Chapter 14 Ships and Shipbuilding

slips 1866
Slips in use at Bay Wharf. 1865 – this photograph comes from P.Barry and is an original pasted into one of the four known copies of his work. The roof line should be compared to that shown in the drawing of the Lady Derby

The river is the single most important factor in determining the industries of the Greenwich Peninsula. Boats had been used and maintained all along the riverside since time immemorial. Most of them were barges and lighters – and East Greenwich was to become home to some stunningly successful sailing barges. Larger ships were built here too, but with less success.

By the 1860s Lower Thamesside ‘constituted the greatest shipbuilding area in the world’.(from Philip Banbury’s Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway – on which this chapter relies heavily)

It is an industry that has persisted until relatively recently – and has ended only with a great of reluctance on the part of some boat builders. (Joe Jackobaits held on as long as he could with some of his equipment only removed from Point Wharf around 2010)


The riverbank area now known as Bay Wharf was developed by Morden College rather later than the sites to its immediate south. It was once known as ‘Horseshoe Breach’ and it was probably formed by a break in the sea wall which was made before 1620. (info from Bartlett I have provided a brief chapter on ‘Shipbuilding at East Greenwich’ published in ‘Shipbuilding on the Thames and Thames-built Ships’, Redriffe Chronicle, 2000)  Its shape meant that it was ideal for boat building slips – and that is what it became when Morden College leased it to an American in 1864 for his National Company for Boat Building by Machinery.

Small boats had been made up and down the River for millennia – but never boats like this! Small boats were needed for many reasons – with as many designs as purposes. Nathan Thompson wanted to build boats, thousands of them, and they had to be all identical to each other.


(I covered this in more detail in Nathan Thompson and the Wooden Nutmeg. Bygone Kent. V.19. No.5. pp.277-181 This chapter relies on P.Barry, Dockyard Economy and Naval Power, 1864. I understand that Philip Banbury has written an article on Thompson, which I have not seen. I have also used information about Thompson provided by the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum, and I would also like to thank the Mystic Seaport Archive, USA, for providing information and helpful comments.  The Morden College Trustees Minutes and Deed collection has also been used as have some notes provided by  The Greenwich Heritage Centre.  Some of the material used has included Scientific American Vol.5. No.2. 13th July 1861, Report of the Commission to Examine … (thanks to G.W.Blunt White Library), Prospectus, and Appendix to Prospectus)

1865 boat shed
Inside the boat shed 1865

Thompson came from New York where he had been a marine engineer for the previous nineteen years. In 1859 his boat building system had been examined by the US Navy Department. Their report showed that he had made it possible to cut the time and manpower needed to build small boats – but that all the boats had to be identical.

Four years later Thompson came to England. A visitor to the works described the machinery as ‘practical…. expeditious and economical’ but drew attention to the manufacture of wooden nutmegs in New England.  A wooden nutmeg is sometimes used to describe someone from Connecticut with dishonest intentions. (- the use of the phrase for Thompson comes from Barry. Mystic Seaport wrote to me to say how insulted they were that I had described Thompson as a ‘wooden nutmeg’ – I was wrong, they said, he was a ‘snake oil merchant’). Thompson soon had a number of backers – chief of them was Colonel Sykes, MP, Chairman of the East India Company. His technique was to invite prominent people to a demonstration and ask them to sign a document to say how impressed they were. As a result the Company prospectus included recommendations from an astonishing number of important people, including two Dukes.

Thompson claimed that 25,000 new small boats were needed every year in Britain and he would supply a quarter of them. He knew that ‘a quarter of all the ships’ boats built in the United Kingdom were for use in Thames built ships’.(Barry).  Since his new works would be surrounded by large shipyards he could not fail to sell his boats. He said that if only one fifth of all the boats needed in Great Britain were made by the company then they would make a profit. His system depended on a series of fourteen machines, all steam driven. Boats were built round a central ‘assembling form’ which held everything together in the right place. This machinery needed a very large cash investment but he said that labour costs would be only a quarter of that normally required. Cheapness meant that independent fisherman and others without access to large amounts of capital could afford to buy new boats more often.

