Our Company Heritage
Camper & Nicholsons has the most illustrious history of any brokerage firm, leading back to when our first shipyard was founded in 1782.
In 1782, Frances Amos started a shipyard in Gosport across the harbour from the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth. In 1809 Amos apprenticed his great-nephew William Camper, and by 1821 the yard was building small trading ships.
As Amos had no children, in 1824 he allowed his nephew Camper to take over the lease on the yard. Camper forged strong links with the wealthy members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, positioning the business in the emergent yacht building industry. For twenty years from the launching of the cutter Breeze in 1836, Camper built up a reputation as a builder of fast yachts, favoured by a prestigious clientele. However, the defeat in the inaugural 1851 America’s Cup followed in 1854 by the outbreak of the Crimean War and the consequent cessation of yachting heralded a premature decline to Camper’s career.
In 1842, 14-year-old Ben Nicholson joined Camper’s yard as an apprentice. As there was no clear male heir in the Camper family, Nicholson had risen in the yard to become chief designer, producing the innovative 1860 design for the schooner yacht the Aline. The yacht’s racing success and subsequent orders prompted Nicholson’s further promotion and facilitated his choice as Camper’s replacement when he retired in 1863.
Camper & Nicholson
The company of Camper and Nicholson was formed in 1863, financed by both William Camper and the Lapthorn family. Nicholson undertook a 30-year programme of expansion, more than doubling the size and scale of the facilities. The design and construction of large schooners dominated the firm’s output, and Nicholson added a refit and maintenance business made possible by the expansion of the yard’s facilities.
The arrival of Ben's three sons in the firm occasioned a final name change to Camper & Nicholsons. Eldest son Benjamin made his impact through the supply of crew, drawn mainly from regional fishermen, for leisure and racing purposes to the yachts built for the rich clientele - a service that continued until 1939. Youngest son Arthur W. found his ability best applied through managing the maintenance and construction facilities of the yard, and the purchase of expansion facilities in Southampton.
Charles E. Nicholson
Middle son Charles emerged as the consummate yacht designer, able to combine elegance with speed and seamanship. In the early 1900s Charles developed a new powered craft which would enable the owners to come from their “big-boats” before and after the competitions. In 1912, Charles introduced the 15 metre design Istria with a Marconi rig, the first yacht in the world with a lightweight, laminated wood construction. This led to further developments and growing expertise in the use of lightweight materials. This ultimately led to arguably Nicholson's most beautiful sailing creation, the 1927 commissioned Vita.
Post world war I "golden era"
In 1914 Camper & Nicholsons had produced the world’s first large, diesel powered yacht M.Y. Pioneer. Capitalising on this, Camper & Nicholsons remained the world’s leading builder of motor yachts through to the outbreak of WWII. The largest of these motor yachts was the 1,629-tonne MY Philante built for Sir Tom Sopwith. This was the third motor yacht built by Camper & Nicholsons for Sopwith, and after he bought the America’s Cup yacht Shamrock V from the estate of Sir Thomas Lipton in 1931, Sopwith commissioned Charles to design the 1934 J-Class yacht Endeavour, and 1936's Endeavour II.
The height of Camper & Nicholsons was probably 1937's Cowes Week which came to be known as Charlie Nicholson’s Regatta. All the J-Class, three quarters of the 12 metres, half the 8 metres and many of the ocean racers were from Charles’ board, as were many of the motor yachts in the spectator fleet. And yet for all the success, less than ten percent of Camper & Nicholsons output during his time was racing yachts.
Post-world war II
Just prior to World War II, Charles's son John Nicholson began to assist with the design office and in 1939 it was his own designs that helped to move the company forward. His philosophy on production developed during the war years and enabled the company to address the mass-market. After World War II, John's cousin Charles A. Nicholson, known as Young Charlie, sent his second son George to the Riviera to work for a friend’s brokerage firm, and persuaded both owners and crews to return their yachts to the yard for winter repairs. This move was instrumental in the survival of Camper & Nicholsons in the subdued economy of a post-war Britain. In spite of continued racing successes and the production of high profile boats such as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s Dragon class Bluebottle, a shortage of wood meant that the company relied on civilian repair work and Government contracts for wooden mine sweepers.
Being family owned, Camper and Nicholsons had always had a propensity to develop subsidiaries to have complete control over production and Charles E. Nicholson continued to chair the company until his death in 1954, aged 86. The foundations of a robust and successful yacht design and build company had been made that had not only survived World War I and World War II, but had provided the Royal Navy with motor yachts displaying the quality and craft of which they are still known today. As Government contracts dried up in the late 1950s, Young Charlie's son Peter developed the production offerings of the company along three streams; large motor yachts, custom sailing yachts and the so-called "people's yacht" made from glass-reinforced plastic. A change had started to happen in attitudes towards luxury cruising enabling Camper & Nicholsons to move forward and expand on what they had accomplished in the industry so far.