Saturday, November 16, 2013

Shipbuilding at the Barnard's Wharf site c.1750 - 1840

This turned into quite a long piece, so I have divided it into different sections:

  • Introduction
  • Thomas Stanton
  • John and William Wells
  • The Barnard Family
  • After Shipbuilding
  • Summary of the key dates



The site today, with Surrey Docsk Farm at the
top of the former shipbuilding site, and
a housing estate at the lower end of the site.
Courtesy of Google Maps
The Surrey Docks Farm site was part of the area over which three different families of shipbuilders made ships for the Royal Navy and the Honourable East India Company. The site extended from the Acorn Stairs, at the northern end of the Farm's Thames frontage, and extended downriver to where the Scotch Derrick is now located.  It was a considerable area and is often referred to as Barnard's Wharf, after one of the families that built ships on the site.  The Acorn Stairs were named after a local pub, which was established in around 1761 and closed in 1941 and always sat at the back of the shipyard. 

Untangling the various ship building activities at the site has been an interesting challenge. Different versions of the same story, and maps with out of date information have not helped, and the fact that the same first names were handed down within shipbuilding families from generation to generation causes considerable confusion, but the following seems to provide the main gist of the story. Stuart Rankin's Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - Greenland Dock and Barnard's Wharf (1997) has been very useful and John E. Barnard's Building Britain's Wooden Walls has been invaluable for the Barnard years.  Still, some confusion remains and where I've been unable to clarify a point I've made that clear.

If the shipbuilders based here over the years had built ships exclusively at this site, matters would have been a lot easier, but successful shipbuilders did not confine themselves to one site, and either owned premises elsewhere as well, or rented docks from other builders when they had too many orders to manage at one site.  It is sometimes difficult to work out who was working where at what time, and which ships were built at which yards.

The site is the subject of research by the Surrey Docks Farm Heritage Project headed by Germander Speedwell, and I am enormously grateful to Germander and the rest of the team for expanding my horizons in so many ways!  Thanks particularly to Mary Budd for pointing out a missed piece of information.  Thanks guys.

Thomas Stanton 


HMS Carcass, built by Thomas Stanton, and
HMS Racehorse
None of the maps that I have seen give the that stretched downriver from the stairs a name until Thomas Stanton took the yard in the mid 1750s, leasing it from the Bedford Estate. Thomas Stanton was the first shipbuilder at the site, although by no means the first in Rotherhithe. The earliest yards had been established downriver around Deptford. Barge and shipbuilding yards had extended slowly around the perimeter as London ship and barge building, refitting and repairs became increasingly important, and all available areas of the Thames frontage were snapped up.

Not much is known about Thomas Stanton, although Stuart Rankin's research suggests that he was the manager or foreman at a Captain Bronsden's shipyard at Deptford Grove Street.  Rankin suggests that he achieved the means to establish himself at Rotherhithe by joining forces with business partners in joint shipbuilding enterprises.  He is listed, for example, as a partner for HMS Chester which was ordered from "Bronden, Wells and Stanton."  He was at the Rotherhithe yard by 1754.  The name by which the yard was known at the time is unknown, being marked simply as "shipwrights" on early maps of the area.  It is now usually known as Barnard's Wharf, due to its association with a later ship building family.  Rif Winfield lists the builders of Carcass as Stanton and Wells, which differs from other sources, but it is entirely possible that the Wells shipbuilding company (probably the Wells involved in the above-mentioned construction of HMS Chester), which took over the yard after Thomas Stanton, was involved in her construction.  

Thomas Stanton appears to have had some sort of relationship with the Wells family, who had had connections with the area since at least the late 1600s when they helped to finance the Howland Great Wet Dock (the first iteration of Greenland Dock) and had established their own yards at the Dock's lock gates. The Wells family had a broad portfolio of interests, investing in all sorts of different property and ship-related businesses, and it is possible that they had either an ongoing or ad hoc financial interest in Stanton's business.  They certainly collaborated on the construction of ships at Stanton's yard.   Indeed, a recent site plan owned by the Bedford Estates and drawn up by them, discovered by Mary Budd at the Metropolitan Archives, which shows considerable detail, and has been tentatively dated to the 1740s shows the site as Wells and Stanton, indicating that Stanton may always have had a solid business relationship with Wells.

On his own, Stanton appears to have produced a number of ships at the site, both for the Royal Navy.   Examples are HMS Carcass on which Nelson once served (which I covered on an earlier post), HMS Stag (launched 1757), HMS Active (launched 1757) and HMS Ferret (launched 1760).  In collaboration with the Wells family he produced Hunter (1755), America (1755), Essex (1759), Lynx (1760) and Augusta (1759).  All ship has been data taken from Rankin 1997.

