The BOATAFLOAT offices sit near the quayside in Lymington, one of the most prominent yachting centres in the UK. Boats have been chartered from Lymington since the 14th century at least; but Lymington Harbour hasn’t always been filled with pleasure yachts. The earliest charters were of commercial and military vessels. Peter May, our resident history scholar from Trinity College Cambridge, has been doing some historical digging to uncover Lymington’s Maritime History.
Not much is known about Early Medieval Lymington. Between the 5th and 7th centuries, the area was inhabited by a Germanic tribe called the ‘Jutes’, who coexisted alongside the ‘Angles’ or ‘Saxons’.
Lymington’s name (‘Lentune’ in Domesday) may be a British-Saxon hybrid meaning ‘Marshy River Settlement’. The ‘Jutes’ were eventually conquered by the ‘West Saxons’ (later known as ‘Wessex’), a tribe based at Winchester who eventually founded the ‘kingdom of England’ in the 10th century. Some historians think that the ‘West Saxons’ (and potentially also the ‘Jutes’) were actually Britons who adopted Germanic dress, language and identity. If the name Lymington has a partially British root, this may support the idea of ‘Wessex’ having had partially British origins.
Remarkably, despite the natural harbour, there is no evidence that the Jutes, West Saxons, or even the Romans ever used Lymington for sailing.
The Salt Trade
By 1147, Lymington had become an epicentre of British salt production, which led to the development of a thriving shipping town.
Historically, salt was extremely valuable: the word ‘salary’ comes from the fact that Roman soldiers were paid in salt when cash was not available. The 17th Century travel author Celia Fiennes noted the importance of the salt trade in Lymington, and Daniel Defoe wrote in the early 18th century that Lymington supplied all of southern England with salt.
By 1730, there were 163 saltpans in the town, and between 1724 and 1766, 4000 tons of it were exported from Lymington, mainly to the rest of the British Empire. Whilst all that is needed to produce salt is some seawater and a saltern, many colonies (particularly India) were banned from producing their own – keeping them economically reliant on trade with Britain.
Salt made some local merchants extremely wealthy: one 18th century salt producer, Charles St Barbe, made a post-tax profit of £25,000 in a year, which is the equivalent of £2.2m today. He used his wealth to found the St Barbe museum, where you can visit and explore the history of Lymington today.
A Trading Town
Lymington received its town charter during the 12th century ‘Salt Boom’, and the town quickly became a commercial hub. Receiving a town charter was extremely important in the medieval period. It officially granted a settlement the status of a ‘borough’ (allowing coins to be minted, mayors to be elected, and judges to be appointed) and granted its inhabitants ‘citizen’ status. The local aristocrats, the de Redvers family, who had given the town its charter, also ordered a market to take place every Saturday. King Henry III went on to grant the right for the town to host an annual trade fair in 1257.
Rivalry with Southampton
In the early 14th century, Southampton claimed the exclusive right to collect import tariffs in the Solent, meaning that technically any ship unloading goods in Lymington couldn’t pay tax on their goods. Unsurprisingly, trading ships started to prefer missing out on their tax obligations and started docking at Lymington ‘by mistake’.
Lymington quickly caught onto the trend and started independently collecting a (much lower) tariff on goods, while still giving the King his cut. Lymington grew as an importer of French wine, and an exporter of salt, wool and timber, much to the annoyance of Southampton’s merchants.
In 1325, Southampton attempted to sue Lymington to shut them down and the court battle carried on until 1730, when a judge finally found in favour of Lymington.
The French Connection
Sailing in Medieval Lymington also had a military importance thanks to French raiding parties and their Italian mercenaries.
The first raid was carried out at the same time as an attack on Southampton. Whilst no physical evidence of the raid remains in Lymington, visitors to Southampton can still see the burn marks inside St. Michael’s church.
