Launch of the Magicienne at Fisbourne circa 1812. Picture courtesy of the IW Council Heritage Service.
WIGHT LIVING BOAT and ship building on the Wight must date back to the creation of the Island itself around 8,000 years ago.
As the Solent River grew in width, our Stone Age ancestors would have woven reeds and chiselled tree trunks into canoes and rafts to maintain contact with the mainland.
The advent of metal tools some 5,000 years ago would have allowed more sophisticated vessels to be constructed from shivered planks held together by wooden joints and metal nails.
The Island needed to import bronze and iron and, therefore, needed to export agricultural products. This would have increased the volume of cross-Solent trade and maritime construction.
The Solent seaway and its flooded river harbours provided ideal testing grounds for building and testing new sea-going vessels.
The first literary record we have of British ships in the English Channel is provided by Julius Caesar over 2,000 years ago. The Celtic ships the Roman war galleys encountered were large clinker-built sailing ships they could not ram or board. These northern vessels would develop into the coastal sailing ships we can still see in the medieval town seals of the Yarmouth and Newport borough ports founded in the 12th century (1135, c1180).
Medieval records recall one John le Shepwricht based at Yarmouth in 1297 and shortly after a two shilling licence was awarded to Jacob Balbe and Walter de Whitlocke to build a ship at Freshwater.
In the warlike 1300s to 1600s, bigger vessels were constructed to act as armed pirate ships. The Rat, which took part in the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588, weighed 80 tons.
The construction of ocean-going ships is first recorded following the success of the expeditions to colonise Virginia from 1609. The first evidence we have is in a letter from a passenger written in 1623, "in a good ship named the Bonnie Bess, built at Cowes in the Isle of Wight being a new ship of fourscore and ten tunnes".
The new shipyard was founded by Robert Newland on the eastern end of the Medina estuary. Newland was a Newport merchant who was one of the directors of the "Isle of Wight Plantation" founded in 1619. The annual convoys taking supplies and colonists left from Cowes Roads and returned with valuable tobacco. The twin towns of Cowes grew into prominence to service the new Atlantic trade and shipbuilding and servicing centres. Merchant fleets from the US and Caribbean continued calling at Cowes until around 1800.
Island shipbuilding also served the navy. The modern Royal Navy was founded under the republican governments of 1648-1660 and continued to expand under the later Stuarts (1660-1714) and Hanovarian kings (1714-1837). In the 18th century there were at least two important shipbuilding yards at Cowes, where three decked ships of the line, as well as frigates, were built and fitted for the Navy.
There was another dockyard at Hurstlake, just north of Newport (near the current site of Newport Rowing Club). John Sier’s yard launched the 28-gun frigate Royal Charlotte in 1780 but in 1786 he went bankrupt. The auction notice states that the shipyard was capable of building ships up to 250 tons. The ship that broke Sier’s credit was still on the stocks. It was a full-rigged brigantine 167 feet long and 22 feet wide.
Shipbuilding at Hurstlake continued to at least 1830. There was also significant shipbuilding on Wootton Creek as evidenced in the painting of the launch of the Magicienne from Fishbourne around 1812.
Island boat-builders also concentrated on small, fast naval sloops and smuggling vessels seeking to evade the high import taxes needed to pay for the warships’ construction. Island boat-builders also constructed the fast revenue cutters designed to chase the smugglers. The combined result can be seen in a regatta of naval sloops, recorded in a painting by the artist Dominic Serres in 1776, racing off Cowes. This technological competition to build small, fast sailing ships was the basis of the emergence of Cowes as the centre of world yacht racing in the 19th century.
In 1802, Thomas White, an established shipbuilder from Broadstairs in Kent, bought the Nye shipyards at East Cowes and by 1815 had completed the Thetis shipyard in West Cowes. His grandson gave the firm its later name, J Samuel White.
In the 1850s, White’s shipyards, complete with steam-powered sawmills, engine shops, and mast and block shops, employed around 500 craftsmen. The company began the construction of metal-built, steam-powered ships "such as light-draught paddle-boats on the Niger…ferry boats, fire-floats, and small ships for checking drug-smuggling". White’s also continued building in wood, specialising in lifeboats.
In the 20th century, J. S. White’s specialised in the production of quality, smaller-class warships, such as frigates and destroyers. Now the most famous is the Blyskawica, which was built for the Polish navy in 1936, fought heroically through the war years, and is now preserved at Gdynia on the Baltic coast.
During the Second World War, White’s shipyards produced another 27 warships, of which eight were sunk in action. At the peak of production 4,300 people worked in the yards. A total of 317 vessels were produced by J. S. White’s during the war.
The largest and most powerful ship ever built at Cowes was the 410ft minelayer, HMS Abdiel, launched in 1941. Cowes Town Council set up a commemorative plaque to the ship which was sunk in 1943.
In 1944, White’s launched the world’s first all-welded destroyer, HMS Contest. Smaller Island shipbuilders on the Medina, Wootton Creek and Bembridge Harbour produced around 70 other vessels such as motor torpedo boats and landing craft.
The British shipbuilding industry faded after the boom years of the war. J. S. White’s closed its gates in 1963. More than 2,000 ships had been built by this one Island company over 150 years. Now it is getting hard to imagine the estuaries of the Wight once rang to the sound of industry and graced with the sight of great vessels under construction. The iconic crane at White’s yard, now a rusting relic with an uncertain future, is a visual reminder of this great industrial tradition.