Freebooter Noir.

A story for my memoir.

It’s a lovely afternoon in the summer of 1946. I am a 14-year-old boy hoping to get a job as a carpenter’s mate.  I walk along the sandy track that leads to Thomas’s Boatyard in Shepperton. I stop to look at this tumbledown wooden building, my heart skips a beat, how could anything be made in such a place. Walking round the building to the river as it sweeps around Halliford bend, I see the skeletal remains of an old sailing boat that had been washed up on to the bank.  It is the first time I have felt a thrill at the sight of anything other than a living thing. It was the beauty of the remaining timbers and planks, muscular yet full of grace.  I stopped and imagined how it would have looked years ago. So started my love affair with boats and the best job I would ever have in my life. I was later told it was a Victorian boat, and famous for being one of the fastest sailing boats on the Thames called a ‘Thames Rater’. 

Mr Gibbs the boatbuilder, seemed totally disinterested in the interview, he just said.

‘Your pay is sixpence an hour, five and a half days a week. Can you start tomorrow?’

So started my love affair with boats and the best job I would ever have.

 The urge to write about my feelings at that time was very strong. I knew that if I didn’t write it down while the feelings of a young boy were so fresh, they would be forgotten.

I did attempt to write about it, but I was semi-literate, I even had a name for my story. ‘The boat boy’. Of course, it could never come to anything. I did manage some drawings of the boats but now even they are lost.

Memory is amazing, after all these years I can remember enough to write a story of my days working in my perfect job. I will call it; ‘The boat boy’

Leaving school at 14, I was given a job in a local factory. It lasted just three days, until my fingers met the unguarded spinning blade of a circular saw. The saw won and I lost—the top of a finger. A few days later, my next job, also in a factory was a near disaster. The bandage on my damaged finger unwound and wrapped itself around the rotating chuck of a powerful drill. Luckily the bandage was very loose and came off before I would have been drawn into the drill, probably saving my life. My mother found me a job where there was no machinery, it meant a bus journey from Chertsey to Shepperton, but worth the fourpence a day bus fare.     

My new job was with Kenneth M Gibbs, as a general dogsbody, making the tea, sweeping up and helping the amazingly skilled boatbuilders, I was never allowed to use any of their tools or to work on the valuable timber the boats were made of. They did allow me to sand down the hulls ready for painting and then apply the paint. I was very proud of the finish I could achieve with an ordinary paint brush.

One boat I fell in love with was called ‘Freebooter’, I was there for most of the time it was being built. In the harsh winter of 1946/7, I would hold a candelabra of four candles up for the men during the many blackouts. Another job I loved was steaming the timbers. These were one-inch square strips of birch that were steamed to make them bend easily. They were placed in a long box on trestles with four or five ordinary kettles on paraffin primus stoves. I had to keep the kettles full of water, and the stoves alight all day long, a lovely warm job on the coldest of days.

Thomas’s Boatyard was an old wooden building on stilts. The river would flood most years, but the workshops were safely above any water.

Freebooter was almost finished when in March of 1947 there was a sudden thaw and lots of rain, the Thames flooded and was so high the water came into the workshop that was six feet off the ground. Mr Gibbs took advantage of this and pushed Freebooter out onto the flood. Unfortunately, the bolt holes for the keel had not been sealed, and Freebooter sank below the flood before anyone could find and plug the holes.

After the flood had subsided the caulking and sealing of the planks of Freebooters hull were pushed out and I had the job of doing it all again. !947 was a very hot year, I spent most of the summer working outside repainting it, I loved it.

 Then the bus fare went up to sixpence a day, Mr Gibbs couldn’t afford to pay me any thing more and I had to leave.

After I left, I heard that in 1950 the Grand National was won by a horse called Freebooter. Mr Gibbs and his workers won quite a bit of money; I think it may have saved the firm from closing. Freebooter was renamed Freebooter Noir and is now sailing around Cyprus in the Mediterranean! 

Author: madeinchertsey

Born in 1932, this is a collection of stories of my childhood growing up in Chertsey, and some stories of my later life.

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