Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thomas Bilbe's "Coonatto," built at Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe, 1863

Coonatto by Thomas Goldsworth Sutton
National Maritime Museum PY8564

Coonatto was a three-masted  clipper commissioned from the partnership of Thomas Bilbe and William Perry in 1863 by Anderson, Thompson and Co. (later Anderson, Anderson and Co.) for the Orient Line for the transport on their London to Adelaide route of cargo, mainly wool, and passengers.

The relationship between Thomas Bilbe and Anderson, Thomson and Co. began when Bilbe built a ship named Celestial for James Thomson, using a patented system of wooden hull framing.  The ship was a great success and led to the contracts with Anderson, Thompson and Co., the founders of the Orient Line, for the London to Adelaide (Australia) route.  Other ships built by Bilbe for the Orient Line included Orient, Borealis, Yatala, and Argonaut (click on the links to see my previous posts about these ships).  The Orient Line.  A lovely description of the Orient Line ships survives from an 1898 article by John Arthur Barry:

As a good instance of how the sailing lines changed into steam, there existed in the sixties a fine fleet of small clippers trading to Adelaide for wool. The largest of them all was the Orient, of some 1200 tons or so. Then came the Murray, Goolwa, Yatala, Coonatto, Derra, etc., fast, fine-lined, London-built vessels of from 800 to 1000 tons, speedy but wet. Indeed, it was said of them that they took a dive on leaving the Channel, came up at the Cape for breath, and did not reappear until Kangaroo Island was in sight. This was perhaps an exaggeration, but their skippers drove them for all they were worth, and carried their main-top-gallant sails when other vessels had their upper topsails off; also imagined the world was coming to an end, or that Australia had disappeared, if they couldn't find Cape Borda in anything under eighty days. 

Coonatto in Adelaide.  From the Trove website, PRG 1373/2/6
The Orient Line became the Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company, which eventually became re-branded as the very familiar P+O.  By the time that Coonatto was built, Bilbe had moved on to a new and innovative method of hull construction: composites.  He  patented and trialled composite ship construction with the clipper  Red Riding Hood in 1857, and all ships after this one built by Thomas Bilbe were composites.  Composite ships were built with a mixture of wood and iron.  The iron frame and ribs reinforced the hull and meant that the structure could be more open, providing additional room for cargo. 

Coonatto was the first ship that Bilbe built for the Orient Line.  She was a composite clipper, a method of construction that Coonatto was 160ft 2in long with a 29ft beam.  Coonatto's entry in the 1874-75 Lloyds register provides basic information about the ship's build but also mentions an interesting addition to the ship's equipment when, in 1874, she was provided with felt and ‘yellow metal’ cladding.   The Citizan website says that traces of the cladding still remains attached to some of the exposed timber.  It sounds as though this was similar to the copper hull cladding that protected ships against the effects of wood-consuming species and improved the speed of ships through the water.  A similar modification can be seen on the restored tea clipper Cutty Sark in Greenwich, which has had the so-called Muntz alloy fastened to the entire hull. 

Orient Line passages, March 1870
She was known as a fast ship, described by Basil Lubbock as "an out and out clipper with very fine lines."   Lubbock says that she was "very wet," which means that she took a lot of water on board when under sail, but he thought that this might be due "to the hard-driving of her skipper, Begg, a Highlander, who never spared her and made some very smart passages out and home."  Coonatto's fastest times were 66 days to the Semaphore Lightship and a 70-day run, even after losing both her helmsman and the wheel overboard after broaching-to (falling foul of the wind) off St Paul's Island!

Clippers were mainly cargo carriers, although the Orient Line also carried passengers.  The clippers on the Australian run were transporting a mixture of products to London, but primarily wool in exchange for a variety of British products.  Basil Lubbock describes the shipping trade from Adelaide, which was the focus of only two or three firms, as follows:  "During the sixties and seventies, when Sydney and Melbourne were filling their harbours with the finest ships in the British Mercantile Marine, Adelaide, in a smaller way, was carrying on an ever increasing trade of her own, in which some very smart little clippers were making very good money and putting up sailing records which could well bear comparison with those made by the more powerful clippers sailing to Hobson's Bay and Port Jackson."  He goes on a little later:  "Their captains, however, were always keen in rivalry and put a high value on their reputations as desperate sail carriers.  They made little of weather that would have scared men who commanded shops of three times that tonnage of the little Adelaide clippers, and they were not afraid of a little water on deck."

