Our Lizzie

Her History

Find out Our Lizzie’s history, from being registered as a sailing drifter in St Ives, her conversion to a yacht in 1936, her spying mission in the Baltic, taking part in Operation Dynamo and her service in WWII to her extensive re-fit in 2015

Early Life

Our Lizzie is one of the last few sailing drifters built at the end of an era where several thousand of these vessels drifted for herring, mackerel and pilchards around the United Kingdom.

1920 – 1937

James and John Penberthy of St Ives had her built in 1919 by W J Oliver and Sons at Porthleven in Cornwall. They named her after Elisabeth Penberthy, their baby sister who died before the boat was launched.

She is constructed of pitch pine on oak frames and was one of 3 known examples built with a counter stern as the usual West Country design in this size had a straight transom stern. On 19th February 1920 she was registered at St Ives as SS55, a two masted lugger with a 26HP Kelvin and a 24HP Gardiner auxiliary engines and a steam capstan for hauling when she was longlining. The engines were reasonably rare at this time and whilst they added extra propulsion they also saved the cost of a steam tug in many ports.

Willie (bill) Oliver and his father William John Oliver

Josephus Toy, W. Oliver (junior), Reggie johns, W. Bowden, W. J. Oliver (snr), Jack Pascoe.

Earlier Registry of British Ships shows her engines being replaced by a single 36HP 4 cylinder petrol/paraffin Thornycroft engine in 1933.

She is recorded as being washed ‘High and dry’ in St Ives during a storm in January 1925 and in another incident during fog on the 1st September 1926 she struck the rocks at Tregiffian near Lamorna. Her crew were five hours on the rocks before they were able to climb the cliff to safety. Our Lizzie floated off the rocks and was found and towed to Newlyn by two other St Ives boats, ‘Amelia’ SS93 and ‘Guide Me’ SS109.

 

She continued to fish until 1934 when James Penberthy was aboard the ‘Amelia’ SS93 and they were run down by a French coaster. The coaster rescued the surviving crew but sadly James drowned. John Penberthy gave up fishing after that and took a grave digger job until his death in 1960. Our Lizzie’s Certificate of Fishing Registry was closed on 16th May 1934.

Our Lizzie was then sold to Ralph Stock and it is assumed he used her for fishing. There is a photograph of her with ‘Fowey’ being shown as her port but she does not appear registered at Fowey around this time.

Our Lizzie circa 1934 – 1936

War Years

In 1937 she was sold to Herbert Ward who had her converted at Tanglio yard, Teddington into a yacht and the rig was changed from that of a lugger to a gaff ketch. Herbert Ward sailed Our Lizzie to Holland and around the Baltic with his friends, Mr and Mrs Bevan. Mr Francis H Bevan and Mrs Pleasance M. V. Bevan subsequently bought Our Lizzie from Herbert Ward.

Yachting Monthly 1936 article

Mr Herbert Ward and Mrs Pleasance Bevan

1937 – 1945

In July 1939 Mr Francis Bevan received a phone call asking him to go to the Admiralty. When there he was asked to sign the official secrets act and because it was noticed he had done a lot of sailing around the Baltic, he was asked to take Our Lizzie to Holland, up past the Fresian Islands to Kiel and along the German Baltic coast to Swinemunde. They were asked to sail inshore as much as possible posing as a family sailing holiday with friends. Mrs Bevan wrote a detailed account of the trip as a memory for her grandchildren from which a great deal of this information is taken. She describes the purpose of the trip was to see if the Germans had radar though I suspect only Francis Bevan new the real objective.

Francis Bevan was allowed to select his own crew and also told that if they got into any trouble the Admiralty would deny any knowledge of them and they would get no help. His crew were Donald Haig, Byas Shepherd, Tom Kemsley and Herbert Ward. Mrs Bevan records several encounters with German soldiers, some of which were frightening and some amusing. They were often chased away from being too close to the shore in certain areas and believed they were being watched by the Gestapo. One of the places where they were boarded and asked to sail further away from the shore was Peenemunde, where Mrs Bevan thought the large buildings there were a ‘Strength Through Joy’ Camp. The Germans were very quick in coming out in the fast patrol boats there and boarded Our Lizzie for an inspection before telling them to move out to sea. It was much later when the doodle bugs came hurtling over England that she read they were being manufactured in those buildings at Peenemunde.

