The work of the merchant schooners, particularly during the 19th century, in the maritime history of Brixham has been much overshadowed by the importance of the fisheries. The merchant fleet became one of the largest on the coast and, although most did not work out of the town, many of the vessels were built in the town, were owned and crewed from there. Kelly's Directory of Devon (1857) lists nearly 80 owners - a large number for a small place like Brixham. Cockrem's Tourist Guide (about 1870) states: "A number of light schooners also belong to the port, which are employed in the coasting trade, and also in the Spanish, Portuguese and Mediterranean wine and fruit trades. Nearly the whole of the male inhabitants of Brixham are occupied either in fishing or in navigating the trading vessels; many of the females find employment in vending fish". During the summer, the schooners loaded up with iron ore from Sharkham mine (and others nearby). The ore was carried north, the ships returning to Devonshire with coal.
It must be assumed that the vessels were mostly insured locally. In the 1880s there were several companies operating in the town: Brixham Fishing Smack Insurance Society (W. G. Kendrick and Sons, secretary, York Sq. later King St.); Brixham Shipping Association - also the Brixham Steam Capstan, Engine Boiler & Iron Ballast Insurance Co. (Kendrick, sec. as above).
From reports in newspapers, it has been possible to identify some of the ships known to be in the trade from Brixham:
In March 1849 a ship's boat from the Sharon of Brixham (226 tons; master, Barter; owner: Varwell) washed ashore on the Scilly Islands: fears for her safety were allayed when she was now reported to have arrived safely at Messina. On 22nd December 1854 the clipper-brig Dauntless (235 tons) was launched for the Mediterranean trade. It was built by Messrs. Dewdney and J Burnard-Reeves was to be master. A few weeks later, in January 1855, the clipper-brig Witch of the Waves (269 tons) was launched at John Richardson's yard "for the West Indies trade". Charles Pike to be master. The owners were Charles Bowden, Esq. & Co. The Dartmouth Chronicle reported that, at the time, Brixham had "1 barque, 1 schooner and 4 fishing-smacks" on the stocks. In May 1858 Blue Jacket "was launched at 5.30 pm from Dewdney's yard. The adjacent quays crowded with people".
The Brixham yards continued to build these vessels. In 1864 "the splendid clipper-schooner Sam Weller (owner and master Varwell), recently launched at Brixham, is the largest vessel ever built there". A ship-painting in Brixham Museum shows the Susan Vittery (140 tons), first registered at Dartmouth in 1863 and owned by Vittery, in an Italian port. There was one widely-reported "loss at sea". In December 1884 the JJB of Brixham (239 tons, owner and master Browning) was reported lost at Santote, Pernambuco, Brazil laden with coffee. At this time it was said that "the Port of Brixham has had a larger amount of tonnage sailing from it, in proportion to its size, than any other port in the UK".
The arrival of steam vessels may be foreshadowed when the prospectus for Torbay Steamship Co. appeared, a contract was being signed in December 1881 for a steamship to be built, "A1 at Lloyds; 245 feet in length and suitable for cargo carrying of any kind". This might have signalled the start of the decline in the demand for fast sailing ships: by about 1900 there were no Brixham merchant schooners remaining in the trade.