Shipping & Ship Building in Bideford
1900 to Present Day
The start of the 20 th century saw major change in shipbuilding on the Torridge when Robert Cock and Sons commenced building riveted wrought-iron vessels in what was then known as the Iron Yard at Appledore in 1902. The first craft were dumbe barges and tank barges. Cock launched their last wooden ship, the schooner ‘Geisha’ , 130 tons, their first iron schooner ‘Doris’ , 137 tons, and their first steam driven cargo ship ‘Torridge’ , 158 tons, all in 1904.
The last wooden merchant ship to be launched in the port was the schooner ‘PT Harris’ built at the Hubbastone yard of PK Harris & Sons in 1912. Harris’s took over the New Quay yards and dry docks in 1908 where they specialised mainly in ship repair work. They also installed auxiliary oil engines in our fleet of sailing coasters enabling them to compete with British and Continental steam and motor coasters until the end of the 1930s (22) .
The original railway terminal at Bideford in 1855 was extended into the river at Cross Park in order to provide large sidings and a quay, served by a travelling steam crane, where coasters could unload cargos of coal and after 1871 when the line had been extended to Torrington, load ball clay from Peters Marland. There was also a large goods depot and a passenger station. As the old shipyard sites at East the Water closed down a substantial new quay wall was built extending from the goods yard to the long bridge. The area between Barnstaple Street and the new quayside was then taken over by builders’ merchants and a large flour mill. A travelling steam crane served part of the quay and this was used to unload the river barges, which brought gravel from the sand bars in the estuary and the sailing coasters, which brought in coal. The steam ships normally used their own derricks for unloading timber, bricks and coal. Larger cargo ships had to use the deeper water alongside Bideford Town Quay.
As the clay cargos increased the quay at Cross Park could not handle the larger ships so most of the clay was then taken on go Fremington Quay on the Taw until the line was closed in 1982 (23). The clay is now delivered by lorry to Bideford Town Quay where it is loaded by mobile crane into motor ships, which can carry up to 3,000 tons. Twenty of the old sailing ketches would be needed to carry the same amount of clay now loaded into one ship.
No large naval ships were constructed on the river during the First World War, but our boat yards supplied all types of small craft for the Admiralty and lifeboats for the merchant service. The two dry docks were kept busy repairing ships damaged by enemy action and installing guns on merchant ships so that they could defend themselves. At least three locally owned sailing ships were converted to ‘Q’ ships by the Admiralty. Their concealed armament enabled them the strike back at ‘U’ boats closing in to sink an apparently defenceless merchantman by gun fire (23) .
At the end of hostilities in 1919, there was an urgent need for new ships to replace those sunk by enemy action. In 1918 R Cock & Sons had launched the steamship ‘Orchis’ , 482 tons. She was followed by three similar craft in the following two years.
At Bank End, Bideford the Hanson Shipbuilding and Repair Co, converted the old shipyards so that steel ships could be built. Their first steam coaster ‘Hubbastone’ , 873 ton was launched in 1921, followed by ten more vessels until 1924 when the yard closed due to lack of orders (22) .
During the depression years of the late 1920s and 1930s the eastern bank of the river below Westleigh was lined with merchant ships laid up for lack of cargos. R Cock & Sons closed down in 1932 but PK Harris & Sons took over the yards and by careful management and low wages for shipyard workers they managed to stay in business until Admiralty work took over in 1940. The smaller boatyards of Blackmore & Sons at Bideford, J Hinks & Sons, P Waters & Sons and H Ford & Sons in Appledore were still building wooden motor and sailing yachts, passenger ferries, pilot cutters and fishing craft throughout the years of the depression.
It was fortunate that the shipwrights skilled in wooden ship construction were able to continue their trade between the two World Wars as they were suddenly in great demand for building the wooden mine sweepers which were much less vulnerable to the new magnetic mines laid down during the Second World War. Both Blackmores & Harris’s began building all types of wooden craft for the Admiralty from 75ft motor fishing vessels used in general harbour defence work to the high speed motor torpedo boats and motor gun boats needed as fast attack craft (25) .