The architect of this attack, Charles Grimaldi, was an Italian mercenary: his family used the proceeds of this attack (not least Edward III’s own wine cellar!) to purchase Monaco and build a palace there. Demand for luxury boats in Monaco now supports many maritime businesses on the Solent – so Lymington’s failure to defend itself may have actually proven a good investment in the long run. A cadet branch of the same family also went on to found ‘Grimaldi Lines’, who are now one of the Port of Southampton’s main shipping lines.
A Military Port
Lymington proved a major source of warships for the English navy, providing more ships than Portsmouth during the wars of the 14th century.
Lymington was not always cooperative with the war effort. Edward I demanded two ships from the town in 1324, the ‘Boldre’ and ‘Kyavene’ (Keyhaven), named after two local hamlets. The owners of these ships, and all other owners in the port, didn’t like the idea of risking their livelihoods in war without any compensation, and refused to moor their ships. The situation was resolved when the local sheriff simply stole another ship from Lymington harbour, along with another from Port Hamble and five from Southampton.
Fittingly enough for the town that Boatafloat now calls home, Lymington had become the charter capital of southern England by the 14th century. Merchants from Norwich, Bristol, Weymouth and Salisbury chartered ‘cogs’ (small trading ships) for trade with Normandy, Brittany and Bordeaux. The first recorded charter in Lymington happened in 1342; may they continue for another 676 years!
Piracy and Smuggling
Lymington’s early focus on commercial shipping had some unfortunate side-effects: first piracy, and then smuggling.
In 1426, two men from Lymington hijacked the Christopher, while it was coming to England from the Flemish town of Sluys. They are only recorded because they were eventually apprehended: it is probable that there were other pirates based in Lymington who we know nothing about, because they were never caught.
In the 18th century, Britain’s hostile relationship with much of the Continent led to high import tariffs being imposed. Lymington responded by becoming a smuggler’s haven. It even appears that the local vicar was something of a smuggling kingpin, and that local funerals were sometimes used as cover for smuggling.
The life of Tom Johnstone, born in Lymington in 1772, really sums up the different roles of sailors in the town: he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy, deserted and took up smuggling, became a spy for France, lost all his ill-gotten gains gambling in London, and ended up as the captain of a revenue cutter in Lymington Harbour, hunting other smugglers.
The Transformation of Lymington
Lymington’s harbour was saved from stagnation and decline by the gentrification of the town during the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1778, Lymington had become fashionable as a party town, and aristocratic army and navy officers flocked there in droves, transforming the parochial market town into a cosmopolitan centre.
Like Southampton, the town also became popular for sea-bathing among the upper classes, leading to an even bigger influx of urban middle-class migrants. In 1833, purpose-built saltwater baths were opened due to high demand on the harbour.
Old Lymington and New Lymington
The Old Lymington of commercial sailing coexisted for a while with the New Lymington of pleasure boating.
By 1819, the town’s shipyard, now owned by Berthon, focused exclusively on revenue cutters to chase smugglers, and yachts for the leisure-focused. Gentrification also brought gas lights and railways in 1832 and 1858 respectively, transforming Lymington from a small trading post into a lavish resort town.
By 1865, the last Saltern had closed, and Lymington’s transformation into a major centre for yachts was almost complete.
The Yacht Clubs
In 1851, boats from Lymington competed in the forerunner of the America’s Cup around the Isle of Wight. This first iteration of the now famous competition was a fleet race, rather than the modern match race, and featured three boats based in Lymington: the ‘Alarm’, the ‘Arrow’ and the ‘Strella’. None of the three finished under the time limit, and the race was eventually won by the ‘America’, which the competition was thereafter named after.
There were initially no formal yacht clubs in Lymington. There were abortive attempts to found them in the 1880s and in 1914, although in both cases war disrupted the mainly military membership. But in 1922, the Lymington River Sailing Club was founded. It was given its current name (Royal Lymington Yacht Club) in 1938; the club paused its activities during WW2 due to naval activity in the Solent, and because many of its members were still themselves involved in the military. The Lymington Town Sailing Club followed hot on their heels in 1946.