After Swinemunde they set sail for Sweden and felt a great sense of relief to be out of German waters as the atmosphere was particularly tense due to the international situation. Byas and Mrs Bevan returned to England and Francis and his crew began the journey home. They were weather bound in Cuxhaven and became increasingly worried with the deteriorating situation they were hearing from the loudspeakers in the port which regularly bellowed out the news. Fearing the imminence of war and the thought of being interned they ran the heavy seas and reached Dutch waters from which they returned home.

Mr Francis Bevan

Just after the outbreak of WWII Francis Bevan was again called to the Admiralty, this time the plan was to take Our Lizzie and pose as a fishing boat off the Dutch coast and report the movement of German submarines. He again selected his crew Howard Ward, Donald Haig and a chap called ‘Nick’ but just before they were about to leave his contact, Mr Clifford (they did not believe this was his real name) told them that when the final plan was put before the First Sea Lord he considered it was asking the men to commit suicide and so the trip was cancelled.

A few weeks later Francis Bevan was once again called to the Admiralty and he was asked to take Our Lizzie to Iceland to find out if there was a German submarine base hidden in one of the bays. This mission was urgent and the officers wanted him to leave straight away. He told the officers who were interviewing him Our Lizzie was not suitable for this mission as she was too slow. After some discussion they agreed but the mission was still to go ahead and they immediately telephoned to commandeer a Hull Trawler, the ‘Cape Passaro’ together with her skipper for the job. Francis Bevan was to put his crew together again and the skipper was to be under his orders as it was a Secret Service operation. After seeing the ‘Cape Passaro’, meeting the skipper, organising the victualling and the Crew he returned to Tothill Street in London for his final orders. He was met with ‘Operation Cancelled‘ as for the second time the First Sea Lord intervened saying the operation would be suicide and it was highly likely the trawler would be blown out of the water before reaching Iceland.  A year or two later Mrs Bevan learnt the trawler ‘Cape Passaro’ had been sunk in another naval engagement.

Francis Bevan then joined Naval Intelligence and served as a Lieutenant Commander. He spent some months as a diplomat in Hungary sharing an office in the British Embassy with the military attaché. Reportedly he was involved in supplying dynamite to ‘various agents’. He returned to England just before the evacuations at Dunkirk. Our Lizzie was moored at Burnham when she was commandeered by the Navy. LCdr. Bevan was still in Hungary at this time and Mrs Bevan had to bring things such as the compass etc. to Burnham on Crouch. The Navy were taking Our Lizzie to Dover as part of a fleet of circa 1,200 vessels to help with the rescues on ‘Operation Dynamo’. Mrs Bevan offered to go and crew Our Lizzie but the naval officer commandeering Our Lizzie refused to let her go. LCdr. Bevan took part in the rescues on a different boat, a motor boat, and he described the situation to his wife as;

‘extremely hair-raising, as bombs were falling all around them all the time, and he saw several boats blown up and vanishing without trace. At the same time it was an incredible sight with all the small boats which had crossed from Dover, hauling exhausted troops on board. Thames barges were towing lighters, there were up river motor boats and paddle steamers, one 5 ton boat just crewed by two women. In fact everything that could be made to float went to the rescue. … The awful thing was having to leave troops behind because your boat was already overloaded. The water was so shallow that the men had to wade out and it was a job to get them on board in some cases.’

Mrs Pleasance Bevan

Mrs Bevan said, “I don’t think any of us who were adult then, will ever forget Dunkirk.”

After Dunkirk Our Lizzie had a small gun attached to her deck and was used to patrol between Harwich and the Thames. She later served with the Royal Army Service Corps on the Clyde ferrying mail and supplies to ships anchored, anti-aircraft batteries and searchlight positions there. The Imperial War museum supplied this picture of Our Lizzie taken when she served there under Captain Earnest W Baird.

Our Lizzie in Scotland circa 1944 serving for The Royal Army Service Corps

After The War

After the war she was returned to the Bevan family in poor condition and was refitted at Toughs yard.

Film and TV apperances

In 1990 Ray and his wife Ann Barnett took her to the 50th Anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk and gained considerable coverage through local and national newspapers. She was featured in the book, ‘The Little Ships Of Dunkirk’ by Christian Brann (1989).

