Our amazing maritime history

Woodbridge and the river Deben together represent a microcosm of the maritime history of the whole of the UK from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day. Bringing together Sutton Hoo and maritime Woodbridge at Waterfront Woodbridge creates opportunities to develop a fascinating and comprehensive review of UK maritime history from the earliest times.

The potential this rich history creates for learning, education, fund-raising and visitor attraction in a thriving community centre is huge.

Here local historian Robert Simper chronicles our maritime history of the Deben after the Anglo-Saxon period.

Woodbridge – shipbuilding after the Anglo Saxons

It is not until the Tudor period that we get a clearer picture of shipbuilding in Woodbridge, centered on a good supply of oak trees from the heavy clay land around the Framlingham area.

Ships were built for London merchants. There was a steady increase in the size of ships built at Woodbridge. Notably, in 1566 Bark Smith, 120 tons; 1604 Ann Franci, 290 tons; 1616 Palmer, 292 tons and the Centurion, 326 tons.

In the Golden Age between 1625-38 eleven ships were built at Woodbridge, of which the largest were the Levent Merchant and Muscovy Merchant, both 400 tons. Their names suggest that these ships were built for long voyages.

The Deptford ship builder Phineas Pett built ships for the Royal Navy and came to Woodbridge to buy trees. He used to lodge at the Crown Inn, when the landlord was Thomas Cole. Pett arranged a marriage between his fifth son Peter Pett (1610-1672) and Cole’s daughter. Through marriage to Cole’s daughter, Peter Pett was given the ownership of the Crown Inn and the Lime Kiln Dock. The marriage was in 1633 and, surprise, surprise, that year Peter Pett got the contract to build the first ship for the Royal Navy at Woodbridge.

The Pett family fell out with the Admiralty, as they were accused of cheating, but Woodbridge had become accepted as being a good place to build ships for the Royal Navy. The largest ship built at Woodbridge, on a slipway, where the cinema is now, was 663 ton Kingfisher in 1675. These were sizable ships and they were towed, by large rowing boats, to Deptford where they were fitted out in the Royal Dockyard.

Woodbridge was established as a shipbuilding centre and developed all the skills needed to send a merchant ship to sea. Flax grown on farms in the Deben area was woven into sailcloth in the town and there was also a rope walk. By this time merchants in Woodbridge owned ships, and they were commanded and manned by men from the town.

Last merchant vessel in 1853

This went on into the mid-19th century. The last merchant vessel built at the Lime Kiln Yard was the tops’l schooner Ellen in 1853. Later on the Lime Kiln yard was run by Garrard, but he just did repairs until the yard closed. Woodbridge had finished as a shipbuilding centre because local owners were buying softwood ships built very cheaply in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. These were sailed across with cargoes of timber and both cargoes and ships were sold in the United Kingdom.

Yacht building was really started by the canny Scot Ebenezer Robertson, known as ‘ ‘Khartoum’ Robertson. He wore the kilt and played the bagpipes. In 1884 he was going to Southwold on a train when he saw the empty Lime Kiln Shipyard and thought that he could build yachts there. Yachts were then the coming thing. He sent his son, A.V. Robertson, over to run the yard. His son, ‘Robbie’ Robertson, also carried on building yachts and became a much respected builder. This yard trained local men to be shipwrights.

Some of these shipwrights set up their own boatyards. The 12ft Woodbridge pilot boat, Teddy, was built in a shed in Lower Brook Street in 1877. This pilot’s boat was left in a shed for many decades and is now the oldest Woodbridge boat still afloat.

Claude Whisstock started the Whisstock’s boatyard in 1926, near the Tide Mill.  (For the detailed history of the yard, follow this link: The Beginning of Whisstocks)

Everson started boatbuilding at the coal jetty below Ferry Dock and this yard is still in business as ‘The Woodbridge Boatyard’. He began building the first Woodbridge wooden class yacht, the Cherub, in 1931. Frank Knights started a boatyard on the Ferry Dock and traded here for many years, building beach boats and doing repairs. Other boat builders worked in sheds around the waterfront.

The Teddy can be built today!

Teddy was built in a shed at Lower Brook Street, Woodbridge in 1877 and is the oldest surviving boat (as far as we know) built in the town. She is a barge pilot boat, used by barge pilots who would spot barges entering the river from their vantage point at the top of the town, and row down to meet them at the Rocks.   She was owned by the last pilot on the river, Ted Marsh, and worked until 1930.

