Type: Motor Yacht
Length: 41 ft 2"
Beam: 9 ft
Draft: 3 ft 10ins
Displacement: 6.56 tons
Engine: 2 x Beta 60hp Diesel
Construction: Carvel; mahogany on oak.
Builder: Walton Yacht and Launch Works, Walton-on-Thames
This brief history aims to set down a reasonably accurate narrative of Hilfranor’s life over the last eighty years. Hilfranor might be one of few vessels which saw service in the Second World War, was sunk by the enemy, re-floated, and resumed her service in the war effort.
Today Hilfranor is in good shape and is a regular visitor on the five yearly “Return” to Dunkirk. She is in the National Register of Historic Vessels of the United Kingdom. She is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS).
Hilfranor was built by the Walton Yacht and Launch Works at Walton on Thames in 1935. It is believed that she was originally 36 feet long and was extended in 1936 by six feet to give her a distinctive canoe stern. At the same time she was modified to include two bilge keels. With her two 20hp Morris petrol engines she was deemed to be capable of operating as a sea going vessel and indeed has spent most of her life at various English coastal harbours.
Hilfranor is of carvel construction with a displacement hull. This means she is long and thin, stays firmly in the water and will not plane. Typically, navy destroyers of the time were of the same hull design and their maximum speed was dictated by their hull speed. In Hilfranor’s case she is 41ft 2” long (but about 40 ft at the waterline) and 9ft in the beam, giving her a hull speed of 8.69 knots.
She was constructed with oak frames and mahogany with teak decking. Originally, she had an indented wheelhouse and berths running under the stern deck, but these were removed in a 1988 restoration. The architect’s drawings from the 1988 restoration show the original layout and the changes introduced. She was listed in the old Register of British Ships as 81 of 1936 in London, and no 2934 in the 1939 Lloyd’s Register of Yachts.
In 2018 following research by ADLS committee member Mark Webb it was discovered that Hilfranor was listed in the Lloyds Register of Yachts as having a “Distinguishing Flag”. It is a combination of the flag alphabet letters, F and E, after Frank Ellam, and is shown at the head of this note.
The original owner is believed to be Frank Ellam of 4 Vernon Court, London NW2, later of 12 King Street, London EC2. The story goes that he named the vessel after his three daughters Hillary, Frances, and Norah. There is a photograph of what might be the happy family showing two women, one quite young and slight, being chatted up by some loose capped chap, and a second rather older podgy looking lady. In other photographs the boat is seen to have some rather useful boarding steps, and a rakish looking gunwale running from the bow to the wheelhouse.
Mr Ellam is listed in the Medway Yacht Club as owner from 1936 to 1938. It is thought he was also a member of The Little Ships Club, the West Mersea Yacht Club and the RAF Club.
In 1939 the owner is listed as Frank B Parham of 261 Napier Road, Gillingham, Kent.
When the call from the Admiralty came in May 1940 for sea going vessels to help in the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, Hilfranor was collected by Douglas Tough of Teddington from the upper Thames.
Hilfranor was crewed by Jock Christie, W. Hills and V. Hissons. Film footage taken at the time, or shortly afterwards, show her with a Bren gun fitted astern of the wheelhouse. It is not clear how many crossings to Dunkirk were made by her, but the story goes that whilst there she was straddled by bombs from German dive bombers. With her frames cracked she settled into the shallow waters off the coast of France and was abandoned. One story has it that some French soldiers, desperate to get away from Dunkirk, bailed her out and got her engines going. She made it as far as the Goodwin sandbanks off the coast near Ramsgate where she sank once again. There, she was spotted by a British minesweeper and towed into Ramsgate (Brann p.)
Hilfranor stayed in service throughout the war. She appears in the Admiralty Small Craft Service List as having been a Naval Auxiliary Patrol craft from May 1940 to March 1943. Naval-history.net today has her stationed in 1942 at Ipswich. Subsequently she was laid up until May 1943 and is then described as being in the Fire Service until 31 May 1945 when she was laid up again. The Admiralty paid £6 per month to retain her.
1. It is not clear when Hilfranor ceased to be required by “His Majesty” as the Register of Ships puts it. Her new registration number was 164629 and she retained her call sign MHXW.
