Shipbuilding at East Greenwich

Shipbuilding at East Greenwich
Dr. Mary Mills

Greenwich, although surrounded by major shipbuilders on the Thames, was not in itself an area of shipyards. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, when Rennie and Joyce began work, no major shipbuilding sites have been traced between Deptford Creek and the Charlton borders. From the 1860s a number of shipbuilders were based on the Greenwich Peninsula. The most important of these was a new site for an established shipbuilder, Maudslay, Son, and Field.

Henry Maudslay had begun his career in Woolwich but had gone on to found his engineering works in central London, with a shipbuilding site known for innovation. By the mid-1860s, however, control of the company had moved to younger generations of the Maudslay family. In the mid-1860s a decision was taken, to open a shipbuilding works at East Greenwich on a site known as Horseshoe Breach, today Bay Wharf.

The site was owned by the Blackheath based charity Morden College. In 1864 Horseshoe Breach had been vacated by the bankrupt National Company for Boat Building by Machinery. Maudslay’s moved in right away – so that the decision to take the site on must have been a very quick one. It is clear from contemporary pictures that they used the buildings and slips left behind by the National Company and they also set about building more themselves. At the same time they began a long dispute with the Greenwich Vestry about rights on the riverside path.

Tracing the ships built by Maudslay’s in Greenwich has not been easy and much has been guess work. It is clear that a number of them were yachts, tugs and other smaller craft. In 1866 Herbert Maudslay’s yacht Sphinx was fitted with the first jib headed sail – later known as a ‘Sphinxer’ or ‘Spinnaker’ – and it is possible she was built in Greenwich. The Lady Derby, a screw collier was launched in 1864, – indicating how quickly the company had moved onto the site. She was launched, in the presence of the Sultan of Turkey, to ‘Henwood’s dynamical principles’.

They continued to build a variety of vessels at East Greenwich. It is, however, a surprise to discover that the two best-known ocean-going craft built by Maudslay in the early 1870s at Greenwich were fast sailing ships. These were Blackadder and Halloween ordered by Willis as sister ships to Cutty Sark – and like her broke speed records. It seems inexplicable why a company noted for its important engine building but with little experience of ship construction – and none of sail – should have been given this contract.

Blackadder has been described in sailing literature as ‘cursed’ since she was dismasted on her maiden voyage and suffered a number of subsequent accidents. Following the dismasting she was subject to an insurance claim and a long law suit. In 1900 she was bought by a Norwegian cargo carrier. She was wrecked in 1905 and today lies off the Brazilian coast at Bahia – in use by leisure divers. Halloween had as shorter career being wrecked in 1887 off the Devon coast – her wreck has sometimes appeared since in storm conditions.

Suhulet and Sahilbent were built for Kirket-I-Hayriye to revolutionary designs as transport carriers across the Bospherous. Both were paddle steamers and shipped to Turkey with great difficulty. Both gave many years service. Suhulet was dismantled for scrap in 1961. Sahilbent was taken out of service and renamed Kaptan Sukru in 1967 and was the subject of a fire on the Pazar Coast in 1998. The fate of her hulk is not known.

Other craft built at Greenwich include a 1,375 ton steamer for Harrison’s of Liverpool, a cross channel steamer, two Thames ferry boats, and two naval ‘transports’ for fresh water. The last vessel built at Greenwich, which has traced was an unsuccessful torpedo boat in 1878. It is clear however that many other vessels were built at the yard.

Maudslay’s Greenwich site eventually became known as the Belleville Boiler works and it appears that boiler construction was their main task after the late 1870s. It has been suggested recently that the Big Wheel at Earl’s Court was built on site but – recent correspondence in Newcomen Society Transactions indicates otherwise.

In the late 1890s Maudslay Son and Field considered a move of their entire works to Greenwich and the proposed some new buildings for the site – including a new gatehouse to impress the Prince of Wales when he opened the Blackwall Tunnel. Appointments with their landlord were sometimes cancelled because ‘Mr.Maudslay has urgent business at Cowes’. A quarrel developed with the London County Council over boundaries. By 1898, with 39 years of their lease left, they had ceased to pay rent and the company was declared bankrupt shortly after.

One of the most interesting documents is the catalogue for their auction sale in June 1902. At this sale Henry Maudslay’s original screw lathe was offered among hundreds of other lots. In three days a vast amount of machinery and domestic items were disposed of.

Greenwich was not an important centre for ship construction. However, it produced many of the small vessels which serviced industry on the Thames, and for a few brief years, in the period of high Victorian capitalism, produced a few interesting vessels and some interesting shipbuilders. It was part of the web of Thameside industry, some of which served the interests of the City of London and international trade and a series of interrelationships between men, money and trade, which will only emerge through detailed and painstaking research.

The main source of information for this paper has been the archive at Morden College and material in the National Maritime Museum and Science Museum.

Greenwich Marsh – The 300 years Before the Dome. M. Wright, 1999.
Philip Banbury, Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway, David & Charles, 1971
D.R.MacGregor, The Tea Clippers. An account of the China tea trade and of some of the British sailing ships engaged in it from 1849 to 1869. Percival Marshall & Co.: London, 1952. .
Basil Lubbock The China clippers. 1984

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