full).That was allied to a tall and powerful gaff rig, and assisted by the streamlined underwater shape that also gave directional stability.

The greatest power came from the mainsail, but one

great advantage the sailing trawler had was the flexibility of

sail plan, which allowed the amount of sail set to be adjusted by just two or three people to fit changing conditions.

The flexible sail plan could be adjusted by two or three people to meet changing conditions

The first sailing trawlers were cutter-rigged, with a single mast, and up to

about 65 feet length on deck. The advent of steam donkey engines around 1860, enabling even larger trawls to be towed and larger mainsails to be set,

led to an increase to around 80 feet in length for the largest boats. At the same

time a mizzen mast was added






mainmast, and so these rigged.


They could set up to




mainsail, mizzen, topsail, mizzen topsail and even,

when not fishing, a

“Leader” on slipway, present day, revealing underwater lines.

mizzen staysail ... eight in all.



The hull shape and rig gave the sailing trawler the ability to stay at work and

tow a heavy trawl over the sea bed in a wide range of weather and sea

conditions. A buoyant stern counteracted the tendency of the trawl to swamp the boat when towing it under extreme load.

Those same factors, once the catch was on board, gave the trawler the

wings with which to get her catch to market in prime condition.

So successful was the design, and so financially economical the method, that

although steam power had been around for a hundred years, trawling under sail continued in Britain up to the outbreak of World War II. The last sailing trawler was built in Brixham in 1926. The photograph on this page and page The Brixham fleet in the 1930s

35 bear witness to the survival of a sizeable fleet at Brixham in those days.

In the North Sea the transition to steam came earlier because of the

proximity to the coalfields of Yorkshire and the North-East.

Spars 1 Mainmast 2 Mizzen mast 3 Topmast 4 Booms 5 Gaffs 6 Bowsprit

The rig



Sails 7 Mainsail 8 Mizzen 9 Staysail 10 Jib 11 Flying jib 12 Topsail

Construction details








1 2 3


4 10

Spare rope and gear Crew cabin Galley


Original layout







4 5 6

Fish hold Ice box Trawl gear

7 8 9 10

Spares bridles and blocks Spare net Sails Small sails



Fishing Under Sail Trawler skippers used to make their way to fishing grounds by a mixture of: l Pilotage i.e. using landmarks

l Course steered and distance run

l Soundings, with lead line armed with tallow, that gave depth of water and type of bottom (sand, mud etc)

l Colour of sea and type of waves

Once on station they would aim to fish down-tide over smooth ground on

a straight course, which was easier to accomplish with the wind abaft the beam.They would shoot the trawl shortly after the turn of the tide and fish for 5-6 hours until the tide turned again.

The trawl beam might be up to 50 feet in length, with an iron trawl head at

each end that kept the upper side of the net off the ground.The net was a bag double the beam in length, plus a narrow section at its end, called the 'cod', in which the fish collected.

The trawl would be laid along the port side of the boat with the net

inboard. Then the net would the streamed, the trawl squared away and

Smacks getting under way and outward bound at Brixham 1868



lowered. The warp to which it was attached would be up to

150 fathoms (300 metres) long.

The trawler would fish

downwind and downtide, but

faster than the tide in order to keep the mouth of the net open. It had to maintain a

speed over the ground of around two knots with the

trawl down, equivalent to seven or eight knots without the trawl.

After six hours, when the

tide changed, the trawl would

be hauled, the vessel would go about and then fish for a further six hours on

A rare photograph of a sailing trawler at work. The drag from the trawl is pulling her stern down.

a reciprocal course.

The ideal wind was about Force 6 on the Beaufort scale (22-27 knots or

25-30 mph).

The upper side of the net, attached to the beam, formed a roof over the

lower part so that fish, when disturbed, would not escape but would be channelled into the net.

When the net was recovered the cod end would be fixed to a line that was

hoisted up the mast so that the fish slipped out onto the deck to be sorted,

cleaned, gutted and packed.



Trawling Stage 1


The trawl beam is along the port side of

the hull, with the net gathered ready for

streaming. The boat is facing downtide and

downwind. The mainsail is not set and the

mizzen has been 'scandalised' to take the

power out of it.The boat is therefore more or less stationery in the water.



Stage 2


The trawl net has been lowered into the

water and the process of allowing the

forward (outer) end of the beam to come square with the hull has begun.The forward

('throat') end of the main gaff has been

hoisted up the mast, but the 'peak' is still scandalised. The mizzen gaff has been set but the foot of the sail brailled up and the boom sheeted right in to reduce its power.



