Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Strikes and the HMS Ajax scandal - the beginning of the end for Thames shipbuilding 1786-1813

1811 map showing the locations of the
Nelson Dock shipyard (at the top, still in
grounds of the Hilton Hotel today)
and the Greenland Dock South shipyard.
As usual with ship building stories, I am indebted to Stuart Rankin for introducing me to this sequence of interwoven events that contributed significantly to the slow but inevitable demise of ship building along the Thames.  Other very helpful references are listed at the end.

The full story involves two closely related Rotherhithe companies and their two shipyards.   John Randall Esq. had been based at Nelson Dock since 1755 (the year he was awarded the contract for HMS Tartar)  and at Greenland Dock as well since 1767.  In 1770 he went into business with John Brent and John Grey at the Nelson Dock.  Later John Grey left the business, but the relationship between John Randall, father and son and John Brent and Brent's sons Daniel and Samuel, both survived for a long time.  John Randall senior retired in 1775.  Randall and Brent was apparently a partnership between the younger John Randall and his father's business partner John Brent.  John Brent retired in the 1790s but both his sons, Daniel and Samuel followed him into the business in Rotherhithe.  All of the various partnerships were very successful businesses, building ships for the Royal Navy and the Honourable East India Company under private contract.

In June 1795 the Navy Board ordered a 74-gun third rate ship of the line from Randall and Brent.  This was a major and valuable contract for Randall and Brent, the largest type of ship that would ever be entrusted to a private ship builder.  The keel for HMS Ajax was laid in September 1795 at the Greenland Dock South shipyard.  Greenland Dock South lay downriver from the lock entrance to the dock, just behind the site of the 1904 lock-office that survives today, and where the Prince's Court development now lies.  There had been a shipyard here since the late 1600s, recorded on Kip's engraving of the Howland Great Wet Dock. 

HMS Ajax was launched on 3rd March 1798 at the cost of £57,000 (in today's money £1,833,690 according to the National Archives Currency Converter).  She was the first of her type, an Ajax-class design based on the design of  the 1747 HMS Invincible, but lengthened by 11ft before launch, and provided with a different type of stern, near to vertical and uninterrupted by galleries with very few carvings. The new stern design became the standard for future naval ships. 

Ship's knees on HMS Victory
However, this was just the start of the story.  Ajax had not long been in naval service when she was sent home for repairs, first in December of the same year with serious internal damage due to build defects, and then in April 1802, for more repairs.  The most basic and unforgivable of errors had been made.  Wooden ships of the period were equipped with "knees," bracket-shaped timbers that held the hull together and were responsible for the ship's structural integrity. The knees on Ajax had been cut with the grain, instead of across it, with the result that they began to break, undermining the entire structure of the ship.  It was an inconceivable error, inexplicable.  Even had the fundamental error not been noticed by one of the shipwrights, and even had it passed all internal shipyard inspections, the ship should have been surveyed independently by a Royal Dockyard official, who should have picked up on defective knees and failed the ship.  This step was a basic part of the handover of the ship from shipyard to Navy Board. The three errors - the initial build flaws, the failure of internal checks to pick up on them and the failure of the Royal Docks officer to report the problems - resulted in the ship going into service in a sub-standard condition.   The repairs cost a staggering £44,000 (£1,415,480 today) of public money.   The matter became a national scandal, picked up by the newspapers and debated at the highest political levels. 

Earl St Vincent. By John Hoppner.
National Maritime Museum
It is a shame that there is not more available about the legal aspects of the case, because it must have hit a very murky legal area.  The ship had been built (with a change of length requested during the build), someone at the Royal Dockyard must have rubber-stamped the hand-over from ship builder to Royal Navy, payment had been made, and the ship was taken in to service.  In theory, the shipyard's responsibility for the ship should have ended with the Royal Dockyard's approval, but this is not what happened.  Although the original bad workmanship certainly lay with Randall and Brent, the fact that the ship passed into the Royal Navy without challenge puts a certain amount of blame on whichever official accepted Ajax into service. It is all the more surprising as Ajax was the first of her class, with the 11ft added to her length part way through the build, and a new stern design, and it would be expected that the Royal Dockyard officials would have taken particular interest in her progress and in the quality of the final product.

