HERE YESTERDAY AND GONE TODAY
The Story of Cooks Shipyard by Bill Ellis
In the current era when ‘here today and gone
tomorrow’ seems the norm it is, perhaps, interesting to reflect on what
was here yesterday and gone today. Many
sea and riverside sites around the U.K. have seen great changes in recent
decades. Ship and boat
building and repair yards, many of considerable antiquity, have gone –
probably forever – to be replaced by other developments.
The villages of Wivenhoe
and Rowhedge in Essex have witnessed such changes.
Situated on the tidal reach banks of the River Colne a couple of
miles downstream from Colchester/Camulodunum, England’s oldest recorded
town, maritime activity of one sort or another had been carried on in the
area from very early times. In
A.D.43 Roman Emperor Claudius came on the scene with a number of elephants
and his Legions led by General Aulus Plautius.
In due course these conquerors established a supply base on the
southern bank of the river facing across to the Wivenhoe site.
Corbita, the substantial
trading vessels of the period, could not progress upstream as far as the
Fort and Colonia established by the 20th Legion at Colchester.
In consequence the Wivenhoe and Rowhedge reaches served as the ‘outport’.
The local gravely spits of land enabled visiting vessels to be
careened for repair and building work to be carried out.
By the Middle Ages
‘out-port’ and construction/repair activity seems to have become well
established. During the last
four centuries such activity became concentrated on 3 main sites, one at
Rowhedge and two at Wivenhoe. A
wide variety of trading ships, fishing craft, warships and all sorts of
specialised vessels, even the ‘odd’ submarine were built or repaired.
However, within the last
20 years all three yards have ceased to carry out their long established
roles. The Rowhedge and the
oldest ‘historic’ Wivenhoe shipyard sites are now residential estates. The ‘downstream’ site at Wivenhoe, derelict since 1986,
will shortly have a mainly residential development started where once
ships were built and launched. At
this site real shipyard work did not start until about 1840.
For the following century mostly small craft were built mainly by
the Husk family.
In the early years of the
1939/45 war Vosper Ltd., took over the yard as a ‘shadow’ facility for
the building of Motor Torpedo Boats and the repair of various coastal
forces craft. At the end of
the conflict Vosper no longer needed the extra capacity and left leaving
an expanded yard which had a large shed with 4 slipways plus a further
covered slip for larger vessels and a wet berthing basin.
The next 40 years would see a rise and decline of activity on the
site rather typical of many other instances around the country.
James W. Cook &
Company Ltd., a London based organisation founded in the mid 19th
century operated as wharfingers and lightermen on the Thames.
The company also built barges and repaired tugs etc., at Orchard
Wharf. In addition they had
diversified into general haulage, garage ownership and building work.
A subsidiary company The Bulk Oil Steamship Company operated a
number of tankers – the ‘Pass’ ships.
Cooks Thames side installations being unable to cope with all their
requirements, the ‘Pass’ ships went to Wivenhoe Shipyard Ltd., the
very long established ‘up river’ yard, which had a fine dry dock built
by Forrest in 1888. Seeing
the ‘downstream’ yard vacant and for sale Cooks decided to buy it.
This purchase plus 10 acres of adjoining land was completed in
March 1947. To operate the
yard a new company James W. Cook & Co., (Wivenhoe) Ltd., was
incorporated in January 1948.
At first only Cook Group
work was handled. Barge and
tug repair jobs plus maintenance of the Bulk Oil Steamship tankers.
Then some building of motor tank barges, small tugs and a mixture
of other barges and lighters – some for another Cooks subsidiary Wiles
Lighterage Company – was undertaken.
A few small boats and yachts were also constructed during this
period. Soon it was realised
that capacity was sufficient for outside work to be taken on.
The Festival of Britain
was in course of preparation and the London County Council placed an order
with Cooks of Wivenhoe for floating pontoons.
These were installed at Battersea Gardens and the Royal Festival
Hall in 1951. An
ever-increasing number of orders for a mixture of craft followed.
Some were for the U.K. but others for the Middle and Far East.
Wm. Cory & Son Ltd.,
ordered a Diesel Station Tug ‘Regard’.
