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Shipbuilding in Preston, a dangerous occupation?

Posted on - 8th August, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston Docks, Preston News, Transport
Preston in 1852 showing Victoria Quay and the dock branch Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Preston in 1852 showing Victoria Quay and the dock branch Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Shipbuilding in Preston arguably goes back to prehistoric times as log boats were uncovered during the building of the new docks, in the 1890s. The Romans sailed up the Ribble possibly as far as Ribchester, and Preston was a port by the Norman period.

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By the 1790s, the early docks and wharves of Preston were becoming inadequate. Because of flooding and the shallowness of the river, new docks were proposed. A consortium was set up in 1806 to promote the use of the river for trade. Consequently the river was constrained with training walls and a new wharf built on reclaimed land. This became Victoria Quay and was opened in 1825.

A series of shipyards sprang up along the banks of the river. The first ship to be built in Preston was the paddle steamer Enterprise, built for the Mersey Ferry Service, in 1834.

Early steamships

Experiments to propel ships by steam had begun as early as the 1780s, however steamships did not become mainstream until the 19th century.

Charlotte Dundas was the first practical steamship and was built in 1803, for use on the Forth and Clyde Canal. These early ships used paddle wheels to propel themselves. Perhaps the largest paddle steamer built was the Great Eastern, designed by IK Brunell, in 1858. Indeed, it was the largest ship ever built at the time. By the mid 19th century the docks rang to the sound of new ships under construction. However danger awaited the workers.

In fact, industrial accidents were common in Victorian times. The launch of the Ada Wilson was a near disaster. Unfortunately a restraining cable broke and the ship collided with the opposite bank, however no damage was done. Other incidents were more serious, another cable breakage resulted in the deaths of three workers. During the construction of a steamer, the ship shifted and the men were crushed.

The location of early shipbuilding in Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive
The location of early shipbuilding in Preston Pic: Preston Digital Archive

William Alsop and Sons

By 1854, William Alsop was operating several shipbuilding yards on the Ribble. Most were centred at the end of Fishergate and were soon to be split in two. Alsop’s yard was split by the building of Penwortham (new) bridge in 1912. Below, the bridge can be seen on the right just after opening. Fortunately the yard had closed in 1905, possibly because of the bridge.

Alsop's shipyard and the new Penwortham bridge 1912 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Alsop’s shipyard and the new Penwortham bridge 1912 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Penwortham Bridge Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker
The 1912 bridge today Pic: Geoffrey Whittaker

Ships built by Alsop’s included the paddle steamer Nelson. They built 26 ships in total.

A postcard showing Alsop's paddle steamer after it was sold abroad Pic: Preston Digital Archive
A postcard showing Alsop’s paddle steamer after it was sold abroad Pic: Preston Digital Archive

The Preston Iron Shipbuilding Co

The Preston Iron Shipbuilding Co was situated close to Preston marsh and was founded in 1865. The first ship build was the Ada Wilson, mentioned earlier, a screw driven steamer weighing 500 tons and with passenger accommodation for 42.

Shipbuilding continued until the First World War, when steel shortages led to some barges being made of concrete. Only two were completed being launched after the war. After this time no more ships were made in Preston.


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