In 1947 Charles ‘Harry’ Shirlaw, left his employment at the age of 37 as a fully qualified and expert sailmaker to ‘Ratsey & Lapthorn Ltd’. Starting his own business ‘C.H.Shirlaw Sailmaker’ in a shed in the back garden of his home near Cowes on the Isle of Wight, fully supported by his devoted wife Ada.
By 1954 Harry had expanded to an old ginger beer factory in Weston Road, Cowes and converted it to a custom sail loft, able to accommodate the sails of the day.
During the summer of 1955 his son John joined him, along with a benchman and an upholsterer. The latter helping to expand and diversify the business to include marine, domestic & car trimming.
1962 and the firms good reputation had spread, resulting in the acceptance of the ‘Royal Warrant’ to HM Queen Elizabeth II, for work carried out on the various Royal yachts based at Cowes. ‘Bluebottle’- a Dragon class , ‘Cowslip’- a Flying fifteen & ‘Bloodhound’- Prince Phillip's ocean going yacht.
Not all customers were royal of course. Many well known business men, the odd titled personage and a sprinkling of film stars and actors etc. Buddy Ebsom (Beverly Hill Billies), Arthur Lowe (Dads Army), Sir Francis Chichester, Dame Shirley Robertson. The list goes on…..
The bulk of the thousands of customers that have, graced the firm with their custom are good down to earth, honest men & women. Bless them all!
Mention must be made of the many boat yards that were based on the Island, and those that still remain today, that have favoured the firm with their custom:
‘R & W Clark Ltd’ (the Twins). They built many boats for the rich & famous. Richard Greene (1960’s Robin Hood) a real gentleman of the old order.
Clare Lallow & Sons. - Builders of yachts for the Prime Minister Edward Heath in the 70’s
W.A.Souter & Son - Whose power boat ‘Surfury’ startled the spectators with it's speed & thunder.
David Cheverton & Partner - Builders of tough no nonsense , reliable work boats, that found clients all over the world.
Harold Hayles & Stan Smith & Sons - Based at Yarmouth, very fine craftsmen indeed.
Attrill & Sons - Good old fashioned, skilled workforce who converted many an old tub into a thing of grace & beauty.
Bembridge Outboards. - Arthur Robinson & his sons Jim & Tom who produce state of the art R.I.B.s that are now leading the way in a new and dynamic generation of boat building & design.
Seaward Marine - Builders of a sturdy class of motor vessel that are used to the far reaches of the seas for every job conceivable.
The good relationship between the company and its customer is essential……
Sir Whitney Straight, former racing driver and chairman of Rolls Royce car division at the time in question. Was having work done to his motor cruiser at the ‘Twins’ yard. Extensive trimming work was being carried out by Shirlaw’s.
Straight liaised frequently with John Shirlaw over details but came up against a brick wall when John refused to compromise over a particular aspect of the job at hand, and would not receive any more calls from Sir Whitney. Finaly in exasperation, the poor man phoned the ‘Twins’. “For Gods sake” he roared. “I can get through to the Queen easier than I can to that stubborn young bugger. Twist his arm and get him to phone me!“
A letter arrived at the sail loft a few days later. Harry opened it and gave a rare smile and handed it to John. It was on Rolls Royce headed paper, hand written and simply said:
"John, I have spoken to my trimmers at the car division and they agree with you. So will you please, please get on with it you young bugger. Oh and I’m sorry. Many thanks, Whitney Straight."
A further letter after completion was full of praise.(truly a nice man)
In 1975 Harry retired. John took the reins until 1995 when his son Jamie took over. Specialising in bespoke upholstery. His refusal to accept compromise, no doubt inherited from both father & grandfather.
John finally accepting defeat through decrepitude, retired (of sorts) in 2010 aged 70.
What of the future? - Jamie now holds the reins.
We won't cut corners, so please don't ask ! If on the other hand you want top quality marine, auto, domestic, trimming & upholstery, then this is where we are. You will always be made very welcome.