Crossfields of Arnside

The annual Crossfields Conference at Arnside Sailing Club is postponed until 2021 due to coronovirus pandemic restrictions. Crossfields of Arnside were one of most significant boatbuilders in the north west of England. Arnside, Cumbria is at the top of Morecambe Bay and unusually for the NW coast the area is wooded providing abundant material for boatbuilding.

Active from the 1840s to 1950s, the Crossfields heyday was the period leading up to the First World War from the 1890s. Builders of Morecambe Bay Prawners (Lancashire Nobbies) the yard served an area from North Wales to Southern Scotland. They built working boats and yachts. Lancashire Nobbies were fast gaff rigged fishing boats designed to cope with the shallow waters of the North West Coast, pull a heavy trawling net and get a perishable catch back to market as quickly as possible. Railways enabled the catch to be taken to the industrial towns of the North West fuelling the expansion of the fishing industry. Distinctive features of Morecambe Bay Prawners are the elliptical stern, central cockpit with a large deck area and low freeboard to facilitate the working of nets, high bows to cope with rough sea conditions, a large sail area and shallow draft. The boats are regularly raced in the Liverpool Nobby Race. There was crossover between the design of yachts and Nobbies.

Around 25% of Crossfields output was yachts. They also built rowing boats, Bay boats and sailing dinghies, including Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallow’. Bay boats were sailing boats used to take holidaymakers on excursions from resorts such as Morecambe. Yachts built by Crossfields include ‘Ziska’, 1903, which has been sailed across the Atlantic and is now on the West Coast of America, ‘Bonita’, 1888 the oldest boat to take part in 2013 OGA Round Britain Challenge, ‘Moya’, 1910 and ‘Molly’ both based in the Mediterranean.

The first Crossfield to move to Arnside was John, who set up a village joinery business in the early 19th century. His younger son Francis developed the boat building side of the business, launching his first boat in 1838, whilst his elder brother Thomas concentrated on house building.

By the mid 1880s the business was being run by John’s sons William, Francis, John and George as Crossfield Brothers operating from the Top Shop Yard on Church Hill. Boats were rolled downhill to the shore and launched from the beach. In 1892 William, the eldest son set up the Beach Walk Boatyard on the shore operating as William Crossfield & Sons taking his brother Francis with him. The Top Shop Boatyard continued to operate as Crossfield Brothers run by his half brothers John and George. In 1906 John moved to Conwy opening a boat building business there that operated until 1983. The Top Shop Boatyard was then run by his younger brother George as George Crossfield & Sons. When George died in 1909 the name reverted to Crossfield Brothers run by his two sons. In 1915, they moved to Hoylake in the Wirral, the business survivng to the early 20s. The Top Shop Boatshed is still in existence but due to be demolished for two houses.

The Beach Walk Boatyard continued to be operated by William’s sons till the early 1950s, though after the First World War, the demand for yachts and prawners declined. It was then run as Crossfields Successors, firstly by John Gill until 1966 and then John Duerden until 1983. The yard finally closed in the mid 1980s with the building remaining unused. Crossfield Successors made 13 of the West Kirby Hilbre Class. Conditions in the Boatyard were primitive with each plank of wood having to be sawn by hand. Working hours were limited to hours of daylight. It took four men six weeks or 120 working days to make a 32 foot prawner. It is said that the boats were made in silence with each man knowing what to do. Prior to the start of work, half models of the boats were made rather than plans. As well as making boats, Crossfields hired boats to holidaymakers, acted as village joiners and built coffins.

Further Reading

‘The Lancashire Nobby’ Nick Miller, Amberley, 2009 ISBN 978 1 84868 490 4
Moya: Il Segno dell’onda, The Mark of the Tide’ Piero Tassinari & Paolo Rumiz 2010, Communicarte Edizioni, Trieste ISBN 978 88 6287 056 6
‘Deva: Only So Many Tides’ Jon Wainwright, 2001, Seafarer Books 2001 ISBN 0 9538180 3 9
‘Laura: I brought a Prawning Boat’ Edward Delmar-Morgan, 1954

Arnside Sailing Club

Alasdair Simpson
first published in the OGA newsletter, Gaffers Log, July 2018