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The Wivenhoe Encyclopedia

 Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

Shipyards

Wivenhoe had been famous in the mid-19th century for the building of ocean racing yachts by Sainty and Harvey. Apart from smaller boat-builders there were two main shipyards. The upstream yard by the railway station was taken over in 1888 by Forrestt’s from Limehouse, who constructed the dry dock and built a great variety of steel ships, employed a workforce of some 300, until their bankruptcy in 1922. To make matters worse, in 1936 the big shipbuilding companies obtained legislation banning small shipyards from steel boat-building for forty years. But with the sudden demands of the war the yard was reopened as the Wivenhoe Shipyard from 1939 until 1961 for naval work, but managed by the Rowhedge shipyard. It then became the site for Wivenhoe Port.

At the downstream yard James Husk built small smacks and yachts from the 1840s until 1937. This yard was also reopened in the war, by Vospers of Portsmouth, building motor torpedo boats from 1940 until 1946. They were finally succeeded by James W. Cook & Co (Wivenhoe) Ltd, who built many types of craft – coasters, dredgers, tugs, pilot boats and lighters – launching over twenty a year in the 1960s. They continued to build boats, less profitably, until their liquidation and closure in 1986. One of their last boats was the three-masted ocean sailing ship, the Lord Nelson.

Shipbuilding history - Don Smith

The history of the shipbuilding quay at Wivenhoe was that, after the First World War, there was a demise of shipbuilding, and this particular yard here, more or less closed. As a young boy, I can remember living down at the bottom of the village here, wandering around, them building a small tug, and that would be about 1934/35. Only one. The rumour went round Wivenhoe that John Brown’s on Clydebank was going to open the shipyard again. But it was a Mr Brown from London, who actually came and built one boat. I was always down there, messing about. I used to look through the knot-holes in the wooden fences along there, see what was there, building a tug, and I used to see all the machinery there and everything. But what followed that was that the industry went even further and further downhill, and the big shipbuilders got together and they put an Act through Parliament, which put an embargo on the small shipyards, and closed them down. And an embargo was put on Wivenhoe, which stated that there was no steel ships to be built there for another 40 years. There was a big sale. They sold everything. Even took the railway lines up. The whole thing was stripped and just left bare grass and weeds.

The Wivenhoe Shipyard reopened in November 1939, and it was run by the Rowhedge Shipyard which had managed to keep going during the Depression, and the Admiralty turned to them, and they formed a small company called ‘Wivenhoe Shipyard,’ and they continued in business until 1961. 

Just along the Quay from there was a little boatyard, owned by James Husk. Now, they’d started here in 1840, and they were in pleasure boats and fishing boats and small yachts, and they’d managed to tick over right through the Depression, and they were in business right up until 1940/41, when the yard was taken over completely by the Admiralty, and a complete new building called a ‘shadow factory’ was built, and that was for the production of motor torpedo boats, from Vospers at Portsmouth, because they’d been blitzed completely. And this place here, at Wivenhoe, was one of a few which they built to produce torpedo boats. They went on to become, eventually, James W Cook, which was in business till 1986.

Workers’ houses - Brian Green

I was born in number 9 Manor Road, which was what was known as the ‘24 Row.’ There’s 24 houses, and apparently, so I remember my mother saying, they were built for the shipyard workers in the 1914 War. People came in, to build ships, and they provided houses for them. They were all small terraced houses, but we had a nice garden with ours.

Wartime revival - Olive Whaley

My father had to be at work at half past seven in the morning, and he always used to leave at ten past seven, and so he walked to the Rowhedge Ferry, and there were quite a lot of men from Wivenhoe who worked over there, because before the War Wivenhoe Shipyard was not in operation, it was not in use, so the shipyard workers all went over to Rowhedge Ironworks, and there were quite a lot of them. He used to finish work at five o’clock, so he’d be home at twenty past five. It was that regular. Then it was the War that made the opening up of the Wivenhoe Shipyard again. 

Vospers came to where Cook’s was, and it was a thriving place then! When the hooter went at half past twelve, the High Street was full of bikes, with the men coming home to lunch. And there was always the noise of the Shipyards, the banging and it wasn’t so much the riveters, because they were soon taken over by the welders, but my grandfather was a riveter, and you didn’t hear so much of the noise of the riveters, but there was always banging going on, and I know somebody complained at the noise when the barrier was being built, and I said, ‘But it’s just like the old days, you know, when the Shipyards were there,’ because of the noise - it was just something that accompanied life – that noise. It’s quite sad, isn’t it, that it’s gone now.

Wartime: Rowhedge and Wivenhoe Shipyard processes - Bill Webb

[I started as an apprentice in the Rowhedge Shipyard in 1938, and worked in the Wivenhoe Shipyard in 1942-5.]

The lines of the vessel, or the ship, whatever is being produced – is completed in the Drawing Office, then a copy of those lines comes out to the loft, it’s the first stage. And the loftsman lays them down, full size, on the floor, and makes sure they are faired in all directions. And then, if it’s a steel vessel, one has to strike all the frames, because at the stage of design and laying off, you’re working on ten stations, which are a tenth of the length of the waterline, and then when you strike all the frames, you then have to pick all those up as each line crosses those frames, and transfer it on what we used to call a ‘screed board.’ I’m talking about, now, let’s say a coastal tanker, which we built there, and one would lay it out on a screed board, and you’d actually transfer all those points that you picked up off the floor, on to this board, and it would be in body section, centre line, and you’d have the fore body on one side, and the after body on the other side, so that you got each frame clearly marked. And that would be done in chalk. And then you would screed over this – there’s a knife, a ‘screed knife,’ which was a turn backed knife, and with battens, you would come round the battens and go over those chalk lines, so that you got indentation on the board all the time. And you might have a hundred frames.

Now, that would go down to the Iron Shop, which is in the yard itself – the loft was behind the Drawing Office. In the yard itself, you’d got an area set out for platers, frames, and the furnaces. There were two furnaces. There was one narrow furnace, which was for the frames, and another furnace for plates, and we had to have a furnace for plates because, sometimes, you got a very sharp tuck under the stern, where the rudder and the stern post was, and there were some nasty plates under there all had to be furnaced, especially if they were thick – they would be three-eighth, something like that. To bend them into position. Moulds were made, and they were bashed round the mould, like a shoe last, almost. So Govan the frame bender would make a template of each frame, with a piece of flat bar, about two and a half by half inch, and they would be bent flatways, and that would be tried on the screed board, and you’d have to get that perfectly right with the screed board, for each frame, then it was taken to a big cast iron slab, which had a series of holes all over it, and that would be what we called ‘dogged down’ with dogs – they were angled pieces, with a square, so they couldn’t turn, square hole, square dog – and the other end was turned down so that when you knocked that in and tapped that, the other end would very firmly hold the flat bar. And it did. And, consequently, you’d have these all the way round the flat bar, on the inside, and you had made allowance for whatever width of frame that was standing flange, and you’d draw that bar out of the furnace, in its red-hot condition, and that would be donkeyed round with a squeegee, in the holes, like that, to repeat the bar shape. Try it on the screed board afterwards, when it got cold. Any adjustments would be done with a hammer, it wasn’t totally cold. And then, of course, they all had to be angled, because of the shape of the ship, so every frame had a changing angle all the way round, and that all had to be done. Again, information supplied by the loft. And from there, it would go to [the riveters and platers]. So then, it was a case of erection, and bolting up, which all the steelworkers did, and carry on building.

