Bideford ship building
No one watching the Torridge silting its dreamy way through Bideford today can imagine the hives of activity on each bank during the 18th and 19th centuries. From 1760 to 1899, forty builders of ocean going vessels had slips and yards between the old ford (above bridge) and the Skern at Appledore. From 1760 to 1820, over three hundred vessels were launched. They included 12-gun sloops, fire ships, survey vessels and 530 ton ‘sixth-raters’ for the Royal Navy. For comparison, the Kathleen and May was rated at 136 tons and the Oldenburg is 327. Bideford ships were like Appledore men – if a captain saw a man wearing an knew he was a ‘good un’ and the same applied to Bideford ships. A 30 tonner – the size of the trawlers you see alongside the quay today – sailed to New Zealand on its maiden voyage without mishap.
Between 1805 and 1814 Richard Chapman at his Cleave House slip built seven ships for the Royal Navy, four of ‘sixth-rate’, the first being the 118 foot ‘Garland ‘(of the Laurel or Henslow Class), carrying twenty-two 9-pound guns on the upper deck. However, captains often carried more guns than the official rating. Hardy had two 64-pounders on the quarter deck of Victory. The ‘Garland’ carried six 24-pounders on her quarter deck, two more on her forecastle and two 16-pound, long barrelled ‘chasers’. Garland‘s full crew, if available, was 155 officers and men. She was ordered in 1805, her keel laid in 1806, and launched on 2 October 1807. Unfortunately, like other ships surplus to requirement after the Napoleonic wars, she was broken up in 1818.
Richard Chapman also built ships of the Rosamond Class – copies of a French design. After the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars it became obvious that French ships were better designed and faster than our own.
Consequently, a captured French ship was not only much appreciated – it was often physically measured and copied.
Another builder for the Royal Navy was William Taylor of Cross Park, whose slip was at the north end of the quay, East the Water. He built at least one ‘Thai’ Class fire-ship, the ‘Comet.’ Length 108 feet, 9 inches, she was within a few feet of the Kathleen and May’s measurements. She was ordered in 1805, her keel laid in 1806, and launched on 25 April 1807. In 1808 she was reclassified as a sixth-rate sloop and sold in 1815. Fireships were not just any old disposable vessels but purpose built.
However, before going for their ultimate use, they carried numerous guns. ‘Comet’ carried sixteen 24-pounders or 32-pounders on the upper deck, two 9-pounders and eight 18-pounders on the spar deck and two 9-pounders on the forecastle. However, a large portion of what one thinks of as cargo space consisted of tall, vertical boxes that would act as chimneys when primed with combustible material. It took considerable skill and courage to sail what was to become a blazing bomb close enough to the enemy to be effective. The ship’s crew was about fifty but, on the fateful day, most were taken off leaving a skeleton crew, including the captain, to sail as close to the enemy as possible before escaping from the blazing vessel by rowing boat.
Sadly, there is no material or publicity of any kind that justly tells how great a port Bideford was. It seems inevitable that Bideford will eventually silt up as badly as Barnstaple. Then, not even the clay ships will be able to dock in what was once the third busiest port in England. But who cares?
[Postscript Mar 02]
The Fate Of The Carnation, 3rd October 1808: Another ship built by William Taylor of Bideford was the 18 gun Brig Sloop – “Carnation”. Of 382 tons she was one of the most numerous type of warship in the age of sail. Unfortunately, having been launched on the 3rd October 1807, she was captured by the French exactly one year later.