Percy Mitchell – a Traditional Boat Builder par Excellence

Born in 1901, Percy Mitchell, of Portmellon, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, was variously described by some of his more technically qualified contemporaries as “one of the finest traditional boat builders in the world” and as “an artist in wood”. He left elementary school at the age of 14 just after the outbreak of World War I, and a year later commenced his apprenticeship at the local boatbuilding firm of Roberts and Co. at a wage of 3 shillings a week, working from 6.30am to 5.30pm on weekdays, and until 1pm on Saturdays. Fishing boats were just beginning to have auxiliary engines fitted and he took an active part in subsequent alterations to luggers to accommodate these engines.

At the early age of 22 Percy took over the boat builder’s Yard in Mevagissey from his employers and became his own boss, continuing to do repair work on the fishing boats at the harbour and to build Toshers (a local Mevagissey design used for catching mackerel on lines during spring and summer). His first Tosher, Sea Queen, is now in the collection of the Museum and can be seen in the Museum workshop for a time during the autumn of 2014 while work on her is carried out.

Having been asked by a local fishing family to build a 39 foot first class lugger, Westward, he had to move from Mevagissey because it was impossible to launch a boat of that size through its narrow streets. He went to Portmellon, an open cove three quarters of a mile to the west. At this time Percy Mitchell had only been trained to use hand tools, but a boat of this size required substantial timbers to be cut. Accordingly he decamped to Liskeard, to visit his accustomed timber merchants, taking with him all the plans, and lodged there for a fortnight selecting the oak he wanted and getting it cut to size on a bandsaw.

Percy had had only a rudimentary education, but he taught himself to design boats from a set of drawings in an old encyclopaedia. Starting with only a building space, open to all the wind and weather, building shed, no capital, no launching equipment, with only his practical genius and patient courage, he overcame every obstacle and designed, built, and launched a magnificent variety of fishing boats, yachts, tugs and passenger launches.

A deeply religious man, he never grumbled nor railed against setbacks, but ruggedly persevered, believing that character is moulded by trials and difficulties. On several occasions his autobiography records that he worked out how to handle difficult building or launching decisions either as a result of prayer or even whilst listening to a sermon in chapel.

At Portmellon every boat had to be dragged by hand over 500 winding feet of road to the beach for launching, until he was commissioned to build a 72 foot passenger launch, Torbay Belle, to run pleasure trips on the River Dart. This craft was too wide for the road leading to the beach slipway; not being permitted to breach the sea wall outside the yard (though this was later permitted, in 1937), he did not hesitate but built a ramp to launch this huge vessel right over the top of the wall with another ramp on the seaward side, a drop of about twenty feet to the beach. Despite initial hitches, the launch went well.

One of Percy Mitchell’s better known creations before World War II was the yacht Windstar. Built originally for a Colonel Ionides, she was soon sold and purchased by Sir Philip Hunloke, the King’s Sailing Master, and was often sailed before the war by King George VI himself and after the war by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. She was described by Hunloke as “having everything that an ocean racing cruiser could wish for”. During the War itself Mitchell built motor cutters and MFVs (Motor Fishing Vessels) for the Admiralty, as well as 14ft dories for use by Special Forces.

After the War Mitchell went on to design and build a whole galaxy of boats for service all over the world. By the mid 1960s, after 51 years in boatbuilding and with 324 boats to his credit, he semi-retired, leaving his sons to carry on the business.

The above article is largely taken directly from Percy Mitchell’s autobiography, “A Boat builder’s Story”, published originally by Kingston, of Mevagissey, in 1968.