In 1782, Frances Calense Amos arrived from London and started a shipyard, leasing land in Gosport, Hampshire across the harbour from the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth. In 1809 Amos apprenticed his great-nephew William Camper, and by 1821 the yard was building small trading ships.
As Amos had no children, after his death in 1824 his nephew Camper took over the lease on the yard. Camper forged strong links with the wealthy members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, positioning the business in the emergent yacht building industry. For twenty years from the launching of the cutter Breeze in 1836, Camper built up a reputation as a builder of fast yachts, particularly schooners which were favoured by a prestigious clientele. However, the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 heralded a decline in Camper's career.
In 1842, 14-year-old Ben Nicholson joined Camper's yard as a shipwright apprentice. As there was no clear male heir in the Camper family, Nicholson had risen in the yard to become chief designer, producing the innovative 1860 design for the schooner yacht the Aline. The yacht's racing success and subsequent orders prompted Nicholson's further promotion and facilitated his choice as Camper's replacement when he retired in 1863.
The company of Camper and Nicholson was formed in 1863, financed by both William Camper and the Lapthorn family, who operated an adjacent sail loft. Nicholson undertook a 30-year programme of expansion, more than doubling the size and scale of the facilities. In tonnage terms, the design and construction of large schooners dominated the firm's output, and to this staple Nicholson added an extensive refit and maintenance business which was made possible by the near constant expansion of the yard's facilities.
Nicholson vessels were extremely long-lasting. A long-lived, cruising yawl, the Florinda, proved so speedy that she became famous as the Gosport Mistake. Nicholson's last vessel was the 1887-built, 161-ton schooner Amphitrite, which was fitted with a durable teak hull; originally designed as a racing yacht, she is today owned by Germany's oldest sail-training association, Clipper, and as of 2013 is considered one of the oldest sailing yachts still sailing on the sea.
The arrival of Ben's three sons in the firm occasioned a final name change to Camper and Nicholsons.
Eldest son Benjamin had no interest or aptitude for design, but made his impact through the supply of crew, drawn mainly from regional fishermen, for leisure and racing purposes to the yachts built for the rich clientele - a service that continued until 1939. Youngest son Arthur W. found his ability best applied through managing the maintenance and construction facilities of the yard, and the purchase in 1912 of expansion facilities in Southampton.
Middle son Charles Ernest Nicholson emerged as the consummate yacht designer, able to combine elegance with speed and seamanship.
Charles's first design of note was the Redwing class. The Bembridge sailing club met in October 1896 to agree the need for a shallow draughted yacht - to allow for the shoal waters of Bembridge Harbour - which could be sailed single-handed, to replace the expensive half racers. Charles designed the yacht in ten days, and by 1898 the fleet consisted of 16 boats, all built by C&N's yard.
In the early 1900s Charles developed a new powered craft which would enable the owners to come from their "big-boats" before and after the competitions. Named the Gelyce class, the name derived from the combined first and last letter of their respective wives: Gertie, Lucy, and Constance. In 1912, Charles introduced the 15-metre-design Istria with a Marconi rig, the first yacht in the world with a lightweight, laminated wood construction. This led to further developments and growing expertise in the use of lightweight materials which saw its fruition in the use of plywood in deck construction. This ultimately led to arguably Nicholson's most beautiful sailing creation, the three-masted schooner Vira (later 'Creole') was built on behalf of the American Alec Cochran, commissioned in 1927. At 63.3 metres (208 ft) she is today the world’s largest wooden sailing yacht.
Going into and emerging from World War I, the company successfully retained its 1,700 employees even through being subsumed into the Admiralty. Subsidiary companies such as the loss making Gosport Aircraft Company were quickly axed on cessation of war.
In 1914 C&N had produced the world's first large, diesel powered yacht M.Y. Pioneer, which permitted a reduction in overall tonnage without reducing accommodation. Capitalising on this, Camper and Nicholsons remained the world's leading builder of motor yachts through to the outbreak of World War II.
