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The Smack Yard

the Aldous Yard at Brightlingsea in 1913
Aldous Yard at Brightlingsea in 1913

The Shipyards of Essex

Essex shipbuilders were producing fine-lined fast cutters well before 1800, but bluff-bowed, clench-planked cutter smacks were in common use into the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century the Essex cutter smack had been perfected, principally by builders on the River Colne, who were much influenced in design after the seventeen-eighties by their close association with the builders of fast yachts. These were manned by local seamen who readily adopted, and demanded, unusually fast and weatherly hull forms and sail plans. Thus the design of yachts and smacks had early interacted and Philip Sainty of Wivenhoe, who had a shipyard there, and earlier at Brightlingsea and Colchester, was a noted builder of both until his death in 1837. The Harris family, Enos and Peter, of Rowhedge, built over 60 smacks there including many large cutters and ketches between 1840 and 1875 and a few thereafter, along with many yachts.

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the taking of lofting lines from a halfmodel

the taking of lofting lines from a halfmodel

  Smack Yards in Brightlingsea
At Brightlingsea the Aldous family built large numbers of smacks of all sizes and types and others were launched there by Root and Diaper. Later small smacks were built by Douglas Stone and Sons, who built the last one, the Peace, launched on the Colne in 1909. Some large smacks were built at Ipswich by Thomas Harvey and Son, whose Wivenhoe shipyard produced many shapely and well-finished smacks.

Typical dimensions were 52 feet length overall, 45 feet registered length, by 12 foot beam by 6 foot 6 inches draught aft. The plumb stem, slightly rounded forefoot, long rocking keel, great forward freeboard and graceful sheer sweeping to a low, well proportioned counter distinguish the type with different builders. Hull lines varied in detail but typically the hull had considerable rise of floor, a moderately firm bilge, hollow bow waterlines and a long and beautifully fair run to the flatsectioned counter.

There is reason for doubt whether Harvey or Aldous really can claim to be the designer of the type, but it would be appropriate if the yard responsible for the Pearl also created these loveliest of small working craft. Harvey and Husk, of Wivenhoe, built a good number more, but the majority came from Aldous, including Telegraph, Snowdrop, Wave, Charlotte, and a host more. Often they would be supplied on credit and were expected to repay their modest cost of perhaps ten pounds a ton in a few years’ work. Aldous would not only supply the smacks, but make a generous loan towards the cost of their sails and gear on payment of quite a small ‘deposit’ - a remarkable anticipation of hire purchase which even the most up-to-date yacht-building yards have so far hardly dared to reintroduce.

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Smacks Come in Different Sizes

The typical Mersea smacks ranged from eight to thirteen tons - smaller than the Colne type, but rather larger than those favoured for Maldon - and were built from halfmodels without plans as those from the River Colne. These ranged from 14 to 40 tons, many being built at Brightlingsea and others at Rowhedge and Wivenhoe. They then cost about £10 per registered ton for the hull, and a 20 ton smack cost about £ 180 to equip.
  Robert Aldous on his daily inspection tour
Robert Aldous on his daily inspection tour

These craft were expected to last thirty to forty years employed in fishing. They were manned by two to four men. The result was a fleet of powerful cutters, with a glorious sheer and rakish rig. Almost all were designed and built in local yards, Aldous of Brightlingsea built thirty-six of these big smacks between 1857 and 1867. Harris at Rowhedge and Harvey at Wivenhoe built a good number and some were launched on the Blackwater. These smacks of between 20 and 40 registered tons dwarfed the little estuary oyster dredgers, and there was as great a difference between them in purpose and voyaging as that between a deep-sea trawler and an inshore fisherman of today.

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John Cann with half model


  The Cann’s Yard of Harwich
Besides trawling for shrimps, there were in 1900 about twenty bawleys and small smacks fishing all year round from Harwich for whelks, which were used as bait for long-line fishing by large smacks owned at Harwich and elsewhere. Many of the Harwich bawleys were built at the port and others were constructed there for Leigh and proved fast and able craft. Several notably fast bawleys were built at Harwich by George Cann and later his sons John and Herbert, whose firm of J. and H. Cann closed in 1922.

John Cann displays a half model of a smack


George Cann was apprenticed at Aldous’ shipyard at Brightlingsea and worked there afterwards as a shipwright before leaving to start his own yard at Harwich in about 1868. This was situated at the head of Gasworks Creek and the firm was at first known as Parsons and Cann, though nothing is known of Parsons. George Cann built himself a house opposite the yard and settled down to build and repair wooden craft. Sailing barges were the firm’s speciality and under his ownership the yard built the Florence (1877), Muriel (1880), Eureka (1880), Una (1882) and Dorothy (1889).

