When the Stow family – headed by John Stow – arrived in the English south coast hamlet of Shoreham, as they decamped along the coast from Littlehampton in the first half of the nineteenth century, they would have found a fishing village with a thriving boat building industry attached. By this time, Shoreham had built a reputation for launching fine and fast vessels of all kinds since shipbuilding became a mainstay in the village in the mid-16th century. Indeed, carpenters and boatbuilders had been present in the Shoreham area since at least 1210, when galleys were being repaired there for King John, and these trades were summond from Shoreham to help build the King’s ships at Portsmouth.
And the Stows would not have been alone in making the move to Shoreham, as in the mid-18th century Shoreham’s population was increasing rapidly with people being lured there to assist in the production of both large and small wooden vessels. Rope and sailmakers, as well as the other satellite businesses required to fit-out and build quality vessels, were on-hand at “New Shoreham” as it was then being known. By the 1860’s and 70’s, sections of the harbour had been canalised and builders such as William May, Balley and Dyer & Co at the Old Shipyard, were building ships to over 500 tons, However, the launching of big ships dwindled after this time as the village’s businesses could not convert when construction in iron became the norm.
Wood, though, remained the material of choice for smaller vessels, such as fishing boats, dinghies and yachts, and it was with vessels such as these that the Stow family managed to build a substantial international reputation from this small south coast village. It was in 1866 that John Stow, along with his eldest son, Thomas, born in 1827, began the business that was to bear the family name for the next seven decades. Thomas and his spouse went on to have eight children themselves, most of whom went into the family firm and, understandably, it was the eldest, Harry, who inherited the business in his turn. Harry proved to be a capable designer, going on to produce many successful yachts, though, remaining unmarried and childless himself, he ultimately contributed to the business’ demise. The newly restored 1895 yawl Valerie is credited as one of the earliest of Harry’s designs, and she joins his 105ft, 1904, gaff yawl, Rosalind, which is well known and also still sailing today.
According to The Ships and Mariners of Shoreham, by local historian Henry Cheal, the Stow reputation was built on producing vessels of high quality that could be relied upon to have a roomy feel from having particularly well laid out interiors. The yard’s output, though, was not restricted solely to yachts, as they also produced many of the vessels used to carry British troops to fight in the Nile Expedition in 1884/5 and there are records of the distinctive local beachboats bearing the family name.
The yard initially took premises across the road from the family home at New Road, on the banks of the River Adur, which at this point runs parallel to, but protected from, the seashore just a stone’s throw away. The business rapidly expanded along the river and a distinctive – ugly – black shed was soon erected. The shelter from the elements that the shed provided was a necessary requirement for stamping their yachts with the mark of quality given by Lloyd’s accreditation. And it’s perhaps another indication of the quality the Stows aspired to that the business largely shunned the produce of local sailmakers, instead fitting their yachts, for preference, with sails from the internationally regarded Ratsey and Lapthorn, based on the Isle of Wight.
The build quality of Stow yachts is remarked upon by many sources, with both Thomas and Harry being capable of producing designs that were regarded highly by their peers: Dixon Kemp (1878 1st edition) mentions “Mr Thomas Stow” as the builder of several successful “Brighton Beach Boats” and reprints a lines plan of one with construction details, while the Badminton Library (1894) mentions “Mr Stow, of Shoreham” (presumably, Thomas again) building a successful 5-tonner called Diamond to the design of Mr W Baden-Powell in 1873. Records also show designs accredited to EA Stow beginning around 1907 until at least 1923 and then an AE (possibly a typing error) Stow until the 1930s. This was perhaps one of Thomas’ yonger sons and/or one of their offspring. The yard was also known to have produced yachts to the drawings of: Albert Strange, Fred Shepherd, Linton Hope and Dixon Kemp himself, among others.
Through the years, the Stow business became an important part of the Shoreham economy, providing hundreds of local people with employment and, as the Stow name spread, orders came regularly from overseas. It seems, though, that the family never became particularly wealthy through the business. At times, the yard’s output was substantial (23 vessels produced at the peak, between 1890 and 1899), but by the end in 1936, when Harry was 76, just two vessels had been built in the preceding six years.
The Stow era eventually came to an end when the unmarried and childless, 76-year-old, Harry Stow – one of Shoreham’s best-known residents – died while riding his Brough Superior motorcycle in 1936. Eyewitnesses said that, as Stow was travelling along Middle Street towards the seafront, he was seen to wobble as he approached the main road. It is believed Stow, a stocky man of around 6ft tall and 16 stone, may have suffered a mild heart attack, but, whatever the reason, the bike continued into the road and into the path of a taxi. Stow was badly injured in the accident, dying later in hospital.
With no children to perpetuate the business, on the demise of Harry Stow the yard and other premises were bought up by another local boatyard owner, named Haworth, who had already purchased Colvin and Co’s Southwick yard in 1935. Haworth picked up the Stow Shoreham business as well as the Southwick premises of Courtney and Birketts in 1937. He then went on to amalgamate all these premises into one company that he named Lady Bee after his own yacht – aboard which he had sailed into Shoreham Harbour some years earlier. The Lady Bee Marina still exists as part of today’s Shoreham Harbour complex, and the old Stow shipyard has been used as its clubhouse by the Sussex Yacht Club since they acquired the building in the 1950s.
Around 12 yachts are all that are known to remain of the Stow total output, but the odd previously unknown vessel still comes to light from time to time. If you know of a yacht or other craft that may be from this historic yet little-known yard please pass on the information.
Produced with great thanks to yacht historian, Theo Rye, Roger Bateman and the Shorehambysea.com website.