Vosper Thornycroft (UK) Ltd
The individual origins of both Vosper & J.I. Thornycroft can be found on different pages of the website but for the purposes of this page we begin at the time of the merger.
Centred on the South Coast of England, warship design and construction company Vosper Thornycroft (UK) Limited were formed in 1966, through the amalgamation of leading shipbuilders Vosper Limited and J.I. Thornycroft & Company.
This combination of over 100-years of ship and boat building expertise brought together the largely complementary technical resources and shipbuilding facilities of two major companies, globally-renowned in the world of shipbuilding for both military and private customers.
The new organisation consolidated their design and construction facilities, allowing them to compete for business with a wide portfolio of vessels ranging from small Patrol and pleasure craft, to large modern Frigates and warships.
In addition, the new company promoted its other activities including ship-repair in its Southampton yard alongside an assortment of engineering work round the South Coast. The skills of the workforce in heavy engineering also provided some more unusual projects such as the production of some of the form-work that can be found at Southend Pier, restored after the fire during the 1970s.
Reorganisation after the merger also saw sustained technical development, modernisation and improvement of their joint facilities and Vosper Thornycroft emerged as one of the world’s leading designers and builders of advanced warships. They operated from a Head Office in Fareham, Hampshire and from five other main establishments in the Portsmouth area.
The Woolston Yard underwent substantial modernisation after the 1966 merger including a covered building with internal berths for two ships of up to frigate size. Later developments also included a completely new production facility with a floor area of 15,000 square metres.
Portsmouth-based shipbuilding was concentrated at a small shipyard on the Camber at Old Portsmouth, with land access from Broad Street and from a much a larger facility known as The Portchester Yard, (on the northern shore of Portsmouth Harbour) close to the boundary of the City of Portsmouth and the Borough of Fareham.
The Portchester Shipyard was extensively modernised under a £6 million development scheme making it one of the most modern shipyards in the country for the construction of ships of up to around 800 tonnes. These Portsmouth Yards specialised in building large, Fast Patrol Boats and Corvettes as well as the completion of glass reinforced plastics hulls, moulded elsewhere before completion as patrol craft.
The company also entered the hovercraft business in 1968 and it was Portchester that was chosen as the centre for this specialist work.
Vosper Thornycroft prided themselves on building advanced and elegant warships of their own design and they were hugely successful in export markets. They established a base in Singapore with Vosper Thornycroft Uniteers Ltd where they produced a wide range of patrol and utility vessels for both industry and foreign government customers.
Meanwhile back in the UK, an outstanding example of Vosper Thornycroft’s growing success was the production of the Mark 10 Frigates for Brazil, under a contract spanning ten years and valued at over £200 million. Vosper Thornycroft were the only shipbuilding company in the world (amongst those approached by the Brazilian Navy) who were prepared to invest the time and effort in producing an original design ready to meet the very specific Brazilian requirements.
This design work had to be done on a very tight time limit and it placed them in a strong competitive position to secure the contract, which was signed in September 1970.
The programme provided for the building of 4 of these large, modern and heavily armed frigates at The Woolston Yard, with two more being constructed in the Naval Dockyard in Rio de Janeiro, all with the materials, equipment and services being supplied by Vosper Thornycroft.
The contract was an outstanding success with the last British-built ship ‘The Liberal’ leaving port in late 1979, most significantly within a couple of days of its original delivery date as planned at the contract signing in 1970.
The company also completed a batch of Type 21 Frigates which were launched during the early part of the 1970s, whilst another major export contract was won for the design and construction at the Portsmouth Yards of 2 Mark 9 corvettes for Nigeria in 1975.
Woolston, which sat alongside the former site of Vickers Supermarine Limited, employed over 3,000 people and specialised in the construction of Frigates of up to 4,000 tonnes, as well as other warships of comparable size. It also became world-renowned for the building of glass-reinforced plastics mine countermeasures vessels.
Vosper Thornycroft had also produced both the expertise and machinery for 6 Fast Patrol Boats of the October Class for the Egyptian Navy and although the vessels were originally built in Alexandria, they were modernised, re-equipped and fitted with new weapons at Portchester. These export contracts only represent as small fraction of the work done by Vosper Thornycroft for overseas navies and in all over 140 vessels of several types have been built for 27 different countries in the period which began in 1966.
Obviously, the company built several ships for the Royal Navy in the same period and their close association with the RN is a crucial factor in winning export contracts.
