Thursday 21 November 2019

First factory - Greenwich or Woolwich


By Professor Ray Riley

There is a case for early naval dockyards to be included among some of the first factories.

What is a factory? If it is a building specifically dedicated to the production of a good, then domestic manufacture - the weaver's cottage for example - must be excluded, although some regard such premises as proto-factories. But clearly mills are factories; they contain power machinery which transforms material into a product, and their architecture is entirely functional. That these examples might have employed only a handful of workers is irrelevant - there are small factories just as there are large ones. It is the characteristics of the enterprise which is the issue.

Roger Shelley justifiably suggests that naval dockyards may be contenders for the title but advances the caveat that the fortunes of the dockyards were determined by war; this is true, but in the search for the date of establishment this is unimportant.  Despite the copious literature on foreign policy, maritime battles, the heroics of naval officers, naval strategies, warships, and to some extent on the dockyards themselves, economic historians and others seem to have focused on textile mills to provide examples of early factories. They have overlooked the dockyards as loci of production and repair of naval vessels from the sixteenth century onwards. It might be argued that a dry dock or building slip is not a factory, but both are buildings specifically dedicated to the production of a good, as I say above.  Furthermore, the docks and slips were always accompanied by adjacent storehouses, smithies, sail lofts, mast houses, seasoning sheds, and sometimes rope houses, all of which are buildings in the conventional sense.

May I offer some chapter and verse?
The first dry dock and associated facilities to be established in a naval dockyard was at Portsmouth in 1495. This was followed by yards at Woolwich in 1505, Deptford in 1515, Chatham in 1575, Harwich and Sheerness in 1665, and Plymouth in 1690. At some yards there was specialisation of the kind at Woolwich where gunfounding was added in 1557, gunpowder manufacturing in 1662 and gun carriage production in 1680. Arguably each of these activities itself constituted an individual factory. Ropehouses at Woolwich (1612), Chatham (1621), Portsmouth (1663 and 1695) and Plymouth (1690) were gigantic structures by the standards of the day and must have been the largest factories ever built in Britain. 

The scale of operations in the yards may be judged from criteria such as the number of ships launched: 18 vessels left the slips at Portsmouth between 1660 and 1674, and by the volume of repairs: no less than 98 warships were worked on at Portsmouth in 1702 alone. At Chatham 259 shipwrights and tradesmen were employed in 1611, a figure which had risen to 1,000 by 1697, when 1,271 were on the payroll at Portsmouth. At the latter yard some 2,100 were employed in 1711. The sophisticated division of labour, the organization of flow-line production, and, often forgotten, of material supplies, and the management of these huge numbers of workers all on one site (apart from material supplies the dockyards were self- sufficient), lend great weight to the proposition  that the industrial revolution began not on the rivers and coalfields, but in naval dockyards

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