John and William Wells 


The East Indiaman True Briton, launched 1860
Probably from as early as the 1500s the Wells family had interests in Greenwich and Deptford as well as Rotherhithe but their shipbuilding activities only began at around 1635, in Deptford.  Their connection with the Howlands of Streatham, who were involved East India Company led them to build a number of ships for the Howlands and, on the marriage of Elizabeth Howland to the grandson of the first Duke of Bedford gave them the opportunity to invest in the Howland Great Dock in Rotherhithe, and led to the Dukes of Bedford commissioning ships from them.  Rankin's research suggest that many Wells ships were probably built in yards immediately in the vicinity of the entrance to the Howland Great Dock from around 1700.  The Greenland yard supplemented the Wells's Deptford interests.  However, the Greenland yard seems to have been abandoned at some stage during the first half of the 18th Century.   There are indications that Rotherhithe became important to them once more after 1760.  By 1760 the Greenland Dock yards were being leased by the Bedford Estate to the successful shipbuilder John Randall, whose main base was at Nelson Dock (where the Hilton Hotel is now located), so the Wells family had to look elsewhere for a base.  It is probable that they already had a firm connection with Thomas Stanton. The above-mentioned 1740s map of the site from the Bedford Estates archive indicates that a firm called Wells and Stanton had already been established there, but whether the Wells part was actively engaged in shipbuilding at the site at this time or was an investment partner is unknown.

Thomas Stanton had been building ships at his yard for 10 years by now, and it is possible that the ties between the two families were leveraged at this point to allow the Wells operation to shift to that site.  Although John and William had left Deptford by 1763, Stanton still held the lease for the Rotherhithe shipyard, so the exact year in which the Wells brothers took over the site is unclear, but at some point in the 1760s they purchased the freehold from the Bedford Estate, so they were clearly intending to stay and expand their operation.  

The Wells brothers were responsible for extending the yard, forcing Queen Street further inland, when it was renamed Upper Trinity Street.  It is this road layout that is still familiar today, extending north from the Acorn Stairs to the pathway just short of the Scotch derrick to the south.  It enhanced the distinctive corner in the road that curves around the Farm before turning again down Rotherhithe Street.  This is shown on an 1813 map that is based on an earlier map by Horwood.

The Thames at Redriff by Thomas Whitcombe.  Philip Banbury (1971)
believes that this is the Wells yard, looking downriver. The
tower of St Anne's at Limehouse is visible to the left.
The Rotherhithe phase ties in with the last generation of shipbuilding in the Wells family.   John and William (born 1761 and 1768) went into the family business, whilst their brother Thomas entered the Royal Navy, where he was sponsored by family connections and eventually became a Rear Admiral.  The Wells shipbuilding dynasty had ended by 1814, by which time John and William Wells had sold out of the shipbuilding trade.  Although no new ships are recorded being built by the Wells brothers at the Rotherhithe yard after 1797, rates continued to be paid until 1805, which argues that some sort of activity was taking place there. 

Between 1758 and 1797 at least 25 ships were ordered for the Royal Navy and the East India Company and Rankin believes that around 77 East Indiamen were built by them.  There is some question over whether a batch of the last of the Wells ships were built at Rotherhithe or Deptford. Although around seven ships are recorded by Winfield and Lavery as being built at Deptford, Rankin was unable to find any record of the Well family owning or leasing a yard in Deptford over the years in which they were built (1795-1797) and believes that these records represent an administrative error.  A few of the ships that were built at the site are HMS Cornwall (launched 1760), HMS Eagle (1771), HMS Thunderer (1783)  and HMS Terrible (1785), all built for the Royal Navy.  For the East India Company the built the East Indiamen True Briton (1760), Grosvenor (1770), Thetis (1786) and Exeter (1792).

The Barnard Family


Map showing the Barnard
Rotherhithe, Grove Street and
Deptford Green yards
There is some discrepancy between Rankin and Barnard over when the Rotherhithe site was acquired by the Barnard family.  According to Barnard, William Barnard took over the site in 1798, purchasing the freehold from the Messrs Wells, but Rankin has found records indicating that the Wells family continued to pay rates on the site until 1805.  As the Barnard shipbuilding records do not specify which ships were built at any of their three yards, it is impossible from the information to hand to work out quite who was doing what at the site between 1798 and 1805.

William Barnard (not to be confused with his son William, who will be referred to as William junior) was a ship builder from Deptford who retained an important Deptford Yard after leasing the Wells yard. The family had originally been shipbuilders based in Ipswich and Harwich, but by 1763 a business in which William Barnard had invested was established at Deptford Grove Street under the management of William Dudman.  On Dudman's death in 1772 William Barnard moved to Deptford to manage two yards - the one he owned with Dudman and Dudman's own yard. Chaos ensued, with legal wranglings and much ill-feeling between the various interested parties.  Barnard established his own yard at Deptford Green although he retained interests at another yard.

