HISTORY OF THE RICHMOND DRY-DOCK

Early Appledore:

20.08.20 The Trustees of AMHT wish to make the following statement. "We were unaware of the sale of Richmond Dock until this was made known to the public via Facebook. We have been aware that negotiations have been continuing for some time and have been communicating with Wheatcroft Group regarding this. We will endeavour to maintain contact with Wheatcroft Group and look forward to further discussions at some point, so we can better understand their longer term plans for Richmond Dock. We aim to support community involvement in the site to promote the best interests of the people of Appledore and the surrounding area".

Appledore has always been a sea-faring place, having been a trading port from at least the 14th century. In 1582, fifteen ships were registered at Appledore, compared with four at Bideford and seven at Barnstaple. The number of registered sailors shows the importance of Appledore as a source of skilled maritime labour at that time. Barnstaple had 23 mariners, Bideford had 39, whilst Appledore had 116. Many of these sailors are likely to have helped defeat the Spanish Armada six years later in 1588.

Appledore from Instow at the end of the Victorian era

A forest of masts could always be seen at Appledore

Trade routes:

In the 16th century, many trade routes were established to ports in France, Spain and Ireland. Cloth and earthenware was exported in return for wine, skins, tobacco, salt, and an increasing variety of luxury goods like spices and sugar.

Fishing was a lucrative trade in the 17th and 18th centuries mostly from annual fishing expeditions to Newfoundland. Cod was brought back in huge quantities from the Grand Banks fishing area, and many Appledore sailors settled permanently in Newfoundland.

In the 18th and 19th centuries Appledore was in the deep-sea and coastal trade and many ketches and schooners were used to import domestic goods from Bristol and Ireland, and coal and limestone from South Wales.

Aerial view of Richmond Dry-dock and adjacent shipbuilding yard c.1918

Before the Dock:

This view, which was painted in 1798, shows Appledore before the dry-dock was built. The site was a sandy creek where ships were built and repaired, and moored against Docton’s Quay. This was Appledore’s first quay, which also served as an unloading area for goods being taken into the adjacent Customs House. The houses of Marine Parade are clearly visible in this image – they date from the late 18th century.

(Thomas Girtin 1798, courtesy: Courtauld Institute)

Tithe map (1840) showing the sandy beach on which the dry-dock was to be built

In the 1850s:

William Yeo had five large ships that were engaged in the emigration trade to Canada. These were all lying at Appledore in 1855, and were called the Ocean Queen, Challenge, Crimea, Victory, and Alarm.

A diary was kept by a passenger emigrating on the Ocean Queen. Sailing from Appledore to Quebec, William Gliddon, says: “About half past four, we got under way with a good breeze, having on board a fine crew of 20, Mr Yeo, the pilot, 22 passengers, a pig, a cat, and a dog. Half past five, safe over the bar, the pilot and the owner took leave amid the cheers of all on board.”

William Yeo (1813-1872)

1856: The year the Dock was completed:

In 1856 there were 187 maritime accidents in the Bristol Channel involving the loss of 114 lives. Eight vessels were lost off the North Devon coast alone. Lifeboats were stationed at Appledore, Northam Burrows and Braunton. However, the greatest shipping need was for good repair facilities.

Even though Appledore was smaller than it is today, in 1856 there were 17 pubs in the village. These catered for shipyard workers, and sailors who needed relief from life on board ship.

  • Royal Hotel (William Bolt)

  • Champion of Wales (Mrs Elizabeth Cann)

  • The Tavern (William Cocks)

  • Full Moon (Arthur Day)

  • Globe (William Evans)

  • Red Lion (John Fisher)

  • Ship (Mrs Hannah Gowman)

  • Unicorn Inn (Thomas Halls)

  • Swan (Thomas Harvey)

  • Crown and Sceptre (James Hooper)

  • Bell Inn (John Johns)

  • Mariners Inn (John Kelly)

  • Beaver (Miss Mary McCullum)

  • Prince of Wales (David Nicholls)

  • Shipwrights Arms (William Oatway)

  • Royal George (Mrs Elizabeth Perry)

  • Coach and Horses (Mrs Hannah Prout)

(from Post Office Directory, 1856)

A brigantine moored outside the Richmond Dock

The Dock Inn (formerly the Shipwrights Arms) just outside the dry-dock catered for thirsty shipyard workers

Why was the Dry-Dock needed?

By the end of the 18th century, English oak for shipbuilding was in short supply, so timber was imported from the Baltic, but when Napoleon imposed an embargo, a new source was needed.

