Maudslay sold 5 ferries in all to the Turks
Maudslay sold 5 ferries in all to the Turks
With reference to the Maudslay Shipbuilding Yard at Greenwich. I am currently living and working in the city of Salvador, Bahia, Brasil. As a scuba diver I am taking advantage of the local warm water and diving as often as possible. One of the sites we visit, especially if we have new divers, is a wreck know locally as the Black Drr, a Norwegian steam/sail ship. Very recently a local diver has discovered that the ship is actually the Blackadder. She lies alongside the shore line at the bottom of a rock outcrop. Two of the masts lie pointing out to sea and there is very little of her hull left. The site is between 2 and 10 Metres and approximately 50 Metres off shore.
Chris Freeth 2001
THE MOLASSINE Co., Ltd., Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich, S.E.10. Telephone-Greenwich 135l.
The Molassine Co., Ltd., occupies about 5 acres of land on the Thames side at East Greenwich.
It is well-known to users of the “river and excursionists by its great steel tanks, which are capable of holding nearly 20,000 tons of Molasses, while its imposing offices in Tunnel Avenue cannot be missed.
The Company manufactures Molassine Meal, so popular with owners of live stock everywhere, also Molassirie Poultry Foods and Molassine Dog and Puppy Cakes, as well as the smaller products, such as Mollets, Stimo and Vims, which “dogs love,” the latter having become a household word. Supplies may be had from corn dealers everywhere.
Return to Molassine
The area appears to have been divided into two – the southern section, now part of Morden Wharf and ‘Bay Wharf’ the area around Horseshoe Breach (or The Great Breach).
Maudslay, Sons & Field’s Greenwich Shipyard
Dr Mary Mills
Despite the presence of the Cutty Sark in dry dock at Greenwich, it might come as a surprise to discover that big sailing ships were also built close by in the 1870s – and built by a company more usually associated with heavy engineering and the steam engine. Compared with many of the areas around it, Greenwich was never an important shipbuilding area and the name of Maudslay has never been popularly associated with sailing ships and yet they built two fast tea clippers on a site, which is now close to the Millennium Dome.
London shipbuilding had been an extremely important industry, but by the 1870s it was into its long decline. Before the 1840s there had been no important shipyard in Greenwich – although the nearby riverside areas of Rotherhithe, Deptford and Blackwall were famous for the ships they produced and, of course, there were the Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich. It was not until the mid-19th century that shipbuilding companies seem to have located in Greenwich, to the east of Deptford Creek. Of these the best known are J. & G. Rennie, although we know of no sizeable craft which were built at that yard, and William Joyce, who built some vessels in the 1850s, at Kent Wharf on Deptford Creek. I have written already, for Bygone Kent, about some of the shipbuilders who came to the Greenwich Peninsula in the 1870s – another of them was Maudslay Son and Field.1
The East Greenwich Shipyard
Henry Maudslay is rightly famous as an engineer whose family origins in Woolwich are commemorated by a stained glass window in the Public Hall in Market Street. He left Woolwich for Joseph Bramah’s Soho workshops and began a career as one of the most famous engineers this country has produced. The company that he founded was to come to Greenwich, in the 1860s, when his sons and grandsons had inherited the works.
Maudslay’s engineering works had been based in Lambeth from 1810 and had provided engines for some of the earliest steam powered vessels, as well as for many other engineering projects. Shortly after Henry Maudslay’s death, in 1831, the works built a number of small iron paddle steamers, for use on the Ganges, but as Philip Banbury rightly observed:
‘Maudslay Sons and Field were not really ship-builders until 1865 so these ships
…… must have been considered as general engineering and the sections were probably
Maudslay, Sons & Field had been formed as a partnership sometime around 1820 and included one of Maudslay’s sons and Joshua Field, and this arrangement changed over time as various partners died and new ones were added. In 1860 the partnership had consisted of two of Henry Maudslay’s sons, three of his grandsons, Joshua Field with two of sons, and Daniel Fitzpatrick. The structure of the partnership was to change radically over the next few years and, after that, a decision seems to have been taken to open a shipbuilding works at Greenwich. What happened was that the three eldest members of the partnership – Joseph Maudslay, Thomas Henry Maudslay, and Joshua Field – died. The potentially vacant places were not immediately taken up, but it seems clear that a younger generation was taking an interest in the company. As we will see, some of this younger generation had a keen interest in sailing ships.
By the 1860s, a variety of industries had been taking up sites on the west bank of the Greenwich Peninsula for some twenty years. These sites were owned by the Blackheath based charity, Morden College, which had taken a decision to develop the area for industry in the late-1830s. One of their tenants had been an American boat builder, who had leased part of the riverfront known as Horseshoe Breach in a blaze of publicity, in 1863. Horseshoe Breach was the old name for an area now known as Bay Wharf – where a break in the sea wall had caused an inlet with sloping banks ideal for shipbuilding and repair. The American was Nathan Thompson, and his company, the National Company for Boat Building by Machinery, intended to build thousands of small boats a year using a highly mechanised method. Within a year, however, Thompson was bankrupt and his lease was assigned to Maudslay, Sons & Field.
No correspondence appears to have survived in the Morden College archive, which might indicate the circumstances in which the company decided to take up this lease. The indications are, however, that it must have been a last minute decision – since the site had suddenly become vacant following Thompson’s bankruptcy. The assignment of the lease was dated September 1864 and it seems likely that they were already on site by then. The lease was for what was in fact the field behind the river wall, known as ‘Further Pitts’. Signatories to the lease were Henry, Charles and Thomas Henry Maudslay, Joshua and Telford Field and Daniel Fitzpatrick.3 Once on site they fitted up a ‘spacious yard with workshops of great size’.4 The keel of their first ship was laid the next May.
