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 Dockyard Shipwrights.


Bert Shardlow and Dr. David Penney.

( Sections copied by Colin Penney)





Being an apprentice was by no means an easy trade to gain entrance to. In the 17th century sixteen was an advanced age at which to begin work, since the children of the poorer classes were expected to do something  for themselves from the age of five.

  Then  the apprentice had for seven years to give his earnings to his master that is until he was 23  Thus for an outsider the time and expense of  training was comparable to  what is now involved in entering a profession .A boy whose father was already in the trade was in a more advantageous position. If he were apprenticed to his father the wage would make a real addition to the family income .In 1801 a change was made such that only two thirds  of the wage went to the instructor ,and one third to the apprentices parents or guardian.

Unfortunately ,as successful as the apprenticeship system was ,apprentices as a rule had no general education when they entered the Dockyard and they received no theoretical training after entry. The Navy Board “suggested” that upon entry  apprentices should be able to read and write and understand the common rules of Arithmetic. Dockyard schools were instituted in 1843.They were held during working hours and taught Technical subjects, and after 1853 entry was gained by competitive examination.

Shipwrights , both in the private yards and Royal Yards  would refuse to work with a man who had not completed an apprenticeship. If they suspected a man’s  credentials, they          “horsed” him out of the yard, That is , “the shipwrights surrounded ( the suspect ),put a Piece of Quarter between his Leggs, took him up on their shoulders ,carried him  just without the Gate, then sat him down Gave Three Shouts  and returned to their Duty “

Thus this system not only guaranteed thorough training  but also provided established shipwrights with a valuable “ perk” in the form of extra income and assistance  in their work by having apprentices in their service..

In 1608 it was decreed that no workman (shipwright) should have more than one apprentice paid by the fact the privilege of having an apprentice was extended to about one sixth of the shipwrights.  In 1664 the Navy Board issued an order that  every apprentice was to be 16 years of age at the time of entry and was to serve seven years . In 1765 it was lowered to 15 years of age and in 1769 to 14 years.

In September 1762 boys were not as readily available as earlier ,possibly due to  Army recruitment or increased work on the land ,consequently the rules were relaxed  sufficiently to allow apprentices of only 4 foot and 10 inches to be employed instead of the 5 feet minimum as before.

In the 18th century , the pay of an apprentice was paid entirely to his instructor .This meant  that the instructor almost necessarily had to be the father of the apprentice. Apprenticeships served as an important part of a system of reward and control , and also as a means of providing support for the old and the widows, this especially being true before  the introduction of the superannuation fund.




There were a number of kindred trades to that of Shipwrights in the dockyards. Working alongside the shipwrights were the Caulkers, who with the shipwrights were the highest paid  dockyard  workmen .The caulkers filled the seams between the planking with oakum,   old hemp rope  picked loose by his assistant the “oakum boy “ to make the seams of carvel-built ships watertight .Once the seams had been packed full of the fibres it would be water proofed by smearing the seams with hot pitch .The “oakum boy “ brought the pitch in  liquid form from a boiler ,supplying a number of caulkers.

The sawyers  were essential to the shipwright.  They cut straight tree trunks up into plank and timber working in pairs with the tree trunk lying above them in a saw pit.  This work required a certain amount of skill in ensuring that the cut was straight and ran parallel to any crack in the trunk.  The senior of a pair  of sawyers stood astride the trunk holding the upper end of the whip saw guiding the saw so that it followed the shape  of the timbers required and pulling it back up on its return stroke…Below this man was another sawyer in the saw pit , holding the lower handle of the saw and providing the power for the downstroke which did the cutting .He was the one who got the sawdust in his face.  Sawpits were usually grouped together .often covered with a simple tiled roof. In 1811 Marc Brunel produced  designs for large scale steam operated saw mills.



Were chiefly concerned with the erection and maintenance of buildings ashore. They were so called to distinguish them from the shipwrights who were also known as “ ships carpenters” . Not usually  having to  make curved shapes  in wood theirs was  a less skilled trade than that of shipwrights .The joiners who made furniture were more highly paid than the house carpenters .They were paid just slightly less than that of the shipwrights and the caulkers.


Titular trades.

The Ropemaker made up lengths of yarn by overlaying the combed hemp ,and this in turn was layed into  the required lengths of rope in the rope walks. 

The Hatchelman  was the person who combed the hemp.

The Sailmaker made the sails from  sailcloth supplied by contractors.

The Colourmaker made up flags and ensigns from dyed cloth.

The Rigger  measured the rope for splicing and made it up for standing and running rigging .Standing rigging is that which                            remains static while running rigging is adjustable and secures sails ,booms, etc.

The Blockmaster made the blocks and tackle for adjusting rigging and sails .

The Nailsmith made nails and  such, for the use of the shipwrighs…

The Blacksmith forged anchors and iron fittings ,and from about 1810 made chain cable.  He also made bolts and nuts .

