Tolcher & Co of
and the Fruit trade
Joseph Tolcher was a founder of Tolcher & Co shipping company of Salcombe along with his brother Samuel. They
commissioned and operated ships including the 'Kate' and the 'Mary and Elizabeth'. Other ships included the Alice,
the Ernest and the Eugenie
Many Salcombe vessels sailed to Iberia, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean in search of cargo. Much of the Salcombe
trade was in fresh fruit and they operated fast clippers to get the produce back to England as quick as possible.
The family business may well have been part financed by the marriages made by the Tolchers who had married into
the well established families of Jarvis and Hannaford. The Hannaford family were farmers and butchers in the area.
In addition to Joseph and his brother, there was also Samuel (Joseph Jarvis Tolcher's son) who was also a master
mariner (MM Cert - 20998 (Plymouth 1864), Adams Hannaford Tolcher (MM - Cert 24415), and John Hannaford
Tolcher (MM Cert 81279)
Samuel is recorded as the Master of the Kate at one stage in 1864-8 and the Master of the Margaret and Elizabeth in
1868. He sailed the Kate to the Mediterranean in 1864 and on the French coast and Iberian peninsular up until
1868. The Margaret and Elizabeth also sailed to Newfoundland and Canada. This was another destination for many
Devon ships as recorded in the Maritime History Archive of the Maritime University in Newfoundland.
The Kate's first master was Joseph Tolcher.
How long the business maintained is not known and it is likely that it was absorbed into one of the larger businesses
Eventually Samuel moves to Liverpool. Samuel died in Liverpool in 1877 of heart failure in attendance was Samuel
Grant Tolcher his son. He was living with his wife Harriet in Hernans Street, Toxteth Park. He was recorded at 37
years old and a Master Mariner. He had married her in Salcombe in 1865 and she was from Kingsbridge.
Adams Hannaford Tolcher sailed the Iberian routes and had a successful career. At one stage he was the harbour
master for Salcombe living on Customs House Quay, which was a prime site in the town. He died in 1897 in
Portugal on a voyage when his ship was lost with all hands in a storm.
John Hannaford Tolcher was drowned on a voyage in 1866 at the age of 22.
Salcombe sailors and the Fruit Trade
(with acknowldgement to Anne Born The History of Kingsbridge and Salcombe)
Originally ship building had taken place on the Portlemouth side of the estuary but by the time of the Armada it was
Salcombe which had taken over as a ship building area. From that time onwards until at least the early 19th century
the main deep sea interests of Devon sailors was working the cod in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Joseph
Jarvis Tolcher senior worked this trade. The 19th century was busiest for Salcombe and Kingsbridge shipbuilding.
The Napoleonic Wars had ended and England was the strongest maritime power in Europe, whose commercial
captains ruled the waves. Fruit had been brought to England in earlier times on a small scale; now citrus imports
became a growth industry. Salcombe and Kingsbridge played a notable part in the import of fruit, so much so that
'Salcombe Fruiters' were renowned, although Brixham Harbour held a larger fleet.
Ship-builders John Evans and John Ball of Salcombe and William Date of Kingsbridge started to build large
numbers of ships from the 1830's
A comparison of the census returns for 1841 and 1871 clearly reveals the growth of the fruit import industry and
the ships built to accommodate it. In 1841 Salcombe had a population of 511. The occupations listed included
fishermen, seamen, mariners, coastguards, masons, builders, sawyers, a bargeman, a cordwainer, a corn merchant,
sail-makers, a bagman, blacksmith, land drainer, porter, painter, two hucksters, and two or three shipwrights.
There were also a wool-comber, nurse, schoolmistress, milliner, dressmaker, the postmistress, charwomen, and
By 1871 the central part of Salcombe, excluding the outlying districts, numbered 776 people. The most remarkable
occupational increase is among shipwrights and other shipbuilding craftsmen. There are now 34 shipwrights, 13
ship's carpenters. One of them, John Gard, also a Methodist preacher, five sawyers, three block-makers, two ship's
riggers, three sail-makers, a tinplate worker and four blacksmiths. There seems not to have been a rope-maker at
Salcombe but there were at least two rope-walks at Kingsbridge employing 30 men and boys.
