THE HISTORY OF THAMES IRONWORKS
DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMPANY - TIMELINE
1837 - 1846
The company originated in 1837 as Ditchburn and Mare Shipbuilding Company, founded by shipwright Thomas J. Ditchburn and the engineer and naval architect Charles Mare in Depford. It moved due to a fire to Orchard Place in 1838, between the East India Dock Basin and Bow Creek. There they took over the premises of the defunct shipbuilders William and Benjamin Wallis.
Growing quickly it soon occupied three sites covering an area of over 14 acres.
Ditchburn and Mare were among the first builders of iron ships in the area; their partnership commenced with the construction of small paddle steamers between 50 and 100 tons, before progressing to cross-Channel vessels and by 1840 were building ships of more than 300 tons. The company's early customers included the Iron Steamboat Company and the Blackwall Railway Company, several paddle steamers being constructed for the latter, including the Meteor and the Prince of Wales, which operated out of Gravesend.
In this period the company was also awarded several contracts by the Admiralty, including HMS Recruit (a 12-gun brig) which was one of the first iron warships built. They also constructed the P & O Company's steamers Ariel and Erin.
1847 - 1856
From 1847 the company grew considerably and Mare purchased land on the Canning Town side of the River Lea. Mare constructed a yard with furnaces and rolling mills that could construct vessels of 4,000 tons; because of the narrowness of the spit at the mouth of the River Lea, the Orchard Place site was limited to the construction of vessels of less than 1000 tons.
In 1855, the company had 3000 employees, but was threatened with closure following Mare's bankruptcy under murky circumstances. The business did not lack orders, having in hand six contracts for gunboats and the contract for Westminster Bridge (which was built in 1862).
The company's chief creditors moved to keep the company in operation. The main figure in saving the company was Peter Rolt, Mare's father-in-law and Conservative MP.
Rolt took control of the company's assets and in 1857 transferred them to a new Limited Company, named the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. It had a capital of £100,000 in 20 shares of £5000 each, five of which were held by Rolt, the main shareholder and also chairman of the board.
The new company was the largest shipbuilder on the Thames, its premises described by the Mechanics' Magazine in 1861 as "Leviathan Workshops". Large scale Ordnance Survey maps of the 1860s show the yard occupying a large triangular site in a right-angled bend on the east (Essex) bank of Bow Creek with the railway to Thames Wharf on the third side, with a smaller site on the west (Middlesex) bank. The main yard had a quay 1,050 feet (320m) long. To the south-east the yard occupied the north bank of the Thames east of Bow Creek, with two slips giving direct access to the main river. Today the site is crossed by the Lower Lea Crossing and the Docklands Light Railway south of Canning Town station.
By 1863 the company had the capacity to build 25,000 ton warships and 10,000 ton mail steamers simultaneously. One of its first Admiralty contracts was for HMS Warrior, (9,348 tons) launched in 1860, at the time the world's largest warship and the first iron-hulled, armoured frigate. HMS Minotaur soon followed in 1863, 400 feet (120 m) and 10,690 tons displacement.
Work on vessels such as Minotaur was performed on the Canning Town side of the Lea, and this is where the Thames Ironworks expanded from less than 10 acres in 1856 to 30 acres by 1891. While the old site at Orchard Place was still the company's official address until 1909, its presence there was minimal, by the late 1860s the company having only a 5 acres site there.
General shipbuilding on the Thames came under great pressure due to the cost advantages of northern yards with closer supplies of coal and iron, and many yards closed following the 1866 financial crisis. Of the survivors, those like the Thames Ironworks were specialised in warships and liners.
Following the success of HMS Warrior and HMS Minotaur, orders were placed by navies all over the world, and vessels were built for Denmark, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the Ottoman Empire. The yard also built the Prussian Navy's first iron-hulled warship, the SMS König Wilhelm in 1869 and the cruiser Alfonso de Alburquerque for Portugal in 1883.
In the 1890s Philanthropist Arnold Hills became the managing director. He had originally joined the board of directors of the works in 1880 at the age of 23. Hills was one of the first business directors to voluntarily introduce an 8 hour day for his workers at a time when 10 and 12 hour shifts were more common in industrial work.
In 1895 Hills helped to set up a football club for the Works' employees, Thames Ironworks F.C. and within their first two years they had entered the FA Cup and the London League. As a result of the desire to employ professional players, Thames Ironworks F. C. was wound up (June 1900) with West Ham United F.C. being formed a month later.
In 1899 the company re registered as the Thames Irinworks Ship Building and Engineering Co after amalgamation of John Penn and Sons a long standing Marine Engine manufacturers. Company diversifying with 6 distinct departments.
During its lifetime the yard produced 144 warships and numerous other vessels. After 1901 the yard only received 3 Admiralty contracts putting pressure on turnover. In 1910 the yard launched its biggest ship HMS Thunderer of some 22,000 tonnes. However this ship proved to be the last high point for the company with questions being asked in Parliament about unfair Government aid and controversy over buyinga required floating crane from Germany it became extrememly difficult to award further contracts to a higher cost yard. Finally in 1911 Hills petitioned Winston Churchill, then e First Lord of the Admiralty, regarding the lack of new orders but was unsuccessful, and the yard was forced to shut in 1912 with all its various subsidiaries with it.
However if you are ever in Peru you can actually stay on one. The Yavari an interesting vessel originally described as a cargo-passenger gunboat can be found on Lake Titicaca and restored in recent years, is presently operating as a Bed and Breakfast. Originally this unique vessel and its sister ship the Yapura were used to exploit the resources of this difficult to reach part of Peru and were designed to be completely modular so that they could be taken in parts on Donkeys over the inhospitable terrain to the Lake. Arriving in Peru in 1862 in crates it took 8 years to actually launch them in the Lake, the process being so difficult. A fuller history can be found here.
There are still a few wrecks too, one such until recently was the Helen Smitten built in 1910 and the first lifeboat in St Abbs, Berwickshire established as the direct result of a tragic sea disaster off the shore in 1907 when the steamer Alfred Erlandsen ran into the treacherous Ebbs Carr rocks and sank as the locals watched helplessly from the cliff tops.
She is now our first project and is undergoing a major restoration to restore her to as near-perfect condition as possible. She is the inspiration but we hope that she will be but the first of many such renovations.
Closer to home and open to the public in 2014 at London’s Royal Victoria Dock is the SS Robin (1890) the world’s oldest remaining complete steamship and the only one remaining of its type. This vessel was typical of thousands that vied the coastline around Britain and beyond in the late 19th and well into the 20th centuries and will be a wonderful focus in the east end of London so close to where she was built.
A handful of the lifeboats remain, some of which have been restored, with one or two seaworthy examples still around. Arguably one of the best is the James Stephens based in Walton.
The Ironworks produced over 250 lifeboats for eventual use by the RNLI, helping to keep the company's head above water until it eventually folded in 1912 - just a couple of years short of the militarisation that took place ahead of the First World War.
Surviving Thames Ironworks vessels
Perhaps 30 boats still exist of those produced by the Ironworks. The most important of these is HMS Warrior in Portsmouth.
Others remain decrepit - the Janet Hoyle, a 35' Liverpool class lifeboat built by the Ironworks in 1908, was found on a mudflat in Essex, but due to the quality of the materials used in her construction (mainly Honduran mahogany), she has survived and, more importantly, is restorable.
Hopefully however with your help we can restore more of these historic craft to near original condition.