Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Beatsons - the Rotherhithe ship-breakers who broke up the Temeraire

The Bulls Head Dock, where the Beatsons were
based, from the 1843 map of the area. It is
immediately to the north-east of the Old Salt Quay.
Ship breaking was an essential part of the life-cycle of a ship.  Warships that survived their wartime careers were sometimes sunk to form reefs, but many were sold by the Admiralty to private companies for breaking up when their useful life was considered to be over. This was a mutually beneficial partnership, in which the navy was able to dispose of its unwanted ships for a fairly substantial sum of money, and private enterprises could break the ships and sell off the component parts for a profit. To provide some idea of the sums of money involved, in the 1830s John Beatson paid £5530 for HMS Temeraire and researcher Stuart Rankin found records of a transaction in which  the Beatson yard paid £4350 for an East Indiaman called the Warren Hastings. Although currency conversions between past and present are notoriously difficult and controversial, there is a currency converter on The National Archives site that supplies a modern (2005) value of £243,873.00 for the £5530 paid for Temeraire and £191,835.00 value for the sum paid for the Warren Hastings.

Breaking a ship was labour-intensive work, and often difficult. Long lengths of wood were particularly valuable, and the main source of profit, but all wooden and metal fittings were removed and sold off, including old rope  (called junk) that had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer usable, and was sold for the making of fenders or the fabrication of oakum from the dismembered threads (which was tarred and used to plug gaps in ship decks, and was often made in work-houses and prisons).  Selling ships to specialized breakers is a solution to unwanted warships that is maintained by governments today. 

Although ship-breaking was almost certainly carried out throughout the three centuries of the Rotherhithe ship building industry, it became particularly prevalent during the 19th century when ship-building along the Thames went into decline.  Although some ship builders were able to produce new types of ship using new techniques and technologies, others went out of business or turned their focus increasingly to repairs and ship breaking.

HMS Temeraire beached in front of Surrey Canal Wharf
in 1838 by John Beatson's younter brother William 
(National Maritime Museum. Greenwich)
The most famous ship to be broken up in Rotherhithe was the 98-gun first rate ship of the line HMS Temeraire, which was broken up at the Beatson Surrey Canal Wharf site in 1838. The ship was immortalized in J.M.W. Turner's fabulous oil painting "The Fighting Temeraire." She had performed an important role at the Battle of Trafalgar under the command of Captain Sir Eliab Harvey, and was justifiably well known in her own time. The painting is not an accurate depiction of the ship, or even the event (she was guided along the Thames by two tugs, Sampson and London, not just the one shown in the painting) but is very beautiful. Turner had seen Temeraire quite by chance from one of the steamships that carried passengers between London and Margate. She may have been fitted with temporary masts for the 35 mile journey from Sheerness to Rotherhithe, leaving Sheerness on the 5th September and arriving in Rotherhithe, in bright sunshine, on the 6th September 1838, but the masts, if fitted, were removed on her arrival. Apparently Beatson had a tradition of holding a party on board ships to be broken, and this was maintained with a party held on Temeraire as she travelled upriver.  All of the ship's copper sheeting and bolts were returned to the government. A first rate ship of the line, she was the largest ship every sold off by the Admiralty at this time.   Wood from the ship was used to make various architectural features and furnishings for St Mary's Rotherhithe and her chapel of ease St Paul's, including columns, chairs, a table and altar rails. According to an article published in The Times on 12th October 1838, one piece of wood rather endearingly went to a former sailor on the ship, to provide him with a false leg to replace the leg he lost at Trafalgar. There are more fascinating details about the final journey of Temeraire in an article in Country Life magazine by Martin Postle, published in September 1988, partly informed by Beatson's great great grand-daughter. 

The Bellerophon, also broken up at the Beatson yard, was another well known ship, famous for receiving Napoleon's surrender and transporting him to St Helena, where he was exiled.  

A chair made from the timbers of the
Temeraire, one of two that are now
in New Zealand. This one is a family
heirloom owned by one of William
Beatson's descendents. Used
here with my thanks.
Stuart Rankin's extensive research into Rotherhithe's maritime past has shed a lot of light on the Beatson family and their activities. Fortunately, one of the few archaeological excavations to be carried out in Rotherhithe took place at Pacific Wharf (165 Rotherhithe Street, a modern 72-apartment building) over two months in June 2000, and the findings from the excavation were published by the Museum of London's Archaeology Service in 2003: Investigating the maritime history of Rotherhithe, by Kieron Heard with Damian Goodburn. This has provided a lot of information about the structures present at the site from Medieval times onwards. 

