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From Edward VIII to James Dyson: the yacht that tells a tale of British wealth

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

In the early years of this century, soon after he began moving production of his bagless vacuum cleaner from Wiltshire to south-east Asia, James Dyson bought a superb yacht. The Nahlin is exemplary in the beauty of its lines and instructive in its history, though how much of this history Dyson understands or relishes is hard to know. Despite spending a fortune (at least £25m) on its restoration, Dyson has never talked publicly about his yacht, no more than he has about his purchase of Singapore’s most expensive flat (£43m) and its sale soon after, at a loss. For a time, a kind of omertà prevailed about the vessel’s ownership among its team of restorers, though to own and care for such an elegant piece of naval architecture would surely be no shame.

What Dyson certainly knows is that it was on the Nahlin that King Edward VIII and Mrs Wallis Simpson shed any discretion and “came out” as a couple – a relationship reported across the world, though not at the time in Britain – precipitating the crisis that ended with the king’s abdication a few months later, in December 1936. “The cruise of the Nahlin” became an inevitable chapter in any telling of the event, though how the king came to be aboard such a mysteriously named vessel tended to be overlooked. In fact, the name is said to have Native American origins, and reportedly means “fleet of foot” – the yacht’s figurehead wears a chieftain’s headdress – and the king was aboard because the Foreign Office, worried by social unrest in France, had warned against his original plan to rent a villa there.

So instead he rented the Nahlin, to avoid the fuss that a voyage in the royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, would create and perhaps also because the Nahlin, commissioned only six years earlier, appealed to his appetite for cocktail modernity. Fuss, however, was unavoidable. At Šibenik, the Dalmatian port where the king and Mrs Simpson boarded the yacht, an exuberant crowd of 20,000 turned up and (thanks to reports in the American press) showed as much interest in her as in him; at sea, two Royal Navy destroyers, the Grafton and the Glowworm, accompanied the Nahlin wherever she went – a leisurely August progress down the Adriatic, through the Corinth canal to the Greek islands, and eventually to Istanbul. The “nanny-boats”, as Lady Diana Cooper called them; she and a few other prominent society figures were also aboard, as well as a crew around 60-strong.

The Nahlin, moored off Falmouth, Cornwall, April 2021.
The Nahlin, moored off Falmouth, Cornwall, April 2021. Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

Of course, the term yacht is misleading. No sails have ever been involved. The Nahlin, like its bland modern equivalents, was a yacht only in the sense that its sole purpose was its owner’s pleasure, the owner being in this case a Lady Yule. Launched in 1930 from the Clydebank shipyard of John Brown & Co – builder of celebrated liners such as Cunard’s two Queens – it measures 300ft in length and was originally powered by four steam turbines. Characteristically of the steam yacht, of which the Nahlin was among the very last examples, its hull preserves elements of the sailing ship, with a curved clipper bow and a counter stern, each stretching well beyond the waterline. The shape and colour of steam yachts – white hull, cream funnel – made people think of swans. Their costs and months of idleness meant they were an indulgence that only the richest magnates on either side of the Atlantic could afford: JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Sir Thomas Lipton.

And Lady Yule? She was thought to be the richest widow in England. How had she come by her money? Jute, was the short answer. A longer one involves a story of British innovation and industrial expansion overseas that Dyson might recognise, beginning in the 1820s when Dundee manufacturers began to look for an alternative to hemp in the making of sacking, rope and sailcloth. Jute was cheap and reliably available from Bengal in British India, but it was tough and brittle and broke easily when it was spun or woven. After years of experiment, it was successfully made pliable by the application of whale oil, of which Dundee as a whaling port had no shortage.

The demand for jute fabric and jute rope boomed, and Dundee enjoyed a near monopoly until the 1870s, when British industrialists began to open jute mills in Bengal itself because, as economic historian Morris D Morris has pointed out, “jute manufacturing was not a complicated process [and] cheap labour was a very great advantage”. Bengal had five jute mills in 1870 and 69 jute mills in 1914, as cheaper Indian-made jute conquered foreign markets previously served by Dundee, and exports of jute cloth from India grew 272 times over the same period; even better was to come with the first world war, when the word “sandbag” must have sounded like a ringing cash register in the inner ear of every Indian jute trader.

The Yule family benefited enormously. Annie Henrietta (Lady) Yule was the daughter of Andrew Yule, the son of a small-town draper in Scotland who arrived in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1863 as an agent representing several British firms, and whose family eventually owned tea estates, coalmines, cotton and flour mills, railways, and 2,400 square miles of productive land – as well as the jute mills that Andrew Yule’s nephew and successor, Sir David Yule, had taken an especial interest in expanding. Sir David was a shy workaholic who rarely left Kolkata. Aged 42, he married another Yule, his cousin Annie Henrietta. When he died in 1928, soon after ordering his steam yacht, the Times described him as“one of the wealthiest men, if not the wealthiest man, in the country”.

Where did it all go? Lady Yule and her daughter Gladys made a long and expensive world cruise in the Nahlin in the early 1930s. She invested heavily and sometimes unwisely in the British film industry; she opened a stud farm. She had, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “strong religious opinions, a sharp tongue, and imperious habits”. Her attempt to force teetotalism on the Nahlin’s crew was probably not a success. At any rate she sold the ship to King Carol II of Romania in 1937, after which the Nahlin disappeared from the map of British interests – missing, presumed dead – until an English yacht broker, Nicholas Edmiston, discovered it moored in the Danube as a floating restaurant in the 1990s. It passed briefly through the ownership of another Brexit-supporting tycoon, Sir Anthony Bamford, before Dyson bought it in 2006.

This week, thanks to the wonder of digital ship location, I traced the yacht’s present whereabouts to the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg; it had reached there from the Caribbean via Gibraltar and Falmouth. Blohm+Voss spent millions of Dyson’s money when the yacht was first restored and re-engined, and it may be there now for its annual overhaul. The shipyard is old and distinguished, and still fills the harbour with the sounds of building and repair work. They even build luxury yachts there; the clients include Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Plutin.

Nothing remains of the Nahlin’s birthplace at Clydebank, apart from a large crane that stands useless at the river’s edge. Ships, like bagless vacuum cleaners and jute, are made elsewhere.

  • Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist


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