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FIRST EDITION

Copyright © Robert Ratcliffe 2015

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SHIPYARDS OF THE UPPER MERSEY

Being a Study of the Ship and Boat Yards of Runcorn, Frodsham, Widnes, Ellesmere Port, Sankey, and Warrington

An in-depth look at these facilities with focus also on the other maritime industries of the area

Robert Ratcliffe

LIST OF CONTENTS

List of Illustrations

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Foreword

An Account of Runcorn’s Shipbuilding and Boat Building Industry, Focusing Primarily on the Old Quay Area

Introduction

Beginnings

The Coming of the Ship Canal

The Manchester Ship Canal Company at Old Quay and Beyond

Elsewhere in Runcorn

Today

Conclusion

The DENNIS BRUNDRIT and the Mersey Street Shipyard of Runcorn

A History of the Mersey Street Yard and the Wright-Brundrit Business Empire

The Stubbs Family

A Brief Stroll Along the Waterfront from Old Quay

An Account of the Shipbuilding and Boat Building Industry of Frodsham

Introduction

The Builders

The End of Shipbuilding at Frodsham

An Account of the Shipbuilding and Boat Building Industry of Widnes

Introduction

The Shipyards

The Future

An Account of the Shipbuilding and Boat Building Industry of Ellesmere Port

Introduction

The Shipyards

The Future

An Account of the Shipbuilding and Boat Building Industry of Sankey and Warrington

Introduction

The Shipyards

Diversification

A List of Ship and Boat Builders and Repairers of the Upper Mersey

Appendix A: A List of Vessels Built in the Upper Mersey

Local Ship Types

Notes from the Main Text of this Work

Appendix B: The Port of Runcorn

Appendix C: New Word for all Pertaining to Waterborne Craft and Trades

Afterword

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

About the Author

Brief Family Tree

End Word: A Cocktail Recipe to Enjoy While Reading this Work

Mersey Flat Oakdale Refit Society

Addendum

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

Front Cover and Frontispiece

1Photograph of Stubbs’s Yard with two vessels on the slip. By permission of “Mr. Salty Dog” (contributor to the Flickr online photo album website).

After Section on Castle Rock (see pages 9–10)

2Despatch being launched from Mersey Street Yard in roughly the same location as the above picture (care of Ken Stubbs).

3Runcorn waterfront in 1887 with details by Ross Bullock of Runcorn and District Historical Society. By permission of Ross Bullock.

4View of the Belvedere Yard of Blundell and Mason (postcard used in Schooner Port by Starkey). By permission of Avid Publications.

5Anderton and LeCouteur of Castle Rock (care of the author’s cousin once removed, Frank LeCouteur).

6Photograph from the early 1890s as the Ship Canal was under construction, showing a fore-and-aft building berth at Castle Rock that was previously unknown to the author (from the late Geoff Wheat’s article Manchester Ship Canal, in Narrowboat magazine, winter 2011/2). From the Geoff Wheat Collection.

7Abel’s Castle Rock Yard , slightly to the west of the above picture (from Runcorn Photos page on Facebook). By permission of “Mr. Salty Dog” (contributor to Flickr).

8RUTH BATE under construction at Castle Rock Yard. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

9A sailing vessel aground at low tide beside Castle Rock Wharf apparently under survey or repair, perhaps by shipwrights from Castle Rock Yard, or maybe another concern. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

10Just to the west of the last picture, a group of fishing vessels being painted or repaired on the beach at the end of Castle Rock Wharf. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

After Section on Weston Point

11Weston Point (“The Point”), 1911–19. A drawing by G. Alfred Holloway, from his book Weston Point Remembered, 1911–1920. I tried to find out from Cheshire Libraries if I had permission to use this image but I had no answer. The book was a privately produced one from 1988 with an introduction written by a staff member from Cheshire Libraries but no other clue as to publisher. The map shows Wright’s Dock and the southern end of Weston Point Docks.

11aThe key to Mr. Holloway’s map. Note the map shows the Bridgewater Canal flowing into the Weaver Navigation. This is actually the Runcorn and Weston Canal, which linked the Weston Point and Runcorn Docks systems, and thus, ultimately, linked into the Bridgewater. Also, the part marked as the “Weaver Navigation Canal” is actually the Old Basin in Weston Point Docks, which used to have a further dock, the New Basin, between her and the Manchester Ship Canal. This has now been filled in but was still there in the period covered by Mr. Holloway’s book). The Weaver Navigation is the waterway running alongside the “Stoney Wall”, and “Stoney Beach” where local children used to play, marked on the right of the map.

12Scan of the 1958 chart showing Weston Point Docks. With thanks to the Hydrographic Office.

After Section on M.S.C. Co. at Old Quay and Beyond

13Sprinch Yard (centre); Simpson, Davies Yard above and left of her; Samuel Taylor’s Yard above that; Victoria Yard (a separate entity to the Sprinch, which had this as her official title initially) to the bottom left; and triangular-shaped “The Baulks” opposite the Sprinch Yard to the low right of centre. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

14Author’s photograph of the Bridgewater Motor Boat Club graving dock (the former double graving dock at the Sprinch, seen in the above to the bottom left of the yard).

15Packet dry dock in centre of postcard view, with MSC STRETFORD in dock (unknown source).