In 1818 Thomas Burnard, a Bideford merchant, sent shipwrights out to Prince Edward Island in Canada. He was followed by a ‘rags-to-riches’ emigrant, James Yeo, who also set up a shipbuilding business there. Between 1843 and 1855 he sent back over fifty roughly finished vessels to be properly fitted out at Appledore under the supervision of his son, William Yeo. He also packed the ships with timber, so that more shipbuilding could take place at Appledore. However, this shipbuilding work was carried out on the beach without any specialist facilities, and often only when the tide was out.

James Yeo (1789-1868)

Caulking a vessel's hull on the open shoreline

A number of trading schooners moored at Appledore Quay

The area outside the Dock was known as 'The Parlour'

Construction of the Dock:

A dry-dock was badly needed, and so a plan was put together to build the Richmond Dry-Dock. Construction started in 1853 on a sandy creek known locally as ‘The Parlour’, and work was completed three years later. In monetary terms, the project cost almost £2 million in today’s value. The scheme also involved buying part of the foreshore from the Crown at a cost of £76, so that the dock could be extended into the river.

The resulting Dry Dock was 330 feet long, 36 feet wide, and could hold two large vessels at once. The project also required the construction of outbuildings, rigging lofts, saw-mills, sail lofts and blacksmiths shops.

When finished, the dock brought work and prosperity to Appledore, not only in ship repairing but in many other maritime trades, from boat building and sail-making to ropemaking and chandlery.

William Yeo's original plans for the dock. Courtesy National Archives ref: CRES 58 700

The first ship:

The first ship to be sailed over from Prince Edward Island and brought into the Dock, arrived on 17th July 1856. She was a barque of about 1,200 tons called the ‘Elizabeth Yeo’ after William Yeo’s wife Elizabeth. The Bideford Gazette described the event as follows:

“Flags were waving in all directions, guns firing and crowds of people striving for advantageous positions from which to behold the entrance of the splendid vessel, which was safely brought into the dock and secured amidst the hurrahs of the assembled multitudes.”

Once she was seaworthy, her first voyage was to collect a heavy cargo of railway iron from Newport in South Wales, and export this to Bombay (now Mumbai) in India.

Painting copyright Mark Myers: ‘The Opening of Richmond Dock, 17th July 1856’ showing the Elizabeth Yeo entering the dry-dock for fitting out.

The Elizabeth Yeo - the first ship to enter the dock

Celebrations on board a vessel to mark its completion

William Yeo:

William Yeo’s success in timber-importing and ship-repairing made him Appledore’s main employer, and elevated him to the position of local squire. He built himself a grand mansion at the top of the hill, called Richmond House. He looked after his workers well when times were bad, but of course he also made enemies, and anyone who questioned his methods, found that few would do business with them.

The peak year of James and William Yeo’s achievement was in 1865, when eighteen vessels were built and sold through Appledore for over £43,000 - a turnover today of about £3 million.

William had six daughters, but only one son, and when this son died at the age of 8, there was no-one left to carry on the business. After William himself died in 1872, the work dried up, and depression hit Appledore.

William Yeo (right) pictured here with Richard Williams (left), one of his ship's captains. Photo taken in Quebec in 1851. Richard Williams died on the voyage home.

Accidents:

In a period when Health and Safety was not the primary concern, it is not surprising that there were accidents in the Dock.

  • In 1860 a scaffold collapsed, and all the men on it fell to the bottom of the dock. Thomas Lock and William Beer both received broken legs, others had fractured skulls, and lesser injuries. A special boat was hastily arranged to take them all to hospital.

  • In 1866, William Eastman from New Street fell into the hold of a vessel in which he was loading timber. He broke his legs and ribs, and died later in hospital.

  • In 1870, William Horrell fell from the top mast of a vessel he was rigging, when a ring-bolt broke. He fell onto the deck and died a few hours later.

  • In 1887, William Slader a carpenter working on the schooner Ocean Pet was struck on his shoulder by a spar and fell 30 feet into the dock. He broke his leg, dislocated his shoulder, and did not regain consciousness until the following morning.

  • In 1898, Captain Aleston from Banff was going on board his vessel after dark, when he fell 40 feet into the bottom of the dock. He was taken to a nearby house, but died the next day.

  • Later in 1898, seven men and boys were working on a stage by the side of a vessel when the rope broke and threw them all down. Luckily, the dock was full of water at the time, so they escaped with only a wetting.

A large barque in Richmond Dock for repairs c.1885

Robert Cock:

In 1882, Robert Cock acquired the lease on Richmond Dry-dock from Yeo's executors. Robert’s son William was already building ships at the Tavern Yard, next to the Seagate at the other end of Appledore Quay, but now the Richmond Dock was used again, and about 100 men were employed there on a regular basis, although more were hired during busy times. The smells of pitch, resin and tar, with sounds of caulking iron and mallet; or sounds of riveting on steel-hulled ships resonated throughout Appledore.

