December 22, 2017
Frank Aubrey May was wounded in France 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, Edward Berthon, the founder’s son, having just died. Berthon was building collapsible lifeboats, orders for which had increased markedly since the Titanic disaster of 1912.
His partner was his brother Harry. 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 to Hythe on Southampton Water where he built sea plane hulls, before being taken over by Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco).
Harry May bought the lease for the Lymington shipyard in 1918 from Courtenay & Sons, with an option to purchase. He closed the Romsey premises of Berthon and moved it to Lymington. After a difficult start, but with the financial support of third brother George May who was successful in America (having opened the US office of Price Waterhouse there), the purchase option was exercised in 1925.
Harry May built a diverse business in dinghies, racing yachts, commercial work and admiralty contracts. Over 30 West Solent One Design yachts were built, including an export order of 5 to Yacht Club Argentino. The famous Gauntlet class was the result of an enquiry for a yacht by Mr Berge in 1934; however, Berge 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 design was born, with 33 built in all.
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 what is now the Berthon International yacht brokerage business. The first brokerage advertisement appeared in 1935 under the heading ‘Lymington Shipyard – Motor and Steam Yachts’
World War II saw the yard turned over to Admiralty work with 215 boats built, including MTBs, Fast Motor Launches and Minesweepers.
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 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. Berthon’s Lymington Marina was officially opened in 1968 by Admiral of the Fleet The Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
David’s sons, Brian and Dominic May took over in 1990 and still own and run Berthon today. They consider themselves tenants for the next generation.
During their tenure, they have taken the opportunity to thoroughly modernise the shipyard and marina, and Berthon remains a vertically integrated business committed to client service at the highest level possible, true to Harry May’s business strategy of a diverse activity in yachts, commercial boats and brokerage.