Serious Business on the Water

In this article, Curatorial Liaison Officer, Ross Turle explores Thornycroft's work with boats and ships.⛵


Thornycroft was a large company with both road transport and shipping divisions. As the road transport division was based in Basingstoke for many years, the collections cared for by Hampshire Cultural Trust focus mainly on the vehicles produced locally. As the ships were made in Woolston, records for the large shipping are held by Southampton City Council, but Hampshire Cultural Trust's Thornycroft archive also holds information about smaller boat manufacture that continued away from Southampton.

Church Wharf yard, Chiswick from the Thornycroft family home.
Queen of the Vale, built 1885 at Chiswick. The elderly gentleman is probably Thomas Thornycroft, John Isaac’s father.

The Thornycroft shipping story started in 1864, when John I. Thornycroft’s father purchased a plot of land at Church Wharf, Chiswick for John to start manufacturing boats. The enterprise quickly grew, making smaller vessels such as launches, punts and steam yachts.

In 1873 the firm was commissioned by the Royal Navy of Norway to build the torpedo boat Rap. Torpedo boats were a popular coastal defense for nations who did not want to expend large sums on the traditional large ships. Torpedo boats were faster and more agile and could overwhelm larger and more expensive vessels when used in numbers.

HMS Daring, first torpedo boat destroyer with a speed of 28 knots, taken 1893

Orders for larger vessels started to come in from other navies around the world, including from France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Russia and even as far afield as New Zealand. By the end of the century the firm and its ships quickly started to outgrow Church Wharf. The main problem was that between Chiswick and the open sea were London’s bridges, which meant that tall structures like masts and funnels had to be taken down until the bridges were cleared. Hammersmith Bridge was particularly problematic, as at high tide the bridge could not be cleared and low tide led to a risk of grounding. For the company to continue to grow, the decision was made to move to Woolston in 1904.

Extract from list of ships built showing some of the last boats to be built at Chiswick.

This was not the end of the Thornycroft boat manufacturer on the Thames, as a yard was acquired on Platts Eyot at Hampton. Whereas the new Woolston shipyard made large steel ships, the Hampton yard concentrated on smaller, wooden framed vessels. A large part of the production was the high speed coastal motor boats. Outside of wartime a wide variety of vessels were built at Hampton, including punts, launches, cabin cruisers, barges and lifeboats. Customers ranged from private individuals to governments and large companies around the world.

Coastal motor boat under construction at Hampton.
Aerial view of the Hampton boat yard.
The boat sheds at Hampton.
Example of boats made at Hampton.

As well as the yards at Woolston and Hampton, marine engine plants were also opened in Reading, Berkshire and, in Singapore, a yard was opened in 1926. The Hampton yard closed in around 1966, when the Thornycroft shipbuilding business merged with Vospers and the engine plant closed around the same time. The Singapore yard continued to operate after the merger but finally closed in the 1980s.

Singapore boat yard.
Thornycroft marine engine, as built in Reading.

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Hampshire Cultural Trust

From museums to galleries to arts centres, we manage and support 23 attractions across the county, welcoming over 740,000 people each year. Our charitable purpose is changing lives through culture.
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