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Iron Shipbuilding on the Thames, 1832-1915: An Economic and Business History

Author(s):Arnold, A. J.
Reviewer(s):Sumida, Jon

Published by EH.NET (January 2002)

A. J. Arnold, Iron Shipbuilding on the Thames, 1832-1915: An Economic and

Business History. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000. x + 198 pp. $89.95

(hardback), ISBN: 0-7546-0252-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jon Sumida, Department of History, University of


During the age of sail, the Thames River region was the leading shipbuilding

area in Britain. This predominance was not maintained when ships constructed

of wood gave way to vessels built of iron and then steel. The first iron ship

manufactured on the Thames was launched in 1832; the last builder of metal

ships abandoned its yard in Greenwich in 1915. Between these two dates, the

locus of British shipbuilding shifted to the Clyde in Scotland and the

northeast coast. The result was not merely the decline of shipbuilding on the

Thames, but the collapse of an entire industry with attendant severe social

consequences. In 1984, F. M. Walker, in his book on shipbuilding on the Clyde,

observed that general economic conditions in the Thames were not so

“dramatically different” from those on the Clyde as to explain its rapid and

complete demise, and that a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon had yet

to be offered (Walker, Song of the Clyde: A History of Clyde

Shipbuilding, 1984). A. J. Arnold’s monograph is addressed to this


Arnold was confronted by a fundamental problem, namely the fact that the

documentary record for shipbuilding firms on the Thames is practically

non-existent. Hugh Peebles, in his study of British warship-building on the

Clyde from 1889 to 1939, founded his inquiry upon the accounting records of

the major companies, which included the formal sets of annual financial

statements, informal accounts and working papers, and financial and cost

records. In spite of gaps in the evidence, Peebles was able to extract “a mass

of accounting and cost data” (Peebles, Warshipbuilding on the Clyde: Naval

Orders and the Prosperity of the Clyde Shipbuilding Industry, 1889-1939,

1987, p. 3). Arnold’s survey of press reports enables him to give a detailed

account of such major financial events as the failure of Overend Gurney

banking house in 1866, which had an enormous effect on Thames shipbuilding,

but the almost complete lack company financial records, except for those of

the Thames Ironworks for the period 1899-1911, means that in general his

analysis is not based upon the information required to give a clear view of

business performance, which in turn undercuts elucidation of business motive.

Arnold’s extensions of various data series on British shipbuilding are useful,

but no substitute for systematic consideration of internal company papers.

Given the inherent limitations of the available evidence, Arnold’s stated

goals are modest — he hopes that his book “will cast some light on at least

the more important causes of the rise and fall” of iron shipbuilding on the

Thames, and “help in some small way to commemorate” the efforts of the

shipbuilders. His book, therefore, is devoted mainly to telling the story of

the eight private-sector yards, whose occupants included such famous firms as

Thames Ironworks, Thornycroft, and Yarrow. Arnold’s chapters are organized in

chronological order, and chart the rise and fall of the Thames shipbuilding

industry: Iron shipbuilding comes to rural London, 1832-46; Vertical

integration, 1847-53; The Crimean War and the first crisis, 1854-59; Trade

boom and the effects of ‘shady finance’, 1860-67; The long slump, 1868-88; An

excessive dependence on the state, 1889-1915. Arnold’s main original argument

is that “there were never all that many iron shipbuilding yards of any

importance on the river, so that the mistakes and misfortunes of individual

entrepreneurs could be as important in their effects on local output levels as

more gradual changes in broad economic factors” (p. 151).

This of course begs the question, for the “broad economic factors” — which

meant labor, land (including the characteristics of the river particularly

with regard to depth), and access to raw materials — must have affected the

attractiveness of the Thames to shipbuilding entrepreneurs in the first place,

and conditioned the subsequent fortunes of those who chose to situate their

companies in the region. It is hard not to conclude that the rise and initial

prosperity of iron shipbuilding on the Thames was propelled by momentum from

the earlier epoch of wooden shipbuilding magnified by close proximity to

London, the nation’s main center of commerce and finance. With the

displacement of wooden sailing ships by metal steamships, and the

decentralization of British transoceanic trade and industry, these legacy

advantages faded, exposing the Thames shipbuilders to the full force of the

fundamental economic facts of life. Arnold does not, in short, offer a

substantial alternative to the assessment of the failure of metal shipbuilding

on the Thames provided in Sidney Pollard and Paul Robertson’s economic history

of British shipbuilding in the late nineteenth century (The British

Shipbuilding Industry, 1870-1914, 1979, chapter 3).

Arnold dedicated his book to C. J. Mare (1815-1898), the most innovative, if

ultimately unsuccessful, industrial shipbuilding entrepreneur of the Thames

region. Arnold’s account of Mare’s activities, and also those of Arnold Hills,

the last owner of Thames Ironworks, are tantalizing, and indeed make a case

for more biographical investigation of these men. It is regrettable that

Arnold provided no map of the Thames region with the location of the

shipyards, or any illustration of the yard layouts. On the other hand, Arnold

has discovered what may be the funniest unintentionally salacious sentence in

British maritime history, a place previously occupied by the Admiralty’s

response to the Treasury’s suggestion that highly-paid boy clerks be replaced

by less well-remunerated women — “their Lordships cannot conceal their

decided preference for the boys” (N. A. M. Rodger, The Admiralty, 1979,

pp. 138-9). It is on page 29. Enough said.

Jon Sumida is an associate professor of history at the University of

Maryland, College Park. He is the author of In Defence of Naval Supremacy:

Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy 1889-1914 (1989/1993) and

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred

Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (1997/1999).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII