A Brief History of Berthon

Berthon has been trading continuously since 1877, and occupies a riverside site mentioned in the Domesday Book. Click on the date tabs below to see how the company has developed over the years.

1272-1667: Lymington Shipyard...

John Coombes
...that piece of mud or sea oozy land...

The Lymington shipyard is reputed to have been in use since Roman times. During the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) the Lymington shipyard supplied nine ships to the Defence of the Realm, more than Portsmouth.

John Rogerys owned the shipyard from 1513; he later sold to Charles Guidot. In 1667 it was bought by John Coombes, all the while continuing the building of wooden ships.

Shipbuilder John Coombes bought what is now the Berthon site in 1667, described then as "all that piece of mud or sea oozy land, bounded on the North by the town slip, on the East by the sea or river, and on the West by the King's highway". Estate agents obviously weren't what they are today!

The Berthon site in earlier days
Lymington Shipyard in earlier days

1819-1851: Gentlemen's sailing yachts & the America's Cup...

Thomas Inman

In 1819 Thomas Inman bought the yard, building customs cutters and gentlemen's sailing yachts. The three most famous were Alarm, Arrow and Lulworth, all of which raced against the schooner America around the Isle of Wight on 22nd August 1851, the forerunner of the Americas Cup. Sadly Arrow ran aground cheating the tide, Alarm went to her rescue and their race was over. America cut inside the Nab light, Lulworth was beaten and the rest is history.

Mr Courtney took over the shipyard in the late 19th century.


1834-1899: The screw propeller and Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat...

Reverend E Berthon

Rev. Edward Lyon Berthon was a great inventor: in 1834/35, at the age of 22, he invented the screw propeller, which at the time was dismissed by the Admiralty as “a pretty toy which never would, and never could, propel a ship”. Three years later Berthon read that Francis Smith of Hythe had developed a similar device, which had also been rejected by the Admiralty. Berthon called upon Smith, certain that he had pirated his design from the patent office; Smith convinced him that he had actually arrived at the idea without outside influence. They collaborated and eventually Smith proved the device by towing the Lords of the Admiralty on their barge from Whitehall to Woolwich.

When on the 29th June 1849 the SS ORION was wrecked off Port Patrick, a friend of Berthon, the Rev Clark, was saved and wrote "Can not you think of a way in which boats, enough for all on board, be stowed on a passenger steamer without inconvenience?" Thus was born the Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat.

When demonstrated to Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort, the Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales, the latter commented that a cannon ball would go through it easily. The Rev Berthon asked him what a cannon ball would not go through, and the Queen was reported to have been greatly amused. The Navy, however, did not accept the design until Berthon had perfected it in 1873.

In 1877, the Rev E L Berthon started his company in Romsey, building folding lifeboats and "other floating machines". After his death in 1899, his son Edward ran the business.

The Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat
The Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat

The Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat
Extract from the 1910/11 edition Encyclopedia Britannica

1917: Berthon to May...

Frank Aubrey May

Frank Aubrey May was wounded in the trenches in 1917 and was invalided out of the army due to the loss of an arm and a shattered knee-cap. He came home and bought the Romsey-based Berthon Boat Company as a nominee for his American-resident brother George, Edward Berthon having just died. His partner was to be his other brother Harry, the present-day owners' great-grandfather, who was too old to serve in the war. Harry was formerly a boat builder on the Thames at Chertsey (May, Harden & May), then at Hammersmith where he built International 14s with Morgan Giles under the name Giles and May, before moving Giles and May to Hythe on Southampton Water where he now traded.

In 1921, Berthon continued building a 14ft National Racing Class dinghy, together with this motor cycle sidecar (right) in wood at a cost of £2/18/9d - history doesn't relate as to the success of the sidecar upwind!

Harry May and Morgan Giles with dinghy and sidecar
Harry May and Morgan Giles with dinghy and sidecar

1918-1921: 14ft National Racing Class dinghies and sidecars...

Harry May & Morgan Giles

Harry May bought the Lymington shipyard in 1918, and the next year moved Berthon Boat Company from Romsey, merging it with his new Lymington shipyard. Under the Berthon banner, Harry developed a diverse business of yacht and commercial boat building, repairs and mud berths. As well as one-off yachts such as the beautiful Vera Mary, a large class of West Solent one designs was built, and the Gauntlet series began. Tugs, pilot boats and naval launches also provided a mainstay of work.

Harry 'Puffer' May was charming to customers but rarely bothered with his employees, to whom he seldom spoke. His nickname 'Puffer' can be attributed either to his persistent cigarette smoking, or to his habit of huffing and puffing when he was called upon to make a disagreeable decision!

Harry Puffer May
Harry 'Puffer' May

1932-1955: Berthon International...

Rodney Paul

In 1932 at the Annual General Meeting of the Yacht Brokers Association in London, Mr Rodney Paul represented Berthon. From then we see the beginnings of Berthon International.

The 36ft 9ins GAUNTLET was the result of an enquiry for a yacht by Mr Berge in 1934; however, he decided on a different design built by Phillips of Dartmouth. Harry May was so incensed by this that he built his design anyway and challenged the Phillips boat to a race. By throwing down the gauntlet and winning the race handsomely, this now famous design was born.


The first brokerage advertisement appeared in 1935 under the heading 'Lymington Shipyard - Motor and Steam Yachts'.
The first Boat Show in 1955 attracted 120,051 visitors. Berthon did not exhibit but ran an advertisment in the yachting press headed 'BBC' and explained that "we do not go on air, but we build yachts, launches and tugs".

Gauntlet under construction at Berthon
Gauntlet under construction at Berthon - pencil by Robert E Groves

Gauntlet under construction at Berthon
Berthon Shipyard, 1934

1950s & 1960s: Racing and dredging...

David May

Harry May's son preferred banking, becoming a director of merchant bank Guinness Mahon, so the Lymington shipyard business was passed on to Harry's grandson, David, who took over in the late 1950s. He was an active yacht racer who built many winners, often sailing them to victory himself. In 1967 David May revolutionised Lymington by dredging the shipyard foreshore and building the marina.

Lymington Marina was officially opened in 1968 by Admiral of the Fleet The Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Click here to read his speech, delivered at the opening ceremony.

Berthon built the 36 ton SHELMALIER in 1966, the largest yacht to be built in Britain for 13 years. SHELMALIER was sold to an Italian syndicate by Berthon International in the year 2000.

The 36 ton Shelmalier under sail
The 36 ton Shelmalier under sail - photo by Beken of Cowes, 1968

1990-Present Day: Modernisation...

Brian & Dominic May

David’s sons, Brian and Dominic May took over in 1990. They consider themselves tenants for the next generation.

During their tenure, they have taken the opportunity to thoroughly modernise the Shipyard, and Berthon remains a vertically integrated business committed to client service at the highest level possible.

The early 90s brought an economic downturn which Berthon weathered despite old sheds and machinery, and outdated working practices. Brian and Dominic believed that the business needed serious investment to take it into the 21st century.

In January 1990, Lymington flooded badly, including the Berthon shipyard. Berthon’s sea wall was therefore raised and flood defence gates fitted at slip and travel lift junctions to safeguard the site.

The modernisation began with the refurbishment of the marina. The pontoons were refurbished and a new floating refueller purchased. The dimensions of the original marina remain with their sturdy walkways and individual fingers and large turning circles between piers.

Next it was decided to redevelop the shipyard. Some of the sheds dated from before the Second World War and were no longer fit for purpose. Therefore the site was virtually cleared and the new Big Blue build shed erected giving new workshops to the shipwrights, joiners, engineers, plumbers and electricians, and offices within the shed for the project management team to be next to their projects. This facility gave huge time and motion savings and gave the skilled craftsman at Berthon the best possible facilities for refitting boats and new build.

At the same time the old West Solent Shed dating from the 1920s was demolished and rebuilt to give undercover storage to yachts coming ashore at Berthon; this facility was so popular that within a year it was doubled in size.

In the 1970s, Berthon built the first purpose built paint spray booth, but boats were getting larger so after researching the subject thoroughly including visiting the facility at the Royal Huisman shipyard, a new paint facility was built. This enables Berthon to offer one of the most technologically advanced facilities in Europe. 2 preparation areas with their own insulation, heating and extraction make it possible to prepare and paint yachts to an exceptionally high standard, quickly by curing coatings overnight.

The marina building was the next project. This houses the dockmasters, the sales division and the yacht maintenance management team. The building with it’s striking profile was getting old and it was refurbished from top to toe. This enabled the sales division to continue to grow, expanding from a team of 4 selling 20 yachts a year, to its current size, employing 24 people with offices in France, Spain and the US and transacting around 200 yachts a year.

With the purchase of a new 75 ton capacity boat hoist, the lifting dock was rebuilt to accommodate it, giving Berthon the ability to lift and handle more, larger yachts. The site also now has three gantries for yachts for sale, each one of around 200' giving the ability to have around 80 yachts for sale ashore on site at any one time with walk-aboard access from the gantry.

Between these projects there have been numerous others in terms of machinery and upgrades to enable the business to offer a better more efficient service. However, what has not changed are the ethics and the commitment to training young people to work in our industry. The Berthon apprenticeship programme is thriving, and winning the Employer of the Year at the 2009 Apprenticeship awards was a great accolade.

Berthon Boatyard Today
The Berthon Boatyard today

Berthon Boatyard Today

Monthly news from Berthon International

Every month, Berthon publishes an e-newsletter which relays the latest developments in the Boatyard, International Brokerage Offices and Lymington Marina. The newsletter can be browsed online.

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One of the UK's Oldest and Best Serviced Marinas offering Solent moorings and luxury facilities

Over 300 deepwater berths are available in Berthon's Lymington River marina in the West Solent - click here for full price range or call 01590 673312 to book a berth.

>Lymington Marina prices

Over 130 Years of Superb Service to Yachtsmen

Our range of yacht refit and boatyard repair & maintenance services are second to none. Berthon supply everything from lifting out and laying up to yacht valeting, guardianage and dry sailing.

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An Established, Successful International Brokerage

International sales of high quality motor, sailing & performance boats. In additional to our range of brokerage yachts, Berthon also acts as agent for new boat sales for Windy Boats.

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High Quality Electronics Sold and Installed

We sell marine electronics by Raymarine, Icom, Garmin, B&G, Simrad, Lowrance & more...

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