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.
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 also involved in the Kent Ironworks).
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 further legislative problems. One notable accident involved a policeman breaking his leg when he was 'thrown from a horse that had been startled by the machine'. The incident was considered so serious that it led to the passing of an Act of Parliament that required 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 further work 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 to a partnership with his foreman-engineer Joseph Hedley (listed in some sources as Robert Hedley) and the two formed Yarrow and Hedley, Engineers. The new partnership acquired a broken-down riverside site on the Isle of Dogs, on the banks of the Thames at East Poplar.
Locally known as Folly Wall, (much later referred to as New Union Wharf) sited in an area between the river and the Folly House Tavern. It had been a barge-builder's yard and it was chosen be the headquarters of Yarrow and Hedley, who commenced business on 24th January 1865.
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 initially employed at a total cost £2,900, set 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-based jeweller. Although more work was forthcoming during the second year, they sustained an even greater loss and all manner of engineering work was undertaken including specialist machinery for Sugar Works. Such was the state of their finances that almost anything was considered.
While working with Hilditch, Alfred Yarrow had become involved with the steam launch ‘Isis’ and in 1868 he turned his attention to marine engineering, advertising that he and their new company were willing and able to undertake this class of work. Almost immediately they saw success and for the next 7 years only steam launches were built at Folly Wal.l Most importantly however, they started making a profit.
In 1872-3, the land on the west side of the Folly Wall Yard was finally 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 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 and the 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 developed further following the acquisition of extra land which allowed more workshop space to be erected on the southern part of the site. Additionally, open-ended sheds were created over the boat-building slips. A short-term lease was then acquired for the ground that lie between the yard and Samuda Street 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 Yarrow & Company was that in the 7-years between 1868 and 1875 they had grown from originally producing just a single, small launch (built for Colonel Halpin) to now creating around 250 Steam Launches.
Another milestone for Yarrow & Company and the Folly Shipyard was in 1875 when they produced the shallow draft Steam Launch ‘Ilala’ for Captain Young. ‘Ilala’ 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 operation on Lake Nyasa but these were only the forerunners of a great number of other vessels that were built for the rivers, lakes and inland waterways of Africa, India and Burma. Many of these were 'side-paddle wheelers' or 'stern-wheelers' in addition to a variety of highly specialised shallow-draft vessels, including especially those with raised propellers.
The 1870s were important with the development of the first Torpedo-Boats and Yarrow's experience in the construction of small, high-speed steam launches proved to be of immediate value when they turned to this new type of small warship.
For Yarrow & Company, 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 navies around the world. Alfred Yarrow had encountered Captain Flunter Davidson, a veteran of the American Civil War, and during 1875 this meeting proved to be very important in the company securing orders for torpedo boats for the Argentine Navy.
This additional office space also allowed Yarrow & Company designs for small torpedo boats to be sold to Captain Kasy of Baltic Shipbuilding Company in 1877. The design was for a vessel 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 & Company continued the successful design of this type of craft whilst amongst other developments they patented a flap-valve designed, a protection for boilermen and stokers from sudden blow-backs of steam from leaking boilers. It is said to have saved many hundreds of lives.
In 1880, Yarrow & Company built the ‘Second Notable High-Speed Boat’, the ‘Batoum’ (often spelt Batoom or Batum). The vessel was 100 feet long and was constructed for the Russian Navy.
Again, this was a sample boat which would then be copied many times over.
During 1874, the company advertised their willingness to construct vessels with drafts of as little as 6 foot and 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 a certain Mr Henry M. Stanley to explore the Congo in 1875.
The late 1870s and 1880s saw Yarrow & Company 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.
The 'Lotus' and 'Waterlily' were the best known of these stern wheelers and were the forerunners of an extensive line of shallow-draft gunboats built for colonial work. Many of them accomplished incredible voyages over the River Nile cataracts and elsewhere. Many interesting activities also took place at this time including the construction of a stern wheeler in 1876 for the King of Burma.
Meanwhile back in London, Folly House, which had initially been used for administration and design, had been demolished in 1881 and the further development of the foreshore continued, including the construction of a small dock and the reclamation of more additional ground.
Yarrow & Company attended the Vienna exhibition in 1883 where they demonstrated an 46 foot electric launch although it obviously proved so far ahead of its time that it generated little interest. Production in London continued to be strangled by a lack of space although the problem of was eased slightly when part of ‘Samuda's Yard’ was leased by Yarrow & Company in 1885. This increased 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. Part of this was that the firm was reformed under the new name of Yarrow & Company Limited.
The shallow draft gunboats 'Mosquito' and 'Herald' were built for the Admiralty in the early 1890s for use on the Zambesi River, the fourth longest river in Africa. This was then followed by a special aluminium boat which was built for the French Navy in 1892.
