Monday, July 8, 2013

Lothair 1870: The last large ship to be built at Rotherhithe

Lavender Dock, to the west of the
Lavender lock.  The remains of the lock
are still preserved in front of the
Lavender Pumphouse. From the 1868
Ordnance Survey map.
Lothair was launched on 2nd July 1870, the last large ship to be built at Rotherhithe, at 825 gross tons (792 tons), 191.8 foot long and 33.5 foot wide with a monkey forecastle, raised quarterdeck and a female figurehead.  She was equipped with Harfield's patent windlasss, Redpath's pumps, and two of her lower masts were formed of two iron plates "in the round", both 26 inches in diameter. She also had two lifeboats and two other boats.

Lothair was built by John and William Walker at Lavender Dock in Rotherhithe, a site which is now occupied by the east end of the modern residential Sovereign View development (SE16 5XH) near to the Lavender pump-house. Of John Walker there is no surviving record, apart from the name of the business, although he was clearly related to William Walker.  William Walker was a shipbuilder who operated, at different times, out of Rotherhithe, Deptford, Poplar and Millwall. 

William Walker specialized in composite ships. Composites were wooden ships built on iron frames, providing additional strength to the hull. They were lighter, requiring much less internal structural work, which also provided more internal space.  Composite ships were only accepted as a recognized class in 1867, when they were described in the Lloyds Register, which gave guidelines for their construction. They had also previously built Shun Lee, Mikado and Ambassador (see an earlier post for  some information about the Ambassador, but she will be covered properly soon in a future post).

Named for a character in Benjamin Disraeli's first novel (published in 1870, the year that Lothair was launched), Lothair was a composite tea clipper, her planking made of teak. The term clipper is used quite broadly to refer to any fast sailing ship with long low hulls, and a sharp-raked stern with three masts and square rigging. The last surviving composite clipper is the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. Stuart Rankin describes her as the "apotheosis" of shipbuilding in Rotherhithe, and she must have been quite something to see, particularly in full sail.  Although no images of her at launch survive, and there are no plans, she probably looked very like Ambassador, which Walker had built in the previous year (Ambassador is discussed in another post on this site). A visit to the Museum of London Docklands Museum in September 2013 resulted in the discovery that a builder's model of her hull exists.  The very fuzzy photograph below shows it on display on the second floor.  There was no accession number on the label.

Builder's model of Lothair

The launch was celebrated in some style.  C. Fox Smith describes the event as follows:
At the time of her launch the Thames shipbuilding trade had been greatly depressed for some years, so the event was hailed as an augury of better times in store. She took the water in July, 1870, amid the cheers of a large crowd of spectators, and the launch was followed by a big luncheon, presided over by Mr. Walker, at which many leading shipping people were present.

Ambassador in full rig, which is probably very similar
to how Lothair will have looked at launch.
Sadly it was not the sign of better times ahead, but the beginning of the end for sailing ships.  William Walker was already behind the times when he built the ship to serve his own business interests, but elsewhere others were investing in steam to supplement sail.  Disraeli was invited to the event but was unable to attend and nominated M.P. Sir John Hay to attend in his place. 

Lothair was one of the fastest tea clippers built. On her maiden voyage under Captain Emlyn Peacock, leaving on 10th September 1870, she reached Yokohoma in 135 days. There's a lovely contemporary description of her speed, quoted in Rankin's Shipyards, Granaries and Wharves walk:
I was second mate of a Newbury Port ship, and we were running our easting down bound out to Canton, and we were somewhere near Tristan d'Acunha when we sighted a vessel astern.  It was blowing hard from the nor' west and the next time I looked a couple of hours later, there was the ship close on our quarter, and we doing 12 knots.  "Holly jiggers" says I to the mate "there's the Flying Dutchman!"  "Naw," says he, "It's the Thermopylae." But when she was abeam a little later, she hoisted her name, the Lothair, and it's been my opinion ever since that she was making mighty close to 17 knots.

This is quite a compliment -  the Flying Dutchman was a ghost ship of maritime legend, but the Thermopylae was renowned as the fastest tea clipper on the sea, a reputation seriously challenged only by the Cutty Sark. The website records some of her achievements as follows:
  • In 1870 September 10 - January 23 sailed from London to Yokohama in 135 days.  
  • 1871 March 23 - July 1 Sailed from Yokohama to New York in 96 days with a cargo of tea at £2 15s per ton.
  • 1878 January 8 - April 2 sailed from Amoy to New York in 84 days (a record).
  • 1882 Jun 12 - September 15 sailed from London 1020 tons of coal to Hong Kong in 95 days.
  • 1884 October 31 - February 6 sailed from Hong Kong to New York in 98 days. Captain F.W. Dester.

MacGregor adds that in 1873-4 she made the fastest passage in the fair monsoon between Macao and Deal, which took her only 88 days.  She was particularly fast in light winds. 

Lothair, with a reduced rig when she was owned
by Killick, Martin and Co.
On her second voyage she nearly met with disaster.  C. Fox Smith gives a particularly good account of the event:
A week after leaving Foo-chow, near the entrance of the Kii Channel, she encountered the full force of a cyclone, and while running it out, hove to under a mizen staysail, a terrific gust struck her. The ballast shifted and over she went right on her beam ends. There was nothing for it but cutting away the main and mizen masts, and the ship then righted herself and was got before the wind. The next seven days were spent rigging jury masts, and as the crippled ship was hobbling along ten days later, a steam frigate or corvette was sighted. The Lothair's ensign was lying upside down, but either it was not seen, or if seen was disregarded: anyway, the stranger adopted the Levite's role, and passed by on the other side. Fortunately, no more storms were encountered, and the little ship reached Yokohama without further misadventure.   

