If you know Paris, you may remember the boating pond at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Children and grown-ups sail classic wooden pond yachts across the water; a delightful tradition that began in 1881. In 1922, the Paudeau family acquired the rights from the French Senate to rent model sailing boats on the Grand Bassin directly in front of the Palais du Luxembourg. Over the other side of the Channel, the London Model Yacht Club (founded in 1884) still competes on the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens.
It had always been the custom for boat builders to construct miniature models of their vessels, and model yacht racing became fashionable in the years following the First World War. Manufacturers copied the famous boats of the day, for the world of miniature yacht racing mirrored the real thing – a serious sport requiring knowledge of winds and water.
J. Alexander of Preston made some of the finest pond yachts in the business. In the early years of the 20th century – the golden age of competitive yachting – John Alexander designed full-sized yachts for the William Fife & Son boatyard in Fairlie, near Glasgow: a boatyard associated with some of the most magnificent yachts ever built. During the 1920s, Alexander moved to Preston in Lancashire and, capitalising on the popularity of the new sport of model yacht racing, began to make 6m class pond yachts in the attic of his Victorian house, going on to win national and international model yacht racing titles.
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Later, using the slogan ‘British Boats for British Boys’, Alexander introduced an affordable range of smaller yachts, sold directly to the public by mail order or through upmarket retailers such as Hamleys, Gamages, and the famous toy manufacturer, Bassett-Lowke of Northampton. Alexander’s yachts are now collectable.
Prices still tend to be affordable at auction, although a top London dealer might offer the largest model (at 42in) for a retail price running into the thousands if refurbished and refitted to the highest standard. In 2019, a 26in Alexander ‘Heather Glen’ (complete with original box) sold for £350 at Tennants, and a 1930s Alexander 27in yacht (with Bermudian rig) fetched £260 at SAS auctions in November 2015.
Other model yacht manufacturers included Stevens Model Dockyard of Aldgate, London; and Bowman of Norfolk (later Hobbies-Bowman), better known, perhaps, for their ‘dashing’ steam, clockwork and rubber-band powered speed launches. Another beloved pond yacht manufacturer of the period was the Star Yacht Works of Birkenhead, which continued production until 1990. On a fine morning in August 1932, Captain Evan (of the steam trawler Swan) spotted a tiny object bobbing up and down on the waves of the Irish Sea, 100 miles from the beach.
Upon rescue, it turned out to be a Star toy yacht. Founded by Belgian refugee Franz Marie Denye in the 1920s, Star produced a vast range of toy yachts, famous for their stability and sailability, sold through corner shops and arcades in seaside towns. Star yachts often come up for sale at auction with tempting estimates: ranging from well under £100 to £200-plus for the best examples. Look out for the large five-pointed Star printed at the top of the main sail.
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In March, a 12in Star yacht ‘Birkenhead’, with nicely distressed and original green paintwork, sold for a mere £15 at The Rostrum in Norfolk. An attractive BR-4 ‘Comet’ (just under 28in, with rigging), sold for £210 at Sheffield Auction Gallery in October 2020, and a rare 27in Star yacht ‘Planet’, c1950, (with sails, rigging and stand) fetched £240 at Wessex Auction Rooms in 2017.
So how to join the fleet of budding miniature yachties? Buying from a specialist dealer might be wise, as an honest seller can advise if a previous owner has repainted or touched up the yacht, or if the sails are original. That affordable boat you’ve just discovered at auction might have a low estimate for a good reason. On the other hand, it might be a genuine bargain. Such is the pleasure of the auction game.