|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.
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|
|Earl St Vincent. By John Hoppner. |
National Maritime Museum
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.|
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.
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
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|