After 10 days she was repaired and went on her way without further interruptions. Brian Lubbock's impression of her, described in his book The China Clippers, was that she was very fast in moderate conditions but did not have the power to cope with heavy weather.  David MacGregor's excellent book The Tea Clippers and Their History calculates that Lothair's costs for a return from between London and China 1873-4 were as follows:
  • Disbursements at start of voyage including provisions: £650
  • Insurance of ship and freight: £720
  • Loading and dispatch in London £150
  • Disbursements at Anjer, Hong Kong, Whampoa and Macao, including provisions: £542
  • Unloading and docking in London: £175
  • Crew's wages: £750
  • Outward freight: £2000
  • Homeward freight at £3.00 per ton £3300
  • Profit: £2300
  • Total gross earning s per net register ton (794 tons net) £16 13s 6d.

William Walker was registered as the first owner of at least two of the ships built at Lavender Dock, including the Lothair, in which he owned 56 out of the total 64 shares for a period of 6 months.  Her first master, Evelyn Peacock, held the remaining 8 shares.  Walker remortgaged his shares in March 1871 to three London merchants, Arthur, William and Thomas Farwood.  They retained the the shares until the mortgage was redeemed in July 1873, when the ship was sold to Killick, Martin and Co., at which time Peacock's shares were also sold.  Killick, Martin and Co retained 16 shares and sold the others to various individuals. It was at this time that Lothair was converted to a barque with reduced rigging, and was assigned to a new captain, Banjamin Orchard who was in turn succeeded in 1878 by Thomas Bouton.  Subsequently she was sold to William Bowen of Llanelly in Carmarthenshire in 1885, for trade in South America.  In 1891she was sold in Callao to G. Buccelli and D. Loero of Genoa. The ship's master was in charge of this transaction, under instructions from her owner to accept no less than £6000 for her.  Finally, she was sold to to Peruvian F.G. Piaggio of Callao in 1905.  She was lost in 1910.

Upon being transferred to wool transportation duties, Lothair was one of the few ships designed for the China tea trade to embark on the Australian wool trade. 

The Lothair in later life
She was converted to a barque, in which guise she entered service for trade between Callao and Hong Kong.  In 1896 a number of Nelson (New Zealand) newspapers reported that she had approached the port, but was quarantined due to the death of members of the crew and a passenger on the journey from Hong Kong to Callao.  They were seeking provisions and medical assistance.  Fears that she was carrying cholera were unfounded, but the doctor who went on board to inspect her reported an outbreak of a form of dengue fever.  Following several days in quarantine she was cleared to proceed, having been re-provisioned by the Nelson local government and residents.

The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal undermined the sailing clippers.  As well as radically reducing the round trip, which had previously involved navigating around the African continent via the Cape of Good Hope, it made the supply of coal to steamships more efficient. Sail was also increasingly in competition with both larger steel-hulled barques, which had more masts, sails and therefore greater sail power, and steam powered vessels.  The New York Times of 11th November 1914 recorded the arrival in New York, from Liverpool, of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company steamship Orduna, chartered by Cunard.  A sign of the times, she was captained by Thomas M Taylor, who had served his apprenticeship on the Lothair.  Some tea clippers were used instead in the Australian wool trade, because there were no convenient locations to load coal on the route, but sail did not survive the wool trade either, with steam eventually taking over on these routes as well. 

In 1885, Lothair was only one of four tea clippers left afloat (the others were Titania, Blackadder and Cutty Sark) and Lothair herself was lost in 1910.  All that remain of the fabulous tea clippers are the Cutty Sark, recently re-restored and looking stunning in dry dock in Greenwich, the iron frame of the Ambassador's hull, lying where the ship was beached and abandoned in Chile, and the City of Adelaide, which has been allowed to disintegrate in Scotland but will hopefully be restored in the not too distant future when she is moved to Australia. Former clipper captain Andrew Shewan does not place her in his personal top six tea clippers (those are Ariel, Titania, Thermopylae, Cutty Sark, Spindrift and Leander) but in his list of second-place ships (with Lahloo, Sir Lancelot, Norman Court, Taeping, Kaisow, Windhover and Undine). He gives a good account of her performance, as related to him by a steamer captain who had been an apprentice on the remarkable Thermopylae :

I have a note of an encounter, which the Aberdeen crack [Thermopylae] had with a beautiful Thames-built tea-clipper Lothair, a vessel some two hundred tons smaller than herself.  Captain Taylor, one time commander of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company's steamer Orbita, who was an apprentie at that time, was my informant.  

He said that on the occasion in question the Thermopylae undoutbedly proved herself the fster ship, though the conditions prevailing were in favour of the larger vessel.  Both ships were sailing by the wind into a stiff head sea, a state of affairs which loaded the dice in favour of the bigger ship

It is quite clear that Captain Taylor thought that Lothair performed superbly under the conditions and against a much better equipped competitor.

Lothair was also the beginning of the end of shipbuilding on Rotherhithe and, according to David MacGregor, may have been the last clipper to have been built on the Thames.  As Rankin puts it so well:  "In future, Rotherhithe shipyards had nothing to offer, which others could not do bigger, better or cheaper" (Rankin 2000).

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