From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 13
July - August 1981
The Tom Trevethick Story
Photograph by Stephen Zaleski
Anyone wandering along Gregory Street, past the Red Cow pub towards Lenton Lane must notice this sign high on a wall pointing down to the canal wharf. It points to Tom Trevethick's boat yard, the oldest in Nottingham, first opened for business just as the canal was completed in 1796. Tom's father, Thomas Trevethick came to the yard in 1903 but boat building was already a family tradition. Tom's grandfather had worked on sailing ship construction as a mast and block maker in the last century. A point of interest is that somewhere in Tom's family tree is one Richard Trevethick, the Cornish engineer, pioneer builder of high-pressure steam engines and 'father of the locomotive'. A Victorian account of Richard's great works has in fact been passed down through the family and is now in Tom's possession. But we digress. Thomas Trevethick started the business in Gainsborough in 1895 and had already begun to make a name for himself when river men told him of the boat yard at Lenton which was available. Persuaded that Lenton provided a better spot for canal and river trade, he brought the business to Nottingham. Naturally when moving 'house' .he used a horse drawn boat of his own design and construction.
At the yard Thomas took over two coal-fired pleasure steamers from a Mr. Gilbert. Each Thursday and Sunday these were made available for trips to Trent Lock and back, price one shilling and three pence. These regular canal trips continued until the First World War, but were not to be restored once the war was over. It was also possible to book trips on a Trevethick steamer further afield. Starting from Castle Lock there were day and half-day trips to such distant beauty spots as Shardlow and Normanton on Soar and these were very popular outings. The photograph shows a packed 'Francesca' starting on a trip down to Trent Lock in about 1905. If trailer boats were attached up to 200 people could have been carried on each journey.
A Trevethick cruiser steams past the boatyard c.1908.
Photograph Courtesy of Tom Trevethick.
When he was 13, the present owner Tom Trevethick was put to work fulltime in the business. The Trevethicks had recently taken over an old gravel wharf near Wilford Bridge and, after building landing stages, kept about four canoes and forty rowing boats there for hire. It was Tom's job to look after this end of the business and he would stay at his post all summer long in a houseboat moored alongside. He found himself in charge of the whole business when his father was called away in the First World War to work in the Cammell-Laird shipyards in Liverpool. On his return, Tom continued with the boat hire. The Wilford Bridge end of the Embankment unfortunately ceased to be a very popular spot with Nottingham folk and Tom had to work hard to make a living. He hung on there with the boat hire business until the Second World War when he had the opportunity to operate cruises from the Trent Bridge end. The Second World War strangely enough turned out to be a boom time for the Trevethicks. Many families were not able to go away for a holiday, so they made up for it by using local amenities more. A trip in the 'Success' or the 'Victoria' down to Colwick Pleasure Park, with its swings, roundabouts and ice creams was often a real treat for mum and the kids. It is only in fact about four years since Tom gave up running trips along the Trent from the Victoria Embankment. He decided it was getting to be too much for him especially after his wife Annie died. So he sold his two cruisers to his fellow rival, a Mr. Woods, who now owns all the pleasure boats along the Trent Embankment.
The Trevethick fleet at the Victoria Embankment c.1950.
Photograph Courtesy of Tom Trevethick.
The rise and fall in the fortunes of the Trevethick boat yard has quite closely mirrored the fate of the canals. Until the mid-twenties as many as six men might be employed on the construction of new boats and the repair of old. An interesting point is that it was Tom's father who fitted out a 72-foot long fire float for use by the police (not it appears the fire brigade) on the canals and river in 1912. This was to come in very useful in fighting the fires alongside the canal in the Meadows area, which resulted from the air raids over Nottingham in 1941. But again we digress. As the lorry asserted itself as the major means of bulk carriage, canal trade fell away and as an obvious reaction, business in the yard declined. The post-war rise in the use of the canals for leisure pursuits has meant, naturally enough, something of a revival in trade. The old boats needed to be overhauled and new ones built. But the introduction of boats with fibreglass hulls has largely knocked the bottom out of the wooden boat market. They have the advantages of price, lightness, easy maintenance and facility of movement through the water. Almost all the new leisure craft you see chugging up and down the canals have fibreglass hulls. Tom Trevethick has stayed with the traditional skills and craftsmanship of wooden hull manufacture and receives his commissions to build boats from true enthusiasts.
The Beeston Cut - Photograph taken sometime in the 1950s
A - Part of the Trevethick boatyard
B - The large building was once a blacksmith's shop but was converted in the 1920s into a workshop by the Trevethicks.
C - Clayton's Wharf
D - Clayton's bridge carried Gregory Street over the canal. This was replaced by a more modern structure when Lenton Industrial Estate was developed.
Photograph of Tom Trevethick taken in 1981.
Perhaps the majority of the yard's work is taken up with the repair and maintenance of the many old wooden craft which are still in use. Such boats need an overhaul and their hulls repainted each year if they are not to deteriorate and rot. For jobs like these, Tom makes use of the only dry dock in Nottingham, constructed soon after the boat yard was first opened for business. Tom is proud of the fact that it only takes 20 minutes to empty or fill the 73-foot long dock. (Those confused by reading 'graving dock' on the sign may be relieved to learn that it is just the old fashioned term for a dry dock. Graving is the term for the cleaning of ships' bottoms by burning off accretions and then retarring).
Tom is now retired from boat yard work but still manages the business. It is ten years since a Trevethick boat was last completed but Tom and his fellow craftsman Colin Rawlson have currently got one in the pipeline. Inside the workshop, the 22 foot long hull is beginning to take shape as can be seen from the photograph of Tom. Made from the finest woods, English oak and iroko, all properly seasoned, the completed boat will be a shining example of all their traditional skills and practices. Whether it will be for use on canal or river or even the sea is very much up to the purchaser. The boat wasn't commissioned but will be put up for sale on completion. Tom and Colin are building it 'on spec' in time available between repair jobs. Should you see yourself as a skipper of this as yet unfinished craft, Tom will be delighted to talk business. But be warned craftsmanship like theirs does not come cheap.