Stage 3


The beam is set square to the hull, ready

to be lowered away. Both main and mizzen

and are fully set.The main has been sheeted

in and the mizzen let out.The wind fills the sails and the trawler gathers speed. Stage 4




The trawl has been lowered to the sea

bed and fishing is under way. The trawler will maintain course for up to six hours until

the tide changes.The upper side of the net is fixed to the beam, while the lower side

drags behind. As fish are disturbed and rise

up they cannot escape.



A self-assured group of fishermen on the quay with New Pier in background in the 1920s. From the left they are Bill Hellyer, Alf Twyman, Jim Roberts, Jack Fowler, Pricey Holland, Alf Pitman, Jim Clark and Walter Barnes.

Around the Harbour Harboursides in fishing ports a century or more ago were crowded, bustling places.

With 200 sailing trawlers, plus trading vessels and many small craft, Brixham

was as busy as most. Both the inner and outer harbours were full of vessels of one kind or another, landing catches, taking on stores and ice, or mending nets and sails before heading out to sea once more.

Here crews exchanged news and told yarns in the brief leisure time they

had between trips, and old salts spent their time reminiscing.

On New Pier, early 1900s.



Fish laid out for sale at the old fishmarket.

Upham's shipyard, on the East side of the harbour, between Custom House Quay and Grenville House. The yard finally closed in the 1960s.

Sails being “barked� at Overgang Yard, opposite where the yacht club now stands. Barking was carried out with mixture of tallow, tree bark and ochre mixed together and boiled; it was then spread over the sails.



Life at Sea

“Sailing Trawler” by Arthur Briscoe

The local fishing grounds for Brixham men lay some three to eight miles off Start Point, running for 20 miles in a north-north-easterly direction and ending opposite Babbacombe on the eastern side of Torquay.

Most trawlermen were devout Methodists, and took the view that “it was a

crime to be at sea on Sunday, but sacrilege to shoot a trawl.” They either fished

the local waters and came in at night, or made limited journeys lasting around

five or six days, enabling them to be back home in time to observe the Lord's Day.

However, as vessels got bigger and faster, and rich new fishing grounds were

discovered in the Bristol Channel, others were tempted to spend longer at sea. In the North Sea, things were very different. By the end of the 19th century

it was common for trawlers to spend eight weeks at sea, followed by one in port. Carrier boats brought out ice and provisions, and took back the catches of fish. 18


A number of “mission smacks� served those fleets, carrying not only the

Heading out from Brixham

Bible but medical supplies, books, magazines and stocks of woollen garments knitted by righteous ladies all over the country.

In the first few days at sea the crew might dine on roast beef, suet pudding

and the like. Later there would be salt beef, treacle and potatoes, all boiled up

together in seawater. For breakfast they had fish, boiled or fried. And what fish! - fresh from the sea and far better than anything on offer in the fishmonger's.

The boy and fourth hand stayed on deck while the others went below for

dinner. When the meal was finished it was customary to have half an hour of

telling yarns before the third hand went on deck to relieve the fourth hand,

who came down for dinner. When he went back up the boy came down, and was then off duty until breakfast time.

They might trawl till late in the evening, then pack the catch into boxes

before having a late supper in the early hours of the morning - usually leftovers from dinner with hard tack biscuits made from flour and water.

While at sea the men would amuse themselves when off duty by making

things for their wives or sweethearts. Mat-making was a favourite pastime.

Before going to sea the men would collect off-cuts from tailor's shops which

they cut to a uniform size and then threaded into sacking.

If the wind failed they might raft their boats up together and go aboard each

other's craft. Or someone might entertain all other boats in the area by playing the accordion, the music carrying for miles across the water in the still air.

Bed was a sack of straw, and they slept on it fully dressed. Fresh water was

scarce on board, so they washed before they went to sea, and again when they

reached land. But when they were home they took great pride in their appearance and were usually seen in their Sunday best.



Crew Duties Each crewman had his own duties, in addition to being able to do what his

Boy The boy had to cook, provide a constant supply of tea, keep the cabin subordinates could do. On the largest vessels there were five crew.

clean, stow small gear, mend nets and get rid of the “brash� brought up in the trawl. In fine weather he might also take the helm when the trawl was shot.

4th hand The fourth hand had to stand watch and handle the boat in fine weather,

do splices and whippings, take soundings, keep the sails in their proper places and be able to find the right one in the dark. He was responsible for keeping the fish hold and fo'c'sle clean.