This first ship, the Lady Derby, was launched, in early October 1865, on what was described as a ‘great day for East Greenwich’.5 She was a ‘fine screw steamer’ – of 567 gross registered tons and a length of almost 175 feet – built for the General Iron Screw Collier Company, launched by Miss Maudslay, whose ‘skill as regarding the handling of the indispensable bottle of Marsala betokened some former practice’. The launch was, however, a sad one, since Daniel Fitzpatrick had died the previous day while in the midst of preparations for the event. His death had come too late to cancel the event – or even to circulate guests with the news. As it was, the customary launching flags were flown at half-mast, and at the following ‘sumptuous luncheon’ only one toast was allowed: ‘Success to the new ship’. Among the guests were some ‘Turkish gentlemen’ – and more will be heard of them in due course.
The yard’s first vessel was named after the wife of Lord Derby – leader of the Conservative Party in Parliament and a past, and future, Prime Minister. Lady Derby herself also gave her name to something rather better known – a pink hyacinth. The Derbys lived relatively near Greenwich in the grand mansion of Holwood, at Keston, near Bromley – but there could be other reasons for her naming after the wife of a leading politician. The name in any case would have been chosen by the new ship’s owners – the General Iron Screw Collier Company. She was thus to be a coal carrying ship, one of many hundreds servicing London. She was built to ‘Henwood’s patent dynamical principles’ – Charles Henwood being a leading naval architect.
Another ship – a barque for Scrutton & Campbell – was launched at the same period and the yard continued to have two ships under construction at once. In Greenwich, this was seen as the start of a new era of prosperity and there was considerable local rejoicing. The Star in the East public house – the remains of which still stand near the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel – was sold advertising increased prospects of trade as Maudslay’s nearby shipyard grew.
When the lease was finally conveyed to Maudslay, Sons & Field, in 1868, the signatories for the company had changed. Two of the company’s engineers were included – John Imray and Henry Warriner. Warriner in particular had an expertise in the sort of ship building contracts to which the company was now moving. He had been involved in some of the earliest screw propeller designs and had had considerable experience with other firms.
The signatory to the new lease on behalf of the Maudslay family was Herbert Charles Maudslay – another of Henry Maudslay’s grandsons. His name was to be associated with the Greenwich yard and works during its history. He has another, however, another claim to maritime fame. Herbert was a keen yachtsman – something which was to be important to Greenwich as time went on. In 1866, he had a yacht called the Sphinx built at the Greenwich yard. She was a 48 ton cutter, built with iron frames and teak planking.6 One of the rivals of the Sphinx was the Niobe, built the previous year. Both vessels used something new – a ‘balloon sail’ which was hoisted to the topmast head. As the Sphinx was popularly called ‘Spinx’ by yachtsmen and watermen, this new sail began to be known as a ‘Spinxer’ – and in due course this was generically corrupted to ‘spinnaker’.7
The next two vessels to be launched at Greenwich were naval tank vessels – Pelter in 1867 and Despatch in 1869. They were built for use at the Royal William Victualling Yard at Devonport and used for carrying fresh water to the fleet. Each could carry 150 tons of water at a time in tanks ‘constructed wholly independent of the ship’. With the hull divided into seven bulkheads, in eight watertight compartments, pumps were arranged to draw from each tank independently. Both were built under the direction of James Luke, naval surveyor and inspector of naval contract work. Despatch was built slightly differently following some suggestions from the naval officers who operated Pelter. She was launched by a Miss Lucas and handed over to the naval authorities at Woolwich.8 The two vessels were to remain in service at Devonport until 1905. Banbury also lists the steam yacht Star as having been built at the yard in 1867, as well as the steam yacht Sunbeam, whose launch date is uncertain.9
In 1869 the company was to build an experimental boat for one of their Greenwich Peninsula neighbours. Henry Bessemer had by then set up his small steel works on what is now Victoria Deep Water Wharf, next to the Maudslay shipyard, and his inventive mind was moving on to something else. Bessemer suffered greatly from sea sickness and, following a journey from Calais in 1868, determined to do something about it. His idea was to build a ship in which the passenger accommodation was independent of the hull. He therefore designed a vessel with a suspended cabin. He took these designs to Maudslay, Sons & Field and asked them to build him a ‘small steamer’. It was to cost £3061 and be delivered to Bessemer in Greenwich. As work proceeded, however, Bessemer began to think about the problems rather more deeply and decided that the work being undertaken by Maudslay was not suitable, with the result that work was stopped, and the vessel sold. Bessemer eventually built a model and then went on to found the Bessemer Saloon Ship Company – which was very far from being a success, as their only boat collided with the pier at Calais on two occasions and the company was wound up.10
Maudslay, Sons & Field have left no records as to the boats built at Greenwich – although there are lists of the Lambeth built engines which were fitted into vessels.11 It is sometimes a question of trying to guess from the engine lists which, if any, were boats which Maudslay, Sons & Field actually built themselves. Many of these vessels can be eliminated from contemporary records, but there are many whose builders have not yet been traced. They include a number of vessels built before 1870 and it seems likely that at least some were built in Greenwich by Maudslay themselves. In 1869 an engine was provided for the tug, Alert, built for Herbert Maudslay himself – was this also built in Greenwich – and what about a second tug, Tigress? In 1869, the ‘Greenwich Launch Manufactory’ was provided with an engine – surely, from her name, she must have been Greenwich built. A number of other launches were engined by Maudslay in this period – were they Greenwich built too? There were also a number of steam yachts, which were provided with engines – Hebe for Captain Phillimore and Dot for J. Sunley – no evidence has come forward to suggest they were not built at Greenwich. We are on more certain ground with the lighterage tugs, Grappler and Traveller, which are known to have been built by Maudslay, Sons & Field in 1866 and 1867 respectively.11
What were probably the two most important ships built at Greenwich do not appear in the engine lists at all – simply because they were sailing ships. Of all the things which happened in this Greenwich yard this is clearly the strangest – why should this company, renowned worldwide for its marine steam engines, suddenly enter the competitive market of fast sailing ships – an area in which they had no expertise at all?