The pilot might be accompanied by one or more ‘hufflers’ to help pole the barge around the bends beyond Troublesome Reach, or winch them up by dolly using the old barge posts. The pilots were Trinity House trained, and there were five of them working out of Woodbridge.

The pilot might be accompanied by one or more ‘hufflers’ to help pole the barge around the bends beyond Troublesome Reach, or winch them up by dolly using the old barge posts. The pilots were Trinity House trained, and there were five of them working out of Woodbridge.

The pilot boats were built to be fast and were adapted over the years specifically for this short passage. (They were ideal for the Deben river, but not for use at sea.)

They have two rowing positions, and could of course be sailed (see pix). They are truly part of the heritage of the Deben River and the Port of Woodbridge.

Two replicas have been built at IBTC, but interestingly they were slower than the original.

Which build team can build a faster one!!

Claude Whisstock was born in Woodbridge in 1903 and attended Woodbridge School.  He served two years in the merchant navy and then completed a boat-building and marine engineering apprenticeship at A V Robertons’s boatyard in Woodbridge before working at Brooke’s boatyard in Lowestoft.  In 1926, the year of the General Strike, he started his business on the marshland site offered him by his father William Whisstock with fifty pounds borrowed from his elder brother Douglas, as working capital.  Claude drained the marsh, constructed the slipway and built the first workshop on stilts.  This ‘Little Shop’ was still in existence when the site was cleared for development in 2016.

 

Claude built his enterprise up from nothing: doing repairs, building dinghies and taking day trips down the river on weekends.  By the 1930’s he had a thriving business, building substantial yachts. Between 1926 and 1939 he built one hundred and twenty-seven boats. With a growing reputation Whisstock’s began building the Deben Four Tonner, designed by Maxwell Blake, now a classic boat.  These lovely, sea kindly little craft made yachting accessible to the small boat owner.  Sleeping two in a comfortable cabin below, they were the perfect weekend sailing yacht and can still be seen sailing on the East Coast today. Claude Whisstock on the for’ard sheets with Ted Marsh, waterman, at the helm.

 

Eleven Deben Four Tonners were built between 1937 and 1939 and approximately forty were built in all. With the outbreak of World War II Claude turned to helping to win.  He built an incredible two hundred small boats during the war; trawlers, lifeboats, and tenders for the Admiralty and the War Office. During the war, Claude had a very small work force, which was constantly changing: conscientious objectors, people in reserved occupations (school woodworking teachers for example), men awaiting call-up, men unfit to serve and the wounded awaiting return to the war. Many of his orders were multiples.  For example: twelve 16 ft Trawler Boats for the Admiralty built in June 1941.

 

The yard was bombed but luckily the bombs all fell in the mud alongside the quays, causing considerable shrapnel damage but no serious harm. In 1951 the yard built Deben Honour, a six tonner which was exhibited at the Festival of Britain. In 1958 Claude built the Whisstock’s family boat, Landfall, a 17 ton 38ft Ketch designed by Kim Holman. The Landfall design became so popular that a further six sister-ships were launched. At this time many Whisstock’s boats were designed by Kim Holman, and this team, together with the West Mersea sail-maker Paddy Hare, created some of the iconic racing and sailing yachts on the East Coast and further afield.

 

In 1962 Claude’s son George joined the yard and trained as a boat-builder and yacht designer.  The Whisstock family began work on a yacht harbour, taking the idea from harbours they had seen while cruising in Holland.  (Claude and Joan had, with foresight, bought the old mill pool in 1958 when the mill wheel broke).

 

Whisstock’s built Gypsy Moth I for Francis Chichester, Mary Deare for Hammond Innes, Gang Warily for Maldwin Drummond and many other long keel blue water cruising yachts which were exported all over the world. The boatyard was always at the forefront of yacht building.  It tackled the decline of traditional timber yachts by switching to WEST™ system yachts, epoxy laminated plywood construction. There were about forty Najas, designed by Sylvestre Langevin, built by the yard, most of which were built with the WEST™ system.

 

In 1984 the yard passed out of family ownership, but fine cruising and racing yachts continued to be built on the site until its closure in 1991. In total Whisstock’s built in excess of seven hundred boats (including wartime production); it was the biggest boatyard on the Deben with a national and international reputation for building fine yachts, many of which sailed and raced internationally, some indeed having circumnavigated the world. George Whisstock continues to design boats from his home in Maine, USA exporting his self-build Computer Aided Designs around the world.


WRT is very grateful to Sue Cox, daughter of Claude Whisstock, for providing this history, and to the Whisstocks family for allowing us to use these photographs on our website.