Shipbuilding and repairing had been carried out at Limehouse and Blackwall since before 1500, and for centuries the Thames was the centre of Britain’s shipbuilding industry thanks to its proximity to City merchants and the Admiralty.
However, in 1831, twenty five years after the opening of the West India Docks, there were still no shipbuilders of note on the Isle of Dogs. In fact, at the time, there was not much of anything on the Island, apart from along the riverside in the west.
The enormous increase in international maritime trade in the 1700s meant that ever larger ships were being built. However, limitations in the structural strength of wood meant a limit on the size that ships could become (and also, as ship sizes grew, the amount of space lost to timber frames grew exponentially). On top of this, around 1800, shipbuilding timber was becoming scarcer and more expensive, and most had to be imported.
Iron had been readily available for centuries in Britain, and the first iron-hulled ships were built in the 1760s. However, they were expensive to build and to operate – not only because they relied on marine steam engines and other technologies which were in their infancy – but also because iron plates of sufficient size and strength where not yet available at a low enough price. By the 1820s, however, large wrought iron plates could be manufactured on a large enough scale and at low enough prices to make them economically viable for use in the construction of ships.
Virtually none of the traditional shipyards along the Thames switched over to iron shipbuilding. The iron shipbuilders were all ‘newcomers’ who built new yards, and the Isle of Dogs, with its undeveloped river frontage very close to the City, was the perfect place to set up business.
The first iron shipbuilding yard on the Island – and also on the Thames – was built by general engineer William Fairbairn in 1836. Fairbairn was a Scot; many owners of major Island engineering firms where from Scotland or the North of England who had moved their businesses south to take advantage of the opportunities offered by iron shipbuilding. Fellow Scot, marine engineer David Napier, built his engineering works adjacent to Fairbairn’s “Millwall Iron Works”.
Speaking in 1859 he said … that he built ‘upwards of a hundred-and-twenty iron vessels’, of which nine were built in sections at Manchester and the rest at Millwall. Millwall got off to a good start. The Ludwig was the first iron steamer built for the Bodensee.
In 1837 the Sirius, built to ply the Rhone from Marseilles, was a triple first for Fairbairn – the longest iron steamer of her day, the first to be launched on the Thames, and the first to be classified by Lloyd’s Register. In 1838 Fairbairn’s twenty-one year old daughter, Anne, launched the first iron steam-yacht, for the Emperor of Russia, an occasion witnessed by ‘thousands of spectators’. By the end of 1840 nearly 600 were employed at the Millwall yard, by which time thirty-one iron vessels had been built.
– Richard Byroms, University of Huddersfield ‘William Fairbairn experimental engineer and millbuilder’
By 1860, virtually the whole of the east side of the Island was occupied by shipyards of varying sizes.
After serving an apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Gateshead-born John Stewart came to London, and was soon appointed managing engineer to the Shipowners’ Towing Co. After some years’ service in this capacity, he commenced business on his own account, and purchased small premises in Russell Street, Blackwall. The business increased so rapidly that in 1854 he moved his ‘Blackwall Iron Works’ to a larger site to the south, off Folly Wall on the Isle of Dogs. Here he built a large number of tug boats, but he specialized in the construction and fitting of marine steam engines.
Alfred Fernandez Yarrow
Yarrow was one of the few Island shipbuilders who was a ‘local boy’, having been born and raised in Stepney. In 1866 he established a small engineering firm in partnership with Robert Hedley on a former barge-builder’s yard known as Hope Yard. The partnership did not last long, and from 1875 Yarrow ran the business alone.
Survey of London:
This plot had a river frontage of only a little over 90ft and the further drawback that a right of way ran across it to the Folly House. The freehold of both the yard and the adjoining area on which the Folly House stood was purchased in 1875, however, and the residue of the lease of the public house was acquired soon after. The yard then became known as Folly Shipyard.
Yarrow’s Yard was extended, small section by small section, followed by a large extension southwards into the former Samuda Yard (the firm had been dissolved on Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda’s death). Even this was not enough space, and Yarrow transferred his business to London Yard in 1898.
Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda
In 1852, Samuda built a large shipyard between the newly-built Manchester Road (just north of the corner with Glengall Road) and the river. Working originally with his brother, and specializing in marine engine building, ship building was added to the business in 1843. According to his 1885 obituary:
From 1851 he occupied himself almost exclusively in iron and steel shipbuilding, and constructed a large number of vessels for most of the principal navies and leading mercantile companies. Amongst them may be mentioned the “Thunderbolt,” the first armour-cased iron vessel built; the “Prince Albert,” the first iron-clad cupola ship built; and the “Mortar Float No. 1,” the first iron mortar vessel built.
More recently he built two very fast steel vessels, the “Albert Victor” and the “Louise Dagmar,” each 1040 tons burden and 2800 H.P. with a speed of 18.5 knots per hour, for the Channel service between Folkestone and Boulogne; and subsequently the “Mary Beatrice” with a speed of 19 knots per hour.
Of late years the principal part of his work was the construction of armour-clad vessels, the most recent being the Brazilian turret ships “Riachuelo” and “Aquidaban.”
The firm did not build only iron ships, they also built iron-clad wooden ships. The following image of Samuda’s Yard appears to show the construction of a wooden ship.
Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co.
In 1856 Westwood, Baillie, Campbell & Co. established a shipbuilding yard – known as London Yard – south of Samuda’s shipyard.
The firm built a number of ships at the yard including HMS Resistance.
James Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established a shipyard directly north of Pier Street, which at that time extended across Manchester Road to Cubitt Town Pier. Survey of London:
Ash, who had been naval architect to both C. J. Mare and the Thames Iron Works Company, established an impressive yard here, with an extensive two-storey brick office and works building.
John Dudgeon (1816-1881) and William Dudgeon (1818-1875), after starting their career in Scotland, moved south, and in 1856 to set up The Sun Iron Works on Lollar Wharf (off Westferry Rd opposite the Tooke Arms). One of their first contracts was to build an engine for the Thunder, a ship designed by John Dudgeon and being built by Messrs Lungley in Deptford.
The Thunder was launched in December 1859, and soon demonstrated that she was the fastest steamer yet provided with a screw propeller. She was a handsome vessel, ship-rigged, with clipper bows, and her masts and funnels had a slight rake which gave her a very attractive appearance.
R. A. Fletcher – Steamships, the Story of their Development to the Present Day (1910)
In 1861 the brothers went into shipbuilding themselves, at a yard directly south of Pier Street (which at the time crossed Manchester Rd). The first ship they built was the 150-foot Flora, the first twin-screw steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The innovative twin-screw design allowed much faster and fuel-efficient steamships to be built. The result was fast and highly manoeuvrable ships with low draughts that were ideally suited for events taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean – the American Civil War.
A few days after the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln announced a land and sea blockade of the rebellious, southern states. The newly formed Confederate States of America had only 35 ships in its navy, and turned to privateers to penetrate the blockade, using fast steamships that could outrun the Union ships. The Dudgeon brothers exploited this situation and specialized in the manufacture of fast twin-screw blockade runners for the Confederacy, at times employing up to 1500 men at their yard. They also sold similar ships to the Union on the other side of the war.
In 1848, John Scott-Russell and partners Albert and Richard Robinson took over Fairbairn’s Millwall Iron Works. Survey of London:
Their products included sugarcane crushing machinery, but the best-known part of the business was shipbuilding, in both wood and iron. Unusually, vessels were launched from the yard fully fitted out. Ships built by the Robinsons and Russell included the iron steamer Taman, completed in 1848 for the Russian government to operate from the Black Sea ports.
In 1853, the adjacent Napier’s works were destroyed by fire and Scott-Russell leased that land too.
His by now much larger yard would be dominated in the coming years by the construction of the Great Eastern – launched in 1859 – which would eventually bankrupt him (see this article for more details).
The Millwall Iron Works
After the launch of the Great Eastern and Scott-Russell’s bankruptcy, the Millwall Iron Works wer taken over by C.J. Mare & Company and then – in 1862 – by The Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company. Survey of London:
The Millwall Iron Works of the 1860s was the most ambitious industrial concern ever established in Millwall, employing between 4,000 and 5,000 men, who enjoyed conditions remarkable for the period, with half-day Saturday working, a canteen, sports clubs and works band.
