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Alasdair Simpson brings us the first part of a detailed history of the remarkable story of ‘Ziska’, a Morecambe Bay Prawner built by Crossfields of Arnside in 1903. She completed the ‘Race to Alaska’ in 2019. Read the second part of her story here, when she crosses the Atlantic to North America.

‘Ziska’ was launched on 28 January 1903. She was made by Crossfield Brothers in Arnside, the same yard in which ‘Bonita’ (1888) the oldest boat to take part in the 2013 OGA Round Britain Challenge was built. From their yard on Church Hill ‘Ziska’ would have been rolled down the hill and launched from the beach. In Arnside this would be a case of leaving the boat on the beach waiting for the tide to come in and the boat floating off. In the days before power tools, boats would have been made by hand. Half models were used to design boats. Other significant events in 1903 included the formation of the Ford Motor Company in June and the first aeroplane fight on 17, December. The horse and cart were the main way of making local journeys. Ladies wore long dresses that came down to the ground, though less restrictive clothing for the more active lady was coming in. The Boer War had just finished. The British Empire was at its peak.

Crossfields of Arnside were leading builders of Morecambe Bay Prawners and yachts active from the 1840s to 1940s. Arnside is located on the Kent Estuary at the top of Morecambe Bay in Cumbria. It developed as a small resort following the opening of the railway in 1857. The village’s first yacht club was set up in 1852. Historically the estuary was the port for Kendal. There are views across the estuary to the Lakeland Hills John Crossfield (1855 – 1944) was the lead partner in Crossfield Brothers in 1903. His brother William ran the shore boatyard. In 1906 John moved to Conway. One of the boats he built there was ‘Pacific Moon’ (originally called ‘Nama’). ‘Pacific Moon’ was sailed from England to Tahiti via the Panama Canal in 1931-2 by Sidney Howard featuring in his book ‘Thames to Tahiti’. He also built ‘Wallaroo’ one of the leading yachts in the North West in the 1900s which won the Liverpool Isle of Man Midnight Race four times.

There were at least two other yachts called ‘Ziska’ built around 1900. ‘Ziska’ (1898) was a Dublin Bay 25 footer, which was later raced at Royal Cork. ‘Ziska’ (1904) was a Royal Windermere 17 footer.  ‘Ziska Pilsner’ made by the Bowness Bay Brewing Company is named after the Royal Windermere yacht. ‘Ziska’ is short for the German girl’s name Franziska and similar to the Yiddish girl’s name Ziske meaning ‘Little Sweet One’. One eyed General Jan Ziska (1360-1424) is a Czech national hero. However it is probable that all three yachts were named after ‘Princess Ziska’ a novel published in 1897 by Victorian best-selling author Marie Corelli set in Egypt. The final melodramatic scene takes place in the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid. 

Ziska’ was built for John Aspden (1855 – 1921), who was born in Blackburn, an inland mill town. In 1891 census he lived in Fleetwood working as a fisherman. By 1901 Census he was a Sea Fisheries Bailiff living in Lytham. In 1904 he was the General Manger of Lytham Baths, a Victorian leisure complex fed by sea water. The adjacent Assembly Rooms housed the yacht club. In the 1911 Census he lived in a now listed house in neighbouring Bath St. Lytham was developed as an up market resort by the Clifton family in contrast to neighbouring Blackpool. It is likely that ‘Ziska’ would have been kept on the beach by Lytham Pier across the Green from the Baths. The estuary at Lytham would have been busy with steam ships going up to Preston Docks. John Aspden did not keep ‘Ziska’ for very long. In 1904 ‘Ziska’ was bought by Arthur Earle Hunt (1860 – 1928) of Douglas, Isle of Man. The money to purchase ‘Ziska’ probably came from his second wife Ellen, the widow of a wealthy Manchester brewer, who was 9 years his senior. Born Arthur Hunt in Dublin, in the 1881 Census he is recorded as a bank clerk. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Earle, a Manchester solicitor. 

His first wife Evelyn eloped with her employer James Cooper a Manchester businessman living in secret with him for 7 years. Arthur received £800 damages against Cooper (about £100,000 in today’s money) when his divorce was granted in 1894. James Cooper was tried for murdering his second wife a barmaid in Douglas, Isle of Man in 1892 receiving the lenient sentence of 10 years penal servitude for man slaughter, when the usual punishment for murder would have been hanging.  Both the murder trial and divorce were reported in the national press. Arthur joined the Royal Mersey Yacht Club.

‘Ziska’ was then owned by W.J.Ellis, a Dublin Solicitor from 1905 to 1907. She was kept at Kingstown (Dun Laogharie), Ireland’s leading yachting centre with three royal clubs in the 1900s. Dublin at the time was very much the city of James Joyce, the second city of the British Empire with clanking trams and horse drawn hansom cabs. Joyce’s Ulysses is set in the Dublin of 1904 the year when he first walked out with Nora Barnacle. The first chapter takes place in a Martello Tower south of Kingstown.  There were only 53 cars in Ireland. The fitting out of yachts including ‘Ziska’ was reported in the Irish Press.

Ziska’ returned to England in 1907. Her next owner was Arthur Holt (1876 – 1941), a Liverpool architect, who kept her for more than 25 years. He was a member of Hoylake Sailing Club and the Royal Mersey. At first he owned ‘Ziska’ in partnership with others, then outright from 1925. When first involved with ‘Ziska’, he was only 30 living in a terraced house in Hoylake. By time he sold her in 1935 he was Vice Commodore of the North Wales Cruising Club, living in a large detached house in West Kirby and could afford to replace her with ‘Halcyone’ a brand new 30 ton yacht. In 1907 one of the partners of ‘Ziska’ was reprimanded by the Royal Mersey for flying a club burgee when they were not aboard. ‘Ziska’ came last in the 1911 Liverpool to Isle of Man Midnight Race completing the windless 80 miles in 31 hours compared to 2 hours 45 minutes of today’s fast ferry. She is also recorded as taking part in races to Llandudno and on the Clyde. ‘Ziska’s first engine was fitted at the early date of 1909, a two cylinder petrol engine made by Webbs of Stockport. In 1939 Ziska was acquired by Frederick Smart, who lived in a large house in Crosby overlooking the sea that once belonged to Thomas Ismay of the White Star Line, owners of the Titanic. Frederick fitted a new American engine in the boat.

Contributed by Alasdair Simpson, Arnside Sailing Club
Read the second part of her story here.