Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer discusses Hillyard: The Man, His Boats and Their Sailors, a biography that should be warmly welcomed by wooden boat aficionados and anyone interested in the history of 20th century yacht design
David Hillyard (1883-1965) is undeniably an important subject for biography, so the sailing book about his life, Hillyard: The Man, His Boats and Their Sailors, is very welcome.
This book takes an earlier narrative by John Balchin as its starting point and should be warmly welcomed by wooden boat aficionados and anyone interested in the history of 20th century yacht design.
Hillyard’s products represent what one might call middle-class yachts, intended for weekend sailing and holiday cruises, often with family aboard.
Such generalisation is always dangerous and Hillyard experts will be quick to point out the extent and variety of adventures undertaken by these sturdy, indefinably recognisable vessels.
Their sea-keeping qualities inspired great confidence on longer voyages and there are plenty of examples included.
Nevertheless, the nature of David Hillyard’s productive life as a designer and builder of yachts, running from Twinkler (1922) to Antipodes (1964), places him and his customers firmly in the context of mid-c20th social history as demonstrating a particular strand of family leisure choices.
After Hillyard’s death, the business continued under his nephew Dennis Cullingford and great-nephew Simon but their failure to weather the 1970s shift from wood to GRP demonstrates, harshly, that they were no longer mainstream.
A man of principle
Hillyard himself was born in Rowhedge, Essex into a c19th world of day-to-day craftsmanship and sharp-class distinction.
His success in transforming himself into the owner of a yard which may have produced as many as 800 individual wooden yachts using early mass-production principles, is perhaps even more remarkable than it seems.
As a modest-living man, a devout Christian with few intimate relationships his individuality appears subsumed into his business.
He was clearly a man of principle, a good man.
(I occasionally felt I’d have liked a few more anecdotes of his alleged ‘difficultness’.)
The yachts, too, have a slight tendency to blur into 5-tonners, 9-tonners etc.
Not, of course, for their owners who enjoyed their individual characteristics whilst also demonstrating brand loyalty by up-grading through the different sizes, as their families, incomes or aspirations grew.
Nicholas Gray makes a strong case for appreciating – and supporting – these now elderly wooden yachts as part of our maritime heritage.
I think he is right to do so.
They, like their designer and builder, are neither flamboyant nor avant-garde but solidly representative of Middle England, in yacht-cruising terms.
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