The  Plugmaker made plugs which were driven into the counterbored holes by the caulkers, where bolts were fitted.

The Joiner made furniture and higher grades of woodwork.

The Painter was responsible for decoration and preservation of the hull.

The Woodcarver made figureheads and other ornate carvings.

The Mastmaker made masts and spars He was usually a shipwright employed on this specialist work.

The Scavelman dug the docks in the early days and  sealed the ends of the timber. A scavel  was a heart shaped long handled shovel.


In one instance at least ,much of the unskilled work of digging and carting was done by convict labour. This was the case in Chatham during the huge extension of the Dockyard around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, and also at Sheerness during the re building of the Dockyard.  Previously persons convicted of felonies were put in the hulks of old ships prior to transportation to America .With the loss of the American  colonies the hulks were dispensed  with on the Thames and Medway and the inmates were transferred to St. Mary’s Prison, Chatham. Whether temporary or permanent  resident in the hulks ,convict labour was used at Chatham from about  1740 until 1899 when Chatham Prison closed  and the Royal Naval Barracks were built on the site . Hulks , however, remained as floating prisons until 1857 often holding convicts prior to transportation to Australia.



Shipwrights were the backbone of Dockyard organisation. During peacetime in the 18th century it was estimated  that 14 shipwrights were needed for every 1,000 tons of shipping in the Navy so that for the then existing 3000,000 tons ,4200 shipwrights were required  . There were 2581 shipwrights in the Royal Dockyards in 1804, excluding apprentices .Another 5,100 shipwrights were employed in Private English Dockyards .


The City  Company of Free Shipwrights  of London was an old trade guild formed to ensure better skill in the craft .Their Ordinance Book begins in 1428 but the main body of records date from about 1660.Most of  the early record perished in  the great fire which ranged over  Ratcliff  ,where the first Shipwrights Hall was located .A newer group , apparentely  organised around 1605 was known as the Shipwrights of  Redrith ( Rotherhithe )


The tools of a working shipwright were those of the carpenter . In general ,however, they were much heavier ,as he worked in oak rather than soft wood and with large timbers. He used an adze , a long handled tool much like a gardeners hoe .The transverse axe-like blade was used for trimming timber. To fasten  timbers and planks ,wood treenails were used .These were made from “ clear “ oak and could be up to 36” long and 2” in diameter .The auger was used to bore holes into which the treenails were driven, and the shipwright had the choice of some ten sizes ranging from 2” down to ½” .A mall ,basically a large hammer with a flat face and a long conical taper on the other was used for driving the treenails. Shipwrights also used two-man cross-cut saws as well as a single handsaw . Good sawing saved much labour with the adze. Other tools used were heavy axes and hatchets for hewing ,and hacksaws and cold chisels to cut bolts to length .Iron nails of all sorts and sizes ,as well as spikes were available .Nails were used in particular to fasten the deck planks.


The warrant and commissioned shipwrights in the Royal Navy were called “ Carpenters “ until 1918 .The actual working shipwrights in the R.N. were known as “ Carpenters Mates “ until the same year. Since that time and until recently the Shipwright branch on the Royal Navy had its own officers. Few , however rose above the rank of  Lieutenant Commander .Other ranks commenced on entry as “ Shipwright 4th Class “ ,3rd , 2nd, and 1st Class Shipwright “ and eventually “ Chief Petty Officer Shipwright “.


The hull of the  “ Royal George “a 100 gun 1st rate ship, was launched in 1756. She took 5756 loads of timber. A load is 50 cubic feet ( about a ton ) or roughly the amount in an average oak tree , thus the total weight of timber used was 5756 tons .

As this is about three times the hull weight , this figure represents the hull weight before cutting into futtocks, knees, plank etc.

Smaller  amounts of elm, pine, lignum vitae and other woods had specialised uses in building a ship . To complete a ship of this size took 2-3 years ,while a 40 gun ship could be built in 12 months  , a 20 gun in nine and a sloop  in six.


Commencing with the frigate “ Alarm “ in 1761 , all the hulls of Naval ships were copper sheathed below the waterline .Previously they had been “ engraved “ in a dock with a mixture of pitch, tar and brimstone, hence the name Graving Dock .From 1649 when Oliver Cromwell overthrew Charles II .The Admiralty required shipwrights to build and submit models of the ships they were going to build , along with Technical plans. Such extant models provide us with the most accurate source of information about the techniques of shipbuilding at that time .



It was the custom for the men to enter the dockyard at the ringing of a bell and muster at the Clerk of the Cheques’s office.

This they also did on leaving. During the day they also answered periodic muster , thus during the day there were usually four “ calls” .Between 1722 and 1804 men in then dockyard worked the following schedule.

12 hours from 6am to 6pm from March to October .

In the Winter, work was from daylight to dusk .

In the Summer ½ hour was allowed for breakfast and 1½  hours for dinner .

In  the Winter there was no time for breakfast and only 1 hour for dinner .

