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Maritime tales – Liverpool shipbuilding

14 January 2008 by stepheng

Colour photo of a wooden ship model. It has 3 large masts and a small boat on the deck.

HM Grampus model. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I, Stephen Guy, had ancestors living and working among the shipyards that dotted the Liverpool waterfront in the 18th century.

Liverpool was a shipbuilding centre for more than 200 years, developing alongside its growth from a small port to a major centre of commerce. By 1700 several shipyards were established around the Pool, a creek long since covered over, which gave the town its name.

With the opening of the first dock in 1715 and the Salthouse Dock in 1739, shipbuilding moved to the Mersey Strand on the site of the Albert Dock. Today the Strand and Strand Street remind us that this was once a long beach, a strand of mud and sand. My ancestor Henry Guy was born in nearby Moor Street in 1728 and was a shipwright in the yards.

In 1739 John Okill began work on the 44-gun HMS Hastings, the first ship built in Liverpool for the Royal Navy. The construction of wooden warships and merchant ships occupied the many Liverpool shipbuilders until the late 18th century.

The early docks of the 19th century brought competition from shipyards in Canada. They were near forests providing wood for the ships and had cheap labour so the Liverpool shipyards were undercut. By 1840 it was estimated that almost half the ships owned in Liverpool were built in Canada.

Eventually the demand for more new docks on the Liverpool side of the Mersey drove the shipbuilding industry to the opposite Wirral shore. The last large vessel launched on the Liverpool shore was HMS Britomart, a gunboat built by WH Potter & Sons in Queens Dock in 1899.

Models of Liverpool-built ships are on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum. The 50-gun HMS Grampus was launched at John Fisher’s shipyard in 1782. This superbly-detailed model shows the three-master with three huge lanterns at the stern.

The Jhelum (1849) was one of the last Mersey-built wooden ships and was employed in the guano trade shipping bird droppings for fertilizer. Her beached hulk still lies in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. Merseyside Maritime Museum staff have visited her. Alongside a small model of Jhelum are a number of artefacts from the hulk including nails and copper sheathing. This online feature covers the damage being done to the Jhelum by the lowly shipworm.

The Wanderer, a four-masted barque of 1891, was an unlucky ship with her captain being killed in a severe storm on her maiden voyage.  In 1907 she was sunk in the River Elbe after being rammed by the German liner Gertrud Woermann.

More on shipbuilding on the Mersey and related documents in our collections can be found in our Maritime Archives section. A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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