3rd hand The third hand had to keep a watch of up to eight hours, manage the boat with the trawl gear down, know the Rules of the Road, understand tides,

prepare the trawl for shooting, attend to the rigging and help the fourth hand

prepare the catch for market.

Mate The Mate had to set up and shoot the trawl gear, handle the boat in rough weather, have wide knowledge of the various fishing grounds, be responsible for the ship's stores and take charge in the absence of the Master.

Master The Master was on duty 24 hours a day and had to come on deck and

use his superior knowledge in any emergency. When going to sea he had to navigate the vessel himself until clear of all dangers, check that the trawl warp was securely fastened to the mast before shooting, and that all the lights were

lit at sundown. Above all it was his duty to ensure the owner's property was used with the greatest care, that no provisions were wasted, the boat was kept seaworthy, and ALWAYS KEEP A GOOD LOOK-OUT.

After 1883 he also had to be able to read a chart and take sun sights, be

proficient in navigation, pilotage and tidal theory and be fully conversant with

the collision regulations. Until then he relied on course steered, distance run, shape of the waves, depth of water and the character of the sea bed as revealed by the lead line. 20


Trinity Sailing Foundation The Trinity Sailing Foundation is a registered charity, founded in 1999 with two aims: 1. The preservation of the historic sailing vessels it owns and operates, as important examples of our maritime and industrial heritage. To increase appreciation of maritime heritage and give as many people as possible the opportunity to learn about it and experience life under traditional sail. 2. To assist the personal development of young people, especially the disadvantaged, using offshore sail training as a means of teaching a range of life skills, building confidence



esteem and using that to

Trinity assists the personal development of young people to improve their chances in life

motivate them to take positive steps to improve their chances of making a success of adult life.

Trinity was established by




organisations with shared

interests in the fields of maritime heritage and sail training. The three vessels that gave Trinity its name were:

'Leader'. Built in 1892. The oldest surviving sailing trawler and one of the

largest of her type. She is 105 feet in length overall, displaces 110 tonnes and carries 3,150 square feet of sail on her gaff ketch rig.

'Provident'. Built in 1924, is an example of the medium-sized 'Mule' class.

She is 95 feet in length overall, displaces 80 tonnes and carries 2,750 square feet of sail, also on a gaff ketch rig.

'Golden Vanity'. Built in 1908, at 53 feet in length overall she is the baby

of the fleet and built on the lines of the small 'Mumble Bee' class. She displaces SAILING TRAWLERS


20 tonnes and carries 1,250 square feet of sail on a gaff cutter rig.

All three were built in the same yard at Galmpton on the River Dart in the

parish of Brixham. They all are judged to be of “pre-eminent regional and

national significance� and as such among the 200 vessels that form the National Historic Fleet.

In 2008 a fourth vessel was acquired - 'Spirit of Britannia' is a former Boston

smack, built at King's Lynn in 1915. She is 75 feet overall, displaces 50 tonnes and carries 2,250 square feet of sail on her gaff cutter rig. She is on the National Register of Historic Ships, though not part of the Historic Fleet.

The boats normally sail for up to 30 weeks each year, from April to the end

of October.

More than two-thirds of Trinity's activities are related to sail training, and

each year several hundred young people from across the country benefit from carefully-structured courses, run in conjunction with a range of partner

organisations. Trinity raises funds through grants, donations and events to

subsidise deserving young people whose sponsoring organisations cannot afford the full cost.

For the remainder of the time

Trinity offers cruising holidays and charter, which gives the general

public and those with a special interest in heritage an opportunity to sail on these classic former working vessels. The income from

that helps with maintenance and restoration.

Trinity believes that its twin aims, combining heritage and social welfare, help

preserve the vessels by providing them with a worthwhile modern role.

The advent of Trinity brought three historic vessels to Brixham, forming the

nucleus of the heritage fleet now based in the port. It led directly to the return

of Vigilance and in due course of Pilgrim, two of the other surviving sailing trawlers, bringing about a revival in the history and heritage of the community. 22


Leader Leader was built in 1892 in the shipyard of W A Gibbs at Galmpton Creek on the River Dart.

She was built for William Robbens, and in order to finance her he raised a

mortgage of ÂŁ1,100 from Robert Hellyer, a Brixham man who had moved to Yorkshire in the 1850's and become among the greatest fishing magnates of the 19th century.