She was launched on 28th July 1958.
This little ship must have pleased the Cory management for later
the same year they took over the Cook Group.
In the subsequent restructuring the Wivenhoe arm emerged as the
only recognisable unit bearing the ‘Cook’ name.
Under the General Management of Mr. A.G. Smith and Yard Manager Mr.
Frank Hodgson the enterprise progressively expanded. The 10 acres of adjoining marshy land were consolidated with
material emanating from the site being developed about 2 miles away for
the building of the University of Essex.
In due course the yard facilities comprised five slipways, eight
building berths (4 under cover), a two hundred feet long fitting out basin
and a variety of cranes including one with a fifty ton lift.
Throughout the ‘60s a
steady stream of coasting vessels, dredgers, tugs, pilot boats and all
sorts of barges and lighters took to the water from the Colne side
slipways. Quite a number were
destined for foreign parts including the Falkland Islands.
With the expanded capacity
available to company developed the process of using flat strakes of hull
plating wherever practicable. This
practice resulted in the ‘Colne’ class of casting vessels being built.
The first M.V. ‘Moler Venture’ was completed on 3rd
November 1972. This 940dwt
189-foot long ship went to work carrying refractory bricks from the
continent to the works of Moler Products Limited, at Colchester.
Being in fashion this riverside wharf is currently being
redeveloped with residential flats, student accommodation for the
University and a large restaurant complex.
Other events of note
during 1972 were bids for the company group by Jessel Securities and Court
Line. However, The Ocean
Steamship Company eventually won the day and took over ‘Cooks of
During the years 1966 and
1967 the number of vessels of all types built reached a total of 56.
These were mainly fairly small craft for the yard’s potential.
During the following decade ships of increasing size largely based
on the ‘Colne class design left the slips.
J. & A. Gardner of
Glasgow commissioned 5 coasters of varying configurations 3 being ro-ro
ships. Another order from
north of the border was from Peacock Salt Company, for the 1665dwt vessel
‘Peacock Venture’. Among
other U.K. customers were Onesimus Dorey & Sons Ltd., for 3 cargo
vessels; Spillers - 4 coasters; Crescent Shipping - 7 coasters, and
Manchester Ship Canal - 4 tugs. The
rest of the world joined the order book for ‘Cooks’ built vessels.
2 fishing vessels made their way to Bangladesh, a pair of
passenger/cargo craft went to the Solomon Islands and various Middle
Eastern and African buyers were catered for.
With over 120 directly employed staff ‘Cooks’ had become the
major employer in a small community and the ‘Shipyard’ was held in
considerable respect, and indeed affection, by the local population.
On launch days of major
contracts, parties of children from the local schools attended to
experience and enjoy the ‘christening’ ceremonies performed by
assorted dignitaries. Organisations
in the town were quietly helped in many ways.
To supplement actual new building work repair jobs were also
undertaken in the earlier years.
Unfortunately from the
mid-70s the order book began to progressively thin down. However, in 1981 an order was received for two specialised
cattle carriers – M.Vs ‘Buffalo Express’ and ‘Zebu Express’ –
from Dutch company Vroon B.V. Each
was arranged to carry 740 live animals on three decks.
The 66 metre long vessels were required to meet Lloyds, Netherlands
Shipping Inspectorate, Australian D.O.T. classifications and incorporated
sophisticated air conditioning heating, feeding and waste disposal
requirements. The ships were
respectively completed in June 1983 and February 1984.
Although both ships were
technically satisfactory other problems arose.
These resulted in Ocean Steamship contemplating closing down the
yard in March 1984. Energy
and Marine Industries then purchased the business.
Shortly after this two
substantial orders were gained. The
first was for 36 dumb barges required by Wm. Cory for London waste
disposal work. The steel for
these was brought in, cut and shaped, from Hungary by road transport.
The Jubilee Sailing Trust
then ordered the building of the 175 foot steel Sail Training barque
‘Lord Nelson’ designed to enable people with disabilities to
experience crewing at sea. In
addition a tug and five barges were ordered by Pass International for
service in Ghana and the P.L.A. ordered a driftwood vessel.
