Yarrow & Company
(London Years)

Yarrow & Company had their origins in Poplar in the East End of London

Yarrow shipbuilders are one of the key predecessor companies of the Clydeside Shipbuilding facilities of BAE Systems. 


However, Yarrow have their roots and origins in the east-end of London where their founder Alfred F Yarrow started a business which would turn into one of the world’s leading shipbuilders.

Alfred Yarrow
Yarrow and Hilditch
Born in Stepney, London on 13th January 1842, Alfred Fernandez Yarrow had shown a talent for engineering and mechanical inventions as a very young boy.
In 1858, when just 15 years old, he started a five-year apprenticeship with Miller, Ravenhill, Salkeld and Co, Marine Engineers in Blackwall, London, who were building machinery for naval vessels. 
During his apprenticeship, he experienced many trades and attended numerous scientific and engineering lectures, taking a deep interest in electrical and mechanical matters alongside his friends, Walter Putt and James Hilditch.
In May 1859, the teenagers formed The Civil & Mechanical Engineers Society and although his father had financial difficulties, (losing his money in a copper-mine in Cornwall) Yarrow obtained a little seed capital, partly from his father and partly through his work preparing patent applications (£400).
Following the completion of his apprenticeship in 1861, Yarrow joined forces with Hilditch and together they invented a steam plough described as ‘a new form of steam cultivation’.  It proved a considerable success and they were soon approached by Coleman and Sons of Chelmsford who eventually took over sole manufacturing rights to the plough. Yarrow later went to work for them when they set up offices in London. 
Additionally during 1861, Yarrow and Hilditch designed and developed a steam carriage of which one was built to their design by engineer, Thomas Wilson-Cowan of Greenwich (who was involved in the Kent Ironworks).
Yarrow  & Hilditch Steam Carriage Yarrow & Hilditch Steam Carriage
Yarrow & Hilditch's Steam Carriage was capable of carrying eleven passengers, besides a steersman and a stoker. It had a range of just 10 miles and operated once a week between Greenwich and Bromley. 
However, due to the difficulties associated with stopping the machine, it was only permitted to operate after dark and unfortunately the project ran into many legislative problems following one notable accident involving a policeman breaking his leg when he was 'thrown from a horse that had been startled by the machine'. The incident considered so serious that it led to the passing of an Act of Parliament requiring a man to walk in front of the machine with a red flag, something later adopted for all early mechanical transport vehicles.
James Hilditch eventually left the company to take his place in the family silk business, reluctantly ending this fruitful collaboration. Alfred Yarrow pressed on nevertheless and accumulated a sum of £1,000 in royalties from the steam carriage and for his part in the preparation of working drawings of many varied engineering projects. Unpredictably, he also gained a reasonable income as an expert witness in court.
Yarrow and Hedley, Engineers, 1865-1875 (Folly Wall Shipyard, Poplar)
About this time, and after an abortive attempt to form a partnership with an old friend from his Ravenhill days, Yarrow agreed a partnership with his foreman-engineer Joseph Hedley (listed in some sources as Robert) and formed Yarrow and Hedley, Engineers. 
The new partnership acquired a broken-down riverside site on the Isle of Dogs, on the Thames at East Poplar.
Locally known as Folly Wall, (much later referred to as New Union Wharf) between the river and the Folly House Tavern, had been a barge-builder's yard and it was chosen be the headquarters of Yarrow and Hedley, Engineers who commenced business on 24th January 1865.
Yarrow Folly Yard 1893 Earliest known photo of boatbuilding on site.
The first year’s trading was carried out at a slight loss due to difficulty of getting enough work, cut prices and difficulties with estimating true costs.
12 men were employed at a total cost £2,900 against a total income £2,800. With engineering work being very scarce, their first job was to build a burglar-proof door for a safe at a Brighton jeweller and although more work was forthcoming in the second year, they sustained a greater loss. All manner of engineering work was being undertaken including machinery for sugar works and almost anything was considered.
While working with Hilditch, Yarrow had worked on a steam launch ‘Isis’ and so in 1868, Yarrow turned to marine engineering and advertised that he and the new company were willing to undertake this class of work. 