16JENNY LIND on the graving grid at Bridgewater Docks (care of Percy Dunbavand).

17EVA on Dry Dock at Runcorn Docks in 1954 (from Flickr). By permission of Frank Brown.

18Aerial view of Runcorn Docks with the Sevastopol Arm visible in the centre, coming off the old line of locks. This was the location of a boatyard operated, I believe, by various firms. Bridgewater House, the home of the duke during the building of the canal that bore his name, can be seen in isolation at the bottom left of the shot. Just visible to the left of it is the entrance to the graving dock, approached from within the dock complex rather than from the Manchester Ship Canal. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

19The Simpson, Davies Yard in the foreground and, in the distance, Samuel Taylor’s Yard (from “Runcorn Photos” on Facebook). By permission of “Mr. Salty Dog” (contributor to Flickr).

20Old Quay Yard plan (from unknown source) with written details by the author.

21No. 1 Slip (former Bridgewater Navigation Yard slipway) (care of Ken Morgan).

22A vessel on No. 2 Slip and one alongside at Old Quay Yard with the small slipway for boats to the right of picture (from “Ship’s Nostalgia” website). By permission of Frank Brown.

23MSC ARROW being converted from steam to diesel at Old Quay (care of Frank Brown).

24The last slipway at Old Quay (formerly “Stubbs’s Slip” or No. 2 Slip) being rebuilt in 1970/1 (care of Percy Dunbavand).

25Second shot of the slipway in 1970, with the carpenter’s shop to the left and the paint shop just left of centre (also care of Percy Dunbavand).

26Third shot from Percy Dunbavand of the slipway being rebuilt, showing the entrance to the Ship Canal straight ahead (gated temporarily only) and the paint shop on the right.

27A barge on the slip in the early 2000s, showing the entrance to the basin and slipway from the Ship Canal (unknown source). By permission of “Mr. Salty Dog” (contributor Flickr).

28MSC DAWN on the slip in 2005 (care of Frank Brown).

29MSC DAWN on the slip, seen from the bows (care of Frank Brown).

30A duo of photos from K.M. Holt that appeared in the corporate magazine “Port of Manchester Review”. They show the changes at Old Quay between 1960 and 1973. In the lower shot foreground, the paint shop can be seen just above the, by then, sole slipway. The same building can be seen in the picture above from thirteen years earlier. To the left are two tugs with white superstructures, above which is the entrance to the former No. 1 Slipway Basin, now filled in. In the background of both images is the large gate repair shed, at the eastern edge of the yard. By permission of Peel Ports.

31Photo of DANIEL ADAMSON on the end of Top Wall at Old Quay, and showing part of the mobile crane tracks (care of Roy Gough).

32Photo of Old Quay taken by author’s father, Ian Ratcliffe, from TENACITY (cabin cruiser built in Ellesmere Port).

33Main gate at Old Quay, taken by the author in the early 2000s.

34Author’s shot of the last slipway at Old Quay (left of the above) taken in the early 2000s.

After Conclusion of Chapter on Runcorn

35DENNIS BRUNDRIT (care of Mr. Pitaluga, the owner of the land and foreshore where the wreck of the ship now resides).

36Wreck of DENNIS BRUNDRIT shortly before the storm of 1942 (care of Mr. Pitaluga, as above).

37Part of the face of the figurehead of DENNIS BRUNDRIT, on display at the Falkland Islands Museum and National Trust, held by Colin Patterson-Smith, a friend of the author and former employee of the museum (author’s photo).

38Remains of the figurehead of DENNIS BRUNDRIT, held in storage at the Falkland Islands Museum, allowed to be viewed by the author by kind permission (and seen here in the author’s photo with the face temporarily restored).

39Author’s shot of the wreck of the DENNIS BRUNDRIT with the plaque he had made to commemorate her planted in place on Centre Island, Falklands.

After Section on the DENNIS BRUNDRIT

40VOLANT under repair at Stubbs’s Yard, with shipwright Harold Whitby stood in foreground (care of Ken Stubbs).

After Section on the Stubbs Family

41Map of Runcorn waterfront in the late 1800s, scanned from archives at Halton Lea Library.

42Map of Runcorn (formerly Bridgewater) Docks in the 1960s, scanned from old Manchester Ship Canal brochures at Halton Lea Library. By permission of Peel Ports. Note that today the majority of docks and basins have been filled in, as have the locks. The remaining three are Alfred, Fenton and Francis Docks (the latter being the new name for the old Tidal Dock).

43Map of Big Pool in the early 1900s, care of Alan Godfrey Maps (from its 1905 Map of Runcorn).

After Description of a Brief Stroll

44Author’s father, Ian Ratcliffe, beside a paddle engine built by E. Timmins on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum (author’s photo).

45Author’s photo of the engine in close up.

46Photographs of cabin cruisers built at Preston Brook (taken by author’s father, Ian Ratcliffe, on his box camera in the 1950s or 1960s).

47Photo by the author of the Weaver Boat Club slipway at its basin beside Ashville Point.

48Author’s photo of the Boat and Butty Yard.

After Chapter on Frodsham

49Frodsham Dockyard plan from Cheshire Cheese and Farming by Charles F. Foster. By permission of Charles F. Foster and Arley Hall Press.