Demarcation - Bill Webb

You’re going back to the days when there was a ‘them and us,’ a real ‘them’ and ‘us.’ I was brought up in that era, and it’s difficult to shake it off. ‘Them’ were the blokes outside, doing the manual work. And I don’t think, at that age, you really appreciate what a craftsman does. Now, there was a guy there, in Rowhedge, called Jim Theobald, and he didn’t need a plane.

Wartime women in Wivenhoe Shipyard - Ellen Primm

We were making RAF uniforms at the beginning of the War. Then I left and went to the Shipyard, because I had to register – I was 20, all girls of 20 and over had to register, so I had to register, and they said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to go in the Forces.’ That didn’t appeal to me. I loved my home and my family, and I didn’t want to go away! So I decided to go the Shipyard, and my younger sister said, ‘I’m going to leave and come to the Shipyard with you.’ She didn’t have to register, but she came with me to the Shipyard. I worked in the joiner’s shop, doing carpentry and joinery! And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it!

I never thought I’d ever work in a shipyard. We worked in the joiners’ shop doing carpentry and joinery, and there was just four girls in there. There was a lot of girls in the paint shop, two women worked in the store, and there was one worked with electricians, and there was quite a few of them worked in the boat shop, because cause there was more boat builders than was the others, and so there was more girls worked in there. But there was quite a lot of women worked there. And we really enjoyed working there. It was lovely! 

And do you know, the men were amazing. They were very good to us. Because we thought they’d resent us working there, but they didn’t. They helped us a lot, they told us exactly what to do, and if we couldn’t get a joint right, they’d help us out.

We were making parts for the boats. They had three rifles in the boats, and I had to do the framework of that, with the joints, and also groove it out so the rifles could stand in it, and that was my job, and I used to make them all the time. And I really was quite good at that. It’s amazing what you can do. My sister did all sorts of different jobs, but I specialised in that one. When you used to go in the boats, and you used to think, ‘Oh, I did that! They’re rather good, aren’t they,’ and you feel quite pleased, and you can think to yourself, ‘Well, I think I did my bit during the War!’ But we did enjoy it. And I was sorry to leave. That was a wonderful experience after doing tailoring all those years!

Re-opening Wivenhoe Shipyard - Bill Webb

In ’42 first of all the government, basically, instructed the Rowhedge Ironworks, as a Company, that they needed Wivenhoe Shipyard because, basically, it had a dry dock and that was the only dry dock available between Lowestoft and Tilbury, so that became a very important asset. And in the first instance, one or two leading people, such as Stephen Cranfield, who went over as a Yard Manager, and charge-hands were made up to foremen from Rowhedge. People moved about a lot, and stepped up the ladder a little bit. And they’d got a nucleus of people over there to start with, and started building things like skids. They built magnetised skids over there, and they were to be towed behind the trawlers, and the mines would hopefully blow up the skid rather than the trawler. They were like a flat raft, basically, that’s all.

From there, before I went over, they got an order for some decoy submarines. They were built on a raft made up of what we call ‘9 x 3 deals’ – staging planks, nine inches by three inches, ordinary staging planks. And they made up a very complex and strong raft, and then they built the submarine on top of it, decoy submarine on top. And we had drawings of those, so that we could get the sham shapes, and the format of the actual above-water hull, and then the planking was inch and a half thick tongue and groove softwood. And the conning tower was built, and the periscope was there, and the handrails were made, and a very nice gun was situated on the foredeck, and the barrel was turned up by Rowhedge joiners’ shop. If you looked at them from across the river, which people could, then they thought they were real. They looked very real, and they were painted grey when they were finished, and nobody realised, when they were building them, what they were, but when they were complete, suddenly there’s a submarine! And so these went off round to Harwich, and they were used, to confuse the enemy, as the submarines came in and out, they’d move these decoys around. As the submarines went out on patrol, they would shift the decoys in alongside the depot ship, and when the submarines came in, they’d have to move them up the creek somewhere, and put netting, camouflage netting, over them, under trees and wherever they could get them, and, hopefully, that they would bomb the wooden vessels rather than the real things.

In early 1942 I started work for Mr Crout, the Chief Draughtsman on wooden towing vessels. By the time we started building them, more sophisticated material was added to them, and equipment, and they became the 105 foot motor minesweepers. And so at that point, I was called down to the governor’s office, and he told me that I’d got to go over to Wivenhoe and open up the Drawing Office. So we went over there and we worked on these motor minesweepers for three years, basically until ’45. After the first order of the 105 foot - they had a spoon bow – the next type to come along was the 126’s, they were a bit bigger, and a bit more sophisticated. And in all, the 105’s and the 126’s, we built between 28 and 30 of these during the War, and they were commissioned, and handed out to the Royal Navy, Dutch Navy, Norwegian Navy. So that was the main task then.

The place was six foot high and brambles, and there was rubbish all over the place, and so a lot of the riggers went over, and labourers went over to clear the whole place up. It took a long time. It was quite a big area. And then the dry dock had to be pumped out. Fifteen feet of mud in it!

But to talk about the dry dock, we had this dry dock which was a very important asset, and was one of the main reasons for opening the Yard, but that had been designed as a yacht dock, for when we had steam yachts, the very slender steam yachts, long and slender, with big prows, and that dock was designed for those. But, nevertheless, it was a very useful thing to have, and when the first people went over to Wivenhoe, that dock had to be cleared of mud – it hadn’t been used for years – and there was 15 feet of mud in it! So the Colchester Fire Brigade were brought down to clear that out, pump that out. And the dock gate had to be tested, and made sure that was okay, and needed repairs and so forth. And immediately we got in – before I went over there loads of fishing trawlers around here, and drifters came up to be converted into minesweepers, and the fishermen crews, suddenly became RNVR people, and there was a lot of work involved there. All sorts of vessels came in – not big ones, obviously, because they couldn’t get in there, we couldn’t get the length in, because of the shape of the fore-end of the dock, but we did lots of repairs.

But so far as building programme is concerned, I think there was something like 55 craft built altogether, for the War period, and in the end, around about 1944, we got an order for three boom defence vessels. They were much bigger than the minesweepers, they were much much heavier, their timbers round the deck were ten inches thick, they were very heavy stuff. But they were a wooden skeleton – keel, stem, stern, so forth – and steel framed and then wooden planking, so that’s what we call a ‘composite’ craft. But we only started two of them, and basically the skeletons were set up and that was that, the War finished and they were cancelled. And I went back to Rowhedge.

Robert Buckingham, who was the Chairman of Rowhedge Ironworks, was positioned in Wivenhoe Yard as the Managing Director, and a proper company, Wivenhoe Shipyard Ltd., was set up. Mr Crout went over as General Manager, and Stephen Cranfield from Rowhedge, went over as the Yard Manager, and Oliver Martin from the Finance and Accounts Office went over there to run that in Wivenhoe, so that the nucleus of the management were all from Rowhedge Ironworks.

Mr Buckingham was a cut glass man. Before the War, his profession was cut glass. He came from a totally - he was Chairman at Rowhedge, basically, because he was a shareholder. He was a very nice man, and he had a good team around him. It wasn’t a commercial affair, it was run by the Admiralty. I never got involved in costs in those days. You got an order to do something, and you did it, and whatever the cost came out at, it was paid. We had two Admiralty Superintendents, and they lived in Wivenhoe the whole period. One of them came from Barrow-in-Furness, and they were there the whole time, and they basically kept an eye on things to make sure that the specifications were being kept up with, you see.