Wages for days or half days absence were forfeited  and no compensation was paid for sickness or injury on the job.

Usually the Shipwrights worked together in “ gangs “, either afloat on the ships moored in the river or in the yard itself.When working in gangs they were led by quartermen .Such quartermen  were allowed to choose their gang from among the available shipwrights . Normally  there was about 1 Quarterman for 20 shipwrights.


In March 1775 the shipwrights at Sheerness  were grouped as follows;-

Four Task Gangs  -  5 quartermen , 56 shipwrights and 20 servants

Two Day Gangs    -  2 quartermen, 24 shipwrights and 18 servants

Masthouse Gang    -  Master Mastmaker , 10 shipwrights and 3 servants

Boathouse gang     -  Master Boatbuilder  , 1 quarterman ,12 shipwrights and 3 servants.


The “ task system “ was introduced in the 1770’s, a gang employed by task was paid when the task was completed –piecework in modern terms- whereas the earlier practice had been to pay by the day.

Within each Dockyard a tap house provided beer , it being unwise to drink water. There is preserved a list of men from Deptford yard who were  punished during the year 1733 to 1737 and the most common offence was “   Absenting after answering the call” the next was “Idling in the tap house “ smoking was prohibited and those found “Skulking in corners “ were fined three days pay.

The very long working hours ensured a daily life totally centred around the work place .Families freely entered  the yards and a dockyard worker might well share each meal with his wife and children at his workplace.




About 1750 the wage rate for a shipwright near London was 3/- per day and in 1770  3s-6d per day ( £39 per year). In 1970 the daily rate had risen to 4/-.This was considerably more than a .labourer …For example in 1713 a family consisting of a man, his wife, and three or four children would not ask for Parish Relief if their total annual income was £20 or more .

 During the Great wars of the 18th century , if a shipwright had an apprentice this meant an additional income of from 1s-2d to 1s-10d in their pay.

There was a long running conflict over the question of “chips” ,off cuts of wood of no further value in shipbuilding which workers were accustomed to take out of the yard.… A “chip” was a piece of wood no more than 3ft  long., in practice however these could be up to 12ft. long. In 1620 wages were raised to compensate for the loss of this priveledge but it did not stop it. For example in 1739 when the Navy Board attempted to abolish the practice of taking  “ chips “ without giving compensation .the carpenters and joiners  at Deptford went out on strike following those at Woolwich. The Boards  attempt failed. A regulation of 1753 specified that no more “ chips “ could be taken tan could be carried under one arm .This provoked a strike at Chatham .Later, through precedent , this rule was resolved to specify “ a load carried on one shoulder “

“Chips “ were  of obvious value in the days when coal was scarce and expensive in Southern England  .They were often used for building purposes ,some old houses in dockyard towns have an unusual number of short boards in them .


Pilfering from the dockyards was said to be rampant in the 18th Century made especially easy hidden in bundles of  “chips” .

The Navy Board issued the following order regards pilfering ;” You are to suffer no person to pass out of the dock gates with great coats , large trousers , or any other dress that can conceal stores of any kind. No person is to be suffered to work in Great Coats at any time over any account .  No trousers are to be used by the labourers employed in the Storehouse and if any persist in  such a custom he will be discharged  the yard  “



Women bringing meals into the yard in baskets were often caught removing valuable items along with the “Chips “. The taking of ” chips “  was abolished in May  1801 and was replaced by a daily payment. It was not uncommon for a worker to appear at roll call and then secretly leave the yard for the rest of the day,  in order to relax or work at another paying job.

Labour troubles were not uncommon in the dockyards , especially in times of particular national need a\s as before or during a war. One method used by the Navy Board  to deal with such disruptions was to press gang the ringleaders for sea service.

Old workmen were permitted to keep their jobs long after they were fit to do them and many were allowed servants. They were often given light tasks such as sorting wedges,  and mooting treenails , that is, finishing them into smooth cylinders of various gauges by means of a moot. When they died ,their servants  stayed on ,providing income for the widows.

In 1764 the first scheme of superannuation  (pension system ) was instituted   for those who had served 30 years or more with the possibility of retiring on 2/3 of basic pay.




Bert was a very keen and a  very helpful historian  . As a very senior Dockyard Foreman ,a post equilavalent,  to say a Managing Director of a very large Business ,he had access to all Naval Dockyard records and  after his retirement  was allowed access  to all Naval Establishments for his research . Most of his research he sent to The Maritime Museum who were very grateful  for Bert’s interest , he spent a lot of time there with his research. 

He also researched his Family Tree , the Ratcliff family and many Queenborough Families. And he helped many people sort out their Family Tree problems.


(Bert Shardlow traced his ancestor to a Milestone in a road which had ”Shardlow” on one side and “Stone”  on the other side. His ancestor had been dropped by a travelling band alongside  the milestone facing  the Shardlow side. If he had left him on the other side of the milestone his family would have  been named Stone.)