The clipper ships, Blackadder and Halloween
Everyone – if they know just one thing about Greenwich – will know about the Cutty Sark, which sits in her dry dock, tramped over by thousands of visitors. They all know about her speed and her beautiful lines and, if they read the literature, will know she was built in 1869 in Dumbarton for the shipowner, John Willis. What very few of them will ever discover, however, is that within sight of where she is today were built her two sisters – Blackadder and Halloween – launched by Maudslay, Sons & Field at their Greenwich shipyard.
In the late 1860s there was considerable maritime competition, and fast sailing clippers competed to beat record times for journeys across the world – especially in the tea trade. It was important for owners to commission ships, which could match the best. The design of Cutty Sark is said to have been based on a ship called The Tweed. She was not originally a sailing ship, but a paddle steamer called the Punjaub, built in Bombay and launched in 1854. In 1862, she was sold to John Willis & Sons, who removed her new screw engines and converted her into a sailing ship, which he renamed The Tweed. John Willis was so impressed that he ordered her lines to be copied in his new ship, Cutty Sark – and hoped that she would beat the speeds of the current record holders. At the same time, he commissioned two more ships to be built in London, of iron.
The first of the two ships was Blackadder, which was 917 registered tons, and 216.6 x 35.2 x 20.5 feet in dimension. The story of both the Blackadder and Halloween was explored in some detail by Basil Lubbock.12 Convinced that the Blackadder was a very unlucky ship, Lubbock invoked the words of John Milton to state that she was ‘“Built i’ th’eclipse and rigged with curses dark”’. Indeed, most of what has been written about Blackadder seems to be gloom and doom laden. She did, however, survive for over thirty years and set many very fast times in her early days. Lubbock clearly got his information from a member of her first crew – probably the second mate, whose opinions on the ship and the rest of the crew he cited and quoted freely. He described ‘the first evil omen’ as the occasion on which this same second mate left his home in Limehouse to join Blackadder. He found that he had left his purse at home and went back for it. At the door was his mother, ‘a sailor’s daughter and a sailor’s wife’, who said that ‘You should never have turned back. That ship will never be lucky’. All of which might seem, today, to be remarkably superstitious for the rational 1870s – although it should be remembered that mariners and maritime communities were renowned for their traditional superstitions.
The contract for Blackadder had been signed in June 1869 was launched on 1st February 1870 by Miss Willis and Mrs. Alexander Scrutton. An unnamed barque was launched at the yard at the same time. Following the launch, the Maudslay and Willis party went off to the Trafalgar Tavern for a celebratory dinner, while the workforce went to the next door Yacht for something rather less grand. The Blackadder and Halloween were said by Lubbock to have had their lines taken from the Tweed, but he noted that ‘in appearance above the waterline they bore very little resemblance to Cutty Sark, and had the usual iron ship’s topgallant foc’s’le and short turtle backed poop’. David MacGregor, however, has questioned the extent to which the lines of the Cutty Sark, Blackadder and Halloween were actually based on those of The Tweed.13 Lubbock also noted that Blackadder was built to the highest requirements of Lloyds for an iron ship and had a ‘complete East India outfit for a full rigged ship’. ‘Three captains’ were said to have overseen the outfitting of the ship.
Lubbock said that loading Blackadder had begun before her masts were fitted and the mate appointed. As a result, her cargo loading and rigging were supervised by the second mate. John Willis made a visit, once the masts were up, and found fault with the rigging. Willis, ‘letting loose some of the language for which he was celebrated’, then ordered the over pressed the second mate to properly manage the riggers. A row ensued, but despite extra attention, a major fault was noticed with the fitting of the trestle tree cheeks, which prevented the proper tensioning of the stays. Although this was repaired, the mast cheeks were actually a real problem with the mast fittings, which would return to haunt the vessel. The chief rigger was a Captain Campbell, who was concerned that the makeshift repairs would support the load of her large yards and sails. He warned the two mates that ‘you are both young men, be careful’.
A further problem came when Blackadder nearly sunk in her dock in London because a pipe near the waterline was not properly set in place. This episode illustrated much of what was said about Blackadder. She was supposed to be ‘unlucky’, but this seems to be mainly on account of things which ‘nearly’ happened – in fact, she was lucky enough for them usually to be put right.
Lubbock goes on to tell the story of her disastrous first voyage. Again, this appears to be based on a narrative of the second mate. It was said that she was ‘unlucky in her captain as everything else’. The captain was described as ‘senseless’ and ‘fool headed’. It does, however, seem unlikely that command of a new ship built to set record speed would be given to anyone incompetent! Soon Blackadder was into the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘the first bit of a blow showed that the trouble aloft was very serious’ and, in addition, the steering gear went wrong. Although extra chains were added, the captain pushed the ship on decided on a ‘most foolish and risky manoeuvre’, which became compounded. Lubbock argued that ‘the old man was in a hurry to fall out of the frying pan into the fire’. Luckily, according the version in Lubbock, the young second mate paid no attention to his captain, but:
‘kept his eyes glued on the Blackadder’s maintop. Then as the wind came aft
the expected happened. There was a flash of fire aloft. The chains had parted!
In a moment the cheeks fell adrift from the mast and down fell the lower rigging
…Without its support the mainmast began to heel at every roll…’
They were halfway through the voyage –2,000 miles from the Cape and 1,500 from Rio – and with no chance of help in the situation they found themselves in.
