White’s on the Wight

By John Medland

Published on Friday, July 11, 2014 - 16:00


White’s on the Wight

The launch of the steam ship Solent. Picture by ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS


FROM 1800 to 1965, the White’s shipyards of Cowes were the Isle of Wight's greatest manufacturing company.

They exported ships and specialised maritime equipment around the world. Their global reputation was based on skilled craftsmanship.

White’s designers rode the crest of technological innovation for 165 years, pioneering iron steam ship construction, maritime engine design, motor-powered engines, sea and land aeroplanes, welded shipbuilding, hydrofoil and hovercraft.

In the 18th century, White’s shipbuilders were established on the Thames Estuary. They specialised in fast smuggling ships and the excise cutters that hunted them, as well as racing yachts for the seriously rich.

In 1801, Thomas White (1773-1859) succeeded his father at the age of 28 and sold the family shipyard in Kent and purchased the former Nye’s shipyard in East Cowes around 1802. Nye’s yards and other Medina builders also specialised in smuggling luggers, customs’ cutters and aristocratic yachts.

         John Samuel White
Nye’s had also been building ocean-going ships since the 1620s and warships since the 1690s. 

The French wars from 1793 to 1815 boosted orders. In 1812, Shephards Wharf was opened in West Cowes. Three years later, Thetis Yard was completed on reclaimed marshland. It included the largest non-naval dry dock in The Solent.

In 1825, the Falcon Yard opened in East Cowes and it was said: "The berths were ahead of their time in that they provided covered ways, whereby shipwrights and craftsmen could work in all weathers."

Nine years later, the 330-ton brig, Waterwitch, was launched — 90ft long and 29ft wide, she 'defeated all naval vessels in friendly races’ and became 'the template of future naval brig design’.

In 1841, the 1,800-ton wooden paddle steamer, Medina, was commissioned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.

The Medina Steam Frigate Dock was completed three years later, with a 257ft-long dry dock for servicing ocean-going ships. From 1846, White’s completed 26 steam ships for the Turkish Navy and Bosphorous Steam Navigation Company.

In 1850, the shipyards, sawmills and engine workshops employed around 500 craftsmen. That year, John White patented diagonal planking, which offered greater internal capacity and improved buoyancy.

In middle of the century, White’s produced the 2,230-ton Solent using diagonal planking on wrought-iron frames. This paddle steamer was 310ft long and was soon followed by two P&O steam packets and paddle steamers for the Brazilian and Chinese empires.

In the 1860s, John Samuel White (1841-1915) designed high-speed steam engines for launches. In 1881, a prototype torpedo boat had the ability to stop dead in the water and rotate almost around its own length.

In 1884, he combined the various family concerns into J. Samuel White & Co. He had the Steam Frigate Dock filled in and a new engineering works constructed.

This article is based on the book J. Samuel White & Co. Shipbuilders by David Williams and Richard Kerbrech.

•Read more in the current edition of the Isle of Wight County Press, Friday, July 11.

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