Thompson set about making Horseshoe Breach fit for use by building a causeway and putting a boom across the bay. He faced the river wall with stone. New buildings were to be ‘proper brick built structures’ by agreement with Morden College. It would be nice to be able to say that Thompson’s automated manufacture methods were a great success but, predictably, the company went out of business in its first year. Thompson and his boat building system disappeared from the Thames. He had registered his patents all over the world – and it is a matter of speculation where he went next.

Happily much of the capital Thompson had invested had turned Bay Wharf into a practical ship building area – and that is what it became for the next forty years.


(Info Morden College Minutes and Deed Collection. There are also many references to Maudslay in Kentish Mercury throughout the relevant period. I have not been able to discover if any, of Maudslay’s engine building activities were undertaken at Greenwich, despite some correspondence with marine engine historians, in particular Denis Griffiths.  Much of what I know about ship building on this site has been discovered through trawling the web – cf. for details of some Maudslay engines) – and with some sites in Turkish).

In 1864 a different company took over the new slips and boat yard at Horseshoe Breach. They began to extend the slips to take larger craft and by October they had already built a ship – The Lady Derby. (information from press coverage in Kentish Mercury and Illustrated London News. )

The new occupants were the long established and world famous, Maudslay Son and Field, who wanted to expand their flourishing marine engine business. Henry Maudslay had been born in Woolwich and trained under Marc Brunel. His Lambeth works is famous for many engineering innovations – some of which included marine engines. Henry Maudslay had died in 1831 but the firm was continued under his sons. The East Greenwich site was fitted up so that work could be transferred from Lambeth and it seems likely that this included some of their marine engine building. They also made boilers in Greenwich from 1872. Maudslay were, of course, famous for their marine engines which they had been making since the early years of the nineteenth century.

It is however very difficult to know which, if any, of these engines were made in Greenwich. During the period after 1864 they built engines for a number of famous liners and battleships – but were they made in Greenwich?


launch of the lady derby
Launch of the Lady Derby from Illustrated London News. Compare the buildings and the gables with those shown in Barry’s Photograph. The Turkish gentlemen – presumably there for their ferry order – are at the bottom left.

On what the Kentish Mercury saw as a ‘great day for East Greenwich’ the first ship, launched in October 1865, was the Lady Derby – named after the wife of the then Prime Minister. She was a screw collier – purpose built to ‘Henwood’s patent dynamical principles’ for the General Iron Screw Collier Co.’ – meaning that she was meant to carry coal. (Information about Henwood thanks to Prof. Tony Arnold.) A dampener was put on the proceedings when Daniel Fitzpatrick, one of the partners in the firm, died the day before the launch – an event that almost led to its cancellation. It meant however that at the ‘sumptuous luncheon’, which followed, all toasts were cancelled except ‘success to the new ship’. (Kentish Mercury. The report includes a great deal of information on the launch – including that the official party lunched at The Trafalgar Tavern, the foremen and technical staff in the Yacht, while the workmen had to put up with the – now demolished – British Sailor). The Sultan of Turkey, one of Maudslay’s customers, was present at the launch.

Fitzpatrick’s death was bad luck, and bad luck was to stay with the Maudslay shipyard for a long time.


blackadder plan of the wreck
Plan of Blackadder’s wreck off Bahia, drawn by local divers, to whom thanks. They were under the impression the wreck they were diving was the DDer, all they could make out from the wreck – until European researchers contacted them with better information

In 1870 two iron sailing clippers, Halloween and Blackadder, were built alongside each other at Greenwich. They were commissioned by John Willis – the ship owner who later commissioned Cutty Sark. Like her, they were probably intended to be fast, showy ships. Such glamorous ships, with a great cloud of sail, received a lot of press coverage. There is just the faintest suspicion that they were built on the cheap. (vast amounts of information in my subsequent papers on these important vessels)


halloween porthole
Halloween’s porthole – with thanks to the Devon diving team. They reveal that the porthole is marked with its maker – Stones of Deptford

Halloween’s delivery to her new owners was very much delayed because of lawsuits about fitness. Once ready she sailed from Shanghai to London in the wonderful time of 69 days’ on her maiden voyage. She was unusually fast in light winds because of her raked masts – and ‘exceedingly fast’ otherwise. She is said to have closely resembled Cutty Sark but was unable to make the same twenty-four hour runs. Halloween was on the whole a success.


