Dawncraft Cruisers

by Alan Peacock 

This history of Dawncraft Cruisers makes frequent reference to advertisements placed by the Company in the magazine Motor Boat & Yachting. They form a useful structure with which to tell the story and I am grateful to the Editor for permission to use the contents. There are also several quotes from the interview that John Foale and I conducted last year with the Wilson family, Ralph, Dorothy and their sons Ian and Keith and their long term employee and family friend Roy Robins.

John and I wish to thank them on behalf of the Dawncraft Owners Club for their kindness and help on the day and with the project.

Alan Peacock 2007

The Dawncraft Company story began in 1954 when George Wilson purchased a Thames launch at Worcester. The launch was called Laughing Waters and it was in a very dilapidated state, being made of Honduras mahogany which had been unvarnished for years. It required a great deal of work before it was finally completed and refloated. Ralph and Dorothy Wilson remember spending months of their courtship scraping and sanding down the hull to prepare the boat. for renovation.

Laughing Waters was finally launched in 1957 with a maiden trip to Llangollen. The journey appears to have gone well, although with a beam of 7'.2” there were probably some interesting moments in the Llangollen's 6' 10” locks. Dorothy certainly recalls ramming the bank on her first attempt at steerage.

As a result of the Llangollen trip, George and Ralph realised that there was a possible business opportunity to enable other people to enjoy the Canals in the same way. A site on the navigable Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Kinver became available and was leased from British Waterways. The next step was to source a supply of marine ply shells, from Crescent Boat Builders of Taunton, Somerset, that the newly established Dawncraft Pleasure Cruisers could fit out.

The Crescent company produced a range of small dinghy's until 1959 when they introduced the 18' Adventurer motor cruiser at the Earls Court International Boat Show. This boat had recently set up a new record run from Manchester to London by Inland waterways. The boat was supplied in part built form to the DIY market and was adopted by several hire fleets on the canals.

It was followed in 1962 by a 20' four berth version with standing head room and a double cabin created with a “Marley Space Saver” door. A 22' boat and a 25' were introduced in May 1963 which is also the date that Dawncraft first began to advertise “the whole exciting Crescent range of craft at our boating station”. The boats were of wooden construction and they formed the basis of Dawncraft`s hire and sales activities until they began to manufacture their own glass fibre shells in 1966.

This growing business was one factor in the rejection of a British Waterway's attempt to close the Staffs and Worcester Canal in 1961/62. Other factors included determined efforts by the Staffs and Worcester Canal Society to dredge and restore the canal around Stourbridge and the deliberate staging of the 1962 Inland Waterways National Festival at Stourport, attended by 118 boats from all over the country. This Rally really kick-started the whole Canal restoration movement. During the early sixties the hire fleet grew steadily from one 14' camper which cost £14 per week to the larger 40' boats which cost £88 per week. Mooring space at Kinver was also offered at 1d a foot per week.

An advertisement in March 1964 lists 18' to 28' Crescent cruisers for sale and a range of hire cruisers available from two berth @ £21 per week to eight berth @ £42 per week. It also says that “No cruiser in our fleet is more than three years old”.

In July 1964 an advertisement appeared which shows Dawncraft Cruisers for the first time advertising Dawncraft boats in their own right This consists of line drawings of Dawncraft from 19' to 25' with prices of £585 to £1085 quoted for the whole six boat range. This is said to be “Britain's biggest range of inland cruisers “.

Dawncraft continued to market this wide range of wooden cruisers until 1966. All of the boats were of 6'10” beam with a generous 5' 10” headroom but the lengths and designs varied considerably over the years. They included a 19' two or four berth cruiser supplied either unpainted or fully fitted; two 22' four to six berth cruisers, one a Centre cockpit and the other a Deluxe Rear cockpit version. There were also two 25' craft, one with a Centre cockpit and the other a four berth Dinette version. A 28' 6” 6 berth Rear cockpit and two 30' boats, one a Centre cockpit and the other a Rear cockpit also featured during this period.