What happened next was an extremely dramatic episode. It is described in a great deal of detail by Lubbock – and those who want the technicalities of the story are advised to read his account. What comes over to the general reader however is the coolness with which the crew dealt with an extremely difficult and dangerous situation. As the rigging fell from the mast – men ran to ‘stand clear’ and then mast began to heel over more on each roll of the ship. Not being properly secured at the deck, the mainmast began to buckle below and burst up the main deck – smashing crates of glass stowed around it. The mate called for an axe ‘to nick the mast’. The mast then hung at an angle over the port side of the ship, but before it could be cut away a roller sent it across the deck and over the starboard side, tearing up more planking of the main deck. At the same time, the mizzen mast began to sway ominously. The entire crew worked to send the damaged mainmast clear of the ship and at the same time save the mizzen mast. A man trying to belay a tackle on the mizzen stay, slipped on the wet deck and the mizzen fell while the ‘rudder began to lift in an ominous manner’. By now the foremast too was ‘sagging forward’ and the sea was pouring through the holes into the deck and into the hold.
The story continues that the captain was ‘so unnerved’ that he ‘disappeared below and was not seen again until late in the day’. In the short term the situation was saved by the mate and our friend the young second mate, while the carpenter and his team secured the hole in the deck. The two mates retired for a smoke to discuss the proceedings’ and waited for daylight. What is impressive is the efficiency with which this dangerous situation was dealt with. The next job was to try and save the foremast. While this was being done, a man called Stevens was almost involved in an accident – the nearest it appears that anyone came to real injury. This was caused when the royal yard came crashing down, and he only just managed to slide down from the ‘topgallant masthead’ to the relative safety of the topmast cap deck, before the ‘mast broke 2 feet above him and by a miracle cleared him’. It might be said that the crew of Blackadder were exceptionally lucky to get through such an episode with, apparently, no injuries and only a near accident to report!
It was then decided to head for Rio, which was nearer and because the wind direction was better. Two ‘jury masts’ were erected, but by the time that was done, the wind had changed and it was decided to head for the Cape instead. In due course, she encountered the St Mungo of Glasgow which tried an approach, ‘with the intention of speaking her’, but Blackadder was so fast, even with her makeshift masts and gear, that St. Mungo was unable to catch ‘the lame duck’.
Lubbock continued with the story of how unlucky she was and went on to describe how, while she was at the Cape under repair, she was involved in three collisions, and then – once underway to Shanghai – she was hit by a French mail streamer in the China Seas. Leaving Shanghai for Penang she was involved in yet another collision. Eventually, she returned to London after 117 days out, from Penang, and the insurance met were waiting for her.
The resultant court case went on and on and on. The underwriters would not entertain the claim because Blackadder’s masts had not been properly secured, and Willis then went on to sue the builders. The court case was to cause a problem not only for Maudslay, Sons and Field, but for Blackadder’s sister ship, Halloween, whose launching became delayed. Perhaps however, it might be better to take through the story of Blackadder to the end of her sailing life – although Blackadder, as we shall see, is far from gone.
Blackadder was handed over to Captain Moore, who took her to Shanghai and then back from, Foochow in 123 days, with only one collision on the whole voyage. She was then taken over by her ex-mate, Sam Blisset, and went to Sydney. In the Pacific, she again lost her masts in a typhoon, while carrying coal to Shanghai. After leaving Shanghai, she went to Iloilo to take cargo for Boston. In October 1873, she got into a storm near Banguey Island where she anchored and later struck an uncharted reef. The crew abandoned ship, but she came off the reef and went off ‘as if steered by some demon’. With some difficulty, the crew retrieved her. Fortunately ‘owing to the extra strength of her iron plates’ the ship ‘sustained no injury from her pounding’. The bottom of her hull, however, had become fouled, with the result that she ‘made a terribly long passage to Boston’. On her next voyage she nearly killed her new master, Captain White, when her windlass broke whilst anchored off the North Foreland.
Lubbock described Blackadder throughout these episodes as a ‘mankiller’, although there is no account of anyone having actually been injured in any of these mishaps and the ship herself survived remarkably well. What Blackadder could do was to achieve fast speeds. In 1872 she made a fast voyage between Deal and Shanghai of 95 days. She never quite, however, matched the record making speeds of her sister ship, Halloween. It has to be wondered why Blackadder had such a bad reputation – Lubbock does not mention her speed, only the accidents. Blackadder stayed afloat in some terrible disasters – all of which were dealt with efficiently by her crews – and she was very, very, fast.
In 1899 Blackadder was sold to a Norwegian company, and was still a fast ship. In November 1905, she left Barry Docks with a cargo of coal and was wrecked at Bahia when entering the port. This might seem to have been the end of Blackadder and so I thought. However, I put an earlier version of my research on the internet, through the Greenwich Industrial History Society website. I then forgot about it until I received an email from someone in Bahia. Surprisingly, they stated that:
‘As a scuba diver I am taking advantage of the local warm water and diving
as often as possible. One of the sites we visit, especially if we have new divers,
is a wreck known locally as the Black Drr, a Norwegian steam/sail ship. Very
recently, a local diver has discovered that the ship is actually the Blackadder.
She lies alongside the shore line at the bottom of a rock outcrop. Two of the masts
lie pointing out to sea and there is very little of her hull left.”
Brazilian divers are proud of Blackadder and have produced a basic plan of her wreck, together with photographs which can be found on their web site.14 So this fast clipper ship, built in Greenwich, provides sport for the leisure diving fraternity – perhaps someone someday will provide a proper archaeological record of what remains of her.
