A club open to anyone who owns a Piper-built boat
Once Upon a Canal, There Was a Boatbuilder…
Story of David Piper Boatbuilding by Dorothy and David Piper
went to Shropshire Union Cruisers at Norbury Junction in 1965.
David was to work on the maintenance and running of the hire fleet as his
main job and to develop the boatbuilding side as and when possible.
Union Cruisers Ltd were a forward thinking family run company, run by
of the fleet (to us, pride of the fleet) were some boats built by Len Walton of
Oldbury, which were built of oak and elm in the traditional manner.
They were super boats, in fact our first family boat, some years later
was to be a Walton, but they were very slow to build and required high
maintenance. The decision was made to commission someone to basically copy the
hull design in steel and the first one was made by firm based on the
more reasonable source of hulls was found – a contact of ours in the
of the first private boats to be built was “Rose of Sharon” for Dr
and Mrs David Owen and was moored up at Higher Poynton.
this time the hull retailed at £750.00, Dami Marine ones were £450.00!
Although the steel hulls were an amazing step forward, they were a very basic and very empty hull. David’s next idea was, instead of building for’d wells and decks in timber, to build them in with the steelwork.
this stage, David was more and more involved in the steelwork side of the
business. Shropshire Union’s main
interest was obviously in their hire fleet and general boatyard, which was
thriving well and now included steel hulled hire boats.
David became increasingly frustrated with the growing hire fleet
maintenance stopping him from developing his boat building ideas and eventually
decided to go it alone in 1969.
lived in a small cottage in Norbury village by this time.
Money being a big problem, it was necessary to do various other work to
build up some capital and the villagers were good to us.
David beet-hoed, fitted carpets, did some work on the local donkey-rodeos
as well as using his woodworking skills. I
still did some part time work at SUC and with two-year-old twins, childcare was
shared. Andy and Simon had their own
workbench and grew up thinking the workshop was a natural place to be.
with the help of the local blacksmith, we built some V bottomed cruisers.
Harry Machin, of Holidays Afloat at
next major development in the boat building trade was for fibreglass cabins.
David was never very happy about this, but in fact a major stepping-stone
was when Shropshire Union Cruisers ordered three small trad style complete
boats, with fibreglass cabins, fully fitted.
These three boats were the only ones we ever built using this method and
were fitted out in our garage workshop in Norbury village. Many years later,
when we were at Red Bull, we extended one of these and put in a new section of
roof. The boat’s still moored up
by the winding hole at Adlington. I
think it’s called the
wasn’t convinced that this was the way to go and eventually we managed to sell
a traditional boat with a steel cabin. The
trade were highly amused by this, they said it would run with condensation, be
noisy and cold and generally thought we were quite mad.
first boat was built for the Briggs family from
Now to look for somewhere bigger to continue the tale..........
actually had a small canal-side site at Gnosall, with a few moorings, which we
used for boats in the finished stage, for trials prior to customers taking over,
but the logistics of towing the boats from where we built them at Norbury
through the extremely twisty lanes and under two aqueducts presented us with
more than a few problems. David used to borrow a tractor from a local farmer and
tow the hulls, but if you met a similarly wide vehicle (of which there were a
lot of in the country) you had to take to the hedge bank with one wheel and the
hulls regularly fell off, blocking the road.
The council would not give us permission to build at Gnosall and we had
to find somewhere else.
Actually finding a site both suitable and available was not easy, but eventually we found Red Bull. It was very overgrown. Coming along the top drive from the A34, the fence dividing us from the railway was on the right and on the left was quite a bank. The cottage where the house now is was down in the hollow. The level of the main floor of the house was about chimney top height on the old cottage. The basin area was completely filled with solid and walk-able on weed. Eddie Burgess of Constellation Cruisers at Higher Poynton had suggested the site to us, and I doubt if we’d have thought about it if it wasn’t for him.
moved on to the site in March 1972, putting up a second hand poultry shed as the
first workshop. Part of the
agreement with BW regarding the lease was that we provided a slipway and a water
point and these jobs, together with dredging the basin, were carried out first.