50Site of the Yard at Frodsham Bridge, now a sailing club. The picture shows the former clubhouse built upon the hulk of the STAINTONDALE (author’s photo).

51A diorama model of the SARAH (held in the Merseyside Maritime Museum archives), a ship built at Frodsham, photographed for the author by the staff.

After Chapter on Widnes

52Unidentified photo of Cooper’s Yard, Widnes. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

53Aerial view of the same yard, showing the Sankey Canal above the nearest chimney. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

54A further view of the yard showing West Bank Dock across the promontory. Source investigated by the Runcorn and District Historical Society but unknown.

55Old Shipyard at Fiddler’s Ferry (from Warrington Libraries).

56Slipways at Fiddler’s Ferry Yard of Concrete Seacraft. With thanks to SCARS.

57CRETECAMP on one of the building slips at the same yard. With thanks to SCARS.

58Map of Widnes prior to the West Bank Dock infilling (locally-produced Ordnance Survey reproduction distributed by Cheshire Archives).

After Chapter on Ellesmere Port

59Author’s photo of Ellesmere Port model at the Boat Museum showing the floating dock to the left at “Dry Dock Bend” of the Manchester Ship Canal and the long Morton’s Patent Slipway to the right beside the round gas tank. A smaller slip was once in a position to the left of that tank.

60Photograph of the floating dock at Ellesmere Port. By permission of “Mr. Salty Dog” (contributor to Flickr).

After Chapter on Sankey and Warrington

61Photo by the author of the model of Sankey-built EUSTACE CAREY, on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

62Winwick Dry Dock on the Sankey Canal with WIDNES docked for repairs. With thanks to SCARS.

63Picture of the TAYLEUR, built in Warrington in 1853. With thanks to Avid Publications for its permission to use this image from the book, Iron Clipper ‘Tayleur’by Bert Starkey.

After Bibliography

64The author with his grandfather, George Ratcliffe, at Old Quay beside the DANIEL ADAMSON in the 1970s (in case my trousers didn’t give that fact away!) (photo by the author’s father, Ian Ratcliffe).

65Photograph of EMILY II, the barge of which the author’s grandfather was the captain. Source unknown.

At End of Book

66Chart of the Manchester Ship Canal and Upper River Mersey (reproduced by kind permission of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office) showing various locations discussed in this book and also, the limits of the Customs Port of Runcorn. To follow it, note that the easternmost part of the River Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal are shown on the upper portion of the chart and the continuation inland is shown in the lower section. Close-ups of each set of docks along the Ship Canal are inset within the chart. I am obliged to point out that this is NOT to be used for navigation purposes as it has not been updated with the appropriate changes from Notices to Mariners, etc.

DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to all those men and women of Cheshire, Lancashire and the Mersey region who worked in the nautical, marine, river and canal environments. To all those sailors, bargemen, boatmen, lightermen, longshoremen, dockers, shipwrights, shipbuilders, ostlers, fishermen, beatsters, engineers and all others who made and make our area the rich bed of maritime history it is.

Nautical, marine, maritime… all great words that encompass a lot of trades and lifestyles. But none of them really connects all those people who had a way of life connected to the water. There are those who sailed the oceans and seas; those who navigated the rivers and canals; those who pulled barges and narrowboats by hand or by horse; those who built or repaired ships, boats, craft of whatever kind, and their engines or sails, masts, and spars; those who worked building the anchors and cables, ropes and rigging; those who supported the aforementioned as dockers, lighthouse keepers, chandlers, etc. The list goes on. I wanted to try to invent a word that would capture all these great occupations and I have, I hope, done so satisfactorily. To discover what it is, please see the appendices.

I would especially like to dedicate this work to all my family and friends that fit the above description. I discuss my family at some length in this work and I do so because I wish to make it clear just how intricately their lives have been woven into the maritime history of our town, as have the lives of many other Runcornians. I hope this inspires some research into family history in others in our part of the world, and that others find this work as fascinating and rewarding as I have.

Finally, I dedicate this work to my naval mentor and good friend, Chris Rickard. Chris served in the Navy for twenty-four years and then many more as a civilian instructor. As a Communications Yeoman, he had no equal, and his expertise was always sought and shared in equal measure. He conducted much research for institutions such as the Flag Institute on the subjects of national Colours, visual signalling and tactics in battle. His love of naval lore and history was as infectious as his obvious dedication and consummate professionalism. He was an inspiration to so many and always there to assist, encourage and contribute. RIP Chris and thanks for everything.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thank you to the following (in no particular order):

Microsoft for the Word programme this book is written in, for the PowerPoint system used for the graphs in this work and the Paint programme used on some of the illustrations.

The late H.F. “Bert” Starkey, for his research and writings, which form the basis of this work and which led me to expand upon his initial findings to begin my own work in this field. His contribution to the preservation of our history is evidenced by a colossal library of works and I am only one of many to have learned from his long years of study and research. Thanks also to Avid Publications for permission to use a photo from Bert Starkey’s work.

The many authors, researchers and photographers whose work I have studied and analysed from books, booklets, websites and maps over the last twenty or so years of looking into this subject.

To the many contributors to the internet chat site Tug Talk for their memories and pictures. Many of them are former Manchester Ship Canal tug and dredger crewmembers or staff from Old Quay Yard. I cannot name all contributors but among their number are David Asprey (especially for information on Weston Point Steam Towing), Stephen Carter, Daniel Cross, Carl Lechey, George Robinson, Arthur Taylor, Dave Waller, and Michael Williams.

