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Berthon History

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.

If you are looking for historic details on yachts built at Berthon, please see the Berthon Build Registers







1950s & 1960s

1990-Present Day

  • Lymington Shipyard in earlier days

    Lymington Shipyard in earlier days

    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!

  • Arrow


    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.

  • REV E.L. Berthon

    The screw propeller and Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat

    Reverend E Berthon

    Edward Lyon Berthon was born in 1813, and as a young man studied medicine for five years in Liverpool under the tutelage of the Chief Surgeon of the Medical Institute. This was followed by one year of study at the College of Surgeons, Dublin, Ireland; he was intending to become a doctor.  After his marriage in 1834 he did not pursue a career in the medical profession, instead he travelled the European Continent for some years before deciding that his interest was in the church.

    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.

    In 1841 Berthon entered Magdalene College Cambridge to take up theological studies.  At this early stage of his career the boyhood interest in Mechanical Science was reawakened, in addition to his studies he invented the Berthon Log. This was a pipe like device which extended below the bottom of a boat, creating pressure as the water flowed past.  This forced a column of mercury to rise in the tube, an early form of speed log.  Following his studies he was ordained as a Curate at Lymington, Hampshire.

    In 1850 the S.S. Orion was wrecked off Port Patrick, Scotland with considerable loss of life.  Shortly after, the Reverend Berthon received a letter from the Reverend Clark, a survivor of the disaster.  He expressed his dismay at the great loss of life, and said “Surely there is some way in which sufficient boats may be carried for all persons on board”.  Berthon’s response was to design and build a prototype collapsible lifeboat.  A model of this craft was displayed at the 1851 International Exhibition in London; it attracted considerable attention. The concept of the boat was mentioned to Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. They were sufficiently impressed to request a demonstration of the boat off the Queen’s summer residence, Osborne House, Isle of Wight. It is believed this took place also in the presence of the Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales in 1854; the latter is reputed to have commented that a cannonball would easily pass through the canvass hull. The riposte from the reverend Berthon was,” that would be the case with any craft in current use”.

    The Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat

    The Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat

    The Reverend Berthon was appointed Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Fareham in 1850. He also became Chaplain at Whale Island Portsmouth where H.M.S. Excellent was berthed in 1854. It was an ideal location to continue development work of his boats.  He hoped to interest the Admiralty by installing a 13’’ (325 m.m.) Mortar in a 32 ft. (9.75m) boat. It sank on the first trial with the loss of one seaman. The boat was either damaged or overloaded. The redoubtable chaplain continued his quest in spite of the demise of the experimental boat. He considered that larger boats than the model exhibited in 1851 could be viable and they should be unsinkable.  This was achieved by providing a double canvass skin, with an air gap divided into six sections.  In 1855 Berthon constructed two 32 ft. (9.75 m) boats for the Admiralty, one of which was fitted with a Howitzer and sent to Sheerness for evaluation.  At the time it was common practice for ship’s boats to be armed.

    The Reverend Berthon was appointed Vicar of Romsey Hampshire in 1860.

    Several disastrous events occurred at sea during the 1870’s with great loss of life due to insufficient lifeboats being available.  In 1873 Berthon constructed a shed in the large vicarage garden to meet what he perceived to be an increasing demand for the collapsible boats. Sizes constructed varied from 7 to 30 ft. each being tested in the adjacent river.  The largest was capable of carrying seventy five persons.

    berthon collapsible boat 70 people hampshire archives
    Photo Courtesy Hampshire Archives

    Berthon’s confidence was fully justified.  In 1873 he was awarded a Gold Medal for the boat which was shown at the International Exhibition London. The collapsible boats soon became popular, the smaller, seven to twelve foot range serving as yacht tenders and the larger mainly as lifeboats.  The versatility of the boats saw them being used in overseas expeditions and exploration. Their suitability for use in varying climatic conditions was claimed to be due the coating the canvass received.   It was a mixture of linseed oil, soft soap and yellow ochre, which resulted in a durable protection having a distinctive yellowish brown colour. The end of the Trans Atlantic cable was taken ashore by a Berthon collapsible boat in 1874 from the cable ship Faraday. The same year General Gordon took collapsible boats on his Nile adventures in 1874/6 and Sir George Nares used them during his North Pole exploits in 1875.  They were also taken to the Zambezi Africa by Frederick Selos.

