Chiswick's Proud History of Shipbuilding
Brought back to life by Peter Usher at his Pier House talk
The Thornycroft Bell rang out again this week from the Pier House to three cheers led by Sea Cadets and the applause of over 70 local people who had come to hear of the borough’s proud shipbuilding heritage.
Mr Peter Usher, President of Vosper Thornycroft, and Mr David Hutchings, company archivist, came up from Southampton, at the invitation of the Chiswick Pier Trust to give an illustrated talk on the history of Thornycroft Shipbuilding Yard, which had built over 350 craft at Church Wharf just upstream of Chiswick Mall between 1862 and 1904.
Ali Taylor from the Trust talked about the importance of the shipbuilding yard to Chiswick. John Isaac Thornycroft was just a teenager when he built Nautilus, his first boat and the first craft fast enough to keep up with The Boat Race. From modest beginnings, the yard grew: in the 1890's, it built 46 ships for 13 different countries and provided employment for 1800 local men. Thornycroft's was famous throughout the world for creating fast, high tech boats. The departure of the firm was a huge loss for Chiswick not only in terms of employment but also in the excitement and interest generated by the steady stream of innovative craft launched from the slipways and sent to all corners of the globe. The local newspaper reported that: "one of the most interesting sights of the Thames in this vicinity will have been withdrawn from it, never to return."
Mr Usher showed archive photos of the wide variety of craft built at Chiswick from river craft such as the Melik, sent to the Nile to help relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, to torpedo gunboats built for naval action at sea. Mr Usher was proud that the Thornycroft name was one of the oldest surviving names in shipbuilding and that its tradition of functional yet elegant design continued. He attributed the firm's success to having engineers in charge rather than administrators!
Mr Hutchings talked about craft built post Chiswick. Thornycroft’s reluctantly had to leave in 1904, as the ships were becoming too large to fit underneath the Thames bridges. They moved to the deeper, open waters of Woolston, Southampton, nearer to the naval dockyards of Portsmouth - a big customer. The company became Vosper Thornycroft after a merger with Vosper's in 1966.
The evening was rounded off with Peter Usher unveiling the Thornycroft bell, donated by the company to the Chiswick Pier Trust. The origins of the bell are a bit of a mystery though it was thought that it was rung to summon men to work and sound the end of the day. If any readers know of the bell, please contact the Trust, we’d love to learn more!
A fascinating booklet, "Thornycroft Shipbuilding and Motor Works in Chiswick", is available from the Chiswick Pier Trust office for £2.50. For more information telephone: 020 8742 2713.
For further details on events at the pier log on at www.chiswickpier.org.uk .
November 5, 2008