A carpenter shaping the end of a mast in the Richmond Dock

Disaster in the dock:

In 1899, a disaster occurred in the dock, which could have had fatal consequences. The caisson gate at the entrance failed under the weight of a high tide and a strong gale, and was forced back into the dock in a huge inrush of water. Fortunately, this happened early on a Sunday morning when no-one was working, but the two vessels in the dock at the time were badly damaged, as was the floor of the dock. All the workers were laid off for months until the dock could be repaired.

In 1899, the dock gate failed, and flooded the dock, damaging two ships. (drawing by Bill Wright)

Steel ships:

Wooden shipbuilding declined in the late 19th Century – the last wooden schooner was built in 1906 – she was called the Geisha. In 1896 the first steel vessel had been built in the so called ‘Iron Yard’ about a quarter of a mile further up the River Torridge. This was the future of shipbuilding, but it involved completely new trades and investment in machinery. Robert Cock, and his sons James and Frank brought these skills to the yard. From then on, steam-tugs, trawlers and cargo-ships were the order of the day.

Tug Saluki built at Appledore in 1969

A steel framed tug under construction at Appledore in 1961

A full dock:

In 1909, the largest ever steamship entered the Dry Dock. She was the Ragusa from Cardiff, had a weight of 2,000 tons, and almost filled the entire length of the dry-dock. She had new floors and ceilings fitted. The following year, four different vessels were in the dock at once - a steamship, a schooner, a Brixham trawler, and a pilot boat.

Pulteney in Richmond Dock

The tug Prestwick in Richmond Dock in 1955

A tug entering the Dock

Unnamed steel vessel in the Dock c.1950s

1930s:

Richmond Yard came back onto the market in 1932 when Cock Brothers went into liquidation. It was bought by the Harris family, who wanted to expand their already well-established shipbuilding and repair business in Appledore. However, the economic depression of the 1930s was deepening, ship repair work was reduced to cut-throat prices, and scarcity of employment meant that wages were kept low.

The ketch Result in the dry-dock for repairs

The cargo vessel Stanley in Richmond Dock

War-time:

With the onset of World War II in 1939, suddenly there was plenty of work: old wooden sailing ships were converted for barrage-balloon defence; motor gun boats, landing-craft and wooden minesweepers for the Admiralty were needed. The contribution of Appledore workers to the war effort cannot be under-stated. The hours of work were 8am - 8pm Monday to Saturday, and on Sundays until noon. Some 20 women were also employed there.

The ketch Progress entering Richmond Dock for repairs after the War in 1946

The ketch Progress entering Richmond Dock for repairs after the War in 1946

Work being undertaken on the Progress

Dock gates:

The Dock was originally closed off from the sea by a large caisson, which could be floated out at high tide to allow ships to enter or leave the dock. Sluice gates in the caisson enabled the dock to be drained at low tide. The caisson was superseded in 1942 by wooden lock gates, which in turn were replaced with the present steel gates and capstan winches in 1971.

The lozenge-shaped caisson which originally sealed the entrance to the Dock

Steel dock gates photographed in 2012

Post-war:

Steel shipbuilding continued, it was hard work winning orders, but in 1957 more tugs were being built at Appledore than in any other place in Britain. In 1959 a tower crane was erected on the site to assist in heavy lifting of materials. However, by 1963 the yard was in financial difficulties, the bank refused to put more credit into the Company, and the yard closed overnight.

Dock workers in the 1930s

Dock Buildings:

Two large 3-storey stone buildings with slate roofs were erected on the site as part of the original scheme. The building on the northern side of the dock was 150 feet long, and contained a shipwrights’ shop on ground floor, with stores above. It was destroyed by a fire in 1948, although part of it remained afterwards as a single storey building for black-smithing work, until this was demolished in 1959.

A further stone building on the south side of the dock was demolished in 1933, in order to facilitate the formation of a roadway along Myrtle Street and Marine Parade.

A steel-framed construction shed was erected in 1959, extended in 1962, and demolished in 1987.

Fire destroyed a 3-storey dock building in 1948

[Unknown] overlooking Richmond Dock in 1932

John Couch (left) and John Bath (right) in 1929

Dock foreman John Couch in 1932

Dock hooters:

Many people in Appledore still remember the dock hooter. This were powered by compressed air and sounded six times a day – early morning when work commenced; the start and finish of mid-morning break; the beginning and end of lunch hour, and finally for knocking off at the end of the day. A further mechanical hooter sounded in the Upper Dock.