Building from oak - Bill Webb

But nearly all of the people [in the Wivenhoe Shipyard] were house builders, and they were then handling blessed great oak frames. The planking was two and a half inches thick, the minimum. Bilges and strakes [side plates] were much thicker. Where the bilge keel runs, the planking’s thickened up to about three inches, and they were coming up for six inches wide, some of these strakes. – they weren’t too wide, because it was green timber, so you had to put more strakes in really.

I’ve been out with Stephen Cranfield, we used to go to the estates, as a jaunt really, ‘Would you like to come and pick some trees today?’ ‘Yes, I would.’ ‘Well, we’ll go to Thetford, then.’ And, there were areas where these 300-year old oaks were growing, some were in historic parks, and I don’t know who had the authorisation to cut them down, but that wasn’t our worry! And we’d take our templates, some templates with us, you see, if we wanted crooks or whatever, and we’d size up these trees, ‘That’s a good one for planking,’ and so forth. And they would all be marked, might mark a dozen trees, and within a day or two they’d be cut down. They would sometimes be sawn up at the site, especially for planking, they’d be ‘flitched,’ say two and a half inch flitch right through the tree, right up the tree, so they’d come in in those rough bare flitches, and the people who were planking would get their gauges to find out what - because they could be bent to a certain extent, but they couldn’t be bent entirely, they’d have to be partly formed and then partly bent. So you might have a plank which you’d have to set out, and it might sweep right across a tree, in a curve. So the point was, there was a hundred per cent waste or more, and when you think 10-inch, 12-inch keels, and all the heavy stuff – the stern posts and transoms - at least 250 trees went into each minesweeper – 250 trees. Now, we built … nearly 30 of those – that’s 7,000 trees! And that was just one Yard. And these minesweepers were built in many yards – Plymouth, all down the South Coast, up the East Coast – so you could probably multiply that by ten quite easily, and just think of the number of trees that were felled.

Cross-river management - Bill Webb

But to talk about the dry dock, we had this dry dock which was a very important asset, and was one of the main reasons for opening the Yard, but that had been designed as a yacht dock, for when we had steam yachts, the very slender steam yachts, long and slender, with big prows, and that dock was designed for those. But, nevertheless, it was a very useful thing to have, and when the first people went over to Wivenhoe, that dock had to be cleared of mud – it hadn’t been used for years – and there was 15 feet of mud in it! So the Colchester Fire Brigade were brought down to clear that out, pump that out. And the dock gate had to be tested, and made sure that was okay, and needed repairs and so forth. And immediately we got in – before I went over there loads of fishing trawlers around here, and drifters came up to be converted into minesweepers, and the fishermen crews, suddenly became RNVR people, and there was a lot of work involved there. All sorts of vessels came in – not big ones, obviously, because they couldn’t get in there, we couldn’t get the length in, because of the shape of the fore-end of the dock, but we did lots of repairs.

But so far as building programme is concerned, I think there was something like 55 craft built altogether, for the War period, and in the end, around about 1944, we got an order for three boom defence vessels. They were much bigger than the minesweepers, they were much much heavier, their timbers round the deck were ten inches thick, they were very heavy stuff. But they were a wooden skeleton – keel, stem, stern, so forth – and steel framed and then wooden planking, so that’s what we call a ‘composite’ craft. But we only started two of them, and basically the skeletons were set up and that was that, the War finished and they were cancelled. And I went back to Rowhedge.

A shipwright in a small yard round the country works on wood, and platers work on steel. But, of course, we had no steelwork, or very little of it, so people from Rowhedge used to come over and do the steelwork, as a sub-contract, and all the engineering had to be done by Rowhedge. They used to send their engineers over - we had no engineers of our own. We had riggers and people like that, and, of course, there was quite a bit of rigging to do, and launching and that sort of thing, which they did, and catered for. And, of course, we had the dry dock.

The Drawing Office was rather rough, I’m afraid. We had an old bogie stove for heating in the winter. We were on the first floor. Mr Crout’s office was next to us – that was the Manager. Mr Buckingham next to that. And then further down was the Accounts Office, and opposite that, a typing pool of about three ladies. The backs of our office were over Bath Street, and the fronts of the office were over the Shipyard. And following on our floor from that, was a Joiner’s Shop, and then down below under us, at the river side end, would be the riggers and painters and one or two other odd stores. Then we had a large store, which would be also the clock, you know, the start and stop clocks for signing on and signing off the day, at the big double gates there, on the corner of Bath Street. Then the wall went right the way down, past the dry dock, it turned and went down to the river, and immediately the other side of the wall was what we call the ‘Railway Quay,’ because there was a line from the main line, behind Wivenhoe station, that came out and ended up on Railway Quay, and that was used to lift all the engines in. A railway crane had to be hired from Cambridge. Then the ‘Whale Project’ for the Mulberry Harbour was immediately next to that.

The method of working in Wivenhoe, was not quite the same, not quite, because, at Rowhedge, one was designing and draughting displacement calculations, all that sort of thing, ordering materials. I had to do all the ordering in Wivenhoe, but it was a lot of messing about, I spent an awful lot of time out in the yard, with the foreman, with charge-hands, basically marking out equipment on the decks and so forth, because there was nobody, that was on the staff of the Yard, that had much experience in marking out. And that was quite interesting, because I spent an awful lot of time outside. And there was odd drawings to do, there was drawings to prepare for other yards, because at one period, we were what they called the ‘Mother Yard’ – in other words, we were supplying information to other yards. I think Pollocks of Faversham was one, and Philips at Plymouth, and one up around Yarmouth. But in one way, it was much more interesting, because it was movement and climbing around, whereas at Rowhedge, you were head down all the time. So it was a different situation altogether.

Frank Butcher - Bill Webb

Frank Butcher [the Rowhedge Director] died about ’46, and he was followed by the son of the founder – Walter Oxton – his son was Donald Oxton, who served his time in the Drawing Office and went round the Yard, and that time he was middle-aged but he was able to take over when Frank Butcher died, and he was a great cricketer.

The White City - Bill Webb

The White City, just in front of the railway station, and facing the marsh, there was a huge building there which goes back to the days of Foresters, owned the yard in the First World War, and that was called the ‘White City,’ it was just the fact that it was a whitish very large building – and it was basically not used. We used to use it for storage. But when the Whale Project came along, they took that over and that was used in the dry, for laying out and marking all the plating for these things, because they were quite a size. They must have been 15 foot deep, something like that, and I suppose they were 40 foot square, if not more. They were quite a size. We didn’t know what all that was for. The first thing we knew was people coming up to the office, obviously dignitaries from some War Department, and they had plans and so forth, but it was not spread around. 

The next thing we knew was that material arrived into the Yard, and Albert Cork was involved, because they directed something like a hundred welders from various parts of the country, and they all piled in here to do a proficiency test, and that was not only downhand and vertical welding, but overhead welding as well, and they had to go through this test, and they picked out something to the order of 40, and they were billeted around the town, and they stayed there until the job was finished. That was just before the Christmas, and the two were launched, and towed away by tugs, around about April. And you think that June, the D-day, and they reckon there was about 45,000 people don’t they? From the tollgate, almost to the ferry itself, right the way at the side of that track, is where Dorman Long set up their casing construction, and they had great scaffolding up the whole of the way along there, and it was really like a production line. There were quite a number of them. They looked like a big box. Big flat box. And again, they were all towed away. But we had no idea. We had no idea at all.

