England Occupations Ship and Boat Building (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Ship and Boat Building

A boat is defined as a small open, oared or sailing vessel, fishing vessel, mail packet, or small steamer. A ship was formerly a vessel with a bowsprit (the spar extending forward over the ship’s bow to which the forestays are fastened) and three to five square-rigged masts, but now means any sea-going vessel of considerable size.

History of industry

People living on islands develop a dependency on boats and ships for the transport of people and goods, intra- and international trade, and for defence. Vessels have been built in coastal and riverine areas for thousands of years, and Britain’s first navy was created by Alfred the Great who reigned 871-901 AD. The Tudor monarchs constructed warships with oak timbers and iron cannons from the Weald. The 18th-19th centuries saw the heyday of the wooden merchant ships of the East India Company and others trading worldwide.

As the technology changed to steam power and then to iron and steel construction the industry moved north to Liverpool, Teesside, Clydesdale in Scotland, and Belfast in Northern Ireland although London remained a major centre for building, repairs, and goods (freight) and passenger service. The first steamship was Brunel’s Great Western (1838) and the first iron ship was his Great Britain (1843) both built in Bristol. The manufacture of warships provided major employment in shipyards during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain constructed 60% of the world’s shipping in the decade before WWI, however this fell to 35% by the late 1930s, and by 1970 it was negligible (Hey).

Sites - Merchant and Navy

The wooden sailing ships of the 16th-19th centuries were built mainly in the south of England, especially in:

  • ŸThe six major Royal Dockyards at Deptford, Woolwich, Sheerness and Chatham (all in Kent), Plymouth (Devon) and Portsmouth (Hampshire) and several smaller ones around the coast.
  • The merchant ports of Bristol (Gloucestershire), Harwich (Essex), London, Poole (Dorset) and Southampton (Hampshire).

Boat building was widespread all around the coasts of Britain but particularly in Hampshire, the West Country and East Anglia. Little yards and workshops abounded on tiny waterways and coves (Wymer 1946) producing everything from rowing boats and yachts to fishing smacks. Bailey recounts the history of boat and ship building in Hampshire, from the many small ports to Portsmouth, a Royal Navy city where Henry VII built the world’s first dry dock in which HMS Victory is now moored, and Southampton which has catered to crusaders, Puritans, tourists and oil tankers. Naval dockyards along the River Medway in Kent and especially those in Chatham, Rochester and Sheerness have been important employers for hundreds of years and their history is described by Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982). He also summarizes the history of the Bristol docks and those along the River Clyde from Govan in Glasgow west to Port Glasgow and Greenock in Scotland. Family historians should note that the Royal Navy also had yards overseas, for example:

  • Gibraltar, Port Mahon (Minorca) and Malta in the Mediterranean.
  • ŸPort Royal (Jamaica), English Harbour (Antigua) and Barbados in the West Indies.
  • ŸHalifax (Nova Scotia, Canada).

A period of employment in one of these could account for a mysterious disappearance from English records.

The first proper dock in Britain was built in 1700 at Rotherhithe in London, and this city had the largest docking system in the world in the 19th century. The West India Dock, opened in 1802, accommodated 600 ships, and this was followed by the London Docks, East India Docks and St. Katherine’s Docks. The docks in Liverpool, Bristol, Hull and Glasgow increased during the railway era, with Liverpool eventually having eight miles of dock frontage. These were the major sites for work in ship construction and repairs during the 19th and early 20th centuries, although dozens of other ports had minor facilities. A well-illustrated history of commercial docks has been written by Ritchie-Noakes (Old Docks. Shire Publications, 1987), and one on the Royal Dockyards by MacDougall (Royal Dockyards. Shire Publications, 1989).

Trades in Ship and Boat Building

The shipwrights were a recognized London brotherhood as far back as 1260. Senior Royal Navy shipwrights were allowed up to five apprentices and these were called servants (Woodger). The apprentice bindings for 1691-1801 are at the Guildhall Library. A journeyman shipwright could choose to work for a specific project in a higher paying private yard, or in the lower paying Royal Naval yard where there was always work, and after 1764 the possibility of a pension. Spiller describes the categories of shipwrights and their pay and conditions. The shipwright not only constructed boats and ships but was employed on board to maintain the hull and masts. The majority of ship’s carpenters qualified as shipwrights in one of the dockyards before going to sea, but a boy could serve an apprenticeship afloat as carpenter’s crew and carpenter’s mate. In the navy, shipwrights were warrant officers called carpenters until 1918 when they were renamed warrant shipwrights. Some carpenters spent part of their career as civilian employees, and after some years experience as a journeyman either on board or on shore they could advance to take a master shipwright position. Further information on Royal Navy shipwrights and surviving records for them, for example the pay books for the major yards in class ADM 42, can be found in Rodger. Various records of the Shipwrights’ Company 1428-1858 have been published by Phillimore (Spiller).

Building of the ancient Welsh coracle is described by Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), and in more detail by Arnold (The Shell Book of Country Crafts. John Baker, 1968 and All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970). Basic construction of a wooden boat by Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949), and that of larger wooden ships by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) and Spiller (Old Occupations: The Shipwright. Family Tree Magazine Vol 8. Part I in #7, page 4-5; Part II in #8, page 4-5). Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshir, 1981) describes modern wood and fibreglass boat building in East Anglia.

A shipyard employed a number of specialist tradesmen as well as the shipwrights, including:

  • ŸAnchorsmiths were blacksmiths who forged the set of anchors necessary for each ship (MacDougall).
  • ŸBlockers who laid down the blocks on which the ship was built.
  • ŸBlockmakers who made and repaired the thousands of blocks (block-and-tackle) for the rigging and gun carriages (Taylor).
  • ŸCaulkers who used oakum (teased old rope) and pitch to seal the ship’s seams
  • ŸColour Makers made the flags (colours), in the flag loft and were often wives of officers (Morse).
  • ŸDraftsmen drew up drawings and plans for ships.
  • ŸMastmakers who worked in long mast houses constructing the masts and spars (MacDougall).
  • ŸRiggers who prepared and fitted the spars, sails and ropes of a sailing ship.
  • ŸRopemakers made the vast quantities of rope needed by sailing vessels from hemp in the ropery which included a quarter-mile-long rope walk. The job was mainly done by men but some wives of other ranks were employed here too (Morse). Rope making is described by MacDougall (Royal Dockyards. Shire Publications, 1989) , Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982), and Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1974). Related trades are line, twine and shoe thread makers and netmakers (Filbee, Wymer 1946).
  • ŸSailmakers (also called ships’ taylors) worked in the sail loft producing sails from canvas (sail cloth) spun from hemp yarn (MacDougall, Hurley 1991-2). Dixon (A Heritage of Anglian Crafts. Minimax Books, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, 1981) describes the manufacture of older canvas and modern terylene sails in East Anglia.
  • Sawyers who carried out the initial cutting of logs into appropriate timbers.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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