Home      WILLIAM WATKINS LIMITED

THAMES TUGS

WILLIAM WATKINS LTD 1833 - 1950

 

William Watkins Ltd.
(Company Registered No. 00146977 - incorporated 29th March 1917)

A BRIEF HISTORY

      Messrs. William Watkins Ltd was founded by John Rogers Watkins in 1833. His son, William Watkins, was born in 1819 and was fourteen years old and just out of school when he joined his father in running the company that was to bear his name, one of the first tug owning companies in the world. For more details of the Watkins family please click HERE.
 
When Watkins first tug, the Monarch, arrived on the Thames in 1833 the practical limit of towing from the Pool of London was Limehouse, about four miles distant! Power was low, coal consumption high and steering, with both paddles fixed to one shaft, erratic to say the least. To improve the steering most tugs of the time were fitted with a "chain box". This was similar to a narrow gauge railway truck which ran on rails across the vessel, and was filled with any available heavy gear or scrap metal. When this was pulled to one side of the vessel it immersed the paddle on that side deeper in the water, lifted the opposite paddle almost clear and thus created unequal thrust. Things improved greatly when either paddle could be declutched from the shaft and even more so when a separate engine drove each paddle. By going ahead on one engine and astern on the other the vessel could turn completely about in little more than its own length. Things did however improve rapidly and the limit of towing crept gradually down river, first to Woolwich, then Gravesend, and to the Nore, some thirty miles down river, by 1850.

    In 1853 the Britannia and Victor did tows from Deptford to Calais Roads and in 1855 Victoria towed from Portsmouth to Texel. Watkins tugs handled the launch of the Great Eastern in 1858 and 1860 saw the Victor tow a hulk from Chatham to Inverness. Victor again featured in 1861 towing dredgers from London to Cadiz and Carthagena. Anglia towed the liner Syria from St. Helena to Southampton in 1875 for a fee of £4800 and followed this by towing a dredger from Cardiff to St. Petersburg for £1350. Cleopatras needle was famously towed from Ferrol to London by the Anglia in 1878. Long distance towing had arrived, a field Watkins were to remain active in until their last long distance tug, Rumania, was wrecked in the Thames Estuary in 1956. They then concentrated on ship towage in the Thames and coastal and short sea tows. In 1905 the twin screw Oceana towed the oil hulk Tancarville from Portland to Sumatra, a distance of 8200 miles in 45 days, an average speed of seven knots. At the time it was the longest tow to have been carried out by any tug.

   Another field Watkins vessels were active in was "seeking", tugs going down into the English Channel and offering their services to tow sailing vessels to London or near continental ports against the foul prevailing wind. As may be imagined this often used to develop into a cut throat business, but the practice continued up to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. During the period 1833-1918 Watkins had vessels taken up for Government service in both the Crimean War and WW1. Their tugs were frequently chartered for use as ferries, to assist in cable laying operations, and one even went on a whaling voyage to Iceland!

   The other traditional activity of tugs was of course salvage. This was often carried out in atrocious weather, usually on a no cure-no pay basis, and sometimes had disastrous results. In 1881 the Napoleon and other tugs went to the assistance of the sailing vessel Allanshaw, in distress in a hurricane force storm off the North Foreland. Unfortunately the Napoleon was overwhelmed and sank, with the loss of Captain William Houghton and his eight man crew. The loss of the Rumania, also assisting a vessel in distress in the Estuary,  has already been mentioned.

   In 1868 the company had taken delivery of the Era, their first screw tug, and after a slow start screw propulsion gradually took over from paddle, but the Iona became the last paddle tug to operate on the Thames, finally being sold away from the river in 1920. However, right up until 1950, when Watkins became part of the Ship Towage [London] Ltd combine, steam reigned supreme in their fleet, although some vessels were oil fired by then.

   The company continued to grow and by 1939 owned seventeen steam tugs. During WW2 many of Watkins tugs were again requisitioned by the Government, and several took part directly in the Dunkirk evacuation. Java is reputed to have been the first tug from Britain to reach Dunkirk, and her Dunkirk "plaque", subsequently awarded to all vessels that took part in the operation, was lodged in the St Andrews Waterside church in Gravesend when she was scrapped. Three tugs were lost during the war, Napia and Muria both being mined, and Persia gutted by fire. Tragically all the crews perished with their vessels. When the war ended Watkins owned thirteen tugs and managed another seven for the Ministry of War Transport.

   In 1950 Ship Towage [London] Limited was formed, being an amalgamation of the fleets of William Watkins Ltd [14 tugs], Elliott Steam Tug Company [2 tugs] and Gamecock Tugs Limited [4 tugs]. On the first day of May 1965 they also took control of the four ship towing tugs of Gaselee and Son Ltd., and on the 27th of January 1969 W H J Alexander Ltd. [Sun Tugs], joined the group and the whole combine was retitled London Tugs Limited, having a total fleet of thirtysix tugs. This company operated until 1st of January 1975, when it was taken over by the Alexandra Towing Co. Ltd of Liverpool and the last remaining links with the original London owners were finally broken.

