Cremated in the steam box

The boat that was the template for the Dulcibella of Riddle of the Sands, the Vixen, was the subject of a previous post here. That post covered the Vixen’s early life as a Kent lifeboat, before she was reborn, on the Ramsgate sands, as the scrappy-but-functional yacht that Childers took cruising through the Frisian Islands and Baltic in the autumn of 1897.

We’ll cover some of that trip in another post, as it formed so much of the basis for Riddle of the Sands. This post covers the second half of the Vixen’s life, and like so many boat tales, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Childers sailed her back to Terschelling, one of the Dutch Frisian islands, in December 1897, and left her there for the winter, in the care of a Herr Schroo. He then took the post-steamer back via Harlingen, Stavoren, Amsterdam and the night steamer from the Hook of Holland (I take much of the information here from Maldwen Drummond’s book The Riddle – and I wonder if it was actually the Flushing steamer that Childers took back to London).

Childers was befogged outside Harwich on the 16th December, and arrived in London on the 17th. He travelled back to Terschelling in Easter of the following year, 1898, to sail the Vixen home. She and he arrived in Dover on 17 April 1898.

Vixen stayed in home waters for the rest of her days. During Whitsun 1898, Childers sailed her to Newhaven with William Le Fanu, a close friend and brother of Captain Hugh Barrington Le Fanu (who would later become harbour master at Dunkirk during the First World War). Childers and Le Fanu rowed from Newhaven to Lewes for dinner, rowing back along the Ouse ‘at a great pace’ on the tide (with presumably a good quantity of wine and brandy in their bellies).

Childers then sailed Vixen around to the Solent, and kept her at Picketts Yard, Southampton for a while, taking the train down from London to sail her at the weekends. Le Fanu often accompanied him. In August, Childers sailed Vixen down the Solent and then back up to the Hamble, where he left her at Moody’s boatyard (now Moody’s Swanwick Marina – and, in one of those odd coincidences this project seems to throw out, the first place I ever sailed in a yacht from).

Vixen was taken out of the water at Moody’s while Childers headed for Trinidad for the autumn, staying there until early December 1898. He didn’t return to Vixen until March 1899. Moodys had fitted her out afresh and she was ready for the sea. He went cruising in her with Herbert Warington-Smyth, who had been at Trinity with Childers and was a fellow member of the Cruising Club. Warington (as he was known) had been on his own adventures in Indo-China after Trinity, and had written a couple of books about it. He was an advocate of refounding the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers, which had been disbanded in 1891. I wonder whether there might have been a bit of Carruthers in Warington; he wrote about the Vixen in Yachting Monthly in 1932, and particularly recalled the centre-board: ‘It was a terrible weight, but Childers thought nothing of it.’ That sounds like the authentic voice of Carruthers.

Childers’s own sailing log ends at the beginning of May 1899, with a trip in the Vixen to Beaulieu, where Childers and Warington were joined by Le Fanu. Storm clouds were gathering in South Africa. Childers and Le Fanu went on a bicyling holiday in France in October 1899, and Childers volunteered for service in South Africa in January 1900. He served in South Africa until August 1900, and left the country in October 1900. He published his first book, the bestselling In The Ranks of the CIV, about his time in South Africa, on his return.

Childers finally returned to see the Vixen in April 1901. She was still at Moody’s in the Hamble, but on this trip his eyes were distracted by another: the Sunbeam, a 27-year-old yacht. He formed a syndicate with Le Fanu and Aldred Dennis, all three of them giving their address as Carlyle Mansions in London. Moody’s agreed to purchase the Vixen.

But she wasn’t called Vixen any longer; at some point she had been named the Dulcibella. Why? The surviving manuscript of Riddle of the Sands is dated 13 December 1901, so he must have been writing the book at the same time as he was preparing to purchase the Sunbeam. Given how much the Vixen inspired the fictional Dulcibella, it must have pleased him to make the fiction into a fact.

Moody’s made some further alterations to Dulcibella, and sold her on to Mr George Newbury for 12 pounds. Compared to her previous adventurous existence, life with Newbury seems to have been scandalously Home Counties – he used her at Hill Head Haven at weekends as a houseboat, and built a gazebo on her coach-roof, an awful fate for such a feted vessel. On 27 November 1906, the Registrar of British Ships entry for Dulcibella was altered to read ‘Closed – Vessel converted into a houseboat and registry no longer required.’

Dulcibella was bought in 1932 by Claude ‘Happy’ Hapgood for three pounds. She was taken to his yard at Wootton Creek on the Isle of Wight. Hapgood was yachting correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and he and partner Jim Young had a ‘beer money yard’ at Wootton Creek. They worked on boat-building and repair work during the winter, with Hapgood allegedly reading Riddle of the Sands to Young over their lunchtime sandwiches.

She was there, on the slipway at Wootton Creek, for a few years, and some people came to pay their respects. The Dulcibella Memorial Committee was set up in 1937, to raise money to put her on a plinth. It was proposed to do this at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, but the local council refused. Was Childers’ Republican adventure after the war the reason?

Happy Hopgood never got round to fixing her up, either. Hapgood sold the yard and its contents to Ted Watson, who kept her for a while, and then a new berth for Dulcibella was offered by the Lymington Slipway and Engineering Company, the directors of which also owned a boatyard. She was towed by powerboat from the Isle of Wight in August 1939, almost sinking on the way. A hole was plugged and she was taken the rest of the way. Restoration was apparently about to start, but then the world broke in, as the Second World War broke out.

The Dulcibella at Lymingon in 1942. Photograph by Group Captain FC Griffiths, from the edition of The Riddle of the Sands edited by RM Bowker
The Dulcibella at Lymingon in 1942. Photograph by Group Captain FC Griffiths, from the edition of The Riddle of the Sands edited by RM Bowker

The Lymington yard was sold again after the war. The remnants of the Memorial Committee tried to find another berth, but none was forthcoming. Dulcibella was allegedly ‘cremated’ (in Drummond’s words) in the steam box used for bending wood. There is an additional postscript here, from Michael Balyard – he witnessed, it appears, the final breaking-up of the Dulcibella, and the despatch of a fragment of the keel to Childers’s widow Molly.


2 thoughts on “Cremated in the steam box

  1. Poking around on the internet I found this schematic drawing of the Dulcibella. It appears to be modeled on the vessel used in the film. I am contemplating building a scale model of the Dulcibella and this is, so far, the best drawing I have come up with. I also looked for hull profile drawings of lifeboats used in the Life Saving Service and found some helpful images but I had difficulty ascertaining dates and dimensions for the few drawings I could find.
    Missing are the “section lines” of the “body plan” which are the diagrams that allow one to reproduce the true shape of the hull-they are exactly like the curved topographic lines found on a contour map and allow one to accurately reproduce the subtle curves of a vessel’s hull.
    and this one from the same site:


    1. Frankie – have just had a look at this, and it’s fantastic – don’t know why I didn’t find it before! Will be putting it into tomorrow’s podcast.


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