Closure:

After P K Harris Shipbuilders went into liquidation in 1963, a survival package was quickly formed by local businessmen and their M.P., who created a new company called ‘Appledore Shipbuilders Ltd’, and work again resumed in the Richmond Dock. A 20-ton gantry travelling crane was erected in 1968. However, expansion was necessary, and a new covered shipyard was built on Bidna Marsh further up the river – this opened in 1970. Richmond Dock and Yard were now only suitable for the construction and repair of tugs and small coasters, a market in which the new Shipbuilding Company was not interested.

The Dock soon fell into disuse, and has only occasionally been used since, for ship refurbishment and repairs.

The gantry crane being removed in 2004

The present:

The travelling crane installed in 1968, was removed in 2004, and since then the dock has been mostly disused. In 2012 it was briefly used for the breaking up of redundant vessels, but that business ceased shortly afterwards. A number of Planning Applications to convert the dock into flats have all been refused, and at a Public Enquiry in 2011 the Inspector concluded that the latest proposed development would:

“Fail to preserve the special historic interest of the listed dock contrary to LP Policy ENV2. In so doing it would fail also to preserve the setting of the adjacent Appledore and New Quay Street Conservation Areas, the maritime characters of which are strongly linked visually and historically with the working of Richmond Dock. It also conflicted with LP Policy ENV3 and Policy CO7 of the Devon Structure Plan 2004.”

The inspector went on to say; “However, as a working dock the site has the potential to provide a number of jobs and valuable infrastructure to support the regeneration of the maritime economy and sustainable transport in the area. And once lost, heritage assets cannot be replaced. Their loss has a cultural, environmental, economic and social impact.”

This report highlights the importance of preserving the special historic maritime interest of Regional Development, and of promoting employment as a working dock.

Redundant fishing vessel Anne Liese entering Richmond Dock in 2012

A number of redundant vessels were broken up in the Dock in 2012 and 2013

Listed Building:

The Richmond Dry-Dock was designated as a Grade II* listed structure in 1987, and has been described by a one of the country’s prominent historians as “Appledore’s most treasured possession, and fundamental to the character of the village”.

The Future:

The site is recognised as being of special historical importance, and it has been a long-held ambition of the Trust to work with the owners to secure the Dock as a Maritime centre for the repair and maintenance of Heritage ships, together with ancillary workshops and a visitors' centre.

The complete workforce of 93 workers in P.K Harris’s Richmond Dock yard in 1955 in front of the tug ‘Sydney Cove’, then under construction.

The men in the picture are: Bobby Lamey, Dick Curtis, Bobby Ross, Jack Eastman, John Lamey, Micky Pate, Jack Bowden, Archie Peake, ‘Mac’ Harris, Brian Jenkins, Billy Cann, Jack Moore, Leo Lamey, Bobby Lang, Charlie Edwards senr, ‘Brummie’ Bill, Bert Jewell, Charlie Stevens, Arthur Harris, Johnny Vikmanis, Wilfie Griffiths, Christopher Hughes, George Tonge, Bobby Nichols, Frankie Canteen, Walter Hoyle, Jack Guard, Wilfie Tanton, Ernest Forrester, Ted Sims, Sid Littlejohns, Bernard Carey, Richard Hocking, Jimmy Gray, Victor Keen, Studley Screech, Albert Cawsey, Sid Syms, John Kemp, ‘Curley’ Lamey, ‘Taffy’ Richards, Ernest Carter, Edwin Peake junr, Billy Hammett, ‘Happy’ Hutchings, Charlie Edwards junr, Tony Mounce, John ‘Webber’ Craner, Tommy Harding, Billy Kemp, Tony Powe, Joe Gifford, Terry Peake, Brian Sharrock, Dave Cherrett, Eddie Keron, Derek Kitto, Leslie Tithecott, Jack Fowler, Leonard Cann, George Ashton, Walter Cooke, Ivor Bettis, Richard Harris, Derek Godfrey, Kenneth Olde, Kenneth McDine, Peter Cann, Beresford Kitto, Graham Harris, Clifford Bartlett, Vernon Martin, Falkland Kivell, Harry Mountjoy, ~~~ Sheppard, Harold Stevens senr, John Brown, Jack Farthing, Harry Edwards, Peter Gist, Alfred Docherty, Dick Pickard, Trevor Jones, Jack Eastman, Jim Hallett, Ian Cox, Jack Mill, Freddie Palmer, Albert Cawsey senr, Billy Stoneman, ‘Bunny’ Newman, Jock Kidd, and Wally Lamphrey. Two other men don’t appear in the photo, as they had gone for lunch! They were Billy Cann and ‘Nambo’ Richards.

Research and text by David Carter 2020