All boats were available fully fitted but the buyer was left with a choice of engine, either inboard or outboard, at extra cost. Boats from 1965 onwards were advertised as now having a built-in propeller tunnel which allowed the propeller to work inside the hull and not below it. Various combinations of these boats were shown regularly at the annual Birmingham Bingley Hall Boat shows and finally in 1966 Dawncraft showed the 25' and the 30' for the first time at the Earls Court International Boat show. In 1967 they had a larger stand and presented the 19', the trailable 22', a 25' and the 30' Centre cockpit; prices from £650 to £1885.

In 1966 Dawncraft had begun to make their own shells and started to use glass fibre for their boats. At first this was confined to the cabin and side decks, the boats being advertised as offering “the unbeatable combination of a timber hull and glass fibre cabin”. Although this style of building was questioned by some, it was pointed out that many Dawncraft had already survived seven years of hard canal hire use.

This build also featured on the new 36' Centre cockpit. It was announced for the 1968 Boat Show as being the first-ever canal cruiser to offer an Owner's state room complete with a full double bed, wardrobe, dressing table and adjoining bathroom with bath, toilet and hot and cold running water. The 36' six or eight berth retailed at £3350 including a choice of engine.

The 1968 boat show was a very successful because Dawncraft showed 11 boats on their stand and the resultant excellent sales fully justified Ralph's decision to build their own hulls.

Up to 1967 the hulls had been made at Stewponey near Stourton and then transferred to Kinver for fitting. The booming sales meant that new premises were acquired at Stourport Basin and the whole business was moved there in 1967. The firm gradually grew to a point where it was employing 60 staff producing up to six to eight boats a week many of which were exported to France and Holland with four a month going to East Germany.

Having decided on the change to glass fibre it was necessary to obtain Spray Roving Guns which were specialist equipment at the time unavailable in the UK because nobody used that much GRP. George and Ralph had to travel to East Germany to buy the Spray Guns and although Ian Wilson says that “the guns were a problem to keep clean because they fouled up quickly, they did turn Dawncraft into a full-on mass manufacturing entity.”

Ian told a story about a visit to a boat builder two decades later and being shown the exciting new production technique that the firm were going to import and use for boat building. He very gently pointed out that Dawncraft had first used the Spray Roving Guns in the late Sixties!

The first results of the new process were announced in an October 1968 advertisement that said “The choice is yours Glass fibre or Timber? We are proud to offer a whole range of Dawncraft cruisers in either glass fibre throughout or a combination of timber hull and glassfibre cabin tops”. The boats listed include a 22' Rear cockpit, 25' Rear cockpit and a 25' Centre cockpit; there were also three other Centre cockpits shown at 30',36',38'. Prices range from £1140 to £3,500 all prices excluded an engine but there was a choice of outboard or inboard, petrol or diesel available.

May 1969 saw the next significant boat introduced by Dawncraft, the new 27' Sunseeker which featured a larger rear cockpit aimed at fisherman and sunbathers The boat was described as “the Inland cruiser which actually ALLOWS you to sunbathe in the cockpit”. Dawncraft were now being marketed by Main Agents; Blue Line Cruisers, Braunston, Deans Marina, Chester, Ladyline Cruisers, Market Drayton and Sawley Bridge Marina, Nottingham.

The 1970 Earls Court Boat Show marks the end of the timber hulled Dawncraft. The 22' 25' 30' and the 27' Sunseeker on the stand were all made from Glass fibre throughout. This same range plus the 36' Centre cockpit continued to be advertised through 1970-71 but with greater emphasis on the interior features and equipment on the boats.

January 1972 saw the introduction of the Dandy, a small 19' boat with a cathedral hull. Internal equipment included four berths, a stove, oven, sink and a toilet. Priced at £975 excluding engine this boat was a great hit at the 1972 Boat Show.

The rumour, that this boat was designed by Ralph Wilson getting Dorothy and the boys to lie down on the sitting room floor whilst he drew a chalk line around them around them in order to work out the best shape to accommodate four berths, is true. However, when we interviewed them last year there was a mild family argument about the location of the actual sitting room. Dorothy and Ralph, who really should know, insisted that we were standing on the actual site although the carpet had been renewed several times since 1971!

1972 also saw the relocation of the business to Whitehouse Road, Kidderminster so that the whole boat building process, moulding, fit out, windows etc could be carried out at one premises.