At 80 feet on deck and displacing more than 100 tonnes, she was one of

the largest class of sailing trawler. She is also the oldest, and largest, to survive. At the time the yard was able to deliver a completed sailing trawler -

including all her spars, rig, sails and fishing gear - within 12 weeks of an order being placed.

The ship's papers show that when she went to sea on her first fishing trip

the skipper and first hand sailed for a share of the profits.The second hand was

to get 17 shillings (85 pence), a week paid to his wife; the third hand 13 shillings

(65 pence), paid to himself, and the boy 10 shillings (50 pence), paid to his mother.



“Leader” as a sail training vessel, followed by “Gratitude”, Sweden 1970s

Provisions while at sea were to be “sufficient without waste”.

Secondhand British sailing trawlers were always in great demand in Europe,

especially Scandinavia, and in 1907 Leader was sold to Swedish owners. She was based at Tjarno on the West coast close to the Norwegian border, and

then moved further south to Sannas. She fished under sail until after the Second World War.

In the mid-1950s she was de-rigged and used as a coastal cargo vessel.

In 1969 she was acquired by the Swedish Cruising Association. They spent

four years restoring her and used her as a sail training vessel, based at their

sailing school in Gothenburg, until 1984.

In 1985 she returned to UK waters

and spent 10 years as Lorne Leader

cruising the West Coast of Scotland,

based at Craobh Haven on the Firth of


In 1996 she was acquired by one of

Trinity's founders and brought her back to her original home waters. Three years later she became part of the

As “Lorne Leader” Scotland 1980s


newly-formed Trinity Sailing Foundation. SAILING TRAWLERS

Off the Devon Coast, present day

“Leader” as a cargo vessel, Sweden, 1950s



Provident Provident was built in the yard at Galmpton on the River Dart where Leader had been built, but which by then had passed to Mr Gibbs’ son-in-law John Sanders. Gibbs ran the yard until his death in 1905. It then passed to Sanders, a shipwright who had married the boss s daughter Bessie.

She is one of the medium-sized 'Mule' type of sailing trawler.

She was built in 1924 for William Pillar, to replace of the same name, sunk

by gunfire from a German U-boat during World War I.

Skipper Pillar and the crew of the first 'Provident' had famously rescued

survivors from the torpedoed battleship HMS Formidable in a Channel gale in

the early hours of the morning of New Year's Day 1915.They were invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the King and receive medals for bravery, and at the

request of Winston Churchill - then First Lord of the Admiralty - were

awarded a grant from the public purse.

After the war a government grant enabled William Pillar to build a replacement, the current 'Provident'.

'Provident' fished until 1933, when

she was converted to a yacht for an

American, and for four years flew the

Stars and Stripes. Her new owner took

her to the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic before returning to Devon.

In 1937 'Provident' was sold again,

and spent World War II laid up in

Cornwall. She changed hands twice

“Provident” entering harbour, 1920s


more after the war was over, before in SAILING TRAWLERS

1951 becoming the flagship of the Island Cruising Club at Salcombe. She remained

there for 46 years, but in 1997 the club

decided they could no longer maintain her, and she moved along the coast to Dartmouth, and then Brixham, under the Trinity flag.

Over the past half century and more

Providnet has been a familiar and wellloved sight along the shores of both the UK and Brittany.



Golden Vanity Like her two bigger sisters, Leader and Provident, Golden Vanity was also built at Galmpton.

Constructed in 1908 to the lines of the smallest type of sailing trawler, a

'Mumble Bee', she was in fact a private yacht, a floating studio for her owner, the noted marine artist Arthur Briscoe.

He painted sailing trawlers at work, the last of the commercial trading ships

to operate under sail, and other working craft.

Briscoe sailed Golden Vanity extensively around Britain's south and east

coasts, and to the neighbouring coastlines of continental Europe. One of his

occasional companions was Erskine Childers, author of the classic yachting thriller “Riddle of the Sands�.

After Briscoe sold Golden Vanity she changed hands several times.

In 1972 her then owner, Peter Crowther, entered her in the first Observer

Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR). It took her 88 days to make the



crossing - still a record for the

longest in the history of the race. Peter, who also entered the race

on several other occasions in the junk-rigged Galway Blazer, always took part for the experience... winning was not on his mind.

By the mid 1980s Golden

Vanity had become derelict and

was lying in Brixham harbour. She was rescued by a group of local

people who set up the Golden Vanity Trust and restored her

over a period of years. She carried out sail training under

their flag until 1999, when she joined Trinity.