    During the early years then, those quaint old paddle tugs, often sporting a suit of sails to assist their low powered engines and save coal when running light, began to roam far and wide. They proved much more seaworthy than they looked and their crews quickly adapted to being deepseamen. Watkins vessels and crews served in three wars and Watkins tugs were seen in ports as far flung as Algiers, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Shanghai, Sydney, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and many, many more. Surely a company as pioneering, industrious and long lived as William Watkins Limited deserves some sort of memorial in this modern sat-nav world, and it is hoped that this site has gone some way towards achieving recognition for the company, their tugs and above all their Tugmen.
 
 

THE EARLY LONDON BUILDERS

JAMES ASH

The Ash yard was to the North of Pier Street, Cubitt Town, Poplar. It was established in 1862 but was bankrupt by 1866. Ash had worked for C J Mare for eleven years and Thames Ironworks for six years.
 
CASTLE'S

H Castle and Sons were one of the biggest ship breakers on the River Thames. They had yards at Longs Wharf Woolwich, Charlton and Baltic Wharf Millbank (Near the Tate Gallery).  More information HERE.
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CHARLES LUNGLEY

Lungleys yard was at Deptford Green, South London, and possessed one of the first dry docks on the Thames. It has been described as "the most complete yard on the Thames, and was to the Thames what Lairds was to the Mersey". There was a Lungley yard in existence in 1814. They also built marine engines, but the company closed down in 1866, and Lungley became manager of C. J. Mare's yard at Millwall.
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EDWARDS and Co.

Edwards and Company were situated at Britannia Yard, West Ferry Road, Millwall. Occupying the yard in the late 1880's as Edwards and Symes Ltd, they later traded as Edwards and Co. Ltd., into the 1930's.
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C J MARE LTD

     The company began business in 1837 as Ditchburn and Mare Ltd., founded by shipwright Thomas Ditchburn and naval architect Charles Mare. Their first yard was at Dodmans or Deadmans Dock, Deptford, which had been occupied by shipbuilder Dudman and Co at the end of the 18th century, but this was destroyed by fire in 1838 and the company moved to Orchard Place, near Bow Creek, taking over the premises of William and Benjamin Wallis.
     They were among the first iron shipbuilders on the Thames and soon the yard covered fourteen acres. In 1847 Ditchburn left the company and it became known as C J Mare Limited. Mare was joined by naval architect James Ash, who later owned a yard at Cubitt Town. Mare's also owned land on the Essex side of the River Lea. Mare's built seven sections for Robert Stephensons Britannia bridge over the Menai Strait, each section weighing over 1500 tons. By 1855 the company employed over three thousand workers and the two yards were joined by a chain ferry across the River Lea (Bow Creek).
     In 1855 however the company was bankrupt and it has been speculated that Mare's gambling habits were to blame! Mare bred and ran horses for the turf. Creditors moved quickly to keep the company afloat as it had Admiralty contracts to fulfil and also the contract to build Westminster Bridge. Two employees, Joseph Westwood and Robert Baillie were appointed managers and in 1857 the company was renamed The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company Limited and traded until 1912. In 1877 the company built the iron cylinder which would contain Cleopatras Needle whilst it was towed from Egypt to London. In 1898 the Blackheath based John Penn and Sons, engine builders, became part of the group. The works football team still exists today as West Ham United.
     In 1859 Mare managed to raise more capital and took over Russells old yard at Millwall, trading as Millwall Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, but was again bankrupt by 1867.
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MILLS AND KNIGHT

Mills and Knight Limited were situated at Fountain Dock, Bermondsey Wall, from the 1890's until at least 1935. The company existed after this date but may have moved. The Dock had long been a shipbuilding and repair centre, being occupied by Smith and Co about 1790, Westlake's in 1830, and Williams and Sons in 1850. It possessed a drydock and a tidal gridiron.
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JOHN STEWART AND SONS

John Stewart was an Engineer originally trading at 290 Rotherhithe St, Bermondsey. John Stewarts Blackwall Ironworks was at Folly Wall, on the Isle of Dogs. It began in 1854 and although some ships were built it came to specialise in building marine engines, especially for tugs. The company moved in 1865 to Stewarts Wharf, Blackwall, at least part of which had become Watkins Maintenance yard by 1882. In 1891 Stewarts had acquired Pitcher's former yard, north of the Folly Wall . This, and the acquisition of Westbrook's, considerably extended the company's river frontage and, with the two dry docks on Pitcher's site, greatly increased its shipbuilding and shiprepairing capacity. In 1912 the PLA bought the premises, when Stewarts went into liquidation, as part of its proposals to improve the entrance to the South Dock of the West India Docks, but a new company, John Stewart & Sons, operated there as its tenants. The works closed in 1924 and the contents were auctioned early in the following year. The remaining buildings were demolished by the end of 1926.
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THAMES IRONWORKS LIMITED

See C J Mare Ltd.
 
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