The Admiralty was unsurprisingly disgusted and, in the outraged form of First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St Vincent, Admiral John Jervis,  took steps to prosecute Randall and Brent.  Earl St Vincent was notorious for his attempts to identify and fight corruption within the dockyards and naval administration, believing that huge amounts of public money were being haemorrhaged due to theft, "waste, malversation and pure carelessness."   He particularly mistrusted private shipyards and the underhand practice of over-ordering and syphoning off raw materials for personal use.  It must have been a real blow to Earl St Vincent's sense of professionalism, honour and an insult to his ongoing fight against this very type of bad practice to be presented with such faulty goods.  HMS Ajax was the absolute poster-child for all the issues he detected in the management of naval shipbuilding as a whole.

I wonder what John Randall was thinking throughout the scandal.  He and his father had produced beautiful and reliable ships for the Royal Navy, some of them very well known.  The Randall name carried with it a promise of quality, of longevity, and it must have been a horror story for him when his reputation was put on the line by the disastrous build quality of Ajax.  I would love to know what went wrong at the shipyard during her build.

HMS Ajax.  Artist Unknown. National Maritime Museum.
By the summer of 1802, when Ajax was repaired for the second time due to the build defects, John Randall had already had a thoroughly bad year.  But matters were to deteriorate further.  In the summer of 1802 a series of other problems also came to a head.  The hiatus between the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars that followed immediately afterwards (1803-1815) had caused a significant drop-off in naval as well as commercial orders.  The result was that throughout Thames shipyards wages were cut to peacetime rates by nearly two shillings a day.  Shipyard workers reacted badly, responding with strikes and by placing embargoes on stocks of English timber.  The strikes and timber embargoes meant that the ships that were sitting in private yards awaiting completion were becoming more and more delayed.  The East Indiamen depended on the trade winds to carry them safely to their destinations.  Missing the trade winds would mean the loss of an entire season's trade.  With pressure mounting on the government from the East India Company, which had a number of orders waiting to be completed for trade journeys that year, the government responded by assigning Royal Dockyard shipwrights to private yards to complete the outstanding contracts.  Needless to say, the intruders were denied access by most of the strikers and a naval warship was assigned to deter further violence.  Writing a century later in 1907, Canon Edward Josselyn Beck, writing in his book about his Rotherhithe parish (Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe) tells how John Randall went in person to try to reason with his workers at the Greenland Dock shipyard on 22nd August 1802, a confrontation that resulted in his death:
In his time, the shipwrights mutinied, and not only refused to work themselves, but laid violent hands on those who were sent to work in their place.  This worthy man entreated them to desist and return to their duties, but in vain.  And being himself struck by one of his workmen he retired from the scene and was so greatly distressed at the events he had witnessed that he throw himself out of his window and was killed by the fall." 

The Ajax affair, however, continued even after Randall's death. Public money had been wasted on Ajax, and as a faulty ship she continued to need ongoing repair work.  She became a bone of contention, a political football.  The debates about the correct course of action in response to the shoddy workmanship were raised not only in the Admiralty but in the press, including The Times.  Under normal circumstances the case would have been brought before a jury, but for political reasons it was determined that a jury would be incapable of judging al the intricacies of such a case.  On 23rd February 1804 the matter was adjourned until someone could be appointed to investigate and produce a report into the case.  This caused considerable upset at all levels and the newspapers were quick to suspect a cover-up.  In spite of all the scandal, it seems as though the report was never written or, if it was, the records have never been published.

