Shipping & Ship Building in Bideford
1740 to 1900
The prosperity, which Bideford had enjoyed for the first three decades of the 18 th century, came to an end as Britain became involved in a series of conflicts starting in 1744 with the French and Spanish wars. The American War of Independence followed by the Napoleonic Wars took a heavy toll on both our trading interests and on our seamen and fishermen who were under constant threat from the naval press gangs (34) . Some however were keen to sign on aboard the potentiality lucrative privateering ships such as ‘ Tygress’ of Bideford, which captured seven prizes and their cargos between 1739 and 1756. Perhaps the most unusual privateering expedition was a 1744 venture undertaken by the 300 ton ‘ Bensons Folly’ , owned by Thomas Benson of Northam. In a combined operation with Benson’s fishing fleet this predator captured four prizes. Their cargos were then landed on Newfoundland before being sailed back to Bideford by prize crews drawn from the fishing fleet (16) . Benson was elected Member of Parliament for this area in 1745, was made Sheriff of Devon in 1746, then re-elected in 1747 before having to flee to Portugal in 1752 in order to avoid prison or possibly hanging for his planning of an insurance fraud. This had involved the burning at sea of the ‘ Nightingale’ , one of his old ships, whose heavily insured cargo had been landed on Lundy. The island had been leased by Benson who had been suspected of using it as a base for smuggling for several years (17) .
The smuggling of imported goods was rife during the whole of the 18 th century and our coastal traders were able to make good profits by hiding small packages and casks collected from French ships ‘hovering’ well off shore, then delivering them to beaches and inland estuary farms for later distribution. It is not surprising to find that none of the 18 th century Letter Books for the Bideford Board of Customs have survived, given the nature of some of our most prominent citizens who owned or had shares in the fifty two coasters registered in the port in 1787 (18) .
Bideford’s large fleet of small merchant sailing ships continued to trade around our shores until the early 20 th century when they were gradually superseded by motor lorries (35) .
The food shortages resulting from the Napoleonic wars and the rapidly growing population of the new industrial towns encouraged landowners to improve the productivity of their estates by clearing scrub land and improving drainage so that corn could be grown. One of the ‘improvements’ has had a dramatic effect on the later development of Bideford as a town and it is difficult now to visualise how wide the river was at high tide before the embankmenting of what is now Victoria Park took place in the 1790s. Before that time the tide covered the marshland to the north of the town from the old Potters Pill creak to the foot of Raleigh Hill and Orchard Hill. The tide also filled a large mill pond from which it was released as the tide ebbed to drive the wheels of a tide mill (30) . Potters Pill formed a barrier between the town and the salt marsh and was crossed by a bridge at the bottom of Chingswell Street leading to a causeway across the marsh to the tide mill and Northam. River barges bringing clay from Fremington and river gravel from above Landcross for the potteries in Willet Street and North Road could sail right up to the bridge to discharge their cargos. George Crocker had his Strand shipyard on the ‘south’ bank of the Pill from 1799 to 1840 where he built at least 38 registered ships. His largest, the 430 ton warship ‘ Acorn’ , built in 1807 would have had to be built at the river end of the Pill where it could be launched into the Torridge (22) . Potters Pill creak is now culverted and runs beneath Kingsley Road and the Strand car park.
In North Devon it was known that the application of burnt lime to the cold acid soil of the region improved crop yields dramatically. Though scarce in North Devon, limestone and the coal to burn it is plentiful in South Wales, just fifty miles across the Bristol Channel.
Merchant landowners like William Tardrew of Monkleigh, near Bideford soon recognised this and proceeded to add new limekilns to those already in production along the coast and in the Taw Torridge estuary. He also financed the building of brigs, smacks and schooners in his shipyard at Annery Kilns about two miles up stream of Bideford, specifically for the transport of limestone and coal from the Welsh coast to the North Devon kilns.
