Westwoods – From the Thames to the Indus

The Thames Ironworks company (birthplace of West Ham United FC) originated in 1837 as Ditchburn & Mare Shipbuilders. Two of their subcontractors and managers, Robert Baillie and Joseph Westwood – along with a third man, James Campbell, who retired not many years after – started their own business on the Island in 1856. Just a year later, the company was thriving, and their newly-built London Yard works was reported to contain a smiths’ shop, boiler shop, machine shops, joiner’s shop, iron store, engine- and boiler-houses, furnace shed, offices and a gridiron (iron grid built on the foreshore, and used for ship repairing).

A decade later and shipbuilding on the Thames was in steep decline. The company suffered a period of financial difficulty before it changed its business focus in 1872, concentrating on civil engineering projects in general, and prefabricated iron and steel bridges in particular. Their bridges are still to be found – in use – throughout Britain and the rest of the world.

Some bridges were small…

Cosham Station Pedestrian Bridge

Cosham Station Pedestrian Bridge


Esher Station Railway Viaduct

Some were large…


Great Kei Bridge, South Africa

And some were very large – in particular the Attock bridge over the Indus in present-day Pakistan.


Present-day map of the region. Attock is marked.

Attock lies on the path of the historic land route from the Indian sub-continent, through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, and from there to Europe. This route was used not only for trade, it was and remains extremely important for military reasons. Recently, it has been important to NATO for the supplying of troops in Afghanistan, and also to the Taliban for their own supply purposes.

When the East India Company annexed the Punjab in 1849, the British military immediately made plans for a permanent crossing over the River Indus where it passes close to Attock.

The first serious idea was to build a tunnel, and work started in 1860. However, the project was confronted with severe practical and financial difficulties, and when the main boring system broke down in the summer of 1862, the tunnel was abandoned.


Attock Tunnel Plan

As a temporary solution, the British used a boat bridge (Alexander the Great used a similar bridge in 328 B.C.).


The boat bridge across the Indus, near Attock

The boat bridge was suitable only for light traffic, however, and the outbreak of the war with Afghanistan in 1879 led the British to decide that a railway line should be built up to Peshawar at all costs, including a bridge over the Indus at Attock. Westwood, Baillie & Company won the contract to build the bridge at its London Yard works, in sections which would then be shipped to India for assembly at the site.


Contemporary newspaper illustration of the bridge construction.

The bridge has two levels: an upper for rail traffic, and the lower for other road traffic. The entrance to the west side of the bridge was constructed so that oncoming traffic would have to negotiate a sharp 90 degree turn, making it more difficult to storm the bridge from that side.


Pedestrian and road traffic level.



In the 1920s, the bridge underwent significant repair/reconstruction to remedy some span distortion caused by the heavy loads. But, it is still operating, carrying rail transport and light road traffic (a modern, concrete road bridge has been constructed a little further upstream).

The bridge after repair/reconstruction between the central spans.

Attock Bridge not forgetting its roots. The East End.

Westwood, Baillie and Company's crest, still attached to the bridge

Westwood, Baillie and Company’s crest, still attached to the bridge

This short film features the bridge (and how mad Pakistani traffic evidently can be).

Three months after the opening of the bridge, Joseph Westwood passed away.

Memorial to Joseph Westwood in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

In spite of its success in bridge building, the company was wound up in 1893 and Baillie was declared bankrupt.

Joseph Westwood Jr carried on with the business, at Napier Yard, opposite Cahir St, where his father and Baillie had been operating for some years already. Westwood Jr was also declared bankrupt in 1896.

1896, London Standard

1896, London Standard

Westwood Jr died in 1898, followed a year later by Robert Baillie.

However, the company named “Joseph Westwood & Co” continued to operate and prosper. So much so that they ran out of room in the Napier Yard, and opened a large workshop close by, on the corner of Harbinger Rd and West Ferry Rd.

scan0046-copy-2- 14884200890

This very long transport attracts plenty of viewers as it manoeuvres out of the narrow Cahir St (having already tackled the even tighter Marsh St turn). The public are standing on the site of St Cuthbert’s church, which was destroyed during WWII. This area is now part of the Harbinger school playground.

west ferry rd (5) 14884250318

The cutting shield used to create the Dartford Tunnel is repaired in the Napier Yard, for re-use in the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.

c1960. Photo: Island History Trust

c1960. Photo: Island History Trust

In 1968, the company built the tunnel shield for the cargo tunnel at Heathrow Airport.

In 1971, after more than a century of manufacturing on the Island in one company form or another, Joseph Westwood and Son went into voluntary liquidation.


London Gazette

Demolition of the Joseph Westwood workshop on Harbinger Rd (junction West Ferry Rd).

harbinger-rd 14876876967

Photo: Peter Wright

Three guesses what is on the site today?


It’s a similar picture at the original Westwood, Baillie works on Napier Yard.

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7 Responses to Westwoods – From the Thames to the Indus

  1. Pingback: Los 7 Puentes de Avellaneda – Made on the Isle of Dogs | Isle of Dogs – Past Life, Past Lives

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  3. Bill. Y says:

    The footbridge at Romford Station was made by Westwood’s . When I used to use it I always had a little private smile, thinking “I know where you come from”
    Nan and Grandad both worked in Westwood’s, but the Napier yard was just a debri when I was at Harbinger. It had the temporary police station on it for a while.
    The old Westwood’s Workshop on the corner was Pritt Steel Stockholders in the late 70s early 80s.

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