A tale of Endeavour in Leigh on Sea

PUBLISHED: 11:58 16 November 2015 | UPDATED: 11:58 16 November 2015




Peter Dolby from The Endeavour Trust shares the fascinating history of Endeavour, a cockle boat from Leigh on Sea that came to the rescue at Dunkirk, before being rescued and restored herself

Endeavour, a simple, timber cockle boat, was built in Leigh on Sea by Cole & Wiggins in 1924 for Harry Robinson, but when she first took to the water, few would have predicted the incredible future that would unfold.

Carvel planked with straight stem and transom stern, Endeavour is 36ft long, 11ft 6in beam with a 3ft draft with pitch pine planking on oak timbers and keel with intermediate oak steamed timbers. Built to work under sail but also with an engine, she is unique in marking the transition between fishing under sail and engine powered.

Ownership passed from Harry Robinson to his son who later, in 1952, sold her to William ‘Joe’ Deal. Joe converted her from a cockle boat to a shrimp boat. After Joe’s sad death, Peter Wexham became Endeavour’s owner/skipper and it was at this time that the competitiveness of the shrimp market made it necessary to concentrate more on fishing. In the early 1970s, Dave Spurgeon joined Peter and they started pair trawling and later turned to white weeding. During her working life, Endeavour has been used for cockles, shrimps, sprats, plaice, sole and white weed.

But Endeavour is perhaps most famous for the time she was skippered by Fred Hall, becoming one of six Leigh cockle boats later known as ‘little ships’ requisitioned by the Admiralty in May 1940. Skippers and crew members were signed on as Naval Auxiliary personnel and were joined on board by a Royal Navy rating, thus officially under Royal Naval command. Skippers were paid £4 and crew members £3.

With over 300,000 soldiers trapped in northern France, the British Government ordered owners of fishing boats, yachts and leisure craft to make their vessels available. These boats were of shallow draft and could get in as close as possible to the beaches where the allied soldiers were trapped by the advancing German troops. From the beaches, the soldiers were ferried to the Royal Navy ships further out to sea. The evacuation was masterminded by Admiral Ramsay from the operation room beneath Dover Castle. This room had previously housed the dynamo which generated the castle’s power, explaining why the evacuation was code named Operation Dynamo.

Initially a four-day operation was planned to rescue 45,000 men, but perfect weather conditions in the English Channel enabled many more ‘little ships’ than was originally envisaged to make the passage across.

693 vessels took part. The evacuation lasted nine days and 338,000 men were rescued.Later, in Parliament, Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the operation, ‘a miracle of deliverance’.

It is not possible to know how many soldiers Endeavour helped to evacuate, but official records confirm that 1,000 men were ferried out to the larger ships by the Leigh cockle boats. Also, 180 men were brought back to Ramsgate by the Leigh boats.

In 2001, Mike King, Peter Wexham, John Porter and Michael Guy drove to Rochester to take a look at Resolute, one of the six Leigh boats. They had heard that Resolute was in a parlous condition and hoped that she could be brought back to Leigh and restored to former glory. However, when they saw her their hearts sank. Far from parlous, she was beyond redemption; with a broken back she could not possibly be restored.

Dejectedly they turned for home until Peter exclaimed, ‘Look over there, Endeavour!’

The group hadn’t known Endeavour was in Rochester too and, although she was in need of significant work, it was agreed that restoration was possible.

The trip back was spent discussing what to do next, how to raise money for the restoration and how to get the Leigh community involved in this exciting prospect of a slice of history being restored and returned to her birthplace.

A public meeting was held and the Leigh-on-Sea Endeavour Trust was formed before Endeavour was purchased for £1. Shipwrights were found and Endeavour was transported to Great Totham for restoration. Members joined the trust and with grants received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Essex Heritage Trust and Cory Environmental among others, the project started in earnest.

Due to the availability of timbers, she has been restored using larch planking on oak timbers and keel with intermediate oak steamed timbers. The new timbers are ‘doubled up’ with original timbers.

Restoration stalled on a number of occasions due either to the shipwrights working on other projects or for the trust to raise further funds. Routine work, including painting, varnishing, plugging, sanding and caulking was carried out by volunteers.

In April 2005, Endeavour eventually returned on a low loader to Leigh, a matter of weeks before the intended participation in the 65th anniversary of Operation Dynamo and the return to Dunkirk.

She was re-launched, her first time in water for many years, and re-Christened from Strand Wharf. It was a moving ceremony witnessed by local dignitaries and Dunkirk veterans. There were a few days for the top coats of paint to be applied before the return to Dunkirk. She left from Bell Wharf watched by a crowd of members and well wishers for the Ramsgate leg of the voyage. She was off setting a reefed main and staysail, and boy, did she go.

There was a strong to gale force wind from the east and although the end of May, it was cold. In mid estuary, with the rain, it was very cold and everyone on board was quickly soaked through. There are limited facilities and no safety rails so in order to get around the decks in these extreme weather conditions a temporary rope was hitched from bow to stern on both port and starboard sides.

After crossing the estuary the crew hugged the north Kent coast and around into the Channel. After rounding the Foreland en route to Ramsgate the crew took down the sails and continued by motor. Under canvas she had made 9 ½ knots, which is some speed for a cockle boat. The Channel was turbulent to say the least and the waves were massive.

Endeavour handled the conditions well but there was relief all round when we passed into the friendly waters of Ramsgate harbour five hours after leaving Leigh.

Two days later, Endeavour made her historic return to Dunkirk in a flotilla of some 60 ‘little ships’ many well varnished, flat bottom river launches more familiar to the calm waters of the inland River Thames than the English Channel. The weather was good and the sea conditions relatively calm, much like 65 years before.

This commemorative return, among many other events, was organised by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. Endeavour is proud to be a member of this association along with nearly 200 other surviving ‘little ships’.

Endeavour has participated in many events since her restoration including the 70th and 75th anniversary returns to Dunkirk in 2010 and 2015, HM The Queen’s Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012, ADLS annual commemorative cruises to Ramsgate, Ipswich and Chatham and this year’s Veterans Cruise with veterans from the Korean and Falklands campaigns along with War Widows and members of the Not Forgotten Association on board the participating ‘little ships’.

Today, Endeavour remains owned and maintained by the Leigh-on-Sea Endeavour Trust. She is prominently and proudly moored in Leigh creek adjacent to Billet Wharf, where she is a centre piece for the Leigh community acting as a fitting memorial to generations of Leigh fishermen and, in particular, those who perished at Dunkirk.

The trust has engaged on a comprehensive community and educational programme and has spoken at many local schools and community groups.

One such school, The Belfairs Academy, has three colleges and one college, the aptly named Endeavour Hub, recently nominated the trust as its chosen charity for the year. A successful year resulted in a cheque for £915 being presented at the end of their summer term.

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