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Wikipedia - Wikipedia does of course have an entry, and it gives a brief historical outline, but there’s not much detail.

The worshipful company of shipwrights  - interesting that the first picture that comes up is the Red Ensign - the flag of the Royal Navy

The National Archives - a leaflet on resources for research into the Royal Naval Dockyards, held at the National Archives in Kew

the shipwright - building the fleet - an extract from ‘The Book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts’ published by Jacob Johnson, in 1807, on a site dedicated to Jane Austen, of all people.

Matthew Baker and the art of the shipwright - An extract from a book by Stephen Johnston about a Tudor shipwright.  Very detailed.

Portsmouth Royal Naval Dockyard Historical Trust - everything you could want to know about Portsmouth’s Dockyard

Just some random musings, some quotations and pictures, with, hopefully, some useful links to more authoritative sources.

Men have been building boats from the beginning of time - it has to be one of the oldest professions around - at least for those who lived near the sea, and those who had a major river or lake in their area.  If you had a boat you could travel and colonise, carry things (and people) around and go fishing - though how you realised you could do any of these things on water I do not know.  Perhaps early man saw logs floating in rivers and got the idea that way.  Early boats were very crude - a hollowed out log, or a skin stretched over a frame with paddle power.  Sails would have come later, (what gave them that idea? - birds?) and engines, of course had to wait until the nineteenth century.

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Hull rivetting by Frederick B. Taylor

Shipyard by George Bellows


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The motto at the the head of the page is that of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights of London, whose coat of arms is illustrated at left.  It is most notable for using the words ‘ark’ rather than ‘ship’  and ‘safe’ both of which convey the concept of a ship as shelter, home, a refuge (hence the term mothership) - not to mention the religious overtones.  Interesting that a vessel that is in many ways insecure and subject to the vagaries of nature - storms, icebergs, rocky coastlines, sandbanks and coral reefs - not to mention shoddy workmanship - should have such comforting emotions attributed to it.  Then there is also the fact that, throughout history, one of the major uses of ships has been as bringers of war, invasion, disease and destruction even if only through trade.  And let’s not forget the destruction of the world’s forests - particularly the oak forests in Europe - as they were plundered for the wood required to build navies.  The 1807 book The Book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts defines a ship as: “a timber building, consisting of various parts and pieces, nailed and pinned together with iron and wood, in such form as to be fit to float, and to be conducted by wind and sails from sea to sea.”  If you read this very interesting extract from the book you will see that even as late as 1807 there was no inkling of an idea that a ship could be powered by anything other than wind and sails. 


Over the centuries shipbuilding has provided work for huge numbers of people.  Because the projects are often so large scale, whole cities have based their prosperity on the industry, sometimes with tragic results, when the competition from cheaper sources means that the trade is taken away - the shipyards of Tyneside and the Clyde are prime examples. 


As we have seen from Willie Richards story, the industry is also heavily reliant on war - if there is war there is a need for a navy.  There may not be the same sea battles as history has thrown up, but soldiers and planes still need to be ferried around, and there are always submarines and gunships offshore providing a none too subtle threat.  Then in good times I guess there are always the millionaires who want yachts, and the great unwashed who want to go on ever bigger and better cruises.  And who knows, when the fossil fuel runs out, perhaps we’ll all go back to travelling the world by sea under sail.

The shipwrights in our own family history - so far I have come across three (two William Richards’ and John Berry) have all worked in naval dockyards building various kinds of warships.

The word ‘shipwright’ is a combination of ‘ship’  (we know what that means) and ‘wright’ which means someone who makes, constructs or repairs - which covers more than the term ‘shipbuilder’.  As the boats that men built became larger and more complex, more and more people would work on their construction.  My guess is that this is when the term ‘shipwright’ came into use, and was probably mostly used for the people in charge - indeed the Master Shipwright was generally the person in charge of the whole shipyard.  But throughout history there have always been ships of all sizes being built - from those meant to be handled by one person to today’s massive container ships and cruise liners.  Today, as always, the shipwright can be one man building small boats in his own small yard or shed, or someone in charge of a massive team of specialist workers in a commercial  or naval shipbuilding yard.

Pizarro's shipbuilding.jpg
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Being a shipwright covers a very wide range of trades - The 1807 The Book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts describes them thus:


“In ship-building three things are necessary to be considered: First, to give the vessel such a form as shall be best adapted for sailing, and for the service for which she is designed: secondly, to unite the several parts into a compact frame; and thirdly, to provide suitable accommodations for the officers and crew, as well as for the cargo, furniture, provisions, guns, and ammunition.”

Today The Royal Naval Dockyard Historical Trust site lists them as: 

“Manufacture, erection, repairs & alteration to ships structures, ships plating, welding. Ventilation systems, trunking, thermal & sound insulation, fitting out compartments, deck coverings. Lining off & fitting wood decking, cutting & bevelling shores for dry docking of ships, gratings, ladders, benches and stowages. Mould Loft work including Laying Off lines for boats under construction. Manufacture dinghies & wooden small craft including mast & spars, and fitting out. Production of plate work. All structural work for new construction, refit & repair of ships involving metal, wood, plastics, GRP, including tanks etc (originally included welding, riveting etc)”

A daunting list of skills, which I imagine are allotted to different people in a large shipyard, but owned by just one person in the small yards that still exist.

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shipyard = charles evans.jpg
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