    As demand for the collapsible boats was increasing Berthon considered it wise to appoint his son Edward Pearson Berthon as manager in 1877.  This was to allow him to devote adequate time for Parish duties, to supervise the restoration work at the Abbey which had been commenced before his appointment as Vicar.  At this time the capacity of the Vicarage garden enterprise became overwhelmed making it necessary to move to larger premises.  The site location chosen is now indicated by a Blue Plaque located immediately north of the Lortemore car park Romsey.

    Berthon 28 foot Collapsible Boat Bay of Biscay 1882

    Berthon 28 foot Collapsible Boat Bay of Biscay 1882

    Apart from normal production work there was one significant order. In 1882 a twenty eight foot (8.5m) boat was constructed. This was taken 400 miles (644 klms.) south west of the English Channel into the Atlantic on board the S.S. Essequibo where it was launched.  Under the command of Capt. Harvey she was then sailed back to Southampton, a distance of 700 miles (1126 klms.) during which rough sea conditions were encountered.  This became known as the Bay of Biscay voyage.  The rig utilised was similar to that in current use on Whalers widely issued to the Navy.  This epic voyage was presumably to convince the Admiralty purchasing officers that a Berthon collapsible boat was not only capable of performing the duties of the current whaler but also as a lifeboat.

    In 1877 Berthon supplied collapsible boats to the Admiralty for use on the newly introduced narrow beam small Motor Torpedo boats.

    During the latter years of the 19th century passenger vessels were rapidly increasing in size. Owners were aware of the lack of life saving capacity of the conventional boats on aboard their vessels.  From 1881 onwards Berthon supplied many collapsible boats for use on the White Star Line ships.

    Berthon continued his utmost to draw attention to the capabilities of his boats.  In 1890 a 25ft (7.6m) collapsible boat was sailed from Southampton to Liverpool, a distance of over 500 miles (804 klms.) taking 71hrs., a quick passage for a small open boat.

    Five Troopships were built in 1866 to carry personnel to India.  It was reported that by 1895 all were equipped with Berthon collapsible boats.

    Five Troopships built to transport personnel to India

    Five Troopships built to transport personnel to India

    The Admiralty having introduced small Torpedo Boats in 1892, considered it necessary to commission Torpedo Boat Destroyers (called Destroyers after 1919).  The French had a similar development programme; they alone were supplied with over seven hundred collapsible boats.  Presumably the Admiralty ordered a similar number.

    Samuel Franklin Cody the well known American Showman (not to be confused with Wild Bufallo Cody) arrived in England in 1896.  He proceeded to tour the Music Halls giving demonstrations of trick pistol shooting and lassoing.  Although a flamboyant character Cody was not just a showman.  He had a long standing interest in kite flying and by 1901 had developed one that was capable of lifting him off the ground.  He continued to pursue his experiments and was soon able to lift himself several hundred feet.  These exploits came to the notice of the War Office who awarded him a two year contract of a £1000 per annum to further his development work.  Cody also awakened the Admiralty to the potential of a kite to lift an aerial from a ship to increase the efficiency of radio communication, and also a manned kite for observation purposes. After evaluation trials in 1903 on board H.M.S. Doris, Majestic and Hector experiments were not furthered.

    Cody continued to perfect his kite’s power capabilities and on the 5th of November 1903 embarked on a cross channel voyage.  He originally intended to cross from Dover to Calais but due to unfavourable wind direction decided to take his boat and rig by ferry to Calais. He launched at 19.30 hrs. arriving cold and wet in Dover the following morning at 07.30 hrs.

    On several occasions during the crossing, due to lack of wind, he was forced to stow the kite on board and re-launch;  this was a considerable achievement. The photograph indicates a Berthon Collapsible boat of only 12ft. (3.65m) long.  At times the boat was being towed at 7 knots, a considerable speed for such a small craft.  It must have been exciting to say the least, in darkness and in November.  Cody’s adventure could possibly said to be the first example of kite surfing, albeit rather slowly.

    Chanel Crossing boat exhibited at London Pavilion Music Hall 

    Chanel Crossing boat exhibited at London Pavilion Music Hall

    Cody arriving at Dover

    Cody arriving at Dover

     During 1908 the Reverend George Grenfell, a Baptist missionary used a Berthon collapsible boat to assist his expedition on the river Kwango, Congo, Africa.

    berthon boat kwango expedition 1908

    After the Titanic disaster in 1912 Lord Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, ordered that 40 Berthon collapsible boats should be placed on board R.M.S. Olympic. The accompanying photograph confirms that later the Majestic was similarly equipped.

    The collapsible boats put aboard the Olympic were not well received by the boiler room employees.  One boat had apparently been damaged and the canvass construction was in their opinion not seaworthy, they therefore refused to sail unless the boats were replaced by conventionally constructed craft.  This was not an option due to the lack of deck space.  The Olympic sailed from Southampton to an anchorage in Spithead where it was hoped a demonstration of the collapsible boats capabilities would defuse the situation.  Somewhat prematurely, replacement fireman had hastily been employed.  Although the demonstration was successful, the employment of poorly qualified new fireman caused disquiet among the remaining engine room staff.  As a result 53 boiler room crew refused to sail, saying the new employees were too inexperienced to deal with an emergency.  The following day a quickly convened court of enquiry decreed that the dissenters were guilty of mutiny but they were dismissed without punishment.  In modern parlance the court probably considered the crew had a “knee jerk reaction” following the tragic loss of their comrades on the Titanic.  Due to the three day delay the proposed Trans Atlantic crossing was cancelled, the Olympic returning to Southampton where the disappointed passengers were disembarked.

     R.M.S. Olympic 30ft(9.14m.)  Collapsible boat stowed beneath a conventional lifeboat

    R.M.S.Olympic – 30ft(9.14m.)Collapsible boat stowed beneath a conventional lifeboat

    The Reverend Berthon died in 1889 but his company continued production under the guidance of his son, until his death in 1917.

    The Reverend Berthon’s inventions were not restricted to those already mentioned. During his lifetime he obtained twenty five Patents including one for a magnesium torch to lluminate the stained glass windows of Romsey Abbey and a collapsible bandstand. He also invented a device to enable a telescope to track the movement of stars.  In 1863 he designed and built a wooden observatory, one of which has been restored and is on view at Rendall Cambridgeshire.

    During the boatyard’s productive years fourteen prize medals were awarded for the Revered Berthon’s innovative boats, the last given for an exhibit at the Royal Naval Exhibition  in 1891, when the company was under the direction of his son.

    There are no complete records of the number of collapsible boats built at Romsey from 1873 to 1917 but research accounts for at least 1400 boats supplied to the Navy, Army, French Navy, Passenger and Troopships. The Army and Navy stores London also commenced retailing the smaller Berthon collapsible boats in 1889 in considerable numbers, as yacht tenders, loch and river fishing craft.

    The demise of the Reverend Berthon’s enterprise at Romsey is not the end of the Berthon Collapsible Boat story.  Following the death of Edward Berthon junior, Frank May acting as nominee for his brother Harry (who was at that time in the U.S.A.) bought the assets of the company. The brothers commenced trading as the Berthon Boat Co. in 1917 at Lymington Hampshire, having purchased the boatyard formerly known as Inman’s and then Courtney’s.  Harry was no stranger to boatbuilding having formerly  traded as May Harden and May at Hammersmith London and later with Morgan Giles at Hythe, Southampton Water.  When the latter partnership ceased Morgan Giles established a boatyard at Teignmouth, South Devon.  The majority of the newly formed Berthon Boat Co. work concentrated on the production of high class yachts but collapsible boats continued to be supplied until the outbreak of World War II.  During the period 1917 to 1939 in excess of one hundred and eighty collapsible boats  were, produced, including one for Alain Gerbault which was used as a  tender to his thirty nine foot yacht Firecrest during the epic world circumnavigation, 1923 to 1929.

    Berthon Boat model supplied by English Heritage

    Photo: English Heritage

    There are a number of Berthon collapsible boats still in existence.  One is located at Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire.  Another intesting example is on display at the Classic Boat Museum, Cowes Isle of Wight.  This boat was discovered by the late Maurice Wilmot in poor condition at a boatyard on the river Yonne at Sens  south east of Paris, France.  There is film evidence of the use of Berthon Collapsible boats as rescue craft during the great Paris flood of 1910.  The Cowes boat may well have this provenance.  Maurice brought his discovery back to the U.K., to his home near Salisbury, Wiltshire, where extensive restoration work was completed.  As chairman of the Cowes Museum he presented the beautifully refurbished craft to be exhibited, which must be over one hundred years old.(photograph at the head of this article).   It now resides with many other restored classic boats.  A further boat is at Eyemouth Maritime Centre Berwickshire, Scotland and a seven foot example can be viewed at the Unst Yacht Haven Shetland Isles.  There is also a beautifully crafted model constructed by Dr Geoffrey Hawksley B.Sc. PhD. C.Eng. F.I.Mar. E.S.T. (a former colleague lecturer of the writer) which can be viewed at Romsey Town Museum Hampshire.

    The longevity of the Berthon collapsible boat may be attributed to the unique preparation that was applied to the canvass skin.  It ensured that it was impervious and with a good degree of flexibility.  The writer when employed in the Berthon Boat Co. drawing office in 1946 found an eight foot boat in under-cover storage in excellent condition. There were also a number of unfettled castings of the eccentric clamps which assisted quick assembly.

    There was an interesting reference to the Berthon collapsible boat given during the speech by Earl Mountbatten of Burma at the opening of the Berthon Boat Co. Ltd. Marina in 1968. He mentioned his service as 1st Lieutenant 2nd in command of Anti Submarine Escort vessel P31 in 1918 and spoke favourably of his experience using the two collapsible boats carried aboard.

    Collapsible boats were not introduced to the Berthon Boat Co’s build programme after World War II, yacht owners preferring clinker built tenders stowed on deck. The company is now one of the premier yacht yards in Europe with extensive build and repair facilities housed in modern buildings in addition to a two hundred and eighty berth Marina.

    Research & article written by Jim Hazel, ex Berthon Drawing Office staff member 1947-1961.

    Berthon Collapsible Boats - Original Advert
    An original advert for the Berthon Boat.

  • Harry May and Morgan Giles with dinghy and sidecar

    Harry May and Morgan Giles with dinghy and sidecar

    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 'Puffer' May

    Harry ‘Puffer’ May

    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!

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

    Gauntlet under construction at Berthon – pencil by Robert E Groves

    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’.

    Berthon Shipyard, 1934

    Berthon Shipyard, 1934

    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”.

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

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

    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.

  • 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.

    Hugo BossIn 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 Build Registers

Yacht build and launch information for boats built at Berthon Shipyard dating back to 1840.

Business is GREAT Britain

Brian May on the importance of apprenticeships in the marine industry for “Business is GREAT Britain” Government campaign.

Speech by Admiral of the Fleet

The Earl Mountbatten of Burma on 4th May 1968 at the Opening of Lymington Marina