Home » Posts tagged 'Torpedo boats'

Tag Archives: Torpedo boats

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.

Stephen Crane looking for Assassins on the Isle of Dogs 1898

yarrow 1899

Building Torpedo boat destroyers in Yarrow Shipyard 1899

Stephen Crane was a leading American writer, poet, and journalist who in the late 19th Century came to the Isle of Dogs to visit Yarrows shipbuilders.

Yarrows had started at a small site at Folly Wall  building river boats but progressed to a large site at London Yard on the east of the Island, they were renown for building Torpedo boats and Destroyers.

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

Crane’s article about Yarrows called Assassins in Modern Battles is a lament about modern warfare and the morals of selling arms to developing nations. He was especially critical of the way the English belief in their own superiority did not allow them to develop their inventions.

Crane travelled to many war zones to see these weapons in action, however he had often suffered from illness and in 1900 although only 28 he died.

Assassins In Modern Battles


In the past century the gallant aristocracy of London liked to travel down the south bank of the Thames to Greenwich Hospital, where venerable pensioners of the crown were ready to hire telescopes at a penny each, and with these telescopes the lords and ladies were able to view at a better advantage the dried and enchained corpses of pirates hanging from the gibbets on the Isle of Dogs. In those times the dismal marsh was inhabited solely by the clanking figures whose feet moved in the wind like rather poorly-constructed weather cocks.

But even the Isle of Dogs could not escape the appetite of an expanding London. Thousands of souls now live on it, and it has changed its character from that of a place of execution, with mist, wet with fever, coiling forever from the mire and wandering among the black gibbets, to that of an ordinary, squalid, nauseating slum of London, whose streets bear a faint resemblance to that part of Avenue A which lies directly above Sixtieth Street in New York.

Down near the water front one finds a long brick building, three-storeyed and signless, which shuts off all view of the river. The windows, as well as the bricks, are very dirty, and you see no sign of life, unless some smudged workman dodges in through a little door. The place might be a factory for the making of lamps or stair rods, or any ordinary commercial thing. As a matter of fact, the building fronts the shipyard of Yarrow, the builder of torpedo boats, the maker of knives for the nations, the man who provides everybody with a certain kind of efficient weapon. One then remembers that if Russia fights England, Yarrow meets Yarrow; if Germany fights France, Yarrow meets Yarrow; if Chili fights Argentina, Yarrow meets Yarrow.

Besides the above-mentioned countries Yarrow has built torpedo boats for Italy, Austria, Holland, Japan, China, Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Spain. There is a keeper of a great shop in London who is known as the Universal Provider. If a general conflagration of war should break out in the world, Yarrow would be known as one of the Universal Warriors, for it would practically be a battle between Yarrow, Armstrong, Krupp, and a few other firms. This is what makes interesting the dinginess of the cantonment on the Isle of Dogs.

The great Yarrow forte is to build speedy steamers of a tonnage of not more than 240 tons. This practically includes only yachts, launches, tugs, torpedo boat destroyers, torpedo boats, and of late shallow-draught gunboats for service on the Nile, Congo, and Niger. Some of the gunboats that shelled the dervishes from the banks of the Nile below Khartoum were built by Yarrow. Yarrow is always in action somewhere. Even if the firm’s boats do not appear in every coming sea combat, the ideas of the firm will, for many nations, notably France and Germany, have bought specimens of the best models of Yarrow construction in order to reduplicate and reduplicate them in their own yards.

When the great fever to possess torpedo boats came upon the Powers of Europe, England was at first left far in the rear. Either Germany or France to-day has in her fleet more torpedo boats than has England. The British tar is a hard man to oust out of a habit. He had a habit of thinking that his battleships and cruisers were the final thing in naval construction. He scoffed at the advent of the torpedo boat. He did not scoff intelligently but because, mainly, he hated to be forced to change his ways.

You will usually find an Englishman balking and kicking at innovation up to the last moment. It takes him some years to get an idea into his head, and when finally it is inserted, he not only respects it, he reveres it. The Londoners have a fire brigade which would interest the ghost of a Babylonian, as an example of how much the method of extinguishing fires could degenerate in two thousand years, and in 1897, when a terrible fire devastated a part of the city, some voices were raised challenging the efficiency of the fire brigade. But that part of the London County Council which corresponds to fire commissioners in United States laid their hands upon their hearts and solemnly assured the public that they had investigated the matter, and had found the London fire brigade to be as good as any in the world. There were some isolated cases of dissent, but the great English public as a whole placidly accepted these assurances concerning the activity of the honoured corps.

For a long time England blundered in the same way over the matter of torpedo boats. They were authoritatively informed that there was nothing in all the talk about torpedo boats. Then came a great popular uproar, in which people tumbled over each other to get to the doors of the Admiralty and howl about torpedo boats. It was an awakening as unreasonable as had been the previous indifference and contempt. Then England began to build. She has never overtaken France or Germany in the number of torpedo boats, but she now heads the world with her collection of that marvel of marine architecture–the torpedo boat destroyer. She has about sixty-five of these vessels now in commission, and has about as many more in course of building.

