James Maxwell & Sons

The Orkney Herald, Tuesday, May 13, 1947
By a Special Correspondent

The late James Maxwell, senior, was a Shapinsay man and came to Kirkwall from Shapinsay 67 years ago, in 1880. He had served his time as a shipwright with Tom Stevenson, of Balfour Village, Shapinsay. Stevenson’s firm built many small boats, herring boats and shop boats in those days. The best known vessel Tom ever built , however, was the “Iona” – a sturdy wooden-built little steamer, to this day still plying between Shapinsay and Kirkwall. James Maxwell, as an apprentice, helped to build the “Clydon,” which still frequently sails between Shapinsay and Kirkwall.

On His Own

James Maxwell, senior, started on his own account as a shipwright in Kirkwall in the building which the Hydro-Electric Board has recently converted into show-rooms, directly opposite the present Kirkwall Police Station. Mr Maxwell specialised in the building of small boats. And he also did most of the ship-repairing in Kirkwall.

James Maxwell worked in his shop for one-and-a half years. Then – going further than ever from the sea – he went up the Back Road to a new-built shed, which had been specially built. This was just above Mackay’s Furniture Stores on the same side of the street. James was a number of years in that shop, but the sea was too far away, so he transferred the business – still on the Back Road – to the yard where Mr John Miller, motor car agent and filling station proprietor, now has his showroom.

Present Shop

Round about 1929 the present commodious shop was built at Great Western Road. It is interesting to note that of the four premises which the firm has occupied, three have been situated on the Back Road.

The Sail Era

When James Maxwell, founder of the business, started on his own, such a thing as a motor-boat was unheard of in Orkney. In those days every boat used sail, except, of course, the few steamers. A very big trade was done in the building of herring boats. And many an Orkney yawl – broad of beam, riding the sea like a gull and Maxwell-built – was shipped down the West Coast to eager buyers in the Highlands.

A Young Manager

The present James Maxwell, eldest of the family, served his time with his father. Thirty-eight years ago – when still a mere stripling age 19 – he took over the management of the business from his father. The old man was very glad to hand over responsibilities to his son.

Went Abroad

Peter Maxwell, the second son, after serving his apprenticeship to the bakery trade, wanted to see a little bit of the world. “Go west, young man, go west,” was the cry at the time. So, Peter left his native town of Kirkwall for Canada. He travelled all over the Dominion, staying for a while in Winnipeg, Manitoba and latterly in British Columbia, where he worked for a spell with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Although liking the far west very much, he was young. The “wanderlust” was strong. Other and farther-away lands were calling. Peter left the Pacific Slope for New Zealand, eventually settling in Auckland, North Island. Then the Great War broke out in 1914. Peter joined up and saw bitter fighting in France with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. He was very badly wounded at Passchendaele. Returning to New Zealand after the war, Peter was demobbed there. But wounds bothered him a lot, so he came back to Kirkwall, via Australia, to the family business, where he has worked with his brother James ever since. Peter thought New Zealand a grand country. He had been away from Orkney for 12 years.

Peter Maxwell is renowned in Kirkwall – and far out of it- for his exquisite model ships and boats of all kinds. His collection of models is unique. But I will leave the models until another time.

Biggest Boat

James Maxwell tells me that the biggest boat ever built in Kirkwall was the late Tom Pearce’s yacht the “Njala” – which was usually wintered at the old quarry out at Grain Shore. She was a pleasure yacht and had five berths aboard. The “Njala” had fine lines. Her mainmast and topmast stand to this day at the Shore Due Office at Kirkwall Harbour. When her day was done the “Njala” was broken up, some years ago now, by the present James Maxwell. Her timbers and fine fittings were used by the firm to help build other boats. James Maxwell says that his firm could quite easily build a 40-foot boat in the present shop. Were the materials only more plentiful.