They were almost immediately successful and for seven years only steam launches were built at Folly Wall and most importantly they started making a profit.
In 1872-3, the land on the west side of the Folly Wall was enclosed and an office was built. Despite the somewhat cramped and restrictive size of the yard, the firm quickly established itself as a leading builder of steam launches.
Yarrow & Company 1875-1898
In 1875, and after some serious disagreements, Joseph Hedley left the partnership and Alfred Yarrow subsequently took full control of the company renaming it as Yarrow & Company.  Hedley meanwhile, made a couple of efforts to set up in competition with Yarrow but he was largely unsuccessful.
The freehold of both the yard and the adjoining area on which the Folly House stood was purchased in 1875 whilst residue of the lease of the public house on the site was acquired soon after. Subsequently, the yard then became known as the Folly Shipyard. 
The premises were substantially redeveloped following the acquisition of the extra land with more workshop space erected on the southern part of the site with open sheds created over the boat-building slips. 
A short-term lease for the ground that lie between the yard and Samuda Street was acquired in 1866 and when it was renewed in 1878 it saw the addition of a strip of ground along the southern edge. A measure of the growth of the company was that between 1868 and 1875 they grew from originally producing just a single, small launch built for Colonel Halpin to creating around 250 steam launches within next 7 years.
Another milestone at the Folly Shipyard was reached in 1875 when they produced the shallow draft Steam Launch ‘llala’ for Captain Young. ‘Illal’ operated on Lake Nyasa and featured heavily in the story of explorer Dr David Livingstone and the suppression of the slave trade.
Several other small steamers were built for Lake Nyasa but these were only the forerunners of a great number of other vessels built for the rivers, lakes and inland waterways of Africa, India and Burma. Many were side-paddle wheelers or stern-wheelers as well as a variety of highly specialised shallow-draft vessels including especially raised propeller boats.
The 1870s witnessed the development of the first Torpedo-Boats and the companies experience in the construction of small, high-speed steam launches proved of immediate value when the company turned to this new class of small warship. 
For Yarrow, this was a turning point and it was the beginning of their lasting association with warship construction, not only for the Royal Navy but also for many of the other navies around the world. 
Alfred Yarrow had encountered Captain Flunter Davidson, a veteran of the American Civil War in 1875 and this meeting proved to be very important in securing orders for torpedo boats for the Argentine.
The yard was further expanded during 1875 by the purchase of the residue of the land to the north.  This allowed Yarrow designs for small torpedo boats to be produced and sold to Captain Kasy of Baltic Shipbuilding in 1877.  The design was small enough to be carried by rail from the Baltic to the Black Sea where they were used as samples for further construction within the Baltic yards. 
Another vessel early in the development of torpedo-boats and regarded by the company as being of outstanding importance was No. 425, ordered in 1878.  She was referred to in official circles as ‘The Admiralty Experimental Boat’ and her success in achieving 21.9 knots (after extensive propeller experiments) led to the vessel being dubbed the ‘First Notable High-Speed Boat’.  It is also said that this was the starting point for Yarrow & Company as building a worldwide reputation for exceptional vessels.
Yarrow continued the successful design of this type of craft and amongst other developments they patented a flap-valve designed to protect boilermen and stokers from sudden blowbacks of steam from leaking boilers and said to have saved many hundreds of lives.
In 1880, Yarrow built the ‘Second Notable High-Speed Boat’ the ‘Batoum’ (often spelt Batoom or Batum) which was 100 feet long and constructed for the Russian Navy. Again, this was a sample boat which would then be copied many times over.
Yarrow built Batoum Yarrow built Batoum
During 1874, the company advertised their willingness to construct vessels with drafts of as little as 6 foot.  after receiving a number of orders this was accomplished with ships of up to 50 feet in length.  This also led to the construction of a famous steamer for the King of Belgium, who had subsequently engaged Mr Henry M. Stanley to explore the Congo in 1875.
The late 1870s and 1880s saw Yarrow involved with lots of work on more stern-wheel paddle-steamers for use on the River Nile especially those used on the campaigns resulting from Major General Charles Gordon’s conflicts in the Sudan.