She was sold to Mr John Crabtree in 1947. Jack (which he was called) was from Caterham in Surrey and he had Our Lizzie further refitted at Mitchell’s boatyard at Portmellon near Mevagissey with money from a lucky bet on ‘Freebooter’, a horse who won the Grand National in 1950. Her name was changed to ‘Freebooter’ after the horse and Freebooter cruised the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas. She was registered as ‘Freebooter’ in 1951 with the same official number 147043 as she was registered with in 1939 by the Bevans with her port of registry being changed from St Ives to London. John Crabtree sold her in January 1960 to John Brian Nickolls of Plymouth who I believe used her for fishing charters and had her registered at Padstow.

Ray Barnett of Brixham bought her in 1965 and ran her as a fishing and diving charter boat after moving to Dartmouth. During this time she was featured in every series of the BBCs ‘The Onedin Line’ where she had her masts removed and a dummy funnel and superstructure added to make her look like a steam boat. She was featured in ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ at Dartmouth, in ‘Dracula’ at Mevagissey and in ‘The Apple Tree’ and ‘Summer Love’ with Susannah York at Sidmouth as well as appearing in ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘Frenchman’s Creek’.

A story of her encounter in the early 70s with a large shark whilst out on a charter was detailed the book ‘Amazing Fishing Stories’ by Paul Knight, 2011.

Read about that here

 

Following changes in the code of practice for charter vessels in the early 1990s Ray Barnet sold her to David Loom in 1993. David changed her name back to ‘Our Lizzie’ and sailed her to the Mediterranean

Our Lizzie on the Guadiana River Spain – Portugal 1997

1990 – 2019

Our Lizzie was laid up in Spain in the late 90s and bought by Claire and Howard Brown who sailed her back to England in what was reported to be in ‘poor condition’

They refitted her in Dartmouth and in 2000 on her mooring in the river Dart the stove caused a fire which resulted in the renewal of the doghouse, deck and several structural members. In 2001 they took her to the International Festival of the Sea in Portsmouth. Our Lizzie also won the ‘Slowest Boat’ award at the Old Gaffers race in Brixham that year. John McWilliams encountered Our Lizzie with the Browns in 2001 and wrote articles for the local paper in St Ives and Fishing Boats magazine detailing her history. A great deal of the information here I have obtained from his articles.

The Browns sold her to Mr Martin Messer-Bennets who later sold her to Jason Wickenden in 2005. Jason lived on Our Lizzie at Dartmouth until he sold her to David Webster in 2011. I was just too late at this time and missed the opportunity to purchase her. David kept her sailing the West Country and took Our Lizzie to the 75th Anniversary of ‘Operation Dynamo’ in 2015.

Peter Manning purchased Our Lizzie from David just after that trip and after about 9 months of planning, started a major refit in February 2016 at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft.

The journey to Lowestoft was not without incidence as we blew a head gasket near Newhaven and had to be towed in by the Newhaven Lifeboat. Since the Ferry had recently damaged the visitor’s pontoon the only place in the harbour was on the lifeboat station and the coxswain put us inside the lifeboat until she could be repaired. Our many thanks to Paul Legendre and all the crew for their help and hospitality.

The Story Of A Journey, Not Just A Refit

Newhaven in Febuary 2016

The refit has taken 6 years, six months with extensive replacement of all defective frames and planks, a new deck and superstructure, new engine and gear, new sails and rigging. There has been a redesign and rebuild of the interior together with new steering, electrics and new ballast which has been increased from 6 to 8.5 tonnes. Naval Architect James Pratt provided drawings, specification and supervised the whole of these works and she is now ready for her next centenary of adventure.

Excelsior’ and ‘Our Lizzie’ together in the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club marina. I believe there are only five surviving sailing drifters out of a fleet of about 10,000 which operated throughout the United Kingdom a hundred years or so ago. There was a time over 1000 were registered out of Lowestoft alone.
Two of the other surviving five are now museum exhibits; kept, but no longer sailing. It was a rare and wonderful sight to see these vessels who are still sailing, together in the same place and I thought it a picture well worth taking.

Our Lizzie General Arrangement and Section