Mayfly – the first 75 years

This is the first of a three-part history of the Burnham oyster smack, the Mayfly. Built during the second half of the nineteenth century, and still sailing the waters of the Thames estuary, some 135 years on.

An oral history of the Mayfly has been passed down through the Stebbings family, re-ignited periodically as news of Mayfly’s latest adventures and whereabouts have come to light. One such occasion was in the mid-1970’s, when the Mayfly emerged onto the front covers of the sailing press and into national newspapers, as the amazing story of Graeme Dillon’s circumnavigation was told (this will form the basis of part-two of Mayfly’s story).

In 1998, the Mayfly appeared again, this time from underneath blue tarpaulin, when Harry Stebbings came across her being repaired in David Patient’s boatyard in Maldon. This occasion re-united Mayfly with Harry, and his cousin Bill Stebbings, both of whom had sailed her as young men, during the 1920s and 1930’s. Bill’s own memories of Mayfly were recorded by Pete Pearson during interviews and reminiscences with Bill, and Pete deserves much credit for this and many hours of similar recordings of the lives and work of those employed in Burnham’s boat building and related businesses.

Mayfly is still sailing in and around the Blackwater, from her mooring at West Mersea, and video footage of her under sail has been captured by Dylan Winter (Keep Turning Left) and can be found on YouTube (all of which will follow in part-three of the story).


At the outset, I should make plain that despite there being a broad range of historical fragments to draw upon, there remain gaps and uncertainties regarding some aspects of Mayfly’s history. I have no doubt, for the most part, in the accuracy of the individual records, but I have more work to do before I’ll be entirely satisfied that the story I’m about to tell is the true one.

A handwritten list, probably by William Stebbings, of boats built during the 1870’s and 1880’s recorded that the Mayfly was built in 1877. However, the story below from THE HALFPENNY NEWSMAN shows Mayfly was actually built in Burnham in 1875.

From THE ESSEX NEWSMAN, March 20th 1875.

LAUNCH AT BURNHAM – On Wednesday, a smart little vessel, which was named the May Fly, and which has been built by Mr. Wm. Stebbings for Mr. L. Sweeting, was successfully launched, and in the evening all those who had been engaged in the construction of the vessel partook of an excellent supper, which had been provided by Mr. J. Smith, of the Anchor Inn. Mr. A. Rowe presided, and the vice-chair was occupied by Mr. W. Stebbings. Several complimentary toasts, including to the health of Mr. Laban Sweeting and Mr. Spencer Addison, were proposed by the chairman, and were energetically responded to. Some good songs were sung by some of those present, and the evening’s proceedings were ultimately brought to an agreeable termination. The May Fly is much admired and does great credit to Mr. Stebbings, who has on former occasions turned out some first-rate craft.

Bill Stebbings’ recollection was that Mayfly was the last traditional oyster smack built by his Grandfather, William Stebbings. This rings true with what we know about William’s subsequent output, for although he produced a number of other working boats, all the oyster dredgers he went on to build after the Mayfly were powered by steam, and not sail.

Working for oyster merchant Mr. Laban Sweeting, Mayfly would have spent the first part of her working life as part of a large dredging fleet tending to the many oyster layings in the River Crouch at that time.

Mayfly first appears in the Register of Sea Fishing Boats for Colchester some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, where she is given the registration CK363. West Mersea is recorded as her home port at that time, and while her builder is recorded as ‘unknown’ a year of build has been entered as 1889, which I will assume was an error. The measurements recorded are not too far off those written down by her builder. There is a note made in 1910 to show that Mayfly’s owner was Edwin Langstaff Cooke, of Ipswich, and the skipper was an Arthur Cudmore. The entry in the Colchester register is crossed out in 1918, and it is noted that Mayfly had moved to London, where she was registered as LO258.

After her soujourn on the London river, Mayfly reappears in the Colchester Register of Sea Fishing Boats in 1923, whereupon she is registered as CK121. At that time she is recorded as having come back into the Stebbings family’s ownership. This time the registration shows her place of build as being Burnham (presumably William Stebbings jnr. put the authorities right on that matter), but the date of build is still down as 1889.


