Early hydroplane, foy boat Ethel and 1956 Enterprise join NMMC ‘flying boats’

Early hydroplane Defender II on the move

Early hydroplane Defender II Foy boat Ethel ramp screen image Enterprise No 2 Speedwell

Early hydroplane Defender II, foy boat Ethel, Enterprise 2

Three new ‘flying boats’ at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in the past week are Enterprise no 2, a Tyne foy boat and an early hydroplane.

Named Speedwell, the Enterprise was built in 1956. It was designed by the prolific Jack Holt using what was then an exciting new material – waterproof plywood.

Ethel is a River Tyne foy boat built in 1907. Foy boats have been associated with the rivers of Britain’s north east coast for at least three hundred years. Their main task was to tow sailing vessels in and out of the river estuaries during periods of calm or contrary winds.

Under sail the performance of the Foy boat was not exceptional, but under oar it was a different matter – they were excellent rowing boats.

Defender II was built in 1908 for Fred May and was one of the first of a new breed of power boat now classified as an unstepped hydroplane. The boat’s hull is fairly conventional at the bow, but almost immediately flattens out, becoming virtually hollow at the stern. This allows the boat to sit on top of the water when under power, reducing drag and increasing speed. When first built Defender II reached a top speed of 14 knots, an impressive speed at the time.

Weel may the keel row

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‘Nearly oval’ lighters on the riverbank at Newburn on the Tyne, image from Samuel Smiles’ book Lives of the Engineers, republished by Project Gutenberg. They’re a bit small to carry 20 tons of coal, but they might well be an artist’s slightly fanciful depiction of the keel

An outstanding recording of the tune known as the Keel Row popped up on my Facebook page the other day, and got me thinking about the keels of the River Tyne. The tune was played on an English concertina by a young man called Danny Chapman and must not be missed: hear it here.  You’ll notice that apart from the beautiful statement of the theme, in the way that’s traditional in the North East of England, there is a following series of stunning variations. There’s more of this stuff on this page. Well done Danny!

But what’s a Tyne keel? Believe it or not, it was an Anglo-Saxon boat type that lasted into the 20th century, though there are none around now and precious few pictures seem to exist. Still, there’s a nice history including the words of the song the Keel Row here. Jim Shead has a little more on the keel here, and the Samuel Smiles book has more to say about how the boats were used.

Finally, there’s a series of photos telling the story of the Keelman’s Hospital here. It’s a grand tale that demonstrates the independence and grit shown by the keelmen in the face of the ruthlessly capitalist coal owners, who seem to have been everyone’s enemy for centuries.