To the many contributors to the Facebook pages Runcorn Photos, Runcorn past an present (sic), You know your from Runcorn when… (sic), and COBWEB (Canal Old Boys Web) for their memories and pictures. In particular, I would thank ex-Ship Canal workers Frank Brown, Tony Dowling, John Lunt, John Taylor and the late Kenneth Morgan. Thanks also for the photographs to Frank Brown and also Kenneth Morgan, who sadly passed away in October 2014 at the time I was submitting my work to the publisher.

Ross Bullock of the Runcorn and District Historical Society for his time and for his labelled photograph of Runcorn’s waterfront.

Percy Dunbavand for his research, memories and time. Also for his photographs.

Evelyn Hayes of Scribes and Scribblers in Runcorn for her time, for putting me in contact with the two gentlemen asterisked below, and also (on a separate note) for help with tracing my family tree.

Liz Howard of the Curiosity Bookshop, Runcorn, for her local history books and for her time and advice.

Ray Miller, for his advice and time, and also for printing so much of my ramblings over the years!

Ron Turner*, for his memories and time.

Roy Gough* for his book, his photographs and for his memories and time.

Ken Stubbs, for his time and his memories and pictures.

David Keenan, for his memories and time.

Charles F. Foster, for his advice and time and for his picture of Frodsham Dockyard.

Hugh Potter, editor of Narrow Boat magazine, for his help and advice regarding the picture from the Geoff Wheat Collection.

Peel Ports Group marketing director Julia Bradley and commercial controller Joe Blythe for their time and help with details of work carried out by the Manchester Ship Canal Company at Old Quay Yard. Also for permission to use some old M.S.C. Co. plans and images from its corporate magazine Port of Manchester Review.

Cheshire Libraries and their staff in Halton Lea and Egerton Street, Runcorn, Warrington and Chester.

Paul Wright (a friend of my father), the editor of the railway enthusiast 8D Society magazine for his advice.

Roy Fenton of Ships in Focus Record (and a contributor to so many nautical magazines) for his advice.

David Roberts of Avid Publications for his permission to use material from books by the late Bert Starkey.

Reverend David Long and the Sankey Canal Restoration Society for permission to use several photographs and for the research conducted for publications and for its website.

The staff of the UK Hydrographic Office for their help and for Copyright Licence #17517 that has allowed me to use the Manchester Ship Canal and Upper Mersey chart in this work.

Commander Paddy Allen, R.N., my boss as Commander, Sea Training at Devonport, for his reading of my proof copy and for his enthusiasm, support, and advice. My report has been finalised, so this is NOT sycophantic!

Thanks also go to:

My late great uncle Frank for his memories.

To his son, Frank for his research.

Dad, for his memories and help piecing things together; for the long walks along the canal and riversides locating and photographing the locations discussed in this booklet. Thanks to him for his enthusiasm and support for me in this project.

Also, thanks to him for the photos of Old Quay Yard taken from TENACITY. This was the cabin cruiser built by our friend the late Reg Lindop of Ellesmere Port.

Mum, for her support and guidance as ever.

And to my wife, Julie, for encouraging me to put this book forward for publishing.

FOREWORD

Cheshire1 is a county of contrasts. It is thought of as a flat county, the vast Cheshire Plain being famous. Yet Cheshire has a number of well-known and once strategically-important hills, from Frodsham and Helsby to Beeston.

On the one hand, it is renowned as a rural area of farms and beautiful vistas, yet Cheshire also has a vast array of industrial heritage to call upon. There were the iron and copper industries at such places as Runcorn and Wallasey. There are the chemical refineries at Stanlow and the chemical plants at such places as Runcorn, Widnes (within the county since 1974), Chester and Northwich.

There were the salt mines of Northwich and Winsford and coal mines and sandstone quarries at various locations. There are also the railway engineering plants at such places as Crewe.

Within the county there are motor car manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce and/Bentley at Crewe and Vauxhall Motors at Ellesmere Port.

Then there are the aircraft building plants, such as the Avro facility at Woodford, which merged into Hawker Siddeley, then British Aerospace. This was renamed BAE Systems before the factory’s eventual closure in 2011. Avro also built aircraft at Ringway, now Manchester International Airport.

More aviation facilities also reside within our county boundaries, such as the former Vickers-Armstrong plant at Hawarden/Broughton near Chester. This too went through various changes, from de Havilland to Hawker Siddeley, then British Aerospace to its current owner, Airbus. Finally, in the Seventies there was also Crosby Aviation of Knutsford, which built light aircraft.

There were leather and textile/clothing industries throughout the county, paint manufacturers, breweries, and lead works, etc.

Our green and pleasant land was also very much at the heart of the “workshop of the world” that was England.