Blackadder never equalled Halloween’s time although she was well known as a very fast ship. She began badly and went on badly. It was even said of her that she was ‘built I’ th’ eclipse and rigged with curses dark’ (David MacGregor. The Tea Clippers). She was built to the highest requirements at Lloyds but it was found during her fitting out that there was a problem in her construction and a remedy was used which only caused more trouble. During her first voyage there were numerous problems – which became a disaster when she lost her mast in mid-Atlantic. A series of collisions and accidents followed.

blackadder in sail
Blackadder – provenance of this picture is unknown. Apologies and will remove it is it is someone’s copyright

She returned to London in July 1871 to find that, because of the bodged repair, her insurers would not pay out. A more successful trip to Shanghai followed – in this she broke the record time between Deal and Shanghai – but her crew was then transferred to the brand new Cutty Sark. Blackadder continued with voyages to the China Seas in which she continued her career of damage and collisions. In 1899 she was sold to a Norwegian owner and was eventually wrecked at Bahia, in Brazil, in 1905. (Much of this information is gleaned from working along the ‘clipper’ shelf at the National Maritime Museum and from the web sites of clipper enthusiasts (of whom there are a great many!) – cf. .  All of this is very old news indeed to them.  So much has been written about Cutty Sark that a sensible evaluation of her two sister ships is well overdue. Exactly what was going on – and am I right in thinking that ‘tea clipper’ is a Victorian euphemism for ‘opium trade ship’? When this was originally written I had had no contact with the Brazilian divers who have worked on and researched Blackadder or with the Devon divers who attempted to work on Halloween’s unstable wreck – thanks to all of them, and they are covered in subsequent papers on this site)


Henry Bessemer commissioned an experimental boat from Maudslay while his abortive steel works was on an adjacent site. He suffered greatly from seasickness and designed a boat in which the passenger accommodation would hang free of any rolling motion. Maudslay was asked to build a ‘small steamer’ in which his experimental cabin could be fitted. Unfortunately while it was being built he changed his plans and the boat was disposed of. Bessemer, who clearly by then had enough money to do exactly what he liked, built a full-scale model boat in his back garden in Denmark Hill. (taken from his autobiography)


Much of Maudslay’s work in later days was in the construction of small naval vessels. For example in 1869 HM Tank Vessel Despatch was launched – the second vessel built by Maudslay for service in the King William Victualling yard at Portsmouth, the other being, The Pelter. (For much information about vessels built by Maudslay in Greenwich – and indeed some other shipbuilders – I have to thank the late – and much missed – Hugh Lyon)


ferry pk drawing
The Turkish ferry – thanks to Peter Kent for providing this drawing taken from a number of incomprehensible Turkish photographs

When this chapter was written I was unaware of the two extremely important Turkish Ferries built in Greenwich – essentially the world’s first ro-ros, built for the Bospherus crossing.  I have covered these in a number of articles, and most recently 2012 in a paper given at a conference on London shipbuilding in the Museum in Docklands. Most exciting in Autumn 2000 was has yielded information about the Salibent apparently constructed as a ferry for Turkey in Greenwich in the early 1870s by Maudslay and then converted in the twentieth century into the Kaptan Sukru as which she continued in work in Anatolia until burnt out in 1998.  I have to thank David Riddle who tried to find out from the Turkish Pilot Service what has happened to the hulk – unfortunately he was unable to do so.