The largest of these motor yachts was the 1,629-tonne M.Y. Philante, built for Sir Tom Sopwith. This was the third motor yacht built by C&N for Sopwith, and after he bought the J-class yacht Shamrock V from the estate of Sir Thomas Lipton in 1931, Sopwith commissioned Charles to design the 1934 J-class yacht Endeavour, and 1936's Endeavour II. Nicholson was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1997.
The height of C&N was probably 1937's Cowes Week, which came to be known as Charlie Nicholson's Regatta. All the J-Class, three quarters of the 12 Metres, half the 8 Metres and many of the ocean racers were from Charles’ board, as were many of the motor yachts in the spectator fleet and his sister designs Foxhound and the Olin Stephens rigged Bloodhound, the latter winning that year's Fastnet Race. Foxhound was still being campaigned by Portugal in the 1974 Admirals Cup. And yet for all the success, less than ten percent of C&N's output during his time was racing yachts.
Like many commercial companies with skills vital to the war effort, C&N were taken over by the British Government on the outset of World War II. Many yachts and commercial vessels of all sizes were taken up by the Royal Navy for war use, including the yacht built in 1931 by Camper and Nicholsons for Sir Charles Fairey, which served as the anti-submarine vessel HMS Evadne. The company used both its extensive design capability to produce seaworthy vessels for simplified "any location" production, and set up set a production line itself producing Motor Torpedo Boats, Motor Gun Boats, and the workhorses of the Admiralty the Motor Fishing Vessel. Spare capacity was used to produce canoes and surf boats for use on Commando raids; and landing craft for the British Army troops in North Africa.
Just before the Second World War broke out, the Turkish Navy ordered eight Motor Gun Boats from C&N. Larger than the contemporary Royal Navy units built by Vosper Thorneycroft and the British Power Boat Co., these vessels were also unusual in being specified for diesel propulsion, with three 16 cylinder Paxman VRBs rated at 1,000 bhp (700 kW)at 1750 rev/min. Before completion, the war had broken out and they were taken over by the Royal Navy. Three of the class were completed as intended, though the last had to be fitted with Packard petrol engines like the British MTB's. The other uncompleted five vessels were assigned to Operation Bridford, to bring SKF ball bearings back from neutral Sweden. Converted under the direction of modern-day buccaneer Sir George Binney, the Gay Viking class ran from Hull with a trawlermen crew under a red ensign flag as directed by the Admiralty. The boats carried 45tonnes of cargo per trip at speeds of up to 23 knots (43 km/h), with a maximum cruise of 20 knots (37 km/h) and a range of 1,200 nautical miles (2,220 km) at 17 knots.
Most of the pre-war C&N motor yachts were requisitioned by the Royal Navy, often manned by their pre-war crews and commanded by their peacetime skipper or owner. The toughness of C&N craft was proven in incidents like that of M.Y. Esmeralda, which while involved in mine clearance got too close. The resulting explosion threw her onto her beam ends, lifting her stern high into the air - she survived the incident with no structural damage whatsoever.
C&N's facilities were extensively damaged in numerous air raids in 1941, destroying most of the companies historical records, facilitating the need to move some production to, among other places, temporary workshops in Mumby's mineral water works in North Street, Gosport.
In preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy, C&N built SLUG boats (Surf landing Under Girders), especially designed by the firm for D-Day to keep the Mulberry Harbours in place. They were shallow-draught motor boats which towed small barges under the girders of the floating bridges carrying the wire needed to hold the floating bridge in position.
Just prior to World War II, Charles's son John Nicholson began to assist with the design office. In 1939 it was one of John's designs which moved the company forward, when he designed a "batch" of six 30-foot (9 m) sloops. The first was named Cinder and was owned by C E Nicholson for many years. She was later renamed Ellen Sophia and was still sailing in 2010. This productionised philosophy was developed further during the war years to enable the company to address the mass-market afterwards. John's cousin Charles A. Nicholson, universally known as Young Charlie, worked out of the Southampton premises, and not suffering the same shadow of his father launched his design career with the offshore racer Yeoman in 1937.
