Explore Braunton is indebted to Peter Newcombe, for allowing us to reproduce details of the schooner Eilian here. For more information, please refer to Peter Newcombe’s website.
“The Eilian was a fine three pole-masted schooner of 140 tons. She was built of steel in 1908 at Amlwch in Anglesey, being the last sailing (auxiliary) vessel launched from the yard of William Thomas and in that ancient port.
Her early days saw her plying a busy trade, travelling extensively around the British Isles delivering cargoes of oats, coal and clay. During 1917 she sailed to Devonport for service in the Great War and for the next two years was what the navy called a ‘Q-ship’ or ‘mystery ship’, which was used as a decoy throughout World War I. There were more than 220 such ships and a photograph reportedly shows how Eilian was fitted with three guns along each side, concealed behind small sliding wooden screens.
In later naval records, in which she is referred to as ‘Chromium’, she was noted to be armed with two 12 pounder guns and a Lewis gun. In addition her bow had been strengthened with five tons of concrete in her forefoot, to serve as a ram against U-boats.
By the end of 1919 she had returned to trading and in 1921 was conducted the more genteel practice of running between the south coast and the Channel Islands, carrying out general cargo and empty baskets and bringing home potatoes and tomatoes. On 11 October 1923, she was taken over by new owners from Braunton in North Devon.
There were sixty four shares divided between the four owners: Capt. Sidney J. Incledon the managing owner, Capt. George P. Hartnoll, Capt. Willie Drake and the smallest share to Jack Newcombe, who eventually bought all the shares as they became available, thus owning Eilian outright.
Eilian was registered at Barnstaple but taken up Braunton Pill for a general survey at Vellator Quay, from where she worked the coast again, transporting oats, coal and clay as in days gone by, along with glass and cement bound for Exeter.
The most exciting photograph of the Eilian was taken between the 28 and 29 March 1924, whilst in full sail on route from Nieuwpoort to Poole loaded with 220 tons of bricks.
Apparently a Dutch sea captain who knew Capt. George and his Mate Jack was also on route to Poole in his steamship, he left harbour before the Eilian and determined to reach Poole first, however the wind was kind to Eilian and with the superb seamanship of her crew she caught the Dutchman up and passed her. As she did so, the Dutch skipper took the finest photograph we have of the Eilian and later on posted it to George Hartnoll.
One of the crew called Frank Hunt, had a copy taken off one of the originals and many years ago gave it to the landlord of the ‘Mariners Arms’ in South Street, Braunton, where the crew of the Eilian and other Braunton vessels used to meet for a drink; it still hangs inside on the bar room wall alongside photos of many other Braunton vessels.
Crewman Monty Carder remembers working on Eilian during the time she was laid-up at Vellator Big Quay in Braunton from 5 September 1940 for 5 months until the 31 January 1941, when she started her coal contract between Ilfracombe and the mines in South Wales or the Forest of Dean. During this time she was refurbished and Monty was told to paint the engine, which he did in a couple of days.
Eilian would use her motor to get up to Vellator Big Quay. In order to leave Big Quay and go back down the River Caen she would wait for high tide, then cast off her bow line and with the stern line get pulled back into the gully which was a recess at the end of the quay, so she could then swing her bow out into the river where it was wider; the drop in the tidal water and the flow of the river water would assist in turning her bow to downstream.
The Eilian was sailed all round the coast of the British Isles and regularly to ports across the English Channel, often calling at Antwerp usually laden with clay from Teignmouth and occasionally visiting other ports such as Dieppe, Le Havre and Boulogne in France, Terneuzen in Holland, Brussels, Nieuwpoort, Niel and Rumst in Belgium; Eilian sailed from Antwerp the cargoes included cement, zinc, matches, glass, putty, bricks, nails, carbide (for gas making) and whale meat.
A photograph taken in February 1929 showed her frozen in at Willebroecke on the Brussels canal, where she was icebound for a month, having arrived at Willebroecke from Antwerp light on the 9 February 1929 and leaving with 204.5 tons of putty, plaster and asbestos goods for Topsham on the 8 March 1929. The cargo book entries do not mention any continental voyages after December 1934, but do mention practically every port in Devon and Cornwall; little known ports like Topsham, Mevagissey and Polperro being regularly visited before the war.
