Monday, December 7, 2009

Rotherhithe Heritage #10 - 1843 - 1870

John Jenkins Thompson built boats at the Horeseferry dock from 1830. The Horseferry Dock was named for a ferry which ran between Rotherhithe and Limehouse. The dock is now completely lost but was located immediately opposite the entrance to Regent's Canal Dock. Thompson built yachts and lifeboats until the 1840s when he began to build steamers including the Ariel (1844), the Brighton, the Dieppe and the Newhaven (all in 1847 and all with mahogany hulls for the Brighton and Continental Steam Packet Co.).

As far as I can tell from contemporary maps it was in the late 1840s that part of the land occupied by the Kings Mills Wharf was sold off to allow the expansion of the docks and for a new lock to be added.

In 1844 the steamer Ariel, which was launched. from Rotherhithe where she was constructed. She was built by John Jenkins Thompson for the Woolwich Steam Packet Company and had a mahogany hull. Ariel had a passenger capacity of 600 people. The launch was reported in the Illustrated London News on the 20th April of that year on page 248. Here's the short story that accompanied the picture to the right (the italics are as in the original article).
On Tuesday last, Rotherhithe was a scene of unusual gaiety, owing to the launch of a new steamer, the Ariel, built by Mr Thompson for the Woolwich Steam Packet Company.
The main dimensions of this fine vessel are - length, 120 feet; breadth, 14 feet 6 inches; tonnage, 120; she is built with a round stern, and of diagonal planking, three thicknesses, all mahogany; she has two engines of 20 horse power each, and has been built expressly for a passage vessel between Woolwich and Hungerford; and will carry, with her coals, boilers &c, 600 persons, at a draft of 3 feet 6 inches.

The publication of such details in the ILN indicates that people in 1800s London still understood ships and took an interest in the details of newly launched ships. In 1847 Thompson apparently leased additional space at the Barnard Yard because the Banshee, commissioned by the Admiralty, was launched from there rather than the Horseferry yard. The Banshee is described by Murray in his 1852 Treatise. She was a paddle steamer designed by Oliver Lang (junior) with engines by Penn, was a particularly fast steamer and Rankin says that she was once timed at 16.3 knots. She was entirely wood-built. She cost £39,000 and was one of the last mail packets to be ordered by the Admiralty. Murray says that she provides an excellent of example of "what may be accomplished by Government builders when they are not trammelled by considerations of armament or displacement". She was employed on the Holyhead to Dublin service, a run which usually took well over four hours but she was regularly the fastest vessel on the route, completing the Holyhead to Kingston run of 55 nautical miles in three and a half hours (fastest time). The packet service was taken over by the City of Dublin Steam Packet in 1850 after which Murray says that the Banshee was sent to Malta, a trip which required the removal of half her boiler power in order to store sufficient coal for the trip, effectively reducing her speed to 12 knots. She was scrapped in 1864. Sadly I have been unable to find an illustration of her so far. In the 1850s Thompson built two Dapper class gunboats for the Crimean war, the Hind and the Jackdaw. The Jackdaw was the last Royal Navy commission to be built on Rotherhithe.

Another shipbuilder who made vessels for the Crimean war in the 1850s was Charles Lungley who built mortar floats - unpowered sea vessels each carrying a single large calibre mortar.

From 1846 there's a fascinating record from London's Central Criminal Court dating to the 26th October. A case of larceny was brought against one James Carbry, aged 29, who was indicted for stealing three copper bolts (value 1s), and four copper nuts (1s 3d), the goods of ship-broker William Philip Beech from Rotherhithe (who was connected with the Beatsons). Carbry had been employed on a vessel from which the items had gone missing. Evidence against him was given by Henry Peachey the foreman to Beech, and by Thomas Watkins (police constable K310) who arrested the prisoner in a marine store , having found the property tied in a handkerchief. Carbry said that he had been given the items by a man. He was found guilty and imprisoned for three months.