John Lord Rolle, who had extensive estates further inland around Torrington went to the expense of building a tub-boat canal from the tidal river Torridge at Sea Lock, above Landcross, to carry lime stone, coal, sea sand and building materials to his new kilns and warehouses at Torrington and Row’s moor, now Rosemoor. The batch of five kilns at Rosemoor was the largest in North Devon. The canal opened in 1825 and was later taken over by William Tardrew and the Torrington banker George Bragington until it reverted to the Hon. Mark Rolle in 1865. The canal closed when the railway line was extended to Torrington in 1871. The limestone trade employed hundreds of workers from quarrymen, miners, mariners, river barge men, canal employees, lime burners, pack horse drivers and farm labourers until its decline in the last quarter of the 19 th century due to the expansion of the railway network and the use of ‘guano’ from Chile and other new chemical fertilizers (19) .
In 1807 Napoleon’s allies blockaded the Baltic, cutting off a vital source of timber needed by out shipyards for planking, masts and spars. Bideford shipwrights were building large warships at the time and the shortage caused a dramatic rise in the cost of homegrown timber and delayed the construction of merchant ships.
The arrival of the ‘ Ann’ of Bideford in 1810 with a cargo of timber from New Brunswick in Canada encouraged Thomas Burnard, a local merchant and ship owner to develop the transatlantic timber trade. In 1818 he started an even bolder enterprise when he sent his 59 ton polaccea brig ‘Peter and Sarah’ to Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. On board was a gang of shipwrights, lead by William Ellis and in the hold they carried enough tools, ironwork, ropes and canvas to build and rig a 200-ton ship. The men set to work at New Bideford and in 1819 they launched the 342 ton three masted ‘Mars’ , which they packed with timber and sailed to Bideford. She returned to P.E.I. the following year with iron, canvas and rope and the crews needed to sail three new ships which were being built for Thomas Burnard back to Bideford.
The transatlantic trade in ships and timber developed rapidly, by 1830 thirty vessels originating in North America were registered in Bideford and in 1827 six vessels were alongside the quay discharging Canadian lumber. In 1842 Thomas Burnard Chanter, the son of Thomas Burnard’s sister was able to supply lumber to the value of £36,000 (over one million pounds today) for the construction of IK Brunel’s Bristol to Exeter railway (20) .
As his timber ships were constantly crossing the Atlantic, Chanter advertised in both the west of England and the Canadian press that there was room on board for passengers. Hundreds of emigrants took advantage of the low cost fair of £3 for between decks or £25 for first class passengers on the 3,000 voyages to various ports in North America.
Thomas Chanter was Lord of the Manor of Northam in the 1840s and in 1844 he managed to persuade the householders of Market Street, Appledore to join up a number of private landing places along the foreshore to make a new public quay. He also encouraged other local businessmen to join him in the building of Bideford’s first steam ship, the paddle steamer ‘Torridge’ to carry goods and passengers on a weekly service to Bristol and other channel ports. William Clibbet Junior launched her from his Appledore yard in 1835 and she ran a regular service until 1853 (21) .
There were further dramatic changes taking place along the foreshore at Appledore. The ships built in North America were obviously seaworthy, but were not finished to the standard required for sale in Europe. Upon arrival they had to be fitted out and this involved work on the hulls, which could only be done at low tide. This slowed down the work and tied up capital.
James Yeo and his son, William, therefore set about constructing, what was, at the time, the largest dry dock in the Bristol Channel at Appledore. James had emigrated to P.E.I. in the early 1820s where he set up saw mills and shipbuilding yards. William had returned to Appledore where he supervised the completion of his father’s ships and ran the family timber import business. The 330 foot long Richmond Dry Dock was opened in 1855 and was long enough to accommodate up to three of the average sized sailing ships of that period. The dock was so successful that William built a second dock at New Quay Yard just half a mile up river; it was completed by 1860. Between 1833 and 1892 James and his heirs built or purchased in Canada 350 ships. At least 250 were sold to British owners soon after their arrival in North Devon (20) . These Appledore shipyards provided work for the Bideford shipwrights who walked to Appledore along the ‘Shipwright’s Path’, through the woods on the west bank of the river. You can still walk this three mile scenic path but it has now been slightly diverted around the land-ward side of the 20 th century Bidna Shipyard.