Then what sadly proved to
be the last order for a vessel to be built at ‘Cooks’ arrived.
It was the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority for a hopper
dredger to be called ‘Kilmourne’.
Despite the fact that the
Prince Andrew was on hand for the keel laying and Lady Violet Aitken
performed the launching ceremony of ‘Lord Nelson’ the contract
experienced difficulties. The
Cory order also ran into problems. In
April 1986 James W. Cook & Co. (Wivenhoe) Ltd., went into voluntary
On May 26th
1986 ‘Lord Nelson’ left the Colne under tow by T.S.A. Tugs Ltd.,
‘Towing Wizard’ with Felixstowe tug ‘Gray Echo’ standing by for
her initial ‘voyage’ to the Vosper Thorneycroft yard at Woolston,
Southampton. There the barque,
which when the keel was laid was heralded as the first large sailing
vessel built in a British yard for 75 years, was christened by Miss Sarah
Ferguson on July 4th.
‘Kilmourne’ was launched by Mr. Frank Ledwidge, Chairman of N.I.F.H.A.
on 24th July and completed in August 1986 bringing to an end 39
years of shipbuilding/repair work by Cooks on the Wivenhoe yard site.
Sine 1947 512 vessels of
all types had been built. The
first was yard Number 1001 motor tug ‘Cloudy’ and the last yard number
1515 allocated to the Pass International tug destined for Ghana, Numbers
1050, 1174 and 1175 were not used.
December the sale by auction of all yard plant and equipment took place.
The Liquidator Mr. Martin Spencer of Messrs. Casson Beckman proved
to be most kind and co-operative to those wishing to preserve as much as
possible of the last of the long local maritime heritage for posterity.
In fact Mr. Spencer
expressed considerable pleasure that there was such local interest.
It seems that during wide experience in his profession he had often
been disappointed to find that no great efforts were made to save
irreplaceable plans, records and the like.
Happily in the case of Cooks, virtually 100% of the plans and
records went to Essex Record Office and the half models, photographs and
other artefacts lodged with a small local museum, The Nottage Maritime Institute.
For the last 16 years the
site which saw so many happy, productive days has lain sadly derelict,
deserted and regrettably not immune from vandals and fire raising activity
which destroyed a pair of listed buildings.
In 1991, a Tidal Surge
Barrier was constructed across the River Colne from the Wivenhoe (ex
Cooks) site to the Fingringhoe shore.
Together with control and machinery rooms for the Barrier, which it
is hoped will prevent any local recurrence of the 1953 disaster, an office
for Colchester Harbour Master was provided.
Wivenhoe Sailing Club benefited from the scheme.
A smart new Club House with hard and other facilities was provided
just the seaward side of the Barrier although the Club continues to have
use of the historic ‘town hard’ in the centre of Wivenhoe waterfront.
Commercial traffic up to
Colchester Hythe and the wharves at Rowhedge and Wivenhoe had so declined
by 1999 that continuance of Colchester as a Port was no longer viable.
On 14th April 1999, M.V. ‘Ruhrort’ of Duisburg
brought the last cargo up the River Colne to Rowhedge Quay.
In 2001 the Harbour was
closed by Act of Parliament.
So nearly 2000 years after
the troops of the 20th ‘Valeria’ Legion handled their
cargoes of wine, other goodies and stores while their comrades serviced
the Roman ships the River Colne fell silent.
The only maritime activity, apart from a small number of inshore
fishing craft, to enliven the scene had become virtually entirely leisure
and pleasure based.
After the customary
meetings, enquiries and sundry planning discussions development of the ex
Husk//Vosper/Cooks shipyard site seems imminent in 2003.
A mixture of residential dwellings, small business premises and
public toilet facilities are envisaged.
The local inshore fishing
community will be catered for with berthing provided. Taking account of the very attractive riverside setting,
rural outlook and one hour (on a good day!) – rail connection to the
heart of the City of London an expansion of the steadily growing commuter
population is confidently expected. One
can only speculate on just how long it will be before the days of ships on
slips are forgotten except by the present ageing locals who will surely