A somewhat unusual activity in the area was the building of railway locomotives. Rankin (2004) describes how the Bull Head yard which was converted to a general engineering works in 1838 by John Hague. He says that the demand for locomotives was so great in this period of massive railway construction that the big engineering works were having difficulty meeting demand, and small workshops were able to to meet some of these gaps in demand. The Thames Bank Ironworks (run by Christie, Adams and Hill) produced six locomotives between 1848 and 1849 which were built for London and South Western Railway. As with ships, each engine was assigned a name. They would have had to be removed via the river to a be offloaded at a wharf which linked directly onto the railway system. Rankin says that of the engines produced by small workshops these were amongst the better ones. The Steam Index website has this to say about them:
Bradley 1: 43: first three cost £1800; later three £1900 each. A lot of trouble was experienced with the fisrt No. 109 Rocklia, but Nos 110 Avon and 111 Test were less troublesome. Nos. 112 Trent, 113 Stour and 114 Frome were slightly larger. Bradley include a photograph of Frome (Fig. 13). They were withdrawn 1868-70.

"Bradley" refers to the author Bradley, D.L. who wrote Locomotives of the Southern Railway. London: RCTS. 1975/6.. Volume 1.

A number of innovations were changing the ship building industry on a permanent basis. Pearsell (1986) describes some of them. New types of propulsion had been introduced including paddle steamers and screw propellers. New hull designs resulted in improved and faster forms made of multiple materials. The introduction of iron for shipping caused something of a revolution in terms of the size of vessels that could be constructed. Some ships were iron hulled and others were composites, made of a combination of wood and iron. Hulls were sheathed in metals which protected them against the sea. New iron rigging was introduced and ship designs became increasingly specialized for the purpose they were to serve. The ability to produce much larger vessels may have been the most important change that the use of iron introduced. Persell says that in 1815 the optimal size for a wooden shop was 200-250 tons. Wood, used as the principal construction material until the mid 1800s, constrained the size of ships that could be built. The largest were the East Indiamen at 1400 tons. With iron, ships could be considerably larger.

Although the increased size benefited those engaged in long distance trade, improving speed, cargo space and fuel efficiency, the larger sizes were increasingly difficult to accommodate by older shipyards and locks.

By the mid 1800s the same family who had bought King’s Mills from the Royal Navy and converted it from a victualling yard were still running the King’s Mills but it was a very different enterprise. Steam power had replaced water power for the process of milling and the mill pond was now used as a timber pond.

Also in the mid 1800s the premises of Charles Hay and Sons, a company established in 1789, was still in the hands of the Hays and the business repaired barges. Charles Hay was the son of Francis Theodore Hay whose tomb can still be seen in St Mary's churchyard.


The Nelson Dock had been split into two after 1818 but became a single shipyard again in 1850 when Thomas Bilbe (designer) and William Perry (shipmaster) took it over. The 1952 sailing ship Dame de Serk, a French navy training ship, which is located immediately adjacent to the car park of the Holiday Inn sits on a patent slip installed by Bilbe (photograph to the left). A cradle was moved up and down the slip by hydraulic rams. It had its own engine room which is currently housed in the Mills and Knight (Nelson Dock) building on Rotherhithe Street, which was then part of the shipyard. Bilbe and Perry built composite ships designed with wooden planking over iron frameworks. Hulls were sheathed in copper or Muntz metal. The ships performed well and reached high speeds. Examples are the Red Riding Hood, a composite clipper made for the Orient Line, which launched in 1857 and the Argonaut in 1866 (the last ship to be built in Nelson Dock). Rankin says that such ships were top of the market (2005, p.76):
Such vessels being used in opium running, and the intense competition to get the new season's tea back to Britain.

In 1846 another report appeared, from the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers which in 1849 reported that in Rotherhithe the King's Mills Sewer had ten years' accumulation of sewage in it, and that the Paradise Row sewer was waterlogged for at least 20 hours a day. The sewers were failing to discharge into the Thames, and were backing up into sewage ditches instead. Between 1848 and 1849 cholera outbreaks in south London were killing over 1.3 people in every 1000. This figure contrasts with the a figure of 0.37 per 1000 in the less polluted reaches of the Thames. It is probably no coincidence that the first recorded cases of typhoid were in Rotherhithe some 15 years earlier.

In 1851 Rotherhithe Gas Works opened. Up until this point in time it had been piped into Rotherhithe by the Phoenix Gas Company which had works at Deptford Creek and Bankside. Phoenix had provided the Thames Tunnel with the gas for its 100 gas lights on its opening in 1843. The new Rotherhithe works were owned by the Surrey Consumers’ Gas Company which was founded in 1849. They had to build their own wharf in order to bring in coal supplies. Gas production only ceased here in 1959.

