Constructors of some of the greatest British ships and the home of the submarine for over 120 years
The shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness was founded in 1871, and over the past 150 years it has produced some of the most significant marine vessels.
However, in addition to all the sea-faring activities, Barrow also contributed to the world of ordnance and artillery and for the purposes of this website these activities are combined.
1876 - Barrow Shipbuilding Company
Barrow Shipbuilding Company was founded in 1871, by James Ramsden, a former Superintendent of the Furness Rail Company.
The rail company had built their own docks in Barrow as a rival to Liverpool Docks, and to attract much-needed trade to this remote area of North Lancashire (now Cumbria). It had created a 19-mile rail link to intersect the Carlisle to Lancaster line and it was this that proved pivotal to the industrial growth seen in the Barrow area.
A key part of this rapid industrialisation was the Barrow Iron Works, which had opened in 1859, as a result of the discovery of extensive quantities of hematite (iron ore). Industrialist James Ramsden, often considered to be the Father of Barrow, had risen to become the Managing Director of the Furness Railway Company.
It was common during the era for astute businessmen to serve in multiple roles and Ramsden subsequently became Managing Director of the Barrow Hematite Steel Company in 1866. It was in this appointment that he identified the potential for shipbuilding.
1843 Map of Barrow
The Barrow Docks had been built and developed between 1863 and 1881, to handle the increased quantity of iron being exported by sea and in 1876 the Barrow Iron Works was reported as being the largest of its kind in the world.
Ramsden meanwhile, had created the Iron Shipbuilding Company although its name was soon changed to Barrow Shipbuilding Company when it was eventually registered in 1871.
The company was based in the Devonshire Dock on the site of a yard originally established by William Ashburner in 1847. The Devonshire Dock had been named incidentally after William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, a local aristocrat and key investor in the project.
The first vessel to actually be launched at Barrow was Yard No 12 - ‘Aries’, a private vessel for James Ramsden himself. Described in the logs as the Steam Launch 'Aries', it was christened by Lady Ramsden on 12th May 1873. Rather confusingly, later that year and to mark his elevation to knighthood, the yard also created a second vessel named the 'Sir James Ramsden', which it also described in the logs as a Steam Launch despite it being a yacht rather than launch.
1873 Aries Steam Launch
'Aries', the first ship produced at Barrow, no longer exists as in 1915, it was to become the 'SS Aries' and took on a war role for the Admiralty.
Tragically, she was lost in the Solent later that year whilst rushing to the aid of an exploding HMS Forward. In her haste to save life, she was also struck by a wayward mine and sadly all 22 men on board were lost.
Records show the first ship to be entered into the order book was ‘The SS Duke of Devonshire’, designed by the hugely experienced David and William Henderson and Company from Clydebank.
The 'Duke' was an iron-screw steam passenger and cargo ship, ordered by the Eastern Steamship Company for the Australian emigrant trade. At 3,257 tons, she was eventually launched at the end of 1873 and over the next 10 years the Barrow shipyard produced more than 100 ships.
1897 SS Duke of Devonshire launched by Louisa Cavendish, Duches...
Despite this huge level of activity, the first military order to be placed with the yard by the Admiralty was not until 1877.
In an account of the size of the yard in 1882, it was described as:
The Barrow Yard contains everything necessary for the creation of an Ocean Steamer including sails, rigging, stores, all adaptable whether carrying freight or passengers - It may all be had of the Barrow Company.
As you enter the main gate, to the left are the Offices, Joiners Shop and the Saw Mill. On the right there is the Smiths Shops and the Frame-benders' shed with the Drawing Office just beyond. The Joiners' Shop is 300 feet long and 60 feet wide with every kind of modern machinery.
1900 Joiners Shop
The area next along is the slipway devoted to a vessel of 4,100 tons, with engines of 3,800 horsepower, being constructed for the Peninsular and Oriental Company. When the company was at work on the keel of the Furnessia, visitors had an opportunity of seeing a new arrangement of hydraulic riveter, designed by Mr. R. H. Tweddell, and constructed by Messrs. Fielding and Platt, of Gloucester.