When the railway was extended from Barnstaple through Instow to Bideford in 1855 the embankments for the new line blocked off several of the river creeks on the eastern side and enabled a new road to Barnstaple to be constructed behind the embankments. The line was extended to Torrington in 1871 and the construction of more embankments and the Iron Bridge over the Torridge at Landcross caused the deep-water channel at Bideford to move from the eastern side of the river to the western side.
Shipbuilding continued at East the Water until the 1880s, but most of the larger ships were constructed at Higher Cleave Houses, now known as Bank End, half a mile down river from Bideford Quay. This had been the site for the construction of a whole series of ships before recording was required but we know that Richard Chapman was building the 80-ton sloop ‘Brothers’ there in 1782. The most prolific 19 th Century Torridge shipyards of Evans and Cox were also at Bank End between 1840 and 1877. During those years at least 150 ships were built on the site, including large barques for trading to Australia and the East Indies and over a dozen barques for the demanding copper ore trade between South America and Swansea. In 1855 the 1,004-ton full rigged ship ‘Sarah Newman’ the largest wooden ship to be built on the Torridge was launched from George Cox yard at Bank End.
Shipbuilding at Bideford declined during the 1890s as shipyards in Britain’s more industrial regions developed the construction of steel steamships. Appledore was still building fine wooden schooners and ketches and the dry docks were carrying out repair work on both steel and wooden ships but our yards had only launched a few small steam ships in the last half of the 19 th century as we did not have engineering works capable of building the large steam engines and boilers to power large vessels. During the 19 th century over 815 registered wooden sailing ships were launched on the Torridge in addition to hundreds of unregistered smaller craft (22) .
Barry D Hughes, October 2009
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2 THOMAS, S. 1959. ‘The Nightingale Scandal’
3 NIX, M. ‘New Maritime History of Devon’ Vol II; Chap 4
4 HUGHES, BD. 2006. ‘Rolle Canal & the North Devon Limestone Trade’
5 GREENHILL, B. A GIFFORD. 1967. ‘Westcountrymen in Prince Edward Isle’
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6 FARR, G. 1956. ‘West of England Passenger Steamers’ P106
7 FARR, G. 1976. ‘Shipbuilding in North Devon’, National Maritime Museum Monograph, No22
8 NICHOLAS, J. 1984. ‘Lines to Torrington’. P132-5
9 KERBLE CHATTERTON, E. 1922. ‘Q Ships & Their History’
BOUQUET, M. 1971. ‘West Country Sail’ P103
10 HARRIS, L. 1992. ‘A Two Hundred Year History of Appledore Shipyards’
FARR, G. 1976. ‘Shipbuilding in North Devon’
11 Sec 21 and Bideford Shipyard Co Ltd, Brochure and List of Vessels.
12 ‘Nonsuch’, Hudson Bay Co booklet
‘Golden Hinde’ booklet
13 Court Line, Bidna Yard booklet
14 Appledore Shipbuilders, List of Vessels built, 2003
15 MARSHAL, W. 1796. ‘The Rural Economy of South West England’ Vol II, P63
16 FARR, G. ‘Shipyard Map’ corrected and updated BD Hughes, North Devon Maritime museum copy.
17 JOHNMAN, L., H Murphy. 2002. ‘British Shipbuilding and the State since 1918′
18 GRANT, A., PB Waters. 1998. ‘Salmon netting in North Devon’.
19 BROCK, R & A. 1998. ‘HMS Weazle 1782- 1799′
20 SLADE, WJ. 1959. ‘Out of Appledore’
GREENHILL, B. 1951. ‘The Merchant Schooners’ Vol I & II.
SLADE, WJ., B Greenhill. 1974. ‘Westcountry Coasting Ketches’.
Author – Barry D Hughes, October 2009