John Howard

John Howard of Maldon – Barges and Bankruptcy

by John Leather and by kind permission of Classic Boat magazine.

You will notice Scoter highlighted red further down the text.

The tale of John Howard exemplifies the precarious nature of barge-building in the late 19th century, but despite business setbacks he persevered and produced many fine barges, yachts and other craft, a number of which are still sailing today.

  The sailing barges on the River Thames, its estuary and of the Essex, Kent and Suffolk coasts were built in many places from the mid 18th century until 1930. John Thomas Howard, at his yard on the River Blackwater at Maldon, Essex, launched a number of barges, as well as fishing smacks, yachts, launches and other craft during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several of his barges and a few yachts still sail today.

  Howard’s  working life exemplified the difficulties inherent in running a business buildingboats in wood: financial risk, problems of maintaining work flow, procuring good timber and retaining a basic squad of shipwrights and ‘good mechanics’.

He was born in 1849 at Hockley, on the Crouch, where his father was a bargeman from Grays, on the lower Thames. His mother was from Maldon, and the family moved there during the 1850s. The Shipways yard, at the foot of North Street, probably attracted Howard as it built not only barges and sometimes smacks but also small ships such as the 1963 schooner Emily.

Howard’s uncle, Samuel Kirby, was then a young shipwright and it is probable that on leaving school, aged 13 or so, Howard was apprenticed at the Shipways for at least five years. By the early 1870s he was a ‘journeyman’ shipwright [ie. out of apprenticeship] probably at the Shipways, which was then worked by Kirby.

In his limited leisure time he draughted designs for smacks, barges and yachts and made half models. Indeed, he was allowed to construct a small 6-ton fishing smack as a speculation. Quaintly named Overtime she was sold to a Harwich owner and proved a fast sailer. Yachts, their hull forms and rigs always interested Howard. He built and raced model yachts as a hobby, and in 1873 the yard built the 14-ton Spray. His talent for creating yachts was noticed by Maldon timber merchant and sailing man, John Sadd, for whom, in 1877, Howard designed and built the 50ft [15.2m] yawl Ripple, which sailed into the early 1950s.

The sail-making loft of Joseph Sadler was next to the Slipways. One day in 1877 Kirby argued violently with Sadler and attacked him. Kirby was diagnosed insane, put in an asylum and the yard lay idle. But in March 1879, Howard leased it from the council and set up in business with the help of Sadler who acted as a trustee.

Howard’s first contract, with Strutt, Dent, Ackers and West, was for the barge Surprise, a 77-footer [23.4m] with hold capacity for 500 quarters of grain. Barges for that work had to be of the best construction and he began to attract yacht work, designing and building the 28ft [8.5m] cutter Thora in 1880, and the 31ft [9.4m] Alice in 1881. In the same year he also received the order for the steam oyster dredger Jumbo for the River Roach Oyster Fishery Co – a paddle vessel, and the first of that type built at Maldon. Meanwhile, repair work – including on his own barge James and Harriet – continued to be most profitable, as it was in most yards of that type.

Howard was fond of sailing but had little opportunity for it. In 1882 he completed the rebuilding of the yacht Elsie and sailed with the owner, Mr Sturgis, to her moorings at Erith on the Thames, off the Corinthian Yacht Club [later Royal Corinthian]. In the same year the hull of the 220-ton ketch barge Malvoisin was building in the yard, and another steam oyster dredger, the Alice, was ordered by the Jumbo‘s owners.

By now, Howard was employing his father and two brothers and, with orders coming in steadily, he wanted to increase the size of his yard, but and adjoining coal merchant would not relinquish his tenancy. Among several yachtsmen  clients were Sturgis, and also Arthur Bentall who in 1884 ordered the 18-ton smack-yacht Minnie; she had the usual shapely Howard hull form and attained fair speed.

Howard’s career was dogged by the labour-intensive nature of construction, the cost of good quality materials and unevenly spaced orders and income. But in 1885 he was busy with designs and builds including a ‘fishing smack’ Cis [for Sturgis], the steam yacht Kestrel, the smack Edwin and Emily, and two yachts: the 50ft [15.2m] yawl Champion and the 38ft [11.6m] cutter Daisy.

By the late 1880s new construction was scarce and Howard was glad of his occasional work as a surveyor to the Maldon Barge Insurance Company. However, in 1887 he received the order for the 80ft [24.3m] barge Sunbeam, and the ever supportive Sturgis ordered a racer for the very competitive 21ft class of the Corinthian Yacht Club, which contained boats by notable designers including George Watson, John Harvey and Douglas Stone. The completed yacht Mehalah sailed in1888 from Maldon to Erith and raced with Howard present to witness her win and telegraph the news to Maldon.

By February 1889, when he successfully applied for membership of the [now Royal] Institution of Naval Architects, Howard had designed and built 26 yachts plus steam boats, barges and smacks, and was building two barges and an 80-ton yacht. The Shipways was attracting much work: the barges Mermaid and Mayland were launched; three more – including the 82ft [24.9m] Hyacinth for Arthur Bentall – were building; yachts were fitted out; Kestrel was undergoing repairs, and Sturgis had ordered another racer, Nyleptha, for the 21ft class.

But in February 1890 Howard’s brother William, then yard foreman, died suddenly aged 34. Despite having had his busiest year, Howard was again in financial trouble. A friend, Edward Humphreys, bought the business from Sadler, Howard was retained as a partner on £3 per week, and the firm became Howard and Company.

The barge Violet was launched, the bottom of Unique was laid, the yacht Swift was refitted and things were returning to normal when, in June 1891, the 54-year old Humphreys died suddenly. Ownership of the business was to devolve on Humphreys’ sons but Howard managed to raise £300 – loaned by friends – to buy it back. He had an order from John Rogers of Burnham for an unusual yacht, possibly designed by Rogers, 86ft [26.2m] long and only 9ft 6in 92.9m] in the beam, with a clipper bow , pointed stern and cutter rig and a centreplate of “the latest improved pattern”. Other yachts were building, including the 40ft [12.9m] cutter Ilka and the 52ft [15.8m] George Pratt designed cutter Lurline. The sailing barge Ready, now Mirosa, and one of the best designed and built by Howard, was launched in June 1892.

In September 1893, Howard launched the barge Jachin [later Venta], a bold coasting 160-tonner, and by autumn 1894, the Beaunont Belle, the Percy and the D’Arcy. There were yachts, too – Consuelo and Scoter. The yard was at its busiest and the trial trip of the D’Arcy was made an outing with yard’s employees on board, joined by several employees of the owners.

February 1895 brought snow and ice. The river froze and work at the yard stopped. Howard designed a steam passenger vessel but she was not built. In April 1895 the 82ft [24.9m] x 19ft [5.8m] x 5ft 10in [1.75m], 120-ton Salcotte Belle was launched; Howard believed that she was his best.

In 1895 he successfully tendered to build a large ketch barge, Record Reign. At the same time, the sailing barge Emma was ordered; the yacht Whimbrel and a gig were completing; the 37ft [11.2m] cutter yacht Maria Anne was building, and the 28ft [8.5m] sloop Maritza was well advanced. But by December 1896 Howard was yet again in serious need of capital.

He advertised a share issue and formed the Howard Ship-building Company Ltd, Maldon. A turnover of £5,ooo, profits of £750 and a capital of £3,000 were predicted. Alas, work on Record Reign and Emma strained the business to breaking point. In August 1897 Howard faced bankruptcy; the largest creditors were timber merchants. Liabilities were £1,771-10s-4d, assets £1,274-3s-6d. The Official Receiver appointed a trustee.