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Goldfinch Sails – Published April 1947.

Written by Ernest Brindle.

Ships on the ocean, ships on the river, the ships that spread their sails to the winds that blow on the seas of the world.

The first man who made a sail and rigged it up the hollowed-out trunk of a fallen tree was probably a naked savage, but a monument should be erected to his immortal memory, for he blazed a trail that mankind has been following ever since.

No nation is more indebted to the maker of sails than our own. The wooden walls of old England, and the men who manned them, gave us our maritime glory.

Sailing ships enabled us to build up our commercial supremacy and amass the wealth of resources without which to draw upon we should have gone down in the bitter struggles forced upon us for national existence by powerful and envious rivals.

The sail maker is a prominent figure in the history of Whitstable. There is only one at work in the town now. But for him the craft in which he is an expert would be extinct in these parts.

He is Mr. Henry Goldfinch, whose business premises are at Island Wall, and who started to make sails when he was fourteen years of age who employed him as an apprentice. His weekly wage was 2/6 to begin with, being increased to 10/- later on. He had a natural aptitude for the work. This is not to be wondered at; sail making has been carried on by members of the family bearing the same name as himself for over eighty years.

In those days there were four master sail makers in Whitstable, two of them employing six hands each, and the other two a couple of assistants apiece. Work started at six in the morning and ended at the same hour in the evening. The men also worked overtime and, when there was need for it, on Sunday.

The sails made were for square-rigged river and coastal barges, schooners, boats, and ships of from 100 to 200 tons. The cargo carried by these ships and barges was mainly corn and timber.

After working at Whitstable for six years, young Goldfinch went to Grays, in Essex, where he was employed as a sail maker for another six years by the Grays Chalk Quarries Company.

We next find him carrying on his special trade at Greenwich, from which place, five years later, he moved on to Littlehampton. There for about six years he was in the service of the Wynfield Shipping Company. Then he decided that the time to return to his native town and set up business there as a sail maker on his own account.

He has lived and carried on his trade here ever since. Now he has the assistance of his son, Raymond Henry Goldfinch, who, demobilised from the Army after five years of active service, has come home to follow the calling in the pursuit of which the men of the Goldfinch family have spent their lives.

The shop kept by his father at Sea Wall, near the office and premises used for sail making, is stored with supplies of all kinds needed by ships and barges. There is a shortage of materials required for carrying on the trade, but Mr. Goldfinch is confident that when things look up again, the outlook for the sailmaker will be an encouraging one.

The young man who is keen and not afraid of hard work, and who sets himself to become expert in the craft, he says, need never be afraid of being without work. Though the demand for sails may have dwindled to the extent that it has done, there is always a market for such things as tents. The art of sail making is , of course, a tricky business and can only be acquired by long practice. All sails vary in size. There are sixteen of them in a square-rigged ship, and about ten in a schooner.

Flax is used for the canvas. It can put up with more weight and strain than cotton. Cutting out the sails, sewing them, stretching them, getting them together in exactly the right size and shape, needs sharp eyes and skilful hands. A sail can be ruined by the slightest carelessness, or oversight by the workman engaged on it. Sail making is no job for anyone who is not prepared to put his heart and mind into it.

The demand for sails, Mr. Goldfinch informs us, began to slacken just before the 1915-18 war. That was when the old Whitstable shipping Company went out of business. Ever since then, sails, displaced by the steam and motor engine, have been steadily furling up and going into honourable retirement. But there is still a demand for them. The yachts, the boats, the sailing craft of every description, must have the canvas that the sail maker provides.

The Goldfinch business is the only one of the kind on this part of the coast. There are no sail makers at Herne Bay, none at Faversham, none at any of those other places in the neighbourhood where the art of making sails was known and practised years ago. The sails made in Whitstable used to rig the ships and barges going down to Gravesend and out to the broad sea. They were to be seen on the far waters of the globe. And they are still to be seen, wherever sailing ships plough the waters of the deep, or maker their silent passage up winding river and creek – the sails made by Whitstable men.

Mr. Goldfinch has on his mantlepiece the Whitstable Yacht Club Challenge Cup, one design, that he won in 1923, and again in the years 1925, 1926 and 1927. Living with him and his wife in the old home at present, is their son, Raymond, and his young wife and daughter. Houses for men demobilised from the forces, after playing their part in winning the greatest war in history, are as hard to find as the ships that used to keep the Whitstable sail makers busy from dawn to dusk. And the work they did was often of the ‘rush’ variety. A ship would come into port, after a violent storm of wind, with not a rag of sail left on her. Urgent orders for new sails would be given. And those sails would be made and rigged in time for the ship to leave again without having lost a day in the Harbour. The men who made those sails didn’t work, you can be sure, with one eye on the clock!