Home » Human Life » The Marvels of Yarrow’s on the Isle of Dogs 1866 – 1908

The Marvels of Yarrow’s on the Isle of Dogs 1866 – 1908

1893 yarr

The  Isle of Dogs has been the location of many famous shipyards, however the Yarrow’s shipyard was considered one of the most innovative and efficient .

yarrows 1867

Folly Wall Yard 1867

Yarrow’s had started as Yarrow and Hedley at a small site at Folly Wall in 1866,  building river boats but progressed to a larger site at London Yard on the east of the Island, they were famous for building a larger variety of small boats and steamers and even Torpedo boats and Destroyers.

Many of the boats were built for export especially foreign navies, however by 1908 the London site was closed down and all production moved to Scotland.

I recently came across the following newspaper report from the Daily Mail of 1901 which acclaims Yarrow’s business model whilst noting that foreign governments were taking advantage of the company’s expertise whilst the British Government was slow to take advantage of Yarrow’s innovations.

In that dismal region of the East End, associated with mean streets and decayed industries, known as the Isle of Dogs, there is one bright spot. At the bend of the river, just opposite Greenwich Hospital, an industrial oasis flourishes on the site of ruined bridge building works, and close to the remains of the once famous shipbuilding yard of Samuda and Co. I refer to the model works of Messrs Yarrow and Co.— perhaps the most international business in the country ; certainly the one which executes work for more Governments of the world than any other. The firm is really Mr  A. F. Yarrow, who started the business 30 years ago, and has prospered in a centre were nearly every one else has failed. Not that Mr Yarrow’s is really a great business, in the ordinary sense, judged by the capital employed, or the extent of his works — although his yards cover 11 acres —or the number of his employees (about 1,200) ; but it is great because it is unique and unassailable. He does not fear competition, because he is above it.


In the particular department which has won him most fame, Mr. Yarrow has never had a serious competitor, and it is because of this unique position which he occupies that he executes orders for almost all the Governments of the world on practically his own terms. If anyone has an apparently impossible problem to solve in marine engineering, if a new kind of boat is wanted for an unnavigable river, or a steamer which must run at a given rate drawing only 6 in. of water, boats which can use oil or wood as fuel, others which can be taken to pieces for transit by land, and put together again by the unskilled, or, in fact, any new kind of novel craft, then one naturally applies to Mr Yarrow. His marvellous ingenuity and inventiveness have enabled him to solve every problem which has been submitted to him, and among all the 1100 vessels which he has built of all sorts and sizes— from ironclads, cruisers, and torpedo-boats to shallow river steamers and little launches — not one has ever been lacking in speed or failing in its requirements. Just now Mr Yarrow has two strange-looking steamers on the stocks for the Government, each with two tunnels running half-way under the keel to accommodate the propellers, as the vessels must be able to move in six inches of water. He has three oil burning torpedo-boats on hand for the Dutch Government, one of which has been launched, and attained a speed of over 26 knots. Two shallow draught gunboats were built for the British Government this year. Each had to bear a load of 40 guns, combined with shallow draught and high speed. These boats are capable of navigating crooked and shallow rivers, and many original and clever devices had to be introduced to accomplish the objects in view, and make the vessels effective as gunboats. It may be remembered that two shallow-draught river gunboats of similar style, built by Messrs Yarrow, played an important part in the bombardment of Khartoum. It Messrs Yarrows’ great innovation in river steamers began with Le Stanley, built to the order of the King of the Belgians for the last Stanley expedition.. It was a stern-wheeler, made in floatable sections, so that it could be taken to pieces and conveyed easily overland to avoid waterfalls, etc. The result of this and other new forms of boats invented by Messrs Yarrow, is that rivers in new countries are now opened up as avenues of trade.

Isteamer for nile

Messrs Yarrow and Co. have supplied torpedo and other boats to every European country— to Japan, China, Chile, Peru, the Argentine, Brazil, Ecuador, and, in fact, to almost every country in the world which has a navy, with the exception of the United States. The firm have had large dealings with Holland, Sweden, and Russia. France has not been a large, or, perhaps a willing, customer, but there were boats wanted which no one could build in France. Messrs, Yarrow astonished the French Government once by building a steamer for use in the Tonquin rivers in three weeks, As a rule the foreign Government’s which once patronise the Yarrow yards return, while our own Government in less free with repeat orders, Once the Admiralty has a special design, it puts the work up to competition, and is keener about low price than high quality.


One of Mr Yarrow’s inventions is a water-tube boiler which has been largely used by Continental Governments, and was frequently referred to during the recent committee investigation. It avoids the dangers of the Belleville, which arise partly from the fact that the water has a long and tortuous way to travel. The Belleville tubes are also difficult to clean, and a confined bubble may cause an explosion. The Yarrow boiler is the shape of the letter A with the bar in the middle left out. It is easy to clean, as the tubes are straight and nearly vertical, and the water has not far to travel. It is simplicity and safety combined, although our Government was slow to give it a trial.



Mr Yarrow has been a pioneer, an experimenter. All his life he has worked hard, inventing, designing, executing. When he started he was his own designer. He sat up late at night,, after his small staff left, working on his schemes. He has had to revise and reject his plans frequently, overcome disappointments ; but his final schemes have always succeeded. He has patented numerous inventions  in connection with his business. He is still a diligent, quiet worker, gentle and unassuming  manner— always on the best of terms with his men. Some of his assistants have been with him even since his early struggles. He has always enjoyed their esteem and even affection, as he is the kindest of men and most considerate of masters. On going about his works he exchanges fraternal pinches of snuff with his assistants. He only just recently opened his new works, and brought his inventiveness to bear on their construction. He also copied the best things which he had found in American and other foreign works.

bioler hop 1893

The result is model workshops, where every mechanical contrivance has been introduced to save labour and increase efficiency, including hydraulic and magnetic lifts, electric cranes, pneumatic tools, etc. Mr Yarrow personally attaches little importance to his unique record. He says the number of firms who can enter the field of experimental  work is very  few. The great limited companies have little scope for risky enterprises. Their engineers must work for the shareholders, and not experiment with new inventions which may or may not be profitable. The Government has not encouraged research. The private firms who take a deep interest in research, and at the same time have the money to spend on it, are remarkably few. Mr Yarrow’s system has always been risky and speculative, but it has paid in the end, and he has won a unique international reputation as a marine engineer and naval architect, That is why his yard in the Isle of Dogs is visited by the naval experts from all over the world.— Daily Mail.

A few years after the newspaper visit, the decision was made to move to Scotland, Yarrow’s success meant it had outgrew its Isle of Dogs site. From 1906, most of the  models and heavy machine tools was transferred by train to Scotland.  The first vessel launched from the new works at Scotstoun was in 1908 and Yarrow’s became one of the world’s leading builders of destroyers and frigates. They also built a large number of merchant ships, still specialising  on Riverboat vessels for the rivers and lakes of  India, Africa and South America.

After a series of takeovers Yarrow’s has become part of BAE Systems, in its history the firm has built thousands of ships and acquired a global reputation for quality. A remarkable outcome  for a firm that started from  humble beginnings  in a small yard in Folly Wall on the Isle of Dogs.

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