About Camper & Nicholson
In 1782, Frances Calense Amos arrived from London and started a shipyard, leasing land in Gosport, Hampshire across the harbour from the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth. In 1809 Amos apprenticed his great-nephew William Camper, and by 1821 the yard was building small trading ships.
As Amos had no children, after his death in 1824 his nephew Camper took over the lease on the yard. Camper forged strong links with the wealthy members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, positioning the business in the emergent yacht building industry. For twenty years from the launching of the cutter Breeze in 1836, Camper built up a reputation as a builder of fast yachts, particularly schooners which were favoured by a prestigious clientele. However, the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 heralded a decline in Camper’s career.
In 1842, 14 year old Ben Nicholson joined Camper’s yard as a shipwright apprentice. As there was no clear male heir in the Camper family, Nicholson had risen in the yard to become chief designer, producing the innovative 1860 design for the schooner yacht the Aline. The yacht’s racing success and subsequent orders prompted Nicholson’s further promotion and facilitated his choice as Camper’s replacement when he retired in 1863.
Camper and Nicholson
The company of Camper and Nicholson was formed in 1863, financed by both William Camper and the Lapthorn family, who operated an adjacent sail loft. Nicholson undertook a 30-year programme of expansion, more than doubling the size and scale of the facilities. In tonnage terms, the design and construction of large schooners dominated the firm’s output, and to this staple Nicholson added an extensive refit and maintenance business which was made possible by the near constant expansion of the yard’s facilities.
Nicholson vessels were extremely long lasting and his last, the 161 ton Amphritrite is still sailing. Another long lived, cruising yawl, the Florinda, proved so speedy that she became famous as the Gosport Mistake.
The arrival of Ben’s three sons in the firm occasioned a final name change to Camper and Nicholsons.
Eldest son Benjamin had no interest or aptitude for design, but made his impact through the supply of crew, drawn mainly from regional fishermen, for leisure and racing purposes to the yachts built for the rich clientele – a service that continued until 1939. Youngest son Arthur W. found his ability best applied through managing the maintenance and construction facilities of the yard, and the purchase in 1912 of expansion facilities in Southampton.
Charles E. Nicholson
Middle son Charles Ernest Nicholson emerged as the consummate yacht designer, able to combine elegance with speed and seamanship.
Charles’s first design of note was the Redwing class. The Bembridge sailing club met in October 1896 to agree the need for a shallow draughted yacht – to allow for the shoal waters of Bembridge Harbour – which could be sailed single-handed, to replace the expensive half racers. Charles designed the yacht in ten days, and by 1898 the fleet consisted of 16 boats, all built by C&N’s yard.
In the early 1900s Charles developed a new powered craft which would enable the owners to come from their “big-boats” before and after the competitions. Named the Gelyce class, the name derived from the combined first and last letter of their respective wives: Gertie, Lucy, and Constance.
In 1912, Charles introduced the 15metre design Istria with a Marconi rig, the first yacht in the world with a lightweight, laminated wood construction. This led to further developments and growing expertise in the use of lightweight materials which saw its fruition in the use of plywood in deck construction. This ultimately led to arguably Nicholson’s most beautiful sailing creation, the 1927 commissioned Vira (later ‘Creole’) was built on behalf of the American Alec Cochran.
Post World War I “Golden era”
Going into and emerging from World War I, the company successfully retained its 1,700 employees even through being subsumed in to the Admiralty. Subsidiary companies such as the loss making Gosport Aircraft Company were quickly axed on cessation of war.
In 1914 C&N had produced the world’s first large, diesel powered yacht M.Y. Pioneer, which permitted a reduction in overall tonnage without reducing accommodation. Capitalising on this, Camper and Nicholsons remained the world’s leading builder of motor yachts through to the outbreak of World War II.
The largest of these motor yachts was the 1,629 tonne M.Y. Philante, built for Sir Tom Sopwith. This was the third motor yacht built by C&N for Sopwith, and after he bought the J-class yacht Shamrock V from the estate of Sir Thomas Lipton in 1931, Sopwith commissioned Charles to design the 1934 J-class yacht Endeavour, and 1936’s Endeavour II. Nicholson was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1997.