The Trove website has a rather wonderful advert for Orient Line passenger places on clipper ships heading to various destinations in March 1870.  Coonatto was one of the ships heading for Adelaide under the command of Captain J.N. Smart.  Two other ships listed on the advert, Orient and Yatala, were also built by Bilbe for the Orient Line (see my post about her here).   White Eagle, another ship on the list, was also owned for a time by Bilbe and his business partner William Perry, which was actually built in Aberdeen in 1855.

The South Australian Advertiser 8th October 1870. Shipping News (with thanks to the Trove website) provides this rather nice description of Coonatto leaving Australia for London:
COONATTO, for London via Port Augusta.
"The Orient liner Coonatto has once more taken departure from the port by towing over the bars on Thursday evening. It was Captain Smart's intention to have immediately sailed for Port Augusta, where she is to complete her wool landing;  but during the night there was little or no wind; therefore the ship remained at anchor awaiting a favorable change. . . . The Coonatto weighed anchor in the roads on Friday afternoon, and presented a very handsome appearance as she beat away on a sea breeze. Towards nightfall the wind hauled more off the land and enabled her to lay a course clear of Troubridge."

The remains of Coonatto today
Copyright MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)
In 1876, carrying a cargo of copper, copper ore and wool to England from Australia, she became beached in the English Channel at Crowlink, near Beachy Head, and could not be re-floated.  At the age of 13 she was wrecked.  The wreck is thought to remain at the foot of the white cliffs.   The Citizan website provides a good description of the find: 
Situated in the Seven Sisters and Birling Gap park lies the wreck of what is believed to be the Coonatto, a London registered bark-rigged clipper (a type of three-masted ship) that sources suggest ran aground in 1876. The wreck lies on the very edge of the intertidal zone, below the cliffs at Crowlink. The keel and starboard side of the ship are still clearly visible where they came to rest. The remains include large and small timbers, some still clad in a zinc alloy, whilst the total length of the wreck is roughly 43m bow to stern.  The site is subject to the erosive forces of the waves and tides. Interestingly records describe the salvaged cargo being craned onto Crowlink Cliffs but given the present location of the cliffs and the type of cargo to be craned this suggests considerable erosion since the wrecking. The CITiZAN team hope that more research will establish the extent of the cliff that has disappeared and further understanding of the vessel.  To date we have worked with partners and volunteers in the National Trust and Eastbourne Heritage Services as well as training the first 15 CITiZAN volunteers in England to work on this site. A plan of the site has now been produced with future focus on more detailed drawings of the diagnostic elements of the ship that survive as well as an attempt to generate a 3D model of the site to provide those who cannot make the journey to the site with the chance to learn more about this fascinating wreck.

There is apparently a painting in the Seaford Museum in East Sussex that is thought to show Coonatto foundering at Crowlink, but I have been unable to find an image of it.

John Arthur Barry, writing in 1898, watched the demise of sail in favour of steam:

In the great mail steamers of that same Orient line that now lie alongside Circular Quay you may at any moment see the evolution of canvas to steam in its widest and most complete and final aspect.  Other fleets, as the White Star one, for instance, have not quite yet arrived at the termination of the process, and still own a few sailers out of the fine array of once famous Aberdeen liners—-the Damascus, Patriarch, Thermopylae, and others, such as the Centurion, Abergeldie, Maid of Judah, Windsor Castle, Nineveh, etc., whose names, as well as those of the Duthie's and Thompson's, are indissolubly bound up with the early maritime history of the colony. Now and again, perhaps, in one of the harbor bays, you may see a shapely old craft whose aspect seems in some way friendly and familiar, only that she flies a foreign flag, and has a foreign name upon the stern. Dirty, weather-beaten, forlorn as she is, with rusty rigging and paintless spars, nothing can disguise the old ocean aristocrat who a score of years ago was the pride of her captain, the crack clipper of her fleet and whose comings and goings were matters of moment, both on this side of the world and the other one.

The 6ft (1.83m) figurehead from
Coonatto now in the Jervis Bay
Maritime Museum
(Photo from the Jervis Bay
Maritime Museum website)
As far as I know, Thomas Bilbe did not make the transition to constructing steam ships, which seems odd as he was certainly an accomplished engineer. He certainly didn't do so in Rotherhithe.  It would be interesting to know what he did next, because he was clearly a very colourful character and it would be good to know more about him.  If you have any details about his life, please do get in touch.

Sources for this post:

John Arthur Barry  1898. How the Wool Went Home Long Ago. Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney, NSW.  Saturday, December 17, 1898 

Basil Lubbock 1975. The Colonial Clippers. Brown, Son and Ferguson Ltd.

Charles F. Morris 1980. Origins Orient and Oriana. Teredo Books

Stuart Rankin 1996. Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dock.


