NATHAN THOMPSON AND THE WOODEN NUTMEG
First published Bygone Kent.
In the 1860s, it has been said that Thames ‘constituted the greatest shipbuilding area in the world’. There were shipyards all up and down the river. As well as the two Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich there were many many private yards. They were sited in Rotherhithe, Deptford, Woolwich, Millwall, Poplar and Blackwall and only the Greenwich peninsula stands out being shipyard free. One manufacturer, however, did come to Greenwich and he had a big idea. His site was to be on the west side of the peninsula – near the Millennium Dome but not under it.
For every shipyard turning out important and dramatic ships there must have been several boatyards building the small craft that kept the whole system running. Small boats were and are needed for all sorts of purposes – and there are as many designs as purposes. This fact seems to have escaped the subject of this article. He wanted to build boats, thousands of them, which were all the same. The idea was revolutionary – boats had been made up and down the river for millennia – but never ones like this!
On the Greenwich peninsula was an area, which must have seemed ideal for the purpose of boatbuilding. This was known as Horseshoe Breach, or the Great Breach – it is the area, which today lies beyond the point at which the riverside path runs inland. A breach of the sea wall, which took place before 1620, has formed a bay, which appears to form a natural slipway. In 1864 this area was leased from Morden College by The National Company for Boat Building by Machinery. The company had been had been set up by Nathan Thompson, with the support of his brother John. They came from New York where Nathan had worked as a marine engineer. He claimed to have begun work on his system around 1842 and it had thus taken him nineteen years to perfect.
In 1859, while Thompson was still in New York his system had been examined there by the United States Navy Department. They had asked James Snellgrove Jr, a practical boatbuilder, to make a demonstration ‘wash streak’ boat in their presence. He showed that it would take one man, working ten hours a day, eleven days and three hours to do so. Mr. Snellgrove thought, however, that the fact that the machinery was all in different rooms meant that the project had taken six days longer than it needed. He reported that if all the machines were worked at the same time by different individuals that each boat could be made in a day and a half. Thus five boats could be built in the time usually taken to make one. The Navy Board adjudicator, Mr. Webb, reported that ‘hand labour can never successfully compete with machinery propelled by steam’ so Thompson’s must ‘give him a world wide reputation for his genius’.
Within four years Thompson had come to England. It is far from clear why he did so. When Philip Banbury wrote up Thompson for his ‘Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway’ he pointed out the similarity of Thompson’s methods to those patented by George Bousfield of Brixton. Bousfield himself died in 1859 while Thompson’s experiments were taking place. Another Bousfield, William, who was related to George, perhaps his son or nephew, was to move to America and eventually died there. Is it perhaps possible that there was some connection between Thompson and Bousfield and that Thompson came to England following Bousfield’s death?
An ambiguous comment about Thompson was made by P. Barry author of ‘Dockyard Economy and Naval Power’. Barry visited Thompson’s works and made enthusiastic comments about them. In a long, and very obscurely written paragraph he praises Thompson’s machinery as ‘practical ….expeditious and economical’ while at the same time drawing attention to the manufacture of wooden nutmegs in New England. His English readers may not have known that in America Connecticut is known the ‘Nutmeg State’ and that a wooden nutmeg refers to a native of that state whose intentions are dishonest.
For his boat-manufacturing project Thompson had a number of backers – chief of them Colonel Sykes, MP, and Chairman of the East India Company who was the Company Chairman. He produced a booklet consisting of letters of recommendation for his process. These seem to have been obtained by inviting prominent people to a demonstration and asking to write a reference. For this purpose he had first of all had opened a demonstration works near Victoria Park in Old Ford, Hackney. As a result the Company prospectus included references from an astonishing number of people including the Dukes of Cambridge and Sutherland and to an assortment of shipbuilders and industrialists. Whether any of them ordered any boats from him isn’t known.
The idea was to produce a large number of identical small boats, m ade by a series of ingenious machines. Thompson claimed that 25,000 new small boats were needed every year in Britain and he thought that he could supply a quarter of these. He had no doubt noted that ‘a quarter of all the ships’ boats built in the United Kingdom were built to sit on the chocks of Thames built ships’. So, since the shipbuilding industry was all around his works he thought that he could not fail to sell to them.
Boats made to a system would be useful for all sorts of things. Space was taken up by boats on the decks of ships – they could carry more if they could be quickly assembled and disassembled. Duplicate parts could be supplied and repairs thus done without any difficulty. Thompson’s boats, it was said, ‘go together like a bedstead’. Landing craft could be stowed into a single transporter and then put together when time for the invasion arrived. Boats could also be packed up for overland journeys. It was, in fact, likely to be extremely useful.
His system depended on a series of machines – fourteen in all and all steam driven. The boats, which had to be all the same, moved through the system from one to another and were built up round a central ‘assembling form’ which, held everything together and in the right place. Obviously the machinery meant a very large cash investment but it was however calculated that labour costs for each boat made would be less than a quarter than those made by conventional means. The cheapness of boats produced by this method would mean that new boats could be bought by fisherman and others without access to large amounts of capital. In addition boats could be made very quickly – within hours of the order and certainly in only a few days.
Once the company had been floated it was decided to set up the permanent factory in Greenwich and the site at Horseshoe Breach was leased from Morden College, Thompson set about making the Breach fit for shipbuilding by building a causeway and putting a boom across the bay itself. They then faced the river wall with stone. New buildings on site were to be proper brick built structures by agreement with Morden College.
When Barry visited the works in 1863 it seemed to have provided a breakthrough. ‘Respectable parties’ said Barry would be allowed to visit and see what was happening. He took photographs of the works which were published in his book – originals stuck in to each individual copy.
In its prospectus the company had explained that if only one fifth of the boats needed in Great Britain were made by the company at first they could still make a profit. Unfortunately this does not seem to have been the case and they went out of business in their first year.
Philip Banbury tried to analyse the reasons for this debacle. He pointed out that Thompson did not mention the ‘obvious fact; that all the boats had to be the same and that there was little hope of persuading customers to buy so many of a standard type – certainly not enough to sell 6,000 boats a year. Banbury estimated that the total number of ships’ boats needed on the Thames each year was ‘perhaps 300 of over a dozen types and sizes’ and he points out that there were also other specialist boatbuilders in business. He also pointed out that other small boats were usually very specialist and had evolved for a wide range of tasks and water conditions. Small local boatbuilders had marginal capital costs whereas Thompson’s machinery required a large investment.
I don’t know what happened to Thompson. In his report to the US Navy Department he said that he had taken out patents in: the United States, England, France, Russia Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Sardinia, Turkey and Spain. Perhaps he went off and tried to make his system of boats pay somewhere else. I have tried to trawl for him through the Internet – perhaps somewhere in the world he was successful and perhaps somewhere there is a memorial to him. Perhaps, if he really was a ‘wooden nutmeg’ some of the capital he raised went with him and who knows what he did and where he went.
In writing this article I would obviously like to pay tribute to the work done by Philip Banbury and to acknowledge quotations from Barry. I would also like to thank Wendy Schnur from the library at Mystic Seaport.