The height of C&N was probably 1937’s Cowes Week which came to be known as Charlie Nicholson’s Regatta. All the J-Class, three quarters of the 12 Metres, half the 8 Metres and many of the ocean racers were from Charles’ board, as were many of the motor yachts in the spectator fleet and his sister designs Foxhound and the Olin Stephens rigged Bloodhound, the latter winning that year’s Fastnet Race. Foxhound was still being campaigned by Portugal in the 1974 Admirals Cup. And yet for all the success, less than ten percent of C&N’s output during his time was racing yachts.
World War II
Like many commercial companies with skills vital to the war effort, C&N were taken over by the British Government on the outset of World War II. The company used both its extensive design capability to produce seaworthy vessels for simplified “any location” production, and set up set a production line itself producing Motor Torpedo Boats, Motor Gun Boats, and the workhorses of the Admiralty the Motor Fishing Vessel. Spare capacity was used to produce canoes and surf boats for use on Commando raids; and landing craft for the British Army troops in North Africa.
Just before the Second World War broke out, the Turkish Navy ordered eight Motor Gun Boats from C&N. Larger than the contemporary Royal Navy units built by Vosper Thorneycroft and the British Power Boat Co., these vessels were also unusual in being specified for diesel propulsion, with three 16 cylinder Paxman VRBs rated at 1,000 bhp (700 kW)at 1750 rev/min. Before completion, the war had broken out and they were taken over by the Royal Navy. Three of the class were completed as intended, though the last had to be fitted with Packard petrol engines like the British MTB’s. The other uncompleted five vessels were assigned to Operation Bridford, to bring SKF ball bearings back from neutral Sweden. Converted under the direction of modern day buccaneer Sir George Binney, the Gay Viking class ran from Hull with a trawlermen crew under a red ensign flag as directed by the Admiralty. The boats carried 45tonnes of cargo per trip at speeds of up to 23 knots (43 km/h), with a maximum cruise of 20 knots (37 km/h) and a range of 1,200 nautical miles (2,220 km) at 17 knots.
Most of the pre-war C&N motor yachts were requisitioned by the Royal Navy, often manned by their pre-war crews and commanded by their peacetime skipper or owner. The toughness of C&N craft was proven in incidents like that of M.Y. Esmeralda, which while involved in mine clearance got too close. The resulting explosion threw her onto her beam ends, lifting her stern high into the air – she survived the incident with no structural damage whatsoever.
C&N’s facilities were extensively damaged in numerous air raids in 1941, destroying most of the companies historical records, facilitating the need to move some production to, among other places, temporary workshops in Mumby’s mineral water works in North Street, Gosport.
In preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy, C&N built SLUG boats (Surf landing Under Girders), especially designed by the firm for D-Day to keep the Mulberry Harbours in place. They were shallow-draught motor boats which towed small barges under the girders of the floating bridges carrying the wire needed to hold the floating bridge in position.
Post World War II
Just prior to World War II, Charles’s son John Nicholson began to assist with the design office. In 1939 it was one of John’s designs which moved the company forward, when he designed a “batch” of six 30-foot (9 m) sloops. The first was named Cinder and was owned by C E Nicholson for many years. She was later renamed Ellen Sophia and was still sailing in 2010. This productionised philosophy was developed further during the war years to enable the company to address the mass-market afterwards. John’s cousin Charles A. Nicholson, universally known as Young Charlie, worked out of the Southampton premises, and not suffering the same shadow of his father launched his design career with the offshore racer Yeoman in 1937.
The company survived World War II intact, and thought it had much repair and maintenance work awaiting its yards through the return of owners. But Britain had changed, with the subdued economy through rationing and high post-war tax rate making owners rethink where they based themselves. Young Charlie sent his second son George to the Côte d’Azur to work for a friends brokerage, and persuade both owners and crews to return their yachts to the yard for winter repairs. Also, there was a large shortage of wood, so in spite of continued racing successes and the production of high profile boats as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s Dragon class Bluebottle, the company relied on civilian repair work and Government contracts for wooden mine sweepers.