My articles No.6 – Early shipbuilding in Birkenhead

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Liverpool was a thriving port – one of the most important in the Empire – but less than a mile across the Mersey from Liverpool lay a slumbering hamlet which, if not actually unaware of it, had not yet been affected by the Industrial Revolution that was spreading across the region. That hamlet was called Birkenhead and, at around this time, the population was recorded as just 110 – most of whom would have been employed in agriculture, fishing or the operation of the ancient ferry link with Liverpool.

Birkenhead had no roads or streets, and the only buildings were a few cottages, the hall belonging to the Lord of the Manor, and the ruins of the former Benedictine Priory which had been closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The Chapter House of the Priory had survived the years and, at the start of the nineteenth century, it was still in use as a place of worship. In short, life in Birkenehead would have been little different at the start of the nineteenth century as it had been for centuries before.

There was one man – still living in Greenock in Scotland at this time – who would soon begin to change Birkenhead beyond recognition and who would go down in history as the father of modern Birkenhead. This man was William Laird (below).

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Born in 1780, he was working in the family ropeworks by the turn of the century and probably knew nothing of Birkenhead or Wirral whose futures he would so dramatically affect. William’s father, John Laird, had done well out of the ropeworks – as had his father before him – and in 1810 he sent William to Liverpool to build up an order book for the family business. However, by this time, the Greenock ropeworks were already faltering, and William’s initial task in Liverpool subsequently failed.

No doubt the struggles of the family ropeworks would have caused William Laird some sadness, but it in no way deterred his ambitious drive forward. Laird diversified his interests in Liverpool and took an active role in shipping life in the River Mersey port. Most notably, in 1822, he was one of the originators of the St George’s Steam Packet Company which ran vessels between Liverpool and Glasgow. In later years this company expaned to include services between the principal ports of England and Ireland and it also came to own the paddle-steamer, Sirius, which had the distinction of becoming the first steamship to cross the Atlantic.

William Laird also involved himself in the interests of the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Navigation Company. Like most business ventures, this company began in a small way – with just two vessels, the Liffey and Mersey, used to transport goods between Dublin and Liverpool. Eventually the company merged with the much larger City and Dublin Steam Packet Company.

To coin a phrase, William Laird had a dream – a dream which, if fulfilled, would turn the sleepy hamlet of Birkenhead into a thriving port servicing the ships of the world and even rivalling Liverpool itself – and would make him a very wealthy man. It was an extremely ambitious dream. William Laird wanted to build a harbour in Birkenhead and from there drive a canal across the Wirral peninsula to the River Dee.

Laird argued that ship owners would prefer to use the Dee and his canal rather than navigate the Mersey with its shifting mudbanks. This might have been a resonable argument at the time, but it was not enough to convince the businessmen of Liverpool to invest the necessary finance in Laird’s scheme, and perhaps the ambitiousness of the scheme was the reason for its eventual failure.

However, in anticipation of the harbour, Laird had begun to buy land in Birkenhead – land which now lay idle while he sought backing for his canal and harbour scheme. It was with the intention of making use of this land, if only on a temporary basis, that William Laird opened a boiler works just north of Birkenhead at Wallasey Pool, calling it the Birkenhead Iron Works . The year was 1824 and although he could not have known it at the time, Larid had begun what would become one of the most famous shipbuilders in the world.

By the time the new company received its first order to build a ship in 1828, all hopes of a canal and harbour had been forgotten and William Laird and his eldest son, John Laird – who joined the company in 1828 – were about to begin their crusade in favour of iron as an alternative shipbuilding material to the traditional timber.

It was the Irish Inland Steam Navigation Company who gave Birkenhead its first shipbuilding order, a sixty foot lighter to be used on Irish lakes and canals. The vessel was called the Wye. Despite difficulties in obtaining iron plates of suitable sizes to construct the Wye, and the problem of finding qualified men to bend the plates, the vessel was completed and shipped to pieces in Ireland where she was in service for many years. Amazingly, and perhaps a tribute to the Laird’s foresight, the method of construction of iron vessels nearly a century later was remarkably similar to that of the Wye – the first iron ship built on the Mersey.

The Wye was in fact was one of the earliest iron vessels built anywhere. The honour of the first ship is believed to belong to the Vulcan – built by Robert Wilson in Scotland in 1818 for the Forth and Clyde Canal Company . It is almost certain, however, that the Wye was the first iron ship built in England.

The early difficulties experienced by the Laird’s in regard to iron ship construction could so easily have deterred them from continuing to seek orders for iron vessels, but of course it did not and the Wye proved a success, leading directly to more orders for the fledgling shipbuilder. It has been claimed that had it not been for the Laird’s belief in iron, its general use in shipbuilding would not have materialised until much later than it did.

Another son of William Laird, Macgregor Laird – not long after the Wye left Birkenhead – made another notable first in iron shipbuilding history. His vessel, the Alburkah – which was one of the ships used on Macgregor’s expedition of the Niger in 1831 – became the first iron vessel to make a sea voyage.

Perhaps one of the most important early orders for the Laird’s was for the City and Dublin Steam Packet Company . The paddle-steamer, Lady Lansdowne was much larger than previous iron vessels at 148 tons and measuring 133 feet by 17 feet by 9&#frac12; feet. At William Laird’s suggestion, she was fitted with watertight bulkheads and like previous vessels, she was pre-fabricated and shipped in sections to Ireland where she was re-assembled by Laird’s men on Loch Derg.  The building of the Lady Lansdowne gave the ship yard a great deal of credibility and helped bring in more orders, some that proved quite interesting.

Once such order was connected with General Francies Rawdon Chesney – who was about to lead an expedition to explore the Euphrates for the East India Company . Naturally, ships were required for such an expedition and the East India Company entrusted Laird’s with building two of them – the Tigris and Euphrates. Weighing 109 and 179 tons respectively, on completion they undertook a remarkable journey. To reach the Euphrates they first had to be shipped in pieces to the coast of Syria and from there they were taken by camel train to the Euphrates. Once at the river they were re-constructed by Laird’s own men who had accompanied the vessels on their long journey – a journey quite remarkable for the 1830s.

Another two noteworthy iron vessels constructed in Birkenhead at around this time were the John Randolph and the Garryowen. The former was built to the order of G. B. Lamar of Savannah in the United States. After shipment and reconstruction, the John Randolph became the first iron vessel on American waters. The latter vessel was for service closer to home, on the Shannon in Ireland, and was built for the City and Dublin Steam Packet Company . At 300 tons she was the largest iron ship to that date. She put in thirty years service in Ireland before being sold for navigation of the African coast.

It appeared that the cause of iron shipbuilding was proceeding without too many difficulties, but that was far from the truth. There was much prejudice against using iron instead of timber in ship construction, and the wooden-diehards were not going to give in without a struggle.

The prejudice against iron could be expected among laymen but they were also prevalent among ship-owners and even other shipbuiders. It is, however, worth noting that there was as much opposition shown against the introduction of teak over oak. Prejudices were not confined to the Laird’s attempts to pioneer iron. As a result of such prejudices, no iron ship was constructed on the Clyde until 1838 when Messrs. Tod & Macgregor of Glasgow built two iron vessles for trade between Glasgow and Liverpool – the Royal Sovereign and the Royal George.

Wooden-hulled ships were inherently flawed. The thickness of the timber meant that the holds were smaller than their iron counterparts and increasingly shorter lengths of timber meant that more joints were necessary and as each joint was a point of weakness, this led to weaker structures that could not hope to last as long as iron-hulled vessels.

One early event in the iron-versus-timber race emphasises the dilemma that many private shipowners faced when choosing between iron and timber. It concerned a man called Mr. Assheton-Smith. In early 1835 he had come to Birkenhead to place an order for an iron yacht. He made the deal and went away apparently content. Unfortunately, he returned later and cancelled the order. What happened to precipitate this change of mind was that his friends had warned him of the “dangers” of an iron vessel and told him that it would be a serious mistake to go ahead with the contract.

It didn’t take long before the wooden-diehards were aware of this cancellation and it served to reinforce their prejudices. Fortunatly, Mr. Assheston-Smith realised that the success of previously-built iron vessels – both at Birkenhead and elsewhere – was proof enough that he was right in the first place and he returned to the yard in 1837. Laird’s built him a 300-ton, 100 horse-power iron yacht, measuring 150 feet by 22 feet. The Glow-worm was in use for many years before being sold as  a trading vessel between Ireland and Scotland. Mr. Assheton-Smith’s example was one more piece of testimony to the worth of iron in shipbuilding and helped change some of the prejudiced minds.

The durability of iron, although questioned by those against it, would in due time show that iron ships outlasted wooden vessels by many years, but there was one major problem caused by iron-hulled ships that would have to be overcome. That problem involved the effect an iron hull had on the ship’s compass. Sadly, the deviation on the compass reading had resulted in several wrecks and was the major weapon in the arsenal of the anti-iron faction. Something had to be done, and quickly.

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The Birkenhead shipyard, now effectively controlled by John Laird (above), called in the Astronomer Royal Professor Airey to investigate the problem. He conducted experiments on board the Laird’s latest iron vessel, the 600 ton Rainbow. Professor Airey eventually discovered that although iron hulls did have an effect on the compass reading it was a constant deviation which could be compensated for. It was a major breakthrough and a massive blow to opposers of iron-hulls.

The vessel on which the Astronomer Royal conducted his experiements, the Rainbow was one of the finest vessels built up to that date – and was the fastest of her day. At 185 feet by 25 feet and delivering 180 horse-power, she was built for the General Steam Navigation Company. For over thirty years from her launch in 1837 she gave fine service on three main routes: London to Ramsgate, London to Antwerp and London to Harve. She was most likely the first passenger-vehicle ferry when she was later fitted out to carry both “gentlemen and their carriages.”

The late 1830s saw many fine iron vessels leave the Mersey. One such vessel was the result of the success of the Tigris and Euphrates, and was ordered by the same owner – the East India Company. The Indus measured 115 feet by 24 feet by 8 feet and weighed 300 tons. She was shipped to Bombay where she was reconstructed before steaming to the Indus River.

Also in 1837, the Birkenhead-built L’Egyptien became the first iron vessel to sail from Liverpool to Alexandria. She had been ordered by the ruler of Egypt, Mahomet Aly, for navigation of the Nile.

In the final years of the 1830s, the Robert F Stockton, named after a U.S. lieutenant, was built. With a propellor based on John Ericsson’s design she weighed barely 30 tons. She was launched on 7 July 1838 and underwent her trials in the following January on the Thames. She then crossed the Atlantic, although not under steam. In the United States she was renamed New Jersey and gave a quarter of a century of excellent service on the Delaware River. She was the frist commercial steamship in United States waters.

Despite all this success, one notable shipowner was not yet prepared to place their faith in iron shipbuilding – the Admiralty. The Lords of the Admiralty were among the most ferocious opponents to iron-hulled vessels. Such opposition was difficult to overcome. Laird’s had made several applications to the Admiralty to build an iron navel vessel. It was only when Viscount Halifax, the Admiralty Secretary, finally persuaded their Lordships to relent and give iron a chance.

In 1839 the Admiralty placed an order with the Laird’s for the Admiralty’s first ever iron vessel – a 228 ton mail packet to be stationed at, and named after, Dover. The Dover operated for at least thirty years. In 1840, the Admiralty went further and ordered three gunboats – the Souden, Albert and Wilberforce – all to be employed exploring the Niger.

By 1840, Laird’s had built over thirty iron vessels, ranging in size from little over 30 tons to 600 tons. Many of these pioneering vessels for Laird’s had also been pioneering in their usage. India, South America, China, Egypt and the United States were all first shown the splendour of iron vessels by the Birkenhead yard.

The relenting of the Admiralty’s prejudices marked the end of an era, as did the death of William Laird in 1841. What he probably intended as a temporary business venture had become an energetic and worthwhile commercial and naval international shipbuilder. His death was not marked in quite the same way as would be John Laird’s nearly three decades later, but it should not be forgotten that in the space of less than two decades William Laird’s pioneering spirit had changed the entire pattern of life in Birkenhead.

When he first came to Birkenhead it was still a tiny hamlet. When he left it in death it was a growing industrial town with many streets and buildings and a population of over eight thousand – and it was constantly expanding.

We must also remember the contribution William Laird made ot the town’s appearance. It was William Laird who had laid out the first streets in Birkenhead, including Cathcart Street where he made his own home. These initial streets were wide, with gas lights and lined with excellent buildings with their own water supplies. He was an early town planner, laying out fine and wide radiating streets from a central square designed by the Scottish architect Gillespie Graham and named Hamilton Square – reputedly after a sixteenth century Archbishop of St. Andrews, John Hamilton. This square, one of the finest in Europe, was intended as the centrepiece of his town – a haven for the wealthy merchant families he intended to be resident within the houses surrounding the square and off the radiating streets.

It was said that William Laird believed in the dignity of his workforce and wanted to give them homes which they could be proud of – homes in which they could bring up their families with a degree of comfort. Obviously, his ideal would not last long – if it ever really existed. Before long, even while William Laird was still alive, rows of inferior houses were being built for the mushrooming population and it would not be long before Birkenhead suffered the same deprived conditions as other parts of industrial, urban Britain.

By 1851, Birkenhead was growing so fast that any early hopes for a decent urban setting were long gone and Birkenhead embraced urbanisation with a vengeance, building its own docks and developing itself as an industrial port.

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This article is based on notes made in the early 1990s while researching the history of Cammell Laird shipbuliders for a friend who was planning a book on the Birkenhead shipyard.

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