Shipbuilding on the Thames and Thames-Built Ships

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Roger Owen (ed.), Shipbuilding on the Thames and Thames-built Ships, Roger Owen, West Wickham (2004), 172 pp., £12.00.

Roger Owen has brought together a number of papers from a symposium on shipbuilding on the Thames, held at the Greenwich Maritime Museum in 2003. Of the ten papers included, six in particular deal with aspects of London shipping or shipbuilding.

Susan Rose's carefully researched 'Royal ships on the Thames before 1450' starts when the King's ships consisted of a few cogs kept at Portsmouth. With recurring wars their number reached almost thirty by the middle of the fourteenth century. These were mostly based on the south coast, as opposed to London, though building and repairs were carried out in the London area until renewed war in the early fifteenth century drew such activities themselves southwards. Such migration and fluctuating fortunes will doubtless interest naval historians, while the detail regarding the building and maintenance of vessels has wider appeal. Stuart Rankin outlines the career of William Evans, who built steamships at Rotherhithe from the 1820s. In doing so he helped establish passenger lines on the Thames, but, more important, his connections brought Post Office contracts. Indeed, he had secured tenders before he even had a shipyard and, having overreached himself, he was bankrupt by 1827. (A useful appendix shows Evans's interest in Sepping's system of hull construction.) For the 1850s, Roy Fenton's 'Scott Russell and the screw collier' discusses the problems inhibiting bulk-carriage steamers and Russell's answers: iron hulls, screw propulsion, water ballast tanks. However, like others in this fast-changing business, Russell took too much on and was caught up in Brunel's Great Eastern fiasco (though Fenton clearly thinks Brunel was chiefly to blame). Without going bankrupt, Russell closed the yard, while Palmer's yard in Jarrow forged ahead. The difference between the men? According to Fenton, Russell was 'a gentleman . . . perhaps a dreamer'. Palmer, on the other hand, had 'commercial acumen [and the] ambition to make money'.

Ian Buxton's paper turns our attention to the importance of dry docks, which he analyses from the seventeenth century. At that time there were sixteen on the Thames, the grandest being the navy's at Chatham. But not until the nineteenth century did mercantile dry docks proliferate, especially for steamers, when longhaul runs began through Suez. The last opened at Tilbury, in 1929, but up-river docks were already feeling the pinch and when they began to close after 1945 the dry docks gradually disappeared; none survived to 2003.

Since maritime historians frequently ignore naval architects, it is good to read Fred Walker's brief account of Marmaduke Stalkartt, apprenticed at Deptford till 1771, then 'lost' until 1781, when his Naval Architecture was published. …


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