Dawncraft continued to show successfully at the Boat Shows and in 1973 showed a complete range from 19' to 36' with all boats now completely GRP including interior mouldings and very few wood fittings.

In 1974 they showed the complete range 19 to 38' which included an improved Dandy and revised 22' with the new GRP interior. The 38' Centre cockpit was produced exclusively for the hire industry and this was reported as “showing confidence in Dawncraft.”

The Rover was introduced in 1975 with a revision in 1976. This was a 29' 6 berth cruiser fitted with two steering positions, one on the stern deck and the other right forward in the main saloon. The boat had the usual Dawncraft features, convertible dinette and forward bunks, a fully equipped galley and a big wc/shower compartment. Price of the 1975 version was £3076 including VAT but excluding an engine.

One important innovation in May 1975 was the introduction of a new cabin roof for the 22 which could also be used on the 25' and 27' Centre cockpits. The profile of the underside of the forepeak on this “Mark 2” roof was changed to a slope rather than the rectangular shape of the previous “Mark 1” boats. The reason for the change was that it made for an easier lamination process and also removed the possibility of breakages which often occurred when extracting the original rectangular forepeak from the moulds.

This period 1971-76 was probably one of the Company's most successful; by 1975 there were some 60 staff working on five sites. Ian Wilson recalls, as a young boy, cycling all day around the sites and playing on the “statics”. The main Dawncraft production was going on at Whitehouse Road and the upholstery was made at Fairfield Drive, Kinver. Repairs and boat sales were located at The Paddocks, Kinver. They had also stripped down Stewponey and rebuilt the sales room and turned that into the Sports boats and Chandlery site. This latter did however cause a minor spat, with the local planning department, over planning permission.

The 1975 list of Main Agents now contained a further 17 sites marketing Dawncraft. These included all 13 Ladyline and Deans Marina site, Red Line, Abergavenny, Venetian and Whilton Marinas. The range of boat designs also produced sales and large export orders to Europe.

At the Hamburg Boat Show in October 1975 they took orders for 128 cruisers totalling £350,000.Fifty-one of these boats went to Holland, 35 to France and 42 to Germany; all of the orders were to be delivered within four months.

Ralph Wilson said that “We received a tumultuous welcome in Hamburg. Now we hope to push production up to 400 Cruisers a year. Over 60% of our production this year will be exported”. In mid-November 1975 Ralph was photographed planning the journey for the first two boats, a 22' and a Dandy, heading to dealers in West Berlin and Frankfurt.

Dawncraft also had a 22' and a Dandy in a Group Test run by Motor Boat & Yachting in January 1975 which also included boats from Buckingham, Freeman and Birchwood. The Dawncraft were seen as good value for money but were criticised for their handling in wind and at low speed and also for their standard of finish.

Other publications featured Dawncraft in 1975/6. Boat hire brochures included the 1976 Blakes hire catalogue and one for Boat Enquiries Ltd of Oxford, all of which offered the boats for hire. Some excellent photographs and descriptions of the 19' 22' 25' and 38' appeared in Boat World Guide to Motor Cruisers 1976.

The Company continued into the mid-Seventies listing full displays of the complete range of boats at the Earls Court Boat Shows 1976/77. However, they appear to have stopped advertising in the press and this may have been the first indication of the troubles to come.

Unfortunately, this period of expansion coincided with the 1973 Middle East war and the resultant “Oil Crisis” which was followed by the imposition of the three-day week by the Heath government in 1974. The price of oil rose rapidly and this had an effect on its by-products such as the resins used in the fibreglass industry. Roy Robins, who worked on all of the Dawncraft from 1972 onwards, remembers the price of the resin going up 100% per month forcing the company to gradually reduce the quantities used in the boats.

Eventually they had to look for other cost-cutting measures such as reducing the quality of the wood used for the boat interiors. This went from “the very best melamine veneered plywood 1972-73” to Chipboard and finally to some very poor material around 1975 which “had the density of tissue paper and had to be handled very carefully”.

Dorothy Wilson also remembers regular huge price rises for the foam used in the upholstery. They all agreed that the reduction in quality was not something that anyone was proud to actually do, but at the time it was a question of what materials were available, “otherwise you just couldn't produce the boats”.