Jervis Bay Maritime Museum

The website:

The MOLA Facebook page

The 1875 Albion Dry Dock at the former Decathlon site

I have updated this post since I first wrote it on 9th April 2016, with information provided most generously by the Museum of London Archaeology's Magnus Copps, who came to the site on the 27th April 2016 to explain the site, its past and its future.  He provided some excellent new information about the brick work, the use of concrete and the structure that sat over the dry dock from at least 1914.  Thanks too to Kate Mensforth for organizing the sessions.

The dry dock shown to the left has become quite a local celebrity in the last month, but for those who are new to this topic, a warehouse-type structure that was formerly a Decathlon sports store was taken down as part of plans for a new development that will sit along the edges of the former Canada Dock (now Canada Water) and the former Albion Dock (now Albion Channel).  During the work to establish foundations an old dry dock was rediscovered, and is really well preserved.  Thanks to the developers for the new viewing platform outside the entrance to the remaining Decathlon.  Climb up a short flight of stairs and you have a perfect view of the site, with the remains of the late 19th Century dry dock clearly visible at the far side of the site.  It is really quite huge!  Wonderful to have the opportunity to see something so splendid emerging so unexpectedly from the ground, and in relatively good condition.

Click on any of the photographs to see a bigger version.

The parallel development of the two dock systems.
Davies map 1843
The dry dock is essentially part of the story of the amalgamation of two dock companies, the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company and the Surrey Commercial Dock Company.  The first commercial dock to be built in London was the Howland Great Wet Dock, which was begun in 1699 and opened in 1700.  Greenland Dock sits over the area that was once occupied by the much smaller Howland Great Wet Dock.  The dock passed through different owners until it was eventually purchased in 1807 by the specially-formed Surrey Commercial Dock Company, and new docks and timber ponds were built in a line to the west, each flowing into the next.  At the same time, the Grand Surrey Canal Canal company had been formed in 1801 to build a canal that eventually reached Croydon and Peckham.  It opened in 1804 but was by no means the commercial success that its investors had hoped for, and the success of the nearby docks encouraged the Grand Surrey Canal Company to ask for permission to start building docks.  This being granted in 1811 the company and immediately started using the canal infrastructure to create a dock system of its  own which, running east to west, was more or less parallel to that of the Surrey Commercial Dock Company, with whom they were now in serious competition.  Accordingly, the Grand Surrey Canal Company eventually changed its name to become the Grand Surrey Canal and Docks Company.  Price wars followed, undermining both companies, and the decision was taken to amalgamate them into one large company, which became the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1864.  The situation at this time is reflected in the 1868 Ordnance Survey Map.  [This history is the short and simple version, but you can read more about the full and rather complicated story on my previous posts, which I have listed at the bottom of this one.]

The old cut from Main Dock (renamed Albion
Dock) into the old Albion Pond.
Godfrey Ordnance Survey Map of 1868

Click to expand.
Following the amalgamation of the two companies, various decisions needed to be made about the future of the docks.  One of the first things to change was the name of individual docks and timber ponds, with Main Dock being renamed Albion Dock.  Links were made between the formerly separate dock systems, with new cuts and locks between the two, but more ambitious plans were being rolled out.  The dry dock is not shown on the 1868 map, but it is on the 1894 map, and this is because it appeared as the result of major engineering works to expand the dock system.  The second even more considerable difference between the two maps was the addition of Canada Dock, connected to the older Albion Dock of 1860.  The course of Albion Dock is today marked by Albion Channel, the small canal that links Surrey Water (formerly Surrey Basin) and Canada Water.  In 1875 Canada Dock was created, a vast, strangely shaped and ambitious piece of engineering that carried the dock over the area now covered by the shopping centre and car park, established specifically to handle the vast new iron vessels and their high-volume cargoes.  It became the biggest dock in the system at this time.  This area had been in use as timber ponds.   

As shown on the map to the left, a cut connected Main Dock and Albion Pond.  A bridge passed over the cut, but there are no archaeological traces remaining of that bridge to show what it looked like, and there are no known photographs of it surviving.  

The dry dock showing the new Canada Dock
together with the place where the old cut was,
replaced by the dry dock, in red, and the
new cut between Albion Dock and Canada
Dock in green.
In the new scheme, Canada Dock replaced Albion Pond and most of Canada Pond, but Quebec Pond and Centre Pond were retained to its east.  Canada Dock had to be connected to Albion Dock, just as Main Dock had been connected to Albion Pond, in order to link it into the rest of the network.  

