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My Family History 18th April 2007 Family History
I have always had an interest in family history, ever since I realised that my fathers side the SHILSTON's were well known boat builders based at the China House [which is now a pub] in Plymouth.

According to the local paper of the time 'Plymouth and Dock Telegraph' - July 9th 1819  William Shilston was already the tennant - [he had  been for the previous 10 years]. It stated:

 'A convenient and spacious Shipwright's Yard, with several storehouses, sheds.........adjoining the harbour of Sutton Pool ' and in the next paragraph stated:
'Also, to be let for a term of fourteen years, all that capacious Mast Pond, situated at Coxside, being part of Sutton Pool..................................also in possession of Mr William Shilston as tennant until Christmas next'.

It appears that John and William Ditchett Shilston, brothers, began to be ship builders from 1807 as I have been able to get a photocopy of a hand written record of John and William purchasing timber from a local wood yard. To date I have no evidence of their ship building dynasty prior to 1823, which could be due to the scarcity of the Shipping Merchant Registers of Plymouth on account of the Customs Officers failing to correctly trace the owner of a vessel or to learn of it's fate, however this changed with the new Shipping Registry Law of 1823.

Their first ship registered was called 'Mars' a 165 ton schooner.  Apparently tonnage was a crude measurement of the boat's carrying capacity 'a measure of cubic feet below the deck divided by a 100', which at the time was important, due to the amount of cargo that be could transported in one go. Also the shape of the hull had to be designed for speed as time was money to the owner. Plymouth's shipbuilders followed the trends in shipbuilding as knowledge increased and wooden schooners, sloops, brigs, barques and ketches were built and identifiable by their rigs.

The Shilston brothers had their ups and downs and were bankrupt on two occasions, yet they managed to keep hold of China House boat yard.

John married Mary Hole 17/09/1820 at Stoke Dameral (now Devonport) they had a son William Hole Shilston who later takes over China House from his father.

William, John's brother, married Ann Broderick and they had 5 children and in the mid 1840's move to Portsmouth and joined the Royal naval dockyard as a ship builder.
John re-married, (I can only assume that Mary possibly died in childbirth as I found no further mention of her), Betty Pethick 12/10/1822 at North Hill, Cornwall and they have five children.

Until William's departure to Portsmouth, the two families lived at China House verified by 1841 and 1851 Census.

The biggest ship ever built in Sutton Harbour was the 'Earl of Devon' launched by Shilston in 1869 from the China House slips. William Hole Shilston, John's eldest son, becomes a shipbuilder and works with his father at China House. His most well known ship built is the 'Erycina' a cutter, designed by H.V.Prigg. The original sail plans can be seen in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. Plymouth held local regattas, 22 in total and the Erycina won 15 times, took 4 second place and 2 third place prizes.

The 'Vanduara'  also designed by Prigg and built by W.H.Shilston won 3 times, so in total the Shilston boats won the Plymouth regattas 18 times out of 22.John Ditchett Shilston died following a fall in 1876, so the yard was then taken over by William H his eldest son.

Prior to John's death, the ship building industry started to change, the Great Western docks had been formed, Brunel was the engineer, following this the railway lines came to the docks to promote commerce and Plymouth boasted of possessing an excellent train service to London.

The end of wooden ship building was in sight, it appears that the Shilston's had fore sight and started to build fishing trawlers such as the Erycina as the ship building dynasty changed from wood to iron. 

The Shilston's operated from China House and  maintained a long connection with the Port of Plymouth, both as owners and builders of sailing vessels.

The Shilston dynasty traded both deep-sea and coastal until the late 1920's following the loss of the 'Western Lass' 13/07/1927, and Alfred Hole Shilston grandson to John and 3rd son to William Hole Shilston, sold the ship yard in 1927.

My Great Grandfather, Henry Pethick Shilston, third child to John and Betty, became a Master Mariner and sailed the ships built by John D Shilston.

The family Bible refers to the 'Sprite of Plym' which Henry was Master of and sailed to India to bring back spices and tea to England. His wife Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Were Fox, also a Master Mariner of Falmouth and a Quaker, sailed with him and several of their children were born and died aboard this ship.

One of the children, Betty, was born on board the 'Sprite of Plym' whilst it was sailing across the Bosporus Sea 13/12/1866, she married and had a son called Ernest Shilston Watkins who was later to become the assistant editor and legal correspondent of 'The Economist' and commentator for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He emigrated to Canada in 1954 and continued his legal and political work in Calgary, where he died in 1982.  

My Grandfather Harold Pethick Shilston was born in Egremont, Wallasey, Cheshire and was the last child to be born to Henry and Elizabeth, as Henry died in the Bay of Bombay of a 'hepatic abscess' 21/02/1886.

Harold became a scientist and worked as an analytical chemist and gave lectures at Liverpool University. He had a part in the designing of the atomic bomb (something I am not proud of) and until the day he died in 1958 I always remember he had people follow him wherever he went. I still have all his scientific papers and portfolios.

I have spent a lot of time at Plymouth's Record office in tracing my family and the staff have been extremely helpful and so has Judith Godfrey, a historian tracing the Hill family and their association with ship building in Plymouth.

I have also had help from Crispin Gill a local historian living in Plymouth, who has pointed me in the right direction. Whilst at Plymouth's local library, I asked a librarian for some help she was surprised with my request and asked 'why my interest' apparently  her grandfather worked for William H Shilston and sailed on some of his ships and she was able to provide me with photos of the various ships built by the Shilstons.

I feel quite proud of my familys part in ship building and in their part of the trade that they conducted during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I still have a lot of work to do on tracing the other shilstons which I try and do in my spare time as I work full time as a Midwife. But it has been fun and people have been so helpful.

I hope that this has provided some sort of interest as it has for me in tracing my family. I hope one day to write a book about my heritage as there are many more facets to my family tree.


Helen jenner

Helen Jenner

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