Post-war: Working as a fitter - Don Smith

I went into James W Cook’s, and I was there as a fitter in 1947. Cooks came to Wivenhoe, primarily with the idea of catching up on their terrible backlog of maintenance to all their barges, because James W Cook was a very large tug and barge owner on the Thames, and they came here to do that. Apart from the shipping work, they had a lot of equipment in the docks at London – steam cranes, and little trolleys, the early forerunners of forklifts. Well, during the War, no maintenance work had been done, whatsoever, on any of this equipment, and so everything was in a terrible state. And then they had a subsidiary called the ‘Bulk Oil Steamship Company,’ which had quite large tankers. They’d been running under the Ministry of Transport, they’d had no maintenance, so we had them here at Wivenhoe, and they’d come in, and they’d stay about ten weeks.

There was overtime every weekend, you know. They had boiler cleaners come down from London and that, and that was all go. There was a lot of work to be done. All the boilermakers, who are steel people, plating and repairs, always had their work done on contract. They would put a price in to do a job, so many hundred pound, and if it was £700 to do a particular job, and if they done it for £600, then it was £100 shared between how many people were in the squad. Engineers didn’t always get that sort of thing. In the shipbuilding, boilermakers took a more aggressive stance on their work conditions and their pay. They always earned more money than engineers and shipwrights and joiners. 

The Boilermakers Union was a very very strong Organisation. And we had, in Wivenhoe, at the time, Ted Hill, who was the General Secretary of the Boilermakers, he lived over at Clifton Terrace. The Boilermakers Union was very very strong. Shipwrights not strong, though I was there just three, four years, I believe, and towards the end I did have opportunities to have contracts, and I was making things on the lathes and that, and I would have the drawings, you see, and you would submit your price and that. But you didn’t earn any sort of money like the boilermakers. A lot of tradesmen came in from Rowhedge, some came up from Brightlingsea, because they could earn more money here than they could in these other two yards.

When I started in 1947 there were only two in the Fitters Shop. You see, until Cooks started to do real new boats, new construction, there wasn’t the call for that type of engineer. They did grow, when they went on to big ships, they started to do new work when they realised there was a market and they had a well-established name. But we did get piecework eventually.

Back to Wivenhoe Shipyard - Don Smith

But eventually, in 1951 I came back to the Wivenhoe Shipyard, because they took on this contract to do these ton minesweepers. That was a very interesting job. And I was there ten years until the last day when it closed. They’d just started to build these new ships, and I just lapped it up. I loved it! It was new work, and it was interesting, and I really enjoyed it. 

I’d progressed, then, from being a complete turner, to a turner/fitter, you see, so I was working more with my hands, on a bench, and the installation of machinery on the ships, and that was quite a complex job to do, for a little shipyard, with the minimum of equipment.

We had new equipment come in, and it was all American. All the hand tools were all American, so I presume that the Americans were like a lease/lends deal thing going on, providing equipment and that. One simple illustration. During the War, every hand tool, drills, was all electric, in that yard. After this, everything was pneumatic. Now, the great difference between the two is, pneumatic hand tools are much safer than electricity. With an electric drill, drilling into wet wood, which was the case – new wood – if that got jammed up, you couldn’t hold it, unless you switched it off. If you couldn’t switch it off, it would take you. Now, a pneumatic drill has a safety valve on it, so you could actually hold against it, and you can’t get into trouble with compressed air, you can’t get a shock or anything like that, can you. So all that equipment for this new, this new contract, came from America.

The workforce must have reached in excess of a hundred. We still had five shipyards on the Colne, and there wasn’t really enough platers to go round. So what they done, they had to bring over about 50 boilermakers from Northern Ireland. So we had this little Irish contingent here in Wivenhoe, for about three years. Yes, they were quite characters, these Irishmen!

If I can just talk about the management side of this yard. When it opened in ’39, as I said, Rowhedge were there, and Mr Frank Butcher, who was the Managing Director of Rowhedge, had a friend, by the name of Mr Robert Buckingham, who had no knowledge, whatsoever, of shipbuilding, but he was a businessman, and he was put over here as the Managing Director - always a bit of a Churchillian sort of man, with a big cigar, and a big trilby hat, and a white moustache. And he was a great one for a social life, and even though we had a War on our hands, with terrible things happening, the launching of a minesweeper, for him, was an excuse, I presume, to have a party. He would invite lots of people from the military in the area, and that, and they had these photographs taken, and he’s the most photographic MD, I’m sure, of any company. We, at the Nottage, have got dozens of photographs of Robert Buckingham! And the first one of this new class, ton, when she was launched, the Carlton, we had this ceremony, and in the evening, he’d booked the Red Lion Hotel in Colchester, big dance hall, and we all went up by coach, we had a proper invite come, and we had a cabaret, steak and kidney pudding – which he liked! And we had a lovely evening. Yes, all the Irishmen came up there and dear, dear, dear!

Rowhedge used to have an Annual Outing, which combined with Wivenhoe. I think there was one or two. One I went on, and they used to book a whole train, and we went down to Portsmouth, I believe, because we had the whole train, and the train went right the way round London, and down to the South Coast. And I always remember that. That was a lovely day. A lovely day out. And we got back here to Wivenhoe, about one o’clock in the morning, you know. And that was completely paid for by the Yard.

Ton class - Don Smith

There was no private work done here, at all, by the Yard, but in ‘46/’47, Cook’s actually did hire the dry dock to put one or two of their big boats in, which only just managed to get in there. But all the labour was supplied by Cook’s. That was the only time any commercial craft went into this Yard. They stuck to this embargo, really, but that could have been got round.

The ton class, well, they weren’t steel, they were aluminium with mahogany, and there was rivets, all riveting went on, for the hulls, yes. What was that Bermuda mahogany or something? They were double-skinned, they had one plank of an inch, and one plank of two inch thick, by about four inches deep, right the way round, and they were all bolted on. They were all bolted on. Thousands of bolts! And every little bolt head went in, and then a little, like, plug, was put over the top. And then by the time that was all planed off and painted, you couldn’t see where the bolts went. There was a very strict control on the amount of magnetic material in them, because there was a big thing, in those days, and still is, about magnetic mines and all that sort of stuff. So the anchors are all bronze, the anchor chain was all bronze. For a small ship, at the time, I believe they cost about three quarters of a million pounds each. Now the Navy may have one or two. But I’ve got the history of the three built at Wivenhoe, their service history, and they were all broke up before they were not all that old, really. They’re now all fibre glass, you see, what they have now.

But, as I say, the Yard came to the close after they built these three. Then they built four small boats for the Navy, which were called ‘provision tenders,’ and they were only about 50 feet long, and when they were built, they went along to Cooks’s, and they were lifted out – they had a very big crane at Cooks, what they’d put in there – and they’d lift them out and put them on a low-loader lorry, and they were taken away like that. And they were the four last ones. Actually, myself and an electrician who lives in Wivenhoe now, we worked on them, the last four, on our own. And we closed in June 1961.

Cap Pilar - Don Smith

Then the old barquentine, the Cap Pilar, which was more or less a hulk, laying on what was known as the Railway Quay, had to be brought into the dock, because she was gradually sinking, moving into the river, and the Borough said, ‘Well, you’ve got to put it in the dock.’ What happened was, during the War, beginning of the War, the barquentine had come back from a round the world voyage, and was at Aldous’s, and was going to have some engines put in it, which it hadn’t got no engines, but the War came and it was in the way, because Aldous’s was quite a large Navy base then, quite quickly. It had to come out. So they brought it up to what we call ‘Wivenhoe Reaches,’ just below the Sailing Club now, where the big yachts used to lay, and she laid there all during the War. And she began to take water in. And the Shipyard went down and used to do a little bit of work on it, to try and keep it afloat. And eventually it was moved up here. Whether the Shipyard actually owned it, I really don’t know. But she laid at the Railway Quay.