The Blackadder’s sister, Halloween, was another iron clipper built for speed. She was built to exactly the same dimensions as Blackadder, with both ships being slightly longer and slimmer than Cutty Sark. She could not be delivered to Willis until the Blackadder lawsuit was settled and so she sat at Greenwich until she finally sailed in 1871. Lubbock noted that on her maiden voyage she had to turn back because of excessive water had in her well due to rubbish having been left in her limbers. Once on her maiden voyage, however, she went to Sydney in 69 says –– and she continued with record breaking trips, in particular a journey from Shanghai to London in 89 days – Cutty Sark’s best was 110. Even Lubbock had to admit that ‘her record for the China trade was truly wonderful one’, and that ‘she was considered the only vessel which could seriously rival Thermopylae and Cutty Sark in speed’.15
The Halloween remained in the tea trade long after the Suez Canal and steamers had sealed the fate of many other clippers. Her end came on the 17th January 1887, when she was returning to London from Foochow loaded with tea. She had been slowed by bad weather, and her crew was exhausted when they saw the Eddystone Light. In huge seas, she lost her course and was driven to the shore. At 7.30pm she ran into the west end of the Hamstone and crashed at Soar Mill Cove. The crew took to the rigging, and then returned to the smashed deck to send up flares. No one saw them. In the morning three men tried to swim ashore – but only two of them made it. They reached a farmhouse for help, but the lifeboat did not reach the ship until 10.00 am. All 19 of the remaining crew were saved. Within three days the ship had broken up. The cargo of tea washed into Soar Cove where it formed a twelve feet high barrier. The storms covered the wreck of the Halloween with sand and she was forgotten. The story of the wreck is told on the web site of some Devon divers.16
In February 1990, Steve Carpenter took his dog for a walk along the beach and, to his surprise, the previously sandy beach had become all rocks. Storms made diving impossible for some months and it was some time before any of this could be investigated. Eventually a diver went out, anchored looked around, and realised that he was actually above a huge wreck which had appeared in an area they had often dived before:
‘Underneath me was a huge hatch, part of a bow and a massive mast lying out
across the sand … you could see the remains of the once proud bowsprit with
wood decking all around… and a complete porthole glinting in the sunbeams.
Now I knew what heaven was going to be like!’
Most interestingly, the porthole had been made by J. Stone & Co., Deplored – clearly one of the subcontractors to Maudslay. Therefore, Halloween too is available to the divers, and another Greenwich built ship is still there to be investigated.
The Turkish Ferries
There had been a number of ‘Turkish Gentlemen’ at the launch of the Lady Derby at Maudslay, Sons & Field’s Greenwich yard. It seems that they were there to place orders. It appears from the company’s surviving engine lists that a number of paddle steamers built for the Bosphorus ferry service had been engine by them from 1851. Three more names have been unearthed by a paddle steamer enthusiast group – Azimet, Rahat and Selamet.17 These are said to have been built by Maudslay, Sons & Field in 1870. The paddle steamer enthusiasts have spotted that one of the three met its end in 1911 and the other two in 1915 and thus speculate that they had Turkish war time uses, which perhaps led to their destruction.
Two further ferries were described on a Turkish web site – and the information given here is derived from them.18 The ferry company which provided services across the Bospherus was called the Sirket-i-Hayriye, founded in 1851 as the first Ottoman joint stock company. Their earliest steam ferries were supplied by British builders: J. Samuel White, East Cowes (1854-1860); Money Wigram & Sons, Blackwall (1863-1869); Maudslay, Sons & Field, East Greenwich (1870-1872); and R. & H. Green, Blackwall (1872-1890, 1894-1896). In the late 1860s they had found the need for a different sort of ferry. Up until then the ferries had been for passengers and freight only, but there was also a demand for the carriage of horses, carts, coaches, as well as army transports. Something was needed which could be loaded at each end. Such ferry boats are common today, but in the 1860s this was a revolutionary concept which was to be worked out by Sirket in conjunction with Maudslay, Sons & Field.
Sirket-I-Hayriye was managed by Huseyin Haki Efendi, from Crete. He made a rough sketch of the sort of craft, which he needed to resolve his problems of the carriage of vehicles across the Bosphorus. He discussed these plans with Iskender Efendi, who had previously worked for the Turkish Government as an inspector, and Mehmed Usta, the chief naval architect at the Haskoy Shipyard, used by Sirket-I-Hayriye for repair work. Usta developed the sketch into detailed designs and took them to Maudslay in Greenwich.
Maudslay built two ferries to the Mehmed Usta’s plans. The first of them cost £8000, and was 275 tons, with a length of 149 feet and a beam of 28 feet. She was equipped with a single cylinder 400 hp engine to provide seven knots. It was finished in 1872 and then had to be transported to Turkey. This was not easy since it had to travel under its own steam from London via the Atlantic, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean and was, of course, built for relatively sheltered waters. Conditions were difficult and dangerous and on several occasions the ship was in danger of being lost. In due course she arrived in Istanbul in good order and was named Suhulet which means ‘to be easy’ and this name was said to be given as a consolation for the difficulties of the journey. She was numbered 26 in the ferry fleet.
Suhulet had been designed to carry vehicles and when she was put into service the Bosphorus boatmen protested because they feared they would lose trade. They intended to stop her first voyage from Uskudar to Kabatas, but this protest was effectively stopped by the actions of Huseyin Haki Effendi who arranged that the first passengers should be an artillery battery. For this, and for her first voyage, he received a commemorative medal from Sultan Abdulaziz.
The Turkish authorities were so pleased with Suhulet that they returned to Maudslay, Sons & Field for a second double ended ferry. This was identical except for a more powerful engine. She was to be called Sahilbent, which means ‘linking two shores’ and was named by the Turkish poet, Nakik Kemal. The two ferries continued to work across the Bosphorus from Uskudar to Kabitas. They proved useful in 1911 when, in a war between Turkey and Italy, Suhulet carried four gun batteries to Canakkale taking four hours to cross the Dardanelles. Previously the journey would have taken four days.
The years went by. In 1945 Sirket-i-Hayriye was taken into state control and became part of the Turkish Maritime Lines. Suhulet had already been fitted with a diesel engine in 1930 and had lost her tall funnel. In 1952 she was given yet another new engine and some more modifications were made. Six years later, after 86 years of work, she was withdrawn from service and broken up for scrap in 1961. Sahilbent however continued.
Sahilbent was first overhauled in 1927 and was taken out of ferry service in 1959, after 87 years of work. She was still seaworthy and so was sold. In 1967 she was renamed the Kaptan Sukru. At her sale it was finally noticed that this was a very old working vessel and a magazine article appeared naming her as the ‘oldest ship still in service in the world’.19 Sahilbent, however, was far from finished and was fitted with a new engine and still appeared in the shipping registers in 1996.