The book also was written before I had seen work on the later years of the Maudslay yard and Belleville Boilers. These are also covered in more recent papers together with the final years of the yard and the sale of the equipment of the entire Maudslay works there – including items now in the Science Museum.)

Maudslay Son and Field went into liquidation in 1900. By 1904 Bay Wharf site was in other use and later the barge slips now on site were built as a barge repair facility for Humphrey and Grey. (the barge slips have now been demolished and a new repair yard opened as part of the planning agreement on the Lovells site – Paul Deveril, currently on Badcock’s Wharf, is supposed to be moving there)


In the 1860s there was another shipbuilder on Greenwich Marsh – William Courtney, located near Ordnance Wharf. He may have had a partner in Mr. Henworth, associated with Maudslay in the Lady Derby. Although Courtney described himself as a shipbuilder there is no evidence that he ever built any ships, in fact from the archive record, his career lurched from one disaster to another.

Courtney lived in Lee Terrace and his father may have been a Surveyor of Shipping. In the early 1860s he moved to a site partly owned by Trinity Hospital and partly by Morden College. Morden College, as usual, made conditions about construction. Courtney seems to have installed a steam engine, built some ‘sheds’ and some other buildings. He had ceased to pay rent by 1866 and, in due course, an action for possession was taken against him. He fought the action in the courts and eventual possession by the court sheriff was complicated by the fact that the bailiffs were unable to work out from the boundary markers the exact extent of his land. They reported that it was in a ‘disgraceful state’. By the 1870s the remaining debts were written off and a fire finished off any buildings that remained. Courtney himself had died in 1869. (Personal details, thanks to Neil Rhind)

This appears to be a straightforward financial failure, but an unexplained incident remains. In 1892, when Courtney had been dead for thirteen years, Morden College recorded that ‘Two clergymen’ had been in touch ‘in regard of settlement of fraud on the Courtney Estate’. Perhaps we will never know. (Mercers Co. & Morden College Minutes and Trustees deeds).


Yet another shipbuilder found a site on Ordnance Wharf in the 1860s. In October 1868 Alfred Lewis and John Stockwell moved in. They had an existing ship building works at Bow Creek where they had built the steam yacht ‘Wolverine’ for Major Brandram, the Rotherhithe and Shad Thames industrial chemist, who lived in Blackheath. (Info from Hugh Lyon and  Greenwich Rate Books)

dry dock plan
The dry dock. Thanks for the plan to the National Gas Archive

Lewis and Stockwell applied to have the riverside footpath blocked off through Ordnance Wharf, despite some protest from the Greenwich vestry about loss of ancient rights, this went ahead. The footpath was to be stopped in order that a dry dock could be built. It was to be part of a ship building yard of about two acres which also contained punching and rolling sheds, a blacksmiths, saw mills, and other factory buildings. The site covered about 3 acres with a 400-foot frontage on the River. The 400′ foot dry-dock could take ships of 2,000 to 3,000 tons and the works employed around 300 men.

(I have included some additional details about Stockwell and Lewis in ‘The Blackwall Point Dry Dock’ Bygone Kent, Vol.20 no.9. Sept. 1999 pp 527-533. Since then the most interesting thing has been the discovery of the Bulli on the Tasmanian diving web site This shows that Bulli was built for the Australian Bulli mining company by  Stockwell and Lewis and then wrecked off Tasmania – where she remains used today as a leisure diving site.  The site gives details of newspaper reports, none of which have proved obtainable in Britain.  It has also not proved possible to trace her Lloyd’s registration in this country – but thanks to Pat O’Driscoll and to David McGeorge for trying. 
Unfortunately the help which the Tasmanian divers have given has proved limited – but thanks to the otherwise unnamed ‘Sarvis’ who has emailed me from Tasmania with helpful suggestions about Bulli)

The works undertook ship repair work although some shipbuilding may been done – they are reputed to have built six ‘steamers’ for Brazil there. External painting of ships and general repairs were carried out in the dock. Lewis claimed that ‘Cape ships’ and ‘P&P Steamers’ were repaired there and needed a 24-hour turn round period. More delicate work was done on ‘gentleman’s yachts’ and it was claimed that this included a vessel belonging to W.H.Smith – bookseller and First Lord of the Admiralty. One repair in the dock was described as replacing the stern post of a large ship that had hit a rock. (Details about
Stockwell and Lewis from Report on House of Lords Committee on the South Metropolitan Gas Co. Bill, 1881.

