TRADITIONAL skills are rapidly becoming a thing of the past so it’s fantastic to find that the Herald & News area is home to one of the last wooden boat builders on the Thames – Michael Dennett based at Laleham Reach in Chertsey.
Michael, 63, and his son, Stephen, run the yard which attracts customers with traditional wooden boats from as far afield as the Pool of London and the South Coast and when you talk to him, you quickly understand why he has such a raft of loyal customers – what Michael doesn’t know about wooden boat building frankly isn’t worth knowing.
“I got into this a bit by accident,” admits Michael, who lives in Chertsey. “I left school at 15 and didn’t fancy working on a trading estate. I saw an advert for a general assistant at Horace Clarke’s boatyard in Sunbury and since I’d always enjoyed messing about in boats on the Thames, I applied and got the job.
“Although I was only earning £3 a week (that was in 1958) I quickly became addicted and decided that was what I wanted to do for a living.”
Clarke’s were not big enough to offer an apprenticeship so Michael moved to Walton Yacht Works, based just downstream from Walton Bridge which was an altogether different scale of operation.
“They employed about 400 men and had been turning out Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) for the navy during and after the war,” said Michael. “They were 72-foot wooden boats and they used to produce one every fortnight – it was an incredible operation. I learnt such a lot while I was there.”
He finished his apprenticeship after transferring to George Wilson’s yard back at Sunbury but when he started to do a number of sizeable private jobs at weekends, he decided that he could earn more money working for himself than for someone else and at the age of just 22 he became self-employed.
“I got work by generally by word of mouth,” he recalls, “and I suppose I earned a good reputation with most yards along the Thames. I quite often used to go in and work on the boats of the yard owners themselves.”
After working from the back of a van for a few years, Michael rented a shed at Harris’s Boatyard on Laleham Reach and he eventually launched his own yard in its current position in 1988.
It’s now a family affair. Michael said: “My son Stephen came in as a partner around 10 years ago and he’s an incredibly hard worker. He’s hyperactive and I’m always amazed by how much work he can turn out.”
The yard, which employs four full-time people and a number of part-timers, is regularly asked to care for historic boats including a number of Dunkirk Little Ships.
“We’ve got three here at present – Tom Tit, Gay Venture and Lady Gay – and that’s a real honour. They’re part of our history and you have to know what you’re doing to look after them,” he said.
Michael’s business is going from strength to strength and we should be proud that we’ve got a master craftsman who’s decided to make his home on our stretch of the river.