Although these problems occurred gradually over a number of years, when the oil price finally stabilised around 1976 the damage had been done and by the end of 1977 Dawncraft was in the hands of the liquidator.

At this point Bob Smith, who was responsible within Dawncraft for the production of the Rover, purchased the Rover moulds from the liquidator and having made some alterations to the backend of the boat produced the Highbridge line of canal cruisers. He marketed the 23' Highbridge Cadet, 27' Highbridge Cavalier and the 32' Crusader from 1988 until finally ending production in 1991.

The premises at Whitehouse Road were sold and all Dawncraft manufacture was moved to Bridgnorth in Shropshire. In August 1978 an advertisement appeared from Dawncraft of Kinver which announced that “They are still the best value for your money”. The advertisement pictured a Dawncraft 22 and listed the Dandy, 22', 25' 27', 27' Centre cockpit and a 30' 6 berth available from their Main agents; Deans Marina's, The Ladyline Group, Whilton Marina and Kinver.

Business as usual seems to have resumed and Ian Wilson said that “We went straight back to ply. It was genuine Teak veneered ply from then on and they got better and better after that”. The headlinings were also changed for the better according to Roy Robins.

The improvement appears to have continued into 1979 with a repeat of the 1978 advertisement which now included the message “See us on Stands 112 to 114 at the NEC” A new advertisement in January 1980 “Invites you to meet the family right through from the baby 19' Dandy to the head of the household the big 30'. And they are still the best value on the market with 22 years of development in their wake”.

This advertisement used an earlier 1972 picture which showed six craft moored in a canalside lay-by. Four of the boats, the 19' Dandy, 22', 25' Rear cockpits and the 27' Centre cockpit are all now called “The Dawncraft Dandy .......”. The remaining 27' Rear cockpit and the 30' Centre cockpit are both called “The Dawncraft Sunseeker.......”. This brief one-off change was confirmed in 2006 with the listing on eBay of a Dawncraft Dandy 25.

February 1980 featured an advertisement with the message “Don't buy a Dawncraft!!! If you want something spectacular and highflying. But if you want a comfortable Inland cruiser with 23 years development in its wake then- ” the Dawncraft 22' is pictured. Prices had risen and range from the 19' at £3000 to the 30' at £5950 excluding engines and VAT. The Main dealer list numbered eight and included a dealer in Holland and one in France. The Company address was now Dawncraft Cruisers, Stourton Staffs.

March of the same year brought a major new development with a line drawing of the first of the new Widebeam series. “The Dawncraft 900 28' x 9' 6”on view for the first time at the Birmingham Boat Show 16th-24th of February. Also on show the New Inboard Dandy priced at £3600 plus all our well tried favourites” The Dealer list had now expanded to 10 and still included the two foreign bases.

A new 32' Centre cockpit was added to the range at the 1981 Earls Court Show as “the boat for the man with style and taste, who loves the canals and rivers”. The Dandy was described as “an ideal boat for beginners”. The 22 as “the boat for the weekend man and his family”. The 25 as “fitting the young family like a glove” and the 27' Centre cockpit as “the boat for the grown-up family”.

All were described as the Stars of the Inland Cruiser Show. The boats were actually now being marketed by the Ladyline Group and were all on the Ladyline stand at the show.

1981-82 also saw a design change with the introduction of a nine inch coloured strip, which matched the roof colour, moulded into the hull just below the gunwale. A 10ml. toe-rail was moulded into the side deck above the gunwale and the side strakes changed to a moulding, later on two additional wooden full length strakes were fitted. These boats can be classified as “Mark 3”.

The Dealer link-up continued to the end of 1981 with Ladyline advertising the full 1982 Dawncraft range alongside their Buckingham and Microplus stock. The 1982 Earls Court Show display included a new 27' Centre cockpit which was designed as a luxury cruiser with two berths, a double wardrobe, shower and toilet in the rear cabin. The front cabin contained a settee, cocktail cabinet as well as the usual seating and kitchen fittings. Priced at £6250 excluding VAT and engine.