The East Country Dock Company was purchased by the Commercial Dock Company in 1850 for £40,000.

Under the Commercial Dock Company James Walker rebuilt Greenland Dock and its entrance lock between 1851 and 1852. In 1855 a patent self-acting sluice was added, and this has been preserved in its original location. The lock gates are modern.

In the London Illustrated News a story on page 268 on Saturday April 23rd 1853 was entitled "Hales Rocket Factory at Rotherhithe and begins, promisingly, "An event of ten days since invests the barren locality, pictured on the preceding page, with extraordinary interest". Acting on information authorities searched the premises in Rotherhithe of Hale's Rocket Factory on the west bank of the Surrey Grand Canal near the Plough bridge. They discovered "a large stores of arms, ammunition, and materials of war". The stores were thought to have belonged to Mr Kossuth and his adherents. Mr Hale himself is described as a "well known inventor" who was working a perfecting a war rocket "which rotates around its axis like a rifle-ball, and carries no stick". The News concludes that the connection between the two men was due to Kossuth suggesting improvements in the manufacture of the rockets to Hale.

In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park. The main exhibition hall was the Crystal Palace, vast glass structure which was dismantled after the Exhibition and was relocated and reassembled in Sydenham (south London). It burned down in 1936.

In 1854 England became involved with the Crimean war, which again increased the demand for ships.

The Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1855 to manage London-wide issues and projects centrally. One of their projects was the purchase of 63 acres for a community park, which eventually became Southwark Park.

The Greenland Dock North Shipyard was leased by Charles Lungley between 1854 and 1869. He built the Dane here for the Union Steam Colliers Co (renamed the Union Steamship Co in 1856). She was a 530 ton ship with an average speed of around 8-9 knots. The Dane was used first in the South Wales coal trade but was soon chartered by the French government as a transport in the Crimean war to carry materials to and from Turkey. After the war she was laid up before carrying mail and a few passengers on a line to Brazil from Liverpool. She then became the first mail steamer to run between Britain and South Africa on a contract to make passage from the UK to the Cape within 42 days. It was worth £33,000 a year. As with the Greenland Dock South Shipyard the North Shipyard was used after this date for repairs rather than ship building. She was next chartered by the British government mission to Zanzibar to suppress the slave trade. She met a sad end, being wrecked off Cape Receife (South Africa) in December 1865, albeit without loss of life.


The Lower Road workhouse built in 1728 was under the control of the Rotherhithe Vestry but between 1839 and 1869 it became the responsibility of the Rotherhithe Board of Guardians and was partly regulated by the Poor Law Board. The role of the workhouse was to provide board and lodgings in return for labour. In Rotherhithe one of the activities carried out was rope making. An infirmary with 52 beds was added in 1866. It had one full time salaried nurse but all other nursing staff were unpaid paupers. Humphrey says that of the 194 workhouse inmates in May 1866 140 were disabled, old or infirm, 19 were children and only 34 were able bodied (1997, p.59). The watercolour by Yates showing the workhouse dates to 1826.

By 1857 the Kings Mills Wharf was occupied by wharfingers Messrs R and F Mangles (who purchased the site in 1803), Messrs H. Powell and Sons who continued the building's 18th century tradition of producing sea biscuits in a factory at the site which included 8 ovens each with its own chimney, and it was also used to store tar and turpentine. The mill no longer used a mill pond (which was converted to a timber pond) and used steam instead. Part of the wharf had been sold in the 1840s for the development of the gas works and the Surrey Basin and its Thames lock.

In 1857 Bull Head Dock was still in use by shipwrights but it was in the company of two manure producers - one processing guano, the other manufacturing chemical manure.

The Kings Mill stairs were renamed the Surrey Dock Stirs from around 1860 onwards.

Iron began to be used extensively, partly because of improved vessel size and speed and fuel efficiencies and was cheaper than wood to maintain, partly because timber ships were found in the Crimean war to be very poorly equipped to deal with shells, and partly because timber was in increasingly short supply.

Stuart Rankin describes how this caused practical problems for Rotherhithe's ship builders (Rankin 2005, p.3):
The rapid increase in ship size engendered by the adoption of iron coincided with an expansion of the Rotherhithe docks, thus preventing the shipyards from expanding inland. By the 1860s, Rotherhithe shipyards were no longer able to compete at the quality end of the market for larger ships, and local costs were so high in comparison to Scotland, the Mersey or Tyne, that the building of small ships was uneconomic.

