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J-Class yacht Velsheda racing in Antigua

Milestones that helped shape the 240-year history of Camper & Nicholsons

29 April 2022• Written by Dr William Collier for Camper & Nicholsons

In recognition of the leading brokerage firm Camper & Nicholsons’ 240th anniversary, we take a look back at the development of the famed British shipyard and the remarkable yachts and milestones that helped to establish the firm as the industry leader it is today.

The yard opened

As one of the earliest builders of yachts over 30 metres in length, Camper & Nicholsons has a rich history. The origins of the yard began in 1782 when the first agreement was made to lease the disused Charles Fort site and develop a shipyard in Gosport. Some 130 years later the firm acquired its second shipyard in Southampton where most of its large motor yachts were built. In the firm’s early years, the Gosport shipyard started building small trading ships.

Camper & Nicholsons was established

After the Gosport yard was inherited by William Camper, the great-nephew of its founder, the firm became one of the most prominent yacht builders of the time. The early cutter Breeze had great racing success and was followed by the Brig Amonyma and famous schooners such as Wyvern who sailed to Australia and Nancy Dawson, the first yacht to complete a circumnavigation. In 1842 William Camper was joined by the young Ben Nicholson who succeeded him as the firm’s senior. As a result, the company Camper & Nicholsons was formed in 1863 and in the following 30-year period, Ben Nicholson more than doubled the firm’s Gosport facilities.

Black Swan

A reputation was forged

Under the management of Ben Nicholson, Camper & Nicholsons reinforced a reputation as builders of fast, strong and innovative yachts. The company’s design breakthrough came after the launch of the 1860 schooner Aline. A fleet of Nicholson-designed schooners soon followed and included some of the largest sailing yachts in the world at the time.

As a new generation of yacht designers threatened to eclipse the firm, one of Ben Nicholson’s sons, Charles, emerged as a talented designer. His breakthrough 1892 racing yacht Dacia was notably sold for twice her cost before the end of her first season. The young Nicholson followed her up with designs for both large and small yachts such as the 1896 Avel and the larger 1899 Black Swan, both of whom are still sailing today.

Shamrock V

Design breakthroughs

In the years leading up to World War I, Charles E. Nicholson designed a series of breakthrough racing yachts: the 19-Metre Class Norada, the 15-Metre Class Istria and the unbeatable schooner Margherita. Alongside these sporting successes, he also conceived and designed Pioneer, the world’s first large diesel-powered yacht. The first World War broke while Nicholson’s first America’s Cup challenger, Shamrock IV, was heading across the Atlantic, dashing any hopes of recovering the famed America’s Cup.

Fair Lady

Leading the industry

Although World War I interrupted yachting, it did not stop Camper & Nicholsons. The firm’s vessels now ranged from motor gunboats to anti-U-boat seaplanes and after the war, the firm was ideally placed to build on its achievements. Camper & Nicholsons were dominating the motor yacht design and production sectors. During this time, yachts such as Fair Lady, the beautifully restored Malahne, the Norwegian royal yacht Norge (ex Philante) and many others remained in commission.

In the sailing world, the firm was equally dominant having built all of the British J Class, of which Shamrock V, Endeavour and Endeavour II would challenge for the America’s Cup. 12 and 8-Metre class yachts also proliferated as did the emergent ocean racing yachts such as Bloodhound, which would later be owned by HM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Thanks to Charles Nicholson’s innovations, cruising yachts continued to attract clients with the most important yacht of the era being Creole, which still survives today, unlike her two slightly smaller sisters.


World War II

With the return of the war, Camper & Nicholsons’ focus inevitably changed. Charles Nicholson brokered the terms which saw most of the firm’s large yachts taken over by the Admiralty to be converted for war work. Alongside a constant stream of repair work, Camper & Nicholsons also built some innovative vessels, ranging from the first gas turbine-powered motor gunboat to electric-powered canoes for use by the Special Boat Service.

The 1950s

As Charles Nicholson had predicted, the days of large yachts did not return fast post-war.  The world had changed, and those who were still able to go yachting did so in the Mediterranean. During the inter-war years, Charles Nicholson’s brother, Arthur, would spend a good part of the winter season in some of the most fashionable hotels of Cannes to help secure new work. Now, the firm established a full-time office in the area to pursue the brokerage and charter business that the firm had always been active in. Soon after, the Cannes office brought in orders for the motor yacht Destiny and her sister ships, as well as many one-off builds such as Northwind II. Typically, the motor yachts were built at the Southampton yard whilst the Gosport facility became a pioneer in glass fibre sailing yacht production taking the Nicholson brand to a new generation of hands-on yacht owners.

Nick Karvounis

Camper & Nicholsons International

The firm’s presence in the Mediterranean grew to include offices in Palma, Monaco and Antibes. Equally the range of services offered no longer included just brokerage and charter but also management, a crew agency and new build supervision. Whilst neither of its yards remains active, Camper & Nicholsons places orders on behalf of its clients at all the world’s leading shipyards.

Today, Camper & Nicholsons remains at the forefront of yachting leading trends in the industry whilst maintaining a passion for the traditions of yachting that it has done so much to forge.

To find out more about Camper & Nicholsons and its current fleet, contact the firm directly here.

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