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Port Cities: The working Thames - Thames Ironworks
PortCities London

Thames Ironworks

Early years

Ditchburn and Mare

Mare and Co. Iron and Shipping Works
View full size imageMare and Co. Iron and Shipping Works. © NMM
The site of the ironworks was originally called the Ditchburn and Mare Shipbuilding Company. It was founded in 1837 by the shipwright Thomas J. Ditchburn (1801-70) and the engineer and naval architect Charles Mare (1815-98).

Ditchburn and Mare were originally located at Deptford. But after a fire destroyed their Deptford yard, in 1838 the firm moved to Orchard Place, between the East India Dock Basin and Bow Creek.

In Orchard Place they took over the premises of the bankrupt shipbuilders William and Benjamin Wallis. The firm prospered and within several years occupied three riverside sites covering an area of more than 0.1 square kilometres (14 acres).

First builders of iron ships

Thames Ironworks
View full size imageWorkshop at Mare and Co. Ironworks. © NMM
Ditchburn and Mare were among the first builders of iron ships on the Thames. They began their partnership by constructing small paddle-steamers of between 50 and 100 tons. The firm then progressed to cross-Channel boats and by 1840 was building ships of over 300 tons.

Steam-powered ships such as these used complex machinery instead of sail. This meant that yards now had to include heavy machine workshops.

Early customers

The Print of the Meteor and Prince of Wales iron steam vessels leaving the Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall... dedicated to the Directors of the Blackwall Railway Company.
View full size imageThe Meteor and Prince of Wales leaving the Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall, c. 1844. © NMM
Ditchburn and Mare's customers included the Iron Steamboat Company and the London and Blackwall Railway Company.

The shipbuilder built several paddle steamers for the latter in the 1840s, including the Meteor and the Prince of Wales. The steamers operated between Gravesend in north Kent and the railway's Blackwall Station on Brunswick Wharf.

Dramatic increase

The Blackwall Railway Terminus & Brunswick Pier with the Brunswick Propeller and other Steam Vessels.
View full size imageBlackwall Railway Terminus and Brunswick Pier with the Brunswick Propeller. © NMM
In their first seven years of business (1838-44) their annual tonnage averaged barely 900 tons. But in the years 1845-46 the scale of their business increased dramatically, with annual tonnages of well over 6000 tons.

During this period, the yard was awarded several Admiralty contracts, including HMS Recruit, a 12-gun sailing brig, and contracts for the P&O steamers Ariel and Erin. The Recruit was one of the first iron warships built for the Admiralty.

A new beginning

Pouring molten metal at the Thames Ironworks
View full size imagePouring molten metal at the ironworks. © NMM
In 1847 Ditchburn retired from the business. It was then carried on by Mare, the younger partner, under the name of C. J. Mare and Company. Mare was joined by James Ash, a naval architect, who later opened his own yard at Cubitt Town.

The period after 1847 witnessed considerable growth and Mare purchased land on the Essex side (Canning Town) of the River Lea.

He built a yard with furnaces and rolling mills that could construct ships weighing 4000 tons. Because the spit at the mouth of the Lea was so narrow, the largest vessels built at Orchard Place weighed less than 1000 tons.

Civil engineering contracts

Robert Stephenson
View full size imageRobert Stephenson with the Menai Bridge (1850) in the background. © NMM
Mare and Ash also developed the civil engineering side of the business. The company built:

  • railway bridges for the North London Railway
  • the iron roof of Fenchurch Station in London
  • the London and Blackwall Railway's Brunswick terminus
  • the tubular sections for Stephenson and Fairbairn's Britannia railway bridge over the Menai Strait to Angelsey.

Thames Ironworks
View full size imageFoundry workers at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM

The firm continued to construct smaller ships at Orchard Place, but the Middlesex side of the premises was an area where carpentry and woodworking were the main trades.

In 1854 nearly 450 joiners worked there. Each of the four separate yards included smithies, where iron fittings for the ships were prepared. There were also workshops for:

  • painters
  • brass finishers and founders
  • sail makers.

Thames Ironworks
View full size imageWorkshop at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM

There was a rigging shop over 61 m (200 ft) in length and a workshop for the boat builders and block makers. On the northern side of Orchard Place was a large sawmill and planing house powered by a steam engine. The two parts of the company were linked by a chain ferry across Bow Creek, which could transport up to 200 men at a time.

Threat of closure

Memorial to Charles Mare
View full size imageMemorial to Charles Mare (1815-98). © NMM
In 1855 the company, which employed more than 3000 workers, was threatened with closure following Charles Mare's bankruptcy.

Various reasons have been put forward for his difficulties. Mare said that they came from the delay in payment for work carried out by his firm. Others maintained that Mare's gambling habits were the root cause of the problems!

View full size imageWestminster Bridge, which opened in 1862. © NMM
Another explanation for Mare's difficulties was that the company had underestimated the cost of building gunboats and despatch vessels for the Navy. The business did not lack orders, however. The jobs in hand included six gunboats and the contract for Westminster Bridge in London, which was built in 1862.

The Thames Ironworks is born

Men and machines at the Thames Ironworks
View full size imageMen and machines at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
The chief creditors moved quickly to keep the company afloat. Two employees of the firm, Joseph Westwood and Robert Baillie, were appointed as managers of the works.

The key figure in saving the company was Mare's father-in-law, Peter Rolt. He was a timber merchant and MP for Greenwich. Rolt was also a descendant of the Pett family of shipbuilders.

Rolt took over the firm's assets and transferred them to a new limited company in 1857, called the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. It had a capital of £100,000 in 20 shares of £5000 each. Rolt was the largest shareholder and chairman of the board and he held five shares.


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