In 1925 the crew agreement and log of Eilian show that she was doing reasonably well. Her master and crew all came from villages in North Devon and were paid on percentage of profits. Her voyages appear to have been co-operative and friendly affairs and for a short time included two stewardesses, George Hartnoll's wife May (née Newcombe) and Susie (née Hernaman), the wife of Jack Newcombe. Seventeen coastal and continental voyages were completed in six months and Eilian always carried cargoes, apart from four short ballast passages to Teignmouth.
By 1931 things were very different. The master was still G.P. Hartnoll and he was engaged ‘on shares’, but all the crew were paid monthly wages (which varied from £7 for the mate - Jack Newcombe to £3 10s for the cook) and the complement had been reduced by one. Only the master, mate and cook came from North Devon, the others joined Eilian in Teignmouth. The Eilian was driven hard, completing twenty two voyages in six months and was at sea over Christmas, but the very difficult trading conditions were shown by the fact that eight voyages were in ballast and on three other trips Eilian carried less than a full cargo.
Up to the outbreak of war in 1939 Eilian usually carried china clay to Glasgow, returning south with coal from Ayr. With Eilian’s mixture of cargoes, scrupulous cleaning was required between voyages of different types of cargo. In the China Clay ports, officials inspected the holds closely for traces of coal dust. They passed their fingers over the flat surfaces, and tapped the stringers to see if any coal dust fell from behind them. China clay was used in various chemical preparations, so the shippers could not let it be contaminated with coal dust.
Capt. George Hartnoll retired in March 1934, when he settled in Teignmouth and eventually became the Trinity House Senior Pilot. He was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Jack Newcombe, with Jack Chichester as mate. His first voyage as captain was on the 8 March 1934 with 205 tons of clay from Teignmouth to Glasgow. He kept the vessel working regularly in the coasting and continental trades for 23 years, a fine achievement for an auxiliary schooner in face of strong opposition from the modern coaster.
Eilian was well known from London to Glasgow and during one voyage to the Clyde, in 1937 she was driven back 60 miles in a heavy gale. This was one of those cases where the experience and dead reckoning navigation of the coasting masters would bring a ship through without the help of radio or radar, and it is said that some of these skippers could smell their way round the coast; Capt. Jack Newcombe was one of those mariners.
Jack Newcombe’s grandson Peter can remember his gran telling him that she heard it said that her late husband was known as ‘Mad Jack’. This was not in malice, but in recognition of the fact that he would never turn down a cargo, and set sail without any undue delay, scant regard being paid to weather forecasts. This attitude is reflected in how long Eilian was working whilst other ships were long since laid up. Frank Hunt thought that he was a ‘hard man’, as he was a very demanding skipper and wouldn't hang about when there was a cargo available and often put to sea in rotten weather.
He was a thick set powerful man who was a big eater, but he suffered a stroke, saying to Frank that the first stroke he had was like an iron band bolted on his chest and screwed up tight. But Frank thought that George Hartnoll was harder still, being very precise and a hard task master, although he never swore nor raised his voice, but he meant every word he said.
World War Two
For protection during the Second World War, Eilian was given .303 Royal Enfield rifles and a Lewis gun with 28 rounds of ammunition in each magazine, though none of the crew quite knew what they would use it for. However, on one occasion they spotted a mine floating in the Bristol Channel that gave them the opportunity to use the gun. They got it out of the wheelhouse where it was stored and fired round after round at the mine, hitting it many times unfortunately with no effect. To blow the mine up, you had to hit one of the glass horns.
On another occasion, when Eilian was leaving Ely Harbour and moving down the channel, the crew heard a loud explosion behind them. They had passed clear over a mine in the channel but the ship following with deeper draught had detonated it.
Eilian usually had a complement of four - captain, mate, able seaman and ordinary seaman, plus a spaniel dog for security. In September 1936, a fifth member signed aboard. He was the captain's nephew, Tom Hernaman, newly out of the Board School in Braunton. He was of small stature and not physically strong, so service was trying at first. Of course he was cook, but a thoroughly bad one, for he disliked cooking; in addition, he had the usual deckhand duties, besides cleaning the brassware and the quarters. Many years later by an extraordinary coincidence, Eilian’s old galley was his next door neighbour's coal shed at 14 Barton Lane, Braunton.
