Sunday, 18 November 2012

Gordons and their Deptford Shipyard

The latest volume of 'Shipbuilding and Ships on the Thames' includes an excellent article by Chris Ellmers "This Great National Object - the Story of the Paddle Steamer Enterprise'.  This is an intriguing story and very much recommended to be read.  However - in the course of the paper Chris does give some details about the builders of Enterprise - which might be of specific interest to Greenwich historians - remembering that much of the Deptford riverside area was part of Greenwich until relatively recently.
So - as far as Enterprise is concerned, Chris says ''Messrs’ Gordon and Co. Deptford’ Gordon and Company are given as the builders'.   He goes on to point out that 'Surprisingly little has been written about Gordon and Company ..... Philip Banbury (in Shipbuilders of the Thames and Medway) says ‘that 'the Enterprise is the only ship known to have been built by Gordon & Co'’, and devotes much of his short discourse on the yard to her story.

Chris also gives some details about the Gordon family and their business, and they turn out to be surprisingly upmarket!

"Between 1820-1826, the principals of the Gordons' businesses were David Gordon and his sons Charles David Gordon (1790-1826) and Michael Francis Gordon (1792-18-60). Towards the end of the period they would have been supported by David Gordon's youngest son; Adam Gordon (1801-1839). ......................It is likely, however, that David Gordon himself was then no longer involved with  any of the  day-to-day activities of the business, having succeeded to the title of Gordon of Abergeldie  in December 1819' . ...................... It would appear that none of the younger Gordons had received any training as shipwrights. Indeed, Charles David Gordon, Michael Francis Gordon and Adam Gordon had all received privileged educations at Harrow School, with Charles David becoming a friend of the young Byron. It is clear that the Gordons' venture into shipbuilding represented a capitalistic investment opportunity - albeit at a time when the fortunes of London shipbuilding were still in a period of post war decline - rather than an outlet for any family training, or technical talents".

Chris continues by discussing the site of the yard - pointing out that many historians have mistakenly located it at Deptford Green  - however he says 'As the directories and Deptford rate books make clear, the Gordons' shipyard was at Grove Street Deptford. This was at the old Dudman's Dock, where major shipbuilding activities had previously been undertaken by William Barnard, William Dudman and Henry Adams, from 1763 until 1813. During the time of Gordons' occupation the yard consisted of the large wet dock that was Dudman's Dock itself, two dry  docks and five slipways. Then one of the largest facilities on the Thames, the yard would have offered maximum flexibility for both shipbuilding and ship repairing. Some idea of what the the yard was able to achieve in busy periods, is indicated by statistics relating to John Dudman’s operation of the yard, during the years 1803-1812. Across this period, the yard – 25 naval ships and 13 merchant ships, repaired 282 ships, and employed between 174 and 340 men.

And in relation to the Deptford Green site: "The Gordon family did have an operation at Deptford Green but it was a metalworking one, focusing on iron founding and anchor making. This was developed in the last quarter of the 18th century by David Gordon (1751-1831), and his then partners John Biddulph (his brother-in-law) and William Stanley - of Lime Street in the City.
View fromm Dudman's Dockyard Deptford 
John Cleveley 1774
And - in summary - "Gordons' Deptford Green works was also a very substantial operation. The various entries in the London directories state that the following trade activities were undertaken there 'millwrights"; 'engineers'; 'machinists'; anchorsmiths'; 'founders'; and 'wholesale ironmongers'. Given the Gordon family's educational and mercantile background, they must have been very dependent on skilled draughtsmen, managers and foremen for the production of both businesses. This skill base certainly helped make it a ship building business of first rank.

Chris ends the paper with a postscript about the yard "fifteen days after the launch of the second Enterprise (in 1838) much of Gordon's Deptford shipyard - including warehouses,. timber house, workshops ... were destroyed in a major fire."  and "the yard eventually closed in 1842"

If you want to read the whole story of Enterprise you will need a copy of Proceedigns of the Fourth Symposium held on 28th February 2009. This is edited by Dr J.R.Owen and obtainable from


Anonymous said...

Deptford riverside area was part of Greenwich until relatively recently - I always thought part of the riverside at Deptford became part of Greenwich recently when Deptford was divided between Lewisham and Greenwich?

Ciaran Lynch said...

The ship James Pattison, chartered by F & C.E. Mangles for the East India Company and emigration and convict run to Australia, appears to have been built under the name Adam Gordon.