However, one particular facet of industrial might particularly fascinates me, and it is one that Cheshire also had more than her fair share of: ship and boat building. Birkenhead and Northwich are probably the first towns one thinks of when considering Cheshire and shipbuilding. But there were others at Bromborough, Chester, Winsford and elsewhere2. The county was very much a maritime one, with ports across its extensive coastline, nautical schools at Heswall (Training Ship AKBAR, replaced by the Akbar Nautical School, later Heswall Nautical School) and Birkenhead (such as TS INDEFATIGABLE at New Ferry and TS CONWAY between Rock Ferry and New Ferry3)

There was an observatory at Bidston that used to calculate the exact time (firing the One O’Clock Gun near Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead) and provide the tide tables to the world (as used in the D-Day landings) before being replaced by computers in the 1960s. Cheshire was very much part of the great seafaring tradition of the British Isles.

Within these pages we shall look at those shipyards that existed on the Upper Mersey. That is to say, that part of the river furthest inland, beyond Bootle, Liverpool and Garston; Birkenhead, Wallasey and Bromborough.

Therefore, we shall look at Runcorn, Frodsham, Widnes (including Fiddler’s Ferry4), Ellesmere Port, Sankey and Warrington. The reason for this order is simply the volume of work conducted in each of these towns (including Sankey, which is today a suburb of Warrington but worthy of separate note due to its earlier pedigree in this trade compared with the rest of the borough to which it now belongs) and the tradition for shipbuilding therein, listed in descending order.

I have more information about Runcorn than I do the other towns, largely because there was so much more maritime industry there than in the other places. It is for this reason that I have made graphs for the figures for Runcorn and Frodsham shipbuilding but not for anywhere else. There are simply not as many ships from the other towns to list in this format.

It is my desire to preserve this information for future generations so that we can all remember and honour our forebears for their tireless industriousness and for all the benefits they brought to the area. The work is an amateur one, as I am not a professional writer, and it is a labour of love; I have involved myself in this study because it fascinates me. I hope it provokes similar emotions in others.

It is no exaggeration, however, to say there is much more work to do. As you can see from the pages herein, there are many gaps in the archives, missing and garbled information, and researchers at odds with each other over facts. All of this is because record keeping was perhaps not as efficient as it is today.

Also, for many of the craft built in this locale, there was no official registry; certainly there was no requirement for such when the vessels were only meant for the inland navigations and not for the river and sea crossings of their sister-ships.

Either way, this work is not complete but it is as far as I have got in twenty years of research and is ready to be shared. If anyone can provide more information, or perhaps correct any of the statements I make in this book, I would be very grateful to hear from them.

For example, I have tried very hard to come up with evidence of war work undertaken locally and I am sure there must have been work conducted on Royal Navy ships or, those of the Army, RAF and various auxiliary organisations. I have failed to find any such documentation but I feel it must have taken place, especially with the Western Approaches Command being based at nearby Liverpool during World War II.

In any case, any information, photographs, diagrams or maps can be sent to me for inclusion in an updated version of this study, should the demand be there for it. And if not, then will be just for my own interest, so I look forward to hearing from you.

Bob Ratcliffe

bobratcliffeuppermersey@gmail.com

Postscript: I don’t normally “do” modern over traditional but in this book I have chosen to accept the advice given in Fowler’s Modern English Usage and add the extra “s” in the possessive tense for that belonging to a person whose name ends in “s”. Thus, there will be reference to Stubbs’s Yard, rather than the way I was taught at school, which is Stubbs’ Yard.

 

1When I speak of Cheshire, I refer to both the historic “teapot-shaped” county that existed from antiquity until 1974, and also the modern version that includes Warrington and Widnes. The Mersey formed a natural border at the north of the county for hundreds of years until the political boundary changes brought in these two towns from the opposite bank that had previously been in Lancashire. The changes also took the Wirral Peninsular away from Cheshire and gave it to the newly-formed Merseyside, and took Stockport and other areas to the north-east for the new Greater Manchester, as well as some land for Derbyshire.

2These locations were home to both merchant and Naval shipbuilders, there being yards that built ships for the Royal Navy and the wider use of the Admiralty at Birkenhead, Bromborough, Chester, and Northwich.

3Not to forget that we also had a brief spell as home to Royal Navy officers’ training when BRITANNIA Royal Naval College was moved to Eaton Hall in Chester during World War II.

4Fiddler’s Ferry is just inside the border of Warrington Borough but I group it with Widnes because, during most of this period, Warrington did not stretch as far west as it does today.

AN ACCOUNT OF RUNCORN’S SHIPBUILDING AND BOAT BUILDING INDUSTRY, FOCUSING PRIMARILY ON THE OLD QUAY AREA

Introduction

To write down in a short work the entire nautical history of a town such as Runcorn (as for many towns in our great seafaring nation), would be impossible. But I hope to give some sort of feel for the true diversity and range of maritime industries that existed in that town and even those which remain today, probably out of mind of most inhabitants of the area.

Largely, I’d like to reflect on the commercial ship and boat building and repair work of Runcorn, rather than spend any great amount of time focusing on the large number of pleasure craft currently manufactured within the town. Yet a reference to these businesses should be made, if only to show some of the skills developed over the centuries have not disappeared entirely.

The nautical history of Runcorn and its various outlying villages and settlements undoubtedly stretches back into antiquity. The fact people settled there along the River Mersey implies some sort of ties with the water, be it for fishing or trade. Later would come defence, with Mersey meaning “boundary river”, and this evident natural border marked the northern end of the Mercian kingdom (and later the county of Cheshire) for many centuries.