Before 1880 John Stockwell was replaced in the company by Samuel Hyam. Neither Hyam nor Lewis lived in Greenwich. Both came from the Westbourne Grove area of west London. Hyam seems to have been a lawyer used by Lewis to negotiate a price for the site when the South Metropolitan Gas Works was planned to be built on the adjacent site. In this context Hyam claimed that ship repairs would be incompatible with the smell of gas ‘the prevailing wind will carry coal dust onto the ships. It would only be injurious so far as the dust is concerned’.


Hyam and Lewis asked for compensation if the gas works was built. In due course and following a House of Lords enquiry, the Gas Company was required to compulsory purchase the dry dock and its associated works in 1882.

For many years to come the dock was to prove a problem for the Gas Company.  (I have to thank the National Gas Archive for providing plans of the dry dock and its surrounding
area.   They also hold an archive of about 60 photographs of the dock which I have not seen.  These refer to damage to it in 1928-9.  I have also seen photographs taken by English
Partnerships during the construction of the Millennium Dome – although I am not sure if they knew what it was that they were taking! I have not been given any access to these photographs)


The South Metropolitan Gas Company records show that the gas company leased Blackwall Point dry dock to a ship repair company, Pascoe and Wright in 1881. They also report that in mid-1884 the cassion collapsed and damaged a vessel – the Richmond Hill – under repair at the time. As a result of the accident Pascoe and Wright were unable to pay the rent and left. (see Bygone Kent article additional details from South Metropolitan Gas Co. Minutes (LMA))


After the Richmond Hill incident South Metropolitan Gas Co. rented the dock to a ship repair company, the Dry Docks Corporation of London. Three years later they agreed to arrange a mortgage in order to sell the dock to them. Within a year the Dry Dock Corporation had defaulted on this mortgage and so the gas company decided to dispose of the dock by auction in 1889. No bids were received and the gas company was forced to take the dock back and to look for a new company to operate it.


In 1892 The South Metropolitan. Gas Co. began to rent Blackwall Point Dry Dock to John Stewart whose Blackwall ironworks was nearby. They specialised in engines for tugs and steamers. The agreement between the two companies was for only three years because the gas company speculated that when the Blackwall Tunnel was built things would change and they could either ask for more rent or dispose of the dock completely. At the end of the three years however they were obliged to relet it at the same rent. In 1900 they finally sold it to Stewarts for £10,000 down and £12,000 in seven years time. (Some additional details on Stewart have since been received from Eileen Weston.  I am perhaps now more aware that they were important marine engine builders).

The gas company must have thought they were now rid of the dry dock but by 1910 Stewarts were in financial trouble and the gas company had to buy it back from the liquidators who asked for £21,000 – only £1,000 less than it had been sold for. It then seems to have passed into the ownership of the Port of London Authority from whom the gas company eventually bought it back again in 1925 for £30,000. They turned it into a reservoir, keeping the capstans and some decorative features.

In 1928 the dock caisson was again broken away in a storm but the dock remained in use capstan abandoned in the long grassas a reservoir until it was filled in some time after the second world war. A capstan from it remained on the riverside as a commemorative feature for many years and after the gas works closed was discovered mouldering among the long grass and dereliction. It was rescued by the Museum in Docklands. (and is a exhibit – I think – on the second floor. The labelling on it however gives no information about its provenance, or how it was rescued by their team after I had phoned Chris Ellmers to tell him it was mouldering in the long grass and incipient woodland and in danger from some very nasty looking heavy haulage – those were the days!)

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