The cockle fishermen of Leigh-on-Sea on the shallow Northern, Essex shore of the Thames estuary were used to handling their cockle Bawley sailing ships in all weathers and in tricky, shallow waters. For a little extra income - and excitement - they used to crew in the famous J-Class yachts of the gentry during the nineteen-twenties and thirties. It was after four of these racing yachts that the Resolute and her sister ships, the Reliance, Defender and Endeavour were named.
The Bawleys were broad-beamed, flat-bottomed gaff cutters, typically of some 36ft length, designed to be beached at high tide on the sandbanks, while the fishermen got out to gather cockles and shrimps for the London market. They were therefore ideal for the shallow waters off Dunkirk. At sea they could drop their lifting centreboards for better sailing and their powerful Kelvin petrol/paraffin engines made them less dependent on sail when it suited them. The Resolute was built for Cecil Osborne by Hayward's at Southend in 1927 for ?375. She was gaff-rigged, with a main, jib and foresail and had a 16ft bowsprit. Her gaff was held to the mast by large wooden hoops and her sails were made of the traditional red cotton. She would go cockling from Easter to October and shrimping in the winter.
During the war she went fishing all the year round. At that time there was an honorary 'Commodore' appointed at Leigh, who determined where they could fish on a particular day. Forty-nine years later, the 68-year-old Eric Osborne recalled how he came into harbour on the last day of May 1940 to be told that the Navy at Southend, just down river, wanted their boats with volunteer crews to go to Dunkirk. They were to be at the pierhead, ready for sea, by eight o'clock on Friday morning. Once there, Naval ratings provided drums of fuel, rations and an extra deckhand, Vincent Joscelyne, to join Eric and his cousin Horace Osborne. As the Navy stored Renown, alongside Resolute, one of them turned her hatch cover upside-down: a bad omen among Thames bargemen. Cousin Luke, who sailed on the Renown had already signed a form number 13 the night before and wasn't pleased.
Renown never came back from Dunkirk. The six boats sailed line -ahead for Dunkirk, which they easily recognised in a mass of flames and covered with a pall of smoke from the burning oil storage tanks. They were told to go to the beach, but the tide was ebbing fast and the fishermen were too canny to get grounded with a full load of troops, a sitting target for the German bombers. So they went to the outside of the Mole of Dunkirk harbour instead. Although the sea was calm, there was a 4ft swell and they had no ladders.
There was no option but to go inside. They embarked a full load of soldiers which they ferried to a trawler anchored some way off. Then a second load to a coaster and then a third.
By then it was dark and they went inside once more. A destroyer lay sunk across the entrance, oil barrels and debris floated on the oily water. On one side of the harbour one of the Eagle steamers lay sinking after a bomb scored a direct hit down her funnel. The debris of vehicles showed here and there above the water. Marked by their phosphorescent wake and after picking their way through this mess, they drew alongside the pier. There seemed to be less men waiting and they were getting choosey: ".. not going back on that bloody thing" they shouted. Eric quite understood: "when you're not a cockle fisherman and consider the idea of a 36ft. boat, seen from 36ft. above, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence!"
The fishermen decided to go ashore, partly so that they could say they had been on French soil and partly to persuade the reluctant soldiers to come aboard since, they maintained, their ship was equal to any weather. "At that moment", Eric recalls, "we had our narrowest escape, Jerry found his range, - sparks and shrapnel were flying all over the place and we came down that ladder faster than we ever went up; it only lasted three or four minutes. We had our full load and motored outside the harbour. It was 5 or 5.30 and Defender was close by us. We couldn't find a large passenger ship or coaster and the Sub-Lieut. on Defender told us to head for Ramsgate."
Admiral Ramsey, who as Vice-Admiral Dover, was in command of 'Operation Dynamo' had high praise for the Leigh Cockle Bawley boats - "The conduct of the crews of these cockle boats was exemplary. They were all volunteers who were rushed over to Dunkirk in one day. Probably none of them had been under gunfire before and certainly none of them under Naval discipline. These were Thames estuary fishing boats which never left the estuary and only one of their crews had been further afield than Ramsgate. Yet they maintained perfect formation throughout the day and night and all orders were obeyed with great diligence even under shellfire and aircraft attack."
In 1969 she was bought by 'Dusty' Miller, who fitted her out for cruising the South Coast and France, Holland and Belgium. By 1993 she was in need of considerable work which he was unable to undertake, the Dunkirk Little Ships Restoration Trust therefore agreed to take her over and arranged to transport her to the Medway for restoration. Until now the Trust has been unable to raise the necessary funds to restore her.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, & 19.