Previously occupied by three other families involved in the shipping industry (The Warrens, Shorters and Woolcombes), Bulls Head yard (now known as Pacific Wharf) was taken over by the ship breaking partnership of William Beatson, John Beatson and Brodie Augustus McGhie after the departure of the Woolcombes at around 1810.  According to E.J. Beck's Memorials to Serve for a History of the Parish of Rotherhithe (1907) John Beatson was of Scottish descent,  son of David Beatson who came to London in about 1790 when he was 19-20 years of age, to join cousins who were breaking ships at Surrey Canal Wharf.  Beck says that he inherited the business, which he passed to his son John, but there seems to be some confusion.  Stuart Rankin's research indicates that by 1815 William Beatson was no longer an active participant, that the Bull Head Dock was occupied by Young, hawks and McGhie by 1820 and that David Beatson concentrated on ship breaking at the Surrey Canal Wharf (the western part of the Bulls Head Yard site, previously known as Bulls Head Wharf).   Eventually the business passed to David's son John Beatson.  John, who was also was Churchwarden of the parish, ran the business until he died in 1858, after which Surrey Canal Wharf was taken over by another ship breaker, William Phillip Beech.

Principally ship breakers, they also engaged in repairs and were timber importers.  Stuart Rankin records that they supplied 4062 sleepers to the Taff Vale Railway in 1829.

Extract from a valuation survey of 1843, showing the
layout of the John Beatson yard, copied from
Museum of London archaeological report
(Heard and Goodburn 2003)
The research conducted by the Museum of London revealed a valuation survey of 1843 that recorded the layout of the John Beatson yard at that time, showing wet dock, riverside wharf, brick- and timber-built warehouses, a shed and timber storage (illustration from the Museum of London report, p.25).  It also shows the location of a Regency style house, the brick foundations of which were located during the excavations. With two rooms at the front separated by a hallway and stairs and two rooms at the back it had a pair of bay windows, overlooking their yard, and steps leading up to a front porch.  At some point one of the wooden warehouses was demolished and replaced by a crane.  There are records of a crane being purchased from a Mr Lloyd in 1832 for £115.  Areas of open yard between the various structures produced "a sequence of metalled surfaces interleaved with layers of silt, containing timber debris, fragments of ships' caulking (waterproofing material inserted between ship timbers), treenails (wooden pegs) and iron spikes" (p.27).

A selection of the names of warships that are thought to have been purchased from the Admiralty for breaking are as follows (but please note that different references have different lists):
  • Rotterdam (50 guns) 1806
  • Texel (64) 1818
  • Tagus (38) 1822
  • Treekronen (74) 1825
  • Grampus (50) 1832
  • Salisbury (58) 1837
  • Temeraire (98) 1838
  • Charybdis (10) 1843

HMS Bellerophon anchored in Plymouth Sound,
with Napoleon Bonaparte aboard. Detail of a
painting by John James Chalon
My thanks to Jaqueline Day for letting me know that Treekronen was a warship captured from the Danish.  They also purchased two prison ships.  The 74-gun HMS Bellerophon had been renamed Captivity when she was converted for use as a prison ship and was purchased by Beatson in 1836.  The other had been an East Indiaman called the Admiral Rainier, whose name was changed to Justitia for her role as a prison ship, and she was purchased in 1855.  The Beatson yard may also have broken up several of the East India Company's merchant vessels.  Beck says that they also broke up "most of the old East India Company's ships, among others the Sesostris and the Thames" (p.170).  Other warships may have been purchased through intermediaries.

St Paul's Chapel, Rotherhithe,
designed by William Beatson
Stuart Rankin has studied the complex daybooks and ledger that record the accounts of the Beatson business between 1825 and 1858, and anyone interested in his analysis should certainly read his account in the booklet Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - Bull Head Dock to the Pageants - Part 1 (Rotherhithe Local History Paper No.4a, 2000). Rankin says that the Beatsons were dealing with most of the Thames yards, and that many of the transactions between the Beatsons and regular customers were carried out on a semi-barter basis, with goods as well as cash being exchanged for services and products.  He also found a couple of cases of minor tax fiddles.

John Beatson died in 1858. Although there is a record of John having married and having had a son (also John, about whom nothing else is known), he left instructions in his will for the business to be sold.  John's  younger brother William was educated at Eton and trained as an architect, and was responsible for St Paul's Chapel in Rotherhithe. He emigrated to New Zealand, where some of the items associated with the Beatsons are now preserved. 

Many thanks to Ken Beatson for the photograph of the lovely chair, and for the Country Life article.


Anonymous said...

I have been researching the Brannon family
James Brannon (1762-1818) father
James Sedger Brannon (1805-1834)
Thomas Leonard BRannon (1808-1847)
George Butler Brannon (1813-1835)

James was in partnership with Beech, Whitaker and Brannon of Lavender Wharf, the partnership was dissolved following James death in Jan 1818

I wonder if you have found any information.
Thank you

Andie said...

Dear Anonymous. No, I have no information. I have not looked into the background to Lavender Wharf yet. However, it is on my list of buildings to research, so I will post a reply here if I find anything that may be of interest. Andie.