Mayfly had been found by the family in a pretty sorry state languishing in the mud at Foulness. Her builder, William Stebbings, had died in 1907, and so for sentimental reasons his sons William and Albert Harry contacted the owner and Mayfly was purchased for 25 pounds. She was extensively refitted and for just over a decade was used by the family as a yacht for day trips, fishing, smack races, local regattas, picnics, and teaching the younger family members to sail.

The photos above are from this time. The picture with the three women seated in the stern of Mayfly shows (L-R) Nellie Stebbings, Ellen Stebbings and Doris Rudston (who would later marry Robert Pipe, whose mother was Elizabeth Stebbings). The picture with five people shows Tom Ambrose, Nellie Stebbings, Ellen Stebbings, Harry Stebbings and Albert Harry Stebbings.

In 1934, a final note regarding the Mayfly appears in the Colchester Register of Sea Fishing Boats. It is recorded that an engine had been fitted and that Mayfly had been sold to Mr. Claude Scrutton of Thorpe Bay. Claude worked in his family’s London stevedore firm, Scrutton’s, but was a regular visitor to the River Crouch, indeed after his death his ashes were scattered at the mouth of the river.

During Claude Scrutton’s ownership the Mayfly was skippered by R.J.’Bob’ Cole, who also skippered another of Mr. Scrutton’s boats, the 47′ motor yacht Fedalma II (a Dunkirk ‘little ship’). Up until he left to join the navy, Bill Stebbings recounted how Mayfly could often be seen motoring up and down the Crouch, but looking quite different from her sailing days.

To be continued …

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10 Responses to Mayfly – the first 75 years

  1. Captain Blackie says:

    Graeme was in Tahiti with Mayfly in the early 70s when he hauled out and immediately got sick, hepatitis as I remember. While Graeme was in the hospital,Bernard Mortissier and I went to work on Mayfly. The boat was seriously leaking upon arrival to Papeete and much was to be done. The rudder was worm eaten. We pulled the rudder off onto the quay at Papeete and watched it dissolve into rusty metal tierods, worm caseings, and rotted wood. I took on building a new rudder while Bernard started caulking the seams of the hull. I completed a new rudder using 2 by 4s and glue and tierods and then worked w/Bernard on the hull. Bernard taught me how to caulk, and then when there some some planks above the waterline near the stbd stern that were too mushy to caulk, we patched over with aluminum litho plates from the newspaper shop that printed the Tahiti Bulletin, the English language daily that I was editing at the time.
    We got her seaworthy and Graeme ended up continuing West soon thereafter. What ever happened to him? We were good friends at the time and I, naturally, being an American, called him Cracker

  2. Wendy says:

    I sailed with Graeme Dillon from Durban to Cape Town in very heavy seas in the 70s. Quite a remarkable little boat…..

  3. Dave Whiting says:

    Hi Pete
    I am the current owner of the smack Mayfly. Thank you for all this information some of which was new and very unexpected.
    I met with Graeme Dillon a few years ago he came to see Mayfly at her berth in West Mersea. He gave me lots of photos of her journey around the world. This is the first I new of her true age. I can confirm lots of the information supplied like she still is doubled with Horse hair and pitch and I purchased her from a friend of the late Rodger Hardy in June 2003 from Heybridge basin. She is still going strong and will be competing in Mersea week and West Mersea Town Regatta in August.
    It would be really great to receive anything more you discover about her history.
    Thanks Dave

    • Captain Blackie says:

      It is so great to know she is still sailing. I wrote an article about her when she arrived in Papeete on her voyage with Graeme. That was in the Tahiti Bulletin, the Tahiti English language daily rag. Graeme had been pumping the bilges almost continuously for a considerable time just prior to arrival in Papeete. I may have taken a picture for the newspaper at the time but I do not remember. Last I heard Al Prince’s ex wife owned the paper and it was still being published, so there may be an archive, but I would not bet on it. I usually put a picture in the story of arriving yachts. Bernard Mortissier,the famous French circumnavigator, had learned how to caulk as a young man.and extensively recaulked the boat. He taught me how to caulk & I used his tools when he was doing something else.

