The Kathleen & May

 

The Kathleen & May

The Kathleen & May in St Mary Overie’s Dock, 1994

A very special former resident of the London Bridge area was the Kathleen & May, a beautiful and unique west-country schooner that was moored for some ten years, between 1985 and 1996, in St Mary Overie’s Dock, just west of London Bridge.

 

Built in 1900 and registered at Bideford in Devon, it is now the only surviving wood hull British trading schooner in the world, making it a truly significant and important part of British maritime history. The fact that it has survived at all is nothing less than a miracle, because the fate of most ships of its kind was to become uneconomic and redundant and neglected, eventually being left to rot in some backwater, where they would wait till a breakers yard thought they could salvage some timbers or a few bits of brass.

 

The Kathleen & May came close to this ignominious end on two occasions. The first was in 1961 when after some sixty years of carrying heavy goods like coal and porcelain clay around the coasts of Britain, mostly between the west-country and southern Ireland, the owner, Tommy Jewell, had to sell her because the trade had dried up. A sequence of new owners failed to find an economic use for her and she was soon languishing in disrepair. Salvation appeared to come in 1968 when she was spotted by the Duke of Edinburg, who set up The Maritime Trust to preserve ships significant to our maritime heritage.

 

The idea was that while the Cutty Sark at Greenwich would represent ocean-going clipper ships, the Kathleen & May could be restored and put on display to the public as an example of an inshore trading schooner. The Maritime Trust bought the Kathleen & May in 1970, had her restored and put on display, first at Plymouth, then in London at St Katherine’s Dock by Tower Bridge, then at St Mary Overie’s Dock across the river in Southwark. It was here in 1994 that I first saw the ship and when I took the photograph above.

 

But all was not well. The Maritime Trust failed to gain funding and was unable to maintain the ship properly. Her condition rapidly began to deteriorate and they were forced to sell her. Towed as a sad hulk to Gloucester Docks, the future of the Kathleen & May was again uncertain. However, a second salvation suddenly appeared when Steve Clarke, a businessman from Bideford, the Kathleen & May’s home town, saw her and decided to buy and restore her. And this he did in fine style, restoring her not just for public display but as a wonderful fully sea-going vessel, now based once more in her home port of Bideford.