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Thames Ironworks

Shipbuilding in Britain in the late 19th century
Early years
'Leviathan Workshops'
Building steamships
Civil engineering and vehicles
Work and leisure at the Thames Ironworks
The HMS 'Albion' disaster
HMS 'Thunderer' and the closure of the ironworks
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'Leviathan Workshops'

Huge capacity

Her Majesty's Iron Cased Steam Frigate Warrior
View full size imageHMS Warrior, the world's first iron hulled armour-plated warship. © NMM
The new organization was easily the biggest shipbuilding concern on the Thames. In 1861 the Mechanics' Magazine described its premises as 'Leviathan Workshops'.

The company could take on the largest contracts. As early as 1863, it had the capacity to build 25,000 tons of warships and 10,000 tons of mail steamers at the same time.

One of its first Admiralty contracts was for HMS Warrior. At the time it was the world's largest warship and the first iron-hulled armour-plated frigate.

HMS 'Minotaur'

Lower deck plan of HMS Minotaur.
View full size imagePlan of the lower deck of HMS Minotaur. © NMM
HMS Minotaur followed Warrior. Launched on 12 December 1863, Minotaur was 120 metres (400 feet) long and had a displacement of 10,690 tons. Her maximum speed was 14 knots and she was armed with four 300-pounder breech-loading guns and 26 180-pounders.

HMS Minotaur.
View full size imageHMS Minotaur, c. 1863. © NMM
Minotaur was extensively refitted in 1873 and her armament was changed to 17 9-inch guns and two 20-pound breech-loaders. She was fitted with a new propeller, boiler and steam steering. She also became the first Royal Navy ship to carry a searchlight!

HMS Minotaur and HMS Valiant in Victoria Docks
View full size imageHMS Minotaur and HMS Valiant in the Royal Victoria Dock. © NMM
For many years HMS Minotaur was the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. She is shown here in the Royal Victoria Dock in London next to HMS Valiant. She was sold and broken up in 1922.



The Canning Town works

Façade of the General Office, Thames Ironworks.
View full size imageFaçade of the General Office, Thames Ironworks. © NMM
Most of the work on vessels like Minotaur was carried out on the Canning Town side of the creek. This is where the Thames Ironworks expanded from just under 4 hectares (10 acres) in 1856 to 12 hectares (nearly 30 acres) by 1891.

This image is of the 'new' office buildings facing the road on the Essex side of the creek.

General offices at Orchard Yard, Blackwall.
View full size imageThe general offices at Orchard Yard, Blackwall, 1903. © NMM

Although Orchard Place was still the company's address until 1909, its presence there was much reduced.

By the late 1860s the company only had a 2 hectare (five acre) area on the northern part of the site, where the original general offices were located.

International success

Rumanian torpedo boats at Thames Ironworks
View full size imageRomanian torpedo boat at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
With the success of the Warrior and Minotaur, orders came in from navies around the world. Vessels were constructed for Denmark, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the Ottoman Empire.

The yard even built the first iron-hulled warship for the Prussian navy, the König Wilhelm, in 1869. The vessel shown here is one of several torpedo boats constructed for the Rumanian Navy.

Model of Alfonso de Alburquerque
View full size imageBlock model of Alfonso de Alburquerque (1883). © NMM

The ironworks also built the cruiser Alfonso de Alburquerque for the Portugese government in 1883.

An iron, wood-sheathed cruiser, Alfonso de Alburquerque was 63 m (205 ft) long and 10 m (33 ft) wide, with a depth of 5 m (16.6 ft) and a displacement of 1150 tons. Her maximum speed was 13.5 knots and she was armed with two 6-inch Armstrong guns and five 40-pounders.

The King of Sweden.
View full size imageArrival of the King of Sweden at the Thames Ironworks, 1900. © NMM
Because the Thames Ironworks built ships for so many navies, foreign dignitaries were always visiting. Shown here is the King of Sweden who visited the works in 1900 after an order from his government. The managing director, Arnold Hills, is greeting him at the quayside.

Enlightened director

Thames Ironworks General Office staff.
View full size imageThames Ironworks General Office staff. © NMM
Arnold Hills (1857-1927) joined the board of directors of the works in 1880 at the age of 23. He later became the chairman and managing director until the firm closed in 1912.

Hills was one of the first business leaders to voluntarily introduce an eight-hour day for his workers. This was at a time when 10 and 12-hour shifts were common for industrial workers. Hills is shown here second from left in the front row.

Launch of the Japanese Warship Shikshima, Thames Ironworks, Blackwall
View full size imageLaunch of the Shikishima at the Thames Ironworks, November 1898. © NMM

From the moment Hills joined the company he fought to keep shipbuilding alive on the Thames. A peak in production was reached between the late 1880s and mid-1900s with ships built for the Royal Navy as well as foreign navies and merchant fleets.

Illustrated here is the launch of the Japanese warship Shikishima in November 1898. She became a training ship in 1923 and was scrapped in 1947. Her sister ship the Fuji was also built at the Thames Ironworks.


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