A Short History of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club
Based on the work of the Hon Commodore, Chris Kay
The Mersey Yacht Club was formed on the 26th July 1844 at a meeting held in the Mersey Hotel, Old Church Yard, Liverpool. There were twenty gentlemen present and officers were elected. The new club “hoped to receive the encouragement of the wealthy and the support of the middle classes”.
A report in Bell’s Life and London Times said “the Naval and Merchant Marine were indebted to yachtsmen for experiments and improvements in design and construction”.
The Royal Warrant was received on the 24th September 1844. The Club was then known as the Royal Mersey Yacht Club and members were granted the privilege of flying the defaced blue ensign on their boats.
Under its first Commodore, Dr. John Grindrod, the Club made rapid progress. A number of peers and notables were among the early members including Sir Robert Peel, the then Prime Minister, Lord Egerton, The Earl of Wilton, Sir Richard Bulkeley, Lord Sandon, and John Laird, the owner of what is now Cammell Lairds Shipbuilders.
There were several sail-makers and boat builders. One new member described himself simply as shipwright though one imagines he was a master rather than a mere employee!
In those early days the yachts were all large. In fact the minimum size allowed to take part was twice as big as our present boats. They were totally crewed by paid hands under a professional captain.
The early races were held down the Victoria or Queen’s Channel as it is now known and were started from anchor. At the starting signal, anchors were weighed and sails set.
This print by Henry Melling, a local artist, who was the Club’s first Secretary and remained so until 1879, portrays the first race of the 1845 season.
Another oil painting by Henry Melling, which hangs in the Club dining room, shows the Regatta of 1847. It gives an idea of the size of vessels involved including several steam yachts with spectators aboard and the Commodore’s yacht adorned with flags in the centre.
Prizes in club races were very generous by modern standards and races for a prize of £50 were frequently held. There is a record of a first prize of one hundred guineas being offered for a sailing match to be held in June 1857.
As well as cash prizes the yachts also competed for trophies. Queen Victoria had agreed to become Patron of the Club and on one of her visits to Liverpool presented this magnificent cup to be raced for at a special club regatta.
The season usually began with a cruise in company. In 1848 this took place on the 27th May and the yachts were instructed to assemble off New Brighton at 10.00 am, when the Club’s Commodore, Thomas Littledale, would hoist his flag on the Queen of the Ocean.
1848 was an eventful year, on 24th August the emigrant ship Ocean Monarch was destroyed by fire off Abergele. The Commodore in Queen of the Ocean was sailing back from Beaumaris and saved the lives of 32 of the crew and passengers, a feat commemorated in oils and prints by Henry Melling and other artists.
Whilst monthly meetings were held in Liverpool, as early as 1846 a room was rented at the Birkenhead Hotel for summer meetings and was known as the Marine Station.
At this time only a few races were organised each year and cruises in company seem to have been equally important.
Great importance was also attached to the duty of escorting visiting royalty and other dignitaries and elaborate orders were prepared for such occasions. Cruises in company were less elaborately organised but the importance of flag and other etiquette was stressed.
In 1857, the Marine Station was moved to the Royal Rock Hotel in Rock Ferry.
For most of the 1860s and 70s the Club held monthly meetings in Tower Buildings Liverpool. Whilst there, the Club was responsible for hoisting on the Tower the storm warning signals devised by Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy.
When the Club moved its meetings to Birkenhead in 1877 the hoisting of signals was taken over by the nearby Parish Church of St Nicholas.
In the later half of the 1870’s there was another development; the appearance of lady Full Members. Miss E.A.Fazakerley of Denbigh Castle was elected in May 1877; and Miss Duarte, owner of the yacht Grace of Hoylake and a Miss Carpenter of Denbigh joined during the next two years. In this way, the Royal Mersey was years ahead of many other organisations.
You will see a vessel in the background of this watercolour of Miss Fazakerley painted by Henry Melling. The club has also a separate watercolour of this schooner and also one of her steam yacht again by Henry Melling. It is rumoured that Henry might have had a soft spot for her.
In January 1892 the Club started to investigate the use of smaller boats. Two classes were adopted but it was the smaller of these, the One Rater that took off. From the pictures you can see the reduction in size, and now they tended to be sailed by the owners with one or two paid hands as crew. Racing was much more important and the sport started to open up to a less wealthy class of members.
In July 1894 the Club held its first ladies race in the One Rater Class. Four boats started and the race was won by Miss Louie Fox in Minuet with Mrs R. Richardson second in Dot.
The Jubilee Regatta of 1893, was held on the 24th and 26th June of that year with Valkyrie , Calluna, Ierne, Satanita and the Royal Yacht Britannia present in the big class, all from visiting clubs.
The Saturday’s race was won by Britannia , being sailed in a fresh breeze around the Formby Light Ship as conditions were too rough to race as far as the Bar. On the Monday Valkyrie , won in a light breeze.