People ordinarily have a false idea of the appearance of a destroyer. The common type is longer than an ordinary gunboat–a long, low, graceful thing, flying through the water at fabulous speed, with a great curve of water some yards back of the bow, and smoke flying horizontally from the three or four stacks.

Bushing this way and that way, circling, dodging, turning, they are like demons.

The best kind of modern destroyer has a length of 220 feet, with a beam of 26-1/2 feet. The horse-power is about 6500, driving the boat at a speed of thirty-one knots or more. The engines are triple-expansion, with water tube boilers. They carry from 70 to 100 tons of coal, and at a speed of eight or nine knots can keep the sea for a week; so they are independent of coaling in a voyage of between 1300 and 1500 miles. They carry a crew of three or four officers, and about forty men.

They are armed usually with one twelve-pounder gun, and from three to five six-pounder guns, besides their equipment of torpedoes. Their hulls and top hamper are painted olive, buff, or preferably slate, in order to make them hard to find with the eye at sea.

Their principal functions, theoretically, are to discover and kill the enemy’s torpedo boats, guard and scout for the main squadron, and perform messenger service. However, they are also torpedo boats of a most formidable kind, and in action will be found carrying out the torpedo boat idea in an expanded form. Four destroyers of this type building at the Yarrow yards were for Japan (1898).

The modern European ideal of a torpedo boat is a craft 152 feet long, with a beam of 15-1/4 feet. When the boat is fully loaded a speed of 24 knots is derived from her 2000 horse-power engines. The destroyers are twin screw, whereas the torpedo boats are commonly propelled by a single screw. The speed of twenty knots is for a run of three hours. These boats are not designed to keep at sea for any great length of time, and cannot raid toward a distant coast without the constant attendance of a cruiser to keep them in coal and provisions. Primarily they are for defence. Even with destroyers, England, in lately reinforcing her foreign stations, has seen fit to send cruisers in order to provide help for them in stormy weather.

Some years ago it was thought the proper thing to equip torpedo craft with rudders, which would enable them to turn in their own length when running at full speed. Yarrow found this to result in too much broken steering gear, and the firm’s boats now have smaller rudders, which enable them to turn in a larger circle.

At one time a torpedo boat steaming at her best gait always carried a great bone in her teeth. During manoeuvres the watch on the deck of a battleship often discovered the approach of the little enemy by the great white wave which the boat rolled at her bows during her headlong rush. This was mainly because the old-fashioned boats carried two torpedo tubes set in the bows, and the bows were consequently bluff.

The modern boat carries the great part of her armament amidships and astern on swivels, and her bow is like a dagger. With no more bow-waves, and with these phantom colours of buff, olive, bottle-green, or slate, the principal foe to a safe attack at night is bad firing in the stoke-room, which might cause flames to leap out of the stacks.

A captain of an English battleship recently remarked: “See those five destroyers lying there? Well, if they should attack me I would sink four of them, but the fifth one would sink me.”

This was repeated to Yarrow’s manager, who said: “He wouldn’t sink four of them if the attack were at night and the boats were shrewdly and courageously handled.” Anyhow, the captain’s remark goes to show the wholesome respect which the great battleship has for these little fliers.

The Yarrow people say there is no sense in a torpedo flotilla attack on anything save vessels. A modern fortification is never built near enough to the water for a torpedo explosion to injure it, and, although some old stone flush-with-the-water castle might be badly crumpled, it would harm nobody in particular, even if the assault were wholly successful.

Of course, if a torpedo boat could get a chance at piers and dock gates they would make a disturbance, but the chance is extremely remote if the defenders have ordinary vigilance and some rapid fire guns. In harbour defence the searchlight would naturally play a most important part, whereas at sea experts are beginning to doubt its use as an auxiliary to the rapid fire guns against torpedo boats. About half the time it does little more than betray the position of the ship. On the other hand, a port cannot conceal its position anyhow, and searchlights would be invaluable for sweeping the narrow channels.

There could be only one direction from which the assault could come, and all the odds would be in favour of the guns on shore. A torpedo boat commander knows this perfectly. What he wants is a ship off at sea with a nervous crew staring into the encircling darkness from any point in which the terror might be coming.

Hi, then, for a grand, bold, silent rush and the assassin-like stab.

In stormy weather life on board a torpedo boat is not amusing. They tumble about like bucking bronchos, especially if they are going at anything like speed. Everything is battened down as if it were soldered, and the watch below feel that they are living in a football, which is being kicked every way at once.

And finally, while Yarrow and other great builders can make torpedo craft which are wonders of speed and manoeuvring power, they cannot make that high spirit of daring and hardihood which is essential to a success.

That must exist in the mind of some young lieutenant who, knowing well that if he is detected, a shot or so from a rapid fire gun will cripple him if it does not sink him absolutely, nevertheless goes creeping off to sea to find a huge antagonist and perform stealthily in the darkness an act which is more peculiarly murderous than most things in war.

If a torpedo boat is caught within range in daylight, the fighting is all over before it begins. Any common little gunboat can dispose of it in a moment if the gunnery is not too Chinese.