The two main Appledore dockyards and dry docks were exclusively employed on Admiralty work, building, repairing and modifying the many strange craft and items of equipment being developed by C.O X. E. (Combined Operations Experiment Establishment) for the invasion of France. The relative isolation of Torridgeside with its surf beaches, cliffs, tidal estuary and mudflats provided an ideal location for the testing of top secret weapons and equipment. (See information on COXE in separate heading by Tony Koorlander)
Post war work for the Admiralty and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) involved both Blackmores and Harris’s Shipyards in the construction of both motor fishing vessels and mine sweepers in addition to peacetime commercial and leisure craft.
At Bideford a new firm, Grimstone Aster Ltd had started building aluminium craft by the ‘stressed skin system’; they took over part of Bank End Shipyard and after producing over 600 high speed launches of various types they moved to the river Hamble in 1956 with the new name of Universal Launches Ltd.
In 1964 Blackmores joined a consortium of other shipbuilders in a newly constructed covered yard at Bank End under the name of Bideford Shipyard Co Ltd. They built a range of small steel ships including fishing vessels, tugs, passenger craft and the motor cargo ship ‘Peroto’ , 499 tons. The yard closed down in 1981 marking the end of shipbuilding in the parish of Bideford.
At Appledore, however, shipbuilding increased with PK Harris shipyards launching over 80 ships between 1946 and 1964, when they were taken over by Appledore Shipbuilders. In 1963 they had used the Richmond Dry Dock to construct the ‘Perkun’ , 1,153-ton icebreaker/salvage tug for the Polish Ship Salvage co. Other large ships were built or lengthened in the dry dock, which had previously only been used for repair work.
In 1967 Alan Hinks moved from his father’s old cramped boatyard in Irsha Street, Appledore to a new larger covered yard at Watertown. He continued to build wooden launches and fishing boats but in 1968 he was commissioned to build a full size sailing replica of the 17 th century 38-ton ketch ‘Nonsuch’ by the Hudson Bay Company to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the expedition, which lead to the founding of the company in 1673. Full sized replicas of a Viking ship and a Roman Galley followed and in 1973 they built a 200-ton replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ‘Golden Hinde’ . They launched over 50 registered vessels between 1950 and the closure of the Watertown yard in the 1980s, as well as numerous small craft and projects for the National Maritime Museum (27).
By the second half of the 1960s it had become apparent to our shipbuilders that the older yards could no longer compete in world markets unless, once again, new and more efficient methods of production were introduced. This required a considerable injection of capital, which was provided by Court Shipbuilders Ltd. They founded Appledore Shipbuilders in 1965, taking over the Richmond and New Quay yards from Harris & Sons. In 1970 they opened a completely new covered shipyard over a massive dry dock built on Bidna Marsh at Appledore. At the time of its opening it was the largest covered yard in Europe capable of building ships of up to 10,000 tons or two 5,000 ton ships side by side (28) . The first vessel floated out from the yard was the 1,254-ton dredger ‘Pen Stour’ , which was constructed as the shipyard was built around it. The ‘ship factory’ at Bidna launched over thirty ships in its first four years totalling over 78,000 tons. In the years that followed they built bulk carriers of 5,600 tons, container ships of over 4,000 tons and tugs, supply ships and tankers for the oil industry. The tanker ‘Tankerman’ , 10,715 ton, launched in 1984 is the largest ship so far built on the Torridge.
Ships were also built for the Ministry of Defence including logistic ships and ocean survey vessels, the largest being ‘HMS Scott’ , 9,498 tons, launched in 1997. Appledore Shipbuilders built over one hundred and ninety registered vessels between 1964 and 2003, when they were taken over by Devonport Management Ltd. The total tonnage was in the region of 410,000 tons and as most of the vessels were specialist craft requiring complex additional equipment, not just bare hull cargo ships, this record of production was remarkable and shows the reliability of the whole shipyard work force. During the last forty years of the 20 th century Appledore Shipbuilders launched more ships than any other yard in the whole of the south of England and Wales, a fact so far unrecognised in any history of British Shipbuilding (29) . More could have been built had not political interests re-allocated contracts to northern yards (32).