Andrew and Simon were five years old, and Tim just one month when we moved up to the Red Bull area and we bought a house on Mow Cop. We’d only been there a few months when the old gentleman living in the cottage died and we managed to buy the cottage and land, mainly on the bottom canal. Over the next few years David built boats by day and the bungalow by night, but by October 1975 we moved in fully. We’d had a lot of vandalism problems originally – the local kids had been used to having the basin to themselves and objected to us being there by demolishing in the evening what David had spent all day building but eventually we came to terms with this, although camping out in the workshop was sometimes necessary!
of the boats built around this time were around 30 to 35foot.
One of the first at Red Bull was Nan Horon (the original Nan
Horon) for the
came thick and fast at this stage and there were almost un-noticeable changes to
the hull design to achieve the best in handling qualities and to improve the
swim of the boat. A dry bilge was
developed and because of this we developed the Piper sealed shower room, with
the famous lift up floor. It was
easy to do and very practical. We
had our own boat and tried out various innovations and also had some really
helpful customers who were happy to try various ideas – not normally anything
very radical, but gently working forward. Most
boats were built as shells, usually “de luxed” – which meant windows,
doors and hatches, ready for fitting out. Gradually
traditional style boats took over from the cruisers for private customers,
although Yorkshire Dales and Dartline still had the cruiser style narrow boats.
We did boats in kit form for Dartline for a while.
built in water tanks developed from the idea of a self-draining for’d well.
The area for’d was ideal for tankage and with a coating of water tank
paint and a decent hatch for accessibility, this proved an instant success.
were a problem. The common design
meant you had to reach through the weed hatch and undo two bolts to dissemble
the rudder. This was quite a regular
thing, but with the slipway we were able to introduce the removable rudder – a
design still in use and a vast improvement.
1979, BW came up with the dreaded “standards” for hire boat construction.
These were implemented in 1982. At
this time it was not a consideration for private boats, but we all know what
happened! David was very involved with the “nuts and
bolts” of the Hire
a few boats built in the 1970’s had built in cool boxes under the kitchen sink
unit. Until around 1979 a few boats
had gas fridges, but they caused tremendous problems and had to be regularly
turned upside down to get rid of air locks.
12v fridges robbed the batteries too severely. It became apparent that
some modernisation of the generating of electricity in these new up-to-date
boats was necessary and the introduction of
this and an extra domestic battery, together with the lower use of
electricity in the Engel fridge range solved all the problems.
continued to implement new ideas, having our own family boat to try out more
radical changes and space saving ideas. Traditional
boats with side doors and cross double beds, giving more comfort and width for
the double berth, really caught on, together with solid fuel fires with back
boilers to supply radiators, as the bigger boats became more popular. Yorkshire
Dales Hire Cruisers amalgamated eventually with Rugby
were built as shells and fitted out up there.
The fleet is still in existence and are smart little boats.
We also built the White Nancy restaurant boat, run from Bollington
and Tim came into the business with us, although all three of our sons were very
involved in the yard from a very early age, particularly with bottom-blacking
and serving diesel.
we were lucky to have been in at the beginning of the modern boat building
developments, at a time when David’s talent for recognising a potential design
could be put to use. To a certain
extent, demand allowed us to “choose” our customers, in the nicest possible
way. If David didn’t think an idea
or layout would work, he would say so and he would rather lose the order than
build a boat that he though would be lacking in re-sale value, or that we
couldn’t be proud of. Only
one or two got through the net, in his less vigilant moods!
We have had some super customers, many of whom we are still in contact
with and made many friends in the process.
couple of years ago, we made the decision to move on.
Simon was already set up at Biddulph, with Tim working with him, building
bigger boats than Red Bull was suitable
for and British Waterways made us an
offer for the site – the wheel has turned
full circle and in April 2001 we handed it back to them.
summarize thirty three years of boatbuilding in one article is not an easy thing
to do and leaves many tales untold but hopefully it explains some of our
different and unique ways of tackling the problems as they cropped up.
Any questions? Please feel
free to ask!
You are welcome to contact the club for advice on any aspect of your Piper boat - some Piper-specific spares are still available.
and Corinna on the