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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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Work and leisure at the Thames Ironworks

A major employer

Moving a beam at the Thames Ironworks.
View full size imageMoving a beam at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
The Thames Ironworks was one of the East End's major employers. The trades and skills represented included:

  • clerks
  • civil engineers
  • foremen
  • foundry workers
  • lathe operators
  • carpenters
  • riveters
  • draughtsmen
  • labourers.

Arnold Hills and labour problems

Foundry at Thames Ironworks.
View full size imageWorkers in the foundry at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
The workforce was very much under the control of the managing director, Arnold Hills. His approach to industrial relations was that of the enlightened patriarch. 

He did not always agree with his employees, however, and his support for the firm's right to employ non-union men was deeply unpopular.

Boyer rivette on structural work at Thames Ironworks.
View full size imageUsing rivet guns on structural works at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM
Labour unrest spread to the Thames Ironworks during the dock strike of 1889. The boilermakers went on strike on 9 July, the labourers joined the dispute in August and then the joiners walked out.

It was reported in the Thames Ironworks Quarterly Gazette that 'strike fever was in the air and West Ham took the infection badly. The Thames Ironworks were the worst sufferers'.

Ongoing unrest

Thames ironworkers using a rivet gun.
View full size imageThe Thames ironworkers joined the great strike wave in 1889. © NMM
Even after the dockers dispute was settled, unrest continued at the Blackwall works. The joiners downed tools again on 1 March 1890 and the engineers went on strike in August 1891.

During this tense period, Hills was 'hissed' by his own workmen as he entered the yard. The works gates were picketed and some of the replacement men were badly treated by strikers when they left the works.

Improving relations

Shipbuilding Foremen.
View full size imageShipbuilding foremen at the Blackwall yard. © NMM
After this period of conflict, Hills decided that important changes were needed to the company's labour relations practices.

In 1892 he put forward a 'Good Fellowship scheme' of bonuses on top of standard wage rates. Two years later a working day of eight hours rather than nine was introduced.

Sports and social events

Thames Ironworks Memorial Ground Cycle Track.
View full size imageThames Ironworks Memorial Ground cycle track. © NMM

As well as promoting shorter working hours and profit-sharing, Hills encouraged his workers to become involved in the company sports and social activities.

He spent a lot of time and money on the formation of works clubs of every kind. These included a temperance league, cycling club, cricket club and brass band.

Start of Thames Ironworks Handicap at the Memorial Ground Cycle Track.
View full size imageStart of  the Thames Ironworks Handicap at the Memorial cycle track. © NMM
The West Ham Memorial Ground was created by Hills for the enjoyment of his staff and to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Sports days and cycling on the circular track regularly took place there. The Memorial Ground also had the longest swimming pool in Britain.

Thames Ironworks Operatic Society: The Pirates of Penzance.
View full size imageThames Ironworks Operatic Society production of the Pirates of Penzance. © NMM
The works also had an amateur operatic society. The members, many of whom are in costume, are shown here during their 1896 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

Thames Ironworks Rowing Club
View full size imageThames Ironworks rowing club. © NMM
Unsurprisingly, given its location, the men from the ironworks formed their own rowing club and took part in competitions on the River Thames with other London clubs. This photograph shows the members in 1898.

Thames Ironworks one mile handicap at the Memorial Ground.
View full size imageThames Ironworks one mile handicap at the Memorial Ground. © NMM
The clubs and societies were there, according to Hills, to 'modify the social conditions of the yard'. Even the Thames Ironworks Gazette was intended to serve the same function and was a 'means of friendly communication between our shareholders, our staff, our workmen and myself'.


The Hammers

Thames Ironworks FC.
View full size imageThames Ironworks Football Club. © NMM
In 1895 Thames Ironworks formed the Thames Ironworks Football Club. Originally based at Hermit Road, they played at the Memorial Ground from 1897 to 1904. In that year they moved to the Boleyn Ground in Green Street.

By that time they had become a professional side. Since 1900, they had been known as West Ham Football Club after Hills had provided the money for a merger with another local side, Old Castle Swifts.

Useful Links

West Ham United Footbal Club



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