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Thames Ironworks

Shipbuilding in Britain in the late 19th century
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HMS 'Thunderer' and the closure of the ironworks
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HMS 'Thunderer' and the closure of the ironworks

Limited resources

Building of HMS Thunderer
View full size imageThe building of HMS Thunderer© NMM
Blackwall could only provide limited facilities for shipbuilding. Resources and raw materials were not available locally for the development of the large-scale dockyards that bigger ships required.

As a result, competition from northern yards on the Tyne and Clyde and rising costs led to fewer orders during the mid-1900s. The works only received £1 million (over £60 million at today's prices) out of an Admiralty budget of nearly £70 million.

The final contract

HMS Thunderer (1911).
View full size imageHMS Thunderer (1911). © NMM
After Hills threatened to raise awkward questions in Parliament about the lack of government orders the yard was receiving, the Navy gave him a contract in 1910 to build HMS Thunderer. At 22,500 tons the ship was the Navy's largest dreadnought upto that time.

The scriving floor at Thames Ironworks
View full size imageThe scriving floor at the Thames Ironworks. © NMM

This photograph shows the 'scriving floor' at the Thames Ironworks during the construction of the Thunderer. On this floor and smaller ones like it, the various curves of a ship's keel were scrived, or cut, to actual size.

Long wooden spleens or battens were then tacked down over the scrived lines and made into patterns to which iron plates were shaped.

Launch of the 'Thunderer'

Mrs Arnold Hills at the ceremonial laying of the keel plate of the Thunderer.

View full size imageMrs Arnold Hills at the laying of the keel plate of HMS Thunderer© NMM

On 16 April 1910 the keel-plate of the Thunderer was laid down in a ceremony led by Mrs Arnold Hills. Her husband had recently been affected by a stroke. She is shown here with senior managers from the ironworks.

Laying the keel of HMS Thunderer.
View full size imageLaying the keel of HMS Thunderer. © NMM
The Thunderer was eventually launched on 1 February 1911. However, the order broke the yard. The banks withdrew their loans and the firm closed at Christmas. This was despite the fact that Britain had just begun its greatest ever naval shipbuilding boom in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War.

Effect of closure

Launch of HMS Thunderer.
View full size imageThe launch of HMS Thunderer. © NMM
The closure of the ironworks caused widespread unemployment in Canning Town and Blackwall, already two of the poorest areas in London.

Despite Hills' best efforts, the truth was that the northern shipyards, close to sources of coal and iron, made the Thames-side industry uncompetitive. The Thunderer was the River Thames's final contribution to the Royal Navy.

Today the shipbuilding industry survives in a very minor way: lighters, barges, workboats and pleasure craft.


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