Ipswich Icons: Sir Thomas Slade - Surveyor to the Navy in the 1700s and designer of a very famous ship
PUBLISHED: 19:00 11 February 2018
Thomas Slade was appointed as overseer during the building of The Hampshire, a 50-gun vessel for the Navy – the contract for the construction having been let to John Barnard of Ipswich.
The Hampshire was a big ship for an Ipswich yard with an estimated capacity of 850 tons bm (bm being an old shipbuilders’ method of calculating the cargo capacity of a ship from its dimensions.
This particular John Barnard was the son of a long-established Ipswich shipbuilder and merchant, also named John.
The elder John Barnard had operated the St Clement’s yard for some time, a yard that was situated close to where the current ship repair slip still operates adjacent to the defunct Tolly Cobbold brewery.
John Barnard the younger had also built ships in his father’s yard, and he leased the Navy Yard at Harwich for the same purpose, but had chosen to build The Hampshire at John’s Ness – on the north bank of the Orwell, close to Pond Hall Farm (Pipers Vale).
The requirements of a shipbuilding yard are relatively straightforward: obviously a beach (preferably of hard shingle) inclined at the right angle to allow the boat to slip into the water once the chocks are released.
The peculiar advantage of John’s Ness was the presence of deep water at the bottom of the slip, and beyond. A ship of this size, if it had been built at St Clement’s yard, would not have found deep enough water (in 1741) to float.
There were other advantages. It was reasonably close to Ipswich and thus to the skilled labour required for a ship of this magnitude; skills that were not abundantly available in Harwich.
Ships were built at Harwich but the navy yard was also used for fitting out: the addition of masts, sheets and rigging to the hull which had been assembled further up-river.
John’s Ness was also close to the raw material: large mature oak trees which could be floated up-river to the yard. The Barnards owned acres of standing timber across “oaken Suffolk”.
A slip was constructed, on the hard gravel and the keel laid. The oak was cut into strakes: large planks cut straight from the trunk which were stacked with small branches to separate and allow air to circulate and thus dry the timber.
The rest of the timber was sorted. Large contorted branches known as wrongs could be used as short lengths and the apparently useless hunk of timber, the joint between branch and trunk, cut to form a “knee” – an angle bracket used between cross-brace and the ribs.
The only accommodation in the shipyard would have been a tool shed and “office” where plans were kept. Ships the size of The Hampshire were constructed in the open – exposed to the weather, with the men expected to work outside.
The rationale behind the Navy appointing a surveyor to inspect the construction during the early stages of shipbuilding was to ensure only quality timber was used, and that the components being used – which would be hidden from view once the hull was afloat – were acceptable.
Thomas Slade was a qualified and experienced shipwright, a man of outstanding ability. He had trained at Woolwich, a major Navy Yard on the south bank of the Thames. He was later appointed as a Naval Surveyor by The First Lord of the Admiralty, one of only two in 1755 – an indication of the strength of Slade and of the importance of the Orwell as a shipbuilding centre.
In 1744 Slade was appointed Deputy Master Shipwright in the Woolwich yard, but he retained his love interest in Ipswich: Hannah Moore, who he married in Nacton Church in 1747.
We know John Barnard (the younger) also built the Granado for the Navy in 1742 and both this vessel, and The Hampshire (launched November 13, 1741) were towed down-river to be fitted out at the Harwich Navy Yard.
Towed down-river sounds straightforward but a ship of some 850 tons takes some moving, especially when the towing vessel is a rowing boat!
Actually three rowing boats, each with a dozen men at the oars. Even with a falling tide it couldn’t have been easy.
Thomas Slade died in Bath in 1771 but his body was returned to Ipswich such that he could be buried alongside his wife in St Clement’s Churchyard. She had died eight years earlier and had been buried in her parents’ grave.
Oh, and there is the small matter of Slade designing HMS Victory, built at Chatham, 1759-1765. He also designed and supervised the building of some 50 fighting vessels, half of which were of similar size to the Victory.