The ownership of the Beaulieu River can be traced back to 1204 when King John granted the estuary, together with 10,000 acres of land, to the Cistercian monks who founded Beaulieu Abbey.
When the abbey was dissolved in 1538, it was sold to Lord Montagu’s ancestor, Thomas Wriothesley.
Buckler’s Hard was created in the early 18th century by John Duke of Montagu, who planned to build a free port on the banks of the Beaulieu River for the import and export of sugar from the West Indies. The idea failed to get off the ground when the French captured the islands, but from the 1740s the site was used for the building of over 50 wooden ships for the Royal Navy. The Master Shipbuilder, Henry Adams, and his sons built ships such as Agamemnon, Euryalus and Swiftsure, all of which fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars and the advent of iron ships saw the demise of shipbuilding at Buckler’s Hard, however by the late 19th century, pleasure steamers started to bring day trippers to the village. This was followed by a similar rise in the number of people sailing for pleasure. As the Solent became a favourite sailing ground, so the Beaulieu River became a popular place for the mooring of yachts.
Policing the river was undertaken by Lord Montagu’s boatman, Jim Thomas. From his home in the Master Builder’s House, he was able to see the arrival of visiting yachts and organise the laying of moorings for them. In 1926, his house was converted into a hotel, and as traffic on the river increased, Lord Montagu appointed his first official Harbour Master, Frank Downer, in 1927.
The peculiarity of Lord Montagu’s ownership of the river led to one yachtsman disputing the Harbour Master’s right to charge for boomage and landing. The matter was referred to the Board of Trade who examined ancient deeds and confirmed Lord Montagu’s rights.
The growth in yacht ownership coincided with the leasing of house-building plots on the estate to wealthy ‘incomers’ who helped to found the Beaulieu River Sailing Club in 1931. During the Second World War, Buckler’s Hard became a motor torpedo base and Bailey’s Hard was used for fitting out minesweepers. Further downstream, sections of the Mulberry harbours were constructed in the old oyster beds in preparation for the D-Day landings.
In the post-war years, private yachts quickly returned to the river and in 1963 Lord Montagu opened the Buckler’s Hard Maritime Museum. Sir Francis Chichester kept yachts on the river, including Gipsy Moth IV, in which he circumnavigated the globe. In 1973, dredging was undertaken to make way for a 76-berth marina (later enlarged to 110) with a new chandlery and boatyard. Elsewhere on the river, moorings were kept to a low density so as not to diminish the river’s natural beauty.