It’s International Womens Day!
I wanted to use this post to highlight an extraordinary woman from the South West. I could have written it about one of many famous ladies including Agatha Christie, Sue Barker the tennis player, Artist Lamorna Birch or author Daphne Du Maurier. There is a long list of Westcountry “Maids” who I could of written about but as I’m now involved with the committee of Paignton Harbour Festival I found out about a woman, who was definitely ahead of her time. Stella Gale was the First ever female Harbour Master of Paignton Harbour. The thought that in the early 20th century a women held such a position is great, so I was compelled to find out more about our local lady.
Stella Gale was born on 22nd February 1908, the daughter of a local shipbuilder Louis Gale. Louis Gale was from nearby Exminster and moved to Paignton to purchase a boat repair company based in a small hut on the Harbour’s East Quay. Business prospered and Louis was asked to start building boats, which meant moving to bigger premises on the harbour and employing craftsmen. In 1913 Louis won his first contract to build boats for the admiralty including Whaling ships and gigs and cutters for nearby Dartmouth Naval Collage. Louis Gale built lots of different types of boats including about 20 Torbay J-Class.
At the age of 72, Louis Gale died in February 1951. After building more than 300 boats Louis had seen the changes at the harbour from commercial to mainly pleasure boat operation. Louis was a friend and advisor to many of the fish folk and yachtsmen at Paignton Harbour and was deeply mourned on his passing as the uncrowned King of the Harbour.
After attending Marist Covent School in Fisher Street, Stella began work at her father’s boat building company as a book keeper, where she gained good knowledge on Marine Engineering. Stella was well known as a keen sailor in the Torbay yacht circles too, as one of the crew of the winning “Bluebird” built and raced by Louis Gale to win many races.
In 1929, at the age of 21 years old she was appointed Harbour Master by the Paignton Harbour Company. This made international news at that time and here is an excerpt of an article that featured in the Reading Eagle on 4th January 1930:
‘A dark eyed Devon girl with a stormy name has become Great Britain’s first woman harbor master. She is Stella Gale, aged 21, a yachting enthusiast with an unusually broad knowledge of tides, winds and seamanship. For the last four years she has been working for an engineering company here, but much of her spare time was spent aboard her motorboat or on the deck of a racing yacht. When the veteran harbor master of Paignton died Miss Gale applied for the job, and her qualifications were such that the directors of the harbor company felt justified in throwing all precedent overboard and giving the position to a girl.’
Her yearly salary for the position was just £2 and 10 shillings plus any commission she earned so Stella combined the job with her clerical/managerial role her Father’s ship building business.
In 1935 the Paignton Harbour Company sold the harbour to the local authority – Torbay Council, who kept Stella in the position of Harbour Master.
During the second world war, whilst Louis Gale was building boats for the admiralty, Stella who had married John Holmes, became an air raid warden and she was also in charge of the Womens Voluntary Service Clothing Depot for the Tor Bay towns as well as still being Harbour Master.
With Motherhood approaching, Stella stepped down from her position as Harbour Master in 1941.
Following the war, Stella and her husband John managed to re-employ many of the craftsmen to the boat building business, which continued until 1975, when Torbay Council started to redevelop the harbour area.
The last boat built by Louis Gale Boat builders was a rowing gig for Paignton Sea Rangers, later becoming 5th Torbay Paignton Sea Scouts.
Looking back at Stella’s life has made me think about what her experiences may have been during that time, was she on the receiving end of sexism and disparaging remarks? How did she put unruly seaman in their place? The mind begins to boggle!
However I will finish up by saying, that I’m proud to have such a pioneering lady on our doorsteps and thanks to Stella for everything she did for us ladies today, without pioneers like Stella and the suffragettes, the world and Torbay would be a very different place. So, on your next visit to Paignton Harbour, where you can see the Blue Plaque dedicated to Stella Gale, spare a thought for what a maritime pioneer she really was.
I would like to thank Simon Pinder – Paignton’s present day Harbour Master for assisting me with this post.