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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Fact 46. Earle's Ship Shipbuilders were world beaters.

Charles and William Earle were millwrights, founders and general smiths before they bought the business of James Livingston, Junction Foundry in Waterhouse Lane in 1845. They were the sons of Thomas Earle who, with his brother George left York to set up a cement company at Wilmington in Hull. James Livingston also was a ship wright and had made his first steam packet boat in 1831 and launched from a site on the Humber Bank. Charles and William saw a good opportunity as up until then shipbuilders had concentrated on wooden whalers and sailing vessels but an iron hulled steam driven vessel opened new markets. The Company was by 1851 employed 72 but still hadn't built a ship so must have been continuing their old work and tended for work for the Hull Baths and Wash house Committee that they didn't win.

The first ship was launched in 1853 and was called 'Minister Thorbecke' for the Zwolle Shipping company for the run between Hull and Zwolle. It was named after the Dutch Prime Minister. It was driven by a propeller by twin 30HP compound steam engines and was 148' x 22' x 10' and 220 nett tons and 300 gross tons. In 1861 the yard had a fire and they decided to move to 26 acres of leased land to the east of Victoria Dock that had opened in 1850 with frontage onto the Humber. In 1863 they bought another 47 acres next to the rest of the land. They were doing so well that by 1865 they were the second largest shipbuilder in the country having built nine ships totaling 9514 tons. (The largest was Samuelson's of Sammy's point in Hull who had built eleven ships).

Sir Edward Reed had been appointed the Chief Constructor to the Royal Navy in 1863. He was knighted in 1868 and became Managing Director of Earle's Shipbuilding and engineering Co in 1871 and oversaw the move into naval and foreign naval contracts. He doesn't look like somebody to suffer fools.

In 1871 Charles suddenly dies and William was in poor health so it was decided that the company would be taken over by a consortium of the shareholders and the company became known as Earle's Shipbuilding and Engineering Company. Edward Reed was appointed as Managing Director. He had been a Naval Architect for the Admiralty previously. Whilst initially this contact with the Royal Navy paid dividends it soon soured when the Admiralty stopped having ships built at Earle's as Reed had technical differences with them. They did however build two steam Yachts for the Russian Czar Alexander III, and auxillary sailing yacht for the Duke of Marlborough, and ironclad barques for the Chilean Navy. Reed had stood as a Liberal for a Hull constituency  and had lost but in 1874 he stood in Pembroke and gained his seat. He resigned from Earle's in the same year. He had lived in Kirkella House in Kirkella to the eat of Hull and Czar Alexander had stayed there when he visited to choose fixtures and fittings for his vessels.

Russian Imperial Yacht Tsarevna.

 Also at this time Earle's built the 'Bessemer' which was an attempt by it's designer Henry Bessemer to prevent seasickness (from which he suffered badly). The rolling was to be stopped by mounting an internal structure on gimbals and the pitching reduced by hydraulic rams operated by a person watching a spirit level. The vessel only made two voyages and only one with passengers. The first time it collided with the jetty at Calais and the second time, with passengers, the mechanism was locked and this time it collided twice. It remained in Dover until being scrapped in 1879. Edward Reed bought the suspended saloon and installed it at his house in Swanly as a billiard room. When the house became a college it became a lecture theatre. Unfortunately it was lost due to a direct hit in WWII. Following his resignation several ships were built for the Royal navy and the 'Kongo' which was the first ship for the new modernised Japanese Navy.

In 1880 Earles started building steel ships, the first being 'Gitano' for Wilson's of Hull. A sister ship had been built in iron, but following this trial Wilson's built all their ships of steel. They were also early adopters of triple expansion engines. Once more with Wilson Line they built sister ships, one with a compound steam engine and one with a triple expansion engine. After a round trip to the east they found that the later had saved 20% on fuel and was also 6% faster. By 1885 the yard had built 286 ships and were employing between 2 and 3000 workers. Two barges were built of iron in 1890 and then all future ships were of steel.

Earle's shipyard by the Humber in 1887.

Competition became very fierce and the yard was in financial straits. Only five ships were completed in 1896 and none in 1897 and three in 1898. In that year they built their longest ship so far, the 'Cleopatra' at 482 feet. It was for Wilson's run from London to New York and Boston. She was lost of The Lizard in the same year. By 1900 the shareholders had given up and gone into voluntary liquidation.  Charles Wilson the Hull ship owner (see fact 4) and bought the company for £170,000 on Christmas Eve 1901. That is about £14 million today. No expense was spared in rebuilding the site and equipment and electricity was used to power all equipment and this total rebuild was to give them an edge in profits in the future. Still no building was carried out until 1903 and perhaps the first job was the building of a lifeboat for the Humber conservancy that was to be stationed at Spurn Point. In 1904 they built a 'flat pack' boat, the Inca, for a ferry in Peru where it was reassembled. In 1907 they built the 'Buffalo' which was the largest tonnage shiop built at 5000 grt. The yard was kept quite busy during WWI and afterwards they built many steam trawlers and tugs but by the 1930's the order books were very thin. The Great Depression had caused many yards to reach the brink and the Government  stepped in with a sponsored rationalisation of the industry. In 1932 the National Ship Builders Security acquired the business and set about dismantling it. A large proportion of the equipment was packaged off and sent to the Kowloon ship yard in Hong Kong.
In total Earle's built 682 vessel and about 130 of these were for  Wilson Line Companies.

The west side of Earle's Shipyard in 1924.

The east end of the yard shown in 1931.


The yard is no more although there is an inlet at the end of the promenade on the river front of New Victoria Dock Village that once used to be part of the slipways of the yard. Earle's Road still leads down to an industrial estate that boarders the old yard and is next to where Siemens will be shortly constructing windmills for offshore turbine farms. It is a shame that such a great company can not be remembered in a better way, perhaps with a sculpture or design that incorporates the giant hammerhead crane that dominated the Humber north shore for so many years.

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