A castle built at the order of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in AD 914 (Runcorn Burgh) at the later site of the Castle Rock Shipyard5 shows the defence of this settlement and kingdom from attack by the sea was given serious support, so some sort of shipping was in use locally, even if it was only by enemy forces! Earlier settlement at the waterfront of Runcorn is likely but not proven, despite the circumstantial evidence of Roman settlement and trade in the immediate area (and archaeological evidence of a Roman settlement at Halton Brow), including a supposed ferry or ford across the Mersey from Ditton to Runcorn.

H.F. (Bert) Starkey’s Old Runcorn states that shipbuilding and repair began in Runcorn in 1790, although the author of that book shows records in his earlier work Schooner Port of vessels built there from 1778 and a comment that Runcorn shipbuilding began in the late 18th Century. The presence of a ferry at Runcorn since medieval times suggests also that some boat building and repairing experience, however simple, was to be found locally since that period. The ferry was originally at Boat House Pool (which was at the site of the later Old Quay Docks) but was moved by the Bridgewater Trustees a quarter of a mile upstream to a place that then became known as Ferry Hut (due to the shelter built there for waiting passengers). Its service lasted until 1905, when it was replaced by the world’s largest transporter bridge.

Nickson, writing of the year 1821, states in his History of Runcorn that ‘there must have been some boat building or repairing at this time but the trade does not seem to have been of sufficient importance to merit a notice or to be added to the annual value of the town’.

Nickson goes on to say (whilst discussing the shipyard of J. Sothern) that by 1836 ‘shipbuilding had now become a staple industry of the town, and two other shipyards were under the management of the late Messrs. Samuel Mason and John Anderton respectively’.

Later in that tome, Nickson says of Runcorn in the 1880s that ‘its industries comprise the manufacture of the various alkalies [sic] and acids, the making of soap, ship and boat building, the smelting of lead, silver refining, copper extraction, the making of steam engines, gas plant and well sinking apparatus, tanning, the extraction and distilling of glycerine…’.

Shipbuilding grew out of an earlier repair industry and became permanent, going on to gain what Starkey calls ‘something of a national prestige for the building of small coastal craft’. Runcorn shipwrights became ‘widely esteemed for their expertise’, according to Starkey’s Schooner Port. The centres of this industry were at Old Quay and along Mersey Road (roughly following the line of what was once Mersey Street) to Castle Rock, Runcorn Docks and also the Big Pool and Top Locks along the Bridgewater Canal. There were others at various locations near to these areas, suggesting they used the same accesses to the water for the launching of their vessels, but there were many others that are difficult to tie down to a location or to accurately state the exact nature of their business. This work shall focus on the larger, more famous concerns.

Shipbuilding at Runcorn ended with the building of the Manchester Ship Canal from 1888, although ship repair and boat building and repair continued until the very end of the Twentieth century, with modern pleasure craft still being built and repaired in the town to this day.

Today, as you look along the Runcorn waterfront to the east of the Jubilee Bridge (the steel arch road bridge), a new development is taking shape at what was once the last remaining, and also largest, of all the numerous ship and boat yards of the town. It is called The Deck and it promises to bring residential, retail and leisure facilities to a town that has desperately needed all three for some time. Its location is at the heart of the Old Town, from where Runcorn as we know it today gradually grew6.

This area, once a creek known as the Boat House Pool or Old Gut, developed into a dock system known as Old Quay, and this is the name that most Runcornians would know the locale by today. The area saw much investment and at least three times (the building of the Mersey and Irwell, Bridgewater and Manchester Ship canals and their associated facilities), such development signalled a new lease of life for Runcorn. We can only hope that the latest changes do the same and that it was worth the price of what was a fine and self-sufficient shipyard.

Beginnings

Old Quay

The ancient ferry at Runcorn seems to have begun in 1178, although there may have been a boat earlier than this run solely for the benefits of the barons of Halton and Widnes. By at least the 1500s, this enterprise was run from the public landing place at the Pool of Runcorn, Old Gut, the creek where Sprinch Brook flowed into the Mersey. This area (which had become known as the Boat House Pool), where Bridge and Mersey Streets (and their predecessor lanes) once met, was eventually surrounded by the works of the Mersey and Irwell and Bridgewater Companies, as well as others, as they formed their shipyards and other works.7 Whether or not any form of building or repair of vessels occurred here in antiquity is a matter of debate but it seems logical to assume the long history of ferry operations here also summoned a boat building and repair industry. As a footnote, the eventual spread of Mersey and Irwell facilities and the building of the Bridgewater Navigation Yard at Old Gut meant the removal of the Runcorn Ferry to its latter home at Ferry Hut (with Ferry Hut Slip) near the parish church.

The earliest shipbuilding firm on record at Runcorn was a partnership of William Wright and Charles Hickson, whose Mersey Street Shipyard was in business by 1802 at the latest (earlier ship and boat launches are recorded but the details of who built them are lost), when they launched the 57 ton Flat, SARAH. By 1815 however, William Wright was building ships as the sole proprietor of the yard. The following year, a druggist and stone merchant named Dennis Brundrit married Wright’s daughter Elizabeth. On the death of William Wright, the Mersey Street Yard passed to his son-in-law. The Brundrit Company, after various re-inventions, became the largest of the yards at Runcorn by 1848 and the Brundrit family controlled quarries (some inherited from William Wright) and owned ships and boats, becoming a sizeable business empire.