Captain Jack had one narrow escape when he was mate in Eilian. She was lying alongside a steamboat, whose deck he had to cross with a mooring line. When he had gone some time Captain Hartnoll and others called him, without reply. When the captain ran along Eilian’s deck, he saw just the top of Jack's head in the water between the vessels. Quick thinking followed; Captain Hartnoll dropped over the side to hang by his hands and tapped the top of Jack's head with his foot. Jack grasped the foot with a last effort for survival. Jack, like many other mariners, could not swim, nor did he have the inclination to learn, perhaps it was regarded better to drown quickly than to bob about in the water in agony and uncertainty. Meanwhile, Tom had his first insight into seamen's superstition. The mishap was attributed to his presence, as being a fifth crewmember where there had always been four.
Tom thought that it was rare to become windbound on the northerly run, but it happened on this, his first voyage, and another circumstance that made his shipmates consider him a Jonah. Eilian ran into a 100-mph westerly gale; Tom said that the waves were as high as West Hill in Braunton.
Jack Newcombe’s son Ray remembers many trips with his father on Eilian. On one occasion during the school summer holidays Eilian arrived in the river Taw estuary at Crow Point, Braunton, at 5 p.m. on the 28 July 1943 and beached herself on the gravel bank. Extra men were brought in to help the crew load gravel; They worked frantically to load her before the tide came in. She was well laden with wet gravel by the time the tide returned and my father, grandfather and crew were all aboard watching the sea rise up her sides.
Several years earlier Jack Newcombe had raised the coamings on the hold; it was needed this time for the weight of the watery gravel and suction of the hull held down Eilian to the riverbed. The sea came in over the deck and up the sides of the coaming, when eventually to everyone’s relief she lifted off the bottom. She was then motored up the Pill to Vellator Quay, Braunton, where Ray Newcombe and a friend spent hour after laborious hour pumping out the water with the hand pump. This was one of the heaviest loads carried and the heaviest load she carried under the command of Jack Newcombe, being 220 tons. At 8 a.m. on the 2 August 1943 she slipped her moorings and sailed to Minehead in Somerset, where she arrived at 8 p.m. the same day.
Unlike the Result, which sacrificed her mainmast to expedite cargo handling, the Eilian was kept three masted until Capt. Newcombe retired and sold the vessel.
Her final crew were: Jack Newcombe as skipper, Joe Bennett of Ilfracombe who had been mate for twelve years, Frank (Bunny) Hunt of Barnstaple and Frank Hartnoll. She was seen as late as the summer of 1957 off Lynmouth with her fore, main, mizzen, and headsails set making the most of the wind.
Now she has gone, having unloaded her last cargo of coal at Ilfracombe from Ely Harbour on 30 August 1957 having been sold in 1955 to Danish buyers for about £9000; This had been a trend for many years where the conditions around Danish islands still favoured their use. A small group of the Newcombe family, friends and interested people watched on the quayside as she left Ilfracombe on Wednesday 25 September 1957 for Par to load china clay for Porsgrunn on the Skienfjord, Norway.
The Danish owner Holger P. Asmussen of Alnor near Graasten renamed Eilian in 1958 as Hoan and re-registered at Egernsund a Danish Baltic port in Flensborg Fjord opposite Schleswig in Germany. The Danes having converted her into a ketch rig, allowed my grandfather, who lived at 61 South Street, to have her mainmast sawn into planks and made into sliding doors for his garage.
The ship went on to be re-named several times and visited exotic locations such as the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Jamaica from 1958 to 1984.
She was on a voyage perhaps to Kingston, Jamaica and at about 110 km north east of the Venezuelan island of La Orchila, on about 6th Janury 1984, when she started taking on water. The crew of four voyaged to the north west a further 183 km before the ship foundered and began listing to thirty degrees, when they abandoned ship. On 6th January a Venezuelan Navy Armada frigate was reported standing by the stricken vessel and on 9th January the vessel was again observed but searches by the Venezuelans on the 10th and 11th January had no results...”
Courtesy of Peter Newcombe