The Samuda Shipyard On The Isle Of Dogs
Until the start of the 19th century, sea power was determined by the number of ships you had and the fighting force you were capable of fielding to a sea battle. Tactics and strategy of a naval engagement hadn’t changed for centuries. Three factors changed this - the use of steel for the hull; engines that used steam to propel the ship and a main armament of big guns that fired explosive shells. The sudden change in technology presented opportunistic advantage and tactical superiority to any sea power that perfected it. With big guns, powerful engines and the perceived ability to ram an opponent, naval tactics were about to change. And into that landscape marched Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda.
Born in London in 1813, Joseph D’Aguilar Samuda, and his brother Jacob, established the Samuda shipyard on the Isle Of Dogs in 1852, becoming one of the earliest pioneers in the construction of iron and steel steam-ships.
The Samuda brothers 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.
Excited by the prospect, in January 1853 my great great grandfather Charles Robert Owen Jarvis, at the age of 20, joined Samuda to finish the apprenticeship that he had started on wooden boats by becoming an expert on iron and steel ships. He completed his apprenticeship in August 1854 and was officially a Shipwright Journeyman on a salary of 2 pounds 10 shillings a week.
The Samuda shipbuilding business went from strength to strength having expanded their shipbuilding yard to over 500 feet of river frontage by 1863, when it was said that they produced double the output of all other London shipyards combined.
Orders came in for warships from Germany, Prussia and Japan and the Samuda brothers found their company’s expertise valuable. At one point, my great great grandfather became a "leading man" and was dispatched to Brazil for 12 months to assist the Brazilians in the construction of an iron steam warship - based on the patterns of births of his children this was either around 1856 or 1858. The Samuda brothers paid him 28 pounds a month whenever he was away on assignment. In later years, based on the goodwill that my great great grandfather had created, the Brazilians placed orders for two further warships that were built in the London shipyard.
One of my great great grandfather's projects at Samuda was the construction of the SMS Kronprinz for the Prussian Navy, completed in May 6th 1867. Kronprinz was built as an armoured frigate with a main battery of sixteen 21cm guns. Charles Robert Owen Jarvis was given the job of Superintendent responsible for the delivery of the ship to the Prussian Navy at Wilhelmshaven in Prussia. On the voyage from England the ship lost her main mast in a storm and Charles spent time in Prussia overseeing the repair and the fitting of Kronprinz with her guns.
The SMS Kronprinz was commissioned into the Prussian Navy in September 1867 as an armored frigate. Kronprinz saw limited duty during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Engine troubles aboard the ship, along with the two other armored frigates in her squadron, prevented operations against the French blockade. Only two sorties in which Kronprinz participated were conducted, both of which did not result in combat. The ship served in the subsequent Imperial Navy until she was converted into a training ship for boiler room personnel in 1901. The ship was ultimately broken up for scrap in 1921.
Another of Charles Robert Owen Jarvis's projects was the construction of El Mahroussa which was ordered for the Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1863. The Khedive was a British-appointed governor of Egypt and Sudan, similar in role to that of a Viceroy in India. The ship was opulent and grand, one of the world’s first super yachts and to this day remains in service as the official Presidential Yacht of the President of Egypt.
The El Mahroussa also made history as being the first ship to sail through the Suez Canal on its opening in 1869. The construction and delivery of the El Mahroussa created a friendship between the Khedive and my great great grandfather that would lead to opportunities later in the decade.
As the 1860s progressed, a series of events took place which began to threaten the very existence of the London shipbuilding industry. As demand for larger and larger ships grew, it became increasingly clear that the River Thames was not a suitable location for construction. The river was neither wide enough nor deep enough for bigger ships - a fact proven when Isambard Kingdom Brunel struggled to launch or manoeuvre the SS Great Eastern at Millwall in 1858. The technical challenges of building ships on the River Thames, together with the increasing demand for steel rather than wooden ships, was helping create an industry for shipbuilding yards on other northern British rivers, so Liverpool, Teesside, Newcastle, Clydesdale in Scotland, and Belfast in Northern Ireland were starting to take business from London.
Furthermore, the northern rivers of Britain had easier access to the raw materials needed for ship construction - iron and coal. So economically, it was becoming cheaper to build ships up north. The River Tees, at Middlesbrough, had begun producing iron/steel ships in 1858 using the local iron found in the Cleveland Hills. It was rapidly emerging as a lower cost rival to those on the River Thames.
Then in 1866 a financial crisis hit London when a London wholesale discount bank named Overend, Gurney and Company collapsed with debts of 11 million pounds, the equivalent of 919 million pounds today. This series of events resulted in the closing of many London dockyards, but Samuda’s reputation and efficiency kept it trading.
The impact of the financial crisis on Poplar and Limehouse was severe. The shipbuilding boom was over, as was the boom in building houses. In 1866-67, it was estimated that in the parish of St. George In The East alone, 10,000 of the 40,000 residents were unemployed. The poverty problem then became an issue of labour surplus, with casual dock work, at 5 pence per day, being the only work open to the unskilled.
Charles Robert Owen Jarvis left the employment of Samuda in September 1869 to be the Chief Shipwright on Sir Samuel Baker's expedition to the Africa to break up the slave trade. You can read my story of that expedition elsewhere on this website. He returned to London from Africa in late 1873.
While Charles had been away, London had also changed. The London Underground was operating on the Metropolitan Line and horse-drawn street trams had introduced the first on-street public transportation to the capital. There were bridges galore across the river and the beautiful new Victoria embankment to stroll along. The financial crisis of 1866 was over but it had effectively killed the shipbuilding industry on the Thames. Even the Royal Navy had closed its Deptford and Woolwich dockyards.
The Samuda Shipyard continued operating on the Thames, driven by demand for their expertise in iron-clad steam ships, until the death of Joseph Samuda in 1885. Today there is no evidence of the shipyard having ever been there - in its place stands the Samuda Estate, a council housing estate.