Home » Dock Life » Rule Britannia – When Blackwall ruled the Waves

Rule Britannia – When Blackwall ruled the Waves

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Cavalry Embarking at Blackwall, (probably Perry’s Dock ) 24 April 1793

by William Anderson 1793 (National Maritime Museum)

Anyone who walks along the river near  Blackwall and the Virginia Settlers Monument could be forgiven for believing it is a bit of a backwater, however for over 400 years this was the site of great importance for British Naval history for it was in this spot that hundreds of  Merchant and Royal Navy ships were built that helped to forge an Empire.

Blackwall’s  location just before the bend of the Isle of Dogs and its popularity as an anchorage from which travellers embarked and disembarked was important from as early as the fifteenth century.

However Blackwall also became known in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for ship repairs, a number of royal ships were repaired most famously the Mary Rose who was repaired here in 1514.

Shipbuilding was rarely undertaken until 1614, when the East India Company decided to build a shipyard at Blackwall. The building of the dockyard was to cope with the demand in trade  in which the company quite often rented their ships out to rich merchants.

In 1652 the East India Company sold Blackwall Yard, to the  shipwright Henry Johnson  who extended the dockyard.

Samuel Pepys working for the Royal Navy commissioned a numbers of ships from Blackwall in the late 17th Century from one of the largest private shipyards in the country.

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Launch of the ‘Venerable’, 74-guns, at Blackwall, Francis Holman 1784 (National Maritime Museum)

HMS ‘Venerable’ was launched in April 1784 at Perry’s yard in Blackwall.

In the 18th Century, Blackwall was taken over by the Perry family who continued to build and repair ships for the East India Company and for others.It was the Perry family that built the Brunswick dock that opened in 1790.

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View of Mr Perry’s Yard, Blackwall by William Dixon 1796 (National Maritime Museum )

In 1803 the East India Dock company bought part of the site including the Brunswick dock to turn int0 the East India Export Dock.

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The Mast House and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall by William Daniell 1803 (National Maritime Museum)

Eventually Perry’s was taken over by Wigram & Green  who in 1821 built their first steamship and the internationally famous Blackwall Frigates.

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The Blackwall Frigate ‘Maidstone’ at Sea by H.J. Callow 1869 (National Maritime Museum)

Blackwall Frigates was the common name for a type of three-masted full-rigged ship built between the late 1830s and the mid-1870s. The first Blackwall Frigates  were built by Wigram and Green at Blackwall to replace the East Indiaman ships that had been built on this site for centuries. Although not as quick as a “clipper” they were still used on the long voyages between England and Australia.

Wigram and Green eventually became just Greens who became famous for building Naval vessels including the first Iron ship the HMS Warrior built in 1866.

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Blackwall, London 1872 by Charles Napier Henry ( Museum of London )

At the beginning at the 20th century the site became too small for the larger ships and although still shipbuilding and ship repairs were carried out they were in much smaller scale than the sites heyday. Nevertheless the site remained active under different management till 1989 when most of the docks were filled in and buildings built on the site.

Blackwall’s  illustrious past is generally  forgotten, however there is no doubt that Blackwall was for centuries one of the most  important maritime sites in Britain.

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2 Comments

  1. Roger Wilkinson says:

    Most interesting to read your article about Blackwall Shipyard. Do you know when was the last time a ship was built and launched at the Shipyard ?

    • Hi Roger,

      Thanks for the comment, your question is a very difficult one to answer because the shipyards used to change hands and it was not always known who launched what !
      One of the most famous shipyards in the area was the Thames Ironworks and the last ship they built was HMS Thunderer for the Royal Navy in 1911.

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