To the north of Greenland Dock, in the bend of the road,
the Barnard site is clearly visible in the 1805 map.
Just to the south of Greenland Dock, Grove Street
is marked - this was the site of one of their other
shipbuilding yards. A third was at Deptford Green
William died in 1795.  he left behind his wife Frances (occasionally spelled "Francis" on official documents), two sons, William (for the purposes of clarity, William junior) and Edward George, who were apprentices at the time aged 19 and 17, and three daughters, Ann, Frances and Elizabeth.  William's will was very specific - he bequeathed everything to "my beloved wife Frances for her absolute use and benefit."  Frances was 58 at the time of her husband's death.  She moved in 1803 to Mitcham.  These were good years for the yard.

According to J.E. Barnard's book, in late 1798 / early 1799 William junior and his younger brother Edward  purchased the freehold of the Rotherhithe yard from the Wells family, which included 450ft of river frontage and a field on the opposite side of the road, which measured 550ft by 350ft.  It included a large dry dock, a building slip, a mast house and a mast slip and enabled the Barnards to expand their interests into fitting and refitting as well as building.  The wars with France between 1793 and 1802 and 1803 to 1815 ensured the demand for warships kept private yards busy, producing everything from 10- to 74-gun ships.  The East India Company were also expanding, and their demand for ships and fitting services was also high. However, inflation was also a by-product of the wards and this caused problems for all Thames ship builders because the standard payment for ships rarely covered the rising costs, and workers were demanding higher wages.

William junior had a short life, dying in 1805 at the age of 29, leaving a wife, Harriet, and three children, Frances, William Henry and Thomas.  William junior's will, dated 25th February 1805 is somewhat confusing.  It indicates that he has ownership of the yards, even though his father had bequeathed everything to his mother Frances, and she was still alive in 1805.  The will itself left William junior's own half-share in the yard to his cousin Edward Clarke but on condition that if his brother and co-shareholder Edward George wished to purchase the half share within 12 months, he should be able to do so,  Edward George did so, and became the sole owner of the yard at the age of 27.

The Barnard yard in around 1820. Sourced
from Barnard, J.E. 1997
In about 1820 the site was split into two sections, an upper and lower yard, both operated by Barnard interests but owned by Edward George Barnard and let out by him to the family subsidiaries.  The upper yard was registered in the name of F.E. and T. Barnard, the area covered by the Surrey Docks Farm, and was engaged in the manufacture of masts and spars.  The lower yard, in the name of Francis Barnard, Sons and Roberts was the larger of that two, reaching south of there to the walkway to the Thames Path where the Scotch Derrick is now located.  Banbury refers to a magazine article sating to 1826 "which says that an Edward Barnard was shipbuilding at Trinity Street Rotherhithe," which but Banbury doesn't say which magazine or whether it is to be relied upon.  It is not known exactly who Roberts was, but he occupied a house in the yard at Deptford Green so was obviously a manager or someone of equal importance.  As with the yards before it, the site extended south of the current Farm site to include land now occupied by the housing estate.

Edward George decided to renew and enlarge the gates of the yard in 1819.  This was subject to consideration by the Worshipful Committee for Improving the Navigation on the River Thames, and although they eventually approved it, it appears that by the time the decision had gone through the process of being considered, Edward had changed his mind and the work was never carried out.  This is possibly because of the changing economic circumstances at the yard.

Following the end of the French wars in 1815, and the East India Company's loss of its monopolies in India in 1813 and China in 1833, the demand for new ships fell dramatically, and these became very lean years for many shipbuilders.  It is quite telling that those that survived were often those that mate the transition to the building of steam ships. As I mentioned earlier, it was a common practice for shipyards to lease space in neighbouring yards and there are at least two examples where local shipyards built their ships at the Barnard site.  Rankin says that there is evidence that Marc Brunel's steamer Regent was built her by J.B. and Thomas Courthope in  1816.

In 1823 a letter from Edward George to the landlords of Deptford Green Yard stated that the docks of Deptford Green and and Rotherhithe were "virtually shut."  J.E. Barnard's book says that the last documentary mention of the Barnard occupancy of Rotherhithe is to be found in the minutes of the Worshipful Committee minutes record danger from an old slipway at the yard - sadly there appear to be no records of what measures were taken to resolve the problem.  However, Rankin also says that Edward George purchased the paddle steamer Ruby from the Admiralty in 1846, presumably to break her up, and there is evidence that John Jenkins Thompson of Horseferry Yard built paddle steamer Banshee here which was launched in 1847.