The first of the new Widebeams was introduced at this show, the 320, a 6/8 berth with the same equipment as the new 27 above. The new 250 and 270 would follow at the Birmingham Boat Show in February. A Motor Boat & Cruiser Review 18'-50' April 1982 lists detailed specifications for the largest Dawncraft range so far. The eight boats include; Dandy, 22, 25, 250, 27, 32, 320, 900.

Earl's Court was generally very successful for the Company as they often sold up to eight boats a day. Ian Wilson said that in 1982-83 they would compare notes with Ladyline “how many you sold today"? By the end of the Show they had sold enough to place boats nose to tail all around the Main exhibition hall. All Dandy's and 25's. January 1983 advertised that “ this year you have the chance to see Dawncraft at three boat shows".

Earls Court Stand A10, NEC Stand 276 and our own permanent boat show at Stourport on Severn.

The advertisement pictures the Dandy; 22', 25' both Rear cockpits, 27' and 32' Centre cockpits and the 250 Rear cockpit. It also says that the 320 will be at the show. This was possibly the last advert for the full Dawncraft range and it uses the Dawncraft address at Sandy Lane, Stourport which was the last Dawncraft manufacturing base.

Waterways World printed a short review of Dawncraft in September. The company was now selling direct to the public, including part exchanges, from their own exhibition hall in a converted grain warehouse at Stourport. The boat building operation next door was offering a range of boats from the Dandy in kit form at £2990 including VAT up to the 32' 320 which was priced at £12,650 without engine. The Wilson family concern now consisted of Ralph and Ian on sales, Keith building boats and Dorothy running the upholstery and canopy shop.

The final Dawncraft advertisement dated September 1985 pictured the 250 and said ” See us at the Southampton Boat Show where we will be showing the Dawncraft 250 and 25'”. “Don't forget the Dawncraft Open weekend October 5th and 6th”

Presumably these events did not take place because with sales falling dramatically to one a week, along with Buckingham, Norman and others that year, the renamed Dawncraft Cruisers (Stourport) Ltd finally closed it's doors and went into receivership on September 8th 1985.

However, all the best stories have a Phoenix rising from the ashes and the Dawncraft story has three. When Ian Wilson finally left Dawncraft on the 15th of August 1985 he purchased the Dawncraft moulds from the administrator and set up Stourvale Cruisers at Dixon Street, Kidderminster.

Ian went on to produce 25 boats between 1985 and 1988 mostly for Galleon Marine who were setting up a hire fleet on the newly restored Basingstoke Canal. The boats were all called Romero and included one Dandy, and one 34' aft cockpit which used extended standard Dawncraft moulds. Ian said that it was made by "adding pieces together to make this monster great boat". This was the only one of that size built by Stourvale Cruisers and it went to Galleon Marine. The rest of the boats were mostly 25 and 27' Centre cockpits.

When Ian had delivered the last boat, Galleon decided that they wanted to become boat builders.

Ian replied " that's funny because I've about had enough of it". So in 1988 he sold Galleon all the tools and equipment including the only set of plans ever made for Dawncraft, which had been produced for the Department of Transport when new legislation was enacted in the mid-80s.

Galleon Marine then set up as Dawncraft Designs and moved all their activities to the Pant Glass Industrial Estate near Caerphilly in South Wales. Canal and Riverboat magazine tested the new Dawncraft 25 supplied by the company and found it to be constructed to a very high standard.

"A good deal of thought had been put into the new interior taking the boat and notch or two upwards in the marketplace" Whilst the basic design was similar to the original, the fabrics and fittings were superior to previous models. The boat was seen as "a good practical cruiser for the family or a luxury one for a couple on their own".

There was a joint Galleon/Stourvale stand at the NEC 1989 Boat, Caravan and Leisure Show and Motor Boat & Yachting reviews of current motor cruisers between 1988 and 1989 listed Romero 22', 25' 28', 32' Centre cockpits from Stourvale Cruisers. However, by 1990 Galleon Marine and Dawncraft Designs had disappeared from the market and all of the plans and moulds were rumoured to have been destroyed. Additionally the Widebeam moulds, which had remained at Stourport after the liquidation, were later taken to France and subsequently also disappeared.

The second Phoenix came about due to the perseverance of one Bill Parkes who was running a boat transport business and also had some experience of making and repairing boats. Around 1989, he was looking for a second-hand Dandy for his family but had been unable to find a suitable boat until he chanced on the original moulds in Roy Robins's boatyard in Stourport.