Admiral Charles Middleton, Lord Barham.
By Isaac Pocock. National Maritime Museum.
In spite of the fact that the company of Randall and Brent were apparently never sued as Earl St Vincent had wanted, the impact on private contracts with the Navy Board was immediate.  Understandably concerned about the future repercussions of faults identified in, or claimed to exist in ships accepted into service by the Royal Navy, private contractors on the Thames insisted that once final payment was made they should be indemnified from any future action.  The onus would then be placed squarely on the Royal Navy to ensure that ships were built to specification and to their required standards, and if they accepted ships that later proved to be flawed this would not come back to haunt the ship builder.  This made Earl St Vincent, still smarting from the recent strikes and the difficulties of acquiring suitable wood to complete ship construction projects, even more determined to cut private shipyards out of the loop.  He rejected this attempt of shipbuilders to, as he saw it, indemnify themselves from the results of their own inferior workmanship.  His solution was to reorganize the Royal Dockyards so that private contracts could be avoided for all of the larger and most important and expensive ships of the line.  Only smaller ships were trusted to private shipyards, and only when necessary.  But things did not go quite as Earl St Vincent planned.  Although his reforms paved the way for future improvements, his successors in the Admiralty found that the nation was short of ships and it was forced to make new contracts with private yards, on their terms, at very inflated prices. St Vincent was replaced first by Lord Melville in 1804 and then by Lord Barham in 1805

Unfortunately for the private yards, their insistence on new binding contracts, their imposition of high prices and the impacts of the 1802 strike and timber embargo all led the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, to conclude that the Royal Navy was excessively dependent on private shipbuilders.  Like St Vincent he believed that the solution was the reorganization of the Royal Dockyards, but unlike St Vincent he was successful and succeeded in doubling their output between 1805 and 1813, significantly reducing the number of contracts given to private yards.

East India House in Leadenhall Street after its 1801
reconstruction. By Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, 1817
Adding to the agony of the Thames shipbuilders at this time, the Honourable East India Company had been torn in two by a dispute about freight charge during the late 1780s, and Thames shipbuilders took sides, refusing to build ships for one or other of the two factions.  John Randall himself had agreed to build a ship for one ship owner but then changed his mind because the contract would have broken faith with the older ship owners that Randall and Brent supported, a breach of verbal contract that did his reputation no good at all.  The eventual outcome of the ship builders involving themselves in the freight rate dispute was that commercial ship owners began to move their ship building activities away from the Thames, eventually transferring most of their ship building activities elsewhere, most notably to India where they established their own shipyards.  This was another blow for the Thames ship builders.

The eventual outcome of the Honourable East India Company's freight rate dispute, the Ajax scandal, and the 1802 strikes was the decline of ship building on the Thames.  There was a brief rise in demand when ships were needed in a hurry for the Crimean War, but the last to be built for the Royal Navy in Rotherhithe were the steam-powered Hind and Jackdaw in 1855.  Serious ship building in Rotherhithe only survived until 1870, when the gorgeous tea clipper Lothair, the last big sailing ship built in Rotherhithe, was launched.

In spite of all the repairs, HMS Ajax herself went on to have a reasonably successful but short career, itself ending in tragedy. She won awards at the Battle of Cape Finisterre and the Battle of Trafalgar, and saw service in a number of naval engagements, but on 14 February 1807 she burned and exploded, not in the line of duty, but due to a fire started in the bread room.  250 lives were lost.  There is a well referenced account of her vital statistics and her full history on Wikipedia

Sources used in this post:

Main source: Stuart Rankin.  Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - Greenland Dock and Barnard's Wharf.  Rotherhithe Local History Paper No. 3. 1997

Reverend Edward Beck. Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of St Mary Rotherhithe 1907
James Earle. Commodore Squib:  The Life, Times and Secretive Wars of England's First Rocket Man, Sir William Congreve, 1772-1828. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2010
Brian Lavery. The Ship of the Line. Volume II:  Design, construction and fittings. Conway. 1984
Philip MacDougall. London and the Georgian Navy. The History Press 2013
Roger Morris. The Royal Dockyards during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Leicester University Press. 1983
Stuart Rankin. Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dock. Rotherhithe Local History Paper No. 2. 1996 
Rif Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817. Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing. 2005

Plan of HMS Ajax

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