St Clare John Byrne

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St Clare John Byrne (1831-1915) was a British naval architect, who specialized in the design of luxury yachts during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.

Family background[edit]

His father, Charles Holtzendorf Byrne (1781-1853), was an Irish ship owner who in 1812 married Scottish Susanna Ewing (1789–1868). They had 8 children, 4 of whom were born in Renfrew Scotland and the remainder in Liverpool, including St Clare Byrne.

By the age of 20 Byrne was a merchant’s clerk, living with his parents in Birkenhead, an area associated with shipbuilding.[1]

In 1867 he married Kate Chatteris, they had 3 children: Henry, Arthur and Lionel. Byrne's granddaughter was Muriel St. Clare Byrne (1894-1983), historian and author. She and her mother lived with Byrne after her father died in 1905; she would later say of him that he was a genius.[2]


Byrne's elder brother, shipping merchant Andrew Ewing Byrne (1818-1908), was a keen yachtsman. Byrne followed his interest, but designed and built his own yacht. In 1856 he was elected a member of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club.[3]

By the mid 1850s he was designing larger vessels constructed in iron for the shipyard Brassey, Peto and Betts of Canada Works at Birkenhead. These included the paddle steamer Elizabeth Jackson[4] (143 ft), Edith Byrne[5] (729 tons) for his brother Andrew, and the yacht Albatross (110 tons) for Thomas Brassey, son of a proprietor of the Canada Works.

In 1865 he was Superintendent Shipbuilder in the Humber Iron Works[6] and later a partner in shipbuilding company called Byrne, Humphreys & Co. of Hull; the partnership was dissolved in 1867.[7] In the early 1870s he was designing merchant ships and private yachts often constructed as composite, where the frame was made of iron but planked in wood. He delivered a paper on this subject to the Institute of Naval Architects in 1878.[8]

Drawing of the yacht
Thomas Brassey's yacht Sunbeam

Byrne designed a steam auxiliary barquetine yacht for Thomas Brassey of composite construction named Sunbeam. It was 532 tons, 159 ft in length, built by Bowdler and Chaffer’s in Seacombe and launched in 1874 . Sunbeam would become one of the most famous private yachts of the period. Brassey took the yacht on a world cruise with his wife Anna (Allnutt) Brassey (1839-1887) and their children. Anna wrote a book describing their travels and this became a best seller, reprinted many times and translated into many languages.[9] In 1915 Brassey sailed Sunbeam to Mudros Bay to act as a hospital ship during the Gallipoli campaign.[10][11]

In 1877 the first of 3 yachts Byrne designed for Manchester industrialist Samuel Radcliff Platt was launched; they were all named Norseman. The 2nd, launched in 1890, was eventually sold to an American buyer and become the USS Mohican - SP117 during WW1.

The Lancashire Witch was designed and built for Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh on the lines of Sunbeam and launched in 1877. Like Brassey, Hesketh went on a world tour in the Lancashire Witch and on one of the legs set a record for the crossing between the Falkland Islands and South Africa.[12] The Lancashire Witch was sold to the Admiralty in 1893 and become HMS Waterwitch.

Two American clients, James Gordon Bennett and William Kissam Vanderbilt, had yachts designed by Byrne, but built in America. Vanderbilt's yacht Alva was sunk in 1892 and Byrne was commissioned to design a replacement, the Valiant at 2148 tons, said to be the largest yacht in the world.[13] This was constructed in Britain by Laird Brothers at Birkenhead.

Byrne continued to design yachts into his senior years: Portia designed for Col Herbert A Foster and built by Cammell Laird was launched in 1906 when Byrne was 75. Portia was used by the Royal Navy during WWI as armed yacht Portia II,[14] becoming involved with the chase and final sinking of German submarine U12.[15]

St Clare John Byrne died on 13 December 1915 aged 86 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church, then Hoylake Parish church.[16] The church has since been demolished but the grave yard remains. Sadly, Byrne's tomb stone is now damaged and overgrown.


Many of the larger yachts (over 100 tons) designed by St Clare Byrne are listed below. The list does not included his designs for small yachts or merchant vessels. Source data from contemporary Lloyd's Yacht Registers.