DML were in turn taken over by the present owners, Babcock Marine. They have used the yard for building the hulls of large luxury yachts, which were then towed to Devonport for fitting out. They are at present building sections for the new Elizabeth class aircraft carriers for the MOD. These are loaded onto heavy lift barges and taken by sea to Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland for assembly, as these aircraft carriers are much too large to be launched on the Torridge.
At New Quay the firm of Seawind Marine has constructed a large workshop where they maintain lifeboats for the RNLI; they also have access to the Hubbastone Patent Slipway where fishing boats and craft of up to 120ft in length can be hauled out of the river for inspection and servicing.
Bideford now has few imports, but in addition to annual cargos of road salt from Ireland, thousands of tons of Bristol Channel sand and gravel are discharged by dredgers at Amey Marine Cement Works, Appledore for use in the building industry. This reverses the 19 th and early 20 th century gravel trade when sand and gravel was excavated from the Taw and Torridge estuary and shipped up channel for use in the construction of new docks at the South Wales coal ports and at Avonmouth (5) .
Bideford still has a small fleet of inshore motor fishing boats and it is hoped that the new fish quay at Hubbastone, Appledore will encourage the landing of catches at the port. Our once thriving salmon net fishery within the estuary is now almost extinct (33). There are only now three net licenses for the salmon boats and the total catch for the years 2007-2009 was ten fish.
Our shipping industries have suffered one of the periodic declines during the first decade of the 21 st century, but our proximity to the mouth of the Bristol Channel with its inexhaustible sources of renewable energy could revitalise our industries and provide well-paid skilled employment for future generations. Our shipyards could construct and maintain tidal, wave and wind generators to be stationed in the entrance to the channel. The fleet of tugs and service and safety vessels required to keep any off-shore equipment running efficiently will need a near-by sheltered haven for maintenance and refuelling. The Torridge, with its shipyards, dry docks and quaysides is ideally placed to provide the back-up facilities needed. Our hotel and catering industries could provide for the needs of the personnel involved (31) .
In the past, local entrepreneurs like Grenville, Chanter & Yeo embarked upon new maritime ventures dependent upon resources 3,000 miles away on the far side of the Atlantic. We now have the opportunity to exploit sources of renewable energy just a few miles from our shores. In order to do this, however, we need drive and investment from business men and the support of politicians in both local and national government before these resources can be harnessed for the benefit of the nation.
Author – Barry D Hughes, October 2009
22 FARR, G. 1976. ‘Shipbuilding in North Devon’, National Maritime Museum Monograph, No22
23 NICHOLAS, J. 1984. ‘Lines to Torrington’. P132-5
24 KERBLE CHATTERTON, E. 1922. ‘Q Ships & Their History’
BOUQUET, M. 1971. ‘West Country Sail’ P103
25 HARRIS, L. 1992. ‘A Two Hundred Year History of Appledore Shipyards’
FARR, G. 1976. ‘Shipbuilding in North Devon’
26 Sec 21 and Bideford Shipyard Co Ltd, Brochure and List of Vessels.
27 ‘Nonsuch’, Hudson Bay Co booklet
‘Golden Hinde’ booklet
28 Court Line, Bidna Yard booklet
29 Appledore Shipbuilders, List of Vessels built, 2003
30 MARSHAL, W. 1796. ‘The Rural Economy of South West England’ Vol II, P63
31 FARR, G. ‘Shipyard Map’ corrected and updated BD Hughes, North Devon Maritime museum copy.
32 JOHNMAN, L., H Murphy. 2002. ‘British Shipbuilding and the State since 1918′
33 GRANT, A., PB Waters. 1998. ‘Salmon netting in North Devon’.
34 BROCK, R & A. 1998. ‘HMS Weazle 1782- 1799′
35 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