Significant RN work had included the construction at Woolston of the Hunt Class MGMV’s of glass-reinforced plastics construction. The first of these, HMS Brecon, was handed over to the Royal Navy in December 1979.
At the time, these ships were the largest vessels built in GRP anywhere in the world and Vosper Thornycroft worked closely with the Ministry of Defence (Navy) on the use of GRP for vessels of this class for many years. They built the pioneering experimental Minehunter HMS Wilton which played an important part in the operations to clear the Suez Canal of mines after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
The Woolston Yard also played a substantial role with the Royal Navy and three Type 42 destroyers: HMS Southampton and HMS Nottingham - both fitting out, and HMS Gloucester, one of the ‘stretched’ Type 42 destroyers.
Vosper Thornycroft’s South Coast facilities (in its various guises), have built numerous types specifically for the Royal Navy since 1966, producing over 30 vessels including 7 Frigates, a minelayer (HMS Abdiel), the prototype VT2 Hovercraft, 3 Fast Training Boats (to the company’s own design), 8 GRP MCMV’s and the Fast Patrol Boat HMS Tenacity.
At Portchester, they also completed the major task of fitting out the Royal Navy's first Boeing-built hydrofoil, HMS Speedy.
A source of immense pride during the history of Vosper Thornycroft was that it was largely responsible for the design of the Type 21 Amazon Class Frigates, under a Ministry of Defence contract for which it later become Lead Yard for the class. Vosper Thornycroft had a big stake in the international warship market and many other successful fields of operation.
The whole shipbuilding industry was to change however when the Labour Government instigated The Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977, which saw Vosper Thornycroft become part of the nationalised British Shipbuilding Group, which initially joined together 27 major shipbuilding concerns.
Thankfully, the Vosper Thornycroft name remained throughout although sadly by 1982 all was not well within the industry and over half of the 32 shipyards had been closed to reduce what was said to be ‘over-capacity’. The Portsmouth Yards survived thankfully and went on to build Six 52-metre Missile-Armed Fast Patrol Boats of the Ramadan Class for Egypt, under a contract worth £150 million and of which some are still in service today.
The Portsmouth yards finally re-emerged after a management buy out in 1985 and it flourished through successful sales of warships, especially for export. Within 3 years it had acquired the specialist military boatbuilder Halmatic, also based in Portchester.
The Southampton group operated predominantly from the Woolston Shipyard on the River Itchen at Southampton, which became Vosper Thornycroft’s largest single establishment.
During the mid-1980s and despite the fading threat of the Cold War years, the company continued to win orders and with tensions in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, Vosper Thornycroft were awarded many orders from that part of the world.
The end of the Cold War cut severely into the company's military-related orders and in the 1990s Vosper Thornycroft successfully reduced its reliance on military and other shipbuilding orders. It extended its operations into Marine Products / Support Services and Integrated Logistics.
Much of the company's diversification effort was completed by a series of acquisitions which allowed it to develop its support services into Training and Administration roles within the Royal Navy.
A major rationalisation of Vosper Thornycroft in 2002 led to the formation of the VT Group which, although no longer involved directly in shipbuilding, still exists today in various forms and industries.
The final steel ship to be launched at a Vosper Thornycroft Yard was HMS Mersey (P283), a River Class Patrol Boat launched on 25th January 2003.
VT Shipbuilding relocated shortly after into Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth, alongside its famous Naval Dockyard. The Woolston Yard was sadly closed in 2004 whilst Portchester was later sold to Trafalgar Wharf Ltd and still accommodates a wide variety of marine activities.
In 2008, VT Shipbuilding was then merged with BAE Systems Glasgow-based Surface Fleet Solutions and subsequently created BVT Surface Fleet, which also incorporated the Govan and Scotstoun Yards. The remaining sectors of the VT Group were acquired by The Babcock International Group who retained its UK operations before selling the remaining sectors to The Jordan Company, a Private Equity Group.
When, on 30th October 2009, BAE Systems acquired the VT shareholding in the venture, they renamed the organisation to BAE Systems Surface Ships Limited before eventually joining forces with BAE Systems Submarine Solutions to create BAE Systems Maritime, the current incarnation of the former Vosper Thornycroft shipbuilding activity.
|1866||John I Thornycroft & Company|
|1871||Vosper Company / Vosper Limited of Portsmouth|
|2008||BVT Surface Fleet|
|2009||BVT Surface Ships Limited|
|2011||BAE Systems Maritime|