Shortly after the first records for the Wright and Hickson company, another significant builder made an appearance, in this case, around 1804. This was the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company, the firm that built canals and canalised river stretches to create an inland navigation system linking Runcorn to Manchester. The last stretch of waterway, the Runcorn to Latchford Canal, terminated in a new set of docks at Runcorn, just east of Mersey Street. These Mersey and Irwell Docks became known as the Old Quay Docks (Old Quay being the name usually given to the company and canal as a whole) and the name stuck for the area from then onwards.

The Mersey and Irwell built a shipyard for the manufacture and repair of its own vessels. This consisted of a graving dock, which was a wet dock leading to a sideways entry patent slip of two ways (capable of lifting vessels of 200 tons). In 1837, all boat building and repair facilities of the company at Manchester were transferred to the yard at Runcorn. This yard later came into the possession of the Bridgewater Trustees in 1844. The trustees had taken control of the late Duke of Bridgewater’s canal and shipping interests upon his death and they became the Bridgewater Navigation Co. Ltd. when they took-over the Mersey and Irwell company.

By this time, the area of the Boat House Pool had been partially enclosed by the developments by the Mersey and Irwell and the remaining area of the creek had been taken-over by the Bridgewater concern as a shipyard (later to be known as the Bridgewater Navigation Co. Yard), which was its principal yard out of all its facilities across the North-west. From this time, public access to the area was denied and the ferry to Widnes was moved to Ferry Hut, further to the east.

The Bridgewater Navigation Co. continued to use the Old Quay Yard alongside its own facilities already at the site as well as elsewhere in the town. These facilities were a graving grid on the outer wall of Bridgewater Docks (today’s Runcorn Docks) at the end of the Old Line of Locks down to the River Mersey (and later to access the Manchester Ship Canal, before the locks were closed in 1949, with the new line being closed in 1960 and both subsequently in-filled). Also at this location was a graving dock and a boat yard at the Sevastopol Arm, part way down the Locks. These facilities may have been in operation as early as 1785 for the building and repair of company vessels. At Top Locks, where the Bridgewater Canal now terminates since the infilling of the locks themselves, the Bridgewater company also had the packet dry dock (a graving dock) between the Old and New Lines of locks for the repair of its Little Packets, or canal tugs).

By 1823, Dennis Brundrit was in partnership with Philip Whiteway, who became another local man of great importance (he actually laid the first stone of the Runcorn Railway Bridge on 12th April 1864 as a member of the Runcorn Improvement Commissioners). An 1839 survey of the Port of Liverpool (of which Runcorn was then part) recorded the land immediately east of the railway bridge was owned by Dennis Brundrit, who had “shipbuilding and other yards” there. Below the present Belvedere Buildings there were coal and timber yards belonging to Messrs. Brundrit, Whiteway and Forster, although later the Brundrit shipyard facilities seemed to be solely at the Old Quay site.

Further shipbuilders at Old Quay were Okell and the later Okell and Webster, who had a timber yard and smithy adjacent to the Brundrit works. Okell begun his business around 1821 and by 1840 his partnership with Webster had started.

J. Southern and Co. carried on “the timber and ship yard of Mr. Okell” according to Nickson’s History of Runcorn. This firm was in business at least as early as 1836, so either the Okell firm continued its business elsewhere, or the yard at Old Quay was shared between the two firms. Either way, by the 1840s, the yard had been subsumed into that of the Brundrit concern.

At some point around the 1850s or ’60s, business directories list John and William Brundrit and also Robert C. Whiteway as shipbuilders in their own right. Whether a continued partnership or some sort or a shared occupancy of the yard was the reason, the firm had morphed into Brundrit and Co. by around 1874. It was around this time that the yard had expanded, to include a patent slipway for sideways launching as well as two smaller slipways for fore and aft launching of ships. The company built the two largest ships ever to be launched from Runcorn, namely the 451 ton ANNE CHESSHYRE and the 462 ton DENNIS BRUNDRIT (which was claimed to be the smallest full-rigged ship in the world).

A later incarnation of the business appears to be as Brundrit and Hayes, Mr. Hayes being mentioned in Smith’s Directory of 1888 as “Hayes, Wm., Esq. (BRUNDRIT and CO.)”, so presumably he was a senior man at the company who later became a partner in the firm. Evidence suggests he was a full partner in the quarrying business alongside Messrs. Brundrit of Runcorn and Higson of Liverpool in this venture. It appears, however, that the firm reverted to the Brundrit and Co. name in later years, before finally winding-up in 1891.

James Boot was known as a foreman shipbuilder and his address was listed as Cooper Street. This road was adjacent to Mersey Street and there was a James Boot who was manager of the Brundrit yard. He may have operated independently but more than likely he was part of the Brundrit empire.

Mill Street

Thomas and John (Junior) Johnson were brothers who took-over their father’s soap works and very rapidly formed a massive business empire, all centred on Mill Street in Old Runcorn (around the Old Quay area). The brothers were soap, salt and rosin works owners; colliery, mine and quarry owners; and farmers. They were also deeply involved in the maritime scene.

They were ship owners and rope makers and they also built and maintained their own vessels. In fact, they built an important merchant fleet that became one of largest on Merseyside and the brothers became important local dignitaries.