2. The record shows that in 1954 the Morris engines were replaced by two Standard Motor Corporation diesels producing 40hp each.
3. Jack R Baker of 1 Century Road, Rainham, (or is it Gillingham?) Kent, a radio engineer, is shown as the first person on the new Registry on 2nd November 1955. He is believed to have owned her from 1948 until 1958.
4. The next owner, registered on 19th February 1958 was Commander Walter John Redvers Bullers of 77 Coleraine Road, Blackheath, London S.E.3, who described himself as a company director. He later moved to Ajana, Seven Stones Drive, Broadstairs, Kent. He was a member of the Royal Temple Yacht Club in Ramsgate and took Hilfranor to Dunkirk in 1965.
5. The Register shows Ronald James Fry of 8 Broadway House, Bromley Road, Downham, Bromley, acquiring Hilfranor on 19th March 1975. He is described as the proprietor of “Regency Typesetters”.
6. On 13th August 1986 Frederick Stevenson Miskimmin of 15 Osborne Court Cowes Isle of Wight, company director, purchased her.
7. By now Hilfranor was starting to look pretty rough, with grass growing on her decks. Salvation was to come in the form of a company wanting to use her on the 1990 crossing to Dunkirk. It is believed she was acquired in 1988 by ROCC Computers LTD, although they were not registered as owners until 2nd April 1990.
Hilfranor was taken to Combe’s Boatyard in Bosham where she underwent a complete restoration with bills totalling £190,000 being delivered to bring her into the condition she is in today.
The stern berths have been removed and the galley placed in the stern of the aft saloon. The short gunwale has been replaced by a varnished gunwale around the whole vessel. The old Standard engines were gone with their places taken by two Perkins 4108’s delivering 52hp each.
The original planking remains, and the ribs were doubled up. The naval architect, John Sharpe, told the writer that when he inspected her he saw that the old frames had been cracked down both sides and had been doubled up. In the wheelhouse only the steps, ship’s bell and Admiralty compass are likely to be original. The new layout included GPS chart plotter, radar, auto helm, and VHF radio. The decks were laid with teak and the dinghy was replaced with a new 8ft clinker boat in mahogany, built by local apprentices of the Southampton Maritime Trust.
In the years following the 1990 crossing Hilfranor was acquired by one of ROCC’s directors, Norman Watling. He based her down at Chichester. He kept the boat in excellent condition before selling her in July 2001 to Mark Edwards of Ashtead, Surrey.
Mark Edwards put Hilfranor through an extensive refit in the winter of 2001 but felt unable to keep her and sold her to the writer in September 2002.
The serendipitous purchase was initiated by a rather good lunch and a languid perusal of Classic Boat where Hilfranor was listed for sale. Six weeks later after establishing that the list of good things on offer was longer (by design) than the list of bad things, and without looking at another vessel, she was bought.
Hilfranor came up to Norfolk on the back of a low loader and stayed at Cox’s Boatyard in Barton Turf for a season.
In November 2004 she was hauled into one of the sheds where she underwent a further extensive refurbishment, under a team led by Eric Bishop.
She completed her first coastal trip under the writer’s command down the Norfolk coast across the Thames Estuary into Chatham Maritime and thence to Ramsgate for the 65th anniversary crossing to Dunkirk at the end of May 2005.
Since then Hilfranor spent three months at Chatham before moving to Bray Marina on the Thames in September 2005. A few years later she moved to Temple Marina near Marlow where she is still moored.
Since 2005 she has been under the care of Colin Messer of Classic Restoration Services. She has received a new mast, windows, a triple skinned roof and machinery. New Beta engines were fitted in an extensive refit in 2018. The cabin tops have had their varnish replaced with white paint to better reflect her original appearance.
Since arriving on the Thames Hilfranor has visited Henley’s annual Traditional Boat Festivals, the ADLS Veterans’ Cruises, the annual commemorative cruises, Ostende in 2014, Holland in 2016 and the Queen’s Thames Jubilee parade in 2012. She returned to Dunkirk in 2015.
In 2016 Hilfranor featured in the BBC 2 series “Coast”. In the same year, along with ten other ADLS vessels, the writer skippered her in Dunkirk for the filming of the Warner Brothers “Dunkirk”, directed by Christopher Nolan