Several family groups in Kingsbridge and Salcombe owned most vessels; the ships were run as companies with
shares owned by numerous holders, the nominal owner usually possessing the largest number of shares. In the
earlier years there could be from 15 to 20 shareholders, in the boom period as many as thirty. All types of people
joined in the speculation, including women, often owners' or masters' wives or widows, tailors, lawyers, 'gentlemen'
and merchants. Some crew members were probably allotted one or two shares in lieu of pay and the ship-builders too
joined the shareholders. One such company was Tolcher & Co. It seems to have owned a small fleet and it is likely
that shareholders included the Jarvis, Hannaford and Adams families all of who m had intermarried with the
Tolchers. It seems fair to suggest that the Tolchers probably provided the maritime skill but the financing was done
originally through these wealthier families.
The fruiters were built for speed and as such were vulnerable. Their crews were kept to a minimum, only five or six
men, to save weight. Nevertheless, it is shocking that half the fleet, often with all hands, was sunk, wrecked or lost.
A comparative study of the shipping registers, begun respectively in 1867 and 1886 confirms this, as does the
melancholy frequency of 'mariner's widow' in the census returns. Anxious sailors' families would read in the local
newspaper with sinking hearts the brief announcement, as when in 1862 the Caroline struck a reef off the rock of
Cadiz and 'all hands but one perished'. When a ship did return to port safely, flags were flown and there was general
rejoicing in the close-knit community. When the dreaded news came that the father of a family had been lost,
relatives and neighbours rallied round to support widow and children.
A mutual marine assurance association was established in 1831 to insure Salcombe ships and was successful until
the collapse of the industry. This may be the organisation frequently referred to in the local press of the time as the
The fruit cargoes were oranges and lemons from the Azores, and pineapples from the Bahamas, over twice as long a
voyage. Compared with the distance to the West Indies or to Newfoundland the voyage to the Azores was
comparatively short. But the waters around the volcanic islands are deep and inhospitable, and the lightweight
express schooners needed their masters' skill to dock in the small harbours, having made the best use of wind and
tide to get out of the English Channel and across the Atlantic.
The schooners were built to Lloyds' highest standards and were very dry. The loading operation was brought to a
fine art, sometimes the teams of packers, which included children, completed it in 24 hours. The fruit was wrapped,
packed and fitted into crates holding 1000 boxes; they were stored carefully, with lemons underneath oranges. The
total cargo was restricted to 150 tons in order not to overweight the ship and impede the speed on the vital return
When they set sail again the laden vessels steered north-west before racing up the Channel carrying every stitch of
canvas they could muster, often completing the round trip to the Azores in as little as 17 days. The cargoes were
bound for London and the ships sailed up the Thames under their own sail, refusing the aid of tugs. They tied up at
Fresh Wharf near London Bridge, from where the fruit was rushed to Covent Garden.
Pineapples from the West Indies, Eleuthera and Nassau, were loaded in galleries with gridded shelves, with plenty of
air space between the battens. The fruit was picked green, and the hatchways kept open whenever possible on the
homeward voyage; the clippers adorned their bowsprits with a pineapple on the end to announce their progress up-
river to the Pool of London. Other cargoes brought from the West Indies included sugar, rum, coconuts, and
shaddocks - an oriental citrus fruit like a large orange, introduced to the West Indies about 1700 by Captain
In addition to fruit the clippers shipped wood, ebony and mahogany for furnishing new ships to be built in Salcombe
and Kingsbridge yards. The fruit runs to the Azores and West Indies were the most renowned part of the Salcombe
fleet's work but far from their only activity. They served as coastal trading vessels calling at ports all round the
British Isles, voyaged to Spain and Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean, to America, Canada and Labrador. There
was considerable trade in and out of the port of Salcombe: cider, malt, grain and slates were shipped away, and coal
from Wales (brought to Devon since medieval times), limestone from Plymouth or Torbay, fruit and other goods
But the prosperity was short-lived. During the 1870s trade declined for various reasons. In the 1880s there were
outbreaks of orange and pineapple disease; efforts to improve and enlarge the ships - some were cut in two and new
sections inserted - did not stem the ebbing tide. Steamships were now taking over from sail. Some new ships were
built in the 1870s to transport salt cod from Newfoundland, with an outgoing cargo of Portuguese port to he matured
and salt. But this did not last long. The trade and the ships virtually vanished during the last two decades of' the
century. By 1914 there were only three or four locally-owned trading ships in the estuary. The army of shipwrights,
blacksmiths, carpenters, sail-makers, rope-makers and the mariners themselves, moved with their families to
Plymouth or the Mersey. Two of Joseph Jarvis Tolcher's sons moved to the Mersey, one as a shipwright and one as a
master mariner, and one emigrated to become a shipwright in Tasmania. Another became a cabinet maker in
The Mary and Elizabeth