Nothing can give a better comparison of the size of the ships in production as City of Rome or the Furnessia seen on the stocks, with the Aries (a yacht of just 300 tons) placed between them.
Beyond the Furnessia are slips for two sister ships of 3,800 tons and 2,500 horsepower, ordered by the Société Générale de Transports Maritimes, of Marseilles. Beyond the French boats comes a 4,000 ton ship, specially constructed for the cattle trade. The company have an order for a second 4,000-ton ship for the Peninsular and Oriental Company. With work continuing day and night, electric lighting is being installed throughout the Shipyard and workshops.
Passing by the subway, we reach the Engineering Department which occupies an area equal to that of the shipyard. To the left is the Coppersmiths' Shop, Brass Foundry and the Engineers' Smithy. The foundry boasts seven ordinary Pot Furnaces as well as a large Reverberatory Air Furnace for heavy castings. The Smithy meanwhile, shakes with noise from the 2-ton steam hammer and three smaller, less powerful examples.
1900 Barrow Steel Foundry
On the opposite side of the works are two buildings, one containing the Iron Foundry and Boiler Shop with the other occupied by the Turning and Erecting Shop. The foundry is capable of turning out the largest castings required for the monster marine engines of the day and it is here that they cast parts of the bedplate for the City of Rome's engines, on their own weighing 34 tons.
In the Boiler Shop, the boilers for the Furnessia and City of Rome are under construction. All these are 19’ x 14’, with 1 ¼” plate. The shells and tube-plates are manufactured by a new and ingenious drilling machine, drilling eight holes at once whilst alongside sit number of Mr. Tweddell's hydraulic riveters in almost constant use. In the space between the Boiler Shop and Engine Shop is a huge furnace for heating and vertically bending the large plates for the shells of marine boilers. In the furnace, the plates are heated while standing on their edge and passed through the bending rollers.
The top of the furnace is at ground level so that they can be easily be moved by portable crane. These rollers (made by Scriven and Co of Leeds) bend the plate resting on its edge on the bed-plate. The allows huge plates to be formed with ease. Close by is the water tower for the accumulator for the 100-ton crane, (constructed by W.G. Armstrong of Elswick) which was needed for the placement and fixing various machinery for the new ships. The crane has the greatest capacity of any in the world.
1890 Vickers Diesel Marine Engine showing valve system
The Engine Shop is scarcely large enough for the press located within although it does contain an excellent range of milling tools to produce components for Barrow's revolutionary marine engines. It also features a gigantic, double-standard slotting machine and a very large screwing machine.
Overall the Shipyard and Engineering Works simply dominate Barrow and the surrounding area with more than 1 out of every 2 working men employed within the walls of this enormous endeavour.
William John was appointed as General Manager having served terms as the Iron Ship Specialist at the Admiralty before moving to become a leading expert at the Lloyd's Register Society).
City of Rome
1881 also saw the launch of the City of Rome, a British passenger liner designed to be the largest and fastest liner on the Atlantic. Built for the Inman Line, the contract had initially called for a steel hull William John persuaded the owners to accept an iron one instead.
At 8,453 tons and 520 feet in length, she was truly a transatlantic monster.
In 1886, Barrow experienced their first relationship with Thorsten Nordenfelt, a Swedish inventor and industrialist who financed the production and development of the Nordenfelt 1.
This steam-driven boat was around 100 foot long with a displacement of 160 tons, and was considered to be an improved version of a submarine that was built in Stockholm during 1882. It was based on the 'Resurgam', a submarine designed and developed by an Englishman, The Rev. William Garrett of Liverpool.
A second vessel, the Nordenfelt 2, was built at the Barrow Yard in 1887, this vessel was much larger at 125 feet long and displacing 230 tons.
Its hull form was more similar to that of a conventional ship and on full power it achieved a speed of 14 knots.
Nordenfelt's were not at all successful, despite being fast and manageable when near the surface. Unfortunately however, when operating as a submersible they lacked longitudinal stability and were described as being almost uncontrollable. Vessels produced at Barrow were ultimately sold to the Ottoman Empire despite one submarine foundering on the Jutland (Danish) coast on her delivery voyage to Russia.
The Turkish boat 'Abdul Hamid' was built at Barrow before being dismantled for delivery by ship. It was then re-assembled in Constantinople and launched on 6th September 1886 under the supervision of its English designer (Rev Garrett). She was launched in front of many international dignitaries and after testing, she became the first submarine in history to fire a torpedo whilst submerged.
1888 - Naval Construction and Armaments Company
During 1888, Barrow Shipbuilding Company was taken over by the Naval Construction and Armaments Co, which began the manufacture of naval armaments as well as completing over 100 vessels of all types.
Sir Hiram Maxim
Meanwhile a southern based company, Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company, had been producing a range of light artillery, machine guns and ammunition.
Unfortunately, an acrimonious dispute between Hiram Maxim and Thorsten Nordenfelt (as mentioned in early submarine developments). Maxim objected to various restrictions proposed in a 'buy-out' deal and their bitter dispute left the company exposed.
In the end a settlement had to be dictated by the House of Lords, the result of which saw the company become part of the Naval Construction and Armaments Company.
Sadly, Sir James Ramsden died in 1896 after a lingering illness and is buried in Barrow Cemetery.
1897 - Vickers, Sons and Maxim
In 1897, Vickers, Sons and Company absorbed the Naval Construction and Armaments Company which included the holdings in Maxim, Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company. This would now enable them to build and fully equip the largest battleships in the world, all under the one name of Vickers, Sons and Maxim.
1900 Workers leaving after shift at the yard
Vickers, Sons and Maxim suffered a lack of skilled labour at Barrow at the turn of the century which was said to be mainly due to a lack of suitable housing.
1904 Vickerstown Douglas Street and Powerful Street
Many workers were said to be living on the SS Alaska, moored inside the docks and so the company acquired a large plot of land on the adjacent Walney Island to build what would become known as Vickerstown. The first 1,000 houses were completed in 1901 and tenant workers moved in immediately.
1910 End of shift over Walney (Jubilee) Bridge
The journey to and from Walney Island could be unpredictable to start with as it was totally reliant on the operation of the ferry until the Walney Bridge was built in 1908. For 27 years it existed as a Toll Bridge until it was named Jubilee Bridge to mark the silver jubilee of King George V and all charges were scrapped.
Vickerstown still exists today and in 1988 it was declared a conservation area in order to protect the character of the buildings.
Up until 1900, the British Admiralty had refused any involvement with submarines, considering them to be a defensive weapon designed for weaker maritime nations. In fact, one representative of the government is quoted as saying of submarines that they are 'under-water, under-hand and they are a damned un-English weapon'.
However, the French were rapidly building up a submarine fleet which undoubtedly helped persuade them otherwise and in 1901 Barrow produced the Holland 1, the first submarine to see service with the Royal Navy.
1901 Holland 1
Holland 1 was built and launched on such secrecy that the build shed was sign posted as the 'Yacht Shed', with all the various components labelled 'For Pontoon No1'. She was the first of a six-boat class ordered by the Admiralty and was the lead ship in the first Submarine Flotilla. Holland 1 served until she was lost whilst under tow for decommissioning in 1913. She was recovered in 1982 and put on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
1919 Airship Drawing Office Xmas card
The further expansion of the Vickers business continued and in 1902, they acquired a half-share in the Clyde shipyard of John Brown and Company, who were producing warships and merchant vessels, submarines and marine engines.
They also created sheds for the manufacture of the ‘Mayfly’. A Zeppelin-like rigid dirigible, the project met with disaster when the airship ‘broke its back’ in 1911, and further work was abandoned at Barrow.
Later ventures into airships (such as the Barnes Wallis designed R100) were carried out at RAF Howden, Yorkshire. 1911 also saw the company name shortened to Vickers Limited.
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