Then, it all went horribly wrong: the brothers’ fleet was caught blockade running to the Confederate states and destroyed or captured by the US Navy. The brothers were bankrupted. Little evidence remains of the Johnsons’ former wealth but among the visible remnants is the current town hall in Runcorn, which was once the private residence of Thomas Johnson.

Also near the Mills adjacent to Old Quay was the home of Fred Abbott, another local boat builder. He was once in partnership with a man called Walton and owned his own boats that traded to Liverpool.

Mill Street was the location of the later Belvedere Yard (see next section) and so this may well have been the same location where one or both of the firms above operated from. Belvedere and Mill Street Yards were separate entities but were likely to have been adjacent to each other.

Belvedere Yard

Immediately to the west of Old Quay was the shipyard of the Mason family. This began in around the 1830s under Samuel Mason. He started at Belvedere Building but his address was listed as Belvedere Yard shortly after 1840 and was in business as a ‘ship and anchor smith’. The premises were below the former waterfront property of Belvedere Building, which was a boarding house in the times when the town was a health resort famed for its salt water baths and river bathing before industrialisation replaced the famed clean airs. Mr. Mason’s address was Mill Street from about 1850 and he may have taken on the Johnson yard; he certainly seems to have retained his original yard as well.

Later incarnations of the firm included John Mason and Co., Mason and Craggs (John Mason being in partnership with George Craggs from 1857) and Blundell and Mason from around 1868 until 1879.

The yard seems then to have fallen into disuse except that a photograph from the book, Cheshire Railways by Mike Hitches shows several vessels on the stocks/slipway at the yard, with the transporter bridge to Widnes in the background. This dates the picture to sometime in or after 1905 and it is possible that someone was in the business of ship repair there at this date. It may even be possible the M.S.C. Co. used the yard for its vessels as it owned the land by this time. In later year,s the remains of the Belvedere slipway was used for the storage of the Ship Canal lock gates.

Other shipbuilders were addressed as on or near Mersey Street, where the Belvedere Yard lay, and these included such people as the “ship and anchor smith” John Ravenscroft of Church Street. They too, perhaps, used the Belvedere Yard under some sort of lease system, which may have been prevalent in the town given the large number of people engaged in these businesses.

Castle Rock

The small promontory next to the railway bridge where once stood the Mercian castle was for many years home to a shipyard/boatyard that existed until the 1960s.

The Anderton family worked the yard from around 1810 but Philip Speakman was also building ships and boats there from this period, perhaps in some sort of sharing scheme. The Speakman firm later acquired the Belvedere and Mill Street Yards as well as the Albion Yard on Big Pool.

Anderton later went into a new partnership and Anderton and LeCouteur ran Castle Rock Yard for some years. The LeCouteurs were a seagoing family from Jersey who moved to Runcorn under Captain John LeCouteur, the grandfather of my late Great Uncle Frank (who married my Great Aunt Alice Ratcliffe in 1942).

Eventually the well-known Runcorn family Abel took-over the Castle Rock Yard from around 1900 and they continued to build and maintain their own vessels there until the mid-1960s. They were carriers of gravel and sand for the glass industry and were one of the largest carriers in north-west England, according to researcher Terry Kavanagh.

The yard had a patent slip for the sideways launch of vessels and, at one point, there was a fore-and-aft slipway for building larger vessels, as evidenced by a photograph shown in Narrowboat magazine.

The last ever Mersey Flat to be built, RUTH BATE, was constructed at Castle Rock and launched in the 1950s. The second last built (also by Abel’s), OAKDALE, is now a houseboat at Millom in Cumbria.

The firm had other yards in Runcorn but none as long-lived and famous as that at Castle Rock.

Ferry Hut

Wedged between Castle Rock and the Belvedere Yard was Ferry Hut, where the small waiting room and slip for the Mersey Ferry once stood. It was the site of a salt water baths dating from when Runcorn was a health resort and was still something of a holiday spot into the latter half of the last century, when summer-time crowds flocked to the small beach there beside what was by then the Manchester Ship Canal.

This small but well-known local area was also the site of some repair work because, as well as work that was likely to have been carried out on the ferry boat, there were a number of local fishing vessels that used to be beached there for repair as and when needed.

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Big Pool

The once large expanse of water above the Old Town in Runcorn was home to several yards and these include the renowned Simpson, Davies and Co., builders of its own and others’ narrow boats (it was probably the largest producer of the Runcorn Six-Planker type of narrowboat, made deeper for the large Bridgewater Canal).

It was a commercial builder that later carried out repairs for pleasure boat owners, going out of business in the 1960s.

It was not alone because there was also the aforementioned Albion Yard and various boat builders, such as Samuel Taylor, Thomas Binns, John Crippin and John Clucas. The already listed Speakman family also operated a yard here at one time.

Today, the Big Pool is largely gone as it was filled-in for road works.

Top Locks

The current terminus of the Bridgewater Canal once led to two flights of locks down to Runcorn Docks and also had a graving dock. That is fairly well-known but what is not so widely acknowledged is the large number of boat builders that once operated here.

These included Withington and LeCouteur (the latter being my late Great Uncle Frank’s father, James), William Bate and the Stubbs family, who were also involved with boat and ship repair at Old Quay and before that at Runcorn Docks.

Runcorn Docks