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Yachting since 1782

Camper & Nicholsons has the most illustrious history of any brokerage firm, leading back to when our first shipyard was founded in 1782.

Our beginnings

In 1782, Francis Amos started a shipyard in Gosport across the harbour from the Royal Naval Dockyard, Portsmouth. In 1809, Amos apprenticed his great-nephew William Camper.  By 1821, the yard was building small trading ships, and in 1824, Amos allowed his nephew Camper to take over the lease on the yard, as he had no children. 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 forged a reputation as a builder of fast yachts, favoured by a prestigious clientele. In 1842, Ben Nicholson joined the yard as an apprentice, and rose through the company to become chief designer.  Unfortunately, success was hampered by our defeat in the inaugural America’s Cup of 1851, followed by the outbreak of war in the Crimea in 1854. This cessation of yachting heralded a premature decline in Camper’s career, but was salvaged by Ben’s innovative new design of the schooner Aline, built in 1860. The Aline’s racing success and subsequent orders restored faith in the company and saw Nicholson promoted makinge him the logical choice as Camper’s replacement when he retired in 1863.

Camper & Nicholson

Camper and Nicholson was formed in 1863, financed by both the retiring William Camper and the Lapthorn family, under the control of Ben Nicholson. Nicholson undertook a 30-year programme of expansion, more than doubling the size and scale of the Gosport facilities. The design and construction of large schooners dominated the firm’s output, with Nicholson adding a refit and maintenance business made possible by the expansion of the yard’s facilities.

The 1900s

The arrival of Ben's three sons into the firm led to a final name change to today’s incarnation: Camper & Nicholsons. Each son had their forte. Drawn mainly from regional fishermen, eldest son Benjamin made his mark through the supply of crew for either leisure or racing - a service that continued until 1939. Youngest son Arthur W. found his ability best applied to managing the maintenance and construction facilities of the yard, along with the purchase of expansion facilities in Southampton.

Charles E. Nicholson

It was the middle son Charles Ernest who followed his father into design. He designed the Redwing class for Bembridge Yacht Club, a shallow draught yacht which could navigate over the shoals in Bembridge Harbour, a feat that supposedly took only ten days. He was also responsible for creating the Gelyce class tender, one of the first motor launches that was built to ferry guests to the yachts and spectators around the America’s Cup. In 1912, he also built the Istria, a 15m racing yacht made of a lightweight laminated wood construction, the first of its kind. These techniques were then applied to the 208ft, three masted schooner Vira, now called Creole, which was commissioned in 1927. She remains the largest wooden sailing yacht in the world to date.

Post World War I

In 1914, Camper & Nicholsons had produced the world’s first large, diesel powered yacht, Pioneer. Capitalising on this, Camper & Nicholsons remained the world’s leading builder of motor yachts through to the outbreak of WWII. The largest of these motor yachts was the 1,629-tonne Philante built for Sir Tom Sopwith. This was the third motor yacht built by Camper & Nicholsons for Sopwith, and after he bought the America’s Cup 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.

The height of Camper & Nicholsons was probably the 1937's Cowes Week, which came to be known as Charlie Nicholson’s Regatta. All the J-Class yachts, three quarters of the 12 metres, half the eight metres and many of the ocean racers were from Charles’ board, as were many of the motor yachts in the spectator fleet. And yet, for all the success, less than ten percent of Camper & Nicholsons output during this time was racing yachts.

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 his designs that helped to move the company forward. His philosophy on production developed during the war years enabled the company to address the mass market. After World War II, John's cousin Charles A. Nicholson, known as Young Charlie, sent his second son George to the Riviera to work for a friend’s brokerage firm, where he persuaded both owners and crews to return their yachts to the Gosport yard for winter repairs. This move was instrumental in the survival of Camper & Nicholsons in the subdued economy of a post-war Britain. In spite of continued racing successes and the production of high profile boats such as the Dragon class Bluebottle, a shortage of wood meant that the company relied on civilian repair work and government contracts for wooden mine sweepers.

Being family-owned, Camper and Nicholsons had always had a propensity to develop subsidiaries in order to have complete control over production and Charles E. Nicholson continued to chair the company until his death in 1954, aged 86. The foundations of a robust and successful yacht design and build company had been laid which not only survived World War I and World War II, but provided the Royal Navy with motor yachts displaying the quality and craftmanship for which they are still known today. As government contracts dried up in the late 1950s, Young Charlie's son Peter developed the production offerings of the company along three streams - large motor yachts, custom sailing yachts and the so-called "people's yacht" made from glass-reinforced plastic. A change had started to happen in attitudes towards luxury cruising, enabling Camper & Nicholsons to move forward and expand on what they had accomplished in the industry so far.

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