The iconic symbol of past glories

By Jon Fisher

Published on Friday, February 01, 2013 - 11:17


The iconic symbol of past glories

The Cowes Hammerhead Crane looms above the cargo steamer, Hitherwood, in 1922. Photographs reproduced by kind permission of Dave L. Williams, author of White’s of Cowes.

WIGHT LIVING THE recent milestone anniversary of the iconic Cowes Hammerhead Crane is part of a unique centennial survival story.

The crane is now the sole survivor of these shipbuilding leviathans in England — all the rest having fallen victim to demolition.

It is more than a crane. It is about remembering the passage of time over which it presided and the hive of activity of which it was the centre; the hammering, the grinding, the whirring of great machinery, the whistles, the sirens, and the shouts of thousands of men and women working in the shipyards and streaming to and from the John Samuel White’s shipyard every day.

The prominent landmark remains a symbol of the technological superiority Cowes claimed in building leading edge ships. With boilers and turbines designed by White’s, ships built at Cowes could achieve speeds of 35 knots, 30 per cent faster than traditional reciprocating steam engines of the time, and still fast by today’s standards.

Think about the men and women, the apprentices, the craftsmen, the draughtsmen, the engineers, the fitters, the managers, the directors, the tea trolley girls, who would gaze up with pride at the crane.

So many people you meet in Cowes today are former shipyard workers with stories to tell of those exciting times — such as Bob West and Vic Scovell, who is now a committee member of the Historic Ryde Society. Both used to work on the shopfloor at J. Samuel White

They remember well the operation of the hammerhead crane, together with the gantry cranes running high up inside the massive boiler and turbine workshops, which are still there today, including one of the older manual chain-driven gantry cranes.

And Bob and Vic recall how, just as apprentices in other workplaces do today — given half the chance — they would lark around as they worked.

In a small seat high above the workshops sat the crane driver waiting for calls to work the crane, lifting and shifting, and then again waiting, and of course occasionally dozing off between calls to work the machinery.

Young apprentices would then creep out and make the high pitched "ooo eeee ooo" call used to alert the crane driver to the next job, just to wake the driver up with a start and peer far below, only to see no-one around.

There are the stories of the hammerhead crane drivers, getting up the courage for that first climb 70ft up those tower stairs onto the turntable, then more courage needed to walk out along the jib far above the River Medina below.

Then, sitting in the control cabin moving the big rheostat levers across the round copper contacts, the sparks, sizzle, crack and smell, to increase or decrease the speed of slewing or lifting, moving the 'Jenny’ hook carriage back and forward along the jib, with that massive hook 'Big John’, or the smaller hook, 'Little Lora’, watching the hand signals on the ground, looking at where the load is going, stamping down on the foot pedal brakes.

It was a responsible job and no-one wanted to drop or damage those boilers or turbines over which so many workmates had sweated.

So it was that these engineers, artisans and shipbuilders won the contract in 1911 to build six destroyers for the Chilean Navy.

The County Press records the launch of the Chilean destroyer Tome from East Cowes in September 1912 to the sounds of ships’ sirens and horns, and the sight of the newly installed giant hammerhead crane swinging its jib to and fro in salute.

Cowes Hammerhead Crane was ordered from Babcock and Wilcox, of Renfrew in Scotland, in 1911 on the back of the Chilean Navy order and to enable the installation of the newly designed engine turbines and White-Forster water tube boilers that would drive the destroyers into action.

It is one of the earliest examples of these great steel crane structures and is a superb feat of grand scale engineering with powerful DC electric motors capable of lifting up to 80 tons. The control and drive machinery itself are fine examples of British mechanical and electrical engineering design and precision.

Over the past 100 years the hammerhead crane has played its part in building a wide range of ships, its workforce rising to a peak of 3,500 during the last war.

Second World War destroyers include HMS Cavalier — the only Second World War destroyer to have survived — saved in 1977 by Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

She is now preserved at Chatham’s historic dockyard as a memorial to the 143 British destroyers and more than 11,000 men lost at sea in the conflict.

The two ultra-fast Polish destroyers ORP Grom and ORP Blyskawica were built at Cowes, in May 1942, Blyskawica famously defending the town during an air-raid while being refitted under the hammerhead crane.

Production continued under the crane with modern frigates, ferries, passenger steamers, cargo vessels, lightships and the final ship to be built for the Royal Navy, HMS Arethusa, launched in November 1963, ending 270 years of building warships at Cowes.

The crane has languished since its last use for capsizing lifeboats built for the RNLI.

Now its fate rests in the hands of a property developer, who has kindly included the restoration of the crane as part of the development of the Medina Village to be built on the bank of the River Medina over the grounds of the former shipyards.

Work of the trust

COWES Hammerhead Crane Trust was formed to be the crane’s 'voice’, ensuring it is preserved not as a dumb artefact but as a functioning crane, a living landmark of the Island, of Cowes and of the shipbuilding industry that was the beating heart of Cowes and the economic engine of the Island for so many years.

Development of the overall site, which includes restoration of the crane, was again on the agenda at a planning day on Friday, January 11, and at a planning weekend today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at Cowes Yacht Haven for the community to give its views.

Time is passing and works are now needed quickly to halt the accelerating decay and stabilise the structure.

The key issue the trust faces is how to work with the council on an Urgent Works Notice for the interim repairs that have been identified to slow down this deterioration while the site development is approved.

The trust has matured, its aspirations have widened and it wants to do more.

"We plan to not only restore the crane but to inspire young people to take up careers in engineering, heritage-related fields, such as craftsmanship, restoration or heritage tourism," said trust secretary Ed Checkley.

"We will also 'seed’ youngsters into starting their own businesses in these areas, thereby generating employment opportunities. We see the crane, already a key landmark, as a heritage community setting, a focus of community adhesion, as a venue for events, activities, and enabling people to enjoy the regenerated and historic waterfront.

"The trust continues to have excellent support from the IW Industrial Archaeological Society, the IW Council, English Heritage and the Architectural Heritage Fund."

• Interested in helping the trust? It can be contacted at or call Jon Fisher on 01983 293755.

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