Yacht Name Tons Year Builder Owner When Launched
Albatross 110 1859 Canada Works Thomas Brassey
Nooya 160 1870 Laird Brothers (378) John Thomas Molson
Sirex 102 1871 Bowdler & Chaffer, Seacombe Sir Hickman Bacon
Modwena 225 1872 Bowdler & Chaffer Seacombe John Gretton
Sunbeam 532 1874 Bowdler & Chaffer Seacombe Thomas Brassey
Norseman 221 1875 Laird Brothers (428) Samuel Radcliffe Platt
Dobhran 440 1876 Cunliffe & Dunlop Thomas Valentine Smith
Lancashire Witch 479 1877 B Steele & Co., Greenock Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh
Amy 416 1877 Barrow Shipbuilding Company, Barrow Ninian B Stewart
Margaret 395 1877 Barrow Shipbuilding Company, Barrow H Jameson
Amy 639 1880 Cunliffe & Dunlop Glasgow Ninian B Stewart
Chonita 122 1880 Thomas Brassey & Co Birkenhead Henry Pigeon
Cruiser 470 1881 Barrow Shipbuilding Company, Barrow Earl of Eglinton
Gelert 122 1881 J Fullerton & Co., Paisley Albert Wood
Namouna 740 1882 Ward Stanton & Co., Newburg, Hudson USA James Gordon Bennett, Jr.
Cuhona/Empress 498 1882 Earles Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Sir Andrew B Walker
Gaviota 159 1882 J Fullerton & Co., Paisley Don Thomas Heredia
Gitana 471 1882 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Henry Jameson
Rover 565 1882 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Earl of Eglinton
Alva 1241 1886 Harlan & Hollingsworth Wilmington USA W K Vanderbilt
Miranda 349 1886 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Baron Ashburton
St Kilda 142 1887 J Reid & Co., Glasgow E J Allcard
Jeannette 147 1888 Cochran & Co., Birkenhead Frederick Platt
Red Eagle 305 1888 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Charles J Fletcher
Norseman 325 1890 Laird Brothers (538) Samuel Radcliffe Platt
Lady Ina 459 1891 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith John Anderson
Athena 332 1892 London & Glasgow Engineering and Iron Shipbuilding Company R Clifford Smith
Jeannette 225 1892 The Naval Construction & Armament Co Barrow Frederick Platt
Valiant 2184 1893 Laird Brothers (594) W K Vanderbilt
Maria 812 1893 Napier Shanks & Bell Glasgow Ninian B Stewart
Zoraide 549 1894 Earle Ship Building Company Thomas J Waller
St Elian 283 1894 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Col Henry Platt
Erl-King 565 1894 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Maj Alex H Davis
Arcturus 474 1895 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith R Stuyesant
Lady Sofia 307 1895 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith W H Robertson
Kethailes 479 1897 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith William Johnstone
Leon Pauilhac 308 1897 Ramage & Ferguson, Leith Pauilac, Calvat, Marsan
Jeannette 313 1898 Vickers Sons and Maxim Barrow Frederick Platt
Norseman 521 1898 D & W Henderson Ltd Glasgow, Samuel Radcliffe Platt
Sabrina 513 1899 Vickers Sons and Maxim Barrow Sir William H Wills
Portia 527 1906 Cammell Laird Birkenhead (666) Col Herbert A Foster

Additional Interests[edit]

St Clare John Byrne was a keen golfer and a member of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake having joined in 1890. When younger he was a leading marksman in the 2nd Cheshire Rifle Volunteers. He continued to take an interest in sailing, becoming president of the Hoylake Sailing Club in his later years.


  1. ^ Census for United Kingdom. 
  2. ^ Devine (editor), Elizabeth (1983). The Annual Obituary 1983. Chicago & London: St James Press. p. 573. ISBN 0-912289-07-4. 
  3. ^ "Royal Mersey Yacht Club - Liverpool". London Standard. 7 August 1856. 
  4. ^ "Launch of New Steamer". Liverpool Mercury. 17 September 1856. 
  5. ^ "Launches From Canada Works". Liverpool Echo. 25 May 1857. 
  6. ^ "Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club". Yorkshire Gazette - page 9. 13 May 1865. 
  7. ^ "Partnership Dissolved 12 September 1868" (PDF). London Gazette. Retrieved 9 August 2013. 
  8. ^ "The Institute of Naval Architects". Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, page 6, column 2. 20 April 1878. 
  9. ^ Brassey, Earl (1917). Sunbeam RYS - Voyages and Experiences in Many Waters. Albemarle Street: John Murray. 
  10. ^ "The Bulldog Breed". The Mirror of Australia. Retrieved 31 May 2013. 
  11. ^ "The 'Sunbeam' as Hospital Ship, July 30th 1915". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 31 May 2013. 
  12. ^ "Cruise of the Lancashire Witch". Manchester Times. 14 August 1880. 
  14. ^ "Armed Yacht Portia". National Maritime museum. Retrieved 20 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Hurd, Sir Archibald. HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR - THE MERCHANT NAVY, Volume I, 1914 to Spring 1915 (Part 2 of 2) .Published by John Murray, London 1921
  16. ^ "Deaths". Liverpool Echo. 14 December 1915.