Like many boys reared on British rivers by the sea, David grew up with a natural love for boats and sailing. In later years he would translate this into a business which would set trends in yacht design and construction, but even as a young lad he was showing flair. His wood carving and sandpapering at his school were the inconspicuous beginnings of this. It was way back then that David Hillyard was seen to be making excellent model boats that actually sailed. A local trader in Colchester learnt of these models and bought some which, to the young schoolboy’s delight, sold as well as they sailed. So began his boatbuilding career.
This skill with his hands dictated the predictable progression from school into a boatbuilding apprenticeship. For this he had a choice, as there were two yards in Rowhedge at that time and three in Wivenhoe. He chose Wivenhoe, where boats had been built for many years. David chose Forrestts to serve his apprenticeship. The largest Wivenhoe yard at the time, they were moving into steel construction, including pre-fabricating steamers and launches for the far-flung corners of the Empire. Many of these had to be constructed in bits and then crated up for export. Others were built for domestic destinations like Lake Windermere. The yard continued to build wooden boats and had a constant need for skilled shipwrights. David started with them when he was fourteen.
Wivenhoe is on the opposite bank, just downriver from Rowhedge. David would have had to leave his house early to catch the ferry across the river in time for a 6.30 am start at the yard. There was a half-hour break for breakfast at 8.00 am, and an hour for lunch at 12.30. They would then work on until 5.30 or 6.00 pm. He worked on Saturday mornings until 1.00 pm.
Apprentices were taken on by the yard manager and then assigned by a foreman to the care of a skilled shipwright. There was no formal training as such and the boy would have had to pick it up as he went along, usually beginning with the broom! Apprentices’ first job was usually for them to be made to build their own wooden toolbox. At that time his apprenticeship would have been for a seven-year term. Over the years and with a better approach, the length of such apprenticeships was reduced from seven to four years, while currently it is claimed that shipwrights can be trained in basic skills in under a year.
It was hard work in those days, abysmally paid, and not always as secure as it seemed. Discipline was tight in the yard. At the end of the day, employees were frisked at the gate, and even if it was only the stub end of a candle (their main source of illumination) that was found in a pocket, they were out. If a boy did not show promise, he was summarily dismissed. On top of that, there were frequent bankruptcies amongst the yards, putting all hands out of work. Even Forrestts, despite its size and turnover, had a somewhat shaky financial history. From 1897 until 1904, when he became twenty-one, David learned his trade and there was a good deal to learn. He had to develop his skills in handling and looking after his tools, particularly how to keep them sharp. He had to learn about different timbers and fastenings. He had to learn to adze out keels, stems, deadwoods and stern posts from solid baulks of timber. He had to learn how to loft lines, produce moulds and set them up plumb, and then acquire the skills involved in cutting, scarphing, shaping and fastening planking, notching in deck beams and laying and paying decks. He would also have been initiated into the arcane worlds of masting and rigging and would have learnt the basics of mechanical and electrical engineering.
Early on this apprentice gained the reputation of being an incredibly fast worker and when he later became his own boss he expected his men to match his speed. As a shipwright he would have been engaged at a yard like Forrestts in building yachts and wooden craft up to a hundred feet long, as well as fitting wooden decking and upperworks to steel ships. The shipwrights were responsible for launching the boats when complete.
Even whilst working these long hours, David built small boats for himself. A photograph shows him sailing on the River Colne in a 16ft sharpie he had built himself at the age of sixteen, wearing the cap he was scarcely to be without for the rest of his life (it was said later that you could tell his mood by whether he was wearing it to port or to starboard!). For the men of Rowhedge and Wivenhoe, boating was not just a job to be done or a sport to be serviced, but something to be enjoyed. A highlight each year in those days was the combined Rowhedge and Wivenhoe regatta, run by each community in alternate years, and claimed to be under Royal patronage as the King was one of the yacht owners who contributed the prize money. Held at the end of the season when the crews on the big boats had returned home, the regattas included a variety of classes from small rowing boats to dinghies, yachts and fishing smacks. In these races David Hillyard would have found himself up against the crack skippers and crews of the day.
from Hillyard by Nicholas Gray