A film company wanted it. It would be ideal for all these adventure ships. But he [Buckingham] wanted too much money for it, so she was just left, and she deteriorated and deteriorated. And she come in here and was in the dock, and was there until such time as the Shipyard was purchased by the timber people – Glickstein and Company – and then they tried to dismantle her, well, they did, near enough, but they couldn’t break her all up, she was really built really tough, because she wasn’t an old ship, she was only built in 1911, so really wasn’t old. And she was covered up and concreted in. As you know now, of course, they did excavate the dock when they built the estate, but there was nothing left.

A job at Cooks’s - Charles Sansom

They were still building minesweepers then [in 1948]…I come down to buy this cottage, and the man who owned the Station Hotel was also the Yard Foreman in Cooks’s Shipyard – Sparling, his name was, Roger Sparling. And he come up to me one day, I was waiting for the bus, near the station…No civilians could take the job, it had to be ex-Servicemen, you see. The pay wasn’t much. And anyway, I was waiting at the bus stop there, and this publican come across, he said, ‘Are you thinking about moving down here, mate?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, if I can find a job’. He said, ‘All right’, he said, ‘You can start tomorrow, in the Shipyard’. Just like that!

That’s Cooks’s. Cooks’s was more or less just starting, that was the opening for Cooks’s to start. There was very few men down there then, there wasn’t many at all, there was only about 20 or 30 of us, that’s all. And then it got bigger.

I was with an anglesmith, with a man by the name of Harry Pike, and I was with him all the time. We used to furnace the frames for the barges, used to furnace them, pull them out and bend them, and do all what’s got to be done to them. Oh yes, I had to pull these bars out, and keep the thing hot. Everything had to be got hot, in them days. You had a furnace there, you see, and you had to pull them out. And you had to work quick on them, otherwise they soon cooled off. They were coke fired – big coke fires – that’s all they had. They were very primitive. And we done quite a lot of work there. Oh, I was there for some time.

On to Wivenhoe Shipyard - Charles Sansom

And then I moved. I moved from Cooks’s, to Wivenhoe Shipyard, and we had a contract there. They got a contract for three minesweepers, which was a lot of work, in them days. That took a year to build one, so I was there all the time. And that was all under Admiralty’s supervision then. And the boats, they were mostly wooden, but with aluminium as well, because minesweepers had to be non-magnetic, they didn’t draw no mines or nothing.

We would help plating, plating the boats up. It was a far better job, yes. Cleaner job. You see, we got that order so quick, we hadn’t got anybody to do it, so the Manager went to Belfast, in Ireland, and got a whole load of Irishmen over here, and you know where the old Falcon used to be? Well, that’s where most of them lived, in there. Oh, there were some characters there! Oh dear! They liked their drink, you know! They were Irish! Cor! Dear, oh dear! No, on the whole, they were good people. They were good tradesmen. Some of them finished up their time over here in Cooks’s.

You picked it up as you went along. You worked with another plater, you see. You worked with another plater, you see, and you learnt it as you went along. I mean, a plater can’t do all the work hisself, he’s got to have somebody there to help him, see.

I picked up with man in the village by the name of Charlie Sainty, he was a marvellous plater. One of the best platers on this coast for miles, that man. Brilliant man. I worked with him for a long while, I did. I learnt a lot off of him, old Charlie. Oh yes, he was a very nice bloke, very clean, very good worker. Cooks’s had a strike over him, you know, at one time! Well, he was doing a job, and he done it his way – the way he wanted to do it – and the management didn’t like it, and they wanted him to change it. And he said, ‘No, I’m doing it my way’. So they wouldn’t give in to him, so they walked out on strike. And all the men were out on strike, and he was the only one who got paid! That’s a laugh, that was!

That’s a job to explain this to you. The marshes belonged to Cooks’s, then they had these places built on it, what they called ‘cowsheds’. Well, they weren’t cowsheds, they were where they used to prefabricate parts of the boats. And Charlie wanted to do his outside in the open, and that’s where he done it. He finished it there, and then the crane lifted it all up in one big piece, and that was part of the bows on it. Well then, of course, when they could see what he was doing, they more or less apologised and said he was right. You know, he was right. He was a very clever man.

Oh yes, you had to obey [the union] by strike. You had to come out whether you wanted to come out or not. Boilermakers. I’ll tell you where they used to hold the Union meetings, the Boilermakers, in the Station Hotel, up in the top, and that’s where he used to live in this village, the founder of the Boilermakers – Ted Hill. Yes, Ted Hill, he used to go to work on the train every day, in his Homburg hat, and coat.

We never thought much of the shipwrights, and they didn’t think much of the iron workers! That was like that all the way through, more or less, you know. ‘Oh, this is our job’. Oh, chalk line stuff, you know. But no, it wasn’t harmful to anybody, just niggling between one another. Most of the men who worked in the Admiralty yard, when they hadn’t got a job in Wivenhoe, they used to go to Brightlingsea. If they hadn’t got a job there, they used to go to Rowhedge. They all knew each other, and that was all right. 

Plater at Cook’s  - John Bines

We started at 7.30 am on the dot. Tight. You were allowed three minutes, when I first started work [in 1948], and if you didn’t make the three minutes, the clock was closed, you didn’t get in till nine o’clock. There was the clocking in, and if you didn’t make the three minutes, you lost till nine o’clock, you couldn’t get in till nine. That didn’t last all that long, there was gates there, the old Vospers gates, and you could nip through the old Wyvern Works in St John’s Road, what they call Gas Road, yes. Yes, we used to cut through the old Wyvern Works there!

I wanted to be a welder, because I did welding in metalwork at school, and I went and got a job through my mother. She worked in Essex Hall, the mental institution, she was a nurse there, and one of the other nurse’s brother or uncle, Reg Kemble, worked in the shipyard, and they said they were looking for apprentices, and so I went down there and had an interview with old Jack Oxley, and Mr Newton, and got a job to start as a welder. But I got put with a plater called Cliffie Barker, very very nice man, and he talked to me, and the others got on to me, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be a welder! That’s a riveter with his brains blown out!’ And so I became a plater.

The labourers always got an earful if they didn’t move the bar smoothly enough, or that stopped. No, you got your ear bashed, or your arse kicked, or hit with a two-foot rule, it was nothing to see boys and labourers get smacked because they didn’t. They were perfectionists, these old boys, it had to be right, and it had to look right.

So it was noisy and dirty. The people who got gloves, in them days, when I first started work, were the riveters, the caulkers, the welders, the burners, and the blokes on the presses, and you had to present them back at the stores, and old George Drinkell was the Storeman, and he would take them gloves back in again, and they would be issued to us, with all holes in! The only time you got a new pair of gloves was when you were burning, if you were burning constantly, and you got a new pair of gloves.

I think Wivenhoe was controlled by the hooters in the two shipyards. The hooter went at five and twenty past seven, and again at half past seven in the morning. It was a loud hooter, you could hear it up at the Park Hotel. 

It was cold in the winter. All the platers had a little five-gallon drum with holes knocked in it, and had a fire. Apprenticeship’s job to get that fire going and keep it going all day, you’ve got to keep your plater warm. It was nine hours a day when I first started work. Half past seven till half past five, with an hour dinner time. Hourly paid. yes.

There was nothing to get your arms punched. The favourite trick was to punch the top part of your arm, and you know what happens when you get somebody who’s mightily strong, and just gives you a short, sharp, six inch punch in the top of your arm, it goes dead! That was the favourite trick. Or they would get your arm between the first two fingers and nip it and twist it, and that really hurt. So you were always going to do as you were told. 

