‘Bessie Ellen’ 10/10 – past, present, future


I am aboard the Westcountry trading ketch ‘Bessie Ellen’ (built in 1904) thinking of her as a bridge to the Westcountry trading ketch ‘Ceres’ (1811-1936). I have six men in mind – Henry Petherick, William and Walter Petherick. Barnabas Shazell and Donald and Alfred Petherick, three generations of the same family, each man closely involved with running ‘Ceres’.

Henry was my great-great-grandfather, who bought ‘Ceres’ in 1852. William was my great-grandfather and Alfred my grandfather. Walter was William’s brother and skipper of ‘Ceres’ for over fifty years. Barnabas was their brother-in-law, (apprenticed to ‘Ceres’ aged 14, later marrying the owner’s daughter. For a while he held shares in the vessel). Donald was Alfred’s brother – he originally took on ‘Ceres’ when William retired then sold her to his younger brother. They all had wives and sons and daughters, except Alfred who had three daughters, one of whom was my mother.

I have a grandson, who one day may marry and produce a great-grandchild, who, in his turn may marry and produce a great-great-grandchild – (let’s be optimistic here). I’d like my great-great-grandchild to inherit the best of the knowledge, attitudes, values and skills of all the generations that came before him or her.

EPSON scanner image

That’s Alfred on the right, dozing, with fishing line in hand, and Frank Clark at the wheel.

That’s a tall order because those characteristics haven’t been made plain to us. However, although I don’t know for sure what these men and their families were like, they all had something in common. Henry, then William with, briefly, Barnabas, followed by Donald, then Alfred owned ‘Ceres’. Those five men plus Walter, three generations, worked this vessel for eighty four years. Barnabas went on to own his own ketch – ‘Joseph and Thomas’.  In other words, they continued to work within narrow parameters, sharing a common experience, while individually they adapted and grew older as the world changed around them. They could be likened to, say, three generations of miners working down the same mine, or three generations of farmers working on the same farm. I know for certain that what I have experienced in the past few days, (apart from a chartplotter, excellent food, an engine and two flush heads), is as close to what they were experiencing as I am ever likely to get.

So how did the vessel, the weather, the tides, this coastline mold the lives of those who sailed in ‘Ceres’? It was a tough, physical life. What useful knowledge, skills and attitudes are there that these generations can teach us? A precise answer depends on who you are and where you are coming from. After all, there were other such vessels on this coast and other families associated with them, and they had there own experiences. Nevertheless, following this voyage, I have a much clearer idea of how it was for my own forebears and an inkling of what they might like to be passed on.


One last thought to end this series. If the latest America’s Cup yachts are very hi-tec, then wooden trading ketches are low-tec. (Except that wasn’t the case when they were built. Boatbuilders were always seeking improvements to their vessels). Moreover, high costs make the modern hi-tec boats available only to a few, while the rest of us stand around watching, dazzled and impressed by the innovations no doubt, but nevertheless standing around watching, with no personal experience of sailing them. Therefore, how good would it be for future generations to have access to vessels in which they can experience first-hand the basic skills of running a sailing ship, working the tides, watching the weather, being part of a crew. As our climate changes, understanding weather and tides is becoming ever more important.


Such vessels exist of course, and ‘Bessie Ellen’ is one of them. However, in addition to running‘Bessie Ellen’, Nikki Alford is involved in the ‘Jane Slade’ Project, with plans for a Westcountry schooner to be built in Polruan, across the water from Fowey.

We used to travel down from Bude to spend our summers in Polruan. We learnt to sail  in our Fowey River dinghy (FR18) and row, first a pram dinghy, then a local rowing boat – a randan. That was over fifty years ago. It was unusual to be able to rent a cottage in those days. Nearly everyone who lived there was born there or nearby. Families were large. Now many of the cottages are holiday homes, and it’s difficult for the young to find their way back. Who, in the 1960s, knew that this would happen? How will it be in the 2060s?

So, if ways can be found, even small ones, to encourage local involvement and build the local community, then it’s to be applauded.

The original ‘Jane Slade’was launched in Polruan in 1870. Jane Slade owned and ran the boatyard, the only woman doing so in Cornwall. At the same time she was landlady of the Russel Inn in Polruan as well as owning shares in a number of other ships. In an era when women didn’t have the vote and the world – especially the tough world of seafaring, boat-building and public houses, was dominated by men, the woman who did all of this would have been very special indeed!

Daphne Du Maurier came across the ‘Jane Slade’ laid up in Pont Pill, a creek off Fowey Harbour. She based her first novel ‘The Loving Spirit’  around her. (If you would like to know more about Jane Slade herself I recommend reading Helen Doe’s ‘Jane Slade of Polruan’, Truran 2002. Also, C H Ward Jackson’s ‘Ships and Shipbuilders of a Westcountry Seaport: Fowey 1786-1939’, Twelveheads Press 1986).

As I mentioned, the project sets out to involve the local community. The new ship’s hull will be built by C Toms & Sons on the same site as the original one – pictured above, and local boat-builders and engineers will play their part in fitting her out.

I wish the project well and will be closely following progress.

And I shall follow ‘Bessie Ellen’ closely too.  As I write, she is on the slip at Toms Yard preparing for a passage to the Canary Islands. Thank you, Nikki, Pete, Karina and Lucas and all of you who made the voyage so enjoyable.


Images by Bill Whateley

Image of ‘Ceres’ from family album