The original cut from Main Dock into Albion Pond shown in the red circle on the map above was far too small to be suitable for the new, larger ships that Canada Dock was built to handle.  So the old cut  was closed at its southern end and converted into the dry dock that we see on the Decathlon site, making excellent use of the former link between Main Dock and Albion Pond.   This is shown on the map to the right in red.  A new entrance, much wider and longer, was established to its west to link Albion Dock and Canada Dock, and is also clearly visible on the 1894 map, marked in green on the map to the right

So we know that the dry dock dates to roughly 1875, which is why it is not on the 1868 map but is so clearly shown on the 1894 and 1914 maps as a dock in the bottom edge of Albion Dock.   It was around 4.5m deep.  I would guess  that it was used for repairing barges and lighters that were essential to the loading and unloading of cargo from the ships that used the docks.  Full automation never took over in the Surrey Commercial Docks, and in spite of large cranes along many of the wharves barges and lighters were part of the permanent dockland landscape of Rotherhithe, an essential but often battered component of cargo handling. The dry dock probably remained in use until quite late in the history of the docks prior to their closure in 1970.  It was still above ground during the construction of Canada Water tube station, which took its name from the surviving square corner of Canada Dock, and was captured in a photograph in 1996 (see the photo at the end of this post).  The dock must have been filled in and buried shortly after that.

Given that the Albion Dock dry dock has been buried for around 20 years (or more probably because of it), it is in remarkably good state of preservation.  The photos on this page show that it was made of at least two types of brick.  The pale beige stock brick along the sides belongs to the original cut between Main Dock and Albion Pond.  When it was converted to a dry dock black engineering brick was added at the lock end, a type of brick that was in common use around the docks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The black engineering brick was often used on corner pieces of docks and locks, and particular properties that made it valuable for this purpose.  Where the modern rectangular block of grey cement now stands were a pair of lock gates.  At the opposite end cement was used to block and reinforce the former cut to create a dry dock.  Cement was a new material at this time, and most uses of it had been somewhat experimental up until around 1870.  At the dry dock it was poured into an armature of wooden planks (a technique called "shuttering") until it was set, leaving unmistakeable marks of the planking along the sides of the concrete, clearly visible in one of the photographs below.  Given that it has survived for over 140 years, this early use at Albion dry dock can be said to be a firm success!  On the 1914 Ordnance Survey map an additional black line surrounds the dock, and this shows the outline of an open-sided structure that was built over the top of the dry dock.  A photograph of it (or a newer version of it) survives from 1975. 

The dock has been professionally surveyed and recorded by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who have a watching brief to monitor the site.  

As to the future, we were told different things at the 6pm and 6.30pm talks by the representatives of the development.  At the 6pm talk the woman told us that the dry dock will be preserved in the basement of the new development, but although it will not be visible it is possible that guided tours will be available.  At the 6.30pm talk a man, this time, said that it would be sealed beneath concrete and would not be available to visit.  So who knows?  I daresay we'll find out after the building has been built.  At least MOLA has been given access to survey it.

The photographs below were taken during April 2016.

And from the London Docklands blog, here's this wonderful photograph from 1996, showing the water-filled dry dock at far left, roughly half way down the photo in the green area during the construction of the Canada Water tube station.

With thanks, as usual, to Stuart Rankin's booklets about the history of the area, and to Magnus Copps from the Museum of London Archaeology for coming to talk to local residents about the site on 27th May 2016.


To find out more see some of my earlier posts:

The development of the Surrey Commercial Dock system 1609 - 1909
A history of the Commercial Dock Company: A history of Norway Dock and the timber ponds 1811 - 2014
The development of Albion Dock and the timber ponds of the Grand Surrey Dock and Canal Company

The establishment of Canada Dock by the Surrey Commercial Dock Company in 1875

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A super visit to Stave Hill Ecological Park

I went to have a look at the Albion Dock dry dock currently available to see via a viewing platform at the former Decathlon site (about which I have posted here), and at the last minute decided to cut back home via Albion Channel and Stave Hill Ecological Park.  It was threatening rain but apart from spitting at me occasionally, it obliging held off.  The snake's head fritilleries are particular favourites, and were the main reason that I was tramping around in an unplanned and muddy visit in suede three-inch heals, and there was plenty to see including a jay (lousy photo so I've buried it at the end), flowers of all sorts, and the new floating duck houses on Globe Pond.  I ran into Steve Cornish (better known to some Twitter users as @slooshbag5), wet to the knees from installing the duck houses in spite of having borrowed the Ecological Park's best waders!  None of the photos are particularly special, but I've posted them as a true appreciation of having all this on my doorstep.  You can click on any of them to see the bigger version.  Now where did I put that suede brush?