Modified on April 13, 2024

Combe Martin Village History -

The Combe Martin Steamship SS Snowflake

She was the ‘Strawberry Boat’: between 1897 and 1940, Combe Martin's own Clyde Puffer steamship Snowflake was a familiar sight and an integral part of Combe Martin's industrial history.

Between 1837 and 1843 in Combe Martin, ships were built by Messrs Dovell and Partridge, at the Steam Saw Mills and Shipyard, sited by the River Umber on what is now Borough Road. Local archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley and the North Devon Maritime Museum's Mike Guegan have kindly provided the details.

See our article on John Dovell's Steam Saw Mills and Boatbuilders ˃

Yet there was also a special little tramp steamer here. In June 1904, the North Devon Journal reported the 'first departure of the steamer Snowflake', from Combe Martin to Swansea direct, about 27 miles, carrying crates of strawberries. 'The voyage across the Bristol Channel was a good one'.

Sailing up and down the Bristol Channel, Snowflake transported bulk cargo, vegetables and soft fruit. Mainly ‘the world’s most delicious strawberries’, from Combe Martin to jam factories in South WalesShe often came back carrying coal and was essentially a Tramp Steamer.

Royal Museums Greenwich reports that Combe Martin's Claude Irwin was a Master of the Snowflake, with James Parkin from Swansea as the Engineer.

Royal Museums Greenwich: Crew List: Agreements and Official Logs for Ship Snowflake, Official Number 99880. 

From the late 19th century onwards, many tons of Combe Martin strawberries per week were transported by Irwin’s Snowflake (originally Maid of Lorn).

Snowflake sailed direct from the main harbour at Lester Point to Bristol, Swansea Bay, Briton Ferry and Barry. During 1908, over two dozen carts a day could be counted between the High Street and the main harbour (CMLHG, 19971).

Read on for more... 

Combe Martin the "SS Snowflake" | 19th Century Combe Martin Village History 2023

Combe Martin history books, and the Caledonian Maritime Research Trust, get all the credit for this article. More information is available from Combe Martin's High Street Library, and from Combe Martin Museum and Information Point on Cross Street near the harbour. 

Take a deep dive into the history of Combe Martin˃

Combe Martin Museum has a display model of the SS Snowflake, made by local man Bill Norman. Originally intended as Border Glen, the Maid of Lorn was first registered at Glasgow, vessel No.9 of 1893.

In 1896 she was renamed and owned by the large H.T.P. conglomerate (Hosken, Trevithick and Polkinhorne of Hayle, Cornwall). They named her Snowflake after their brand of flour.

From 1897, the steamer was owned by James Irwin of Combe Martin2 and registered at Barnstaple. Records show that she was sold in 1940 to the Alfred J. Smith Company of Bristol, recorded as being coalers.

About Clyde Puffer Steam Ships

Clyde Puffers were small coal-fired, single-masted cargo ships or freighters, built mainly on the Forth and Clyde canal. Snowflake was built by Burrell and Son of Glasgow who were managed by the art collector Sir William Burrell 3.

Launched in 1893 as Maid of Lorn she was technically a coaster puffer steel screw steamer, used as a general or bulk cargo ‘tramp steamship’. The 'just-in-time', uncharted carrying of cargo was known as the tramp trade.  

'Every Inch a Clyde Puffer'

Snowflake’s 2-cyl. 20 nominal horsepower (19th-century rule of thumb nhp) marine steam engine was built by Walker, Henderson & Co. Ltd of Glasgow.

Every inch a Clyde Puffer, she weighed 90 gross tons empty volume and measured 66.0 ft long. She probably averaged 10 Knots.

True to type, the stumpy ‘dogsbody’ coastal trader provided vital supply links around the Bristol Channel to remote settlements such as Combe Martin.

About Tramp Steamers

Contrary to Liners, Tramp services are available at short notice without strict schedules or routes; cargo can be loaded and offloaded at any port.

Irwin’s Clyde Puffer served Combe Martin for 43 years until WW2, when she became a water supply boat for armed forces around Milford Haven, Salcombe, Plymouth and Weymouth.

A Combe Martin Anecdote:

"Never was a more tubby, grubby, quaint and comic little ship. She is about 60’ long, slab-sided, with bow and stern, alike rounded, sitting down well aft. A tall mast, an enormous smokestack, a pile of superstructure, which after all is only meant to house the master at the wheel, and you have the ‘Snowflake’.

Before 1914 she was ‘The Strawberry boat’, when every summer she used to run hard quick passages to Swansea to carry vast quantities of the world’s most delicious berries to the market....

A famous trio of brothers, the Irwin's, owned and sailed the ‘Snowflake’…says Captain ‘Tuttery’ Irwin at sea one day ‘I know every rock in the Bristol channel’; and then, as the ‘Snowflake’ struck and bounced off -’That’s one of them’" (Boyle & Payne 1952 pp. 215-6).

Boyle, Vernon C. & Payne, Donald (1952). “Devon Harbours”. London. World of Rare Books.

The characterful Irwin brothers sound like a comedy trio. And between 1896 and 1953 the SS Snowflake was beached, stranded, damaged in collisions, repaired and re-floated.

In 1946 she was reportedly sold to Greek Islands owners under the Panama flag. And the last available Caledonian Research record states she was sold to Yugoslavian owners in 1953. According to unconfirmed reports, the SS Snowflake was last seen in 1990.

Combe Martin Ship Building

The following information comes from Combe Martin Local History Group (1989) and Combe Martin archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley.

Ships were built here at Dovell's Steam Mills and Shipbuilders, on what is now Borough Road. On April 5th 1837 it was reported a "fine schooner was launched last Friday from the yard of Messrs Dovell Partridge and Co."

About 100 tons, she was modelled by Mr James Bale and built by Mr John Goss. She was to be commanded by Mr John Williams, formerly of the Comet, and was destined for the coasting trade.

"The schooner went off the stocks fully rigged in gallant style in the presence of about two thousand spectators". This first schooner, the Mary and Elizabeth, was followed by several other sloops and schooners for shipping coal and timber.

The correct form of timber was scarce, and it is said that shipwrights in need of crooked oak would take a boat to the foot of a cliff, about four miles east of Combe Martin.

Naturally crooked oak timbers used for boat frames grew only in limited sizes. Shipwrights would climb 300 ft to a small copse, cut crooks from the gnarled oak and then lower them to the beach on ropes.

Many Combe Martin folk went to sea. There was generally not enough work on the farm for all sons so the youngest son went to sea. Boys in the village might have attended George Ley's charity school, where they were taught the art of navigation.

A Combe Martin 'press gang table' is said to survive in the Pack of Cards Inn. It was a hiding place for sailors avoiding the press gangs. Combe Martin and the Pack o' Cards Inn were home to sailors between ships, and haunted by press gangs at one time.


Combe Martin Local History Group (1997). “COMBE MARTIN YESTERDAY”. Rotapress Combe Martin.

Combe Martin Local History Group (1989). “OUT OF THE WORLD AND INTO COMBE MARTIN". Rotapress Combe Martin.

Caledonian Maritime Research Trust (2023). “MAID OF LORN” [renamed “SS SNOWFLAKE”].

Bellamy & MacDonald (2022). “William Burrell: A Collector's Life”. Birlinn.