Following discussions with the Admiralty in the spring of the same year, Yarrow & Company commenced work on the construction of two destroyers (or more correctly, Torpedo Boat Destroyers or TBD boats). The designers proposed that they should be at least 180 feet long which was readily accepted and 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, was built as a destroyer for the Russian Navy and it was the first ship to attain over 30 knots in open sea in 1894.
Mention has been made earlier of the ‘llala’ and other craft, specially constructed craft for the shallow inland waterways of Africa and Asia. The 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 that did not take part were joined by a large influx of non-union labour. To protect them from reprisals from the vociferous strikers, they were allowed to live on board the steamer Southampton which had been purchased and moved into the River Thames and berthed near the shipyard. The workers were taken ashore each day in boats and thus avoided the pickets outside the main gates. The strike raged throughout most of the industry and soon spread all over Britain, lasting for over six months and many great firms suffered very badly. Although the workers eventually returned to work with very little in the way of change, regrettably by then many of the international shipbuilding contracts had been redirected to foreign competitors and generally speaking, industry and the country suffered badly as a whole.
Alfred Yarrow meanwhile, had taken a tour of some of the factories in the New England State of America and he had learned not only of their good labour relations, but also their use of automatic machines and other labour saving processes.
Back in the UK, in 1898 an increase in the volume of torpedo-boat contracts prompted a move 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' was derived from London Street, the road which originally gave access to a parcel of land between Manchester Road and the River Thames. This acquisition gave a much needed additional river frontage of around 450 ft. The company had been negotiating unsuccessfully with The Millwall Dock Company for a different parcel of land but when this failed they moved the entire company to London Yard, completely vacating the Folly Wall site.
Redevelopment of London Yard took place almost immediately and between 1898 and 1901, most of the yard was cleared. Some of the existing buildings on Manchester Road were retained and extended although dominating the new yard was a large group of four workshop units, merged into one single building of over 200 feet by 360 feet and made of red brick and cast iron, with amazing glass roofs. They were built by Sir William Arrol & Company and housed the Engineering, Boiler-making 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 with the name of the premises changed to New Union Wharf, specialising in the repair of boats. In modern days this has now become housing blocks named Robin, Sandpiper, Heron and Nightingale Courts after some of the most famous ships built at Yarrow's first yard.
During 1899 and within the new London Yard, a 'Fifth Notable High-Speed Boat' was created as ‘Sazanami’ and built for the Japanese navy.
During 1906, Yarrow & Company built their first motor launch fitted with an internal combustion engine and many consider this to be a real fore-runner of what was to become the motor torpedo boat or MTB. The vessel was demonstrated to King Edward VII who took a high-speed trip on the experimental craft with a mixed party of guests.
Coventry Ordnance Works
There are a number of unconfirmed internet reports relating to a share in Coventry Ordnance Works at this time and that a company was said to have been 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.
It is said that politicians 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. What is confirmed however is that the company opened a factory at Scotstoun, Glasgow around 1909 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 and Company 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 out of all proportion in London and that their employees were becoming less flexible in what the workforce would accept. The agreed that the industrial heart of the East End was being dominated by the increasing need for merchant shipping as London grew into a significant world port.
Most importantly however, revolutions occurring in engineering processes continued to make them inefficient and costly. There was now a real need to be in the proximity of the suppliers of the increasing variety of new, specialist heavy equipment. Additionally, the massive demand for raw materials such as steel and coal was much cheaper in the industrial north and delivery costs into London were crippling the company.
A great many possible new locations were considered including the south coast but after taking everything into account, it was decided that a move to Scotstoun, on the North Bank of the Clyde. It was only a few miles downstream from Glasgow and appeared to have not only the existing skills in shipbuilding, it had a wealth of manpower willing to learn and adopt modern shipbuilding techniques.
Two acres of land were bought at £50 per acre, half the London price. Next came the move itself and between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of material and equipment were transported daily by trainloads of forty to fifty wagons. A number of the employees also 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 Brazilian Navy Destroyer).
The former London Yard has had many subsequent uses including a pickle factory, the manufacture of Mulberry Harbour units during WW2 and a barge repair facility. Nowadays the site is predominantly housing and virtually all traces of major shipbuilding have disappeared.
|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|
|1967||Upper Clyde Shipbuilders|
|1970||Yarrow Shipbuilders Limited|
|1977||British Shipbuilding Corporation|
|1985||GEC-Marconi Division / Marconi Marine (YSL)|
|1999||BAE Systems Marine / BAE Systems Surface Ships|
|2008||BAE Systems Maritime|