People in the Story William Allan Gibbs and John Sanders

W A Gibbs was the son of William Gibbs who had

founded the shipyard in Galmpton in 1836. In 1859 William

Gibbs senior started the Brixham Seamen's Boys Home

(now known as Grenville House and an outdoor

adventure centre), which for 125 years provided accommodation, education and training for the orphaned sons of seamen.

The younger William inherited the yard in 1886 ran it until his death in

1905. It was in his time that 'Leader' was built.

The yard then passed to his son-in-law John Sanders, a shipwright who had

married the boss's daughter Bessie. He built both 'Golden Vanity' and 'Provident'. Gibbs and Saunders had a reputation for building boats - particularly sailing

trawlers - of the highest quality, and for delivering them on time and at the

promised price. Over the years some 300 sailing trawlers were built there, many destined for owners as far away as Hull and Grimsby. The Hellyers

Robert and Charles Hellyer were father and son who were successful trawler

owners in Brixham in the first half of the 19th century, who reportedly left the town in 1854 and moved to Hull in order to benefit from the big catches the

North Sea had to offer.They went on to become the greatest fishing magnates of their day. Most of their vessels were built back 'home' in Brixham.

Robert plays a particularly important part in our story, because he put up

the money that enabled William Robbens to have 'Leader' built.

In 1910 Charles Hellyer moved back to Brixham and spent the then

enormous sum of ÂŁ50,000 having an imposing mansion built overlooking the

harbour. It could have been to make sure everyone knew for certain that the local boys had made good! Wolborough House stands there to this day, still the most imposing building in the town. 30


William Pillar

In the early hours of New Year's Day 1915 the sailing

trawler 'Provident', which had been fishing in the Channel south of Berry Head, was running for home in a full gale when a small open boat loaded with 71 survivors from the

torpedoed battleship 'Formidable' was sighted. It was overloaded and in danger of being swamped.

At considerable risk, and after several attempts, Skipper Pillar managed to

come alongside the boat and transfer the survivors to 'Provident'. All were

returned safely to land. Of the occupants of another similar boatload of survivors, 23 died before the remainder reached shore.

Pillar and his crew of two men and a boy were each awarded the Albert

Medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace. Pillar received a cash award of £500, and the others lesser amounts.

Later in the war 'Provident' was herself sunk by gunfire from a U-boat, and

when the war was over the Government awarded Pillar money with which to build a replacement. Arthur Briscoe

Born in 1843

and educated at Shrewsbury






Slade School of

Fine Art in London and in Paris. A noted marine artist whose work still

“Brixham Trawlers” by Arthur Briscoe

commands five-figure sums today, he was also a keen sailor.

He commissioned the building of 'Golden Vanity'. For a number of years he

lived aboard with his wife and young son, but he also sailed in square riggers and documented the last days of sail in oils, watercolours and etchings .

One of his friends was Erskine Childers, author of the classic sailing yarn

“Riddle of the Sands” and the two sailed together on a number of occasions.



Brixham Brixham in 1791. The village is clustered tightly round the harbour and has not yet spread up the surrounding hills. A pipe leads “sweet water” from the reservoir on the left to Deer Rock.

Tor Bay, facing east, has always provided ships and sailors with protection from the prevailing westerly winds, and Brixham’s position at the southern end of the bay meant it was the most sheltered spot of all. It was the natural site for the development of the local fishing and shipbuilding industries.

During the 18th century the sheltered bay became increasingly important

The availablity of “sweet water” at Brixham led to the construction of a Navy reservoir

to the Admiralty and the availability of "sweet water" at

Brixham led to the construction of a Navy reservoir fed by a spring. Wooden conduits carried water to Kings Quay, built in 1690 for the purpose of watering the Kings ships.

The New Quay and fishmarket were completed by


Plans for a breakwater to protect the harbour from

easterly winds can be traced back 1781 but it was not until 1843 that

construction started. Only 1400 feet had been built when work was halted due to lack of funds.

Severe gales in 1859 and 1866 caused damage to the incomplete structure

and emphasised the need for protection. It was not until 1909 that with 32


Brixham quay, 1910

financial help from the government another





constructed. Work began again in 1912 and the final 1000 feet added

by 1916, despite the outbreak of the First World War.

The development of transport had an enormous impact on the available

Three retired trawlermen Tom May, Tom Bray and Tom Perrett.

markets for fish landed at Brixham.