Inez Clarke 1890
The Lotus and Waterlily were the best known of these stern wheelers and they were soon followed by several others. These were forerunners of an extensive line of shallow-draft gunboats built for colonial work and many of them accomplished incredible voyages over the River Nile cataracts and elsewhere. 
Many other interesting activities also took place at this time including the construction of a stern wheeler in 1876 for the King of Burma.
Meanwhile in London, Folly House, which had initially been used for administration and design, had been demolished in 1881 and further development of the foreshore continued including the construction of a small dock and the reclamation of some more additional ground.
Yarrow & Company had attended the Vienna exhibition in 1883 where they demonstrated an electric launch although it obviously proved far ahead of its time and generated little interest. 
Production in London continued to be strangle by a lack of space although the problem of was eased slightly when part of ‘Samuda's Yard’ was leased in 1885, increasing the river frontage of the Folly Yard by another 150ft.
In 1887, when Alfred Yarrow was 55 years old, the company was investing heavily into the construction of much larger ships and a degree of re-organisation was called for and so the firm was reformed under the new name of Yarrow & Company Limited.
The shallow draft gunboats Mosquito and Herald were built for the Admiralty for use on the Zambesi in the early 1890s and this was followed by a special aluminium boat was built for the French Navy in 1892.
Following discussions with the Admiralty, Yarrow commenced the construction of two destroyers (or more correctly Torpedo Boat Destroyers - TBD boats) in the spring of the same year. Yarrow proposed that they should be at least 180 feet long which was readily accepted.  When built, they were named as HMS Havock and HMS Hornet and designated as Havock Class.  The latter vessel achieved 27.3 knots and became known as the ‘Third Notable High-Speed Boat’.
The ‘Fourth Notable High-Speed Boat’ named Sokol, built as a destroyer for the Russian Navy and it was the first ship to attain 30 knots in open sea in 1894.
Yarrow Folly Yard 1893 Yarrow Folly Yard 1893
Mention has been made earlier of the ‘llala’ and other craft specially constructed craft for the shallow inland waterways of Africa and Asia and development of these vessels (for both peaceful and military purposes) took place towards the end of the century, alongside that of the torpedo boats and destroyers ordered by the navy.
The Engineers’ Strike, 'seeking a shorter working day’ and held in 1897, affected Yarrow along with many other companies. 
Alfred Yarrow had always been proud of his remarkably good relationship with his staff at all levels and he was disappointed when some of the Yarrow workers joined the strike.  However, those who did not were joined by a large influx of non-union labour and to protect them from reprisals they were allowed to live on board the steamer Southampton which had been bought and moved into the river near the shipyard. The workers were taken ashore for work each day in boats and thus avoided the pickets outside the gates.
The strike raged throughout most of the industry and soon spread all over Britain, lasting for over six months and many firms suffered badly. Although workers eventually returned to work with very little in the way of change, regrettably many of the shipbuilding contracts had been redirected to foreign competitors and generally speaking, industry and the country suffered as a whole.
Alfred Yarrow meanwhile had taken a tour of some of the factories in the New England State of America and had learned not only of their good labour relations but also their use of automatic machines and other labour-saving processes.
Yarrow 300 Ton Press in the Boiler Shop at the London Yard 300 Ton Press in the Boiler Shop at the London Yard
Back in the Uk the volume of torpedo-boat contracts prompted a move in 1898 to the nearby, larger “London Yard” at Cubitt Town, Poplar. The site had been formerly owned by shipbuilders Baillie and Westwood who had been wound up in 1893. The name London Yard derived from London Street, which originally gave access to a parcel of land between Manchester Road and the River Thames and it gave an additional river frontage of 450ft. Yarrow had been negotiating unsuccessfully with The Millwall Dock Company for another new site but when this failed he moved the company to London Yard, completely vacating the Folly Wall site.