It has not proved possible, as yet, to discover the current whereabouts of Sahilbent. In 1998 a news agency in Anatolia released a story which was later repeated on the Turkish Pilots service web site.20 This told how a small cargo ship had caught fire offshore in Pazar county Rize Province, and had then ran aground on the Ardasen Coast. She had left Rize Port with a load of heavy logs to take to a mine at Hopa. The seven member crew were taken off and the ship left to burn. So, is this Sahilbent and, if so, where is she now? Neither the Turkish pilot service nor the Anatolian News Agency answer email enquiries. Is she a burnt out hulk somewhere on the Ardasen coast? Has she been broken up? Might she have even been refitted and refloated and is there – somewhere in Turkey – a working vessel, which was built 130 years ago in Greenwich? Hopefully, one day, it might be possible to answer these questions.
The Greenwich Vestry and the Riverside Path
Maudslay, Sons & Field had taken formally over the lease for the Bay Wharf site in 1868, but had been building up the site since 1864. Contemporary photographs show that they had taken over the buildings use by their predecessors, the National Company for Boat Building by Machinery, but they also began to make changes themselves. As early as January 1865 they began to build new slips on site.21 Within the next few years, however, a row developed between themselves and the Greenwich Vestry which was to end in the High court.
In 1999 the London Borough of Greenwich was in the High Court to defend the public right of way along the Greenwich Peninsula riverside. The same question – and almost the same stretch of riverside – had taken their predecessor to court before. The right of way along the river has taken up a great deal of the local authorities’ time over the past 150 years – and no doubt will do so for a long time yet to come. In the mid-19th century new factories opened along the riverfront and wanted close the riverside path in order to build slipways and ships, undertake other industrial activities and load cargo – while today their successors want to close the riverside for private housing schemes.
In the 1860s the Greenwich Vestry was becoming increasingly concerned about the path. In September 1867 their Surveyor reported that Messrs. Bessemer, steel manufacturers, had stopped up the footway on the north side of their premises and that Messrs. Maudslay had erected a doorway on the public footpath. At the same time a petition was presented to the Board from ‘certain inhabitants of East Greenwich’ complaining about the obstructions on the riverbank. At a subsequent meeting, Mr. Soames, the soap manufacturer whose works was also adjacent to the East Greenwich riverside, said that ‘no one required to go along the footpath’ leading to cries of ‘Oh! Oh!’ from members of the public present at the meeting. Soames went on to say that if the footpath remained open, the factories would also have to be closed down, and that it would cost too much to build a new road. This was echoed by other speakers, who wondered what would be the use if all the waterside premises in London had a footpath running in front of them!’ It was, however, felt that the right of way was important and a sub-committee was set up under the Greenwich Board of Works. This was eventually to lead to court action.
In October 1868 the Greenwich Vestry discussed the application of Lewis and Stockwell, shipbuilders, to build a dry dock on the Greenwich Peninsula at Blackwall Point. This would have meant the diversion of the footpath. Although the Vestry was keen to promote new employment and manufacturers in the area, the view was expressed that it was not a good idea to ‘give up these old rights in a hurry’ and the Vestry set off on a tour of inspection, which, sadly, is not reported. By then, however, the Vestry was awaiting the judgement on their case against Maudslay, Sons & Field and Messrs. Bessemer.
The case, taken against Maudslay, Sons & Field by the Greenwich Vestry came before the Court of Queen’s Bench, in Maidstone, on 21st May 1867. The right of way in question was that which stretched from Ballast Quay to Lombard Wall in Charlton. It is perhaps remarkable that it was only in December 2001 – 134 years after this court case – that the path was open to be walked throughout this whole length. At the hearing, it was agreed that it could not be shown when the river wall had been built, but that it was there at the time of the Norman Conquest, that it had been under the care of the Commissioners of Sewers between the 37th year of Henry VIII’s reign and 1855 – and so as long as the memory of man could be expected to go back it had been a public footpath.22 The case of Mr. Bracegirdle, in 1843, whose fences had been broken down the parish officers, was cited.23 The opposition said that the path went along the sea wall and that this was an artificial construction, and could not, therefore, have become a public right of way. Lord Chief Justice Cockburn concluded that this was not so – the public had used the path, for all they knew, since Roman times and declared in favour of the right of way.
The Greenwich Vestry had won their point – but as more recent events have shown, vigilance is needed if the path is to remain open for the public use. Despite the gloomy predictions of Mr. Soames, Maudslay, Sons & Field did not go out of business because they were forced to open the path – in fact, they seem to have flourished for some years to come.
Later shipbuilding, engineering and boiler making
For the period after 1871, it becomes much more difficult to find out what ships exactly were built at Maudslay, Sons & Field’s Greenwich yard. We are partly in the realm of guesswork. Certainly; the days of innovative shipbuilding seem to have passed – and we are left with only a few vessel names. In 1872 the yard launched a screw steamer, SS Legislator, of 2126 gross registered tons, for the Liverpool based Harrison Line. Another tank vessel, Elizabeth, was built in 1873 for use at Devonport.24
It is also possible that Maudslay, Sons and Field built yachts. There is some suggestion that Telford Field had his own yacht, Marama, built at Greenwich. As engines were provided for a number of yachts after 1870, it is also possible that the yachts themselves were built by the company. Interestingly, Maudslay, Sons & Field was amongst the very earliest British builders of torpedo boats, in the late 1870s. Unfortunately, only one such vessel, TB 13, was built at Greenwich, in 1879, and production became dominated by market leaders J. I. Thornycroft & Co., of Chiswick, and Yarrow & Co., of Cubitt Town.25 She was recorded as having a brass hull and was described ‘a very bad seaboat with good engines’.26 It may be that this comment in fact sums up the Maudslay’s yard at Greenwich – the company made magnificent engines, but the ships never quite reached the same standard. She was broken up in 1896.
