During the eighteenth century, Bridgwater shipyards were producing ships at the rate of one per year. As early as 1593, Bridgwater had a shipwright. John Trott, who built the Friendship for John Alloway, had a dry dock and repair dock built on the East Quay. In 1671, the Admiralty had recognised Bridgwater as an approved centre for ship manufacture. The first really big ship was the brigantine Nancy built in 1766.
In 1810, Carver’s Yard on the East Quay was building ships of 200 tonnes, whilst Gough and Nation at Crowpill produced ships up to 350 tonnes. Between 1800 and 1850, 7 shipyards produced 51 vessels. In the next 50 years, a further 88 were produced, mostly sloops and schooners. Although the river could take these large ships, most of the vessels were humbler affairs, around 60 to 70 tonnes capacity. As demand for ships built of metal rather than timber increased, so the Bridgwater shipyards declined. Gough’s was closed around 1880 leaving just the yard of Francis James Carver and Sons. It was from their yard that the Irene, the last Bridgwater-built ketch, was launched in May 1907, built for Colthurst and Symonds and designed
to work the channel ports.
At least 167 ships were built and registered in the town, sloops and schooners for the coastal traffic, ketches and square riggers for the deep sea voyages. Bridgwater smacks were built with full and deep lines, with a straight stem and square sterns. Until 1908, Quantock oak was used. Around this shipping and ship building activity, there sprang up all the associated trades such as rope makers, in the area we now know as Rope Walk and another half way along Chilton Street; ships’ chandlers (one being on the corner of East Quay and Eastover); sail makers, and not to mention all the inns required to serve the needs of the mariner community. Bridgwater was left with a legacy of pub names which reflected its maritime past, albeit many of them have since closed: Ship Afloat, Ship Aground, Dolphin, Hope and Anchor, British Flag, Crowpill Inn, Steam Packet Inn, Sailor’s Return, Sailor’s Home, the Salmon Inn (now the River Parrett Inn), Shipwright’s Arms, Mariners Arms and the Boat and Anchor. And in St John Street there was once the Mariners’ Chapel built in 1837 for those of a more sober nature. It was capable of seating 350 people and survived until the 1960s.
Through the nineteenth century, the shipping trade was dominated by four companies:
- Havilland whose small vessels traded in coal, culm and limestone.
- Axford whose faster schooners were used for coastal trading
- Stuckey and Bagehot whose larger ships had to wait for the opening of the docks before they ventured past Combwich, and
- Sully, perhaps the best remembered name, trading in coal and culm around the UK and France.
Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans