Katy Stickland talks to Frank Cowper’s great granddaughter about the life and legacy of this unsung pioneer of yachting for everyone
Frank Cowper’s role in popularising sailing can’t be underestimated.
His Sailing Tours series, which was published between 1892-1896, was the first complete pilot book series covering the coastal waters around Britain for small boats not drawing more than 6ft; he aimed to document “every nook and cranny, estuary, ramification”.
These five books helped make sailing accessible to all, rather than just the pastime of the “gilt edged classes”.
“He looked at sailing in a different way. In the old days, boats were there for a reason, they had a purpose and were not necessarily there for pleasure. He regarded sailing at that time as being exclusive to the privileged few, with their large, fully crewed racing boats. He was fanatical that sailing should be popularised, that people should own a boat and enjoy the sea and enjoy what it could give you,” explained his great granddaughter, Sula Riedlinger, who has recently inherited a substantial collection of Frank Cowper’s papers, diaries, photographs, and original artwork.
Charting the life of Frank Cowper
Sula, along with her husband, Steve, is now piecing together the life of her – at times – elusive great-grandfather.
Unconventional for the time, Frank Cowper was 41 when he separated from his wife, Edith Cadogan.
The couple had seven surviving children under the age of 13, including their eldest son, Frank Cadogan Cowper, who grew up to be the last of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Income from Cowper’s activities as an author, journalist and yacht broker were used to provide a lump sum to his estranged family; he also made regular payments to them throughout his life.
On a trip to the East Coast, Frank Cowper – then in his early 50s – met a young Catherine Cicely Kirby – Sula’s great-grandmother.
“She decides to take her chances with a man who loved life on the sea, leaving the area she knew to sail with him to Chichester. They spent the rest of their lives together, although not necessarily with each other at all times, but it is clear from Frank’s letters that he adored her and their children,” explained Sula.
Catherine became affectionately known as Muzzy; her relationship with Frank Cowper never appeared in any official documents where she was referred to as Cowper’s niece, even on his death certificate.
“They were perpetually finding ways of avoiding the nature of their relationship to adhere to the conventions of the time,” said Sula. “It makes tracing them and researching their lives very difficult.”
A writer develops
Frank Cowper first learned to sail while a student at Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he was studying law and history.
The Una – a Northern American cat boat with a centreboard, wide beam and single gaff-rigged mast and sail – was popular among the university students and Frank Cowper developed his love of sailing on the river Thames.
After graduating, he considered the clergy before starting his career as a schoolmaster, running the private boarding school, Kivernells, at Milford-on-Sea near Lymington with his wife, Edith.
In 1884, they moved to the Isle of Wight, buying land at Wootton Bridge, overlooking Wootton Creek.
Here, Lisle Court was built, a private boarding school for boys wanting to join the training ship HMS Britannia before a career in the Royal Navy.
The school was built, designed and named by Frank Cowper; he and his wife acted as the school’s administrators.
Here, they both had time to continue their talent as writers. Cowper published two novels: Cædwalla: The Saxons in the Isle of Wight (1888) and The Captain of the Wight: A romance from Carisbrooke Castle in 1488 (1889).
Edith went on to write around 50 books on children’s adventures stories.
Living by the coast gave plenty of opportunities for Cowper to indulge his real passion – sailing.
Frank Cowper: a cruiser at heart
He bought his first boat, Aristide Marie, while visiting Brittany at the time of his studies at Oxford University.
The previous owner of the boat was a French fisherman who was wounded in the Franco-Prussian war.
Frank Cowper used the boat to sail into Quiberon Bay in the Morbihan Sea writing about his adventures before sailing back to the Isle of Wight.
He then bought another boat called Blazer from Capt Lynch-Staunton, a member of the Royal Squadron Yacht Club.
He re-named the boat Undine I after refitting the yacht to his liking and joined the island’s Royal Victoria Yacht Club.
This was the boat he used to sail from the club to Le Havre in France.
The journey was written up by Frank Cowper at the time and was his first article published in The Field in 1879.
“His earliest experience of sailing in coastal waters was recalled by Frank taking a Winkle boat without the knowledge of its owner from Emsworth to Bembridge,” explained Steve.
“Apparently, taking boats and returning them was de rigueur in those days. Along with a friend, they left Emsworth, but the weather turned on them as they were in the middle of the Solent and they ended up in a snowstorm; they came close to missing the Isle of Wight altogether!”
By 1890, Frank Cowper was separated from his wife, giving this free spirit a chance to fulfil his ambitions as a sailor circumnavigating the coastlines of the UK, France, and Ireland.
He was very clear in his views on the characteristics and rigging of the vessel he would use to make the journey.
He bought a 30-ton, 54ft Dover fishing boat for £160, converting the vessel to his specifications for single-handed sailing. He named her Lady Harvey.
It was this bluff bowed yawl, with its 30ft boom, 40ft mast and 18ft topmast, which Cowper took around Britain, initially sailing the Thames Estuary.
Sailing Tours Part 1 – The Coasts of Essex and Suffolk was first published in 1892.
“This book is intended to meet an actually existing want,” writes Cowper in the preface.
“So far as we know, no series of Guidebooks to the Coasts of Great Britain and Ireland has yet been published. That the amateur sailor would be thankful for such assistance we know from practical experience.”
As well as supplementing the out-of-date Admiralty sailing directions to ports and harbours around Britain, Frank Cowper used his writing to inform his readers about the history of the places he visited, and his experiences exploring the coastal cities, towns, and villages; some of his descriptions are unrecognisable to a modern reader.
“He wanted to sail and touch every intimate part of the coastline and write it up. Sailing Tours is more like a travel journal. A lot of these places were not what we see today. Some of them were seedy and rather unpleasant and, therefore, he’s not always polite about them,” said Sula.
“But his writing does entice the reader to experience it for themselves, to visit these places and get as much as possible out of this experience.”
Sailing Tours Part 1 was welcomed not just by recreational sailors but the regional and national press.
Four more followed: Sailing Tours Part 2 – The Nore to the Scilly Isles (1893); Sailing Tours Part 3 – Falmouth to the Loire (1894); Sailing Tours Part 4 – Land’s End to the Mull of Galloway including the East Coast of Ireland (1895) and Sailing Tours Part 5 – The Clyde to the Thames Round North (1896).
A unique yacht
The popularity of Sailing Tours and his network of other individuals who shared his interest allowed Frank Cowper to fulfil a long-held ambition to design his own boat.
“He had very clear views on what he needed for single-handed sailing, like the lines of the boats coming aft, winches in easy reach of the helm. The boat had to be heavy enough to ‘stand a knocking about’ and he wanted his creature comforts,” explained Sula.
Undine II, which was his favourite boat, cost £600 and was built at Strand-on-the-Green in Chiswick and launched in March 1897.
The yacht was taken from Chiswick up the River Thames to Greenhithe to have her mast fitted.
Accompanying Cowper on this trip was a 22-year-old, Erskine Childers, a fan of Sailing Tours who had written to Cowper asking if he could sail with him to gain more experience.
The pair discussed sailing, with Childers sharing his tales of cruising his 30ft cutter, Vixen in the Frisian Islands.
Frank Cowper encouraged him to write up these adventures, which were published in The Yachtsman, and became the basis of his 1903 spy novel, Riddle of the Sands.
Later, Cowper and Childers found themselves meeting unexpectedly and arranged to sail together again, this time to Calais and Ostend.
On the move
Frank Cowper moved to Brittany near St Malo with Muzzy and their daughter, Dorothy, who was born in Southampton in 1903. Their son, Peter, was born in 1907 in France.
The family then returned to the UK and settled in St Mawes, Cornwall; Cowper named the house Tresanton – today it’s a hotel of the same name owned by interior designer and hotelier, Olga Polizzi.
During World War I, the Cowper family were living at Mixtow House near Fowey.
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It was here that Cowper sailed in his boat, Little Windflower.
The 41ft gaff rigged cutter was designed by Williams Ferris and originally had an open half deck.
When Cowper bought her in 1913, he put a cabin on her for ocean sailing, and wrote about the boat in Cruising Sails and Yachting Tales (1921).
The boat was recently sold to a new owner by a yacht broker in the West Country specialising in classic yachts.
Flying the flag
A talented artist and classicist, Cowper also had a passion for heraldry. He designed a coat of arms for Lisle Court and the burgee for Parkstone Sailing Club in Poole. He also designed the mayoral flag for the Dorset town.
Frank Cowper believed the triangular shape of the burgee could be improved with a rounded end.
He approached a flag making company in Leeds for a quote using designs based on four leading yacht clubs. He also drafted an accompanying article under the working title of ‘Burgees considered Heraldically’ with illustrations.
The article was never published and there is no record of the quote being accepted.
“He was convinced that the shape of the burgee should be changed because aerodynamically, it was less likely to fall apart and would last longer if the end of the burgee was rounded rather than triangular,” explained Sula.
Despite the popularity of Sailing Tours and the recognition he was given at the time, Frank Cowper was ultimately left unfulfilled towards the end of his life.
The Great War had a devastating effect on his income as an author and journalist, and he also lost money from his investments together with a bill for legal costs which he was obliged to pay, despite winning the case.
His last home was a small property overlooking the entrance to Poole Harbour and Parkstone Yacht Club.
In 1925, his money ran out altogether and he was forced to move. He initially turned down a home in Southampton for impoverished former students at Oxford University.
Instead, he decided to stay at the St Cross Hospital in Winchester – Alms House of Noble Poverty.
Here, he became increasingly reflective while his health deteriorated. He continued his writing to the very end with the publication of his last book Vagaries of Lady Harvey – The Meanderings of a Freak among the Orkneys (1930).
The book was received and acknowledged by the British Museum, with a letter confirming that this was his 15th book in their possession. The books are now held at the British Library.
Despite the positive reviews he received for his last book, Cowper was deeply affected by what he regarded as a lack of recognition for his achievements.
Those that knew him were acutely aware of his contribution to the world of sailing, but his failing health and the reality of his surroundings were constant reminders of a frustrated state of mind.
He was now alone, isolated and feeling forgotten, despite having visits and almost daily correspondence from close family and friends.
His writing became extremely soulful, littered with emotive language – none more so than a handwritten article found among his papers which he named ‘Annals of a Wasted Life’.
It records specific events from his first single-handed voyage in 1871 to his last in 1926 when he was aged 77.
He also spoke to his closest friends of his wish to build and design his last boat before sailing his way into oblivion.
“He was a free spirit, with a passion and love for being at sea. It was escapism for him,” reflected Sula.
Frank Cowper died, aged 81, on 28 May 1930, at St Cross; Catherine was by his side.
In its obituary, Yachting Monthly wrote that Frank Cowper ‘took cruising to heart and probably did more to popularize this particular way of life than any man of his day. It is almost inconceivable to us now the prejudice which then existed in the public mind against the man who did not employ hands aboard his yacht. But it was through this veteran single-handed sailor’s adventures and writings that the public began to recognize small yacht cruising as a sane man’s pastime [….] But the soul of Frank Cowper, the love of adventure and the joy of taut sheets and a hurrying wake at dawn, will live; those youthful aspirants to cruising from Oxford University and Winchester College who were wont to go to the old man for advice and help, and came away fired by his unquenchable enthusiasm, they will help to keep alive the spirit of cruising.’
There is no doubt that Cowper’s legacy still lives on, through the full-colour pilot books published each year, the passages undertaken by solo sailors, and the sheer delight of messing around in small boats.
But most of all, he opened up cruising to all.
Next time you are out on the water, spare a thought for Frank Cowper and how the trailblazer did more than most to change the face of sailing.
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