What exactly was undertaken at the yard in the 1870s is far from clear. As we have already seen, only a few ships built in the 1870s have been identified. No building has been discovered after the launch of TB 13. It known that the yard became a boiler works, although exactly when was this transition was made, and why, is still something of an unknown. Banbury stated that the boiler works was transferred there, from Lambeth, in 1872.27 Unfortunately, Banbury gave no contemporary source to support his statement. What does seem clear is that the main boiler works were actually moved to Greenwich in 1881. Writing in October of that year, of his visit to the Lambeth works, a journalist reported that:
‘The works are undergoing considerable alteration, and it may be mentioned that
Messrs. Maudslay…have decided upon removing the boilermaking department
entirely to their extensive premises at Greenwich…The old boiler shop is now being
converted into another erecting shop, which will have every modern facility for
erecting heavy machinery. Owing to the transitory state of the works, there are not
many engines or boilers being finished’.28
Whilst the need to relocate the boilermaking department was caused by the loss of a lease on part of the frontage of the Lambeth works, which had housed an erecting shop, it must have also reflected spare capacity at the East Greenwich works.
From 1881 the East Greenwich works would have been kept busy making boilers for Maudslay, Sons & Field made marine engines. Other manufacturing projects, however, were also undertaken there. In 1886 the company had a British naval contract to build ‘torpedo tubes and gear’.29 Early in 1894, the East Greenwich works made the axle and bearing for the giant wheel at Earl’s Court.30 In the same year an even more momentous event occurred, which was to secure the site’s future for the next five years, or so. This had its origins with the French Belleville boilermaking company, which had developed one of the earliest water tube boilers. Following a trial fitting of Bellville boilers to the gunboat, HMS
Sharpshooter, the Admiralty became converts and instructed that they should be fitted to all new naval ships. Here was an opportunity for Maudslay, Sons & Field and their Greenwich Yard:
‘The new cruisers Terrible and Powerful are to be fitted with boilers of the
Bellville type, which will be made in England. Messrs. Maudslay, Sons and Field
are the agents and manufacturers of the Bellville boiler in this country’.31
An extensive re-fit is said to have taken place at the yard to facilitate the building of the Bellville boilers.32 Initial contracts for these boilers must have kept the yard very busy, especially as warships were fitted with large numbers of them and the company also provided them for some foreign navies. As examples of the former, HMS Terrible (built by J. & G. Thompson, Clydebank) and HMS Powerful (built by Vickers Ltd., Barrow) each had 48 Maudslay made Bellville boilers. Unfortunately, however, Maudslay, Son & Field’s effective monopoly became a matter of strong contention and sparked the so-called ‘battle of the boilers’. Whilst some strongly supported the Bellville boiler, others criticised them and championed the water tube boilers being developed by Yarrow, Thorneycroft, Laird and Babcock & Wilcox.33 In the face of stiff opposition, the Admiralty gave way and by 1904 the navy was replacing them with Babcock & Wilcox equipment. Maudslay had clearly not backed a winner and this, as we shall see, was one of the reasons behind the final demise of the yard.
The site and the Blackwall Tunnel
In May 1896, the company wrote to Morden College, the ground landlords, saying that they wanted to extend the lease, which would otherwise expire in 1898.34 Presumably, this reflected their optimism regarding the manufacture of the Bellville boilers. They also informed Morden College that they wanted to move their Lambeth works to East Greenwich and – once again – to extinguish the right of way on the riverside path. Negotiations were with Herbert Maudslay, but he appears to have been somewhat less than keen, since he cancelled a meeting with the Morden College trustees on the grounds that he had to go to Cowes. This ‘urgent business’ might explain a lot about the way in which the family, and the company, was going. Herbert Maudslay’s main interest was in fact yachting. Thirty years previously he had been the owner of Sphinx, said to be the originator of the spinnaker sail, and in 1893 he had been a founder of the Sea View Sailing Club, near Ryde, on the Isle of Wight – a sort of sailing co-operative venture where members were encouraged to make donations into a central fund in order to purchase club boats. By 1895, it was the Sea View Yacht Club and a village had begun to grow up around it and to take its name. Herbert was Hon. Secretary of the Club for eight years, and by 1908, there were eight other Maudslay family members in the club. Herbert remained as Commodore of the Club until his death in 1926.
It is likely, however, that the imminent expiry of the lease was not the only thing which drove them to consider the yard and its future. Throughout the 1890s the Blackwall Tunnel was being built almost underneath Maudslay, Sons & Field’s Greenwich works. The Prince of Wales was down to open it and, clearly, Maudslay would have wanted the works to have look nice for the royal event. They submitted a drawing to Morden College of a proposed new gatehouse to their works. On the gate was to be written ‘Maudslay Sons and Field Ltd. Belleville Boiler Works’ – then still seen to hold the future for the site.
Meanwhile as far as the Greenwich works was concerned, the company concentrated on the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales. In 1896, the London County Council (LCC) altered the line of the frontage of the Blackwall premises – hence the need for the new gatehouse. Agreement on this could not be reached with the LCC and correspondence between them and Maudslay, Sons & Fields’ solicitors became increasingly angry. The new line of the frontage had suddenly become a problem. The LCC erected a fence on their version of the line and the company took it down and handed the pieces to the LCC foreman. Things were beginning to deteriorate rapidly.35
In January 1898 there was a fire in Blackwall Lane and some of the yard’s structures were damaged and by March the company had been summoned by the LCC on account of a dangerous structure on their site. However, responsibility for this had now devolved to Morden College, as the ground landlord, as Maudslay had ceased to pay them any rent and Morden College’s insurers were now involved.