Using these moulds he produced a new Dandy which, like the Galleon boats, had a much higher quality finish and specification whilst maintaining the original dimensions. This boat, which was for his own use, became the prototype for the new Dandycraft 19 that he began to produce from March 1991 at a price of £7,000 plus VAT. He also intended to provide shells for DIY fit-outs.

The Dandycraft 19 was reviewed favourably by both Canal and Riverboat and Waterways World in April 1991.

According to Roy Robins, who is a personal friend of Bill Parkes, a number of boats were actually produced and sold. The moulds eventually passed back to Roy and in 2006 they were sold to another boat builder who used them to create a new Dandy with an altered Rear cockpit. The moulds have now been returned to Roy.

The third Phoenix returns full circle to the Wilson family. Having closed down the boat building business in 1986, retirement sat uneasy on Ralph's shoulders. Within a few weeks Dorothy suggested that perhaps they could start making boat covers. Ralph agreed that it was a good idea soon began to make appointments to go out to boats and measure up the covers. Dorothy who was very experienced with sewing machine and scissors then cut out and made the covers.

The business grew very successfully and they were soon able to move to new premises beside the canal at Kinver where they currently employ 14 staff making up to 2000 covers a year.

At around the time of the move, Dorothy began to make a number of soft furnishings such as seat covers which became very popular with boaters. Customers also began to ask for other items such as chair beds so Ralph designed and developed a prototype. This led to yet another successful business line which eventually included the importation of leather chairs from Denmark.

Finally, the day-to-day running of the business passed to their two sons Ian and Keith so Dorothy and Ralph were able to take things a little easier. Ralph has a unique record of having attended every NEC Boat show and some 23 Earls Court shows. Both Dorothy and Ralph enjoy the shows and usually find time, between sales, to enjoy a laugh and a joke with customers.

Now in 2007 it is time to celebrate 50 years of the Wilson family's involvement in the boat business. Ralph and Ian Wilson estimate that between 1967 and 1985 the Dawncraft company built approximately 2864 fibreglass boats. This figure does not include the Crescent based wooden boats or the timber hulled/GRP topped boats referred to by Dorothy as “the half and halfs”.

The company was instrumental in introducing many people to the canals and waterways as well as producing a wide range of reasonably priced family motor cruisers. They used some innovative new techniques in production and were also responsible for training-up a number of staff who then went on to make careers within the boat building industry. These include the founders of the Highbridge and Sealine ranges.

The family has gone on to create several successful businesses which continue to flourish and the evidence of their activities is still afloat on many canals and waterways today.

Including incidentally, Laughing Waters, the boat that started it all.

Some time around 2000 Ralph went out to measure up a boat cover at Henley on Thames. As he approached the client's boat he saw, tied up alongside, the boat that he understood had long ago been abandoned near Stratford on Avon. In a second, the immaculate Laughing Waters brought Ralph's career in boating full circle.

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Ralph, Dorothy, Ian, Keith Wilson and their family friend Roy Robins

The Motor Boat Museum, Basildon especially Julie Graham, the Curator.

Motor Boat & Yachting 1954-1993

Ralph Wilson, A Waterway of life by Dennis Needham, Waterways World September 2002

Character sketch of Dorothy Wilson, Canal & Rivers March 2006

British Library British Waterways Archive Services

Canal & Rivers Canal Boat

Ellesmere Port Boat Museum Inland Waterways Association

National Waterways Museum, Gloucester taffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society

Staffordshire Record Office Stoke Bruerne Canal Museum

Waterways World Worcestershire Record Office

The Dawncraft Owners Club, which was formed in 2003 by Wayne Herring, originally called Wayne's Dawncraft, has grown from strength to strength and through its website and meetings provides information and support for many existing owners and the new generation of Dawncraft first timers.

I am indebted to it's members for their help, in particular Alan and Nicky Law, John and Jackie Foale, and Roger Guest, who as the “Committee” asked me to update the Club's original history page and opened a mineshaft into which I promptly fell!

And finally to my wife Marilyn for her support, patience and ever helpful critical eye.

Alan Peacock,  May 2007

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