Redevelopment of London Yard took place almost immediately and between 1898 -1901 most of the yard was cleared. Some of the existing buildings on Manchester Road were retained and extended but dominating the new yard was a large group of four workshop units, merged into a single building of over 200 feet by 360 feet and made of brick and cast iron with glazed roofs. They were built by Sir William Arrol & Company and housed the Engineering, Boilermaking and Shipbuilding Departments all under one roof.
Meanwhile, part of the old Folly Yard had been taken over by the Union Lighterage Company of Blackwall and the name of the premises was changed to New Union Wharf, specialising in the repair of boats.  In modern days it has now become housing blocks named Robin, Sandpiper, Heron and Nightingale Courts after some of the famous ships built at Yarrow's first yard. During this time and within the new London Yard, the Fifth Notable High-Speed Boat was created as ‘Sazanami’ built in 1899 for the Japanese navy.
In 1906, Yarrow built a motor launch with an internal combustion engine and many consider this to be real fore-runner of the motor torpedo boat or MTB. The vessel was demonstrated to King Edward VII who took a trip on the experimental craft with a mixed party of guests.
Coventry Ordnance Works
There are unconfirmed internet reports relating to a share in Coventry Ordnance Works at this time and that a company was said to be set up in 1905 by a consortium of British shipbuilding firms John Brown, Yarrow, Cammell Laird and Fairfield all with the encouragement of the British government.  Politicians are said to have wanted a third major arms consortium to compete with the duopoly of Vickers and Armstrong- Whitworth in order to drive down prices.
It must be stressed that the Yarrow connection is not confirmed and may be erroneous.
The company opened a factory at Scotstoun, Glasgow in 1910 to make mountings for heavy guns although it struggled after World War I and finally closed in 1925.
Harland and Wolff, who took over the Scotstoun works in 1920, converted the premises for diesel engine manufacture although by 1927 the factory had been put on a care and maintenance basis.  This 'moth-balling' remained until the re-armament programme of 1936 prompted the re-commissioning of the works to make gun mountings once again and this continued into the late 1960s until the Works was sold to Albion Motors in 1969.
The move to the Clyde in 1906
It became increasingly clear to Yarrow that an entirely new location for the shipyard was required if they were to continue their success and expansion.  The capacity of the London Yard was now too small and there appeared to be many good arguments for moving elsewhere including the requirement to be nearer to a source of raw materials, coal and steel.
The Directors had also identified that labour rates were growing considerably in London and that the employees were becoming less flexible in what the workforce would accept. The industrial heart of the East End was being dominated by the need for shipping as London grew into a significant world port.
Most importantly, with a revolutions occurring in engineering processes, there was a real need to be in the proximity of the suppliers of the increasing variety of specialist heavy equipment as well as a ready supply of experienced labour to operate it.
A great many possible new homes were considered but after taking everything into account, it was decided that a move to Scotstoun, on the North Bank of the Clyde and only a few miles downstream from Glasgow.
Two acres were bought at £50 per acre, half the London price per acre and between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of material and equipment were moved by daily trainloads of forty to fifty wagons.  A number of the employees relocated to Glasgow, being joined by freshly recruited and keen locals.  The contract to take over the land on the new site in Scotstoun was signed on 24th February 1906 and the first destroyer was launched on the Clyde on 14th July 1908 (a Para Class Brazillian Navy Destroyer).
The former London Yard had many subsequent uses including a pickle factory and the manufacture of Mulberry Harbour units during WW2 as well as barge repair.  Nowadays the site is predominantly housing.


1859        Civil & Mechanical Engineers Society                                              
1861 Yarrow & Hilditch
1865 Yarrow & Hedley
1875 Yarrow & Company
1887 Yarrow & Company Limited
1921 Yarrow & Company Limited (Liquidated)
1922 Yarrow & Company (1922) Limited
1966 Yarrow (Shipbuilders) Limited
1971 Yarrow & Company
1977 British Shipbuilders
1981 Yarrow Shipbuilders Limited
1985 GEC-Marconi Division / Marconi Marine (YSL)
1999 BAE Systems Marine
2009 BAE Systems Surface Ships
2011 BAE Systems Maritime


More information

National Maritime Museum - Greenwich, London www.nmmc.co.uk
National Maritime Museum - Falmouth, Cornwall www.nmmc.co.uk
National Museum of the Royal Navy - Portsmouth, Hampshire www.historicdockyard.org.uk