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A Second Generation of Canns

In 1889, at the height of all this activity, George Cann died from chest injuries sustained when crushed by a log being unloaded from a railway truck on Harwich Quay. He was fifty-six years old and had four sons and two daughters. Two of the sons were destined to carry on the business. John Cann was a trained and dedicated shipwright already working in the yard. His brother Herbert had originally been a solicitor’s clerk before joining the army. At the time of his father’s death he was serving in Ireland. After a brief period of managership by the brother of George Cann, it was decided to continue the business as J. and H. Cann. John, who was an excellent craftsman but had limited business knowledge, acted as the practical partner and Herbert, who had been bought out of the army, returned to manage the financial affairs and curiously, to take charge of the small boat building shop, where up to three 14 foot boats could be built at once.

The barges and bawleys were built in the open and two sailing barges were building at the time of George Cann’s death. The new firm continued this work as their main business, subsequently launching Bona (1896), Edme (1898), Gladys (1901), Resolute (1903) and Edith May (1906). These barges were reputedly built from lines taken from skeleton half models made by John Cann and at least one of them was built with a few inches of rocker in the keel to anticipate and compensate for the inevitable hogging of the hull in trade.

Different Shops Under One Roof A curious feature of the Cann yard was that the sailmaking firm of W. Pennick and Son was situated in the middle of its premises. They made the sails for many of the craft built by the Canns, including bawleys, and for other vessels. The yard sawpit was under the sail loft and there was also a blacksmith’s shop where the ironwork was made. A set of barge blocks in the creek was close to the premises; barges were placed on these for repair to their flat bottoms, which could not be worked on in any other convenient way. Most of the Englishgrown timber used by the yard was purchased from Stour Wood at Wrabness or from Mann’s timber yard at Earls Colne and was sawn from the tree in the yard. Originally this was done at the sawpit where the yard’s sawyers Stephen Ainger and his son James worked full time for many years until powered saws were installed. The Aingers drove over in a trap each day from their home in Dovercourt, nearby.

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A Long Working Day

About thirty men were employed at J. and H. Cann; a shipwright then earned between 25 and 28 shillings each week. In summer the yard bell rang to start at 6 am. All hands stopped for breakfast between 8 and 8.30 am. Work continued until 1 pm, with a dinner break until 2 pm, and ended at 5.30 pm. If the yard was busy the men had a tea break until 6 pm, then continued until 8 pm. This was a long and hard day’s work. In winter the day started at 6.30 am and almost always stopped at 5.30 pm.

John Cann had tremendous enthusiasm for the work, retiring at 9 pm to rise at 5 am and be in good trim for the early start at the yard. At particularly busy times he is said to have sometimes gone to bed with his boots still on, to save dressing time in the morning! John designed the craft built at the yard, first making skeleton half models. These were scaled from to produce offsets which it is thought were lofted full size before construction commenced. The spritsail barges were built in an average time of eight months and a smack took five to six months to construct. Usually a new barge was laid down when one already building was planked and nearing completion. A new barge cost about £1000 in the period 1900-1914. One of the Cann family had a half-share in the barge Ethel and she went for her trial sail with the entire Cann family crowded on her deck for the day-long trip. The boatbuilding shop reputedly turned out a 14 foot barge boat each week, Most of them built on speculation and bought by barge owners locally and on the Thames and Medway.

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smacks on the Brightlingsea hard in the 1910s   todays 'Smack Dock' on the site of the Aldous Yard

smacks on the Brightlingsea hard in the 1910s

todays 'Smack Dock' on the site of the Aldous Yard


Building Fast Bawleys

The Canns were also keen boat sailors and in 1908 they designed and started to build for themselves a 20 foot centreboard sloop for racing and day sailing. However, she was purchased while building by a yachtsman, who raced her successfully at Harwich, Aldeburgh and elsewhere. Cann’s built a number of bawleys including the Maud and the Irene, both built for members of the Good family, well known Harwich fishermen. Others were the Gracie, Osprey, Helen and Violet (or Ellen and Violet) and Ellen. These craft were usually planked in fir or Oregon pine, with garboards of English elm, on English oak sawn frames. John Cann’s bawleys were shapely, with well formed transom, rounded forefoot and splendid hull sections. His work seems to have included the largest bawleys, about 42 feet long. Cann’s built the 39 foot 6 inches bawley Alice Matilda as a speculation. She was sold in 1897 to the Young family of Leigh for £100, complete with all boat’s gear.

from “Smacks and Bawleys” by John Leather

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