Another problem for builders of wooden ships was the shortage of timber. Even though John Evelyn had identified increasing shortages of timber as a huge problem in the 1700s replanting had not been sufficient to provide the shipbuilding industry with sufficient supplies.

The Upper Globe Dock Shipyard (where Globe Wharf stands opposite the modern Deal Porters pub) had been used as a base for ship building by by 1860 it has become a repair and maintenance yard under the General Iron Screw Collier Co.

In 1858 John Beatson died, ending a fine family tradition.

In 1860 the Surrey Entrance Lock and the Surrey Basin opened. The new dock was constructed in the area that we now know as Surrey Water, and was called Surrey Basin, and the new lock connected Surrey Basin to the Thames. Although shut off from the Thames the lock is still there, beneath the 1950s red lift bridge. The engineer responsible was George Parker Bidder (picture shown left) the former partner of Robert Stephenson. His remarkable abilities for mental arithmetic meant that he could work out logarithms in his head. The lock was 250ft long and 50ft wide and 27ft 3ins deep. For some years after the opening of the new entrance the former entrance lock to the Grand Surrey Canal into Stave Dock was still in use and this left an area of land in between the two lock entrances which formed an island which became known as the Island Yard. today it is the site of the pub the Old Salt Quay (formerly Spice Island). The remains of the older lock have survived today as an inlet around which the Thames Path is diverted.

Albion Dock opened in 1860 as an enlargement of a timber pond. Its general orientation is now marked by the Albion Channel, a shallow canal leading from the Surrey Basin (now known as Surrey Water) towards the Surrey Quays shopping centre emerging in Canada Water, the former Canada Dock. Albion Dock had been infilled but the canal was excavated during the dockland regeneration work, with the spoil used to create Stave Hill.
Between 1860 and 1887 the King and Queen Dock (formerly the King and Queen Lower Yard) was held by William Rennie who was a noted naval architect and designer of clipers but most of his designs were built elsewhere.
James Abbot McNeil Whistler completed a series of Thames etchings in the mid 1800s. His etching of Rotherhithe (right), dating to 1860, was done on the balcony of the Angel Inn looking northwest toward the City with the dome of St. Paul's is visible on the horizon at the far left.

In 1861 William Philip Beech formed a partnership with Henry Castle to take advantage of the retirement of a large number of wooden warships, East Indiamen and other vessels. Castle had attempted to purchase the HMS Rainbow in 1838 from the Admiralty in order to break her up but was unsuccessful in breaking into the business until his partnership with ship broker Beech. In 1841 Castle had moved from his premises at 11 Lucas Street in Rotherhithe to the King and Queen Dry Dock at first in partnership with his brother in law but by 1845 he was the sole tenant and in 1860 had gone into busniess with his sons. Beech was based at Bulls Head Dock. The partnership between the two of them took their joint business away from Rotherhithe to Charlton.

A dry dock was added to Horseferry Dock in 1862 the whole site was turned over to repairs.
Columbia Wharf
In 1862 a swing bridge made by Henry Grisssell in 1862 was provided for the Surrey Entrance Lock on the western side of Rotherhithe. It survives but has been moved to cross Steel Yard Cut (the link between Greenland Dock and South Dock). In the same year a new lock built by the Commercial Dock Company created a connection between Lavender Lock and the Thames to provide an additional access to the dock system for small river craft (not ships).

The Holiday Inn incorporates the Columbia Wharf building. This was built in 1864-65 by the Patent Ventilating Granary Company. It was the first grain silo erected in a British port. The architect was James Edmeston. It is a very attractive building when viewed from the river, with lozenge-shaped windows in the top floor (see photo right), but it was apparently far more elaborate in the past. There is an image of it on the cover of the 1868 Godfrey edition of the Rotherhithe O/S map.

In January 1865 the Grand Surrey Dock Company and Commercial Dock Company amalgamated and became the Surrey Commercial Dock Company.


