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Port Cities: The working Thames - Thames Ironworks
PortCities London

Thames Ironworks

Shipbuilding in Britain in the late 19th century

Island nation

Launch of HMS Cornwallis. Part of Newham Archives and Local Studies Library Collection.
View full size imageThe launch of the 1st Class Battleship HMS Cornwallis at the Thames Ironworks, Blackwall, on 17 July 1901. © NMM
As an island nation, much of Britain's wealth depended on her merchant ships and the Royal Navy. The former carried goods and people between the various parts of her empire, while the navy protected this trade. So, British ships had to be amongst the best in the world and keep up with the latest advances in technology.

Thames Ironworks from the River. Part of Newham Archives and Local Studies Library Collection.
View full size imageThe Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company Ltd. at Blackwall. © NMM

In the 19th century the British shipbuilding industry was the largest in the world. During the 30 years between 1850 and 1880, British steamship tonnage increased by 1600%.

In the same period, the tonnage of steamships owned by the rest of the world grew by only 440% - and the majority of these would have come from British yards!

The Thames Ironworks

Thames Ironworks
View full size imageThames ironworkers with part of an enormous steamship engine. © NMM
By 1880 over half the world's steamships flew the British flag. Between 1892 and 1894 British yards produced more than four-fifths of the world's commercial tonnage. Many of these ships were built at the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company Ltd at Blackwall.

The Thames Ironworks was the most important shipbuilding business on the Thames and one of the biggest private shipbuilders in the country.

The ironworks built several of the biggest and most famous vessels of the time. The ironworks was one of the largest employers in east London, and it survived until 1912 when it finally succumbed to competition from northern shipyards.

These rendered the Thames-side shipbuilding industry unprofitable under modern conditions.