The company survived World War II intact, and thought it had much repair and maintenance work awaiting its yards through the return of owners. But Britain had changed, with the subdued economy through rationing and high post-war tax rate making owners rethink where they based themselves. Young Charlie sent his second son George to the Côte d'Azur to work for a friends brokerage, and persuade both owners and crews to return their yachts to the yard for winter repairs. Also, there was a large shortage of wood, so in spite of continued racing successes and the production of high-profile boats as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh's Dragon class Bluebottle, the company relied on civilian repair work and Government contracts for wooden mine sweepers.
Charles E. Nicholson continued to chair the company until his death in 1954 aged 86, and it was only then that John was able to admit that he had created many of the later C&N designed yachts which had borne the Charles E. Nicholson design banner. As Government contracts dried up in the late 1950s, Young Charlie's son Peter developed the production offerings of the company along three streams: large motor yachts, custom sailing yachts including his own 1964 showcase yacht Rocquette (the first British ocean racer to have a flush deck, and whose innovations lead to the later Gypsy Moth IV); and the so-called "people's yacht" made from Glass-reinforced plastic.
With no experience of GRP or additional yard space for production, C&N commissioned Halmatic to mould hulls for the initial Nicholson 36 yacht designed by Peter, followed by the Nicholson 32 and then 26, 38, 43, 45, 48, 55 and 70. Other innovations included a heads compartment designed as a one piece moulding, while the lead keel was encapsulated within the hull moulding. By the time stock production had finally ceased in 1981 of the Nicholson 32, 369 boats had been built, and a set of moulds was exported to Australia with at least ten boats built there. Other production models which made up the 1,400 boats produced during this period included:Nicholson 27 - 18 boats
Nicholson 32 - 369 boats + 20 in Australia
Nicholson 35 - 228 boats
Nicholson 38 - 134 boats, based on the Alden Mistral
Nicholson 39 - 63 boats
Nicholson 33 - 120 boats
The first Nicholson 55 was commissioned by Lloyd's of London Yacht Club and named Yacht Lutine, as are named all LYC yachts, with sail number GBR809. She was sold in 1999 and renamed Acclaim. The Joint Services Association (Royal Navy, Army, Royal Air Force) owned 7 Nic 55's which are sailed around the world primarily by service men and women during adventurous training events.
Being family owned, C&N had always had a propensity to develop subsidiaries to have complete control over production. The first example was the Gosport Aircraft Company, set up to use C&N's expertise in wooden construction in the supply of aircraft to the Ministry of War. This was quickly axed post-World War I, and with Charles E. Nicholson's driven growth, the only subsidiary pre-WW2 was a chandlers.
In the 1950s with survival so reliant on Government contracts, C&N Electrical Ltd was headed by electrician Roy Taylor to supply control boxes for minesweepers. By the early 1970s and still managed by Taylor, it had grown to employ 1,250 in five factories, and had spun off further companies such as Dialled Despatches which manufactures pneumatic tube systems.
In the 1960s Camper and Nicholsons Marinas Ltd was formed to develop old Admiralty land adjacent to the main yard. This success brought council pressure to make land available for post-war town develop plans, which resulted in the closure of the waterside Beach Street Site, and reduction in the ability to accept profitable lay up, repair and refit work.
In 1961, in light of the amount of construction and refit/repair work it was generating for the home yard, George persuaded his father to buy out his friend in the Côte d'Azur brokerage business, renaming it Camper and Nicholson International. By this point the company had numerous offices around the Mediterranean, as well as Australia, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Singapore and both coasts of America.
All of these companies plus the building and repair facilities as two separate entities were now being held by Camper and Nicholsons Holdings Ltd, which although profitable was short of investment capital.
In 1972, Camper and Nicholsons Holdings Ltd formed a joint venture with investment and house building company Crest Securities Ltd., to form Crest Nicholson, and develop more former Admiralty sites.
However, in light of the rise in VAT on boats from 8% to 25% in 1975, and the 1979 development of a bridge over the River Itchen which restricted access to the Southampton yard, the company became short of cash. Having sold off C&N Electrical Ltd in 1974 for cash, and deciding to shut the Southampton yard, the assets of Camper and Nicholsons Holdings Ltd became part of Crest Nicholson. George was not happy with the full merger, and left Camper and Nicholson International to form Solidmark, which he built into a successful brokerage, consultancy and yacht management company.
In 1981, then Managing Director Tony Taylor led a management buyout of the yacht building yard, which finally cut the ties to the Nicholson family. Under the name Camper and Nicholsons Yachting, production of stock boats continued and the yard returned to its tradition of building custom yachts. The company was chaired by Nick Maris whose family interests were the majority shareholders. In 1999 the boat building and repair business of Camper and Nicholsons Yachting was bought by Cammell Laird.
In 1991, Nick Maris approached George about merging Solidmark with Camper & Nicholsons International, which George agreed to become MD of again. The company expanded to include sites in Italy, Germany and Mexico. The company was brought by the French Rodriguez Group in 2001. George remains non executive chairman of Camper and Nicholsons International. Maris at this point bought out the remaining share holders in Camper and Nicholson Marinas, which now has developments across the world.
In 1992 Crest Nicholson sold the Gosport Marina, the Camper and Nicholsons Marina consultancy business and the rights to the Camper & Nicholsons Brand to Nick Maris.
In 2001 Camper and Nicholsons Yachting was bought by Italian industrialist Salvatore Ferragamo's Nautor Group, which restarted stock production in Gosport in 2004 with a 42-foot (13 m) motor yacht. The Gosport yard finally closed in December 2005, with production moving to Scandinavia in 2006 following a development offer from a joint venture of Camper and Nicholsons Marinas and Crest Nicholson. The firm now is run by an American private equity firm.
In August 2014 Camper & Nicholsons International announced that the company was under new ownership after being acquired by Colosseum Services SA, an investment vehicle of a Swiss-based family office. The transaction was originated by Brook Hazelton, former CEO of Phillips, the international art auction house, and Eric de Saintdo, ex-CEO of Camper & Nicholsons International and of the Festival International de la Plaisance (now Cannes Yachting Festival). In early 2014, based on their personal relationship, they partnered with Colosseum Services in order to secure the financial backing necessary to complete the acquisition and provide the resources enabling the company to enhance its leadership position at the forefront of the yachting industry.
Camper and Nicholsons built four J-class yachts, three of which raced in the America's Cup. All designed by Charles Nicholson, the first was Shamrock V for 1930 race, funded by retailer Sir Thomas Lipton. The second was Velsheda commissioned for Woolworths magnate William Lawrence Stephenson, but was not used as a Cup challenger. The third and fourth boats were funded by pioneer aviation entrepreneur Sir Thomas Sopwith. Sopwith had had his private yachts built by C&N, including M.Y. Vita and her sisters. Having bought Shamrock V on the death of Lipton in 1931, he returned to the yard to have Charles Nicholson design and build the 1934 America's Cup entry Endeavour and the 1937 entry Endeavour II.
Miguy III, today Blue Horizon IV Ketch by Camper & Nicholson builds in 1960 from the famous architect Charles Nicholson Long 103 feet beam 22 ft draft 13 feet, 130 tons, lest 30 tons 2 engines Mercedes 320 hp each, two shaft propellers speed maxi 13 knots steel hull 8mm The yacht was built at the request of King Faisal II who was murdered during the construction. Camper and Nicholson have found a buyer in the person of the first cousin of Prince Rainier of Monaco, which earned the presence of Prince and Princess Grace on board mentioned in the logbook.