  4. David Roper says:

    I purchased a Mayfly on 1967 from Mr John Wright. He had advertised the smack in the Yachts for Sale column of the Saturday edition of the Times.

    The Mayfly I refer to was found lying, somewhat neglected in a mud berth, at the Elephant Boatyard, Bursledon. The confusion surrounding the year and builder was a matter of dispute even in the ’60’s.

    I was told on great authority by a number of East Coast visitors to the Solent Old Gaffer’s Annual meetthat she was definitely built by Shuttlewood or Stebbings in 1877/9/1900/7/10.

    Now to a few facts; the Mayfly that transformed my life was 33′ over the deck with a bowsprit projecting 11′ beyond the stempost, in the aft well covered by an unsightly doghouse sat an enormous single cylinder Lister engine, handcranked by a large flywheel.

    Clues; Her hull had been “doubled” with pitch pine covering a horsehair and pitch mixture. This work was carried out when she was raised from her wartime mud berth in the immediate post WW2 years, where she had settled following a strafing attack circa ’42/43. There were 3 or 4 plugs that had been driven into the holes on the port side water line, obviously, only visible from within the main hold. My move to a French Company On the Swiss border in 1970 forced her sale.

    The Mayfly on which I carried out a considerable amount of restoration work was definitely the circumnavigation Graham Dillon’s Boat. He and his partners invited me to Yarmouth, IoW, for discussions on rigging before he set off. An invitation to join Graham and his “Farmer Uncle” to participate in the Solent OGA meet was a most memorable affair, since we were able to do serious damage to a large piece of roast Beef and the accompanying bottles of Bordeaux as we made out leisurely way around the course.

    Question, which may help in resolving the Year/ builder mystery. At least two of the main beams in the main hold were from French Oak and as hard as iron, they were said to have originated from the Napoleonic P.o.W. hulks that graced the Medway for a large portion of the 19th. century. When did the supplies to the Essex yards dry up? Did both Stebbings and Shuttlewoods avail themselves of this source of remarkable timber?

  5. Mike House says:

    Hello, I bought Mayfly from Richard Sowman in 1983 she was lying in Exeter maritime museum where Richard was working. Roger Hardy (Smack ‘Victory’ LO 101 and bawley ‘Mollie’) and I sailed her back to Essex – Heybridge basin.
    Mayfly had undergone a lot of changes since leaving the East coast particularly on deck, fish hatches replaced by a doghouse, a high, wide and long cabin top and a forehatch leaving very little or no deck space. As a result deck beams had been cut out and the deck now a series of short ends. Over 2 years I replaced all beams, covering boards, redecked with small cabin top and fish hatch also replaced some frames and uprights and fitted a new rail.
    The rig had been cut down – with a short fixed bowsprit, a small staysail on sheets (the cabin top extending beyond the mast prevented using a horse), the mainsail was the size of a fully reefed smack sail and was laced to the boom.
    I made a new running bowsprit and new boom,fitted a horse, purchased a new jimmy Lawrence mainsail and sourced secondhand headsails and topsail.
    I sailed her out of Heybridge for 10+ years. We entered some races and came third in the Thames Gravesend to Greenwich race – her best result.
    I passed her on in the mid nineties and I guess thats when she went to Dave Patients.
    My information was that she was indeed built at Paglesham but in 1889 by a predecessor of Shuttlewood. Hope thats of interest.
    Regards Mike House

  6. Jeremy Burnett says:

    The Mayfly was owned by some friends of mine Richard and Nick Sowman in the 70’s. They sailed her to Spain and Madeira.

    • pete_shep says:

      Hi Jeremy, thankyou for your post. I would be interested to learn more, but at the moment I’m having a few days sailing on the Blackwater and Crouch, so internet connectivity is a bit limited. I’ll be in touch, thanks, Pete

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