Like the Thames Iron and Shipbuilding Works, the Millwall Iron Works not only built ships but also manufactured the iron from which they were built. The two establishments were, according to a contemporary view, ‘of infinitely greater national importance’ than the royal dockyards, with a production capacity for iron ships and armour greater than that of the whole of France.
The works were on either side of Westferry Road, linked by a horse-tramway. On the riverside were building slips, landing wharves, sawmills, joiners’ shops, an engine factory, foundries, pattern-, mould- and sail-lofts and a mast factory. On the landside was concentrated the heavy plant for iron forgings, including hammered armour-plate, rolling mills for turning out bar-iron and angle-iron, armour plate and the rough bars used in the forge and the rolling mills.
The scale of the armour-plate mill was vast, with a flywheel 36ft in diameter, weighing more than 100 tons.
The opening of the West India Docks in 1806 was accompanied by a small increase in the population of the Isle of Dogs in absolute terms (it rose from approximately 150 to 380 in the years 1801-1811). Virtually all those who worked in the West India Docks in the first couple of decades lived to the north, or a ferry journey away in South London; the small increase was mainly due to the opening of firms capitalizing on their proximity to the docks.
The population of the Island only grew dramatically on the arrival of iron shipbuilding firms and related industries (marine engineering, chain and anchor manufacturing, rope works, etc). In 1831, five years before William Fairbairn opened the first iron shipyard on the Island, the population stood at just over 1300 people – in 1861 it was close to 9000. Thomas Cole, in his superb 1984 thesis Life and Labor in the Isle of Dogs: The Origins and Evolution of an East London Working-Class Community. 1800-1980 describes it thus:
The Island’s economy was fundamentally different from that which existed throughout most of the rest of East London. The small workshops and domestic sweated Industries which characterized Stepney and Bethnal Green did not exist in large numbers in the Isle.
Instead, its large Industrial sites and fine water communications attracted great shipbuilding yards, engineering firms. Iron works, and the like. By the 1860s the
peninsula’s Industrial structure was more akin to the great manufacturing centers of the Midlands and the North than to that of London as a whole. Indeed contemporaries sometimes described the Island as the “Birmingham” or “Manchester of London” because the “articles manufactured [there] are large.
The Island’s greatest growth Industry from the mid-1830s until the mid-1860s was Iron shipbuilding. At various times in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, fifteen major shipbuilding firms were located in the peninsula. Some of them were among the largest industrial enterprises in the world.
A large number of houses were built during this period – and historical records indicate that many of these were built in haste, and of poor quality. Also, for decades, the Island’s infrastructure, particularly the sewers, could not cope with such an increase in land usage and population. Nevertheless, it must have been quite an experience to live on the Island at the time.
The boom in business and housing was not to last for long, however. On 11th May 1866 (a day that became known as Black Friday), the London bank and discount house Overend, Gurney & Company collapsed owing about 11 million pounds (equivalent to £1 billion today). The bank’s collapse contributed to panic and loss of confidence in financial institutions on an international level.
In Britain, the bank interest rate rose to 10 per cent for three months and more than 200 companies, including other banks, failed as a result. Unemployment rose sharply to 8% and there was a subsequent fall in wages. The consequences for businesses and residents on the Isle of Dogs were particularly bad due to an unfortunate combination of factors:
- The Island’s expansion boom of the previous years was based on over-extended credit, and the rise in interest rates crippled many companies and ventures.
- Many shipbuilding and other riverside companies had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co, itself, and some of shipbuilders’ shareholders were even partners in the bank (for example, when the Millwall Iron Works & Ship Building Company Ltd was incorporated in 1862, all the shares were allocated among ten subscribers, who included David and Arthur Chapman and Robert Birkbeck — partners in Overend, Gurney & Company).
- Despite their reputation for high-quality work, Thames shipbuilders were more expensive than their northern and Scottish counterparts, and their business success was based on the availability of customers prepared to pay more for this quality, such as the Admiralty and foreign governments. Business had also been buoyed by the Crimean War and American Civil War. In 1865, this source of orders dried up just as the financial crisis started.