By 1897 it appears that the Clyde and Solent Clubs were no longer willing to visit the Mersey, leading to problems over fixtures. The difficulty of sailing in tidal waters and strong currents may have played a part in this, but there are also references to pollution in the yachting press; in particular the effect of smoke and soot on sails resulting from the increasing industrialisation of both banks of the Mersey. There are also two references in the minutes to pollution, in particular to water refuse from a sewer in Tranmere Pool.
No further regattas were held until 1904, when it was decided to hold a local regatta on the Mersey. It was an immediate success and this regatta continues to the present day.
The Club had moved from Liverpool to Birkenhead in 1877. The previous year the Club had rented from the Corporation the slip and sheds at the old Birkenhead Ferry and these premises became the Club’s head quarters.
However the Club received notice to quit these premises on 1st September 1900 and had to find new accommodation. After several false starts, it was decided to proceed with the purchase of 8 & 10, Bedford Road, Rock Ferry. The purchase was completed in March the following year. The cost of £1,100 having been raised by loans from members.
The new Clubhouse was opened on 31st May 1901. And we are still there!
In 1905 long considered proposals for a new class came to fruition. The specification of the Restricted class were approved and very shortly five boats were ordered and being built at Bangor. Here you can see them racing with the training ship HMS Conway in the background.
The class had a successful first season, one of winners being Myfanwy, with seven first and three second places. They were not only successful in racing terms, but it was said that “the boats have proved themselves to be excellent sea boats, able cruisers, stiff, strong, and cheap.”
In September 1911, the Club took part in an invitation race at the Blackpool and Fleetwood Yacht Club in boats of the Jewel Class modelled on the local fishing boats known as nobbies or Morecambe Bay Shrimpers.
The Club members were obviously impressed with these boats for when on 14th November a sub-committee met to consider a new class, it was decided that the Jewels were suitable and represented good value at £50 each.
The class was known as the Rivers Class. Six boats were ordered with names such as Styx and Mersey. Next year four more were built including the Esk; still sailing today.
Throughout the Twenties and early Thirties the Rivers Class continued to be the Club’s main source of competition but in 1934 the Club started to look for a new class.
After considering many different existing designs the Club decided to adopt a new design by Allfred Mylne. Five boats were ordered from D. Munro & Son, based at Blairmore on the Clyde, at a cost each of £165 plus £6 15s for shipping from the Clyde to the Mersey. It was also recommended that the boats should have names beginning with the letters “MER”.
The outbreak of World War II saw the introduction of regulations which banned keeping pleasure craft on moorings and this meant the suspension of sailing at the Royal Mersey. Before 1939 was out, the ferry service to Rock Ferry had been abandoned and the landing stage closed. The Mersey fleet was laid up in Sam Bond’s yard.
At a committee meeting in 1941 it was decided that the moorings be left where they were “until a more favourable time to lift them”.
With the end of the war, restrictions were slowly lifted and sailing gradually restarted. The Royal Mersey’s racing now centred around the Mylnes, at this stage just six of them.
In 1947 the Club decided to build six Firefly class dinghies.
The use of timber was still controlled and permits to build this number of boats were allocated to Club members by the Yacht Racing Association. The same number of permits was also allocated to Dee Sailing Club and West Kirby Sailing Club. Following a joint meeting of representatives of the three clubs, the area trials for the 1948 Olympics were held on the river at Rock Ferry.
But it soon became clear that regular dinghy sailing wasn’t a safe option on this part of the river.
Samuel Bond started his own business in 1876 but it wasn’t until he had to move his yard to Rock Ferry in 1902 that his close relationship to the Club really developed. When Sam died in 1911 the Club’s flag was flown at half mast as a token of esteem.
Bond’s yard adjacent to Rock Ferry Pier had direct access to the Mersey with it’s own slipway. Most of the Mylnes were laid up each year in the yard and most of the yearly maintenance was carried out by the yard.
When, after the war, the oil terminal was built at Tranmere a narrow gap was left to the river, and now the memories become personal . Our Honorary Commodore fondly remembers trundling down the slipway at the start of the season.
Sadly Bond’s yard closed in 1962.
In 1960, talks started on the introduction of a second class. An attempt was made to introduce the Hilbre One Design without much success. After careful consideration the New Class sub-committee recommended the Squib, a 19 foot, two-man keelboat. The following February a meeting was called, attended by thirteen prospective owners, at which the Squib’s designer Oliver Lee was present. The class thrived and members competed in the Menai Strait Regattas and the National Championships.
The royal connection also continues.
We see here His Royal Highness the late Duke of Edinburgh, patron of Royal Mersey Yacht Club from 1952 to 2021, on the occasion of his visit to the Club in 2008.