In early days there was no requirement for the upkeep of roads and

consequently they were in a very poor state. It was not until the mid 16th

Century that each parish was made responsible for its own roadways. This

system proved neither effective nor fair. During the 18th Century Turnpike Trusts were set up across the country to create good roads and pay for their upkeep through tolls collected from those who profited from using them.

Fish caught by Brixham boats could now be taken to

Portsmouth by sea and then by road to reach the London markets.

When the turnpike network extended into

Devon markets in Exeter and Bath were opened up, supplied direct from Brixham.

The 1848 rail link meant that fish could be delivered to London within hours of being landed



In 1848 a rail link from Torquay meant fish could reach London within hours

of being landed. Arctic ice was starting to be imported from Norway to keep it fresh on the journey and fish was really on the move.

Access to the railway improved during the 1860s when a new line was

constructed connecting Torquay to Kingswear, having a station known as Brixham Road at Churston. The two mile journey from Brixham to this station

was still a great inconvenience and a Mr. Wolston felt strongly that the town

would benefit from having its own connection. So strong was his conviction that he lobbied vigorously for a Brixham link and this being unsuccessful he determined to build it himself. Mr. Wolston founded the Torbay and Brixham

line which opened in 1868 and proved to be a great success and a boon to the economy of the town.

During the long period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with

France the British fleet was frequently to be seen in Torbay. The French navy had assembled in Brest and it was essential that the British fleet should prevent

them from coming up Channel to invade England.

Much of the time British ships were stationed out in the western

approaches to the English Channel, blockading the French in port, but they needed shelter to run to from westerly gales, where they could also restock

the ships, put their sick and wounded ashore and find more crew if necessary.

Lord St Vincent strongly favoured Torbay. Lord Howe spent so much time here that he earned the nickname 'Lord Torbay' and other famous Admirals -

Hawke, Cornwallis, Hood, Rodney and Nelson all brought their fleets to Torbay at one time or another.

Napoleon was Between 1794 and 1804 extensive fortifications were brought to Torbay built on Berry Head to protect the ships at anchor and following his guard against possible French troop landings. defeat at Waterloo Napoleon was brought to Torbay on a man-o-war before his exile to following his defeat at Waterloo and remained at anchor St. Helena awaiting the order to take him to exile on St. Helena. He

became quite a tourist attraction, with many small craft taking passengers around the ship. 34


Brixham's advancement as a

fishing port had been steadily progressing and an important ship and boatbuilding industry had built up alongside.





Wheaton as the largest shipbuilder

Waiting for a breese, 1868

also mentioned along with four

Captain Samuel Holland and family. Holland owned three sailing trawlers named “Guess”, “Guess Again” - pictured on page 2 - and “Guess On” (to deter nosey neighbours who wondered where he had found the money to build them).

in Brixham.Wood and Furneaux are

smaller yards. The number and size

of the yards increased and by 1850 Furneaux




trawlers and trading ships inside the

harbour, Jackman was building on

the Breakwater beach, Cottie had a yard at Shoalstone and Osbourne at Fishcombe.

Dewdney, Munday and Richardson had yards on King Street.

Uphams outlived them all. Founded in 1817, by 1890 the site covered three

acres and could build ships of up to 400 tons. Uphams also built many trawlers, the best known being 'Ibex', renowned for her unbeatable speed.

From the advent of the sailing trawler Brixham's fleet grew to more than

200 vessels in the 1890's. Despite the advent of steam there were still several

dozen operating under sail in the 1920's, with new ones being built until 1926, and a handful remained fishing until the outbreak of World War II. The town is still the third largest fishing port in England.

Brixham outer harbour, still full of sailing trawlers, 1926



Paintings by Toni Knights, marine artist, modern beam trawler skipper and former Trinity skipper.







Trinity thanks the following for their assistance Brixham Heritage Museum Brixham Community College Roger Kyle




Images, by kind permission Front cover: Sir John and Lady Rose Back Cover: Robert Cann Page 36: Toni Knights

Illustrations Page 9: Norman Young Pages 12-15: Toni Knights

By Martin West

Trinity Sailing Foundation The Sail Loft, Pump Street, Brixham TQ5 8ED Tel: 01803 883355 Email: Web:


‘Leader’ and ‘Provident’ in Tor Bay, 2009

Brixham Sailing Trawlers  
Brixham Sailing Trawlers  

The story of the development of the legendary Brixham sailing trawler