By the end of December of 1866, 27,000 shipbuilders on the Thames were unemployed. Following January, 30,000 on relief in Poplar alone. Whitaker’s Almanack in 1869 puts the number of unemployed as high as 40,000.
– S. Pollard – The Decline of Shipbuilding on the Thames
… a mournful scene of desolation greets a visitor to the once famous yards of Green, Wigram, Somes, Young … the great works and factories at Millwall, once occupied by Scott Russell, are dismantled and closed, the machinery sold, the factory tenantless, and the shipbuilding yard – the birthplace of the Great Eastern – a grass-grown waste. The adjoining yards of Mare & Co. and the London Engineering Co, are in the same conditions as Scott Russell’s yard. Samuda Bros… are idle, and on the Isle of Dogs, where a few years ago one could count 16-20 large steamers, there are now four vessels only. One of these is… for the British Government. The other three are fast steamers for the opium trade on the coast of China. The prosperity of London as a shipbuilding port is at an end, and no one here looks for revival of the business.
New York Times. 3 September 1869
East London had always been a poor place, but the levels of poverty – and on such a scale – had never been witnessed before the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. Unemployment and poverty on the Isle of Dogs were worst. It is estimated that half the Island’s houses became empty as residents left to find work elsewhere, and there were even reports of deaths due to starvation. The Isle of Dogs was a desolate place. Relief funds were set up to help East Londoners in general, and Islanders in particular, including schemes to pay the passage of those who wished to migrate overseas. (Queen Victoria, by the way, refused to assist the fund).
For more information about what was at the time named ‘The Distress’, refer to this article.
Some firms managed to carry on, precariously, sometimes in a different form, but the bank collapse all but marked the end of large iron ship building on the Isle of Dogs:
- James Ash, who had borrowed heavily from Overend, Gurney & Co. to set up his business, was forced to close his shipyard after the bank collapse.
- The Millwall Iron Works closed in 1868, its works broken up and sold to different companies.
- On the strength of a large order book, Samuda’s survived until 1885 but closed on the death of the owner.
- Westwood-Baillie diversified into the manufacture of bridges and other large iron constructions and would continue on this basis (later evolving into John Westwood & Co).
- Dudgeon’s survived the crash, also due to a large order book, and even expanded their yard in 1869. However, they were not financially robust enough to survive the mislaunch of their 70th ship – the 300 ft long frigate Independencia for the Brazilian Government.
- Yarrow’s was one of the few companies that was not too troubled by the bank collapse due to their being the successful manufacturer of small, fast vessels (they specialised in torpedo boats) which could not be matched by other builders.
Survey of London:
In due course, the local economy revived, although the Thames shipbuilding industry was much reduced in size. The numbers employed in shipbuilding and marine engineering on the Thames had increased from an estimated 6,000 men in 1851 to 27,000 in 1865, but fell to 9,000 by 1871, and to 6,000 by 1891. Some yards were able to continue in business until the early twentieth century by taking specialized work, and the industry experienced a brief revival during the First World War, but most of the shipbuilding capacity on the Thames was lost to the Clyde, where costs were lower.
Yarrow’s did not remain long at London Yard… Alfred Yarrow’s business had suffered badly during the engineers’ strike of 1897–8, and the high rates in London, coupled with the increasing costs of materials and labour, eventually made it impossible for him to compete with the firms on Clydeside and Tyneside. Between 1906 and 1908 the Poplar yard was gradually shut down and the firm moved to new premises at Scotstoun in Glasgow, accompanied by most of its machinery and 300 of the work-force.
The departure of Yarrow’s marked the end of significant shipbuilding on the Isle of Dogs, but really the industry lost its importance to the Island on the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co. in 1866. For thirty years before that, the Isle of Dogs was the centre of iron ship construction and innovation on the Thames, which itself was the most important site for iron ship building in Britain and the World. A short period, really, but one which changed the Isle of Dogs from a mixture of docks, mills, pasture and marsh into an industrial centre the like of which London has not seen before or since.