Southwark Park opened on 19th June 1869. It caused some upset in the area when it was not named Rotherhithe Park because its area was entirely located within the parish of Rotherhithe but for political reasons it was named after Southwark's parliamentary constituency. 
The Ambassador in full rigging

Ambassador
Ship building continued for a while in Rotherhithe. Lavender Dock Shipyard was used for ship building between 1865 and 1870 by John and William Walker who specialized in composite ships including the Mikado (1868), the Ambassador (1869) and the Lothair (1870). The last of the large ships to be built on Rotherhithe was the Lothair. She was a 825 ton (gross) ship built of wood and iron and was one of the fastest clippers ever to be built but was lost at sea in 1910.  The picture above is the 714 ton Ambassador. There were some simply amazing photographs of the surviving beached remains of the Ambassador in San Gregorio in Chile on the panoramio.com website). Her figurehead was rescued in the 70's and today can be seen in the Patagonian Institute in Punta Arenas (Chile). The survival of the remains is due to the fact that instead of being scrapped she was beached and abandoned. She was pillaged for parts but astonishingly the wooden parts of her frame survive. Apart from the Cutty Sark (or what remains of it since it burned due to an industrial vacuum cleaner catching fire overnight) it is, as far as I know, the only surviving composite ship.

Edward Blick was succeeded in 1867 as the Rector of St Mary's by Edward Josselyn Beck who continued to promote building projects. The 1803 rectory, next door to the former Peter Hills School in Rotherhithe village was enlarged in 1869. In 1870-2 the church of St Barnabas was constructed on Plough Way by William Butterfield. The first local authority school in Rotherhithe was established on Albion Street in 1872.

Rotherhithe LT railway station opened in 1869 on Brunel Road.

Maritime industries began to relocate either downriver or to other ports in Britain. Pearsell (1986) gives a number of possible reasons for the Nineteenth Century decline in Rotherhithe ship building including
  • Restrictions in depth and width of the Thames upstream of Deptford
  • Tides in the Lower Pool possibly hampering the manoevering of larger vesseks
  • Lack of space in Rotherhithe yards along the water front due to the inability of yeards to expand backwards into Rotherhithe
  • Specialization in wooden ship manufacture when iron was increasingly favoured for construction
  • Thames wages were higher than other areas meaning. It was cheaper to build wharves, factories and warehouses
  • Early Nineteenth Century strikes in London undermined the faith of the Royal Navy in the reliability of private yards.

There are other possible reasons too. During the 1800s the requirement for warships of the previous century had been radically reduced when the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815. The Crimean war lasted only two years. Ships were commissioned for wars underway in foreign nations but not in large numbers. Power was seated in government and the politicians of the Victorian era believed that peace was essential to stability. Instead, the emphasis was on long distance trade and the establishment of trading colonies for which postal services were also required. Ships needed, as well, to incorporate passenger accommodation. New types of shipping activity required different types of ship design.

From 1870 sailing ships lost ground permanently throughout the world. The work taking place along the Thames quays began to decline but the work within Rotherhithe at docks and ponds was very much on the increase and the character of Rotherhithe changed forever.

9 comments:

Hils Hoppo said...

Wonderfully informative stuff! I have a great interest in the area as my 2 x Gt Grandfather was a Shipwright in Rotherhithe Docks and the family lived in the area from around 1800 until 1903. Thanks for a great blog!

terry k. said...

Only just come across your blog. I too have an interest as my 2 x Grandfather was Thomas Bilbe who built the composite hulls and his son, also Thomas, was an apprentice shipwright.

Somerville66 said...

I'm also interested in your blog as my great grandfather Edward James Talbot was a barge builder in Rotherhithe Street.

Somerville66 said...

I am also very interested in your blog as my great grandfather was Edward James Talbot, barge builder of Rotherhithe Street.

PPM said...

Edward James Talbot was my "2nd great grand uncle"! His mother was Lucy Talbot (nee Rabjohn) who took over her husband's barge building business following his death in 1858. The company was known as "L Talbot and Sons, Barge Builders".

Andie said...

There is obviously a lot of interest in Edwards James Talbot and Talbot and Sons that I should be looking into further!

Somerville66 said...

I have a photo of L Talbot & sons taken from the Thames side in the 1860s.

Andie said...

Dear Soverville66 I have checked your link but you provide no contact details. I would love to see the photo so please get in touch. My email address is andie [at] rotherhitheblog. co.uk

Andie said...

To all those interested in the Talbots, Elizabeth Lloyd and I have now posted about the family and their barge building company on this blog at http://www.russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/the-talbot-family-19th-century-barge.html