I did about a year with Cliffie. He was a marker off, he did all the marking off, so he did a bit of work on the ships, marking the plates where they had to be cut. And then I moved on to shell plating. That was basically building and shelling up the boats, putting the hull on the boats. In those days, always, a shell plater was the top plater.

There was no calculators in them days, if you couldn’t do long division or short division and that, you couldn’t work out anything to do with plating, because everything was figures – an inch and three-eight, and an inch and three-quarters, and things like that – so, you know, your mental arithmetic, to be a plater, had to be quite good.

Riveting - John Bines

The constant noise, I mean, people in Wivenhoe, especially Anglesea Road and Alma Street, Hamilton Road and West Street, must have had horrendous lives when them riveters were going, and the caulkers were going. You could always say a riveter was going to be about a minute on a rivet, or a minute and a half on a rivet, but a caulker went on and on and on, he didn’t stop.

The riveter was using a mechanical gun, which weighed 10 lbs, the gun itself, and you think, holding a 10lb gun up for nine hours a day, just without a 100 lb airline going into it, so the pressure was 100 lb push, which you’ve got to keep…The muscles and the veins used to stick out on their arms. They were solid. And their knees, when they were under the bottom of the ship, most bottoms of the ship were about three foot high, so you would sit, and your right knee, was where you put the machine, so they used to have a series of blocks that they could put their foot on, so their knee always took the weight of that machine. They were jammed under there, had a hat on, so that their head used to be jammed up under the bottom of the boat all the time. Yes, I was glad I was a plater!

It was still riveting. Some of the boats were riveted frames and seams, and welded butts, and that was gradually moving on from when I started work, but the majority of it was riveting. But welding was cheaper to do than riveters. The riveters involved three men in a squad – a heater, a holder up, and a riveter. It was hard work for a riveter. He’d got to put either 950, or a thousand rivets in, to earn his week’s pay, and after that it was ten bob a hundred – but that was five bob for the riveter, and five shillings for the holder up.

The Company paid the heater. He was lowest of the low, actually! I’ve seen rivet heaters cry. Oh, they had a terrible life, the rivet heater. He started work a half an hour before the riveter started, so rivet heaters were in at seven o’clock in the morning, get the fire going, get the first set of rivets hot, which had been detailed from the previous night, written on the deck in front of him, by the riveter, because usually the heater was very close to the riveter. He was staring into a fire all day long, for probably eight hours, because riveters mostly packed up riveting about an hour before they should, before we knocked off, and then that allowed the heater to get his coke, his rivets for the next day, clean his fire out, clinker his fire out, get a fish plate, if he wanted new fish plates made, get them out. The fish plate was a ten inch by ten inch plate with a dozen holes in it, of the size rivets that they were heating, and that was laid in the top of the fire, and they put the rivets into that. So this just held the rivets in place, in the fire, so he could easily lift out a bunch of rivets, with a pair of tongs.

It was the worst job, that one, because the sheer noise, and what happened to riveters and holder ups was horrendous. I mean, it was just constant noise, and they had to go. They were on piece-work all the time. Monday mornings was ‘count day,’ so they were always putting chalk marks on where they went, and you would see the initials of the riveter, of where they’d been, if there was two or three squads working on the side of a boat. The apprentice boys used to get sent ‘catching,’ you had to pick up the rivet using the header, bit of pipe, run down into a coke box, and they’d drop the rivet in that, and you’d pick it up and get it in the hole as quick as possible, it was still white-hot. Just on the burn. If a heater burnt a rivet, and it came through burnt, it was no good, because trying to knock a burnt bit of steel down, that was like a kid’s sparkler. It’s about to catch fire, and, of course, they couldn’t make a neat bit with it, so that would be dumped, and old mate on the thingmy would get an earful, in no uncertain terms! When I went catching, I put some cotton wool in my ears, because it just made your ears ring! And, ‘What you got that in your ears for, boy? Take it out.’ Oh…‘Well, to stop the sound.’

At one time, they had 13, 14 squads of riveters in Cooks’s. The riveters, the Geordie boys, a couple of them stayed down in Wivenhoe for years and years. One of them died down there. When the Geordies were there, they went to the pub dinner time, and they went to the pub on the way home, then they went to the Brewer’s Arms, and the Black Buoy – was the nearest pubs to Cooks’s, so you virtually fall out of Cooks’s and into the Brewer’s Arms! And also a plater from the Yard was licensee of the Brewer’s Arms for a little while.

Union - John Bines

You were advised, more or less forced, into joining the Boilermakers’ Union, from an age of 16. Their idea was that while you didn’t need to join the Union, it was advisable, because when you got to 21, and you became a plater, you couldn’t work anywhere because you weren’t a member of the Union, so you would have to join the Union, and their terms would be, ‘Well, why haven’t you joined before? The office was in the Station Hotel, it had been there – as far as I know – from about 1854 I think the Union started in in Wivenhoe. All the books and stuff from the Union now, are now on display in the GMB Offices in London – that was one of the oldest Union branches going, of the old Boilermakers’ Union. Of course, Ted Hill used to live in Wivenhoe, in Clifton Terrace, who was the big Boilermakers’ Union boss at one time. You paid the Union once a fortnight, it was sixpence. If you were off sick, I think you got five shillings a week, or something like that. Not a lot, but it did help, because a lot of people got a lot of injuries, especially around the arms and their hands and that. It was a bit of a ritual, joining the Union, you had to swear allegiance to the Union.

Screed board - John Bines

The dimensions given by way of drawings. All the shapes were on a ‘screed board,’ which was a huge board in the shop, on the loft floor, so you had the shape of every plate, every frame in the ship. The seams were marked, so you knew exactly where the seams were going to be. It looked odd when you were standing looking at the scree board, because the seam on a boat was a nice straight pleasing line, but when you looked at it on the scree board, it went lots of zig-zags! The loft floor was where the ship was laid out completely in chalk. Full-size pattern, and you weren’t allowed on that floor. You walked round the edge of the floor, until you were invited on the floor by a loftsman. Yes, it was all done in chalk, so you had to be very very careful about where you walked or where you trod.

Barges - John Bines

In the 1940s they were building barges and tugs, and repairing barges. Because of the War, Cooks’s had about a thousand barges on the Thames, and four or five tugs. They were a big barge-owning company. About ‘52/’53 they started to move away, because the barge repairing the barges had virtually dried up then, and we built a load of water barges, and small tankers for Hull, they were self-propelled, with a wheelhouse in the middle of the tanks, and quite a nice little job. I think Jack Oxley was had worked in shipyards as a manager, they called them ‘Ship Managers’ up North, they literally lived on, worked on the ship, the office was on the ship, he was more that way. But Frank Hodgson was more of a steam engineer. I think he came from the Merchant Navy environment, into the shipyard.

The biggest we ever built were the two Zebro boats for Vaughans, the last two. Buffalo Express and Zebu Express. Before that was probably up to about a thousand tonne capacity, something like that. The Moler Venture and those boats. Moler Venture was operating out of the Colne, bringing in bricks from Denmark.

General Manager’s viewpoint - Frank Hodgson

[After ten years as a seagoing engineer in the Royal, Fleet Auxiliary, in 1954 I was offered an interview by J. W. Cook and Sons in Wivenhoe.] I went down to Cook’s, and talked to the General Manager, and he showed me round the yard, and I noticed that all this seemed to be about was Thames dumb barges. Well, when I went into the Drawing Office, I spoke to the draughtsman – there was only one draughtsman then – and I said, ‘Look, I’m thinking about this job, but I’m not very keen if you’re only building barges.’ ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can guarantee we’ll be building ships in three years time.’ So I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll give it a try.’