Motor Fishing Boats

A new boatbuilding yard has been opened at Lerwick, Shetland, since the war ended, and the first motor fishing vessel had already been launched. Are there no Orkneymen nowadays with salt-water in their veins who would like a similar vessel, to fish out of Kirkwall? After the 1914-18 war Provost Peter C Flett, O.B.E., was instrumental in getting Kirkwall small-boat fishing under way. We have the craftsmen here in Kirkwall to make sturdy, sea-worthy, expertly-designed craft – second to none in workmanship. The “Beatrice”

J Maxwell & Sons have built many small craft – fishing boats, motor boats, yachts, etc., and they hope to build many more in the future. Largest vessel built – in the present shop – was the “Beatrice: of 32 feet length overall. She was a roomy, cabin-cruiser, having a Turner 15hp Diesel engine, which gave her a speed of about 8 knots.

During the war a naval officer used to take a look into the shop occasionally. On his first visit he at once noticed the “Beatrice” lying on the stocks. Looking over her a bit, he remarked to Mr James Maxwell, who was standing near:- “You’ve got a fine boat there, chum.” “Do you think so?” was the builder’s reply. That was all that was said about the boat at the time.

The war ended. And the naval officer in due course left Orkney. Some time elapsed. Then one day Mr Maxwell got a letter from the ex-officer asking if he still had the “Beatrice” for sale? Mr Maxwell replied that she was still in the shop. Another letter arrived from the officer saying that he had been talking to his boss, who was looking for a cabin-cruiser. The former officer told him that he knew just where he could get the very boat he was looking for – in Kirkwall in the Orkneys.

A short time later the two Englishmen arrived in Kirkwall to inspect the cruiser, after flying all the way from Birmingham in a light ‘plane. A quick inspection of the “Beatrice” was made and the deal was made there and then. Mr Gordon, the buyer, and the former naval officer outfitted the cruiser in Kirkwall, sailing her down the West Coast to Birmingham. They had a very rough passage, but made the trip without any trouble.

The ”Sheena”

Latest vessel to leave the Maxwell’s stocks, was the fine motor boat Sheena, built for Mr William Nicolson, Balfour Village, Shapinsay. Strongly built, and of graceful lines, she is of superb workmanship. The boat has an overall length of twenty-six feet three inches, and approximate draught of three feet. She is clinker-built in larch, with wrought oak timbers, and all copper fastened. All the fittings are of heavy brass. She is fitted with a wheelhouse, and has accommodation for twelve passengers. The engine is a 15h.p. Ricardo Kelvin petrol-paraffin, which gives her a speed of about seven knots. She carries a mast and lug sail.

Shipwright to Admiralty

Ever since the business was started, the firm has been Shipwrights to the Admiralty for the Northern Patrol – both in 1914-1918 war and during the late war. In World War 1, if requiring more hands, the firm got naval carpenters from the naval depot at Lyness. In the last war there were usually three naval ratings working in the shop all the time. J Maxwell & Sons carried out all the running shipwright repairs to trawlers, drifters, motor vessels, R.A.F Rescue Launches and other small craft. Extra civilian workers, of course, were also employed during the late war.

Present Personnel

The firm have five workmen all told working in the shop at the moment. Both James and Peter Maxwell still do their share of the work. John Craigie has been with the firm for 38 years – and is still going strong. This is a very long time indeed, and speaks well of the very happy relationship which exists between the owners and employees.

Fred Copland served his time with the firm, beginning his apprenticeship on 9th October 1933 – fourteen years ago. Fred is the last shipwright to have served his time in Orkney. In fact. He is the only fully-fledged shipwright to have served his time in the country for very many years.

A shipwright in the old days served four years as an apprentice and then had to put in another year as an “improver” – a total of five years. So far as is known there are no apprentice shipwrights in Orkney today. Tommy Tulloch – also an excellent hand – joined the firm from the cabinetmaking firm of James Tait & Sons, Kirkwall, sometime during 1940.

Craftsmen all

J. Maxwell & Sons are an old-established Kirkwall firm – the only boatbuilding firm in the town now. Maxwell’s are widely known throughout great Britain for the excellent workmanship of their boats. Dinghies, fishing boats, motor-boats for business or pleasure, yachts, cabin-cruisers – it’s all the same to them. Every man in Maxwell’s takes great pride in his work. And every buyer can rest assured that the particular boat he will buy will be well-built, sturdy, seaworthy, with fine lines and with craftsmanship such as most moderns nowadays, dream about, but seldom see.