In 1962 Sir Francis Chichester commissioned C&N to build the third boat (the first was a plane) in his series, Gipsy Moth IV. Inspired while writing his book Along the Clipper Way, which charts the voyage taken by 19th century wool clippers returning from Australia, Chichester set himself the target of making the passage in 100 days against the clippers average of 123 days. The maximum speed of a yacht is directly related to its wetted length: Gipsy Moth IV is 53 feet overall, whereas a clipper ship such as the Cutty Sark is 212 feet (65 m). Designed by John Illingworth and Angus Primrose, the boat incorporated the maximum amount of sail for the minimum amount of rigging, whilst employing tiller-based self-steering using design principles established by Blondie Hasler that could enable steerage from the skippers bunk, essential for long passage solo sailing. Launched in March 1966 with a hull constructed of cold-moulded Honduras mahogany, she set out from Plymouth on 27 August 1966 with 64-year-old Sir Francis at the helm. 107 days later she entered Sydney harbour for a stop over. Returning via Cape Horn in just 274 days (226 days actual sailing time), the voyage claimed records for the fastest voyage around the world by any small vessel, and longest non stop passage that had been made by a small sailing vessel (15,000 miles).
C&N has a history of building Royal Yachts, including the 1936 Bloodhound which The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh bought in 1962.
The 1928 commissioned HMS Monica, later renamed HMS Rion, served as a mine hunter during World War II. Purchased by Aristotle Onassis from war surplus, she was refitted and renamed Arion and presented as a wedding present to Rainier III, Prince of Monaco when he married actress Grace Kelly. His Sovereign Highness renamed her Deo Juvante II and she was used by the newlyweds for their honeymoon cruising the Mediterranean. The yacht is now owned and operated by Quasar Expeditions in the Galápagos Islands as the M/Y Grace.
The 1937 commissioned M.Y. Philante was built on behalf of Sir Thomas Sopwith, the name an amalgam of his wife Phyllis and Sopwith's Christian names. It was used by Sopwith to attend America's Cup races and regatta's, including the 1938 regatta at Hankø in eastern Norway. After the outbreak of World War II, the Royal Navy requisitioned M.Y. Philante as an escort vessel for convoys crossing the Atlantic, and then as a school ship for training convoy escorts in 1942. Returned to Sopwith in 1946, she was sold to the Norwegian Government as the promised royal yacht of King Haakon. After an extensive refit in Norway, on 17 May 1948 the ship's captain, Commander Christian Monsen, raised the command pennant on the renamed Norge for the first time, and on 9 June the Royal Yacht was handed over to King Haakon. She remains today one of only two Royal yachts still in service.
In the early 1900s the Nicholson brothers developed a new motorised craft which would enable the owners to come from their "big-boats" before and after the competitions. Named the Gelyce, it was an amalgam of the first and last letter of their respective wives: Gertie, Lucy, and Constance. After building at least ten for the Nicholson family to develop the design, they began producing the design for others. Charles E. Nicholson claimed that the Gelyce yacht tenders, with a clean bottom, a sound propeller and a Daimler 105 hp (78 kW) engine, would have been able to produce 20 knots (37 km/h), as a matter of fact the best speed recorded was 21.5 knots (40 km/h). The owners included Major Sir Digby R Peel MC, Sir Hanson Rowbotham JP and Lt Commander Sir Warden Chilcott DL MP JP - whose boat is now owned under the name Herring Gull by Peter de Savary. Another 50 ft Gelyce is still in existence at Bordeaux Boat Museum lent by Mr. Voisin of Villefrance, as is the original Peel commissioned boat.
In 1966, Camper and Nicholsons built the classic motor yacht Chambel IV, renamed NorthWind II by her subsequent owner in 1970. Northwind II's interior was decorated by Maison Jansen, the illustrious design firm whose clientele included the Kennedy White House, Coco Chanel, and the Shah of Iran. In 2010 Northwind II was fully rebuilt and upgraded, her interior expertly restored. As one of the few remaining complete Jansen commissions, she has attracted great interest from connoisseurs of 20th-century interior design. Most recently she was featured in the August 2011 issue of Architectural Digest. She is now privately owned in the Mediterranean.
Unlike many other Solent area yards, Camper & Nicholson played very little part in the production of RNLI lifeboats. In 1952 a single wooden hull 46ft 9in Watson-class boat, RNLB Douglas Hyde, was built and in 1969-1971 four steel hulled 48 ft 6in Solent-class boats came from the Gosport yard, RNLB R. Hope Roberts, RNLB City of Birmingham. RNLB The Royal British Legion Jubilee and RNLB The Three Sisters.