Closure of the yard
By the time of the problems with Morden College, plans were apparently underway to move the company’s operations – especially the Lambeth Works – to Ipswich. In October 1899, however, actions by debenture holders meant that receivers were appointed. The contents of the Lambeth marine engine works were auctioned from 23rd April to the 3rd June 1900.36 It was at this sale that the Science Museum acquired Henry Maudslay’s early machine tools and the company’s collection of marine engines.
The Greenwich yard kept going for a couple of more years, finishing work on their last Bellville boiler contracts. The auction sale of the works was held on 3rd June 1902.37 The sale catalogue makes for poignant reading. From the sale catalogue and from the advertisements for the sale of the lease we can begin to get an idea of what the works was like – at least in its final years as a boiler works. It stood on nine and half acres with a 750 ft frontage to the Thames with a substantially deep water jetty. There was a wet dock, which could take barges up to 200 tons. There was a gate with a keeper’s lodge, timekeeper’s office and urinals. There was a three bay erecting shop, a galvanising shop, store shed, boiler house engine house and chimney, as well as many other offices and outbuildings. The site also included a foundry, a machine shop and stores, offices and designing room. There was a stable, a clerks’ office, a typewriting room, and a strong room. It is to the sale catalogue that we must go for the detail – and not just for the Massey patent steam hammer and radial drilling machine by Whitworth. The catalogue, which ran to 76 pages, listed all the machinery on site. On the fourth day the auction turned to the offices with their lino, the stools covered in ‘faulty American cloth’, the square of blue Axminister carpet and a ‘japanned tin purdonium’. There were books, including ‘Bourne on the Screw Propeller’, and coloured prints of the ‘Great Western Steamship’. In addition, there were 14 photographs of machinery. The firm had always taken photographs of everything – where are those photographs now? Second on the auction list, after Henry Maudslay’s own equipment, came ‘Camera with Wray Lens’ – which was what they considered their second most valuable piece of equipment. Wray’s lens works still stands by the Ravensbourne in Ashgrove Road, Bellingham. Mary can you please confirm that this definitely all relates to the Greenwich sale
Interestingly, the sale notice advertised the fact that the site was suitable ‘for the construction of a shipbuilding yard, engineering or manufacturing premises’. This attempt to reinvent the wheel, however, was not a success. The site appears not to have been sold and it was again put up for auction sale on the 30th June 1903.38 Morden College later assigned the lease to a new occupier, Segar Emery, an American mahogany importer and Maudslay’s were largely forgotten in Greenwich, but the family continued with their engineering and business interests. In 1901, the Maudslay Motor Company was set up under W. H. Maudslay and at the same time the Standard Motor Company was opened with the intention of standardising motor parts. This is not a history of the British motor industry, but Maudslays clearly went on to play an important part in its development. Perhaps it should also be noted that Delauney- Belleville, in France, ceased to be boilermakers and too became involved with early Renault cars.
1. Mary can you please provide a full reference for this.
2. Banbury, P., Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway (Newton Abbot), 199.
3. Morden College Archive Mary can you please provide a full reference for this.
4. Mary can you please provide a full reference for this quote
5. Kentish Mercury, 14 October 1865.
6. Ward, A. R., The Chronicles of the Royal Thames Yacht Club (Arundel, 1999), 32; Banbury, op.cit., also includes the Sphinx in his yard ship list, 205.
7. Ward, ibid., 55.
8. Kentish Mercury, 1869 Mary can you please provide a full reference for this.
9. Banbury, op.cit., 205. The Star was built for Lord Otho Fitzgerald.
10. Bessemer, Sir Henry, Sir Henry Bessemer: An Autobiography (London, 1905) Mary can you provide a page reference for this.
10. Science Museum Library, Maud: Arch 10/4;22/1;22/3.
12. Lubbock, B., The China Clippers (Glasgow, 1946, second edition), 202-213, has been the main printed source used for the Blackadder and Halloween. Useful material on the two ships can also be found in MacGregor, D. R., The Tea Clippers (London, 1972 edition).
13. MacGregor, D. R., Fast Sailing Ships – Their Design and Construction, 1775-1875 (London, 1988 edition), 254, 258.
15. Lubbock, op.cit., 240.
18. Although the story of Suhulet and Sahilbent is mentioned elsewhere, a detailed version appeared on a web site belonging to Turkish airlines. This site has now disappeared – and, in any case, did not respond to emails or any attempt at communication. It referred to an article in Time magazine as its source, but this article cannot be traced. I have been told that the author of the article, Esel Tutel, has written a book ‘History of the Sirket-I-Hayriya ferry company’ published Iletisim Yayincilik, 1994. This is in Turkish and I have not been able to trace a copy.
19. Sadly, it has not been possible to trace this article.
21. Museum of London Docklands/Port of London Authority Collection, Thames Conservators Minutes, 16 January 1865.
22. Mary do you have a reference for this.
23. Mary can you provide the full reference for your Bygone Kent piece
24. Banbury, op.cit., 205.
25. Winfield and Lyon, to come
26. Mary do you have a reference for this.
27. Banbury, op.cit., 203.
28. The Engineer, 7 October 1881, 253.
29. Hansard, 7 June 1886.
30. Survey of London – Southern Kensington: Kensington Square to Earl’s Court (London, 1986), 335.
31. Brassey, T. A., The Naval Annual 1894 (Portsmouth, 1894), p.9.
32. Graham, I., Alfred Maudslay and the Maya (London, 2002), p. 237.
33. Technical details of the Bellville boiler, and other contemporary marine boilers can be found in , Sptatt, H. P., Science Museum: Handbook of the Collections Illustrating Marine Engineering (London, n.d.), 84-88
34. Morden College Archive. Mary do you have a full reference for this.
35. Morden College Archive. Mary do you have a full reference for this.
36. Science Museum Library, Maud: Arch 14/1, auction sale notice.
37. Science Museum Library, Maud: Arch 14/2, auction sale notice.
38. The London Gazette, 17 July 1903, 4549.
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.