Search the Register
Advanced Search
NERIDA on Sydney Harbour in 2004

RT Searles and Sons

The long standing South Australian firm of boat builders, R.T. Searles and Sons, has had two generations of the family running the business, along with former employees over its long period of operation. It has had a long connection with South Australia, building many craft for local clients and has maintained their premises in Jenkins St Birkenhead for most of the yard's existence.

R. T. 'Dick' Searles was born in Milang SA in 1877 (or 1878) but the family moved to Semaphore in the 1890s where his father was a launch skipper.

Dick Searles first job was with the boat builder Ben Weir. He was also a founding member of the Port Adelaide Sailing Club, and involved in building their first clubhouse. Dick Searles also fought in the Boer War, and on his return he married and became father to four children, three sons and a daughter. He continued working with Ben Weir where the motor launch AVOCET was built for Mr. A. Rymill, and also for Alf Pickaver who was next door to Weir in Jenkins Street Birkenhead.

In 1913 he set up his own business in Jenkins Street, building dinghies, fishing boats and launches. During the First World War boatbuilding slackened and he became caretaker at the Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron. After the war he took a storeman's position which he kept until 1923, although at one point he left to design and build a launch CHUM for Mr. E.A .Johnstone.

The boatbuilding business was restarted in 1923, at 3 Waverley St Largs, and his sons Ted and Les joined. They built the 21 Foot Restricted Class yacht FIFE (A Wm Fife design) for 'Boy' Bennett. By 1928 Richard had also joined the firm, and the large yacht NAUTILUS was built in 1929. NAUTILUS later became well known as KURREWA III when raced by the Livingstone Bros in a number of Sydney to Hobart events.

Also in that year the workshop and yard moved back to Jenkins St Birkenhead and a partnership was formed trading as RT Searles and Sons. They had three slipways and had an average of about 120 boats slipped per year. A feature of the site was the occasional very high tides, flooding the shed floor at times. In 1965 there was enough water to row up Jenkins St.

Dick Searles second son E.G. " Ted" Searles became the designer for the firm and the majority of the boats they built came from his plans. One important yacht they built was NERIDA for Tom Hardy, and later to be the first South Australian winner of the Sydney to Hobart race. NERIDA was an Alfred Mylne design from England. MARTINDALE, a launch for J.T. Mortlock was another big vessel built in 1932 and was a Ted Searle design.

Building fishing cutters and other small craft kept the yard operating each year. PELORUS, MARGARET and the MARY ANN SIMMS are three significant and larger fishing craft built by Searles. As with many other yards they built vessels for the armed services during the war. It should also be recorded that they built the POPEYE sight seeing launches, well known on the Torrens River, and one was used as the Royal Barge for the Queen mothers visit.

When Dick Searles retired in 1955 R.T. Searles and Sons was then operated by his sons. In 1974 two previous apprentices and long term employees Brian Mellors and Roger Knill joined Ted and Les as owners. In 1978 the firm became Searles Boatyard when Ted and Les retired. The yard later became Searles Boat Yard, with yet another former apprentice as owner, Kingsley Haskett, and remained at the same Jenkins St address until around 2008 when the area was resumed for development..

Kerr, Garry 1985, Craft and Craftsmen of Australian Fishing, 1870 - 1970, Mains'l Books
Information from Searles Marine