John Harvey, W.S. Gilbert and the boat that bonded them

Samantha PillingHistory

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John Harvey was a yacht builder from Essex. Father to actor, Sir Martin Harvey, he designed and built W.S. Gilbert’s second boat – the Chloris, a 110 ton yawl with a lead keel.

During the spring of 1881 W.S. Gilbert spent a lot of time corresponding with John Harvey about his new yacht. It was nearly twice the size of his previous yacht (the Pleione), and was luxuriously furnished and carpeted throughout. Gilbert had also wanted it to contain marble baths, but he was persuaded to give up on this idea!

The Chloris was originally going to be called Vavir, but Gilbert changed the name after sailing her.

John Harvey and the Wivenhoe shipyard

John Harvey was born in 1803. Born into a boating family, he was the son of Wivenhoe ship builder, Mr Thomas Harvey. John took over the Wivenhoe yard from his father when he retired and went on to also open a yard at Ipswich.

The yard at Wivenhoe prospered for many years, before being destroyed by a fire in 1872. Harvey looked to have it rebuilt, but in order to do so, needed to reorganise. This resulted in rebranding as the ‘John Harvey Yacht and Shipbuilding Company Limited’, complete with a board of directors.

He struggled with the new yard setup. His strong individuality was hampered. However the yard had several years of success, with the schooners ‘Sea Belle’ and ‘Miranda’ being built. However business dropped off in 1880, as the popularity of big schooners declined. The Chloris was therefore the last yacht built, both in 1881 and at the Wivenhoe yard. There was no longer a demand for the classes of yacht the yard was famous for. The yard was quietly closed later that year and John Harvey left for New York to help meet America’s demand for cutters.

America wasn’t kind to John Harvey

His time in America wasn’t that successful. Demand for cutters dropped in 1885. Harvey then became associated with William Gardner, who was just beginning his career as a yacht designer. Harvey’s friend George L Watson had sent out an appeal to yachtsmen for a testimonial fund to purchase a life annuity for him, after hearing how his finances were in a rather unfit state. Watson himself contributed fifty guineas to the fund. In 1898 Harvey returned to London, where he was able to retire. However, after two short years, he passed away on 6th May 1901.

Father to Martin Harvey

John Harvey was a devoted family man, but after the death of his beloved creative wife Margaret in mid 1878, his son rebelled. Martin had been destined to take over the Wivenhoe yard from his father, with his schooling at the School of Naval Architecture planned to prepare him for this path. However Martin took after his mother and preferred a more creative avenue. His father indentured him as his apprentice in 1878, at the age of fifteen. Following advice from W.S. Gilbert, and to prevent his son from running away to become a pioneer farmer, John Harvey finally relented to his sons wishes and placed him under the tuition of an old actor, John Ryder.

Martin went on to become a well known English stage actor, who was knighted in 1921 as Sir John Martin-Harvey.

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