Frances died in July 1825, having moved to rural Mitcham in 1803, at the age of 88. William's son Edward George eventually became an MP for Greenwich, dying in 1851 at the age of 73.

There is no differentiation in the Barnard records between ships that were built at any of the three yards, Rotherhithe, Grove Street and Deptford Green. All ships were simply recorded as being built at the Barnards' Thames yards, so it is impossible to know which ship was built at which yard and I have not listed any of them here.

After the Shipbuilders 


Shipbuilding at the site ended with the Barnards, but it went on to have a rich history and many different uses, from timber storage, a typical local use of such spaces, to its far less conventional role as a smallpox vetting station.  The Surrey Docks Farm Heritage Project has been investigating some of these latter roles, the results of which are being used for information boards at the Farm.  The following is a very brief overview of some of the uses to which the site was put following the Barnard occupation.

The site in 1843, marking the upper yard
as "Timber Yard"
By 1843 it was marked as a timber yard on the map produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.  It had been purchased by the Commercial Dock Company with a view to building a new lock into their enclosed dock system, but this plan was never carried out and the site was used for different activities.  For a long time it was still shown as Barnard's Wharf on maps, but seems to have been renamed Acorns Wharf when it began to be used for the timber trade.  For this trade, it was first occupied by Peter Rolt and then Thomas Gabriel.  The next company, Gabriel Wade and English, specialized in the creosote-treatment of timber, and ran four steam cranes on a network of tracks.  

On the 1868 Ordnance Survey map the Farm site is marked as "Acorn Wharf" with two cranes on the site, with a set of housing marked at the end of the site (immediately to its west), together with a public house, The Acorn.  To its south, a vast timber yard is marked, complete with the surviving dock, a saw mill and creosote works.  The Commercial Dock pier was also still shown on the map at this time.

In 1881 the site was sold to the Metropolitan Asylums Board who set up a river ambulance station for assessing patients suspected of suffering from smallpox.  Those that were found to be carrying smallpox were transported by paddle steamer to floating isolation hospitals on the Thames near Deptford.  The site became known as South Wharf, distinguishing it from its sister site at Blackwall, Browns Wharf, which became known as North Wharf.  The 1894 Ordnance Survey map reflects this use, marking it as "Hospital Shelters" and showing the covered pier and pontoon that were used by the paddle-steamers that transported the patients.  To its south the site previously marked as a timber yard is now shown as Barnard's Wharf and again had small housing at its end, as well as The Acorn pub. The dock is shown served by a small network of crane rails, which connected to the Commercial Dock Pier. 

The site in 1914, showing the upper yard in
use by the Metropolitan Asylums Board and
lower yard in use by timber importers with all
the rails for the steam crane in position.
The 1914 Ordnance Survey map shows the site as "South Wharf (Metropolitan Asylums Board)" with additional buildings (although a fraction of the number of buildings that were there at its busiest) and the same residential area and Acorn pub at the end.  Barnard's Wharf is still shown with the dock, crane network and Commercial Dock Pier.  

By the 1930s the hospital had been abandoned, and was now used by London Fire Brigade floats.  In 1939 it returned to use as a small hospital, but this had to be abandoned during the Blitz of September 1940, when the docks were targeted and the hospital was so hemmed in by fire that it had to be evacuated by boat.

It had sundry uses over the following years, mainly for storage.  The farm was established here in 1986, having moved from another site near the lock of Greenland Dock, where it had been since 1975.

Summary of the Key Shipbuilding Dates

  • From at least the 1750s, and possibly earlier - Stanton leased the site from the Bedford Estates, possibly with Wells as Wells and Stanton. 
  • Between the mid 1750s - mid 1760s ships were built at the site for Royal Navy and East India company

  • Mid 1760s Messrs Wells take over the site and extend yard to the west, purchasing the freehold from the Bedford Estates.
  • Between the mid 1760s - 1797 ships were built at the site for Royal Navy and East India company
  • 1797 last ships launched from the yard

  • 1798 or 1805 Rotherhithe yard purchased from Messrs Wells by William Barnard junior
  • 1805 William Barnard junior dies and his brother Edward George purchases his brother's half share from his cousin, to whom William Barnard junior bequeathed it, becoming sole owner of the yard
  • 1820s the yard was split into two, leased by Edward George Barnard to two family businesses:  upper yard in the name of F.E. and T. Barnard, the area covered by the Surrey Docks Farm, and lower yard, in the name of Francis Barnard, Sons and Roberts, covering the remaining, larger part of the site. 
  • 1823 letter from Edward George Barnard indicating that shipbuilding business was "virtually shut"
  •  1840, last firm record of the Barnard family at the site
  • 1846 purchase of Ruby by Edward George from the Admiralty, presumably for breaking, suggesting some activity still took place at the site.

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