The Apprenticeship Of Charles Robert Owen Jarvis

My great great grandfather Charles Robert Owen Jarvis lost his father at the age of 11, and with it, his private school education. He completed his formal education by 13 at the local national school in Limehouse and then it was time to find a skilled job, which meant he needed to be an apprentice.

In 1812, John Lilley, aged 24, founded John Lilley & Son and set up business on West India Dock Road in East London to make nautical instruments, magnetic compasses, sextants and telescopes. And in January 1845, at the grand old age of 13 and ½, Charles Robert Owen Jarvis started his working career in their workshop, earning 3 shillings a week.

A typical John Lilley instrument of the type Charles Robert Owen Jarvis made in John Lilley's workshop.

While building precision instruments was challenging and somewhat rewarding, it took Charles two and a half years to accept that it was not his forte. In his own words, his reason for leaving was “dislike of the business and to (sic) much confinement”. He obviously didn’t like the small workshop environment and needed a fresh start where he had more opportunity.

There was plenty of work in East London in 1847 for those who wanted an apprenticeship to learn a trade. There were thriving businesses in tailoring, shoemaking, cabinetry, rope making, silk weaving and food, but Charles decided that his true calling was in shipbuilding.

So he found an apprenticeship as a shipwright with Joseph King at Limekiln Hill and began the next phase of his working life on August 1847. The job of a shipwright is to design, build, launch and repair boats and ships. In 1847, it was an artisan skill and much of the work involved manual carpentry of intricate wooden parts that had to be tightly coupled in order to create a sealed watertight hull. It tended to attract apprentices with plenty of patience and good attention to detail. At the time, it was also typical for shipwrights to be employed onboard a ship to maintain the hull and masts while at sea.

The Guildhall Library in London preserves the “apprentice bindings” for the Royal Navy of the time, which specify that a shipwright may take up to five apprentices at any one time, and they were known as woodgers. There is also a specific type of shipwright known as a Journeyman who could choose to work for a specific project at a higher paying private shipyard rather than working at a Royal naval shipyard. And that’s what Charles wanted to be - a Shipwright Journeyman.

By this time, Great Britain was producing half of the world’s iron and mining two-thirds of the world’s coal. The London Docks imported cotton from around the world and produced half the world’s cotton cloth for domestic use and export. London continued to be the political and economic center of the world as the British Empire so shipbuilding was the hip industry to be part of if you were skilled and working class.

The origins of shipbuilding on the River Thames go back to the reign of Henry VIII when the King gave instructions to expand the Royal Navy by building new ships in Rotherhithe on the south side of the Thames. With a powerful navy, England then controlled the seas of the world, and with that came trade. Thus England’s growing sphere of influence on the world’s stage, and its growing population turned London into a major port for the import and export of goods.

The West India docks were built on the Isle Of Dogs in 1803, serving the trade across the Atlantic ocean. The London Docks were built in 1805 and the East India docks were established at Blackwall in 1806. At its peak, the docklands could berth a thousand sailing vessels simultaneously and the demand for storage for the imported goods drove the construction of the goods warehouses that peppered the banks of the Thames.

West India Docks, The Isle Of Dogs

While the docks focussed on the duties of the Port Of London, the Isle of Dogs, much of it still marshland, became the center of the London shipbuilding industry.

Working for Joseph King and earning 4 shillings a week, Charles spent five and half years learning how to build wooden boats and by 1852, he was earning 10 shillings a week as he worked towards his qualification as a shipwright.

Apprenticeships in those days had no formal start or end, but a typical apprentice began learning a trade at the age of 15 and continued as an apprentice until their 21st birthday, at which point they were considered qualified.

Little is known about Joseph King and his shipbuilding business. He was born in 1811 in Limehouse, but there isn’t a single reference to him on the internet and you won’t find pictures of the boats he built. The 1840 trades directory doesn’t even list a Joseph King shipbuilding business on Limekiln Hill, so it is possible that Joseph King actually worked for someone else rather than ran his own business.

George And William Lamb were mast makers in Limehouse, 1850.   Charles Jarvis served his apprenticeship at a similar business - Joseph King -  that made boats.

The foreman at Joseph King and the man whom Charles ultimately served his apprenticeship under was Thomas Vaughan. Born in Hawley, Hampshire, Thomas Vaughan was a shipwright who had moved to London earlier in the 19th century as the shipbuilding industry boomed in the East End. Thomas lived at Limekiln Dock, just around the corner from Limekiln Hill where Joseph King plied his trade, and about 200 yards from where Charles lived with his mother.

In January 1853, excited by the prospect of switching from building wooden boats to building steel ships, Charles left Joseph King and went to work for the Samuda Shipyard to complete his apprenticeship. The Samuda brothers had started their shipbuilding yard in December 1852 by taking 370 feet of frontage on the east side of the Isle of Dogs, paying 528 pounds per annum as rent, and immediately began construction on their first five steel ships.

Charles completed his apprenticeship in August 1854 and was officially a Shipwright Journeyman on a salary of 2 pounds 10 shillings a week. When an apprentice becomes a fully qualified shipwright it was traditional to have him entered into the records of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights - an organization whose purpose is to safeguard the quality of shipbuilding in London. However, no record of Charles exists.

To read more about Charles' career with Samuda, read my post about the Samuda Brothers.

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