And, of course, at that time, because of the War, there was a tremendous shortage of dumb barges on the Thames, and Cook’s had been building these for about three or four years after the War. The General Manager there was a bit of a character, a man by the name of Newton, and he was a very good Manager, inasmuch as the biggest problem was getting steel. Steel was in tremendous shortage after the War, but he used to travel all over the country, mainly North, to get steel. A very strange man also, inasmuch as he only lived in hotels, and once he fell out with the manager of a hotel, he’d move to another hotel.

It was a challenge because, as a marine engineer, I was only responsible for approximately eight or nine men, but at the Shipyard I was responsible for all the workers, all trades. To take on all the trades was quite challenging. I don’t recall ever having a problem in the yard, other than normal problems that arise, particularly in the Shop Stewards and that sort of thing, yes! But I always seemed to be able to work very well with the men. I’m sure they respected me. I never had any problems with them. And I got along quite well with the Shop Stewards. The one in particular, the one responsible for the steel-working section, he was, apparently, known as the only Conservative Shop Steward!

I think it was one of the reasons why I stayed there throughout my working life, because there was such a variety of ships. It’s unbelievable, the different types of ships that we built. It was very rare to get two of the same kind. Up to 2,000 tonnes, but size, I can’t remember. I think it would be about 120 feet. Launching was fairly simple to begin with, but as the ships became longer we were concerned about slowing the vessel down, and the General Manager and myself put our heads together, and in the end we decided that we could do this with using nylon rope, having such a great stretch. And we worked out a system of ropes which halted the vessel, as soon as it was afloat the nylon ropes came into play, and then the tension extended and extended and extended until it was stopped, and it would stop roughly about 40 feet from the other bank, the Fingringhoe side.

Getting materials in, at the beginning, wasn’t too bad, because it all came by rail. There was a commercial railway line, into Wivenhoe. But that dried up, and then we had to rely upon transport of steel from St Botolphs. Then that dried up, so we had to have direct deliveries, which created a problem getting through the streets of Wivenhoe. Steel wasn’t a problem in that respect, but what became a big problem was that over the years, we’d built several, what are termed, ‘knock down jobs’ – that is, the vessel is built, and only temporarily bolted together, then it’s dismantled, and to make life easy for everyone, it was delivered in large chunks. So you’d get a bow section, a mid section, and a stern section. Well, these sections had to be carefully calculated to make sure we could get them out of Wivenhoe. Fortunately for us, they built Valley Road, which gave us access. And it’s interesting, because nobody really complained. We never did any harm to anything. The company that we employed for transporting these lumps, was very very clever. We did try once, and I measured all the telegraph poles in East Street and one or two went through there, but after that, they got a bit bigger, and we had to go through Valley Road. But there weren’t many cars in Wivenhoe, very few cars in Wivenhoe then. You could take a lorry load of steel up East Street, no problem at all. There may have been the occasional time that we had to have a car moved, but people of Wivenhoe, in those days, they understood the situation. They had a shipyard on their doorstep, their friends and neighbours were employed there, and so they accepted it.

When I came to Wivenhoe in 1954, there were five shipyards on the Colne. Five. And when I left, there was one, that was James W Cook. So it was to be expected, in a sense. It was obvious that it wasn’t going to last forever.

Wivenhoe Shipyard skills - Ray Hall

My father was talking to Bill Frostick one day – Tony’s father – who was foreman fitter in the shipyard here, in the Wivenhoe Shipyard, not Cooks’s – and he just said to him, ‘Is there a place for my boy?’ And that’s how I got into the Wivenhoe Shipyard. So [in 1953] I started an apprenticeship there as a marine fitter. I did that for three years, but then National Service came up.

However, I started in the Shipyard, and they were building those coastal minesweepers then. They’d been building them for about four years. I remember one of the first jobs we had was, I was put with a man called Jack Gladden – a brilliant engineer – and Jack was charge-hand in the Fitters Shop, and a very good tradesman. And I remember one of the first jobs we had was lining up the engine beds for the shaft lock and the A brackets that went on to these boats, twin-engine. We went down into the engine room, and Jack is measuring up these engine beds, all in aluminium, that the platers had put in, and he kept looking at the drawings, and he’d measure them again, and, ‘Hold this tape here, Ray,’ and he was scratching his head, and then he said to me, ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘Engineers,’ he says, ‘We work to a thou of an inch. The shipwrights, probably a quarter of an inch. But you’re bloody lucky if the platers are on the same job!’ And, of course, the platers had done these engine bits, and they were six inches high one end, and four inches the other, way out! The whole lot had to be unriveted and put on again.

But, of course, the platers were a group of lads who’d come in from the shipyards in Northern Ireland, and where the normal tradesman was getting about £7 a week, they were on £14, plus bonus, so it shew how bad it was in the area to try and get tradesmen of a certain calibre.

Plater at Cook’s Shipyard - Barry Green

 [I started as plater at Cook’s in 1957. I was] taking the dimensions off the drawing, marking out all the plates, and then erecting them, actually building the ship, but not welding it. [I was given] templates from the loft, the draughtsmen got it to the loft, and then they drew it, took it off the paper, the drawings, and then made the moulds. Not always a full-size one. You just had a batten with marks on it, and you’d have a centre line, and you’d work it out from that and your drawing. And then your job was to transfer that on to the steel, on to the metal, yes. And then cut it out. And put it on the boat, and erect it. They cut with oxy-acetylene. They did have, in the early days, a cutter, but they did away with that in the end, and we done everything by burning it out. The steel plate at the bottom of the ship would be, perhaps, a half an inch to three-eight. When I started, they were just finishing the riveting days, and just going on to the fully welded boats. They were just riveting in the frames, and welding up the butts and the seams.

They were building mostly barges in them days, Thames barges. In the Seventies, we built one or two coasters for London Rochester, and one or two we built with just the hulls, and then they went away to be fitted out, they done their own engineering, they thought that was a better, cheaper option for them, but I think what they did was rob the old wooden barges of their engines, and put them in them, rather than buy, because they were getting obsolete, and the steel was far better for keeping dry, rather than the wooden barge.

Shipyard apprenticeship was hard in them days. Yes, they made you do it. Yes, I didn’t do nothing, I should think for a year or more, just stood and watched, fetch and carry. No. Wouldn’t let you pick a burning gear up, nothing. Very strict Union in them days. One man, one job, in them days. And if you didn’t get in the Union, they wouldn’t accept you, either. You wouldn’t get an apprenticeship. I think that was 50 bob a week to start with, that was quite a bit in them days.

There were still one or two [Geordies], yes. Yes. Not many, but there was one who lodged in Alma Street, he stopped right to the end, till he even had to take up welding. I never got involved with many, because at the end of the day, what riveting what was done, in the latter, was done by the local people. There was one or two people who were in that sort of trade, didn’t actually do the riveting, but could do riveting. They were doing actually another job in the Yard, but if there was an odd rivet to be done, they did do them.

[We] worked mostly day work and overtime. Seven thirty till four thirty. Well, it was five thirty, and then when the Unions got an hour knocked off, so we went down to four thirty, because they knocked the time down, they were working over 50 hours then, and then gradually knocked it down over the years. The last Union Office we had was in the Station Hotel, upstairs there.

There was none of this hiring and firing like there is today. Probably that could have been their downfall, I expect, in not getting rid of your labour. But then they always worked on the theory that the skilled men what were there, if they got another job somewhere else, they wouldn’t ever get them back again to do another job.

Proper launches - Bill Webb

We had proper launches. Oh yes. Not to the extent that you do commercially, because the companies come down, but we had Navy representatives. And the crews turned up fairly quickly, they were waiting for their ship, you know, and they were hanging around Wivenhoe. But the skippers and engineers always came very early in the proceedings, because a lot of them wanted their own way about things, and this is where we had to go out and change things But we used to have a little launching ceremony, and had to wait for a 17-foot tide.

A problematic launch - Barry Green

The ways weren’t big enough, the slipways weren’t big enough, they were made for the barges, and the slipways, you have one with just a bare bit of wood, and one with a shoulder on, to keep it so it’ll slide down. Well, because the level weren’t quite right, the shoulder on one of them, broke, and she just went so far down till she hit the mud, and then that was it. She actually slipped on the top of the ways part of the way, and because that ain’t going properly, that knocks them all over, doesn’t it. [What’s actually holding that ship are] what they call triggers. It’s just simple, on a normal one that would be just a bit of metal shaped with a shore under it, and they just blow the whistle, and they knock the shore out, and then down and down it go.

Ship launches - Pat Pearce

We used to take groups of children, well, the whole school [Millfields], down, when a boat was being launched, a ship was launched, and I used to say to the Head Teacher, who came from Colchester, ‘We must take the children down, because it’s history in the making.’ You know, we were all aware that it was going to have to close, and we saw these big boats, and the Nelson being launched, and we’ve got photographs of us all standing, and I used to see all these chocks wobbling as the boat went down, and you thought, ‘It’s never going to turn! It’s so huge!’ and it would, and the children would all be looking, looking, looking, and I’d think, ‘Crumbs! If this thing comes off, a whole generation of Wivenhoe children will have it!’ And they talk about that to this very day, to be able to recall all of those things, because we’re not going to see the like of that again.

Long service - John Bines

Thirty-six years. I was the longest serving man, bar one. I was a plater all that time. The latter days were a lot better. Conditions had got better, you got better clothing, you got more protection, the Unions played a different part, not so much of ‘them and us,’ as a bit more of ‘Right, we’ll come in with you, because you’re giving our men better facilities.’ 

There was more negotiation, more pleasant negotiations, rather than - really harsh: we were locked out, old man Charlie Newton locked us out a couple of times. They had a six weeks strike over Charlie Sainty at one time. And then there was an agreement that Aldous’s at Brightlingsea took Charlie Sainty on, to get the men back to working in Cooks’s in Wivenhoe, because it was a total lockout for all the boilermakers, except for the apprentices. We had to go to work, and we, literally, took over. It was a good experience, really, for us all, because we actually built barges, and took over the whole thing that the platers normally did. We didn’t do any riveting, but we did welding. So we had a good six weeks actually! We enjoyed running the Yard! We certainly did, yes! 

Shipwrights did launchings. The boilermakers weren’t involved in any of the launchings. There was always a good party for the owners and senior representatives of the Yard. Even that changed in the latter part, when a certain percentage of the workmen were invited to the lunch, but otherwise there was always beer for all the workmen, and the latter part, one or two times there was sandwiches as well, and a little bit of a knees up. 

Decline and fall - Barry Green

Well, normally, the Yard Manager would just pick up the phone and the chap on the other end said, ‘Who was paying?’ And Mr Hodgson said, ‘Cook’s will pay,’ and that used to be good enough. But then, of course, after that, he wasn’t there in them days, he’d retired then, and most of the old staff had, but when you start to pay cash, where you’re used to [credit] you know something’s wrong with the bank balance. They didn’t intend to sell the Yard as a working concern. They just bluffed us to finish the ship what was on the blocks, so they could get that away, without getting somebody else, which would have cost them a lot more money to have got somebody in to do the job. And they bluffed us that they’d got people interested in the Yard, and they hadn’t really. No, I don’t think they had. If we’d have known what we know now, I think we’d have all voted, and all gone at the same time.

Last tugman - Barry Green

I was one of the last to leave. I was actually skipper on a tug at the time. On the Alest, yes. I took that last dredger down the river, tug took it away. Come back, tied up, and chucked the key in, and that was it. I only done that job for about seven or eight years. We never done an awful lot on the big launchings, we only done when there was a few lighters, pulled them about. When there was a big launch, big ship, they had a tug come round from Felixstowe to handle it, because we weren’t big enough. 

The end of the shipyard - John Bines

George Smith went. He was the driving force of the Company. He was a brilliant man, and a nice man, probably one of the best governors anybody could work for. He understood, socially, what everybody wanted. And he did provide a very good wage, and very good working conditions. And he also got some good jobs as well. He wouldn’t have entertained the two, Zebu and the Buffalo Express. They were really the downfall. They were too big for us, really and truly. The banks didn’t give you enough time and money. Well, shipyards, it takes an average of about a year to get a ship through, by the time you think about it and get money, and order all the materials, and then get money back, the stage payments, back from the owners.

Initially, most of the people in the Yard blamed the Jubilee Sailing Trust for the demise of the Yard. Rightly or wrongly it was seen as the nail in the coffin. It was a boat built by a Committee and as usual, there was too many people altering things, and you’d do things, and the next week somebody would come along and, ‘Oh, we don’t like that. We want that out,’ and so it went on and on and on and on. You can’t build a ship like that.

We all knew it was coming, from May, when the big pay off came. It starts off as a joke, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we’re all going to get knocked out of here, and nobody’s going to come and buy it,’ and one thing and another, and then ‘Oh yes. It’s in the pipeline somebody’s going to come and buy it,’ ‘We’ve got a load of orders,’ well, we had, actually, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution had been down, they were looking for hulls to be built, just hulls to be built, and there was also some log barges that were in the offering. We built three and there was three more to build. So there was orders there, although we were closing. But, gradually, people were being paid off each week. I had the awful job, because I was the Shop Steward at that time, of wandering round and giving people their little brown envelopes – not a happy situation, because some people took it personally, ‘The bloody management ain’t got the guts to come down and give us our envelopes, and have to send you round with them.’ It hurt your feelings a bit, but it was part of life at that time.

Then towards the end, which was the 6th September, 1986 – it always sticks in my memory, that date- and we were running down, the boat was finished, and I think there was about six or seven of us left, in the whole Yard. Gradually people had been paid off, and they’d only kept on the essential people that they needed. There was about four on the iron side, a couple of fitters, a couple of joiners, and a shipwright, that was about all of us. Being the Shop Steward, I had daily meetings with the accountants, and the Manager George Moore, who came down from the North of England, in the latter part, to run it. He took Frank Hodgson’s job initially, and then ended up as the General Manager, and I used to go and see him every day.

And I said, to him and the accountant, ‘What about when we finish? Do we clear all the gear up?’ ‘No, no. Just leave it. Where you leave it, just drop it, we will get a proper firm in to sort it all out.’ So Jack Taylor said, ‘I don’t want to lock up,’ because he’d been made redundant over Rowhedge. And I said to the Manager about locking up the shop and everything, and so he said, ‘Well, just lock up and bring the keys into me.’ So I locked the door and put the keys on his office desk! Threw them in the box, and walked away. And you thought, `This is the end’, you thought, `Well, good God, what are we going to do now?’

But we came back the next week and he gave three or four of us, a twenty quid cheque, to take the mooring lines off the Kilmore, the last boat, to go to Northern Ireland, and she sailed away down the Colne, and we waved goodbye. I think there’s a classic photograph of myself, Jack Taylor and Jimmy Sproats, on the jetty. So we’ve got close on a hundred years shipbuilding experience going down the river.

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05 January 2015

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